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david bowie realism _ truepenny

that's right you too can be the proud owner of the quality goes in before the name goes on

I've been asked to blog a bit more about what I mean when I talk about being an "auctorial construct." Since part of my mission statement in keeping this blog is to warn up-and-coming writers of the unsignposted potholes in the road, I think that's a fair request, even though the prospect makes me somewhat nervous. I can see the slapfight from here, and it scares me.

Still, this is for posterity, so I will endeavor to be honest.

This was in part inspired by an SF writer conversation about finding fan pages for yourself you had no idea existed and no part in setting up, and in part by a similar conversation about the infamous Youtube video "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury," and whether it was creepy or awesome, and how it would feel to be the recipient of such an internet lustogram.

Context is NSFW, if you had any illusions otherwise:



I'm just in these last couple of years coming to realize that, to a lot of people (like, more people than I know in real life), I'm no longer a real person they don't know, or maybe know by reputation. Instead, I've become an auctorial construct, and it's very bizarre.

Essentially, I'm a fictional person to them.

And they feel like they have ownership of that construct/fictional person, and sometimes they get very angry when I persist in being me and not the person they imagined. Which, I mean--okay, yeah. It happens to actors and musicians and sports figures a thousand-fold more, and politicians build their careers on capitalizing on this effect, but boy it takes some getting used to.

Sometimes, it's a little like dealing with 5,000 high school crushes. Sometimes it's like dealing with 5,000 high school enemies. Sometimes, I learn things about myself I did not know from my Wikipedia page.

Part of the price of being a public person is not having a lot of control over what people say about you--or, more precisely, what they say about the auctorial construct they have created, that they think is you. It's the cost of celebrity. Even teeny tiny celebrity. Celebrity this big: ---><---

Everybody experiences through their own perceptual filters, you see, and everybody projects their deepest, most heartfelt hopes and dreads into what they read and watch and live. To narrow it down a little, it's how this flawed technological telepathy we call prose communication works. It's why a book can get under your skin and change you; because a book is a mirror. A funhouse mirror. (My former Viable Paradise roomie Cory Doctorow, who isn't very much like a lot of people seem to think he is, and who I like a lot, has a hypothesis that a lot of how we experience fiction comes from the workings of our mirror neurons. Which is to say, the same things that both give us empathy (if you believe that particular research), allow us to model the behaviors of others in advanceof experience ("Mom's gonna kill me!"), and also tend to lead us to project our own motivations onto others ("I know you're thinking about breaking up with me!").

So sometimes people I don't know see themselves, or the things they hate most, in me--the same way they would see those things in a fictional character. And sometimes they bond with those projections, or loathe them.

It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable stumbling across people claiming I said asinine things I never said, and that happens all the time, too.

Sometimes, I stumble across people claiming I said totally awesome things, or gave them great recipes I have never seen before. That's weird too, but doesn't quite give me the same frisson of omg people think I'm evil that the "Elizabeth Bear said she hates fanfiction" posts do, or the blog reviews where people say they want to stab me. 

It's just weird when people think they know what I think, you know? But I've come to realize that that's not about me; it's about them. I'm some guy who writes novels and climbs walls and reads too much and is unfortunately somewhat prickly and overdefended. I do not walk on water--except for now, when it's frozen all over the everything. I have a bad habit of seeing too many sides of most arguments, but I don't hate fanfiction. And I really don't hate queer people. Or most of the other things people keep saying I hate.

Except George W. Bush. I despise that shitnozzle, to use one of panjianlien's preferred terms.

In other words, people don't actually think I'm awesome. Or evil. (Well, my ex-husband might.) They think the Elizabeth Bear who lives in their head is these things.

Part of the job, I fear. At least we're not 1970s rock stars. We'd be spending all our time fielding questions about whether it was true we slept with David Bowie.

The nice thing is that this has led me to realize that the artists and public figures I admire, the ones who seemed bizarrely elevated to me--are pretty much going through the same weirdness every day. Which makes it easier not to pee my pants when I meet somebody whose work I desperately admire. (I still totally burst into tears when I met Peter S. Beagle though. Just so you know.)

It also makes me understand what it is that people get out of Real People Slash, though man, I tell you, I still find that all the squick in the world. Intellectual understanding =/= emotional understanding. (NB: I also do not hate RPS. It just gives me the horrors, because I can't disconnect it from the people behind it. I make an exception when they have been dead for over 200 years, however.)

