A couple of weeks ago, an author in the UK named Lynn Shepherd made one of the more bafflingly boneheaded moves I’ve seen in a long time, by posting a blog on the Huffington Post entitled “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It.”
Many of you probably read it, and/or saw the resulting kerfuffle as it spread across Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet at large.
At this point the cyber-flames have ebbed and the dust has settled, as newer scandals have inevitably taken over the headlines, such as Travolta mangling Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars. But the reality is that for Ms. Shepherd, it ain’t over. I’ll explain why in a moment. First let’s take a look at some of the most incendiary parts of her blog (as if her title were not incendiary enough).
“I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the [Harry Potter] books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”
Ms. Shepherd’s primary complaint with Ms. Rowling is about the books she has written for adults, which Shepherd maintains “sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere.” To back up her position, Shepherd states that “Rowling has no need of either the shelf space or the column inches, but other writers desperately do.”
Shepherd closed her diatribe by graciously advising Rowling: “By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”
Written without a trace of humor, the one unintentionally ironic part of her post is in the opening section, where she says:
“When I told a friend the title of this piece she looked at me in horror and said, ‘You can’t say that, everyone will just put it down to sour grapes!'”
Wow – ya think?
But I’m not here to beat Shepherd up. She’s taken quite a beating for this already. Instead I want to look at what she did, why it didn’t work, and – when it became clear that it hadn’t worked – what she should have done.
Why this was a very, very bad idea
- She hadn’t read the work she was criticizing. It’s nothing new for an author to take a public stance on somebody else’s work. But to be at all effective or compelling, you need to at least be familiar with the work you’re criticizing.
- She dismisses and insults a massive body of readers. Obviously there are a lot of fans of Rowling’s work out there, given her astronomical book sales. Do you really want to make an enemy out of every single one of them?
- She blatantly insults readers – and thus, writers – of children’s fiction. Shepherd clearly considers it inferior to literature aimed at adults, and is not afraid to tell us. This was incredibly offensive to many readers and writers (myself included).
- By claiming Rowling should stop writing, she is suggesting that an individual woman’s right to express herself should be denied. This is not only a denial of an artist’s freedom of expression; it’s a denial of a human being’s basic right of freedom of speech. Seriously?
- Despite her over-the-top thesis, she wasn’t trying to be funny. To me, this is the scariest part of all. Hyperbole can be an effective means of provoking a reaction, when it’s clear that the exaggeration or outrageous stance is intended to entertain (some of my anti-Cussler rants come to mind). But I didn’t sense the presence of any tongue in Ms. Shepherd’s cheek. Just some grapes that were apparently none too sweet.
- She clearly didn’t consider the repercussions. When I first read it, I (and many other readers) could only assume she’d chosen to post from a “troll” point of view, purposely inciting an extreme reaction from her readers. Based on that assumption, I figured she had some sort of next step planned, where we would all realize this was just a big ploy to get some press, or to promote some new book, or some other “ah-HA” insight that she would shortly unveil. I mean, she had to have something up her sleeve, right? Oddly, the next step never happened. But here’s what did happen next.
Rising bile and falling stars
The comments section of her HP blog was quickly flooded with hundreds of replies, almost unanimous in their condemnation of her post. Twitter lit up, and the timeline on Shepherd’s Facebook page began to fill up with comments ranging from angry but logic-based rebuttal to violent profanity.
And then things got worse.
Somewhere among the comments, somebody posted the suggestion that readers who disagreed with Shepherd’s tirade could use the Amazon reviewing system to let their displeasure be known. Immediately the one-star reviews started rolling in, little cyber-bombs exploding in a crescendo like a bag of popcorn in the microwave.
Two weeks later, all of her published books now have dozens and dozens of one-star reviews, and her overall rating for each book has dropped significantly. To add insult to injury, many of the reviewers quote Shepherd’s own damning words, openly admitting that they haven’t read the books they are criticizing, and decreeing that she should stop writing.[pullquote]Two weeks later, all of Shepherd’s published books now have dozens and dozens of one-star reviews, and her overall rating for each book has dropped significantly. [/pullquote]
Some consider these reviews to be cyber-bullying, while others see them as Shepherd’s just deserts. Either way, they have nothing to do with her actual books. Maybe Amazon will eventually remove the offending reviews, but if you’ve dealt much with Amazon, you’ll know not to count on it. In some of the post-game analysis I’ve seen on the web, many people think Shepherd has committed career suicide, and will need to assume a pen name for any subsequent work. I don’t know if it will come to that, but so far I’m less than impressed with how she is handling things, as I’ll describe next.
