In June 2011 when I first published Blood & Ash, no-one knew me. The wonders of anonymity – I could wander out into the big, bad world and do as I pleased. That is no-longer the case. A year and a half down the line, my identity has been compromised; the line between my fiction and my reality blurred. As an author – rather than just Kate-who-wrote-a-book – I try to keep some distance between my everyday life and my online life.
We all do, because we’ve all heard horror stories of fourteen year olds who announce a birthday party on Facebook, only to have the house trashed when three hundred twenty year olds gatecrash; or individual cases like the editor who got carjacked by an irate author whose book she rejected – who found her by stalking her on Twitter. This stuff happens.
So where’s the line?
The fact is, if you’re Tom who wrote a thriller, chances are you can go on being Tom the guy down the street as well. You’ll get fans contacting you, wanting to discuss your book and your method and your life, but if they know you live in Poddington-on-the-Wold and work in the local supermarket and just happen to also be a modestly successful thriller author, it’s not the end of the world. You might still get a crazed psycho stalking you, but then on the internet that’s a chance we all take.
Romance writers suffer under a different burden; and the sexier your stuff is, the greater that burden becomes. Because there’s not only you who can be anonymous on the internet – all your fans can be, too. Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth. You’d be surprised just how forward some people are online. And – for reasons I have oft lamented and have yet to understand – people still look to a romance author’s writing to find the truth about their real life.
Now, for instance in my case, that’s entirely absurd. Yet still they do. Readers are on an eternal quest for truth, and in a world where everyone and his cat is sharing all the mundaneties of day-to-day life on the internet, they expect to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The curiosity that surrounds those writers who cleave most to their privacy knows no bounds. Elaborate conspiracy theories grow up around them and it’s not enough to tell someone something, they want proof. Give them data, give them facts – give them photographs of yourself with your cat; with your partner; with your friends and family and a dated newspaper.
Sometimes even then they won’t believe you.
It may surprise some of you to learn that Kate Aaron ain’t what’s written in my passport. I’m more open than most – as a gay woman writing erotic romances about gay men, I can afford to be. Most of my target audience have no carnal interest in women at all. But you can bet your ass if I move into ff or even (gasp!) mf fiction then I’m going to lock that down even further with an entirely new penname. Rather like Tom from Poddington-on-the-Wold, my life categorically does not reflect my fiction, and that renders me – to an extent – safe.
That doesn’t mean I was particularly happy when a few fans rooted out my personal Facebook page. I have a fanpage for a reason, after all. What once was a site where I happily posted pics of myself and my friends is now on a serious lockdown. Not because I think any of my fans are crazed lunatics – far from it – but simply because on the internet you can never tell where the fringe is to identify who lurks at it.
It doesn’t help either when you’re writing about the fringe – the edgy stuff like BDSM. I know a number of authors who have been asked the most outrageous questions about their private lives, based on assumptions taken from the things they’ve written. Darlings, this is fiction, it doesn’t all have to be first-hand. And quite frankly if you’d blanch at a stranger asking you that question in the street, don’t be so impertinent as to ask a stranger through a computer.
Within mm circles, this is something I see all the time. I get that the majority of the audience are straight women; that maybe they don’t know any gay men – or at least not well enough to ask them what *exactly* they do in the sack. I get that mm is primarily a fantasy for them, that – whatever other reasons you might want to posit why people who are not gay men read about them having sex – they get off on it. So if you’re a gay man writing mm, to your fanbase your entire existence is (on some level) a fantasy. A fantasy they’ve been primed by your own damn books to find titillating.
So what happens is this. Gay man writes mm. Because of the ridiculous move by a small but vocal minority to wheedle out ‘authenticity’ when it comes to mm authorship, you write under either your own name or a male penname. But that’s not good enough – dozens of women (and/or people they suspect are women) do the same. They want pictures. You think, ‘What the hell’ and post a snap of you and the boyf looking all loved up. Your fans melt. Your Twitter stream or Facebook page goes into meltdown with all the awwww’s and oooooh’s you get. It’s kinda nice, that validation. Growing up in a world where you are considered sexually Other more often than not, believe me I understand the incentive.
