On Author Responsibility

Note: today’s post is more “discussion” than “essay”, but I haven’t found a place for good discussion yet, so I’m here blabbing instead. 

Months ago now, a reasonably successful fantasy author was accused of (and apologised for) some instances of abuse/manipulation/other bad behaviour.  As a result, he lost readers/followers, sales and other opportunities (some publishers dropped him, some retailers stopped selling his works, etc).

This is something that seems to be happening more and more frequently, possibly because people are more aware of/active against abuse, and/or because authors are increasingly more in the public eye.  Simply put: authors’ behaviour affects the reception of their work, and to become an author is now akin to becoming a celebrity or a politician: people care about what you say, what you do and especially about your scandals.

Why and how much?  Is it right or fair?  Is it possible to avoid?  Let’s discuss!

Authors as Authority

Let’s start by deciding what separates an “author” from a “regular person” – if anything – because there’s an important argument here that I want to get out of the way:

Some might say that authors are regular people, and that their personal lives and opinions shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than we’d take those of a stranger – that is, we should ignore them.  Everyone is entitled to an opinion and a private life, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on their work.  And I’m with that – to an extent.

Counterpoints:

  1. By publishing a book, an author gains a sort of authority (see what I did there), even if it’s only in terms of their book’s contents: non-fiction writers know their subject; fiction writers know their stories.  People tend to pay more attention to authority than they might pay to “random strangers”.  They tend to respect the opinions of authority figures; they might even see these people as role models.
  2. By submitting any work for public consumption, anyone – even non-authors – offer up their lives and opinions for analysis.  This is true, for example, of anyone who uses Twitter.  A public post can’t be part of a person’s “private life”.
  3. And speaking of “anyone”: if it can be argued that we should take authors’ opinions, actions and statements as un/seriously as those of anyone else… can’t it also be argued that we should hold everyone to a reasonable standard of behaviour?  Shouldn’t we be allowed to expect respect, kindness, intelligence, integrity – and more – of strangers?

Let’s proceed assuming that

  1. publishing a book = authority/power/credibility/influence
  2. making public statements = accepting the possibility of a public reaction
  3. authors = people, and we shouldn’t just accept that people are assholes

Reader Expectations

Authors’ actions and statements – even things as casual as tweets – are compared to the type of person their readers expect them to be.  But why do readers have expectations of authors at all – and what are they?

Expectations Based on Content

Readers might expect certain author behaviour based on their books’ content.  Obviously, most people would expect that the writer of a book about taxes would know about taxes; less obviously, we might also have expectations of fiction writers.

Most people write (to varying extents) their own experiences – we’re often told to “write what we know” – so it makes sense to expect that what’s on the page is also what’s in the writer’s heart.  This is, after all, what they wanted to write; these are the themes they wanted to study.

For example, even though JK Rowling, GRR Martin and Neil Gaiman all write fantasy, their works have very different tones, themes and content, and I don’t think many people would expect them to have the same outlook/opinion about real-life topics.

Expectations Based on Genre, Category and Audience

Similarly, it makes sense to expect that authors might behave differently based on the type of book they normally write, and the type of reader they usually have.  An author who typically writes gun-toting assassin stories will probably have different things to say than an author who writes historical romance.  We’d have different expectations of an author who writes for children than of one who writes for adults – perhaps especially with respect to their public appearances and statements.

For example, if a children’s author started talking about kink on Twitter, most people would probably find that shocking and unacceptable.  If the author of a series of erotic books started talking about kink on Twitter… that’s probably their normal day.

To really highlight the idea that we have different expectations based on content: imagine that these two authors are pseudonyms for the same person – they really have the same opinion about everything, but it would be important to tailor what they say for their respective public audiences.

Expectations Based on Publisher, Source or Premise

There are plenty of writers with stories that exist outside of books.  For example, authors might publish works in anthologies or magazines.  Usually, anthologies and magazines have themes, and writing for that theme – regardless of what a specific story is about – can influence how an author is perceived.

For example, an author writing for a magazine that publishes and champions LGBTQIA people and content should probably not be homophobic.  An author who writes stories themed around “strong women” should probably not be sexist.  While neither of those things is necessarily true, they are expectations – of both the reader and, in many cases, the publisher.

