Do Fans Love Authors or Their Books?

Theme Essay by Martha Nichols

OMG! It's John, Hank, Joanne, and Junot!

 


Here’s a headline I don’t associate with literary authors: “Junot Díaz Nearly Causes a Riot at New York City Book Signing.”

Junot Díaz @ Christopher Peterson

But last September, when Díaz went on tour for his short story collection This Is How You Lose Her, he drew mobs in many cities. Of the riotous Manhattan book signing, at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, one reporter notes that some “disappointed admirers” who couldn’t get a seat tried to sneak up an escalator, only to be halted by the NYPD.

From Díaz to J.K. Rowling, it’s clear that the relationship between fans and famous authors is shifting. The bestselling elite now attract Twitter hordes of paparazzi, and many fans want to connect personally with their favorite writers.

Should I be worried that adoring literary acolytes often care more about an author’s life than any of that writer’s novels or stories?

Okay, I’m worried. A little. But I still love it when authors make the news feeds. Mainstream media is obsessed with celebrities, and I’d rather a writer like Díaz, a National Book Award finalist and MacArthur “genius” fellow, grabs some of that action than, say, Justin Bieber.

At the National Book Awards ceremony last November, William Alexander, whose Goblin Secrets won in the “Young People’s Literature” category, got the red-carpet treatment along with Díaz, Elmore Leonard, and other literary stars. Reports Capital New York:

Stepping off the carpet, Alexander was mobbed by admirers. One woman announced that she’d just bought her 11-year-old son a copy of Goblin Secrets.

‘I love 11,’ Alexander said. ‘The books you read at 11 permanently alter the shape of your brain.’

‘I trust you!’ the woman said.

YA authors like Alexander, Rowling, and John Green have some of the most dedicated followings. These fans not only memorize every detail of an author’s fictional world but also want to know who that writer is. Younger authors like Green and Libba Bray are especially adept at using YouTube and social media to create the personas their fans love.

Case in point: Green’s book tour-cum-performance-event last spring, in which he was promoting his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, but also his geeky celebrity self. In her article “John Green’s ‘Tour de Nerdfighter,’” TW editor Karen Ohlson reported on attending a sold-out Northern California tour event with her teenage daughter.

Green is the award-winning author of YA titles such as Looking for Alaska. But he’s also the coproducer of a popular YouTube channel with his brother, Hank Green. The Greens, known as the Vlogbrothers, have a huge following of fellow “Nerdfighters”—close to 900,000 subscribers (“This many nerds can’t possibly be wrong!”) on YouTube alone. Their 2009 video “How to Be a Nerdfighter” has garnered well over a million views.

Nerdfighters at the Fox Theater © VaguelySerious

The popularity of these videos is surely one reason why the book tour Karen describes resembled a “rock concert, Nerdfighter-style.” The shrieks of 1,300-plus (mostly) teenage girls in a movie theater is a far cry from the average bookstore reading.

Now, I’m more likely to read an abandoned shopping list by John Green than to watch a video. So I wondered, in a comment I made on Karen’s piece, whether this author’s YouTube gimmick really matters more to readers than the actual quality of his writing. If so, uh-oh.

Karen reported that her own daughter insisted she and her friends were drawn to Green’s books first. But another TW reader—”Billy Tennery, Adult Nerdfighter”—responded to my comment, too, arguing that without the vlog, “I never would have picked up a John Green book, and thus would have missed out on his extraordinary writing.”

One of Billy’s most thought-provoking remarks speaks directly to the desire to know who authors are in order to engage with their work. An excerpt:

[P]art of the wonder of reading John’s books is that [they're in] his voice. I can see him and understand the writing…because of the relationship he has built with myself and his other readers…. When I read one of John’s books, I’m left wondering afterward what conversations and videos from Ray Bradbury, Orson Wells, Terry Brooks, Brent Weeks, and David Eddings would have looked like.

Oh, how I would love to hear the insights and the real life experiences of Emily Dickinson and George Orwell as well as political and social commentary of William Golding. All we have of these authors are the tools they left behind.

My kneejerk response is old school. As an editor, a recipent of a creative writing MA, and a denizen of many English lit classes pre-2000, “the tools they left behind” are enough for me. The best poems and essays reflect the inner lives of writers like Dickinson and Orwell more powerfully than their letters or other personal musings.

Yet, I can’t help wondering about Dickinson with a smart phone in her hand. Perhaps she’d point the lens at the birds outside her window, providing a quirky voiceover. Or dyspeptic Orwell would blog away, sending his screeds into the night like a latter-day Andrew Sullivan. The thought of hearing Dickinson’s voice—melodious? squeaky?—gives me chills.

