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Friday, October 17, 2014

WHEN AUTHORS SAY STUPID THINGS


I'm no stranger to putting my foot in my mouth on occasion. As a published writer, the demands on me, like all my ilk, have increased exponentially with the advent of social media. Facebook, Twitter, etc. are now required tools in a writer's arsenal, where we're expected to post interesting quips and book announcements on a regular basis, regardless of our ability to even hold a coherent conversation in public, let alone our willingness to do so.

It may seem strange to the rest of the non-writing world, but publishers actually audit our social media and website presence. This incipient intrusion into how we present ourselves is now an integral part of our publishing strategy; I've heard twice now during marketing discussions that my website has been "audited" and been offered suggestions as to how to improve it. Publishers don't do this to frustrate or irritate us; in fact, they have the best of intentions. Media attention has become inescapable, fundamental to any author who wishes to survive. As marketing budgets shrink and books compete amid a smorgasbord of other entertainment options, writers must keep up, expected now to not only entertain with words in their books, but also with their extraneous minutia.

It can therefore come as no surprise that like everyone else out there posting kittens, skateboard videos, pictures of recent vacations, and memes declaring everything from political affiliation to sexual preference and religious belief, authors can now and then find themselves screwing up. After all, we've all seen our share of "OMG!!! No, he didn't!" on non-writing people's posts. We've all cringed at that celebrity's faux-pas on Twitter or that politician's asinine comment on Facebook. No one is immune. We all put our foot in our mouths - or in our posts, as the case may be. And in this day and age of intense social scrutiny and viral spread, when we do, everyone else notices.

Writers are, by and large, a solitary breed. We have to be. It's not a choice; it's an occupational hazard most of us embrace. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "What a life you lead, sitting at home all day making up stories," I'd be sitting at home on my yacht in Cannes. People think we are privileged - and we are, because we get paid to make up stuff - but the day-to-day grind is hardly glamorous. Unless your idea of glamour is endless months of toil over a keyboard, trying to wrestle into words that brilliant idea in your head; eating pretty much the same sandwich every day, and looking up in a red-eyed haze at 5:30 when your partner comes home from work and comments, wryly, "No shower yet?" or the obsessive checking on the ranking of your most recent opus at various online sites, followed by crippling doubt when said ranking fails to hit the single digits and you know you're headed on the bullet train to failure and that day-job in a fast-food chain. Glamour has no part in it. To be a writer, you must have buns of steel to keep them glued to the chair every day and an excellent exercise regimen to avoid permanent carpal tunnel. We hunker down in our dens like mole people because that's where our stories are born. We eschew social outings that other folk spontaneously engage in - impromptu lunches or jaunts to the movies - because we're "under deadline," but more honestly, because we live in constant dread that if we deviate too much from the work-in-progress, the muse will desert us and then we'll really be on that train to fast-food hell. We don't mean to hide from the world, but we must. If we didn't, we'd never write another word. The world is too tempting. There is too much distraction, too many reasons to avoid the screen or page, and skip outside to play like a normal person.

But now, we are expected - no, required - to have a public presence. The more savvy among us elect to create an alternate persona that exalts our best qualities while concealing our less amenable ones. Because while readers may want to meet us, to exchange confidences, praise or criticism, they shouldn't know too much. It's not healthy or wise to show the world who we are in our entirety, because like every other industry that relies on another person's imagination and investment, writers need to disappear when someone is reading our book.

Which brings me in my long-winded way to the point of this post. Having watched in slack-jawed horror the debacle caused by bestselling author John Grisham's insensitive remarks during a recent interview, where he extolled his opinions of old white men who watch child porn and the unnecessary harshness of their jail sentences, I realized this is a perfect case of writer's foot-in-mouth. As rich and popular as Mr. Grisham is, and a lawyer to boot, so he really should have known better, he's still a writer. He doesn't get out much, or at least not as much as he probably should. He might actually believe what he said (writers are under no requirement to be pleasant, though it would behoove them to at least try) or he might have been handed a microphone and completely lost it. Whatever the case, he screwed up. Within hours, his mini-rant went viral; his Facebook and twitter accounts flooded with outraged remarks and avowals to boycott him evermore. His hard-working publicist no doubt had to flee to the nearest bathroom stall to hurl up his or her lunch before launching into full damage-control mode, because, you see, Mr. Grisham has a book dropping next week and well . . . to behave like a cretin at such a time is simply not done.

Will it affect his book's sales? I doubt it. In today's age of burn-fast-and-forget-it, by next week some other author, celebrity, or politician will utter a string of garbage and the blast of the white-hot spotlight will swerve on them. After all, Orson Scott-Card's unabashed cretinishness hasn't exactly hurt him, though the producers of the film made from his bestselling novel went to certain lengths to distance themselves from his racist, homophobic stance. Still, he has survived, and to my knowledge, his book sales have not taken a significant hit.

The simple truth is, most writers aren't designed for the world. We're built like special cars, fueled by the power of our visions, with high mileage in our particular neighborhood but poor efficiency on the highway, necessitating frequent coffee re-fills and fortifying pep-talks from our agents. We're not supposed to be touted into the arena to regale the public, because while we may be interesting in our own right, most of what we want to say, or should say, is in our books.

Then of course, there is that undeniable alternative: Some writers are not nice. They're rude, self-absorbed people whose opinions make 98% of the rest of the planet shudder. They are the dangerous ones, the feral in our breed, because you never know when they're let out of their den if they'll smile at you or bite.

So, publishers beware.

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