E.L. James and the Twitter Q&A: Critique or Bullying?

Now here’s a post I bet you didn’t see coming….

I’m sure most of you probably heard of this going down last week, and admittedly I went back and forth on whether to talk about it here. It got a lot of attention and debate in my social media channels, though, so I can’t help but think there’s still something to discuss there.

Last week E.L. James did a Twitter Q&A that quickly turned into a debacle, to put it mildly. You can read about it here (and about a billion other places), but basically the bulk of the questions were from people bashing her writing, questioning her motives and themes, and nine zillion variations on those themes.

I think it’s important to be honest here: I’m not a fan of E.L. James. I haven’t read her books, I have read excerpts, and from that I’ve gathered that I have no desire to read the books. I find the writing style beyond purple (Plum? Indigo? -Violet-Urple infinity?), the characters underdeveloped or B-movie quality, and I do believe that even though she had her story picked up from originating as fan fiction, it would have done her a lot of favors to research and adapt her work to fit in within the bdsm community as it really is. I definitely agree with a lot of the criticism of the book that it really pushes romanticized manipulation and blurs consent and a million other things. I’m not going to argue with any of that. I also feel that nothing she’s done is particularly new if you’ve been paying attention at any point in the past thirty years or so (Exit to Eden, the Beauty Series by Anne Rice, the movie Secretary. Honestly, my take on the whole franchise is I don’t care. I really don’t. Does it frustrate me that that’s popular and I’m working my tail off for every copy of my work that I sell? Sure, but I also don’t write in the same genre as Ms. James, so it’s me that needs to get the chip off my shoulder and get back to work.

To be fair, there are plenty of romance titles (especially e-titles) that are badly edited and poorly written (I’ve seen more than a few missing words in blurbs and featuring excerpts that I can’t even get through). There are a lot of romance and erotica titles that blur lines of consent – that’s been a growing issue in the genre for years. There are far more controversial trends in erotica than 50 Shades, and they sell. A lot. If you want your brain well and truly broken, here’s a Cracked article on the subject (just don’t say I didn’t warn you). There’s also the that fan fiction and the work that derives from it is written for different reasons than traditionally written fiction. You could argue that certain romance and erotica trends are a whole other type  of writing, as well, honestly, which would put things in an interesting light in a discussion about fantasy vs. “responsible” art vs. free speech vs. consent and a million other things. Plus, there’s always something that a billion people going to latch onto because it happens at the right place and the right time and, for whatever reason, works for them.

I’m not going to do any of that, though. What I am going to say is that, admittedly, I was amused by the snarky twitter comments at first, until I got to thinking.

That could be me and any of my books. That could be any of my friends who are authors and their books. That could be any of my friends who are actors, singers, artists, producers, and on and on. I don’t even know what I would do if it was me in her shoes and something that I had poured my time and love into and had to sit there, sorting through so much ill will. That’s the thing. I may not like the books, but it takes time to write that much, and because it did start out as fanfic, I can guarantee that E.L. James must have some love for her stories. This isn’t someone slamming out 100 plus porn shorts for e-book audiences in a year to work the system and make money. This is something that has taken time and constant effort over and over, especially given all the different adaptations and side projects.

That, in fact, is not initials on a screen and a meme or a joke that people are being snide to, but an actual person getting attacked just because their work happened to do well. A friend of mine made the point online that he had no problem with people critiquing the writing, but this is a whole other ballgame.

Would people have acted this way if they had to go down to a store to say these things to someone’s face? Maybe, maybe not. I get we live in a different world and it’s a lot easier to sit behind a computer screen and say whatever you want, for whatever reason. I get it. Hell, as an author who isn’t doing nearly that well, I totally get people’s frustration with her success, plus I get the concern and anger over the exploitation of themes – though it could be argued that because of the book, topics of consent, relationships, and sexual practices are getting more of an actual space to be discussed.

Believe me, I’m not putting these things on a pedestal by any means, and it’s slightly amazing me that I’m defending her, but fair is fair. And she did not deserve to have to deal with that.  Seriously, picture yourself at your graduation, wedding, birth of a child, finishing a thesis, any huge event or project that has taken a lot of time, effort, will, and feeling, and then picture thousands of people making jokes to your face and slamming you with hate comments.

It’s one thing to pick a work apart in articles and reviews, in debates and on panels. That’s totally fair. It’s also fair for people to showcase their concern via memes and other things going around because that is commentary about the actual work.

The moment it becomes not about the actual work in question, but about degrading the author/artist/creator – especially to their face – that’s a whole other ballgame.

It probably wasn’t the smartest PR move, and I can’t help but think that they had to expect this (all press is good press and all that), but still, it saddens me. I wonder if people would say things like that to Stephen King. God knows he’s amazing, but not all his work is gold. So would that same number of people show up and make those kind of comments to him if he did a Twitter Q&A?

It also concerns me that a lot of people passing the link around are saying that Ms. James “deserved this” and “It doesn’t matter, she’s rich off of this, she’s laughing all the way to the bank, that’s what she gets,” and other similar statements.

That wording is so uncannily close to victim blaming and slut shaming, I cannot even. Look, you can argue that the books may deserve harsh reviews, but no one deserves to be degraded, especially on a mass scale, especially in an artistic/creative context like this. You don’t have to agree with or like the books – I don’t – but it would never occur to me to go up to a person and say things like that to them, then blame them for having horrible stuff said to them.  I mean she wrote a romance series, not Mein Kampf or the Necronomicon, for cryin’ out loud.  I don’t care how much they make, what gender they are, there is a line between critiquing a work and making it personal for no real reason. That may make you feel better, to legitimize it with those terms, but that doesn’t make it right.

