Thursday, 8 August 2013

THE ENTITLEMENT ISSUE

Hello, my duckies! I hope you have all had a lovely weekend? Welcome back to the blog.

So, you might remember that a couple of months ago I did a post called Readers, Writers and Pirates in which I looked at the sense of entitlement that allows some readers to happily steal income from writers while still expecting the writers to continue producing books for them.

That post has a few paragraphs which list other ways some people act out their entitlement issues when it comes to the producers of their favourite content. When I was writing it, that section was a lot longer and looked at the tendency of some readers to personally attack authors in a bit more depth, but it wasn't driving the main point I wanted to make, so I cut it for clarity and length. But I did continue thinking about that and wondering if I should do a post which specifically addressed it.

Then a few weeks ago I woke up and found an unusual message from a Goodreads user in my inbox, and I was given further food for thought.

(I went back and forth with myself over whether to reproduce the whole of that message here, but I decided that wouldn't really be fair to the writer, or help with the debate I want to have. So I'll paraphrase and hopefully you will get the idea.)

The message opened by telling me that the writer had recently been made aware of something I had done (self-reviewing my book, The Night Itself, on Goodreads) which they felt showed me to be an *sshole. They'd read and loved two previous books of mine, and had 'respected' me, but now they were sickened by my pathetic behaviour and in response they would add my books to their 'sh*tlist'. They would never be a reader of mine again. They peppered the post with other swearwords and insults, but that was the gist of it. The message finished by sternly admonishing me that while I may have thought I was being 'funny', in fact I had done something 'disgraceful'.

Disgraceful. Let's all just take a moment to savour that, folks. This is probably the first time I've had the word 'disgraceful' aimed at me since middle school. Feels a bit like being in a Georgette Heyer novel, which actually makes me smile a little. But the use of the word tweaked a memory and got me thinking.

I have no idea who this person is. We've never interacted in any way at all, even online, as far as I'm aware. How often do you write letters to individuals in which you call them an *sshole? And how often do you do this to individuals you have never met, never spoken to before, whose lives and actions have literally zero effect on your life or actions? Bearing that in mind, doesn't the tone of this letter seem a little... strange?

The message assures me that this person is never going to read or buy any of my work again. But surely, having severed that connection between us, it makes even less sense to write to me and personally take me to task, like a maiden aunt berating an unruly member of their Sunday School Class? I don't want to assume I know what's in this person's head, but the tone of the letter seems to be implying that I should... care. Care what they - a complete stranger - think about my behaviour. Maybe even adjust said behaviour accordingly. They seem to think that as the author of a book they liked, I owe them something.

Now, this post isn't really about the message or the person who sent it. It's about the attitude it betrays - which is part of a larger issue. The Entitlement Issue. his manifests in various ways, which often sound something like:

  • I spent good money on this book, and now I feel author owes it to me to justify their opinions/writing decisions when I question them on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook. If they don't then they're being disrespectful to me and their other readers, who are responsible for their success.
  • I really liked this author's books until they wrote this story/scene/ending that doesn't fit with my expectations/hopes. Frankly, I feel they betrayed/conned me and all their readers.
  • I spent all this time reading this book by this author, and now the next book isn't coming out for ages. Why aren't they providing their readers with more content on a reasonable timescale? How dare they disrespect me and their other readers like that?
  • I love this author and their previous book/series, but now they're writing something way out there that doesn't seem like it's aimed at their fans at all. I don't know if they're showing off or just being contrary, but they're being disrespectful to the people that are responsible for their success.
  • I thought this author was a certain person, but now it turns out they haven't divulged full details about who they are/their history/their opinions, and now that I know The Truth it's clear their deception has defrauded their readers.
  • This author used to provide free stuff, now all of a sudden they expect their loyal readers, who have supported and encouraged them, to pay for their stuff. I'm disgusted!

The Entitlement Issue. Don't get me wrong. I can see how easy one of these attitudes (or all of them) might be to fall into. The other day I learned something about an author whose books I've very much enjoyed, and my first reaction was 'Damn, I liked her books so much. I thought she was better than that...'

Which is where reality slapped me in the face with an OH HELL NO. Expected her to be better than what, exactly? A person who writes books? That is all any author is - a person who writes books that I may or may not like. Just what was I expecting, other than that? I'd picked up and enjoyed this lady's books, sure, but that doesn't mean I know her, or have the right to expect her to act the way I would, or even in a way I like.

