Why the #AskELJames Fiasco is Bad for Everyone, Especially Authors

I’ll be the first person to admit that I couldn’t make it through Fifty Shades of Grey. I have my personal complaints, but I’ve never faulted anyone for reading it or enjoying it. Simply put, Christian Grey isn’t my type, but neither Charlie Hunnam or Channing Tatum. *shrugs* I watched the movie only because I love Jamie Dornan, and I’ll probably see the next one for the same reason. And as someone who lives the BDSM lifestyle, I can understand that allure–if done properly. But I’m not here to talk about any of that. I’m here to say that what happened is bad, no matter how you feel about the books or E.L. James’s writing in general.

I tried to make it as cohesive as possible, but forgive me if it goes into a stream of thoughts and explanations at times. I found that I had a lot to say.

1) Criticism is not and should not be abusive, ever!

I don’t care who they are, what they do, why, where, or whatever. Bullying is NEVER okay! If the purpose of a statement is to insult someone and their work–to intentionally cause emotional harm to that person. It’s not okay. That is abuse. It doesn’t matter if the person is a public figure, rich, poor, someone you’ve never met in real life, nothing like yourself, etc. etc. etc. There is absolutely no classification that makes verbally abusing another person okay.

I have a team of people who criticize my work all the time. I ask them to do it! I’ve asked them to be brutal. But in being brutal, they’re not being abusive. They’re explaining to me what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t take a scathing remark to get a point across–and often those scathing remarks do just the opposite.

Once I publish a book, then it’s up to the world to criticize it–that’s the reality for authors and anyone in a creative field. That’s the reality for E.L. James as well, but just because it’s now up to the public to criticize doesn’t mean that we should be okay with those criticism turning into scathing, hurtful remarks.

Yes, it happens. Best way to deal with it? Ignore the haters. Which is exactly what E.L. James did. Engaging with them would have only led to a conversation that went around in circles and spiraled out of control, because the people making those scathing remarks didn’t want a real answer, they just wanted to inflict harm.

There are also people who make perfectly valid critiques without insulting the author or the work. Even those can be hurtful simply because it’s someone pointing out something wrong with something we put our blood, sweat, and tears into. A little piece of our spirit lives in that piece of work, and yet, once we get past that initial shock, a well-written critique can help improve our craft immensely. By well-written, I don’t mean grand and verbose like a Shakespeare sonnet–I mean phrased in a way that’s meant to help rather than bring someone down.

Hurtful: The author’s grammar sucks, what the hell was she thinking by publishing this piece of crap without proper editing?
Helpful: The story was promising, but I believe it could be improved by a second pass at editing.

Hurtful: You don’t even know that the past-tense of drag is DRAGGED. Drug? WTF?
Helpful: I’m not sure that “drug” was the word you’re looking to use here. Maybe you should change it to dragged? (Actually, this is based on a correction from one of my betas, because where I grew up, drug is the widely accepted past-tense of drag and something I had heard all of my life and months later I actually read a review on Amazon where a reviewer made fun of another author for using drug instead of dragged).

What I’m trying to show here, is that a little tact goes a long way and many of the “questions” I saw targeted at E.L. James were in no way tactful:

  • When do you think your writer’s block will kick in? Signed Ev R Hopeful
  • Do you have any tips for other people who have no business writing books?
  • Did you write intentionally badly so people would suffer pain, but discover they enjoy it?
  • does the E.L. Stand for ELiterate?
  • what’s it like telling millions of women it’s okay to be in an abusive relationship as long as he’s rich?

How is any of that constructive criticism? How is any of that tactful? How isn’t any of that verbally abusive? How would you feel if asked similar questions about what you write?

And before you say, “Well, I wouldn’t write a book glorifying abuse in the first place.” Consider what other things in your book someone from a different background might find offensive. Believe me, people can find many, many, things to get offended over. I once had someone offended that my book glorified sexual abuse of children–I’m not sure how because there wasn’t a single child in the book until the very end and that child was in no way harmed, but that didn’t prevent the remarks.

So, how would that make you feel? What would you do? Engage with the people and try to explain? Have you seen the epic rabbit holes that can lead you down? Most of the people who make these scathing remarks won’t be happy with any answer, and they’ll likely turn it around and before long you have an out of control situation that’s never ending.

The one and only high road in this situation, is to ignore (and block if necessary). Which in turn means that those remarks didn’t do an ounce of good–even if you remotely consider that they may have been well-meaning. Once a comment jumps the shark from criticism to abuse or insults, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it’ll be thrown out with the trash.

