The Writer-Reader Relationship Beyond the Book

Boy, you go out to get a haircut and when you come back, your funny spur-of-the-moment blog turns into serious action. Lots of good stuff there, emphasis on “lots.” I went through all the comments from the beginning, trying to synthesize the various positions and by the time I finished five more people had posted. So I may not be up to date on the responses here.

First, I’m the one who posted the e-mail not X. So all flack should be directed at me; she’d just have let it go. So now I’m asking myself why I posted it. It was a spur of the moment thing: she sent me the e-mail, I spit my Diet Coke across the keyboard, I said, “Can I have this for the blog?”, she said yes, and I posted it.

So why? I mean, obviously I thought it was funny, but clearly there was more going on than that. I’ve gotten other funny e-mails from readers and never posted them, gotten weird responses on Amazon and never called attention to them, had people say incredibly strange things to me in person and never blogged about it. Why this one?

Most of the published authors who’ve commented on the post and who’ve e-mailed me off-loop are pretty much laughing their butts off at X’s response, and I’m wondering if in part it isn’t because the response was intended to frustrate, and we’ve all been so frustrated for so long with receiving this kind of criticism and doing the smart thing and ignoring it, that maybe the frustration is what’s fueling at least in part the anti-letter-writer reaction. Whatever it is, it’s real and it’s widespread, so there’s something there that’s hitting a nerve in writers, and in me particularly.

But just as real is the opposition. I’m not going to quote comments or use names here because I may be synthesizing the arguments incorrectly, but looking at my notes they seem to be these:

Everybody’s slamming the letter writer and congratulating X, and that seems unfair, “pummeling a gnat,” a Mean Girls’ action since the letter-writer doesn’t have the forum or the power that I do (leaving X out of this since she didn’t post the letter, I did).

If I had posted the letter writer’s full name and e-mail address (and I do regret posting her first name now), I think this would be more valid. My knee-jerk reason for posting it was not to say, “Go stone this letter writer,” it was because I thought it was ludicrous, so yep, it was put up there to provoke laughter, especially the laughter of recognition. That one I’ll give you and I don’t feel guilty about that, although I could probably have left off the paragraph that followed it; that was me chortling.

The letter writer sent a personal attack in an e-mail, and now I’m doing the same thing by posting the letter for public mockery, the posting itself and the comment I made after the letter constituting a personal attack.

I don’t think posting the letter was a personal attack. The gloss on it afterward was definitely uncomplimentary.

The letter writer is obviously writing out her hurt, disappointment, and frustration, and we should have been kinder to her.

Nope. You don’t get a free ride because you’re feeling ouchy.

My post was bashing fundamentalist red-staters.

Nope. I come from conservative red-staters. It’s probably fair to say that my post was bashing people who try to censor writers. I’ll go with that.

The letter writer has a point in trying to stop X from writing what upset her; it’s not enough to say, “If you don’t like it, don’t read it,” because other people will have access to what she sees is a slander on her community.

Nope. That’s censorship.

Any public response a writer makes to a personal attack from a reader is probably a bad idea from a PR point of view.

Good point. I am not known for my tact and discretion. You can take it as a guarantee that many authors have gotten much worse from many other readers and not published the letter or the response for that reason. On the other hand, I don’t think anybody reads this blog because I’m tactful or politically correct, so is this really a surprise?

You can’t share anything with me because you have no expectation of privacy; the letter writer’s was violated by my post, which means I am not on a higher moral ground.

This is so true, although I never claim the higher moral ground on anything or anybody except maybe Bob. But you’re absolutely right that you can’t share anything with me and expect it to remain private. As Bob always says, I’d last about two seconds in Special Ops; they wouldn’t even have to torture me to get the information, I’d give it to them chatting over a Diet Coke. So let this be a warning to anybody who e-mails me and tells me what I can and can’t write: You can’t trust me any farther than you can throw me. I know that’s terrible; what’s the world coming to when you can’t write a personal attack to a complete stranger and not feel secure that she’ll keep it to herself?

And then a lot of discussion over who has power in the writer-reader relationship which is what I’m really interested in.

What I think I’m getting here is that there’s an assumption that the power structure is so unequal that it was somehow bullying of me to post the letter here (I’m not going to bring X into this since most of the hoo-ra is about posting it on the blog, not her answer). It’s okay for the letter writer to write a bullying, condescending letter to X but it’s not all right for me to print the letter here and condescend back because she doesn’t have the resources and the audience I do. And I’m thinking that the mistake I made wasn’t in the paragraph following the letter, it’s that i didn’t use the letter to make a point. It really was just a “look at this ridiculous letter” instead of “here’s a letter and here’s why it’s important for me to show it to you.” It was not a thoughtful post and it didn’t give people anything to say except, “Boy, what a maroon.” Except of course that Argh commenters always have plenty to say; I could put up a blank post and you’d all run with it. So it turned into a good discussion anyway, just one without direction because I didn’t give it a context.

