Why are readers so angry these days?

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.

32 thoughts on “Why are readers so angry these days?

  1. Chris Hamilton

    How dare you speak of Florence Nightengale and not the great and mighty Florence Henderson. What are you some kind of misogynist? Hate blondes? Or maybe you're just jealous because she got to share a bed with Robert Reed in his afro days.

    Sure they're completely different people from completely different centuries, but Florence Henderson revolutionized sitcom mom-hood, deep-frying, and sensual but creepy dancing by women old enough to be your grandmother (http://abc.go.com/shows/dancing-with-the-stars). (By the way, some things you just can't unsee.)

    There are ideas that piss me off, but my pissed-offedness usually has more to do with me than the idea and the person who presents it. It's ridiculous that people reach that far to nitpick. If I had readers, I'd like think I'd wear that particular scorn as a badge of honor.

    Seriously, though, people are feeling powerless. Stuff is big these days, and scary. It's like the toll taker who's a martinette because he can be. That's the extent of power that person feels over his or her world, and that's a sad thing.

  2. Gretchen

    What strikes me is that your writing has moved these people to take action. That's a pretty classy problem to have. Personally, there would be a happy dance for each of those letters, but then it's easy for me to say, I'm unpublished.

    But I have to agree with the previous poster commenting about the unsung Florence Henderson.
    ( I can't believe they didn't mention Maureen what's her face, who had such great hair.)

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Perhaps readers, everyone, have always been "angry" all along for years but now there's a means to deliver the venting message easily. <shrug> I know these are the extremes of your emails you receive but they seem too eye rolling to even give them a second thought. People are just weird and caught up in their own dramas.
    I received an email last week from the agent of an author who I had contacted to request a 300 word excerpt of his/her new novel for my newsletter. They were wanting a fee from me for the free publicity.

  4. Karen in Ohio

    Someone once attacked an innocent article I wrote on electrical magnetic fields, four paragraphs long, which cited a scientific paper and remarks from an eminent scientist. Their four-PAGE rebuttal included information from an electric company lineman as "proof" that I didn't know what I was talking about. There was no rhyme or reason for the attack, except maybe envy. Their long, crazy article was published in an association newsletter and no one would print either a retraction or an apology.

    It's no wonder people are ticked off about everything today, with all the hair-on-fire commentators posing as "news" media on, ahem, certain channels. I'm sure I've significantly lowered my blood pressure for the last two months since my "TV diet" began. No TV for me until after the elections, just so I don't have to hear any negative attack ads. I highly recommend it, by the way. Reading a book every day, instead.

  5. Mary Arrrr

    At some point along the way, "the customer is always right" shifted in meaning from "don't argue with someone who is trying to buy something from you" to "every product you buy should delight you and every retailer or manufacturer should offer the selling experience and return policy that you prefer."

    Don't know what to do about it. Was at Readercon this summer and a woman stood up and told the authors that they shouldn't put things in books that would upset readers. It was a panel on dark fiction! The authors basically told her sorry, but they wrote the book they wanted to.

    The hardest thing is when someone is mad at you and wrong. Pointing out that they are wrong usually doesn't make them any less mad, but the conversation can't continue if you don't.

    But on the handwashing… a doctor may have noticed it first, but it took a nurse to get everyone to actually do anything about it.

    And you should get an assistant. There is probably someone local who would like a part-time "mother's hours" job. I have a friend with a non-writer home based business who swears by it.

  6. Karen in Ohio

    Whoa, Mary. I can't imagine why that woman couldn't just pick up a different book to read. Sheesh, it's not as if there are only one or two published every decade or anything.

    People are crazy, I'm convinced.

  7. JD Rhoades

    "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" has been an acceptable form of political discourse for a while now–except when it's used by someone the speaker disagrees with, when it becomes the worst thing an opponent can be, e.g. "The unhinged, angry left/right/white male/feminists/environmentalists/etc"

    It's no surprise that it's spilled over into other fields, and now, as PK points out, we have the Internet, which allows people to be raging assholes (literally) without any consequences.

  8. Chris Hamilton

    Somewhere along the line we assumed the right to not be offended by anything. I once had a group of technical writers…writers…people who made money by expressing ideas on a page…tell me that if you write something and it offends someone, it's your obligation to change it so it's not offensive.

    What? If you give someone that level of power to change what you express, then nothing worthwhile will be expressed.

    The customer is always important. Not necessarily always right.

  9. Gerald So

    I think we're seeing more of one another's raw emotion because, as others have commented, it's easier to send an e-mail or post a blog entry than to write a letter. As a result, senders don't respect e-mail much as a form, nor do they respect its recipients. As you say, Tess, letter writing used to require people to ensure their arguments were logical and persuasive.

