By: Michael Worthan
If you Google the words “Authors Mystique” you will get a list of different posts about how Social Media has had an effect on authors. Some range from how Social Media has blatantly ruined the “lone author” persona. You know the one where they go into a cabin, alone, and away from all distractions and pound out a 800 page novel on a type writer, others feel it has helped them reconnect with authors they met years ago, but do admit some of the mystery of certain authors has been phased out by knowing too much about them. And lastly there are others who feel Social Media has helped them discover authors, and even some authors who feel that without Social Media platforms their voice would have never been heard, drowned out by the incessant ‘No’s’ of book moguls controlling the industry.
So a little backstory to that introduction, something around six months ago I read one of those articles, it just was crossing my Facebook pages path and so I clicked and read, a slight bit of irony I guess as this was a smaller site talking about how Social Media was ruining authors for them, an article that may have never been read if it weren’t for Social Media. I read the article, and then Googled and read more, I read opinion after opinion, and some even had a few authors’ quotes, but none had the full author’s thoughts. So being the fanboy that I am I have interviewed a number of amazing authors over the years, some more than others, and I decided to ask them what their opinion was, because sometimes when the crowd is too loud you don’t get to hear from the people that are effected the most.
Below are five authors, all very different, but all popular and successful in what they do. I asked them the same questions and through e-mail they answered. The question was “Is the author’s mystique dead? And if so how?” I wish I could have had all these authors over at my place, sitting around my table and just record them discussing this, but alas time and travel arrangements that cost a lot of money are something I don’t have a lot of so the second best thing was to ask them each individually so no one was influenced by another. I have all of their answers below. All different, all great answers, all raising more questions.
“Has the Mystique of the Author died? If so how?”
Brent Weeks: The mystique is only as dead as each of us want it to be. Some authors believe that the mystique sells books and shun social media and interviews except for those that they control closely. (China Miéville, I’m looking at you.) Most authors believe that greater contact with fans leads to greater fan excitement. And, to be blunt, most authors don’t want to sacrifice a possible paycheck to an ephemeral concept like mystique. The truth is authors are closer to readers now than ever before — just like everyone is closer now to everyone else than ever before. I can tweet Barack Obama or the Pope. That wasn’t really an option 15 years ago.
How authors, a notoriously introverted and crappy-at-fame group deal with this new exposure and immediacy is another question. Some entertainers can’t stand being watched; others adopt personae; others fold. But this is the new reality. The world has changed; writers, like everyone else, are dealing with it.
Peter Clines: Yeah, I think you can safely say there was a mystique around authors for a long time. Around all creative people, really. Let’s face it. Writers are odd. When you squeeze them, weird stuff comes out. What’s the joke, most of our internet searches would get us on watch lists or bump us to the top of a list of suspects. Normal people don’t think of stuff like that. They don’t sit down and say “Hmmm, I think tonight I’ll write about a scientist sewing corpse parts together and bringing them back to life with electricity.” People are fascinated by it, and by the minds it came out of.
So for centuries writers were people nobody ever knew anything about. You didn’t know what they looked like or sounded like or where they lived. We didn’t know their daily routines. If you were lucky there may be an interview or an occasional picture, but so many of them lived in happy obscurity. The ones you did hear about were the louder than life ones, the Hemingways and the Jack Londons and the Oscar Wildes.
That’s probably worth mentioning, too. Let’s not forget that sometimes writers had good reason to be a bit mysterious. Oscar Wilde was very out, but dozens of queer writers had to hide. Most female authors had to hide in the past, and a lot feel like they still do today. I know several who make the deliberate choice to hide behind initials or a masculine version of their name. Hell, I grew up as a huge sci-fi geek and I thought D.C. Fontana was a man until I ended up working with her on a film set years ago (and becoming friends with her).
