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Thursday, April 05, 2007

 

How does one refer to writers?

It's a curious question in this internet age.

I read English at university, and I was taught that you referred to writers by their surnames. But that doesn't always seem the case on the Net. It seems to vary. A friend of mine who's a Buffy fan, for instance, refers to Joss Whedon as 'Joss'. As my participation in the TV show consisted solely of watching it rather than talking about it on the Net, I'm guessing that's a convention among many Buffy fans caused by the author being particularly friendly to his viewers, but I couldn't say for sure. It can't be a general TV thing, because my friends who like The West Wing don't talk about 'Aaron' rather than 'Aaron Sorkin'. But it somewhat puzzled me the first time I heard it. 'Oh,' I thought, 'have you met him? No, hang on, he's in America, isn't he?' She's by no means wrong to do it, of course - what do I know about it, after all? - but it seemed unusual, to me at any rate.

Then you get authors who get referred to by their initials; I discovered, for instance, when referring to John Scalzi's post about Laurell K. Hamilton's dispute with her fans a coupla months ago, that people refer to her as 'LKH'. Whether this is because it's quicker to type or whether people would say it in conversation as well, I once again don't know. But it seems strange to me. If you can touch-type, then 'Hamilton' doesn't take much longer to type than 'LKH' - no, scratch that: it's quicker, because you can go easier on the shift key, and I for one find it easier to type when my little finger isn't hobbled.

It doesn't have to involve the internet to be a tricky question. There's an absolutely excellent biography of Jane Austen by Carol Shields - well-written, sympathetic, intelligent, perceptive about writing and of easily manageable length - which includes an interesting discussion of how to refer to Jane Austen. Shields points out the difficulties of various possible solutions: 'Jane' would have offended her as over-familiar, as would the brusquely masculine 'Austen', but 'Miss Austen' would have been wrong, as Jane Austen had an older sister and technically only the oldest unmarried daughter is Miss. (In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, the eldest sister Jane is 'Miss Bennet', and the other sisters are 'Miss Elizabeth Bennet', 'Miss Mary Bennet', 'Miss Kitty Bennet' and 'Miss Lydia Bennet'.) Shields settles on referring to her as 'Jane Austen' throughout, in what I think is a nice gesture of respect towards the excellent novelist.

But the internet certainly does seem to be upping the use of first names. I sometimes find it disconcerting. You all, my dear website people, address me as 'Kit', for instance, which is entirely appropriate, as we're in conversation - but sometimes I see a total stranger reviewing my book or discussing my opinions on their own site with no reference to me at all, and they're still calling me 'Kit'. It's a bit peculiar, because I don't know them. When they're slagging me off, it rather rankles; my friends call me Kit, and such people do not seem to be my friends. I'd rather they called me Whitfield; it's a gesture of respect, at least insofar as it acknowledges that we don't know each other.

Possibly this objection is an English thing - we have not been introduced - but then again, I don't hear reviewers speaking of American novelists by first name. But also, thinking of 'Joss', and its usefulness as a handle - would his fans refer to him by his first name if he called himself 'Joseph'? - makes me wonder about names in themselves. Kit is a slightly unusual name for a woman, and it occurs to me to wonder whether people would be using it in reviews if my name was Claire or Sarah. Has 'Kit' become a kind of logo?

What do you do when referring to writers? What would you rather be called if being discussed as one? Is there a convention I'm not aware of here? Fill me in, guys.

Comments:
I'm strongly against using first names to refer to writers when discussing their books. It sounds presumptious to my ears -- but then, I'm English too. (Guy Gavriel Kay fans have been known to refer to him as "Ser Kay", adopting a title used in some of his novels; that strikes me as a bit on the precious side.) But I also think that breaking down the gap between authorial-personality and everyday-personality in that way is not a great idea, though I have difficulty articulating why.
 
I think the media and the internet make us feel we know people when we don't--and they certainly don't know us. I've noticed that when the newspapers and online news are writing about a child or a young woman who's been murdered, they usually refer to them by their first name. Maybe they think we'll care more that way? Or maybe they think we'll be deceived into thinking they care. I find it disturbing, whatever the motivation.

