Monday, August 17, 2020

Meeting Your Heroes

The Promptapalooza train rolls on! Yesterday it stopped at Poppy and Easha's place, the wonderful Glittering Girly Gwent Gaming, where the talk was all about that post they'd always wanted to write but never gotten around to.  Tomorrow the caravanserai moves on to visit Nogamara at Battle Stance. Be sure to follow.

Today, though, the buck stops here and the burning question of the day is this:

If you could meet any person you look up to, who would it be?


Next question.

Hmm. That was short. I guess I'm going to have to fill for a while.

As luck would have it, the topic that popped out of Bel's randomizer and plopped onto my lap just happens to be one I've spent a good, long time thinking about over many years, so I do have a little more to say on the subject.

Let's take it in two bites. There's the looking up to part and then there's the meeting. I have issues with both.

"Look up to" is a very interesting choice of phrase, isn't it? When I've heard this question framed before (and it comes up quite often in dinner-party conversation) it's usually framed more neutrally, something along the lines of "someone you admire". Either that or, more forcefully and evocatively, "one of your heroes".

I'm not sure I "look up" to anyone. It's an expression redolent of dominance and submission, freighted with centuries of class envy. It's almost impossible to hear the phrase without also hearing Ronnie Corbett's passive-aggressive response: "I know my place".

I don't think I even have heroes or idols in the conventional sense. My admiration, respect and even love for people I don't know comes almost exclusively through their work. It's the creation I admire, not the creator.

I suppose if I were to sweep my net beyond the arts, into statecraft or the humanities, I'd stand a better chance of scooping up individuals whose life was the work. Maybe. Not really my thing, though. I'd just show my ignorance so I'll stick with what I know.

With all those caveats, I could still put a handy Lifetime Favorites Top Ten together with hardly a moment's thought. The problem would be stopping at ten.

Oh, let's do it, why not? Without thinking. Just plucking from the air.
  • Lana Del Rey
  • Lou Reed
  • J D Salinger
  • Lloyd Cole
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Jodie Foster
  • Scott F. Fitzgerald
  • Robert B. Parker
  • Ysabeau Wilce
  • Rainbow Rowell
Not a very balanced list. An awful lot of writers. If I gave it a while to settle I imagine some variety would bubble up. At least I hope it would. The last two might be a little bit of a stretch, too, in that they haven't really been around long enough to test the "lifetime" part. That's what happens when you deal from the top.

For argument's sake, then, let's say I "look up" to those names, although, god knows, no-one ought to "look up" to Lou. You'd be lucky to get a sneer in return, if he even deigned to notice.

Would I want to meet any of them?

Hell, no!

I totally subscribe to the advice "Never meet your heroes". How is it ever going to be a good idea?

What are you going to do? Gush? Tell them how great they are? Describe what effect a song they wrote thirty years ago had on you when you were going through a bad break-up? Ask them what that one character meant that time they did that thing in that book that you remember like you just read it yesterday because you just read it yesterday, only to have it turn out the writer who wrote it can't even remember writing it, let alone what the characters were thinking?

Meeting your heroine is going to be a big moment in your life. One of the biggest. What's it going to be for her? An opportunity to make a new, lifelong friend? You're going to be buddies now? Going to take her on a revelatory journey to the heart of who she is as you explain to her what she's been doing all these years? Is that it? Your unique insights are going to surprise her, thrill her, hold up a mirror in which all the things she's been saying to the world shine back, glorious and golden and new?

Or are you going to be just another fan, to be handled, hopefully with patience and grace, then handed off to a handler before the next in line takes their turn?

Even that empty, embarassing experience scarcely counts as a worst-case scenario, especially if the star in question happens to be Lou. Maybe you'll get an ashtray thrown at your head.

Of course, it could all go very differently. You could miraculously hit it off. Maybe you really are different from all the other gushing stans. Maybe you do see something in the work that the rest never get. Maybe your hero just happens to be someone not all that different from the kind of people you already know and it all feels surprisingly familiar and comfortable.

