You’re bound to offend someone

by Tess Gerritsen

If you want the whole world to like you, becoming a writer is not the way to do it. 

I was reminded of that a few weeks ago when I received a number of emails from readers who had just read THE KEEPSAKE, and they had a bone to pick with me.  They were all miffed because of a scene where my heroine must fight off a ferocious pit bull, which is defending the bad guy’s lair.  How dare you malign pit bulls, the readers said.  You’ve slandered an entire breed of dog!  Pit bulls are as gentle as any other breed, and you are perpetuating a harmful myth.  Because of this, you have lost our respect, etc., etc., etc. These complaints all came in within days of each other, so I think I must be on the fecal roster of a pit bull club, whose members decided to simultaneously flagellate the author for her crimes. 

Now, it’s true that they do have a point. Pit bulls are no more likely to attack a human than is any other breed. And the pit bulls I know personally are all disarmingly sweet and utterly harmless.  So why did I choose to identify the vicious dog as a pit bull when, statistically speaking, you’re far more likely to be bitten by a chihuahua?

Because, quite frankly, “vicious guard chihuahua” just doesn’t do it for me.  

I wrote back to these readers and apologized for maligning their beloved breed, and promised to do better by pit bulls next time.  But honestly.  If I write about vicious German Shepherds or poodles or schnauzers in my next book, I’m bound to get complaints about that as well. I guess I could just describe the dog as “enormous, with razor-sharp teeth” and avoid singling out any breed. But then some dog lover, somewhere, would be offended that I made the vicious animal a dog to begin with. “Why couldn’t you have made it a chained leopard or something?” they’ll suggest.  

The point is, with every book you write, you are bound to offend someone, somewhere.  And chances are, they will write you about it.  Like the hospital laboratory tech who read THE SURGEON, and was spitting mad at me because my villain was — you guessed it — a hospital lab tech.  “Do you really think I sit in my laboratory, dreaming up ways to torture women?” he asked.  “You’ve maligned lab techs everywhere!” 

As a novelist, you are forced to make choices in every scene you write, and those choices mean you will occasionally cast some profession, some hobby, some product, even some dog breed, in a bad light. And readers will assume that you are revealing your own personal bias.

Men have written accusing me of being a man-hater, because my villains are so often men.  Nurses have written accusing me of disrespect for their profession because one of my fictional doctors was brusque with a fictional nurse.  Hunters are angry at me for writing about a clueless hunter who shoots himself in the foot.  (As we all know, hunters never shoot themselves, doctors are never brusque with nurses, and serial killers are never men.) 

What’s a writer to do?

Consider disabling the email feature on your website. (I’m thinking about it.)  Or learn to ignore the upsetting ones. If a reader has a politely worded criticism, that’s one thing.  But when you open an email and see it turning angry, just hit delete. Don’t let it ruin your day. Such people don’t deserve a response.  They’re probably not even expecting a response.  They just want to scream at you, and as we’ve all learned from watching those angry town hall meetings, it’s the red-faced screamers who come off looking bad. There are a lot of angry people out there, and their hair triggers are set to go off at the slightest provocation. That provocation may be as minor as you writing about a forgetful octogenarian (you’re showing your ageism!) or an overweight girl (what do you have against hefty folk?) If we live in fear of all the people who might get angry at us because of something we’ve written, we won’t dare to write another word.




35 thoughts on “You’re bound to offend someone

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    I’m so sorry to hear you’re being got at again. Do you think it’s just jealousy at your success?

    I blame the instant gratification and anonymity of email for a lot of this. We seem to live in an era of downright rudeness because things move so fast, and at such a distance, that people can get away with it. They are prepared to say things over email, or from behind the safety of a forum avatar, that they would not dare say to your face. And it all happens too fast.

    If people had to write or type a letter, put it in an envelope, address it, pay for a stamp, and walk to the post box, there’d be time to reconsider their angry missive. But an email can be dashed off in haste and even if it’s regretted the moment they hit the Send key, by that time it’s too late.

    To quote the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

    ‘The Moving Finger writes:
    and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety
    nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel
    half a line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out
    a Word of it.’

  2. JD Rhoades

    Pit bull aficionados are rapidly overtaking gun aficionados as the touchiest of e-mailers. It’s true the breed has gotten a bad rap, but for crying out loud, some people DO train them to be mean, nasty and vicious. Having that happen in a book is not a slur on the breed, it’s a description of what bad guys do.

