This isn’t a call out post, though in some cases you’ll be able to read between the lines. That’s not the purpose. Two of the few individuals I’ll single out by name are John Green and E.L. James, and they are largely passive players in the current online dramas their names keep surfacing in. This post is neither a condemnation of them or an endorsement. I bring them up here as examples of authors who have recently been made, perhaps unwillingly, into banners for much larger crusades.
With that in mind, I have to address something that has been bothering me ever since the #AskELJames hashtag last week. For anyone unaware, an individual who is either woefully out of touch or disastrously optimistic thought it would be a great idea for E.L. James to do a Twitter Q & A, in which fans would be able to ask questions and hashtag them with #AskELJames in the hopes of getting their queries answered. A domestic violence prevention group that has protested Fifty Shades of Grey many times in the past came up with the idea that critics of the violence, rape, misogyny, homophobia and racism in the books should flood the tag with questions about all of these issues, to see if James, who is notorious for hostile responses to criticism, would address any of them. But in the hours leading up to the event, some of the questions became, well, mean. People insulted her weight, her intelligence, her appearance, all the standard issue internet hate one would expect to get from just, you know. Being on the internet.
People felt sympathy for her, and that sympathy turned into statements like, “You have to feel bad for her,” which seems harmless in the rhetorical. But then it became an order, “You have to feel bad for her. Nobody would like to hear those things said about them,” before finally throwing in the b-word: “You have to feel bad for her. Nobody would like to hear those things said about them. This is bullying.”
One author came to James’s defense with a blog post imploring us to all be nice, and categorizing the event as a mean-spirited free-for-all in which an innocent author was attacked for no reason and with no means of protecting herself. People online are, after all, people in real life. Comparisons to Cersei’s walk of shame on Game of Thrones were made. E.L. James was, truly, a martyr to the irredeemable beast that is social media.
One thing everyone seemed to overlook was the fact that James herself famously said that criticism would be easier to take “with a nice fat paycheck,” and that she has behaved atrociously toward people on-line since her days in the Twilight fandom. But what goes around comes around is no longer fair, it seems; you should be able to have your cake and shit on everyone else’s without criticism or retaliation.
At the same time, a storm that had been raging for weeks seemed to have been blowing over. It concerned YA author John Green and a tumblr post made by a fan who criticized Green’s interaction with teens. Weeks ago, Green posted a rebuttal to defend himself from allegations of child sexual abuse that were never made. To be frank, I can see why he leapt to that ardent defense, as being an adult man with unfettered digital access to many teenage girls is a position that requires extreme caution. But when YA bloggers and readers pointed out exactly that, authors came out in droves to defend Green from allegations which, again, were never made. The Tumblr user was driven off the site by fans angry that Green had announced he would limit his use of social media. One author stated they “genuinely had reason to distrust male authority figures,” and were “ill” over the controversy, implying that teens who disagreed with them did not have a good enough reason to discuss the issue or their instincts when it comes to adult men.
A teen writer, Camryn Garret, wrote an op ed for The Huffington Post in which she pointed out the connection between silencing teens and fostering rape culture. And yet again, authors rode to John Green’s defense, with one of them calling Garret’s piece an “attack,” as though a teen writer openly acknowledging the power imbalance between bestselling authors with broad social media platforms and their largely anonymous readers put Green in very real danger.
Yesterday, news broke that another YA author, this one much further down the food chain than the others, had announced their resignation from the young adult genre entirely. They would no longer write YA due to the toxic culture that had formed on social media, and their decision was made not in defense of John Green, but in defense of one of the midlist names defending John Green. And of course, the merry-go-round began spinning again, with authors and readers lamenting the loss of this valuable voice and vowing to buy and promote their books.
So it would seem that the tide is turning back toward the Be Nice culture of yore, where readers stayed silent and were happy for the crumbs authors threw to them, and authors with smaller distribution gazed lovingly up at those who had made it. Interestingly enough, the only people who haven’t been weighing in on this subject are Green and James themselves. They haven’t defended themselves half so ardently as the handful of midlisters and bestsellers who stepped up to the plate to decry public response. So I have to wonder…
Is Be Nice the new marketing tool?
One of the easiest ways of garnering sympathy on the internet is to invoke the word “bully.” That accusation has so much power for a word whose meaning has largely been erased through misuse. Bullying implies a power dynamic, the strong preying upon the weak. In what conceivable way was James, arguably the most successful author of all time, disempowered by the voices of dissent in her social media Q&A? At what point was Green brutally oppressed by a larger discussion of concerns that had long gone unexamined with regards to YA authors and their access to teens through the internet, a discussion in which he was no longer the subject but merely the catalyst? More puzzling still is the “abuse” some of the authors defending them believe they’ve been unfairly subjected to when others have disagreed with them, even mildly.
Make no mistake: some comments made about both Green and James were inappropriate and mean for the sake of meanness. Lines were crossed. But that doesn’t mean they were bullied, any more than a handful of pebbles could bully a mountain. Neither of them are known to be silent in the face of criticism, so why the endless posts and tweets and arguments to support them?
Because if you care hard enough and loud enough, you’ll get a prize.
And that’s really all it is. If you call upon others to Be Nice, you appear positive and constructive, regardless of who or what you’re trying to silence with that attitude. If you flounce loudly from your own genre, you’re making the ultimate sacrifice to positivity because you’re just too Nice to handle all that negativity. If you can call enough attention to your niceness, the big fish might notice you. They might tell all the minnows in their pond about you. One day, you might even leap from your tidal pool into the vast ocean of their popularity, because you did them a solid by defending them.
Is this cynical of me? Maybe. But consider all of the authors out there who don’t put up Fifty Shades or The Fault In Our Stars numbers, many of whom are people of color, GLBTQA+ authors, young women writers (including Camryn Garret), who face hatred on social media and their blogs every day while they’re just out there trying to make their voices heard. Do they receive this kind of impassioned defense? Do they merit pages long blog posts, a series of tweets spread out over weeks, a rallying cry that this is the final straw, all of this meanness must be stopped?
No. They don’t get that. Because there’s nothing in it for a little fish to defend another little fish. And if they sit back and watch that other little fish get eaten? Less fish in the pond means more chance of getting the fish food.
John Green and E.L. James have always been very good at supporting their fellow authors and seem eager to do it, but I’ve never seen an indication that they do this as a reward for their faithful legions of white knights alone. So what do authors seek to gain from shutting down valuable discussion about real issues, and lumping legitimate criticism in with insults and personal attacks?
If it’s an attempt to gain readers, count me out. I’ve been turned off by a lot of authors in the past two weeks. The “haters” didn’t alter my personal opinions of John Green or E.L. James, but I certainly see the defenders in a new light, and it’s not positive.
But maybe that’s just me, not being Nice.