No matter what kind of reader you are—from the voracious to the satisfied with one book a year person—we end up feeling for the characters we read about. We live in their heads, their worlds, and journey with them as they face outweighing odds and losses. It goes back to the old saying ‘get lost in a book.’ That’s essentially what happens when you find the book, a story that jives with you on every level without running the risk of being judged. In other words, you’ve found the ideal relationship.
Who do we have to thank for this effervescent gift if not the wordsmiths who thought up the story to begin with, whose names can be found somewhere on the cover, the jacket, and at the end of the novel—usually with a charming synapsis of their life alongside their adorable dogs and cats. The numerous contributions authors have given us are too many to count; we’ll never be able to know how these books have affected the lives of people introspectively.
Our treatment of praiseworthy ideas contained in books is synonymous with how we celebrate our authors: we laud them, stroke their ego a bit, and then pester them about when they plan on releasing their next book. Mostly harmless.
When an author’s book, however, is perceived as controversial and contentious, it’s met with the reverse reaction, with critics and readers all at once ready to pounce and deride the author’s work. What I find troubling though is not only the people’s treatment of these authors, but how people seem to be misconstruing an author’s novel, a work of fiction, as the author’s own words, his or her opinion. The last time I checked, this isn’t how books are meant to operate; they’re design to take us into another world or enlighten us, not necessarily drop us into the lap of literal meanings and inflammatory debates.
During a Q&A on Twitter, E.L. James was lambasted by tweets tied to the fourth installation of her bestseller book series, Fifty Shades of Grey. These rhetorical and sardonic questions were pointed at James’ two leading characters, which people condoned as indecorous and are poor examples to women in romantic relationships.
Of the number of reasons of which we could criticize the books (the writing, display of insufficient research, THE WRITING, or the trite dialogue,) people went after James for the ostensible message her books send to impressionable men and women. Several of the readers’ comments focused solely on how women may interpret the text and use the characters’ behaviors as a model to live by—although if women are using Erotic Romance as their guidelines on how to live, that’s a whole separate issue in itself. . .
What’s peculiar is that these people treated her as though James herself had been the one to instigate the issue, had personally advocated adopting her characters’ lifestyle. If James is guilty of anything, it’s more than likely from pervasively answering these questions and addressing mostly the fluffier questions—and, again, producing badly written literature.
Responses like these are not uncommon and are bellying up more frequently whenever readers or the audience disagrees with what’s written in a book. It’s similar to how people will challenge a book for its content, except instead of going after a book to remove it from the shelves; people are going to the source: the author.
To many people, this makes sense. The author devises the plots and characters and produces the words to tell such-and-such story. In these terms, we are looking at a cause-and-effect: the author is the catalyst for the action and the effect is the public’s response to the material. This is more misleading than it appears though. Although an author invents the world and generates the text, we’d have to assume that the reaction to the book is calculated, a fixed idea of how it will be interpreted, and books, like I said previously, do not operate on those terms. The problem is more complex. It’s not the author’s book that is causing hostility to erupt; it’s just the focal point of people’s attention. Perhaps enabling peoples’ unfiltered, caustic behavior is how we are now able to interact with authors directly in an anonymous environment.
We can actively engage with authors through our own social media platforms. With how marketing has changed, we’re also seeing authors take the helm in promoting their books. They’re more in the forefront and consequently susceptible to the social media nebulous noise that, at any given time, can turn into a torrent of unrelenting rancor. It’s this new way of communicating, however, that desensitizes us and fuels our cathartic, dialogue toward our authors. We forget, too charged and wrapped up in our emotional upheaval, that there’s a person at the other end, who’s just one person in the void of millions.
Happening more and more is people are holding authors accountable for the pernicious effect their stories and characters seemingly cause. People are applying a universal sense of what is right and wrong and scrutinize authors for writing a book morally ambiguous or a subversion of probity and ethical practices; these people are quintessentially targeting authors for their books’ inadvertent effect, when there’s no real evidence to corroborate to go along with their accusations. If an author writes a book with less than stellar model behavior, doesn’t send a good message to kids, isn’t appropriate to teach, too politically charged, or harbors a secret agenda, the author will surely be at fault.
Then there’s the patently well-known fact: these are just books. They reside in the realm of fiction for the most part. This fact alone should keep us in check; yet this doesn’t stop people from trolling and harassing authors.
For some reason though, we struggle in realizing that characters and themes are not always ideal. When we find something is not acceptable, we don’t take the time to discuss it; we absorb it like a sponge. We extrapolate parts of the text and take it as is and remove it from its original context. Our interpretation of the text sometimes doesn’t go beyond a sentence, which somehow ends up supplementing as the book’s overall message, or rather, with how people see it, the author’s message to their readers.
Am I saying there aren’t people who are malleable to a book? Of course not. Books affect and challenge us and sometimes we end up adopting and carrying that nugget of knowledge with us. This is normally not seen as bad thing, and it shouldn’t be, but it seems people have come to the conclusion that books should all maintain a similar, exemplifying propriety for everyone to live according to. If that’s the case, might I suggest looking elsewhere, such as the Self-Help section?
The question though is not if this will become the standard in how authors will be treated (because there’s no regulation on social media, and people are not about to become impassive any time soon) but if the works created by authors released by publishing houses will somehow be more subdued, with publishers being more careful as to what they sell. Will we see less controversial subjects written by authors to appease the readers in exchange for favorable reviews to increase sales? Neither scenario, as I see it, is a no-win situation.