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Bully Pulpit

BULLY (transitive verb): to treat abusively or to affect by means of force or coercion.

When FDR was president, most Americans did not know that he primarily used a wheelchair. The media didn’t report on it, and he endeavored never to appear in public sitting in it, with only two photos in existence of such an event. His “weakness” was not made public. Why am I telling this story? (And really, how often do you ask yourself that when you’re reading one of my blog posts? Probably more often than I’d expect.)

I bring it up because now there isn’t much we DON’T know about our public figures. We read about them in the tabloids, we hear about them on the nightly news, we follow them (or one of their underpaid minions acting for them) on social media. There are few secrets left, it seems. We feel like we know them.

We apply this same familiarity to the authors we read. We interact with them, and they with us, through reading their books, leaving reviews, posts on Facebook, Twitter, newsletters, etc. But the truth is we really don’t know them. We don’t know their lives, their joys, their sorrows, their strengths, their weaknesses. We know what they choose to present to us: their words. And in our reactions to their words, and their responses to our reactions, sometimes things go awry.

Just because you paid for and read a story doesn’t give you a license to act like an asshole if you didn’t like it. Yes, you spent money on that personally dissatisfying tale, but that sticker price doesn’t entitle you to bash the work and the author all over town and the internet. Leave your negative or one-star review, say you didn’t like it, maybe cite an example or two, and MOVE ON.

Don’t harangue the author. Don’t post negative messages on social media. Don’t be a bully. Act like a grown-up and read something else. If you want to talk privately with your friends about your dismay at this book, go ahead. But keep it offline. (And if you didn’t pay for it and don’t like it? Honey, sit down and shut up. There aren’t a lot of things in life that are free, so just chalk it up to experience and mosey on to the next story.)

On the flip side, when you’re an author receiving a negative or one-star review? Read it and absorb it. Maybe it has merit, maybe it doesn’t, but whether, in your opinion, the reviewer is right or wrong, DO NOT RESPOND. You only look like that kid on the playground who didn’t get his way and is picking up his toys and going home. Nobody likes that kid. You know who else nobody likes? Friends of that kid who act on his behalf to berate and attack his detractors. Don’t be a bully. And don’t turn your friends into bullies.

A while back, I read a book I really liked. I thought the characters were interesting and the plot intriguing. But holy hell, did it need a firm-handed editor! It was way too long and unfocused, employed poor grammar, and was woefully unpolished. I contacted the author and offered my editing services. We had a dialogue going in which it looked like the author might be interested in working with me. I was very excited, not only because I’m easily excitable, but also because I felt I could really help. But it turned out the author’s next work was already promised to another editor.

I bought and read that next book as soon as it was released, only to discover that it had the same faults as the first. And here I was faced with a dilemma. If I gave the book the negative review I felt it deserved, it would appear to the author that I had sour grapes about not getting hired, which did not at all factor into my feelings about the book itself. (And yes, I’ve seen this exact negative review written for other authors by other rejected editors solely out of spite, so don’t think it doesn’t happen.)

But I knew I couldn’t give the book a positive review because I could not in good conscience mislead other readers. So I did nothing. It kills me to have taken that course of action because I sure wish someone would have told me. But I would hate even more for my negative words to be taken as a personal attack rather than as a professional assessment, one no longer seeking any financial gain.

Growing up, I heard “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a concept I wholeheartedly understand. If you don’t want someone to treat you poorly, don’t you treat them poorly.

(And moment of truth, I had NO idea this was known as “The Golden Rule” until easily in my 20s. Thankfully by then we had the internet, so when faced with that term I could look up what it meant. It’s entirely possible I skipped the day in Sunday School when it was explained. But I sorta quit Sunday School—please work on your surprised face—so that’s not a huge shock.)

This system of cordial reciprocity is vital to maintaining the author/reader relationship, and is also a large factor in preserving civility. As the reader, you have an obligation to express your opinion thoughtfully and respectfully, positive or negative. As the writer, you have an obligation to accept that others will have, and publicize, opinions of your work that you do not share.

It’s too easy here to quote “Frozen” and encourage everyone to just “Let It Go,” but at the core, that’s sort of what I’m saying. I’m not in AA (yet), but their motto of “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” totally applies here. The same message given in the Serenity Prayer in 1941 still rings true in the language of 2013: “I don’t care…what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.”

If you’re a writer or a reader, be like Elsa. Go out on your own and get a kick-ass sparkly dress and build your own ice palace. You don’t have to conform, in your writing, or your reviews. But you’d do well to also follow the model of FDR and put your best self forward. Your legacy will be all the more glittering for it.



PS: Are my friend (who shall remain nameless) and I the only ones who cry when they hear “Let It Go”? Show of hands.

Originally published April 14, 2014

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