writing rengeek magpie mind

August 2014

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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

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.
I think you're right. It may be that the particular flavor of litigation I practice (with lots of compartmentalized and assymetrical communication) might lend itself to this phenomenon in a way, because I've experienced exactly that sort of demand previously. But lawyering is performative too, in many aspects, so that could be why.

I certainly didn't mean to imply that it's the same. Just similar.
I wouldn't be surprised if the performative aspect of lawyering is involved. I also wouldn't be surprised if lawyers, like doctors and authors, are in a "high preconception" category of professions: where people just start with higher levels of wacky expectation of the person.
I agree that fictionalization mediates many, possibly essentially all, human relationships. Just listen to people's break-up stories to see examples! Or compare parents and children talking about long-ago events.

I'm pretty sure it's inherent in the hardware; the same hardware that gives us enough empathy to survive in a tribe (accepting that research for the sake of discussion, as has already been mentioned). Empathizing with people is, I strongly suspect, tightly bound up with fictionalizing them.

Which is not to say that it isn't often a problem, and at extreme levels can be quite pathological. I've caught the edges now and then myself, and watched friends become nano- and even micro-celebrities. (If David Bowie is a full-fledged celebrity, does that make Obama about a deci-celebrity? And by "micro" maybe we get to Neil Gaiman?) Must be really weird for that to intrude into your life reasonably frequently.

And I agree with mrissa that there's some kind of line there, where the real human contact gets lost in excessive fictionalization.
I suggest a logarithmic scale for celebrity, starting at 1 for people who are not celebrities at all, and therefore know and are known to the 150 people that anthropologists tell us we can comfortably hold in our heads. People who are known to 1500 people would be at 2, those who are known to 15,000 would be 3, and so on. So, a local hero would be a 2, a typical author would be 3 or so, Neil Gaiman would be, what, a five? Barack Obama would be a seven? People ambitious to be eights will have to wait for the population to make up the numbers, or for the saucer people to arrive.

I don't know what use this scale is, but I'm sure that someone will think of something.
That's a very useful scale.
A log scale is clearly the way to go for this.

The definition strictly in terms of "known to" isn't right, though; some people get more fictionalized among 150 people than others, even among largely the SAME 150.
Well, I'm using "known" in the loosest sense. It would get a bit tricky to determine just how fictional one's representation is in other people's heads. Say, you know their name, face, profession, and some idea of their oeuvre, be it books, movies, or blog.
Or celebrity gossip column-inches.
I think the big levels of difference are quite close to being accounted for by sheer numbers, yes.

I'm just more interested in the differences that AREN'T, all down at the low end.

But an objective measurement is quite useful, and a good starting point.
"We do this with people we work with; we only see a small part of their lives"

Indeed. Another example: when you see a teacher outside of school.
I'm having issues with the small-scale stuff in my life. I opened a restaurant, and so I talk to a lot of people, and a lot of my social life happens while I'm at work, and now a lot of people think they know me. It's really weird.