Author-Reader Relations in the 21st Century

For better or for worse:

From reading [Elizabeth] Bear’s LJ for the past few months, I feel like I’ve gotten to know her as a person and as a writer, and in reading her novel I could detect her voice and style quite clearly. It felt comfortable and familiar, which was a pleasant change. Most books I read are by authors I know very little about, and as a result the stories feel somewhat isolated to me. This was more like being told a story by a friend. I’m looking forward to getting to say hi to Bear next weekend at Boskone, although I most likely won’t get to go to her signing session, since I have a lunch date elsewhere in the city that I’ll need to be leaving for at that time.

EDIT: The author of the above quote clarifies.

31 thoughts on “Author-Reader Relations in the 21st Century

  1. There’s something in Delany’s Dhalgren on this subject. It’s bee na while since I last read the book, so the details are a little fuzzy. Anyway… One of the characters discusses reading an author whose prose they had always admired, while another author’s work they had always found trite and banal. However, after meeting each of the authors, the person decied the reverse was actually true: they now saw the sly humour in the second author’s prose, and the first author’s confidence they now relaised was arrogance.

    I remember thinking this quite profound when I first read it at the age of 13 or so. It’s complete rubbish, of course. Prose is prose… and conversation with an author is something entirely different.

  2. Yes, in general I think that an author’s fiction should be held separately from their personality or other writing. There are exceptions at the extremes — for me, Orson Scott Card would be one, although handily, as far as I can tell, most of his recent books are rubbish anyway. But the idea that not knowing about an author leaves their stories in some way *isolated* is a very strange one to me. But I have a feeling we’re in the minority on this — I think more and more people want that sort of personal connection to a writer — which is why I posted the quote.

    I’m also ambivalent about the view of authorial voice that the quote expresses. On the one hand, I agree that it’s good for a writer to have a distinctive voice. On the other hand, I’m not sure how far it’s a good thing that a writer’s voice is recognisable in the less mediated/controlled setting of a blog. And I find it interesting that the blog, and not the fiction, is taken as the primary example of her voice. And such a position seems to suggest a desire for *authenticity* that I’m not sure is a good thing — what of the writer like David Mitchell, who refuses to write in any one voice, in any voice that could be labelled as “his”?

  3. I’m also ambivalent about the view of authorial voice that the quote expresses. On the one hand, I agree that it’s good for a writer to have a distinctive voice. On the other hand, I’m not sure how far it’s a good thing that a writer’s voice is recognisable in the less mediated/controlled setting of a blog. And I find it interesting that the blog, and not the fiction, is taken as the primary example of her voice. And such a position seems to suggest a desire for *authenticity* that I’m not sure is a good thing — what of the writer like David Mitchell, who refuses to write in any one voice, in any voice that could be labelled as “his”?

    I see where your reservations are coming from, and personally, I have no particular desire to read author’s blogs or get to know about them as people before reading their fiction, but I actually don’t think there’s a problem here. The authors who want to express their personality to their readers will blog, the David Mitchell’s of the writing world won’t. The readers who want personal connections with authors before reading their fiction will read blogs, other readers won’t. I like to think that blogging expands the range of author-reader communication, but if it expands it in ways that particular authors or readers don’t want to engage in, then of course they don’t have to.

    Unless you think that blogging is changing the entire literary culture? That instead of it being just another tool for author-reader communication, it’s being seen as the tool, and consequently the writing of authors who don’t blog will be viewed as somehow lesser than the writing of authors who do blog, because the former have refused to engage with their readers in the “proper” manner to provide the “necessary” personal context for their work? Sometimes I worry that our culture seems to be heading that way a little, but I like to think it’s not yet a foregone conclusion.

  4. Won’t interpenetration of this sort become the norm ? Underneath the fashion for speaking in tongues is an admission about how personality is constructed & received. Models of fixedness & authenticity are giving way to models of emergence & discontinuity. It was about time fiction addressed this or, more importantly, reflected it. I’m not sure how to sign this. It’s either Mike Harrison or M John. Your pick.

