Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Love the author, love the book?

Recently I picked up NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman. For probably the third time. I don't know why, but each time I've picked it up before, despite enjoying his writing, I put it aside after a few chapters. I do think that sometimes you have to be in the right frame of mind for certain books.

I don't know if it's because of what the Internet is doing to our brains, or just because I don't have much time, but these days I almost always have a few books in progress, and sometimes I set them aside quite a long time before going back. But it is rare I'll go back to a book more than a couple times if it still hasn't grabbed me.

So why did I go back to NEVERWHERE? Because lately I have come to really enjoy Neil Gaiman, the personality. I loved the speech he gave to the University of the Arts class of 2012 (Make Art). I loved the speech he gave at this year's London Book Fair (Be Like Dandelions). And I especially loved his 2013 New Year's wish, which goes like this:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art (write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can). And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

This is the way I want to live, and this quote was a refuge for me during this year's Monty Python Event.

So about a week ago, I picked up NEVERWHERE again, and I've had a hard time putting it down (alas, revisions, they do interfere with the TBR). I am truly enjoying it. What changed? Is it about the book itself, or about the fact I like the author's personality? Whichever the case, if I hadn't started taking an interest in the author, I might not have picked up the book again, and I think that's worth something.

Here is another example -- Hugh Howey, author of WOOL. (Feel free to comment on WHY these are both male SF authors. I'm not sure if it is significant, but I suspect it has to do with the fact there are few female SF/F authors who are so public.)

I read the WOOL omnibus edition last year, and I was an instant fan. Gripping, character-driven post-apocalyptic sci-fi with strong female protagonists and even a touch of romance. Wahoo! As I tweeted to #fridayreads shortly after I started the book, dude can write. No wonder he's sold so many damn books.

A month or so back, Howey did something that pissed off a lot of people. I don't want to make this post about that, or jump into the controversy. But if you don't know what I'm talking about, a Google search will quickly catch you up. You can read a recent explanation/apology from Howey here.

When I read Howey's original post, I could see why it exploded in his face. While I'm not going to comment on what he did, I will say that I spent a LOT of time thinking about it, considering the various viewpoints of those defending and crucifying him (and everything in between). As authors/public figures I think we must pay close attention to events like these.

My question for the purposes of this post: Did it affect my enjoyment of his work, or my desire to read more? For me, the answer is no. This could be in part because I had already read his work and become a fan, and through that I feel I know something about him as a person. It also reminds me that he IS a person, in addition to being an author and public figure, and all persons do things they regret.

The question I will never be able to answer, though, is would I have picked up his book if I'd discovered the controversy beforehand. There are so many books, so little time, and it doesn't take much these days to nudge one off my list. And honestly I would have been the loser in that; it's a fabulous series. I'll be interested to hear what my co-bloggers have to say about this, since I don't believe they have read WOOL yet.

Okay, one more example and then I want to hear what you think! I have told the story many times about how Stephenie Meyer's personal success story -- writing from the heart, believing in her story and herself -- gave me a much-needed shove toward my first serious attempt at completing a novel. In fact, I ended up submitting to (and contracting with) her literary agency.

I read and enjoyed the TWILIGHT series. And I intend to read THE HOST eventually (see previous comment about the TBR). Because she was so open about her experience and encouraging to other writers, I will probably always be favorably disposed toward her work.

So do I have some kind of conclusion here? In reading back through the post, I think I've concluded that writer personalities do matter, but they are only one aspect of the whole marketing package. Not a deal breaker, not a deal maker. And individual circumstances have to be factored in. If you have a stack of NYT bestsellers, your personality may not be so important. Maybe not the case if you're a debut author with a knack for offending people.

And none of this takes into account the fact more books will be sold when there is controversy.

This is fairly new territory for all of us -- having so much access to authors, as well as channels for broadcasting both reader and writer opinions. It certainly presents both opportunities and pitfalls! I love the game creator character
in the YouTube series THE GUILD. He is paralyzed by negative gamer feedback (most of it downright nasty and personal). He keeps spreadsheets of comments, and they've made him so neurotic he can no longer create.

What do you think? Which authors do you love as people, and why? Do your feelings about the person affect the way you feel about their work?


