In her most recent column for Strange Horizons (fund drive going on now!), Renay spoke about a facet of fan-author interactions that she finds potentially problematic. Subsequently, both Renay and Ana Grilo of The Book Smugglers have been cast as villains in the latest argument over whether authors should comment on discussions of their own work.
And I’m wondering if some of the disconnect in this discussion is because Renay’s roots are in media fandom as opposed to SFF book fandom. SFF book fandom has always had overlapping fans and authors–that liminality has been part of the community from the very beginning: from the first convention, in fact. Media fandom has traditionally been more leery of interactions with creators; in part because of the power differentials between media conglomerates and fans; there are similarities between the media and book fandoms, but there are also very different norms when it comes to interacting with creators.
I believe very strongly that reviews are for readers. When I write a review for this site, the audience I have in mind is a reader. I’m not here to help the author of that particular work sell books or to provide a blurb; I am here to let readers know what I thought about the book. I prefer to not have an argument in comments with an author over my interpretation of a character’s actions or words. When I review a book, it is the text that matters–authorial intention can be fun to talk about but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The text is what it is and what the author intended is moot.
I don’t think it’s bad form to interact with authors in other ways online, though, which is where my perspective seems to diverge, at least a little bit, from Renay’s. I have friends who are authors and I have, in fact, reviewed my friends’ works–sometimes not at all positively. And because we are all reasonably mature adults, it hasn’t been an issue.
That’s not to say I’ve never run afoul of an author. Many years ago, Jill Paton-Walsh was a member of the LordPeter mailing list and I commented that I felt the Sayers estate was whoring out the characters for cash (I still think this, incidentally). I thought Paton-Walsh had her list settings on nomail, as she generally did except when the group was discussing her books. Paton-Walsh’s reaction to my opinion was pretty spectacular and her sense of entitlement was so astounding–she honestly seemed to believe that the rules of the community did not apply to her–that she ended up being removed from the list.
I’ve been thinking about this overlap quite a bit lately, especially in light of the discussion over at Liz’s blog about full disclosure around the lack of critical discourse in the romance community from authors–among other things. The comments are amazingly thoughtful and it’s a real discussion about the romance community and the problems with the relentless undisclosed mutual promotion that can and does happen in it. This discussion couldn’t happen except in a space where both readers and authors are welcome and its existence highlights the necessity and importance of such spaces.
There absolutely can be a power differential between some fans and authors–there are many cases of authors behaving badly and causing difficulties for readers who had the temerity to dislike their books in public. There’s also the whole STGRB mess (they have a HIT LIST of reviewers on Goodreads–an ACTUAL HIT LIST). On the other hands, in economic terms, readers are the ones with the power: they are the ones purchasing the books or not.
I think this comment from Liz’s post is really important, especially the part about authors getting to be people too–it is unfair and awful to expect authors to NOT be people and react in a human way to their work being criticized. But. There is definitely tension and potential for conflict and I think it is on authors to be sure their contributions are welcome before joining the conversation. And I don’t think it’s that difficult, to be honest–and if you do choose to engage and get a response that isn’t encouraging, then you know you need to disengage and not dig in or call in reinforcements. Rose Fox makes an excellent point about how the words author and authority are linguistically tied to each other and how unplanned authorial involvement in a discussion of their work can stifle conversation.
A reader disliking a book or having a problem with aspects of it and saying so in public is not bullying. A columnist talking about the potential pitfalls of authors coming into reader conversations and citing an example is not bullying. Concern for the degree of coziness that some blogs have with the industry is also not bullying. And it’s also not bullying to object to authors participating in discussions of their work when they haven’t been specifically invited to do so.
It’s also not silencing or attacking and it absolutely is not justification for namecalling on social media. Some of that namecalling has included gendered insults and sexual assault threats. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this development and yet I am.
I don’t have a snappy conclusion, I’m just baffled about why Renay’s column–which I found interesting even as I disagreed with aspects of it–has caused this degree of upset in certain quarters. It seemed relatively mild, all things considered, and it was clear she was speaking from her own perspective and experience and not being prescriptive. How we get from what she actually wrote to these accusations of bullying makes no sense to me.