Masters of the Controverse: Why Authors Should Speak Their Minds

Today’s post comes from frequent guest and friend of the Inkpunks, James Sutter. Enjoy!


A while back, I was having a conversation with a well-known game designer friend of mine. He was bemoaning the fact that he has to constantly hold himself back from expressing his true views online, making sure to keep his public image safe and sanitized for fear of losing his audience.

Much like political candidates, authors are often advised to carefully monitor their public faces and make sure that nothing they say could possibly offend anyone. They avoid dangerous topics like politics or social justice, hide any alternative lifestyles or eccentric behavior, and restrict their self-expression to safe, neutral viewpoints that anyone can share. (“Gosh darn it, I just can’t support putting kittens in blenders!”) After all, anyone you offend is a potential sale lost, right?

This, my friends, is bullshit.

Not only does the “never offend anyone” approach keep you from expressing yourself, but there are two big flaws in its reasoning:

It’s Boring: Not just for you, but for the reading public as well. Too many authors scrub away all their distinguishing features in an effort to be everything to everybody. The result is one more faceless writer who refuses to stick in anyone’s memory. That’s no way to get famous.

You Don’t Need Everyone: With the rise of the internet, you have access to millions of customers–but you don’t need to sell millions of copies in order to be successful. What you need to survive in this business is a devoted fan base–a select group you can count on to pick up every book you put out just because your name is on it. This is where your eccentricities–your politics, your opinions, your alternative lifestyles and pet peeves–can help you out.

In the current era of constant electronic communication, there’s very little barrier between artist and audience. We’re not just readers but fans, and we want to feel personally connected to the people who produce our favorite art. When I read up on an author or actress and find out that she supports a cause I believe in or speaks out against something I abhor, it gives me a little thrill. I want to help her out that much more because I like her as a person, not just as an author.

That feeling of connection is a huge tool in building a following. Selling yourself as edgy, or progressive, or religious, etc. may cost you some potential customers, but as I said before, casual readers aren’t nearly as important as devoted ones.

Controversial subjects draw more discussion. If you tweet exclusively about your love of fine cheeses–well, okay, some folks are going to dig that. But if you tweet about something people care deeply about–say, the vital importance of Planned Parenthood to the improvement of American society–folks are going to be much more likely to interact with you, to broadcast your views to others, and in general to raise awareness of your existence. This is true even if they don’t agree with you. As long as you engage in discussions in a respectful manner, you may find yourself with new friends on both sides of the battle lines.

Yes, sometimes people will get pissed and unfriend you. But the truth is that there willalways be someone ready to be offended by you. I’ve had folks boycott not just my books but my entire publisher because they didn’t like that I had gay characters, or because they felt that I was pushing my leftist agenda. (Which, ironically, I hadn’t intended to in the book they were referencing). These people were born to be angry. You don’t need them.

Also, pissing off the right sort of people can be a major boon. One of the proudest moments in my writing career was when media jerkface icon Glenn Beck threw a tantrum and called an anthology I was part of a symptom of the “leftist culture of death.”

“I think I get it,” I hear you saying. “If I want more fans, I should be more controversial.”

Wrong. This isn’t about being abrasive solely for the sake of attention–that’s for shock jocks and TV pundits and other assholes who will say anything, no matter how hideous or offensive, just so that someone will pay attention to them. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about coming out of the virtual closet and not feeling like you need to hide who you really are on the internet in order to succeed. I know your mom’s probably afraid that every picture you put on Facebook will be the one that costs you a swanky job in the future, but I maintain that if your internet presence reflects what you really believe, over time you’ll attract an amazing community of people who want the same things you want.

The corollary, of course, is that if you act like an asshole, you’ll attract assholes. I can’t state this loudly enough: publicity is not an excuse to be a dick. It’s also rarely effective in the literary community. If you decide to drop some prejudice bombs–perhaps the ever popular “Durr, women can’t write and should make me a sandwich”–you’re going to lose readers in droves, as well you should. (I know that I can’t bring myself to buy Orson Scott Card books anymore due to his social views.) It’s still important to think before you speak, but that shouldn’t make you afraid of speaking.

Personally, I’m way happier when I feel like I can be open and honest. If you’re friends with me on the internet, there’ll be no secret that I’m a raging social liberal: I’m pro-gay marriage (if you don’t like it, don’t get one), pro-abortion (if you don’t like it, don’t get one), an environmentalist, a feminist, queer, a filthy hippie, and a bunch of other things. I believe in letting it all hang out (sometimes literally–but that’s a story for another day). Yet every year I find myself with more friends and fans than I had the year before.