So here’s a context:

I’ll agree that this isn’t about “rights” as such. But it is about the writer-reader relationship. And in any relationship, people make assumptions that sometimes aren’t met, which I think is what happens when any of us get this kind of letter. Readers write personal attacks because they’re angry, and I’d be willing to bet that they’re angry because they feel betrayed, they bought the book or took it out of the library, curled up for a good read, and got THIS. I’ve been there so I can sympathize.

So then most readers throw the book against the wall, never buy that author again, and tell all their friends it was terrible. If it’s my book we’re talking about, I understand that. Not thrilled about it, but understand it. But for some readers the disappointment goes so deep, or their anger about other things in their life attaches itself to that disappointment, and they turn on the author and vilify her.

Which brings us to the writer, who half-killed herself writing that book. I’ve never heard a writer say, “Boy, that book was easy,” we all go through hell at some point with our books. And some people don’t like them, and that’s hard to take even though it’s reasonable since nobody can write a book everybody likes. So you take the criticism and you eat a box of Hostess Cupcakes and you move on. And then you get the one that tells you you’re vile and you shouldn’t be allowed to write X again, and that’s not all right. You put your book out there for criticism, you did not say, “And then come kick me.” But because you’re the public figure, you’re expected not to respond because you’ve got all the power, you should be on the higher moral ground while the people on lower ground throw stones. After all, you’ve got it all. And most writers do exactly that because it’s the smart thing to do, they do it for years, as the crazies come at them and the abuse keeps coming, and they find out that the more successful they get, the faster the abuse comes and the harsher it gets because people are angry about their success. So the assumption grows: if you’ve got that much success, then it’s okay for people to attack you.

So you handle it by looking at the whatever the attack was and telling yourself, “Deep breath, she’s her and obviously miserable or she wouldn’t be wasting her time spreading bile, and you’re you and you’re happy. Let it go. You win.” And then one day, you don’t let it go. Because it’s not okay. You cannot insult me (or in this case, my friend) and feel betrayed when I respond; you can not take the low road and then be outraged when I come down to join you, you cannot call me names and then say, “Not fair!” when I tell people that you called me names. Of course, the letter writer didn’t do any of this since she doesn’t know about the blog or at least isn’t responding to it, but she has many proxies here so I’ll make that argument for them.

This is not Mother Teresa’s blog. But it’s not Dick Cheney’s blog, either, so come on in and tell me how wrong I am:

Is the assumed inequality of power enough to excuse a reader from personally attacking a writer? Or to put it another way, how much does the fact that both parties in the relationship are strangers and one party is a successful public figure negate or excuse the need for civilized discourse? Is the inequality of power based on the fact that one partner has a public venue and the other doesn’t, or on the assumption that one party can say anything he or she wants without fear of reply because it would be disadvantageous for the other party to respond? And if the abused party responds to the insult, is that a violation of the relationship or a logical outcome of it?

Or whatever question you want to ask that I missed somehow.

The Office: Ta Da

So I took my birthday and the next day off except I did work on the bookcases in the hall. I didn’t get them finished of course, but I worked on them. I couldn’t help myself, the momentum got me. But yes, there should be before and after pictures.

So here’s where we started:

And this is now:Office Back

And here’s the other view:

And this is now:


Okay, I accidentally focused on Wolfie who popped his head into the frame because he was sitting in the desk chair. Here’s the other end of the office in focus:


You’ll notice that while there are still books stacked in the hall beyond, they’re stacked more neatly. I feel this is crucial. And I will get them off the floor. So I can walk through the hall and clean up the living room. Damn, I have a lot of cr– stuff. But while I was cleaning up the hall, I found all the Mesopotamia books, so that’s good. Really, cleaning is a good thing.

Although that kind of shoots the “never have too much of a good thing” right in the instep, doesn’t it?

Office 12: Huh.

Well, that was . . . interesting.

Some of you have probably heard me talk about how I began writing fiction for the first time when I worked on my romance dissertation in 1991. Turns out that was a lie. That last box went deep into my past and along with several shocks came half a dozen folders full of typewritten mystery fiction–typewritten means the early eighties or even seventies–that i had completely forgotten about. After I read a couple of pages at random, I knew why: I was blocking the memory. Geez, it was bad. But still, there are folders of this stuff.