You see, this is the root of the G.R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch problem. This is the root of why Charlene Harris received death threats for daring to finish the Sookie Stackhouse series (links in prev post). This is the root of why, when Stephenie Meyer said in a public interview that she was burned out on vampires, a whole slew of readers on a Twilight message board called *her* a disgrace (which is what tweaked my memory) and told her that she should be ashamed of herself for disrespecting her readers that way. It's the root of why my former reader, on deciding that they no longer wanted to read my books, felt entitled to write me an abusive email about it.

We - I'm talking about readers now - connect to books in such a real and vital way. We take those words inside us and make them real with our own feelings and memories and interpretations. And then, we go online to learn more and find an author's blog and Tumblr, and maybe trade a few comments or Tweets with them. They're funny! They RT links about social justice! Wow, it really does feel like we've made this amazing connection. Like we know this person, have an insight into their deepest selves. Oh my God, how wonderful!

But how perilous, too. Because it's an illusion. I'm the first person to say that you CAN form deep, meaningful relationships online, because a good percentage of my real life best friends are people that I first met online. However, that takes time, and asking questions, and having real conversations, and falling out, and making up, and being there for each other through rough times, and meeting in real life and STILL liking each other. Getting a smiley face reply from an author on Twitter is not the same thing.

Many writers care deeply about their readers. Many interact online with them, answer their letters, spend a lot of time addressing their concerns, answering questions, and offering free, extra content. I am one of those authors. I desperately want my readers to enjoy my work, and I get a warm, motivating glow everytime I find out that they have. There are some readers of mine who've been on this blog since day one, who I feel I know really well, and am very fond of.

BUT. Just because writers chose to give their time to readers this way, that doesn't mean the connection between writer and reader is a statutory right that comes with the purchase or borrowing of a book. The author's time and attention is not a gift with purchase. And it doesn't mean that they are beholden to their readers.

The other week we had the revelation that J.K. Rowling published her debut crime novel under a penname and a pseudonymous bio, that of Robert Gilbraith. In and amongst all the expected sour-grape carping there was disturbing vein of outrage over the fact that J.K. had dared to publish a book under a different name and not tell anyone.

This, said a vocal group of readers, was dishonest. How dare J.K. Rowling bamboozle potential readers by coming up with a fictional identity which was entirely different to her own? This 'fake' name and mendacious biography were inexusable chicanery; readers were owed honesty about the personality and history of the people who wrote the books they bought. They had lost all respect for J.K.R. in the wake of this shameless fraud.

If you are easily offended look away now, Dear Readers, because I have to say it: this is BULLSH*T.

Writers have been publishing work under pennames and made up biographies for hundreds of years. This was either to protect their identities in a time when taking up the pen was considered to be a slightly shady profession, or enable their writing to be assessed fairly on its merits instead of condemned *because* of the personality and history of its writer. Many, many, many female authors, including George Eliot and the Bronte sisters, published their work under male pseudonyms because they knew that it and they would otherwise get a critical savaging. And indeed, when Charlotte Bronte outed herself as a woman, the same critics who had praised Jane Eyre as an astonishing literary work previously immediately turned around and mauled it, decrying it as melodramatical and worthless romantic drivel - in exactly the way that the first one star reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling only started appearing on Amazon after Robert Gilbraith was ratted out.

Now, if you're reading a piece of non-fiction - a reference work published by someone whose credentials are vital to the credibility of the work, or perhaps an autobiography which purports to depict true events of the writer's life - then the life and history of the writer may well be relevant, although they may still chose to publish under a penname.

But when it comes to fiction, the life and history of the writer are none of the readers' business. The reader does not have the right to know anything about the writer. They do not have the right to know the truth about their life or history or qualifications or *anything*. You are buying a book! A work of fiction! You are not buying the writer. If I chose to change my biography tomorrow to say that my mother was a Russian Olympic wrestler and my father a Prima Ballerina who defected together and opened a cake-shop in New York, from whence I fled to join the circus at the age of twelve, and that I now divide my time between juggling bears and writing novels, exactly what would it change? It wouldn't affect the quality of my books, or how much anyone would enjoy them. Therefore, it doesn't matter.

But things like this *do* matter to some readers. They matter exactly because those readers do feel that when they buy (or borrow) a book and spend those hours enjoying this form of entertainment, they have also purchased something else, something intangible, from the writer. The author owes them something now. Honesty, loyalty, consideration, love or respect, or adherance to a certain moral code. Readers who think this way consciously or unconsciously believe reading a book and liking it makes the author of that book accountable to them. Personally.

People can write reviews, even write to me personally, all day long to tell me that they hate or disapprove of my books. That doesn't strike me as odd or make any alarm bells ring. But whether the author has written something you liked or disliked, by the time you pick the book up, they have already fulfilled their part of the bargain in the writer/reader exchange. You have a piece of entertainment, created by them, in your hand. That's all you're actually entitled to.