  1. You bring up quite interesting questions. In today's world it's so much easier to put a face and personality to someone. I think, I'm affected by the writing more than anything else. For example, I love reading TC Boyle, and know nothing about him except he has a frightening author picture. So I just don't look at his back cover. I first read LOTR in high school, way before movies and the wave of popularity. Would I have liked it so much if I'd known at the time Tolkien is considered by some to be racist? I'm not sure. I doubt it, I loved the concept of Legalos and Arragon and so on, too much. As an beta reader, I try not to let my love and friendship affect my comments because I know my CPs want honest feedback. But on the other hand, I share your same thoughts concerning Stephany Meyers and how she comes across as such a likable person, and yep, that does make it easier to forgive the typos and too many ! in Twilight. I think the Host is brilliant, so hope you do get time to read it.
    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Poor TC Boyle! Now I am super curious. :) And this brings up a point I didn't even delve into: if the writer is physically attractive, are we more likely to read their books?

    Tolkien? Racist? Say it ain't so! Yeah, I don't think it would change my feelings about his writing. One of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, has some horribly un-PC things in his work, but it was a very different time.

    Thank you for the nudge on THE HOST! A good friend has been after me to read it for years.

    And thanks for sharing your thoughts about this!

  3. Wow, Sharon, you bring up a fascinating topic. It made me think immediately of my review of Oblivion a few weeks ago, and how most of the comments weren't about the movie content or quality, but that many people won't go see a movie when Tom Cruise is the star. Most seemed to take big exception to his actions and beliefs as a person, or to the way he wields his star power in his role. I think this same negativity can affect authors, too.

    If you're racist, obnoxious, condescending, or push your politics through your blogs and posts, you're going to tick off a lot of people, many who will refuse to read your books. (But on the other hand, some may read them JUST BECAUSE you're controversial. That whole moths-to-the-flame-of-controversy thing,)

    For me, I don't tend to read books based on a writer's personality or antics, but because the idea or premise appeals to me. I still look forward to reading WOOL even though I think the author made a major public blunder in blogging his animosity toward an individual via name calling and crude comments (even if he meant it to be funny.)

    That said, I do have one BIG exception.

    At a workshop at RWA one year, I was standing in line to speak to one of my idol SFR writers. She had a whole pile of promo items she was giving away after the session had ended and told the audience to get in line for some freebies. Okay, fun! I was so there.

    The woman just ahead of me got to the head of the line and started telling this fabulous author how much she loved her work and how amazing her novels were (yada yada) and this author actually waved her away and said "The line is only for people who want FREE STUFF." The fan timidly stepped aside, looking like she was about to cry. I was so mortified for her I turned and walked away in disgust.

    I was two books into this author's series and from that day I've never read another of her books. Every time I see her name I remember how horribly she treated her devoted fan. It doesn't mean at some point I won't pick up another of her books, but it hasn't happened for two years. Though I still believe she's a major talent, her actions have forever tainted my enjoyment of her work.

  4. I don't expect authors to be perfect people, but I do expect them to be professional. If I discover they crossed a line while in their author persona, then the chances are high they'll turn me off their work.

    I used to have thoughts about re-reading Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME since I enjoyed it many years ago, but knowing what I do now about his beliefs and actions, that won't happen. I'm not even sure I want to see the film adaptation.

    I prefer to spend my hard earned money on authors who are professional and understand the importance of respect.

    >if the writer is physically attractive, are we more likely to read their books?

    God, I hope not. I detest that type of marketing. I heard of one industry magazine that won't feature the photos of certain authors, even if they were popular, because they aren't "beautiful" in the conventional sense.

    I don't care what an author looks like. You write SFR? I'm there!

  5. That's a good comparison regarding Oblivion and Tom Cruise, Laurie. I think that brings up a slightly different point - how it can be hard to separate a very public actor's personality from the role they are playing. It can be pretty distracting, even if they aren't a controversial figure.

    Yep, I can understand why that incident put you off that author. It was a very up close and personal experience - witnessing the author hurt someone who clearly admired her. I'm pretty sure I would feel the same way. It is possible, I suppose, that she was just trying to keep the line moving or something, so people didn't have to wait. But YIKES

  6. I forgot about Card when writing this post, Heather. I also enjoyed ENDER'S GAME. I don't know a lot of details about his particular controversy, and what I do know I didn't learn until recently. But I was SO surprised and dismayed.

