Yes, this is right on the heels of my last Murderati blog post, about whether I should pull the plug on the internet, followed by the post by Alafair Burke of being stalked online by an obnoxious woman. But I can’t help blogging again on the problems that come with being so accessible to readers online. The reason I can’t get off the subject is this situation, which I mention over on my own blog.
It turns out that some of my readers are angry (again), and they have no qualms about letting me have it with both barrels. This time, it’s nurses who are up in arms about my book, The Bone Garden, because it focuses squarely on the contributions of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The story takes place in 1830, when Holmes is a medical student, and in the tale, he gets the first inkling that doctors’ dirty hands are linked to childbed fever. “What about Florence Nightingale’s contributions?” say the annoyed nurses. “By ignoring her, you’ve revealed that you don’t value nurses’ contributions to medicine. Don’t you know that Nightingale’s observations during the Crimean War changed hospitals forever? Why is your book only about doctors?”
I try to patiently answer the emails, pointing out that the Crimean War was in the 1850s, a good twenty-four years after my story takes place, so for my characters to mention Nightingale would make them, oh, psychic. I also point out that Holmes was in America and Nightingale was an English nurse, so the two of them probably wouldn’t have known each other anyway. I point out that Holmes presented his groundbreaking paper on infectiousness in 1843, before anyone in America had heard of Nightingale. But while I’m trying to be reasonable and patient with these charges, I’m also aware that my blood pressure has shot up, and another writing session has been torpedoed.
All because a few readers are irritated and aren’t shy about letting me know it.
I’ve blogged about other examples of angry readers. There was the reader who told me I was showing my ignorance when I referred to Aphrodite as the goddess of love, because any educated person knew the goddess of love was Venus. There were the pit bull and Doberman owners who took me to task for using their beloved breeds as scary dogs in my stories. There are readers who tell me I clearly hate men (because the men are so mean in my stories) and that I hate women (because my female victims are so viciously attacked). And on and on. The question is, why do these readers get so worked up about stories that are merely fiction?
I’ve tried to analyze the reasons readers get angry. Most of the time, it seems to result from the fact readers are quick to personalize some element in the story. They think the author is insulting them in particular. They see it as a specific attack on their worth or their profession or their philosophy. And if an author makes a factual error (as we all do), the reader feels empowered by his own superior knowledge and feels compelled to let the author know it.
As a reader, I’ve read plenty of novels where I spotted factual mistakes, but I’ve never felt the need to tell the author he’s an idiot. I’ve read a number of novels that I felt were poorly written, but I’d just shrug and move on. I can’t remember any instance where a novel made me angry at the author. Where does this anger come from, and is it endemic to today’s society? If people are getting this riled up about something as trivial as a novel, what are their lives like at home? Are they insulting their spouses and kids? Are they screaming at their bosses?
I suspect that the nasty letters we writers receive are just a reflection of generalized anger about everything these days. It’s not hard to find angry people. Just check out any online election news article or political forum, and take a look at the comments. There are people engaged in name-calling and insults. There are people demanding guillotines or firing squads for the opposition. On both sides of the aisle, you’ll see calls to either “eat the rich” or “eat the poor.” You can’t find much moderation, because it’s not newsworthy. And when you turn on the news, you’ll find flushed, bug-eyed commentators yelling at the camera, spittle flying.
I guess I should be relieved that all we writers have to deal with are emails from a few pissed-off readers.
Have people always been this angry, or is this something recent? Is it a result of our wired culture, where all it takes is a mouse click on “send” and the object of your derision instantaneously hears your unvarnished rage? Please, can we go back to old-fashioned letter writing, when people got a chance to calm down before they actually sealed the envelope and licked the stamp?
I’m traveling today, so can’t respond to comments. But I’d love to hear from other writers what sorts of things have made your readers angry enough to let you know about it.