There’s an excellent interview with Steven Erikson at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, and I wanted to highlight some extracts – not covering the content of his books, but discussing the internet and genre.
I track things for a time, usually at the start, but invariably someone decides to trash whatever book is being discussed; it’s not the trashing that bothers me, it’s the often inane observations accompanying that trashing. I’m as human as the next guy, after all, though over the years my skin has toughened and, ultimately, I continue to go about my business unaffected by criticism — even still, it does sometimes seem that reviews (ie amazon reader comments) attack with a hidden agenda that baffles me. What’s become clear via the internet is that some readers of certain writers confuse their pleasure at that writer’s work and end up positioning themselves in some weird kind of belligerent loyalty: as if other writers were somehow competing with their favourite. It’s an odd notion, and for what it’s worth, I often hang out with said writers and, surprise, we get along just fine, and bizarre ideas about competition or rivalry, well, they are the exclusive inventions of fans, not us writers. As to the lengths such fans will go, now that’s alarming indeed. But it’s all misplaced and a waste of energy, as far as I can see.
I’ve watched this behaviour from the sidelines and it is, at first, amusing that readers can act like this. But when the Lord of the Flies tribal mentality kicks in… well. Let’s just say I can quite understand why many authors withdraw their online presence. This tribalism might be fun to some, however, it has long term consequences to the genre, and the involvement of authors.
I remember very much liking the opinion of Lou Anders on a related issue (I can’t remember if it was in a convention bar or otherwise): there should be no competition between authors. The success of one author does not thieve sales from another; on the contrary, a proliferation of entertaining, engrossing, well-written genre writers only grows the audience.
One discernible change is the role of the internet, but that almost goes without saying. Once, thousands of years ago when I was just starting out, writers produced stories and books and all they had to say was in their fiction. Now, they speak in their own voices, in blogs and such, and that’s stirred things considerably. We’re no different in feeling the need to fire a salvo every now and then, across the bow or rather more directly on target, and sometimes the fallout gets … heated. And, for all that I said upon beginning this interview, ultimately I think a writer should speak through his or her work; all the rest is just fluff. Often well-written fluff, but still. That said, some writers truly know how to exploit the new media, in terms of self-promotion, and my hat’s off to them. But for me, even the thought of it has my head ducking down. Gun shy, I guess, or maybe it’s that I’d probably end up sounding off on things a little too forcefully. Best I keep my mouth shut, for the most part (and these interviews are like cracks in the smoky glass, I dart out, then back in again).
I’ll admit I’m one of these type of writers who exploit the new media, so far as this blog exists, I have a Twitter page, and a Facebook page – though the latter tends to be not particularly about pushing the books, since I’ve friends and colleagues on there. I suppose all of this new media isn’t just self-promotion, I actually quite enjoy it. Plus, being British and cynical, I loathe it when people spam Twitter and Facebook with self-promo rants constantly.
However I totally agree with Steven Erikson on the fact that a writer should be judged through their work, primarily. How much do readers take into account the personality of a writer? Though if I’m honest, if I don’t like the online persona of someone, I’m less inclined to read their work. Is that a bad thing? I guess it probably is, and makes me a hypocrite.
This topic sort of came up yesterday on Twitter where I was less than subtle over my disdain for the thoughts of a certain cult author. He’s probably, and by all accounts, is a lovely lad. But I just don’t agree with his views on certain things.
And as writing is meeting of minds then I have no interest in meeting his mind by reading a novel by him. It’s not that I’m dismissing him as such I just know enough about were he stands not to want to know more.
But that Marmite factor is rare. I’m more likely to be interested in a writer after seeing them interact in social circles (like Twitter) than be put off them.
But take writer out of the equation as it’s rare for writers to be involved in discussions of their work and feelings and judgements get quite loyal and cultish – that’s the idea of a fan after all.
An author shouldn’t wade into them. There is no point unless you’ve got the hide of Joe Abercrombie or Richard Morgan. We are the jeering and cheering masses. We don’t think further than – I like that – I hate that.
Books are entertainment not intellectual exercises.
Now if you (as writers) are going to interact with us (and I’m putting myself in the fanboy box rather than the halfway and odd place that is blogging)
Keep your views and personal life private unless it relates to your work unless you want to be judged as a person. And we will judge you for your thoughts.