Of course, I might not understand her or Orwell any better if they spoke to me from a video screen. They were both intensely private individuals. “George Orwell” was a pseudonym for Eric Blair and a means of setting boundaries with his reading public. Still, it is possible I’d relate to their printed words differently if I encountered the authors in the equivalent of a vlog. As Karen writes in her essay about John Green’s impact on fans:

What started as a jokey attempt to create ‘Brotherhood 2.0′ in a YouTube vlog has instead created something more like ‘Readership 2.0.’

I’d say we’re also well into Authorship 2.0. And it’s not bad—how could it be with fans like Billy? In his list of the ways the Vlogbrothers have changed him, he included “I am a better person for having found them” and “I have far more empathy, thanks solely to them.”

I doubt any author could ask for more engagement with his or her words.

John and Hank Green on tour © Elyse Marshall
 
 
 

For more about the Vlogbrothers, don't miss Karen Ohlson's John Green's "Tour de Nerdfighters" (Talking Writing, March/April 2012).


 

Publishing Information

  • “Junot Díaz Nearly Causes a Riot at New York City Book Signing” by Aura Bogado, Colorlines, September 12, 2012.
  • “At the National Book Awards, Good Feelings for an Embattled Industry” by Jed Lipinski, Capital New York, November 15, 2012.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton, 2012).
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005).
  • “How to Be a Nerdfighter: A Vlogbrothers FAQ” by the Vlogbrothers, YouTube, December 27, 2009.

Art Information 

  • Writer Junot Díaz at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner, held at the New York Tennis and Racquet Club at 350 Park Avenue, where he won the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize of $10,000, October 29, 2007 © Christopher Peterson; Creative Commons license
  • Photo of John and Hank Green on tour © Elyse Marshall; courtesy of Penguin Group; used by permission
  • Tour de Nerdfighting, Fox Theater, January 2012 © VaguelySerious; Creative Commons license

 


© Hadley Langosy

Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing.

She likes the Vlogbrothers—her son loves “50 Jokes in Four Minutes,” a 2008 Hank clip that’s racked up 2-million-plus views—but she’ll take the concluding pages of John Green’s 2008 novel Paper Towns any day. For Martha, it’s about the writing. Always.

“Too often, I’ve suppressed my creative fire. For too long, I’ve ridden my anger like a beautiful tiger, running, running—on the attack, until I panic and swerve in the other direction, locking away all that glorious strength.” — “Wrath: The Tiger Inside”


 

 

Comments

Interesting. I think it is the work not the author that attracts. If there is a series of works by an author, then you begin to feel that you understand the author. This can be kind of false. I keep thinking of Harry Potters creator, she is not Harry Potter and her other work seeks a different audience and a different definition. So, do we really know her? We know her characters, as far as she has let us. J.K. Rowling, herself an interesting story, a character. I am not really interested in her, only to the point of thinking that she is a good model of what the creative drive in us can do.

...and yet, as a shy writer-type myself, the prospect of meeting an author I admire makes me giddy as a girl spotting Bieber in a restaurant -- well, maybe not quite that giddy. I suspect many, such as I, are first turned-on by the writing and that the face-to-face is more an affirmation of the bonding that occurred between printed words and reader. I constantly study jacket photos of writers whose books I'm reading, looking, I guess, to see if the face reveals any clues to the magic that lives behind it.

I find reading is such a private, intimate experience that I can't help but feel I've experienced the author, not just the book. And as an author, I've had letters from readers who clearly feel they know me because they've spent time in the company of my novel. At first I found their familiarity a bit startling - and it's certainly a trifle odd when you encounter it meeting a reader face to face. But - hey - it's part of the territory. I know when I write, I set out to shake the reader down to every cell, to give them an experience they carry in their hearts afterwards. That's what I feel a good book should do. I can't complain if it's worked!

Karen, I agree that the vlog is an artistic product in its own right, one that reflects the creativity and wit of the Green brothers (and you know I don't really think it's a standard PR gimmick). But your observations raise some other intriguing questions, one of which has to do with how many fans just go to the blog--and get what they need from it--rather than any of those darn, old-fashioned books.

Meanwhile, there's the whole issue of constructing a public persona. As Green says, video blogs "don't reflect the truth." But this begs the question of why these blogs often are constructed to look very real-life, with their faux amateurish cuts, low-res quality, and (supposedly) extemporaneous riffing. As in so many TV ads, the off-the-cuff quality of real life is faked to speak to a particular audience or market segment.

Sheila: Rowling is an interesting example, and I'll be referring to her in my Editor's Note next week. In fact, I do think her personal story is interesting, or at least the parts that have been revealed to the press.

