A Book Sale at the Cost of Your Conscience
First, some context: These two tweets about an article in a Romance Writers of America magazine, in which the writer of the article counsels against taking a stand in social media on “controversial” topics:
Second, as it happens, and as it often happens when one has been writing a blog for almost seventeen years, I have a piece in the archive which touches upon this very topic, called “Why, Yes, I Should Write About Politics.” It’s worth the read, and my basic opinion on the matter is unchanged since then.
Third, new additional thoughts, and some other continuing thoughts, on the topic.
No one is obliged to speak on political or social issues if they don’t want, and no one is obliged to chip in their two cents on a topic that’s gathering pennies on any particular day. It’s perfectly fine to say, publicly or privately, “I don’t know enough on this and am reading up,” or “I’m on deadline and have to focus,” or “I have a lot of thoughts on this topic and 140 characters can’t express them” or even “addressing this topic right now feels like it would be sticking my head into a hive of angry hornets and why would I want to do that.” One’s participation is not required on every single topic, every single day.
But note well there is a difference between it being said that one is not required to offer up opinions, and that one should not offer them up at all — or, in this particular instance, that one should “take a more neutral approach.” The first of these is about the recognition that any individual writer has only so much time, energy and knowledge to commit to commenting on social issues, and the other is, frankly, about fear: you won’t sell books if you have an opinion a reader doesn’t like.
And that’s just terrible advice. It’s terrible advice in part because it’s simply not true — there are best selling writers in every genre who express opinions that outrage and annoy whole packs of people, and have since before they were best sellers, and yet they sell books nonetheless — and in part because it’s reductive. It’s an argument that posits that once a writer enters the stream of commerce, the most important thing about that writer’s life is their ability to sell books. Everything else about that writers’ life suddenly takes a back seat to that single commercial goal.
Speaking as an explicitly commercial writer — I write books that I plan to sell! To a lot of people! — I’m of the opinion that one of the worst ways to be a writer is to shear off or trim down all parts of your life that are not obviously designed to further the goal of selling tons of books. Why? Because then you’re cutting off the parts of your life that inform your writing, and which allow you to create the work that speaks to people, which is to say, to write the stories that people want to read and buy, and make you an author they wish to support. Being in “the business of selling books” doesn’t mean simply moving units of collections of words, any words at all. Those words have to mean something, to you and to potential readers, otherwise it won’t matter how hyperfocused you are on selling.
The author of this article notes “there are a million polarizing topics.” That’s correct, but it’s too limited. Any topic can be polarizing. I’ve been on the Internet for a quarter of a century now and have seen knock-down, drag-out, friendship-ending fights on topics I personally consider absolutely trivial. Turns out these topics aren’t trivial to many people — and it also turns out that “trivial” topics have social and political aspects to them that make them far less trivial than those outside those interest groups may initially expect (see: Gamergate). If one were to “take a more neutral stance” on any potentially polarizing topic, one would have to say nothing on anything, ever.
And you know what? It wouldn’t matter. Because whosoever writes a book — any book, in any genre — has written a polarizing thing. Entire genres are polarizing simply for existing; certainly romance writers, who have to deal with condescension and sexism because their field is predominantly woman-centered, know this, even though the genre is the single largest-selling genre of them all. Whatever the subject matter of a book is, someone can and probably will single it out for criticism, and that criticism can and often will be about the author’s presumed politics and social positions — which is why when Old Man’s War first came out, I got criticism (and praise!) for being, among other things, a conservative gun fetishist, which is amusing to anyone who knows me.
To write publicly is to be judged and to be criticized and to be polarizing. If one avoids speaking on public issues in social media only out fear of alienating readers, all one does is possibly delay such judgment. Judgment will happen for what you say and also what you don’t say. Judgment will happen for what you write in your books and what people assume you meant when you wrote those words, regardless of your authorial intent. Judgment will happen based on who people think you are based on the fantasy version of you they have in their head, which is almost always more about their own fears and desires than anything that has to do with the actual person you are.
So you might as well say whatever the hell you like, if you like. If nothing else, then the fantasy versions of who you are might be closer to the person you actually are.
Here’s the final thing I want you to think about: Advising writers to be publicly “neutral” on “controversial” topics is dangerous, because it gives those who want to silence any author who has opinions they don’t like a tool for that silencing. See? Even the RWA is telling you to shut up on this. Now shut the fuck up, or you will fail, and it will be your fault. RWA’s membership is as I understand it primarily women. I’m not entirely sure that it’s helpful for these writers to be given advice to be silent or “neutral”. For some of them, their just being a woman is enough excuse for some people to actively try to silence them, and threaten them, and to try to exert control over them. I don’t think that sort needs additional encouragement, intentional or otherwise, from a writer speaking to a largely women-centered audience.
Ever since I’ve been a published author, I’ve had people declaring that they will not buy my books because I wrote or said something they dislike. The intent was clear: You exist only to amuse me. I hold the key to your success. Do as I say or suffer the consequences. Whatever demanding or threatening I get is nothing compared to what others — different genders and ethnicities and sexualities — get. What these threateners, and apparently the author of this article, don’t understand is that the world is positively filled with people who will read my work despite of, because of, or independent of, my social and political thoughts. Those people will find my work and read it and enjoy it. They will find and read and enjoy the work of any author. Beyond that, I am not only the sum of my book sales. I write to sell and I write to amuse, but I don’t exist only for those things. I exist to be a writer, and a husband, and a father, and a friend, and a citizen of my nation and my world, and as an individual who is his own person, aside from the desires of others.
Which is why when people object to my positions on social and political issues, I say: Oh, well. And when they try to silence or threaten me, I say: Kiss my ass. I neither want nor need the sort of reader who thinks a book sale gives them the right to dictate how I live my life, or what I choose to speak about in the public sphere. As a writer, I believe that neither I nor any other writer, including ones giving advice in writing magazines, should be encouraging these sort of people to believe that they can or should tell writers what they can and cannot speak about publicly.
This is the long way of saying this: That advice? It’s bad. Don’t be “neutral” in public on the things that are important to you. Speak if you choose to speak. A book sale at the cost of your conscience is a very bad deal indeed.