Short News, Struggling Scribblers Edition

Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953
Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953

Do your job. Electric Literature says writing is a jobeven if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.

[S]ometimes the money just isn’t there. If you are writing weird poems on a friend’s Tumblr page that only a handful of people will read, you can’t expect to be paid because there is no money being made. But if you are writing for, say, a big website that gets massive traffic, you should absolutely demand to be paid

I previously inked some thoughts on writers and rip-off publishers here.

“Should we always play it safe?” Barrelhouse has a great graphic essay on writers and writing.

File under Asylum, lunatics taken over the. Trumpkins swarmed the Goodreads page for author Laura Silverman’s latest book, inundating it with one-star reviews because she dislikes their clown prince of politics. Punchline: the book hasn’t been released yet — it’s still in copyedits. Allies responded with five stars to counteract the attacks; meanwhile, Goodreads lethargically removed the troll reviews. Silverman said the incident “scared me a lot, because they were taking it to the next level.” If it’s any consolation to Silverman, I wouldn’t worry about it affecting her career — that’s just another Tuesday for Goodreads.

Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

The Cult of Irrationalism

The word cult is often thrown around to describe things somebody doesn’t like, things like Islam, Scientology, or the brand loyalty of Apple users. It’s usually wielded pejoratively toward something that stands in opposition to a larger orthodoxy like mainstream Christianity or Chrome usage, but a better definition of a cult is a group that neither tolerates dissent nor criticism of the group’s leaders or doctrines — at least that’s how it was used when I was in school. In that sense Islam is not a cult, though some subgroups certainly are; and I doubt even the most extreme Apple-heads qualify. Scientology does sound like a cult based on what I’ve read although I think it’s more of a criminal syndicate than anything else, but that’s a post for a different time.

Just up the street from me in New Haven, Erika Christakis has found herself tied to the altar beneath the cultists’ sacrificial knives. In response to the hysteria incited by a benign email she wrote about Halloween costumes, Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center with nearly a dozen alphabet blocks of advanced degrees after her name, announced that she would stop teaching and focus on her research, far from the teeth and claws of the Dionysian mob. She and her husband will remain as masters at one of the undergrad residences, though likewise her husband will take a sabbatical next semester to work on his research.

It’s difficult to imagine how such a kitchen match as Christakis’s email, which you can read in its entirety here, could create so much smoke. With typical academic navel-gazing but harmless language, Christakis merely suggested that cultural norms of what constitute appropriate Halloween costumes at Yale should derive from within the student body and not top-down from the administration. In other words, the students should police themselves and not rely on authority to do it for them. That Summer-of-Love sentiment was apparently too John Galt for the angry mob that later confronted her husband on campus.

If, like me, you’re confused about what precisely the students objected to, you won’t find it no matter how hard you look because this isn’t about rationalism. Instead the Yale protesters, like their fellow travelers at too many other colleges, have embraced an anti-Enlightenment emotionalism — a kind of dark angry Romanticism — where feelings and demands for “safe spaces” supposedly transcend logic, and where the marketplace of ideas, whether spoken, emailed, or worn on October 31st, is somehow a jack boot stomping on them. Don’t bother to question it either, because to question it is just freedom of speech, which in the words of one recent Brown University grad, “should be valued but not when it infringes upon the freedom of others.”

I cannot blame Christakis for retreating into her work. It’s difficult to imagine who is the worse for it: Christakis, who after years of studying and working and paying student loans has had an income avenue closed to her by the horde (apparently she was paid for each course she taught); or those students who were not among the protesters, who’ve now lost access to Christakis’s knowledge and experience.

What’s really eye-opening here is how quickly statements of inclusion for women and minorities go out the window as soon as one of them strays from the cult’s dogma; and how loudly the cult claims to speak for women and minorities but how cynical they are in silencing a woman when she fails to chant in unison. Erika Christakis is too good for Yale.

The Mob Is Fickle

The Passive Voice is one of the few corners of the Internet where it’s worth reading the comments. In discussing a Salon interview with Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about survivors of social-media lynchings like Justine Sacco, a commenter referenced an attack on Andrew Smith. Smith, an author of YA books aimed at boys, was tarred and feministed after saying this:

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

I write about men and boys because I grew up with three brothers and I don’t know much about women and girls. I could freely say the same thing: my only sibling is a brother and my only friends growing up were boys, which is perhaps one reason why I mostly failed at dating as a teen; and as a married man what I know today about women wouldn’t fill the back of an envelope. But admitting that means I could just as easily be tied to the same stake as Smith, assuming anyone knew who I was.

This comes only days after another writer quit Goodreads in response to the Kathleen Hale brouhaha because — she was afraid of being stalked? A social-media assassination? I’m not sure; all I know is that even though both parties in the Kathleen Hale mess were female, somehow women are being targeted, and she was afraid it would happen to her.

(I admit the Hale story is bizarre in its mutual obsession; reading it is like watching Dracula and the Wolfman fight, although it’s enlightening that the profile of her troll — a physically sick or weak person working a monotonous, low-income job — fits that of many serial killers.)

A common complaint I read from agents and publishers is that many authors don’t have a platform before they show up on their doorstep with a manuscript. Of course, everyone can only offer advice on how to develop that platform in hindsight: just look at Trevor Noah, whose comedic work scored him The Daily Show gig while simultaneously inciting excoriation for jokes that fell flat years before anyone had heard of him. Twitter is chock full of Dalai Lamas who can tell us after the fact which gags Noah should have written and which ones he shouldn’t have, but in the long months and years of building a career, those same sages are always like Tenzin Gyatso in Tibet: absent.

Contrast Noah with Kristine Katherine Rusch:

Personally, I believe that a writer’s politics and religious beliefs (including beliefs about a favorite genre) should remain off-social media if at all possible, and that arguments in favor of one thing or another should be made in person, if at all.

I think it’s more important to incorporate your worldview into what you write and let the readers decide whether or not they want to read your work than it is to win an argument that will seem quaint fifteen years from now.

There’s certainly wisdom in restraint and choosing your battles, but advice like Rusch’s is a call to quietism and in any event impossible for those of us who straddle the worlds of nonfiction and fiction.

Thus we authors and writers, forced to develop our platforms, must also choose between self-imposed silence and abandonment of social media on one hand, of all-consuming insecurity like Hale’s on another, or of following the examples of Smith and Noah on a third, of trying to build the platform one day at a time, knowing that griefers lurk on the periphery, eager to burn the whole thing down the moment you drive one dissatisfactory nail into the wood. Or, in Smith’s case, of simply stating a truth about yourself.

Top photo by Caelio CC BY-SA.