So no, Rachel Bloom is not actually talking to the real Ray Bradbury. She's talking to the auctorial construct Ray Bradbury. And it's not all that different from me admiring Angela Bassett's guns circa Strange Days, or Matthew Yang King's abs, or Mandy Patinkin getting himself accidentally interviewed as a man-on-the-street in NPR's election coverage...

Projection and objectification. It's what's for dinner. I suspect all we can do is try to be self-aware about it, and realize that the person we think we admire without knowing them is a person, and they have a life outside our head. And that the fan who may be uncomfortably over-fixated and sending inappropriately suggestive emails is in fact responding to a deep internal need, and not us at all. 

Which I guess comes down to treating that person with compassion. 

...especially when it's so useful for us as artists to be able to illuminate and manipulate those feelings through the medium of fiction. Which is to say, we invite readers to project into and objectify our characters. It's one of the ways we get people to care about characters.

Like most tools, it cuts both ways.

Comments

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...wait... ...you slept with David Bowie?
Silly! She is David Bowie!
William Gibson, a while back, talked at some length about what he called "mediated personalities" that covers much the same territory.

The whole thing is pretty much what has convinced me that I Don't Get Fandom, and why I avoid trying to meet famous people for the sake of meeting famous people. I don't want the chocolate of a real person in the peanut butter of my auctorial construct. If I hang out with a famous person, I have to temporarily forget that they are famous, or I get all weirded out.

I have a personal relationship with the auctorial construct of my favourite authors; we spend so much time together! In my head! But the real person, I don't know at all.
Just as long as your auctorial constructs don't mess with mine. We might have to throw down, y0.
Oh, hells, yes. I have shown my art and stories to an iota of a percentage of a micron of people in one tiny corner of the internet, and I am still an auctorial concept to one disturbing person at least.
Others' perceptions of us are wacky, indeed. Fortunately, there are those special moments when something comes back that's so bizzarre they're hilarious; those help somewhat to balance the creepy times.
As someone who has met you in person a number of times, I do think you're awesome, and that's based on my interactions with you. That's not as scary nor as unique as it sounds. I have a cheering gallery of people who have known me in person for years and who all think I'm awesome...and I have no idea why. These cults of personality just seem to happen. Don't fret too much about them.

But I understand that the projected meme-persona of a celebrity can be scary. It's worse when you realize that after you die, that imagined persona is going to go on living and causing arguments (which they love to do, because they only exist when people are thinking about them.) The personas of Heinlein and Hemingway still kick up from time to time, to rouse their fans and freak out the mundanes. An author wants to get their persona tamed before they themselves shuffle off the coil, because after that the little beastie can ruin a good reputation.
Thank you, much appreciated.
This is why blogs like yours, and Jay's, and Cat V's, and Scalzi's, and, and, and, and, and, and.....


... fucking rock.


You're that cool chick what blogs and goes climging and canoeing and like Zenyatta and loves Criminal Minds and has Cat vs. Monkey aventures and... oh yeah... writes some complicated fiction.

I am a *terrible* fanboy, I'm afraid. If I ever run into you at a con, I'd probably ask about Ace, the same way that I'd geek out about video cards with Scalzi or compare garish clothing choices with Jay.

You're a person. People can forget that when the sheen of percieved celebrity coats you like glitter... or embalms you like amber.
<3
This realization came home hard when I worked as a schlub in Hollywood, and had to deal with a lot of Big Names in small contexts.

(Pressed send instead of enter)

I think of them as public constructs.

Edited at 2011-01-28 06:09 pm (UTC)
Just had another thought, re the word persona, is that some authors do exert quite a bit of energy building public images who cater to followers rather than mere readers.

Humans are tricksy things.
I make an exception when they have been dead for over 200 years, however.

Hee. And those of us who enjoy the way you write Will Shakespeare are glad that you do. :-)

Projection is something I deal with a fair bit in my line of work -- projection and transference, familiar to all clergy and therapists! -- but I hadn't considered the extent to which authors get hit with projection, too. Though of course you do.

There have been a lot of authors whose work I've read and reread and fallen in love with, and sometimes I have to remind myself that while I might feel like I know something about the authors in question (especially if what they write is nonfiction / memoir), I don't -- I know something about the constructed persona, or the fictional character(s), they've chosen to polish and put in front of the world. It's a tough thing to remember sometimes. But there it is. :-)
I love this post so hard.

We do this in person too, not just with celebrities, to a different extent. We do this with people we work with; we only see a small part of their lives and we sort of create an identity for them that's "more whole" than the pieces we have actual knowledge about, but very little likely basis in, you know, fact.

