Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Judging a Book by Its Author

Sandra Parshall

“I’ve always loved her books, but I’ll never buy another one.”

“I’ll never read anything he writes again as long as I live.”

What did the writers do that so fatally alienated their readers?

They posted personal opinions on Facebook.

If you’re not a writer, you probably don’t realize that many authors are perplexed by and even a little scared of social media. We talk a lot, on our closed listserves, about the danger of posting something online that readers won’t like. If we offer anything other than the written equivalent of a pretty bouquet, we can land ourselves in trouble.

In this connected age, the quality of our fiction seems to matter far less than what readers think of us personally. We are learning just how fickle some readers can be. Many aren’t shy about telling us that the world is full of writers and books; we are nothing special, and if we offend them, they can replace us and read somebody else’s work.

Writers frequently instruct each other on how to behave online. The list of verboten topics is endless.

Do not give any hint of your political leanings. Pretend you’ve never heard of politics!

Never, ever say anything about religion.

You’re vegan? Keep it to yourself, or the meat-eaters will think you’re looking down on them.

You think global warming is real and people are causing it? For pity’s sake, don’t say so! Do you know how many people believe global warming is a myth? Do you want to alienate all of them?

You think hunting for fun is barbaric? Shhh!

And the whole subject of gun control is toxic, of course.

Name almost any subject, and it’s off-limits for the writer who fears offending potential readers. For people who champion freedom of speech, we’re awfully quick to censor ourselves and our fellow writers. Social media is supposed to be a great advance, a terrific new way for authors to connect with readers, but sometimes I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to us. It has made us afraid of our readers.

Readers no longer hesitate to tell writers directly that their books are disappointing, and the tone of these communications is usually angry. I once posted a blog in which I wondered why some readers are so confrontational with authors, and suggested that they should respect our right to compose our books however we choose. If they don’t like a writer’s work, nobody is forcing them to read it. That led to some private e-mails and a few posts on Facebook that made my jaw drop with their nastiness. Posts of the “Who the hell do you think you are?” variety. Those readers let me know that if they hate a book they will hold the writer personally responsible for their wasted money and time and will tell her in detail what’s wrong with her work and how she should have written it.

However, writing a disappointing book doesn’t seem to carry nearly as much risk as expressing a personal opinion in a public forum. Do all readers give up reading books they enjoy because of something the writer has posted online? I hope not. I, as a reader, am not in that category. I could name some writers who annoy me online, yet I will read their work if it appeals to me. I can say the same about a number of actors who make a habit of behaving badly. However abysmal their actions are – throwing telephones at hotel clerks, screaming at their young children, throwing tantrums on movie sets – I will go see their films if I think I’ll like them. I believe most creative people put the best of themselves into their work. I don’t care much about what’s left over.

In a guest column for an industry magazine, a publicity director for a publishing house adds more taboos, cautioning writers not to post about, or comment on posts about, any aspect of publishing. We should do what we’re supposed to do – write –  and not concern ourselves with the business of publishing. He suggests that every writer create an online persona that will make a favorable impression.

The online persona is an especially devilish problem for a writer, because it involves what a writer does – writing. Being able to use our own voices feels liberating after hours in the minds of our characters. But we are reminded constantly of the need to hold back, to hide our real selves, so we won’t offend anybody and lose readers. Some writers have invented online personalities that bear little resemblance to the real people I know. I’m sure they would say that hiding their genuine selves when they’re online is part of their marketing strategy.

I’m not saying we should all be ranting and raving online and constantly foisting our personal opinions on others in an offensive way. I’m not sure where the line should be drawn between public and private. I guess all I’m saying is that it’s kind of sad that writers can’t be themselves without risking career suicide.

How do you feel about this? Do you think writers should always keep their opinions to themselves? Have you stopped reading an author’s work because you didn’t like something he or she posted online?

Do you believe I should not have written this blog?


Camille Minichino said...

