Thursday, September 04, 2008

Behaviour Unbecoming

As you may or may not be aware, Stephenie Meyer, author of the famous (or infamous) Twilight series, has recently issued a statement in the wake of an inexcusable leak of a portion of her current work in process, Midnight Sun. You can read Meyer’s statement here, but in a nutshell, she’s so frustrated over this betrayal she’s packing it up and going home.


Except. Not okay. And here’s why.

First of all, I admire Stephenie Meyer very much. With Twilight, she accomplished something that very few writers can stake claim to: as a first time novelist, she wrote a very entertaining story that gained the adoration of thousands, the attention of the national media, and launched what will hopefully be a long and successful career in the publishing industry. She deserves a lot of credit and respect for her hard work and her talent.

No doubt or debate, it is beyond heinous that some idiot thought to make him or herself bigger than they deserve by leaking intellectual property that he/she had been entrusted with. That person deserves to be punished to the farthest extent that the law allows. If he or she is an employee for Meyer’s agent or publishing house, Meyer would not be out of line to expect that this person not only lose his/her job, but that he/she be required to make a public apology and for evermore be blackballed from any creative industry. No question, she has been violated, and she has every right to be angry and hurt.

However, it is in such an unfortunate scenario where the line between amateur and professional becomes clear. And this is Meyer’s mistake: she seems unable to make the jump from amateur artist to professional writer.

Before anyone can argue, I know that, technically, she is a professional writer. She has made money from the act of writing, which puts her in the professional as opposed to amateur column. But it takes more than a paycheck to make someone a professional. And I think Meyer’s reaction to this situation demonstrates why.

Because Meyer’s reaction punishes no one but her fans, and instead of generating sympathy for the injury she has received, it makes her look like a diva throwing a temper tantrum. Professionals don’t throw temper tantrums.

Ultimately, I think Meyer has hurt feelings over the negative reception of Breaking Dawn. She was lauded. She was the next coming of JK Rowling. She was a media darling, and fans lined up to see her and to buy her book. Of course her last book would be an unqualified success. Except, it wasn’t. How does one process such a disappointment? She’d hit the summit only to discover what every famous person in the world has learned at some point or another – you are only as good as your last movie/TV show/book/Perez Hilton blog entry.

But because she hasn’t truly gone professional, Meyer’s not able to recover from this hugely public ego bruising. Instead of listening to her dissenters with an open mind, taking a second look at her story to see if maybe they have some valid points and then working to make herself better, she’s decided to stop playing altogether. This unfortunate leak simply gives her an opportunity to try to save face, but in the background, I’m hearing faint strains of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms…”

Because in all of the backlash I’ve read about Breaking Dawn and Meyer’s subsequent reactions, not once have I read where she allows that maybe the thousands of dissenters have a point. She chalks up the very vocal disappointment to the “can’t please ‘em all” phenomenon. Granted, given that her hardcore fans would support her at the top of their lungs if she wrote 700 pages of telephone listings, it’s not surprising that she believes that her latest offering is, indeed, just fine the way it is, and it’s simply a matter of personal taste that so many people don’t like it. But if just as many people are crying foul as are having orgasms, you have to wonder if the fish hasn’t gone a bit off somewhere.

Some…okay, many…defend Meyer’s decision to cease writing Midnight Sun by claiming that Meyer owes no-one anything. She’s an artiste, and if she chooses to share her talents with the masses, we are blessed. If not, we should beat our breasts in despair and lavish praise infinitely until she deigns to allow us to buy her latest book.

I suppose this owes-us-nothing viewpoint might apply in the case of an unfinished work such as Midnight Sun. To this I would argue that with her decision to cease and desist with MS, she's at the very least guilty of severe teasing by openly promising the book and even sharing parts of it, inciting excitement for its imminent release only to change her mind, good reason or not. I can only imagine the rioting that would have gripped the world had JK Rowling decided to stop after HP6 because she got tired of fighting the leaks.

But those who believe that a writer owes nothing to his or her fans are misguided. A published writer makes a deal with a reader: you buy my book, and I will entertain you by telling you the best story I am able. It’s a business transaction, no different than negotiating a $40 cab fare to the airport and then expecting the cabbie to drive you there.

