Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cowardly Writer, Reporting for Duty

I noticed a bit of a kerfuffle brewing in the blogosphere yesterday about authors and the expectations regarding reviewing other books. Authors, in case you didn't know, aren't supposed to have opinions about other books unless they're asked for them, and then they're only supposed to have good opinions. The general rule of thumb seems to be that old cliché: if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

There are a lot of reasons for that. There are concerns about professionalism and there are fears about ending up on some kind of mythical industry blacklist. There's a sort of mandatory fun kind of aspect to the writers' club, telling us that we should all only be interested in helping each other create our lovely art, and leave the ugly infighting and competitiveness to people like lawyers and politicians.

Because all artists are wonderful, well-balanced human beings, never given to selfish behavior, ego, or emotional temper tantrums.

The incredibly ridiculous BS aspect of the rules aside, they're there and they probably aren't going anywhere any time soon. Then things like social media come into play and further complicate matters, because authors are expected to have an engaging and entertaining presence on social media, but the risk of creating a controversy (either intentionally or unintentionally) is always there.

Social media is great. Really, I think it's lovely. I access Twitter mostly through an app on my phone and I'm connected to that pretty much all day long. I chatter with my friends, keep track of books I want to read, and get information about what's going on in the world, etc. All in handy little bite-size snippets I can glance at while I'm waiting in line at the grocery store or watching my kids try to build the world's tallest block tower.

Social media connects people from all around the world and lets us engage is the free and spirited exchange of ideas. We work together and make friends and share life. I sometimes do #1k1hr writing sprints in the morning with a woman in Sweden. It's ouch-it-hurts o'clock for me and I'm pretty sure it's the middle of the afternoon for her, but we're both writing and so it works. I live a pretty small life here in reality, rarely venturing much beyond my little suburban neighborhood except on vacations, but on the internet I get to do a little globetrotting a couple times a week.

How fleurking cool is that?!?

But it's easy to forget sometimes that the internet isn't my personal playground and I don't get to control who else is globetrotting. I read somewhere the other day that a person's blog is like their living room. If you go there, you should play by their rules and they can kick you out whenever they feel like it.

I sort of agree with that, as long as we're all willing to acknowledge the fact that most of the time the blogger doesn't actually own the house their bloggy living room is in and so really the bank--be it Blogger or Wordpress or whatever--is the one with the power to kick everyone out, including the blogger themselves. Anyway, you go to someone else's house, you should be polite and drink their particular brand of tea. Or, if you don't want to participate in their tea party, then you excuse yourself and head on home to enjoy a cup of coffee or can of Coke or shot of tequila on your own comfy couch instead. That's generally accepted protocol we all learn how to deal with as small children and I'm good with that.

But it's also important, I think, to realize that my blog isn't like my living room in the middle of a typical Tuesday afternoon. My blog is more like my living room on a Friday night, if I had just thrown open the front door and invited the whole neighborhood over for a big freaking party. I'm posting this on the internet where anyone and everyone could stumble across it, not sending a private letter to a few close friends, and later I'm going to tweet about it too, inviting everyone in the world (who happens to use Twitter) to come over and play.

On the one hand, yeah, if you go to someone's party and get all drunk and loud and start cursing at everyone and breaking the furniture, the host is perfectly allowed to kick you out and tell you never to come back. And if you get violent and abusive, or you keep showing up over and over again, busting into every dinner party they throw and vomiting all over the table, they're perfectly within their rights to call the cops and have them kick you out and tell you never to come back, possibly with some kind of restraining order to back the request up.

But on the other hand, if you throw a party for everyone in the neighborhood, you have to be open to the possibility that people you've never met before, and who might not particularly like your brand of jazz, are going to show up and complain about the music or the food or your random collection of wiener dog figurines. We want everyone who comes to our party to have such a great time that they go home and tell all their friends how awesome we are and then drag them along to our next party. But it's also a possibility that they'll think we suck and they'll go home and tell all their friends that instead.

That's the risk we take when we open the front door by blogging in the first place.

Other forms of social media are the same kind of thing, only, to stretch the metaphor even further, they're less exclusive than your living room. Unless you have one of those private accounts where people have to request permission to follow, Twitter isn't your living room or even your front yard. Twitter is more like Central Park.

You can go to Central Park and hang out with your friends. Outside the metaphor I'm abusing to death here, I've never been there myself. But I would go if I could, because it looks like a cool place to get together with folks and spend an afternoon.

But you know what they say about Central Park? If you hang out there long enough, everyone in the world walks by. And if you're standing next to that big fountain in the middle of everything shouting about how much you think someone sucks or how stupid you think they are, you can't really get all indignant if that person happens by and hears you. Particularly not if you're shouting their name in such a way that they can hear your cries no matter where they happen to be in the park at that moment. (Which, by the way, is what you're doing when you @-tag someone in a tweet.)

Now maybe you're the type of person who likes to stand in the park and shout about your viewpoints and you don't care who hears you or what they think. That's cool. That's either some incredible confidence or an equally incredible lack of self-awareness, but either way, have fun with that. Free speech and all, shout away. (Again, recognizing that this metaphor isn't perfect and Twitter isn't actually a public park. Someone else owns that space--actually, lots of someones since Twitter's IPO--and they can send you packing if they so desire.)

But if you're going to do that, recognize that free speech works both ways and someone might decide to shout back at you. Your opinion is just that, your opinion, and everyone else has an opinion of their own that might not necessarily agree with yours. They might decide to stand up right next to you and shout the exact opposite of what you're saying. That's cool too. More free speech and all.