    The antagonist in THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND is a Lumbee Indian. I’ve gotten a couple of angry e-mails from people saying I’m stereotyping Native Americans. Interestingly, none of them are from Lumbees; in fact, the only feedback I’ve gotten from an actual member of the tribe was from a librarian in Raeford who told me ruefully, "yeah, you got us down pretty well." Likewise, since Jack Keller is a Desert Storm vet with PTSD, I’ve gotten e-mails from people claiming I was trying to undermine the troops in the Second Gulf War by making a political statement (actually, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND was conceived and mostly written well before the current conflict). And none of the e-mails have been from people in the military.

    But you know, there are some people it’s just useless to try and argue with, something I try to keep in mind, although I don’t always succeed. If someone’s ready to be offended, let ’em do it. It seems to fulfill some need of theirs. A simple "thanks for reading" is all you can really do, if you have to respond at all.

  3. tess gerritsen

    oh yeah, don’t even think of afflicting any fictional veteran with PTSD. Those always bring in the angry letters. Because, as we all know, veterans never get PTSD.

  4. tess gerritsen

    p.s. — I would love to hear from other writers what sorts of things have brought in angry reader letters.
    Sometimes you just don’t know where the minefields lie until you step in one.

  5. Neil Nyren

    You can’t please everybody — and you especially can’t please everybody out there on the Net, as we all know. If they’re going to be offended by something, that’s their prerogative — but it’s also your prerogative to ignore them. Just because they have a computer keyboard in front of them doesn’t mean they’re worth listening to!

  6. Dana King

    I never understood people’s desire to link an individual (dog, nurse, serial killer) to the entire group. It’s not ALL pit bulls; this dog just happened to be one. It’s not ALL nurses/doctors/teachers/women/Latinos/transvestites; it was just that one. The one in the story. Now, if every person of a particlar group has the same distasteful characteristic in all of your writing, sure, that’s an issue. But I know that’s not what you’re doing, and the emailers should get over themselves and their petty insecurities.

    Frankly, I’m reaching the point where I wonder if I’ve become too vanilla if I DON’T offend someone.

  7. Alafair Burke

    Sorry to hear about the onslaught (and they say that as a friend of the pit bull). I had one line in my first novel where Samantha Kincaid finishes a run and says something like, "Not as fast as the president, but she worked harder at her day job." Even though the president wasn’t named, even though she made snarky comments about the ACLU and liberals, even though, even though, even though… , I lost count of the people who swore they’d never buy another book by me again. Apparently I chased off half my audience with my debut book. Smart move, huh?

    I will say I’m careful to avoid stereotypes when I write, both because it’s irresponsible and because it’s lazy.

  8. Karen in Ohio

    As a friend often says, "Some people would complain if they were hung with a new rope." It’s true, and there is little you can do about it, unfortunately. You’re right about the anonymity of the Web, as well. It seems to bring out the worst in people.

    When I was editing and writing a newsletter for a specific business segment I wrote an article that caused someone who considered me a rival (I wasn’t) to personally attack me in a "professional" newsletter for an association that was my target market. There was little I could do in response; the editor at the time also considered me a rival, and she refused to allow me to refute what was basically a stupid comparison using the very lamest and flimsiest of arguments to the contrary of what I wrote. My article had been based on a scientist’s findings; hers had been based on empirical observations by a service guy. It took a long time to recover from that, business-wise.

    The truth is that you just can’t please all the people all the time, and you shouldn’t try. If something advances your story, isn’t that the most important thing? We writers have to use a kind of shorthand for creating impressions; we have no control over the impressions our words create and sometimes the frame of reference is just different for some readers. There’s no way to anticipate what that frame of reference might be for every single human being.

  9. Alli

    It’s almost a case of shooting the messenger, ie. the writers are only telling the story they "have to". People don’t seem to get that writers are storytellers, that what we write doesn’t reflect us as a person and our personal beliefs. I wish readers would understand t his. I’ve heard it happening with actors, also. People get so carried away and think the actor IS the person in the movie/tv show and start abusing them for something their character has done.

    Writers (and anyone in the arts) have a hard enough time with their work being dissected by agents and editors, let alone being abused by people unable to separate fiction from reality – boy oh boy do we need thick skins!

    Tess, hope you are able to forget this experience and remember all the lovely emails you have received from people who appreciate your work and have a decent grasp on reality.

