Monday, April 16, 2012

At the Intersection of Reading and Writing

 When I was fourteen, the Internet was something that I accessed through a dial-up modem. My biggest challenge was getting ten uninterrupted minutes on the line without my mom or dad picking up the phone while I was in the middle of downloading a 2 meg file, which, at the time, was probably porn.
The world seemed smaller back then.  Email was a novelty. If I wanted to talk to my friends, I still preferred to pick up the telephone.  If it wasn't very important, I waited until I saw them at school. 
Having grown up alongside technology, I find myself in the unique position of being bound to it, and yet still able to remember life before it.  I couldn't imagine life without my iPhone, and yet, I only bought my first cell phone in 2004.

In many ways, the instant connection that the Internet and cell phones and email provide us in our daily lives is amazing. It's creating a world in which no one ever has to feel alone again. When I was 18 and dealing with coming out, I wrote a weekly blog for a site that connected gay youth.  Just knowing that I had a voice, and that people were listening, was so empowering. 

But in many ways, I think that the lack of barrier to communication has empowered us too much.  The Internet provides everyone with a voice, and everyone believes that they have, not just a right to be heard, but a right to demand that everyone hear them.  The Internet allows people to speak without thinking and to watch the reactions to their speech unfold in real time.  It has entitled an entire generation.  It has made them believe that they have the right to say whatever they want to whoever they want, without consequence.

The Internet has come a long way from the days of waiting twenty minutes for a picture of a naked lady to download onto a computer that held 1/100th of the storage capacity of my cell phone.  It has connected the world in ways that we could never have imagined.  Sometimes those connections are magical.

Sometimes, they're torture.

I've been a reader since I was a young child.  My favorite memories of growing up are almost always bound up in books.  To this day, I can't listen to Phil Collins or Natalie Merchant without being transported back to my childhood home, where I would spend hours in my bedroom reading everything I could get my grubby hands on.

When I was in my teens, about the same time I was learning everything I could about computers, I was deeply involved in a series of books.  They'd taken a turn that I hated.  I mean it.  The author really pissed me off.  I felt betrayed.  I felt as if the author had wasted the years of my life I'd invested in his writing.  In my anger, I wrote him a letter.  I wrote it many times.  Back then, Word Perfect was the writing program of choice, but I'm pretty sure we didn't have that on our computer.  What we did have was an electric typewriter that my mom kept stored in her closet.  I wrote some of my earliest stories on it, and I wrote those hate-letters on it as well.  I spent hours trying to decide what to say.  Days stewing over the best way to tell him that he was a scum sucking piece of trash.  The letter went through numerous drafts.  Every time I sat down to write a new one, I questioned why he'd done what he did.  I analyzed the story.  I thought about it.  I talked about it with a friend who had read the same book.  We debated it and argued about it. 

Then the next book in the series came out, and I read it.  How could I not?  It made me just as angry as the one that came before it.  I didn't write a letter about that one, and I never sent my other letter.
Most recently, I read a book by an author I admire.  I was so moved by the book that I sat down and emailed him.  The email was a rambling thing, wherein I tried to explain what I thought had happened at the end.  The author was quite polite but it was clear that my ideas about the book were not particularly insightful.  Only a couple of days later, I reread my initial email and was deeply embarrassed by it.  Not because I'd said anything wrong, but because it lacked clear thought, it lacked depth.  It was clearly the ramblings of someone who hadn't taken the time to formulate his thoughts.  Thankfully, the author didn't hold it against me, but I'm still a bit embarrassed about it.

That seems silly to say.  I'm embarrassed because of an email I sent.  The thing is, I should know better.  I went to college for English.  I studied literature with some amazing professors.  I learned how to think about books.  How to look at them and break them down into their parts and then put them back together.  I learned, not just how to think about books, but how to think.  And my rapid-fire email betrayed all of the teachers who'd praised my papers and all of the time I'd put into my schooling.
When I review books on my blog, I rarely explore them, tending to keep my reviews (a term I use very loosely, as I don't consider them much more than fan-boy recommendations) light and brief, focusing on how I felt about a book rather than what I thought about it.  The reason I do that is because I'm no longer solely a reader, I'm also a writer.

