Monday, August 27, 2018

Are Authors Allowed to be Human?

I grew up in a small town. 8,000 people and change. Gravenhurst. Named for the key items in our town's main industry - graves and hearses, or so the joke goes. I couldn't wait to leave. It isn't that there aren't things that I loved about where I grew up. I miss the lakes. A short walk out our door in either direction would take me to a lake. I miss the glorious fall colors and the red and gold leaves reflecting off the water. 

The problem? Small towns breed familiarity and expectations... and limitations. (Almost) everyone knows you or someone in your family. We didn't need social media for your parents to track you down or learn if you'd done something you shouldn't have. We had neighbors and busybodies.

Expectations came in the form of your name and family reputation. Teachers would say to the younger sibling, "Oh, you're so-and-so's sister/brother." As one said to me, "I wouldn't have expected that from Darlene's sister." I was a good student, but didn't rival the studiousness of my sister and teachers let me know it. Nothing quite like being constantly told you don't measure up.

Limitations had to do with opportunities. I went to school with, more or less, the same 27 classmates from kindergarten through grade 8. That meant that once you subtracted the boys, the popular girls, kids who'd been best friends forever and the bullies, there were 3 possible kids left for you to hang out with at recess, give or take. And our lunch hour recess was 45 minutes long, plus we had 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon.

Being on your own was lousy. 

Every summer I swore I would just read at recess. And every school year I'd get sucked back in to trying to fit in somewhere, only to suffer the eventual disappointments and bullying that went with not being part of the popular crowd.

We are often destined to repeat cycles in our lives, and I have come to see social media as the small town cycle for authors.

Our online interactions promote a sense of familiarity. It can seem like we know people that we don't know, or that we're friends with people we've never met. (And that is possible, in some rare cases, but it is rare.)

Expectations and limitations follow. I've said many times that I miss the old blogging days. Remember when every other author had their own blog or was part of a group author blog? I do. I came up in the blogging days of the mid-noughts. When blog after blog hung up the closed sign, where were we to go to interact with our online author and reader friends?

Facebook. Twitter.... Social media had replaced blogging. 

While I acknowledge that we can choose who to friend and who to follow on these forums, the difference between being an author on a blog and being an author on social media is the difference between passive and active promotion. When I post on a blog, someone chooses to come to my site and read what I have to say. They take the action that brings them there. When I post on Facebook or Twitter, my remarks will automatically be directed to all the people I'm connected with there. I'm sticking my words out there and putting them under people's noses. It feels far more assertive.

And social media has bred backlash and conflict, over a wide range of topics. It isn't simply politics that has produced rifts; I've seen feuds over book-related issues as well, pets, how we parent... You name it, someone's argued over it. 

Facebook, in particular, brings out the eternal rebuke that people who need to be punished may appreciate. Of course, that's what makes those of us just trying to be respectful and decent feel like perpetual failures.

Before I really get into this, it needs to be said that there are times authors are way out of line and need to be corrected. There is inappropriate behavior. I'm not talking about authors who start insulting how a reader's mother looks or stuff like that. I think we all know where the line is that puts someone in the indecent and rude camp. You disagree with a person's position and they start calling you names? They block you? That's their inappropriate conduct. Don't let them bully you away from social media. There are times to use the block button. There are times to use the unfriend button. 

However, it's the way people go about it that's so often the problem. I'm guilty of it. A dog group I was in went nasty in a cold minute when someone posted about a political event. Instead of members posting that, "This isn't appropriate here, please take it down," it turned into attacking people personally ("F---ing Libtard!") and attacking their beliefs.

I posted that I didn't feel comfortable on a discussion group where people expressed the kind of extreme vitriol that I saw in response to that post and I quit the group. I wouldn't hang out with people who threaten others that way in real life so why would I hang out with them on social media?

But did I have to say that as I left? No. It was partially my hope the moderators might set some guidelines but it was also my finger wag on some people. Even if they deserved it, they likely only trashed me after I was gone. What did I accomplish? Nothing, but I looked critical.

I've really had to take stock of my own social media conduct and policies of late. Have I been part of the problem, perpetuating unrealistic expectations on others? I think I've been swept up in this more than I realized.

