Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The writer's a jerk. Who cares?

Sandra Parshall

I don’t get to use the word bemused often, but I’ll seize the opportunity to use it today: I am bemused when I hear a reader say something like, “I’ve always loved his books, but since I found out what a jerk he is, I refuse to read anything else he writes.”

What does one thing have to do with the other?

Thanks to the internet, big conferences, and public appearances, writers are more visible to readers now than ever before. If you’re a jerk, readers will know about it sooner or later. Get drunk at a conference and it will be the talk of the internet for weeks. Insult a bookseller and you will never live it down. Speak in withering terms of the mystery genre and thousands of fans as well as crime fiction authors will sharpen their knives. And vow never to read another word you publish.

Why aren’t other artists held to the same standards of behavior as writers? If we treated actors this way, nobody would ever watch a movie or TV show again. There actually was a time when “bad” behavior seriously damaged an actor’s career, but audiences these days seem able to separate the performance from the personal life of the performer, and periods of censure – if they exist at all – are quickly over.

When a reader says never again, though, she’s likely to mean it. An author whose personal behavior offends readers runs a serious risk of losing them forever. Why? Is it because reading is an intimate experience? A writer’s words crawl directly into our minds and hearts. When we read, we’re alone with the words and the characters, and for a while we’re living in the world the author created. Observing or hearing about a writer’s flawed behavior seems to ruin the reading experience for some people.

I feel fortunate that I can enjoy books without being distracted by what I know about the author’s personality. I realize people are complex, and an author’s work may come from a level much deeper than the surface she or he presents to the world. Even a jerk may produce a sublime book. I’m sometimes surprised by the qualities readers see in my own novels, because I’m not always conscious of those things while I’m writing. Yet I am aware that the person who writes the books isn’t the same person you’ll meet at any public event.

I believe a lot of writers have dual natures. I make allowances for that when I hear that a certain writer is a snob, an obnoxious bore, a microphone hog on panels. If I enjoy the author’s books, the writer will have to slaughter my cats to dissuade me from reading them. (I do have limits.)

How do you react when you hear about a favorite writer behaving badly? Have you ever stopped reading books you loved just because you disliked the author as a person?


Dru said...

Luckily I haven't heard too many bad things about authors that I enjoy for that to happen yet.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think we have to remember there's a blurry line between appearing standoffish and being mortally shy. I'd give any author the benefit of the doubt, unless I personally witness him or her drunk and groping the bar patrons.

Some naive and hopeful part of me wants to believe that a truly lousy person couldn't write believable characters. Maybe a thriller. I don't read many thrillers.

Jessie Crockett said...

I think it works the other way as well. When I am charmed by a writer appearing at a conference I am inclined to give his or her books a try even if their genre is not usually one I enjoy. I feel as though they must be as likable on paper. That isn't always the case but I have found some great new authors that way.

caryn said...

peabodyYes I have stopped reading an author I previously enjoyed when she stood at a booksigning and basically made fun of the people who read her silly books. What she said was that she wrote fiction for serious readers and her cute little mystery series for mass appeal to the less discerning support herself. It was a signing for a nonfiction work, but I'll bet half of the audience at least were her mystery fans.

I've also stopped buying, but not reading, an entire group of authors who through their blog posts belittled readers who happened to have a different view from them on various politicaland social issues-and not just once either. An author can act or think whatever he/she wants, said author just don't look down on my reading tastes or ridicule my ideas and expect me to keep supporting them. There are plenty of other books and authors to choose from.

Sandra Parshall said...

Insulting fans is probably the most self-destructive thing a writer can do, and I certainly understand why readers would refuse to buy books by an author who does that.

Helen Ginger said...

I can't remember dropping an author from my "buy" list because of their personality. That's not to say I would never do so. I do try to keep things separate, though.

Pauline Alldred said...

I would've said I'm interested in the writing first and not the person. However, I can't understand a writer making fun of her fans. The writer has to have some real hang-up.

There's always the possibility of a jery writer improving.

Terry Shames said...