Don’t denounce the opinions of your fans for miss understanding something or try and explain something to them.
Enjoy the praise and privately take on board the criticisms.
At the end of the day tell us about what you’re writing, what’s coming out. What else you like and thing we might enjoy.
But mostly just worry about making the next book better than the last one!
Ok, first of all, yes obviously, I agree but..
We (fans) have always tended to behaviour verging on tribal over our various favourites, it’s normal and natural even if it is a bit, well sad really. (Clerks 2 trilogy war?, Trekkies?) Not all of us as individuals obv, but as a species it’s an ongoing issue. That’s not going to change and the internet gives us unrivaled access to both the source of our obsessive behaviour and each other. I’ve probably indulged in one or two angry retorts myself on line. (Well ok I have not that I can remember what I got so worked up about).
Yes obviously a writer should be judged by their writing not their personality or views but it can be difficult to separate the two and not allow your reading habits to be affected.
The upside of this is I have lost track of the number of books I have bought because I got to know someone online, or followed a trusted source of recommendations, I can’t think of anyone i’ve sworn never to read because I don’t like them.
The problem of the internet is it relies on our ability to play nicely together and not feed the trolls. When you can respond instantly, in the heat of the moment and not actually take it back after a few deep breaths that’s not always going to happen.
If you put yourself out there and make use of the opportunities the internet gives you then you are making yourself vulnerable to all that goes with it, if you don’t, potentially you are missing out on an audience. You are damned either way so make your choice, take a deep breath and get ready to deal with it.
Of course most of us think that writers should be judged by the quality of their writing and nothing else. But this just isn’t the case. If an author holds strong views about something and is vocal about expressing them – then they have to expect a reaction from readers who disagree with them.
And readers have a long memory! I always advise authors to have a public persona and a private one – kind of a split personality. Because, while some readers may want to get to know about you as a person, most of them are more interested in the book: the writing, the covers, the process. They don’t really want to know what your views are on European legislate or the expenses scandal. So my main advice to an author would be ‘think before you blog’ because once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. And you have no idea what kind of reaction you’ll get.
@Julie In Mark’s case it’s think before you tweet 😉
As a reviewer (even though I was a fanboy before I was a reviewer) I make sure that my personal perspective of a writer, no matter that it’s based on having met them, tweeted with them, facebooked them, read their blog or whatever, doesn’t figure one iota on what I have to say about their writing – with one HUGE coda.
If a writer is a political animal – offline and in their books – then their stance is naturally going to be a factor in what I perceive when (and if) I choose to read their work, and that will, of course colour my view depending on where it stands relative to my own politics.
It’s unavoidable, I think, and on two occasions (only two mind) I have decided that no review at all is better than a 1500 word tirade against the author which would serve no purpose other than to let me vent my spleen.
Gav: “Books are entertainment not intellectual exercises.” And sometimes both!
Hagelrat: “If you put yourself out there and make use of the opportunities the internet gives you then you are making yourself vulnerable to all that goes with it, if you don’t, potentially you are missing out on an audience. ”
That’s the key argument, isn’t it? How much to put out there. Patrick Rothfuss is the extreme example – I think he does a great job of going into personal details, but it doesn’t become too overbearing.
Hi Julie. Indeed, the split persona is probably the way to go, and is actually quite natural after a while – I have my blogging personality, which isn’t the same as my writing, which isn’t the same as me. And the relationship between writer and reader is often mixed up, as Joe Abercrombie pointed out anyway.
Thanks, Rob. “I have decided that no review at all is better than a 1500 word tirade against the author” this is really a good point; giving a review gives a little bit of publicity, so if you don’t like the content, don’t give it coverage.
Generally speaking, we live in interesting times. The ability to contact authors has never been like it is now. I dare say real answers will be more apparent over the coming years.