  10. Louise Ure

    My most vicious email responses came as a result of a less than positive description of the volunteer border group, The Minutemen, and their treatment of illegal immigrants. But my favorite line from one of those was the lady who said she’d gotten my book from the library and would now "never buy one of my books again."

  11. Sylvia

    What? No letter from PETA?

    If a character eats a steak dinner, will the Vegan Patrol call? If a man and woman having an affair are sitting on a redwood deck having drinks, who will write first? Save the Redwoods, the Christian Coalition, AA or a group upset that you made it a hterosexual affair and didn’t consider gays and lesbians?

    I’m quite tired of the PC-crowd and everything else.

    Rant over. Sort of.

  12. Maggie

    I’m not a writer, but I had to laugh at Tess’ blog today – Tess, you sure do get all kinds of crazies! 😉

    This situation reminds me of my job. And Zoe, I’m not sure if these people just have too much money and time, but even with the economy as it is, my job has remained steady because of the people that are determined to write a complaint letter, fill out an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and mail it.

    I work for a large catalog/online pet supply company, where among literally thousands of orders are being processed everyday, so are STACKS of angry letters with subjects something like this:

    ~The company is clearly prejudiced because there were only four pictures of Yorkies througout the entire 132 page free product catalog this month.

    ~There are only black and tan German Shepherds. WHY don’t we have any white German Shepherds shown? Don’t we know that just because they aren’t recognized by the kennel clubs that they are beloved pets too?

    ~It’s cruel to sell catnip because then well meaning owners end up forcing their cats to get high thinking it is a ‘treat’. (????)

    ~That greyhound puppy looks like he is attacking that smiling boy! OMGoodness – I can’t believe you’d show that on a catalog sent to child and collie lovers everywhere!!!!

    And on and on and on and on.

    The amazing thing? For every 1,000 orders, we probably only get 1 letter of complaint. Rarely do we get letters gushing about how great the company is – we do get them from time to time, and I can tell you how NICE that is to hear. But even though more people *don’t* take the time to write in, they must be happy with the experience because they keep coming back & refer the company to friends. That’s gotta say something.

    Back to the complainers though – 9 times out of 10 that person is not complaining about an issue with their order or the quality of their service – they are just writing to complain. To whine. To be that red faced screamer at those uncomfortable town meetings where you just thank God that the scarlet-faced baboon guy howling towards the podium is not YOUR neighbor.

    So Tess, don’t feel bad. Out of how many THOUSANDS of people that read that book, and the book before that, and the book before that, you probably only get a fraction of emails, right? And how many actually have valid arguments/complaints about the story or the writing?

    I’m betting close to nil.

    The rest is nit-picky, weepy, whiny, anal people that have nothing better to do that harass a busy author who is desperately trying to put the finishing touches on the next book that my family is waiting on the edge of their seats for. So – ignore the whiners! We want our next AWESOME Tess book!!! <GRIN>

  13. JD Rhoades

    Maggie makes a good point. In any group of people, a certain percentage are going to be just full-on, bat-shit crazy. The larger the group, the larger that number is going to be, even as the percentage stays the same. So Tess, the reason you seem to get a lot of crazies is that you have a lot of readers. Silver linings!

  14. tess gerritsen

    True, the upside of hearing from complainers means that someone is actually reading the books!

    I just think it’s astonishing what will set off some people.

  15. Jessica Scott

    Great post and something I worry about, a lot. As an army officer and someone who writes about soldiers, I worry that someone – a soldier, a spouse or a superior – might take offense at what I do. After all, I am a lieutenant and people may look at the hard tale and say, you’re just being mean to lieutenants (my favorite subject to malign but another story entirely). I pick on lieutnenants and officers because I see flaws in the system that develops us. I pick on senior enlisted who are still drawing a paycheck but have forgotten that they exist to care for soldiers, not themselves. I take the system that I love and point out its flaws, in the hope that maybe, I can help people on the outside understand and people on the inside to take a hard look in the mirror.
    I know people will be offended. Right before I deployed, I gave a talk at my chapter of RWA and it was simply about what my life in the army as woman was life. Apparently, someone was so offended by my merely being a soldier, they’ve never returned to the RWA group. It’s their loss. I was originally very upset about it but realized that this the nature of the business we’re in.
    Recently, someone wrote about me on the latrine wall and called me a reject. I actually laughed it off but then turned it into a blog post. At least the writers who send in letters are able to tell you what they think, angry or coherent. But you’re right. At the end of the day, don’t let them take that power over you. Delete the message and write the book that needs to be written.
    You can’t please everyone.
    Great topic!

