I Got Your Author Mystique Right Here, Pal

Over at the Huffington Post, author Jason Pinter asks “Does Social Networking Kill the Author Mystique?” I’m quoted in the article, although I’ll note he didn’t use my direct comment to that question, which was “what author mystique?” Because, really. It’s not like SF/F writers were ever mysterious sorts of folks. We like hanging out in convention hotel bars too much. But maybe authors in other genres do more of that mystique thing.  Anyway, see what Pinter and the folks he interviewed have to say on the matter.

44 thoughts on “I Got Your Author Mystique Right Here, Pal

  1. I found it unsettling to read Jason’s Socratic question “does social networking actually work?” after he went to some pains to drop names: John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow.

    Also, there are too many commas.

  2. The first author I had contact with through “social networking” (although of course we called it no such thing back then) was Douglas Adams back in 1993-1994 when he was heavily involved on Usenet and answered emails. I didn’t find that it “took away the mystique” but that it was neat to see a little bit into the mind that was bringing me such marvelous characters and worlds.

    I love following the authors I read online. I love the little peeks into the writing process. The only thing I find annoying is that I now know about new books when they are being written, and it makes the wait for them seem so much longer than it did when I had to just periodically scan the bookshelves at the bookstore, waiting to see if there was anything new.

    But I think that’s a small price to pay. ;)

  3. I think there can definitely be author mystique when you are younger. Keep in mind that convention going can be expensivish and kids and teens are limited by travel concerns and funds.

    And even the first time you go to a convention of any kind, the idea that the creators of your favourite things are wandering around, busy being people, is still sorta mind-boggling. The first time I went to Comic-con, I fan-girled all over David Mack, while my backbrain went “Holy shit! He’s talking to meeeeeeeeeeee!”

    That will only last so long though, and thereafter, your response will probably depend on how you engage with other folks of moderate fame/power/reknown.

    Once you get older, you probably assign authors the same amount of mystique as you would any other “authority figure” like teachers, scientists, pundits, preachers, etc. If you’re the type of person who taps into the whole hierarchy of prestige thing already and sorta props it up, the author may retain mystique. If you’re the sort of person who questions authority, you’ll probably just see them as another person.

  4. Is that why the VP staff told us never to go near that room at the end of the corridor, and why you did your one-on-one crits through a screen?

    The voice diffuser was a nice touch, by the way.

  5. I think the real question here is if online journalism is horning in on 60 Minutes’ territory here because holy crap, that article read like and Andy Rooney rant.

  6. It has taken me about a decade — from the time I attended my first SF/F/H convention (ICFA in March 1999) until I attended my most recent (World Fantasy in San Jose this past October) to be able to talk to an author without palpitations. To me, people who can write actual novels, the kind published between two covers and available on the shelves in bookstores, are just *this* shy of being gods.

    I feel this way despite the fact that I review books regularly on my website, and, in fact, have been writing reviews for a decade.

    I will obviously have to get over this feeling if I’m ever to do some fiction writing of my own. After all, I know *I’m* no god.

    Oh, and I’m not a kid, either. 53 years old, and I still think what writers do is magic.

  7. Author Mystique makes it sound as though authors are members of some sort of samurai squad that retreat to their hidden mountain encampment after slinging out words like throwing stars. And they respond to interview requests with cold stares or death blows.

  8. Here is science fiction author mystique:

    1) dress in mundane “business casual” wear (be able to pass for a non-convention hotel guest)
    2) shower at least once per day
    3) spend a lot of time in the bar
    4) utilize normative social skills and manners–most of the time

    It really makes a person glamorous and mysterious.

  9. If you want to keep your sense of “author mystique”, how about just not social networking with them? No one’s forcing you to read your favorite author’s blog, subscribe to their Twitter feed, go meet him/her at a convention, etc. Don’t do it, and then you can continue to idolize or imagine them any way you want.

  10. My sister and her husband are illustrators. They are quite happy to have more connection with their audience through social networking sites. It certainly helps their bottom line.

  11. OK, as someone who is pretty accessible to his readership I have to say that there is merit to some aspects of the original question. Sure, using “mystique” is a red flag, but there seems to be an issue of direct accountability to a readership who will email an author demanding answers or explanations when such aren’t necessarily needed, or to which a reader isn’t necessarily entitled.

