Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The other F-word

My editor just sent me a packet containing what most authors call fan mail. I have always made a point of calling it "reader mail."

The word "fan" is, of course, short for "fanatic," which Merriam-Webster defines as "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion." That's why I find it off-putting when an author makes casual references to her fans or her fan letters, as though everyone who reads her books and especially those who write letters is excessively enthusiastic about the author and her entire body of work. Even if that's the case, it seems immodest of the author to call attention to it.

It may strike longtime NRJW readers as a bit strange that this normally unabashed hyperbolist would object to playing fast and loose with a little word like fan. But since the publication of my first novel I have scrupulously avoided using the term to describe the people who like my books. Sure, I want my books to get the exposure I think they deserve. I want people to understand and to enjoy reading my work. But I'm uncomfortable with talk about "fans" because to tell you the truth, I'm as tempted as any other author to climb up onto the pedestal some of my readers have prepared for me--and I don't want to want that. I think far too much of myself as it is.

Much is made over writers' "fragile" feelings, but the fact is that we tend to have uncommonly large egos. After all, it requires no small amount of self-confidence to submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher in the hope of having your words read by the wider world. Show me a writer seeking publication and I'll show you someone who believes what she has to say is so important that all the world should have the opportunity to read it.

It's one thing for readers to identify themselves as fans. But when an author refers to the people who buy her books, I'd rather hear the neutral description, "my readers," and not the ego-plumping "my fans."

Am I overly sensitive on this subject? I imagine a lot of authors, in particular, will think so. Go ahead and blast me in the Comments; this might turn out to be an interesting discussion.

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Susan Kaye said...

I have to say you are very wise in this. I have a certain "fan" base, a lot of work online, and name recognition in my chosen niche. I will guarantee you that no matter how insignificant you think your pedestal, when those who have previously praised you say things that aren't as glowing as they were last week, the fall can be devastating.

Years ago, my pedestal was kicked out from under me by some unsatisfied readers, and after a particularly rough week, I was ready to pack it all in and learn to hook rugs. I reasoned that there was no need for me to work like a dog, to produce good stories when any jumped-up "fan" with a modem could crush me like a bug. Then I got real decided the fault was mine.

I like the ego strokes and I knew I had to get tough. I still feel it when someone may phrase something in a graceless manner, but I've also learned that the reader/writer relationship is symbiotic, and good for both me the host and the ...

What did I say earlier about graceless?

Good post, Brenda.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Fan...I'm one of your, fan, fan...ROFLOL...ha...and you can't stop me!


Neal said...

I've never thought of it from this point of view before. You're absolutely right, of course. It would be fine for me to describe myself as a fan of something, because that's my own take on my own devotion to that thing, but it's quite another thing if the person who's the object of that devotion refers to their own fans. It borders on arrogance. In their defence, of course, the true origins of the word have rather been lost, and I suspect most people these days see a "fan" as being a much less extreme thing.

TrudyJ said...

I totally agree with you. I don't think I have any actual fans myself, but if I had, I wouldn't call them that. It sounds embarassing. I am, say, a fan(atic) of Hugh Laurie, and I'd be horrified to think someone I'd never met was feeling that way about ME.

"Readers" is much better.

Brenda Coulter said...

Bonnie, you and my sister are serious threats to my modesty. Yes, all right, I think of you two as fans. Nobody else, though.

Susan, Neal, and Trudy, I appreciate your comments. I was sure a bunch of people would jump in to tell me not to take it so seriously, it's just a figure of speech.