I was a young girl in the 70s and 80s (I “graduated” high school in 1986, so those where my years of coming up into being a young adult). I read a lot, and sometimes dreamed of writing stories for others to read. Writers were my favorite celebrities and I was always looking to find out more about them as people – who were they? Why did they write? What was their inspiration? How did their days unfold?
But the problem was that if you were an author back then, there were very few ways you could engage with your readers. (I’m sure a lot of people reading this are old enough to remember that, but I’m making a point here, so bear with me.) Fans like me got by on very, very little, and we treasured every morsel. There was no internet, no blogs, no websites.
Getting to know an author was done primarily through their published writing, with auxiliary information emerging from pinpricks of connections. If you were a fan, you resorted to the following:
- You could mail actual hard copy letters. In very rare instances, you would get a personal response, but usually you got form-letter replies.
- You could arrange to meet them at a reading or a signing at a bookstore, if they did author tours.
- If they wrote genre (romances, sf/f) you could meet them at a convention at some point if they were on a panel or had a sales table.
- You could join their fan club, which usually sent out a hard-copy newsletter to all members that had information about the author and their works, but also statements or open letters to the fans from the authors themselves that were exclusive to the fanclub newsletter.
- Of course, you could have called them on the phone, but even back then that was considered a little too stalkery. Same for showing up on their doorstep.
- You might be lucky if they were popular enough to get an interview in a magazine or a newspaper, but that was as far as it got.
One of the golden rules of the pre-internet era was that you, the author, were to never upset your readers with your personal opinions, especially concerning politics or religion. This rule tended to shield authors from interacting with fans, and especially with more popular authors, all communication with them was handled through their publisher’s marketing department. See above.
This was a rule of thumb that was started, I’m pretty sure, by the publishers themselves. To them, nothing is more important than sales, and if sales were lost because an author came out as Catholic, or pagan, or atheist, then that did not make the publisher happy. For publishers, whether intentionally or not, the bottom line is that an author’s work is a commodity that belongs to the publisher, who doesn’t need much of anything from the author other than their stories. The author themselves were otherwise immaterial, and best kept out of the spotlight.
But then the internet started happening – USEnet, compuserve, email – and when those very early connections formed, authors realized they had access to a wider platform than what their publishers provided, and (more importantly) one that their publishers did not control.
Admittedly, was a very teeny tiny platform, because while USEnet was huge for its time, it was miniscule compared to the amount of interaction that happens on Facebook each day. But authors posted on USEnet and compuserv, and a few visionary ones started email newsletters.
Still, rule of thumb was “don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about religion, don’t talk about anything that will upset people.” I learned this rule young, and much like my mother’s admonition of “you might run for public office one day!” it was a very effective method of repression. Would anyone by my (as yet unwritten, unpublished) books if they knew I was a feminist/queer/socialist????? Yes, these are questions that haunted me at as teen: why my non-existent fanclub would think of someone who openly opposed and even derided President Reagan.
*clutches (also non-existent) pearls*
Back in about 2009/2010, when I first started seriously contemplating following the path of being a published author, I thought long and hard about my “brand” and my online platform. This all coincided with me starting graduate school, and was cognizant of the fact that what I considered to be a good author platform would also be a good “professional” brand online as well. I changed things up on facebook, twitter, and my own blog to reflect that idea: kind of bland, always on topic, and never talking about things that mattered a lot to me personally but that would also be controversial.
This was a habit that was reinforced by my participation in the fanfiction community starting around 2007. There, it was very dangerous to be your public self. Everybody had pseudonyms, everybody hid who they really were behind the mask of fandom. I don’t think that made people false, I think it made people more genuine in their interactions with each other because there was no fear that there would be serious “real life” reprisals. (There was fandom wank and shipping wars and clashes of personalities, some of which really upset people, but the anonymity of community members definitely offered some protection.)
Some of my best friends were made under the veil of that anonymity.
As a fanfiction writer, I was cautioned repeatedly, loudly, and harshly to never reveal that I was a fanfiction writer as that would get me blacklisted in the fanfiction community. It had happened before, it has happened recently, and might happen still. There are authors now who are more open about their fanfiction activities, but legacy publishers are still on board with the idea that being a fanfiction author means being a terrible, immature, and unreliable author. That’s not even counting the “writing establishment” of authors and editors who view fanfiction as a toad turd. The advice to stay “in the closet” was given in earnest, based on very real concerns.
The era I grew up in, and the environments I surrounded myself with (fanfiction, academic, and professional librarians) all pushed very hard not to be controversial. Don’t admit to writing fanfic. If your sexuality, gender, or political outlook is not mainstream, don’t talk about it. No politics, no religion.
But authors are human beings too.
These days, every author has their own online platform. For many authors that means a combination of blogs, websites, Facebook pages or profiles, twitter accounts, maybe other outlets such as tumblr or wattpad (even Margaret Atwood is on wattpad now).