If an author's conduct disgusts you - as, for example, Orson Scott Card's homophobic ranting disgusts me and so many others - then go ahead and stop reading their books. Call them an *sshole on Twitter. Write a blogpost about it, make .gifs on Tumblr. Go to town! But don't be pretending that they have somehow let you down, personally, because you read and enjoyed their work and as a result they owed it to you to act in a way that you, personally, find acceptable.

The author doesn't owe readers the ending they wanted (especially since it would literally be impossible to give *everyone* their ideal ending). They don't owe readers apologies if the book didn't give them whatever they might have expected based on the cover and blurb. They don't owe explanations for the choices they made in writing that story about those characters. They don't owe readers a career in which they only write the exact same types of books forever. They don't owe readers the next book by a certain date, or free extras on their website, or ebooks that come out on the same date as the physical book at a slight discount, or simultaneous release dates for their book in whatever country the angry reader happens to be in.

Wrtiers are entitled to publish work under a penname. To take as long as they need to write a new book, or to write entirely different kinds of books. To stop writing books at all. To respond as a human being when they - not the content of their books! - get attacked. To not actually care what readers think of them personally, regardless of how many of their books the readers may have read or how much they liked them. Most especially if, despite this, the readers in question are rude or scary.
 
Writers are people. They can be hurt by you every bit as much as you can be hurt by them. Being published doesn't give them an impenetrable armour which allows rudeness and abuse to fly off. Writers just want to do their jobs, send their books out into the world, and hopefully make a decent living at it. Please do not allow your entitlement issues to either elevate them to the status of gods, or dash them down onto the rocks like disgraced idols.

When someone buys a book, they own it. And that's all. They do not own a piece of the author.

This is my two cents on the topic. What do you guys think? Am I wrong here - do writers owe readers more than just books? Let me know in the comments.

NOTE: Please, please, please, no personal attacks on the letter writer. You don't need to defend me. I just want to talk about the issue, OK? OK. By the same token, personal attacks on me or anyone else I like will be deleted so fast your head will spin, because this is my place and I Haz Teh Banhammer. Other than that, fly free, my children!

18 comments:

April C Rose said...

I see the entitlement problem a lot in the schools (at least here on the good ol' USA). Actually, I blogged about it not too long ago. The idea goes like this: I'm owed an A. Even if the student didn't perform, she still thinks she deserves something she didn't earn. It's that kid who complains his father wouldn't spend the extra money to get leather seats in the car his dad was buying for him. It's the girl who complains that she's in detention because the dumb teacher caught her with her phone out. Some people think the world is owed them. :/

Not that it makes it any better...

Carmen B. said...

Thank you so much for this post! I thankfully don't come across this phenomenon too often, but whenever I do I feel torn between simply thinking their reaction is ridiculous and being concernced. I understand feeling very attached to a book. I understand being mad at an author for killing of character X who happened to be my favorite, or thinking I'll go crazy because the wait for the next book is just so torturously long. But I think it should go without saying that authors shouldn't feel bullied by their readers into writing a certain type of book or ending. The story is theirs. They even have the right not to share it at all.
Same thing with expectations. Just because the book isn't what you thought it'd be doesn't mean you've been duped. I've come across this in reviews a couple times and mostly I thought the reviewer should have read the blurb more attentively because it's actually all there.
Anyway, I'm sorry you got that goodreads message. I think it's extreme the lengths some people go to on the internet to let authors/bands/whoever know just what they think of their work. I get it if it's positive. If it's negative, not so much. Why waste all that energy on hating something you didn't like? Ignore it and focus on something productive. There's more than enough content out there for everyone to find something to like.

Anyway. You already made all the important points about pretty much all the issues that play into the entitlement problem that I can think of. I'm now off to share this post :)

Elyndra said...

I've never understood this sort of behaviour. It might be that I was raised very differently, but it keeps surprising me how a lot of people act, especially on the internet.
I can understand not liking a book and maybe even mentioning it. But I wonder what some people get out of spending all their time writing (terribly long) bad reviews, tearing down the author on Twitter or Facebook and even sending hate mail. Wouldn't it be easier to just pick up another book and move on?

But this doesn't just concern books and authors. I think most, if not all, creators of content face this problem. Strangely enough it seems that free content gets even more abuse. I noticed it a few years ago when Nano redid their site. The amount of people who were pretty much shouting "I want it free, I want it perfect and I want it now, darned! And if you don't give me exactly what I want, I'm going to keep nagging until you do." was staggering.

