‘Mortal Instruments’ Creator Reveals How Female Authors Can Be ‘Dehumanized’ By Their Own Fandom
Cassandra Clare explains why she recently took a social media break.
Fandom is an incredible thing. It unites fans, inspires creativity and empowers people in a way that’s truly remarkable. In fandom, anything is possible. That being said, there’s always going to be a fraction of any passionate fandom that feels disappointed or upset. Being in a fandom can be an emotional roller coaster.
Author Cassandra Clare is no stranger to that disappointment. Her bestselling “Mortal Instruments” series has sold millions of copies and spawned a feature film and an upcoming television series. Her active presence on social media makes her both a saint and a target for passionate fans. Recent fan-polarizing events forced Clare off social media after she received a “constant stream of hate, threats and insults.” That got us thinking: how does someone so accessible to her fans, like Clare, handle the everyday stress and anxiety that comes with fandom?
MTV News reached out over email to Clare and her friend and fellow YA author Maggie Stiefvater (“The Raven Cycle” series) to talk about fandom, and what we got in return was so much more. Below, Clare and Stiefvater have a frank discussion on handling criticism, the pressure to meet fans’ high expectations and the duality of fandom.
Cassandra Clare: I think when an author is really available and around, there is this tendency of fans to consider them part of the fandom for their work. And it can be wonderful to feel part of the fandom. After all, here are these people who consider your characters as real people, and care about them, just like you do.
Maggie Stiefvater: Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t have said there were many problems with being accessible online, aside from the impossible math. It’s wedding math. There’s one happy couple to greet everyone and dozens of wedding guests who all need attention, and it’s impossible for it to be equal. Except, you know, in this case, I’m the happy couple, and my tens of thousands of readers are the guests who would all like (and honestly, deserve) a thank you note for the gifts they brought. The biggest problem with that is figuring out who you choose to engage with, because it becomes impossible to nod at every guest.
Clare: Being considered a member of your own fandom does breed weird issues. You all care about the work, but as the creator you are the one who controls it. So it’s like you’re all on a bus together, but you’re the only one who can decide where the bus goes. After a while, when a fandom becomes large enough, that imbalance of power breeds an awful tension. I have never seen that not happen. I have never seen any author or showrunner who has been able to prevent it.
You watch as some fans begin to separate you from your work. They talk about how much they love the work, but they hate you personally, sometimes intensely, specifically for being the person who has control over the characters. They talk about how you don’t deserve your characters or don’t understand them, how the characters should be taken away from you. Again, this can be cognitively dissonant because not only did you create the character, they character is, always, in some aspect, you. That can be disquieting.
Clare and actress Lily Collins arrive at the premiere of “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones” at the Cinerama Dome Theatre on August 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Stiefvater: Now, though, as Cassie pointed out, the Internet climate seems to have shifted — do you feel like it’s different from when you first were an author-in-public, Cassie? Because I feel like there’s a change that hasn’t come about because of my own numbers. It’s come about from the outside. Someone has peed in the Internet pool. There has always been general negativity online, of course, but now even positive things are described in negative ways. I get told all the time by fans that they hate me — but they mean it as a compliment. I suppose it can be argued that both of these constructs come from a good place, a place of affection. But as someone who loves words, I see a culture shift to a place where being enthusiastic and positive is no longer cool.
Clare: I think Twitter has changed everything. It amplifies voices and that’s great when those voices are voices that are traditionally not being heard. But it also encourages snap judgments and witch hunts. Everything happens so fast that there is no time to check facts or moderate virulence. There are so many creators I have seen come onto social media and start Twitters with great optimism only to be driven away. I was talking to one of the writers on the Shadowhunters TV show about getting on Twitter and his response was total horror and “Why would any writer subject themselves to that?”
Clare: Whenever there is an adaptation of your work into a movie or a TV show, it increases the tension in the fandom by 500 percent. It also brings in new people whose primary investment is in the media rather than the books. And it brings in new readers who have discovered the books for the first time. A greatly increased audience is obviously a wonderful thing, and means an enormous benefit to my career, but at the same time all of this sudden change leads to a lot of turbulence and disputes.