Thanks for putting this out there, Sandra. I hope it gets us started on this important topic.

I find, especially in this election year, it's hard for me to keep my own opinions off FB and blogs, and I resent that I "have to" if I don't want to alienate readers. If the "conversation" were in my living room, I would surely participate, but I hesitate to say anything that would be construed as taking one side or challenging the other.

Tina said...

Personas are constructed every time you choose what information to share or not share in any forum (and that's everyone, not just writers, and it happens at the supermarket as well as Facebook). I keep an eye on how much of my slip is showing depending on many factors -- the who and where and why of things. But people buy or don't buy books for so many reasons out of my control (because they went to high school with me, for example, or because I read tarot cards). The best I can do is be true to my convictions, and aware of my ever-present audience. Thanks for starting an important conversation.

Jerry House said...

There are many authors whose personal philosophy and/or opinions I vehemently disagree with, but that does not stop me from reading and enjoying their books. It's often a mistake to assume that a book (a work of fiction) is a true reflection of an author's personal philosophy. When their books become infused with their personal brand of propaganda is where I draw the line.

Everyone has a right to his or her opinion and a right to broadcast it on social media, and my gut reaction is to respect that opinion, whether I agree or not. When that opinion is fueled by vitriol, by some form of self-serving agenda, or by just plain stupidity, I reserve the right to ignore them. When that opinion is dangerous, I reserve the right to speak up against it.

I have no desire to inflict my political views on anyone, although my views are evident to anyone who knows me. In today's political climate, however, I prefer to speak truth to lies and reason to stupidity whenever necessary.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernadette said...

As a readervI don't pay much attention to what authors say or do outside their books though I have 'unfollowed' a few of the more annoying on twiiter. I will admit to finding one author's opinion column in a newspaper so abhorent that i decided to stopbreading her books...not because they reflected her prejudices but because i did not wish to contribut financially to someone who I would strggle to be in the same room with

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I just read that people in the public eye have a third of the people hate them, a third love them, and a third indifferent to them. I've actually been advised to be controversial--more than I prefer. I've been known to tackle a few social issues. That said, I shy away from politics online because they quickly devolve into ugliness. Some people take politics very personally.

I've been online since 2004. I have a bit of a rock star persona. Meaning, I'm noisy and sometimes I have big parties, but at heart I'm harmless and an introvert. I do a lot of appearances, so I've had to bring the rock star with me. Fortunately I'm in SF and fantasy, where we appreciate individuality.

I have four books out, but my first hardback comes out in February, so I guess we'll see if I've done anything to offend. --Betsy Dornbusch

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

I don't mind people expressing their opinions, I do mind them calling everyone and idiot or other like word who doesn't agree with them. All the rantng on Facebook or anywhere else will never change anyone's opinion, so why do it? I also don't like stupid and demeaning cartoons about anyone.

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

P.S. I also am not happy with authors published by the big time publishers who make demeaning remarks about small presses. And there is one who upset me so much I've never bought another of her books.It didn't hurt her a bit--but made me feel better.

Maxine Clarke said...

I'm a keen reader but I am not interested in authors as people. A few authors blog or tweet about their own reading, and if our tastes coincide I will subscribe to their blog or twitter feed. But the vast majority of authors I do not subscribe to because everything they write is geared up to self-promotion, either directly or elliptically. Very tedious.

Barbara Rogan said...

Sandy, thanks for raising such a great topic, one every writer has to contend with. I've been thinking about it a lot, too, since I recently started a blog and an FB author page.

I think a lot depends on the purposes of those platforms. If the ulterior motive is to sell books, then yes, it's better to avoid red-button subjects that will alientate half your potential readers. I feel strongly against forced child-bearing and for women's rights to choose. Will I raise that topic on my blog? Hell no. There's plenty else to talk about.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of the platform is to express your opinions and advocate for them, then full speed ahead and sales be damned! I'm not convinced that blogs really sell books, anyway, so maybe the loss, if any, will go unfelt.

