Authors, do you have expectations of privacy?

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“When I first heard yesterday that Elena Ferrante’s legal name may have been revealed, I thought it was because she died. This thought entered my sleepy head in part because I misinterpreted a friend’s tweet on the matter, but also because I couldn’t immediately imagine under what other circumstances that information would come to light. Ferrante is internationally beloved for her novels, especially the Neapolitan series; while I knew some people were unimpressed by her work, I’d heard of no one who wanted to hurt her. Outing her or doxxing her or whatever you might prefer to call it, was so clear and unnecessary a violation that I still can’t see it as anything other than an attempt to do her harm.” – Charlotte Shane in “The Sexist Big Reveal” in “New Republic”

Salinger, Pynchon, Lee, Watterson, and Rowling are among the widely known authors who have guarded their privacy carefully, although their methods have differed. Needless to say, when you have money and are famous, numerous people will seek you out for a variety of reasons, so living at a publicized address on a regular neighborhood street might be out of the question even if that’s the lifestyle you prefer.

Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym, has been more private than most because her real name has never been divulged–until now if the information about her is correct. The writer who tracked her down and told the world her name has invaded privacy for that appear to be sexist reasons. Her trauma may well be immense, especially if she carries out her promise (made years ago) that she would stop publishing if her real name was revealed.

Author Platforms

Wikipedia photo.

Wikipedia photo.

New authors, especially those without major publishing deals and the publicity that comes with them, often approach privacy much differently than those who have achieved popular appeal and critical acclaim. We’re told to establish a platform. In many ways, this platform is who we are and what our specialties are. As for who we are, we’re encouraged to interact with prospective readers on blogs and the social media. Quite often, this means saying how and where we grew up, what kinds of jobs we’ve had, notes about our hobbies and family, and status updates about the slings and arrows of everyday life.

As for our specialties, if we write non-fiction, then we’re asked to establish our credibility in certain fields so that we have potential for article-writing assignments, subject-matter-related interviews, and even questions from the press about issues we might have the credentials to address. The same might occur in fiction if we have expertise in, say, certain areas of history, social issues, police or legal backgrounds, etc. Otherwise, our platform tells prospective readers the kinds of books we like to write and perhaps a little bit about our approach. This establishes us in the minds of prospective readers has an author in the genres they like to read.

Do we say too much?

When invasion of privacy cases reach the courts, one question that’s often asked is, “Did the individual involved have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area where the alleged invasion of privacy occurred?”

Generally, one doesn’t expect privacy in public areas including one’s own yard that’s visible from the street. The whole business of camera-equipped drones and even satellites is complicating this inasmuch as both of them are capable of producing photographs of people in private backyards that aren’t visible except by air. Conversely, one does expect privacy within their own homes, especially when windows and curtains are kept closed.

Most of us who have talked about ourselves on the Internet and/or in the print media about our experiences and goals as we try to build our author platforms are unlikely to go to court five or ten years later and sue somebody for repeating what we said to the public in a Facebook status update, blog, or interview.

Yet, I often wonder if we say too much. For one thing, we’re competing with famous authors who seldom blab about their daily lives on Facebook. You don’t go to Rowling’s Facebook page and see her posting something about dropping a carton of eggs on her PC keyboard or going to the store for a new dress and not finding anything that fits. Unlike Rowling and others who are widely known, the public is NOT actively trying to find out more about us; also, we don’t have hundreds of events a year to publicize. So, what are we going to say on Facebook and our blogs if we don’t talk about ourselves?

And then, what happens if we become bestselling authors? We’ve pretty much given away the farm on Facebook and blogs if every scrap about our private lives is in print or on line somewhere. Not that we’ve said everything. Even so, do you want a rant you published on your blog 20 years ago on a bad day to be pulled out by critics and “proven” to be the gist of the plot for your latest novel? Probably not.

If our names become household names after we’ve given away the farm while paying our dues and becoming better writers and better known writers, do we have any expectations of privacy once we’re trying to maintain some semblance of a private life? Yes, but it’s going to be more difficult.

The public, and this includes the clown who outed Elena Ferrante, seems to believe that it has a right to know everything about well-known authors, movie stars, and others who are to varying extents in the public eye. Some readers believe an individual’s right to privacy ends the minute they publish a book or star in a film or TV show. Most of us need not lose a lot of sleep about being followed by voyeuristic fans and paparazzi any more than we need to worry about how our lives would change if we suddenly won a $50 million lottery prize.

For all of us who write, privacy is a balancing act. Since bestselling authors don’t write about their plumbing backing up on Monday, burning the steaks on Tuesday, feeling bumbed out about Presidential campaign ads on Wednesday, etc., the fact that newer and/or less widely known authors often do this draws a line between big time writing success and lesser known or unknown authors.  That is, to become known, we’re often told we must to the very things a well-known author would never do, and that ends us making us look like amateurs.

On the other hand, we can’t say “buy my book” every day in our blogs and Facebook updates. So, how do we engage with prospective readers? While all of us don’t say everything about our private lives, many of us probably end up saying too much. While we may not want to the privacy of an Elena Ferrante or a Jo Rowling, we might wake up one day and want more privacy than we’ve ended up with.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories” (paperback, audio book, e-book, and Italian/Spanish editions) and “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

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4 responses

  1. Until Jeff died, I always blogged with the idea of privacy in mind, but grief blew me so wide open, my angst spilled all over the internet. I still am careful about what I say. Until the trip, I never let anyone know where I was, and even then, most mentions were after the fact. I am still careful not to say anything controversial on line, such as my feelings about politicians and other tamed creatures. If you say you don’t care for one candidate or the other, only half the world hates you. If you mention you don’t care for a certain type of beloved pet, then the whole world hates you.

    I do think nowadays, though, that a secretive author is sort of cheating. For many people, the interaction with a favorite author, even if only following the tweets, instagram photos, and status updates on FB their publicist posts, is part of the package. And why not? With the millions of books available and the exorbitant rates so many publishers charge for the books, why shouldn’t people expect a bit extra for their money? It’s not necessarily the way I would have chosen, but it is the way the world works. If books were organic, separate from the author, then yes, privacy at all costs. But if the author is part of the platform, even when she uses a pseudonym, then total privacy seems like a breech of good faith.

    • We have opposite views on this. I think the reader is entitled to the book and very little else. This is not to say that knowing more isn’t fun, and in that way, it does become part of the package. I’m obviously not as privacy oriented as some because I’ve said a lot on line about what I think, usually avoiding politics. My stories are very much tied to my life’s experiences, so it’s hard to talk about the stories without saying something about what one was a part of. Otherwise, I might have been more circumspect.

      If we choose to be more open, that’s certainly our prerogative. I tend to hide my feelings more than most, so to know about how I feel, the answer is more in my fiction than in my blog posts. In general, I don’t think book prices are out of line. They seem so sometimes because indie authors are forced to sell books at such a pittance we hardly earn enough to pay the bills. One can hardly earn anything selling e-books for 99 cents. So naturally, the higher priced mainstream author’s Kindle book will look over priced. I don’t think it is. My view, to be sure.

      Oh well, to each, their own.