Friday, March 22, 2013

Controversy Doesn't Sell

The old adage, controversy sells, may work for newspapers (or did in a bygone era) but it works just the opposite for writers. Take a stand? Fans complain. And they boycott. Think of the flap our ubiquitous social media recently manufactured regarding Orson Scott Card's position on gay marriage.

Readers of all stripes, it seems, prefer their favorite authors bland - keep silent on political issues, stay mute on abortion and climate change and gun control, say little or nothing about your personal beliefs in God or NotGod. Otherwise we'll stop buying your books. (BTW, Dean Wesley Smith advises: "Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers.")

Oops. Maybe I should stop now...

But this topic is so interesting! It's interesting to me that, having enjoyed a novel by So-And-So, the moment So-And-So says something publicly that we disagree with, we get offended and no longer enjoy/want to enjoy their work. (And yes, pronoun police, I just used a plural possessive as a generic singular, deal with it.) I have to admit, I've made this same judgment (proving DWS correct in my case!).

I think there's a difference, though. I won't read someone who "blasts" my beliefs, but I'll read someone with whom I disagree. Personally, I don't mind knowing the political/social/religious positions of an author - it doesn't affect my encounter with their work. But I do get a little put out when they tell me I'm an idiot for not agreeing with them. That's offensive. I chose to de-friend a couple people on FB who just had to prove me wrong about one particular issue; they simply wouldn't allow me to agree to disagree.

Maybe I've been de-friended and don't even know it. I'm a fairly conservative follower of Jesus, after all. It's pretty clear that life begins at conception. That marriage has already been defined. That nothing in this universe makes ultimate sense without a loving God who is in all and above all. That's what I believe; it's pretty clear to me, at least. But I recognize that others disagree on one or all points.

It's weird. I'm running into/becoming friends with a lot of writers online who are not theists. Hugh Howey lists that he's an atheist on Facebook. Simon Kewin echoes a lyric with, "We are our only saviours" (he's from the UK and can't spell properly ;). Another writer, whose series I'm reading right now, indicated in an email that he is not a theist but said, after reading a story of mine, that there were themes in it that would resonate with everyone. I hope to have some great conversations with all of these friends in the future.

And with you, if you choose. But I won't cram my beliefs down your throat. I won't mock you if you disagree. I won't belittle you for sharing your beliefs with me. In fact, I'm open to dialog. The trouble is, many "progressives" are not. The sentiment is, if you're not progressive like them, then you're a hater. I don't consider myself a hater.

You know, it's funny. Some people predicted that President Obama would get some political push-back for openly supporting gay marriage last year. I predicted the opposite - that those who publicly opposed gay marriage - even if they did so with a rational voice and for valid reasons with malice toward none - would be ostracized as haters. Mr. Obama simply tested the wind, saw which way it was blowing, and set sail. But that's the nature of politics. The majority rules. And people like me are now in the minority.

My friend, Mike Duran, stated it this way [the 'we' referring to Christians]: "We’ve reached the tipping point. The liberal intelligentsia’s control of academic institutions, state-run education, the courts, the entertainment industry, and the mainstream media has become insurmountable. We may nurture a strong remnant, but be advised, we will never, ever, control the national conversation. Again. We are the minority. We are the dissidents."

And being dissidents doesn't endear us to readers. Controversy doesn't sell books.

Another friend, Kat Heckenbach, recently worried about how her reviews as a reader of fiction affected her reputation as a writer of fiction. It's an important consideration and should be discussed. But my point may be flip-flopped - how do we writers express our views in ways that won't turn off our readers? For some fans, it will come down to how the writer presents him or herself. If So-And-So is a jerk about his/her beliefs, they'll bolt. For other readers, any public statement they disagree with will be enough to turn them off.

If so, I just lost a boat load.


  1. Lyn,

    I'm honoured (or should I say "honored") to be mentioned in your post ;-)

    It took me a while to work out what the "we" in "we are the minority" meant. I presume you mean theists/believers? Or just Christians?

    In any case, while I'm clearly not part of that "we", I agree with your point that we can have different views about things and still get on and/or read each other's writings. We're all grown-ups. As you know, I've read and enjoyed some of your work even though we fundamentally disagree about religion (I see no evidence for the claim that "life begins at conception", for example, and I don't accept that marriage has been defined in any absolute way.)