Let me give you an example: Some fans were angry that the “Mortal Instruments” movie cast wasn’t cast again in the “Shadowhunters” TV show. When the new cast was announced, a lot of other fans fell in love with them and there was huge bitterness between the people who liked the “old cast” and the ones who liked “the new cast.” Over and over, I was called in to arbitrate, which I wouldn’t do — I’ve had to build up a lot of rules and boundaries for myself to be able to participate in what happens in my fandom to the extent that I do, and one of those rules is not taking sides. I’m a flawed, imperfect person, and I am sure I screw up a lot, but that’s one of my biggest rules.
I understand there is a fight between my fans going on. It makes me enormously sad.
I have taken no sides, and cannot control anyone's behavior. I categorically say to anyone sending hate or threats: do not do it.
For the majority of the fandom who has no idea what I am talking about: I'm sorry. I hate to bring you down like this.
There have been a number of issues regarding the show that have split the TMI fandom. The issue that caused me to leave [Twitter] was my own refusal to “pick a side” in a fight. I do understand that it’s natural, if you believe you’re right, to want people to take your side. I just believe it is absolutely the moral job of a creator not to do that.
Stiefvater: The most aggravating part about being the creator is that even if you have an opinion on an aspect of your own work, you must be cautious about sharing it. Because the creator’s voice will inevitably be louder than any fan’s. If I post about a character in the “Raven Cycle” on Tumblr, no matter how offhandedly, I have in essence pulled out a bullhorn and shouted WAR EVERYTHING WAR GO GO GO. Expressing an opinion shared by one side of a divided fandom can seem as if you have given that side an unfair advantage. But like Cassie said, not being able to take sides is frustrating. The fact is that we write these books and characters and issues because they live close to our heart. Not being able to talk about it feels muzzling.
Clare: For the record, I think my fans are some of the best, most generous, and smartest people around. They make beautiful art, create fun inside jokes, and thoughtful reviews. I am incredibly grateful to have them and I love hearing their feedback and even their criticism. As the fandom grows, however, it is easy for even a small percentage of angry people to overwhelm my inbox or twitter feed. And as the fandom gets bigger, I think some readers lose sight of the fact that I am a person at all and that can be scary.
Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven Boys” (2012).
Again, this is a tiny percentage of fans. Ninety-nine percent of my fans are very kind to me and kind to each other. But recently, I came to realize I was going to be called in over and over to mediate disputes to which there was no right answer, and that my not having the right answer would necessarily breed this certain intense type of hostility, so I took a break. Now, I am trying to figure out how I want to move forward.
Stiefvater: Last year, I was in the middle of a really toxic storm of fandom war. I had a definite opinion on a character, and I said it out loud, and things escalated. For the first time in my online life, I had to put down the Internet and walk away for a few days. Even though I had an overwhelming number of readers who were on my side and were positive, it takes a surprisingly small number of aggressive readers to ruin an online presence. The thousands of readers who are great are just that, great. But they cannot buffer the negativity. Only counter-balance, which is not the same thing at all. You can only absorb so much before you have to reconfigure how you exist on the Internet.
Clare: Of course, I’d like to come back and take up as normal. But this kind of thing does shake you up. I think most likely I’ll delete my mentions column and utilize Twitter in a less interactive way. Stop answering fan mail and Tumblr questions. It makes me sad to do it, but I don’t see a way around it. But I haven’t decided yet — this is an ongoing process. Right now, the challenge in front of me is figuring out how to keep five people from being able to ruin my day because if I don’t, every day is going to be ruined.
Clare attends the “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones” meet and greet at The Americana at Brand on August 13, 2013 in Glendale, California.
Stiefvater: I think that women authors in particular are asked to be nice online. Always nice, always nurturing, never aggressive. It seems like this should spare them the slings and arrows of online misfortune. But in reality, it just takes away our weapons. I looked around at authors like Chuck Wendig and John Scalzi and I thought — they get to say what they want. When something’s bullsh-t, they’re allowed to call bullsh-t. That. That’s what I’m going to do. If you hate me, you can hate me because I called it as I saw it, not because of some imagined slight. I’m going to stand up for what I believe in. And the hate that comes as a result of that does not keep me from sleeping at night.
Clare: I’ve had signings where people have called in threats and the bookstore has had to provide security. I did a signing where someone smashed a book down hard on my hand because they were furious that a character had died. Writers live in a nebulous zone. We’re known, but we’re not famous. Except for a few of us, we’re not celebrities. But we are still creators, whose works engender strong feelings in people. So, not famous enough to have real security, but famous enough to have to worry about it.