In terms of all of us here, all on livejournal, we do it with each other even if we aren't celebrities. I'm not a celebrity, but I'm sure there are persons on and about livejournal that have an idea of the person they think I am. But we're only sharing small bits of our lives with each other.

You're sharing smaller and more frequent and more limited bits, maybe, with much larger groups of people, and it's not even necessarily a shared community (like, say, my friends list, or the social media task force I'm working on with the ABA). So the "construct" of you is more tangible and distinct, and certainly more present in your life, and likely far less accurate, than it is for folk like me who aren't famous.

I think it's generally helpful when dealing with people--big celebrities, small celebrities, people we know only from a particular context--to remember that they are whole real people that we really don't know anything about.
We all do it a bit to each other. This is true. We fill in with what we think we know and what we think we can reasonably infer.

But the construct moment that was most painful to me was when I realized that I had become this type of auctorial construct to some of my oldest friends. It was several steps out from "I fill in with what I think I know about you" to "you exist for my entertainment." And it was a lot more painful than, "X thinks I think this? But I don't, and he's known me long enough not to think so." Auctorial constructs aren't always treated like dancing bears, but there's a large amount of that involved in it. It's the line between, "Oh, pnkrokhockeymom is so funny!" and, "Be funny for me. Now. Hey! I thought you were funny! What are you doing being all serious like that? I wanted someone funny."

This doesn't just happen to fiction writers, obviously. But I think seriously asymmetric communication enables it--whether that's with music or fiction or a particular type of blogging or newscasters or God knows what.
Thank you for giving me a word for this. It is helping me clarify a lot of my thinking at the moment. Auctorial construct is so much more precise (and encompassing) than terms like "online persona" since it does (somehow) manage to expand beyond the internet.

I'm just starting out on this trip as A Public Figure, with my online fiction site having sold an anthology and my debut novel releasing in May. My immediate peers (which I would define as authors with debut novels released in the past year and the future year or so) and I talk about the seeds of perception and projection, and even directly constructing (or attempting to construct) our "online personas" with the understanding that this auctorial construction WILL happen, and is there any possible way to shape it? Do we even WANT to try and shape it? Where is the line between what I'm purposefully projecting and who I believe I am?

Sometimes it makes me feel manipulative and/or dishonest, which I don't want to be, but coming into this fannish online world of extremes and judgment I also really like the idea of knowing where the dividing line is between who I am and who people think I am.

It might be impossible, but I need language like this, like auctorial construct, as I move forward.

Side comment

It's funny: I'm mostly squicked by RPF, but there are some exceptions, and those are the ones where it's clear that the people being written about have well-defined constructs and the people doing the writing know that.

(An example that isn't an edge case is Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert: they are playing characters who happen to have their same names. An example that IS an edge case would be, say, David Bowie, or other rockstars wherein the persona has overtaken the person in the public eye.)
Good stuff.

What do you think about an author deliberately creating a fictional construct of themselves? I was just reading Gail Carriger's Locus interview where she talks about creating the character of "Gail Carriger" for conventions and appearances as part of her branding. She works on specific costuming, language, and humor in order to package herself for her fans.
I strongly suspect it's self-defeating. Fans react negatively to perceived self-promotion beyond a fairly low and straight-forward level. And most people aren't anywhere near good enough actors to play somebody more interesting than themselves for any significant period of time...especially as improv, without somebody providing the good parts in a script.
You know, I'd sort of vaguely thought about this sort of thing before. Thank you for putting it so clearly and increasing my understanding.
The problem with being famous (as you are) is that you hear about the results of people's mental filters, whereas when we talk about people we know locally it's all verbal and they don't hear about it (mostly) or else behind locks or pseudonyms in our blogs. At least, if we're polite.

Sympathies.

(Bowie, huh.... I like this rumor. Me, I prefer the Goblin King to Bowie. I'm strange that way.)

But isn't this just what most of us do most of the time? We might not gussy it up by making it all about a celeb, but most people certainly have some pretty weird ideas about most other people - their ex boyfriend, their ex boyfriend's new girlfriend, their mother, that godawful woman who runs the bookshop and who always looks drunk....

Not to mention the construct that they have about themselves.

