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Monday, March 24, 2014

An Open Letter to Lynn Shepherd

I love acting so much, I'm never going to star in anything ever again.
Except I am.
Even when I'm fifty and you're still saying "It stars Harry Potter."
[Today's post is an open letter to Lynn Shepherd, who some of you may remember from last month as the woman who told J.K. Rowling that she should stop writing. This is my response to her.  I have dropped Writing About Writing's usual persona in writing this, because, frankly, Lynn Shepherd has probably had enough snark to last ten lifetimes.]

Ms. Shepherd,

It's been a month. You too have become a household name, though your notoriety isn't likely to last fractionally as long as Rowling's. I do not know if you have the temerity to laugh at the reams of hate mail, feisty comments, and blog posts calling you out with more vitriol than you probably ever thought humanity was capable of, or if you suddenly felt like you had stepped on a land mine and wanted to crawl in a hole and never write another public word again. Perhaps now you have a greater appreciation for how dehumanizing it can be to be famous--or infamous.

Ms. Shepherd, at this point I am writing behind the curve of the news cycle and the blog trends, and the popular sentiment and wave of chic criticism that was poured upon you from every quarter. It's not because I'm always behind the trends--although that's certainly true. (I consider myself on FIRE this year for having seen Frozen and Catching Fire in the theaters.) Rather it is because you wrote about such a common, normal, RELATABLE feeling that is so ubiquitous among starting writers, and I truly believe your editor failed you by not simply killing your piece and taking you quietly aside to explain a couple of things to you. Not out behind the woodshed for the beating so many of your detractors seem fit to go into grisly detail about, nor the chemical shed to be subject to hyperbolic fatal violence for daring to voice an opinion that so many writers share. Simply into their office where they might pour you a cup of coffee or tea and tell you with a smile that you were overstepping.

I'm not here to add another log to that raging bonfire of frothy mouthed, all caps, internet rage you stepped in. You have done your time in the penalty box (and then some) for attacking one of this culture's sacred cows. I'm sure that in time, your inbox will stop exploding, and you may even be able to get some of the one star reviews of your work removed due to the circumstances of their addition. Social media, unfortunately, has never been known for its measured responses.

Oh, you absolutely deserve the accusation of sour grapes that even your articles opening disclaimer couldn't alter the taste of, and apparently need it pointed out to you how ridiculous it is to castigate adults for their personal tastes in entertainment especially when you haven't even read the books you're impugning. Further, the implication that your writing makes the "world of writing" a better place––better than a writer you haven't even read is pretty much a chunk of hubris drenched in hubris gravy with a side of arrogance and a tall, icy glass of vanity. However, somehow, I imagine that you probably got the point after the first five hundred or so replies, you don't deserve either the scope or the fury with which they were delivered, and no one who writes an op ed piece that isn't encouraging people to eschew vaccines or engage in human trafficking should have their career destroyed because of it.

I felt a swell of pity when I realized what your next couple of months were going to be like. When I wrote about helping a woman who was being harassed I was the subject of assumptions of my character, scathing rage from people with an axe to grind about a particular word, articles written just to be contrarian that called me no end of unkind things including a misogynist white-knighting creeper myself, and even death threats from guys who felt like I was disturbing the Alpha male order of aggressive flirting with my "pansy ass feminist shit!"  All that, and I generally was seen to have done something positive. I can only imagine what you must have gone through. What you must still be going through.

And it must be so much worse because this is such a common feeling among writers. All you did was voice what so many others think in places they don't talk about at parties totally talk about at parties, often before they've even had their first floofy drink.

Why am I writing this post (you aren't likely ever to see) a month later? It is because from what I saw in the deluge of "HOW COULD YOU!" comments, (very) few replies mentioned what I wish your editor had explained before your article went live. That is that this jealousy of huge, uberpopular authors stealing the limelight is a feeling that writers have, but in addition being unkind and very catty, it is not even actually accurate. What you were probably thinking was delightfully entertaining snark, was actually a somewhat uninformed thing to say both about the writing process and the publishing industry.

