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.

81 Comments on “Fans: What Do We Owe Them?”

  1. Excellent and sensible commentary, as usual. :) When you originally wrote about the Hamilton wankery, I forwarded the link to a bunch of friends. While I’m not a longtime reader of hers, I knew people who were. (Not of the crazy screechy monkey variety, fortunately.)

    They were equally appalled at Hamilton’s not-so-subtle jab at the people who were so small of brain as to not appreciate her work. A lot of them felt the same as the critics– they loved her early stuff, but wondered how the heck the series got so badly derailed and held out the slim hope that the plot and characterization might one day return from the dark void.

    They’re not the kind of people to go on her forums and complain about it, however. They just quietly stopped buying her books, and behavior like that on the author’s part is not likely to win them back.

  2. If TAD minded not being reviewed as much as it did, I think it might mind not being read even more. I really hope that it didn’t read the part where you said that it’s just an inanimate object.

    Once again I agree with what you said. The things that bothered me the most about the LKH post was her saying that people didn’t like her books because they couldn’t understand them and also that she implied that the other books that people liked were not as good as hers.

  3. I just pasted Duncan’s rant into MS Word to get a word count: 4,262. There’s something marvelously ironic about expending that much verbiage to complain about other people’s inability to let go of a grievance.
    Best line of the piece: “Star Wars Episode None: The Phantom Plot sucked. I learned my lesson. I didn’t go to see either Attack of the Clowns or Revenge of the Shit. I have no intention of ever spending any money, time or willpower on the steaming pile of excrement George Lucas has made of the thing I once loved.
    Um, right.

  4. I’ve stopped buying her books. I do still put them on hold at the library, with the idle wish that maybe I will once again encounter a plot in her novels. I don’t have any great hopes, because I understand that plotting is hard. Should the El Paso County library system stop buying her books, I imagine I will be able to cope.

  5. 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.

    This is well said. I’m let down when I read a book and I don’t enjoy it as much as I expected. But I am hurt when I read a book and I can tell the author didn’t much care about it.

  6. Anonymous:

    “There’s something marvelously ironic about expending that much verbiage to complain about other people’s inability to let go of a grievance.”

    Well, that’s just Hal. He’s wordy. And it’s a good piece, so it’s not as if those 4,262 words were wasted.

  7. Hm. I basically agree with John’s point, but I feel obliged to go on the record, given the tone of the bulk of the responses here, to say that I like Hamilton’s new books better than the old ones. Because, y’know, the old ones were basically pretty competent storytelling, which lots of writers do, with a bit of Catholic guilt about enjoying sex and some ‘which boy will she pick’ thrown in for added tension. Enjoyable, but not much more to them, all within a pretty standard monogamous paradigm.

    The new ones are trying to deal with poly and generosity and jealousy and emotional and cultural and ethical issues, all mixed up together. Which pretty much no one else I’ve encountered does, certainly not at such length/depth, and which is tremendously interesting to me as someone who’s lived through more than a decade of similar issues. So that even if Hamilton’s sex scenes get a bit long and skimmable, I’m still more interested in what she’s trying to explore in the later books than the earlier ones. To the extent that I now buy her books in hardcover, and I didn’t bother before.

  8. So you would say that the fans would be better advised to stop purchasing and reading Ms. Hamilton’s work, but that Ms. Hamilton would be better advised to stop writing things like that on the Internet where everyone can see it and observe that the regrettable complication and plotlessness in her later books is reflected in her online informal publication.

    It’s not that the 4,262 words were wasted, Mr. Scalzi. It’s more like the direction and topic of the piece in which they were spent contradicts their focus, artistry, style, and meaning, if that makes sense. It was a very enjoyable post, with lots of typically Whatever organization, knowledge, emotional depth, empathy, and caring. Taking a piece of admittedly slightly vitriolic ‘LKH asshardery’ (I quote) and turning it into a relevant piece on the artist’s obligation to the fans shows that the Whatever contains that je ne sais quoi marking it as a premier journal of 21st century virtual Weblog literature.

    And Mr. Steve Buchheit, though your query is fascinating and would be interesting to find the answer to, in my personal opinion the question that is probably a little more relevant whether Ms. L.K. Hamilton is a part of a support group.

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj:

    As regards LKH’s books and whether the new ones are better or worse than the older ones, I have no opinion, since I haven’t read any of them. I’m sure there are others who prefer the newer work to the older work as well.


    “So you would say that the fans would be better advised to stop purchasing and reading Ms. Hamilton’s work, but that Ms. Hamilton would be better advised to stop writing things like that on the Internet where everyone can see it and observe that the regrettable complication and plotlessness in her later books is reflected in her online informal publication.”

    I think if people no longer enjoy reading someone’s work, they should stop buying it, yes. I also think it doesn’t benefit the author to attack the people who no longer like his or her work.

