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.