The kicker to this whole thing is, I think that if Rowling didn't know what I'm about to tell you--what your editor should have told you--she might actually done what you asked. She might hang up her pen or tuck away her future manuscripts to give you, and those like you, a chance to be in the sun. Whatever you want to say about Harry Potter's prose, Rowling is one of the most philanthropic people on Earth. (2018 Edit: Yes, I'm aware of the salient criticism that has come up since this piece was written. 2020 Edit: Yeah, she went full TERF, thoughts on that near the bottom.) Fortunately, I think she is likely to understand the writing world enough to know that the best thing she can do for you is to keep right on writing.

Shame about the TERF thing.
First of all, JK Rowling doesn't write for other people. She doesn't write for her editors. She doesn't write for her critics. She doesn't write for money. She certainly doesn't write for the careers of upstart writers such as yourself.

Rowling writes for the same reason writers have written since the dawn of language. Because our soul burns to write and without it we would die. She writes because in a very real way, she doesn't have a choice. She sits down for eight to twelve hours a day (according to her own interviews) and creates something with the same impetus that drives artists the world over.

She writes because she's a writer.

I find it almost incomprehensible that one artist could ever genuinely tell another to stop creating (2020 Addendum: Again, thoughts on her recent bullshit down below––I'm trying not to change TOO much of the original article). It would be like asking a person to cut off their own arm. Sure, everyone has themselves a good snark about Michael Bay not making any more movies or Nickleback retiring, but your sincerity in this regard was shocking. While everyone was busy ragehating that you stuck it to a series you hadn't read, I was wide eyed that anyone who understands the artistic impulse could have honestly suggested that another simply ignore it.

2020 Edit: These days we mostly just don't want Rowling to write because she's a TERF. We kind of want her to go away. We Roland Barthes-ed Harry Potter right out of her hands, many wished the authorial death was a little less metaphorical, and I for one hope she stops and listens long enough to the community she's hurting to walk back years of harm. But we don't want her to go away and stop writing for the sake of future aspiring writers. 

Before you suggest that Rowling tuck her creative efforts (those beyond her "Pottering about") into a drawer and not allow them to be published so that she isn't "sucking the oxygen out of the room" I would like to make one more point. You seem to be unaware of how the publishing industry actually works.  In fact, I read your post-apocalyptic apology and was dismayed to see that despite all you are regretful for, you've held on to your most erroneous perception. You still seem to think that publishing is an industry where another artist's success comes at your expense, and even as you lamented your article, you suggested that you "only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think."

This, simply put, is not true--at least not in the way that you seem to think it's true. I wish I could be gentler about that point, but I can't.

No, all the books submitted can't be published. Yes, you're in competition with other starting authors. Yes, you may get passed over and they may succeed. Unestablished authors are competing for a shrinking share of publishing opportunities in an industry that is trimming the fat and taking fewer chances. In this way your "zero-sum" assessment is tragically correct, and why more and more writers are pursuing non-traditional routes and making just as much or more money doing so.

But authors like Rowling aren't "taking up the oxygen" in this analogy. The opposite is true. They are like gigantic Amazon forests––producing "oxygen" for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers such as yourself. Even if you ignore the fact that Rowling basically got a generation back into reading and may inadvertently be responsible for that new reader who is ravenously consuming every book they can (and who then buys your book because of that kindled passion) there is still a "bottom line" reason that she is helping starting authors. Directly.

Publishers love books. They go into the industry because they absolutely adore books. And as much as there are problems in traditional publishing )it's whitewashed, sexist and anachronistic and they can't get their heads out of their asses about e-readers, and don't even get me started on what a circle-jerk the aesthetics of gate keepers can be)..... AND as much legitimate criticism there is about Rowling's difficulties writing marginalized groups (and then going back and claiming she meant to do so all along)...... AND even much as the bottom line is important in publishing (unlike other industries which don't care about such things?).... AND as much as the big six have become bloated ticks on the creative efforts of artists, publishers still absolutely love books.....

Despite all this, they still want so many more writers to be published than can be. They see so many things that are worth publishing, but can't sell. And with a shockingly huge number of books, they publish knowing they will lose money because they want to see the book in the world.

