Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The worst word of all

Of course it's a four letter word, at least in English. 


We human beings do terrible things out of fear.  Fear begets loathing, fear begets hatred, fear begets violence.

We're afraid of all kinds of things.  Some of our fears are justified, many are not.

We're afraid of flying, of snakes.  We're afraid of caves, of disease.  We're afraid of being poor, we're afraid of being alone.  We're afraid of failure, of rejection.

We're afraid of difference, and we're afraid of the unknown.

We have a difficult time facing up to some of our fears, usually because we're afraid of something else.  We're afraid to admit we've been wrong about something or other, because we're afraid that if we admit to being wrong, other people will laugh at us or shun us or lose respect for us.

When we live surrounded by fears, many of them manufactured by outside interests, we can very easily lose sight of how foolish our fears are, and how destructive -- even self-destructive -- they can become.

Here's an example:

In recent years, in the U.S. at least, there's been a quiet build up of fear about germs on grocery store shopping carts.  For probably a century or so, no one gave this a single thought.  Then suddenly we began to notice people bringing little disposable wipes with them to swab off the handles of the carts before using them.  Next thing you know, there were dispensers of little disposable wipes at the entrance to every supermarket.  For a while a few years ago, one of the supermarkets where I shop had a huge machine sitting outside that was used to disinfect (using ultraviolet light???) the whole fleet of shopping carts every evening.  Of course, the germs came back right away.

Few people ever do more than wipe off the handle.  I've watched customers carefully extract one of the disinfecting wipes from the dispenser, rub it along the handle before they even touch the cart, and then go merrily on their way.  They put their groceries in the main basket of the cart, which hasn't been disinfected.  Women put their purses in the child seat, which hasn't been disinfected.  Just a few days ago, I waited patiently while an elderly woman went through the ritual, taking care not to touch the cart's handle until it had been safely cleansed, and then she settled her cane, which had been in direct contact with the unsanitized parking lot pavement, in the main basket where she was going to put her groceries.

It seems like a harmless fear, and I know there will be plenty of people who think there's nothing wrong with eliminating even a few of those flu germs from the shopping cart handle.  After all, we don't know what kind of illness the previous user had.  Might have been a child with a runny nose, or someone who didn't cover up when they coughed or sneezed.  Many of us are afraid to admit we're afraid of something someone else told us to be afraid of that we weren't afraid of until we were told to be.

You've got to be carefully taught, as Richard Rodgers told us in South Pacific.

So how do we fight the fear?  Any fear? 

The greatest enemy of fear is knowledge. 

How often have we seen this scenario?  The child, cringing in fear, clinging to its mother, terrified of the friendly looking dog.  The mother, smiling and confident, urging the child, "Come on, pet him.  He won't hurt you.  He's a nice dog."  And then the child, taking confidence from the mother, reaches out tentatively until the dog wags its tail and licks the child's hand.  Lifelong friends have been made, because now the child knows the dog is not something to be afraid of.

Caution is not the same as fear.  We are cautious around dogs we don't know, because we know that some are dangerous.  We are cautious when driving in unfamiliar cities because we don't want to get lost.  We are cautious using power tools because we know they can cause serious physical injury.

We justify irrational actions based on irrational fears, and sometimes we take that irrationality to extremely violent ends.  Does one nation become so terrified of running out of a vital natural resource that it invades another nation, killing thousands, to take possession of their natural resources?  Does that kind of national fear blind an entire population to the possibility of finding alternatives?  Does it lead to an irrational fear of anyone who might pose an obstacle to obtaining that resource, including anyone who might look like someone who might post such an obstacle?  How elaborate can we build that chain of fear?  How strong are the bonds that secure us to our fears?  What, if anything, can we do as individuals to break those chains?

And what in the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

Okay, let me bring this all back down to a more personal and manageable focus.

The following is a quote from one of the comments made by Courtney Milan on the July 2012 Dear Author opinion piece on bullying:
The power dynamic explanation cannot explain the entirety of my loathing for the kind of attack the goodreads bullies are using, because I can think of extremely powerful woman(sic) who have been subjected to threats of physical violence precisely because they are powerful. In that case, those threats exist to weaken the women themselves, and also to threaten those who watch. It sends a clear message: Don’t you dare reach for power, because if you do, you too will get this. 
There is something particularly loathsome about the people who posted Sandra Day O’Connor’s address in DC and suggested that she should get raped, or people who talk about lynching Barack Obama, or people who threaten to hang out outside Oprah’s studio and shoot her. Regardless of what you think about those people, I hope everyone agrees that this is wrong. Those people are very powerful–no doubt about it. There’s no doubt in my mind that they have more power than their attackers. But those attacks are designed not just to attack, but to disenfranchise. 
You do have power, Jane [Litte, of Dear Author]. So do many other reviewers. I’m not saying that the power is equal. I am saying that your stalker targeted you–and the STGB targeted the reviewers they did–because you have power. It’s intended as an object lesson to others who are less powerful: that if readers stick their necks out, they will be chopped off. Sending the message that powerful women need to be cut down to size by any means necessary is, to me, the more despicable aspect of this issue than the the power dynamic.
Since the publication of that opinion piece and the subsequent discussion, Jane Litte herself has come under recent personal attack in the form of a lawsuit.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book has been stalked to her home, with the stalking publicized by the author.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book has been harassed on the telephone by an author who admitted to tracking down the reviewer's personal information, and who then bragged about it online and dismissed her actions as not harmful, not stalking, not threatening, even though they were.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book was stalked to her workplace and physically attacked by the author.