They always say it is best just to ignore them, but sometimes I can't help wondering if by ignoring them we aren't just making the problem worse in the long run. So thank you for this post.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Wow, Zoe! Thank you for writing this! I've been watching this trend unfold over time, since it first came to my attention with the frankly ridiculous level of vitriol aimed at Bioware for how they handled the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Since then I've watched writers and developers come under attack and in some cases bow to pressure and try to appease people. It continued with Charlaine Harris, and then JK Rowling. I even had a conversation with someone who actually claimed that her level of celebrity means she should be expected to share her life openly with the public.

It's a frightening pattern of behaviour and it honestly concerns me, as a writer, that some readers feel they have the right to make demands like this. Thankfully, I've only once had someone insist I change something she found offensive in one of my books, but even that was a bizarre experience, made all the worse because it was a friend, who I'd simply asked for feedback on a book I was working on at the time.

Zoë Marriott said...

Wow, guys - some amazing, thoughtful and interesting comments here! Thanks so much to everyone for responding (especially since no one's flaming me, which I was slightly afraid of).

Lynsey Newton said...

It's funny you should post about this topic as it's something I've been thinking about recently. I've seen bloggers, readers and respected publishing professionals even say that they are no longer reading a particular author's book because of something they said or an opinion they expressed. This leaves me speechless.

To be frank, I don't care if you're male, female, human, an alien, black, white, gay, straight or what political views you hold, if it's a good story, I will read it. END OF.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lynsey: I've got to admit that I'd hesitate to buy one of Orson Scott Card's books these days, just because I'd be worried his money would go to crushing gay rights. But I have some of his books (writing books, which I found incredibly helpful) that I bought years ago and the knowledge that the man is a prat really doesn't affect my love for them at all.

I've seen authors make a single, off the cuff comment and just have readers go mad at them - how DARE they, they should be ASHAMED, they've LET EVERYONE DOWN. And then I quickly back-pedal into my corner and send the author a quick email to ask if they're OK because it is *scary*. It's this weird sense of ownership, almost. 'You are a writer I like. I have contributed my time and money to your success. NOW YOU HAVE TO BE THE PERSON I WANT YOU TO BE and if not you have BEEETRAAAAYED MEEEE!'

Jessica said...

I am right with you on the OSC thing. I don't want any of my money to go to someone who funds organisations opposed to gay rights. But it doesn't change the fact that I really enjoyed Ender's Game or thought that Enchantment was brilliantly original.

I remember reading something a while ago about Star Wars. The writer of the piece was talking about all the people who thought that George Lucas had "betrayed the fans" and "ruined Star Wars" by writing prequels that weren't nearly as good. I just choose to pretend that the prequels never happened and watch the originals. What he did with the later films didn't take away the enjoyment people got from the earlier films. So why the hate?

It is ridiculous.

Thankfully, I've not had any hate messages yet. I guess there are some advantages to being an unknown author.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jessica: The thought of getting the levels of hate and abuse that certain very successful authors do is really frightening to me. I'd have to do a Suzanne Collins and completely withdraw, I think. I couldn't do it. Thankfully the vast, vast majority of contact I get from readers is wonderful and reaffirms my faith in people!

Isabel said...

I've never thought in depth about this topic before but reading your post I completely agree with you. Thanks for bringing this up Zoe!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: You, my beloved Dear Reader, are the exact opposite of a person with entitlment issues :) I feel extremely lucky that so many of my readers are such genuinely wonderful people.

Isabel said...

Thanks Zoe, that's so good to hear :)

Christina said...

Zoe, I really do love this post, and I know it may have taken bravery to write it in an atmosphere with quite a bit of tension between bloggers and authors, so kudos.

I've only read one of your books at this point, and I really enjoyed it, but, even if I hadn't, I wouldn't expect that to have anything to do with my opinions about you as a person. You wrote a book; I didn't like it. That's fine, and you wouldn't be alone by any means. There are people I think are awesome whose books I don't care for, and that's fine.

If I read another novel you've written and loathe it, I would be disappointed, sure, but I wouldn't write your fiction off entirely based off of that alone. I mean, one of my favorite authors is Jane Austen, and I loathe Mansfield Park with most every fiber of my being. Good authors generally take chances and might try new things, some of which work and some don't.

When I'm reading, I try to keep the author out of my mind as much as possible, because it's not about them. I'm reading their book and evaluating that alone. My goal is not to assess the author via their books. Of course, I've also never directed an angry email to an author, nor would it ever occur to me to do so. It's not my goal to ruin someone's day, and I would prefer that authors never saw my incredibly ranty reviews, though I can't stop anyone from searching the internet for commentary on their book.