But then they expect more. They want lots of photos. Photos of you kissing; photos of you with your shirt off; photos of you snuggled up in bed. Birthdays and anniversaries and Valentines and date nights suddenly become fodder for an insatiable crowd who always want more. Suddenly you realise you’re essentially whoring out your life to your fans. Instead of your books being the fantasy, your life is the fantasy. They read the books you write because they think they’re reading about your life. Every time your characters get a little bit kinky, they think there’s chains attached to your bedstead at home.
Maybe there are; maybe there aren’t. The point is, is that anybody’s business? Do your fans own you? Do you owe them anything beyond what you’ve already given them – i.e. your books?
And what about your partner? Whether in the industry or not, how do they feel about having their privacy compromised? About seeing a flood of speculation and innuendo about your most intimate moments being broadcast all over the net? To your fans, it might all be harmless fun. Just because your MC’s a power top with a potty mouth, that doesn’t mean you are too – but that’s who they’ll expect you to be. Because what they think they ‘know’ about you is the snippets that you’ve shared about your real life, cobbled together with what they’ve read of your writing.
This kind of attention destroys relationships – it impinges on a couple’s intimacy and it engenders distrust. (“Why is that woman saying she knows you’d love me to do XYandZ to you? Is that what you really want? Why didn’t you tell me? I don’t know if I can give you what you need…”)
Suddenly a relationship both parties were thrilled to be in looks – at least from one side – like maybe it isn’t enough. Like they’re failing their partner somehow. Or – worse – you fall into the trap of letting the innuendo rise and rise until suddenly you’re sharing the sort of real stories that you haven’t even told your best friend. This is a genre of closed forums and secret groups and sometimes it’s easy to think you’re safe behind those walls, forgetting that there are seven thousand other people in that particular group; or that a screenprint is only a fingerclick away.
So what’s an author to do? You want to interact with your fans, you want to be friendly and approachable because – duh – you’re trying to sell books. The best way to do that is to keep them loyal. The best way to do that is to have them think that you’re friends. (And sometimes you genuinely will be; not everyone on the internet is a nutcase!)
It’s a fine line we tread, and we’ve each got to make our own decision how far we expose ourselves (ooo-er!) to our audiences. If you’re not comfortable with something, don’t do it. If it’s causing friction at home or impinging on your real life then don’t do it. To be honest, sometimes I’d say if you are comfortable with something, still don’t do it – Facebook check-ins, for example *shudder*. Why anyone would tell a bunch of strangers on the net where they are at any given moment is beyond me.
I think there needs to be a little bit of author pushback. Sometimes I get the impression people are railroaded into sharing more than they wanted to, and once it’s out there it’s out there forever. You can’t take it back. In a world where everything is a social network and it’s all about making contacts, there is so much pressure put on so many people to divulge things that the questioners wouldn’t ask their best friends – or dream of telling anyone about when it applies to themselves.
There’s an illusion that if you don’t constantly satisfy your fans’ insatiable hunger for stories from your real life, that they will turn against you; that they won’t buy your books and you’ll end up a poor impoverished author rather than the bestseller you were destined to be. I say illusion because it’s simply not true. Decide for yourself where your line is between your author persona and your real life, and then stick with it. If someone crosses that line you don’t need to be rude, just tell them that you prefer to keep some things private and you hope they respect that.
And readers, please, realise that no slight in meant when an author chooses not to disclose. We’ve all got families we’re trying to shield from the sometimes unrelenting gaze of a fanbase, however well meaning. It doesn’t mean we don’t love you and we aren’t grateful for every single one of you, for every last like and tweet and message and all the rest. Believe me, it leaves us deliriously happy. So happy, sometimes, that we say things that we later regret. So run an acid test on your questions and banter – if it’s not something you’d say to an acquaintance in the street, then don’t say it to us. If it’s not something you’d be happy telling all and sundry, then don’t ask us to tell you. And remember, just because it happens in our books, it doesn’t mean it happens in our bedrooms!
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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