I see an article is going around, apparently from the RWR (the Romance Writers Report, which is connected to the RWA), that talks about how authors should deal with controversial topics — which is to say, the article seems to suggest that they should take a very soft, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road, milquetoasty approach. Just smile, it seems to say. Think of England.
(I don’t have the original article to go on.)
(I don’t suspect this is an RWA “official” stance.)
(I don’t even know who wrote it.)
You’ll note that it mentions both gay marriage and racism via Ferguson.
Given that romance writers are generally women, it sounds troublingly like asking them to be more lady-like and not speak about issues that would trouble others — do not, it suggests, get all uppity and think that people want to hear your opinion on issues of import. You might further infer from there that women aren’t… something enough to opine such important matters. Not smart enough? Not savvy enough? Not man enough?
Here I’m aware that there’s a danger of me squeezing myself sideways into this conversation, as I am a) not a woman and b) not a romance writer, and you’d probably be well served by going and reading a lot of the discussion around the topic via women authors who are far smarter and better connected to this subject than I am (again, Racheline Maltese’ feed is a good place to dive into and branch out of this subject). And I know that there’s always a danger that when I get up on this rickety soapbox I’ve made out of old toilets and broken chains of binary code that it seems like AH FINALLY THE MANS HAVE SPOKEN, and then I wave my plunger — er, scepter — at you and everything feels altogether more official. I also know that I can say crazy shit and people will applaud, and maybe that’s not a luxury everybody has.
Hopefully, this doesn’t feel like that, and if it does, I’m sorry.
That said, I think there’s a larger, broader question about if any writer of any genre should speak out about reportedly controversial subjects.
And, my answer to that is, holy shit, yes.
With the caveats of:
a) if you want to.
b) if you can do it without being horrible to other people.
Nobody should make you speak out about controversial subjects. It can be uncomfortable to engage in that kind of conversation online — you might end up with an Asshole Magnet firmly bolted to your forehead. Some people’s milkshakes bring the boys to the yard, but other people’s milkshake bring all the trolls to the Twitter conversation. You might not be up for stomping that many ants or throwing rocks at wasp nests.
Further, if you do choose to speak out about controversial subjects, just don’t be horrible about it. This is a stickier wicket, of course, because you’re probably always going to be somebody’s asshole in that kind of conversation — I can say, politely as I can muster, “Gay marriage is a civil rights and humans rights issue, please and thank you,” and somebody out there in InternetLand is going to immediately going to think I’m a walking, talking, tweeting, blogging pile of demonic excrement. And the wicket gets even stickier when women and LGBT authors and persons of color have long been told to play nice, don’t get angry, don’t stand up too tall or too loud, and my intent here is not to slick this slope with Astroglide so you zip down it right back into the valley of just be nice and sell books. By horrible I mean, outright shitty. I mean, beating people down, or bullying them, or threatening harm. The very nadir of human behavior.
Now, with that said —
Why should authors speak up and speak out?
Because you’re writers, that’s why.
Writers know the power of words. Words change the world. Words have always been more effective at bullets when it comes to changing both the present and the future (and, in some ways, the past) — writing and storytelling have been a part of the human code since we figured out how to mash berries and streak red goop across cave walls with the decisive swipe of one of our hairy thumbs. Words make a difference. Stories move the fucking needle.
Ah, but: will you lose sales?
Could be, rabbit, could be.
But, I want you to ponder:
a) if you lost sales due to your having an opinion (gasp), did you want those sales in the first place?
b) if a reader doesn’t care for you or your opinions, will that reader actually like your book?
c) have you also thought about the sales you may have gained?
Let’s tackle that last one — “c.”
In my experience, having an opinion has lost me a sale here and there. I note this only because once in a while I actually get people saying, “CHAZ WENDING JUST LOST HIMSELF A SALE” and at first I’m like, “Jeez, who the hell is Chaz Wending and do I need to fight him?” but then I’m like, “OHHH they misspelled my name.”
But for every lost sale, I’ve seen more folks say they’ve bought my books because of me having an opinion. People want to read books by human beings, not marketing platforms. Human beings are complicated, sticky, thorny tangles. We’re not advertising robots. We’re not weaponized brands. We’re people, and we have thoughts and feelings and ideas and fears and gasp opinions on the world and other human beings that exist around us. Because we’re all connected, and social media — often thought of as somehow unreal — is just as real as real life and only deepens the connections we experience. We’re more bound up together, not less. (Though in opposition to this I’d also caution you to not place too much actual importance on social media in terms of selling books — it’ll sell them here and there, but I think we often overstate how much social media from the author specifically can sell books. It does. But much of your audience won’t ever be reading your tweets in the first place.)
Even still — sales (gaining or losing) isn’t a good reason to have an opinion online.
Have an opinion because you’re a person.
And you’re a writer, with your own unique means of expressing your feelings.
Don’t be a brand.
Don’t be so hyper-focused on selling your book that you forget to act like a human being. I don’t pay much attention to those writers who just bark out advertisements for their books day in and day out — I just squeegee their greasy spam tracks from my monitor and move on. I do, however, pay attention to writers who are bold enough to be people — that’s not just about them sharing opinions, but just about how they come across online. More like humans, less like SkyNet.
You are more than your book sales.
Speak up and speak out if you so choose.
Or, put your opinions into the work, instead.
You shouldn’t feel pressured to get loud.
But you also shouldn’t feel pressured to be silent, either.
Having an opinion doesn’t give you any authority, no. But it’s one of the milestones of being human. And being a writer ostensibly gives you a way to put those opinions out in an interesting way.
So, should writers have and share opinions on matters both small and uncontroversial? Absolutely. Engage. Talk. Share. Join up with the human experience. Connect in that way if you so choose. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like assholes: we all have them. And it would be weird for you not to have an opinion just as it would be weird if you did not have a butthole. That’s actually how we test for alien marauders, by the way. We scan them at the TSA to see if they have rectal passages. It’s how we know you’re not human — surely we’ve all been there at TSA when a xeno-terrorist suddenly realizes he’s been butthole-scanned and been found lacking, and then his flesh splits and his gelatinous tentacle-body explodes forth in protest and then —
Okay, I think I’ve lost the thread.
And I probably just lost a couple sales, too.
I knew I was supposed to pay attention to this series of Post-It notes stuck to my monitor: “STOP TALKING ABOUT THE ALIEN NEGA-BUTTHOLE CONSPIRACY; IT REALLY FREAKS PEOPLE OUT.”
I am such a fool.
*hangs head in shame*