Even in a world where privacy seems a quaint notion, there is a difference between public and private. I say things and post links on my personal FB page that I wouldn't put on my Author page. Anyone who's a personal or FB friend knows where I stand on lots of matters. But I don't talk politics in the office.

Andrea said...

Social media functions as a virtual workplace for authors. Replace Facebook, Twitter, etc. with an office or any place meeting with clients. Just as in the brick and mortar office building, there are 'safe' people to discuss religion, politics and other controvertial topics and then there are 'unsafe' people. The workplace has never been an appropriate forum for promoting personal views (the exception being fundraising for a charitable cause). The occasional comment is forgivable, but the rants are no less destructive online than they are in an office. Now, of course, there is the possibility that the rants will help the author's sales (for example, Chick fil A had an unexpected uptick in sales after voicing opinion), but that it is a great risk for the unestablished author.

Jinx Schwartz said...

My motto? Shut up and write!

And I have dropped a writer or two because they started preaching politics in their books, but not what they blog/tweet/FB.

On the other hand, I have also dropped a couple of big time authors because their latest book stink!

caryn said...

I think it makes a bit of a difference if the comments are made on the author's "author" page on FB or their personal page. Presumably a "friend" on your personal page would know or not care about your personal issues because that friend likes you as a person.
I also agree with Marilyn that a lot of how offensive things are has to do with how they are presented. Stating your support or angst over a politician or social issue is one thing. Ridiculing or calling the other side of an issue ignorant, socialists, communists backwoods inbreds or whatever not good. Some people, and not just authors, get so wound up on an issue that they fail to remember that their thoughts are just that-their thoughts. They are not the ultimate answer, may not be right and every other person has a right to believe whatever they want on an issue as well.
Would I stop reading or buying books by someone because of what they post? Not just because I disagree, but if the author becomes all holier than thou and belittles those who might not agree with them on an issue, yes. In fact I have.

MontiLee Stormer said...

@Andrea - I wholly agree. in fact I was just writing a post about that very thing. Writing is a professional aspect of our lives - it's our business. If you wouldn't discuss it at the office or pass it around in an email to your boss, don't discuss it on FB.

I think it's interesting that people feel that if they can discuss it in their livingrooms, they can discuss it on FB or their blogs.

For as many people as I'm connected with on social media and on my blog - I wouldn't necessarily want them in my livingroom. Being "friends" on FB isn't being my friend. The things I say to my friends in my home, at a gathering, over dinner isn't what I would say to people I've never personally met.

I have nearly 500 people on FB - less than a 1/4 of that would be people I would consider "friends". Plus because I choose to leave my page open for subscribers I choose to filter what I put out there publically.

Bottom line - fans aren't friends and we should expect them to accept us for our "true selves".

BPL Ref said...

Interesting post, and one that there's not a single answer to. On the one hand, it's hard to think of authors being muzzled, so to speak, but on the other I know there have been times when knowing something about an author changed the way I felt about a book. The best example is Education of Little Tree, which was supposed to be a true biography of Forest Carter's childhood. There were a couple of things that struck me as a bit off, but mostly I enjoyed the sweet relationship between the boy and his grandparents. Then I found out "Forest" was actually Asa Carter, a Klansman and author of some of George Wallace's fiery speeches. I never felt the same about the book. For one thing I knew it was all a lie; for another I wondered if he was laughing up his sleeve the whole time he wrote the book, imagining how suckers like me would eat it up.

On the other hand, I do think authors can have opinions and not necessarily agree with me. I'm just happier if I don't know in some cases, so I don't do a lot on Facebook or Twitter or other social media. It's just too easy to make an offhand remark that seems funny at the time in a certain context and later is horrifying even to the person making it.

stacy said...

I guess for me it's all in how it's said and how a writer treats people. I'm attracted to artists of all stripes who aren't shy about stating their opinions. But if a professional artist (of any stripe) is not comfortable stating opinions online, that's okay, too. Some people put it all into the work.

