Perhaps you’ve heard the hubbub on the Interwebs about the disastrous #AskELJames, a book promotion turned carnage.
E.L. James is the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, the story of shy, virginal Anastasia Steele, who meets and falls for billionaire Christian Grey. In a fucked up fantasy of possessiveness and bondage, these two are united in love. It’s a series that people passionately love or passionately hate.
James is releasing a new book, Grey, a re-telling of the story from the perspective of Christian Grey. #AskELJames was intended to be a forum for readers to ask the author questions. Instead, it was a slaughter.
On Monday I took some time to follow the hashtag. This is how most of it went down.
I laughed at many of the comments. I thought they were sarcastic and clever, and they validated my repugnance of these books.
But I also felt sick to my stomach. There was a lot of ugliness in that feed. There were some valid questions from critics about domestic violence, but mostly the questions came in the form of ridicule. I followed for about ten minutes before it got to be too much.
One blogger described it as “fascinating in the way that watching hyenas eat a sick lion is fascinating.”
I am anything but a fan of E.L. James. Reading just a few pages of the Amazon Kindle Sample made me want to gag. Criticism of her work is legit, and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this popular series: glorification of abusive relationships, homophobia, mis-representation of BDSM culture, and atrocious writing.
All the same, James doesn’t deserve what she got on Monday.
Scathing reviews are one thing. Those are what they are, and there’s a place for constructive criticism. But some of the tweets were not constructive criticism. They were snarky comments made to cut another person down and give the tweeter attention in front of an audience. It felt like trashing James was done more for sport and less for valid criticism of her book.
Maybe that wasn’t the intention of the people posting, but that was the affect it created. A few snarky tweets aren’t all that harmful, but dozens of them generating every minute is. It creates a toxic environment where a productive conversation about these issues is hindered, because people want to see who can be the smartest smartass.
Those defending the slaughter have come up with all kinds of reasons justifying what happened.
“She’s glorifying abusive relationships.”
“She’s rich/popular/sold millions of books that were made into movies.”
“She wrote terrible books.”
“She doesn’t respond to criticism.”
“It’s Twitter. What did she expect?”
It sounds eerily like, “She was drunk/wearing a short skirt/out late at night/shouldn’t have been at that frat party.” The victim is responsible for putting herself in that situation, but the abusers aren’t held responsible for their part in it.
These are good excuses for constructive criticism and thoughtful debate, but they’re poor excuses for being a shitty human being. Just because we can say these shitty things doesn’t mean we should.
This is not a defense of James’ work. Writers are responsible for their work. Our stories matter. Our stories influence us and shape us. As a lifelong reader, I know how books can shape a person, because they have shaped me in untold ways.
If James’ work misrepresents a group or a lifestyle or a social ill, then she is responsible for taking that feedback and improving her work. Accepting that feedback is tough, but our stories affect people. As authors, we need to be mindful and thoughtful about how we portray groups of people and all their nuances, and we have to be prepared to explain why we do the things we do.
I’m arguing that people not be shitty human beings, and what happened on #AskELJames was shitty.