These are the cases we know about.  How many more are unknown?  How many more reviewers and bloggers have just quietly stopped reviewing because they're afraid?    How many readers have taken reasonable caution to a fearful extreme and allowed themselves to be more or less voluntarily silenced?

When I came back to the writing game a few years ago, the game had changed.  There was now instantaneous digital publishing available to just about anyone with a computer.  There were countless blogs and websites offering readers a wide variety of reviews and opinions.  There were discussion groups and paid reviewers and circle jerk review swaps.  As both a reader and a writer, I had to learn the new rules, familiarize myself with the playing fields, and even buy a program to identify the players.  And like any rookie, I made some mistakes.  Some of them were rather embarrassing.

In my early explorations of the Amazon/Kindle universe sometime in  2010, before I knew how to sort the offerings for the low-cost and free books that fit my budget, I stumbled across a free book that looked interesting.  I downloaded it, read the first couple of pages, and was astonished at how terrible the writing was.  In all my years of judging RWA contest material, in all my years in various critique groups, I had rarely come across something so bad.  And yet, as I had noticed on the Amazon listing, this book had several five-star reviews.

I couldn't believe what the reviewers had said about this book.  That the descriptions were vivid and made the reader feel as if she were "right there."  That the characters were well drawn, and that the writing was grammatically flawless.  That the book was wonderful, they couldn't put it down, they couldn't wait for the author's next book, that they couldn't wait for this book to be made into a movie.

Had they read the same book I did?  If they had and they couldn't see the errors I had seen, was there something wrong with them?  Or was there something wrong with me that these things mattered?

When Amazon sent me a little email some time later asking "How many stars would you give to __________?" and provided a handy link to the book's page, I took them at their word.  I left a very brief "review" in which I wrote that I had purchased the book but was unable to read more than the first chapter or so because it was so badly written.  I gave it one star. 

Within a day or so, I received notice in my email that people were commenting on my review.  In my naiveté, I anticipated notes from grateful readers thanking me for pointing out how terrible the book was, or even from the author thanking me for giving her tips on how to improve her writing.  Therefore the anger in the responses shocked me.  How dare I, they fairly spat, criticize this wonderful book if I hadn't read the whole thing.  If I remember correctly -- this was in the days before I knew how to take screen shots or had any clue they'd be necessary -- there were three such responses, all in the same vein, and two of them were from other reviewers of the same book.

My first reaction was simple shock.  I had never expected such venom toward a simple review that simply stated facts.

My second reaction was anger.  I had not been rude in my assessment, and I had not attacked the author in any way.  I only wrote that I had found numerous errors of spelling, punctuation, and syntax and that I quit reading after the first chapter or so.  Yet these people whom I didn't know had turned on me with obvious anger.

My third reaction was fear.  How many more people like this were there out there?  Had I in fact done something wrong in posting that I couldn't read the rest of the book?  Had I broken some rules?  (Actually I had, sort of, but I didn't know it at the time.)  Because I didn't know the rules of the game and therefore didn't know how to defend myself in that situation, I immediately figured out a way to delete the review.

I silenced myself.  Out of fear.  I'd been bullied into silence.  I'd been bullied into questioning my own judgment.

As a result, I did some research.  I learned the rules of the game.  I learned who the players were and which side they played for.  I vowed not to be bullied into silence again.

Since then, I've been the target of other intimidation tactics in efforts to silence me.  I've been called names.  I've been cyberstalked by more than one author with a bruised ego.  (If any of them have tried calling me at home, I don't know about it.  I do not answer calls from people I don't know, and I often don't even listen to voice mails that come from unfamiliar numbers.)  My books have been revenge rated, poor things, and I've been featured prominently on a website that shall remain nameless.  Most recently, I've been banned from another website, without explanation but probably for the cardinal sin of not being nice enough (although there may be other reasons).

I will not give in to fear.  Being banned from that site didn't shock me or even really surprise me.  It certainly hasn't silenced me, and it won't stop me from reviewing books, including books I think are badly written.

By the same token, writers should not be afraid of negative reviews.  Again, knowledge is the greatest enemy of fear, and the more you as a writer know about negative reviews, the less you'll have to fear from them.  If your book is good, a bad review can't hurt it.  Not just won't hurt it, but can't.  If your book is bad, you can either learn from the reviews or not and either improve that book or the next, but you should also learn that if your book is bad, no quantity of good reviews will save it. 

If we have to be carefully taught to hate and fear, then we can also learn not to.

If you let your fear of a negative review blind you to the opportunities presented, then you probably have no business being a writer in the first place.  Writing for publication requires both a certain amount of rational caution and a certain amount of fearlessness.  What it doesn't have room for is the worst word of all:  Fear.

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