    I was half joking about the physical attractiveness aspect, but I do know that publishing industry folk will often take a writer's persona into account in the marketing planning. Not necessarily so much "beauty" as good hygiene, a friendly face, engaging personality, etc. But we are on the same page there - I rarely am even aware what an author looks like unless they are public, or their photo happens to appear in the back cover. (Or they're a friend!)

  7. Fascinating post, Sharon! I do find that I'm curious about the writers as people. I look at their pics and bio pages in the back of the books, wondering what they're like. If I'm a fan, I seek out info about them and seek to meet them at conferences and cons and such. And I do form opinions about them that affect my future reading relationship with them. If I wasn't a writer I'm not sure that would happen, but I can't help but put myself in their shoes and want to know what their lives are like creatively and every other way, so it does happen.

    The great thing about RWA (and my earlier TREK con experiences) is that we have opportunities to meet some of the folks we've been reading and admiring for years up close and personal. Some of them are wonderful, encouraging people. Some of them, as Laurie mentioned, are not. I spoke with a big name futuristic romance writer I'd admired for her tenacity and guts and sheer output for some time and found she was pretty bitter about the whole SFR thing. I thought twice about buying her books again, but I did it anyway. I felt I just had to separate the person from the writer, because the writer was worth reading.

    That would have to be true of the MANY writers whose personal lives were a mess, but whose writing was incandescent. In that case, we just have to say, "They're artists!"

  8. That is a good point about writers taking an interest in writers. I think you are probably right about that except maybe for the really big names. At that level they seem to be viewed more as public property.

    Clearly this is a pretty personal issue, and it also seems to be somewhat situation-specific. I think it is just human nature to be turned off when anyone behaves in a way that hurts others - doesn't really matter what their job is. We don't like rewarding that kind of behavior, and it also taints our enjoyment of the work.

    In most cases for me it seems to come down to the work itself. I am more likely to put down an author for a voice or story I don't connect with than for any other reason. The author herself/himself is more peripheral, though again they may color my feelings about the work.

    In a way I think I view the story as larger than, or outside of, the author somehow. I think you're saying pretty close to the same thing with: "I felt I just had to separate the person from the writer, because the writer was worth reading."

  9. I had never looked up Card's political and religious views until reading this comment thread. Some of how he presents himself is a bit on the nutty side, but at the most basic level of his political views I agree with him. For me it's someone who is the opposite of him that I have trouble reading or watching in a movie/TV show.

    I'm very conservative. So conservative I could not bring myself to vote for McCain or Romney because they were too far left of my own positions. I voted third party in the last two elections.

    That said, my main space opera hero that I've shared via SFRB Presents is bi and spent 15 years in a relationship with a man before he met the heroine. There's a lot of character stuff to explore in there, no matter one's views on the practice of it. I'm a character-driven writer and they come first. I've approached sexuality as a very fluid thing not easily defined, but marriage between a man and a woman is still the ideal in my universe. It's something my hero's race has been denied for 2,000 years.

    I'm not consciously trying to make any statements about my views on marriage or sexuality. But I am having fun subtly exploring the ramifications of being denied marriage in any form and the havoc that wreaks on a society.

    It doesn't bother me to read about gay characters (so long as a homosexual relationship isn't the lead relationship), and obviously doesn't bother me to write about them either. But when it gets militantly shoved in my face, that pisses me off and I won't read that author anymore, or watch that actor.

    Neil Gaiman's Doctor Who episodes are some of my favorites. I've never read anything by him, but after the brilliance of Nightmare in Silver last week I'm about ready to decide which to read first.

  10. > found she was pretty bitter about the whole SFR thing.

    I sympathize with these kinds of authors because they've been carrying the torch for so long and yet their investment hasn't paid off as much as it should.

    Bitterness, of course, is a far cry from being rude or making sexist/racist comments or other hurtful behavior. If someone's behavior is really toxic I worry about that aspect of their life bleeding its way into any stories they write.

    Rachel wrote: "But I am having fun subtly exploring the ramifications of being denied marriage in any form and the havoc that wreaks on a society."

    SFR is well suited to exploring themes of romantic bonds vis a vis the political, so bravo for tackling them.

    But, uh, Card opposes gay marriage. To clarify, because you explore denial of marriage "in any form" is that a point where you're *not* in agreement with his political views?