The day I signed my publishing contract with Simon Pulse for The Deathday Letter, I gave up my ability to fleece other writers for writing books I hated.  Oh, I fought it.  When my editor very kindly asked my agent to request that I refrain from posting reviews of books unless I had only positive things to say, I felt censored.  I very nearly torpedoed my own writing career in a fit of anger.  I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have had both a patient and understanding agent and editor.  I felt that I had a right to tell the world how I felt about books I hated, and I felt that the world had an obligation to listen.  I'd succumbed to the Internet entitlement.  I had a voice, and damn it, I had a right–no–a duty to use it.  The world would crumble if I didn't tell everyone how much I hated book so-and-so.  How would the world know how bad it was otherwise?

I was such a frigging moron.

Being a writer has given me a unique perspective on the issue.  I'm a human being.  I read books and I have opinions on them.  I'm also a writer.  I write stories that I put out into the world for others to read.  Sometimes people love those stories.  Sometimes they hate them.  Sometimes they say horrible things about them.  Being a writer in 2012 is not like being a writer in 1996.  When I got pissed off at an author, I spent hours writing him a letter, weeks trying to decide the best way to tell him that he was shit.  But the Internet has given millions of readers the ability to pour out their immediate thoughts and then hit the "Send" button without any kind of cooling down period.  They can address the author directly and tell them that they are shit and have written a shit book and should never write another book again.  And even worse, they can take their views public and reach hundreds or thousands of other anonymous people who read the book and feel the exact same way.

There's a curious mob mentality that often infects the Internet.  Maybe it's the anonymity.  Maybe it's the ability to reach a wide audience immediately.  Whatever the cause, I often watch as a mob grows in its hate for a thing.  I've seen someone post a negative review of a book on-line that attracted others to negatively review the book despite the fact that they hadn't even read it.  People who had never even read the book, joined the fray to pronounce their disappointment.  Because they had a voice and wanted desperately to be heard.

When the final book of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy came out, I read it in a day.  Mockingjay was an amazing book.  It was a meaningful, mournful conclusion to a series of books that was taking the book world by storm.  I was filled with love for the book, and I "took to the Internets!" to tell everyone how much I loved it.  Since that time, my love for Mockingjay has cooled.  I've spent time thinking about it and analyzing some of the choices that Collins made.  On the flip side of that, one of my first real peeks into what YA would become came in the form of Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why.  The first time I read it, I hated it.  Despised it.  And I told anyone who would listen.  Again, the years have given me time to explore why I hated it so deeply, and I've discovered that I don't hate the book at all.  It's a good book.  A great one even.  But, if you spoke to me when I first read it, you wouldn't know that.  If you took my words at face value, you'd think that book was shit too.

It's difficult to be a writer in 2012.  You have to wear armor.  Writers, by our nature, are emotional creatures.  We're needy and self-conscious.  We crave attention and yet often shun it.  We want to hear what people think, so long as it's good.  Goodreads, in particular, is a dangerous place for a writer.  It is easy to get socked in the gut by a bad review.  Too easy to let someone else's feelings ruin your day.  Too easy to let a rant grind you down until you no longer love writing. 

Every writer who publishes a book, loves that book.  They didn't sit down at their computer and spend months or years writing something they hated because they thought it would bring them wads of cash (unless you're James Frey...that guy's a dick).  Every author loves his creations.  We writers pour our souls into every book.  I may think sparkly vampires are the height of idiocy, but Stephanie Myers clearly loves them.  And, while I dislike her book, I have the utmost respect for her.

When the world of the writer and the world of the Internet, with its millions of voices all demanding to be heard, collide, it can be difficult.  Should writers be allowed to defend their work publicly?  Should readers be able to say whatever they want without consequence?

I don't know.

I believe that people who publicly review books should take responsibility for the things they say.  After all, these aren't just books, they're the product of years of work.  I believe that they would be well served by taking the time to really think about what they're saying.  But that doesn't mean they're going to or that they should be forced to.  People have the right to say what they want.  The Internet has given them a voice, and they deserve to be able to use it.

As a writer, I have the right to not listen.