  5. Niall, is that “authenticity” or “ownership”? Genre readers these days seem to want total immersion in an invented world – hence the popularity of extended ersatz D&D fantasy sagas (and, perhaps also, hence the reaction to M John Harrison’s post on world-building…). The immersion process requires investment, which in turn implies ownership. And so anything which binds the reader more strongly to the text will be seen by many readers as a good thing – such as assimiliation of the author’s voice. It’s a theory, anyway…

    Geneva, blogging is changing literary culture. You only have to witness the frequent Mexican blog-waves to see that – the above-mentioned fuss over MJH’s comment, or the recent furore over blog reviews vs press reviews… There are also a number of genre authors who admit that their blogs have contributed to their success.

  6. Ian,

    I agree that blogging is a phenomenon within literary culture, and that it’s a big part of some genre writers careers. What I’m asking is: is this phenomenon becoming the expected, even required, norm?

  7. Mike/MJH/uzwi –

    I’m not sure I fully understand your comment – in particular, whether it’s replying to the original post or subsequent comments – but let me try to unpack it as best I can. By “interpenetration of this sort”, I assume you mean interpenetration between the author-as-they-present-in-their-books and the-author-as-they-present-in-everyday-life. (And, in particular, that version of the latter known as the-version-they-wish-to-present-in-a-public-forum-directed-at-potential-readers.) I can accept that models of fixedness (of persona) are being eroded by this kind of thing, but not necessarily models of authenticity. Provided one accepts that a given utterance – blog post, trilogy – stems from a specific cultural/personal moment, one can see it as being authentic and “final” *within that context*. And though I’m not the same person I was when I went to sleep last night, there is enough continuity between me and him that I don’t look at the emails I wrote then and disown them. So it is possible, I think, to exaggerate the effects that these discontinuities and blurrings will have on the autonomy and permanence of a given creative act.

    I suppose I have a (romantic? unexamined?) attachment to the idea of the creative process as needing silence, exile, and cunning. I recognise the support that one gets (that I get) from, eg, talking to peers in the field, going to conventions, hanging out on blogs like this. But I don’t much blog about what I’m writing or whatever creative process I have, because that is to me an intensely private thing. (As I may have said before, if I had my time again, the Thomas Pynchon option for a reviewer seems a very attractive one. Plus, I’d get to appear on The Simpsons with a paper bag over my head.)

    And I agree that the written word should get its act together and reflect the fragmentation of the world and the impossibility of perceiving it whole. But I think it’s had that job on its plate for 100 years at least; and that a largely anti-Modernist form like sf may not be the place to look for that to happen.

  8. Graham, sorry, I was rushed & should have indicated there were two separate points there. But you seem to have covered them both anyway. As usual my intention was to start a hare for someone else’s dogs to run down.

    Readers who have too simple an idea about the relationship between the author implied by the text and the personal author–or too simple an idea of the slippage, the performativeness of that relationship–are in for a surprise as blogging gets into its stride.

    I’m interested in this, obviously, since I’ve been trying to work into the gap between me & M John since the late 70s. Questions identiity of this sort also pingback on Niall’s comment about David Mitchell, and the fashion for ventriloquism or speaking in tongues. I think fiction has run, for most of its history, far too simple an idea of how identity emerges, and that this has given rise to the very inflexible kinds of fiction we see, in Hollywood and in genre, in which concepts like “character” and “motive” are unquestioned because they must be used to propel a plot arc. That reinforces our idea of charcater as whole & continuous, and makes it more likely that we’ll write stories like that…

    One of the reasons I loved Primer was that (I’m sure accidentally) it forced me to decide who these people *were* — but at the same time, through rolling repetition and disruption of the timestream, decoupled personality from causality to make those kinds of decisions almost as difficult as they are in real life.