    I like access to my readership, but that doesn’t mean that I’m automatically Customer Service, technical support, and a help manual. And while I like to promote my work, that doesn’t mean I necessarily like to talk about it directly. If we’re going to talk about entitlement, I’m entitled not to be dinged for electing not to respond in certain areas.

  12. I have to agree with Terry in #9. And I’m 55! Even authors who blog and tweet are still authors! Mystique not damaged in the least! You can do something I can’t (and believe me, I’ve tried). I write software, not fiction, and I admire anyone who can write creatively.

  13. I am still a complete fangirl in my mind even when I’m interacting with authors online :). The author just gets cooler for me once I know they’re a real person. I love getting to know more about people’s processes and am more passionate about supporting them and giving them my business if I like what they have to say online.

  14. Mystique? Mystique? I don’t want no stinkin’ mystique! So long as I don’t have hordes of loons rushing up to me in the supermarket yelling, “You bastard! You bastard! How could you do that to Kate?!?” I’ll be just fine.

    I haven’t even been published yet, and I’ve already got that part of it dead right…

    As to social networking per se, I do very little of it anyway, because, y’know, it only encourages the buggers. It’ll be a poor day when I don’t know who my friends are without friending them. If I ever got well-known, I imagine I’d find this even more senseless. A blog is one thing: a life of endless clabby conversations held online is quite another.

    Steve @ 15: Haven’t there always been ‘entitled’ fans, with grossly inappropriate expectations via snail mail or e-mail or whatever? The Internet may have expedited their nosepoking, but surely the basic loons start coming as soon as you stick your head above the parapet. People deal with them with more or less grace – you’ve been tried in that fire, I haven’t and won’t miss it if I’m not – but I don’t see where the article had anything particularly original to say about that.

  15. Well, I didn’t see where the article had anything particularly original to say, period. And was I the only one who laughed when he saw the author’s twitter link at the end? O Irony.

  16. I don’t really hold with the idea of the “author” mystique. As far as I am concerned, it extends to being more likely to have interesting conversation. The only reason I would be nervous around authors (or any other professionals) is because I know they won’t waste my time, but I can’t be sure I won’t waste theirs. Call it insecurity or whatever, but it’s certainly not some sort of “awe” at their superior aura.

    So, no, I don’t think social networking affects their mystique. It might help to know we can talk cats if I find myself out of my depth in terms of quantam physics or molecular biology or industry gossip, but it doesn’t make them more or less human in my eyes.

  17. “Authour Mystique”; Chanel’s new, mysterious, alluring scent distilled from the blood that naturally beads upon the forehead when facing a blank page blended with a primitiving accent of deadline-pressure flop-sweat. Show off your creative nature with “Authour Mystique”.

    (Available in Men’s and Women’s formulations at fine grooming stores everywhere. No animals were harmed in the production of “Authour Mystique”; authours aren’t far enough up the food chain to count.)

    — Steve

  18. I liked Scalzi’s quotes, but I found the viewpoint selective. Neither Rowling nor McCarthy are the big sellers they are because they are mysterious. (And McCarthy took a long time to be as large as he is now.) And King was never mysterious. Rowling may not tour in the U.S. much and she gives only limited interviews, but she did, over the course of the Potter series, stay in regular contact with the major fan sites that sprung up, the people who ran them, and her kid fans through those sites. So she made pretty effective use of social media way before there was Facebook and Twitter, which have only been around a few years and whose larger impact is not really measurable yet. And her life story was well known and studied in detail.

    Youth authors go around to schools and libraries. Adult authors do book signings and media interviews where they can. Authors did often answer fan letters by regular mail, though it was slow. The Net lets authors go wider and faster, but at the same time distribution outlets for books have narrowed, and people are — I agree with Scalzi — more inured to advertising. They’re just hoping writers, since they write for a living, can offer them something entertaining on a blog.

    There have been a few times where mystery came in handy — Primary Colors, the roman a clef about the Clintons whose authors was unknown for awhile, and John Twelve Hawks, whose rep is that he lives off the “grid.” But even John Twelve Hawks gives interviews on the Net.

