Authors Behaving Badly: Why We Can't Help It and Why We Have To Knock It Off Already

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Title: Authors Behaving Badly: Why We Can't Help It and Why We Have To Knock It Off Already
Creator: Mary Janice Davidson
Date(s): February 21, 2013
Medium: online
External Links: Authors Behaving Badly: Why We Can't Help It and Why We Have To Knock It Off Already, Archived version
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Authors Behaving Badly: Why We Can't Help It and Why We Have To Knock It Off Already is a 2013 meta essay by Mary Janice Davidson.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the author's past "asshatery"
  • the poor behavior of Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, and other pro writers
  • the futility of arguing with people on the internet
  • feedback

Excerpts from the Essay

Writers are needy crybabies.

Yeah. There it is. We are. It's just -- okay, some writers are reading this and already disagreeing so hard their left arm is tingling and they're short of breath, and I'm sorry this blog might tip them into a cardiac event, but writers are needy crybabies. And this isn't about me projecting, either. It's not just me this time. It's probably not just me.

We check reviews of our books; of course we do. (See above: needy.) And that's where the trouble always starts, because people who aren't our moms review our books. Let me say that again so I can reiterate the horror: people who aren't genetically programmed to love us review our books. This happens to almost all writers and sometimes the results aren't pretty.

For myself, I often chalk up a bad review to a communication break-down. (Though I did get one nasty review that disparaged my book and my hair, specifically my "soccer mom bangs". My rebuttal: "Hey, jackass, these are marching band mom bangs. Bet you feel stupid now." That review I chalked up to a bad hair day.) It's pretty arrogant, but sometimes I'll read a scorcher review and cluck my tongue and shake my head and sigh, "That poor guy! He just didn't understand what I was trying to put across. If I could sit down with him and explain my visioney vision he'll totally get it and then he'll love me. My book! That's what I meant; he'll love my book. Because that's secretly what I want: reviewer love. For my book. (Shut up, you're the one who's insecure.)"

So you take writer arrogance and add it to our needy crybabying and factor in reviewers not programmed to love us and divide by the Internet and you've got authors firing rebuttals that the entire world can read two seconds after we hit Send. Back in the day, a writer could pen a pissy reply to a reviewer for, I dunno, a newspaper or something? Anyway, when the reviewer got the rebuttal, they could fire something back, address an envelope, laboriously dig up a stamp, then walk to the PO and drop their letter in a big blue box. They might show the letters to a colleague but at the end of the day, no matter what was said, there was an excellent chance the rest of the planet wasn't privy to any of it.

Yeah, um, it's different now. Social media + whiny crybabies = This.

I'll say it straight out: I feel guilty usingLaurell K. Hamilton as an example, but not guilty enough. I've met her many times; she and her husband Jon are the nicest people. She's given me wonderful career advice. She's offered to do signings with me, and no one who's been #1 on the NYT list has to sign with other writers, ever. But it's because I know she's so nice and professional that I've put her on a list that includes Anne Rice and me. She's my proof that you can be hugely successful (her books are sold all over the world, some of them have been published as graphic novels, she's pondering a movie deal, she's frequently on best-seller lists, etc.), have tons of adoring fans (go to a signing and try NOT to wait in line for two hours), be devoted to the characters (people all over the web don't just talk about her characters, they turn them into terrific art: and still fall into this trap.

Which brings me to Anne Rice:

I've never met Anne Rice and don't care for her books. But that's a failing in me, because close to a million copies of her books have sold and she's had legions of fans for almost forty years, so there's something going on there that I just don't get. And that's fine; this isn't about me not getting her books. She's on the list for the reasons Laurell is: you can pull a seven figure income, redefine a genre, be the focus of adoration for hundreds of thousands of fans...and still fall into this trap. This awful "I'm gonna give a million people a piece of my mind while I'm still angry and when they're reading it thirty seconds from now they'll be sorry" trap.