  9. Mike, re performativity: yes. This is something that’s bugging me a lot at the moment – the almost preconscious processing we do when we decide who’s telling us something and what we think of them. (And which author-blogging in some senses pre-empts: perhaps that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. It removes some of the responsibility from the reader in deciding what they think.) It interests me a lot that – primarily in forms other than fiction – people play with what you might call the autobiographical presumption. Is the person with their name on this song/poem putting on a mask when they’re telling me this? Example: Randy Newman – clearly masked in “Short People“, clearly not (much) in “Dixie Flyer“, maybe in “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do“. But no real cues, other than the words themselves, to help you decide. Other examples – god knows I’m not going to have many opportunities to put them in the same sentence – Philip Larkin and Joanna Russ.

  10. Oh, me too, Graham, and I think author-blogging is just another possible arena for this arms race. I wish I didn’t, in a way, because I have authenticity anxieties myself. But I like the idea of constantly asking the question as I read, Which sets of rules are being (ab)used here ? How does that affect my identity as the reader, let alone that thing I perceive as the identity of the writer ?

    As reviewers we assume that Mitchell’s ventriloquism in Black Swan Green was conscious and rational and craftsmanly–that because there’s an act, there’s an actor. (Like a pre-Darwinian assuming that the world’s a watch & so there must be a worldbuilder.) What if it wasn’t as clear cut as that ? How would that work ? One of the reasons I enjoy performance art so much is that it asks questions like these, both of performer & of audience. (Of the performed piece, too.)

  11. A lot to respond to, suddenly.

    Geneva: I’m honestly not sure to what extent blogging is changing things. Part of me thinks that having writers blogging is just brilliant, a great resource, demystifying and yet also complicating the writing process and the relationship between readers and writers and — as you say — optional. Part of me worries, not so much that it’s becoming the norm, but that it’s furthering a perception of writer-as-brand. You’ve read the book, now read the blog. (Or vice versa.) Another part of me is sympathetic to Graham’s point about silence — not that sympathetic, since frankly it’s our job as readers, and moreso as reviewers if we’re reviewers, to cut through the noise and work out what we think about the book off our own bat. But at the same time, blogging does seem sometimes to increase the noise and make it harder to come to a writer’s work fresh. The reader I quoted above likes that — likes the familiarity of it. I’m not so sure that I do.

    Ian: Interesting point about authenticity vs ownership. I think both are probably factors. The book the quote above is talking about is (as far as I know) a standalone novel, so I don’t know how strongly the desire for immersion figures in this case. It seemed to me to be more about the idea that it was a story told by a friend, that the narrator was Elizabeth Bear, someone they know, not “Elizabeth Bear”, a storyteller generated for the purpose of the novel. But clearly many people like their big books.

    Mikuzwijh: I admit to having been somewhat baffled by your first comment, so thanks for the expansions. See earlier in this comment for my ambivalence about whether blogging is in fact complicating or streamlining the perceptions of authors. I’d love to believe that readers are going to have to face up to questions of authorial performance more, and I think blogging has the potential to enable that, but I wonder whether a lot of authors won’t just keep up the performance. I do wholeheartedly agree that too much fiction has too simple a view of how identity is formed and how it changes. And I think Black Swan Green may be a really interesting book to come back to in ten years, because I think you might be right that the performance there isn’t quite as conscious and controlled as we tend to assume — we might just be too close to it at the moment.

  12. It seemed to me to be more about the idea that it was a story told by a friend…

    Ah well. I don’t get it then. Why would a story told by a friend be “better” than one told by a stranger? Any extra-textual relationship with the author is, well, just that: outside the text.

    Re blogs: perhaps there’s another factor to consider too: the desire of some readers to check that they have interpreted a book correctly… by, for example, reading any relevant commentary on the the writer’s blog. Wait, what am I saying? Novels are entertainment. “Interpreted” – ha.

