Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Exposing Ourselves In Public - Nicola Morgan

Gah! What have I said, or what am I about to say, or what might someone think I said, or what did I really mean to say? What if I say something really, really stupid? What if I already have?

Please tell me I'm not the only one. See, every time I'm about to have something published I suffer a serious case of exposure anxiety. It manifests itself in my dreams. I'll have classic exposure dreams - things like needing to go to the toilet but finding that there's only a clear glass door between me and a load of strangers, or realising that I'm walking down the street without certain parts of my body being appropriately covered.

I sometimes have dreams where the News of the World has got hold of the really embarrassing things I did in the past and they're going to tell my parents. (I hasten to add that there were no embarrassing things, other than the time when ... but no, the News of the world will NEVER get that. Will it? Oh my God, what if ....?).

Thing is, having something published IS very exposing. Not in a way you can be arrested for, but in a way which is very anxious-making. We know (or if we don't, we soon find out) that lots of people won't like our book, even if lots of people do. Some readers will be vocal in their opinions, and even when the opinions are positive, many readers will see things in our books that we didn't consciously put there and which we didn't mean to be read into them. We will be misinterpreted and spoken about as though we're really really stupid. We see ourselves written about and talked about. And nowadays the reviews and comments are so permanent - which is good ... and bad. But anyway VERY exposing.

We do interviews in which journalists make weird and wrong assumptions or get facts wrong. I was seriously pissed off once when a journalist came to my house to interview me about Blame My Brain and asked me if she could speak to my older daughter. Now, my daughter hates being interviewed or photographed (after a previous horrible experience) and so I said she couldn't; then, in the article, the journalist referred to my "teenage daughter upstairs in bed". Actually, she was in her bedroom, writing an essay ... Yes, a small mistake, but one which had its effects.

I envy those authors who are confident enough and important enough to play the recluse card and keep their privacy, but even they are inevitably exposed as soon as their book is published. You don't get fewer reviews just because you hide. (Yes, I know we all in theory could be recluses, but we're not really allowed that option. Most of us have to do what we can to raise our profiles, not shrink them. Most of us have to do the equivalent of the model walking confidently along the catwalk, when inside we may feel very vulnerable and self-conscious.)

We lay ourselves on the line, allow ourselves to be hung out to dry, and we're supposed to maintain a calm and smiling exterior, never lashing out at public criticism.

Look what happened to Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton when they lashed out. OK, they may have been unwise but in the old days it never would have become so public. It's all so immediate, so unforgiving and so hellishly permanent nowadays. (Maybe they have glass toilet door dreams, too?)

The need to be careful about what we say on blogs and websites and in interviews just adds to the exposure anxiety. The SoA has even suggested Professional Indemnity insurance for authors, to insure against the costs of being sued for defamation, for example. And I notice (because I've looked, carefully, paranoidally - is that a word?) that you have to pay extra for including your website, blog or other online presence.

Never was the power of words stronger and more frightening.

I feel a bad dream coming on. Someone, please, tell me I have got the appropriate body parts covered. And if I haven't, wake me up gently.


Nicky said...

I always tell myself not to wory as no one is likely to read my stuff, reviews will be few nd far between and the only person who really gives a damn is me. Bizarrely I find this helps.
Good luck!

adele geras said...

I think Nicky is right, and in any case your interviewers will be so dazzled by your footwear that they will not be able to be nasty, I'm sure. Why no shoes in the photo???
But comfort yourself, Nicola. Nobody gives a damn, really, except the author and his/her relations and possibly the publisher. Radio interviews melt into air and everyone is doing something else while they listen and therefore miss most of the thing anyway! Still, you do have to be very careful what you say on the internet which might come back and bite you. Alain de B and Alice H should know that you NEVER ANSWER CRITICS.

Lee said...

Adele, I can't agree more: never answer critics. I'd add to this: never discuss your work in public. Ever.

But I'm not interested in selling anything, of course.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thing is, lee, we can't not discuss our work in public - unless we're JD Salinger, we're obliged!

And btw the pic of the radio interview was just for decoration - I LOVE doing radio. No, it's more the general feeling of exposure once you've published something.

Lee said...

Well, I publish too. I just define it differently, and get to preserve my independence at the same time. As I say at my new website (OK, note the plug, blush blush), someone either likes my work, or they don't. And either one is fine with me.

The funny thing is that I may, in the long run, have just about as many readers as the average midlist writer. Hard to tell, though, if I'm honest. Downloads don't always translate into books read.

But I think writers who discuss what they're doing, at least in terms of explaining/interpreting their fiction, are making a big mistake. No quibble with telling people you keep a tin of crocodile teeth (or do I mean tears?) on your desk for good luck, but that's about it. Leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

That said, of course I feel terribly exposed when my work goes online.

Nicola Morgan said...

I replied to Lee's comments but the reply doesn't seem to have appeared, so I'll try to remember what I said.

Lee, frankly, I don't know what you're talking about. You're certainly not talking like any writer I've ever met, and I've met a few. Writing is about communicating and engaging with readers, and I find it quite odd that anyone wouldn't want to do that. OK, so there was JD Salinger, but we're talking a different era and actually he did talk about his work with other writers and trusted readers, just not in public. And exceptions never invalidate rules.

Your comment about how many readers you think you've got - er, and the point is? Sounds to me like the thwacking sound of a large chip flapping on your shoulder! Have I undermined you for being self-published? No, I haven't. I'd only judge you as a writer by the quality of your writing, and (ideally) your intelligence while talking about it - since I haven't read your work and you won't talk about your writing, I can't judge you as a writer. You may well be brilliant.

