A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
What’s one of the first pieces of advice we tend to offer people who are anxious about getting out there and socialising? ‘Oh, just be yourself! Just be relaxed and be honest and everything will be fine!’
Most introverted, socially awkward, or shy people (I count myself among this number) would agree this is not exactly helpful. But when you’re a writer, you try anyway. You go to events, talk on panels, speak with fans… and most of the time, it turns out okay. It really does. I spent a long time being a blue fuzzy ball of stress and anxiety before every appearance, but eventually it dawned on me that in the book world, people are prepared to like you. And when you’re surrounded by people who are who are appreciative of writers and books – and maybe even yours in particular – it slowly but surely becomes quite easy to relax, to be yourself. To be honest.
I still get a little tingle of butterflies before public speaking now and again, but for the most part it doesn’t worry me in the same way it used to.
But there is definitely one part of being an author that still makes me so anxious, I often want to throw up. And that’s being honest online.
People who interact with me on my blog (which has been active since 2010) or on Twitter (where I spend far too many hours to qualify as anything like a well-adjusted adult) might be regarding that announcement with some shock. “But you’re really good at online stuff!” they would probably protest. “You’ve been blogging for ages and you’ve got a strong presence and you come across as natural and HONEST!”
Oh, my sweet summer children. Once, I was one of you. Once I was naive and trusting and sure that if I was only earnest and willing to learn and be honest, people online would give me the benefit of the doubt and everything would be all right. Look at this, from 2012! I’m saying it right there! Honesty is the best policy!
That, unfortunately, is not how things work for me anymore.
Last year, I won a grant from Arts Council England to buy time to research and write a young adult novel, and as per the ACE guidelines I made a point of talking about this, and my project, on my blog. The book was inspired by the traditional Chinese story of Mulan (in fact, a variety of different Chinese versions of the tale including the original Ballad, and the Chinese opera – but NOT the American animated Disney movie) and would be set in a fairytale version of the Tang Dynasty. I envisaged the main character as genderfluid. I was excited about it. Very excited! I’d talked about it online a few times before and a lot of people – including people from the Chinese or ex-pat Chinese and QUILTBAG communities – reached out to tell me they were excited too, and to offer their advice and support.
That particular post was where the perils of being honest online hit me with the force of a… well, the force of an angry deluge of people descending on my blog, website and inbox to not only FORBID me from writing this book, but also to threaten to kill me if I dared disobey.
I’m not kidding. It was that bad. Up to a hundred comments or emails a day, for weeks, full of abusive language, comments on my (presumed) sexual, racial and gender-identity, my appearance – and threats. Specific, detailed threats, the kind designed to strike fear into anyone’s heart, the kind that talk about finding you, breaking into your house in the middle of the night with a gang of friends, and doing awful things to you.
These people, as far as I can tell, were all directed my way by a single Tumblr post written by a person who had taken a dislike to my idea and had linked to my blog suggesting that people ‘let me know’ what they thought of it, and me.
None of these people knew anything about me. None of them, as far as I could tell, had read anything I’d ever written, not a book or even a blogpost other than the ones that mentioned my Mulan-inspired project. They didn’t care about the fact that I was a Sasakawa Prize winner, that I’d been writing diverse, critically acclaimed books with PoC and QUILTBAG characters for years and years before diversity was ‘hot’ or even a term that was much recognised (back when Daughter of the Flames came out they called it ‘multi-cultural fantasy).
All they cared about was my profile picture. It shows a white, blonde girl. That blonde girl – referred to charmingly in one message as a ‘fatty mayo’ – was about to write an idea based on a Chinese story which would have a QUILTBAG main character. And they were determined to silence her before she could. Various reasons and justifications were given, but that was the one thing every message had in common, loud and clear: SHUT UP.
Authors are strongly discouraged from engaging with others online in a combative fashion, or from defending their work. You’re supposed to suck it up, thicken your skin, ignore it, be a professional, remember that people have the right to respond to your work however they like etc. etc. I’ve seen writers responding to criticism described as ‘punching down’ because the assumption is that you, a published writer, have more power than others online. Which in many cases is true.
I’ve gotta tell you, though – as message after message poured into my blog, through my website contact form and into my inbox, I did not feel very powerful at all.
