Exploring Personality Bias

Early last year, 2005 Man-Booker prize winner John Banville did a fiction serial called The Lemur over at the New York Times website. When I covered the attempt here at Novelr I immediately received a comment by reader Bill Hilton, who groaned about the choice of author. Why him?! Hilton asked. It turned out that Banville had made a couple of obnoxious comments upon winning the Booker prize some time back: he implied that a lot of middle-brow novels were winning awards lately, and it was good to see a book of real merit – his – fiinally win. Hilton then went on to say:

I wouldn’t mind, but (the Booker-prize winning) The Sea is the most pretentious load of old tosh that I’ve read in years.

I didn’t bother to follow The Lemur after that.

I think most of us now recognize the Internet’s potential for social communication and information dispersal. The tidbit about Banville wouldn’t have reached me if I hadn’t been writing a lit blog, and it also wouldn’t have reached me if Bill Hilton hadn’t passed by and commented on the piece. But consider the other things that made the exchange of bias possible: Mr Hilton had probably picked up the news from a newspaper or such during the 2005 Booker Prize news coverage – something that I couldn’t possibly have done given the limited nature of book news in Malaysia – and he’d probably remembered that tidbit when he read Banville’s The Sea. Also, NYT online had published the Lemur on the Internet, had released the item in their news feed (which I had subscribed to), and had taken the time to mark it as web fiction. There was a whole lot of variables that made this exchange of views possible, and the most astounding thing was probably the fact that I lived in Malaysia, an inherently non-reading nation. I wouldn’t have contracted a bias against John Banville had it not been for the opinion of a British reader who had more information about Banville than I did, and who lived in a nation where getting this information and finding his book was easier. Once upon a time a friend’s recommendation may have been limited by social and geographical boundaries. That time no longer exists.

The above example, however, is just one of many illustrating the social side of the Internet, and I’m sure you can all come up with more. Let me throw you another. It is now possible for you to read a poem in a book, enjoy said poem, and then go online, head to the publisher’s website, and email the poet your thanks. I remember a writer (can’t remember his name, for the life of me) who did just that, and who later commented on how the Internet’s connectivity added another dimension to his reading experience. I’m sure this was possible before, with post, but the Internet has now made it global, and painless, and very, very cheap.

The point I’m getting at here is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to enjoy books without some knowledge of the writer that wrote it. And, in web fiction, it is becoming near impossible to enjoy a work without interacting, and perhaps judging, the online writer behind it.

Let’s start with books. I’m pretty sure that certain writers are difficult people to get along with – H.P. Lovecraft, for example, springs to my mind immediately.  But that fact wouldn’t under normal circumstances affect our reading of their work. I wouldn’t mind reading Lovecraft, simply because I’ve never met him, and I’ll never know what a jerk he is. (Lovecraft was a recluse and was socially inept. He is also dead, but you get my point).

This barrier does not exist on the Internet. Much of web fiction exists on blogs, and reader-writer interaction is part of the whole blooking experience. I’ve talked about creating a reader community in your web fiction before, but an implication of doing so is that your readers are probably going to let their impression of you colour their judgement of your work. And there’s no way around it.

Allow me to give you a personal example. In my web browser I keep two reading lists – one of the works I’ll have to review as an editor for Web Fiction Guide, and one for personal enjoyment. When it comes to an editorial evaluation for a listing, or when I first begin to read a work, I never take writer personality into account. I read, I review, and if I like it I move the blook over to my personal enjoyment list (and subscribe to the feed, etc). But every so often I remove a site from that list. This usually happens after I form an opinion of the writer concerned, and when I find that I don’t like him or her. The first incident was because said writer lashed out at a reader who was commenting on her personal blog. I thought that was mean and rude and unnecessary, and after that I couldn’t bring myself to read her writing. I really tried. I liked the story, and I liked her style, but at some deep, subconscious level I couldn’t read anymore. I felt repulsed. And that was the end of that.

But of course that’s just me. I’m fairly certain other readers would just ignore the personal sections of a writer’s site, and ignore the commenting forms beneath each episode. This likely happens when the work is just too fantastic to ignore, and when said reader has made a huge emotional investment in the story. Personality bias doesn’t happen when you refuse to think about the writer.

There are two corollaries to this. The first is if you don’t let the reader in, and if you don’t interact with your audience, then you’ll have nothing to worry about. But why write online if you aren’t prepared to receive feedback or adulation from your crowd? The Internet is inherently social, after all, and you’ll be making a mistake if you don’t make full use of it.

The second corollary is: in the same way that you can turn a reader away with your personality, you can keep him reading when he likes you: even if your quality dips later on in your blook or if you take a break. And then it’ll be like reading a friend’s work – you may not like what he’s done to the story at a later stage, but you’ll still read him because he is your friend. And it may well be that the most successful blooks are those with strong writing and nice writers, and a good rapport with its audience.

I cannot help you with personality bias. When you really think about it, there’s not much you can do. You’ll get along with some people, and you’ll clash with others. And if the published writers of the world have to face it, in their correspondence, and in the falling barriers between reader and writer, then I suppose we online writers will have to as well, more than anyone else. And that is a frightening thought.

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Category: Writing · Writing Web Fiction