Earlier this week on his show, comedian John Oliver spoke about public shaming, particularly on the Internet. At the time I’m posting this, the YouTube video of the segment, which features an interview with Monica Lewinsky, has nearly five million views. Take a look below:
Now, if you don’t have time to watch the twenty-six minute video, let me reiterate the main points: while public shaming may be needed when someone in the public eye does something truly awful, sometimes the shaming is taken out of context, becomes too harsh, or goes on for far too long, leaving those affected by it psychologically scarred and sometimes affecting their careers and prospects for years afterwards. And unfortunately, this unwarranted shaming happens far too often for all the wrong reasons.*
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens quite a bit in the writing community. Sometimes this has been necessary: in 2017, Lani Sarem tried to scam her novel to the top of the New York Times bestseller list to get a film deal. In 2018, Faleena Hopkins tried to trademark the word “cocky” in book titles so no one else could use the word without fear of legal action. In both cases, the reaction from the greater author community, especially from the genres these writers wrote in, was instrumental in keeping these injustices from going unpunished.
However, there has been a number of authors who’ve been the target of online attacks that frankly don’t deserve it. In the past couple of months, there have been articles about writers who had to withdraw their books from publication–sometimes for huge amounts of money–just because they were targeted by their genre’s online community.
In the case of one author, she withdrew her book after people objected to one of the characters, a slave in that fictional universe’s version of post-Imperial Russia, was described as having “tawny” skin, and took that to mean African-American, meaning a horrible depiction of African-Americans in bondage. I believe the author, who is Asian, was actually going for a commentary on modern slavery and human trafficking in Asia.
In the case of another author, the objection was of the leads being two gay, African-American teens during the Kosovo War and one villain being an Albanian Muslim. And while I have my own reservations on including a Muslim villain, given my past published works, Americans did experience the Kosovo War firsthand, and no side of that conflict had clean hands.**
The fact of the matter is, these attacks are causing more harm than good. Yes, there are times when anger is needed, but in some of these communities the instinct to lash out has gotten so bad that people keep screenshots of things said online by their friends to use against them later if they ever have to. In other words, yesterday’s crusader has to prepare in case they or their friend is today’s victim. Or to put it simply, this is literary self-cannibalism.
And at the rate it’s going, soon there will be no one left to go after. There will be only those who are too scared to write lest they be targeted, those who have been targeted and don’t dare to write anymore, those who walk a tightrope lest they be targeted, and those who would attack and grumble that nothing new and mold-breaking comes out anymore.
So how do we stop it? Well, I think part of the solution has already come about by identifying the issue. But there’s much to do. It starts with awareness. And then it improves by resolving to not be part of mobs like this. Before striking out at anyone, look up to see if articles from reliable sources exist. Read more than one, if possible, from multiple sides. Read the work in question, or excerpts if that’s not available. Then try to understand what the author was going for. And then ask if what people are saying is worth getting angry about.
Also remember that publishers are usually great gatekeepers for this kind of thing. They wouldn’t dare publish something if they thought it was offensive and would cost them more to publish than they could earn. If the publishers deem it fine, shouldn’t that at least factor into our reasoning over whether to get upset over a book’s content?
And if others are upset and you think it’s not worth it, don’t engage. Anger like this is fueled by attention, and refusing to give mobs like this the attention it craves is like depriving a fire of oxygen. Don’t be part of the mob.
Obviously this might not be enough Any social problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and this may only turn out to be one or two prongs. But it’s a start. And without that, we can only expect more of the same, until the writing community at large becomes too toxic to survive. I don’t want to see that. Do you?
And if you’ve been the target of this sort of behavior, know this: you are not the problem. You don’t deserve what happened or what is happening to you. But there are people on your side. More than you realize. And you can get through this. And you will emerge stronger from this. I believe in you, and so do the rest of us.
Have you witnessed this sort of behavior before? Have you any strategies for dealing with this sort of behavior?
