Imprisoned by your fans

by Tess Gerritsen

The amazingly multi-talented Steve Martin (actor/writer/comedian/musician) doesn’t need me to leap to his defense.  But that’s what I felt like doing, claws bared, when I read this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago:

In the history of intellectual chatter, the events of Nov. 29, 2010, at the 92nd Street Y will be archived under disaster. Or comedy.

That night, a conversation betweenSteve Martin, the writer and actor, and Deborah Solomon, who writes a weekly interview column for The New York Times Magazine, resulted in the Y’s sending out a next-day apology, along with a promise of a refund.

Mr. Martin, in Miami for a book event, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that Ms. Solomon “is an outstanding interviewer,” adding that “we have appeared together before in Washington, D.C., in a similar circumstance to great success.”

But Sol Adler, the Y’s executive director, saw it differently. “We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y,” he wrote in an e-mail to ticket holders. “We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.”

 What was Steve’s big mistake that night?  What terrible misbehavior did he engage in to so enrage his fans? Simply this: he had the audacity to be himself and talk about his latest book — which is about art.  The audience came expecting to hear the wild and crazy guy they knew from his film and TV career.  They wanted to hear tales of glitz and glamor and movie stars. They wanted their trained monkey.  They didn’t want the Steve Martin who talks about art, which is what he is clearly passionate about, and what his book is about.  

When he didn’t deliver exactly what they expected, this audience was so disappointed, so incensed, that they pitched a tantrum worthy of spoiled brats and demanded their money back.

Now, if this were an audience who paid big bucks to hear Lady Gaga sing in concert, and instead had to watch her read the Manhattan phone book in a monotone, I could understand their disappointment.  When you pay for music, you expect music.  When you pay for dinner, you expect food.

This audience came to hear an interview with Steve Martin, and they got an interview.  But the man is known to have many facets; he is not just a wild and crazy guy, but an author who wanted to talk about his latest book.  A book about a serious topic.  Over the years, through his comedic movies, Steve Martin has been branded as a funny guy.  But that branding has locked him into such a tight cage that if he dares step one foot out of that cage, the public cracks their bullwhip to drive the prisoner back to where he belongs.  In the cage for wild and crazy movie stars.   

This, fellow authors, is the downside of branding.  Every time you write a book that reinforces your brand, you have welded in another bar of your cage.  Once that cage is locked and sealed, you’re going to have a hard time getting out of the thing again.  

Only a few authors have been able to do it successfully.  John Grisham has managed the feat, occasionally releasing a sentimental novel between his usual legal thrillers.  Stephen King has escaped branding, too, partly because he has regularly produced non-horror, literary fiction throughout his career.  

For most of us, though — writers who aren’t as prolific as King, or who don’t wield the clout of Grisham — a large part of our success is tied up in branding ourselves.  We start off wanting readers to think of us as the crime thriller or romance go-to gal.  It’s only later, when we get a hankering to try something else, or when our chosen genre starts to lose its audience, that we realize that being branded isn’t always such a good thing.

My own brand has skittered around through my career.  First I wrote romantic thrillers, then medical thrillers, then science thrillers, then crime thrillers.  With an historical thriller thrown in.  The one part of the brand that’s stayed constant is the “thriller” part, and that’s allowed me a bit of leeway.  Readers will forgive you for moving between sub-genres.  But try making a really big leap — say, from serial killer novel to sweet sentimental novel — and your audience is going to howl. The way they howled at Steve Martin.

If you truly want to slip out of that cage, you may have to do it in disguise with a pseudonym. Which means starting over again as a newbie writer trying to find your first audience.  Or you’ll have to find an understanding publisher.  Or you’ll have to publish it yourself as an E-book, an option that more and more authors seem to be leaning toward.

Good luck to you.  May you escape the wrath of fans who’ll never forgive you for craving a little variety in your art.   


39 thoughts on “Imprisoned by your fans

  1. Jim Winter

    That concept was at the center of CARRIE, Stephen King's first novel. Carrie wasn't a writer or a singer. She was the outcast. And when she dared to step outside that role, disaster happened, but the consequences of people's rigid expectations were deadly. (King certainly understands rage and wish fulfillment and what a horrible combination they make.)

