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
  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    I disagree: I interact very little with my readers, and I’m getting more of them all the time. In fact, the readers of my almost defunct personal blog are not the same people who, for the most part, read my fiction, and I respond inevitably – and politely – to comments on my fiction, but have no interest in being so-called friends with my readers.

    I’ll even go one step further: the pleasure of reading lies in the very fact that it not a social but a deeply private and personal experience.

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    BTW, I think you should give Banville another chance. His two Benjamin Black thrillers are excellent, and there are few writers around who can match his literary prose as well. ‘Pretension load of old tosh’ is rather harsh, but I suppose it depends on what someone likes to read.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Lee, I am not advocating interaction as a replacement for good writing (and, yes, people are first attracted to a work due to your story/writing, certainly not your personality!) I am merely saying that if the writer’s a mean, nasty person, you aren’t likely to hang around and read.

    Ironically enough, I am reading The Lemur in its entirety now, and I think I’ll give those books you mentioned a try.

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    Oh well, I guess it’s best that I don’t interact too much with my readers then, since I’m an unrequited meanie …

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh, nonsense. You’re NICE. =) I read Lowebrow everytime you’ve got a new post up. But, anyway, do you get this when you read other people’s work?

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    (Ask my kids about my mean streak…)

    Writer personality hasn’t affected my reading as yet, but of course it’s not impossible.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    A funny thing about Lovecraft in relation to this article…

    He actually interacted extensively with his readers through snail mail. Apparently he had a large circle of correspondents, some of whom were involved in preserving his work after he died.

    Overall, it supports your argument, but it reminds people that that sort of interaction was possible in the past — just harder.

    That being said, it must also be noted that Lovecraft was somewhat racist (though I don’t know whether he was more racist than the people around him at the time).

    Also, just for the record, I’m not much of a fan of Lovecraft, but some of my friends were as teenagers and thus I’ve read a couple books of his and know more about him than I otherwise would…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Lee: now, your kids ARE biased. ;-)

    @Jim: I forgot about that aspect of Lovecraft, and come to think of it, I’m not sure if it was him who was a jerk, and not … (hops to Wikipedia to check)

    Okay it might not be him. But I do remember that he was quite anti-social, wasn’t he?

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    That sounds possible, but I’m not sure. More than one of my friends read biographies of Lovecraft, but I only have second hand reports…

  • http://charlotte-faulkner.blogspot.com/ Bekah

    I loved Eclipse, but haven’t read any more of Banville.

    Anyway, yeah. I think it’s also strange when authors become less larger-than-life; as a name on a book or whatever they seem almost like a mythical god, but now I can easily talk to/watch video of/etc many authors, which is very flesh and blood. I don’t think I’ve ever been too discouraged, but I do see how I could.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome lethe

    Eli,

    You bring up a lot of interesting questions and I commend you for your searching, philosophical query. You first talk about Banville and so let me state my opinion about the writer’s work. When I first read “The Sea” I found the writing–like Nabokov–a violin in a void. The language, the description, the sentences, beautiful but the story and the characters seriously lacking.

    I read “Lemur” in the New York Times magazine from beginning to end and absolutely loved it. I thought Banville really elevated the serial with his meticulous prose and the characters jumped off the page. I proceeded to collect Banville books in second hand book stores and now I have over a dozen of them. I’ve read several others and consider him to be one of the best living “technical” writers in literary fiction.

    I could see Banville the person as being a bit of a snob. He’s praised constantly and has been for the last twenty years–his “beautiful prose”. He’s won tons of awards as well. So like any celebrity, I’m sure it goes to his head.

    But if he had a blog fic and I was reading it and I saw that he commented rudely toward one of his readers I would be turned off. There is different dynamic in this case, as you were right to point out. Now, I agree with Lee as well. It’s up to the writer to decide how much she cares to interact with the audience.

    Personally, I think the more interaction the better, but that’s only because I’m excited to communicate with my readers and bring forth a mutual, if not collaborative, dimension in the development of the story.

    Authors in print are ghosts. Those who have public profiles are often different people than the personas their readers imagine them to be. We fall in love with the author’s persona and this is impossible to reproduce in reality. There are so many projections that go on between reader and author.

    The interesting thing about blog fiction is that it humanizes both the reader and the writer. We don’t need to be idealized people anymore. You could say, in a sense, that it levels the playing field. No more God/Author, just an average human being. Which is funny b/c I think the most effective writers, even more effective than the Banville types who are intoxicated with their own artistic powers, are the modest, ironically self-deprecating writers.

    Perhaps that’s what you like about online authors; you get a sense of their human-ness, their lovable imperfections.

    Chris

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    Hi Chris (Lethe),

    A reader who conflates God with an author ought to read a bit more philosophy, theology, and perhaps psychology.

    But I’m an atheist, so I’m unlikely to attribute supernatural powers to writers.

    Or am I one? This may just be part of my online persona.

    Loki the Trickster is a Norse god.

    And perhaps Banville is Loki in disguise – or I am! After all, psychotherapists like myself use a whole bag of tricks, and still I wouldn’t to pronounce on Banville’s personality.

    But am I a psychotherapist or just God?

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    Or the Psychotherapist or just a god?

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome lethe

    Lee,

    Now you’re confusing me. But it’s been quite the topic in literary theory, equating author=creator of a world=God.
    It’s only a metaphor of course, but with the evolution of the novel from 19th cen. realism and authorial command to 20the cen. modernism and stream of consciousness to postmodern irony and self-conscious self-reflexive writing; the author’s confidence in her ability to present objective worlds and rule over her characters and determine their destinies grows increasingly less stable.

    Chris

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    ‘Now you’re confusing me.’

    Oh dear … my odd sense of humour!

    However, I’m aware – and very wary – of such topics in literary theory. They age like ripe cheese – nice for a while, soon runny and beyond the sell-by date. In other words – and please don’t take offence when none is meant – despite the usefulness of taxonomy, it’s awfully seductive to fall into generalisations, particularly such commonplace ones. I’m not a very good literary critic, but all criticism must essentially be text-based and therefore rely heavily on citation. (Another reason I prefer to question the written word, not the writer.)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I had NO idea that those questions had been asked in literary theory. What a strange thing to think about! And, no, Lee, you’re not Loki. Loki’s near death. (glances at American Gods. Clears throat)

    @Bekah: I find that reading a good novel without knowing much about the author is a very fun thing to do. I mean, everyone puts a bit of themselves into their writing, so it’s pretty nice to try and figure out which bits or which characters reflect the author.

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    Hi Eli,

    This is turning into a weirdish comment thread, eh? Did you know that just about all the Norse gods are not immortal? (ultimately, Ragnorak)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh yeah, Lee, I’d forgotten about that. Ragnorak being the end of the world fable for the Nordish religion, right? Hopping over to Wikipedia now, for a good read. =D

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    And now to link to a lengthy interview with Banville, not always showing him in a favourable light:

    http://wordpress.hotpress.com/petermurphy/2008/12/08/john-banville-directors-cut/

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    John Banville: “I wish the pulp magazines were still going, I’d love to write for pulp magazines. And I’d love to have worked in the studio system in movies as well, I’d love to be in one of those dinky haciendas somewhere in the Hollywood hills and some producer comes in and says, ‘We need two scenes by four o’clock, and they’d better be funny.’”

    Oh priceless. Thank you, Lee.