Sandra Parshall said...

BPL -- There's a huge difference between a novel and a book that's represented as factual. If someone misrepresents a biography or, even worse, an autobiography, that changes the value of the book. A novel remains the same, regardless of the author's behavior in his/her personal life. Norman Mailer, for example, was a jerk, but that doesn't alter the lasting value of his writing. Leo Tolstoy was cruel to his wife, but we still read his classic works.

Writers behaving badly is nothing new. Wife-beaters, alcoholics, drug addicts, prima donnas.You'll find all of those and more in the writing community. Often the most brilliantly creative people are the ones you wouldn't want to associate with in your daily life.

JJM said...

I have yet to "meet" (virtually speaking) a writer whose work I admired but whose political or religious statements in social media were such as to put me off. As long as the writer doesn't preach or rant, however, and as long as the opinions are based on solid fact or reasoning and a sincere philosophy instead of knee-jerk reactionary we're-right-they're-lying party-line uninformed blinkered thinking, that's okay. (But I'd probably unfriend them on Facebook and stop reading their blogs if such posts became their daily offering.)

Now if you, Sandy, were suddenly to start advocating the legalization of cock- and dog-fighting or the hunting of baby pandas for fun and profit -- an obvious impossibility, thus a safe example -- I would be so appalled I'd never read your books again. A writer's statements would have to be of off-the-wall and despicable unacceptability for me to have that reaction.

I have, however, encountered two well-known writers whom I "befriended" or "beliked" on Facebook whom I found to be somewhat snippy and impatient with fans who did not immediately "get" something in their writings -- and, yes, their attitude bothered me enough to affect my enjoyment of their writing. They're good, very good, but not that good. With so many books out there coming out every day, I must admit that reading their newest is no longer that much of a priority, although I am not so far put off that I refuse to read their work. (Did "unbelike" one of them, though.)

Writers, like entertainers or anyone else who derives a living (wholly or in part) from the public, owe their public two things: one is the best work of which they are capable; the other is courtesy and consideration (or at least as much courtesy and consideration as the public shows them). In the end, that's more important to me: that the writer doesn't treat me like a fool or a nobody who should feel privileged that (s)he deigned to notice me or my FB/blog comment at all.

--Mario R.

Mary Welk said...

I think Andrea's comment was right on. If we're using social media to promote our work, then we need to treat FB, Twitter, etc as our work places and say and do only what we'd say and do at work. That said, there are times when I've found it totally impossible to ignore a remark made by a "friend" on FB, especially when that remark was harmful to someone else or a complete lie or just plain mean. Sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe is right, even if doing so means we'll antagonize potential readers. It's our own self-respect that matters in those cases.

Sally Carpenter said...

If writers feel they can write what they want and post their feelings on FB, why are they amazed when their readers exercise their rights and state exactly how they feel about what they read? Freedom of speech works both ways. Writers who voice their opinions can't muzzle those who object to their rantings (or bad writing).

Jeri Westerson said...

I have to say I am influenced to stay away from an author whose political leanings might be too over the top for me. And I do try to stay away from political/religious discussions. I find myself more than once venting in a comment, only to delete it without posting. But I think anyone who reads my posts, blogs, or maybe even reads my books might have a good idea where I stand on many topics. But I won't aggravate it by getting into unwinnable discussions online and definitely not in person.

I find it impossible to separate my online persona from the real me. And it would be impossible because I make so many public appearances. But I stay on topic (middle ages) and it seems to work just fine.

Anonymous said...

This is a tough one for me. I'm very opinionated so I appreciate that in others. I had a disagreement with an author over our views on something a few weeks back and I was VERY angry about it and almost stopped talking to her. But then she said "let's agree to disagree, I don't want to fight" and I found that SO respectful that we've kept in contact and I think she's wonderful! If the opinion isn't bashing their opposed view, then by all means they should be able to express themselves however they want. Everyone is different and not everyone is going to agree with you, but that doesn't mean you should fake who you are. Excellent post! New follower. :)

Kris Jackson said...

