When Authors Become Stars: Celebrity and Fandom

| Friday, April 18, 2014

Last week, I was watching discussion between some friends unfold and decided that I wanted to write up a post about something I've been meaning to discuss for a while: the incredibly complicated intersection between authors, books, media, celebrity, and fandom.

This isn't something that is easily distilled. I'm going to do my best, but this is an enormous conversation with a million different factors, and one person can't possibly cover all of it. So let's view this as a starting point to a much larger discussion. I want to lay my thoughts on the table, start to organize them, and invite other people with other insight to give their thoughts, as well. I'm not going to have the insight of, say, a publisher, or a multi-published author, or the person in charge of marketing in the current media landscape.

So let's start with the idea of the celebrity author.

I'm pretty sure every writer who's making a solid go of it can relate to the following conversation: "Oh, you're writing a book? Are you going to be famous?" The general public has this idea of what being an author is like, and that idea is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, John Green. Household names. Movie deals. Millions of fans. Placement in the fabric of pop culture. It never quite registers that people who fit this bill are few and far between, given the literally thousands of books published every year.

JK Rowling, from the Harry Potter Wiki

It used to be something to laugh about for the most part. Oh, ha ha, people think we're movie stars when we're really introverted nerds. Most of us don't make nearly as much money as they think we do, and we're not nearly as famous. We just want to write our books, not constantly bask in a spotlight.

Enter the upsurge in the popularity of children's books, YA, technology, and the internet fandom machine.

Being a "star" is no longer a joke -- it's an expectation. Kidlit and YA authors can relate to this especially well, I think. So much of an author's marketing rests on their own shoulders. It's not enough to make some appearances at your local bookstore and do a few school visits. You have to be constantly on. You should be on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and maybe even YouTube in addition to your regularly-updated blog. People don't just need to like your books anymore. They need to like YOU.

Talk about crushing pressure for a group largely made up of introverts who don't always do well with public speaking or being constantly "on." Time and time again, authors have literal nervous breakdowns and health issues from the combination of wearing themselves thin and forcing themselves into the spotlight in addition to the actual, you know, massive job of creating novels.

That's not to say that many writers (myself included) don't LOVE to do this stuff. My love of Twitter and Tumblr knows no bounds. We're making friends, hearing from fans, bonding, sharing, and it's all great. That's not the problem. The problem is the level of exposure.

Now let's talk about fandoms, particularly fandoms that contain vast quantities of children and adolescents by design.

When a writer's just starting out, their audience is small. Every scrap of praise is cherished, every negative comment cutting. For those who grow their fanbase into something bigger, everything else grows, too. The support is louder, the negativity sharper. When you reach a certain level, the fandom based around your work (or, in some cases, YOU) becomes its own beast. People believe you're so big and have so much money (har har har) that they can say incredibly cruel things and it shouldn't "affect" you anymore.

(Don't mistake this for me saying everyone needs to play nice. I'm not talking about one-star reviews or criticism, I'm talking about THIS AUTHOR IS A TALENTLESS UGLY COW AND I HEARD SHE DRINKS BABY BLOOD AND SHE'S A HORRIBLE PERSON AND IF YOU DON'T HATE HER GUTS THEN YOU'RE HORRIBLE TOO type stuff.)

Stephenie Meyer on the red carpet at the Breaking Dawn premiere, from Zimbo

Your loyal fandom rushes in to defend your honor, going for the "haters" with teeth bared and a massive wall of support at their back. When that fandom is made up of young people, the ferocity is often compounded. When people are still young and developing into the people they'll become, the world can be very black and white, with very little nuance. You are my friend, or you are my enemy. Good versus evil. Right versus wrong. My love for this thing makes it flawless, and anyone who questions it or finds it flawed must be destroyed.

This isn't something that goes away after adolescence -- we all know plenty of adults who still live by this mindset -- but it's heightened during childhood and our teen years when EVERYTHING is heightened.

Now let's talk community and responsibility.

Fandoms are, ultimately, community. I completely believe that young people often do well with community and support from their peers, and I think community can be important. Vital, even. Today's spread of information and ease of communication makes it possible to connect with people on the other side of the planet over something you both love, and that's astounding and beautiful. It makes complete sense that passionate young people are finding one another and forming these bonds. They're doing incredible things with their passion.

The thing about communities is that they're formed AROUND something, and in the case of fandom, that something is often a piece of media, which is ultimately tied back to that media's creator. In an environment where YA authors are becoming celebrities, willfully or not, that comes with some incredible opportunities... and some important responsibilities.

There's no doubt in my mind that many kidlit and YA authors had no idea what they were getting into. They never expected to be a household name, or somebody who could fill a conference hall. For the biggest "stars" in the industry, I imagine the pressure and exposure is beyond intense. They never asked for this kind of responsibility, this kind of power.