    As a writer, I'm always mindful that–be it by letter, e-mail, blog, or speech–I'm communicating with people who deserve as much respect as I'd like to receive. That said, if I receive angry messages founded on faulty logic, I'm within my rights not to respond. Some angry senders don't care who/what's right; they only care that they get under your skin.

  10. A Non Writer

    I think your word "empowerment' said it all. If a reader trashes an author, that reader has in his own mind empowered himself to a superior position, a position above the author where he can look down and criticize the person who is now below him. It's a way of saying, "I'm as good as you. In fact, better."

    I think an equally applicable word is "jealousy," which is always a magnet for wrath.

  11. Debbie

    For the benefit of doubt, maybe some of these people are really just well intentioned people trying to educate authors albeit without diplomacy. I was momentarily sucked into a blog discussing an authors view on some recent psychology. I sat back to think it through and realized that they were basing their entire discussion about said author on one of his characters. Seriously?

    Out of curiosity (naiveté): Rati's and published authors who've experienced this first hand, why is it wrong to respond with, "It's fiction people.' Perhaps in a more polite way, but really…it's just that.

  12. JT Ellison

    I'm lucky to have only received a few truly vitriolic emails. They are hurtful, and yes, easily derail the day's writing. But you have to think that if anyone is so small that in order to feel better about themselves, their solution is to denigrate others, their lives are pretty sad.

    Tess, it's time for that assistant.

  13. pari noskin taichert


    Ambient Anger. Those two words typify our society right now. And I don't want to give it any energy.

    So . . . I spend the time answering the emails for the reason that Gerald mentions. Even if they're mean, nasty cusses, I want to model good behavior. Perhaps that's because I'm so conscious of doing that with my kids. Plus, I feel a certain social responsibility to make the world a better place.

    But those nasties do hurt even if they seem like total crackpots. Part of our blessing as writers is that we feel things deeply and can express that in words. I seriously wonder about my writer friends who say those kinds of attacks DON'T hurt.

    I thank people when they're correct. When they're not — or when they're just lashing out — I tell them I'm sorry they feel that way and that I hope they can find other writers that fulfill their needs better than I can.

    I've actually gotten a few apologies with that response.

  14. Phil Hawley

    It seems that I'm a contrarian on this issue. I wonder if authors give this issue much more attention than it deserves.

    If 100,000 people read the latest thriller by a best-selling author, isn't it reasonable to expect that several hundred readers will express outrage at some aspect of the story. And if the story touches on a controversial subject, perhaps several thousand readers will put their negative reactions into sharply-worded (and sometimes illogical) missives. I can understand how authors dislike these negative responses, especially since the criticisms are usually undeserved, but asking, "Why are readers so angry these days?” implies that a large segment of the reading public is angry. Is that really true?

    If you’re talking about few hundred angry readers (or even several hundred) for a book near the top of the NYT bestsellers list, you’re still talking about a tiny fraction of the readership. For example, if a book that sells 250,000 in hardcover and paperback generates 250 angry letters, that’s only 0.001 of readers. If that same novel generates 1,000 angry letters, that's still less than one half of one percent.

    Given that 15% of Americans believed Elvis was still alive ten years after his death, why wouldn’t novelists expect an even larger number of readers to register complaints that are unsupported by fact?

    I’m not defending the often-indefensible logic of angry readers, but I think it’s more often than not an occurrence that deserves little more than a smile and a shrug.

  15. Dudley Forster

    There has always been anger and excessive dissatisfaction in society. What is different is the ease and immediacy of our communication. The 24 hour news cycle seeds clouds of resentment. It portrays rude and coarse behavior as the norm. Commentators and pundits of all ilk are rude, talk over each other, yell, & spew constant streams of ad hominem attacks. Then there are the reality TV shows, were scream fests abound or treachery and betrayal are rewarded. Celebrities act like five year olds or petulant teenagers and achieve more fame. Combine this pervasive pop culture with the ease & anonymity of communication and the vitriol pours forth. You can’t put that genuine back in the bottle. Sure you can try and go off grid, but how long will that last?

    Putting up with this sort of abuse comes as part of a lot of jobs. My oldest daughter is a barista for Starbucks. One of her favorite sites is, The Customer is Not Always Right http://notalwaysright.com/ . The bookstore ones are priceless

    You’re also right, it could be worse. When I was practicing law people were pissed off at me all the time, but hey I knew going in that would be the case, lawyers are not the most popular people. However, it was death threats that got me. I did a lot of creditors’ rights work, which tends to make people very angry. Nothing says have a nice day like having a person you don’t know walk up to you, your wife and 6 year old daughter at a restaurant and threaten to kill you because you did your job.

  16. Grace

    I admire but do not have the wonderful 'tolerance' level that some of you do. I don't tolerate abuse if I can do something about it – and in the case of e-mails, blogs, websites, something truly offensive –would BLOCK the petulant, pissed of sender so I wouldn't have to receive any more of their nasties. Ideally, if finances afford, an assistant would save a lot of aggravation. That's what I think and I'm stickin' with it.

