Fans: What Do We Owe Them?
Hal Duncan has some thoughts on the recent Laurell K. Hamilton asstardery, and it turns out he’s not entirely unsympathetic to Hamilton’s reaction to fans who buy her books and then seek her out to say how much they suck (yet still want their book signed):
Now, in the LKH rant, she talks about readers coming up and directly expressing how little they value the books. I’m not going to quote but clearly what’s got right under her skin is a few people waiting in line, book in hand, to say, to all intents and purposes, this book sucks, or even, you suck. We can pussy-foot about the issue, rationalise about potential misperceptions, but it doesn’t really matter. Whether this is actually meant as a compliment but actually turns into an unconscious criticism of a change in direction (“We really like your movies, Mr Allen, especially the early funny ones”), or as a respectful but intentional critique (“you know, I hate to say it, but I think you’ve gone a bit off-track with this one, cause yer early stuff was superb but this just doesn’t work for me at all, and I really wish you’d go back to writing the way you used to”), or as a deliberately hostile and insulting reproach (“you used to be good, but this book is a pile of shit”), it is still expressing a devaluation of the book that’s being signed. That person is coming up and saying, hello, I’d like you to sign this book for me, despite the fact that I actually don’t really rate it at all.
So why the fuck do you want it signed, motherfucker? Why the fuck are you buying it in the first place?
What follows is a typically wide-ranging and engaging Duncanian discourse on the nature of being a fan and whether an author — who is typically after all in the writing business to make money, among whatever other reasons they have to write — is obliged to sit there with his or her mouth shut and just take the money (and crap) from fans, who, in fact, hate what you’re doing and keep buying the work merely because of the fannish compulsion to experience everything in a universe in which they’ve invested so much time and energy. Hal thinks not, and indeed expresses some admiration of Hamilton for being willing to tell these erstwhile fans to take a hike. Hamilton may be mad as a hatful of snakes, but at least she’s not a “true hack” who will simple take this agitated fan’s cash and smile.
I think Hal asks some cogent questions here, a lot of which boil down to what obligation artists have to fans whose fannish aspect ultimately has little to do with whatever the artist might be doing at the moment, and how to deal with those fans who go out of their way to be negative. But I don’t think that any of that actually has anything to do with what Laurell K. Hamilton was doing in that little rant of hers.
Let’s note that Hamilton saying “if you don’t like what I’m writing, stop reading it” is not really the issue; in fact, it’s some amazingly sensible advice. After all, if it pains you to read something (or watch it, or listen to it, or whatever), stop, you foolish person. The book doesn’t mind if you don’t read it; it’s an inanimate object. The author will also probably get over it as well. Since I myself don’t have much of a fannish aspect — I like some things, but not to the point of needing to have everything about it — I don’t have a problem with this. There are writers whose work I will buy unseen because I know I like what they do, but if something I buy from them doesn’t meet my reading standard, the next time a book of theirs comes out, I might graze through it first in the bookstore or library before buying it. Too many bad experiences and I’ll stop seeking them out, and choose to pick them up only if I hear good things about the book from people and reviewers I trust. I’ll likewise do the equivalent for those folk in other media. So, at its core, Hamilton’s exhortation for despairing fans to stop reading the work is a perfectly cromulent suggestion.
The issue is not that she provides this sensible advice, it’s that she doesn’t actually mean it, which is why the advice came clothed in such delightfully passive-aggressive raiments. If you don’t like my books, don’t read them, because there are lots of other books that won’t challenge you as much, you dear cowardly priggish lips-moving-while-you-read imbecile of a reader. I’m sure you can find other books suitable to your reading level. Meanwhile, I’ll stay with my growing number of sophisticated readers — you know, the ones who can understand me. I’m paraphrasing here, mind you, but not by much. Hamilton wasn’t saying “if you don’t like my books, don’t buy them,” she was saying “stop buying my books, because you’re not worthy of them,” which is an entirely different thing altogether. I think what Hamilton wants out of this (and which I’m fairly sure she would deny, because that’s what passive-aggressiveness is all about) is for those complaining fans to recoil in horror at the suggestion that their mistress has deemed them unworthy of her paradise, realign their brains to better understand Hamilton’s worldview, and dive back in again, only this time finally getting her genius. It’s that whole daring someone to go and relying on the fact they won’t thing. If the fans Hamilton’s addressing in her entry actually said “okay, I’m gone,” I suspect her head would pop right off.
