Aug 2 2011
Janet/Robin’s post on authorial intrusion into the text generated a very lively discussion. I was a little surprised, though, that one point of Robin’s was not picked up more: her careful distinction between the author as a person and the authorial persona. Perhaps this is because we have conditioned ourselves not to read disclaimers:
Obligatory Disclaimer: When I refer to the “author,” I’m not referring to the person who goes grocery shopping and takes care of her kids, etc. That is, I don’t mean the person who stands behind the author’s name. I’m referring the disembodied voice of the author, the persona represented by the name printed on the book’s cover. It’s like saying, “Mrs. Fields doesn’t know a cookie from a hubcap.” I’ve never met the real Mrs. Fields, and she’s probably a lovely woman with great taste in cookies, but because her name is associated with her product, I’m invoking it when I discuss her company’s products.
Romancelandia online has wonderful attributes: the sense of community, the vibrant discussions, the chance to get trustworthy recommendations of new books and genres, etc. But it also has traps for the unwary, and one of the biggest is the author-reader relationship. Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, message boards, some author sites, and many review blogs facilitate and encourage interaction between authors and readers. When authors talk about the writing process, they keep the interaction within the world of reading & writing, but they also talk about their families, their pets, their jobs, and their friends.
These latter conversations can blur the line between the author as writer, or authorial persona, and the author as a non-writing person, with all the complexity and messiness of a real human being. Then, on top of that, you have message boards, which focus on authors’ books and characters. Some of these even involve personification of the characters as message board members. Not all authors go to this extreme, but authors have been known to write books at least partly in response to reader requests, or to alter an upcoming novel in a series because of readers’ praise or complaints.
Publishers of genre romance have always encouraged author-reader interaction. For years Harlequin has had authors write “Dear Reader” letters in the front pages of their books, in which the author talks about her personal relationship to the story. These letters are designed to foster the reader’s sense of connection to the author, distinct from the reader’s connection to the book. Today authors are pressured to be active in various social media platforms, and while some authors are very good at being friendly and engaging while maintaining boundaries of privacy, others have overshared to the point of TMI. Of course, everyone’s TMI line differs, so what is TMI for me may not be TMI for you.
Authors and publishers don’t bear all the responsibility for this closeness, by any means. Many readers love to learn more about their favorite authors, and they encourage authors to talk about how they come up with their characters, plots and settings. Part of this interest stems from wanting to feel closer to a well-loved book. But some readers also want to know about authors’ lives. They feel closer to authors who share their likes and dislikes, and it can make them more likely to buy the authors’ books. If the reader and the author are both comfortable with that, why not?
Because the author and the reader, no matter how close the reader feels to her, are not friends. The word friend is pretty debased this days (thanks a lot, Facebook). But even if I talk to an author almost daily on Twitter, or exchange comments on her Facebook page (wall?), that’s not the same as a bond that develops outside of a social media platform. Authors and readers are friendly with each other on social media, but we’re not friends unless we’ve already established a relationship in another venue and then reinforce it there. Each of us is communicating with a persona; in the author’s case, the persona is made up of those aspects of herself that are appropriate professionally, along with non-authorial aspects that she feels comfortable sharing.
We don’t think about it as much, but a reader is also presenting a persona, in the sense of a public face. For example, I tweet endlessly about romance-related issues and mundane daily life, but I say almost nothing about my day job or my love of sports. They’re not relevant on my tweetstream, but anyone who knows me offline knows at least as much about those aspects of me. Nevertheless, despite the qualified nature of these interactions, there is something about routine, friendly conversation that creates a type of intimacy.
With the ubiquitousness of social media and the rise of self-publishing, the genie is never going back into the bottle. There are fewer and fewer authors who can keep their lives entirely offline and there are analogously fewer readers who can escape knowing personal information about the authors of books they read. Authors have strong professional incentives to interact with readers, and many readers enjoy it when authors share personal information. So increasingly, as aspects of author’s lives creep into their books, readers make the connection. Authors have always put themselves into their books; it’s natural. But now readers can see the direct links more clearly.
I visit very few author websites, Facebook pages, or chat boards, and I don’t belong to Goodreads. Even so, in the last few weeks I’ve read several books in which something in the plot or the characterization mirrored something I knew about the author. I had to work at compartmentalizing that information in order to focus on the book.
Oh yes, the book. Remember the book? The thing that brought authors and readers of romance together? Separate communities of readers and writers, as well as those that cross that boundary (since authors are also readers), have thrived online because of shared interests in books. But the focus on reading and talking about romance novels is inevitably blurred by discussions about the people who write them. I don’t really see how we can avoid this, and of course each reader and author’s preferences are different. In a comment on Robin’s post, Jane succinctly described how even though she does her best to avoid author information, it creeps into her reading in ways she finds distracting. That’s been my experience too. I love talking to authors on Twitter and I never mind if they comment on my reviews. But what have we done to the reading experience? Can we just read the text on the page anymore? And if we can’t, does it matter?