  17. Tammy Cravit

    What I find interesting about this stuff is that people are willing to behave online (in e-mail, on news web site comment forums, on Facebook/MySpace/etc.) in ways they'd probably never behave off-line. There's something about the Internet — and I think it's the instantaneous, more-or-less anonymous nature of the communication that happens there — that emboldens people to express their ire.

    In the days pre-Internet, this was less of a problem, because one could be angry at another person but not sufficiently angry to make it worth getting paper and envelope, writing a letter, putting a stamp on it, and mailing it. Now, because sending that angry missive takes so much less effort, there's less disincentive.

    That said, I think Pari's approach is the only sensible response to such rants. Engaging fired-up and angry people in any kind of substantive discourse is unproductive and frustrating. When I used to do newspaper freelancing, I'd get the occasional emailed rant about an article I wrote (or, more commonly, about the person who was the subject of that article). I'd typically respond with a one-line email: "Thank you very much for taking the time to read my article and share your views with me." That was usually sufficient.

  18. Debbie

    Given a choice, I'll take letters over the face to face, in front of my family approach. Very upsetting. That story touched me in so many ways.

    Statistics are cold, hard facts but behind them are people. Real people, friends like Tess. To address the percentages, even if it's just 0.oo1%, that's a lot of hate arriveing in one persons mail/email box. In a lifetime, my entire street would not receive 250 angry messages combined. There's a simple filter that seems to be breaking and that's, 'would I want to receive this?'
    Think about it…250 letters of anger, directed at just one person, one friend.

  19. Dao

    There's a fire starter and there's a bunch of followers. Honestly, I don't know which one is more dangerous. The fire starter would be the one who begins the flame throwing and the rest just follows her to bash at the writer until they see fit. Unfortunately, with this internet age, you are in that position only when you are famous enough. Trolls and haters usually don't waste their time on sites with low traffic or people who they deem insignificant.

    Sometimes, explanations assuage the mob. Other times, they may infuriate them. I guess the reply of "Thank you for your time" is sufficient. The ones who care enough about the subject may cool down enough by the time they receive your email to engage in a more civil conversation. Those who are just trolls and haters would not write back because they would probably move on to the next target already.

    I've read most of your books and I even passed "Gravity" to my friend who is a microbiologist to read. We appreciate your brilliance in the amount of research you did in that book. Then, I found your blog and made my way to Murderati. I have never looked back since.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    I don't think it's readers, honestly. I think that every profession gets its share of disgruntled malcontents in a day's work, or in a year. It just feels more directed and personal when it comes into our email boxes, but really, people just feel the need to blow off steam sometimes and there are a lot of people who do that in a dysfunctional, inappropriate manner.

    But then, I've been running a construction company for almost 27 years. Conflict is the given. Most people just want to know that they're heard and valued and that you grasp their point. If your opinion matters enough to them to make them irate when they perceive they're not esteemed or valued, they're going to react by either completely withdrawing or lashing out. Of those who lash out, I'd be willing to bet a huge majority are doing so as a result of a whole lot of other factors coming into play: bad day, lost job, bad marriage, frustrations, etc. You're the one thing they can do something about: tell you how you're wrong. They actually don't expect a response, I suspect, because they want to feel powerful in the moment, "Take that, you author!" and they get to have the brief feeling of having told someone off and gotten away with it.

    For the most part, whenever I've had to deal with conflict via email, I thank them for caring enough about their subject that they want to communicate what they feel the errors were. It's passion like that that makes fans so valuable, because if someone's passionate, they're going to tell others about the books they've read when they've enjoyed a book. If they simply feel like I've devalued their profession by making that the profession of the villain, I agree that it's frustrating to see that, but I then list for them all of the professions of the other villains I've had in the past and that I try to spread out the villains. I assure them that the point is, there are bad people in every profession and that if I made that person seem bad enough that the reader *felt* they were so real as to need to write me, then that was a huge compliment, and I thank them.

    It's the longer version of, "Bless your heart, you mean well," that's better than a sniper bullet.

    Not that I take a lot of time with these–and if they're just jerks without a point, I ignore them. They're the equivalent of the guy who cuts in front of everyone in a lane–just an asshole that has no positive regard and who will, eventually, be dealt some Karmic payback.

  21. Spencer Seidel

    I too can't believe people take the time to complain about a novel. If you don't like it, put down the book and move on. It's not that big of a deal.

    When I was trying to make something of myself as a rock guitar player and had just released a CD of my music, someone took the time to write me an anonymous email that said something like, "Congratulations, a*%&#%e, you sound like Steve Vai. Get a life." I was stunned and angry and sad. I expect to hear more of the same when my novel comes out next year.

