I’ve been known to fangirl pretty hardcore over my favourite authors. I’m definitely the book nerd at every book signing with a big, embarrassing stack of said author’s books, asking sheepishly if they will sign them for me. I like to tag authors in posts and send them tweets about my excitement over their new books. I knew that there is a dark side to the relationship between the author and the reader–in the online forum–but until I read Kacen Callender’s article, I wasn’t aware just how complicated the author-reader relationship could be.
Kacen Callender talks a lot about the “dehumanizing” of authors online and they list a lot of examples in their well-thought out article. As a reader, it made me think about the way that I interact with authors both on and off the internet. I don’t write negative reviews, because art is subjective and I’m not one of those fans who pesters their favourite authors to finish their books like the folks who follow George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss. It probably also has a lot to do with the fact that I’m currently in publishing school and, hey, I don’t want to be a jerk to folks I might (maybe??) get to work with some day.
I mean, a girl can dream, right?
The idea of dehumanizing someone online got me thinking about not just how we interact with the books that we love, but with the authors we *think* we know.
It makes me wonder: are we reading the author or are we reading the text? Is it possible to separate the two?
The Author is Dead
Roland Barthes thinks that we should leave the author out of the equation in The Death of the Author, because once the book is published, it’s out of the author’s hands. The reader, Barthes thinks, should be free to interpret and interact with the book without giving the author another thought. It’s all about the story, right? I mean, when I read Crazy Rich Asians, I’m not reading Kevin Kwan, but I sort of feel like I’m (maybe?) seeing a little part of him. In book talks, Kwan has mentioned that he’s suffused real people and places from his life, so maybe this is why his stories are so vibrant and immersive. I love his books, but I don’t know him. Like, would I want to have lunch with him and maybe talk about cool stuff? Yes, yes I would. (Any time you’re free, Kev, I’m down for that. Okay? Okay.)
In the 60’s, the author could hide out in their cool, writerly shack and turn up for some literary events. But since social media is a thing now, the author doesn’t get to “die” (metaphorically only!) There is another layer to the author-reader relationship and it’s complicated.
Here’s the thing, though. Our relationship with authors has gotten complicated since Barthes was writing that stuff in the 60’s, when you couldn’t just pop onto Twitter and find out what your favourite author is thinking about, or read their blog, or visit their Instagram and find out that OH MY GAWD THEY LIKE THE SAME ICE CREAM FLAVOUR THAT I DO. Or, you know, just generally, be creepy and find out ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR. Boundaries blur on the internet. People don’t behave like they would in real life, because they feel like they are safe behind some invisibility cloak of anonymity. That’s why this whole public shaming thing is getting out of control.
Last year, Sarah Dessen’s fiery reaction to a reader, Brooke Nelson’s response to one of Dessen’s books caught people’s attention. Dessen Tweeted that “authors are real people” and that the reader was “mean and cruel” for not wanting her book to be selected for a university course syllabus. Things spiraled out of control and soon people were calling Nelson out online, harassing her and cursing her out. Nelson ended up having to delete all of her social media accounts. It’s not that authors don’t get to have a say, or that they aren’t people. They are clearly people with feelings and sometimes those feelings get hurt. At the same time, it’s the repeated phrase: “I am real. I’m a real person” that fascinates me.
Can anyone be real online? Is it possible to set clear boundaries and have reasonable interactions?
Welcome to the internet, where the ghost of the author is fully accessible and also kind of conflated with everything that they have ever written and/or said online. It’s not fair, but I tend to think that the internet “dehumanizes” all of us a little bit. That sucks and I wish that it weren’t true. The internet has this strange way of flattening people out. Nobody is really, truly “real” online, even though we all crave that “authentically addictive” internet persona who overshares, letting us in to their little slice of existence.
To make things worse, online identity is performative. (I mean, IRL our identity is at least in part performative too, but online, it’s amplified.) The internet is deeply voyeuristic and opinionated and creepy and subjective. It is an echo-chamber for your own beliefs as much as it is a forum for free thought. This is both great and terrible. If the internet were a person, it would be a mean girl fused with that know-it-all weirdo from high school who wouldn’t stop reciting facts from the encyclopedia fused with every porno you *didn’t* watch.
(Can we be real here? Did you watch it?)
Well, I’m not going to admit it if you won’t.
But, see, that’s the thing, isn’t it? On the internet, you can’t be entirely real. Your personality is limited to what you reveal. Online, your personality is your art and your entire existence and whether they mean to or not, readers sometimes insert themselves into the author’s fictional Author Persona World, much like we do when we read a book and we fill in the blanks with our own lived experiences. (Iser would say that this is a normal function of reading, btw). That doesn’t mean that it isn’t hella creepy or that it sometimes infringes on author’s feelings and/or personal boundaries.
In their article, Callender laments that authors are not treated like “full human beings” and that “we aren’t allowed to have personalities,” which hurts my heart to hear, because I love Kacen Callender’s books. All of them. Fiercely. I would most definitely fight off a fire-breathing dragon for both K.C. and their books EVERY SINGLE DAMN TIME.
I also think that online, it’s not that you can’t have a personality, it’s just that it’s a snapshot. There is online and IRL (in real life). I would never condone any kind of rudeness or bullying of authors online. That’s just plain uncool. I do wonder if the new, complicated nature of the reader-author relationship online blurs the boundaries. How real can you be, outside of reality? And what happens when online comments have real consequences? It’s a tricky relationship to navigate. Although, maybe it is time to figure that out for the authors that we embarrassingly, deeply, love but don’t really know.
P.S. Have you ever called out someone online? Which authors are you stalking right now? (Don’t worry, I won’t tell).
This is such a fantastic discussion and it’s so well written too!! I completely agree that the presence of social media has definitely warped our relationships with authors. In the past, people’s perception of an author was carefully curated through a few interviews here and there and maybe a signing, but now we have access to anything an author might randomly tweet or post.
I think in general people have an issue realizing that their favorite content creators are real people too and that just because they “know” a side of them from the books they write or the videos they post, it doesn’t mean that they actually *know* them. I also think that as consumers of media we’ve sort of become selfish, and a lot of people expect authors to hear their individual complaints about their book and then just change it.
Thanks Chana! I agree that people forget that there is a real person behind all of those tweets etc and that it can be hard to see where the line is between authors and readers. You make a good point about readers making demands on authors and expecting results that are totally out of their control! Do you correspond with any fav authors online? 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!