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?