Wednesday, 9 October 2019

So, you've been worse than shamed... Anne Rooney

If you haven't read Keren David's excellent post yesterday on being shamed, read it now! Keren gives a really useful report on a Society of Authors event she chaired about what happens when the twitterverse turns against a writer. It applies primarily to writers of fiction and the issues that raise the storm tend to be perceived misrepresentation of a group, or cultural appropriation. On the whole, writers are an empathetic lot and we would go out of our way to avoid offending a minority group, so any offence taken was not intended and the writer will be upset if they have hurt anyone. But there is another side to this coin.

Writers of fiction make up their characters and settings and might get something wrong (or stress an unfortunate aspect). But writers of factual books don't make things up. Unless we get something actually wrong — or facts change, which they do alarmingly frequently — we have generally sought out what is considered on the best authority to be true. Children's books rarely deal with specifically political issues, though some hot topics have become political (climate science, for instance). But there are extreme views on many topics and it's easy to bump into them, and some of the extremists who hold them.

Facts change: two days ago, on 7th Ocboer 2019, 
scientists announced that Saturn has 20 more
moons than previously thought, overtaking
Jupiter for the 'most-moons'  award and rendering
countless space books wrong

A few years ago, I wrote a book about the history of vaccination. At the time the anti-vax movement in the UK was pretty small, though it's grown since. I wasn't prepared for the kind of vitriolic hate this book would spawn (mostly in the USA, of course). It's not a specifically pro-vax book, though it assumes that as the sensible and correct position. It's hardly proselitising. I think there is one sentence that says it's important to keep your vaccinations up to date. One the basis of the book, my Facebook author page has been subject to numerous vicious assaults. I have been accused of paedophilia on the basis of the logo on my website (a spiral — someone managed to link this snail-based design with some cult I've never heard or); claimed the tag line 'tell lies for a living' (which is a joke about being paid to write fiction) means I 'know' vaccines are a big-pharma deceit of some kind or another. They found a photo I'd posted about a chemical and said it proved I was a Satanist. I've had veiled and not-so-veiled death threats. I've been linked to Pizzagate (a conspiracy theory that accuses Hilary Clinton of involvement in a child abuse network). This job is more dangerous than you might imagine. Readers with a strong anti-vax sentiment have accused me of being paid by big pharma to write the book, of promoting vaccines for personal gain, and that being my sole mission. (It's one book out of more than 200 and I was paid a flat fee by an independent trade publisher who has no links with any pharma companies. If I was going to make money from promoting vaccines, this isn't the route I would have chosen!)

Some of this comes from ignorance about how publishing works. A lot of it comes from deeply-held, if erroneous, beliefs. Some is just a bunch of people who will take any crumb as evidence of something ridiculous and pile on for a twitter storm. They are the most irritating and dangerous. In some ways, this is all a lot easier to deal with than the type of storm Keren was writing about. I'm not worried about offending the people who don't 'believe' in vaccines. I would rather they took notice of solid science than the stream of memes they post in support of their views, but recognise they probably won't. If I had upset (say) a minority ethnic group or people with a particular disability, I would be concerned and distressed that I had caused harm, but I can be certain I've not caused harm. I stand by the book, and if I and my publisher are banned, abused and denigrated, we can adopt a cloak of lofty martyrdom and don't have to doubt our stance. There are also warm and welcome messages of support. The slow, long-term storm has pushed up sales of the book as the anti-vaxxers ironically bring it to the attention of lots of people.

I do engage, politely and patiently, with readers who complain about this book — up to the point when they become abusive, whereupon I say I won't engage with them any more. This is all we can do. There's no point wasting time on someone who wants a slanging match, or to threaten or insult. They won't change their views anyway, so you're better off engaging with people who might listen. I've also had exchanges with flat-Earthers and climate-change deniers. Same rule applies: engage until abusive, then cut.

It is different from Keren's subject in another way, too. My publishers are not going to pull my books or be forced to apologise because I say the Earth is spherical or vaccines save lives. But to keep that position, where actual, scientific truth needs no apologies, however inconvenient, we need to keep saying the things that some people find uncomfortable. When I started this job 20 years ago, it never occurred to me that I would end up defending the right to tell the truth in a world where politicians constantly deny and try to hide scientific truths. But that's another story....

NOTE: I will not engage in any anti-vax/flat Earth/climate denial/Creationist arguments in the comments. This blog is about writing for children, not these ancillary issues. My point here is, if you disagree with a writer, don't be vicious or abusive to them personally

Anne Rooney
Stroppy Author blog
Out now: The Story of Life (opportunity for a pile-in by Creationists who don't believe in evolution); Arcturus, September 2019


catdownunder said...

I sympathise!

Moira Butterfield said...

Appalling. We live in an age where groups from all sides are seeking to impose censorship and rally their own sympathisers by bullying individuals. Authors and artists of all kinds are on the front target line. We authors must stick together through the Society of Authors, which now more than ever must speak up to show we have strength in our own numbers.

Susan Price said...

I can only add my voice to those above.

Katherine Langrish said...

It really is appalling, and very sad too. Sorry you've had all this aggression, Anne.

Leslie Wilson said...


Philip Wilkinson said...

Ghastly stuff – but very good advice about how to deal with it.

Daniel Blythe said...

A shocking experience, Anne. But you stood by your scientific facts and your publisher stood by you - more important than ever in an age when groups of various persuasions are attempting to deny various aspects of science.