2) Glorifying, justifying, or ignoring such behavior says it’s okay

I can’t tell you how many posts I saw that said that E.L. James’s money will soothe the burn. So, once someone has money, they should no longer be looked at as a human being?

Then there were the posts and articles laughing at what happened. “She should have known better.” “This will give you a laugh.”  “That’s what she gets for writing that shit.” It drives me mad that so many people are finding so many reasons to “justify” it.

And similar comments came from authors themselves. I can tell you now that no one will ever write a book that everyone will love. Does that mean that when that person gets famous enough, we should just stick a target on their head for all the haters to throw their trash at because now they’re rich and it’s okay? Is it less okay when it happens to a smaller author? An author who writes better or worse?

Folks can say what they want about E.L. James’s use of English and overuse of certain phrases–whatever–she wrote a book that tons of people loved. It turned tons of women on to reading again. Maybe she’s not a master of the craft, but none of us are when we first start out. Hell, even 7 books in, I’m a master at nothing.

Is it okay to insult her because it was fan fiction? Just because we all know the source of her inspiration doesn’t mean she didn’t take it to a new level. We’re all inspired in some way or another by books, shows, movies, life events, and her book is no different.

Is it okay to just ignore what happened because, well, it was E.L. James, she has people to fight her battles? No, because as a member of the writing community, I’d be thrilled to never see this happen again (yes, wishful thinking) to an author of any size. Not all authors have people to fight their battles, that’s why a united front is so important. Whether big or small, there’s room for us all in the writing sphere and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t stick together and defend each other.

If we justify or ignore this fiasco, we’re saying it’s okay. It’s okay to personally call an author out in a hurtful way because you don’t believe with what they’ve written. It’s okay to make fun of an author if you believe their work is sub-par. What kind of world would we live in if every adult took this approach? And by letting it continue, saying it’s okay, or making up excuses, we’re just showing our own generation and future generations that it’s acceptable.

3) Legitimate concerns get buried

Someone argued with me that by telling people not to bully others we’ll crush constructive criticism in the wake. I believe the opposite. There can be no constructive criticism when bullying is involved.

Unless you can tactfully state your stance, there’s a good chance that your comment is going to get thrown out. Then, you have a snowballing effect where even legitimate questions and concerns are getting buried under all the rubbish.

Are there legitimate concerns about E.L. James writing that should be addressed? Yes, I believe so, but attacking her does not lead to any solution for anyone. She misrepresented BDSM–a lifestyle that is very important to me–and there are times that I find insult in that. But even more so, I find insult in the people who condemn and trash-talk all BDSM without really understanding it because of what she wrote.

There are legitimate concerns about the propagation of abuse culture, but yet again, attacking and abusing E.L. James isn’t going to solve anything. And there are all kinds of abusive relationships in literature. They’ve been there since the beginning of fiction and will continue to exist. There were abusive aspects to the relationship between Belle and The Beast, and do I even need to elaborate on LolitaMaybe they don’t glorify abuse in the same way that people see that abuse in Fifty Shades, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The fantasy world created in Fifty Shades captured many people’s imaginations. In a fantasy world, where we know everything is going to end up okay, it lessens the shock when Christian shows up where Ana works or tracks her down at the bar. It lessens the shock when he ties her to a bed, and doesn’t always listen when she says no.

Does any of this make it acceptable in real life? No! In real life, our internal sensors would probably be going haywire and telling us to get away as fast as possible.

When reading, we can get over his abusive side, overlook what in really life would be stalking, and yes, even in some ways accept and embrace it, because we know it’s a fiction world and somehow they’re going to fix each other through love.

If we set the stage to judge all literature from a moral high ground where we apply it to real-life situations, we’re plummeting down yet another rabbit hole where there is no happy ending. But when people aren’t even bringing up these concerns tactfully, there’s no way to respond or address any of them in a meaningful manner! 

As a society, it’s irresponsible to imply in any way that these hurtful tactics are ever an acceptable way to address a situation. Opinions are fine, but when they’re targeted at a specific person with the intent to cause emotional harm, it is never okay. It is also never a way to make progress in an issue.

We as adults have a responsibility to say this is wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated. Whether you’re sitting behind a keyboard or meeting a person face to face, hate-filled comments intended to hurt someone are not okay.

We as authors have a responsibility to say that these kinds of comments are never a well-deserved form of “criticism”.

If observations can’t be made with tact and respect to another human being, then it is not truly criticism. The line between bullying and criticism is big and bold, and we have an obligation to recognize that distinction. 

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