Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on Being Offended -- c.anne.gardner

The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all, it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. -- George Orwell

Last week I was alerted to a situation on Facebook. R.J. Keller, author of the wonderful novel Waiting For Spring, which I reviewed here, apparently received another bout of nasty "I am offended" emails from readers of her book, to which I replied with this comment:

All a writer can do is be honest, be true to the story and the characters. A writer has no other choice. What other people take away from a story, or rather how they interpret it or misinterpret it, is nothing more than a projection of their own inner self and is of no concern to you, as a writer -- unless you want to use them as a character in your next book. In the moment of writing, all that matters is the story.

Now this is not just my personal take on the issue, many other literary authors have made their stance known: Zoe Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal, said that it is not a writer's job to offer up moral avatars; if you want friends, go to a cocktail party. In the Gospel of Mark it is said that John came to “agitate the comfortable and comfort the agitated.” Now that was used in a religious context, meaning the people were spiritually asleep, and it was the prophet's job to wake them, but “art” does this as well. It awakens people, challenges people and their ideals. I am not saying that the readers' opinions don't matter, I am saying that reader opinions only matter to a certain degree. That's how art works. Artists, including writers, have been commenting on society's indiscretions since the dawn of time, i.e. The Bible, which is full of some god-awful violent and disturbing stuff.

The fact of the matter is that there is someone out there who is bound to be offended by something you write, say, or do. In this world, being offended is like a hobby. And like any other truly egocentric pursuit, the offended’s opinion is the only one of value. Not to mention, those who love to engage in this sort of thing have a huge fan base. But I digress. All this is really irrelevant to the writer. It's all just static, and it means nothing in the greater scheme of things. If you have got yourself a controversial book, you have done yourself a favour as an artist, so bask in the glory despite your detractors.

Writers are like explorers, and the human psyche is like the greatest fucking adventure land that ever existed -- yes, even Disney sucks ass by comparison -- and many serious writers feel compelled to explore difficult, challenging, and often controversial subjects and ideas. Some writers have a point to make, and they make it, and some writers take the objective approach and simply tell a story. Some parts of that story might be objectionable to some readers; hell, the author might even find them objectionable for that matter. Just because an author writes about something does not necessarily mean that they advocate said thing. I wish more readers understood this, because it's a painful process, and it takes a lot of time for an author to build up some sort of resistance to being affected by this ... this purely subjective criticism that some feel the need to level not only at the work but at the author personally. I'll share a story that set me into a tailspin of personal doubt for about a year. I haven't shared this with too many people, but maybe it's time.

When I wrote the book The Thin Wall, my idea was to explore the dangers of the co-dependent relationship. When the story and the characters came to me, the main coupling just happened to be between two fortyish single people who shared certain sexual proclivities. The fact that they were a BDSM couple was relevant to the theme of unconventional love that I had in mind for the story. While the story is not graphic by any means -- I just don't write graphic sex -- there is a scene in the beginning of the book which illustrates that the relationship between these two people had reached a level most compassionate human beings would find abusive. Anyway ... along comes this internet person, a person who had not even read the book, who decided in her infinite wisdom to take it upon herself to vocalize her opinion that my story could not be a romance and how dare I call it one while she proceeded to have herself a love-in at my expense. Basically, she declared, that to write such a thing and call it a romance made me some sort of pervert. Yes, all this was said while ignoring the fact that the story is about a confused woman in the middle of her midlife crisis who is trying to sort out her feelings after discovering that the man she has spent the last twenty years with isn't really right or healthy for her at this stage of her life. The happy ever after comes when she winds up with the man that is at the end of the book. But this blogger didn't even have the courtesy to read the book before commenting on something she knew nothing about, so the fact that it actually fits the exact definition of a romance was rendered a moot point by her ignorance of the facts.