I read a book that was raved about, but which I found distasteful. Met the author and she was a complete jerk, self-absorbed and dismissive--never bothered to read her again.

However, if I love a book, I don't really care much what the author is like. As Sheila said, sometimes the writer is just shy.

And finally, there is that wonderful thing when you read a book you like, meet the author and he or she is warm and receptive,and you can't wait to read the next one.

Joni said...

There is one writer who was very, very rude to a family member of mine, in front of several witnesses (all of whom were appalled). I quit reading this author's books, and some of my friends did, too. The author has since been redeemed a bit (and really is not an ugly person, maybe was just having a bad day), but it's hard to let go of what happened a few years back.

jenny milchman said...

I have to admit, I've encountered one author a few times whose self-pride (let's call it) is hard to get by. The thing is, I feel it taints this person's work, so it's not simply a question of compartmentalizing content from behavior. Maybe the difference is that actors are playing a role decidedly not themselves, while writers often let of some of themselves slip into their writing?

Interesting question!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sometimes it's hard to separate the writer from the book, I think. I usually can put negative feelings about authors aside, though. I do have a harder time with misbehaving movie stars--I don't enjoy watching their movies as much. But then, with a movie, we're *seeing* them, instead of just reading their words.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I have never stopped reading an author because of bad behavior -- I'm not aware of any jerkiness by the writers I read regularly. But I certainly have been bothered enough by excessive self-promotion to put several writers on a mental "do not read" list. I wonder if readers who are not also writers encounter this and react the same way.

Sandra Parshall said...

Someone on Facebook mentioned Hemingway as a writer who behaved badly, but he said it didn't spoil Hemingway's work for him. That made me think of Leo Tolstoy, who by all accounts was a dreadful husband, cruel to his wife in many ways. Yet he wrote with great insight and sensitivity about women, love, and relationships. I love the writer but don't think I would have liked the man at all.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Ah, yes, Hemingway and Tolstoy. DH Lawrence wasn't particularly charming, either. And Ezra Pound was an outright bigot. I was thinking about contemporary, active writers. But even in those cases, their personal reputations are distinct in my mind from their literary reputations, and I can read the work without thinking about the men themselves.

Donis Casey said...

This puts me in mind of the movie "Amadeus." Artists of all ilks are like everyone else. Some are lovely people and some are jerks. It may not be 'just', but having great talent doesn't mean you're a good person. Look at Richard Wagner!

Timothy Hallinanw said...

It amazes me, actually, how few real jerks there are among mystery and thriller writers. As a vocation, we have a very low jerk quotient.

I had a bookstore owner whom I know well tell me about a BIG writer who walked into his shop, almost 20 minutes late for a signing, talking on her cell phone. She stopped in the doorway, looked around and said, into the phone, "You won't believe how many F**king people are here. I'll have to call you back." She then proceeded to answer calls throughout the event until the bookstore owner called a halt and asked her to leave, telling the customers that the writer was no longer welcome in his store.

But that's a unique case, and her characters have grown deeply dislikeable anyway.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

There are a couple of authors I've quit reading because of their attitudes. There are plenty of other books to read. I do have friends who won't go see movies with some actors in them because of things they know about the actor.

Most authors I've met have been so super nice that I really don't feel like I have to read the books by those who aren't. Can't read everything I want to anyway.


KathyW said...

I haven't stopped reading someone whose work I liked because of bad comments. But I have encountered a couple of authors whose books did not appeal to me and their personalities simply confirmed my decision to avoid them. Somehow I'd think an author's attitudes have to come through.

Margaret Koch said...

There's always the chance that the writer is just a social klutz, unaware that they've caused problems by their behavior. I'd put many cases of rudeness into that category and be very forgiving. Shy people are often thought rude.
Diva behavior is something else, though -- especially when it's obvious that the diva regards people as "lesser-thans". Peasants, even.
When I see someone feeding their own ego at the expense of others, though,I yearn for justice...maybe silly justice like a pratfall, nothing serious.

Susanne alleyn said...