How her response has been a failure
Shepherd finally did apologize in an interview with The Guardian. But she hardly came off as contrite, instead issuing the sort of “non-apology apology” we’ve come to expect from some of our more slippery-tongued politicians.
On Twitter, she has been blithely tweeting about other topics, and doggedly ignoring the hundreds of tweets tagging her on the Rowling debacle. Picture a young child sticking her fingers in her ears and singing, “La la la la… I can’t hear you!”[pullquote]For an author savvy enough to have secured a regular blogging spot at the Huffington Post, Shepherd shows a remarkable disregard for the communication vehicles at her disposal. [/pullquote]
None of Shepherd’s other social media channels – her website, blog, or Facebook page – show any acknowledgment of this brouhaha, and to date none of the many negative comments on Shepherd’s FB page have been deleted.
For an author savvy enough to have secured a regular blogging spot at the Huffington Post, this shows a remarkable disregard for the communication vehicles at her disposal. Shepherd has a wide range of opportunities to try to spin this, walk it back, apologize, retract, or even dig in and fight. Instead, she seems content to bury her head in the sand. I only hope she isn’t also burying her career.
The temptation to be provocative – and the accompanying responsibility
So what does this mean to us? Well, when you become a published author, part of your life becomes public, whether you want it to or not (aspiring authors, take note). The current conventional wisdom is that we writers should use our communication skills to shape our public presence, and in turn, more effectively market our books.
Some writers and publishing professionals take to this notion more readily than others, creating powerful online personas – some funny, some self-deprecating, some bristling with confidence and insight. In this latter group, it’s not unusual to see somebody take an intentionally provocative stance. JA Konrath is a prime example, an author who is both generous and blunt with his insights and opinions (and who seems well on his way to becoming more famous for his controversial opinions and his impact on the industry than for his actual books). Dean Wesley Smith is another writer who makes a habit of taking provocative stances, often focusing on the goal of writing and publishing fiction extremely quickly. The savvy-and-not-shy-about-it literary agent Janet Reid openly refers to herself as a “shark” on her blog and Facebook page. Even perennial nice guys like Hugh Howey – and our own Donald Maass – will occasionally take a purposeful step out on some rhetorical limb, with the goal of prompting some lively discussion.
The thing is, these people are all ready to face the response their opinions will generate. They are ready to back up their arguments, they are tough enough to weather some fallout, and they have a reason for taking that provocative stance in the first place. Above all, they have the courage to stick around and take part in the conversations that their opinions generate, which I think is Shepherd’s biggest failing in her own recent fiasco.
That’s the lesson that we – and, I hope, Ms. Shepherd – can ultimately learn from all this. It can be a fine thing to be occasionally provocative. Just make sure you have a reason to provoke people, and the cojones to stand behind your words. Otherwise, you’re just poking a hornet’s nest with a stick, and that never ends well.
An understandable emotion
Let’s face it: we all can get envious from time to time, and writers and other artists are particularly susceptible. While Lynn Shepherd has inadvertently demonstrated how NOT to handle envy, she is certainly not alone in harboring some envious thoughts.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s insightful and intimately candid how-to for writers, the author addresses this topic very openly, noting that “…if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know – people who are, in other words, not you.”
Lamott goes on to offer suggestions for how to deal with professional jealousy, devoting an entire chapter to it in her book. Here’s a snippet:
“Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading. And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that help ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material. Also, someone somewhere along the line is going to be able to make you start laughing about it, and then you will be on your way home.”
I’m a nuts-and-bolts guy, and Bird by Bird is definitely the most touchy-feely book on writing that I’ve ever read. Still, I found it very helpful. Lamott makes you realize you are not alone in your insecurity, and makes you feel less crappy about some of the less-than-noble sentiments that insecurity can inspire. I recommend the book highly – to all of you, and to Ms. Shepherd.
How about you?
What were your reactions to Shepherd’s Potterpocalypse? Have you felt similarly envious of another writer’s success? Was all that Amazon review-slamming justified, or appalling? Have you ever committed a social-media faux pas for which you wished you could press a magical “Rewind” button? Please chime in – I’m eager to hear your thoughts. And as always, thanks for reading!