But I’m still small potatoes. For some better examples, let’s look two of my favorite bloggers.

Chuck Wendig, over at terribleminds.com, doesn’t believe in filters. The dude publishes writing advice and rants with the sort of vulgarity that would set a nun on fire, yet there’s a huge community of people who hang on his every word, knowing that, in addition to humorous new profanity, they’re going to get his honest opinion every time. And if the recent bidding war over his children’s books are any indication, that straight-shooting tactic doesn’t seem to have hurt him any with publishers. (It should also be noted that while Chuck takes the art of swearing to new heights, he’s never intentionally mean or hurtful–he knows that it’s one thing to attack ideas, another to denigrate people.)

While women unfortunately face far worse attacks when they stir up the internet trolls, that’s even more of a reason to do so. (And as we recently saw with Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, such trolling can sometimes also rally precisely the sort of folks you want to reach.) On the female side of things, one of my favorite outspoken authors is Nicola Griffith, who blogs over at asknicola.blogspot.com. For 20 years, Nicola has been unabashedly stating her mind on–and publishing novels about–issues of gender, feminism, sexuality, and more. Few things divide U.S. audiences like sexuality, yet Nicola’s still built up a tremendous following–and raised significant awareness about important issues.

Which leads us to my final note. Let’s say that you already have all the fans you need–you’re Neil Gaiman or Ursula K. Le Guin, sitting on top of a pyramid made of adoring fans, and are reading this post solely out of curiosity. You should still be speaking your mind on the internet. While I won’t go so far as to say it’s a responsibility, as authors we’re all in a position to reach people. By making a point of talking about the issues we care about, we have the potential to influence far more people than someone in a less public profession. We can be forces of change in the world, and help foster growth. By tweeting those social justice issues, or talking about sexuality in interviews, you can help raise awareness and change minds.


James L. Sutter‘s novel Death’s Heretic was ranked #3 on Barnes & Noble’s list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, and was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Podcastle, Starship Sofa, and the #1 Amazon bestsellerMachine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James is a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying game and the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, and has written numerous roleplaying game supplements. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/jameslsutter.

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  • An idea worth considering, but I’m not sure it always works. It’s been devastating to Orson Scott Card, for example. People always think they’re being righteous and sincere with their political/ideological statements, but some people end up looking like backward idiots, and you never know which kind you are until it’s too late.

    If you come out of the closet about your controversial views, you may wish to be sure you’re on the correct side of the controversy to serve your goals. Because if your personal beliefs don’t line up with the beliefs of those who like to read the kind of stuff you write, you could stand to do yourself a lot of damage.

    In general, it’s safe for SF&F writers to be outspoken about stuff on the liberal side of the political spectrum. But I’m not sure that counts as “controversy” since you’re really just preaching to your choir. Sure, you might stir up anger among people who wouldn’t read about aliens or sorcery anyway, but every nasty thing a conservative says about you just further reinforces your primary fan base’s adoration of you.

    So I’ve learned to speak out about feminism, about racism, about gay marriage, about the rights of the mentally ill. But on the few issues where I lean conservative, I have learned that it’s wisest just to keep my mouth shut.

    • This is really true! I actually was originally going to have a caveat in there that you may run into trouble if your beliefs violently conflict with those of your fan base (or the predominantly liberal internet/nerd culture). The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered if the original concept still stood–that there are enough people out there that you can afford to be genuine and outspoken, knowing that for all the people you lose, you may also gain some. Certainly, despite pissing off the liberal side, OSC seems to be doing just fine. So ultimately, it’s my hope that if you speak out, though you may lose fans in the short term, you’ll gain lasting ones in the long term–fans that feel kinship with you. And you might always change somebody’s mind.

      So you’re right–it’s definitely dangerous. But perhaps not as dangerous as people think. After all, look at all the horrible things said by both political parties in the states, and even their most outspoken pundits still have tons of supporters. :

      Anyway, good point, and thanks for the comment!

    • Earl Gendron

      There are a few Authors lately that I have picked based on their Bio instead of what I perceive the story to be based on the cover. So far this has been about 50/50. As a reader, I only read the blogs and posts of either authors I enjoy, or ones that the authors I enjoy recommend.