That end-of-summer dilemma I had as a kid? That's where I'm at these days. And it has to stop.

When you're an aspiring author, that's the club you want to be in. It's an accomplishment to be published, as anyone who is an author knows. So many hours of solitary work and dreams and hope realized...

And then you're an author. You want to join the author groups and be part of the author discussions. It's all very natural. Professionals want to interact with other people who understand what they're dealing with in their day to day. Everyone wants to feel like they belong.

But I wish sometimes that I'd stayed anonymous and remained with the readers.

You see, once you're an author, people start to have expectations of you. It comes from all sides. There are readers who will hope for your next book, and they're the readers you want and appreciate. 

Then there are readers who will lecture you about how to behave and not hesitate to tell you why they'll never read your book.

Maybe that issue was always there, in some capacity, but social media has made it very transparent and widespread.

Here's an example. A person posts that they will unfriend anyone who posts anything they consider to be fake news. Reputable news outlets start reporting that a celebrity has died. People post about being sad to hear this person has died. Person flips out because the official family spokesman hasn't confirmed that the celebrity died and unfriends people because they didn't fact check.

I don't even know how you'd know who the official family spokesman was, other than them being identified in the same media outlets that reported the person had passed away, and if that media outlet isn't credible reporting the person's passing then can they be credible reporting on the ID and words of the alleged spokesman?

Compare to this scenario. Several months ago, I resigned from Spinetingler. Brian had been backing away (wisely) and all the backroom drama for some time and had his own site where he could do his own thing. 

I had projects in the works I didn't want to abandon so I started my own new site. 

People within the community started reporting that Brian and I started Toe Six.

Inaccurate. I started it. I clarified this in a few places, but it wasn't being corrected, and spread further and further.

I told Brian that he better get involved with Toe Six because clearly, a lot of people we know didn't think a woman could handle it on her own.* 

Big deal, right? So Brian got involved. Who cares if people we actually in real life know reported it wrong? Whether it was deliberate or an accidental showing of someone's sexism, it was sexism. Maybe it was intended as a rebuke to put me in my place because Lord knows a woman can't do anything without a man, but I'm not going to worry about interpreting motives from people who didn't verify what they were reporting to begin with. In light of the reasons behind me starting a new site it's just sad to realize how widespread some outdated attitudes still are.

And isn't it funny how people can get unfriended over allegedly prematurely expressing sadness over the loss of a celebrity that none of us personally know and those same people don't take issue with people they have actually met in person inaccurately reporting about other people they have actually met? 

Why mention all of this? What is the point? 

What kind of message does it send when people continuously post about how they're going to unfriend authors who post about politics... or unfriend people who post about other things they disapprove of?

We don't care enough to tell someone that, "Hey, I like you and love to chat about x, y, z but can't handle the posts about W so I'm just letting you know I'd rather not talk about that subject with you and won't engage those posts so that we can avoid an unnecessary fight." Or, "Hey, they've acknowledged this was a mistake and corrected the report" or that, "This is another one of those satire sites" so the person can correct their post if they've fallen into that trap? (Because in years like this one, some of the real news has been crazier than some of the products from satire sites.) Nope. Another one bites the dust. "You have failed my friendship standard and now my ax will fall!" Chop chop.

What the actual eff? What is wrong with people? When did our standards for judgment and inclusion or exclusion become the most important thing about us and who we interact with?

What does it say about you if you think that way?

I still have friends who (gasp!) voted for 45. In one case, I saw a post that really irked me. And I thought about responding, and then didn't, but I did send the person a message. We had a private, respectful conversation.


I don't even feel like I can express an honest opinion. I didn't even post anything about Aretha because you never can be too careful anymore and who the hell knows who is an authorized spokesman and who isn't? I guess some people who want to police everyone on Facebook... It must be a joyous life they lead, running around with their rulers slapping those who step out of their lines.

I'm not saying people don't have the right to unfriend or even block. It's all in how you go about it, and to some extent it's also about why. 

It's one thing to say to someone, "I"m concerned you may be alienating people with these kinds of posts." An example? People who post pictures of animal abuse. I understand that many people may not want to see that in their feed. And they have an absolute right to those feelings. I feel similarly. But you can hit the 'see less of this' option. You can take the person out of your feed or take a break from them for a while. You can message them and tell them how you feel and give them a chance to reflect and perhaps consider whether they want to continue making those posts.