Do you want to take that risk? If it goes wrong, will it taint the work? Spoil it? Ruin it, even?

Look, it's a big enough risk just paying attention to what creators say in public. Do you really want to know what they come out with in private? Honestly, if you want to keep enjoying the work, probably best to stay well clear, if you possibly can manage it.

I thought the first two instalments of His Dark Materials were some of the best fantasy storytelling I'd ever read. I was super-stoked for the third. Then one morning I switched the radio on at breakfast and heard Philip Pullman pontificating about something or other, I can't even remember what, and that was that. Never read another word by the man. He's dead to me and I don't even know why, or care. Damage done.

Avoiding contact with your heroes, or at least people whose work you enjoy and would like to go on enjoying, isn't always as easy as switching off the radio, though. Not if you work where I do. We have "famous" people trooping through the workplace like commuters through Oxford Circus tube station, or we did before the pandemic.

I do my best to avoid meeting authors I really like but sometimes it's tough. Becky Chambers just happened to drop in one day, asked me if we'd like her to sign some books. So did John Irving. They were both lovely. It was a joy meeting them.

That kind of thing happens quite a lot. Luckily for me, those kinds of meetings are serendipitous, unexpected and highly contextualized. The authors are there for a reason but also present as private individuals. There's no performance. Luckily for them, they encounter me as the professional, not the fan. It makes for a good experience on my side and, I hope, on theirs. The difference is, I remember it. They won't.

Scheduled events are very different. When we have someone booked to appear for a reading or a signing and it's someone I like, I do my best to be elsewhere. Can't always manage it. I was press-ganged into looking after an SF author almost all of whose books I've read and enjoyed. That went very well. He was good company and nothing went wrong. Retrospectively I'm happy it happened but I'd have wriggled out of it if I could.

And sometimes fate just won't play nice. When Frances Hardinge, one of my absolute favorite authors of recent times, came in, I was asked if I wanted to do the event, since everyone knew how much I liked her books. I politely declined. If it turns out I have illusions I'd rather keep them, thanks all the same.

And then, guess what? There I was, sitting in the staff room drinking a coffee, when Frances and the minder from her publisher walked in, sat down across from me and proceeded to have a half-hour discussion.

I could have got up and gone somewhere else. Maybe to my locker to get my iPod so I could block out the conversation with music. That might have looked a little... obvious. So I sat there and concentrated on whatever I was reading and tried not to listen. Mostly I succeeded. I don't remember what they talked about, only that it was business and not very memorable. Thank god!

It's kind of been that way for me, most of my life. It's seriously easy to meet the people you admire, at least if the kind of peopel you admire are the kind I do. All you really have to do is go to the bar after they do whatever it is they do.

It was like that when I used to go see amazing bands in the back rooms of pubs and dives. Even more so when I was hot into comics fandom. In the eighties I met a ton of people whose work I liked. Some of them I sat and drank and ate with in bars and restaurants or snarfed dubious substances with in hotel rooms. Okay, maybe that was just the one time. Twice, tops.

Some I interviewed or introduced on stage or worked security for, keeping back those crowds of fans who wanted to meet their heroes. I even played on the same bill as one or two. I'm not in the slightest averse to name-dropping but I'll refrain, this once. I'm sure I can work the details in some other time. I usually do.

The thing is, nealry all of the "heroes" I've met turned out to be really nice. I'm fairly sure that, if I'd met them at college or at work or at a party I'd have had a few laughs and maybe ended up being friends. Kind of almost was like that, once or twice.

But mostly I didn't meet them that way, on an equal footing. I met them in contexts where they were doing a job, of sorts, and so was I, or else where they were Honored Guests and I was Lucky To Meet Them.

Meeting your heroes doesn't make you special or clever. but it can make you feel quite good. If they turn out to be nice. If you don't make a prat of yourself. If they don't. I don't regret meeting the people I've met that way.

I wouldn't want to make more of a habit of it than I already have, though. It's too big a risk and there's too much at stake.