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Grrrrrrreat, funny and charming post, Tess! You had me laughing out loud.
    I went the other way with BOULEVARD. I can’t think of anything in the book that ISN’T going to be offensive to someone. I’m just waiting for the onslaught.
    So far, the only negative things I’ve seen is a woman who wrote that when she finished the book she threw it across the room in disgust, saying she’ll never get those hours of her life back.
    And a friend of mine said that when he finished it he had to take a long shower, then go to the beach to meditate.
    So far, so good.

  17. Mark Terry

    As I was reading your post I was thinking, "Yeah, but having a vicious toy poodle just doesn’t cut it" when you made your comment about chihuahuas. Great minds and all that…

    I’m not sure where this stops. I was just going over copyedits on my upcoming novel and there’s a scene–and really, it’s a small scene in the context of the entire novel–where some of the bad guys have a helicopter and take it from Guantanamo and before being shot down by the military they drop off some of their guys on a cruise ship. In it I mention that it’s the Carnival ship, "The Madeleine," which is just fiction. My editor wanted to know if I wanted to leave it being a Carnival cruise ship in just in case Carnival might get testy about it. Well, using "Carnival" was just a word to be specific and create some concreteness in the mind of the reader. I could have used Norwegian or, I don’t know, Bubba Joe’s Bargain Cruises, but I didn’t. We decided, for now, to leave it in. I can’t quite get over it, though. Y’know, no real cruise ships were used in the writing of this book (alas). (And weren’t harmed in the book, for that matter).

  18. Stacy McKitrick

    I guess people just aren’t taught "If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all". I was taught that. So much so, that I have difficulty telling someone something bad even when they want my opinion.

  19. Karen in Ohio

    You could turn this around, Tess, and see if this way, that your books are so powerful that readers feel emotions they would not ordinarily feel: anger, guilt, compassion, etc. In other words, brava, for doing such a fantastic job that your words feel so real that they compel the reader to act. Even if it is just to write you a whiny note.

    Someone mentioned the situation of individuals standing for entire segments of society. It’s an extremely narrow way of looking at things, but it sadly becoming more common in the US.

  20. JD Rhoades

    I was just going over copyedits on my upcoming novel and there’s a scene–and really, it’s a small scene in the context of the entire novel–where some of the bad guys have a helicopter and take it from Guantanamo and before being shot down by the military they drop off some of their guys on a cruise ship.

    That’s a SMALL scene? My God, what do your big set pieces read like?

  21. Allison Brennan

    This falls under the heading of "You can’t please all the people all the time." After spending so many years in the legislature, I know that half the people in the country will disagree with me about any one issue I have an opinion on. Most of the people I worked with who disagreed with me I was friendly with. It wasn’t PERSONAL. It was a legitimate difference of opinion. But there will always be someone who takes it personal, and while sometimes it was upsetting when it got vicious, it was something you just had to deal with and get over.

    I respond to all email, unless it’s a personal attack. Like the guy who wrote that I should be committed for even THINKING up the stuff I wrote about (teen-age thrill killers in this case.) Which I didn’t come up with on my own. I saw a documentary about real-life teen-age thrill killers. So I guess if I don’t write about them they’ll just go away?

    I had to make a conscious decision when I started my seven deadly sins series to write it the way I wanted. I was not intentionally offensive to any group of people or religion, it’s a story, but I had to be true to the story I’ve had in my head for six years. There are some religious themes, though it’s not a religious book.

    I did upset a copyeditor once because ducks were killed in my book and suggested that Fish & Game would put up a barricade of some sort so that people didn’t have to watch F&G snap the necks of the infected ducks. Um, nope, they don’t.

    I had a woman who wrote to me saying she’d never read another of my books because she was so upset that a character she liked was raped. I did respond to her, because she wasn’t mean, just upset, and she appreciated that I’d taken the time to respond to her concerns. Would that change what I write? No. I love that character so much I created a series for her. That book is now part of her backstory, and instrumental in who she is and where she’s going in life.

    I’ve gotten upset about a couple reviews, but I usually call Toni or email my friend Karin and bitch about it, then let it go because everyone is entitled to their opinion. When it gets personal, though, it’s harder to forget, but then I re-read my fan mail and remember that there are readers out there who like my books. I can’t NOT look a reviews. I’ve tried. I hate not knowing stuff. :/

  22. Chris Hamilton

    Nope, never happens. Not ever.