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Some members of an audience were misinformed, ignorant, and complained…so the entire audience, no, all fans don't allow an author outside his/her "cage" of branding? I don't accept this premise.
    Somebody complained so everyone got a gift certificate? What have we come to? This culture allows one person to complain about Christmas and suddenly a town can't have a nativity scene.
    And no, I don't think the fans are to blame for an author's "cage". The finger is pointed directly and correctly at the publishers.

  3. tess gerritsen

    it actually was more than a few members of the audience. One of the Y spokespeople said:

    β€œWe heard from our audience members, who were vocal about their admiration for Steve Martin and their displeasure with the program, at the event, and afterward by e-mail and by phone,”

  4. Karen in Ohio

    This saddens me, on so many levels.

    Did you know Steve Martin recently wrote a children's book? I bought a copy for my grandson at the same author event where I met JT this fall. Martin himself was not at the event (wouldn't that have been fun!), but the illustrator lives in Cincinnati, and he was there signing books. (I'm collecting signed children's books for my grandson, who is nearly six, and is reading at a high school level already. I think he has a shot at appreciating them.)

    But I digress. The point is that Mr. Martin is a widely talented person. He can play the banjo well enough to hold his own with almost any musician today, he's a prolific writer, and he's an excellent dancer. Why limit the poor guy to only one of his many gifts?

    We as a society–although not we as a group of intelligent, reading enthusiasts–tend to categorize and pigeonhole people. I guess it's not just today, but has been happening for centuries. It's too bad. We overlook some wonderful aspects of our fellow humans when we slide over the parts of them that make each of us unique.

  5. Spencer Seidel

    Huh. I haven't thought of Steve Martin as a "wild and crazy guy" in decades. I thought his brand now was being a serious writer and actor. I'm wondering if the club mishandled the advertising or maybe the audience caught a whiff of self-indulgence? It's hard to imagine a talented (and seasoned) stand-up comedian and actor losing an audience like that otherwise, art book or not.

  6. judy wirzberger

    To be able to hear inside Steve Martin's brain. For fifty bucks. Next you'll be telling me that Robert DeNiro does comedy. Pshaw!

  7. MR

    Sorry, but the NYT article was written with only the interviewer's POV. It was the interviewer, not Martin, the audience was complaining about. She asked about the book, which had been out for only a few days, and thus unfamiliar to the audience, in very specific detail, and then argued with Martin about his interpretation of the events in the book. For instance, he said that the book was written to be realistic, she said it wasn't – it was a satire of the art world, the real art world is full of lovely people. (She didn't actually say that, but that was the gist.) Apparently, the audience really did turn on her and Martin became visibly uncomfortable and tried to salvage things. However, they are friends, and Martin has decided to preserve the friendship rather than be candid about what happened. Which actually makes me like him a bit more.

  8. Sylvia

    I like Steve Martin and love that he does have depth rather than being a one-trick pony. Sounds like the audience members all had received lumps of coal in their stockings!

  9. Rae

    Hmmm. Reminds me a bit of the Electric Dylan controversy from back in the day. (He had the nerve to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. A ruckus ensued.)

    My question is about the Y, and the way they publicized the event – I wonder if they could have been more clear about what the audience should expect. Or perhaps the Y's event people weren't given enough information.

    At any rate, if you're a successful enough artist that you have a 'brand', and you decide to do something different, some of your fans will be bummed, and some of them will behave badly about it. But ill-mannered fans kinda go with the territory, unfortunately, and their behavior can be just as unseemly when they're thrilled about what you've done. The good news is that they're a relatively small (albeit noisy) subset of the audience. The rest of us are just interested to see what our favorite artists will come up with next and enjoy following their creative journey, even if we're not completely delighted with every stop along the way.

  10. tess gerritsen

    the NYT article may not present the full picture, as you pointed out. It has to be embarrassing for Steve Martin, though, to be the one dragged into the press as the boring guy who made the audience demand a refund.

  11. Gar Haywood


    From what I read about the Y event, the audience was lead to expect not Steve Martin the wild and crazy guy, but Steve Martin the author, whose latest book was indeed about art. What incensed so many people was that the interview concentrated on the SUBJECT of the book, rather than the hows and whys of Martin's writing of it. In other words, it was a discussion of art history, rather than a discussion of one author's process, research, perspective, etc.

    A minor distinction, perhaps, but one that made all the difference, apparently.

    As for the plight of branded authors not being allowed to work outside of the corner they've painted themselves into, well, as the expression goes, "That's the price of the ticket." If you're lucky enough to HAVE a brand, it means you've already escaped the worst ghetto of all: anonymity. If nobody knows you, nobody's buying you, so you're free to write whatever you damn well please. But try feeding your family on the advances you get.

