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Hypothetically speaking, of course...

Let's say I write a work of fiction. It could be construed as highly disparaging to one or more demographics especially if you stop reading within the first few chapters where it's really bad for that particular demographic. That's not my personal view of the world or the demographic, it's just part of the story I wish to tell.

This kind of thing isn't new; there are plenty of books, some called classics of literature, others topping best-seller lists, that were and/or still are highly controversial for their subject matter. Fifty Shades of Grey is the obvious example today, especially with its barely-avoiding-an-NC17 movie adaptation. Anne Rice is well-known for her series of vampire novels beginning with Interview With a Vampire; what's less well-known is that she wrote a trilogy (and then a fourth continuation just this year) of much more explicitly erotic fiction loosely based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale under the pseudonym "A. N. Roquelaure", and only a decade after the first three were published did she acknowledge her authorship.

First off, not trying to get too far ahead here but it has to be considered, given this is my first attempt at a full-length novel, would it be published as such if I were to refuse to allow my real name or image to be associated with it? Anne Rice was a known quantity and adopted the nom de plume primarily to avoid the feminist backlash she knew would result from the work at the time. That same backlash is even louder today and I would prefer to be anonymous as long as I can be, but will that even fly for a first-time author?

Second, assuming it is published with or without any traceability to my real-world identity, how do you deal with the backlash of a book with controversial subject matter? I might head off the worst of it with a preface giving me a bully pulpit to explain myself, but beyond that, how do you answer people who refuse to consider a work of fiction as anything less than the author's personal manifesto of belief? Do you even try?

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    @AnonymousAuthor - While it may be a bit early in your career for you to worry about this, that doesn't mean you can't ask the question. Welcome to Writers, and thanks for the good question. – Neil Fein Oct 26 '15 at 12:59
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There are several strands to your question intertwined. Because I can't tell which is the most important aspect for you, my answer may end up focussing on the less important areas from your point of view, but I will give it a go anyway.

1) How does an author make clear that an unfavourable portrayal of a demographic does not necessarily represent their personal view?

Good writing. Keeping any scorn expressed for this demographic solely in the mouths of characters and firmly out of the authorial voice. Showing by dialogue and incident that there are reasons why members of this demographic behave as they do.

2) For dramatic reasons a particular demographic is shown in a poor light in the early chapters only for this to be modified or reversed later on. How do you deal with readers who stop reading after the first few chapters being left with only the unfavourable portrayal?

You must so engage the readers' interest that nobody can stop reading after the first few chapters. Make use of every possible tension-producing device. Foreshadow dreadful events to come. Make your characters so loveable or detestable that the reader simply must keep reading to know what happens to them.

3) Can an anonymous author get published?

Yes. With self-publishing it is easier than it used to be, but traditional publishers also regularly publish books by pseudonymous or anonymous authors. Someone at the bank will have to know, if you are to be paid. Your country's tax authorities may also require to know the source of your income. But don't worry, for the vast majority of authors their income from writing comes under the heading of de minimis non curat lex.

4) Can an anonymous author keep their anonymity?

Nearly always, for the same depressing reason as above. The one exception is if the book is a bestseller. In that event I would imagine that most authors get over their embarrassment quite fast.

5) How do you deal with the backlash of a book with controversial subject matter?

Again, as above, this is a problem that the vast majority of authors will never have. If your book does garner enough attention to be denounced, the traditional response is to cry all the way to the bank.

3

@Lostinfrance's answer above was good, so I'm just going to add a few more things to consider.

  • The nature of the offense. Some offensive material is less sensitive in nature than others. Erotica and pornography aren't as alienating as racism or totalitarianism. If an author cares about this, the author should be prepared.
  • The motives behind the offending material. Stand-up comedians deal with this all the time, and it's not getting any easier (search YouTube for any number of Sarah Silverman interviews where she defends her jokes). She focuses on two things: her motives (which some claim are just excuses) and the medium in which she works. Unfortunately, motives can only be explained once someone has asked for them, and an author may not get the chance to explain herself.
  • The art itself. Excellence forgives a multitude of sins. To take some examples: Nabokov was very hesitant to publish Lolita (to the point where he threw away the manuscript, only to have his wife rescue it), but never apologized for its content after it was published. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is what it is, and still comes under scrutiny today. What you are describing is a societal roulette wheel: something that is acceptable now may be unacceptable in the future. Sensitivities increase or decrease over time. How this pertains to excellence/art: some argue that excellence is enough of an excuse to tolerate something we wouldn't allow in our closest friends; others argue that excellence is no excuse for promoting bad human behavior. This is a individual decision.
  • Human nature. Given that only human beings will read your book, every author gambles with their audience. To some extent, an audience in the abstract doesn't exist, only individuals do. Those individuals have their own sensitivities and opinions, sometimes benign, sometimes extreme. An author has to trust his/her own instincts as well as the instincts of their audience.
  • The author will be called names no matter what. This is a fact of 21st century life. Most authors of any race, gender, or creed can expect at least one of the following at some point in their career, depending on what they write: talentless, elitist, old-fashioned, racist, sexist, stupid, insensitive, hyper-sensitive, brilliant, long-winded, windless, a gas bag, an arrogant prick, a humble weakling, a whiner, a pugilist, a conservative, a liberal, a giant, a dwarf, an ex-husband, or a piece of shit. How sensitive does an author need to be? What does the author consider to be insulting and which outcries should be addressed publicly and when? All of that depends on how devoted the author is to the work and how much people actually care.

