Joanne Harris and The Fallacy of “Reader Entitlement”

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Image from the Guardian.

One could almost hear the sharp intake of breath amongst the book blogging community as author Joanne Harris revealed an author manifesto at the Manchester Literary Festival that included the position that the “breaking down of barriers” between author and reader relationships online has “created a false sense of entitlement”. She also posited that said relationship must be based on “mutual respect” while lamenting the act of an author commenting on a negative review “is to risk being labelled an ‘author behaving badly’”.

It’s not an entirely bad speech, and the central hope for a respectful relationship between authors and readers, free of false obligations, is admirable and one the majority of people readily support. The manifesto is mostly okay, the kind of blasé platitudes best described as ‘nice’, although I’m confused over the point about not selling out since that term is effectively useless these days. The idea of a set of guidelines for any occupation has always seemed personally strange, particularly in a line of work as unpredictable as publishing, but each to their own.

The discussion of what authors ‘owe’ readers is almost as old as literature itself. Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t need social media to be hounded by demanding Sherlock Holmes fans. Neil Gaiman already made the near definitive statement on the topic when he chastised overzealous A Song of Ice and Fire fans with “George RR Martin is not your bitch”.

It’s true that the recent rise of sites like Twitter has created a new and increasingly tangled ecosystem with no rulebook to help guide the lost. It’s taken away a lot of people’s common sense and social norms too, which is always uncomfortable (the sudden rise in fandom of people referring to their favourite celebrities as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ really freaks me out, for example). It’s also, as Harris notes, often very rewarding and helps build stronger relationships with fans. Whether that online presence is a necessity or not is up for debate. Publishing is in a dark place right now, with sinking sales overall and the average author wage falling below the poverty line. The pressure to brand oneself must be high.

However, the word ‘entitlement’ continues to jump out at me, eliciting the kind of wincing most often left for accidental toe stubs.

Harris’s point regarding negative reviews and the precarious route authors navigate around them makes mention of reader demand for more informed reads with tools such as age guidelines and trigger warnings. She does not condone or condemn them, which is a relief given the recent backlash from many authors over them, but her disappointment over the daunting expectations this puts on authors ignores some key context regarding readers.

Weariness over ‘badly behaving authors’ isn’t rooted in paranoia; it’s become a depressing necessity for many. Indeed, it’s become an issue of safety. In an age of Stop The Goodreads Bullies, GamerGate doxxing and the now infamous Kathleen Hale stalking, readers have had to become vigilant against these perceived threats, and yes, it feels almost absurd to have to talk about them as threats, but they are. The power dynamics between readers and authors are still, and always will be, entirely imbalanced for the relationship to ever be truly harmonious. A Twitter account with 200 followers criticising an author is one thing, but an author with 15,000 followers pointing that tweet out to her fans creates a far bigger problem. Just ask anyone who’s ever had a run-in with Anne Rice. Harris is also aware of this problem: she weighed in on the Kathleen Hale situation in a disappointing manner that equated a blogger blackout of Hale’s book to ‘dog shit in mailboxes’.

It’s stuff like this that exacerbates the notion of a ‘bloggers versus authors’ war. At best, this is a misunderstanding, and at worst it’s a smear tactic. The power balance just isn’t there to make it a fair fight. The internet may have made the borders between these relationships more liminal, but it’s also provided an educational gateway beyond our own system’s limited scope, and as such readers are less willing to accept bullshit. Just check out the swift, eloquent and impeccably argued responses to Meg Rosoff’s recent nonsense.

Readers note the messy incidents and problematic content so they can make informed consumer decisions in the future, and they warn their friends about notably dangerous examples so they can protect themselves if need be. We shouldn’t have to do this, but we do and we move on. We treasure the relationships we have with authors, many of whom we consider good friends, and we share our passions in an enthused but reasonable manner. There are outliers, and unfortunately always will be. The route is precarious, but we navigate it. Our weariness is not entitlement – it’s experience.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I thought about writing a post about this fiasco as well, but then I was like “well, bibliodaze will say exactly what’s on my mind sooner or later”, and that’s precisely what happened. Eloquently put, Ceilidhann!
    ~Litha Nelle

  2. Harris is just the wrong spokesperson for any of this. Rather victim-blaming considering her history with author/reviewer drama — not that readers are supposed to notice past instances or backpedalling.

    Reality check: most readers who might write reviews or engage online are aware of past problems (anything in the Internet is pretty permanent even if back pedaled, edited or deleted). We know what’s in it for authors — anything from just getting readers to getting reviews to getting sales to making a career… Even if only rumored, just how worth it is to a hobbyist reader/reviewer to risk attacks, threats, confrontations, etc. How worth it to them to support authors they see doing so (even if they stay quiet and out of the fracas) by buying and reviewing books? What’s in it for them to risk an author known for bad behavior when hundreds of thousands of other books are available? How is it still fun and enjoyable if risking threats/drama — how hard is it to stick to authors without a bad rep.? Okay, so a reader risks overlooking the teensiest possibility that the nastier authors might have written a book they would enjoy — but, realistically, there are going to be other books enjoyed just as much without the risk.

    Readers do notice and do get tired of the drama where many just go on to next book rather than risk confrontations with certain authors — there’s a glut of books out there. Grand for readers in a way but certainly tough for authors trying to gain discoverability for their book.

    Every jerk, reviewer or author, who attacks others on the Internet off and on reviews spoils something for all of us. I have author friends; I know how they cringe when authors like her stir things up. At best, this one comes across as entitled.

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