So, as I’ve explained in a footnote on my Rageblogging: The Rod Rees Edition post, a thing happened today whereby, in the wake of mass criticism of Rees’s thoughts on female characters over at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, both his original piece and a subsequent one explaining (badly, but honestly) why it was posted to begin with have been removed in their entirety, apparently without any explanatory statement along the lines of This Is What We’re Doing And Why.
And I just. OK.
I have some sympathy for Jo Fletcher Books, here.
Because, look. The fact that you publish someone’s books doesn’t mean you agree with absolutely everything they say and do as a person: you might like all of their thoughts, or most of their thoughts, or some of their thoughts, or none of their thoughts, but the bottom line is, you’re tied to them professionally because they wrote a thing you thought would sell, not necessarily because you 100% supported every single word they wrote, but because whatever amorphous combination of style, story, hook and execution they brought to the table made their story something you wanted in on*. That’s just life. We’re all different people, and most of the time, we try to live with it.
So naturally, if you run a blog associated with your publishing enterprise, and if you use it, among other things, as a platform for your authors, it makes a certain amount of sense not to meddle too deeply with regard to content. To coin a phrase, sometimes you’ve got to go along to get along, and in the context of a professional, multi-authored blog, that’s sometimes going to mean posting opinions and guest pieces that aren’t necessarily reflective of your own beliefs. I mean, that’s the whole point of having multiple authors in the first place: different opinions. Right?
Well, yes. But that also means that, of necessity, different pieces are going to get different reactions – and sooner or later, if your social media reach is strong and your contributor base varied enough, you’re going to publish something that strikes a nerve. And that means critical feedback: sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but all of it directed squarely at your little corner of the internet. Hell, this isn’t even a problem restricted to multi-author blogs or blogs with guest contributors: every time you post something, you run the risk of a big response in whatever direction, and if you’re only thinking about how to cope with positive attention beforehand, then I’m going to contend that you’re doing it wrong. Every time I finish a post, I have a little moment where I think to myself: What if I’ve fucked up? What if I’ve said something really offensive/problematic/wrong, and I get lots of abuse? How am I going to handle it? And each time, I take a deep breath and I think, Well, if I’ve genuinely done something bad like that, firstly, I want to know about it, and secondly, anyone I’ve offended is within their rights to be pissed at me. I’ve tried my best to do things right, but if I’ve failed for whatever reason and I get backlash as a result, then I’m woman enough to deal with the consequences.
Every time I post, this is my inner monologue. Every. Single. Time. And it’s important, especially as I’m a privileged person, because the day that I forget it – the day when I fall into the trap of thinking that my opinions are perfect and sacrosanct just because they’re mine – will most likely be the day that I put my foot so far in my mouth that my shoes leave treadmarks on my trachea. I’ve fucked up before, and will doubtless fuck up again. All I can really do is try to be prepared to learn from it, to apologise for any hurt I’ve caused, and, if possible, to fix it.
And you know what that doesn’t include – what it absolutely never fucking includes, not only because the Google cache and screencapping renders it pointless, and not just because it’s the online equivalent of packing up your toys and going home, but because it is 100% guaranteed to inflame the issue further?
Deleting the post in question.
Locking the comments, particularly if they’ve grown abusive? That’s fine, though it’s generally a good idea to include a final comment of your own explaining exactly why and when you’ve done it, and if you can include a helpful link to a place where the discussion is continuing, then so much the better. Why? Because your mistake will spawn dialogue, and dialogue is useful, and while, as the owner of your blogging space, you’re within your rights to say “regulating this conversation has become too stressful, therefore I’m closing it down”, there’s still a very real sense in which doing so is going to either constitute, or appear to constitute, a silencing tactic. You are Stopping People From Talking About That Thing You Did, and when you’re the one in the wrong, for a whole bunch of reasons it’s not a great idea to act as though you’re allergic to having this fact brought to your attention. Primarily because, you know. You fucked up, and you should own it.