It would be easy to just say, "Be fearless!", but your question is worth considering. The 21st century may not have rocket packs for every household, but it does offer megaphones to every person with access to the internet. This is an anxiety that hasn't been viscerally experienced en masse since the days of tribes, when public shaming meant a life destroyed.

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In answer to the second part of the question: writing anonymously. Well, most (99%) writers are effectively anonymous, because noone cares who they are. The remaining 1% have their identities ruthlessly hunted down by indefatigible groupies, who I find to be mostly highly unattractive females with serious mental issues concerning being scorned. I wouldn't really be too worried about this scenario if I were you because you don't seem like groupie material.

Nevertheless, if you want to be "anonymous," it's pretty easy. You pay a lawyer to maintain a forwarding service for you and then list their office for all contacts. There are also specialized commercial forwarding services that do much the same thing, but cannot sign legal contracts and stuff like that. The commercial services are a lot cheaper than a lawyer.

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    Your second paragraph is somewhat useful information; your first paragraph is just random vitriol. It's too bad you're so angry, but I don't think it's doing anyone any good for you to spread your bitterness around so much. – Kate S. Oct 27 '15 at 5:08
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    More like 99.999999% me think – Reed Oct 29 '15 at 21:16
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I think I'd challenge the idea that the "message" of your writing is different from your personal beliefs.

People write about horrible characters all the time, but they write about them in a way that makes it clear the characters are horrible. The message of their writing is "these characters are horrible". So there may be times when the content of a text involves something the author disagrees with, but I'm having trouble thinking of times when the message of a well-written text wouldn't match the opinions of the author.

And looking at your examples, I'm still having trouble understanding what you mean. Insofar as 50 Shades or Anne Rice's books have anything I'd call a message, I think the message would be something like "These things are hot!" And I assume the author probably agrees that these things are hot?

So maybe you don't mean the message is different from your personal beliefs, you just mean the message is different from your public persona?

If that's the case, there's not much trouble with being published under a pseudonym. If you're going for full anonymity, promotion can be a bit difficult - no author photos, no personal appearances, no activating your army of friends and family to talk up your book. Even something as simple as a Facebook page is technically against their TOS, since they don't allow accounts under false names. But there are lots of other promotional opportunities, and lots of authors successfully writing under one or more pseudonyms.

In terms of your second question, I think I'd refer back to my first idea, that author's books usually are accurate reflections of their personal beliefs, at least to some extent. Why would you write something you don't believe in? Can you give me an example of an author who's written something with a world view s/he thinks is totally wrong?

You seem to acknowledge this with your "bully pulpit" idea.

I think readers are willing to accept that works of fiction aren't complete manifestos, but fiction with a clear message? I think they're right to assume that this message is probably reflective of at least some aspect of the writer's beliefs.

  • "Can you give me an example of an author who's written something with a world view s/he thinks is totally wrong?" Robert Heinlein considered himself a libertarian, yet wrote Starship Troopers, which is quite pro-totalitarianism. – Ryan_L Jan 2 '18 at 5:43
  • @Ryan_L: I wouldn't say that Starship Troopers was pro-totalitarianism as the society shown was democratic but with a selective enfranchisement in that only those who have served the Federal State are allowed to vote or hold office. Those who are not full citizens are granted the typical rights beyond that. That said, Heinlein was very well known for writing books that crossed political lines. Strangers in a Strange Land was beloved by hippies while The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was beloved by more libertarian and conservatives. He is known for being able to bridge political gaps very well – hszmv Apr 26 '18 at 17:49
  • The Federation routinely executes people for assault, as shown by the scene with the cadet who struck Drill Instructor Zim. A single punch and he could have been executed for it, had the commandant and Zim not tried their hardest to spare him. They have 31 capital offenses in fact, and if something as minor as assault is worthy of it, it begs the question, what else is? Then there is the fact that to be able to vote you have to have served the gov. in some fashion; sounds like the single-party "democracy" in the Soviet Union. Further, it's never said what rights non-citizens had. – Ryan_L Apr 27 '18 at 19:17
  • @Ryan_L: the US military has the same punishment for roughly the same offense (article 90) “shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death”. And the US doesn’t even have the excuse of routinely issuing nukes to its soldiers. – jmoreno Aug 11 at 10:46

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