I might still read a book by an author I felt was a jerk, diva, had no respect for the readers/fans, whatever...but I most certainly would not buy that author's books and take part in financially supporting him or her, and I would probably not recommend the author to others who might spend money! Reading a used or borrowed copy is something else again. Unless the work starts to reflect the author's nasty personality, the work IS a separate entity and I'll treat it as such.

bo parker said...

There are three authors that I will not read every again. The first one was hot as a two-dollar pistol some 20 years ago. He was invited as the guest of honor at a formal naval function. He arrive late, insulted everyone, refused to sign books, and left early. Interestingly enough, this author has disappeared from the scene.
The second author wrote a book that belittled not only a section of the state, but much of the state government's law enforcement community. Local bookstores refused to carry the book, and the author moved to another state.
Last, an author was building a large following as a writer of mysteries. This author then announced that she no longer wrote genre fiction, but literature. Anyone who then referred to her as a mystery writer received a verbal assault. Her attempts at "literature' have proven to be dismal failures, and the word is that she may return to her roots.
The writer/reader relationship is much different from that of an actor/movie viewer. If there was as much interaction about the country between actors and viewers, I suspect the latter would view actors with a more critical eye.

Sandra Parshall said...

Susanne, you've pointed out the perfect solution: Read it but don't buy it.

Tim, what a story! I've heard a few of the same sort, but I've also heard stories about writers who stayed long after the scheduled time at a bookstore so that every person who bought a book could get it signed. On the whole I think crime fiction writers are wonderful, generous people. Not everyone has a bubbly, outgoing personality, and it's easy to mistake shyness for arrogance until you get to know the real person underneath.

Julia Buckley said...

I never would have given this a thought before I attended mystery conferences; but now that I've been able to put many names with faces (and attitudes), I find I actually am reluctant to buy the books of people I find repugnant.

I agree that there are few of these in the mystery community, but I've met one or two, and then it somehow feels like I'm rewarding their bad behavior if I buy a book.

As Elizabeth points out, it's hard to separate the negative feelings from the buying or reading.

And Timothy, I'm guessing I know who your "big name author" is, because my small store owner has a very similar story.

Ellen Byerrum said...

Lots of food for thought here, Sandra. As a writer I think you always have to be on your toes, whether you're at a mystery conference or even in line at a store. You never know who you might meet and impress or not. It is tough because you might be having a bad day.

The one writer whose books I won't buy was at a mystery conference acting as the moderator of a panel. But he was so much more. Taking the microphone in hand, not only did he hog the mike and act like he was a star comedian, he very deliberately shut out the lone woman writer on the panel, barely allowing her to talk, then cutting her off. It made an impression on a lot of us in the audience. His brand new hardback was one of those included in the book bags. After the panel, I walked past a trash can. It was full of his books.

Morgan Mandel said...

This happens often with movie stars, and sometimes I can separate their personal lives if they're really good actors.

As far as authors, I wouldn't pick up the book in the first place if I didn't care for the author's personality.

Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

What fun comments! And I agree - Tim, I want to buy books from that bookstore based on principle!

I opt for the library issues for a few authors because of their arrogance, but if the writing is good, why cheat myself?

And this is a bit of the flip side, but I stopped buying one BIG suspense writer when he started mailing it in and using "co-authors" to do his work, putting their names in insultingly small type font. After I stopped reading his dreadful dreck, I read about his outsized ego and felt even better.

I've always liked Dennis Lehane's work, but since meeting him at a conference, I can now say that I would take a bullet for him. He's a superb fellow.

Alyx Morgan said...

I have very little desire to meet people whose work I admire, because I realize they're human & may not live up to whatever standards my opinion of their writing has created.

My love of Sherlock Holmes cured me of that. When I first learned that he was a drug addict, it hit me hard that my mystery-solving-via-logic idol wasn't as perfect as he seemed. There have been others whose music I adore, but whose personalities leave MUCH to be desired.

But, because we all have good & bad within us, I think it's good to be able to separate the person from the art s/he produces.

Nice post, Sandra.