The pile-on culture of the internet

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to see this on my Twitter feed. It’s a response by Kathryn Locke to the news that the book For Such A Time by Kate Breslin had been nominated for several awards by the Romance Writers of America. I think Locke’s response was really great, especially after I learned more about the book in question.

Quick synopsis of the book, which purports to be a retelling of the Biblical story of Esther: A Jewish* woman is saved from a firing squad by a Nazi camp commander (presumably because she’s blonde and blue-eyed). Pressed into service by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, to maintain her cover as von Schmidt’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz. Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths, Stella appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s indulgence gives her hope even as she risks discovery with every attempt to help the prisoners. When her bravery brings her to the point of ultimate sacrifice, she faces an excruciating choice. She ultimately converts to Christianity (because God’s love will forgive everybody). (Even though Esther doesn’t change religions.)

Pause for record scratch.

Quick synopsis of the outrage: Breslin gutted the horror of the Holocaust and replaced the innards with her own Christian agenda.

Many other sources have commented on the book and it’s nominations: XoJane, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and The Independent to name a few, if you want to read more on it.

I read the Amazon excerpt of the book and it’s pretty awful. For several reasons. The imbalance of power is so glaring, so obvious, that every single scene with Stella and the guards or the commander comes across like she’s a heartbeat away from getting gang-banged by a bunch of Nazis. And it’s difficult to understand how such a person would fall in love with her captor in a genuine way (Helloooo Stockholm Syndrome). It’s just unfathomable to me, given the way the characters are written. I absolutely understand the outrage in the wake of the book being nominated for those awards. (I’m not sure if there was any kind of backlash back when the book was published…? I think there should have been.) Also, I’m not clear on what the awards are awarding her for. From a purely academic standpoint the writing is…meh at best. And the plot goes beyond ludicrous into downright offensive.

The author seems genuinely shocked that anybody is upset. Her website even celebrates her “accomplishments” around the book. I haven’t seen anything where she accepts that her wholesale appropriation of the Holocaust and forgiveness of a genocide is at best clueless and at worst a mind-boggling cultural blindness. (People who lived through that time are still alive, for Pete’s sake.) She’s apologized, yes. And she maintains that her book was “born of compassion for the Jews.” Which still doesn’t sound like she understands the weight of what this book has done and what it means to a wider audience.

Something else that you should maybe know: I’m currently seeking representation for All the Devils, my manuscript that also takes liberties with Nazi Germany. Quick synopsis of my book: It’s a gender-swapped steampunk Star Wars set during World War II. It’s also an alternate history, as the U.S. did not win the Revolutionary War and remained a sovereign British nation. (Got all that?) There’s magic and Nazis and a different version of Hitler and horrors galore.**

When I read about the upset over Breslin’s book, I messaged my writer friend Gail, who is one of the only people who have actually read my whole book. I said, “This makes me nervous to send out my manuscript.” I thought, well, no one I’ve shown it to – agents, other readers, etc. – have said anything that would make me think I’m doing something wrong or insensitive. But then again, it sounds like nobody told Breslin she was on the wrong track until she got nominated for these awards. I admit, I haven’t sent out any queries about my book since I read about this and I wonder if I should send any more out at all. Gail said that the talk around Breslin and her book made her reluctant to send out her own books (but Gail isn’t writing anything at all inflammatory – I don’t think she needs to worry).

Around the time that this was going on, I also listened to two podcasts that relate. Interviews from Amanda Palmer and  Jon Ronson – both on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Without going into too much detail, both talk about what happens when you make statements or share ideas online that other people don’t like or disagree with or whatever. Ronson wrote a book about people like Justine Sacco whose lives have – for all intents and purposes – been ruined after making what amounted to stupid careless comments online. Palmer herself has been vilified for her own comments and ideas.

So what does all this background and rambling have to do with…anything?

I’ve been thinking about all of these things. I’ve been thinking about the culture of the outraged pile-on that the internet perpetuates. I think about how I’m guilty of outraged piling-on and how EASY it is to do that. A couple of typed words and a click or two and BAM I’ve added my voice to hundreds or thousands, maybe without really thinking about the whole situation. Without remembering that those are people.

Ronson makes a point that those people’s lives were ruined over one single moment of stupidity or ignorance. And that all of us have moments of stupidity and ignorance but we don’t get fired or threatened over it. Mostly they are just that – moments. They aren’t necessarily consistent with the greater arc of our lives or philosophies. Is social media the difference? Public shaming used to be a thing of the past, but it seems we have established a new pillory. A new way to put someone in the stocks to take their knocks from an angry horde. Is it more humane this way?

(I don’t want to make it sound like Breslin should be left alone or that she didn’t do something terrible. And a whole book that’s been written, revised, submitted, accepted for publication, published, then praised is vastly different from a 140-character tweet someone tosses off thinking they’re funny.)

I think what all this has led me to really think about is how I react to stories like Lindsay Stone’s. What she did was tasteless but I’m not sure she should’ve been fired for it. I’m also thinking more carefully about the things I put on social media. As an aspiring writer, I also think about my own work and how it might be perceived or received. And I wonder about another point Ronson made – will the defenders of people like Sacco or Stone be scared into silence because they fear backlash as well?

I don’t have any deep answers or enlightening things to say here, it’s really just me thinking through these issues. It feels like a responsibility as a citizen of the social media universe to at least consider these issues. Maybe you’ve had similar questions yourself.

*The back cover copy actually calls the character a “Jewess.” (>.<)

** Know an agent who would like this? It needs a home.

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