When Meyer decided to publish her story, she entered into that unspoken contract. Assuming one has bought all four of the Twilight books as they came out in hardback, a true Meyer fan has invested anything up to $80 plus on her books, not to mention countless hours of time reading the story. Meyer isn’t a charitable organization. She has been amply compensated for the gift she has bestowed upon the world. In turn, she’s expected to tell the best story she is able to tell. Whether she’s done this or not is a whole other blog entry.

Thing is, the reader is taking the riskier half of this proposition because once she has ponied over the cash, there is no guarantee that the book she’s purchased will deliver on the promise. Most readers understand the implied gamble of buying a book and are willing to take the risk because they know that liking or not liking a story includes a healthy dose of their own personal preferences and is out of the writer's hands. They understand that they have to do some of the work. But not all of it.

A professional writer has to understand that fans feel personally injured when they perceive that the pact they’ve made – I’ll buy your book and you will entertain me – has been violated. Since the reader cannot get her time nor, most likely, her money back, she feels entitled to express her disappointment. Loudly. And many do. Publishing in the twenty-first century is an interactive process. A writer has plenty of feedback to let her know what people liked and what they didn’t like. Sifting through the fluff and vitriol in order to find the gems that might be worth listening to is an art if not an outright act of masochism, to be sure.

As hard as it probably is to read bad reviews, I don't know that readers have any other way to express their opinions. Despite those who encourage returning a book that has proven disappointing, there is something ethically questionable about the practice of consuming a book and then demanding money back if you didn’t like it. I can’t imagine restaurants would accept the practice of patrons consuming a pricey dish, then insisting on a refund because when it was all finished, they didn’t like it so much. Best you can hope for is the chance to tell the chef how displeased you are. You can’t un-read a book just like you can't un-eat food. Sure, the bookstore can resell your returned copy if it is in saleable condition. But the whole thing reeks of the same underhandedness as wearing a prom dress and tucking the tags out of sight, then returning it to the store on Monday. I don't condone it, but I understand the frustration that might drive readers to take such action.

And so by taking her ball and going home, Meyer goes from being a person honestly wronged to a whiny victim. If she wanted to generate sympathy, she’d take this setback on the chin. For her fans’ sake, she’d work through her justifiable anger and frustration, refusing to let the scumbags keep her down. She’d soldier on and emerge a hero, one who persevered through the hard times rather than one who gave up and flounced away, wounded.

Another side affect of Meyer’s decision may or may not have occurred to her. I saw Midnight Sun as a chance for Meyer to redeem the Twilight series in my eyes. After reading the trainwreck that was Breaking Dawn, I had chalked up even my favorite book in the series – Twilight – as a tragic loss because my ignorant bliss of future happenings is long gone. Never again can I reread Twilight without knowing how off the rails it all would go. I’d hoped that starting fresh, via Edward’s point of view, I could maybe at least salvage Twilight as a favorite read and just pretend that everything after that never happened. I’d even resolved myself to the distasteful idea of buying another Meyer hardback after I’d already been scammed out of the cost of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn and swearing on a stack of bibles I’d never be so stupid again. Guess my money and my self-respect are now safe.

The only question I have is whether or not to go see the Twilight movie. I’d been so excited for it to arrive in November. In fact, Twilight was the one bright spot to get me through the dark tunnel that was WB’s cruel Harry Potter Six bait and switch. But now, I feel like if I see the movie, I’m doing the equivalent of a parent who buys the candy bar when their two year old lays down in the grocery store aisle and starts kicking and screaming at the top of his lungs. How can I support the pocketbook of a writer who I’ve lost a great deal of respect for? And as disappointed as I was in Breaking Dawn, it wasn’t until this Midnight Sun debacle that my respect for Meyer as a writer diminished.

I may not have liked the story she ultimately told, but at least I admired Meyer for telling it. Now she’s decided not to tell anyone anything anymore.


Princeton McKinney said...

Yay for you!! You said this exactly as I would. I have already said elsewhere that Ms. Meyer should get over her hissy fit and be as loyal to her readers, who put her where she is today, are to her. Yes, it's an unfortunate situation (life's not fair) and she should handle it like an adult. Thank you.

writtenwyrdd said...

well said! I have thought Meyers needed to act professional and that failing to do so will only hurt her in the long run. But you are right: it does hurt the fans, too. She's a role model for the teens who adore her writing, and that's a responsibility that comes with the fame she garnered with the books' success.

Mari said...

Welcome back. :-)