Amy Impellizzeri has a piece today at Women Writers, Women’s Books which has me thinking hard. “Leave E.L. James Alone, Already” is a heart-felt appeal to writers not to join in when their colleagues are getting bashed.
The essay was born when she came across the #AskELJames thread on Twitter just recently. The thread became the subject of wider debate when a group of people with a complaint in common began to ask James pointed questions. From USA Today, this summary:
Shortly after the Q&A started on Monday afternoon, the #AskELJames hashtag was overtaken by Christian Grey haters who accused the author of being homophobic and misogynistic and romanticizing stalking and abuse. Others took issue with her actual writing, asking things like, “Which do you hate more, women or the English language?”
In response to this, Amy suggested that it’s never okay to voice a negative opinion about another writer’s work. She only posts a review if she can give it four or five stars:
Because books are art. And art is subjective. And art lays a soul bare. And who the heck wants to be responsible for stepping all over someone’s soul?
Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.
She suggests that we leave reviews to reviewers and keep writing. Her bottom line:
Don’t lie. Don’t be insincere. If you don’t like a book – especially from a fellow woman author – who would blame you for politely excusing yourself from the conversation?
Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.
Amy has a point, of course. But it seems to me she’s conflating a lot of very different issues.
Reviews come in all formats. Sometimes writers are asked to review books, sometimes they review books on their own websites or on sites like Goodreads. Reviews can be well done, or poorly done. More importantly: a positive review can be badly done, and a negative review can be well done. Here’s an example of a poorly done positive review: Great book! I loved it!!!
I would not call the E.J. James twitter thread a review. A thread that devolves into an exercise in bashing is an attack. It’s a bully-bullshit session. It’s an unworthy exercise, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.
There are a lot of bullies hanging around in the ether, and sometimes they join forces and form bands when they have a particular enemy in mind. The enemy can be a single individual, as was the case with the E.L. James twitter thread, or it can be a whole class of people. This happens in all kinds of fandoms. My daughter follows dance competitions and discussion online, and she has read me some truly disturbing bully-band attacks focused on one person who voiced a less-than-reverential comment about a performance by their favorite dancer. Personal attacks on an individual because that individual voiced a dissenting opinion.
It’s a phenomenon that somebody somewhere must be studying. At least, I hope someone is looking at it, because I see it as an example of the worst of human group behavior. But let’s be clear: everybody does it. Writers bash other writers, and on occasion, readers gang up on writers. Sometimes for good reason.
The best example I know of is the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author. Wikipedia has the best summary of the situation I’ve come across, so I’m going to quote it here, with their links and footnotes intact:
On 7 January 2008, the romance-novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books accused Edwards of widespread plagiarism after finding multiple passages in her novels that appeared to be directly taken from various works by other authors, including novels, poems, reference books, and websites about Native American history and culture. Many of the passages came from old references, many without copyright or with expired copyright protection. One of Edwards’ publishers, Signet, initially defended the passages in question as fair use rather than copyright infringement.
Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, joined the outcry. Two days later, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards’ books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred, and, in April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books “due to irreconcilable editorial differences.” In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not “lift passages”.
On the surface I see nothing wrong with the fact that a group of readers discovered something unethical, and that they made those discoveries public. The author had no one to blame for the fallout but her own poor choices. At the same time, there was a gleeful tone in a lot of the discussion that made me uncomfortable. For example, a comment made on a Smart Bitches post in 2008:
So, let me get this straight: you were actually able to read an entire Cassie Edwards book while doing this research? You should apply to work on Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel Program “Dirty Jobs.”
A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.
Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader. I don’t write negative reviews very often, and I can remember only one instance when I was so infuriated by a novel that my tone bordered on outrage. But I will continue to write such reviews, now and then when I see a flaw in a book that strikes me as something worth talking about. A constructive discussion is a learning exercise for everybody.
image: © altanaka – Fotolia.com found on an article well worth reading: Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink
And it’s a really good review.
This is especially good as Kirkus has not always been — shall we say — enthusiastic about my stuff in the past.