Really, I'm amazed that any of us can communicate with anyone else, whether we know them or not. That oneself, as a quasi- public person, is the target of other people's projections shouldn't come as a surprise: you're the target of those projections within the network of family and friends as it is.
The godawful woman who runs the bookshop and who always looks drunk really did sleep with David Bowie. *g*
I think everyone is an auctorial construct in this sense, to one degree or another. It's just that for most people the construct is developed in oral transmission, and so it's harder to accidentally discover bits of it, unless one has the sort of parents who like to tell their children what they are 'really' like. What the fame does is increase the likelihood that the oral tradition will be also be transferred to/preserved in some less ephemeral medium.

The nice thing about Wikipedia, at least, is that it does, in principle, give the subject of the construct the power to review and adjust the construct, which isn't typically true of gossip.
I don't think I have my Richard Bach books here, or I'd dig one out to quote it. (If you haven't seen Richard Bach's book "Gift of Wings", his writings about flying are >>> his writings on metaphysics.) He writes about his aviation-literary heroes, like St. Exupery and Neville Shute, and how it's probably best that he hasn't met them because in person, what with the awkwardness and the realities and all, he could never get to the best part of them - that he's already had through their books.
It's good to have a word for this.

(I was deeply disturbed by the first occurrences I ran into, even innocent non-threatening ones. It was as if someone had split me into a social construct of me and the real me, and I wasn't sure who people wanted to talk to, or who they were thinking of when they heard my name. I'd never heard anyone talk about it before, either, so it was an unpleasant surprise.)
Calved off a more meditative/revelatory response to this to my own journal, but meanwhile...

The separation of self and persona, whether projected from within or without, is something I remember being aware of from a very young age. I think L.A. is pretty much a huge churning stew of opportunity to work that one out, and the permeable divide between fan and pro in SF-fandom only reinforced that. I've spent a little time on the periphery of major media fandom where the divide is sharp, and I'm not fond of it, even as I see why it's there.

I have a mirror-image puzzlement, with authors of various stripes who speak of their characters being in control of the story. Sort of reverse RPS. I don't get it, and it weirds me.
I think that last is really a combination of figurative language and the writer externalizing the creative process so as to get a better look at it. At least, that's what's happening when I say that, I think, and I say it often.

(I did, however, once hear a writer on a panel claim that everything she wrote was authentically the character's voice, because the character was a real person whom she channeled. After a moment of absolute WTF silence, the rest of the writers on the panel went on talking politely about their process.)
Yeah, but sometimes what a person sees about you in their head actually isn't that far from the real you. So it's smart not to dismiss out of hand what someone says because they are talking about an auctorial construct.
The funny part is that Ray Bradbury apparently saw the video, thought it was hilarious (he fully understood it was meant in jest), and wound up meeting Rachel Bloom. I don't know if anything romantic developed from this, however.
Well, yes. But Ray wasn't in the room when the conversation I'm referred to was happening, so to speak. *g*

Great post

I think that sometimes, if you utterly adore books, it becomes easy to imagine writers as these idealized creatures. And writers lend themselves to that by being more of a blank slate than other sorts of "celebrities" because they aren't often featured in entertainment shows and magazines.

I also think that people -- particularly kids -- who feel alone or isolated by their intellect or imaginations idealize and project traits onto the writers of their favorite books as a way to feel less alone. And, maybe, that isn't bad as long as one grows out of it.

Some things are kind of sweet at a certain age and a bit creepy in an older person. (I'd give examples but I just know I would be stomping on someone's fetish somewhere...)

Re: Great post

I definitely felt isolated as a kid. So I read "Atlas Shrugged" to be told that it was okay to be rational and good in school and an individualist, and I read Jane Austen to be reassured that nice guys can get the girl and Star Trek tie-ins because being Mr. Spock certainly would have felt like an improvement. Now it boggles my mind that I liked all three at the same time.
This is fascinating. And so very, very true. What's hardest for us all, I think, is to believe, really believe, that other people are as real, as complex, as vulnerable, strong, messed up, tired, as we are. Everyone's a one-dimensional character until you get to know them better--including people who annoy you. Who mostly aren't doing it just to get up your nose, either.

And that tendency is magnified a thousand-fold when you're talking about anyone who leads a public life, like teachers and doctors and lawyers and rock stars and actors. And writers, of course.

I run into this all the time, not as much with regard to myself, but because I am friends with people who have auctorial constructs that are very well-known.

When people find out I'm friends with those authors they rarely ask me what they are really like -- instead, they assume I am friends with the construct -- that I like the construct persona that they like (or dislike), and that is who I'm talking about if I refer to my friend.

Sometimes I just refer to "a friend of mine" instead of using someone's name to avoid having that construct enter the room, because it can really derail a conversation.
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