Or you can just dump them because they didn't follow your checklist for acceptable behavior.

Is that real friendship?


(And I can understand the reasoning for those graphic posts, that people are so desensitized they need to be shocked to take action. That isn't far from the truth these days. I still don't like seeing those posts myself, but hey, that's what the 'see less of posts like this' option is for. And we're still friends and I'm glad you care about animals.)

All of this reminds me of my years in the church, when people couldn't wait to pull out a scripture and point out how you failed God and man by listening to secular music or watching a movie or something.

I was just as guilty back in my church days and have definitely misstepped on social media at times. Definitely had some knee-jerk reactions.

Over time, I've tried to walk away and cool off from things. (I have my sounding board and, thankfully for those who think a woman can't handle life without a man, Brian has the male equipment needed to make him more rational and reasonable. A penis does that for a person. So when I told him about something this morning that had only made me role my eyes and sigh and he said I better nip that shit in the bud pronto, I was surprised, but of course I knew he couldn't possibly be overreacting because he has testicles. Thank god I have his balls to guide me.)

I've learned not to be deluded by social media. Most of the people you likely connect with there aren't your friends. They may be associated to you by industry or interests, but the extent of your common ground may be limited. 

If you're going on social media and posting repeatedly, "If people keep posting x, y or z I'm going to unfriend them. You've been warned!" then it's the equivalent of wagging your finger in someone's face and lecturing them about what is and is not acceptable behavior. (Yes, it's fair to say that you aren't okay with certain conduct or topics. Yes, it's okay to unfriend. It's all in how you do it. We all know the difference between having respectful guidelines and personally lecturing someone specific.)

Maybe we should all really consider whether or not we should be friending people without vetting them first. And authors are in a unique dilemma because we don't want to exclude readers. But there's the problem. Readers shouldn't be the primary people we connect with on our personal Facebook accounts.

The problem is that the act of "friending" suggests a connection based on friendship. When someone sends you a friend request they're saying they want to be your approved friend. They're saying that they thing you're the kind of person they'd like to hang out with, interact with, exchange ideas and information with.

If you have a long list of conditions for who can stay on your friends list maybe you shouldn't be so casual about friending people, because when you unfriend them you're also sending a message. That you don't like them. That they aren't good enough for you or the kind of person you want to hang out with. Or maybe that you've realized they aren't going to do something for you that you wanted them to do so you don't need to pretend to like them anymore.

Perhaps you would be better off interacting with them in a group about your shared interests rather than being 'friends' with them. Perhaps you should very carefully consider whether or not to friend people who are in your industry, because the process of unfriending is often nasty and awkward, and even if you do it to preserve your own sanity you will likely make enemies along the way. Especially with public commentary. Then it's a break-up. People get pushed on sides. Like... I don't want to get into some things. But a little something that happened back in March? I wonder how people would feel if they could read some of the aggressive and insulting emails I received. Wonder how they'd feel if they knew what was being said about other authors and writers we'd published and people in our community behind their backs? How many would feel differently about their alleged friendships and choices in unfriending if they knew what really made me resign?

But you know what? Real friends would have asked. Many did. And anyone who didn't and jumped to conclusions wasn't a real friend. I just have to accept that. That says nothing about me and indicts them. Yes, it compounds my hurt. Yes, it multiplies all the revulsion I feel, about the inappropriate behavior I was on the receiving end of. I just thank God I had my penis-bearing sounding board to assure me I wasn't overreacting after more than nine months of issues lead to that moment in time. 

Every time someone posts they're going to trim their friends list and I'm not cut I'm relieved I didn't fail the friendship test. It's that small snippet of approval we all need from time to time. Good enough not to be on the chopping block yet! Woohoo!

The problem I'm seeing for authors is that when people tell them how to behave and what to post or not to post on their feed, they make them less than human. They're looking for a product and they expect it to appear and function a certain way. They don't expect it to have free will and independent thought and interests outside of what brought you to them. 