But, what was I going to do? Humbly beg for permission to write outside of my own experiences? Point out that I’m not bandwagon jumping, that I’ve written books based on folklore and mythology and other cultures for my whole career and that, while some people inevitably don’t enjoy them, I’ve never before been accused of cultural appropriation because I make damn sure my work is well-researched, nuanced, and respectful – and that I’ve always been willing to be called out on errors and to learn from them, with no need to heap abuse on my head to get my attention?
Plead that if writers are restricted to writing about characters who are exactly like them in terms of identity and experience, then most of the decent ones won’t bother to write at all?
Should I try to explain that if you disapprove of a writer’s work then you’re free not to read it, or to read it and write blistering reviews, or even call her names IN YOUR OWN SPACE – but that coming after her in her online spaces and attempting to stop her from being able to work in the first place through threats and intimidation crosses the line into censorship?
Or was I, as I’ve seen some other other authors online recently forced to do, supposed to offer up a list of my own marginalisations and identities, start a game of privilege bingo so that they could pick through my card and decide if I was worthy to have a voice?
No. The more messages came, the more cruel and misogynistic and scary language I read, the clearer it was. Nothing I could say was going to matter to them. If it had, they’d have come to me with questions, not threats. My profile picture was showing them the wrong face and that was all they cared about. They’d already made up their minds. Let me be clear: I know my body of work is not above criticism. I am not above criticism. I don’t want or expect brownie points or a free pass. But if I’m to be called out, it should be because I’ve actually messed up – not because of the identities or privileges assigned to me by strangers online.
It could have been much worse. We’ve all heard about women who’ve been doxxed or had online harrassment escalate into real life violence. Nevertheless, I’ve learned an indelible lesson about the perils of being honest online.
Because when an online event like this happens, your honesty, any vulnerability that you expose – your enthusiasm for certain books or media, your creative passion, the hint of a double-chin in your profile picture or the colour of your hair, the fact that you needed to apply for a grant in order to work, the fact that you mentioned having a beloved dog, and that the dog died – will be seized on and used against you. They’re not just coming after your work. They’re coming after you as a person.
I eventually set my blog to blanket comment moderation, starving commentors of their ability to see their words splashed across my online space before I had approved them. I erased all references to my project from my blog so that there were no posts for them specifically to respond to anymore. I got over my instinct to call the ACE and give them their money back and just write something else, and, as the abusive messages slowed down to a trickle (only one yesterday!) I wrote the damn book that I wanted to write.
The fact that I’ve been forced to give up talking about this project, to give up sharing snippets from it, discussing my creative process and using that to answer questions and help others with theirs… that’s been really hard. I’ve talked openly about every book I’ve worked on since 2010 and I missed it. It made writing the book a strangely quiet and isolating experience. It’s starved my blog of life in much the same way that I starved the abusive commentors through ignoring them. I blogged less last year than any year since I started, except the year after my father died.
And I’ve come to realise that what happened has affected pretty much every other aspect of my online presence too. I’m wary, not relaxed. I hesitate to talk honestly about things that could be used against me now. I don’t interact, don’t reach out, in the same way. Every email from an unknown address, every new comment, brings a faint frisson of anxiety. I don’t start out prepared to like people online anymore. I begin with a willingness to defend myself from them.
Maybe that’s why, now that I’ve finished writing this book and it can no longer be stalled by my reaction to being threatened, I’ve decided to break out and be honest online once again. Chances are this’ll be way too honest for some, that it will provoke more hatred, and they’ll pile back into my blog comments and inbox to express more of the same sentiments I’ve seen so many hundreds of times before. I’m not looking forward to that.
Ultimately though, for better or worse, this book exists now. It’s with my agent as I type this. I’m proud of it and I’m glad that I wrote it. I very much hope it’s going to be published one day. If and when it is, I want to be able to talk about it in the same way I talk about any other book I’ve written – with pride for the good bits, and chagrin over the bits I wish I could have made better.
I know I’ll be able to do that in real life.
Online? Who knows.
I’m sure of one thing though. While I have mixed feelings about online honesty these days, I’m glad that when it comes to my art I didn’t let anyone shut me up. And no matter what happens in the future? I never will.
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency. Continue reading…
Books: THE SWAN KINDGOM | DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES | SHADOWS ON THE MOON | FROSTFIRE | THE NIGHT ITSELF | DARKNESS HIDDEN | FRAIL HUMAN HEART | BAREFOOT ON THE WIND