However, when I see Bareback on the shelves, I go, "oh, there's Kit's book!". Harmless, I hope? :D
 
Well, of course I don't mind, sqrl, you cyber-know me! I just mind reviews saying 'Kit really should have written her book more like this', because, like Niall says, it feels a bit presumptuous. In more general terms, it's an issue of professional respect: having been taught to believe that writers get called by their surnames when their work is being discussed, having your work discussed by someone who won't use your surname can seem like a form of discourtesy, like being called 'Miss Smith' rather than 'Dr Smith' in your own hospital. I tend to feel that the surname is a professional title, and first-name reviews fail to acknowledge that.

I'm interested in what you mean by authorial versus everyday personality, Niall. Could you expand a bit? It's a complicated thing from an author's perspective. I feel like I've got at least four personalities on the go at once - this may be a result of working alone, but not entirely. There's my normal personality, which is what I use with people I know; then there's my professional personality, which comes out in interviews, meeting publishers and so on. Everyone has a bit of a divide between those - though interviews and meetings are, again, slightly different.

Then there's my website personality, which once again is slightly different. I'm not using a secret identity or anything, but I don't talk quite the way I blog. It's mostly involuntary, and a question of style - the only conscious thing is that I try to bitch less on the blog than I do in real life, because who needs more cyber-negativity? Not this world, that's who. The blog personality is something
you can often see in correspondence. I know some people who are charming face-to-face but very awkward in e-mails, and others who are shy and withdrawn in person, but positively suave when they write to you.

Then there's the personality with which I write my books, which is a deep dark morass that I can't really communicate in other ways, about which I'm very defensive and awkward, and tend to get embarrassed when asked to talk about it. Kind of the troglodite in the basement.

So what's an authorial personality in your terms, Niall? How do you see it?
 
What I meant was more or less what you just said. Strictly speaking, the work and the author should be separate, but of course they never are; so having read Bareback I can't help feeling that I know "Kit Whitfield" a little, even if it's only a very general sense that allows me to recognise that you are not, say, Peter F. Hamilton. But to extrapolate from that knowledge of Kit-Whitfield-the-author and say that I know Kit-Whitfield-the-person, even a little, seems even more tenuous -- Bareback is a very specific filter, and any information that gets through it is going to be partial at best.

So even if I didn't feel that saying "Kit" would be a breach of etiquette, I think that, as a reviewer, I would find talking about "Whitfield" to be a useful way of making it clear that I'm talking about Kit-Whitfield-the-author as opposed to Kit-Whitfield-the-person.
 
I think that puts your finger on it - surnames draw a line between talking about the writer and the person. Which raises the question in my mind: why do some people do the first name thing at all? I mean, in my case there are fewer letters in my first name than my last, but I don't think that can be it; it's not as if my name is Cholmondeley-Featherstonehaugh or anything enormous. In any case, given that it's a fairly safe bet that if someone's blogging or reviewing, they're comfortable with a keyboard and can probably touch-type, the difference between a one- and a two-syllable name is not really significant. So what's going on? If you've never met the author, whence this urge to use their first name?
 
I think the reveiwers who used your first name only were trying to cut you down, to minimize you, and that is just wrong in so many ways.

Refering to "Joss" or "LKH" in a casual conversation or an e-mail is very different from using it in a review. When casual fans say "Joss," they are trying to be friendly, and so show the listener that they are fans. To do it in a review, especially in a negative one, is just creepy.

What drives me nuts, personally, is when my children's friends (ages 7 or 8 or 9) try to call me by my first name. Oh, no! I gently say, "You can call me Mrs. Smith." From then on, they do. I can't stand it when my friends let their children do that, and I insist that my children call the parents of their classmates "Mr. and Mrs." I don't care if my friends think I am old fashioned or strange.
 
It's interesting. I was writing a blog about Bloc Party and Oasis ( http://goosefat101.blogspot.com/2007/04/full-of-sound-and-fury-signifying.html ) the other day and I found that I was referring to Liam Gallagher as Liam but to Kele Okereke (the lead singer of Bloc Party) as Okereke. This bugged me and I tried to vary it up. But I think its because I feel like I know Liam Gallagher better than Kele Okereke because he has been in the public eye for so long and part of my record collection for so long.

I am a buffy fan but I would never dream of calling Joss Whedon anything but Joss Whedon. I have too much respect for him to reduce him to a friend, he is a hero.