When I write a book, I write that book for me.  Writing my second book was difficult.  Deathday was an absurd, raunchy comedy, and everyone sort of expected more of the same.  The first two drafts of my new book were atrocious.  Everyone seemed to want something different from me, and I didn't know what I wanted at all.  Finally, after my editor read my second draft (which was really more of a complete rewrite), she called me and told me what wasn't working.  Then she essentially gave me the go-ahead to rethink it.  When I returned to the book, I started from scratch.  I wrote the book that I wanted to read.  The entire time, I worried that my editor wouldn't like it and that I might lose my contract, but I told myself that I'd rather lose my contract for a book I loved than publish a book I hated.  After I'd turned it in, I visited NYC and had lunch with my editor.  I told her that I'd finally written a story I loved, and that I believed that love came through in the newest draft.  When I got it back a couple of weeks later, my editor loved it too.

FML will be out next summer, and I love it.  More than Deathday, because it was more difficult to write.  Every word is mine, and I love each one with my whole heart.  But the moment that book enters the world, it will cease to be mine.  I will no longer control it.  I want people to love it how I love it, but I know that not everyone will.

As readers, we come to books burdened by our experiences.  The unique combination of life and love and pain that make us who we are.  We insert those experiences into the pages we read, and filter an author's words through them.  I hated 13 Reasons Why because of my own experience with suicide.  I saw myself in the character of Hannah–she was a mirror that I didn't want to look at–and I turned my intense hatred of Hannah (and thus myself) into hatred for the book. 

When Deathday came out, I read a review on Goodreads from a girl who lamented having to spend an entire book locked in a horny teen boy's head.  She didn't believe that real boys acted that way and that the book itself was shallow.  At first, I was angry.  Annoyed.  Pissed.  Lots of other adjectives too.  I'd written Deathday, not to be a morbid stroll through a self-aware young man's life, but to examine how a normal, average, not-so-bright teen boy might face his last day on Earth.  He's shallow and horny because I wrote him to be that way.  The reader had missed the point!  Or had she?  She'd brought her own experiences to Deathday and had judged it based on those experiences.  Who was I to tell her she was wrong?  I was the author, that's who!  Except that I no longer mattered. 

None of us matter.  None of our opinions matter. 

I can tell you how I feel about a book, but I can't tell you how you'll feel.

That's why I gave up reading reviews.  Not just for my book, but for most others too.  The only way for me to know how I feel about a book is to read it. 

Lots of authors exist at this odd intersection of technology and emotion.  Readers have the amazing ability to push their thoughts out to the world in real-time, and authors have the ability to connect with readers that they'd never have connected with before.  But the downside is that readers often fail to take the time to consider the impact their words have, and writers consider that impact in far too great detail. 
A friend recently told me about a writer who gave up writing because of the pressure from the on-line community. She couldn't take the negativity.  And that is such a monumental shame.  The voices of the many have silenced the voice of one.  That's not what the Internet is about. 

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that time when I didn't have a cell phone, when checking email was a novelty, when speaking out took effort, when having a voice meant really having something to say.  But I can't.  None of us can. And that's cool too.  But, as a reader, I'm going to resolve to make sure that if I write something about a book, it's worthwhile, well thought out, and respectful.  And, as a writer, I'm going to respect your right to feel however you want to feel about my books so long as you respect my right to not read your reviews.

Writing isn't something I do, it's something I love, and I'll never let anyone take that from me.


  1. Well said, Shaun. This is exactly why I only recommend books I love, and don't review anything I don't. Let's leave that to the critics.

  2. I actually don't have a problem with other writers calling out books that they feel very strongly about, but I think that if an author is going to be critical of a book, they should make sure they REALLY have something to say, and they'd better be prepared for the consequences.

    As an aside, I was reading some reviews for John Green's newest book THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. It's pretty much been universally loved. Out of 630 reviews on Amazon, 550 of those are 5 Star and only 4 are 1 star. There are 9 two-star ratings as well. Anyway, I was reading the one star reviews, and I noticed a really horrifying trend that sort of goes along with what I was saying: The one-star reviews were voted into oblivion, and there were a couple that had multiple comments telling the commenter to "burn your computer" or lambasting them for missing the point.

    Just as the Internet allows people with opinions to say horrible things about a book, it can also stifle dissenting opinions. The fans of Green's books seem to spend a lot of time making sure that they drown out anyone who doesn't like the book.


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