Is that mystique dead? Probably not. Has it been horribly wounded? Yes. Look, the simple truth is that we live in a very access-friendly world right now, with all the pluses and minuses that brings. We can get live feeds from inside the House of Representatives and we can know who Taylor Swift is dating, probably before her family does. It’s very hard to keep a low profile if someone goes looking for you, especially once you have any small level of fame. There are a lot of people who feel entitled to that access, and angry or cheated if they can’t get it. Hell, there are some messed-up people out there who take a perverse pride in doxing folks, sharing their personal information with the world.
And with all that access comes interaction and questions and analysis. We know people’s schedules, preferences. and personal histories. We have a better sense of why he writes about pop culture and she writes about horror and everything he writes ends with sex. And it’s all out there forever, for future review and inspection and potential Wikipedia pages.
So, yeah, a lot of the mystique has been stripped away from writers. At this point, it takes some serious effort to keep it. At this point, the only big secret left is who Chuck Tingle really is. (I have theories, most of which are based on nothing and I’m 99% sure are wrong).
At this point it sort of has become obvious that there is not one answer, but a number of thoughts that bring about more questions, let’s see what else some of these fantastic authors have to say.
AJ Scudiere: I think, yes, in part, the mystique of the author is dead. There are still fans out there who see authors the way we used to. I still meet fans who gush about the work of finishing a book, getting published, and more. But I also see those who devalue my work. I think the overall shift is because of the e-book revolution–which includes the self-publishing revolution. Amazon made it possible for anyone to write and publish a book. And people did–without giving thought to the steps necessary or the consequences of just posting/publishing a work that hadn’t been professionally vetted. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful. There are so many books that never would have been published, and they are great! On the other hand, there are books that never should have been published. Not until they were edited and professionally formatted and more.
Personally, I think the ‘mystique of the author’ is just as harmful as the ‘ordinariness of the author.’ If we were talking about Rocket Science, our kids might say “I could never do that!” and we would say, “Yes, you can!” I think the same needs to be true of writing. If you have the will to pursue it and the talent for writing, you can do it, and you should be encouraged. But I see so many people now at the other end of the spectrum. They tell me they would do what I do if they had a free weekend. Or as a hobby when they retire. I would never say to the rocket scientist, “If I just had more free time on the weekends, I would be a rocket scientist, too.” But I’ve had exactly that said to me about writing 19 full length novels in eight years.
Both attitudes are wrong. Writing a book is not an unattainable goal if you are willing to put in the work. But it’s not for everyone. People shouldn’t self-publish work without professional editing. All the free books on the market are devaluing the rest of it. We get readers angrily demanding our $1.99 books should be free. Dude, it took me a year to write that! It took a pack of hard cider to get through the editing process–which is hard! It took me thirty years of practice writing before I wrote that book. You can do it, too! But you can’t do it this weekend!
Austin Grossman: It’s still an interesting topic – is the mystique of the author no longer a thing? I’m curious to read the original article, but I expect it was talking about social media, and writers being more accessible to the public and so forth, and maybe familiarity kills that sense of mystery or awe. And with all the pressure of personal self-marketing and branding, it feels like there’s pressure on authors to *generate* that mystique, to project the idea of themselves as preternaturally witty, profound, leading more elevated or passionate lives. So it can seem artificial.
But personally, I probably know more authors than most – I grew up with them in the family, and of course one of the perks of being an author is meeting them. And for me there are the rare people for whom I feel that mystique persists, and it depends on the work and the person.
There are plenty of stories and books which I read and can imagine having written, and then there are the other ones – rare cases – where I look at the individual words and even type them out for myself but I still can’t imagine the moment of inspiration that put them together. There are writers who accomplish feats of daring or imagination which genuinely seem extraordinary, and even when I meet such a person (I won’t name names) and exchange pleasantries with them, get drunk with them, whatever – I still can’t quite grasp how their inborn genius works, how their wit functions, and I know that given the same tools – brain, fingers, keyboard – I could never in a thousand years have done what they did on the page. So that seems like the part of it that never goes away.
