Feet of Clay

A writer friend lamented over the weekend she had been devastated by something a writer she admired had said on a conference panel. The writer she’d gone to see is a well-known sci-fi/fantasy author of a popular series. (And it’s not George R. R. Martin; I omit the name because I’m not interested in being sued by someone with a gazillion dollars.)

Someone in the audience asked the panel if any of them had ever had the experience where a character took a story in a different direction from what the writer had planned. This well-known and beloved author apparently sneered and said words to the effect that characters in his books are fiction, and the idea that fictional characters “talk” to writers means the writer is nuts.

My writer friend was dismayed at the answer. It actually put her on quite the downer, then she added that she still liked his books and would continue to buy them.

My question is why? Why continue to support someone who is so contemptuous of his audience?

I suppose you can separate a person’s body of work from their personality. I mean, my favorite author is Harlan Ellison, for whom the appellation “curmudgeon” is an understatement. However, Ellison has never dissed his audience. In fact, nearly forty years ago, Ellison picked me from a crowd of fan-boys and -girls to give me some personal writing advice. He was charming and encouraging, and, though his over-sized ego was definitely present, he never once disdained any of my stupid questions. That was twenty minutes of my life I’ll never forget.

When Tom Clancy gave an interview many years ago where he proclaimed that anyone making under $100,000 a year simply couldn’t relate to him or he to them, I was astounded and dismayed. That was the key demographic who bought his books, who made him a rich man, who enabled his first wife to buy him a freaking tank for his birthday. This, from the former insurance salesman who let fame and fortune go far enough to his head that he appeared on Fox as a “terrorism expert.” I stopped buying his books.

The reality is, yes, characters in a novel are fiction, but they are real enough that you hear their voices in your head. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity. And, yes, characters sometimes insist that the story go in an unplanned direction. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity.

The other reality is successful writers are human beings with personality quirks, and sometimes some of them reach a point where they don’t feel they need to cater to their audience anymore. They don’t have to be nice and indulge a perfectly reasonable question from a fan.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look up to writers. As writers ourselves, successful writers are whom we aspire to be. Just accept that those successful and popular writers are human beings, too. Admire them, emulate them, but don’t idolize them. Spotting their feet of clay can be so earth-shattering.

How about you? Has a writer you’ve admired said or done something that has made you boycott their books?

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12 thoughts on “Feet of Clay

    • Well, in truth, I wasn’t there, just reflecting my friend’s reaction, which was he was contemptuous. And, of course, the writer is in control, even when the characters speak to him or her.

  1. I love the title of your post. Back in high school, my choir had a chance to perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion with a very famous and talented singer. We got there early for the sound check (for which he didn’t show). Waited for the concert to start, did our part, and waited in the green room for him to spend 5 mins with us. He was going to sign programs and such. He breezed by the green room with the audible comment ‘get the kids out of here, I don’t want to deal with them’. We were all crushed. I never sang, listened or purchased another piece of music from him.

    That being said, I met a wildly successful author and she was kind and friendly. Even though it was a book tour, she took the time to talk to each person in attendance, ask about them and, in my case, give me a little advice about writing.

    An author/artist’s attitude really does affect my perception of their body of work.

  2. I’ve heard other writers express opinons similar to the one you mentioned on the panel. I think it boils down to individual approach, much like some of us use outlines and some of us prefer to not. Some who are incapable of understanding how others can use approaches different than their own tend to think those not like themselves are “wrong”. That attitude isn’t limited to writers, but seems to extend across the entire human race. It especially seems to be prevalent in religious arguments.

    • Absolutely, Madison, it reflects a different approach, and the fact is, it has to be what works for the writer. BTW, it was the author whom you’re currently reading. Sorry.

      • LOL, that was the name that went through my mind ;) I’ve heard in the circles I eavesdrop on, that that particular author has such an attitude. But the story (to me) is more important than the personality of the author so I continue to read…

  3. Ouch. Experiences like these are why I quit having heroes. As a person who is new to writing, but old to creativity, I find that your craft may take you on a path you did not expect. I have been a bass player for over 25 years, and I am pleased when I find a riff or motive develops out of it’s own inertia. It’s nice not to be 100% in charge of ones’ subconscious mind. It would sure make for a boring life as a creative person. Unless of course, you are a creative person with psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies, then you would utterly desire that absolute control. Just sayin’! lol.

  4. It’s interesting. I was listening to a writer on the radio recently and she stated she didn’t know where her new story was going. The characters somehow would carry the story to its conclusion. There are many ways to write, and some create characters and situations and the resolution is up in the air.

    I had a similar incident where a great writer insulted my question. Human beings are sometimes not very nice, but sometimes they are sublime. That is why we read them, and we can forget their poor manners. I’m grateful people forgive me for my social crudeness.

  5. I saw your post about this on facebook and thought I would chime in. At a writers conference in Tucson, we had quite an esteemed panel. One of the writers was a historian I admired. I asked her a question regarding an aspect of the history she focused on in her most recent book. Before she could answer, Derek Walcott very loudly pronounced that most history was crap. Why? Because where he was from, history was obscured in no time by nature and was irrelevant. Then Czesław Miłosz chimed in about women and writing and poetry and history – in not the kindest way to say the least. The woman sitting next to me started crying because she was a translator of Polish poetry and her mother was a poet of note in Poland before she died. The whole panel became a free-for-all. Ugh.

    On the other hand, Alan Ginsberg was more than I could have hoped for in terms of appreciating his audience and spending time with them. Same with Ken Kesey who showed up at a local bar/poetry night unannounced. What a joy of a person he was.

    Maggie Estep, performance poet, don’t even ask. I will be sued if I say anything further. On the other hand, Marc Smith of the Green Mill, great and friendly guy.

    • And yet we continue to make them “successful” by buying their books. SMH.

      Frankly, I’d be so flipping thrilled to be on a panel and asked a question, I’d probably gush. ;-)

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