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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

 

Reading to know the author

Josh and Buffysquirrel have made some interesting points in comments on the last post, to wit:

...trying to get to know an author by reading their books alone is like trying to paint a portrait from shattered reflections of a funhouse mirror maze. Each reader will have their own mosaic, which is why I think they crave those actual author events, the signings, the conventions. They want to measure an author up to the image in their head, however lacking or fulfilling that experience may be. I wonder how often meeting an author has changed a reader's perception of a story?
-Josh

and

... I've just escaped from a 'debate' in another place with someone who said they read in order to get to know the author. My contention was that's not possible; what you actually do, while reading, is construct an idea of the author, which may or may not happen to have some correspondences with 'reality'.
-Buffysquirrel

Reading to get to know the author? Now that's a peculiar thought when you have several thousand copies of your own book floating around out there somewhere.

I don't think I've ever changed my mind that much about a book based on meeting an author. I remember meeting one author (who shall remain nameless as I'm being polite) who was such a jerk that I decided not to read any more of their books; I'd read one minor work, and thought it was okay but a had bit more showing off than soul, and the fact that they were so arrogant in person confirmed my view that their books were likely to be show-off. Hence, I gave their stuff a miss. But then, I'd never been a particular fan. Possibly if I'd thought their books were the best books ever, I might have considered they were entitled to be arrogant. I do know that when some people have criticised the behaviour of authors I like, I always think, 'Well, that's their right, I guess.' Their books have added to my life enough that I feel I'm well ahead of the game with them, and they don't have to do anything else if they don't want to.

A couple of authors I actually had brief conversations with were Jung Chang and David Sedaris, both of whom where very nice - Jung Chang was very polite and thoughtful, and David Sedaris was working impressively hard to be entertaining and kind to everyone at the signing. The latter is interesting, as he clearly enjoys presenting the worst side of himself when he writes, but there's a lot of humanity in his comedy as well; both things go with having no side, so it didn't really surprise me to find that he had no side when talking to people. In both cases, their manners coincided unsurprisingly with their books.

Thing is, though, this wasn't like meeting them socially. It was a public appearance, and they were on their best behaviour. What they're like around people they know and trust wasn't on display; all you could learn was how they talk to strangers.

Meeting readers, from an author's perspective, can be a bit nerve-wracking. I know from having been a meeting-reader that you're not quite sure what you want from the author. An autograph and a pleasantry usually does the trick, but if you're looking to expand your understanding of the book, well, unless you have a specific question, how is that going to happen? Which makes things a little unusual from the author's end. Most authors, I think, really do want to please the people who come to a signing or a reading, but if it's not clear how best to do that, then they're going to either have to improvise much more than they would in a normal conversation, or to develop a generally-pleasing public persona - neither of which are the same as meeting someone under normal circumstances.

Part of it is that some readers are just a little bewildering. I hesitate to give examples in case they're reading this, but some people do approach authors and say stuff that's difficult to answer, not because they really want a reply, but more because they want the satisfaction of having said it. If that's the case, they're easy to please: you just let them finish and say something non-commital. But then you're not being your normal self either; you're fielding a social awkwardness that normally doesn't happen. Other readers are perfectly nice reasonable individuals, but can have a very definite idea of your stuff that isn't really what you meant by it. It seems rude to contradict such people, especially as their ideas will often be quite detailed and well-worked out, so you're stuck between manners and honesty. You may give a completely false impression of yourself rather than spoil someone's pleasure in your book, especially as so many readers are really nice. You'd rather they enjoyed themselves than contradict them.

The other thing is that, while some people may read a book to get to know the author - or at least, to form an idea of them that may or may not be accurate - authors are selling something they've made, rather than themselves. The book's finished now, and if it was written properly, there should be nothing to add. Even if there might be, the author isn't necessarily the person to add it. Among other things, writing and publication take time. It can be years between beginning chapter one and the complete work hitting the shelves. The person at the signing has had life experiences that the person who wrote the book didn't have. You're one person when you write it, and by the time it's out there, you may have changed into someone different. The person readers meet isn't the exact same person who wrote the novel.

Meeting an author, in short, is weird. The book gives you an unprecedentedly intimate peep inside their head; on the other hand, a signing or reading is an unusually public, and hence constrained, social encounter.

So school me here: what do you want from authors when you meet them?

Comments:
Sorry to be totally off-message, but can I ask if I'm the first person to spot a typo in Bareback?
It's at the top of page 196, or, if you prefer, the start of the twenty-first paragraph of chapter 21 (I think, if I've counted them right). The line starts "Paul sighs, rubs his head. His hands open and close." The first word of the next sentence is "The", but from the context should I think be "Then". Maybe someone has already seen it, but if not you might want to send your publisher an email! (Sorry about this, my full-time job is a proof-reader and sometimes I just can't switch off - I wasn't doing it on purpose, honest! :-) )
 
Well spotted. It's been fixed in the paperback edition, fortunately - out this month, guys. In fact, I think you should buy a copy just to make sure. Heck, buy two in case you lose one. Maybe even three, just to be on the safe side. Go on, it's got a very nice cover. :-)
 
I must confess, I've been waiting for the paperback.

(Don't hate me. I'm poor.)
 
Somehow whenever I envisage an author signing (which isn't often), I'm the author :D.

I haven't a clue what I'd want from an author, which is probably why I don't go to signings. Free books, maybe!


(and it was written that the sqrl would never get the word verification right on the first try, for verily that would be no fun)
 
You're forgiven, anon. Hey, you know what? If you go to WH Smith's, you can buy Bareback and get another book on their list half price! I am ridiculously proud of this. They had my book on a poster in their window, and I took a picture with my camera phone and a nice lady asked me what I was playing at.

All the multi-millionaires who read this site in droves, on the other hand, can pay full price.
 
Rats!

After visiting and enjoying this site for months and months, guilt finally got the better of me and I bought the hardback (although from Amazon with four quid off). If I'd only waited another month, I could've got the paperback... :-)
 
Never mind. The hardback's nice too. You can brandish it and say you got ahead of the hype. :-)
 
As it goes, the hardback's really nice. I don't own too many (for the same reason as anon above), but I'm glad I bought this one. Good luck with the paperback Kit; your pitch almost does make me want to buy lots and lots of copies! :-)
 
Hypnotic powers! Ha ha haaa! Shall I use them for sales purposes, or for world domination? Anyone got a preference?
 
How about "word" domination, ho, ho, ho, because that's what you're good at? (yes, I know that wasn't funny *groan* (sorry!))

And yes, I'm not too busy at work today and am trying to write the opening chapters to my second book, which is the sequel to the first book that I'm hoping Sophie and Edina will sell soon, and yes, I did give up smoking 11 days ago, and yes, I do know I'm wasting everybody's time and will probably post this and then delete it... Oh, double rats! Anyone got a fag? :-(
 
Hire your powers out to struggling authors so they can use them on agents. You want to represent my book! You want to sell it to Tor for thousands!
 
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