But that is interesting because do you reduce a writer when you take them from the plane of being a Writer and bring them into the plane of the friend/ the human?

I tend to find the more formal I am the less respect for the individual I actually have. The teachers I got on with at school eventually became first name people, the ones I hated I can never think of as anything but Mr/Miss... so and so.

Writers I respect I find I call by their full name. Irvine Welsh, Michel Houellebecq, Iain Banks, Philp K. Dick... Ursula Le Guin... etc... This is I think firstly because that is what they indicate they should be called. The front cover of the book doesn't say Mr Welsh or Irvine. If it did that is what we'd probably call them. The authors name is a brand name. I am a big believer in the death of the author anyway and in this way of thinking about things the author becomes just another facet for the readers understanding of the work.

I guess that means that however the reader chooses to think of the author is right.

As for respect I think I would feel disrespected if someone used my first name only to diss me and flattered if they used my first name only to praise me. If people referred to me as Mr Goosefat101 then it would annoy me as well. I would much prefer my full name with no title. Titles separate people too much and put barriers that are based on power in place. So I object when some scholer insists on being called Dr... this and that. And I have to say that I would be offended if any child called me Mr rather than by my first name. I am there equal the way I see it and equals should address each other as such.

My girlfriend works in a school and we have long arguments about the Mr/Miss thing for kids. I guess I have to agree that in primary schools in the current culture we have it is necessary for divisions of power to be created between kids and teachers. At secondary school this division only stops understanding and respect. I'd prefer to live in a world where it wasn't even necessary at a primary level.

We are all equal and I think the way we refer to each other must make that clear. So often language acts as a tool of dividing and ruling. Just as this makes me not favour the Mr/Mrs thing it also makes me against using a more familiar address in order to belittle or reduce someone else. Full names with no titles is the only way to go, I think.

Also a sirname on its own sounds like old school masters bellowing at misbehaving pupils.

The problem is, as buffysquirrel said, you often feel like you know someone you don't, and when that happens it is easy to fall into the trap of referring to them as Liam or Joss.
 
Hang on - death of the author? Are you trying to kill me? Don't forget you actually are talking to an author here, mate. And there's a difference between the death of the author as a critical theory and a social principle that you can address an author however you please. One is how to treat people and the other is how to view a work of literature, and the two have nothing to do with each other.

Don't you think the reasonable thing is to address people the way they prefer to be addressed, and expect the same courtesy from them? Otherwise it's just a case of 'I do whatever I want and nobody has any right to object', which isn't a standpoint calculated to lead to a civil and pleasant world. We're all equal as human beings, but different people have different ideas as to what constitutes courtesy, and it's privileging your own ideas over your equals' to try and force your preferences on everyone. If we're all equal, we're all equally entitled to have a preferred form of address.

Is it wrong to move a writer from the plane of writer to the plane of friend? It depends entirely on whether they're equally willing to be friends with you. Friendship is a mutual thing. And if a reviewer who has never met me is talking about my book, they're not my friend. I'm only friends with people I actually know; the most I can be towards strangers is well-wishing. They don't know me as a human being, either. All they've encountered is the writer, so that's all they're in a position to talk about.

You talk about getting on first-name terms with favourite teachers, but that's an issue of intimacy rather than respect. It's easier to like people you respect, of course, but too much unasked intimacy isn't welcome. The thing is, if you have a public profile, even in a small way, then it creates the impression that strangers know you, and this can be uncomfortable. That's a big reason why a professional form of address is important: it acknowledges that there's a degree of distance. Otherwise, it's people imposing themselves on your privacy.

The fact that titles create, or recognise, a degree of separation is the whole point: when it comes to having your work discussed, a different name, as Niall said, draws a line between the private person and the public professional, which is the difference between being critiqued and insulted, promoted and stalked, praised and fawned upon. What's appropriate in a professional comment is inappropriate in a personal one, and names recognise that.
 
I just wrote a long comment but then wiped it. So I'll be brief.

I seem to have given you a lot of false impressions of what I was getting at. Sorry about that.

The death of the author is entirely relevant to this idea, and I am an author to, and so obviously wasn't advocating our actual deaths. All I am saying is that if the public persona of the author is part of what makes up the meaning of a text, then it is possible to have one way that you believe the public persona of authors should be addressed and another for how their private persona should be addressed.