  10. I’ve just read three of your novels but haven’t had the experience yet of being disappointed with one of your books. Although I might have been a little bit by the OMW stuff if I’d read TAD first, since I ended up loving TAD so much.

    I’m still quite looking forward to The Last Colony, though, as I’m expecting it to be as interesting as OMW even if not as fun as TAD. Which may be less on-topic than a monkey-poking insight, but what do you want from me–lurking?

  11. I’m down with telling people not to read my work if they’re not happy with it; why make yourself miserable? M

    Let’s make this more general: Why do I read things that I don’t like?

    0: Andrew Wheeler told me to.

    1: Research. Sometime I want to know what the state of the art is for stories of sublight interstellar colonization, which means I have to read the COYOTE books, or I want to look at (de)generation ships in SF, which means there is no escape from MAYFLOWER II.

    2: Nostagia, only to discover that the fine book I recall has been the victim of a Masonic plot and replaced with a totally crap book.

    3: Addiction. I like the idea of hard SF. The reality is often ugly but a consuming desire to read it has taken me to some unpleasant neighorhoods.

    3a: Addiction. Nitpicking may not be better than sex but it’s more available. Hard SF lends itself to this past time.

    3b: Addiction: It’s ten hours to Scranton and all I have with me is a text on the Fundamentalists and some books that if I lose, I won’t mind too much. Not reading is not an option and there are no book & magazine stalls on the bus route between the US/Canadian border and Scranton.

  12. DM writes:

    They just quietly stopped buying her books, and behavior like that on the author’s part is not likely to win them back.

    Behavior like that on the author’s part likely won’t win her very many new fans, either.

    My brother in-law has been after me to read the Anita Blake books forever, and in fact had handed me a couple just before I went away for New Year’s. The link to her screeching like a pretentious screeching screechy thing showed up in my reading the following day. When I got back from my trip, I gave the books back to my brother in-law unread.

    If I’m not worthy of her books, she can keep them. I’ll just save the money for Scalzi, Gaiman, Stephenson and Mieville, and authors like Hamilton and Rice can go to hell.

  13. I’m actually going to Carbondale (well, close to Carbondale) but as far as I know, it isn’t on a bus route. For some reason, my relatives seek out Can’tTherefromHerevilles, the sort of places that lack bus or train connections of the kind where the vehicle actually stops while passing through town. The closest I could get to Mulgrave NS, for example, is a 10 km hike away on a route that goes past Grady’s Gulch [1].

    1: In family myth, roughly the equivilent of Massacred Cheerleader Summer Camp, the kind of place where a hitch-hiker might be torn limb from limb by unseen dogs.

  14. It’s really only a tempest in a tea-pot. I hate to say it, but the “fan” (by this I mean the people who go to cons, and wait in line for hours to get a book signed, not “people who really like the author’s work”) part of the buying base is small. Only the fans will see this bruhaha. Most of the buying public will never know of it.

    As Mary Anne Mohanraj said, she likes the new direction. I would wager on her side of the equation that most of the people buying LKH books like what she’s doing. It’s not for me, that’s why I don’t buy LKH or take her books out of the library (yes, I tried Incubus Dreams, it wasn’t for me).

    Some people who read the books (or watch the TV shows) of any author (or scriptwriter) will become emotionally invested in the characters and setting. When they start feeling betrayed that either aren’t doing what they expected, most will lose interest, others will get angry and leave. A smaller percentage will vocalize.

    I have to agree with John. LKH should have kept her passive-agressive rant to herself and her close friends. My guess is she’s now polarized her fan base more than they were before. I think she just put some of those who were angry and went away into the angry and vocalizing group. And that is entirely her problem.

    I doubt LKH is going to “flame out” over this. And I don’t expect her to change where her Anita character is going because of it (what writer would?). Her publicist, though, should have a good discussion with her. If her books sell is what her publisher needs to worry about. If they think they can get their investment back, they should publish the book. Once they don’t think that will happen, then they need to explore other options.

    I was wondering if she had ever been in a good critique group where you learn how to handle critiques of the work. Some groups are better than others. Some critique is better than others. It’s the author’s job to figure out which is which. I also agree with John that it’s also the author’s job to give each work the best they can.

  15. You touched on one of the problems a little bit there at the end. I think LKH has way too many “fans”. I’ve always striven to be and admirer of peoples works because for me the term fan has a negative connotations. An admirer likes the work, but it never becomes an overwhelming part of their lives. Fans sometime have problems with reality and can be known for losing objectivity. They join chatrooms and fan groups. They nitpick. They can’t seem to enjoy the work for what it is. They have expectations. (If you want to see an example, just go to any “Nine Inch Nails” forum.)

    Because LKH writes an ongoing series there are a lot of folks invested in her universe. Now, I like her later books, but I have many friends that feel betrayed by where the books are going. It’s a book. It’s not like the series cheated on you with your best friend. I think this series has way too many fans and not enough admirers. I also think part of the problem is that LKH is now a fan of her series as well as the writer. She’s lost the same objectivity as other of her fans.

