…oh my?

A couple of days ago, an article in the Guardian titled “Anne Rice signs petition to protest bullying of authors on Amazon” alerted me to a Change.org petition trying to convince Amazon to require real names for all of their reviews. My reaction was about as ambivalent as it gets—think half of me going “yay, accountability!” while the other half yells “boo, freedom of speech!”—and even though I’ve been mulling things over since then, I’m not any closer to having an unambiguous stance on it one way or the other.

To open things on the accountability front: cyber-bullying is real (as I’ll talk more about in this post!), but my reaction to a lot of what gets called bullying these days is an eyeroll. It seems like the definition of bullying is suffering from inflation—suddenly it’s not just personal insults or actual threats, but the act of disagreement that makes you a bully. This is where I out myself as a GOMI reader, I suppose—if you weren’t already aware, Get Off My Internets is a site with regular posts and a very active forum that is dedicated to lampooning various internet figures, mostly for-profit bloggers who take themselves very seriously. While the forum posts do occasionally swing vicious, for the most part they’re critical of a blog or an internet presence rather than the person. The most common criticism levied at the site, though, is that it’s a community that perpetuates bullying. It’s probably a side effect of reading through thread after thread where someone plays the “you’re just jealous!” defense, but unless it’s a news story about teenagers (who make no mistake about it, are the real dire wolves of the internet), I tend to come into any discussion of online bullying with a healthy dose of skepticism.

And what’s more, being a writer means accepting that you’re going to be throwing your work out to a cold, unfeeling, unprofitable world, and a huge part of being a successful writer is forcing yourself to be okay with that. Hell, people saying shitty things about your work is built into the process—between MFA programs, submitting to magazines, and submitting to agents/editors, writing is essentially an endless slog of bouncing yourself off slamming doors. People giving you their opinions of your writing is how this works, and someone’s opinion being negative doesn’t make that person a bully.

It also doesn’t help that Anne Rice is putting herself out there as the public face of this petition. Rice has a history of engaging with critics, to put it rather mildly—check out this New York Times article on a 1200-word defense she posted on Amazon ten years ago in response to bad reviews. Those, by the sounds of it, weren’t bullying; those were reviews from people who thought her writing stank. (Again, all cards on the table, I’m probably overly sympathetic to this faction because I agree with them.) So seeing yet another article about Rice versus the big bad internet reviewers isn’t something that’s going to get me to the barricades.

But as someone with a book with not very many reviews on Amazon myself, I understand just how desperately important those little gold stars are—not just to your previous wittle writing psyche, but your sales. Lower ratings are self-perpetuating: you slip down in the rankings, people see a middling average review and automatically pass you by, you slip down even farther. So the danger people are talking about in the petition itself is absolutely true—someone with a grudge and an internet connection can have a massive effect on your sales, your bottom line, and your career as a whole.

It’s also interesting, albeit unsurprising, that the three other authors mentioned in the Guardian article as getting threats from Amazon and other places—Joelle Charbonneau, Charlaine Harris, and Veronica Roth—are all women. That point feels like a bit of a side issue to the one in the petition—it sounds as if those authors were getting abuse either directed at them or in a non-Amazon-review setting—but the imbalance of who, exactly, is bearing the brunt of real internet abuse is still a salient point.

And so I’m left still not quite sure where I stand. I have online handles that I wouldn’t want associated with my real name—not because I’ve said anything bullying, but because I’m not particularly eager for every last stray online thought I’ve ever had online to appear if an employer googles me. I’d consider myself pretty patriotically devoted to the notion of free speech, even—especially—when the speech itself is offensive or pointless. At the same time, though, Amazon reviews in particular hold the power to do real and measurable harm to someone else, and I’m not sure current policies—and my own thinking, for that matter—have caught up to that.

Beowulf Header

I’m reviewed by James Schuller in Annexe Magazine, as part of a rather excellent article on modern Beowulf translations.

I’m not just saying that because he likes me, incidentally; the article has an absolutely fantastic opener that includes a nineteenth-century Beowulf translation that has to be read to be believed. (It’s AMAZING and I regret not doing the entirety of mine the same way.) Very much worth a read—Schuller just gets Beowulf, as noodley an endorsement as that may be, and it’s a joy to see the poem through his eyes for a bit.