If you don't want to follow an author who posts about politics, quietly unfriend or unfollow them. Move over to the author page or sign up for their newsletter. It's what you should have done first. Me, personally, I have some friends I love who I disagree with. And they routinely post about those things we disagree on. So I unfollow them but remain friends and go read their feed so I'm prepared for what I'm seeing, and nothing that will make my blood boil pops up in my feed. Problem solved. They aren't sticking that topic in my face each day: I skip past it when I go to their feed and focus on the stuff I am interested in. But I never get shocked by being subjected to the topic of our disagreement and we're still friends and still able to connect on social media in a way that works for me. I can only assume they manage their account in a way that works for them. 

When you start telling those people what to post or not to post you are telling them that they aren't a person entitled to make their own decisions and have a regular person's Facebook account; they're a commodity, and if you're telling them what to post or what not to post, you think you have ownership or the right to impose your standards on them.**

So I must apologize to anyone I've ever lectured about posting content. If I have done that to you, over politics, religion or otherwise, I was wrong. Yes, there are things I've had enough of. Reveal yourself to be a racist? Bye. Okay with abusing children or animals? Good riddance. 

But the stuff that doesn't fall in the black and white category? Am I going to flip out because you don't see that green is the best color ever? Or that Simon's the best AGT judge? 

These days I go on Facebook and I worry if I post X, so-and-so will be upset, and if I post Y this other so-and-so will complain and J-and-J and D-and-D had that big chat last week about how people shouldn't post about personal problems because that sends a message that they're losers so don't post about having a rough day and S doesn't like pet pictures because they're boring...

And before you know it you haven't a fucking clue what you can or can't say anymore that won't cause someone to jump down your throat with their almighty judgment and tell you how you've failed to post like a proper author on Facebook.

Aren't authors human?

Aren't we people?

Aren't we allowed a space for ourselves? Even online?

When I was young and dreamed of being an author I thought about living in the country with my dogs and writing stories people would read.

I didn't think about needing to look a certain way. Having to censor my thoughts about things. Having to present a perfect image that would be acceptable to the masses. I don't even remember the first time I saw a real, live author, but I guarantee it was as an adult. The idea of meeting authors wasn't at all present in my childhood brain.

I loved books and writing and I thought I could fit in this world.

Woe is me for ever having such conceit. Never underestimate the willingness of some people to try to take you down a peg for not measuring up to their standards. Maybe they'll always call you a writer or a novelist, but never an author, because that's reserved for the upper crust of those who write books that are published. 

I'm starting to feel like being an author, sorry, writer, has cost me myself. 

I have an author page on Facebook. About 10 people like it. And I'm unwilling to invite people to like it because that's just something else for people to bitch about on social media. I get it. I mean, I'm anal about notifications. I can't stand unread emails in an inbox or unread notifications on my social media accounts. I have to clear them. But I feel this constant paralysis. Don't add people to groups. Gotcha. Don't invite people to like your author page. Okay. 

Don't post on your Facebook page things that will offend readers who have friended you instead of following your Facebook page...

NO. No no no. Want the author me? Go follow my author page. My Facebook account is where I keep in touch with my cousins. It's where I post photos for my family to see. It's where I post about things I'm doing or things that are important to me. ME. The fucking human being ME that I'm still trying to be.

But not right now. I didn't even post birthday wishes to my niece yesterday, because I can't bring myself to be there.

We authors have to stop viewing ourselves as commodities because we're selling our souls, one piece at a time, if we let public pressure dictate every single thing we say and do. How many of these "Don't post about politics" people are jumping all over Stephen King every time he posts about Trump on Twitter? Or do these rules only apply to people who aren't millionaires or darlings of the industry? Because we aren't in the upper crust we deserve to get a good lecture and finger wag regularly so the self-appointed arbiters of author conduct can tell us how to behave? Oh, wait, maybe that's the dividing line. Authors can do what they like but novelists are subject to public approval for everything they say and do.

Seriously, writers have enough to worry about. We have enough rules we have to follow. I can't join a book group without being told how authors are and are not allowed to conduct themselves. There are a lot more expectations on us. And I understand why. Hell, I joined a book group for a specific genre recently and was so disappointed to find it was post after post after post from authors about their latest books instead of anyone actually taking about what books they were reading and digging. So, yeah, I get it. Of course I do.

