I covered this idea a while ago over on my Goodreads blog (and that post can be found here), but some recent developments (and a wider audience who might provide input or insight) have led me back to this question.
It seems simple enough, to me. If you’re a reader, and you enjoy a story, then the tagline at the top should be almost irrelevant. Now, after you’ve been exposed to an item or two from a given author, I imagine that name is going to carry some weight, influencing you to either disregard or seek out things that the person has written. But the story, in my opinion, should really be the primary focus. Further, if the author is doing a good job and keeping the tale on track, personal information about the author should really be a sideline. To me, it’s unimportant what Stephen King’s political views are, or what sexual orientation Clive Barker claims; they tend to write stories I like and who they’re in bed with – figuratively or literally – isn’t going to make their written sentences worse. On the flip side, I’m not suddenly going to become a Stephanie Myer or E.L. James fan if one of them opens a wolfdog shelter; it’s not going to make me like their writing any more.
In the previous post, linked above, I related a tale of how one of my works was shunned because I am not traditionally religious. The individual in question said that “had it come from a Christian author, it would have been amazing” and similar statements. Somehow my spiritual leanings apparently impacted the words on the page negatively. This still makes no sense to me, and I’m still scratching my head over it, but it is what it is, I suppose. I had mostly let it die and forgotten about it until two experiences in the last couple of weeks brought me back to this topic.
The first was on a fanfiction forum. Yes, it made me feel dirty just to be there; as I’m sure anyone who has spent any degree of time on the interwebs is aware, there is an almost ridiculously huge amount of fanfic out there, and as far as percentages go, quite a lot of it tends to be, frankly… terrible. Some of it’s pretty good – and occasionally it gets elevated to “proper” status, as several Star Wars and Star Trek novel authors have shown, as well as the aforementioned Ms. James – but no matter how you see it, it’s hard to deny that there’s a very “grab-bag” nature to it, with at least equal chance of drawing a bunny or a rabid hyena out of the hat at any given moment.
I was there after having been exposed to a very well-written piece, seeking out more from that author, as well as a “so bad it’s good” fanfic I had been told to hunt down. Feeling impish, I cranked out a little ditty of my own and threw it up (deliberately avoiding any sort of ‘shipping and attempting to stay true to the characters involved, as they are presented in their original format), mostly as an experiment. “Let’s see what sort of response or honest critique one can get in such a forum.” When it came time to provide a name for my posting persona, I decided not to use my real name or my pen name – since I didn’t want any of my friends or fans, who frequented this site, to know it was me without guessing, and didn’t want to inadvertently taint myself somehow, since that seems to happen at times – but instead a persona. I made a cute little icon and crowned myself with a name referencing my preference for a certain character involved (and also one I had previously used as a running gag.)
My post was near immediately flagged and removed, without explanation. I made a few formatting tweaks and retried. Yet again, flagged and removed. This time I asked of one of the moderators what I had done wrong, and how it could be rectified. This individual – since they were likewise wearing a cute cartoon avatar and lacking a “proper” name, I cannot guess as to the gender – informed me that the character I represented myself as “sucked” and was “the worst character in the show,” and that if I wanted to participate I’d have to go by a name and choose an icon that didn’t involve that character. (Note also that their icon and name were related to another character from the same franchise, and there were contributors with icons, names or profiles that indicated a preference for nearly every other character from this franchise, but when I investigated further I discovered there wasn’t a single author affiliated with the character I had chosen. It apparently wasn’t just me. Also, fanfics featuring this character – which ironically, mine didn’t, other than a token reference as they are part of the core cast – were very rare and typically severely downvoted, seeminly regardless of quality.)
So, because I picked a certain character for my icon/name, my writing must automatically not qualify to be amongst the illustrious halls of fanfics, standing tall beside the grab bag – and, quite frankly, often disturbing – of prose. Makes total sense, right?
The second event was due to a project that I don’t care to talk about a lot, primarily because it goes against genre and stereotype, at least as they are applied to me. It’s a paranormal historical romance. Werewolves down south. (I’ve got two other romance-y things, too, but I’m really not going to talk about those here; at least this one has monsters. XD) I was prodding the internet, looking for folks to examine/critique/discuss such material with, and found one with people that seemed as potentially snarky but intelligent as I like to pretend I am. I submitted a chunk for review, started trying to follow discussions. I was then informed that, in no uncertain terms, due to my gender, personal preferences and book backlog that my material would not be considered for evaluation and that my participation in the group was not welcome, as “given who and what you present yourself as, you would know nothing of the feelings our readers want.”
I scratched my head. I sat down for a while, hmmming. E-mails I sent to the moderators just bounced back, unanswered. The scientific part of me says “Well, let’s have a little experiment.” I went out and got myself a new e-mail, asked a friend if I could use her picture for some online promotions, and created a new persona. This one was a female, vegan, Russian exile with an abusive ex-husband and a loving daughter. I think I spent almost as much time creating this “character” as I have on some of my actual characters from my novels. Then she submitted for membership in the group, resubmitting the werewolf story. I sent the same pages, with the only adjustment to the text being altering the header to have my new persona’s name instead of my own on it.
“She” was immediately made welcome, given twenty-some chunks of other people’s work to critique and edit (which I did, without complaint, because I enjoy seeing what others are doing and try to help when I can) and given numerous sympathy posts about her hard life, which made me rather uncomfortable but got “thank yous” in reply, since leaving them hanging felt worse than at least acknowledging their attempts to cheer “me” up. When I got back the critiques for the werewolf story, the worst any of them had ranked it was 3 stars, and all of them wanted to see more, most of them giving gushing volumes of love, faith, solidarity and telling me how amazing it is. This also makes me uncomfortable, because honestly, it feels fake. “Let’s all pet ‘her’ ego, so ‘she’ll’ stroke ours.” But okay.
Right now I’m sitting on that one; told the other members that ‘I’m’ on a vacation, and don’t have internet access. But haven’t decided if I should revert all my icons/pics and profile info to the real me and then point out that the exact same material was discarded because I am a meat-eating, rock-n-roll loving, coyote-owning male, but by claiming to be a single mother with a bad background, I suddenly become amazing. I doubt that would end well, in any respect, though I won’t deny that a large part of me wants to do it anyway.
Soooooo. Yeah. What’s everyone else’s opinion? Should it matter where a story comes from, or is it the words on the page that matter most? Should I blow my cover with the romance authors, continue to lurk amongst them, or slip away quietly? Does allegiance – whether actual or not – to a fantasy character constitute grounds for dismissal? The burning questions of the day, folks. Drop ’em in that magic box below, and away we go!