    Personally I don't have a problem knowing writer's views. Yes, on the one hand you risk alienating some people, but it's equally possible another bunch of people will warm to you. I accept it's a tricky area. I don't touch upon politics or religion on my writer's blog, for example, but if anyone should happen to be interested they could see from my Twitter account what a godless heathen I am...

    BTW, "We are our only saviors" is from "Constructive Summer" by The Hold Steady. Great song, all...

  2. Great post, Lyn! And not just 'cause ya linked to mine. ;) Actually, after I wrote mine I realized there were a lot of things I left out when it comes to walking this tightrope--including all the stuff you're talking about here. So thanks!

    I agree. There is that balance. If you're cramming your beliefs down people's throats, you will lose readers. But can being someone who never, ever opens up about it do the opposite, I wonder? At the least, you have to stand up in your belief that you're not going to discuss personal beliefs publicly, eh?

    I think for the most part, readers aren't going to be terribly interested in the religious and political beliefs of the authors they read. I'm generally not, although I admit I'm pleased when I find out a favorite author is a Christian. Still, if I find out they're not--well, I'm not going to stop reading them. Neil Gaiman, for example, whom I know is a devout atheist--I am so not giving up his books no matter what :P.

    Anyway, I've had some similar thoughts burbling because of something that happened recently, and this has inspired me to go ahead and get them out in a post soon.

  3. Simon said: "We're all grown-ups."

    Sadly, though, some of us are not. Which is why I want to continue posting on this on my blog. Something recently happened in one of the writers groups I'm in that showed me just how childish people can be.

  4. Simon and Kat, thanks for commenting. Good thoughts and yes, mature dialog is often as scarce as common sense. That's why relationships are so important - even online ones. Because if I say something that seems harsh, in all likelihood, you might give me the benefit of the doubt as to my heart's intent.

    For example, I don't mean to sound harsh here in response to Simon, but the life-begins-at-conception issue is actually the most scientifically provable of my claims above. A zygote's trajectory living being. There is no debate here, no equivocation, no alternative belief. People who claim otherwise are ignoring basic biology. Sorry. I'm not debating abortion here, I'm simply stating facts as they are. The question Simon and I might then disagree on is, what defines viable/meaningful/mature (or some other qualifying adjective) life? But life itself? Sperm+egg=zygote. Done.

    (Now, the relationship between the two debaters in this instance will determine how cordial that debate is and whether our disagreements become reasons for attacking the other. I try hard to avoid attack mode, but emotional issues make that difficult for many of us. Still, my desire is to lean more toward "relationship" than being "right." Make sense?)

  5. Lyn,

    Don't worry; your reply doesn't sound harsh. But I beg to differ. I think there is certainly doubt here. No one is suggesting a single-cell isn't alive, but that doesn't mean there is a new individual there yet. Just because its trajectory is a living being doesn't mean it is a living being. It's just a cell. Just as every sperm and every ova is a living cell with the potential to become a new being. Why pick on the moment of conception?

    Just in case it doesn't come across, I write this in a spirit of cordial debate...

  6. Cordial for sure (you Brits are always polite anyway! ;)

    Not that I want to have the last word (although I do, lol) we might be reaching a point where we're talking past each other. For instance, if you can't see (not the best way to state this point but wait for the independent clause) the difference between a sperm and ova on one hand and the zygote (which is a combination of the two) on the other, then we're at an impasse. Why conception? Because every other cell in the body (presumably, given the advances in cloning in the future) is "potentially" a life source, but only at conception do we have two become one. In other words, the zygote is most assuredly not "just" a cell. All cells might have potential, but only the zygote is designed (by a creator or evolution, take your pick) to become a living, breathing, being.

    The reason many ethicists go ahead and call that cell "life" is because the trajectory toward birth is set and irrevocable (albeit, not inevitable due to spontaneous abortion - so my verbiage here may not be as precise as I want, my meaning is that zygotes *have* to become embryos then fetuses then babies whereas other single cells in our body do not - make sense?). It's a predetermined progression and I don't think it's possible to say at any one point along that path that: here is life and here is not life. This is my reasoning, at any rate, on why I think "life begins at conception" is not really debatable (though society does debate it, lol). Thanks for challenging me to exact my thoughts.