  1. As a teenager I got a book signed by Sir Terry Pratchett. I had never attended a book signing before and my English was a lot less fluent at the time, so I completely froze up when it was my turn and he just asked politely if I wanted the message to say anything specific. Ever since then I've decided that I'm better at having admiration for people from afar, lol.

    (Plus I've also had the thing with finding out that some artists I enjoyed are pretty unsavoury people in real life. But even if they weren't, them creating or doing noteworthy things doesn't mean that we'd have a good time chatting over a cup of tea. Some things are just better left alone.)

    1. Terry Pratchett, as I recall, had a pretty good reputation as a visiting author. I don't think he ever did a signing at our store but I've spoken to a few colleagues who met him and not heard anything terrible. You'd be surprised at some of the stories!

  2. I should have read your post before writing mine. I also met John Irving! He was a big deal in New Hampshire, where I grew up. And went to readings by Steven King and David Duncan.

    1. John Irving just wandered in off the street. Given where the shop I work in is, we get a lot of creative arts types killing time until whatever show they're appearing at starts, but if I remember correctly he was just over here on vacation. He was incredibly polite and friendly. Really nice to chat to him. He's not a particular favorite author of mine but I do particularly recommend his memoir on being a high school/college wrestler.

  3. Well said, as usual.

    I don't think I've met someone famous (or had something signed) since I was like 10.

    In the field I work (tech, not academia) a lot of people are recognized for the stuff they invented or made, but I wouldn't call a lot of them really famous (except a handful), but these types for the majority tend to stay normal people just like before, especially when you're working with them and not per se admiring or buying their stuff. I guess it is a little more craftsmanship than art, that makes it easier. You can recognize solid work, but it's usually not one person banging out the thing of the decade.

    1. Meeting people and chatting to them, especially if they happen to be sitting in the bar after a talk, for example, I can definitely see the point of but getting stuff signed has always mystified me. I don't think I've ever asked anyone to sign anything, even when I've been standing right next to them carrying something they created. I always felt I'd rather have my stuff not written on!

  4. I have met a few people who were famous and admirable, but I am not a gregarious person in social situations and made no impression I am sure.

    The problem I have is that the famous are a lot more public these days. People I might have admired or wanted to meet before social media was a thing have more often than not proven themselves to be quite banal outside their area of expertise. I don't mind seeing them interviewed... the Graham Norton show is always good for that... or even see them do something like an "evening with..." sort of show, but meeting them in person is just so unlikely to provide any insight or impression beyond maybe a selfie or an autograph, I am just not that excited about the idea.

    1. I do think the almost immeasurable increase in access to detailed information about the things that interest me has made going to see people talk about themselves a lot less appealing. In the eighties I was deeply fascinated by the history of comics and the prospect of hearing people who were there in the Golden Age, before I was even born, was immensely appealing. And there wasn't much chance of hearing that kind of detail unless you could meet, or at least sit in a hall with, someone who had the stories to tell.

      These days I could satiate myself with far more detail on just about any topic of interest just by sitting at home and clicking a mouse. It does make the prospect of travelling to spend hours in a crowded building listening to the same stories a lot less appealing. I'm glad I did it when I did but I certainly have no inclination to do it again.

  5. I get what you're saying about admiring the creation rather than the creator. However the quality (or lack thereof) of any creation kind of depends on the creator as a person, at least to some degree, doesn't it?

    That being said though, I feel the same way as you do. Especially the "What would I even say to them?" and the "God, I hope they don't turn out to be a massive dick!" parts.

    1. Never really been sure about that. I've never been able to unlearn the Intentional Fallacy, which makes taking any creative intent at face value almost impossible. On the other hand, if someone has apalling views or unforgiveable habits you can't exactly disengage the work from that entirely. Or maybe you can. People have made careers out of trying to prove it either way.

      I kind of learned my aesthetics piecemeal in a melange of practical criticism, new journalism, structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism so its all a bit of a blur. Even the newest of those is a couple of decades out of date now, so I really have no clue what I'm supposed to think any more. I just make it up!


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