    Those six-figure book contracts branded authors get to write the same thing, over and over again, may indeed be a bargain with the devil, but they're also the answer to a lot of people's prayers.

    One man's prison is another man's paradise.

  12. tess gerritsen

    you're absolutely right that authors who have any fan base at all are lucky ducks. But as one who's bounced around among genres,I'm astonished by how much vitriol I find in emails from thriller readers who discover I used to write romance novels. They write to tell me how disgusted they are with my past, as if I have personally insulted them by having that in my resume. It's one of the odd things about certain fans — they can be possessive to the point of being unable to accept us as complex human beings with breadth as well as weaknesses. Nothing enrages such fans more than when we fail to conform to their expectations.

    When Stephen King wrote "Misery", he knew exactly what he was writing about.

  13. lil Gluckstern

    I feel a little out of the loop. If a favorite author decides to go in a different direction, I want to see how they apply their talent to that new road. So, Tess, go for it. It sounds like the interviewer slipped up,or may have fallen into what i call the NYC trap of being in and on top of the latest intellectual dirt. The audience may have just wanted Steve Martin and the myriad people he is. Not a good showing for all, except Mr. Martin. Happy New Year to you all.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm really going to try to resist being pidgeon-holed as a thriller author. Right now I'm loving it – I actually don't want to write anything else. But I know I'll want to stretch a bit in the future, and I'm not going to use a psuedonym. I don't believe in it. I look at authors like Isaac Asimov and he was accepted for whatever he wrote, whatever genre. He didn't have to change his branding.
    And boy do I respect Steve Martin. He's one of my favorite artists. What a brilliant career. And his banjo work is terrific.

  15. Flash Bristow

    Wow, Tess – they issued an apology and a credit? No wonder you were enraged.

    Personally if I'd seen someone's name and thought "wow, a chance to hear them speak? fab!" and then it hadn't been what I'd expected – perhaps a band performing an unheard forthcoming album instead of their greatest hits, or someone talking about a new project that I hadn't been aware of, maybe Stephen Fry talking about his youthful time in prison rather than his recent time on TV- I'd have been privileged to be there and to learn something new!

    But that would be the case if I had mistakenly expected something different. In this case it sounds like the event was "not as billed" – the promoter expressed dissatisfaction too. Maybe in that case the promoter misunderstood what they were getting, and so advertised something different? That WOULD be the promoter's fault, and perhaps an apology and a credit would be appropriate (although it may also be mollycoddling the purchaser). However, it's still not Steve Martin's fault, but that of the people who promoted the event and sold the tickets…

  16. toni mcgee causey

    I had seen this and wondered how it could have gone so awry. Thanks to MR for the details on what the interviewer did that didn't meet fan expectations.

    As for fans who aren't happy when an author/personality goes in a different direction, I would simply ask them what their favorite food is… and then to imagine that that is the only thing they could ever eat, from now on. No changes, no variety, nothing else. Most people see that analogy and instantly realize that no, they wouldn't want to be stuck with just one choice for the rest of their lives any more than an author wants to be stuck telling just one story, or even just one type of story.

    I honestly think most fans mean well when they're writing with such enthusiasm or criticism–they think they're helping, or encouraging, and maybe they just don't realize how they come across. As for the truly vitriolic? Well, some people are just having a bad day and need to kick someone else's cat. It's human nature.

  17. Keith Raffel

    Tess, I think I'll pipe in, too. My daughter just gave me Mr. Martin's Object of Beauty. I have to say it's a pretty darn good novel and I would have loved to have heard him expound on art and (even better) the NY art scene. My only hesitation would have come from knowing he's also done stand-up, can walk like an Egyptian, is a movie star, and plays a mean banjo. Isn't that just too much talent for one fellow? πŸ˜‰

  18. Allison Brennan

    Putting what happened to Steve Martin aside (I have always liked him and appreciate his diversity of talent), branding is definitely a double-edged sword. I had many fans who skipped my supernatural thrillers because they didn't like anything paranormal, and told me to let them know when my next crime thriller would be out (some fans call me a romantic suspense writer, others a thriller writer–it just depends, which doesn't help with branding.) That didn't bother me, because they were willing to wait. But I had a LOT of email from people (and message board diatribes) furious that I was writing paranormal at all.

