It’s red carpet season, which would probably be more meaningful if the big glitzy ceremonies were actually about giving out awards for exemplary work. Instead they seem to be about which celebrity’s outfit was the most shocking, who made the biggest gaffe (And the Academy Award goes to…), or about the technical glitches that reveal the true natures of singers and their actual abilities, or lack thereof, with the searing clarity of a kid yelling “The Emperor is naked!”
The other aspect of these shows that seems to get more attention than the artistic accolades they are supposed to celebrate is the way in which celebrities use the red carpet and the on-stage podium as a bully pulpit from which to proclaim their own political and social agendas. With the addition of social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram, celebrities can tell everybody how they feel about everything, sometimes whether or not everybody wants to know or has any inclination to care. Though we expect this nonsense from movie stars and rappers, we are now seeing more and more of it from everyone from political leaders to brilliant writers, whom we might have hoped were above such shenanigans.
J.K. Rowling’s recent public tweet-wars with everyone from television personalities to disappointed readers have drawn attention to the way in which our technology now makes it possible for living authors to be remarkably outspoken and accessible, in ways previously un-imagined. Publicists and handlers of best-selling authors doubtless encourage them to engage in these spectacles to keep the fame machine cranking, in the belief that there is no bad publicity. But not all authors, living and dead, have allowed themselves to engage at this level. Author accessibility is a tricky minefield, one that individual authors navigate differently, placing them at different levels on what I like to call the “Scale of Accessibility,” ranging from Hermit to Gadfly, and everywhere in-between. Let’s visit a few spots on that scale, and the authors who epitomize different ways of coping with, and using, their fame to present, or protect, themselves and their views.
I Want to Be Alone—The Recluse Spider, er Author.
A surprising number of authors throughout history have really refused to have any contact with the public and with readers. Whether it was because they were trying to make some sort of artsy statement about their craft ( J. D. Salinger), because they were overwhelmed and somewhat worried by the response to their work (Harper Lee), because their work offended scary people who behead the people who offend them (Salman Rushdie), or because they had social anxiety disorders (Emily Dickinson, so famous for her introversion that, if you get invited to a costume party but really don’t want to attend, tell the hosts you are coming as Emily Dickinson, and you can just stay at home with the lights turned out, hoping no one knocks on the door). Even in the information age, some authors are pretty close to this spot on the Accessibility Scale. They don’t have facebook pages, they don’t appear at events, and they don’t answer fan mail. Not surprisingly, they sometimes fail to be ridiculously rich and famous, though ridiculously rich and famous authors have their own spot on the scale that is pretty similar to this one.
Nobody Gets in to see the Great and Powerful Oz, not Nobody, not Nohow! Fame as a really big Bodyguard
Authors who have attained the rarefied status of huge fame can have their own particular brand of inaccessibility. Instead of hiding out and hoping not to be noticed if they do happen to go to the grocery store, these authors have the income to create their own level of privacy. They live behind gates that require passwords, their kids have bodyguards when they go to their private schools, and they rent whole hotels when they travel to avoid mixing with the public. Obviously, this is a level of fame that is bestowed on only a select fragment of celebrities, only a few of them authors. These writers do make appearances, but they are rigidly controlled, with ticket takers and minders whose sole jobs are to ensure that only those who are cleared to pass get to experience the Presence of the Great One. Sometimes they respond to fans, often ones whose stories can be publicized to provide further fame and recognition for an author who remains out of reach to most of the general public. Most of these authors did not start out in this range of (in)accessibility, but shift there as their fame grows.
Private, but not That Private
This is probably the wisest, if hardest to maintain, level on the scale of accessibility. These authors are not hermits, but they also don’t publish pictures of their children on the internet. They have websites, but these are generally to provide information about upcoming work, and though they do interviews and programs, they tend to be selective about these if they can. They may be polite and answer some fan mail, depending on the volume they receive, but they focus primarily on their work as authors. They do not forget they are authors and try to become social reform monitors. Many authors, like Suzanne Collins, are very successful at this level. Collins is quite private, though gracious in her appearances at book events and movie openings. She knows the messages her work conveys, and she doesn’t have to toss those ideas in people’s faces. She lets her work speak for itself, and does not, as so many authors do, let herself slip to the dangerously over-exposed next spot on the scale.
Fame! Baby Remember My Name! And my twitter handle, and my flickr account, and my facebook page, and….
At the other end of the accessibility spectrum are the many authors who have succumbed to the alluring siren call of fame and glory to the point that they are constantly tweeting out an update on a book or posting on snapchat from a signing. While some more successful authors (or those with young and technically gifted family members) get someone else to do the social media blitz for them, others do all their own posting, which can, unfortunately, lead to a couple of unpleasant results. The public is a fickle creature, and sometimes tires of people who share too much. Authors, like Rowling, may find that over-sharing starts to turn off readers who were once eager for any little scrap of information from the Presence. Like eating an entire bag of sweeties, getting too much information, even from an author they followed avidly, can make readers, especially the fickle sort who make up big chunks of many fandoms, get sick of too much of a good thing. In addition, this sort of over-sharing gives authors an over-inflated sense of their own importance. It is easy to believe that because millions of people buy one’s books, that those millions of people also want to know and imitate every little opinion one has. While the adoration of readers can help authors to promote important causes or expose issues, it can also mislead authors into elevated senses of their own importance, making them think that they have a right to control what people think and believe just because those people bought a book. There is a strange trade-off at this level, where authors sacrifice privacy in order to be more forceful with their agendas, so they are losing their own privacy even as they attempt to entice their fans to be ever more loyal, even to mimic the political leanings of their favorite writers. Thoughtful readers, however, can read both the work of an author as well as his or her posts and tweets, without necessarily believing or following them. Just as reading (and loving) Charlotte’s Web did not deter me from a lifelong enjoyment of bacon, sharp readers know that it is wonderful to be inspired and perhaps even changed by the books we read, but that we must not make false idols of texts or the people who create them, no matter how accessible they may seem.
No matter where an author falls on the accessibility scale, deciding how to deal with readers can be challenging. Authors who ignore even silly emails and comments on website run the risk of being labeled snobs or jerks by a thin-skinned fan with a an itchy Twitter trigger finger. Authors who try to be accessible can be exploited, as with the famous instance of Stephenie Myers’s Midnight Sun being leaked by a trusted reader. But authors do not have to be easy to access. They are under no obligation to explain their work or stroke the egos of those who read their books, any more than we are obligated to follow their beliefs just because we enjoy their writing. So, if they do get outrageously pushy, or if they hide inside with the lights out, they are dealing with the same fears and anxieties, which may eventually move them to another spot on the scale. They are after all, whether hermits or blowhards, just human, like the rest of us.