Dear Author

When The Personal Becomes Professional

We talk a lot here about what it means to be a Romance reader, but not as much about what it means to be an author. For example, what does it mean to be an “aspiring author”? In an academic context, anyone who writes something is an author. So does it mean that the person aspires to become a “professional author”? That makes sense if the meaning of professional author is someone who writes for commercial profit. In that sense, author is one’s profession, even if it’s not the only job or career the author may have.

Still, there seems to be a lot of confusion around the word “professional,” especially as it relates to codes of conduct, ethics, and values. Beyond the basic meaning of “professional author” as “writing for money,” is there a shared set of principles with which Romance authors identify? For example, if plagiarism is a violation of professional ethics, how is it that an author like Janet Dailey could get a robust publishing contract after her incident with Nora Roberts? And if “being nice” is a professional value, why don’t we hold publishers and editors to the same standard? Aren’t they professionals within the same arena? More often than not, I feel like the personal is being interpreted as professional, and the professional passed off as personal. And I wonder what the effect of this reversal is on the genre itself and the craft of Romance writing.

Let’s start with that ubiquitous phrase, “professional courtesy.” That phrase, especially, seems to be a euphemism for “be nice” or “be quiet,” and an attempt to convert a personal reaction (potentially hurt feelings) into a professional value. For example, newly published author Elizabeth Vail, aka AnimeJune, was recently live tweeting her reactions to SEP’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine. Author Olivia Kelly (among others) was very vocal in her criticism of the live tweeting. I encourage you to read the whole thing, because it’s too long to repeat in total here, but some of her comments are as follows:

 

 

 

As you can see, other authors like Isobel Carr pushed back, and Kelly had to admit that she only saw a couple of tweets. Which brings up an interesting question about making judgments without considering the entirety of an opinion.

However, what I’m specifically interested in here is the question of “professionalism,” or as Sabrina Jeffries refers to it, “professional courtesy,” in regard to authors criticizing the work of other authors. Jeffries uses the example of physicians not publicly criticizing each other, but I think the more apt comparison is authors in other genres, who regularly review and critique one another. Or scholars who endlessly debate ideas as a way to deepen shared knowledge, understanding, and intellectual innovation. Or attorneys. Jane has made a very compelling argument about how attorneys make their living arguing with each other and using myriad strategies to reign supreme over their peers. Politicians routinely criticize each other’s views, and their disagreements are based on the perception of what constitutes the common good. Although cynicism has become rampant in our contemporary political environment, the US presidential debates have been around for more than 150 years as a crucial way for people to make informed voting choices. In other words, peers in many professions, especially professions involving art and ideas, have employed disagreement as a critical professional tool. So is it the professional or the personal at stake here? And why is the focus on withholding criticism rather than on engaging it productively?

Ruthie Knox addressed the professionalism issue from the opposite direction in a blog post detailing her weariness with  thinking of herself as a “brand.”

So. To return to the point: I was a reader and an editor and an analyst and a writer before I became an Author. Writers write books, but Authors have Readers. Once you become an Author, you are, suddenly, a “brand.” You are encouraged, in order to sell books, to behave in particular ways. You are flooded with advice: do this, don’t do that, never say that, don’t talk about X, don’t forget to talk about Y, promote this thing on your Facebook, and hey, will you read this book and blurb it, maybe, for this person you’ve never met?

When you become an Author, you have to decide how you want to negotiate a hundred different sorts of situations. You have to consider how you want to behave and what kinds of ramifications your behavior will have. You have to think about your work and the reception of your work and the sales of your work, and at the same time you have to think about your feelings and your principles and your needs as a human being.

All of that. Every day.

Or else you have to opt to NOT think about it for your own sanity, which is also a thing you’ve thought about and decided.

Now, I am, as I said, thirty-six. I’m an adult and a professional. I’m educated and intelligent. I have thought about all of these things, and I have made choices. My choices aren’t secrets, but at the same time, I don’t believe I’m obligated to make them transparent to anyone. Ask me, if you want. Maybe I’ll tell you. Maybe I won’t. But it’s worth remembering that opacity isn’t the same thing as thoughtlessness.

I quickly want to address her last point, because I haven’t seen anyone assert that opacity is the equivalent of thoughtlessness. In fact, I don’t think thoughtlessness is really the issue, except in so far as someone may not be giving thought to the perception of a conflict of interest, which, of course, is a large part of the rationale behind disclosure. I mean, how many of us really believe that we cannot make an intelligent, reasoned, judgment about a friend’s fantabulous, everyone-needs-to-read-it book? Transparency is not an admission of bias or wrongdoing; it is information provided so that another person can make an intelligent, reasoned judgment about the recommendation. It’s not meant to be Crime and Punishment.