  7. A zygote has the potential to become a being, but it isn't a being. It's a cell. A pretty specialized cell, for sure, but still a cell. And the trajectory towards birth is certainly not set - many zygotes abort naturally, for example. My point is, and here we seem to agree, that it isn't possible to say at what point the growing embryo becomes "life" (by which I think you mean a separate life; it's always alive). But it's a leap from that to say we might as well pick conception. A single cell with potential doesn't seem to me to be a separate being at all. Just as a sperm needs an ova, a zygote needs the womb and the time and various other things in order to become a being.

    So when do I think "life" begins? There you have me. I don't know. It probably varies. At some point in the nine months, probably towards the start. It's a grey area, but for me that's not a problem. Life is grey areas. It seems to me nonsensical to say that the "death" of a single-cell zygote is as bad as the death of a fully-formed human, for example.

    Perhaps this comes down to the concept of the soul. I don't know, but perhaps you feel the soul comes into existence at conception, in which case I can see why you think what you do. Personally, I see no evidence for the existence of a soul so I see things differently. Interesting debate!

    Sorry, had to get the last word in...

  8. Being one of those people who has disagreed with you in the past, it might come as no surprise that I don't completely agree with you here, Lyn. I get that controversy may lead to boycotts, but I think it may also lead to more attention, which may lead to more sales. Call it the Madonna effect.

    I've noticed that many an author seems to stir up controversy when they have something new coming out. Coincidence? I doubt it. I don't believe in such coincidences. Such controversy can function as a form of promotion, as long as it doesn't backfire too badly.

    There are plenty of people in the writing world I would never have heard of if not for their loud mouths on a variety of subjects. I know them more by their vocal opinions than I do their writing!

  9. First, Simon, that's a good "last word" - and I think a fitting place to conclude this round of interactions. It seems clear that we've expressed our biases and thought processes, so the issue, like you stated, may move on to the nature of life (I don't think the death of a zygote is the equivalent of a fully formed human) and the definition of personhood (which will be close to what I mean by soul, so don't discount your belief in one just yet, lol).

    Second, thanks Richard, for jumping in. I've been frustrated by our past conversations and glad you've not taken offense as I have. You provide a cautionary tale here, in that I don't want to be known for my opinions over and above my writing. I believe in art, one's writing should reflect the heart, and not necessarily explain the heart. I do have a role as an "explainer" (the Christian term is an apologist) at times, but my fiction writing isn't the platform I choose in which to exercise that role.

  10. If it's one thing I can't stand, it's somebody who tells me to shut up for my own good (referring to the person you quoted, not you). This is probably why I'll never be traditionally pubbed. I think of historical writers who are known for their strong opinions, and I metaphorically tell the pub industry to **** off. Oh, and another point of interest: I've noticed in the Christian pub circles that it's more acceptable for male authors to stir up controversy than it is for female authors, who are generally advised "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." But, sadly, I don't live in Disney Land and think Bambi is filthy bit of propaganda. :P

  11. Lyn,

    I might take offense at first, and sputter and rant, but unless it's gets rather personal (like name-calling and flinging insults), I don't hold a grudge forever. If it makes you feel any better, I'll admit that there are PLENTY of people in the writing world I find more offensive than you.

    At times, I might not be the most tactful person, but I'm not a people person.

    Even though I've been known to be vocal about my own opinions, I do think an artist of any sort should be known for their art first, above being known for their opinions. If not, they're spending too much time promoting their opinions and not enough time promoting their art!

  12. I agree with you! I don't choose a book based on the writers beliefs.

    ( I love Asimov, D. Adams, Clark...all atheists--I still see God in their work--interestingly enough)

    Unless they are on the attack I'm not offended. I love the discussions that have opened up for me via Twitter with Atheists.

    I didn't enjoy the outcry about the statement Mr. Cathey of Chic-Fil-A made about his views on gay marriage. Why can't he hold that view!? That was his personal view. So what. I don't ask if someone is in a gay marriage before I shop their store or read their doesn't matter. I can eat in a Jewish restaurant or hire an Islamic plumber...

    Well that's my two cents! Not well written either...You'd think being such an avid reader would rub off on my writing abilities. :) I'll leave the writing up to y'all.

  13. Good points, Elizabeth. I like your twitter comment about eating at a restaurant without knowing the chef's views. What I look for is engaging writing and if it tackles touchy subjects, well, the question then becomes how well does the writer handle them while creating a story. If the novel is simply a tract for a certain position, then that's not really art, is it?


Keep it clean and positive. (And sorry about the word verification, but the spmb*ts are out in full force!)