Sue London: I’ve often said that Glenn Cook was lucky that we didn’t have the immediate access of the Internet and social media when I was waiting for the Black Company books to come out. Back then you were lucky if you could contact an author by sending a letter through their publisher. Rabid as I was, even I didn’t go that far and only pestered my local bookstore as though they had any influence over the process.
Now here we are with author websites, social media, and direct email addresses. Are authors, on average, more accessible than they were 20 years ago? Heck yeah. Did that peel back the layers of “author mystique”? I don’t think so.
First of all, most authors have always been desperate for you to know who they are. There is only so much room at the table for the giants, so everyone else is at the edges and hoping for attention. The dream is to make your living writing, and that is far harder to do than most realize. We can’t all be Stephen King. So that’s the first piece that is, from the author side, both frustrating and entertaining. You show up at events and signings hoping to become better known and it… mostly doesn’t work. But from time to time you see someone have a little meltdown, either because it’s you (rare) or because to them authors are ROCKSTARS. They have only slightly less squee over Random Published Author than actual Stephen King. If you were to ask them, authors have mystique in spades.
That first point leads into my second one. Almost invariably the people who are fans of all authors say that it’s because they admire how an author’s mind works. There can be no greater mystique than wondering how someone else’s mind works. It happens in both the most distant and most intimate relationships, wondering what another is thinking, but one can assume it happens to writers twice on Sundays. Because writers, more than most, are creating whole worlds out of their thoughts. We are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas? How did you come up with that?” And when we’re honest most of us sheepishly admit, “I don’t really know. It just came to me.” That, in and of itself, is mystical to those who don’t hear the whisper of a muse. They can’t imagine how I receive this flood of ideas. I can’t imagine how they don’t.
So do authors still have mystique? Absolutely. You can email me, talk to me, meet me at a convention – but will you ever understand how my mind works? Of course not. None of us ever really understands that about another. Most of the time we accept that as part of life. But with authors sometimes we really wish we could understand, because then we would have the keys to their kingdom. And it would be really awesome if you didn’t have to wait for the next book in the series because you could just write it yourself. I’m looking at you, Jim Butcher. I need more Dresden.
So there you have a look into the minds of authors, now they obviously speak for themselves, but I’m guessing somewhere along the lines they have peers who agree with their sentiments. I did this piece because (A) I love hearing from authors I know and what their thoughts are on certain things and (B) because I wanted to see if anyone’s thoughts matched up with mine. So if you have stuck with me thus far here are my thoughts.
Michael Worthan (ME): I don’t believe the authors mystique will ever truly go away, for as much as we know about our favorite authors we don’t know everything about them. They are allowed to be as open or as closed as they see fit and no one can make them change that. If Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can still hold and air of mystery around them, regardless of all of press they get, I feel any author can.
Has it been changed? Yes, yes it most certainly has, but I feel that it has changed in a good way. There are a number of author’s works I love to read that I would never have read, let alone met, interviewed, got books signed by, or befriended without Twitter or Facebook (I am looking at every author who answered this question for me). Change is an inevitability is this day and age, but do I still wonder what Brent Weeks is thinking when he writes his books? Yes. Do I wonder how Peter Clines comes up with such creative storylines that draw me in and I lose six hours of my day? Very much so. The authors talent is a part of their mystique, and even though you see that they tweeted, unless you really become friends with them and sometimes not even then, can you really see who they truly are.
I feel that authors will always carry that air of unfamiliarity with them because they are such unique beings. Not everyone has the tenacity to be a writer nor the creativity. So for me they will always remain a special breed of person that I will always have an interest in.
That’s just my take though, what’s yours? Answer in the comments!
Special thanks to Peter Clines, AJ Scudiere, Brent Weeks, Austin Grossman, and of course Sue London for their insight and time. Visit their websites, read their books, support these amazing people!!!