There were other inexplicable things. Like why I put my Literary Theory notes in a Garfield spiral notebook. I don’t even like Garfield. And some things weren’t inexplicable which was worse. Lotta memories in Das Box. Whoever said to give that box a Viking funeral without looking into it, that might have been good.

But still, there is now a place for everything and everything is in that place. And along the way, I cleaned out my closet, did my mending, and almost finished the baby blanket for my editor. I also put autumn leaves on the mailbox, did all the laundry, and cleaned out the car. I think there’s something wrong with me. Or maybe it’s just one of those turning points in life. Time to get rid of the old to open up the future. Anyway, I’ve still got an incredible mess in the studio–although it’s all art mess and fairly new so there won’t be any more historical time bombs–and boxes of books in the hall, and the kitchen needs cleaned and so does the bathroom. Too much stuff. But I’m on it.

But I’ll tell you, after Das Box, I had a drink. And i don’t drink. Do not look in old boxes, people. The dead walk again.

Office 10: Box Despair

Along with cleaning out the office, I regularly clean out the spam filter for this site. While occasionally there’s something funny, like the credit lenders who put “Exciting review on! I love this write ups!” in the message field which some how does not increase my faith in their professionalism, mostly it’s boring and occasionally it’s vile. So while I try to scan for your lost messages, sometimes I just delete everything.

I am tempted to do the same thing with the boxes.

There are a lot of boxes in this office. I looked at them and thought, “I just can’t,” and pulled everything out of my closet instead, covering the bed with clothes that are as mixed as the boxes. There’s good stuff in there but it’s mixed in with stuff that’s not my size and stuff that’s not my color and stuff that’s not my personality–where did I get all these damn blazers?–so it’s time to clear that out, too. Of course there I have to try to forget how much I paid for the stuff I’m putting in the box for my sister-in-law’s church’s rummage sale. With the boxes in the office, that’s not a problem because the stuff is most papers and, well, junk.

It’s the sheer boring extent of it. That fifteen minute rule is a good one because even telling myself I can do this one box at a time, I’m screaming. Which is bad anyway because there are only two days left after today, and there are at least four boxes over there still, including the Box from Hell, which is easily going to take one day. So I’m thinking this is why cleaning out paper is so depressing. It takes forever, it’s dusty, it’s boring, and it’s endless. I could just cart the boxes out to the trash, but I might miss something. Which brings us back to Fly Lady’s fifteen minutes a day. This is a smart thing. If I was doing fifteen minutes on the boxes, I could stand it. It’s the hour it takes to get through one, only to find that the only thing worth keeping is six pencils and a nail clipper. I’m not getting enough bang for my buck. Or box. Only it’s not the box, i have no trouble going through any number of boxes on Christmas Day.

Really, if you’re looking at boxes, go for the fifteen minutes a day. Me, I want to get the office done in twelve days. So tomorrow . . .

God, I hate boxes.

Office 9: More @#$%^&* Boxes

It’s like wading through molasses. Especially since USA did a Burn Notice Marathon today and there are six episodes on there I’ve never seen. There’d be more but my DVR missed the first four. This is very bad because I have a serious Jeffrey Donovan habit, exceeded only my sincere admiration and long-term devotion to Bruce Campbell, AND I DIDN’T FIND THIS SHOW UNTIL TUESDAY. And then my DVR lets me down. The NYT was a bummer, but this is a disaster.

OTOH, I have six episodes. Plus the one from Tuesday. Maybe USA will be fast on its feet with the DVD. A peach can dream, anyway.

But first the boxes. Well, not all of them. I’m not insane. But I’m playing the sound track to D&G so that’ll help. Elvis singing “One Night With You” goes a long way to easing psychic pain.

Two hours later, I’ve got one box done, but it’s not so bad. I found some some really great stuff like the wonderful card the Mysterious Laura sent me awhile back that shows a fifties housewife sitting on a freezer door saying, “And this is where I keep my ex-husband’s body.” And a Rosie the Riveter sticker she sent, too. The freezer lady is going up on the bulletin board. And I found some old papers I typed for my master’s degree. Yes, typed. Dear God, how did I exist without a Mac? Actually, I’ve found the papers for both my MA and my MFA and the stuff for my first run at the diss. And some very old notes. Like for Getting Rid of Bradley. And a letter to a friend where he talks about me going to Penn State for a conference in October of 1996 which is the conference where I first met Patricia Gaffney and she hung me out to dry at dinner, so of course we’ve been BFFs since then. Eleven years, Gaffney. Hard to believe.

So two hours, one box. Lotta memories. This stuff is not for the faint of heart.