  16. Interesting. I’ve heard other people say that LKH’s problem is that now she’s writing fanfic in her own universe. I have no idea whether this is true or not (or indeed, if such a thing is even possible, all things considered), but it’s a provocative way of putting it.

  17. “Y’know, I like most of what you’ve written in your blog, but this entry kinda sucks. Would you sign it for me?”

    Sorry. Had to. Still enjoying enormously (TAD kicked multiple ass, trying to get the rest of my family to read your whole ouvre)

  18. Scalzi: “If you’re going to Scranton you deserve what you get, James.”

    As folk might revere Bradford, Ohio for the Scalzi, so is it perfectly cromulent for them to appreciate Scranton for Gerry McNamara.

  19. It’s funny you bring this up, as I’m contemplating quitting reading a certain newspaper comic I’ve enjoyed for years, because I think the comic has jumped the shark in terms of story quality and characterisation. Indeed, I think that recent storylines have propagated either bad ideas about how to behave in certain dangerous situations or even been somewhat racist. (The somewhat racist strip today is what really drove the nail into the coffin, for me, coming as it does on top of a storyline I actively HATE.)

    And I’ve not be alone in this. I participate in a fan community which both lovingly and less-lovingly dissects the strip, and up til today, I’ve even enjoyed the snarkery. It’s kinda like bitching about your family. You love them, but sometimes they do stupid stuff and you wanna vent. And until the interweb, you didn’t know there were people who shared your views.

    My boyfriend has been following this with puzzlement. After all, if we don’t like the series anymore, why are we so upset about the quality of recent strips? Why do we analyse the characters’ behaviors? Why do we read it at all? I think part of it is that unlike books, there’s no definite delineation–this is when this story arc began, this is when this one ended, based solely on where the covers and end sheets are. We picked up this story back when we still thought there was promise, a story we were interested in, we felt the author provided some expectations and failed to follow through on them while taking cliched routes out of dilemmas. A character, who was once independent and adventurous, has become wishy washy and needy. We miss the character in a way and we want the end of the story, so we keep reading.

    All that said, it is not my creation. And if I really don’t like it any more, and even the enjoyment I get from dissecting it with likeminded individuals is outweighed by my disgust with the storylines, perhaps it is time to jettison this work. The world is filled with worthy cool stuff, and my time is finite. Hell, I can spend that time making stuff I like. Seems like a plan to me. :)

  20. I noticed another Buckeye on the Delurk thread. Maybe they’ll come over here and we northerners can continue to make fun of those from the south.

    LKH is goofy. She should just say, “Then don’t buy the book,” and walk away from the discussion.

    Then again, fans who stand in line to complain about books are goofy too.

    They’re all probably from southern Ohio.

  21. Missy writes:

    Behavior like that on the author’s part likely won’t win her very many new fans, either.

    That’s certainly been my experience. Some of my acquaintances who do read paranormal fantasy have expressed a real reluctance to to pick up any LKH books based not only on what they’ve heard about it, but also because of the way LKH reacted to criticism. The whole “if you don’t like my books you must be dumb” approach doesn’t sit well with them already. Can’t say as I blame them.

    Like Mary Ann said, though… Plenty of people do still like and read the series, so it’s not like LKH is hurting for a fanbase. I personally don’t think the newer books do a good job of exploring the abovementioned themes. I’ve read two books (not consecutive in the series) and it seemed terribly repetitive.

    She never really goes into any emotional depth at all re: Anita Blake’s conflicted thoughts over her sex life, etc. it all seems very perfunctory. The problem is, I already know what the outcome will be. (Anita will express woe and angst, but add another man to her collection.) There’s no suspense in it, and all the protests of the main character start to feel a tad empty.

    I wasn’t in this from the beginning, so I don’t have the same sense of betrayal as some longtime fans do. I can understand why they’re annoyed, however. It’s one thing for a series and characters to evolve– that is desirable, although tough to do. (Robin Hobb does a fantastic job of this in her Assassin and Tawny Man series.) It’s another thing for a series to suddenly change genres midway through.

    John Scalzi writes:

    Interesting. I’ve heard other people say that LKH’s problem is that now she’s writing fanfic in her own universe. I have no idea whether this is true or not (or indeed, if such a thing is even possible, all things considered), but it’s a provocative way of putting it.

    I can see where that description might apply. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen among longtime readers is that the main character has turned into a Mary Sue. Neato powers out the wazoo, unearthly sex appeal, all the guys want her, all the females are jealous, and Anita doesn’t seem to have any time for kicking butt and taking names because it’s all about teh sexx0rs.

    My guess is they’re also saying it because you usually don’t see this amount of focus on sexual pairings (to the exclusion of plot, character development, etc.) unless it’s poorly written fanfic. They might have a point there.

