discussions genre stuff

Authors & Expectations

A rare interview with a grand master of American literature, Don DeLillo:

DeLillo now lives in Westchester County in New York State with his wife, Barbara, a landscape designer, but he has not completely left his childhood neighbourhood, a place he insists still “looks the same, though the people are different”: an influx of new immigrants, Serbs, Croats and African-Caribbeans. Every year, he goes back to meet old school friends from the streets of his childhood. “We meet on a major street and have a meal together and a laugh,” he says. Inevitably, the conversation will turn to baseball, DeLillo’s first love – what he calls his “second language”. Baseball, he says, “was just so natural, because we all grew up with it. We played it; we listened to it on the radio, and then we went to Yankee stadium. It was a taken-for-granted pleasure”.

Read the rest. DeLillo is one of my favourite writers and, after reading this interview, I was relieved that he came across as an extremely honest and humble individual. It’s more than pleasant to see.

They say never meet your idols, but the SFF genre – through conventions or signings – has always offered this opportunity. I’ve met several authors whose work I greatly admired and I can honestly say that they have all been wonderful people. Not only have they met my expectations, but they’ve taken the time to chat amiably. Had they come across as rude or obnoxious, there would have been a good chance (perhaps because I’m that stubborn) that I simply wouldn’t have bought their books, or wouldn’t have been as excited about their future releases.

Which isn’t to say that people should be nice so you keep buying their wares, but that there is some strange psychology at play here. Writing, in particular, seems to make connections directly with the minds of others – one of the points of the art, surely. But that also means that there is a one-way familiarity going on, from reader to writer (at least until a dialogue opens), and it’s something for writers to think about. I wouldn’t even equate it to fame – because it’s not, it something different than that, and book sales for the majority of authors would never equate to fame anyway.

I’ve been published by the majors for about a year now, and I’ve got to that stage where I receive mail or even meet people who like the books. A few may even be referred to as fans, but that sounds ridiculous even typing such a phrase. And I’ve realised, after my good dealings with my favourite writers, just how self-conscious I have been not to make a mess of this new species of social discourse.

But I do wonder how writers like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin cope, however, with the sheer weight of expectation that people have of them, due to the connection with their work, which has grown exponentially as more people read and discuss their books. What happens when writers become famous? Maybe they get used to the fact that they must be as wonderful as the writers presented in articles or interviews, or risk disappointing people. Do they feel some kind of sheepish guilt at the fact that people travel miles around have their books signed?

On the other hand, some writers probably don’t give a shit, and resent even having to talk to people who have spent time engaging with their work. How do fans feel when they see their favourite authors coming across like buffoons in an interview? Luckily, I can’t even think of any examples of that right now. Which is probably a good thing.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

8 replies on “Authors & Expectations”

“How do fans feel when they see their favourite authors coming across like buffoons in an interview?”

I can think of a couple of times now that I’ve seen articles by, or interviews with, artists that I’ve been enthusiastic about where they’ve come across very poorly. I’ve always been of the opinion that an interview should be taken with a pinch of salt, as it’s very easy to do a hatchet job on the subject if an editor demands it be so, and I’ve strived to try and disassociate the unpleasantness of the interview from the work I’ve liked.

It sticks in the back of my head, though, and after that point I seem doomed to always dredge the negative stuff up as an association.

Regarding authors that come across as consistently obnoxious, I just don’t buy their work.

I’ve tried to divorce a creator from their work, and as Andrew said, take all interviews with a pinch of salt. However, there is one creator who I was a huge fan of, but now cannot read anything new by him. In interviews he was repeatedly arrogant, obnoxious, incredibly negative about fans and of the mindset that he didn’t care about his fans at all. I thought his manner was bluster or a facade, but as the interviews stacked up I realised he was just a tool. It’s one thing not to listen to your fans and let your creative process be guided by them, it’s another to keep your distance from them if you are uncomfortable in the public spotlight and pressing the flesh, but being an arrogant so-and-so and saying you don’t care about your fans is something else. Surely without the fans any creator is just someone yet to be published? I’m that stubborn too. So I stopped buying his books.

Perhaps it is because of my interest in a wider range of literature, it doesn’t really bother me that much. I don’t think that a person’s art and a person’s personality should not mix really. The best example of this, of course, is Céline, who is just about the worst person you can think of (an avid Nazi supporter, a rabid anti-semite and a Vichy collaborator) but still wrote one of the most important novels of the twentieth century in Voyage au bout de la nuit.