Now I look back at the incident and laugh because I have come to understand how irrelevant and biased the comments were, and that it was really nothing but a self-projection and had nothing to do with my story specifically, or my art, or me personally as a writer. At the time though, it really dug in deep. I began worrying about what other people might think of me or that people might think I was advocating such sexual activity. The whole thing made me so sick down to my core that I actually pulled the book from print after it had been out only a few weeks. I actually took all my books out print. I completely shut down. I knew that in order for me to resolve my feelings about my own artistic freedom, I had to shut everything out for a bit, which I did. I took a year off to pull my boot straps up. I needed to step back, away from readers, away from the net, and spend some time with my writerly person -- do some self-affirmations. While I had the time and all the books out of print, I decided to take a long hard editorial look at them, and what I found was that I liked what I had written, I had been objective in my explorations, so I revised some and then sent my deviant thoughts back out into the world.

It took a year, but I have reached a level of Zen about this sort of thing. If I am going to be honest and true to the human condition, which is ugly at best, I can't be worried about offending someone. It takes too damn much energy away from the writing.

Now my thoughts here are based on my own personal struggle. I can't really give authors any advice on how to deal with this sort of situation, other than: NEVER EVER EVER RESPOND TO IT DIRECTLY. That is an exercise in futility, because in this situation, you cannot change someone’s mind, so it’s best to ignore it, lest it consume you with negativity.

Getting Zen with this takes courage and confidence, and you can't really combat that sort of emotional attack until you are faced with it and have taken the time to reflect upon it. You will question everything you have ever written. You will question your motivations. You will question your own ideals and your personal dogma, and you will question not only the words but the integrity of your writing, as well. I think, for a serious writer, the exercise is good for the art in the end. But that's just me. I practice “write what you want, how you want to write it.” Some writers will not be able to endure it and will bow to the censors. It's a personal choice every writer must make on their own, and I wish you the best and all the good energy I can send your way.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

The Art this week is: Erotische Burleske by Johann Heinrich Fussli circa 1772


Shannon Yarbrough said...

Oh my! Cheryl, did this ever come at a perfect time! I had an episode of "offense" myself this morning which I won't go into here.

I consider myself pretty opinionated, and book reviewing sometimes reinforces my brashness so I find myself holding back out of respect, but in the end I'm still honest.

Writing is personal, and if we did it to please every reader, then what the heck would we write? It goes back to the old saying, "if you don't like it, don't read it, don't listen, and don't watch."


Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I imagine all these people ranting and raving about being offended by shit really helps the pharmaceutical industry.

Keep that blood pressure up!

This world has just too much tension in it. People read too much into shit, they project too much of themselves onto shit, and take issue with shit that really isn't relevant to their own personal lives and then they blame everyone else for their misery. It's sad really. When did art become politics? I know, I know, but it shouldn't be.

I am glad my sharing helped. It was good to get that last bit of poison out of my system. Don't know why I waited so long. Oh yea I do. Because I am a sane person and I need to reflect on things before I shoot my mouth off.

Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

This post is a keeper. I haven't published yet, but I've found that I can't help writing (against my own inclinations) material which is sure to offend. I do it because it raises issues that fascinate me and makes the long labor of writing a joyful experience. The discomfort of exposing oneself as a writer is difficult enough to work through without having to deal with the easily-offended. But if that's the cost, it's worth it.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

You are welcome Catana.

I found that when I try to censor myself or be PC for potential readers, the words come out stilted. I had a beta reader once tell me that the words felt like I was holding back, and he was right, I was. I don't do that anymore.

When a writer begins to fear their own words they are finished as a writer because they can no longer be honest with the page.

Bruce H. Johnson said...

A workable policy might be:

Look at criticisms of your Craft -- the structure, pacing, depth of characterization, etc., which is the what you do.

Summarily reject criticism of your Art and Creativity. Once you start accepting these, your creativity will start dwindling until you stop creating at all. The Art/Creativity is how you do the Craft.

Craft and Art work hand-in-hand, so look at criticism carefully.

Personal attacks are always on the Art/Creativity. They represent either an uninformed or non-educated source (didn't even read it in this case) or a built-in aspect of the critic trying to focus attention on others so his own crimes (literal) might be overlooked. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" Ignore.