  22. “It’s funny you bring this up, as I’m contemplating quitting reading a certain newspaper comic I’ve enjoyed for years, because I think the comic has jumped the shark in terms of story quality and characterisation.”

    Did it recently have a plotline that involved a fire and a laptop?

  23. James Nicoll: Yes, you guessed it, although that’s not the storyline that drives me mad. (It did get minus points for completely ignoring everything Fireman Bob told us about vacating burning buildings.)

  24. Scalzi: “I don’t think anyone reveres Bradford, Ohio for my sake.”

    If you write it, they will come.

  25. Casa Scalzi is not a container to be filled, but rather an idea whose time has come. A rabbit hole unfillable in fulfillment of its destiny.

  26. Those of us who are fortunate enough to make a decent living creating things should STFU when critics and/or long-term ‘fans’ rip us a new one; even when they show up at a signing (or screening) high on cough syrup, one eye dewey with admiration and the other pin-wheeling like a Fritz Freling cartoon.

    Ask the assistant manager at your local K-Mart if he/she would mind five minutes with an overzealous looney, or two hours with a sweaty, oxygen -deprived roofer who tries on underwear in the changing room and leaves it wadded on the floor because it ‘pinches the plums too damn much.’

    When my humorous fatherhood book came out, I was eviscerated by a small number of expectant mothers who felt humor had no place in the delivery room.
    Short of an endorsement from Camille LaPaglia, there was no chance in hell I would ever convince those lovely women that humor is really the only coping mechanism that we, as men, have when a head pops out of our favorite gal’s naughty bits. (Aside from Jaeger Meister and a Vicodin, that is.)

    In short, learn to accept haters as a part of the economic model, or get your ass down to Burger King and make me a chicken sammich with cheese.

  27. I can say one thing about waiting in line to get a book signed whether or not you think the book is good… money. That signed copy will sell to rabid fans on eBay for a lot more than a body originally paid for it. So while waiting in line to just say “You suck!” is kind of silly. Banking on someone who think is a total waste of human space is deliciously ironic.

  28. There is this interesting emotional investment some people make in media properties, akin to how some people get validation from following a given sports team. As with any relationship, it can take a long time after it’s gone bad to make a break, and that break often isn’t a clean one. Instead of clothes left by the locked front door or tearful 3 AM phone calls, you get people standing in line to tell the author how bad their new books are and, oh, by the way, could you sign this? As you say, the only rational response on either side is to pretend they’re rational and then sidle away from them as quickly as possible.

    “The book doesn’t mind if you don’t read it; it’s an inanimate object.”

    Good to know.

  29. I think if I were in her place, I would write something like this in the complainer’s book: Sorry you hated this book, but still wanted it autographed. I hope it will bring you as much on e-bay as you think it will.Either that, or spell the “fan’s” name wrong.

  30. What I think creators do owe folks is also simple: A good effort.

    Very true, but why would creators owe themselves any less? I think therein lies the definition of a hack: someone who’s not willing to satisfy her own standards, let alone anyone else’s.

    There was long, vehement, and occasionally hilarious discussion thread on Charlie Stross’ blog about the ways in which writers should or should not court their fans that’s worth reading in light of this discussion. Maybe the funniest part was when one clueless seeker-after-argument called Steve Stirling and me (oh, so indirectly), whores, for arguing that writers, and other artists, are craftspeople, and their work can be judged in the same way as the work of, say, a potter or a cabinetmaker.

  31. Bruce Cohen: Just curious as to how you see a writer/artist/fimmaker/whatever in relation to a craftsman such as a cabinmaker. I see neither as whores simply because they sell what they make.

    Martin Sutherland: Please contact me off-forum, as my mother is a Sutherland and I wore the tartan at my wedding. As a long lost American cousin, I’d like to borrow some money. Please do drop a line, I have questions about Edinburgh:


  32. Martin, I took a look at what Joe had to say, and immediately noticed a common fallacy: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, criticize.”

    I take a certain amount of issue with this. As an example, I do not by any means have a professional-quality voice — but I can certainly tell when someone is or is not a competent vocalist, and I can separate such competence from my personal like or dislike of the style. More generally, it is not necessary to have talent in order to be able to recognize it… or its lack. Falling back on the “I’m better than you because I’m doing this and you aren’t” line is, at root, a copout not so different from LKH’s “if you don’t like my work, it’s because you’re dumb”.

    I think what’s really at issue here is the difference between rational and irrational disagreement. Both LKH and Joe would be well-advised to stop confusing the two.

  33. Good post and interesting comment thread. I recently had occasion to post a lukewarm, mostly-disappointed review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel Ysabel, which triggered a brief e-mail exchange with Kay. He was genial, and we ended up talking a lot about the way in which different readers will twig to different things reading the same book: A subtle plot point that may not register at all with Reader A will smack Reader B between the eyes. Something emotionally involving to Reader C will leave Reader D flat. Ultimately what any working artist has to accept if they choose to be, you know, a working artist, is that you will get one of three reactions to your work: some people will love it, some people will hate it, and everyone else will be indifferent.

