Last week I stumbled across a Twitter conversation regarding a book reviewer who, as a result of a changed review, was receiving death threats from members of an author's fan-base. To make a long story short, the reviewer had changed her review from a four-star to a one-star based on circumstances external to the book itself. The author's fans protested, stating a review should focus specifically on the book and not one's personal opinion of the author. The author in this case is rather well known: she's a New York Times bestseller and has had at least one book adapted into a movie. To summarize, the author's husband responded inappropriately to a negative review while the author complained about her NYT status, being that she was #2 rather than #1. All this combined prompted a reviewer who had initially given the author a four star review to lower her rating. She was turned off by the author's behavior, as well as the author's reaction to her husband's response to criticism.
The backlash the reviewer received for her rating downgrade was fervent, including, as I mentioned, at least one death threat. The reviewer herself was honest when she edited her review; she stated that the new rating reflected her opinion of the author herself. The majority of the responses I read were to the tune of, "A book review shouldn't be about the author; it should be about the story!"
And to this, I say, "Yes, it should. Ideally, it should."
The last time I checked, though, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world where Mission Impossible III tanked because Tom Cruise was regarded as a putz. We live in a world where I will never again pay to see a Mel Gibson movie, no matter how good it looks. We live in a world where private is public, and consumers are given a glimpse at more than just the product they're buying. We live in a world where employees' Facebook pages are studied by their employers. Where, if a customer sees a worker they identify with the company doing something they deem inappropriate, the employee can be written up. Why? Because the employee, on or off the clock, represents the company. This was the case with me when I worked as a bank teller. If I was spied by a customer who knew me -- and many of them did -- I was to be on my best behavior, no matter the circumstance. Why? Because I was the bank to that customer.
Is this fair? Perhaps not. It is, however, the cost of doing business. And it applies to everyone.
You see, when an author steps into the public realm beyond the books he or she puts out for publication, everything that author does is subject to scrutiny. And consumers are allowed to include the author's behavior and public persona when determining the value of their product. Public people don't have the luxury of not being a part of the equation when it comes to projects that have their name on it, especially when they are public by choice.
Unfortunately, the option of choice isn't so much an option in a media-driven world where everything is connected. JD Salinger today would have to have a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page. Sure, authors can publish without becoming public figures, but if you want to sell copies, it's good to be accessible to readers. And you have to be careful of what you say. How what you say can be construed by readers. You have to be prepared for possible backlash. And yes, if a reader has an unfavorable opinion about you, they are allowed to take that unfavorable opinion with them into reading whatever work you have recently produced. Success and fame doesn't make you immune, either. In fact, it goes the other way.
For instance, I have made leftist-liberal statements on Twitter. I have outed myself elsewhere as an atheist, and I'm doing it here again. All of this is done with the knowledge that it might influence the way readers respond to my work. If I want to be personable, that means occasionally being personal. That's a risk I'm willing to take, because I'm not ashamed of who I am. If I say something stupid, that's on me. I can't and don't expect a reader to suddenly forget something about me that they don't like when drafting a review.
In the same vein, I've read work I hated for any number of reasons, but my opinion of the work itself has shifted favorably after a discussion with the author. To clarify: I don't magically think the story is Shakespeare, but respect for the creator can do wonders. It can turn a negative reading experience into something else entirely.
Our world is not objective. Everything is subject to a person's views. We are encouraged to quantify all the data at our disposal. If an author wants their work to be judged solely on the merits of the work, they need to watch their behavior in the workplace. They represent their brand; there's no getting around that. And those who argue a book should be judged based off its content...you're right. In a perfect world. But that's not the world we live in, so we don't get to play by its rules. We have to play the hand we're dealt.
We have to realize we're always on the clock, even when we're not. We're always the face of our work, which means it's on us to make sure we're not caught drooling.