  13. Niall, bear in mind it’s not my point about silence, it’s James Joyce’s… Ian, one soundbite way of rendering down this debate would be “extra-textual relationships with authors: GOOD OR BAD?” You’re saying something more nuanced than that, but there’s no doubt that many people find extra-textual relationships – there’s no other word for it – comforting. How much is it an author’s job to be comforting?

  14. PS, re that John Jarrold thing Niall linked to. I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek Jarrold was being, but he’s spurred me to come up with counter-examples of epic fantasies that are a) brief – say, under 350pp and b) good/successful. Off the top of my head: The Last Unicorn, Stormbringer, The Warrior Who Carried Life, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, for starters. Any more?

  15. Ian S: there are many great examples of stories told ‘as if by a stranger’ including Frankenstein, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and more.

    Graham: add The Drawing of The Dark, The Red Magician, Divine Enduarnce, and there must be many more.

  16. Niall: re ‘in general I think that an author’s fiction should be held separately from their personality or other writing. ‘
    Personality and other writing have very different natures and influences.

    ‘other writing’ can include the authorial commentaries accompanying stories in short story collections which are sometimes best considered a part of the text and can significantly change our reading of that text.
    Some authors do deliberately create a ‘persona’ which acts like the Romantic fragment or Gothic framing text (ancient manuscript, tale told by a stranger etc.) to lend a detachment to the text.

    This is not the same as you or I meeting Mike H at a convention and seeing (possibly imaginary) correlations between Mike and his characters such as Isabel Avens. This is something that isn’t a part of the general reader-experience and whilst we cannot ignore this ‘privileged information’ we have to somehow limit its influence on our writing.

  17. Pigeonhed: er, those strangers are fictional constructs within the narrative. And isn’t Divine Endurance science fiction, not fantasy?

    Graham: neither. They’re irrelevant :-) Does a comfortable relationship with an author make an uncomfortable text less, well, uncomfortable?

  18. Hmm, this one slipped under my radar.

    But what serendipity – I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, in light of reading Rudy Rucker’s Mathematicians… after having followed his blog for a while. While I’m not going to be able to bring the critical insights that people have already displayed here, I think Rucker is a (possibly rare) example of a writer whose blogging enhances his books, at least for me – there’ll be a post on the subject if (when?) I find the time.

    But one thing that is fairly obvious is that a certain subjectivity is going to be brought by the reader to blogs in the same way as to fictional works – in other words, those who go deliberately looking for insights into the creative process, or for additional pieces of the fictional puzzle, are surely going to find them – whether the blogging writer intended to display them or not. Is this a good or a bad thing? Is it even possible to make that judgement as a definitive statement with universal relevance?


    “It removes some of the responsibility from the reader in deciding what they think.”

    That’s the nub, right there. The relationship of consumer to product and creator, and the interaction between the three. Does everyone read in the same way as a critic or reviewer? Should they? What does the average reader of, for example, Neil Gaiman’s fictional output *and* blogging, someone who reads both for the unexamined pleasure that it brings them – what does this hypothetical person get from the experience? We must assume the process adds value to their experience, but in what way? Are author blogs to genre fiction what Smash Hits or the NME are (or were) to pop and rock music?

    Perhaps what we’re saying here is we’re worried about authors falling off of the pedestals we put them on – not such a big deal when the author puts themselves on one, granted, but the notion of AUTHORity is quite possibly being eroded by the social media framework. One thing I’m fairly sure of is that to worry about it too much is a little futile – King Canute still ended up with wet feet, after all.

    Oops, look who went and thought out loud. I need to sit down and brainstorm this on paper…

  19. Fascinating debate, this. I do wish it continues. :)

    I started blogging as a writer because I wanted to:

    A) tell people about my writing, in order to get more readers and (to a degree) connect with them;

    B) De-mystify the actual *work* of writing;

    C) Self-marketing (i.e. “the author as brand”);

    D) Connect with other writers.

