Do We Expect Our Favorite Authors to be Nice People?

Yesterday, when I shared some things that Annie Dillard has on her website home page, I was mainly wondering about the role of social media in the life of an uber-successful author. I found it interesting that she so brazenly stated on her home page all of the things that she does not have time to do.

I did not, however, expect the voracity of responses in the comment thread:

“Dillard’s opening statement smacks of arrogance and self-indulgence…”

“I don’t anticipate ever having Dillard’s status but it’ll be a sad day if I ever become consumed with myself at the exclusion of others.”

“We just find time to do what we want to do. She just doesn’t want to help people.”

“Annie Dillard came of age as a writer in a time before social media. With respect, she doesn’t seem like she knows what she’s talking about.”

A question came dancing up out of this comment thread, something I haven’t spent much time thinking about in the past: Why do we want the authors whose work we enjoy to be nice people?

If you found out your favorite author was a total jerk, would you stop reading them? Do we hold other celebrities (actors, movie stars, professional athletes) to that kind of standard?

If the authors you love create enjoyable, well-written books or blogs, does it matter to you whether or not they are nice people?

Should it?

40 Replies to “Do We Expect Our Favorite Authors to be Nice People?”

  1. Just read your last post. It’s funny, I have wondered this same exact thing with Annie Dillard in mind…the author who somehow got herself exempt from having a “platform.” (And a big part of me says, lucky, lucky her). But I think the negative comments about her attitude are missing the fact that publishing has changed to drastically since her books have been published. Now, we expect authors to be active in social media, accessible, subject themselves to personal branding, and keep cranking out books. But before, it was Harper Lee and her first and last book ever. It was Annie Dillard, who barely even has a website up and running. Yes, now the world has changed and if you want to be an author you have to play the game and work for it, but I kind of feel like if you’re entitled to write something beautiful and then retire to private life.

    I am turned off by authors/famous artists who are rude, self-centered, and without integrity, and it does bias me against their work. But I think we should try to keep some grace, since that’s what I would if my life were in the public spotlight for scrutiny.

    1. There does seem to be a huge chasm between the mindset of writers in their 50s and 60s and writers in their 20s and 30s. Whether it’s because of a generational difference or simply experiential (ie, we’ll all be more like that when we’re 60) will be interesting to discover.

    2. I understand that publishing has changed, and I have no problem with Dillard doing what she will. What I didn’t like was the tone she struck. I don’t care if she is active in social media. I don’t care if she writes from a teepee. I just expect to be told the truth in a kind way. That’s not asking too much. BTW, I’m forty. where does that put me in the mindset? ;)

      Yes, publishing has changed, but it hasn’t changed all that much: it’s still a game that demands up and comers abide by rules established authors can ignore.

  2. I love Dillard, and I imagine in person she is a very kind individual. Her comments on her site make perfect sense to me. She’s won a Pulitzer. She’s in the upper elite of literary novelists and memoirists. There is no possible way she can keep up with reader submissions and letters, nor should she be required to. When I first saw those comments on her site a couple years ago, I felt admiration. She was standing up for the personal space she needed to write. Good for her.

    1. I put Dillard and L’Engle in the same category, at least in some ways. L’Engle’s accessibility was so beautiful, but I’m not sure that I can/should expect that of all writers.

  3. In response to your last two questions – No, and I don’t think so, but I’m certainly open to correction on that.

    1. You’re entitled to your opinion here, without correction :) I would say that, personally, it gives me a light, happy feeling when I discover that an artist I like is also a generous, nice person. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it goes along with the postmodern inability to separate the author from their work.

  4. I expect my favorite authors to write well.
    And my favorite friends to be nice.

    …I don’t see anything wrong with her carving for herself the space she needs, and think she does it in a respectful way (and offering the priority of time to her family and friends… like we all should, but sometimes forget in “platform chasing/building”). But even if she was a great big jerk, I don’t think that would change her writing. I don’t pick up her books to learn how to be nicer person… I read her books to be challenged by a brilliant writer.

    1. I agree with the idea of carving space for her family and friends.

      There are plenty of other authors who live this exact same way but do not have websites or go out of their way to say what she said. I would love to ask her why she felt the need to post these things on a website, instead of just being reclusive and not making an announcement about it (it sounds very much like she has gotten burned by someone in the past in one of these areas).

    2. Melinda, yes! That’s pretty much what I was going to say.

      Shawn, it seems like the alternative to putting it on her website is to email people directly (which takes too much time) or ignore them completely. What she did feels like the less-rude option, not the more-rude option.

