The recent firing of Bocephus for some (not-too-controversial) comments, as well as conversations with some friends, have got me thinking about publishing and politics. We live in a hyper-polarized world. There’s no such thing as a moderate anymore. If you think sales of assault weapons should maybe sort of be controlled, you’re an evil communist who wants to government to control our lives and take away all of our means to defend ourselves. If you think some of the data surrounding climate change is a little bit questionable, you’re an anti-science creationist wacko. There’s no middle ground.
This is an unfortunate byproduct of modern society, created largely by a sensationalist media. The concept has been covered ad naseum by media critics like Jon Stewart, but suffice it to say that, with a lack of 24 hours of real news, the 24-hour news stations resort to blowing up trivial differences and pretending that we need to go to war over things that normal people can resolve with “Ahh, Bob, you’re crazy!” There’s also the broader issue of those in power encouraging the peasants to fight amongst themselves lest there be some sort of silly revolt, but one could write a book (and many have) on that.
So what does this have to do with writing? In the connected age, everything. Unless your words are so mind-bogglingly brilliant that the teeming masses have no choice but to buy them, you’re going to be in the position of selling yourself just as much as you’re selling your books. Many of the big success stories in the past few years, both in literature and in other forms of media, take advantage of the ability to connect with fans. Gone are the days J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee. Today’s successful authors have a presence on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (well, okay, no one really has a presence on Google+).
But there’s a danger. Like a little boy who worships his grandfather only to grow up and find out the grandma left him because of the nightly beatings, we don’t always want to know everything about the people who make our entertainment. Crossing the line from “purely professional” to “friendly” with your audience can give you some benefits, but it can also be risky. Example time!
A few months back, prolific author Jane Yolen participated in an interview in which she derided the Tea Party. Some conservative commenters interpreted this to say that she didn’t want Tea Partiers reading her books. Now, for the record, I don’t agree that’s what she actually said. But talking politics in general is risky. Since I’m not a member of the Tea Party, it would be easy for me to say that the Tea Partiers overreacted here. But could I really say that if Jane Yolen went on a screed about some group I was affiliated with, I wouldn’t even hesitate when considering buying one of her books? And hesitation is absolutely not what you want your audience to feel when they see your latest novel has hit the shelves.
Another famous example is Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite authors. Card is highly religious, notoriously opinionated, and not afraid to speak (er, write?) his mind, as evidenced by his anti-gay marriage rant (gotta love the constant quotes around “marriage” — you just know he does the air-quote thing when he talks about this in person). He has an absolute right to his opinion, of course, and an absolute right to share it. But readers have a right to avoid his work if they choose. And that’s exactly what some of them, many of whom were once big fans of Card’s books, have done.
And it goes beyond controversy — sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. Shocking, I know, but it’s very likely that if you picked 100 fans and decided to spend a week with each of them, at least a few wouldn’t be your fans anymore. I don’t want to name any names here, but there is one author in specific whose novel I enjoyed enough to follow this author’s blog. Several months of whining about personal matters later, I unsubscribed. Does that mean I’m not going to buy any more books from this person? Of course not! But it also means I’m no longer tuned in to the author’s feeds, which makes it probable that I’ll miss when that new novel hits.
I’m not a fan of boycotts for political opinions. As much as possible, I try to separate the art from the artist. In the case of Orson Scott Card, I don’t believe his political and religious opinions bleed into his work, and I continue to enjoy them (except Empire, which was … hmm …). But, as one of the aforementioned friends said to me, why should this necessarily be the case? If you find out the owner of your favorite coffee shops is a proud, card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, even if the business itself has no history of discrimination in any way, would you not hesitate to continue going there? It’s an uncomfortable topic to think about. I would feel horrible if someone, or a large group of someones, decided they couldn’t read my work because of some trivial opinion I’d mentioned in an interview. But if they chose to do so, could I really blame them?
All that considered, though, I’m absolutely not saying that authors should feel the need to censor themselves. If you have something you feel like you have to say, say it, especially when it comes to issues you feel passionate about. I suspect Mr. Card feels the same way about the topic of gay marriage as I do, although on the opposite side of the fence: it’s important enough to speak about regardless of whether it costs him readers. That’s a choice each author needs to make on each individual issue: is it important enough to risk losing a piece of my fanbase by revealing my views? Sometimes the answer is going to be yes. Writers especially can’t second guess every single thing they write on the basis of whether or not it’s going to offend someone.
But what writers should be mindful of is that sometimes it’s beneficial to keep things back. Do you hate soap operas? Perhaps. But does it help you to write a rant about how terrible they are and alienate the people who like them? Probably not. If you think it’s important, go for it. But be aware of the consequences. Connecting with your fans is encouraged and very nearly necessary for success, but connecting with fans does not mean letting the whole wide world in on your every secret and opinion on every little issue. In the end, there’s some things we’d prefer not to know.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish my posts about abortion and circumcision. See you soon!