Who Are These Fools, and Why Should You Care?

A couple of the responses to my Greg Egan post theorized, to my surprise, that Egan’s relative lack of commercial success is due largely to his reclusivity—”no book tours, no signings, even his website has no blog or reader feedback area, nor any email address.” This started me wondering: how much of a personal connection to authors do most readers nowadays want and/or expect?

I suppose I’m surprised because I’ve long been on the other extreme. I’ve never even considered sending fan mail to a writer whose books I like, much less searching online for a picture. Except for those years during which I accidentally stalked William Gibson1, and that time I was sternly scolded by Michael Ondaatje1, I don’t think I’ve ever attended a reading or signing2. I care about authors’ work—a lot—but I don’t really care about them.

I can understand the flip side, where you stumble across an interesting person who writes well, learn that they have published some books, and go on to read them; for instance, I discovered Elizabeth Bear and Charles Stross through their blogs. And it makes sense to want to know more about nonfiction writers. But for those of you who read new novels and then go on to investigate their authors: does knowing (or knowing about) writers as people often shed new light on their work? Or is it more instinctive curiosity about the man or woman behind the curtain?

SF has a long and proud history of authors and fans intermingling, at conventions and online, until the line between them blurs into nonexistence. From what I can tell, this is fairly unique to the genre: at the one mystery con I attended as an author3, the writers mostly just wanted to hang out with each other, and there was none of the we’re all-fans-together vibe I’ve gotten at SF cons. Do SF readers connect to their favourite authors in part to reinforce this collective sense of community? (In the same way that this very site does…) And does this in turn mean SF writers are expected, far more than authors in other genres, to reach out personally to fans in order to be successful?

It’s kind of a dangerous game to play, in both directions. As a fan, some of my favourite books have been stained by things I have inadvertently learned about their authors. Orson Scott Card’s political screeds, for instance, mean I will never again be able to look upon Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead with quite the same enthusiasm. As an author, there’s a certain pressure to be effervescent and fascinating about work that can often seem anything but. As George Orwell once said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”

OK, so Asimov, who loved the act of writing, would have disagreed, and Orwell would probably have been no fun at all at a con. I wonder what use the two of them would have made of Twitter and LiveJournal. Tell you the truth, I think I’m mostly glad that I don’t know. It seems to me that delving into the personal life of a great writer, much less establishing any kind of personal relationship, is usually like unmasking the Wizard of Oz—you’re bound to be a bit disappointed.

1Yes, really. Don’t ask.

2OK, also excluding my own, obviously, but those have been very few in number.

3I don’t really write mysteries, but my books are often shelved in their midst. My slightly-tongue-in-cheek attempts to get them moved to SF racks on the grounds that they’re “present-day cyberpunk” have thus far been impressively unsuccessful.


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