News & Views

When Did the Fiction World Become a Beatdown?

Beatdown: 1.) an emphatic or overwhelming defeat 2.) a violent physical beating

Last week the Internet surged with stories of a young adult book that mysteriously hit the Number One spot on the sacrosanct New York Times YA best-seller list. After an investigation pursued by young adult authors and bloggers, the New York Times book review staff removed the suspect book, Handbook for Mortals, written by Lani Sarem.

Order was restored, and everyone seemed pleased with the outcome, except of course for Lani Sarem, who is furious and upset. "I'm super frustrated," Sarem said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "There has been no official explanation to what happened other than reported inconsistencies. Nobody talked to us."

The fact that The New York Times removed the book from the list suggests that there must be some sort of problem in how the sales of Handbook for Mortals were counted. But am I the only one who is taken aback by the fury of the mob and the decision to play this out in public rather than quietly report concerns to the Times? This reminds me of the villagers bearing torches swarming the castle of Dr. Frankenstein: "Remember, get the monster alive if you can, but get him!"

Sarem, vigorously defending her novel, says, "Because some people in the YA community weren't aware of it doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people out there that were excited about it. It's disheartening that someone I don't know decided to attack me today basically because he had never heard of it."

Anyone who has posted their book on Goodreads is aware that publishing is a rough sport. An author on Goodreads, especially a debut, can feel like a goalie without protective padding, pinned against the net as offensive players hurtle down the rink, sticks raised. Still, scathing reviews are one thing, and writers have to learn how to cope with them.

What's happening currently is that authors' publishing paths are being savaged.

The author-on-author beatdown can be particularly troubling. Just ask Jonathan Franzen, who serves as a literary piñata for other authors whenever he publishes. But there is a lot more coming at us these days.

Philippa Gregory said in a recent interview, "Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because you are afraid of space. Why does anyone write lazy, sloppy genre novels?"

Isabel Allende said of crime writers, "I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there's no redemption there."

And Martin Amis said, "If I had a serious brain injury, I might well write a children’s book."

Why do these things need to be said?

A special circle of Hades belongs to authors who rip into each other in blogs and on social media over traditional publishing versus indie publishing. That's where it gets truly vicious. May they be condemned to read aloud the hundreds of wounded comments below their posted attacks every night for a year!

In academia they have a saying: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." But the stakes are not low in today's fiction world. Many authors talk darkly of a glut of books. Contracts aren’t being handed out as readily as ten or even five years ago. Is this why it feels so darned angry out there? Why they’re lashing out?

A week ago, I was asked to speak on a panel at the Writer’s Digest annual conference. On Saturday I spotted a very long line snaking down the corridor of the New York Hilton, many of the people in line looking fairly excited. "They’re signed up to pitch," a writer friend told me.

I have two hopes for the writers in that line. The first is that they publish their book. And the second is that when they do, the publishing world has become a nicer place, with far fewer beatdowns.

— Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry and a magazine editor and writer.

4 Responses

  1. Amy Rogers says:

    Well said. I would add that there’s nothing special about publishing in this regard. We all know how the internet has enabled the trolls, and how public discourse in general has taken an ad hominem turn. Courtesy and respect for The Other is in short supply online. (I cling to the belief that face-to-face things are better, though maybe after Charlotte we’ll see more “beatdowns” in real life.)

  2. sophie perinot says:

    “A special circle of Hades belongs to authors who rip into each other in blogs and on social media ” FULL stop. Not just on the Traditional and Indie divide. NOBODY benefits when we turn inward and instead of being supportive colleagues become vicious attackers of folks in our own profession. This gig is hard–but it is made worthwhile not only by marvelous readers but by fellow authors who hand-hold, butt-kick and generally provide as shoulder and an ear when needed. Take that away folks and we’ve lost FAR more than contracts!

  3. Kate Showalter says:

    Thank you for writing this. I write spec fic and romance (under a pseudonym). I think the beatdowns you mention involve quotes blow way out of proportion and say more about the kneejerk defensiveness of genre writers (of which I am one) and the need for news outlets to glom onto conflict than anything interesting about Gregory, Allende, or Amis. And it does seem as if the increasingly competitive world of book publishing has created increasingly volatile jealousy. Too many people are convinced they deserve the fame and money and adulation that others get. Amy Rogers is right in that our public discourse has gotten personal and vicious. I appreciate your post’s coda, but sadly I don’t see any end to it. Hey, we’ve been told for years not to repress our feelings. I don’t think many people are doing that anymore!

  4. Judith Nappa says:

    Speaking from a serious reader viewpoint, I do glance at reviews quickly to see reader response before I start a book but would never ever let that stop me from reading a book. I, too, am amazed that such authors would take pot shots at their own…rather a low blow on the same level as bullying. Their genres are not any better than others and those comments have rather turned me away from ever wanting to read any of their books. An interesting opinion piece, thanks.