*And I’m well aware that even talking about this subject may upset someone and get me targeted for public shaming. However, I’m a Jewish bisexual man with a couple of disabilities and even more eccentricities. My very existence and interests probably offend somebody for stupid reasons. Not to mention I write horror, which always finds a way to offend somebody just by trying to scare people. I won’t let any of that keep me from putting myself out there, so I won’t let this do it either.
And if anyone does try to go after me, they should know: I BITE.
**Also, if one book gets this sort of reaction from these communities for a Muslim villain, I hope television shows like NCIS and Homeland or authors like James Patterson, Dan Brown or Daniel Levin, get the same sort of attention from them. Oh, they don’t? Interesting. Maybe they’re too big for them.
Very wisely said.
Thank you. I had to deliberate a lot before deciding to write this. I’m glad people are responding positively to the article.
This is an interesting discussion.
Back in the day, publishers allowed Tom Sawyer, Gone With The Wind, and To Kill A Mockingbird into the marketplace. Those books would never get published today. The last I heard, Tom Sawyer was banned in some schools. So even books that have been labeled as classics are under scrutiny. No book is safe. No author is really safe.
So what’s the answer? The way I see it, you have two options. 1. Live your life in fear and let others dictate what you do. 2. Do your own thing and be willing to take the criticism when it comes.
You’re not the only one who receives criticism, Rami. I do, too. You’d be surprised how many people get offended by the Christian content I put in my books. They’re also offended I add sex in my books, even though it’s within marriage. One person even got upset that my characters had a certain hair color.There are more examples, but I’ll stop there. Am I going to let those people tell me what to write? No. I almost did. I almost gave up because of the criticisms. Last year, I almost walked away from everything. Then I realized I have to answer to God for everything I write, and as long as I have His approval, that’s what matters. I’m fully expecting my Christian content to eventually get my books removed from sale years down the road when this country has decided it doesn’t want to hear from Christians anymore. I already see a rising of anti-Christian sentiment in the mainstream media, in movies, and on TV. But I can’t let that deter me from something God has called me to do.
You just have to decide which path you’re going to choose. Are you going to write what others want, or are you going to write what you want?
It’s a shame these authors gave up their books. It’s especially a shame that some people gang up on authors and their books. Even if you don’t like what’s in a book, you should let the book rise or fall on its own merits, and readers can decide to support or not support the book with their money. There’s no need to publicly shame authors. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t mind hurting those around them as long as they can get what they want from it. 😦
I don’t know about anti-Christian sentiment, but I’m glad you’re still writing what you love to write, Ruth. And I’m glad you’re not letting criticism get to you. Words may hurt more than broken bones, but we have the power within ourselves to make them as weak as air. Our resolve as writers is a living testament to that.
Well said, Ruth
Great article! But then you always do a great job at being grounded and logical!
Thanks. I try, though I’m never sure how anyone will react to anything I write when I get serious about an issue.
This is a big and challenging topic. I’ve watched almost all of the examples you’ve sited, and unfortunately many others, happen in real time on Twitter and it’s honestly both amazing and alarming. I have a lot of issues with call-out/cancel culture in the writing/book community because I feel that sometimes the reaction gets overblown. As powerful as social media is, it’s also an echo chamber.
That said, the majority of these reactions aren’t without merit. A lot of the strong blow-back against some books speaks to larger issues with the publishing industry. As much as it would be nice to trust that publishing houses are infallible gatekeepers with regards to the books they sell, the fact of the matter is the industry is still very white and heterosexual (I saw a fairly detailed report on the most current demographics floating around Twitter just a few months ago, and it was pretty disheartening about the state of diversity in publishing). And, as we all know, any industry lacking diversity — especially at decision-making levels — is missing important voices in the conversation. Another issue is that sensitivity readers aren’t being used as much as they should be. I believe that publishers want to do right by their readers, they just aren’t always adequately equipped to do so (yet!)
Long story short, you’re right: this is a BIG problem in the writing community. But I feel it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that many of the concerns being raised are coming from places of valid concern. The discussions that are happening are important, but I think we could all stand to do a better job of measuring our responses.