    I needed to write those books. I was getting burned out. The paranormals may not have done as well as my romantic suspense, but because I took a break from my "branded" genre, my RS are better all around–I regained my love for writing. But the one thing that truly irks me is when people assume I'm just jumping on a popular bandwagon. I have been writing paranormal stories since I was a teenager. I have loved Stephen King since I was 13. I love dark, scary, borderline horror stories. I had the idea for the Seven Deadly Sins series long before I sold my first romantic suspense.

    Fortunately, I did discover fans who will read anything I write, and I love them for it πŸ™‚

  19. Alafair Burke

    I love Steve Martin (in any of his many hats) and was also incensed by the Y's very public disparagement. It does sound like the moderator might have been one of those "let's make this about both of us, meaning me" types of affairs, but the way the Y handled it was incredibly insulting. It made me wonder whether he had been paid for the gig or was doing it as a donation? Either way it's tacky, but man, if he was there for free?

  20. pari noskin taichert

    MR's insights help a little in understanding what may have gone wrong. As for Steve Martin, I respect him tremendously for being such a creative person — comedy, fiction, music — wow.

    As to branding . . . it works for many people. And good on them!

    I've made the current choice to write what I want rather than keep writing what might be expected. Perhaps that's shooting myself in the foot professionally, but it's a matter of personal choice and preference. If I do get published traditionally again, I might use a pseudonym — I don't know — but that's moot. I'm enjoying myself right now; I'm exploring and writing things I've never considered writing before. If my only readers are the few like Lil who like to watch a writer explore, that's fine.
    But I know it's not a recipe for international success.

  21. Reine

    Hi Tess, I'm with Lil, and Rob, too. I gravitate to authors who tell a good story. A few years ago I would never have read a romance novel. Recently I read one by "accident" when the library sent me one by an author I'd listed on my request card. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and have read a few more since.

    I recall, though, starting one book Tony Hillerman wrote that I just couldn't finish, not because it wasn't well done– it was. I just could not read a story set in Vietnam, too many really bad memories. It had nothing to do with its not being set in the southwest or on DinΓ© or Hopi.

    This has been a very revealing discussion of fandom. I hope writers write what they like. I hope you will continue to write what you like.

  22. Spencer Seidel

    I had a long drive home today, which gave me a chance to think about this a bit (and then some…). As a fan, I sometimes get annoyed by artists who, under the guise of going "off-brand," head into self indulgence. One of my favorite guitar players did this in the mid 1990's. Pat Metheny released an album called Zero Tolerance For Silence. It speaks for itself, I think.

    I also agree with Gar. I'd consider myself very lucky indeed to have fans who recognize (and buy) my brand. That's a great problem to have.

  23. Reine

    Just to jump in a bit on the rewards of successful branding. I can't see how – if one were to tire of one's own brand – how it would be better than a regular old job. I mean, it's fucking hard enough to make yourself write about things you enjoy. If you just want to earn good money, there are much easier ways.

  24. Laura

    I like it when I discover an author has a back list of titles different to what I've come to expect, my theory is it's often the style of writing and the character development and the good all round storytelling that the reader enjoys. And as a bonus it gets people out of their comfort zones, reading new genres and discovering new things. I picked up a copy of Tess' "Body Double" 18 months ago – I'd never read crime (or even thought about reading it) but the premise interested me. Before I knew it I was reading not only thrillers but medical suspense and a whole array of other authors who I may have missed out on. I think the problem lies not just with the author feeling 'pigeonholed' and unable to try new things, but with the audience pigeonholing themselves with the mentality of "Oh I don't like that genre, I won't read this." I don't know how much sense that made – basically what I'm saying is that the readers, or the audience whatever the case may be needs to keep their minds open to trying new things. πŸ™‚
    Hope you had a lovely Christmas.

  25. Jim Winter

    Gar, I have to cry foul on that. It's selfish and wrong-headed of the audience to demand that an author or anyone else creative, stay in their little box. And especially Steve Martin's audience, who, after all these years, should know the man better. "Price of the ticket" is a lame excuse for a "Dance, monkey, dance!" mentality. (Unless you're Gene Simmons. Then it's a way to squeeze more money out of millions of adoring fans. But we're not Gene Simmons.)

