The other day I was invited to meet with a book club that had chosen my book to read. I love to do this, and I most often phone into these. But fairly regularly a group is in my area, and so I am graciously invited into someone's home.
The other night I showed up, expecting the usual lovely evening of polite discussion, signing some books, posing for a group photo. I'm always touched to see how shy some people are in the presence of an author; I generally feel as if I'm letting them down by being such a bland, normal person. I'm no Dorothy Parker, not by any means!
However, this particular evening was different. I couldn't wait to leave, and spent the drive home muttering witty rejoinders -- that of course, I had failed to come up with on the spot -- under my breath. Because one member had derailed the entire evening by attacking my book, and me. She had problems with the way I had depicted some of the historical figures, and didn't seem to understand the "fiction" part of historical fiction.
It wasn't the opinion that bothered me. Goodness knows I wrote a book that I hoped would generate lively discussion and conflicting opinions.
But I didn't hope -- didn't think, for a minute -- that I would be subjected to these opinions in person. In someone's home. At their invitation.
This is the brave new world of social interaction between author and reader. Authors are on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, etc. We actively encourage reading groups to seek us out. I have a page on my website dedicated solely to reading groups. On it, I have a list of discussion questions, a link where I can be emailed to see if I can call in or participate in the discussion, even an offer to send signed bookplates to the club.
But one of the newer occupational hazards of this brave new world is that authors simply know too much. We see the Tweets that praise our books and recommend them to others and we also see the Tweets that eviscerate them (in 140 characters or less). Now, I'm not saying that, back in the day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe didn't get letters from readers complaining about their books. But it took some time and effort back then; a person had to write a letter, find a stamp, walk to the post office. Now, we're seeing every reader's impulsive thought, unfiltered. Even when they're not addressed to us specifically -- for I doubt that the average person who comments on Amazon or on Twitter is considering the fact that the author might be reading, as well -- we see them. All of them. In all their impulsive, unfiltered, permanent-record glory.
Still, there's a difference between seeing a disparaging comment on Twitter, and being challenged in person. There's a difference between me seeking out your opinion by asking you what you thought of my book, and me being invited into your home, expecting cookies but given a bad case of indigestion instead. Because it's hard to sit there and swallow an attack upon your work that you sweated so much over, that you wrapped up in a ribbon of hope and optimism and sent out into the world hoping that it would touch, move, engage.
I'm not complaining about this brave new world of constant contact, because there are so many benefits to it. The author is engaged with the reader like never before; I'm truly inspired, when I sit down to write, by the readers who've clasped my hand and thanked me for my words, my stories. I've learned so much about my own book by seeing how others react to it, the things they've picked up on, the themes that I didn't even understand were there, until someone else showed them to me.
What I am complaining about is being invited into someone's home, only to be attacked. Not only because I simply think it's rude, and I can't imagine doing it myself. But also, because I am giving of my time to do this; the promise of wine and goodies notwithstanding, the truth is there are a thousand other things I could be doing instead -- like trying to meet my deadline. Or reacquainting myself with my husband.
I realize it may sound as if I want it both ways; I want to hear from readers, but only if they tell me good things. Well - duh! I'm only human. Nobody ever asks, "Do I look fat in this?" expecting to be told, "Yes, you do."
So my plea is a simple one. Yes, please -- I'd love to come visit you or call you and talk about my book, if you want me to. But if you or someone else in your group didn't like it, it might be best not to ask me. If you had a problem with my book or a part of my book, by all means talk about it, discuss it with others -- just make sure I'm not in the room, too. Unless I asked to be there, myself.
I'm a big girl. I know not everyone is going to like what I've written. But I do have feelings. Despite my brave face and public claims to the contrary, I do take to heart everything -- good and bad -- that people tell me about my work. Especially when they tell it to me in person, when I can't just close a computer window or hit "delete."
So be kind to the author you invite. Remember, we are sensitive creatures who put ourselves out there hoping for the best, hoping to enhance your reading experience. It's not always an easy thing to do.
Not all of us are Dorothy Parker, you see. Not all of us are able to shrug off an in-person evisceration with a quip and a sip of a martini.