I had an uncomfortable surprise this week, when I discovered that someone I'd been communicating with online was not (as I'd been told) a woman, but actually a man. There was no Catfish style conspiracy involved, the third-party who introduced us had simply made a mistake. Our discourse had also been purely professional, so it wasn't as if I'd proposed marriage or anything! In fact, nothing had changed except my perception of who this person was, and I was further surprised to discover how much that perception meant to me.
It got me to thinking about all the assumptions we make about people we've hardly met, a subject that seemed particularly appropriate in the wake of all the allegations about Oscar Pistorius. Here is someone who most of us had only seen for a matter of minutes on the TV at athletics events and in the run-up to them. Yet, it seems that a great many of us had formed a perception of a brave, heroic and balanced individual, a perception that has been very quickly swept away.
Do we make similar judgements about authors when we read their books? One of the joys of fiction is that we begin to believe that the author is speaking directly to us, so it's very hard to stop ourselves building a mental model of the kind of person they are. Yet, all of us writers know that the process of creating fiction is about trying on different personas and seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Just this week, I wrote a story from the viewpoint of a vengeful fourteen-year-old medieval princess – a state of being that I'm very unlikely to find myself in during the course of my everyday life!
I think back to the way that Joanne Rowling chose to call herself J.K. on the Harry Potter books, a move supposedly designed to avoid alienating boy readers. Later on, this naming became a moot point, because everyone in the world knew who she was, but I wonder how this affected the early readers of her works? Did they imagine that the writer was an avuncular, Dumbledorish figure, or a grown-up version of Harry himself? Perhaps the story was so smoothly and skilfully told that they didn't form any perception of the author at all, but those who wrote fan letters must surely have had their own ideas.
I'm writing a middle-grade book for girls at the moment, and I wonder how much my own gender might affect the way that the book is marketed. Will I have to become "N. Cross" to avoid a female readership rejecting my book in droves? Could I pretend to be a Nicola or Nicolette? Having daughters myself, I like to think that female readers aren't so fickle as male ones, that they will read books featuring boy protagonists, whereas most boys won't go near books with girl protagonists. As the book is also something of a commentary on perceived gender roles, perhaps my gender is a selling point rather than a detriment. Anyway, we shall see (when I finally finish it).
The Internet has demystified authors and it's now much harder to prevent fans from finding photographs, biographies or Facebook profiles. Indeed, if I'd bothered to do some Googling in the first place, I would have found out that my mystery person was very definitely male. But much could be said of finding out that Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade are not real people, and that doesn't stop schools trying to book them for visits! Our internal perceptions of other people and our environment are what form the thing we call reality, and clearly each person's reality is a little different. Thanks for spending some time in mine every Friday.