Writers aren’t circus bears!

Canada Reads 2013
Canada Reads 2013 (Photo credit: gorbould)

Here’s a thoughtful recent essay from Canada’s National Post:

There is a clause on page five of my book contract that states, “The Author must make herself available to the media to promote the work.”…Not only does literary life seem to require a new kind of written personal transparency, the obligations that follow publication seem to have become increasingly more invasive.

How is “available” defined when we can reveal our private lives in real time via a variety of different digital outlets? When accessing almost any author with immediate, unfiltered comment and criticism is a click away? How much does the media, and the public, want, need or even deserve?

As writers feel more and more pressure to be 24/7, real-time public figures, we need to consider those who are disclosure-averse, who prefer to hide away and let their work stand as they have constructed it.

Writing is a solitary act, while publishing is a shared one, and skill at being a likable public figure who gives great readings and interviews is in no way a quality of producing quality literature.

It’s certainly not news that the Internet is not exactly a bastion of thoughtful dialogue and critique — it’s a vile, abusive place that no amount of “haters gonna hate” can ease the blow of. The result of putting oneself “out there” is commonly getting badly beat up, shattering your confidence in yourself and your work…

Exposure can be a terrifying and exhausting process, the demand for the author to step well out into the fray constant…

Being good at self-exposure and promotion doesn’t make you a better writer, it makes you a more popular one.

This resonated deeply for me.

As you read this, I’m at an assisted-living facility about 10 minutes’ drive from my home, doing another public event for my retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I’m not being paid for it, which I sometimes am, (usually $50 to $250 for a small, local event.) A local indie bookseller will be there with a box of my books and a credit card machine. (If I sell them, they don’t count for royalties, i.e. lowering the initial advance payment with every sale, albeit a tiny fraction of the cover price the publisher actually pays the author.)

It’s showtime, folks!

This, my second book, came out April 2011 in hardcover, July 2012 in paperback, but  — like many authors — I’m still out there selling it to the public and press when possible. If it doesn’t keep selling, it will disappear from bookstores, go out of print and die. Staying silent and invisible seems unwise.

Before almost every event I have no idea, really, how many people will show up, or in what mood, or with what level of interest in me or my topic. Someone in the crowd might get nasty. I might fill the room — and not sell a single book. (My book discusses low-wage labor, and both times this has happened was after addressing library audiences in two very wealthy towns, Scarsdale, NY and Westport, CT.)

Frankly, it’s stressful.

The last event I did was in January at a local library on a bitterly cold night. I was suffering terrible bronchitis, my barking cough frequent and loud. To my delight, a friend came, as did a woman who had heard me months earlier, and she brought two friends. One man blurted “I love your book! I stayed up til 1:30 last night reading it.” Which was, of course, all lovely.

Then I asked one audience member, working retail, what she sells: “Clothing, to women your size.”

Holy shit. That hurt! I smiled my usual bland, friendly, I-didn’t-feel-a-thing smile. But her impertinent and bizarrely personal remark still hurts, weeks later.

Writers are hungry to be read, to communicate our ideas and passions, but we’re not schooled or trained — nor eager for, or desirous of, sustained public attention and unsolicited, often anonymous, commentary.

We do this public song-and-dance because we have to, because we’re proud of and love our books and want them to be read as widely as possible. But many writers are ambivalent about, even resentful of, the misleading and false sense of intimacy our public appearances create with audiences.

You don’t know us.

You just know what we wrote. 

When doing public and press events, no matter how stung or annoyed you feel, you have to react quickly and calmly, as I did on live radio with 2 million listeners on The Diane Rehm Show.

And I won’t rant here about the public, permanent and often anonymous “reviews” on amazon, some so vicious they’ve left me shaking: “Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy” wrote one.

Many writers are desperate to be published, and would kill for the chance to garner lots of media and/or public attention. For their work, yes, of course!

But you personally ? To have your looks, personality, clothing, diction, mannerisms and family discussed (and quite possibly dissed) by curious strangers?