  5. I found the idea of Dillard not being nice to intriguing. I just didn’t even think about her personality in light of her decision to pull back (or stay back, as the case may be.)
    But as I said on my blog today – – I do think, as some of the commenters here have said, that we need to see her with grace. She is from a different time, and I find it very honorable that she wants to protect her writing and reading time. I should do that more.
    As for why she had to say it – it’s an interesting question. I guess it’s like responding to Facebook birthday messages – some of us write to every person, some just post a general thanks. But if you say nothing, are you rude . . .
    Thanks for this great conversation, Shawn.

    1. Personally, I think she would be better off saying nothing – I’m sure folks like Anne Lamott or Niffeneger have similar policies (Lamott doesn’t even have a website, and Niffeneger sounds amazingly kind on her “About” page without addressing many of these issues – but she’s willing to sign books).

      But I keep going back to this feeling that she’s been burned or taken advantage of in some way in the past – why else would she go out of her way to say this stuff? Then again, maybe it’s just her personality.

      Ahhh! I’m so curious about this.

    2. Ok. I accept the idea that we can view her with grace. I still hold to my *opinion* that her words carried a tone that did not sit right with me. Whether others can understand that or agree with it is immaterial to the fact that it is my opinion. It doesn’t have to be agreed with for it to be valid. I didn’t think about her personality, either. And I didn’t make a character judgment. I felt that her statements were arrogant. This does not make her arrogant.

      I agree with Shawn. There were a zillion ways to handle this; the best one might have simply been silence.

      1. I wonder, though, if she didn’t say anything what would the response be of all those people who send her books to review and letters to sign. Wouldn’t they all be hurt by her silence? Wouldn’t they think her arrogant and standoffish then? I’m not sure there’s a perfect way, but my preference is to know where she stands and then handle it.

  6. I have stopped “following” certain writers/actors/celebrities because I read things indicating they were not nice people. I don’t care to support what they’re good at, if they don’t have a heart to help others.

  7. Yes, we expect our favorite authors to be good people and yes, we should follow / un-follow accordingly. And yes, we do it in other arenas. I have trouble watching a Russell Crowe movie now because he beat some guy with a telephone. And what about Charlie Sheen? I never watched his show, but I can almost guarantee, I will never watch anything with him in it in the future. And what about Mel Gibson? Knowing they are jerks just taints everything. I would have trouble reading anything by an author I knew to be a jerk in real life.

    By the way, that is why I follow you and Andi — I have never met either of you in person, but I am confident that I would love too.

  8. The greatest gift Annie Dillard can give to the rest of us is more original writing. That’s how she can most effectively help others. That’s how she can most deeply connect with her readers. That’s how she can make the world a markedly better place.

    Anyone who is a stragner to Annie Dillard and yet would ask her to put aside her writing to do a personal favor is being selfish. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re from or she’s from. If you’re a stranger to her, her art is more important than your request of her. That’s because what she writes is so beautiful and amazing. There has never been and never will be another person who could write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is a unique and valuable voice. If she gave in to those hounding her for favors, that voice would be nearly silenced.

    I think ignoring the issue or saying nothing at all is what would be rude. On her site, she clearly and touchingly expresses regret that she can’t be all things to all people, or even a few things to many people.

    Annie Dillard doesn’t belong to us. But, thanks to her, her books do. We should enjoy and celebrate what gifts she has given, instead of asking for more of her.

    As for the question of whether it should change anything to know that a writer has a bad personality, I’m with the New Critics in believing in the intentionally fallacy. What the writer meant doesn’t matter. The writer’s process doesn’t matter. It’s what the writer wrote that matters.

    1. I’m going to stay away from the Dillard question for now and simply say that I cannot “like” Ben Roethlisberger on facebook because of the allegations against him. Cleared or not, as a woman I can’t be a fan, even though I bleed black and gold. You all might put in the erudite pinnacle of “art” but I think it extends to all public personalities.

      Also, I have been known to turn my head in ignorance of NCAA infractions of some of my favorite college teams, simply because I don’t want to believe that the coach I like is corrupt. (aren’t they all?)

      So, I am a contradiction. I won’t follow Ray Lewis, or Ben R. but I’ll defend B. Stoops, in the naivete that he’s Bob Stoops. He wouldn’t let those boys cheat.

      As for writers, I expect from them what I expect from every other human on the planet. Kindness and courtesy. If you can’t do that then I don’t really have time for you.

    2. “The greatest gift Annie Dillard can give to the rest of us is more original writing. That’s how she can most effectively help others. That’s how she can most deeply connect with her readers. That’s how she can make the world a markedly better place.”

      I like this thought, Daniel.

  9. This is something I’ve wrestled with in the last ten years with respect to scholarly writers. Someone who is a completely bankrupt human being can nevertheless be held up as an icon of scholarly virtue becuase for most people being a nice or even a good person has nothing to do with being a good researcher and writer.

