That Readers vs. Writers Thing on Strange Horizons (or, Some Disconnected Nonsense From Me)

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I’m sure you’ve all heard about this Strange Horizons column already.  If not, go read it, then come back and read what I have to say (or don’t…up to you).  As I pointed out by way of a link-laden question the other day, I really don’t understand what the frak is going on in the SF/F community right now.  It’s like a whole group of fans, writers, and bloggers decided they’d all take crazy pills as part of a New Year’s resolution, and unlike every other resolution (to lose weight, to drink less, to tell your significant other that you’ve fathered (or mothered) nine children with an alien from Mars), they seem to have actually gone through with it.  And the crazy really hit the fan this month.

So here are some random thoughts about everything, written as such to avoid treading too far onto ground so many others have already covered:
Authors Commenting on Blogs
Honestly, I’ve never had an issue with authors commenting on this blog, though I haven’t stated as such before.  But I’ve also never had (at least, in recent memory) one of those experiences where an author shows up and has a hissy fit in my own space.  If authors feel inclined to post here, they are free to do so (encouraged, even), but under the following caveats:

  1. You understand that you do not control interpretation; it is the domain of readers.
  2. You avoid being an asshole.
(Note:  this only applies to posts about the author or the author’s work, of course; outside of such posts, the only rule I have is “don’t be an asshole,” but that applies to everyone, not just authors.)
Do I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with an author posting in spaces where his/her work is being discussed?  No.  I also don’t think it’s a terribly good idea, in most cases.  It all comes down to how you engage, really, and I’m not the type of person to tell someone the proper method for engaging in such scenarios.  I can only tell you what not to do (see one of the sections below).
The Big Deal?
Maybe it’s just me, but I never interpreted what Renay said as absolutist.  Even if what she said was absolutist in form (there are some lines here or there in the comments that give that impression), it doesn’t follow that she’s necessarily right (obviously, she and I don’t agree on this point) and it doesn’t mean you’re somehow beholden to what she says authors should do.  After all, Renay is just a reader and a fan (a great reader and fan, I might add); she’s not God.  The idea that her words should be viewed as gospel seems anathema to the concept of a fan writer, or a semi-pro zine featuring articles by fans.
So when the reaction to the whole scenario devolved into name-calling (yous bullies and idiotas!), misdirection, merry-go-round arguments, and, eventually, threats of sexual assault against Renay and others, I couldn’t help feeling a bit lost.  What exactly did these folks say to justify such behavior (in the minds of people who think such behavior could be justified, of course)?
In other words:  WTF?
The lesson writers and readers should have taken from the whole thing seemed obvious to me:  some people are uncomfortable talking with authors about their work on their own blogs, and those that are comfortable are probably pretty obvious about it (see the above section).  And, well, the point Renay tried to make (and what others also tried to point out in the comments sections at various places) got completely lost.  It’s not about whether an author is allowed to comment somewhere, but whether doing so is a good idea.  And there were a number of interesting reasons for why authors shouldn’t:
  • Authors can stifle honest, open discussion (public blogs provide the illusion of this; our culture is so voyeuristic, that all one really needs is the appearance of privacy, since all of us know, on some level, that we’re always being watched…)
  • Authors can sometimes impose their interpretation of their own work onto the reader, which can present a conflict between reader and writer (namely, a conflict about the appropriate interpretation).  This can also stifle discussion.
  • Authors can sometimes be assholes.  Really big assholes.
I’ll cover that last one in the next section.
Basically, in the relationship between “reader” and “author,” the positions are not equal — at least, not in the minds of some folks (their perspectives are valid).  While I understand Ben Aaronovitch’s contention that “he’s just some guy who writes books,” I think he (and I) sometimes forget that in the universe of books, authors are our celebrities.  I’m sure a lot of movie stars would love to get ignored like the rest of us in their everyday lives, but we all know that won’t happen.  They’ve reached a different plane of existence(?) that, however artificial, puts the movie star above the movie viewer.  The same thing happens with authors.
In fact, I still struggle with this myself.  I’ve admitted before (here or on The Skiffy and Fanty Show) that I sometimes have a hard time talking to authors in person.  This is mostly true for authors whose work I’ve been following for a while.  I get nervous.  Yes, they are all “just people” like me, but they are also the folks who have made things I love.  They are Joss Whedons in a book world.  While that’s changed a lot in the last few years (mostly by actually interacting with authors I admire), I still understand that there are sometimes unequal relationships.
That’s not the way it has to be, of course, but it’s crucial to understand that for some readers, the hierarchy exists, even if only on a psychological level.  Some of us will move beyond it, as I’ve worked to do over the past few years, but others may choose to keep the distance for their own reasons.
Appearances Are Weird on the Internets
Here’s the thing:  there’s really no easy way to know who someone is based on what they write on the Internet, with some exception.  We can probably figure out who Orson Scott Card is as a person based on the things he writes in his op-eds and what not, but that doesn’t really tell us much about how he behaves in public, just what he thinks inside his head and what he feels comfortable telling us (which, weirdly enough, seems pretty open).
Are Ben Aaronovitch, Gavin Pugh, Jonathan McCalmont, the folks at Booksmugglers, etc. assholes?  I have no idea (here, I’m going off the idea peddled around on Twitter that all of these folks have acted poorly; this is not my personal judgment).  I don’t know any of them personally (as in, I haven’t met them in person).  Maybe they’re all giant buttfaces in real life.  Maybe they’re all soft spoken and like hugs and green tea with lemon.  I don’t know because I don’t know them, and neither do most of you.  (For the record:  I’m pretty sure they’re not all buttfaces in real life, but that’s based on intuition, not hard evidence — this is a fan blog, not a bloody scientific study.)
What does that mean?  Well, I can only judge them based on what they say, and sometimes what these folks say ruffles feathers (mine, yours, someone else’s).  And in the comments sections on Renay’s article and elsewhere, it seemed to me that some of these folks were acting rather, well, childish.  Douchey, even.  Part of this probably has to do with the fact that their feathers got ruffled too (over what I see as “not a big deal,” to be honest), and, as we all know, when the feathers get ruffled, people tend to act in ways that aren’t conducive to civil conversation.  That became clear to me in the comments section on Renay’s article:  things quickly devolved into accusations, merry-go-round argumentation, and so on, such that whatever useful arguments were being made seemed to fall on deaf ears…for some.
All of this is about perception.  It doesn’t really matter whether these folks are jerkfaces; to certain parties, they will seem as such regardless of the reality.  And when that perception is catalyzed (i.e., group A has decided that group B are assholes, and that’s that), it further fuels the existing fire.  In cases like this, I don’t see the point in fueling the fire, because the content of the argument never seemed to match the vehement opposition that followed.  It almost felt like someone had said authors should be shot in the face for commenting…only that didn’t happen in the real world.
The point is this:  it all comes down to perception, and perception comprises a huge portion of the problem that Renay (and others) tried to identify.  When authors enter certain spaces, sometimes (read:  not always) their involvement is perceived as stifling, negative, assholish, etc.  That’s just the reality of perception.  And while you can disagree with any perception you might encounter, that doesn’t make it invalid, nor does that naturally open up the opportunity to correct said perception, especially when trying to do so will likely make things much, much worse — discretion is advised.  Sometimes you can challenge a perception, but I think that depends a great deal on sound judgement.  In the case of authors responding to reviews and critiques, I tend to think the better option is to say nothing at all unless you have thought long and hard about the best way to approach the matter.  It’s entirely reasonable for an author to engage reviewers without pissing on the parade; it just doesn’t seem to happen very often.
And I think I’ll just leave it at that.  The comments are yours.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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