"Weak concept" takes some looking at, since having a high, workable concept is part of the Craft.

You might look at, "No one would do something like that" with a jaundiced eye. If the action fits the character you've built, ignore the criticism. If it doesn't, take a look.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Agreed Robert, if we were talking about actual criticism here, but we are not. In this case, the actual terminology was a hot button for this blogger, and she then took it out of context. Completely out of context, since she hadn't read the damn book to begin with. It was personal bias being foisted unfairly upon my work simply because I happened to be standing in that general direction.

And in some cases, it doesn't matter if you have mastered the shit out your craft. Personal bias, which has nothing to do with anything, especially valid criticism, will cause someone to be offended no matter what.

They simply won't like what you've done based on nothing more than their own beliefs and principles. Sadly, that is fact.

DED said...

Good advice.

I had a far less severe incident once when I posted an alt history short story to a peer review message board. One reviewer said that he didn't like the story because he didn't know who any of the historical figures were. Tempted as I was to respond, I let it go. I figured his admission of ignorance was sufficient.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

That's brilliant DED. I love that as much as I love the "I couldn't connect with the characters."

And good for you. The ignorance did speak for itself. Loud and clear.

Cindy Vine said...

I had a similar instance where I belonged to this writing site, and each day I posted my new chapter on the site. Some people were offended as I also had a rape, but it was important to the story and what was to happen later on. I had that, "You have no idea of the needs of your audience, you're not developing the character, and then You must rather devote your time to reading good fiction before you attempt to write it because you are a typist rather than a writer." This was all from the same person. I was knocked for a six, starting doubting anything I'd ever written before and even considered giving up. Then I thought, fuck it, I love writing and that wanker who commented like that with such negative criticism on a first draft could get fucked.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

The needs of your audience??? Well hell, are we supposed to be psychic all of a sudden? Sure, we all have an idea of who our "target" audience is, and we of course, attempt to write to them, but people outside of our ideal might wind up reading our work, and our ideal is just that, so an author cannot possibly cater to the "needs" of an audience. Audience members being as individual as friggin snowflakes for cryin out loud. The only things and author can and should cater to are the needs of the story and of the characters. Even the author's own needs are irrelevant.

rjkeller said...

Hey Cheryl,

Thanks for the mention, and for this post. It's "real life" I'm a pretty tough cookie with very thick skin. I am in my writing life as well, in that I'm able to take negative reviews and criticism pretty well.

There's something about readers' email, though, that hits something different. I think it's the idea that someone actually took time out of their day and schedule to Google my email address, write down their thoughts, and click "SEND." And when those thoughts are SO filled with venom, it's difficult to process. I'm learning, though.

Thanks again!

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

You are so welcome Kel. If anything, I wrote this post to offer up a little catharsis, in that you are not alone.

And that's why I shared my story. Professional criticism I can take, but this sort of thing hits you in a different place.

Brent Robison said...

This statement you made: "how they interpret it or misinterpret it, is nothing more than a projection of their own inner self and is of no concern to you" is among the most important advice any writer can hear. Anyone who attacks you is on their own trip; you and your work has ceased to be the subject, and they don't even realize their own truth. This is just one of the reasons self-awareness is a great tool for writers. The blogger who blasted you should be in therapy, as should so many of the nasty snarky folks who fancy themselves critics. They're acting out infantile trauma. I'm glad you healed and rose above that episode.

I've recently been surprised by people who I thought would take offense at something I wrote but who instead complimented it. A nice feeling-- and another reason to do as Krishna advised Arjuna: take the action, let go of the result.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Brent for your kind words.

I am sure when I am reviewing a book my own personal dogma gets wrapped up in my interpretation, but I try to sort that out before I write a review.

I don't think I have ever once disliked a book simply because I hated the characters on a personal level or disagreed with some plot point within the storyline. I read to live in a world not my own for a moment, which means I sometimes want my own challenged, so I can think, so I can experience a POV other than my own. But then again, I read deSade, so other's mileage will vary.