I agree with Gav and Adele; authors who have an online presence are definitely in the firing line and need to have incredibly tough hides to put up with everything that happens online, but I commend those authors who do take that step because a) it shows that they’re marketing-savvy and b) that they don’t mind interacting with their fans and critics. It’s definitely needed these days, anyway, considering how many people are online, searching for reviews and interviews, etc. The kind of interaction we all enjoy here is just not something you can find in a book store, but it’s also a different kind of interaction, and definitely has the potential to backfire for both parties! 🙂
Thankfully, though, most of us were brought up well enough to have manners and to realize that it’s better to enjoy our time here and try and offer opinions instead of commenting as ‘anonymous’ and offering dumb opinions that piss people off instead of making them think. 🙂
I’m thankful, too, that most of the authors who have an online presence are awesome examples to those of us learning the craft – not only good conversation, but lessons too. 🙂
Oh wait: Will I read a book by an author I don’t like? This may be a bit shallow, but if your work is good, then I like you as an author. I’ll probably meet you some time, Mark, and I might think you’re a total idiot (I seriously doubt that, but anyway), but your work speaks for itself, and that’s what I base my opinion on. If I read terrible work, I just wont read that author again. Might be the bookseller in me, but hey. 🙂
Rule #1: Never diss anyone else’s fandom. You may hate Twilight with a passion, but always respect that there are people that love it, and their viewpoint is just as valid. Be honest, say it doesn’t work for you but don’t be dismissive.
Rule #2: It’s OK to express an opinion so long as you take the viewpoint that it’s OK for people to disagree with you. Turn potential flame wars into debate by engaging, being honest and respecting views even if they are opposed to yours. I used to say “I reserve the right to be wrong” but at the same time know that if you say something controversial you’ll get people pushing back. It can feel like trying to tame a wild stallion at times but if you stay calm, you can do it.
The 2 persona’s is not a bad thing. I’ve seen many a ‘internet celebrity’ get what we used to call in the pop culture trade as “rock star syndrome”. However, I lived with the 2 personas for 10 years when I did the website, and it’ll drive you mad. I kept seperate email addresses, blogs, social network tools, and in the end it became too much. It can drive you nuts as you think how in this age of interconnectivity, this links to that and you might want to keep them separate. At least as a writer you can say “I don’t make enough to give up the day job”, and I find that refreshingly honest.
Some people will not like you. This is life. But also remember that aside from Internet outrage most people don’t care. Seriously, whether I agree with your politics or not, it’s really not gonna make a huge difference to my life. Look at celebrity scandals. We might say it’s outrageous X or Y has happened and may voice out disgust… but how often does it really stop you enjoying what that celebrity does? Obviously if you’re racist or like to beat up women, it may not be wise to advertise these facts, but with less extreme views or actions remember just as society is quick to judge their quick to forget.
And the rivalry thing… it’s always gonna happen. It’s a tribal thing and those entertainment properties are our modern day warpaint. We define ourselves by what we like and therefore anybody who likes anything else is an adversary. You can minimise this amongst your fanbase by talking about other things you like and getting those people to talk about all the different things they like. And you can pull apart the screaming feudal schoolkids by simply commenting things such as “I like both.”
And remember, the fact they like or hate you is good. Someone once told me that the worst reaction anyone can have to anyone is indifference as that’s a sign you’ve failed to make an impact. Love and hate: those are real almost tangible emotions!
Mark, you wrote: “The success of one author does not thieve sales from another; on the contrary, a proliferation of entertaining, engrossing, well-written genre writers only grows the audience.”
I completely agree. Also, to follow the theme of new media, etc., I think they actually help boost sales for all – anything from Twitter feeds to Amazon Recommendations (I couldn’t count the number of novels or albums I bought purely because it’s recommended alongside another author or band that I like). I started to read Joe Abercrombie, because it was suggested along with Scott Lynch. Same for George R.R. Martin and Robert Redick (I first heard of Mark’s work because Tor kindly sent it to me to review). Without the proliferation of new media and author websites, I probably wouldn’t have tried them out unless a friend recommended them. Gail Martin and Stephen Deas I stumbled upon through Twitter, and like their work.
I must say, though, that I’ve noticed more of this Lord of the Flies-tribalism in music and movie/TV taste than in books. Perhaps it’s the postgrad university environment, when it’s kind of accepted that you will read things and nobody really cares. Perhaps the only instance when this wasn’t true was with regards to the new Dan Brown novel, which usually makes certain people come over all intellectually-snobbish. (It’s entertainment, who cares that Brown doesn’t have the greatest grasp of English? It’s not MEANT to be literature!)