    I also haven’t read the Hamilton due to the NVC rule I’ve set up at my site (No Vampire Crap). But what I’ve observed happening among her fan base is that everyone I’ve talked to who has read her and loved her says the same thing: old stuff good, new stuff not merely bad but possibly requiring an intervention. I get the impression that Hamilton, whose ego must be a considerable thing if her books are as Mary Sue-ish as everyone says, has got it into her head that her sales are some unimpeachable mark of artistic legitimacy, and therefore anyone who critiques her is simply some kind of troglodyte. (It brings to mind Marlon Brando’s caustic remark to Val Kilmer on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau: “You’re confusing your salary with your talent.”) This goes beyond the mere “some people like you, some don’t” scenario most writers are in, into a hubris detached from reality. Hamilton seems too close to her work and too full of herself; it’s unlikely she’ll be able to step back from where she is and take the detached look she needs in order to bring her stuff back to the level of quality her longtime fans miss.

  34. Martin Sutherland:

    “On the subject of ‘you won’t understand it; it’s not for you’, I just came across a cracking entry on Joe Carnahan’s blog where he takes a swipe at critics of his film Smokin’ Aces.”

    Thanks for pointing that out, Martin; I left a comment there. As with Lee, I find the “Those who can, do; those who can’t, criticize” line a bunch of nonsense, not in the least because I do both, all the time.

  35. I found Hal Duncan’s post hard to read, and I don’t mean because he’s using one of the more reader-unfriendly Blogger templates.

    I like people who respect one another.

    I like fans who don’t assume that their favorite writers are public utilities.

    And I like writers who don’t assume that their readers are drooling crazies.

    I don’t care for the idea that fans should put up with any amount of abuse because creative writers are somehow better and more valuable people than they are.

    And I don’t care for the idea that writers have to put up with any amount of abuse because “the customer is always right.”

    I’m getting distinctly tired of seeing the terms “fan” and “fandom” deployed as if they were about little other than (in Duncan’s words) “devotion, loyalty, completism, continuity dependency, mythos immersion.”

    And I get tired of fans who talk as if any aesthetic decision by their favorite writer with which they disagree must obviously be motivated by something discreditable.

    You know something? Neither writers nor fans are responsible for what they do in one another’s dreams.

  36. As with Lee, I find the “Those who can, do; those who can’t, criticize” line a bunch of nonsense,

    It’s not a bunch of nonsense. What is a bunch of nonsense is the backwards reading “Those who criticize, can’t.”

    When my humorous fatherhood book came out, I was eviscerated by a small number of expectant mothers who felt humor had no place in the delivery room.

    Er, Scott? You do realize that you’re indulging in the same thing LKH did?

  37. Mythago:

    “What is a bunch of nonsense is the backwards reading ‘Those who criticize, can’t.'”

    As this is obviously what is meant by the statement, I’m not entirely sure the original statement isn’t still nonsense.

  38. mythago:

    Er, no I’m not.

    I merely pointed out that a certain demographic found my book disagreeable and there was nothing I could do to change their minds.

    And not that I would try. It’s part of the game and my comments above clearly state this.

    Had I strapped on my tinfoil crazyhat and raged against them on a blog, then yes, I would have engaged in the same behavior as LKH.

  39. Quite right. Logic-chopping aside, when someone says “Those who can’t, criticize,” 99 times out of a hundred, they’re engaging in a rhetorical power-grab.

    The idea is generally that we should only respect opinions on art that come from artists. The rest of you, just sit still and don’t venture opinions about your betters.

  40. PixelFish,
    I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Comics Curmudgeon, but he might be able to help you through this dark time in FBOFW:

    I used to feel a connection with the strip, because it runs in roughly real-time, and I’m about the same age as Michael, so we both started high school at the same time, and started driving at the same time. But this whole Elizabeth storyline is just killing my interest in the strip.

    A couple of months ago, I posted a review on my lj ( for a book I didn’t enjoy very much. I debated for a while about actually posting it, because it didn’t seem fair – my primary response to the book was that it wasn’t like the author’s previous books, and it wasn’t what I wanted to read. It just didn’t seem fair to be judging a book by such a subjective yardstick. But in the end I decided that I had something I wanted to say, if not to the author than at least to the ether.

    I’ve actually been considering writing a similar review for our kind host’s TAD, but I don’t think I will. I think my biggest criticism is that the book was less than perfect, and I was expecting perfection. I enjoyed TAD, laughing out loud in a few parts, and was on tenterhooks to see how it came out. (The only part of the book I really had a legitimate gripe with was Archie’s partner Sam. I don’t care which it is, but just give me a gendered pronoun. Dancing around it just draws attention to it. There, I’ve said it. It’s off my chest now. Whew.)

