Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Comedy Roast of E.L. James

If you're like me and not remotely interested in the writings of E.L. James or Stephenie Meyer, then you probably knew nothing about the recent Q/A session author E.L. James held on Twitter to publicize her new book. The title of my blog says it all. Twitterians gave the woman their typical "warm welcome," skewering her alive with a barrage of sarcasm and ridicule. What her publicist believed would be a good chance to connect with her fans turned into a free-for-all, as the online public used her #AskELJames hashtag to bash everything from her poor writing skills to the questionable symbolism of her characters.

Some examples of the types of questions she faced included:

"Which do you hate more, women or the English language?"
"After the success of 'Grey,' have you considered re-telling the story from the perspective of someone who can write?"
"I like this girl but she doesn't seem all that into me. Is it cool if I beat her into liking me like Christian Grey?"
"Which safe word do I use to stop you from writing anything else ever?"

To her credit, James fielded questions for the full hour of the Q/A, avoiding the urge to respond to her outspoken critics. I would imagine immediately after the disastrous session, she probably fired off an email to her publicist, thanking him for the humiliating experience. Any future publicity stunts for her books probably won't be including Twitter in the future.

Seeing as how what happened to E.L. James could befall any author willing to place his/her neck in the noose, what lessons (if any) are to be found in the wake of this spectacular display of audience participation gone wrong?

Most obviously, the Twitter feedback should serve as a warning to other authors not to publish substandard work or there will be consequences. It doesn't matter if it took three days to write a short story or three years to craft a book. Once you publish it, it stops being yours. The hard work and love (or lack thereof) that you invested into it are meaningless. All that matters is the story itself. If it fails to resonate with the readers, either due to a lack of skill on your part or a failure in the tale itself, they will feel cheated and resentful for having wasted their time reading it.

The one thing authors can't account for is the varying tastes and personalities of their readers. Even best-selling books have critics. The only power afforded to an author is to write to the best of their abilities and constantly strive to improve their skills as a writer and editor. If their best isn't good enough, it might be time to consider shelving new projects and spending more time learning the basics of how to properly write an engaging tale. As an editor, I've seen my share of poorly constructed stories, not only syntactically, but also in the weakness of their underlying tale. I would never advise someone to jettison a weak story, but the fact that some authors are unable to recognize shortcomings such as this for themselves means that they need to spend more time honing their craft, rather than rushing to publish their work.

The second lesson to be learned at E.L. James' expense is that there is no such thing as "bad press." She may have taken a truckload of flak from her critics on Twitter, but the nature of their jibes meant that they were familiar enough with her work to know what to criticize. They either read her book (fully or partially), saw the movie based on the book (fully or partially), or knew enough about her from second-hand accounts to form their own opinion of the quality of her work. Admittedly, earning a reputation as a bad writer isn't something to which most authors aspire. However, at the end of the day, Hollywood doesn't seem to care, and the stain doesn't appear to be significantly impacting E.L. James' bank account. Perhaps counting her money was how she managed to weather her gruelling stint on Twitter so professionally.

The third lesson to be gleaned from this fiasco is that authors shouldn't take criticism to heart, but neither should they ignore it. Though it can feel earth-shattering when something in which you invested so much time and effort gets ripped to shreds, it's (usually) not personal. Personal attacks can and do happen for any number of reasons, but book critics generally tend to reserve their feelings for the quality of the finished product. Any shortcomings in the book or lack of polish only fuel their fire. Though it can be painful at times, I personally recommend that authors read each and every criticism, not just the positive ones. Some of the most vitriol criticisms that I've received have only fuelled my desire to revise and improve the quality of my writing and storytelling (after I picked myself up off the ground).

The final lesson? Most people on social networking are not your friends. The faceless anonymity of attacking someone at a distance abounds, whether on Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook. The next time you decide to host an online marketing session to push your new book, be ready to accept the fact that not everyone who attends is there to wish your endeavors a rousing success. Have the grace to treat them with aplomb. Unless they're obvious trolls, critics can't bash your work without feeling passionate about it. That your writing made people feel something, good or bad, is the goal of every author. Today's critic may become tomorrow's biggest fan.

To summarize, treat the business of writing as a business. Stay professional. Recognize that the only product that suits everyone's needs is toilet paper. Don't just write - read. Never stop honing your abilities and increasing your vocabulary. You may have a best-selling story in your head, but it will only ever be as good as your skill to tell it. When everyone says that your writing sucks, don't ignore them (unless they keep buying your books anyway). With a little effort, you can become the writer that both you and your readers deserve.

Above all, have fun with it! Who knows? In a thousand years, crap writing may reach the heights of poetic eloquence, making most of today's heavily-criticized books literary masterpieces. Remember, not even Shakespeare was appreciated in his own time.