There are plenty of authors who come across like arrogant, self-aggrandising pillocks, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t read their work. If I’ve already read something by them, and they turn out to be… uh, differently-minded to me, then I would probably still read their future, but might just get them from the library. For some authors, though (particularly in the political-thriller genre), after discovering that they are fans of or friends with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and/or Glen Beck… well, that was tough, but I still read his novels because they’re excellently written and exciting.
I disagree with Gav that books are just entertainment and not intellectual exercise. For some, sure; but equally, far more novels these days feature some pretty good social and political commentary. What makes them excellent, is when they can manage this commentary while not preaching or diminishing the quality of the writing and story. I do agree that the general reading population is little more than the Mob (as in Rome, not the Mafia…).
Generally speaking, I think many authors who have a substantial or busy presence online are, whether consciously or not, doing a little bit of publicity of their own. By putting yourself out there, you are effectively giving fans and readers another opportunity to become (more) familiar with your work, thoughts, etc. Therefore, as with all publicity – some will agree, some won’t.
It does seem, Mark, that you’ve been able to avoid the crazies on your website. Perhaps you just attract a better class of reader…?
A very interesting topic, indeed. Who would have thought writers would be so exposed to their audience twenty years ago? It’s quite amazing.
I must say that I was devastated to find out Orson Scott Card’s obsession with trashing persons of my orientation, and I won’t give him another dime. But the Ender’s books are still a favorite of mine, and I’ll re-read them from time to time. So if a writer’s work is good enough, I’d overlook just about any obnoxious personality trait. I imagine Goodkind has put off a few potential readers with his views, but I never fancied his writing in the first place.
I do wonder if tribalism is more of a U.S. phenomenon, where team sports and partisan politics are very important aspects of one’s identity. But in full agreement–no need for competition in the genre. If you write it, they will come.
Dave: Thanks for those thoughts, and I’m in agreement about the level of interaction. And I like to think when we meet you’ll think I’m not a complete idiot. 🙂
Adrian: some fine rules to live by. I like to think I’ve walked close to the edge with the flame wars, but was conscious of keeping the debate civil. On one’s own blog, there’s more control. It’s forums where the danger lies…
Stefan: some good comparisons there, and yes, I think the majority of readers are like that. In fact, buying habits are informed by “I like author X, and author Y is meant to be similar, so I’ll buy that too”. If only more people online could realise that!
As for avoiding crazies… well, I made a few blogs posts way back about politics, and that enticed the crazies. In fact, one post on the British Fascist Party brought out a real live fascist!
I was astounded there weren’t any crazies out there for the death of SF post. That was proof the internet doesn’t always descend into chaos.
Nate: thanks for stopping by. Ah yes, OSC. That must have been particularly difficult if you’re a fan of his work, and I do wonder if his editors had a quiet word in his ear about that…
That’s an interesting point about tribalism. I think it’s definitely something that comes with a younger generation, but then again, that could just be because, generally, they’re more au fait with the internet, and likely to use it for tribal gains.
I was very interested in Mark’s comments about tribalism being a younger generation thing and suspect that it is to a degree, an outcome, perhaps of being able to learn more about an author in a way previous generations could never do.
In the recent past, there was only the published writing to base our opinions on: there was the writing and nothing else was visible about most authors. Their views on matters not addressed in their writings, personal foibles, whatever, went unseen, unknown by the broader audience. Also, we weren’t able to discuss writings or authors to the extent we can now, in an interactive dailog far faster and more complete than letters to editors and the occasional conference speech.
It will affect buying patterns, probably, unfortunately less among discussion participants than readers of opinions, because passive readers of opinions will not always understand the nuances, the personalities and loyalties that cause harsh criticism for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality of the book being targetted. Those involved deeply in the discussion may buy the books they criticise, knowing their own motives for dissing it, and not realize or care that they are dissuading the uninitiated from buying a book they would have enjoyed.
I think you’re very astute when you say “because passive readers of opinions will not always understand the nuances, the personalities and loyalties that cause harsh criticism for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality of the book being targetted”
This is a fear of any author, I’d imagine, to have some criticism shared that has little to do with the book itself. And Amazon is a prime venue for such comments.