So what do you think? Does dislike of a work give people reason to attack or degrade the creator? Is there a point where it’s okay and a point it’s not? At what point does general dislike – even if it’s valid – cross over into bullying?

5 thoughts on “E.L. James and the Twitter Q&A: Critique or Bullying?

  1. At first my reaction was to laugh about the twitter posts. Some are brilliant and unfortunately all too true. Then I thought “she knew this would happen.”

    Then I thought about a blogging friend who was driven off of the Internet by Trolls who gave her books bad reviews, attacked her personally, sent her death threats and forced her to shut down her blog. She now blogs under a different name but the internet is still full of bad reviews for her book and hateful remarks. All she did was make some comments about a mean book review – on her own blog.

    You’re right it is easy to throw stones online. It made me think. I hope your posts makes people think twice before they post to an author’s site.

    There is a time or place for opinions. But one must think first. Are your attacks about the book or is it a personal attack?

    1. I agree, I was amused at first. There were some phenomenally pointed replies and some good points brought up. I just don’t know if a promotional junket type event is the time or place to broach that. I don’t know her opinions about the issues surrounding her work, but it just seems like there’s a disconnect going on between how it’s assumed people are going to react and how they do. I’m like you, I’m amazed it was actually scheduled to happen in the first place, but if there’s one thing working in entertainment has shown me, is that there can be a huge disconnect at times. Sometimes people honestly don’t get how huge of a reaction there’s going to be, or they assume it’s going to be manageable/not that bad/cause just enough drama to be a good story. And then all hell breaks loose.

      I’m incredibly sorry for you friend. That must be insanely hard for anyone to go through, and it seems to be happening more and more. It seems like if an author or a reviewer expresses the wrong viewpoint about a person with enough of a following, there’s a huge potential for disaster. Definitely not a good situation.

      I’m all for discussing work. It’s why I feel that most of the memes and stuff surrounding the book are fair game – that’s bringing attention to the issues in the work. But there is a line, and when I finally thought about it I realized that the line had, indeed, been stepped over. I’m really glad my post made you think! It’s definitely an issue that deserves to be rationally discussed. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I think you bring up a very valid point. It also reminds me of the points made in Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk : The Price of Shame. Being online is like everyone is wearing masks. We don’t ‘see’ who we talk to or interact with which causes that barrier. (Like when people interact with masks characters / think of them as less than human)

    I do think it’s unfair to act this way to E.L. She wrote a book that got published, became horribly popular and was made into a movie for the masses. While the book’s content is what it is – they didn’t exactly just YANK it from nothing. People bought this. People consumed it. This is almost the perfect example of the public creating a pedestal and trashing it down.

    I agree, critique should be of the product. I think what some people were trying to do (at first) was point out the very disturbing social influences, cliques and ideas of what is perceived as romantic. THAT discussion should absolutely happen. However, the personal attacks, not so much.

    It really was a bad pr move. I guess they thought that maybe the lovers would out weigh the haters.

    1. That’s a really good comparison, actually. I think we get so caught up in focusing our feelings on our idea of what a person is, we totally forget they ARE a person. You’re right in that it’s especially easy to do online.

      I agree. I’ve realized I have to put aside my own jealousy/frustration/whatever and look at it for what it is. People obviously liked it, I think the fact that it was written as fanfic may have helped it (people commenting chapter by chapter means she could focus the story on what people wanted to read, so why wouldn’t that apply to a general audience, too?). I can see where the online age helped propel this in a way that Anne Rice’s stuff (whatever your feeling about it) and indie films on the subject weren’t, because the platform just didn’t exist at the time. It’s not that it’s necessarily new or innovative or whatever, but it touched a nerve and a cord, people went nuts, and now they’re either embarrassed or trying to legitimize it.

      Oh, that I agree. I do feel that it’s not ALL on fifty shades, but I think that takes the brunt because it was mass published. It isn’t something that you’d have to go looking for on bookstrand or know about a particular niche kink or whatever. And I agree that that discussion should happen…there are a LOT of discussions there: consent, what the lifestyle actually is, healthy expression of sex, when does a fantasy become something else once it’s published, etc.

      I don’t know if they thought all press is good press or whatever, but I definitely wouldn’t want to go through that, and I wouldn’t want to put a client through that if I was a pr rep. I don’t know if people are that detached from public opinion, or like you said, they thought only the lovers would show up.

  3. This is such a thoughtful article with thoughtful comments. I really liked 365Princess’ comment the this is about the public creating a pedestal and tearing it down. That said, I think putting your words out there come with a certain amount of responsibility. I don’t think 50 Shades is anywhere near the worst thing out there, or that E L James is the one person writing porn about non-consent. But at the same time, rape culture and domestic violence exists, and it does horrible things to real women. It existed at the time she wrote the story, it existed when she accepted a six figure pay check to bring her books to a wider audience, and it still existed when she accepted large amounts of money for movies, merchandising etc. She has chosen to profit off encouraging women to accept abusive relationships as love.

    I think this is what makes people angry. Would you accept a job counselling abused women where your job was to convince them they should find their partner’s violent, controlling behaviour sexy? I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t, not even if it came with a very large pay packet. People have lashed out at her in some kind of collective effort at public deterrence.

    At the same time, I think E L James is the soft target in a world of far worse offenders, because people resent that she has made so much money while not being particularly erudite. How many of those snarky Twitter posts were by people who happily watch Game of Thrones, for example?

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