I believe one of the cases I cited was a sensitivity reader for a publishing house. And some of these books were written by non-white and LGBT writers, brought down for supposedly bringing the wrong kind of diversity to the table.
However you look at this issue, it’s clear everyone involved needs to do better.
Oh, for sure. I was talking about people at the publishing level specifically — when the gatekeepers lack diversity, they’re more likely to miss what could potentially be sensitive or mishandled issues.
As for the “wrong kind of diversity”, that’s a whole extra head on this monster. Some of these situations have made me want to scream “diverse identities aren’t monoliths!” As a queer author myself, I feel like I’m always waiting for the day that someone will try to accuse me of not representing my own identity the “right” way. Which is… pretty sad.
Anyway, ultimately I agree with you: everyone needs to do better.
Indeed. The trick is getting people to be better, but unfortunately that’s a trick I’ve yet to learn.
Thanks for voicing your opinion. I really appreciate it.
Yet another good response
Firstly, I think some of the shaming is a good warning, such as the recent ‘cockygate’ and plagiarism, as it reminds us that writing is not always a safe place and some authors will do whatever they can to win.
Although I was never dragged through the mire as some authors have, I’ve had some pretty bad reviews for one of my books. It was my very first book written some years ago that featured a 16 yr old heroine. At the time, I got a couple of review site awards and great reviews. The book gradually faded into oblivion, as some books do over time, and then started selling again when I changed the covers. However, now I was slammed for having a young heroine, statutory rape, and a 21 yr old hero that was bad for having sexual relations with a younger heroine. It was a sci-fi romance. Ideas and beliefs have changed over the years, but readers aren’t looking at when the book was originally written. Even a well-known historical romance writer (who now writes romantic suspense only) has a historical romance featuring a 16 yr old heroine who was forced into marriage. Nowadays she’d get slammed for that, and I don’t think anyone has actually picked up on it – and I’m not about to name her or the book, as I loved the book when I read it way back then, and I understand that values and ideas were very different fifteen to twenty and more years ago.
How did I deal with it? I wanted to kickstart the series again and had some advice from a wonderful successful author who checked out my series and pointed out that I didn’t want to be connected to a young-age sex scandal that was currently on in the US, and to get new covers and review/rewrite my books as needed. I took them all down (18), got professional covers done, and I’ve rewritten the first book and put it out to modest success, and have almost completed the second book.
I’m not on Twitter or Facebook, so thankfully if I was being torn down on there, I don’t know about it!
Interestingly, now I think about it, my heroine was 3 years older than Daenerys who, I understand, was 13 years old when she married Droggo in the first Game of Thrones fantasy book, and no one ever screamed about her that I know of!!!!
Unhappily, everything in life, not just books, are running the gauntlet at the moment from Puritans on one end, total uninhibited on the other end, with screams of rights and freedom and varying degrees of being offended at every real and imaginary thing in the middle. I just don’t get it *scratching head*. Has no one learned from history? Priceless books – and therefore history – have been burned and lost to us due to fanatical movements. We’re in a fanatical time again, and I blame a lot of the hysteria on social media, which has opened up the arena to mob mentality, not to mention some dodgy journalism that twist and deliberately don’t print certain facts to gain headlines – and sadly, people believe them without looking further.
I decided a fair time ago to write how I feel, from the heart. I can’t write what others want, because then it’s just not my writing anymore. I think that’s all any of us can do. Stand up for each other, stand up for what we know is right, stand up for what we believe in, and don’t get taken down by the mob. There are readers and authors out there – and plenty of people in all walks of life – who live in reality and can make up their own minds.
Thank you for such a great article to comment on! Sorry for the long reply 😉
No problem at all. And as for Dany, I’ve heard snarky comments but that’s it. I think Martin’s too big to go after over just that…which only proves another one of my points.
Thanks for commenting and giving us your experience. We appreciate it.