I’m down with telling people not to read my work if they’re not happy with it; why make yourself miserable? I’m less inclined to suggest to people they should stop reading my work because they suck, which, fundamentally, is what Laurell K. Hamilton was doing. To be fair, some “fans” really are crazy screechy monkeys; something wrong with their wiring, or some imagined slight or some tiny thing you did with one character that one time has set them off and they’ve become some sort of horrid combination of Annie Wilkes and Comic Book Guy. And it’s entirely possible that Hamilton has more of these sort of fans per capita than the rest of us. I doubt all of the fans disappointed in Hamilton’s work at this point fit into that category, however; I suspect most of them are just fans who aren’t quite willing to give up on the series and a writer whose work they’ve admired.
I’ve had people go out of their way to tell me that they didn’t like a particular book, or that they thought one of the books was better than another. My response is generally the same: “I’m sorry you didn’t like that book. Hopefully you’ll like the next one more.” Hal notes this response as possibly being insincere (in a general sense, not relating to me particularly), although I don’t think it necessarily is; every book is different, after all, and I don’t have the expectation that readers will look at any of my books uncritically or will simply and automatically buy the next one. Am I going to go out of my way to change what I’m writing to meet reader and fan expectations? Not really; I’m going to write what I want to write, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree I’m going to write what I think will sell (fortunately for me, so far there appears to be significant overlap between those two categories).
I’m not under the illusion that everything I write is going to be a home run for every reader, since there’s not a single one of my artistic idols who doesn’t have some bit of output I not only don’t enjoy but in fact actively dislike. I mean, Christ. There are entire Heinlein novels I think would have been better left not only unwritten but unthought. There are John Lennon songs — nay, albums — that I believe should have been aborted at the first strum of the guitar. H.L. Mencken, my favorite essayist, had his head up his ass on a remarkable number of topics. And so on. Were they wrong to make the work I dislike? No. Should they have been obliged to take my tastes into consideration (had I been alive when they were writing said works, which often I was not)? Not really, nor are those writers, musicians and artists whose work I admire now. If their work stops pleasing me, I’ll stop buying it. Simple. Which makes me not a fan, I suppose. But even if I were, it wouldn’t change their level of obligation to me.
What I think creators do owe folks is also simple: A good effort. As a reader, you don’t get a guarantee that you’re going to like my work, but you should feel reasonably assured that the work you get is done as well as I can do it. So even if you don’t like it, you can see the craftsmanship. If I’ve done that, I’m generally at peace with individual people’s opinion of the story, whether it’s positive or not, because I’m satisfied that I did what I could to give the story its best chance of being enjoyed.
Now, that takes care of the rational people on both sides of the artist-audience division. What to do about the truly irrational fan, i.e., the one who will stand in line for hours to tell you your work is crap? As a practical matter, you treat them as if they are rational, because it makes them easier to deal with (and to get them out of your hair). You don’t win arguments with irrational people, because, after all, they’re not rational. So you just get them off your plate and go on to the next person. You also don’t actually worry about whatever it is they’ve said, because, remember, they’re not rational, and if you start stewing over what irrational people say, well, who’s the irrational one then? Which gets us back to my original point, way back when: Don’t poke the monkeys. It hurts you more than it hurts the monkeys.
And this is what it boils down to, really: Who is going to be the adult in the artist-audience relationship? Ideally, of course, you’re both adults — you as the artist give your best effort, and then the audience treats your work critically but fairly and doesn’t hold it against you that you’re not perfect. But in the case where it turns out that only one of you is going to get to be an adult, as the artist you should damn well try to make sure that the adult in the relationship is you. This is where Hamilton fell down on the job; her pissy little passive-aggressive rant was the sort of foot-stamping you expect from a 8-year-old being told she can’t have a pony, not a 40-something professional with a couple dozen books to her credit. Hamilton is of course perfectly free to do what she wants; I just don’t suggest others do likewise.
Hal is entirely right that an author can quite reasonably say “if you don’t like my work, don’t keep buying it.” I do think that if one actually says it, however, one should actually mean it. I also think one should say it in such a way that one doesn’t also shit all over the people to whom you are giving your advice. Because when you do it says something about you. What it says isn’t actually very pleasant.