    I feel bad for JK Rowling because there are full-grown adults who are going to pitch a tantrum the minute she writes anything outside of Hogwartz. "NO! I WANT MORE HARRY POTTER!" Look, kiddies, Harry and Hermoine and Draco and the like are adults now, with screaming brats of their own, and since Harry and Draco work for the Ministry, do you really want a 700-page book where Draco is dodging staff meetings by hiding among muggles in the nearest pub sucking down Bass and Dewars while Harry spends 200 pages filling out a 1099B form so he can get time off for the Quittich World Cup and listening to sobbing phone calls from Dudley that his wife has left him for the guy that laid their concrete? Because that's the story that's left.

    Or would you rather Jo come up with something new and exciting?

    It's like when a singer or a band goes off the beaten path. Do you really think Ian Gillan LIKES singing "Smoke on the Water" night after night with Deep Purple after almost 40 years? Do you really think DeNiro's standing on the set of a Fockers movie going, "Boy, I wish I could be playing a Cosa Nostra thug again!" And just how many scripts do you think Samuel L. Jackson's probably tossed because a hopeful director inserted the word "motherf****r" in every other line for him? ("Um, Mr. Spielberg? I really don't think Bishop Tuta says 'motherf*****r' every other word. I could be wrong, but I don't see the audience buying it if I am.")

    Yes, it's human nature to pigeonhole people, but you know what happens when the artist accepts it and plays along? They get stale, boring, and eventually forgotten.

    So bravo, Mr. Martin. Bravo.

  26. Joan Hall Hovey

    Reminded me Annie in Stephen King's Misery, wanting him to write another book in the series, and very incensed at him for daring to kill off Misery.

    I love Steve Martin, and all his varied talents. I like the cage analogy, Tess. We can definitely put ourselves in one that gets increasingly more difficult to break out of. But I enjoy writing suspense novels, and my passion is to write a better book each time at bat. Only the reader can tell me if I accomplished that with Chill Waters. Some nice reviews.

    You are right about Stephen King writing literary books as well as horror novels, but many people think that all he writes is horror. Which is very sad. Like yourself, he is a wonderful writer no matter what he writes. He's the Poe of his time.

  27. tess gerritsen

    Um, Jim? I think I actually would love a book where Harry and Hermione and Ron have to deal with their screaming brats and Draco's sucking down Bass and Dewars. Poor Rowling. Having to put up with fans like me.

  28. Susan Whitfield

    I'm with you, Tess. Steve "had a discussion" with Sol. I think Sol's comments were less than classy. About the branding angle, I'm writing an entirely different kind of novel after four series mysteries. Then I hope to write an historical mystery, so that should keep folks guessing about me. Tess, I love your books. Keep 'em coming!

  29. Jim Winter

    Tess, you caught me. I was using the backblog to write fanfic disguised as a rant.

    Well, Ms. Rowling, if you're reading this, we've called you out. Now get cracking. I wanna see Draco drown his sorrows in Scotch and have an affair with the Starbucks girl while Hermoine starts playing The Stones "Mother's Little Helper" over and over and over…

    God, and I thought Deathly Hallows was dark!

  30. Shane Gericke

    What the Y did is outrageous, Tess. When you go to hear anyone speak publicly, you pays your money and you takes your chances; to say that Steve Martin did something wrong here boggles the mind. I, for one, would have been delighted to hear the man speak in a setting that did not involve whiny brides or zany antics.

    The Y owes him and his interviewer a profound apology.

  31. Shane Gericke

    And, I hope someday to be widely read enough to be reviled and scorned when I write something sweet and sensible, as opposed to my usual crap πŸ™‚ Happy new year, Tess!

  32. gayle

    I'm still not sure about this post, especially your last line. I'm sure that many authors would love to have fans to complain about. I guess I consider myself to be a reader, and not a fan. Reading is also my hobby, what I do to relax. So I am going to want it to be enjoyable when I do it. It's almost as if you are saying readers must read what you write. If my favorite crime author suddenly writes a vampire book, chances are I'm not going to read it. However, I'm also not going to write him/her berating him for writing something outside the genre. Writers are free to write whatever they want. Readers should also be given that same freedom to read what they choose.

  33. Joan Hall Hovey

    Not that long ago, I was stunned to read a number of posts on a Dean koontz forum on where some fans were advocating boycotting the author if he didn't come out with the new Frankenstein book very quickly.
    What you say is of course true, Gayle, but fans are not all created equal. Of course, mine are wonderful. -:) And I mean that. Tess' too.

    Happy New Year! Wishing us all a creative and happy year in 2011~

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