    It's an aspect of putting creative stuff out there I'll never get used to. I think it stems from unfortunately marginalized people trying to "be somebody" in their lives.

  22. Marie-Reine

    Tess – I love your writing – discovered you (and other favorites) here on Murderati – I think the assistant idea sounds like a good one. I hope, though, that if you do go that route, that you will continue to blog, as it is not just a way to market but a brilliant way to get people to consider these issues.

    And I love Oliver Wendell Holmes– wearing my "Holmes Society" tee shirt right now.

  23. Jake Nantz

    I get the occasional missive in this vein from parents or teachers at other schools. It takes a lot not to reply with factual information that absolutely blows them out of the water. The thing is, I've gone that route before, and there are people who are so fixated on being right that they can't accept the truth. They try to find a loophole (logical or otherwise) in your response, just to continue to show you. I have to echo what someone earlier said…why is it not okay to reply with, "Thank you for reading my F-I-C-T-I-O-N, I'm sorry something within that F-I-C-T-I-O-N upset you personally."???

    I know there are more polite ways to put it (bless you, Pari), but ultimately I've responded to several disgruntled parents and students with, "I'm sorry you feel that way about my teaching methods," and letting that be the end of it, without ever changing or altering a damn thing, because what I was doing was based on research and thought, and their complaint was not.

    Essentially, it's a nice way to say, "F*** 'em if they can'ty take a joke," and move on. Because they can't, and they never will, no matter how many different ways you prove they are fools.

  24. Marie-Reine

    I think that one of the problems with the "this is fiction" response – that I kind of like, actually – is that fiction isn't totally fiction when it's created from the world of real things– emotions, personality, character… all bring reality that makes fiction seize our attention, enhanced by fantasy.

  25. Allison Brennan

    What Toni said 🙂 And Phil (waving!!!)

    I think it's easy to shoot off an email without thought. But I don't think these sentiments are new. We just have new ways to express our frustration. For example, some of the heated political debates from before television, before radio, back when people would sit in person and listen to two people expound on different philosophies, often offering biting and cutting remarks. Today, we have the 140 character Twitter analysis; then people took many more words to issue insults.

    I always think twice before responding (sometimes ten times!) and I try not to be personally affected. Most of the time it works. A couple have gotten to me, but mostly it's just one person's (often wrong) opinion.

    Oh, and when someone catches an error (I've had many, but two really stupid ones, totally my fault) I thank them for their keen eye. Maybe they'll go buy my next book just to look for errors! 😉

  26. Robert Gregory Browne

    Tess, I have a solution for you. Have an assistant or someone you love go through your reader emails and handle all the angry ones. Work up a standard set of answers for them that they can forward to the angered party. Have the assistant forward the more reasoned emails to you for a personal response.

    Really, there's no point in ruining a day of writing over some moron who spouts off without the facts to back up his or her tirade. In fact, there's no reason for a tirade at all.

    It's nice to try to personally answer every email, but honestly, at some point it becomes counterproductive. It seems to me that an angry reader firing off an email to a FICTION writer in order to correct something in a book of FICTION has issues anyway.

    Find someone else to deal with them or simply ignore them.

  27. KDJames

    I'm not published so maybe my opinion doesn't count on this topic. But I've received some "odd" email (I'm being nice for a change) as a result of comments I've made on blogs. Including an incredibly nasty (and frankly scary) email from someone who was obviously currently or formerly in the armed forces after I made a joking comment to the effect that giving me a glue gun would cause as much damage as putting me behind the controls of a Black Hawk helicopter. It was a discussion about making a collage as part of the creative process, for godsakes.

    For that kind of thing, I am a huge fan of the delete key. Do not engage. People are entitled to their opinions, they are not entitled to my response. They don't need to know how hurt and upset I am. And if for some reason someone IS entitled to a reply to something nasty, they are almost never entitled to receive it Right Now This Minute when in the heat of the moment I might say something I'd regret.

    I admire you for wanting to be responsive to your fans, Tess, and I doubt you'll stop doing that. But you do not need to allow people to beat you up. Draw a line.

  28. Debbie

    Spencer, on the positive side, he could hear your influence. Every great guitarist has them and it's such a compliment to that artist for it to come out in your playing!

  29. Annette

    I had someone scream at me once because soybeans don't grow in Illinois. Um…yes they do. They really, really do. It bothered me for years.

    I think it simply boils down to two things: Technology and manners.

    We're empowered by technology and many people get carried away. By and large most folks seem to have lost the ability to mind their manners or to care. They've stopped putting themselves in the other person's shoes so to speak. (Especially when we perceive the person as better than us – as one might if they're speaking to a highly regarded author. It's definitely not an excuse for rudeness, please don't get me wrong.) Technology is wonderful and it enables us to accomplish and experience many things. It also makes us vulnerable to the opinions of others whether we want to hear them or not:-D

Comments are closed.