But I'm still sad and disappointed. I've had people chum up to me online and then when I try to talk to them at a convention they ignore me or blow me off. Maybe because they already got that blurb or review or figure I can't do anything else for them. 

Funny how you'll hear from them next time they have a book out.

I long for real people. I'd like to be a friend and not just a commodity to everyone else I'm connected with online. Apparently, a lot of other people don't feel that way.

Being an author is supposed to make you part of the club. And I have never in my entire life -all the long recesses I did spend by myself included- felt so alone. I can't go back to being a reader and an enthusiastic supporter of books. I'm in a different space I can't escape, and bombarded with constant reminders of how I'll never measure up to some people's standards. 

And when I think about the constant stream of judgment and the criticisms and conflicts... maybe being alone is a good thing. Maybe the happiest author is a recluse who isn't bombarded with these expectations and criticisms.

It's just funny that authors should bring us insight and meaning and stories that are captivating and original... but the minute an author personally has insight or something they value or an original thought they express, heaven help them.

We need our authors to be human. How ever will they write meaningfully about the human condition if it's a foreign concept to them? How will they breathe life into characters if they have no character themselves?

If we pressure authors to be nothing but a commodity that acts and talks a certain way we'll get nothing but writers who see all people as potential sales.

Do you want your author to be a person or a product?

Some years ago I was at a convention and a very popular, successful author was eating dinner across the room with their family. I wasn't an author then, and many readers took note of their presence. 

You know what not one single person at that book convention did? Nobody interrupted them to ask for an autograph.

Boundaries are a good thing. And authors, if it comes down to maintaining your sanity or being reduced to expectations, it's time to put some boundaries in place. 

Don't lose yourself to expectations and people pleasing.

Stay real.

* And he got on board and we got excited about future possible projects, because there was the chance we could finally do what we'd been wanting to do again, but that all depends on capital. I'm not interested in Mickey Mouse publishing. I want to do it right... or not at all. And doing it right takes money, for artwork and paying writers and promotion... and I'm never giving over control of a site I'm running to someone else again just to have it destroyed. If I can't afford to do it I'll pull the plug myself. So we'll see what happens, but that's another story for another day and not the real point here.

But the sexism? I'm not joking about that. I could do a whole other post about sexism and if I was really willing to put some private things into the public domain it would be easy to show how condescending some men in the publishing world are towards women. The crime fiction community isn't exempt. I mean, check this out - in this decade 56% of bestselling mysteries are written by men and 44% by women, but that's much closer to equal than the 79% men/21% women in fantasy/sci fi. The Edgar nominations for this part year reflected a healthy percentage of women writers, while in May 2018 it was reported that books by women are consistently priced lower than books by men. And then there's the twitter backlash against Pelecanos for doing a piece recommending books and not including a single book by a woman... That bubbled up yesterday.

**This is not a justification for people who start discussions and then unfriend anyone who doesn't agree with them or worship them. There are some behavioral guidelines that apply to everyone. There's a difference between saying, "I disagree with you," and saying, "You're a f--ing r-tard" because a person doesn't automatically defer to your genius. I'd like to think we can all see the difference there.

PS Now, I have been quietly unfriending people. Anyone I don't personally know whose account has been inactive for more than a year. And I'm now thinking through some general guidelines for social media for myself. I do think it's perfectly fair for people to expect civility in their threads and block people who attack others. That's fine. That's about ensuring a respectful space for all. But I also think that if people want to have rules of conduct for being friends that they need to post them and pin them to the top of their page for all to see. I'm planning to do that myself. Still working on the wording, though.


Kevin R. Tipple said...

I probably was one of those folks who said you and Brian together started Toe Six when I shared the news. I apologize. My mistake was not at all sexist and should not have been assumed to be such. It was my thinking that you two do everything together. I thought Toe Six was a joint venture.

Again, I apoligize.


Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know if you were. But if so you weren't the primary source. I know where it started and spread from. Hell, someone posted something inaccurate about Toe Six today. Sigh. I can only plead with people if I get something wrong to tell me. I actually tried when Toe Six started. All these months on I've given up.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

By all means, you see me screw up, please tell me. I want to know so I can fix it.