    In the final analysis, you don’t actually have to be a good teacher, a good person, or even a very good writer to find success as an academic. But I think, after much consideration, that what bothers me is about that situation is more that they are paid to teach and they very often couldn’t care less about that particular task. As a student, I found that pretty intolerable. On top of that, my field of study was directly related to Christianity and it’s hard for me to believe that Professor X is a theologian and an expert in Christian thought when s/he is involved in ethically and morally questionable behavior. Not that I’m the judge but it colors my perception of her or his output.

    With straight-up writers who are not teachers, it does change my view a little but there’s nothing about Annie Dillard’s work that suggests to me she’d necessarily be a super warm and nice person. I like her writing. I wouldn’t say I admire her the way I admire some other memoirists.

    1. This goes along with my thoughts on athletes or stars. They are really not more valuable as humans because they have a talent. They still need to act like humans.

      1. It’s never okay with me for a person to say “I don’t bother with people.” In any form. People are the only think that really matters. At least in my mind.

  10. Wow, the expectations!! Someone being a “bankrupt human being” and those in the limelight making mistakes or being human, are very different things. Authors, stars, athletes, and politicians are human beings like we are and they are imperfect. The reason we want those we adore to be nice, is because we have projected a piece of ourselves into them, we hope that we would be good friends. I think we overidentify with them, we adore them because of their craft and when we find out they are not their craft, that they are in face fallible beings with shadows and imperfections we reject them. Why? Because we have such a hard time facing our own shadows, our own shameful ways of being that we either act on or don’t act on.

    1. I completely agree, Jason. I want Annie Dillard to be wonderful because I love her writing, but I would love her writing even if she wasn’t. Michael Jackson was an amazing musician (and yes, you can disagree with that attribute if you wish), but to put it lightly, he made some poor choices. I can separate the two aspects – art and artists, sport and athlete. Yes, I want the person to be good, too, but as people, they will fail. I will still love their work.

    2. I wasn’t talking about Annie Dillard when I said bankrupt as a human being and I wasn’t talking about ordinary imperfections. I was talking about, say, Paul Tillich’s reputation for bedding as many female students as possible on the couch in his office. How many times have I stood at a cocktail party and heard that story and had people laugh and say, “yes, that’s horrible and would fall under sexual harassment these days but he was *so* brilliant.”

      At a certain point, being brilliant doesn’t get you a pass on abusing your power for purposes of sexual gratification.

      So yeah. Imperfections are one thing. Ignoring egregious behavior because of talent? No.

      1. But so yeah….my point was only that Tillich and his ilk are the primary context in which i’ve considered this question. Nothing to do with Ms. Dillard.

      2. Really? I’ve never heard that about Tillich. Interesting. Seems to be very hard for men in high positions to refuse sex from adoring supporters.

  11. I’m curious about this, after reading the comments: We seem to think there is one, universal way to be “helpful,” and that we all need to be helpful in that one way our whole lives.

    In my church community, when someone is sick and needs help, lots of people are activated in different ways. The person who loves to cook and works part-time delivers a meal, someone else writes a card, someone might donate some money to help pay a bill, and someone else is devoted to praying. And then you have the person in the community with the newborn baby who never sleeps, and maybe they don’t do anything—not at this moment, at least.

    Here’s my point: I’m sure Dillard helped a lot of young writers earlier in her success, when fewer people were asking for help and she had more energy. She continues to help people now through her writing. And we have no idea what else requires her time, from aging parents to helping with grandchildren or maybe caring for a sick friend. Why do we assume she doesn’t want to “help” and isn’t “nice?” Let’s practice some benefit of the doubt and grace.

  12. I worked at a Christian bookstore for several years. I met numerous authors and bands because of it, often acting as a liaison during their in-store events. I can’t begin to say how eye-opening it was to view these people before, after, and during these events. Some impressed me and lived up to how I hoped they would be. Others greatly disappointed me and I’ve never viewed them or their work the same again. Whether music or writing, we deeply connect to those who inspire, challenge, and resonate with us through their craft.

    I often find myself wondering if I’d be friends with authors or bloggers in real life based on the tone and merit of their work. I base my life on the premise that you catch more flies with honey. It does not hurt me to be nice and helpful. Do you have to create boundaries around your time and energy? Absolutely and I understand that Dillard and others need to put these in place. Her tone was off-putting to me, however, and I’m not convinced that she didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps she was burned in the past, as you’ve surmised, Shawn. This doesn’t change her ability as a writer- I can still appreciate that. Either way, it’s not my place to judge her decision. I just know that I would not react the same way.

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