Lest you think this is me talking about the asshatery of others, it is! But I've got a few monuments of my own in the Hall of Wank. There's this: [1] (you'll have to scroll about halfway down to January 11, 2006: "You can reeeeeeally go off some people"

And this:

And here's where I defend my asshatery:

When I mentioned we're whiny crybabies, I forgot to add that we're also crazy. In my case time has lent perspective, and looking back at these six, seven, eight year old posts, my first feeling is regret. Regret that I didn't appreciate all the free time I had on my hands back then. And making an ass of myself. So there's tons of regret there. I'm boob-deep in regret: "Argh, what was I thinking? Why did I keep jumping back into that long dark swimming hole of the soul? Why didn't anyone tell me I was being so obn--oh, right; they did and I blew them off."

Don't get me wrong; I wasn't a victim and my immaturity has been paying off for years. I've got books published in 15 countries; I make a nice living. That's because I jam my characters with odious aspects of my personality and, mysteriously, people like to read about them. But the other end of the pointy sword I've got a sweaty grip on is what you've read above. That same immaturity, coupled with writerly arrogance, leads me to leap before looking, and I usually land chin-deep in virtual cow patties. Which is better than eyeball-deep, but it's still pretty unpleasant.

... I figured I'd offer the benefit of my douchebaggery.

1) Even if you're right, you're wrong. No, really, you're wrong and it's time to swallow that down. Because I promise, nobody cares if you're right. This is one of those times when being right actually works against you.

"Oh my, look who's back: it's MJD, here to right wrongs that had nothing to do with her in the first place." "Yes, but I'm right!"

"Shut up."

"And I have all new brilliant perspective which will help you see things the way I want you t--the way you're supposed to."

"Shut up."

Now reword that a bunch of different ways through a bunch of different people and spread it all over the internet for at least a week, while posts get shriller and further away from whatever the original argument was. Being right is not helpful in these situations, so don't listen to the still small voice inside you telling you you're right. That trouble-making voice is not on your side.

2) You won't change anyone's mind. You just won't. Let's pick the three biggies: abortion, religion, politics. Have you ever explained your POV online and had anyone come back with, "Wow! I never thought about it like that, but you've argued your side so brilliantly that you have changed my mind. Thanks to you, my political views are gonna do a one-eighty."

No. That never happens. You've never done that. No one's ever done that. But writers think we can pull off the impossible in this case because it's not about religion or politics; it's about our books. No one knows them better than we do, so we're the perfect (non)objective person to defend them. Vigorously. And, eventually, depending on the extent of the blow-up, hilariously. However you do it, how often you do it, you're not gonna win anyone over to your side. And even if you did, when the internet rage gets going it's like a perpetual motion machine running on bitchery, and one person's nice comment will quickly be buried under the not-nice comments from reviewers who hate your hair. So you can't change anyone's mind but, even if you did, it wouldn't make a difference.

3) Everything that happens after you wade in is your fault. I know, victim-blaming isn't cool. (Referring to yourself in any of these internet rage wars as the victim isn't cool, either, even when you are; remember, in the online world being right works against you.) I can't tell you how many bloodbaths would have trickled down to nothing faster if the author hadn't waded in.

Just as it's a reader's right to express their opinion, it's also the author's right. But because IT'S MY RIGHT, JACKHOLES is not a good reason to jump in. Also, some people don't like being called jackholes. I've got the right to eat anything I want for breakfast, but that doesn't mean I should slurp a mixing bowl of heavily sugared chocolate Malt O'Meal with a V-8 chaser. I had the right to eat that vile brew! And now I deeply regret indulging my rights. I will be in the bathroom for the next ninety minutes if you need me. Damn you, rights!

Other things that will be your fault: how long the debate rages and how nasty it gets in a hurry. Don't talk about fair. None of this is about fair.

4) Don't party crash someone else's fight. I was notorious for this, so heed me: even when the intentions are great, the fallout isn't worth it. "But it's not about me at all. It's about my colleague, Insert Name Here. They're being mean and telling lies about her. She's too classy to stick up for herself but I'm not! That came out wrong."