Very thought-provoking question, Martha. In the case of John Green, I wouldn't be so quick to separate the video blog from the writing and to dismiss it as a YouTube gimmick. While the vlog posts do feature John and his brother Hank talking directly to the camera, it's clear that a lot of work goes into them. The fast-spoken, articulate, thoughtful monologues must be either scripted or extensively thought out in advance, and they're tightly edited -- so, fans who love those posts are responding to an artistic product, just as fans of John's books are -- and to a shaped persona. In the Q&A at the event I attended, when a fan asked if it was weird having YouTube fans know so much about him and his brother, John said, "You don't know everything about us. Video blogs are thoughtfully constructed. They don't reflect the truth." So, I see vlogbrothers fandom less as celebrity worship than as appreciation for an artistic sensibility and a view of the world that fans can also find in John's books -- and I hope they do.

Ideally the writing is enuf, but, alas, many if not most writers suffocate without affirmation to help ease the insecurity that goads the imaginary muse. Without some representation of objective affirmation writing is hardly more soulful than masturbation. I suppose it follows that the more objective affirmation one receives the better, with those winning the widest range feeling the safest, which then presents the temptress of pride, which provoketh the fall, etc., with some semblance of balance being the ideal. The fascination for me is to see how renowned writers handle their success. Meeting them in person can help with that insight.

Matt, you're so right about the funny disconnect between shy writer types and today's call for publicity outings. I, too,study book jacket photos of authors, though they usually disappoint me in terms of finding out who that person really is. They're designed, in fact, to convey some generic idea of serious "writer." From the perspective, I'm very much in tune with Billy desire to see and hear authors in a more unvarnished way.

Enjoyed this, Martha. I find it ironic that many if not most writers take up the craft, or drift into it, as a more fulfilling pursuit than face-to-face interaction with others. Shy people, more articulate at a keyboard or typewriter or legal pad than at a wine and cheese party (unless it's a publication celebration). I suppose it's possible readers who want to interact with them in person may be kindred introverted spirits, and that's a pleasant thought. Yet...

I think an interesting sub-group is writers-following-writers...I personally think this is happening because publishing has changed so much we want reassurance that success of the Big Sort can still happen, and to learn as much about how it happens as possible. Much as we know otherwise, I think we still are looking for a formula to give our writing meaning... Not realizing that the meanigt IS the writing and needs to be enough, and success is not a house at the cape and endless accolades: it is just more work...

Oh, certain authors would turn me into a fangirl, Lesley, no question! And you're so right about Green's vlog opening the world for smart, nerdy teens. Karen Ohlson's TW piece about his tour with Hank last spring came to the same conclusion.

KC: Writers following writers--interesting point. Many in Junot D's tour audiences were probably writers themselves or hoping to be, wanting to figure it all out. Just as we all keep trying to figure it out.

Dickinson's voice: definitely melodious. I like John Green's new book a lot and was dragged to it by my 15 year old daughter, who reads him avidly and is a long-time fan of the vlog. When I was 15, books were a way out of high school's smallness; I think they are for her, too, but the vlog increases her sense that there really is a world of sane, smart, literary world out there and one day she might escape to it. It's all good. And for the record, I can be a swooning fangirl too--occasionally I meet an author whose work I love and can hardly bring myself to speak.

Excellent piece, and I'm not just saying that because you quoted me :-)

A couple of points and I promise I'll try to be brief. Speaking to John and Hank's video blog, it isn't a case of being unauthentic as a person, but instead putting on a public face. You are not the same person at a party attended by co-workers as you are with your spouse. So to, the public face of John Green on video blogs, while being genuine in thoughts and ideas, are scripted and presented in the best light. There is, however, still the barrier of public face which can never be crossed. I would argue, though, that it is less of a barrier than fictional writing.

Secondly, I appreciate the vlogs because I have a great deal of trouble reading critically. Once metaphors and symbolism and connections are pointed out I can see them, yet I seem to lack the ability to discern them while reading unless beat over the head with them (and we are talking Animal Farm beat over the head, not Lord of the Flies). The reason the blogs help me is that I'm privy to the thoughts Green had while writing the book, many of which appear in some form in his novels.

I find that whatever brings people to books and an interest to read thoughtfully and critically (even if one such as myself has to read secondary documents to get the intended results) has an overall positive effect. I wasn't a browser of a libraries or book lists until my browsing of the internet brought me to John Green. John Mayer may sing about a girl that colors his world but John Green helped me understand and discover mine.

Roz, excellent point about the intimacy that readers feel with authors once they read a novel--or, even more, with a personal essay or piece of creative nonfiction, something I've experienced myself when readers contact me. It is part of the territory for creative artists, because we are putting ourselves out there for public inspection.

And yet, I still wonder if fans feel even more of a sense of intimacy with John Green because of the vlog. I don't think that's a bad thing, but it may heighten the experience of reading his books--or set up different kinds of expectations for print authors than those we've experienced in the past.

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Jan 18, 2013 | Opinion