    I want to make sure I'm understanding correctly since all we can communicate with are words on a screen. :)

  11. Heather: I am opposed to gay marriage, because to me the definition of marriage is taking two opposites and making them one. I do live in a state where we chose to constitutionally define marriage as one man and one woman and I voted for the amendment. It's something each state should be allowed to decide for itself. The feds have no business being involved. I don't think it's been challenged in court either, unlike some other states. Louisiana gets ignored a lot on that front and we're perfectly happy that way.

    I'm not opposed to legal protections for same-sex partners though. They have the right to those and it's not fair to deny them. Even with traditionally married couples with all the "privacy" laws it's very difficult to get things done if one spouse is deathly ill, without powers of attorney and all that.

    I also recognize it's a losing battle. Just don't shove it in my face and use it to bludgeon me to death and we're cool. I have quite a few gay friends who support same-sex marriage and it doesn't bother me. Far as I know my views don't bother them either, because none of us engage in bashing over the head/shoving it in your face.

    My denial of marriage in any form is explored solely within the context of my alien race. They're my main characters and I don't have any human-human romantic relationships taking center stage. I honestly don't know if any of my human cultures allow same-sex marriage. It's not something that's important to the story arc. It's about my alien culture getting their home world back and rebuilding their society.

    I'm not sure what all is going to happen in the current WIP. First hero's male lover is back in his life and hero is happily married to a woman he loves with all his heart. He's also the king. But there are members of the government who are trying to use his past against him. I have no plans to address it explicitly, but I'm thinking because of things that have been done to my aliens they won't allow same-sex marriage in their culture. Those who engage in same-sex relationships usually do it with humans and they're viewed as traitors to their people.

    I'm much more interested in the relationship dynamics than the politics, when it comes to this subject. I have multiple characters in this universe who have been involved in same-sex relationships, by their own choice and against their will. I'm dealing with both sides of this coin in the current WIP.

    If my family and church knew what all I'm writing about in my space opera they'd be flabbergasted. With a bunch of them not in a good way!

  12. Hi Rachel - Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Feeling philosophically opposed to same-sex marriage while remaining open about sexuality (referring here to your description of your writing). gives you quite an interesting perspective!

    Regarding Neil Gaiman, in addition to NEVERWHERE, a while back I read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and really enjoyed that. I recently listened to part of the audio series of NEVERWHERE, and it was excellent. I love both James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, who star in the series. Unfortunately I didn't listen fast enough - it is no longer available to stream! :(

  13. Sharon, I'm impossible to pigeonhole and I'm quite proud of it.

    Audio series with Cumberbatch in it? May have to track that down. I could listen to that man read a phone book. Love him.

  14. I think if on meeting Anne McCaffrey for the first time years ago that if she'd behaved like Laurie's author, I may never have touched one of her books again. I try not to let personal stuff affect my likes, but sometimes it's inevitable. I've never been keen on Gaiman's work, aside from loving Neverwhere. After learning that he thinks pirating of books is a good thing, I won't be buying anything else.
    The problem is we're all more visible because of the internet, and authors are encouraged to connect as part of their marketing. So bad behaviour *is* going to reflect on their sales to some degree. The recent controversy over Howey won't stop me reading his book - which I got recently - but then I won it. I wasn't in any rush to go out and buy it regardless. However, I recently deleted all my albums for a band I loved after the lead singer was arrested for child pornography. Some things are unforgiveable.

  15. Oh, and re Tom Cruise in Oblivion. It has nothing to do with his beliefs and general weirdness. I haven't liked him as an actor since my teen friends were swooning over him in Top Gun. I always hated to follow the crowd. :P

  16. Based on that London Book Fair Speech it sounds to me like Gaiman believes that the piracy thing is overblown, and the benefits of exposure outweigh the drawbacks. I know there are other authors who feel this way. Also an author friend was telling me about some other famous author (can't remember name!) who put up his book on a free-download site, along with a link to purchase it legitimately, and found that most people actually chose the "buy" link.

    Anyhow, since we write in a genre with traditionally modest sales, I do know every one of those free downloads feels painful. Certainly it is easier for big-name authors to say the exposure is worth it.

    This sounds like a good blog post! :)

  17. @ Rachel Thanks for clarifying.

    >With a bunch of them not in a good way!

    I hear you. Not everyone will get what you're trying to do, but those folks aren't the target audience anyway.

  18. >after the lead singer was arrested

    Ugh, what an awful situation. Sorry to hear that.


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