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.