Crocodile teeth / tears - que? Sorry, but I have no idea where you're coming from. "define it differently" - again, I'm lost. I write, someone chooses to value it enough to publish it, people buy it and read it, I'm generally very happy with the feedback I get from my intended readers and I love the engagement with them because engagement is why i do it. I don't do it to whistle in the dark. That would be very self-indulgent and pointless.

And now, after that rambling reply, I must go and write.

Stroppy Author said...

I think it's just a matter of preference (and one's strengths and weaknesses) whether one welcomes or shuns talking about one's work in public. I don't like to do it. Does that make me less of a writer? I feel I am less articulate speaking than writing. I avoid the phone for the same reason. I admire you for being so proficient in both arenas, Nicola, but I still turn down most requests to speak anywhere.

Lee said...

Just briefly, Nicola: my point about the number of my readers is that, evidently, a writer can have them without talking about their writing.

I communicate with my readers via my fiction. It works - or it doesn't. And if the latter is the case, then nothing I say will elsewhere will change it.

Lee said...

Oh yes, since you asked about 'define it differently': I do my own publishing. If anyone would like a fuller discussion of why I choose to do this, please let me know. That's something I'm perfectly happy to discuss in public.

Gillian Philip said...

I think you have missed Nicola's point, Lee. None of us - actually, no authors I know of - criticise other writers for self-publishing. It's a tough world out there in the mainstream publishing world and I know some very talented writers who have had to go their own way.

What came across very strongly from your earlier comments, however, was that you look down on and criticise published writers for taking their work out and sharing it. You actually called it a mistake. I too like to share my work with readers - I struggled to get published because I wanted my books to be read by as many people as possible. It follows that I love to talk to readers about them. That doesn't make me a bad or inferior writer, and it doesn't mean I'm prostituting myself.

We show respect to the self-published. Unless, as Nicola suggests, there's a shoulder-chip involved, I suggest it shouldn't be hard for you to reciprocate.

Lee said...

I wouldn't say that I look down on other writers for 'taking their work out and sharing it' - or at least I hope I don't! Unless we keep our work in a bottom drawer, we all do that - myself no less than anyone else, if in my own way, of course. However, I am admittedly critical of the extent to which writers have become public performers - or have been forced to become. I can remember, as teen, falling in love with a writer's work without knowing a thing about who they were, how they wrote, why. In fact, I'd go so far as to call this information actually obstructive to the reading process.

You'll of course notice that I prefer not to address comments about a possible chip on my shoulder. Let's keep this discussion impersonal, shall we?

Gillian Philip said...

Precisely what I've been hoping you'll do, Lee. You'll notice my sentence was conditional. Please remember this is about respect.

Lee said...

Perhaps I should repeat something I said earlier, Gillian:

'But I think writers who discuss what they're doing, at least in terms of explaining/interpreting their fiction, are making a big mistake.'

I've added the bold print to highlight what I meant by 'mistake'.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

A conditional sentence can still make one's implication clear. I'm no longer sure who is disrespecting whom here.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lee, I don't identify with your attitude to writing and it may or may not be that you have some issues regarding how you are published, but I think you and I are just not on the same wavelength. That's life. Nae bother.

Gillian is right, though - you have missed my point. But since we have such very different viewpoints that's probably not surprising. I wish you luck with your publishing ventures and your chosen way of "defining" being a published writer. As for me, I hope I will continue to be published in the way that works for me and to talk about my writing, which I happen to think is absolutely the right thing to do when I'm invited to speak to an audience, as (like Gillian) I often am. I might choose to take your criticism of my doing that as disrespect, but I'm not that fragile - if people don't want me to speak in public, then they don't have to invite me and pay me.

Lee said...

But Nicola, I never criticised you as such. As far as I'm concerned, I was speaking in general about writers. Perhaps I didn't make that clear enough, and you felt attacked. Otherwise, why would you feel it necessary to refer to my 'issues'?

You blogged about exposure anxiety. One solution to that is not to expose oneself more than absolutely necessary. And yes, I do feel that writers have a choice in the matter.

I'm convinced that readers of the future will read more and more from a screen. This could prove to be very empowering for writers. At the moment it appears that most are obliged to make school visits, attend festivals, give readings etc., whether they would like to or not. But the recent cover debacle with Bloomsbury (Larbalestier's Liar) illustrates that the traditional power structures in publishing are shifting, publishing is in fact changing drastically, and there's going to be much, much more to come.

One of the main reasons I myself publish as I do is to safeguard my independence. Gillian said:

'I struggled to get published because I wanted my books to be read by as many people as possible. It follows that I love to talk to readers about them.'

My point is that it's perfectly possible to gain a large number of readers (if that happens to be one's goal) without publishing conventionally, and though I'm as rotten a prophet as the next bloke, I expect this to be more and more likely in future. Second, I don't see how it necessarily follows that a writer loves to talk about their books. I'm passionate about writing, but I detest talking about my own fiction - though happy to analyse and discuss the work of others.

The wonderful short story writer Nam Le says something which illuminates why, in part, I feel this way:

'Given the right choice of detail, a crack—or, better yet, a passageway—can be opened up into an abstract and emotional space, through which the reader, depending upon her capacities and inclinations, may pass. In order for a writer's work to be alive, it must be smarter than she is. That's where the good stuff lies…where the sense prevails that more is going on than the writer can understand; than her conscious mind can contain. Good writing taps into these charged, mysterious places and moments…this is where the writer gives the reader greatest scope to put their own experiences and thoughts into play.'

Mine may be the minority view, but why should that be a problem?