What, Silent Still and Silent All?: The Artist and His Own Big Fat Mouth

David Roberts, The Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Girzeh
For a long time I’ve largely avoided following anybody whose fiction I read... I want to be able to read and enjoy their fiction untainted by their personal views about anything. I come to them for a story. I don’t care about their politics or their religion or their hobbies or any opinion they have about anything really.... Our culture has a fascination with celebrity and TMI. So we break down all these sane barriers and instead of just wanting a book, we want a book and to know what our favorite author’s favorite color is.
~Zoe Winters

When I've written a post that is fairly opinion-y... I almost always get replies that say something like, "You've lost this reader for good," or "I used to love your books but I'll never buy another one now." Obviously I don't want to run off readers. I think in most of these cases, something I've said has personally hurt that person, and they are trying to hurt me back in some way. That's a natural response, I think, and I can empathize. And they do succeed.
~Shannon Hale

I try not to be harsh about my preferences, but sometimes - like when people claim Dunkin’ Donuts has good coffee, or that The DaVinci Code is a “smart, smart, book,” I do get vocal.

This week's question is one I've tangled with extensively offline. It also goes around the blogosphere every so often, as exemplified by the recent posts by Zoe Winters and Shannon Hale, quoted above.

Hold tight, folks. This is not likely to be a short blog post. I'll rein myself in as soon as I can.

Masha opened the discussion with some interesting and sound commentary:
There’s something off-putting about back-cover photos - they always fall short of the image I’d like to have of the author, and if he goes online to discuss his opinions of the election, praise writers I’m convinced are bad, and update me on his daily weight-loss regime, I might lose the ability to see him as anything but a sweaty jogger in obnoxious t-shirts.
She has a fair point about author photos. These usually begin existence as professional photographs, but often appear little better than glare-infested driver's license mugshots by the time they're printed onto glossy dust jackets.

Worse, old-fashioned professional shots with blank backdrops and direct perspective typically make people look less interesting than their stories might suggest. And it's not just the dull pictures that fall short. If the shot makes an author look too young, all fresh-faced and oozing sexiness, it's hard not to respond, as Mr. Harrison did to Anne Shirley, that:
"You're too young to write a story that would be worthwhile. Wait ten years."
It's a little like watching a new acquaintance's child pick up a violin for a family room performance. Sure, maybe they're a prodigy, but so few youngsters possess technical accuracy, let alone emotional resonance.

All that said, I like to get a look into the eyes of the person who wrote a story I'm enjoying. That interest carries to an author's sense of beauty and perspective on life, too. I will be interested in getting acquainted with them as a person, even if only through the author bio and possibly awkward snapshot.

But now we get to the serious part, the matter of alienation through conflict of opinion. In this world of over-share (in which I partake rather too thoroughly) and polarized public discourse, it's not just what you say, it's how you say it. Even writers often don't notice when they're talking past dissenters or insulting them—or worse, insulting the dissenters' friends or family or religion.

In conversations on the blogosphere, writers often recommend not talking about politics or religion at all. I'm not sure I agree. My open Catholicism might turn off a few Protestants, not to mention some atheists, but I try, however imperfectly, to think and speak respectfully of others' positions. Religion has been central to my life since before my memory kicked in, and it's now inextricably linked with my thought processes; removing it from all conversation would be inauthentic, and all I can do is try not to be stupid or offensive with it.

Antagonistic opinions and proselytizing presentation, however, do seriously threaten reader/author relationships. After all, marketing is everywhere. From television commercials to Google ads, from election debates to politically exuberant Facebook friends, from street protesters to spun media stories, everything and everyone seems to have something to sell us. It begins to feel like an attack after a while.

And sometimes, it is an attack. Artists who share opinions online might do well to remove a few words from their vocabulary: moron, for instance, and all its variants, like nutter and idiot. Even political words like bigot and racist and feminist are dangerous. People use epithets like these because they've learned something in school or church or from their parents or a book, and now they think everyone with common sense and/or education agrees with them. I suspect they don't realize what it sounds like to someone who stands in a politically opposing position and has thought that position through. When those words are used against ideological opponents, they are almost invariably ad hominem treatment and therefore bad form, if not in fact unjust, though they are often quite unjust as well.