Now it is a lot easier to know what a writer has to say about many topics. They can have political opinions, share their stories of romance and parenthood, and discuss not just national politics but the politics of the author organizations they belong to, awards committees, etc. And they do. They risk losing sales for the sake of being true to themselves, something they could not even do with any impact in the 1970s.
Which leads me to John Scalzi’s article about his choice to write about politics, aptly titled “Hey, Looks Like It’s Time Once Again For Me to Talk About Writing On Politics.” It is an excellent essay, which uses a few cuss words along the way but reflects his own opinions, and his experiences as a writer, and most importantly, his choice to write about whatever the hell he wants to, whether it loses him readers or not.
Scalzi’s rant was validation to me of an important conclusion I have been coming to over the last two years: you will always piss people off.
There will never be a time you don’t piss people off. Your books will piss people off. Your short stories will piss people off. Your movies, or your music, or your art, will piss people off. Your blog posts, your religion, your lack of religion, your sexuality, how you talk about your sexuality, your political opinions, your anger, your joy, your pain…all of these things will piss people off.
Someone out there will get mad because they disagree, or agree but think you did the thing wrong, or don’t like hearing how you feel about something, or want to convince you that what you feel is wrong.
That list is actually endless.
People will get pissed off, and be mean to you and harass you and act like dirty buttwipes smearing their opinions all over you.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of that, but good luck with not pissing people off.
Perhaps it can be done. Some authors I know never talk about any of these things. They only post about happy kids, happy marriages, happy pets, happy jobs. They save their opinions for books they are reading or the car they just bought. That works for them, but it doesn’t work for me.
It never has worked for me.
I’m not someone who can sit by and not express what I feel, or who I am, openly and loudly.
This might cost me future job opportunities, it might cost me readers eventually. That’s always the challenge, isn’t it? That is always the risk: that who we are will upset someone else just because you are that person.
You are either in a place to take that risk, or you are not. I’m not judging those who are not in a place to take that risk. For instance, in the fanfiction community, there are people who have lost their jobs and even their marriages when it was discovered they were writing slash fanfiction on the side. That is what keeps many people from opening up and being honest about what they do in their spare time for fun.
As ridiculous as I think it is that people should be punished for something like that, the fact is, they have been.
Which isn’t even getting into the horror stories of people being thrown out of families or having their children ripped from their arms for coming out as gay, bi, queer, trans*, etc. I’ve been listening to those stories since I was a young girl, because I grew up in the queer community off and on. I saw those stories all around me.
I remember the women who ran Amazon Books in Albuquerque, N.M., in the late 1970s, a bookstore my mother spent a lot of time hanging around at. These were women who were very openly lesbian, and who were very openly marginalized by the society around them. To them the risk was worth it in order to be open about who they were, but for many others, such as my mother, it was inconceivable.
I’m in a place of privilege where I can be open about who I am without completely destroying my life, but that doesn’t shield me from being attacked anyway.
The lesson I’ve had to learn is that I will always piss people off, and that scares me.
The idea of people getting angry at me for what I say and do is a fear that I talk about with my therapist a lot. I won’t bore you with details, but the fear is real.
Over the past five years I’ve become more comfortable with being who I am professionally and who I am publicly, but it’s still a leap for me to think about that from the standpoint of being an author — from the standpoint of where Scalzi is writing from, on top of his own personal mountain (that is, his blog) to say what he feels and why he feels that way without any hesitation about doing so. He really does not care about people who hate what he says, who hate him for saying those things.
The time is upon me, though. I look up to authors I admire, not just for their writings (but also for their writings) but more so for their willingness to speak out on what is important to them, such as Scalzi, and Chuck Wendig, and Seanan MaGuire, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They are my role models.
The upcoming release of my vanity project book, Wolves of Harmony Heights, puts all of this on the table for me. It is a very socially-conscious story that revolves around a polyamorous M/M/F relationship where all three members love each other (or fall in love with each other…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out more!). It talks about a lot of issues from a social justice angle, including poverty, classism, racism, blah blah blah. I have to accept that the book will piss people off, no matter how much work I put into it, no matter how much I love those characters, no matter how much other people love those characters. People are going to get mad about the very things I love most in the book.
And, whether people read the book or not, it is linked to me, the person who is very outspoken about a lot of politics, who identifies as queer and as a social justice warrior. If they love the book and come looking for me, they will find my blog, and my facebook profile, and my Going on 50 podcast, and that silly romance I am writing on wattpad. Eventually I’ll feel safe enough to openly identify with my fanfiction profile, too. That will all be me, right there and in people’s faces.
So you know: people gonna be pissed off. They will hate my work or hate me or just hate in general.
I can’t stop that, I can’t change that, and I can’t be anything but who I am.