But they have it.

John Green on the set of The Fault In Our Stars, from LA Times

So, where is the line, here? When fandoms start growing, no one can control who joins (though they may try). At a certain point, you'll have all sorts in the ranks -- kind and cruel, thoughtful and reactionary. People who will go for the jugular for any perceived offense, believing themselves to be coming to your defense. In some contexts, this is welcome. Of course it's wonderful to have people stand by your side and tell some asshole journalist to actually read the damn book instead of mouthing off about the sorry state of YA, which they don't read wonk wonk wonk.

On the other hand, when you know a segment of your fans is behaving badly, what's your responsibility there? Certain fandoms are well-known for swarming a perceived "threat" and issuing everything from anonymous insults to full-scale threats of violence. We all talk about how this sort of activity is never okay, but some stay mysteriously silent when their own fandoms are participating in this behavior.

I don't expect anyone to catch every instance of their fans' misbehavior and call it out individually. That's not feasible. I also understand that there may be significant pressure not to "alienate" fans. But when we know this kind of stuff is happening in our community, in fandoms centered around our work who view us as a sort of figurehead or friend, I think we do have a responsibility to issue some general commentary. We should say "if you're doing this, you need to stop" and "I do not support this behavior, ever, and if you're doing it on my behalf, I'm not okay with that." As the comic once said: with great power comes great responsibility, and even if we didn't ask for it, we must wield it wisely.

We need to recognize our power, even when we might think we don't have much. When your support circle numbers in the tens (or hundreds) of thousands, you have power. When so many eyes are on you, valuing your opinion, it's essential to make sure they know that even stanning for something they believe is right can get out of hand, and help them learn to recognize when they're getting out of line.

It's not about controlling every arm of our audience (which is impossible), it's about understanding the power of our words for the people who look up to us, and letting people know what you are and aren't about. Silence often speaks louder than words. They may be responsible for their own actions, but we are responsible for our reactions.

Like I said, this is an unimaginably huge, complex issue. There are too many factors to count. This is one part the culture of forcing people into the spotlight in order to be "successful" and one part creating powerful communities for children and teens and one part love of writing and a hundred parts of something else. I don't have any answers.

But I hope we can talk about it. What do you think?


{ Old Kitty } at: April 18, 2014 at 6:29 AM said...

I'm have no answers except the boring curmudgeonly and totally unworkable one of perhaps thinking that people should maybe for their own good and sanity step away from the internet! LOL!

Then again maybe all of what you highlight has always existed but these days nothing seems private anymore and everyone knows what everyone else is doing!

Have a happy Easter! Take care

{ Blair B. Burke } at: April 18, 2014 at 10:21 AM said...

While I do think it's a subject worth talking about, I, personally, just can't get myself to worry over it. While I would love to have the kind of success that makes it an issue for me, I don't really expect that to happen. And if it does, I don't think I have much to change. Shouldn't we already be leading our lives as positive examples? Shouldn't we already be kind and considerate to strangers, even on the net? Shouldn't we disown and discourage hateful actions in any medium? I'd really like to think that if you give me more power I wouldn't do anything differently, and if I would, then maybe I need to change right now and not wait for something so unlikely to motivate me.

{ fairyhedgehog } at: April 18, 2014 at 11:42 AM said...

I'm never likely to have to deal with this but I wonder if it isn't a case of taking responsibility for yourself and not for your fans? You can lead by example and you can mention that responding to criticism is mostly unhelpful but if your fans choose to ignore your model and advice, you need to step away for your own health and sanity.

Not that it would be easy to do! But if we try to take responsibility for things that we can't control we quickly burn out. Just my two penn'orth.

{ Andrew Leon } at: April 18, 2014 at 4:21 PM said...

What I am immediately reminded of is this author group I used to belong to on FB. A fairly large group. One day, this guy posted his thoughts about Twilight in the group. He'd finally read it because of hype, pressure, etc, and, since some of that influence had come from some members of the group, he posted his honest, fairly objective reaction. Almost all of what he had to say about the book was negative, specifically about its negative impact on women.
Somewhere in the discussion where everyone was going "but I love Twilight," I made a joke. It was a fairly mild joke. In a later comment, I stated that I had not read the book, so my joke was not an analysis: I just thought it was a funny joke.

The next day, the guy and I were both kicked out of the group with no warning or explanation.
As it turned out, the founder of the group was a huge Twilight fan and was offended by us: him because he didn't like it and me because I dared to make a joke about it.

Changing the subject:
I like the way John Scalzi handles stuff. After a big thing at some con not too long ago where a bunch of guys were playing "gatekeeper" and make negative comments about women and sci-fi (at some point specifically in relation to some of Scalzi's work), he made the statement, "I don't need you to be my gatekeeper." There's more to it than that, of course, but he tends to be pretty vocal about that kind of stuff.

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