Maybe not so much.

If you’re interested in writing-as-process, here’s a two-part interview I gave recently to fellow writer Nancy Christie, whose many questions were intelligent and thought-provoking.

36 thoughts on “Writers aren’t circus bears!

  1. Great article. It makes me think of the quote attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.”

  2. KM

    Thanks for the glimpse into the real life of a popular author. I was actually very sad (although not really surprised at all) to hear that people had been that rude to you. Even if they didn’t like what you wrote, there are far more constructive ways to make a criticism or, as many mothers have said through time, “if you can’t say anything nice… ”
    For what it’s worth, I enjoy hearing your voice here – you sound straightforward and calm (with common sense!) and that’s very soothing.

    1. You’re too kind….I’m not sure I qualify as a “popular” author, but there are people who do like the books!

      I am generally pretty straightforward and I *try* to be calm! 🙂 When I’m not, I try not to let it leak into the blog too much. The past few weeks have thrown me a few nasty curveballs, personally and professionally, but the only good thing about being a little older is having less time and energy to waste on being angry or freaking out. If I can’t fix something, I don’t stew quite as much over it as I once did.

      1. KM

        Letting things roll off my back is still a challenge. I know in my head that there’s nothing wrong with ME and the person is just as likely to be entertaining themselves as to actually be trying to say something about whatever it is they’re addressing, but I still have moments where someone will say something that upsets me so much it’s almost like having a panic attack. At those moments, I just get up and walk away from the computer. It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone do that to me in person and I think I was more baffled than anything and only got really upset later, after they were long gone. So, knowing my own reactions just make me that much more impressed that you were able to stay even-tempered with the one lady. Kudos!

      2. I hear you! Having been bullied makes me hair-trigger when people are nasty or rude to me.

        The two reasons I tend to stay “calm” when shit like that happens — I’m so stunned I don’t even have time to react and/or I am VERY aware, here as in real life, that many others are watching and noting HOW I react and handle it. I’ve done a lot of acting, teaching, public speaking and media interviews, so I’m much more used to public attention and weird/rude/nasty comments than someone else might be. I may loathe what someone has just said to me but I have to handle myself professionally, try to remain courteous and in control, as a message to the rest of the audience that I won’t freak out or get defensive, no matter how I feel inside. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, especially in a world where facts seem to be losing their relevance in public discourse.

        In the old days, I wouldn’t even have realized — or written — how much that comment hurt me. I had just soldiered through a 90-minute unpaid presentation, even while I felt and was ill as hell — and that’s what I got? Jesus Christ. People are sometimes ignorant and ungrateful in ways you can’t begin to imagine. 🙂

      3. KM

        Seriously! Every time I’m like, “ok, yep, seen it all,” someone STILL manages to come up with a stunner.
        I’ve done some acting and semi-public speaking (in front of classes or meetings or similar), so it sounds like, if I ever found myself in a similar situation, relying on those experiences would be my best bet.
        I’m still impressed that you can keep your awareness of being in public and putting on the best face for those around you (and yourself!) … I’m still not sure I wouldn’t just go completely blank.

      4. Well, sometimes I do!

        I also think (not sure if you live in the States as well?) that public discourse (ahem) is sometimes much more gloves-off, at least in New York, than what I grew up with in Canada. People really put their shit out there and expect you to deal with it. So…be combative? I finally did lose it totally (on-air, on an international BBC program, so hey, it’s permanent!) but thought “The hell with it.” Polite is, in the end, dull. There is some element of theatre in it all.

      5. KM

        I do live in the US, but in the mid-west, where I think people are generally less combative, but still definitely moreso than in many places.
        I think you’re right about the theatre aspect, I’ll have to remember that too!

      6. Here’s the irony I think growing greater…people are very hungry for “authenticity” these days from writers and other public figures even as we are burning out from overshare and over-exposure. It is a hopeless effort (for me) to remain emotionally open and available enough to really interact with strangers yet somehow be Teflon enough to not give a shit when they are indifferent, rude or mean.

