It is so. It can. Take that from someone who spends a lot of time in the locker room with authors, and hears what they say when the public is not listening.
The locker room analogy isn’t accidental. Please consider this: being an author is much like being a professional or collegiate athlete. For the author, hours, days, months, years go into a public performance: a book, which will tend to cause people to read and react.
The read might take a few hours to a few days of the reader’s time, then she’s on to the next book. If the reader feels compelled to comment, she does. She might be knowledgeable; she might not. She might be fair; she might not. She might have understood what the author was trying to do; she might not have. But she did the equivalent of buying her ticket. She gets a seat in the stadium, from which she can watch the game. As long as she doesn’t make death threats or throw bottles or urinate in the aisle, she can react as she wishes. She can yell “you’re a bum!” She can stomp her feet, clap, gush approval, boo her lungs out. She can sit there and eat her nachos in silence. Fairness, kindness, patience are all choices she can make or not, without penalty. She’s the reader, the audience, the customer.
So imagine the author as a college football tailback. In order to perform for a total of thirty minutes before the public, 12-14 times in a year, she worked nearly every day for nine months. She lifted weights until she sagged in exhaustion. She ran sprints, miles, agility drills. Her coach tried to teach her techniques, and she tried to learn them. Some she resisted, some she embraced, and some she didn’t understand worth a damn. She studied thick playbooks with pages of diagrams that looked like a drunk, amnesiac tic tac toe game covered in cold cooked spaghetti. She watched endless hours of game film, with a high concentration on her own past errors. If she invested four hours per day for nine months, we might guess that she strained, sweated, grunted, cursed, wept, self-criticized, self-pushed, self-doubted, for something like a thousand hours of her life. That was in addition to the basics of normal life, for which she was also responsible. Whether she felt like it or not, she had to keep at it. And that’s just the summary of the off-season; in season, it might be more. This enabled her to compete with others (who did everything she did) for the right to compete against others (most of whom worked just as hard, some harder) for, at most, thirty minutes 12-14 times a year, with an audience of thousands or millions.
If she gets hit by three Neanderthals and fumbles inside her own 20-yardline, that one bit of her life might be all that millions of people remember of her thirty minutes of performance that day, into which a thousand hours of preparation poured. And if she makes one great, prescient cut and juke that busts loose a seventy-yard run, that will be the snapshot of her life the audience will retain.
And if, when booed or insufficiently applauded, she feels the urge to stand before the public and yell: “You goddamn idiots! You don’t even know what play we had on! I didn’t call that play! I had only an instant to react! The linebacker made a superhuman effort! On top of it, I was still a little rung up from the defensive tackles that landed on me forty seconds ago! Someone else blew an assignment! You don’t even know what the hell’s going on out here, or what it took me to be here and perform for you! All of y’all can go to hell!” can we blame her?
We can and we will, unfair though it is to her. Not for having the feelings, but for doing the one thing capable of making her situation worse. The performer has no say in the composition of the public, and that’s one reason not everyone is cut out to perform. The public is also the customer. The customer isn’t always right; for the most part, the customer is wrong. Unfortunately, the customer nearly always gets away with being wrong, and it’s bad form to come out and prove her wrong.
Welcome to the author’s world: a place where the best way to make a bad situation worse is to speak your mind.
Case in point: Ayelet (free pronunciation help: ah-YELL-ett) Waldman. She is a successful novelist, and this isn’t her first controversy, but it’s a lulu. If you want to read the short version with examples, go here. We should realize that this isn’t “why doesn’t anyone buy my book.” This is “how could my already successful book be left off this very select, prestigious list?” Going back to the athlete analogy, this isn’t “why am I still stuck covering kickoffs and playing target on the scout team.” This is “how can I not be first team All-Conference?”
And in that situation, Waldman did the one thing that could creatively make an unsatisfactory situation worse for herself. She took to the media to call out the people who make up the All-Novelist team for not making her a first-team pick. This isn’t going to get her what she wants. Once she did that, even the knowledgeable minority–those who were prone to factor in the thousand hours of suffering and stress that created her book–shook their heads. Tsk, tsk. Shouldn’t have done it, Ms. Waldman. And that’s those who know. The vast majority, who do not, react even less to her advantage.
Because when an author has a public tantrum, it ceases to be about her work, and becomes about the tantrum.
That’s why you never do that. Never respond to a negative review. Especially never throw a hissy fit because you are left off a high-profile list. Keep that locker-room talk in the locker room, where those around you understand. Kick a locker. Throw your gear. If you must, avoid the media. But don’t lose it in public.
The public will crucify you and desecrate your corpse. And then they will be disrespectful, and you’ll become a meme, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s infamous Dear Negative Reader blog post.