Normally I am not a fan of pithy nugget-sized pieces of writing advice, because really, there are only two: write well, write often. So when I saw people linking to this article, 14 writers handwrite their writing advice on their hands, I was not expecting much. More fool me!—it’s great. Some of the photos actually manage to capture a piece of concretely useful advice (Karen Lord), some manage to in a palmful of scribbling encapsulate why I love their writing in the first place (Garth Nix, eeee), and some are genius (N.K. Jemisin’s fist! Why did no one else think of the fist!). And in my opinion, on a fundamental level, Patrick Rothfuss’s hand-advice is all you need.

Anyway, it’s taken you longer to read this blog post than it would to go read the original. Go check it out, it’s lovely.

I’ve spent the last several months working relatively flat-out on a novel. Suddenly my thoughts are centered around things like plot and dialogue and character development—it’s new territory, but stuff I’ve really enjoyed; writing has felt very large again, all unexplored territory.

Today I have come home. Today I feel like a poet, for exactly the sort of reason people do come home. Seamus Heaney has died. And it shouldn’t be a tragedy, not on paper: he was 74 years old and had struggled with ill health, I never met the man, people die every day. But this one. I don’t know any poet who didn’t love, or at least greatly respect, the man. His ability is beyond question in a way unmatched by any other living poet. And every anecdote I’ve ever heard about him indicates he wasn’t just a great poet, but a good and generous person.

Back when my supervisory team was discussing who the examiners would be for my viva, one of them briefly floated asking Heaney to do it (it was, after all, Beowulf). The idea was dismissed pretty quickly—he was already limiting engagements because of his health, so it was unlikely I’d make the grade. And while I would have chewed off my right arm to meet him, I was also glad. Your viva is supposed to be where you defend your argument against all comers (well, or something vaguely similar), but Heaney sharing his thoughts on my poetry? They might as well have been carved on stone tablets and popping out of a bush on fire.

Today my Twitter feed and my Facebook timeline and my email inbox are full of people memorialising—mostly with his own poetry, which feels right. Today the word-hoard feels smaller. But oh, what words he left us.

Just a quick link today–this article details 23 words identified by a research team at the University of Reading that have lasted largely unchanged across 15,000 years. I’ve read a few comments saying how nice it is that words like “thou” and “give” and “mother” are in there…but obviously, I went in scanning for anything with axes. Very gratified to see that both “fire” and “worm” are on the list. Now all we do is combine them, and things are getting very pleasingly Viking-y…

Barbara

A bit of an odd post, but this is my blog so I do what I want: if you are not already reading Anne Helen Peterson’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood over on The Hairpin, read this article on Barbara Stanwyck.

If you need something to make it blog-worthy aside from the article’s inherent brilliance, it is: Barbara Stanwyck’s real name was Ruby Stevens. So when I was starting work on my novel-in-progress and needed a name for a feisty, slightly rough around the edges heroine in 1932, I couldn’t resist. Stanwyck is anything but rough around the edges, but in terms of her on-screen personality and sass, well, we should all be so lucky.

Escalator vampireAnd at least without too much spinning out of the antici(…say it!)pation, I can now safely reveal my other piece of good news: I’m one of the Escalator Literature 2012/13 winners.

The Escalator is a yearlong literary development scheme, where the winners are helped through applying for an arts grant, get the assistance of a mentor over the course of the program, and have their work showcased at a few events. This year the focus is on genre fiction, and I entered with the novel I’ve been noodling around with periodically and mentioned a few times on this blog. In my brain’s perhaps most impressive attempt at dissertation avoidance, I had what I thought was a pretty irresistible idea for a novel…right in the middle of the final crunch of writing up my thesis. So while I’ve been working on it in bursts, they’ve been interspersed with much longer periods of working on, you know, what I was actually supposed to be working on at the time. Thankfully, I’m free and clear of my Ph.D. just in time to leap into this program.

Oh, and the genre fiction aspect? It’s…erm, vampires. I can at least promise no sparkles: my main guy is a rather embittered Civil War veteran. And historical as well, as the novel’s set in the final years of Prohibition. One reaction to my Facebook page’s link to my profile, complete with short extract, was “True Blood meets Boardwalk Empire?!”, which is actually not that far off.

I’ve got quite a bit of writing ahead of me for 2013, and while it’s a challenge, it’s one I am very excited about.