When Authors . . . RESPOND!! (gasp!)

Yesterday, I was lurking around on twitter, as I am often wont to do, and I stumbled across a conversation between an author and a reviewer that was pretty interesting.

The reviewer asked her followers if they thought it appropriate for an author to address questions raised about their books in reviews and online discussions in their own blogs or on their websites. Are FAQ sections appropriate to address issues of confusion for readers? That sort of thing.

The author responded that she thought it was fine. The reviewer wasn’t so sure. Her thinking was that a book ought to stand on its own, and that, once the book “goes away to college,” so to speak, an author needs to accept any interpretation a reader might have of it.

I think it’s a pretty interesting question, but for me, the answer is a little more nuanced.

The first writing community I was ever a part of was a fandom for a certain science fiction series with telepathic dragons. Perm, let’s call it. This was in the mid-nineties, well before Potterdom was in full swing and fanfic was widespread (I mean, the term “shipper” had only been coined a few years before). Unlike modern fandoms, where the authors are often very hands off, the author of the Perm novels was exceedingly involved. She had specific dictates about the type of fiction she’d allow. For example, we could roleplay, but not “publish” stories online. We could use her settings, but not her specific characters. And she’d personally approve every roleplaying club herself (sometimes with caveats about how much she disliked our premises).

We’re talking way more involvement than the typical YA author. Hyper involved. This author also enthusiastically pursued cases of what she perceived to be copyright infringement (the linked is one example of many) and made weird statements that specified the possible sexualities of characters both in canon and fan stories.

The funny thing is, most of us didn’t mind all of that enough to stop our fannish activities, even if we didn’t particularly agree with her actions or even her idiosyncratic way of regarding her own primary texts (in my dream Perm, there will always be girl blueriders, damn it). We loved her universe so much that we were willing to go along with all of this to be allowed to play in it.

My instinct as an adult reader with more distance from the situation, and as a writer, is that all of that was a little too much. I understand that some of this stuff was done for legal reasons, but I doubt that things like the “renewable airforce document” did anything to secure copyright, much less enrich anyone’s experience of reading the Perm novels. Instead, thirteen years down the line, it just looks like weird, exhausting overinvolvement. Some of it seems defensive, or proprietary. As if the books never really belonged to the readers at all, as books should. As if these were only worlds we were allowed to begrudgingly visit.

But at the same time, I don’t know that a novel ever stands completely on its own, much less if it should.

I suppose I learned that lesson during college and graduate school. Historical documents and biographical information about an author was often considered relevant. And for good reason. This information can enrich a primary text. It can expand understanding beyond what a modern reader can grok alone. Knowing that Dean Moriarty was engaged in a long term homosexual relationship with Carlo Marx completely changes the On the Road.

And this is true for statements by living authors as well. Take, for example, J.K. Rowling’s statement that Dumbledore is gay—something which enriches understanding of the character and novels. Sometimes these extratextual statements can clarify confusion or address problematic interpretations of a novel without dismissing a reviewer’s concerns. I know that a video blog I saw with Beth Revis where she stated that one “sci-fi world building error” in Across the Universe was actually intentional and will become significant in future novels helped to address my own reservations without dismissing them as paltry.

I think the differences here are partially tonal. As an author, you’re already in a uniquely privileged position in a conversation about a book. If she wanted, an author could go around holding forth on lots of unnecessary minutiae, stifling conversation about all sorts of things. An author could, theoretically, rob the reader of any ownership the reader feels over her novel.

And that’s a bad thing. Because reader impressions of a novel can, in fact, illuminate things about them that would otherwise remain uncovered. Readers can enrich a book beyond its original depth. The meaning of a book to a reader—and a particular reading of a book to a reader—can be immense. And maybe this is just my unfrozen caveman brain talking, but I don’t think authors should really interfere with that.

Far better is to act as just one of many participants in a conversation about a book. An author can offer unique insight into a book, sure. An author can provide information about their motivation, about worldbuilding or backstory. But that information shouldn’t be stated in a defensive or absolute way. After all, if it’s not in the book, then some readers are likely going to interpret the contents of a novel’s pages a bit differently (especially if they’re not online!). And that’s okay—an author is just one of many voices in a larger conversation.

If I had to be pithy about it (something I’ve never been especially good at), I’d say that if an author wants to offer extra information about her book, it should be done along the lines of, “This is what I intended,” not “This is how this should be read.”