Changing a particular word or phrase that someone’s taken issue with in order to fix the problem? That’s also fine – in fact, it’s something I’ve done myself on multiple occasions, several of them recently. My own rule of thumb is that flagging individual word-changes in pieces I’ve already written via an ETA or a footnote or the like is only necessary if it fundamentally alters the original meaning, or if the change is noticeable enough to raise questions from later readers. Thus: taking out problematic words from the body of the text, fixing typos and altering repetitious or poorly constructed phrases is fine unflagged, because it’s essentially just a form of editing. (Unless, of course, your use of a particular word or phrase is crucial to the argument being made against you – in which case, flagging everything is paramount. Otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to deny the problem ever existed in the first place by quietly removing the evidence, and that is Not Cool.) Changing the title or correcting an attribution, however, are flag-worthy, because they’re the sort of things that get repeated when a post goes into circulation, which makes it important to state, as clearly as possible, just why you’ve done what you’ve done.
But deleting the entire post, including all the comments? That is some salting the earth shit right there, and it is the least constructive thing you can possibly do. I can understand why people are still tempted to go there. After all, if you posted something people hated, how could anyone possibly object to your removing it? Isn’t that what your critics wanted? Well, no: what they wanted was for you not to have said it in the first place, which is a wildly different creature to pretending you never said it at all. It’s a bit like this: if I kick you in the shin, your shin is going to hurt – but if you say to me, “Hey! Ow! My shin! Why did you DO that?” and I reply “What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything!”, then not only does your shin still hurt, but in addition to having caused you pain, I’m acting like I have no idea how it happened, which is an Asshole Move of the highest order. If I kick your shin and you call me on it, the correct response is an acknowledgement of my actions and an apology, even if I did by accident. If I run away with my hands over my ears screaming “La la la, CAN’T HEAR YOOOOU!”, then I am being an asshole, and deserve to be mocked accordingly.
So, yeah. As I said earlier today on Twitter, I am endlessly sick of people going this route, whereby they say or do something stupid in public, then try to make it all go away by deleting the evidence. Not only doesn’t it work (see above, re: Google cache and screencapping), but it’s an Asshole Move, because it stifles dialogue while simultaneously ducking the issue. And in the case of the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, which isn’t just someone’s personal space on the internet, but a site that’s openly affiliated with a professional institution, it becomes doubly problematic – not only because the retroactive onus on the administrators to justify why the post was allowed through to begin with is higher, but because everything that comes of the subsequent kerfuffle is necessarily associated with the organisation itself. Thus, and as I said at the outset: while I can understand the logic of a hands-off, let’s-all-agree-to-disagree policy on contributor content, there should also have been a policy in place for what to do if and when a given piece were to garner negative attention. Regardless of its content, the fact that an explanatory post was eventually produced was a good thing, because it showed that the management were, however belatedly, paying attention. The fact that both it and the original, contentious piece were deleted without comment shortly thereafter, by contrast, is a bad thing, because it shows that the management are not only indecisive, but ultimately uninterested in addressing the problem further. (And also, you know. You can find them both here.)
tl;dr – If you fuck up in public, own it, and if you’re absolutely compelled to delete something or close comments, explain your reasoning where people can see it. Otherwise, you’re just going to look like you’re sweeping the whole thing under the rug, on account of how this is exactly what you’re doing.
*Which is, among many other reasons, why I get incandescently shitty at people who go around saying things like, “If you’ve ever negatively reviewed a book I agented/published/edited or which was written by someone I like, or whatever the fuck combination of those things applies in context, then I’m never going to blurb you/hire you/edit you/publish you, because YOU WERE MEAN TO MY FRIEND AND HATE EVERYTHING I LOVE AND OUR TASTE IS INCOMPATIBLE FOREVER.” Because, dude. The Venn diagram of “things I like” versus “things you like” is not required by law to be a perfect fucking circle in order for us to have some seriously awesome common ground. I mean, yes: if someone disses a thing you love, you are not required to like them, or their work, or whatever. Some things are more important to us than other things. I get it. But if your base level of artistic interaction at a professional level is to try and recruit only people who like absolutely everything you like – or rather, given the statistical impossibility of this, only people who are sufficiently afraid of censure and/or nice to the point of stifling their own critical opinions to keep from expressing any, whether publicly or privately – then that, to me, is exactly the kind of mentality that leads to the mass publication of problematic, unoriginal, samey-samey stories that are pretty soon forgotten. If all you want is an echo-chamber for your own opinions, go shout them loudly in a tiled bathroom. But for the love of dog, quit pretending that people can’t have meaningful critical differences in taste and still have artistic commonalities, strong friendships, or positive working relationships.
3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.