    And I think that’s it – sometimes, a reader just feels like they have something to say back to the author, and maybe what the author owes the reader is a quiet listen.


  41. John, I just had a comment get caught in the spam filter. Now, I’m not posting here to ask you to fix it (I’m smarter than that), but I’m hoping that after your next regular filter check, it’ll magically appear directly above this post, and you might be able to enlighten me as to what set off the filter. I’ve had a couple get waylaid recently, and even after reading your comment moderation post, I’m still in the dark as to the cause.

    Thanks for any guidance,

  42. Kevin Q:

    Two URLs + a partial word that’s currently filtered got you moderated. I’m likely to defliter that partial word reasonably soon.

    Also, I didn’t dance around Sam’s gender; I just didn’t mention it. I got most of the way writing through the book before I noticed I hadn’t in fact mentioned Sam’s gender, and then I thought, well, if it works so far, it should work all the way through. I think it does, personally.

  43. I, too was captured by the hepafilter of processed meat products (sometime this morning).

    Loved your response on Carnahan’s blog. His original post is kind of a preemptive poo flinging screech. Can’t wait to see if he responds to you.

  44. Putting comments in all-caps is strange and psychologically intimidating. It’s an auto-screechy-monkey mode that instantly makes every commenter look like a n00b. I think it’s probably a design decision rather than a deliberate attempt to make the author look superior to his audience, though.

  45. John,
    Thanks for the info. The post on comment spam says that three links will get you into the “naughty bin,” so I hoped that one hyperlink and one text link would get me by. Guess not. I’m also playing “Where’s Waldo” with the rest of that post, trying to guess what “partial word” got me tossed. My money’s on my use of Curious George’s playtime gas.

    About Sam,
    I noticed in the first scene that we didn’t get a good physical description of Sam, and at that point it became the proverbial sand-in-the-bathing-suit: Each new scene with Sam without a “he said” or a “she said” stuck in my mind.

    But I’m a bit strange like that – I happen to like the word “said,” even though I know some writers (not you, I think) hate it, and I tend to notice when it goes unused or misused.


  46. I merely pointed out that a certain demographic found my book disagreeable and there was nothing I could do to change their minds.

    No, what you said was that you were “eviscerated by a small number of expectant mothers who felt humor had no place in the delivery room”. Now, it’s possible that those eviscerators did indeed tell you “Humor has no place in the delivery room, so I hate your book,” in which case I stand corrected. But what you seem to be implying is that the real issue here is not the funniness of your jokes, or whether they were funny yet offensive to some; it’s that the critics have no sense of humor about the delivery room. And that charge–your lack of appreciation in my work is due to your personal failings–is exactly what is loathsome about the LKH screed. (Yours was far less screedier, but the sentiment is the same.)

    As this is obviously what is meant by the statement

    Call me a lawyer, but you can use the first phrasing (the envious resort to criticism) without meaning that all criticism is motivated by envy.

  47. I really wish I’d read LKH’s rant before I’d bought the latest book, because you can count me as a member of the group who keeps hoping that she’ll get back to the stuff that was good in the first few books. If I’d read it, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in the pile that I’ll get to at some point.

    Why did I buy it? Well, I have all the others, and it would be a hole in my collection. It’s the same reason that I have Alien 4 and Star Wars Episode III in my DVD collection.

    As an aside – I have a signed copy of the fourth Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book, and when I got it signed I said something like “I can’t believe you ended it that way” to Douglas Adams. So in some small way I’m guilty of the same thing. But he just laughed and signed the book anyways…

  48. Mythago:


    In any event, what Joe Carnahan said specifically was “If critics could do, they’d do. They can’t.” Which is fairly unambiguous, if wrong.

  49. Laurel Hamilton is pretty high on my list of ‘must flee’ writers – seriously, I might be as queer as a three dollar bill, but pretentious S&M, gang-bangs and creepy rape fantasies don’t put any lead in my pork pencil. (And if it did, I’d just cut the crap and buy porn.)

    Having said that, I majored in Classics at university and the best advice I ever received was to try and understand the text in front of you, not waste your time pissing about how they didn’t bother writing the kinds of stuff you’d have written if you were them, or stating the bloody obvious – that the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t necessarily the kind of people you’d want to date, have in the house or elect to public office.

  50. Skip,
    Aaaaahhhhh! So Long… is my favorite of the Hitchhiker books. I know, that makes me a bit of a heathen to say it, and I know that even Adams felt ambivalent about it, but I think it’s a sweet and tender book, and showed a completely different side to his writing than we’d seen before.

    That’s all I got.


  51. PixelFish [on a recent plotline in FBOFW] “It did get minus points for completely ignoring everything Fireman Bob told us about vacating burning buildings.”

    I interpreted that as not so much “this is what you do in a fire,” as “Michael is a self-absorbed idiot who will abandon his wife and kids in a fire to run upstairs to rescue a laptop to preserve files we later learn (in the letters, I think) were backed up offsite.”

