Is Online Life Real Life? Ask E.L. James. No, Ask Chuck Wendig

iStockphoto / EHStock
iStockphoto / EHStock

One Big Gray (Not Grey) Area Of Rage

Online is IRL.

It’s all real.

This is all really happening…

It’s not a show, no matter how much we want it to be.

That’s the author Chuck Wendig, wrapping up what he seems to have thought would be his one post on the PR hair-tearer #AskELJames. But a funny thing happened on the way to today: Wendig wrote another piece, climbing down from his first one.

Confused? So are many commenters at his popular blog site. You can see more than 100 baffled comments on his second piece here.

The incident gives us a chance to peer — without much hope of seeing through it — into the big, gray area of online public discourse; a place wracked with hostility and rage.

Here’s what happened, in three steps.

1. A Simple Book-Promotion Event, Right?

E.L. James
E.L. James

In a move that her publicity people may now regret, E. L. James did a promotion Monday (29th June) for her new Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey As Told By Christian from London’s Twitter headquarters.

The event, at 6 p.m. British Summer Time, 1 p.m. Eastern, was expected to be a routine, online grip-‘n’-grin. In our simple announcement in The Bookseller in London here by my colleague Lisa Campbell, it was noted that James had staged a book-signing in New York but had yet to schedule a public appearance in the UK. And Grey has become the UK’s fastest-selling adult paperback on record, blowing past Dan Brown’s Inferno to sell nearly 385,972 print units between Thursday and Saturday. Penguin Random House was announcing that print and digital copies in the first week had added up to “an astonishing” 647,401 copies, our Tom Tivnan has reported.  Campbell reports that Grey sold 1.1 million units in its first four days in the States.

So here is a second Fifty Shades phenomenon. The Twitter event should have been a no-brainer: with no event on the ground for that big UK readership to enjoy, what could possibly go wrong with a simple Twitter chat for the author of these runaway bestsellers?

What could go wrong went really wrong. Hashtagged #AskELJames, the event turned into a publicist’s nightmare: a virulent backlash against James and her books was waiting, detractors went after her with a vengeance.

Misgivings about the material — in terms of misogyny, BDSM, abusive relationships, and James’ woefully bad writing (seemingly the one thing no one disagrees about) — rose quickly to the moment. A storm of invective overwhelmed the event. There are a couple of good representative stories describing what occurred here from the Guardian staff and here from Mashable’s Sam Hayson in London.

Some of the resistance to James’ work was organized, we know this. For example, the @50ShadesIsAbuse handle had called on its supporters on Twitter in advance to make a run at the hashtag, in order to protest domestic abuse.

And the Twitter event wasn’t a total loss to the publisher and author’s interests. James revealed that she “has written a new romance, and is halfway through writing a second,” my colleague Sarah Shaffi wrote in today’s report at The Bookseller, not that this is good news to the author’s critics.

But little else was learned. Shaffi goes on to note that the online event was a rout and adds, “Asked how she dealt with negativity about her books, James said: ‘I think any writer just wants to be read… and for me I never thought that would happen — so I concentrate on that.'” It’s likely that she needed all her concentration during the Twitter chat.

What occurred may encourage those who have felt that the Fifty Shades material is — as Shaffi characterizes the complaints — “abusive and irresponsible, rather than romantic.” Many people both inside publishing and in the lay community have expressed profound concerns about James’ work, not only in its handling of selfhood, womanhood, gender relations, and romance, but also for its reflection on the state of commercial literature. Industry players do not unanimously appreciate Penguin Random House’s purveyance of this material. The usual refrain is “Well, just look how well it’s sold” and a big shrug.

Can the #AskELJames train wreck lead Penguin Random House’s leadership to pause and think? Not necessarily. It’s not as if the world’s largest publisher hasn’t known that many people don’t care for its big moneymaker. And it is a big one. We reported yesterday before the Twitter event that James’ own company, Fifty Shades Ltd., saw a £10 million or $15 million profit last year, bringing what The Guardian says is more than £37 million or $58 million total in cash and shares to the author.

What’s more, it’s particularly easy to dismiss complaints when it’s understood that even the most serious and important objections have been levied not by free-will complaint but by organized hijackings of events. It’s impossible to know how much of the backlash was orchestrated and how much was spontaneous. That’s unfortunate for all parties — both for those who would like to promote the marketplace’s acceptance of James’ books and for those who would like to demonstrate adamant opposition to them. This is a challenge that many social-action organizations and their targets wrestle with continually, naturally.

But in the course of the unpleasantness in the tweeterie, Chuck Wendig decided he needed to address the tone of the objections.

2. Criticism Of The Book? Or Attack On The Author?

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

In Online is IRL, Wendig made it clear that he is no lover of the Fifty Shades canon. He wrote:

I don’t really know E.L. James, and I’ve only read portions of her books. I am not impressed with the origins of the work, or her wordsmithy, or her particular take on the genre she’s writing…Further, I think because her books are controversial (both in terms of their fan-fic origin and their stance or non-stance on consensual BDSM relationships), I feel like it’s totally understandable to want to grab that hashtag and ask her serious questions about those serious issues. An open forum like that is, despite her likely desires to the contrary, valuable if it addresses those things.

He went on, however, to write that the confrontations James encountered on Twitter went beyond constructive objection and quickly got personal: “One tweet called James the lady-c-word while chastising the abuse found in the book — which sounds like abuse about abuse, a cruel ouroboros where the snake bites down hard on its own tail.”