      As someone who loves debating anyway (I am very conservative in some issues and very liberal in others, so on occasion I just take the loosing side’s argument to continue the discussion) I like to hear what those I respect have to say about issues, whether I agree or not.

    • westnerd

      Oh, you can go *libertarian* and still have plenty of SF fans- case in point, the majority of what Baen Books publishes. It’s just social conservatism that really eats one’s fan base for SF, which makes sense if you think about it for a literature of changing circumstances.

      Personally, I consider it fortunate that Orson Scott Card’s writing went downhill when his political views solidified around “hideous arch-conservative Mormonism.” Are those things connected? I dunno, but it sure makes it easier to not read his stuff.

  • John Dewey Nakamura Remy

    Amen, Brother Sutter! you speak my heart and mind. I blogged about religion for years, and you hit on all the things that guided my approach to the internet: being open and honest, but thinking before speaking, and not being abrasive for the sake of generating controversy. I’m also of a mind that it’s our duty to speak truth.

    My goal and challenge has always been to manage the controversial discussions that I start in a manner that encourages discussion, listening, and understanding and bridge-building across the divide. Do you have any suggestions along those lines?

    • Aw geez–I’m pretty sure you’re better at that than I am, John! You tell me. 🙂

  • “To thine own self be true”

    There is wisdom in that. I can see how non-authors have trouble taking this advice in this micro-era of the internet, with employers googling their employees and looking for reasons NOT to hire them.

    • Oh, for sure! Outside of a creative industry, things get far riskier. I made the decision years ago that I never want to work in any industry that wouldn’t accept me because of my views or lifestyle… but I recognize that I’m lucky enough to have an excellent safety net, no dependents, and a career that happens to involve some of the most liberal people around. Many folks aren’t nearly so fortunate, and I sympathize with people who, for one reason or another, have to hide parts of who they are in order to survive or advance.

  • I’ll go one farther: I’d love to see more explicitly political work. My first big project was very political, so I’ve never had to think about whether I’d hide my opinions. If you really believe in the whole “literature of ideas” rap about F&SF, you’re selling yourself short by hiding your politics.

    At the end of the day, I think people worry too much about this.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post, James!

    I find one of the main barriers to blogging about controversial topics is not necessarily social ostracization (though you raise some very good points about that and whether it truly matters in the long run) but that moderating such a discussion takes a lot of energy and patience sometimes — at least for me. 🙂

    I’ve struggled with decisions about where to best place my energies, and as a consequence I don’t tend to blog as much as I want to, saving my ideas for my stories. But in this day and age, there’s definitely an expectation for authors to be out there.

    • Yeah, I think the question of how much time to spend on social media as an author is a huge one, and I really don’t think anyone knows the answer–it’s all too new. This post is really more about not being afraid to put yourself out there IF you’re the sort of person who likes to put yourself out there, but are feeling constrained. 🙂

  • You know, a point I really should have made in here is that if you put your opinions online, sometimes you’re going to be wrong, or thoughtless, or poorly phrased, and will need to eat crow publicly when somebody points it out. While this is never fun, my experience is that, rather than hurting your credibility, the ability to say “Hey, actually, I was wrong–thanks for pointing that out” can be good for your public image in its own way. And, you know, a useful life skill in general. 😛

  • Thomas B.

    I love when people are honest and blunt, offline or online. I also
    understand that people may want to protect their political, sexual and
    religious beliefs, which are very private, from the very public scrutiny
    of the internet. I also understand that being honest and blunt
    sometimes mean starting a war, whether you want it or not. At that point
    the question becomes: “do I have time for this war?”. And most often
    the answer is “no”, and “holding yourself back” just means “knowing when
    to shut up for your own sanity”. I have been, and will keep on being
    very honest and blunt, offline and online, but now I do it with full
    knowledge of the consequences. This was not always the case.

    • ThomasBeDotCom

      “sometimes means”, I guess. My English and login capabilities are not at their best.

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  • John Dewey Nakamura Remy

    Just saw this quote from Scalzi, talking about one of his controversial Whatever posts, in a New York Times article on his Redshirts:

    The post generated hundreds of angry responses, with some readers pledging never to buy his books again. “My response is always the same,” he said, and then stated his response in language that cannot be printed in a family newspaper, adding, “I will not let my sales figures dictate what I say on the blog, because the blog is what I want to say.”