A reviewer doesn't review the private persona of the author, they review the public one. This is obviously not the actual authors "real" self but it is part of the process of giving your books to the public.

I don't agree in anyway with reviewers belittling and manipulating the meaning of the author in the way they address them. That is not pleasant.

I don't want to impose the way I address people on other people but I don't agree that you should always address people as they want to be addressed. If someone wants me to address them only as King Of The Universe, I won't and if someone has no medical training but wants to be called Dr then that would be wrong to.

Ultimately its all about forming a mutual agreement between person who is being addressed and adressor, juts as books are about a collaboration and agreement between author and reader. Sometimes one side will get things wrong and offend the other side. But both sides are equal in rights.

I agree that lines between private and public need to be drawn. Thats why I prefer the full name for public and first name for private. I don't like it at work when people ask (and I have to tell them because its policy) for my first name and then overuse it. I also wouldn't like them to call me Mr... anything. Thats my feeling and I treat others as I'd have them treat me. If anyone objected then I would address them in whatever way they asked (within reason).

I'm afraid for me respect tends to come through intimacy. I know I am not normal in this respect, for most people the less you know about someone the more you can respect them.

You can't control peoples feelings of friendship towards people they don't know. Unfortunately its natural. We all do it. Obviously people shouldn't. They don't have the right to think of people they don't know as friends. It is wrong
of them to do this. But understandable. And forgivable from time to time in the realm of blog or email or even review, but clearly not forgivable if they turn up at your house uninvited and ask themselves in for tea.

I think you felt I was having a go or something again, because I was straying into the area of philosophy/politics. I wasn't. My feelings on all this are not definite or consistent and I am interested very much in all the different POV's on this subject. It's a very interesting blog this one I think. You asked for what we did and what we'd like to be addressed as if we were writers, and thats what I tried to answer. Sorry if I did it clumsily and unclearly.
 
sorry, I didn't manage to be brief!! Some writer once said about a letter (I think it was philip larkin) "sorry I didn't write a sorter letter, I didn't have the time".

Thats my problem. I think it big long splurges. In order to be concise I need to spend time editing etc...

anyway, thanks again for this interesting blog and sorry again if I annoyed you in my comments about it.
 
I don't know that for 'most people' "the less you know about someone, the more you can respect them," Goosefat101. I think it's more individualized than that. There are some cases where the more you learn about a person, the more you respect them--maybe it depends on the subject you're getting to know.

As for the general topic of names: I find my general habit when talking/writing/blogging about someone well-known is to use their full name. When I was writing articles and reviews for my college newspaper, the procedure was to use their full name the first time, and then all future references are just the surname. But blogging strikes me as more casual, so perhaps some bloggers think that allows them to be as familial and friendly in their text as they might be in conversation. I can understand speaking aloud with a fellow Buffy fan and referring to Joss Whedon as Joss, or if you're lucky enough to meet/interview him and he says, "Call me Joss," but I tend to avoid using only the first name in my blog, as I never know when someone might stumble across it and wonder who the heck is Laurell. (Actually, for me Laurell K. Hamilton is an exception. I use her full name, then the initials for the sake of brevity, and avoid using just Hamilton as I've seen a number of books written by various Hamlitons and I like to avoid any possible confusion.) That's all just my opinion, but I ran across your blog and thought I'd contribute a little.
 
I think people use a variety of different forms of names for a variety of different purposes. The use of an author's first name suggests to me one of the following: the tipping of a hat to an iconic brand name ('Diana'); a name that is distinctive enough in media terms that we all know who we're talking about ('Liam'); a sense that the author is down with the fans enough to be addressed by first name, and would probably prefer it that way ('Joss'); most perniciously, it could be a belittling, infantalizing means of attack ('Liam' again, possibly). In the case of women, I think there is still occasionally a slightly old-fashioned reaction against the brusque masculinity of surname alone, and when the entire name is too unwieldy to use repeatedly, some reviewers etc make the judgment call to use a conveniently brief and distinctive first name ('Kit').

There may be others, but these strike me as the most common. I have suggested the latter theory to explain the use of 'Kit' you mentioned originally, but it may be the reviewer intended, sub-consciously or otherwise, one of the other connotations. As always in life, it's a matter of context, and the context here isn't clear.
 
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