    So all in all, I agree with Scalzi again, what mystique? Authors almost always get up close and personal with readers in one way or another.

  19. I discovered John’s work thru an SFBC focus on Androids Dream. Which I enjoyed so much I went to Whatever via the blurb on the jacket. Which than led me to the Old man War series. We all have a different path to discovery. Just glad, thanks SFBC, that I found one.

  20. It’s not like SF/F writers were ever mysterious sorts of folks. We like hanging out in convention hotel bars too much.

    Mystery/thriller authors are the same way, which is why this whole thing is funny to me. Jason Pinter is one of the least “mystique-y” people you’ll ever meet.

    I think I’ve probably sold a few books through my extensive online interactions over the years, but that’s largely because I was online to meet and interact with like-minded people, not sell books. When people started telling me that as a debut author I needed an online presence, I thought to myself,”Oh, excellent. I can tell my wife I’m not wasting time on the Internet…I’m MARKETING!”

  21. Oh, the garrett, the glamorous life of the working writer…

    The thing that struck me about all the examples provided is that I can choose to follow or not follow an author I like. If I start feeling oversaturated on Scalzi, remedying this problem is very simple — I just don’t visit Whatever for a few weeks! If I get tired of reading someone on Twitter, I stop following them. Nobody has tied me down and forced me to pay attention to these people — I do it of my own volition.

    I voluntarily divest myself of any interest I might have had in the “author mystique, and to it I say — good riddance!

  22. If the mystique takes away from the writing, you’re not writing well enough, I say. I’m reading UNDER THE DOME, the latest Stephen King, and it’s compelling enough that I’m not thinking at all about what King is like personally.

    That said, I think Scalzi makes a point about not using social networking just for promotion. The problem is, I just don’t have a lot to say. I mention short fiction sales and blog updates on Twitter and Facebook. And the blog consists of book reviews, because that’s something I think I can share. I’m not good at writing about writing, and it seems redundant to me. I’d rather be writing stories.

    Has social networking ever given me a sale? Not that I know of. And I don’t think I’ve ever discovered an author myself through a blog or their own website. It’s after the fact that I check those out. So my rationalization for this kind of networking is that fans you get directly through your writing have somewhere to go to find out more about you. But you have to be there first, and not after the fact.

  23. Isn’t social networking kind of like doing book signings and readings at bookstores too? Going to conventions? The art of selling books is changing, that’s for sure. I have discovered several authors because of their websites, blogs, etc.

    With the advent of the internet though, don’t fans become a little more invasive? They think that they know you, but they don’t. I can think of several instances where actors have cut off their Twitter accounts because of fan abuse.

  24. What about when SFF writers sit in on panels and talk about how faster-than-light travel is impossible and how aliens could NEVER disguise themselves as humans in real life…. and then take a moment’s pause to look at one another before laughing uproariously?

    I’ve never been to a con or anything like that because I’m weirdly reclusive, but I’ve always just assumed this happens.

  25. Author Mystique doesn’t really exist anymore period. Even J K Rowling, who refuses to twitter, and only has periodic site updates, has lost some of the mystique that would have existed in years past. I mean – to keep going with this example – we now know that Dumbledore is gay, and that she really doesn’t know what happened during the 24 missing hours at Godric’s Hallow, and who the characters not mentioned in the epilogue end up with. For all that she’s not doing the social networking thing (at least not directly), she’s flat out given out all kinds of information in interviews, that probably would not have been given out by authors in years past. (I mean for goodness sakes we got a whole two episodes of Pottercast with Jo! Lots and lots of random things no one would have known if the Harry Potter series was written earlier I don’t think…)

    So I think its more of a caused by modern culture than a social networking thing.

  26. Thought I’d drop by and just say I’m glad the article has drawn these responses–both positive and negative. As someone who participates in social networking fairly extensively, I understand the irony of the piece (and yes, especially the link to my Twitter account, but to be fair that’s automatically linked via my HuffPo columnist account).

    I asked John and Allison Winn Scotch for their comments because they’re two people I think network the right way. True to themselves, without overpimping, maintaining a dialogue with readers while offering interesting insights into their lives and/or writing processes.