And again, I encourage you to read the entirety of the essay, but I think that excerpt is pretty much the heart of Knox’s position, which for me breaks down to this: I don’t think I need to tell you anything I don’t want to when I recommend a book. And you know what? I think she’s right. She has the right to disclose or not, as she chooses. However (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?), there are costs to this decision, and those costs are going to be largely unseen by the author, either because the reader does not know the author’s policy on disclosure, or because she will disagree without explanation to the author. And maybe an author who shares Knox’s viewpoint will be fine with that. Maybe she just doesn’t care that for some readers, telling them it’s none of their business whether she has a personal relationship with an author whose book she recommends is itself sufficient disclosure. But here’s the rub: the reader who trusts Knox’s recommendations has likely gained that trust because of the Ruthie Knox brand. That is, Knox has built up a certain amount of trust with readers because she has written books professionally in the same genre, and thus can be perceived to be an authority in the genre. Consequently, Knox is trading on the professional value of her brand, even when she makes what she wants others to see as a personal recommendation.

So why did the controversy about Elizabeth Vail’s live tweeting remind me of the Knox essay? Because while reading Kelly’s tweets it dawned on me that recommending a book and criticizing a book are fundamentally related (I’m tempted to say philosophically identical, but I’ll spare myself the argument here), and both implicate the personal as much as the professional. And in both cases, the concept of “professional” overlaps and perhaps even becomes confused with the personal.

Let me break that down a little.

First, I think there is a tendency to characterize recommending a book as benign – nice words spoken about a book, or a desire to share a positive reading experience, for example. However, as we know, recommendations are fraught with author politics. How many recommendations are given at the behest of an author, editor, or publisher, and therefore constitute a professional courtesy? How much does one author’s name blurbed on another’s book translate into sales, and therefore represent value and currency among readers? Then there is the paid review, which creates the illusion of authentic appreciation for a book, an illusion that must be maintained precisely because it’s not the “like” that’s important to other readers, but the implication of honesty behind it. I have seen many authors insist that positive reviews are crucial to book sales, and we have seen cases where authors anonymously criticize their perceived rivals’ books and recommend their own.

In other words, recommending books, even very nicely, is as much a professional as a personal act.

The same is true for criticizing books; it is both a professional and personal activity, and when people call it “unprofessional,” isn’t what they really mean is that it can hurt one’s personal feelings? For example, when Kelly refers to AnimeJune’s tweets as “nasty,” as “trashing,” and as “tearing people down,” I expect to see insults hurled at SEP as a person. Which I just did not see. Yes, she was harsh and snarky about the book. And yes, SEP’s name is attached to that book, because it’s part of her professional brand. But if snarky tweeting about a book is “tearing people down,” what do we make of the I Hate United Airlines Facebook page?  Why does it not occur to us to defend the employee-owners of United against “mean” comments? What, in the professional code for authors, makes books a different kind of product than a restaurant, an airlines, a cable company, a vacuum manufacturer, or any other thousands of products that are routinely mocked, criticized, given poor reviews, and blamed for all sorts of consumer woes?

Olivia Waite wrote an interesting essay in which she argues that one should only “punch up” in criticism. I’m not sure I agree with her there (and her heretical disdain for The Doors is unforgivable!), but I think she hits on something very important here:

But perhaps you, fellow author, are big potatoes. Perhaps you are an author so well-known and established that I can refer to you by the three letters of your initials, or simply your first name, and people will know at once who I’m talking about. Perhaps you were a bit stung that someone from a much less rarefied position in the book world had expressed displeasure at one part of your life’s work, and you expressed that hurt publicly. You have every right to do so — speaking short, brutal truths is precisely what Twitter is for. 

But I’m not part of your sisterhood. I’m going to be over here, reading those snarky tweets and gleefully agreeing with them. Not because I’m jealous of success and need to see big names cast down — but rather because I don’t believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

I think it is important to note that harsh criticism can be and most often is hurtful, even for those who come from a place of substantial success. On the flip side, it can feel good personally to boost the professional success of a friend. And perhaps because of that sense of empathy, some people will hold their tongue in fear that they will hurt someone else’s feelings. But when this personal perception becomes reified into professional protocol, what are the effects on the actual professional work?

Is it a burden to have to think of oneself as a brand? Sure. But it’s also an opportunity. I know that some authors are afraid to lose readers and/or collegiality by saying something alienating. Erin Satie wrote a very thoughtful essay on her decision to no longer review negatively, and while I understand her decision, I have to say that as a reader it disappoints me. I am always enriched by the insights my own author friends have about books, because the perspective of a craftsperson has prompted me to think about a book in an entirely different way. And these new insights, in turn, deepen my appreciation for books I admire, even as they may open my eyes to issues I had not previously seen, both positive and negative.

When I think of professional values and protocol, and even of professional courtesies, I think of things that will strengthen the craft, the community, and the genre. And you know, there are personal aspects to the way people interact in a professional environment. However, so many times when I run across these discussions of what constitutes “professional” behavior, it seems more personal than anything. Take, for example, the irony of publicly criticizing an author for publicly criticizing a book. Or what about the personal recommendation that has clout because of the professional value of the recommending author’s name? Clearly there are professional issues that persist despite the assertion of a personal act.

Within this context, the confusion between the personal and professional may not seem like such a big deal. But I think they are important, and moreover, I think their importance is magnified when you move into accusations of reader “bullying.” I’m going to save that part of the argument until next time, but in the meantime, tell me: What do you think it means to be a “professional author,” and what kinds of behavior and values do you expect from authors who write for commercial profit (if any)?