So I’m going to drown my memories in Jeffrey and Bruce. And do the rest of the boxes tomorrow. Well, not all of them. This is going to take days.

Office 8: The Bookcase

Today was not a good day, so I put off doing the boxes again and concentrated on the bookshelves at the end of the office. I used to have a half one there, only waist high, but I like the privacy the bigger one gives me so it’s staying. It just can’t stay like this:


So once I pushed the boxes away (yes, I know it would be easier if I did the boxes first, but those boxes are awful, those boxes are plotting against me, I’m convinced of it, bleah on the boxes), I started pulling books off the shelf and determining if they’d stay because they’re research (in which case they go into labeled bankers boxes) or go because I was done with them (anywhere but here). There was also minimal tchtochke clean-up; my friends think action figures are hysterical which is why I have two Spikes (Val), a male nurse (Susan Wiggs), Jane Austen (Robin LaFevers), and Anya Bunny (okay, I bought that one). I also have a nice lot of Corpse Bride figures, but that’s research for Always Kiss Me Goodnight so it doesn’t count. And don’t get me started on the Wonder Woman stuff I accumulated with Don’t Look Down; it’s all in the TV room with my comic book stuff anyway. Do they make a Hellboy action figure? They must. Actually the one I want is Liz Sherman. “You should be running.” I want that on a t-shirt.

Where was I? Right, the bookcase. What became apparent fairly quickly was that this was the place to put the research books for all the stuff I’m working on or thinking about working on. But since you can see the bookcase from both the hall and the office, one side was always going to have the back of books (see above) plus I needed a lot more space than lining the books up on the shelves was going to give me. Which meant putting the books in banker’s boxes. Except banker’s boxes, even the white ones, are ugly. I thought briefly about getting colored ones, but Staples didn’t have them and I didn’t feel like paying $40 a box for leather ones from some pricey upscale office store, so I went to Target and bought contact paper. There wasn’t a lot of choice, but they had a pattern with spots (I love spots, also checks and spirals) in brown that was close to the floor and blue that was close to color I used in the hall. So I bought it and came home and covered ten bankers boxes in spotted contact paper.

This was important because today was Wednesday, NYT day. Next Sunday, the NYT will report that Agnes is #24, but today we found out that the following Sunday, Agnes is not on the list. Bleah. Well, I found out, Bob is somewhere on the road in the Explorer, assuming it hasn’t blown up on him, crossing the country in his quest for the Pacific Northwest. And inner peach, probably. He likes driving alone. The only problem is when he falls asleep and run into a tree in Georgia, but he should be long out of Georgia by now. Actually, I don’t think he went through Georgia. So he’s driving in blissful ignorance, full of peach, and I’m sitting on the floor putting contact paper on banker’s boxes because it’s a very mindless process and I need a little mindless right now, although my pulse is racing from the half quart of peanut butter cup ice cream I ate after Meg called. I would have eaten more, but that’s all there was in the carton.

Okay, contact paper on banker’s boxes is not high tech, nor is it easy to get smooth, but I like it. The only problem is that all this light blue which goes great with the hall does not go with the black and red window seat. At the moment this is not bothering me, but it will, it will. I’m a Virgo. We obsess.

So a few words about the legitimacy of what I did today. All those boxes are full of books. They are not full of all the books that were there, so some of those books got moved to the hall with the rest of the bookcases. This smacked to me of merely moving piles around without cleaning, except that i took books out of the bookcases there to fill the research boxes. So I think I’m good. It’s a judgment call.

And the whole thing was really enlightening because while I had one box for Emmeline (Always Kiss Me Goodnight) and one box for Shar (Dogs and Goddesses) and even one box for Petal who may never get written, I had five boxes for Nadine. Which leads me to believe that the Girls in the Basement have big plans for her. The other two boxes? One’s Emily Jessica, the tentative name for the heroine of the children’s story I’m tentatively writing (probably not) and the other is books on graphic novels because I’m pretty sure I want to do one. So all my research in one place is a very good idea. And I think I like the contact paper. If not, it was only ten bucks.

So the bookcase is done, and now it looks like this:


Which means there’s only one part of the office left.

Kill me now.

Office 7: The Brainstorming Wall

Day 7. Halfway there. And so much more than fifteen minutes a day, but still, doable. I’m still tripping over six boxes, but now it’s on to the . . . well, it’s hard to know what to call this one. I mean, obviously, there’s the white board. But underneath it is all this storage I just sort of stuck there without a plan:

Brainstorm Walla

So clearly, the big job here is going to be figuring out what this wall of storage is for, beyond a place to stick things. And then figuring out what I’ve stuck there and sorting it out. I already took my extra copies of my books and put them in the bookcase with the mailing stuff since I end up mailing them out. That seemed logical. Also there was room for them there. Or there will be until I go through the four cases of Agnes I’m supposed to sign and then send different places. But my archive copies will have to go on this side and there’s really not a good bookcase here. And the whiteboard supplies have to go here, but that’s easy. Then get rid of the reference books or put them in the library. And then . . . I dunno. Which means i just have to dive in. Bleah.