I'm not that type of person. I have opinions about a lot of stuff, but I also have a bit more than a boat load of insecurity. I don't like being yelled at and I don't particularly like confrontation. I'll have to toughen up eventually, or I'm not going to last very long in this business. But for the moment, I'm a coward, and I'm okay owning that particular title.

Some of the cowardice stems from insecurity. I have opinions, but what if my opinions are wrong. Humans are burdened with a need for external validation and a fear of rejection and I've got an uncomfortably large helping of both running around in my psyche. I'm not confident enough to go shouting to the whole world about something, because I worry that the world will just point at me and laugh. Or maybe take absolutely no notice of me at all, which is less scary but still hurts.

And at the most selfish core of things, I suppose I should admit that at least a part of it is because I have fears about my someday career. I think if an editor I might someday want to work with loved a book enough to get his/her boss to invest in it and then spent many hours of their time shepherding it through the whole publishing process, they might not appreciate me standing in the middle of Central Park telling everyone who walks by that said book sucked so hard it may have sprained something.

That kind of thing might hurt their feelings, or bruise their ego, or needle their pride. I know it would do all that and more to me. And people with hurt feelings, bruised egos, and/or needled pride have a tendency not to act like objective professionals. I may not like it, but I can certainly understand it. So it's not hard for me to imagine that they might go back to their office and see my query letter in their inbox and say, "Well then, let me just send you a copy of my form rejection letter and you can review that in the middle of the park."

Or an agent who has no connection to the book I'm railing against at all might see me going on and on in what I think is a perfectly fine if... enthusiastic manner and decide I'm raging around like a crazy person. So he walks by as fast as possible without making eye contact, making a note never to invite that freaking lunatic to one of his cocktail parties.

And the author whose baby I'm stomping all over probably isn't going to be all that eager to hang out with me at a conference or host a guest post for me when I'm trying to publicize my own book somewhere down the line. His/her friends probably aren't going to be interested in doing that either, and neither are the people whose lives may have been touched in some way by that work. Because, of course, just because I thought the book sucked, that doesn't mean there aren't people out there who loved it and had their world rocked by it.

Is it "fair"? Is it "right"? Probably not. I wish things were different. In a perfect world, I could be a person independent of my career. I could have my personal opinions about life and literature and politics and religion and sex, and I could vent them wherever I wanted with no consequences. Maybe we'd even then all have reasonable and informed discussions about those things. And none of that would enter into a business decision regarding my writing. Agents and editors and readers would all judge the material solely on its own merits and what I said and did off the page wouldn't matter at all.

Unfortunately, the world isn't perfect, life isn't fair, and what's right doesn't usually hit the top spot on the average human being's priority list. And, of course, in that world where no one got their feelings hurt, there wouldn't be much of interest to write about either, so maybe we shouldn't be trying so hard to go there anyway. Regardless, I try to keep my head down and my trap shut when I'm in a pissy mood, and I vent my frustration to poor Long-Suffering Husband when I get really worked up about something.

I'm not saying I never hate things or have snarky thoughts. I'm a generally sarcastic person and I'm very fond of snark. And I have on more than one occasion finished a book and said to my husband or my friends, "Wow, that book was the worst piece of trash I've ever read. I can't believe some idiot published that. I feel like I need to bleach my brain."

I'm not some hypocritical ninny wringing her hands and just wishing everyone would play nicely in the sandbox together. If you write things, be they books or reviews or blog posts or 140-character descriptions of your lunch, and you let other people read those things, there are going to be people who don't like them. And some of those people are going to write their own things about how much they didn't like your thing. That's how human interaction works. If you can't accept that, you probably shouldn't be showing your writings to other people in the first place.

But for my part, I probably won't say what I'm thinking unless I'm thinking something nice. At least not here anyway. I'm not saying I shouldn't say negative things, because I don't really buy into the logic behind the unwritten authorial gag rule. I'm just acknowledging that I'm not Miss Clairee and I don't have the kind of confidence it takes to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!"

As I mentioned earlier, I'm a coward.

When I throw open my front door and invite everyone over to a party, it's pretty much going to be dedicated to making everyone as happy as I can. I'll talk about books I like and writers I admire and show off pictures of my fiction kids. Sometimes I'll get particularly frustrated and the sound system will invariably choose that moment to blip and so I'll end up announcing to everyone that I really hate that girl Microsoft's new haircut.

But that's about as edgy as things are likely to get around here. My parties won't be as well attended as they would be if I was handing out free beer and decorating the walls with pictures of naked men, but at least I'm comfortable most of the time.

Maybe things will change someday. I could branch out a bit and bring in some spicier snacks. Or get more aggressive in my Central Park shouting when I'm inviting folks over. I'm sure the Idea Salesman would love it if I did more to get readers in the proverbial door.

Or maybe it'll just be me standing here talking to the voices in my head and watching those strange people from down the street, who show up at every party just to be seen but don't actually bother to talk to anyone while they're there, pass through.

The Bot family is so weird, don't you think?

But all that is my idea of a good way to spend a Friday night (or a Wednesday afternoon, as the case may be) and it doesn't necessarily apply to how you behave in your living room. I guess what I'm trying to say is this: go ahead and have wild parties where everyone gets crazy and either ends up fighting or making out if that's what you like to do. Host a giant bitch-session, Bring-Your-Own-Snark. Invite people over for a to-the-death cage match in your backyard if that's the way you like to play. Just don't be surprised when the furniture gets broken every now and again and your quieter neighbors never accept your invitations.

Expressing your opinions is risky business, particularly in this business.

No comments:

Post a Comment