It seems as though the issue of the letter stemmed perhaps from you rating your own book five stars on Goodreads. I've seen shelves condemning such behavior. Personally, I'm not bothered, and think authors can do what they want. While I might not do that myself, a lot of work went into it and you're proud of it. You have your own life to live.

There does seem to be this odd sense in our culture that actors/musicians/authors are meant to act in particular ways and serve as icons/models of behavior. As purveyors of pop culture, they OWE us their awesomeness. Any flop is endlessly assailed and accompanied with vitriol. A good actor can be part of a horrible movie, just like a talented author can write a book that doesn't appeal much to the masses. Miscalculations happen, and there's also little accounting for taste. I've loved things most people don't and hated things that most people love. Sometimes an author's going to write to a niche group, rather than the masses. I can only imagine the pressure to be a figure like John Green, constantly the top of the bestseller lists or poor J.K. Rowling, outed and shamed for trying to get away from her name. In her case, a synonym makes perfect sense, since she went from children's stories to a crime drama. Plus, she can't really get fair assessments of her writing with her name attached to it. People will overrate because she wrote HP and rage-one-star because the book has the audacity to not be HP. We are, in fact, more likely to be sent into rage spirals by the content creators we've loved, because we expected more and our expectations couldn't be met.

Sadly, I have nothing constructive to add, other than people should generally try not to be so hateful on the internet. There's no need to send a shouty email about something that has so little effect on their life. If their goal was to help clue you in to the fact that your behavior might lose you more readers, then they could have tried to do so in a polite manner.

As a book blogger, I try to offer writers respect and distance. I don't hate authors for having written something I disliked (I've had lovely conversations with authors whose books I didn't like in the slightest, though I don't know if they knew that, haha).

I hope that you do not get many such emails, and wait impatiently (but not angrily!) for The Night Itself to be published in the US!

Zoë Marriott said...

Christina: This is a really great response, thank you :)

I know just why that person sent me the message they did - I know that some readers don't think authors should use Goodreads to rate their own books, even if those authors also rate other books on the site. The thing is, I don't particularly care if other people approve of me doing it or not. In the nicest possible way, I can't see what it has to do with anyone else. If a reader, for whatever reasons, really disappoves of this, even to the extent that they decide they don't want to read my books anymore, of course they're free to have those feelings.

But why they would act like I've personally betrayed them, I do not know. This is what really baffles me. What does it have to do with... well anything, really? I just have to conclude that it comes back to that sense of ownership, which is scary, and which prompted me to write this post. Readers can own books. They can take ownership, in their hearts, of stories. But they don't known writers, and writers mustn't be meant to *feel* that they owe something to readers in that way.

Sarah said...

Wow! I was directed to this post from YA Highway and I am so glad I clicked over!

I've read a few blogs lately where this same issue has come up, the whole "you owe me" thing that readers tend to have with authors. I find it odd that there are people out there like that, but I guess I can see how they can slip in to that...

Still, when I read a book and it's upsetting to me I never think about the author as much as I think about the characters and the book itself. I mean, I know the author wrote it, but any "blame" for the problems I have are put on the book itself or the characters actions. I can't ever recall being mad at the author!

A perfect example is with the last Sookie Stackhouse book; I was annoyed with Sookie for not standing up for herself, and mad at Eric for letting himself be pushed in to something. Was I mad at Charlaine Harris? Absolutely not! It was HER story and they were HER characters and SHE knew their paths. Who am I to yell at her?!

Anyways, I'm just rambling a bit, but I wanted to say that I loved this post and I think that more people need to see it! Thanks!!

Zoë Marriott said...

Sarah: I think getting furious at the author must be a product of how much more visible the writer is nowadays. I remember being furious with the ending of 'Outlaws of Sherlock' by Robin McKinley when I was a kid, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to be cross at Robin McKinley because she was sort of a mythical figure to me. A magical storywriter. There was no way to contact her. I knew nothing about her. There wasn't even a picture of her in the back of the book. It didn't stop me from loving her other work, either. Making big dramatic announcements that I would never read her work again to the air wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying as I suppose readers find making those kinds of announcements to an actual writer who will be forced to read at least a little of what they've written (probably the whole thing, human nature being what it is) before they can delete it.

Barker and Jones Staff said...

I agree with pretty much everything, and since I'm not pithy like everyone else, I'll just add;

If you hate the ending, go write a fanfic and leave the authors alone. That's what fanfic is for. I love fanfic, I constantly search for it in my favorite fandoms. If I don't like a character arc or the way a book/episode/movie ended, there's pretty much always a fic that goes the other way.

Illegitimi non carborundum, Zoe. Keep fighting the fight.

Zoë Marriott said...

B&JStaff: Thanks :)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...