Jeez, I assume "being a writer" means saying stuff I suspect other people would like to read. I'm not religious, but I quote the bible a lot. Jesus said,"Ya know, you don't light a candle and put a bushel over it."
That said ... someone commented on my book "Above the Fray" that they couldn't tell if I was liberal, conservative or somewhere in the middle. I took that as a compliment.

Celia Hayes said...

Being a writer and also being politically interested/involved my own personal line is drawn when writers/celebrities begin vociferously insulting those who do not agree with them.
Fine - I don't thrust my political opinions on my readers ... in fact, I seem to be pretty ambigious about them, which to judge so far has permitted reviewers and readers of a wide range of persuasions (or none at all) to read and enjoy my books. Why should I kick them in the teeth?

Start to unilaterally kick me in the teeth? OK - added to my personal boycott list. It's just business - I don't want to aid or support any public intellectual who has made no bones about holding me or my values in contempt.

So - yes, I will discipline myself in social media. I was in the military for twenty years, I can differentiate between private opinions and those of the self that you have in the public arena.

And if you are out in the public arena ... learn to work out the difference. And if you do want to be out there with a partisan political stance ... as we used to say in the military 'Suck it up, hard-charger.'

Sandra Parshall said...

One thing most women can't stay silent about is women's rights, something that affects more than half the American population. A lot of women writers have been outraged by attempts to erase 50 years of very hard-won progress for women, and they have expressed their opinions on Facebook. A lot of men have joined in the protest. Have we lost readers because of it? Who knows (and who cares)?

Sometimes, as Mary Welk said very well, something is so wrong that you have to speak up.

Sisters in Crime, I'd like to point out, has been active and outspoken for 25 years on behalf of equality for women writers. Equality for women in any arena is a highly political issue, it seems, and I've heard SinC's message described as "shrill" -- by a woman writer.

Barbara DaCosta said...

I wonder if we're more accepting of odd or opinionated behavior in actors more than in writers or musicians or artists, as out of all the creative artists, actors purposely take on a wide range of personas and emotions. Imagine a writer who can write with the same breadth as a Judi Dench or a Meryl Streep. If a writer does dare venture out of genre, it's at the risk of losing audience.

Jeffrey Siger said...

Very good points, Sandra. I think many of us who write on the edge of political and societal issues in our fiction are prone to take positions in public. It comes with the territory. I try to be balanced, yet at times some may think that I'm not, simply by reason of my touching the subject. Still, in my case it's what I feel I must do, and "damn the torpedoes." Though, luckily for me, many who might take otherwise take umbrage at a subject (regardless of the content) only read Greek:).

Anonymous said...

You have really opened a vein of contraversy here, Sandra! I agree with many of the opinions expressed so well in the comments - but this is such a hugs topic there is not room here to express my intellectual and emotional opinions in toto! I would like to see another post by you, with perhaps comments from all your fellow bloggers - and some other writers of your choice! I thought one comment here - privacy as a quaint notions - was inspired! With so many venues for expression of opinion now in 2012 - there seem to be many who trash the precious lone of privacy. Words are tossed at others like bombs! I also agree with the writers here who state that social media are now the work places - and we need to be responsible about venting opinions. thelma Straw MWA-NY

Anonymous said...

P.S. Hi - I apologize for the typos - I expected to be able to make corrections ! Thelma

G. Hugh Bodell said...

I was asked this very question recently at a book signing and quite frankly kind of giggled at the question.

I then regained my composure and tried to answer politely (but not politically correctly), to wit

I have written and published two fact based fictional mysteries and a speculative conspiracy/mystery. The plots of the first two draw deeply from real events and the third speculates on a possible direction of the United States under less than stellar leadership. A summary:


The plot is an action packed adventure/mystery of the pursuit by Anna & Hugh Masterson, an unlikely sleuthing couple, of 29 billion dollars that went missing from the much publicized scandal, ‘The UN Oil for Food Program’.