    But: Do readers NEED to know and “relate to” the author in order to enjoy his/her fictional stories? Do I need to see photos of the writer’s cats and family members? I think this is an unfair demand — unfair to writers, that is.

    It’s like saying “In order to enjoy Picasso’s paintings, I have to know and like him as a person.”
    (Picasso was not a nice man. But an enormously gifted painter. Does one exclude the other?)

    Whenever a writer makes an unsympathetic impression in the blogosphere, some blogger inevitably makes the comment “I’ll never buy any of X’s books again, because he/she has been so mean.”

    Really, what’s the point of that? Unless the author has done something truly horrible, or criminal, this seems petty. Fiction writing is not a popularity contest.

    If you, writer, can connect with readers and become “the life of the party”… well, good for you. But we can’t demand that of ALL writers. Some writers are socially awkward — must this be held against them? (*COUGH* H.P.Lovecraft *COUGH* Robert E. Howard *COUGH*)

    Imagine if readers demanded that writers not only were friendly with them, but also had to conform to a standard of beauty. “I’ve stopped reading X, she’s getting old and wrinkled…”

    This is not the last word. Please continue the discussion.

  20. It’s like saying “In order to enjoy Picasso’s paintings, I have to know and like him as a person.”
    (Picasso was not a nice man. But an enormously gifted painter. Does one exclude the other?)

    Point taken. But the fact that we, as a general corpus of culture, *are* aware that Picasso was not a nice man (I didn’t know that, as it happens!) indicates that there is a desire to understand the artists we admire; the current grossly inflated cult of ‘celebrity’ would seem to be some growth-hormone-influenced clone of a natural tendency that may well go back to the tribe admiring the shaman for painting their dreams and stories on the cave walls.

    And I don’t think there’s a demand for writers to ‘go public’ – it’s just another string on the promotional bow. People may decide to buy or not to buy their works because of something they do or say, but I can’t see it having a huge effect – there’ll always be a die-hard fanbase who change their own ethical code to allow a favoured author their indiscretions. That’s how it works for musicians, at least, and music as a culture is a bit ahead on the ‘public artist’ curve compared to literature.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that remaining aloof will necessarily do any harm to a writer’s sales – look at the enthusiasm people had for the oh-so-mysterious John Twelve Hawks and his ‘off the grid’ lifestyle. Mystery can be just as attractive as openness, if not occasionally more so.

    As to your last paragraph, Mr. Yngve, I think there’s a story waiting to written right there!

  21. I agree, an aura of mystery can be a tremendous asset for a writer… it’s very hard to manufacture, though. (Did it work for that Twelve Hawks person??)

  22. Yes, in general I think that an author’s fiction should be held separately from their personality or other writing.

    See, I would largely disagree with this statement. I think context matters even (especially?) for fiction and placing a given novel or story in the context of its author’s life can enhance both my pleasure and understanding of it. Of course, it can also destroy my pleasure in it; viz. the already mentioned Orson Scott Card, whose fiction I used to enjoy.

  23. Of course the writer’s personality — or “demons”, if you like — will make an imprint on his written work. And in the case of Card and his strange views… how could you read Ender’s Game and NOT see that coming?


    Sometimes the fiction alone is enough to tell you that “this writer has Issues”, without any prior knowledge about said writer.

    Still… I don’t read fiction with the aim of psychoanalyzing the author.

    (Could there be a novel that carried no trace of its author’s personality? An author without a personality, perhaps? ;-))

  24. Ian: but if we can accept a ‘fictional construct’ stranger, why not a ‘real’ stranger?

  25. Pigeonhed: I think the point was that a fiction was “better” if the reader had a personal relationship with the writer, rather than if they did not. Whether the story is “told” by a stranger is immaterial. As to why this might be “better” – or if it even is, well…

  26. When technology allows every reader to sleep with their author of choice, especially the dead ones, then the Millenium will have arrived.

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