Author Intrusion Outside of Your Manuscript
Orson Scott Card
This is Orson Scott Card, author of the wildly popular Ender’s Game and its sequels. Looks like a happy, friendly guy, doesn’t he? Maybe. But, maybe not.
Quite a long time ago, I wrote a post on the ways authors reveal themselves to the reader, usually to the detriment of the book.
That post covered the basics of “author intrusion"—when an author injects his or her personal feelings into a manuscript in such a way that the reader feels like the author is lecturing to them—and I’ll leave you to go read it if you’re not entirely clear how that works in practice.
here’s the thing about author intrusion I didn’t explain very deeply in the earlier post:
Author intrusion is a no-win situation
If you author-intrude and some reader happens to agree with you, you’re just preaching to the choir. What’s the point? All you’ve done is bog down your story with extraneous material that adds nothing the reader doesn’t already believe, slows down the pacing, and undermines your credibility as a storyteller. Even if the reader agrees with the sentiments of your intrusion, they can still spot it as an intrusion, and will conclude that you’re not a very good storyteller if you can’t keep your book focused on the actual story.
But if a reader doesn’t happen to agree with you, it’s game over. Now the reader knows that not only are you a poor storyteller, but that you’re also whatever variety of crackpot people who disagree on that issue are. For example, if your reader is a liberal and you author-intrude to spout some bit of conservative political theory, that reader is going to brand you in their minds as a nut-job. You will become, to them, untrustworthy.
Reading someone’s novel requires a fair amount of trust: you have to trust that the author will give you a good reading experience, that they know how to tell a story, et cetera. But trust doesn’t compartmentalize well. It is difficult to trust someone in one area, but distrust them in others. When you lose the reader’s trust, you tend to lose the reader.
As I said in the earlier post, they don’t have to like you to enjoy your book, but they can’t hate you either. If they like you, well I guess that’s nice, but you’ll never get everybody to like you so it’s pointless to strive for that. The best situation, in my opinion, is to remain invisible. Leave the reader with no particular impression about yourself one way or the other, so that the story itself can stand on its own most clearly.
The Orson Scott Card Problem
What does any of this have to do with Orson Scott Card and the title of this post? Unfortunately for him, he has provided an excellent case study in how to perform author intrusion even from outside one’s manuscript.
Card wrote Ender’s Game in 1984. At that point in time, nobody knew who he was. He was just another author, and all we knew was his book: an admittedly fun, engaging, creative, and even somewhat thought-provoking science fiction novel.
The novel took off, and sold like hotcakes. I don’t believe it has been out of print since 1984, and if you know anything about how publishing works, you’ll recognize that for the astonishing feat that it is.
But since 1984, Card has become increasingly vocal about his own personal beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage equality. Namely, he’s against them. His rhetoric has often been quite strident and vitriolic.
Given trends in social attitudes towards gay rights, and given the demographics of typical consumers of science-fiction, this puts Card in the minority with respect to the beliefs of his readership. As one might expect—anyone, it seems, except for Card himself—there has been a backlash.
Sci-Fi fans have railed against him. People are actually walking away from business opportunities rather than work with him. People have called for boycotting his books, and now also the upcoming Ender’s Game movie.
What’s going on?
Doesn’t Card have the right to his opinions? Doesn’t have the right to express his opinions according to the first amendment?
Of course he does.
What he doesn’t have the right to do is demand that people accept his opinions, or to demand that people not have feelings about him based on his opinions. That’s not how human beings work.
My earlier writings on author intrusion focused on what can happen inside a manuscript to make readers dislike or even loathe you. For an unknown author—as Card was in 1984 and as nearly everyone who reads this blog is likely to be—that’s the only real danger. And within the text of Ender’s Game, Card successfully keeps himself invisible. When I read Ender’s Game lo these many years ago, I didn’t get a homophobic vibe from it, and I enjoyed the book very much.
What Orson Scott Card has done since then, though, is to make his audience dislike him so much outside of his novels, by means of his public statements, that few people can now successfully set aside their personal feelings about him when reading his works. Much as I liked Ender’s Game, I can’t pick it up now without my knowledge of Card’s rampant homophobia creeping in and ruining the experience. And evidently, I’m not the only one.
I don’t know that there’s a real writing lesson in this post that isn’t captured in my earlier post. Few of us will ever be so famous as to necessitate worrying about readers ever learning what our personal beliefs are. But to the extent that we benefit from understanding the full spectrum of factors which affects how readers approach our works, I do feel there’s an important lesson to be learned.
July 09, 2013 16:57 UTC
The unavoidable character
Ask yourself this question about your current work-in-progress: What character is in every scene and on every page? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even an omniscient POV book with tons of head-hopping has a character who is in every scene and on every page.
The writer is inescapably present in every novel. Readers will suspend disbelief about your book, but they never truly forget that they’re reading a story you wrote. Your name is even on the front of it!
This is obviously true for memoirs and novels where a writer intentionally inserts himself or herself into the story. I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the vast majority of novels in which the writer does not intend to be in the story.
You are anyway.