Stiefvater: I don’t usually feel physically threatened at signings, but I think it’s because of two big differences. First of all, Cassie deals with more people at hers. Secondly, Cassie has a fandom, and I still mostly have readers. She is generally seen as a creator, and I am seen as an author. Those things seem like they should be the same, but I think someone who self-identifies as a fan is far more likely to press physical boundaries than someone who self-identifies as a reader.
Lily Collins signs autographs to fans during “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” Mexico City screening at Auditorio Nacional on August 27, 2013 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Clare: The thing is, I’m lucky. These are problems of success. Getting hate is a facet of success. The more you are known, the more you become a thing and not a person. So to alleviate that I try to bring friends and family with me to signings. It’s helpful to be able to look at someone who you know thinks of you as a person first.
Stiefvater: I have to interrupt you here, Cassie. I don’t agree at all. I mean, yes. I am lucky. We both are tremendously lucky to be able to do what we love for a living. But. You say this, Cassie: “Getting hate is a facet of success,” and I actually disagree so, so much. I know it feels that way for you because you have pretty much always been in fandom. You came from that world as a reader, and your books have always inspired a fandom. I can see how you would think that it is just a natural byproduct of popularity — you’ve never had a career without that.
But here’s the thing: the “Raven Cycle” is my first series to have a fandom. It is not, however, my first series to be a success. My “Shiver” trilogy has sold millions of copies — far more than the “Raven Cycle” — but it never had a fandom. It had passionate readers, but not a fandom. And for those four years that the “Shiver” trilogy was selling like popcorn balls, I could count the number of hateful messages I’d gotten online or written to me on both hands and still have plenty of fingers left over. Now, I have the “Raven Cycle” fandom, and I can no longer count the hate messages. There are too many. So although I love my fandom, I have to say that this is a fandom problem, not a natural problem. By saying that it’s a natural product of success, we’re forgiving it, and the fact is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Remember what I said about hateful language for positive things being troubling? Sorry for the interruption. GO ON.
But really, it's this: you wouldn't arrive at a friend's house unannounced. As a human, give me the courtesy of my time & my unbrushed hair.
— Maggie Stiefvater (@mstiefvater) June 9, 2015
I'm aware that by posting this, I'm probably hurting the feelings of the reader who just showed up. I'm truly sorry. I'm a dragon in a lair.
Drive by the hill, point at the smoke, clap your hands with the knowledge that I'm close, but please, don't touch the dragon. She's working.
Clare: You’re right. I’ve never known anything different. I’ve always thought of those people, the inhumanly cruel ones, as an aberration of the Internet, but maybe dismissing them was a mistake in the sense that it seems to me that the way they behave has become normalized, a common way to talk about people and creators especially. And it is so much worse for women. I mean we, Maggie and I, are women whose fans are often young girls and women, and they’ve grown up in this world that tells them that successful women are monsters, and that any woman who acknowledges her hard work or success is to be deplored and dehumanized. You often see people talking about female writers and creators saying, “She thinks she’s so great,” “She thinks she’s a Queen!,” “She thinks people should bow down to her,” etc; there’s usually no evidence of that beyond the fact that they’re successful and not self-loathing. I wish that wasn’t a problem for women — I wish these young girls were growing up in a world where it was okay for them to think they were so great.
Stiefvater: The dichotomy is tough. What Cassie said about not being seen as a person — I’m seen as either a demon or a queen, and the reality is somewhere in between. A Demon Queen. It’s just as difficult to be held up as a role model, because then you have further to fall if you do make a mistake.
Clare: It’s difficult. I am grateful for my fans. I do feel lucky. But I’m not unaware that men can talk about their complicated relationships with reader response more freely. Fans are not a monolith — they don’t all prioritize the same characters, or want the same things, or even like the same things about a story. A situation where you want to please everyone but can’t please everyone engenders frustration, but even more so in women, who are taught it’s their job to be people-pleasing. I want to make everyone happy! But most of all, I want to write the stories that I want to write. I have to put that first.
Stiefvater: Engaging passionately and critically with my work, buying the books legally, regarding me as an individual, not making assumptions about my motivations or my politics, buying me an F12 Ferrari in charcoal with black wheels. You said
Clare: Obviously my books mean an enormous amount to me and are so close to my heart, so when I see people loving them, living inside them, it means the world to me. I think being an awesome fan also means being kind to other fans, and kind to yourself. Know that loving a book doesn’t make you a nerd or a geek, it makes you special and amazing.