What happens when these expectations are defied?

Reactions & Repercussions

As noted in the intro, disappointing fans with unexpected/bad behaviour can have negative repercussions on an author’s career:

  • Loss of sales: retailers may choose not to stock or promote the author’s product, and potential customers may choose not to purchase/support
  • Loss of fans/followers: for many authors, this can also equate to a loss of sales.  Many sales depend on social media and/or word of mouth, and fewer people talking about a product usually means fewer sales.  It could mean the end of projects that require public funding, such as crowdfunded writing.
  • Damaged reputation: this could affect existing sales as well as the sale of future works – either to the customer directly or to other publishers/agents.

The seriousness of the backlash can depend on a lot of factors, including the original offense as well as the “status” of the author.  Rowling is criticized fairly frequently – but she’s so successful and generally so loved/respected that she can recover.  A publisher is very unlikely to turn her away.

However, for mid-level or self-published authors, a public gaffe could be a real blow to their career.  Publishers and agents are willing to drop mid-level or new authors who bring in bad press, or who aren’t financially successful because of something they’ve done or said.

So… assuming we are not Rowling, how can we recover from such a mistake, or avoid making it in the first place?

Recovery and Prevention

Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone will say (or has said!) something that people won’t like.  So what can we do about it?

Apologise: an apology is usually bests; it shows that the author is aware and taking responsibility for their mistake.  However, depending on the offense/accusation in question, issuing an apology may imply guilt (even if that isn’t the case).  Apologies can also feel very false when issued following backlash: everyone knows you’re not really sorry when your mom demands that you apologise.

Personally, I always find that apologies go best with some proof change or intended change.  If the offense was a legitimate mistake, how will that be avoided in future?  If the offense was because of the author’s genuine personality… maybe that author has some work to do.

Alternatively, Don’t Apologise: obviously, this can make anyone look bad; however, in some (very specific) cases, it might be the right choice.

Don’t Make Mistakes: that’s right!  There are a few things authors can do to avoid disappointing their fans and thereby avoid having to deal with the aftermath!  Examples include using a pseudonym, separating public and private “accounts”, or choosing not to engage with fans at all (like the authors of the Before Times).  If a new or emerging author has engaged in activity or made statements that would disappoint future fans, it might be good to do some management before any major publications.

And, of course, it’s possible to just be a good human in the first place.

Me and You

A large part of my personality is owed to the books I read as a child, all of which were fantasy, and I think that fantasy writers are increasingly in danger of a public gaffe.  Fantasy has become very popular in recent years (even fantasy “haters” love A Game of Thrones), and there’s so much overlap now with related media and cultures/fandoms (e.g. video games) that fantasy authors are known in wider circles. Furthermore, fantasy often showcases “good vs evil”, and I think readers expect that fantasy authors adhere to the same moral code as the “good guys” they write about.

That isn’t always the case.

Does it matter if the people whose books forged me are terrible?  Probably not now, but what if I’d learned about those authors’ shortcomings as a child?  What if I’d been able to follow them on Twitter?  I remember sending a fan letter once, and what I got back was stickers and swag and a nice form letter.  But who knows what response I might have received online or in person?

And what does that mean for me as a writer?

Authors are humans, not robots.  At this point in my writing “career” I can’t be totally sure who might read my books, who might read my tweets and who might be disappointed.  I’ve definitely said things online that some people would find inappropriate – I have past blog entries that even I feel differently about now.

Life is a learning experience and people can’t be faulted for changing – but we can be faulted for ignorance and cruelty, for not thinking twice about what we do or say, and for not owning our mistakes.  We can be faulted for saying something terrible when we should have kept quiet.

Do you, as a writer, think about your public behaviour (online or in person)? Most writers think about their audience, but do you think about the audience of your social media?  Do you consider yourself a role model?  Do you (intend to) engage with readers?

Do you, as a consumer, consider the actions and behaviour of the authors whose books you purchase?  Artists?  Would you make a decision to buy/not buy something based on the creator’s public identity?

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