You. Will. Not. Help. Them. You absolutely won't. You will make things worse. I promise: you will make things worse. What you're doing when you do that? Making things worse. Then your colleague has the awful choice of speaking up to defend your defense, or saying nothing and watching you sink beneath the waves. ("The last thing I saw before she went down for the third time was her middle finger. Her last words were 'suck it, haterz!'. This is not how I wanted my birthday to go.") This is not helping your colleague; it's the polar opposite. Stay out of it. I know it's hard to stand by while someone you respect is getting stomped. Colleagues who wouldn't defend themselves against felony arson charges will charge into an online review war to stick up for a friend. No. No. No.

5) Let it go, let it go, let it go. Whatever it is. Just don't.

"But this time it's not just about opinions. They're outright lying! They're crediting me with a post I didn't write! How can the smart thing be to let them flail in the soup of their pig-headedness?" (The soup of their--? Jeez. I need a nap.)

Because to not is the crybaby writer thing; see above.

"But I didn't say that. I never said that. Now the discussion is completely off the subject and everybody's yelling at me about something I did not say."

I understand. It's irksome. But remember, being right isn't going to help even a little. So instead, put it in the context of "real" life. What if you were bopping down the street thinking about Subway for lunch, when a stranger swoops down on you and shrieks, sans preamble, "I know you're the one who killed all my mom's cats and put tinfoil in the middle of my brain!" and then runs away? Would you blow off Subway and chase after him? "I never killed those cats, and there's not a single roll of tinfoil anywhere in my house!" you'd scream, hot on his crazy heels. "If someone said I did that stuff, it's a damn lie! You get back here when I'm yelling at you, Mysterious Weirdo! This isn't finished! I have more things to yell at someone I don't know and will probably never see again!"

Yeah, wouldn't. I wouldn't. (Lie. I would, but I have a lot of substance abusers in my family and we sort of thrive on that shit.) Most of us wouldn't because the idea is as nutty as the random guy accusing you of felicide, you taking it seriously and chasing him only to eventually end up murdered in his murder basement. No, instead you'd shrug and blow them off and likely never think of them again. Because you know it's not smart to mess with shoutey strangers.

So the next time you get a bad review, check your WWLDIHWD bracelet (What Would Lance Do If He Wasn't Doping) and remind yourself of steps 1 through 5. Do it as often as you need to, rinse, repeat.

As I mentioned above, I'm living in the glassiest of glass houses; my online feuds are legion, and what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet forever after! And when you stumble across one years later, I promise: you'll be amazed at all the much ado about nothing, and aghast at how shrill and un-sexy you got. A colleague stumbled across an ancient online pissing contest between me and eight thousand irked readers (ancient = four years ago, so internet ancient) and asked, "Do you regret wading in?" After some thought, my answer was, "No, but I'll need a minute to explain why." And that's where the blog came in.

Years ago, I had to do that silly shit. I had to click Send without spending a day thinking about what I was trying to accomplish with my post. I had to be the crybaby writer lurching from one pissed off blog to another like a toddler cruising the living room who bonks her head and collapses, screaming. Writer/reader blogs are the living room furniture I'm lurching to and from. The temper tantrum in the living room, where I'm beating my heels on the carpet and getting puffy and gross and ending up with a snot moustache? That has to happen to me. (Good God, I need a nap.) I've got to blunder through all that shit, because it's the only way I'll learn. It's like when your grandma finally gets the internet, and she's all excited about Bill Gates sending her to Disneyland after she wires the Nigerian Royal Family some much-needed funds. You know if you tell her it's a scam she won't believe you; she's gotta find that stuff out for herself. That's me and online feuds: the bigger the ass I make of myself, the better I learn the lesson and the longer it stays with me. It's the only way I'll learn.

I don't regret any of the messes I jumped into; they were my mistakes to make. And make them I did, yeesh. But please take a page from my book o'gaffes and resist making your own. At the end of the day, we love our work and can't imagine not writing. Good reviews or bad, we're so incredibly fortunate that we get to do what we do. Reviews and online feuds and agonizing over print runs and trying to make deadlines, that's all part of it, sure. But it's not why we started in the first place. We started because writing was so much better than not writing. Anything else is just blog-fodder.