    And yes, I do believe there is such a thing as Author Mystique. I know this because I still get a wonderfully nervous feeling when I meet my idols. Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks to John for his comments. If you’d like (and if he’s cool with it) I can post both my questions and his full responses, which were longer than the quotes I used.

  27. Here are my questions and John’s responses, unedited.

    JP: To what extent do you believe has social media has spurred sales of your books?

    JS: Well, I sold my first novel because I posted it on my blog, so if blogs are considered part of the social media it’s made a significant difference. Relating directly to Twitter and Facebook and such, it’s hard to quantify. I don’t think there’s any question that being out and about in the online social media raises my profile. Whether that has a direct effect on sales is hard to say. A lot of people who friend or follow me are already fans, so I expect they may already know what I’m doing in terms of sales. With new people my feeling is that over time, the feeling they “know” you may increase their likelihood to take a chance on a novel. In both cases, however, you probably shouldn’t assume every Facebook friend or Twitter follower is going to buy your work.

    JP: Is there anything you have done in regards to online networking that you feel helps you connect with an audience?

    JS: Well, to be blunt, I think if you think about it too hard in that direction, what you do ends up feeling artificial and therefore alienating. If you’re doing the social media thing you should do it because you enjoy it and you think it’s fun to spend time interacting with folks online. People aren’t stupid; they know when Twitter is being used for enjoyment’s sake and when it’s being used as a calculated marketing channel. Guess which they respond to better.

    JP: Do you feel that social media/networking forces authors to sacrifice any of their mystique?

    JS: What mystique? Seriously, now. I do think authors habitually using social media run the risk of others discovering that they are human beings, i.e., occasionally grumpy, petty, snarky, malinformed, opinionated people who occasionally make asses of themselves in view of the public — but, you know, if fans can’t handle the idea that their favorite authors might be like that, they might want to grow up a little bit. We’re all humans here; we all show our ass a bit. That said, authors aren’t exactly helpless in this regard, either. They have to understand what it is they are doing, which is presenting a version of themselves to the public via social media. One can manage that version so it’s not just rampaging id, without making it be artificial and overly structured. I think most of the authors who understand social media and its implications do just that.

    JP: Do you feel it is necessary for authors to participate in social networking?

    JS: I don’t think it’s necessary for authors to do anything other than write what they need to write and (hopefully) what other people will enjoy reading. Good work is its own argument. I think it can be useful for authors to use and play in online social media, but in the end it really does depend on the author. It’s not everyone’s thing, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.

  28. @28 — I cannot believe that made it all the way to Making Light. And it was such a tiny review. Not even especially biting. Wow.

    Which leads me to:

    Re: Author Mystique… I don’t know. There are certain sort of personal revelations that can taint my enjoyment of an author’s work, things I’d rather not have known. That said, I don’t know if social networking does anything but make that sort of information more accessible and immediate, which isn’t change so much as… increased efficiency? Actually, I’ve often been disturbed by all this sudden instant and overflowing access we have as fans and admirers. When I was a little girl and loving, say, Madeleine L’Engle, we had to write on PAPER. With STAMPS. Uphill in the snow.

    On the other hand, these conversations and interactions are incredibly fun. :-D

    Some authors manage to blog, twitter, journal and everything and still manage to keep some sort of “mystique” going on. You have to choose what sorts of things you’re going to reveal, I suppose. It’s something to ponder.

  29. I feel reading Author’s blogs has, to some extent, damaged my ability to enjoy their works. It used to be, I’d read something and think about why character A would do such a thing. But after reading an author’s blog I start thinking about why the author itself would write this. For example, a mention of some dish in Steven Brust’s Dzur (Pig Eatin’s) was an in-joke to something he misheard in real life (fig Newton) and blogged about. Or, the expression of political opinions in novels by characters. Such things take their toll on the suspension of disbelief – for a story to REALLY work, you have to forget it’s a story. Being constantly reminded of the existence of the writer and the unreality of the characters takes something away from a reader’s enjoyment.

    But blogs are fun in and of themselves, so I don’t think I’ll stop reading them anytime soon.

