Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

With Great Authority Comes Great Responsibility

Today I'm going to talk about a subject near and dear to every academic librarian's heart: authority.

Now when librarians talk about "authority," we don't mean the word in the common sense of "the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge." We use it in the context of evaluating sources, i.e., "Does the author of this book or article have the authority to write on the topic, or is he a random Joe Schmoe with no claims to expertise?"

What is "authority" in publishing?

The concept of authority is difficult for students to grasp because it's not "real." It seems to be completely arbitrary. College students know they're supposed to use academic journals instead Wikipedia, but why? Who says this stranger with a PhD must be more trustworthy than this other stranger with the screen name scienceguy1985? The information from both strangers is the same anyway!

Authority seems arbitrary...because it is somewhat arbitrary. The truth is, authority isn't actually a question of whether a person is qualified to write about a topic. It's a question of whether other people will believe this person is qualified to write about the topic.

"For example," I tell the classes, "If you say to your friends that you read on Wikipedia that sugary snacks worsen symptoms in kids with ADHD, they might say, 'Oh, that makes sense!' But if you write that in a paper, your readers will tear you apart. Readers, especially ones who disagree with you, are always on the lookout for weaknesses in your sources. They'll scoff, 'Well, that's just some quote from Wikipedia. Anyone could have made it up.' But if you can find that same quote in an article by researchers at Harvard Medical School, they'll say, 'Well, I guess that must be true. People at Harvard know what they're talking about.'"

In reality, the anonymous authors who contributed to the Wikipedia article might know more about ADHD than those researchers at Harvard. People at Harvard have published just as much nonsense over the centuries as people from anywhere else. But what's important, when picking sources for an academic argument, is that your audience will believe Harvard studies are always reliable.

"Authority" is the reason why people in the publishing world talk so much about platform. Having a platform is especially important for nonfiction writers. Even if an amateur historian/psychologist/etc. has the same knowledge as an Ivy League expert, if she can't put "Dr." in front of her name and wax at length on her accomplishments in the field, nobody will buy her books. It's not fair, but it's true.

In fiction, an author's platform is slightly different. Potential readers don't look for PhDs from fancy universities, but they do look for literary awards, celebrity endorsements, and other evidence of "quality." People are much more likely to take a chance on an author with a dozen critically acclaimed books and a "bestselling" label to her name than on a newbie with no apparent credentials.

The essence of authority is trust.

Authority is something we, as a society, give to people because we trust them. We trust researchers from Harvard to write medical articles with solid data and flawless reasoning. We trust people with "Dr." in front of their names to tell us the truth about history/psychology/etc. We trust people in police uniforms to enforce the law fairly.

So we're outraged when scientists publish lies, when police murder innocent citizens, or when high school teachers prey on impressionable young students. If an inner-city gangster lies, kills, or rapes...well, that's horrible, but we don't expect any better. But the scientist, the cop, the teacher? We trusted these people, and they broke our trust and stomped all over the brittle fragments.

Writers, even in fiction, have more authority than many realize. Simply by being authors we have authority. (Who'd-a-thunk?)

When a reader picks up a book, she basically hands her heart over to the author on a silver platter, saying, "Do with it what you will." She trusts the author to do great things with her heart, to make it race and stop and soar in an unforgettable experience.

And that's why, when a novel doesn't deliver that experience, readers are infuriated. They wouldn't get angry about a $15 lunch with a disappointing dessert, but they'll storm and rage about a $15 paperback with a disappointing ending. The author beguiled them into handing over their hearts, and then she just dropped them in the dust and walked away.

Never break a reader's trust.

After I wrote my previous post, "In Defense of Telling," my mother emailed me with a comment on my complaints about "bait and switch" openings. She was recently certified to teach cycling classes, and the award-winning personal trainer who led her certification course said, "Never trick your trainee. Build trust and follow through with your word."

In the past few months, I've read a couple of books that "tricked" me as a reader. The author set up expectations in the beginning, but then she didn't follow through with her word.

One of them was a YA fantasy, the sequel to a bestselling novel I thoroughly enjoyed. When I finished book #1, I thought I'd found a new favorite author to add to my ever-growing list. I was excited to learn it was the first of a trilogy, and I eagerly downloaded the audiobook of #2 from my local public library and listened while sewing.

The book is about a teenage girl who can control minds. If she desires, she can force anyone in the world to love her, to tell her all of their secrets, to do whatever she wants them to. Everyone fears and distrusts her, especially the prince of the kingdom. The heroine's father, who had the same ability, used it to lead the king down the path of ruin. The prince despises him for it and would never, ever trust her, a monster like him.

"Ooh!" I thought while ripping out tangled stitches. "This is gonna be amaaazing!" Just imagine it: the girl struggling with the temptation to use her ability, trying to remain a good and kind person even though victims of her evil father want to kill her and powerful royals want to use her for their own ends. The handsome prince, falling in love with her but resisting it every step of the way, because he can never tell if his feelings are real or if he's being brainwashed by that wicked siren. The conflict! The heartache! Bring it on!

And then...nothing.

The author did absolutely nothing with this amazing setup. That heartbreaking romance? After one minor act of kingdom-saving by the heroine very early on, the prince feels bad for saying mean things and decides to treat her better. They get to know each other during long walks in the moonlight. They become best friends and eventually lovers. End.

And that internal struggle to be a good person? Well, after some nice people in the palace convince the heroine she can use her powers for good, she thinks quietly for a while (and by "a while" I mean many, many chapters) and decides to accept her power and herself. She helps the royal family put down rebellions and soon everyone in the kingdom worships her. End.

The book was very mature, very realistic, and mind-numbingly boring. I listened to all twelve hours of the audiobook on principle, wondering all the while how the same author who wrote that wonderful book #1 could turn out a dud like this.

Writers say conflict drives plot. While that's true in essence, it's not the whole story. Conflict, by itself, doesn't drive anything. It's only a setup, a promise of exhilarating scenes to come. What really drives the plot is how characters react to conflicts: fighting, fretting, trying to fix problems only to create more of them.

So it's not enough to say, "The prince and the heroine hate each other but they're destined for each other. Isn't this exciting?" If the conflict doesn't put the characters in painful situations, doesn't force them into ugly confrontations with each other or themselves, the story will still be a dud.

Setting up a conflict, but then doing nothing with it, is breaking a promise to readers. So is hinting at a romance that never blossoms; or introducing a villain who doesn't do villainous things; or portraying the heroine as a kick-butt warrior on page one, only to have her spend the next 300 pages wallowing in self-doubt and pining for hot guys. Like the personal trainer said, you have to follow through with your word.


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Kansas"?