This was first printed in the Globe & Mail, March 6, 2009.
A few recent online incidents regarding authors and readers on the Web are just too revealing to pass up a chance to consider them.
By way of a heads-up or disclaimer, I’m online myself. There’s an authorized site based on my work, and I show up there at times to give news or contribute a bit to discussions. When I am on a book tour, I use the site to keep a journal from the road. I also make puns.
George R.R. Martin is the hugely successful purveyor of an ongoing, seven-volume fantasy series called A Song of Ice and Fire. Four books are done. The first three came quickly, then there was a five-year wait for the fourth. The first indicated publication date for the fifth instalment, fiercely awaited, was 2006. That has rather obviously been missed: Martin is still writing it. The natives are restless.
How restless? Well, on his blog, cutely called Not a Blog, Martin fired back two weeks ago at what he called “a rising tide of venom” about how late he is. Seems some of his loyal and devoted readers are savagely attacking him for taking holidays, for watching football in the fall, for attending conventions, doing workshops, editing a volume of short stories, even for being “60 years old and fat” (I’m quoting here, trust me) – the implication being he might drop dead before fulfilling his obligation to do nothing else but finish the damned series.
It is at least worth debating whether an author engaged in a multivolume work that readers have bought into has some sort of implied contract with his readers to conduct his life in such as way as to ensure the book gets done. But surely readers who insist that means “do nothing else” are betraying a pretty shaky sense of how the creative process works, especially when spread over what might be two decades and more.
Martin wasn’t happy. “Maybe it’s okay if I take a leak once in a while?” he wrote. His blog response was accompanied by a flashing “angry” icon face.
It is all too easy for another writer to sympathize, and I do, hugely, but I can’t help but note that the only reason readers know about holidays and football games (and his favourite team) is that Martin has told them. On his blog.
There’s a twinned story, e-mailed to me the same day I was alerted to Martin’s flashing-angry-post. A younger writer, fellow named Patrick Rothfuss, made a splash two years ago in launching his own multivolume saga and he is (wait for it) way late, apparently, with volume two. Rothfuss, younger, perhaps more anxious, more inclined to appease a still-emerging fan base, nonetheless blogs – complete with cartoons – about the kind of aggressive e-mails he’s getting: “your just as bad as martin i cant believe i wasted my time on your shitty book.” (Enraged fans often pass on punctuation and Spell Check; it is a well-documented fact.)
Young Rothfuss blogs that he’s, well, young. That he’s new to all this, that his life has been turned upside down by success. He tells us he has bought a house, a car, paid down his credit cards, and he needs to get his bearings back. He pleads for indulgence. His book is really long, he says. He also includes on his blog a Valentine’s post to and about his girlfriend, discussing, among other things, how her sexiness is “like the radiation from a nuclear bomb” when she “gets naked.” Could any young author then hurry back to a difficult 300,000-word book? Really?
This leads me to the flip-side point here again, because I am really not just being cheeky about Rothfuss’s blogging; there’s an issue here. These days, writers invite personal involvement and intensity from their readers. In direct proportion to the way in which they share their personalities (or for-consumption personalities), their everyday lives, their football teams and word counts, their partners and children and cats, it encourages in readers a sense of personal connection and access, and thus an entitlement to comment, complain, recommend cat food, feel betrayed, shriek invective, issue demands: “George, lose weight, dammit!”
Disturbing as this is, in some ways, I find it difficult to come down hard on readers of a writer who has steadily made him or herself “available” to them. A feeling of being part of an inner circle, or even the writing process, has to flow from that. Indeed, Rothfuss ends his rueful musings on how painful it is to have so many people so mad at him by dangling readers a carrot: Seems he’ll hold a lottery and the winner … gets his or her name plugged into the next book! In other words, he really is a nice guy (by all accounts, he really is). Don’t bite him.
Sometimes, in fact, the biting goes the other way, the fan base functioning as a mobile attack force for the author. When Stephen King rashly opined that Stephenie Meyer (Twilight etc., etc.) was a very bad writer, one of her readers, interviewed by the press, threatened to organize fans to bombard King’s e-mail account with hate mail. (It could have been worse, I suppose.) Another reader suggested King’s motivation was pure jealousy: because he wasn’t as handsome as Meyer’s vampire protagonist. And no, I am not making that up.
Meyer, pretty clearly, had nothing whatsoever to do with this. But loyal fans can be used, rallied to support. Tess Gerritsen, a popular writer of medical thrillers, blogged her dismay at a critical review from a fellow named David Pitt. She declared that he had “slimed” her and posted extracts from a number of good reviews to “make myself feel better.” (The offending review can be seen, and judged as to slime factor, on amazon.com.) Reader comments on Gerritsen’s own site were entirely predictable, including, “We don’t care what anyone else says. We all love you,” and, “Apparently David Pitt’s middle name, which he doesn’t use in public for some reason, is SweatyArm.” Last I checked (online, of course) reviewer Pitt has not yet scored an endorsement deal with Right Guard despite this slam-dunk set-up.
A bigger bestseller, Patricia Cornwell, was even more direct. She blogged her unhappiness that so many amazon.com reader reviews of her newest book were negative. She suggested there was a conspiracy “by someone or a group of someones” (I’m really quoting here) and she encouraged her loyal readers to get out and balance things: “Right now I need my supporters. I am not asking you to write anything you do not mean. But why should hateful people be the only ones heard?” The blog then provided instructions how to register at amazon.com, how to post reviews, even how to label as “unhelpful” the negative ones.
The game is obviously changing dramatically.
Writers are on shaky ground if they want to be upset by readers feeling angry and posting their anger when authors are widely inviting that sense of pseudo-intimacy and intensity – and sometimes even employing their reader base as a weapon. “Release the fans!” seems to be the phrase that applies.
So, should young writers stay out of the blogging biz? Some will, but in general, I don’t think it is going to happen. The process is addictive, it offers lots of warm-and-fuzzy, and it is embedded by now in the culture. There is an expectation that writers will be available.
There’s another aspect. Imagine a young novelist querying his or her publisher’s marketing director: “So, what are the marketing plans for my book? What’s the, well, campaign going to focus on?” That marketing director (or junior publicist, more likely) is going to laugh. They are eventually going to recover from laughing and say, “Are you kidding me? With today’s budgets? Go blog! Get out there and blog yourself to flog your book!”
And they will. We are all online, to one degree or another, varying mainly in how much privacy we want to preserve, how much space between ourselves and our work, and between ourselves and our public. The dynam
ic between authors and readers is fundamentally altered by all of this. George Martin may end up having to post his daily workouts, down to calories burned, weights lifted, pulse rates before and after. With video, to prove it. It has probably been suggested to him already.
© Guy Gavriel Kay