  30. I came to this website via something else (genuinely can’t recall where at the moment) and I wouldn’t call myself a Science Fiction fan. However, I enjoy the discussions and John Scalzi’s take on things and eventually was tempted to buy Old Man’s War. I thoroughly enjoyed it and so will continue to hang around here and buy more books. Job done!

  31. I picked up Old Man’s War because the blurb on the back intrigued me actually. That’s what got me reading Whatever when I realized it was actually a pretty entertaining blog.

    It hasn’t killed any of the enjoyment I get from the books and it has made me buy Android’s Dream, so I guess you can chalk one up for the positive results of social networking.

    The author mystique is something i think increases when you know snippets of what the writer puts into it, his thoughts behind it (love the Big Idea for that reason).

    But then I am also one of the persons who finds it fascinating to read about the biological machinations of emotions and don’t find that this detracts in any way from the emotions I have myself or see around me. Many don’t think the same way…

  32. Never meet your hero, they say. I have to argee that sometimes getting to know an author via his social networking/marketing site can take away some of the mystique. But it’s also very nice to have access to an author (such as John), because he passes along good advice and takes such nice pictures.

  33. What about the other side of the question? Is there a “fan mystique” that is either enhanced or shattered for the author by social networking? Did an author ever look at the trail of comments leading away from one of his blog posts and think, “Man, these people are scary!” I know we’ve disappointed our host a few times, but John’s good with kids and doesn’t seem to carry a grudge.

  34. Dave, I was thinking the same thing. I have been looking at writers’ blogs for a while now, and I think it must get pretty annoying for the author to read some of the crazy stuff the “fans” post. I may be annoying, but it’s usually in the form of asking too many questions or just talking too much. It seems to be the nature of the beast. Some people feel empowered by giving praise, while others feel empowered by talking shite.

  35. @TGA: I know the tone of comments on some tech/geek blogs can get really snotty as people try to show how obviously superior their intellects are. That’s why I don’t read them much or write for them any more. The only author’s blog I follow is John’s and it seems pretty civil here by comparison. But I didn’t know if that’s typical.

    Back to the subject of author mystique though, I was glad to have it punctured a bit by the internet a few years ago. I was a huge Andre Norton fan in middle and high school, and read through our little library’s collection of her works pretty quickly. I got out of the habit of reading after I finished school, got married, had kids, moved to New York, and all that. A few years ago I went searching for her, thinking she had probably passed away, but I was delighted to find she was living in Tennessee and had continued writing with some collaborators who were excellent authors themselves.

    A few months later Ms. Norton did pass away, but I felt enough like a member of her extended family of fans that I sent a sympathy card to the family she’d lived with and who cared for her toward the end. They sent me a nice bookmark with a photo of her and one of her cats to acknowledge it. That made me feel even more like a member of the family.

    As a tribute I encoded the date of her passing in a piece of software I was writing at the time. (I’m a programmer, I can do that.) But now that I’ve said that, we’ll probably see a rash of comments here arguing over whether I should have written it in Go or Ruby. Sorry about that.

  36. Catherine Shafferon @ 12

    Steps 1-4 – so true, so true! Even as a newbie at a SFF con, not wearing any mark of fandom, all the authors dressed more plainly than I did. It must have been the button banner that gave me away.

  37. I’m surprised no one has mentioned mysteriously reclusive authors of the past, such as B. Traven or Cordwainer Smith, or of the present, except for John Twelve Hawks (and as someone noted he’s not so reclusive as to refuse all interviews). To me, being mysterious and reclusive, in addition to being at least a very good and preferably a uniquely great writer, is what gives an author this hard-to-define “mystique”.

    Are there any living sf writers half as mysterious as Cordwainer Smith was during most of his career, when only a few editors knew his real name or anything about him? I only know of a few writers who don’t go to conventions or interact with fans online or both; and most of those used to go to conventions at least occasionally when they were younger and in better health (e.g., Jack Vance). Greg Egan doesn’t go to cons or interact with fans much, and hasn’t allowed photos of himself to be published, but he does have a significant online presence, if not a very interactive one, and he’s given a number of interviews.

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