There's nothing like the experience of openly revising your own adult-formed opinions to teach you how human nature responds to antagonistic rhetoric and unwanted attempts at persuasion. I'd highly recommend it—especially to artists—as an exercise in humanity, if it weren't so painful for all concerned.

That pain kills off some of the overpowering sense of moral obligation in the face of dissent, the one that demands you correct the wrongheaded thinking of others. It trains you to sigh and shift position when confronted with ignorance, rather than making yourself out to be someone's teacher. You become careful about challenging others' opinions, thanks to firsthand awareness of how easy it is to overlook or rationalize away a few details and come to wrong conclusions. You learn that argument, logical or otherwise, almost universally drives dissenters apart rather than bringing them closer together.

Despite my public openness with much of my life and thought, then, I stand firmly in the camp that claims it's better to be cautious about what you say. And I try to be. For the last couple of years, I've made a point of editing angry opinions out of my blog posts. As cathartic as it is to speak sometimes, comments made out of those burning urges are always made at the risk of someone else's feelings.

It's too easy to forget that the internet is as public as newspapers and television, no matter how small the readership. That when you speak publicly, you don't get to choose your audience.

For help against making angry or snarky responses, especially ones encouraging a narcissistic sense of my own cleverness, I remember Dumbledore. There's a scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where he is faced with a handful of Death Eaters, all intent on killing him and half his students. He greets them by name, with pleasantries of the good evening to you type. One of them sneers something about his "little jokes", and Dumbledore—known for his cleverness—says:
"Jokes? No, no, these are manners."
The point of professionalism is not to be uninteresting or inexpressive. It's about generosity. Manners are about seeing the humanity in the person across from you, no matter what they believe.

It's easy to dehumanize a mob, a demographic opposed to your principles. It's easy to meet a person who embodies the worst of that and find yourself despising them, thinking of them as a monster. And hey, maybe they are low on the scale of beastliness to humanity. But if they're walking and talking and breathing, there's some soul in there left to speak to. One might as well err on the side of kindness.

That's all I ask of an author, regardless of whether I meet them online or in person. And that's the standard I try to hold myself to, with sincere regret for past moments of failure.


  1. The Dumbledore example was fantastic. I enjoyed that whole aspect of his character..

    I meant to comment on this earlier. I think you do walk the line well between TMI and no information whatsoever.

    I think that politics, more than religion, can be off-putting to readers, maybe because if you write about faith without tying to to politics, you give people the option to see you as they'd like to see you, and develope a relationship to you before learning, if ever, how your faith informs your politics. And especially because, political issues generally make people feel polarized. I always feel gross around elections.

    "There's nothing like the experience of openly revising your own adult-formed opinions to teach you how human nature responds to antagonistic rhetoric and unwanted attempts at persuasion. I'd highly recommend it—especially to artists—as an exercise in humanity, if it weren't so painful for all concerned."

    Exactly. It's hard and painful. And absolutely necessary.

    Great post!

  2. The cartoon was Fantastic too! I know I've done it. :)

  3. Yeah, I don't mind talk about faith myself. Although it has to be done right; there seems to be a very fine line between atheism and anti-religious proselytizing, and a lot of what I'm used to reading from Christians seems irrelevant even to my life, as well as often unintentionally antagonistic. I could be causing problems myself without knowing it, I suppose.

    I have done the "I can't go to bed! Someone is wrong on the Internet!" thing, too. Now I almost always refuse to, but it is SO hard. :)

    1. Er... between the expression of atheistic thought and anti-religious proselytizing. I should be more careful of haphazard self-editing. :P


All comments are currently moderated. Friendly comments are welcomed with fairy music, magic wishes, and possible unicorn sightings. Troll comments will be Transfigured into decent-looking rocks or Vanished. Spam comments will be shot down with blasters.