Coming back to SFF, I do think fans tend to expect more and it is unfair to authors. Isn’t it enough that they write novels? As Marcus Broddus was saying other at VanderMeer’s place the other day, unfortunatly there is a point where expectations become entitlement, and lets face it, readers aren’t really entitled to anything. The best example of this of course, is people giving Martin shit over the next Westeros book as if he has some sort of duty to them to create it. It is enough to make anyone want to stop writing. I know people say “if it wasn’t for the fans” and I understand that sort of mentality, but I don’t agree with it. The intrinsic value of any piece of art has absolutely nothing to do with how much it sells, if anything, there is usually an opposite correlation.

As I always say, the great thing about art is you can appreciate it even if the creator is an asshole.

Audio interviews actually influence me tremendously when it comes to deciding if I want to buy an author’s book(s). I’ve heard interviews where the authors were incredibly boring (and no because they were old), annoyingly arrogant, just plain annoying, and so on. I’ve never bought a book by those authors. Never will. Your interviews say a lot about you: who you are, what you think, how you think about your work, how you think about writing in general, and so on. If it becomes clear to me that you don’t like your job as a writer or that you think you’re better than other people, or whatever, then I have no interest in supporting your career by buying your books (“your” being rhetorical here).

But, to your question: meeting authors I already enjoy, or hearing/reading their interviews is pretty awesome in my book. I’m one of those amateur wannabe writers, so I always glean something from those interviews. I’m not sure it’s helping, though :P.

In general, I agree with Paul’s comment but I do think this point is interesting:

The best example of this of course, is people giving Martin shit over the next Westeros book as if he has some sort of duty to them to create it.

Fans only think Martin is their bitch because he has made himself their bitch. Producing a long series is a commercial decision more than it is an artistic one. Martin and his publisher have decided they can make more money from the fans this way, is it any surprise they have a sense of entitlement?

In conclusion: everyone should write standalone novels 😉

Re: the commercial point. I’m not convinced choosing series is always a commercial option. Producing a long series need not always be about the commercial aspect. Not all series writers are milking their fans like Robert Jordan (first a trilogy, then more, then prequels etc), as sometimes the series is, well, just the right length to tell a larger story. There is also a trail off in sales as series progress, too, so writing more isn’t always about growing sales exponentially. And it’s quite a marathon, too – why anyone would want to write a ten-book series is beyond me (fat advances aside) – I would think twice before committing myself to anything over two books in future.

The real commercial decision for big-selling series is usually when the advance paid for a novel clocks up six figures: that money has to be clawed back. This is when immense advertising and marketing campaigns kick in. That’s when things go beyond the norm of simple artistry.

On another note, I think there’s something to say about an author coming across as nice, and sales following naturally, without any hard sell – just as SMD was influenced. For example, I held off from reading Gaiman for a long time, but was seduced by his blog and interviews.

On another note, I think there’s something to say about an author coming across as nice, and sales following naturally, without any hard sell – just as SMD was influenced. For example, I held off from reading Gaiman for a long time, but was seduced by his blog and interviews.

It works the other way, too, though–that is, one of the things the Internet has taught me is that just because a writer can be an interesting blogger or a cordial interviewee doesn’t mean they’ll be an interesting writer of fiction. This is not aimed at our host, I hasten to add! But the point is, writing teh fiction and writing teh non-fiction, they are two different skills. I have encountered writers who routinely post thoughtful, well-argued blog posts about storytelling topics, who sound wonderful when interviewed about their own fiction-writing goals; but when it comes to actually writing stories, their work is filled with the dullest word choices possible, POV errors, ludicrously heavy foreshadowing, dangling plot threads, unearned deux ex machina endings, etc. There’s clearly a gap between the stories that exist in their head, and the stories that they write–the lack of some combination of internal poet, internal critic, and internal reader with respect to their own work.

Conversely, as I’ve come to value my own skills in interpreting texts, I’ve also gained an appreciation for authors who can appear short or uninterested in interviews. Gene Wolfe has given some famously short or vague interviews, where he pretty much refuses to answer certain questions. And I respect that a great deal: the basic message is, “I said what I had to say in the story, the rest is your job.” I wish more authors would have the confidence, in their own work and in their readers, to take that tack. I’ve also seen an author who wrote a fairly subtle 9/11 novel (if you’re not paying attention it’s easy to miss the year the novel takes place in, the fact that it includes a sculpture of a cityscape with two ruined towers), who has been repeatedly asked in interviews, “why did you set your novel in New York?” And he’s repeatedly given vague answers, never coming out and saying “because 9/11 was an important component of it!” So he can come across as a rather dull interviewee, but I respect why tremendously.

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