Some people only want to read what they know and who they are and cannot tolerate anything outside of their own personal sphere of existence.

Shame really, for them. All the wonderful literature they are missing out on.

Love that Krishna quote BTW. Wise words.

kristentsetsi said...

I think one of the best ways to be Zen about it is to not set up google alerts. (This isn't a judgment of those who do; it's just a recommended technique.) If you don't know who's saying what, there's no temptation to defend it.

I found out long after high school that people had apparently known certain things I was doing - in my "love" life, in my "dating" life, whatever's important to high school kids - and that, while in HS, I never knew about it. So, I just went along my merry way not knowing.

(Note: I didn't care when I found out about it. I don't care if people talk about me, now.)

Being sent emails is a little different, because that's direct, know...who CARES what they have problems with? Some people will like, some people won't. If you know and trust yourself and your writing, that's all you need. Let them stew and gripe if it makes them happy. In the immortal words of Bill Murray in "Meatballs," "It just doesn't matter."

kristentsetsi said...

P.S. I meant to add that the high school kids were talking about the things they knew about me. That they knew means nothing...but they were actually bothering to talk.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Kristen, it does sometimes seem like highschool pettiness, doesn't it. Nice analogy.

But google alerts are helpful, especially when you find out a review of your book was clipped for a porn site, which happened to me, and it was good that I knew so I could get it taken down and removed from the google search engine.

I think anything that is directed at you and not at the work is a problem. Ignorance is bliss, and not knowing what's being said might work for some people, but at the same time, I think being able to reconcile how you feel about these sorts of things is more important than turning a blind eye.

Being confronted with it, I learned a lot about myself, and self awareness is a good thing I think.

I am much better at weeding out the snark from the real criticism now. The incident had something to do with that. It also reaffirmed my faith in my own writing. And I know now that when I say, "ignore it, who cares, I don't care," that I really mean it and I am not just lying and deluding myself to make myself feel better.

Michael N. Marcus said...

>>The fact of the matter is that there is someone out there who is bound to be offended by something you write, say, or do.<<

Around seventh or eighth grade, I adopted this maxim: "If you don't care what other people think of you, you can get a lot more accomplished and have a much better time."

I have never been reluctant to offend people (with printed words, not body odor), but as long as I know my offense is backed by truth and logic, I can deal with the whimpering and whining.

My often-offensive blog:

My newest offensive book: "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

A book that offends Outskirts Press: "Stupid, Sloppy, Sleazy--The Strange Story of Vanity Publisher Outskirts Press. How do they stay in business?

Michael N. Marcus

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Ah yes, Marcus, I am familiar with your offending works. :-)

And it's so true. We waste too much time on this stuff. That's why, 3 months prior to Thin Wall being released, I took a proactive approach and did a rather lengthy interview, which is posted on the book's amazon page and various other places, in order to make my motivations for writing the book known in advance of any social uprising. I clearly stated in the interview that I would not directly respond to comments about the book if they were of the censorship variety. I have not, and that was two years ago. The book stands on its own for those who want to make the effort to understand it.

The only reason I wasted any time mentioning the incident now was to offer someone else a bit of comfort. Censorship will always be a hot button for me.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Micheal, on a side note: Is your stuff out in ebook anywhere?

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

What a great post, and thank you for sharing your story! Since the early days of my adventures in creativity I learned quickly that I can't please everybody... there's always gotta be someone kibitzing about what I'm doing and how it should've been done... and the "mom voice" saying "Why can't you write (or paint) something nice?" (AARRRRGH!) Even tho' I've come to terms with this part of the creative landscape, it still stings to receive the negativity directed toward my hard sucks. I stew about it for a few days, feel like shit for another couple of days, eventually, I overcome the self-doubt by just going's business as usual.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

That's my philosophy now Laura: Just keep on keepin' on. If I constantly have my head looking back over my shoulder, I can't move forward. Well I could, but the odds of falling into a ditch are much better than if I kept my eyes on the horizon.