Another meticulously researched period drama with dashes of mystery and romance from Donati, this time set in 1880s New York. Donati (The Endless Forest, 2010, etc.) introduces two women doctors living near Washington Square during the Gilded Age: Dr. Liliane “Anna” Savard (granddaughter of Nathaniel Bonner of the Wilderness series) and Dr. Sophie Elodie Savard (Nathaniel’s great-granddaughter but about the same age as Anna). It’s 1883, and the doctors live with their Aunt Quinlan and her widowed stepdaughter, Margaret. Much of the story centers on the women’s work, and as the book opens, a young nun, Sister Mary Augustin, calls at their home for Sophie, who’s delivering a baby. Anna goes in her place to issue health certificates to a group of orphans. She meets DS Jack Mezzanotte and Rosa, an orphan trying to keep her sister and two brothers together. Donati spins the tales of Anna and Jack, Sophie and her maternity patient, the doctors’ childhood friend Cap Verhoeven, Rosa and her siblings, Sister Mary Augustin, and a plethora of friends and relatives into a story of more than 700 pages, all saturated with her signature historical detail. There’s good bit of social history, covering everything from “rational dress” and careers for women to contraception and the Comstock Act, advances in sanitation and public health. There are two mysteries as well, involving a serial killer preying on women seeking abortions and the whereabouts of Rosa’s brothers. Donati is skilled at giving depth to even the most minor characters, but she sometimes pursues tangents that are never fully explored. Despite the complexity, though, the novel never gets bogged down. Page-turning and atmospheric, Donati’s novel leaves readers with plenty of questions, perhaps signaling a sequel to come.
Madeline Hunter not only writes great historical romances, she also has a column she writes for USA Today called HEA (Happily Ever After) about romance novels more generally. For today’s edition she interviewed a number of historical novelists (including me) about the difference between historical fiction and historical romance (you can read it here).
It was very interesting to me to see how other writers (including Donna Thorland, whose novels I really like and I have been meaning to review) answered some very thought-provoking questions.
It seems that there have always been high-profile, less-than-virtuous lawyers around. In the 1880s in Manhattan, the firm of Howe & Hummel were probably the most prominent and outrageous of the legal scoundrels plying their trade.
Cat Murphy’s book on these two upstanding citizens is the kind of non-fiction reading that keeps me up until two. In a review of Murphy’s book, Old Salt Books summarizes:
The partners bestrode Gilded Age New York with wit and brio, and everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Lola Montez had a part in their story. In Howe & Hummel’s prime, it would not have been unusual to see a leading politician, a pickpocket, a Broadway star, a bank robber, and a socialite all crowded together into the waiting room of their offices, located conveniently across the street from the city jail.
To get the full picture of these men, their manner of practicing law, and their view of the world, it would be a good idea to read the book they wrote about the city where they lived and worked. It’s in the public domain and can be read on-line in a number of places, including Gutenberg.org.
I read Danger! because it provides insight into the way the wealthy thought about poverty and the poor. Whatever amusement you may get from the antics these two pulled in courtrooms is offset by the way they described homeless girls as deviant criminals, motivated by greed and loose morals:
It is safe to say that very few of the flower girls were virtuous. They remained out until all hours of the night and plied a double trade, selling both their flowers and themselves. There was one well-known house in Thirteenth street which these little girls made a headquarters. It was between Broadway and University place. The proprietress had no other “ladies” but flower girls, as she found them more profitable, charged them higher prices for accommodations, whether by the day or week, and as but few places would assume the risk of harboring the waifs, they were compelled to pay her extortionate rates.
Some time since a man could hardly pass along Fourteenth street or Union Square, at night, without his being accosted by one of these girls, who, instead of asking him to purchase flowers, would invariably remark, “Give me a penny, mister?” by which term, afterwards, all these girls of loose character were known to ply their trade. Many of these girls were so exceedingly handsome as to be taken by gentlemen of means and well cared for, and one instance is known where a flower girl married a very wealthy man of middle age.
As a class, they were excessively immoral. They purchased their flowers, out and out, from the florists and made handsome profits, amounting to as much as two and three dollars a night when the weather was fine; but their habits and immoralities became so patent that the societies put a stop to their selling, by sending some to the House of the Good Shepherd, and arresting others for soliciting and other unlawful acts; so that to-day it is very much to be doubted if there are more than half a dozen in the city.
Both Howe and Hummel ended up on the wrong side of the law at various times. Hummel was disbarred at least twice, and Howe had a similarly checkered career.