These technical geniuses find themselves up against a vicious, corrupt trio of billionaire international gangsters. They are rapidly forced to employ tactics never used in their white-collar consulting business and to call on capabilities they never knew they had.

Peppered with actual events surrounding that UN managed, corruption plagued 60 billion dollar redistribution of funds, it is impossible to separate fact from fiction.

The murders are creative and full of imagery, the technology real and doable!


The sleuthing couple from Treachery In Turtle Bay, Anna & Hugh Masterson evolved by this sequel into a far less naïve and far more ruthless Robin Hood like couple.

They have moved on and the murders are far more inventive and the imagery far more vivid.

Treachery In Turtle Bay II - Oil ~ Dollars ~ Diplomacy & The Sinister Three took an unpublicized example of disappearing billions. The $39.56 billion "missing" from a post-Gulf War fund that was set up to protect the almost 40 billion bucks of Iraqi oil revenues from foreign claims. That was accomplished by apparently making it disappear altogether.


A saga that could be…but we pray will not


Iran is negotiating to purchase 4,000 nuclear warheads compatible with the Iranian shahab-3 ballistic missile


A former soviet general now the head of the Russian federation technological and nuclear oversight bureau


Provided by the United Nations Secretary General and the President of the United States


$100 Billion


A Russian villain who has accumulated $40 Billion by corrupting United Nations Officials for over 40 years and now has the President of the United States in his pocket


North Korea, Syria, Bangladesh and Venezuela

I promote these books through direct marketing to partisan groups that will most likely have a receptive attitude towards the politically incorrect treatment of the United Nations and politics/politicians in the US.

I maintain two blogs that once again support in a most politically incorrect way the attitude delivered in my novels. and

I figured it this way, my sentiments are in sync with about half the population of the United States and as to the UN, millions around the world. So, I wrote what I felt from my experiences, thus I wrote from the heart.

From feedback via e-mail globally my calculations were about right, half my readers love me and offer suggestions for more plots half hate me and promise to burn my books.

“You can’t please all of the people all of the time”, I’ll settle for half!

Marie said...

As a reader for entertainment purposes, I probably wouldn't mind reading an author's work if I disagreed with something they did themselves online etc.
However as a blogger, I draw the line at reviewing their work. I will not do that. I see myself as a free marketing venue with my little review, even if it is one of millions. If I strongly dislike the author because of a side comment or their blatant post about something where I totally get turned off, I have the perogative to never ever read their work again. And never ever review it.
I only came across this recently, which is a good thing, but it happened pretty much bam bam bam one after the other and I was so done stick a fork in me.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is certainly a timely topic and one I wonder about all the time. I was editing The Larcom Review during the week of 9/11; one of the contributors wrote to me and wondered seriously if it was worth revising his mss as I'd asked. What difference did it make now, he asked. I was amazed that he thought now was the time to go silent. As hard as it is, there can never be a time to be silent in the face of bigotry or violence or anything else that leads to another person's death or degradation. I am a writer, yes, since I was a teenager, but I am first a human being responsible for my place in the world. If that disturbs an editor, so be it.

Catherine M Wilson said...

For some of us, our political and religious views are part of our platform. As a lesbian author, I make no secret of my position on issues that affect gay people and by extension any people who are also oppressed or marginalized. My silence on these issues would be a betrayal of my lesbian readers.

I have many mainstream (non-lesbian) readers, some of whom may be offended by my views, but I consider my willingness to express my views on controversial topics to be essential to my integrity, not only as a writer, but as a human being.

Maggie Anton said...

Considering that I write historical novels about women and studying Talmud in 11th century France [Rashi's Daughters] and 3rd century Babylonia [Rav Hisda's Daughter], religion is a major element of my writing. If I didn't post about religion and women, it would eliminate 90% of my online content.
Maggie Anton []