    Some of that, if I understand the conversations I have read, is because the author started off having him heading up for the MS itself and altered the script on the fly thanks to advice from younger people.

    Hmmm. Now I am imagining how Michael will react to his first negative review, going on his voice in the letters section of fbofw.

    I know I might regret asking this but why “racist” for the Liz plot? What am I missing? It looked like small town vs outsider to me, not native vs whites.

  52. Someone on binky_betsy (the LJ community snarking on FBOFW) found an already-posted strip for Monday. It indicates that it’s best for Paul to stick to his own kind.

    I don’t know if LJ intends it to be racist, or if it’s just back to her usual “Everyone has to be with their childhood sweethearts, living in their hometown, PERIOD” dogma. But it sure comes off as racist.

  53. My main criticism (and I think what a lot of reades are failing to articulate) is that LKH’s books have suffered a drip in quality of prose, flow of the various lotlines, and there has been a noticable drop in actual editorial quality (typos, run on sentences, gramatical mistakes, etc…)

    With so many people actually complaining cogently about this, LKH decides to ignore them, rant at crazy incoherent idiots, dig her heels in and refuse to change.

    I thikn she’s not interested in real criticism, because I’ve sen her ignore it in favor of a drama fest. That’s fine. I’ve stopped buying her books. There’s an almost zero chance she’ll ever read this, or listen to me, and you know what, that’s fine too, because there’s *good* literature to spend my time on, and she stopped producing good literature a while ago.

  54. Now, when you encounter a crazy screechy monkey, there are many things you should not do, and one of the things not to do is go up to it and jab it repeatedly with a stick.

    I gotta be the one to ask, John. Why are you poking the crazy screechy monkey? You had a post about how LKH made a bad move: cool, all good. You have the beginning of a post about how Hal Duncan defends LKH, but missed the reason people have been calling her move a bad one. But then you go off on a “pissy little passive-aggressive rant” trip vs LKH… Pokedy pokedy poke.

    Also: why call her passive-aggressive? She says people who don’t like her stuff are too dumb to understand it: that’s aggressive-aggressive. We know she’s attacking us. She knows she’s attacking us. We know she knows. This isn’t a subtle thing, much like the poke you deemed it.

    It’s possible that she doesn’t know we know she knows: that is, it’s possible that she thinks she’s attacking people who will be saddened and baffled by her attack. So if that’s your guess at her mental process, you could attack her as delusional or cruel… But passive-aggressive? Eh.

  55. Madeline F:

    “I gotta be the one to ask, John. Why are you poking the crazy screechy monkey?”

    I’m shocked and appalled that you would call bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton a crazy screechy monkey. I’ve never said anything of the sort. Ever.

    “But passive-aggressive? Eh.”

    Well, no. That whole rant was supremely passive-aggressive, because she doens’t say people who don’t like her work are too stupid to appreciate it, she merely implies. She writes the piece as if to suggest she’s saying something sensible but in fact is unloading on her fans. That’s about as passive-aggressive as it gets. And if you read her followup entry it’s clear just how passive-aggressive it was.

  56. 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?

    I think it shows some level of contempt for readers, and for people in general, to assume that everyone who stands in a signing line to express a negative opinion is “Comic Book Guy”.

    An equally valid scenario is that they have the book to be signed because it’s a signing line – they think that the only way they can legitimately be in the line is to get the book signed. But the real reason they are there is that they wanted a chance to speak personally to the author, to tell him/her they were disappointed in the recent work, and to ask him/her to go back to producing what they enjoyed.

  57. mythago;

    I certainly will not call you a lawyer; no need to engage in name-calling.

    Although, if you are indeed a lawyer, it explains why you post anonymously.

    Aside from you, not one person interpreted my posting to mean “the critics have no sense of humor about the delivery room.”

    But if you want to interpret it that way, go right ahead. I’ll even wear a paper LKH mask and tinfoil hat for you if you like, and post the pictures here.

    I’ll try one more time:

    Man write book. Some people hate book. Most people love book. Man happy to earn back advance and not be highway worker with orange vest and sunburned neck.

  58. From the rap album ‘A Tribute to Lisa Bonet’ by Felt –

    “Wave your hands in the air like you’re happy to have hands,
    I’m’a jump up and down like I’m happy to have fans.”

    Says most of it, right there.
    And I say again, LKH’s dialog blows. Thomas Perry’s rocks. So I read Thomas Perry.

  59. Jayne Ann Krentz (NYT bestselling author for, geez, decades) once told a story about a reader who stood in line for a hour in order to ask that Jayne write another book like X, since that was the last good thing she’d written.

    Jayne said, “How do you know that was the last good one?”

    The reader said, “I buy got all your books.”

    To which Jayne said, “Thank you!” Because, hey, what else do you say to such a loyal reader? And both parties went away from the encounter happy.

  60. it explains why you post anonymously

    I think you meant “pseudonymously”.

