Don’t put authors on pedestals — it ends badly for everyone

My friends, we need to talk about a thing that I see happening with alarming frequency, and that is the hero worship of authors, followed by outraged senses of betrayal when they mess up, or do something that doesn’t meet the expectations of their fans. (Not always the same thing.) Because this is a cycle that doesn’t end well for anyone, and it’s something we really need to stop perpetuating.

Authors in the modern era are in an interesting position, because it’s not enough to write books and maybe go on tour to having signings now and then. There’s also a heavy expectation that they be active on social media. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and lots of authors clearly love being on social media and get much more out of it than ‘more people buying my books.’ However, it has created some strange tensions and expectations.

I’ve commented before that many people exert a sense of ownership over public figures — following them on social media, for example, makes people assume that they understand the inner workings of their lives, makes them regard them as friends and known entities, and sometimes generates very proprietary feelings. Instead of recognising social media as part of an author’s life, sometimes a construct, it’s assumed to be a conduit into the intimate details of their lives — which it sometimes is, but also sometimes isn’t. I follow lots of authors on Twitter but I don’t make the mistake of thinking that means we are friends, or they are interested in my opinions on their lives, even, yes, if they follow me or we have conversations.

It makes me deeply uncomfortable in ways I cannot fully articulate when people assume they know things about me, or have a right to comment on my life, simply because I’m a public figure. I also deeply resist the notion that people are ‘asking for it’ by choosing to be in public fields, and that if they want privacy they should just, you know, not. I’m a relatively minor public figure and I don’t come in for the same level of intensity and scrutiny that, say, well-known authors do, and I don’t like what I see, since I feel like it’s the microcosm of my experience writ large.

Especially when it comes to the tendency to put people on pedestals. Because I definitely interact with people who follow and read my work and have decided I can do no wrong — and consequently, they are so bitterly disappointed when I do a bad thing. It’s a disappointment that goes beyond surprise or disappointment that someone whom you think is generally pretty on top of it just showed their arse. It’s a deep, bitter sense of betrayal: This person I thought was perfect actually isn’t, and this crack in their facade is completely restructuring my entire view of them.

People, don’t do this. I see it happening with authors a lot because people read their books and identify intensely with them, often getting a great deal out of them and finding them to be a huge source of comfort and guidance. And that is huge and wonderful to see, and I know it makes many authors delighted and happy to see readers who feel a sense of being at home in their work. Sometimes, though, loving books translates into thinking you know more about the author than you do, and it becomes difficult for people to separate authors from their work.

Some really great books were written by terrible people, and the debate over whether you can separate art from creator is perhaps left to another time. Other books were written by perfectly nice and lovely people who are, as people inevitably do, going to mess something up, perhaps in a surprisingly, startling, weird, or unexpected way. Maybe a conservative streak manifests, or an author reveals a gulf in awareness about a given social issue, or an author is tired and on tour and misframes something — doesn’t actually believe it, but doesn’t think a comment through — and it blows up.

If you don’t worship an author, this isn’t a personal betrayal. It’s just a thing that happened that wasn’t so great, and a thing that will hopefully spark an interesting conversation. Maybe the author will learn some things through interacting with people who bring it up. Maybe that author will be defensive and standoffish, which also provides information about how that author thinks and behaves. But by starting from a base acknowledgement that we are all humans and we all fuck up, we have the roots of an actual discussion.

Instead, I see authors being absolutely hammered on social media for a trip-up, and it often turns into a snarled mess. As formerly ardent fans are suddenly denouncing them and everything they stand for, the situation goes from a conversation to a defense crouch, with authors doubling down and lashing out because they’re feeling attacked. We can have a long and critical debate about whether comments and criticisms are ‘attacking,’ but we also need to admit that humans are humans, and when hundreds of people are talking at you all at once and throwing in some intense emotional language about feeling betrayed and disgusted and disappointed, it is very hard for most humans to take a deep breath and rationally respond. It just is.

This isn’t because Author A is a bad person who can’t take criticism and is clearly bigoted, but because Author A, a human, is suddenly buckling over from a load that is really, really intense. That load wouldn’t be as intense if the author’s readers generally agreed that humans are humans, and although they absolutely adore their favourite authors, they’re also aware that people make mistakes, and their favourites will too, and the question isn’t if, but when, and how that author handles them. Creating breathing room makes it much more probable that people won’t end up in a horribly snarled mess — and will likely result in a better conversation. This isn’t about going soft on people when they do bad things, or positing that some people should be treated more gently than others, but a frank discussion about humans, and how stressful it is to be put on a pedestal you didn’t ask for, only to be hit with sledgehammers the minute you slip.

Image; La fuente de la Mariblanca en los Jardines de Aranjuez, Antonio Marín Segovia, Flickr