Is Online Life Real Life? #AskELJames – No, Ask Chuck Wendig

Image - iStockphoto: StockyPhoto
Image – iStockphoto: StockyPhoto

One Big Gray (Not Grey) Area Of Rage

 Online is IRL.

It’s all real.

This is all really happening…

It’s not a show, no matter how much we want it to be.

That’s the author Chuck Wendig, wrapping up what he seems to have thought would be his one post on the PR hair-tearer #AskELJames. But a funny thing happened on the way to today: Wendig wrote another piece, climbing down from his first one.

Confused? So are many commenters at his popular blog site. You can see more than 100 baffled comments on his second piece here.

The incident gives us a chance to peer — without much hope of seeing through it — into the big, gray area of online public discourse; a place wracked with hostility and rage.

Here’s what happened, in three steps.

1. A Simple Book-Promotion Event, Right?

E.L. James
E.L. James

In a move that her publicity people may now regret, E. L. James did a promotion Monday (29th June) for her new Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey As Told By Christian from London’s Twitter headquarters.

The event, at 6 p.m. British Summer Time, 1 p.m. Eastern, was expected to be a routine, online grip-‘n’-grin. In our simple announcement in The Bookseller in London here by my colleague Lisa Campbell, it was noted that James had staged a book-signing in New York but had yet to schedule a public appearance in the UK. And Grey has become the UK’s fastest-selling adult paperback on record, blowing past Dan Brown’s Inferno to sell nearly 385,972 print units between Thursday and Saturday. Penguin Random House was announcing that print and digital copies in the first week had added up to “an astonishing” 647,401 copies, our Tom Tivnan has reported.  Campbell reports that Grey sold 1.1 million units in its first four days in the States.

So here is a second Fifty Shades phenomenon. The Twitter event should have been a no-brainer: with no event on the ground for that big UK readership to enjoy, what could possibly go wrong with a simple Twitter chat for the author of these runaway bestsellers?

What could go wrong went really wrong. Hashtagged #AskELJames, the event turned into a publicist’s nightmare: a virulent backlash against James and her books was waiting, detractors went after her with a vengeance.

Misgivings about the material — in terms of misogyny, BDSM, abusive relationships, and James’ woefully bad writing (seemingly the one thing no one disagrees about) — rose quickly to the moment. A storm of invective overwhelmed the event. There are a couple of good representative stories describing what occurred here from the Guardian staff and here from Mashable’s Sam Hayson in London.

Some of the resistance to James’ work was organized, we know this. For example, the @50ShadesIsAbuse handle had called on its supporters on Twitter in advance to make a run at the hashtag, in order to protest domestic abuse.

downloadAnd the Twitter event wasn’t a total loss to the publisher and author’s interests. James revealed that she “has written a new romance, and is halfway through writing a second,” my colleague Sarah Shaffi wrote in today’s report at The Bookseller, not that this is good news to the author’s critics.

But little else was learned. Shaffi goes on to note that the online event was a rout and adds, “Asked how she dealt with negativity about her books, James said: ‘I think any writer just wants to be read… and for me I never thought that would happen — so I concentrate on that.’” It’s likely that she needed all her concentration during the Twitter chat.

What occurred may encourage those who have felt that the Fifty Shades material is — as Shaffi characterizes the complaints — “abusive and irresponsible, rather than romantic.” Many people both inside publishing and in the lay community have expressed profound concerns about James’ work, not only in its handling of selfhood, womanhood, gender relations, and romance, but also for its reflection on the state of commercial literature. Industry players do not unanimously appreciate Penguin Random House’s purveyance of this material. The usual refrain is “Well, just look how well it’s sold” and a big shrug.

Can the #AskELJames train wreck lead Penguin Random House’s leadership to pause and think? Not necessarily. It’s not as if the world’s largest publisher hasn’t known that many people don’t care for its big moneymaker. And it is a big one.We reported yesterday before the Twitter event that James’ own company, Fifty Shades Ltd., saw a £10 million or $15 million profit last year, bringing what The Guardian says is more than £37 million or $58 million total in cash and shares to the author.

What’s more, it’s particularly easy to dismiss complaints when it’s understood that even the most serious and important objections have been levied not by free-will complaint but by organized hijackings of events. It’s impossible to know how much of the backlash was orchestrated and how much was spontaneous. That’s unfortunate for all parties — both for those who would like to promote the marketplace’s acceptance of James’ books and for those who would like to demonstrate adamant opposition to them. This is a challenge that many social-action organizations and their targets wrestle with continually, naturally.

But in the course of the unpleasantness in the tweeterie, Chuck Wendig decided he needed to address the tone of the objections.

2. Criticism Of The Book? Or Attack On The Author?

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

In Online is IRL, Wendig made it clear that he is no lover of the Fifty Shades canon. He wrote:

I don’t really know E.L. James, and I’ve only read portions of her books. I am not impressed with the origins of the work, or her wordsmithy, or her particular take on the genre she’s writing…Further, I think because her books are controversial (both in terms of their fan-fic origin and their stance or non-stance on consensual BDSM relationships), I feel like it’s totally understandable to want to grab that hashtag and ask her serious questions about those serious issues. An open forum like that is, despite her likely desires to the contrary, valuable if it addresses those things.

He went on, however, to write that the confrontations James encountered on Twitter went beyond constructive objection and quickly got personal: “One tweet called James the lady-c-word while chastising the abuse found in the book — which sounds like abuse about abuse, a cruel ouroboros where the snake bites down hard on its own tail.”

And he brought it to the issue we all need to consider, whether we have any opinion about James work and the issues around it or not:

When it stops being a criticism of the book and becomes an attack on the author, that gets scary to me. The whole thing just gives me a kind of queasy discomfort, like I’m reading Lord of the Flies or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

His perfectly valid point is that the angry online voices we all encounter too frequently these days can sound as if they exist in a film or TV show. Online hostility becomes a performance. Do we stop and remember that real people are on the receiving end of a virtual slap in the face? — would the same assailant think of doing that IRL, in real life?

Wendig was not alone. The author Anne Rice jumped onto her Facebook page to write:

I’m receiving word from numerous sources that author E.L. James is being attacked and bullied and abused on Twitter. I’m shocked and I’m disappointed. How long are we going to put up with this kind of thing? Fortunately E.L. James is a very successful author, internationally famous, and backed by a strong publisher and millions of readers. But this is the same sort of abuse that cripples and silences many self published authors, young authors, and mid list authors, and make no mistakes, they are indeed attacked —- on Goodreads, on Amazon, on Twitter and the like. I’m fed up with “Censorship by Troll.” Aren’t you? Well, there is a way to stop it. Appeal to websites and internet venues to enforce their existing guidelines against obscenity, abuse, threats and out and out “hate” attacks.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether:  Is Online Life Real Life? Ask E.L. James. No, Ask Chuck Wendig

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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