        Not sure if you read Vogue (?) but the Feb. issue has an interesting interview with actress Rooney Mara who also describes her horror of this sort of public exposure. Acting and writing are creative ways to “expose” oneself…as a character! People do not get that distinction.

      7. KM

        I don’t normally read Vogue, but I might have to see if I can find one. Thanks!
        And I get what you mean about public exposure. It’s something to think about, especially as I’m working toward getting more and more writing out there myself.

  3. Mean people are not awesome.

    One of the things I am supposed to do as an academic is to attend conferences to do presentations and promote my research. I have not done this stage of my career yet, but the experiences for academic writers is very similar to your experiences. Spend several months (or years) writing and re-writing a research paper or book. If someone does not like the research you wrote, sometimes they can be REALLY mean about it.

    On a related, yet strange, side note: I read the spam comments caught in my comment section that are not published immediately to make sure they actually are spam. Well, a couple of them have said really mean things about my blog. I doubt they even read my blog… they most likely cut and pasted the same comment to a thousand different blogs… but it still felt uncomfortable to read “I hated your poorly written blog.”

  4. I come on your blog a lot when I’m online and you are nice to everyone and write back, so it really ticks me off to hear about people being unkind to you! Also to Drishism, up above comment, that anyone could be so cruel to another person. Mean people do suck!

    I suppose I’ll have to do stuff like you do when my book comes out, but the idea is horrifying to me. I’m almost a hermit!

    1. You can do a lot of social media and a blog tour (I did not do much of either) which would allow you some privacy. But the fact remains that the one thing that sells books is word of mouth — and many readers want to meet and hear from writers. In an era where everyone is blathering publicly through social media, being silent and invisible suggests you don’t care or don’t know better — even if neither are true.

      1. I’ll always answer if it’s you, broadside! 🙂

        You know, I just met a young man on WordPress, who is new to blogging. He’s a Hungarian skier who will be competing in the Winter Olympics at Sochi. I told him I’d try to get word out to my readers about his blog. Any chance you can give me some pointers to help him out? Do you ever interview athletes?

      2. Not my cup of tea, per se….But I have no doubt there are blogs devoted to: 1) the Olympics; 2) the Sochi Olympics; 3) skiing…he should reach out to every blogger covering these topics and ask for coverage…or a Q and A with them…

  5. Interesting post. It seems to me that people don’t have to like your work or even like you. They just need to be interested in your work enough to read it. If you have something worthwhile to say, then they probably will. It’s not about you. It’s about the work.

    In another way of looking at it, there are a lot of very famous and well-respected authors whose work I can’t stand, or who seem like dreadful human beings to me that I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with at a cocktail party even if we were the only 2 people in the room. I can’t see why they should care that I hated reading their books or whether I hate them–why should you?

    Just my thoughts.

    1. “It seems to me that people don’t have to like your work or even like you. They just need to be interested in your work enough to read it. If you have something worthwhile to say, then they probably will. It’s not about you. It’s about the work.”

      Yes and no. My first book is about women and guns, but I had — to use an American expression — no dog in that fight, no skin in that game. I don’t own a gun nor want to. It received much less attention, but the reviews were terrific. The personal replies have been deeply gratifying.

      My memoir is a totally different book as much of it is, de facto, through my eyes and describes some of my own very personal ideas and experiences. It prompted some utterly hateful comments from some readers who, (you tell me why they react so viscerally…I don’t get it) seem to take deep offense personally to ME as a person (whom they had never met nor spoken to), not just to the words I wrote. So instead of reacting to the work in a useful intellectual critique, (which any writer needs to hear), they freak out and call me names like a bunch of children. It’s bizarre indeed. Except that it’s not — I’ve seen a very similar reaction, (the topic of my first Freshly Pressed post), to the book “Eat, Pray, Love” in which people went NUTS on Elizabeth Gilbert for daring to…be who she is and write about it honestly.