And he brought it to the issue we all need to consider, whether we have any opinion about James work and the issues around it or not:

When it stops being a criticism of the book and becomes an attack on the author, that gets scary to me. The whole thing just gives me a kind of queasy discomfort, like I’m reading Lord of the Flies or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

His perfectly valid point is that the angry online voices we all encounter too frequently these days can sound as if they exist in a film or TV show. Online hostility becomes a performance. Do we stop and remember that real people are on the receiving end of a virtual slap in the face? — would the same assailant think of doing that IRL, in real life?

Wendig was not alone. The author Anne Rice jumped onto her Facebook page to write:

I’m receiving word from numerous sources that author E.L. James is being attacked and bullied and abused on Twitter. I’m shocked and I’m disappointed. How long are we going to put up with this kind of thing? Fortunately E.L. James is a very successful author, internationally famous, and backed by a strong publisher and millions of readers. But this is the same sort of abuse that cripples and silences many self published authors, young authors, and mid list authors, and make no mistakes, they are indeed attacked —- on Goodreads, on Amazon, on Twitter and the like. I’m fed up with “Censorship by Troll.” Aren’t you? Well, there is a way to stop it. Appeal to websites and internet venues to enforce their existing guidelines against obscenity, abuse, threats and out and out “hate” attacks.

3. And Then A Pivot: Wendig’s Follow-Up

downloadBut wait: a change of heart, and a strange one, was yet to come.

Writing In Which I Learn To Talk Less And Listen More, Wendig seemed to step back from his original post:

I peeled back the Internet curtain and looked into that #AskELJames hashtag and thought, “Well, there’s some ugly stuff going on there and it’s against a woman,” and, man, I dunno, I thought I’d speak truth to power but I think I actually am the power? And maybe EL James is the power, too?…it became increasingly clear that I am speaking from a place of ignorance and that runs the risk of doing more harm than good. Like, my goal is not to use my privilege to take over conversations that aren’t mine. I’m not here to police people. Particularly women. I think of myself as feminist, but maybe I’m not a particularly good one.

It seems that Wendig was persuaded to stand down by someone who saw him as a hegemonic male stepping, unwanted, into a women’s debate.

Certainly there’s a deeply serious point to be debated here about material written by a woman and decried by other women as misogynist. But can only women debate such a darkening issue? Are all our best heads needed on such difficult inquiries?

Somehow, a “butt out, dude” message was delivered to Wendig — we have no details. It made him Wendig feel that he’d wandered into someone else’s fight as a “mansplainer.”

He writes (caps his):

There are better, smarter people who can talk about this stuff, and I’ll signal boost them, instead. Far better than than me being all like I’LL FIX THAT FOR YOU WITH MY LILY WHITE MANSTICK HERE JUST LET ME EXPLAIN SOME THINGS LITTLE LADIES. I hate to think I’ve been that guy.

We can accept it as such, sure, and we respect Wendig’s privacy in not saying clearly what or who got to him. But this is a surprise, not least because Wendig has been an outspoken critic of rape culture and a tireless advocate of women’s rights. Maybe there’s a valid argument to be made for an intra-gender discussion here. I’d be more inclined to buy that if other women, such as Rice, hadn’t objected along with Wendig and if an awful lot of the people now posting supportive comments of Wendig on his second piece weren’t women.

One of them named Sara Crow was able to get at both elements of this in her wise comment (caps hers):

I think it IS important to criticize [James] because of what she glorifies in this case, but it’s ALSO important to remember that we are talking to actual people. That’s something that’s so easy to forget, as was pointed out in the last comment thread. Golden rule and all that. And I thank you for reminding me of that. We can highlight the awful nature of the content without lashing out irrationally. In fact, due to the gravity of the issue, it’s even more important to make a considerate objection rather than simply lashing out.

In her last line, Crow has just cinched the point that I hope isn’t lost here.

The Real (Life) Problem: We Need The ‘Considerate Objection’

Just why the online experience causes some people to feel they can interact without normal social constraints is something still not entirely understood. Recently a commenter on one of my articles here at Thought Catalog referred to a literary agent as “intellectually dishonest or delusional” in a direct note to her. As is not uncommon, this reader hides behind a pseudonym, allowing the rest of us to assume that she or he is a coward. I doubt that many people would say to each other in person the kind of crude and callous things you see this person and others write online.

But as Crow is noting, the real loss here is to all of us. When something like the James incident occurs, valid critical debate goes right out the window. That’s not good. These discussions around literature of all kinds are what make our reading and writing valuable. We insist, and rightly so, on our authors’ freedom of speech. How, then, can it possibly be okay to shut down our debates about what they write?

The “considerate objection” that Crow describes here is essential if we’re to get anything meaningful from the Grey disagreements or any other topic in our cultural life.

Wendig tried to say that a “considerate objection” — not personal attack — was the way to go. He was not wrong, no matter how someone feels about E.L. James’ books. If there are more relevant voices than Wendig’s needed in a discussion, so be it. But neither he nor anyone else should be chased away for trying to raise the tenor of that discussion above a shouting match.

It’s a sadly small, funny sidebar to all this that James’ original title is not only one of the most-sold in history but also one of the most frequently misspelled. It is Fifty Shades of Grey, not 50 Shades of Gray.

But when it comes time to step out back and disagree online, gray, not Grey, is the color of the strange, damaging place in which we end up. Here are dark, murky alleys of unhappiness.

The question our sociologists need to study is not why people feel free to be so boorish online but why they’re so angry in the first place. There’s so much negative energy “out there” in our cyber space — which is really “in here,” the small space of our hearts. And that means, finally, that there is precisely such pain, such anguish, such seething disregard, right here IRL. In real life.

Wendig was right, not wrong. Online is IRL. And unless we start genuinely questioning, as Wendig tried to do, why we’re behaving as we are to each other, even our most urgent discussions about how we live and love may continue to disappear into a fearful, rude, dark gray area. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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