The question then becomes, does your writing minimize your own presence on the page? Generally speaking, the better a writer is the more invisible he or she remains to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of you, you’ve pulled them out of the story. That’s never a good thing.
In working with my clients’ novels, I’ve put together a list of common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to readers. Strive to avoid these:
So-called “author intrusion” is when a writer inserts something into the book which doesn’t feel like it fits. This can happen in narrative, or through dialogue. But usually it comes in the form of an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is often written in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:
The phone dropped from Susan’s hand, clattering on the kitchen floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal sin. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out anyway.
Here, the writer reveals his own opinions about suicide, reveals his religious beliefs, and tosses in a little morality lecture as a bonus. The reader may well agree with the sentiment, but it has no place in the story unless that thought belongs to one of the book’s actual characters. If it’s just your opinion, leave it out.
When readers run into something like this, it’s like you’re waving yourself in their face. “Yoo hoo, writer speaking! Here I am!” Furthermore, it’s impossible for the reader not to be aware of you trying to tell them what to think. Nobody likes that. Even if they agree with you it leaves them feeling negatively towards you.
It is very easy to make mistakes in one’s story that undermine your own credibility as a writer, that sabotage the reader’s belief in you as a person who has any business writing a novel. If readers stop believing in you, they’ll stop caring about the story and probably stop reading. At the very least you make it much more difficult for them to continue suspending their disbelief. There are three main credibility issues I see in my clients’ work:
Plot holes. If the cops take a character’s gun away in chapter three, but then the character fires the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back, that’s a plot hole. It’s a logical inconsistency within the structure of your story, and what it tells readers is that you don’t know your own story well enough to tell it right. That being the case, what confidence can a reader have that the rest of the story is going to be worth reading?
Factual errors. Similar to plot holes, when your characters make mistakes about verifiable facts it tells the reader that you are either lazy or ill-informed yourself. Again, it conveys the message that you haven’t any business writing a novel, or that you haven’t put as much work into the novel as you should have.
One or two of these, when they’re small and on facts that don’t matter much to the plot, can be tolerated. Nobody’s really going to care all that much if you, say, refer to the “nine graceful arcs atop the Chrysler Building,” when in fact there are only eight. As long as you’re not screwing up minor details all over the place, it’s tolerable.
What isn’t tolerable is to make mistakes about facts that matter to the plot, or which are well known and iconic in the culture at large. For example, misplacing the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi, or accidentally referring to 1973 as “the year Kennedy was assassinated.”
Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional responses that are in the book haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative.
For example, if your main character receives a call in the middle of his high-stakes business negotiation informing him that his mother has died unexpectedly, yet he carries on with the negotiation as though nothing happened, readers aren’t going to believe that for a second. Similarly, romance sub-plots where a character seems to be madly attracted to another for no discernable reason just aren’t credible. That latter one is one I see way too much of, and for some reason it seems to be an especially common problem for writers of thrillers.
These mistakes undermines your credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you just don’t understand how real people think, feel, and react. If that’s the case, you really don’t have any business writing a novel that has any people in it. If that’s the case, consider writing Sci-Fi about aliens with wholly different mentalities, for whom dispassion towards their mothers and unmotivated romance are the norm. Or about robots. Robots are good.
If you don’t understand people, you shouldn’t write about them. That’s why this is the worst thing you can do for your own credibility.
Plot holes and factual errors are relatively easy to fix. Any decent editor can help you catch those, as can your writing group or people on internet critique websites. But if your characters don’t act like real people, there’s not much that can be done except to write the whole thing over.
Portraying yourself as an unsavory person
To enjoy your book, readers have to like you. At the very least, they have to be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you, if any, will prejudice them towards or against your book. Thus, your book should avoid making readers feel you are a loathsome human being, or they’re going to have a hard time liking it. How do writers betray themselves like that? Here are two examples.
One client’s characterization of the female characters in his book consisted of, without exception, descriptions their physical assets. Especially their breasts. I could really tell he was a breast man. There wasn’t much else in terms of characterization for these women. As the book progressed, this pattern left me with the feeling that the client wasn’t merely a fan of the female bosom, but was in fact a male chauvinist. The men in his book had goals, aspirations, and even feelings. But the women were little more than glorified furniture. It didn’t leave me feeling good about the client as a person.
Another client had a main character who—and to avoid the threat of being sued for libel I’ll be particularly vague here—did some very, very bad things. However, the book was written with enough author intrusion that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that my client was writing from experience. A little bit of internet research only deepened that suspicion. I quit the project, tore up the client’s check, and I hope never to hear from that client again.
Think about that: I was being paid to read the book, and I couldn’t do it because of my opinion of the writer. The client showed enough of him/herself on the page that every fiber of my being was screaming “get away from this client!” So I did. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
It’s one thing to “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But when what you know would make a person think you belong behind bars, consider writing about something else. I’m just saying.
You are in your book
Like it or not, you are a character in your book if for no other reason than readers never fully forget they’re reading a story that was written by a person. The best you can do is to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding the mistakes I’ve described here.
January 15, 2010 20:32 UTC
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