    I like the way they handle it on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. "We will mock you for an email that says, “u suck and ur ugly i bet ur bad in bed so why dont u just get laid and stfu.”

    Some people invite abuse. It would be impolite for them not to accept it.

  23. JT Ellison

    I have been very lucky – the only negative letters I’ve gotten have been in a very respectful tone. Or maybe I just read them that way. I hate finding out I’ve upset someone, but there’s just no way you can please everyone.

    I’m sure the screaming emails will come. And I’ll employ the delete button and not let it get to me. I hope!

  24. BCB

    Note to self: Must write more, or even one, positive affirming gushing-with-praise Fan Girl email to my favourite authors. Perhaps start with Tess Gerritsen.

    Years ago, I wrote op-ed columns for a local newspaper and much of what I wrote was opinion about local politics. As you might guess, it wasn’t always complimentary. Okay, never. This wasn’t a paid gig, I wasn’t an employee, so I never got any feedback. (Though if I went more than a few weeks without submitting anything, I’d definitely hear from the editor.) Well, I guess I was naive because it never once occurred to me people were responding at all, other than an occasional comment from an acquaintance. Then one day the editor made an offhand comment about a blistering letter someone had sent (which he thought was amusing). My reaction was something like, "Someone sent a letter?" Once he stopped laughing he told me people sent letters in response to my columns all the time. So of course, I asked whether I could see them. He said no, it was his job to handle the letters. It was my job to write.

    Too bad we can’t establish a similar barrier between writers of fiction and their audience. And yes, I fully realize we wouldn’t get the positive feedback either. Sometimes I’m not sure that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    I wrote my last column saying goodbye when I was about to move away from that town. The editor did forward responses to that one. They absolutely, completely blew me away and the compliments had horrible long-term inflationary effects on my ego. He was a wise man, that editor.

    The things I write always manage to offend someone. I tell myself it’s good for them.

  25. kit

    Some people have the natural ability to sing, some to dance…while still others have natural athletic ability….I bring this up because it seemed to me, at times, my natural ability was to piss people off in a variety of ways.
    So when I found this quote it gave me some comfort, and made me grin a bit also…I pass it on to you, Tess… (good blog, btw)
    "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

    THE INNER LIFE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Six Months at the White House
    .by Frances B. Cooper

  26. Eric 'Rikkesoft' Diepvens

    I know It’s not ment to be so, but your post made me laugh.
    It is really funny to read that no matter what you write, some people are offended. Of course I do understand that from your point of view it is less – or even not – funny.

    But one question pops up in my mind: why do those people read fiction if they can’t live with fiction?
    After all your novels are part of a imaginairy world that you created, where you can do whatever you like to. And the reader has to live with that fact. Sometimes it will please him, and sometimes he can’t find his way in that world.
    So do me a favor and, please, don’t apologise anymore to those disappointed emailers, but make them clear that it is even not necessary your "real life" opinion, but a situation that fits best in the current storyline. Maybe they’ll even understand.
    And hopefully you can regain more pleasure in your writing again, when you do not have to think about who will be offended every time you’re introducing an animal, a profession or a group of people.
    Also keep in mind that whatever happens, there will always be more people that have no problems (but who don’t start emailing you) then others. And as far as I know we still live in a democracy…
    (although you are allowed to be the dictator about your stories).

  27. Lee Lofland

    It could be worse, Tess. At least you don’t have scores of people writing you every day asking how to kill someone, or how to get away with it if they already have.

    By the way, my poodle has PTSD and barks in her sleep. I think it’s your fault.

  28. ec

    Tess, I write fantasy books, but readers still have firmly held notions regarding verisimilitude. My favorite was a reader who protested that "a REAL elf wouldn’t say that…."

  29. RhondaL

    I need to bookmark this post. I can’t seem to resist those minefield themes and subjects. Uh oh …

    Tess, you need someone to screen your emails. A virtual assistant maybe?

    And I need to calm down after laughing so hard at Lee Lofland’s reply.

  30. Chris May

    I read "The Keepsake" and thought the pit bull use was right on! My daughters family owns a pit bull so I know them to be nice dogs in the right environment. But because of the reputation they have it was the perfect breed to use in the scene.
    It is what it is. You can’t please everyone!

  31. Hai Vu

    I love The Keepsake and that pit bull scene. To minimize your risk, next time, try "angry bunny" or "devil hamster", or even "malicious veggie that can bite" instead. 🙂


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