So, an hour later, it’s done. Not bad. Plus I found my American Gothic DVD which I will watch all in one weekend some time when somebody is staying here with me because it’s so wonderfully creepy. And an ARC for a quote that I don’t have to feel guilty about not getting to: Garden Spells which is doing great. And my Alphasmart which seemed like a good idea at the time. And another post-it pad. And after thinking it over, I decided to keep all the grammar references after all. At least until the final day when I look at everything in one last sweep because I think I’m keeping some things that I really don’t need. I’ve already take four large green garbage bags out of here, so the first purge is pretty radical, but I think I can fine tune it more. Or maybe on the last day, I’ll just go to iHop and celebrate with pancakes. Anyway, here’s the brainstorming wall:


And now, six boxes and the bookcase. And since I have five more days, probably a start on the hall where the rest of the bookcases are. Although those boxes are really threatening. I remember moving one to Columbus, and that would be about 1995 . . . Well, at least I can get to my whiteboard now.

Nothing but brainstorming ahead.

Office 6: More Floor with Inner Peach

Publishing appears to be going to hell, but then it does that on a regular basis. Several people I know have careers in turmoil and more join the group every day. I’m looking around at my own career tangles, and what I’m thinking is that I’m just going to sit here quietly until October and see what shakes out. Clean some office. Write some fiction. Eat some ice cream. Pat some dogs. Achieve, as I typed last night on our D&G brainstorming chat, inner peach.

So today I did just fifteen minutes. Tackled one of the boxes on the floor, stopped getting frustrated wrangling things (I still can’t get that damn label printer to work), concentrated on the things I can control, not the things I can’t. The business I’m in makes no sense, so there’s no sense thinking about it. Besides, I’m sure there’s nothing but good times ahead. Eventually.

And I got two boxes off the floor. Onward and upward to inner peach.

Office 5: The Printer Wall

I’ve arrived at the realization I always come to about now in any of the Twelve Days things: twelve days is a long time. I don’t know how people stood it each Christmas. By about day four of the party, I’d have been saying, “You know, I’ll just take a nap for this one.” But the good news is, the back half of my office is now clean:

Office Back

And it probably took me twelve days if you count fifteen minutes as a day. Which I can’t so now I have to do the front half of my office:


Technically that’s More Floor, Printing Shelves, Brainstorming Wall, and the bookcase, although the bookcase is really part of the library . . . no, it’s there at the end of my office. It has to be in here, too.

The floor is going to take hours. Ugh. So I’m going to ignore it and do the printer wall. I’m pretty sure I can do that in under an hour. There’s not that much paper to read on there. So here’s the wall:

Printer Wall

Big revelation here: Why do I have reference books when I have the internet? So they went except for the crucial stuff like Beyond Jennifer and Jason, and that went on the shelves behind the other desk, so I freed up a lot of space. I put the mailing supplies down at the end because I don’t mail that much (so why do I have so many envelopes?), and then I got to the computer box. I had ten different trackballs and mice (mouses?), one still in the box. Who knew I had a mouse habit? And Bob, if you’re reading this, I appear to have three firewire cables. So :p. Also two phones because I kept switching out phones until I realized the problem was in the line. And two rechargers for something. Probably the old cellphones. Anyway, untangling that took some time. Then there was the universal recharger Bob told me not to buy because it was lousy but I ignored him and it was lousy, so it’s sitting on the floor glaring at me now. Also an ancient Airport; if I ever do a book on UFOs, it’ll be great for the collage. And a hard drive Mollie made me buy that I’ve never figured out how to hook up. It’s hanging out with the universal recharger, smug in its defiance. But basically the shelves were easy. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, really.

It was the top that was the time sink. Electronics. Cords. USB ports. Bleah.

I’m going to have to do those boxes on the floor tomorrow, shoving them out of the way to do the printer wall was annoying. But I hate the thought of those damn papers because you have to look at EVERY ONE OF THEM, such a time sink. But in the meantime, here’s the finished printer wall:


I can’t get enough distance on it to show you the whole wall, so take my word for it, it’s clean. And really it was the easiest of the lot so far. Except for hooking up the label printer which still isn’t right. Electronics. Bleah. Thank god i only have one wall of them.