I ran across the attached video – Harlan Ellison weighs in on an interesting question: should authors hate readers? That question led to more questions and so I started to write. There are many prevailing opinions about this topic, but Harlan Ellison makes an interesting case for hating or despising his readers. Take a look and then let’s discuss:
“I am an adversary to my fans,” Ellison declares. ” I’m not there to make them feel good … I want my work to leave them with some with some feeling that they have been through an experience.” Huh.
Some of that, you have to take with a grain of salt. All I can say for Harlan Ellison is thank the Good Lord he died before he could be cancelled. His life, and the public’s patience for his bad behavior, came to an end about the same time. ‘Rock star’ authors are rarely prepared for the moment when the music stops.
But the question remains – should authors ‘hate’ their readers? First, we need to ask – what does ‘hating your readers’ accomplish? Does it help you write so that they feel something? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then I can understand why you would feel this reaction was necessary. But I would invite you to be curious about that conclusion – why would you have to ‘hate’ or despise your readers? What kind of art could you create if you loved them, instead?
But *must* you love your readers in order to write? Not necessarily. I’ve written about my ‘ideal reader’ but I don’t know that I love or hate them. If I’m being honest, I want to relate to my readers – no specific emotion required.
What does that mean? You’re a human being living at one of the most difficult, stressful points in human history. That sucks. My basic response is ‘respect’ as an emotion, and ’empathy’ as a response. Your pain makes me feel pain. I want to help – for your pain go away for a while – to get your mind off of stuff. But I’m not in charge of the universe. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of bad stuff happening that neither of us are in control over.
The best way to describe my situation is ’emotional emergency room doctor’ – I care, but I remain detached. You might not get better, you might not listen to me. It’s not in my power take away the bad stuff happening in your life. We both have to live with unpleasant outcomes.
Does that make sense? Are you still there?
That detachment might sound callous to some, but allows me to remain focused on survival versus being overwhelmed. It lets me keep something in the emotional gas tank for the moment when yet another horrific human tragedy arrives – mass shootings, wars, bombings, natural disasters – and there’s nothing to do but keep calm and carry on.
So that’s my personal feelings – but how does that impact the work? I approach the work with intention and purpose. If this is something that can make you feel better, than it needs to be the something that will make you feel better. That’s what you deserve, that’s what you’re trusting me to provide. I may not be the best writer, but I want you to feel like I appreciate and respect your trust, and you as a human being.
Some people will take that respect and trust and use it poorly – I can’t stop that. Any more than an ER doctor can prevent their patients from getting shot walking out the front door of the hospital. That’s the horrible risk we all take giving a piece of ourselves to another human being – those pieces might end up in the garbage. Even so, that some of my work and energy gets wasted isn’t bad – it means I have something of myself I can freely give.
Circling back to the original question. When Harlan Ellison weighs in and we ask, should authors hate their readers? The answer, based on the evidence, is no. Ellison was an edge case. He lived at a time where you could punch your way to success. Not so, today. Not if you want to do your best work. May you respect your readers, and treat them with the same kind of trust you expect from them.