    But again, your ongoing snark aside, when your implication is that anti-fans don’t get it or are lacking something that would allow them to appreciate your work, you’re stepping into LKH Territory.

  61. No, I meant anonymously, meaning that you take extra steps to hide one’s identity. You are doing that, right?

    No matter, call it what you like. I choose to stand behind my comments and demonstrate the courage of my convictions.

    Doesn’t mean you have to.

    And again (and finally) I never implied that they didn’t GET it. I said they didn’t LIKE it, nothing more.

    The whole point of that ridiculous post was that we, as writers, should take the criticism and be happy we can pay the bills.

    Now put your tire iron down, the horse is dead.

  62. “Someone on binky_betsy (the LJ community snarking on FBOFW) found an already-posted strip for Monday. It indicates that it’s best for Paul to stick to his own kind.”

    Ah. I see.

    Come to think of it, I can’t off-hand think of a mixed race couple in FBOFW, aside from Liz and Paul.

  63. Madeline F wrote: I gotta be the one to ask, John. Why are you poking the crazy screechy monkey?

    I think it falls under the rubric of the motto on John’s main page:

    Whatever: Taunting the tauntable since 1998


  64. Josh Jasper:

    Well, fair point. But I feel the same about Patricia Cornwell – whose whole career has been a pretty sharp case of diminishing returns. (And she comes across in the media as being a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal, which is neither here nor there.) What still bugs me is why anyone would (presumably) buy a book, get in line at a signing and demand an autograph from someone they think sucks and blows and expect a warm reception? Sorry, I just don’t get the narcissistic self-importance involved in that kind of anti-fandom.

  65. Scott MacTavish:

    Just curious as to how you see a writer/artist/fimmaker/whatever in relation to a craftsman such as a cabinmaker. I see neither as whores simply because they sell what they make.

    Neither do I, which is where the argument ended up. If you want the blow-by-blow of how it got there, follow the link in my original post. The elevator pitch is basically that there was an argument about whether genre writers were artists, and I said that artists and craftspeople were not really different; that in fact an artist is a craftsperson with possibly some additional motives for creating the work. Most of the time, I categorize people into the two groups based on what they call themselves (except for poseurs, who get their own special circle). This notion comes from growing up around people who called themselves artists and people who called themselves craftspeople, and associating with both for most of my life.

    Both types were involved in selling their work (and necessarily, in this culture, in selling themselves). Some artists are more mercenary than some craftsman, and vice versa; that doesn’t seem to be a distinguishing trait for either.

  66. So glad that in addition to discovering your books I have also discovered your website. I think you are one of the (thankfully many) authors who I not only admire for their work but also for their sensibility and treatment of the fans. Nicely put, I enjoy hearing your commentary on these ‘controversies’ in the book world.

  67. As a long time swimmer in media fan ponds, I find it interesting to see a repeat here of behaviours there. Fans pick up on a show (or book) because they like the story, like the characters. They become emotionally attached/invested in same … and at some mysterious point, affection morphs into entitlement and suddenly they feel it’s their job, nay, their *right* to tell the creators of said show/book/characters how to write them, what should happen, and heap the most vitriolic abuse upon them when they don’t conform to said fan’s interpretation of the text.

    It’s very odd. And it’s happening right now with Stargate, Atlantis, BSG, Supernatural … and did happen with Buffy and Angel, all shows that spike/d very strong emotional responses in the fan base.

    As a writer, I believe that all I can do (and should do) is write the very best story I can, each and every time. After that, I have no control. And if I can’t accept that, well, I need to have a little lie down and a rethink about my career.

  68. I don’t see it as odd at all. At least not totally. If an ongoing series (work? Whatever) declines in quality*, it’s perfectly reasonable to take note. It’s also quite reasonable to express the belief that it’s declining in quality.

    Now, it may not be, strictly speaking, reasonable to be vitriolic and the like–but as Duncan pointed out, people respond emotionally because they had an emotional investment in the work. Because it spoke to them (or however you want to phrase that). It no longer does, so they feel let down; they’ve made an emotional investment, and they’re no longer profiting from that investment. So they’re upset.

    That sort of behavior isn’t limited to fandom; you find it in relationships as well. When a relationship (platonic or otherwise) goes sour–when a friend or lover is no longer compatible, a source of joy, or what have you–do people tend to say, ‘well, it was fun while it lasted; see you’? Some do, I suppose; many, however, have, ah, messy periods in which they eventually come to realize that they’re better off without one another. Not infrequently, one or both parties is left feeling bitter.

    Now, whether it’s healthy to become so attached to works of fiction…

    *This is, of course, a subjective opinion.

  69. I am not a fan because I read exactly *one* of her books and it was such crap I decided to never buy another. Her blog post was very insulting to readers. Anne Rice had a similar blow up but she offered to refund people who were unsatisfied. I wish LKH had done the same!

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