How can they do this? How can they run a business at a loss? It is because of authors like Rowling and Brown and Meyers and King. Every New York Times bestseller brings in enough money to let publishers do print runs at a loss or give a talented (but obscure) author an advance they know they'll never recoup. In the premier night of Deathly Hallow's release Bloomsbury made enough money to take a chance on dozens, perhaps hundreds of starting authors––risky investments who they thought were worth being published even if they didn't sell.

Ironically, Ms. Shepherd, if Rowling were to take your advice, your chances of publication would actually shrink.

A part of me--a cynical part--wonders if your editors at HuffPo didn't know exactly what was going to happen to you, but let you fall on the sword (or would it be threw you under the bus?) while visions of page views danced in their heads. Regardless, I don't think you made a mistake bigger than any other young writer (or any artist really) has made a million times while kvetching to friends about the unreasonably successful, and I'm sorry about everything you've gone through because you happened to voice your own opinion on a national podium and about a series with a notoriously rabid fandom.

I hope that you stick with writing despite how big this setback must feel, and I hope that in the future you recognize that publishing might be a tough industry, but it's a good industry to really learn about before blaming any other artist for your own lack of success.

Please don't give up on writing--you just made a mistake.


Chris Brecheen

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  1. Sometimes, people just have to touch the stove. Despite being warned (or maybe in spite of it) she wrote an article that basically ruined her pen name. I've heard quite a few people say they probably thought she was looking for attention, even negative attention, and thought it would boost her own sales as a result.

    You are right that she absolutely does NOT understand the business of publishing. So many authors don't. I've seen a greater increase lately in cattiness and jealousy that wasn't really there even five years ago. People think it's a zero-sum game, when I (and others) insist it's NOT. It's about writing good books, connecting positively with readers, and lather/rinse/repeat. You keep writing good books, keep connecting in positive ways with readers, and keep repeating the cycle.

    And I also agree with you that she should be thanking JK Rowling, not blasting her. Love the books or hate the books, authors like Stephen King, Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, EL James, etc., they get people READING. BUYING books. That's always a good thing. Always. And, like you said, it actually fuels the fire, it doesn't extinguish it. And, frankly, depending on your genre, self-pubbing or signing with a smaller indie press instead of a traditional publisher can actually be MORE profitable for some writers.

    Me and plenty of other writers are making a living wage writing full-time without traditional publishing contracts. The bulk of my books are with an indie publisher, and I self-publish a few things that don't fit my publisher's niche. Yes, I write in a lucrative genre (erotica and romance) for the most part, but look at Hugh Howey. He's self-pubbing and doing well. So are others.

    The desire to "see your book on a shelf" is outdated. If people really knew how little some of those mid-list authors on the "big" bestseller lists are making, they'd be shocked and disappointed. Many, many traditionally published authors, even "bestselling" authors, still have to have day jobs to pay their bills because their books might never earn out their advance.

    Not to mention, I'm sorry, but she basically insulted a shit-ton of readers who LOVED the Harry Potter books (including myself). Just because I don't like a particular book doesn't mean I have the right to belittle people who did like it. And any author, IMO, who's petty enough to not only belittle readers' choices in books, but to belittle books she hasn't even READ, that's an author I have no desire to read. There are far too many other good and "undiscovered" authors out there who deserve the money Lynn Sheperd was hoping to suck out of the room and into her own pockets.

    And I still would be willing to bet if she hit JK Rowling's stature and someone told her to quit writing because she'd already made it, she'd likely tell them to go screw themselves.

    She's very immature at best, and very petty and jealous at worst, and she won't ever get a dime of my money. She put out her own fire with her wet blanket of sour grapes.

    1. Some days I'm honestly sorry Blogger doesn't have some kind of upvote or +1 system because I think you just said it all!


    2. Yes. . . monosyllabic reply but sometimes all you need is the right word. :)

  2. This is wonderful. I think immature writers have a tendency to act as though the publishing world is a more serious version of America's Got Talent...or Highlander.

    1. I immediately imagined the analogy of Lynn's original article--which would be someone showing up to challenge Christopher Lambert, and then cutting their own head off.

  3. Well said ... this post must touch a nerve with all writers - be that nerve be buried ever so deeply - that nerve is a combination of the basic insecurity all writers feel and plain old raw garden jealousy.