The gentle art of enduring internet randos.

There are a lot of people in this universe who think they're entitled to your engagement.

Heck, there’s a lot of people in this universe who think they’re entitled to tell you what to do. That only increases when you find yourself in the kind of asymmetric relationships that being a writer—or any kind of public figure in the internet era—entail.

The first thing to remember is that you have a mute button. Even if you don’t necessarily want to block somebody (say they are in many ways a valuable fan, who does a lot of work to shill your books—they’re just a little… grabby and possessive about you) sometimes you also need to assert some kind of soft boundary on that Reply Guy. Or the person who makes passive-aggressive remarks that you never like their comments. Or the individual who is determined to tell you how to better build your career, tell your stories, and run you life in general.

The thing about these people is that they’re not, in large part, actually responding to you. They’re responding to a persona, a thing I call an auctorial construct. An auctorial construct is a fictional character that has some things in common with you, but which isn’t you—and which you have very little control over because they build it in their own heads, out of their own preconceptions and prejudices.

They have a feeling of ownership over that construct, much as we have a feeling of ownership over somebody we don’t know well but have a crush on. And for the same reason: the thing we are connecting to under these circumstances is not a real person: it’s a set of character traits and fantasies we have built up in our heads.

Some of us, those who haven’t yet learned self-awareness, build up these narratives about ourselves. I’m assuming we all remember the stage that most of us went through where any conflict was never our fault, where if somebody was unhappy with us it was because we were too awesome or too edgy or too pretty or too smart, and they couldn’t handle how amazing we were. (I hope we’ve all grown out of that stage by now. If one suspects one hasn’t, maybe find a smart counselor and get to work on that one.)

This is a problem, because these self-built narratives (My book is perfect!) are fragile, and as a result they require constant ego defense. They also prevent us from growing as artists—and as creative professionals—because we have to defend them from any criticism. And because these self-glorifying (self-justifying) narratives take on that same aspect of infatuation (having built an unreal person and gotten very invested in them) anything that takes a chip out of them is heartbreaking and we may respond with irrational levels of anger.

Well, people who have built up an auctorial construct about you (either positive or negative) will also defend it, unfortunately. If they have decided that you are a hard-core pantser, or that your books are totally deconstructions of Byzantine history, or that you hate members of a marginalized group, no amount of counter-evidence will convince them

(If your books are deconstructions of Byzantine history, please contact my friend Arkady Martine, debut author of A Memory Called Empire. If you engage in hate crimes, please unsubscribe now. I do not want your money.)

Conversely, if they have convinced themselves that you are a paragon of Libertarianism or socialism or whatever their pet cause is and you come out with a nuanced opinion that disagrees with theirs, they may flip their lid at you.

Again, the mute button. If they become really abusive, the block button.

For those of us who have ever participated in an online fandom, you know how vicious the ‘ship wars can get, as people who ought to like each other perfectly well become lifelong enemies over their interpretations of which fictional person is shagging which other fictional person—or even, sometimes, the reason why?

This is exactly that phenomenon, but it is aimed at a fictional character who is wearing your clothes, and if you’re not super careful the Real You can wind up the person on the other side of the ship wars, saying, “Of course I would never marry Ron, I’m all about Hermione.”

Congratulations, you have just made a mortal enemy who knows their fictional version of you SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU KNOW YOURSELF.

I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an arrow to the knee back in the ‘ship wars.

You can subtweet about it. You can perform your Feels on twitter. None of it will change the outcome.

What will change the outcome is not getting distracted, and going back to work on your essay, or your story.

Here’s the thing: this is a boundary issue. Just as you are not responsible for other people’s crushes on you (assuming you have not intentionally kept that person on a string, I mean), you are not responsible for people’s projections on you in a professional capacity. It’s not actually your problem, and you can’t control it anyway.

What you are responsible for is managing your own behavior. Don’t start smoking your own toenails and believing that you are the law-giver, just and fair, the chosen one who can lead us all out of Mordor and who has the answers to all our problems. That way lies getting fined by the SEC. And try not to be a dick to people who are just behaving in a normal, human, projective way.

Keep yourself safe; remember that the real you is not any of these fictional yous (for good or ill) and remember that you can curate what about yourself you put on the internet. Cultivating an interesting hobby is great for instagram and social media, though be warned, people will try to tell you how to do it. “Well, actually…”

Just ignore them, is my best advice. Just ignore them. Engaging won’t get you anything you want, and it won’t change any minds. You will have to learn to endure people being wrong on the internet about you, just as you endure them being wrong about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

You’re better off letting your fiction speak for you.


This is Throw Another Bear in the Canoe, Elizabeth Bear’s occasional newsletter on publishing and personal issues. Normally this content would be for paid subscribers only, but because the newsletter is a brand new deal, this issue is being given away free.

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