      Do I care that strangers hate me? I don’t lose sleep over it, but I dislike being called names online, permanently, in places like amazon or Goodreads where: 1) I can’t reply without looking like a defensive dick; 2) I can’t reply, even to correct inaccuracies for the same reason and 3) these “reviews” can influence would-be buyers. It’s hardly a fair fight.

      If you re-read the excerpt I posted, writers are human beings with feelings, not word-production machines. The very sensitivity that creates work worth reading means we are also sometimes vulnerable, open to others’ responses to what we have done, even if you think it silly to do so.

      I stopped reading my “reviews” on amazon a long time ago. They simply were not useful.

    1. You do indeed! The publishing world is far more challenging (and disappointing) than new authors want to face. It is a great thrill to be published, but the amount of unpaid and costly work of marketing and selling that YOU will have to do is shocking — the first time. Then, not so much. 🙂

      Good luck!

  6. Thank you so very much for writing this. It resonates with me on every level. While I envy your success, I fear it at the same time for some of these reasons. Mainly: am I equipped to sell myself, regardless of how egotistically obsessed I am with my own words?

  7. It’s a shame we have to do the song-and-dance bit just to sell our work, but that’s the industry these days. Though personally I kind of have fun with it; I like reading in front of people, like I did last night at my dorm. Hopefully one or two of the people who showed up last night will buy the book when it comes out.
    Oh, and have you talked to your publishing house about getting on Jon Stewart? I think you’d do well there, especially since Stewart loves to make fun of corporations and has had journalists on before.

    1. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

      Talk to my publishing house? Surely you jest. The publicist for my book is long gone to another publisher. So is my editor, leaving me with a guy there handling the paperback who cares very little about repping or advocating in-house for my book. Then there’s my agent, and do not get me started. No one does a thing, nor will they. A book that came out in 2011 is oooooooooold news and their focus is this week’s latest book. That’s how it works. To get on Jon Stewart would mean hiring a publicist out of my own pocket — $5,000 a month, probably.

      But, yes, in theory a good idea. 🙂

  8. I know exactly what you mean. Personally I’ve had only one really awkward moment, when I was presenting in the Auckland Readers and Writers festival in 2007 and fielded a particularly imbecile question from the floor. Most of the people I’ve met at promotional events have been pretty good – whether it’s the style of audience I have for my books here, or something else, I don’t know.

    I’m never convinced as to the financial value of these greet-the-punter moments. It’s hopefully different in NY with the bigger population, but I recall here in NZ being sent on a lightning bookstore tour by one publisher. In half the stores, nobody showed up. And when they did, they didn’t buy. I think about six copies of the book were sold across 7 stores, out of ‘sale or return’ stocks of over 800 between them, and costs that included my air fares, hire car and time (I wasn’t paid, but I still account for it).

    1. I have not been able to get ONE single event in New York City for Malled; my Canadian university did one here for my first book and we got 75 people on a Thursday night (which is a very good turnout.) Bookstores only want huge celebrities and I gave up trying ages ago. I do a lot of smaller events around my county — like public libraries, women’s clubs, etc. — and the turnout has been decent. I’ve learned to make sure whomever wants me to come there pays my expenses or pays me a fee and/or drums up as many bodies as possible through their own publicity.

      But it is often much less successful than one would hope.

  9. I am a blogging newbie and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for being the first person to like my blog. To date, I haven’t let anyone except for my husband know about the blog even though it is “public”. I’ve been nervous about possibly receiving some negative comments, so I wanted to gain more confidence before announcing my blog to the world.

    I was surprised and delighted to see that you had discovered me and took the time to click “like”. I had a smile on my face for the rest of the day. Thank you for the boost of confidence. I really appreciate it.

    1. I liked it a lot. Good for you! 🙂

      Don’t be scared of negative comments — if you set a tone that’s confident and smart (which you did) I doubt you’ll attract trolls. And if you do, there’s always the “spam” or “trash” option!

      Good luck.

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