When I was 18 I was living in a shitty apartment, far from home, with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. I felt totally powerless in my own life. I contemplated suicide often. I would learn, later, that taking birth control pills had caused a debilitating state of depression, one I simply could not shake, no matter how much I willed it. Being mentally fucked up by my medication and entangled in an ongoing bullshit relationship with an asshole left me feeling I had no control over my own life.
So I decided to be someone else.
I did what a lot of teenagers did, when feeling out of control, and powerless over their own lives in the late 90’s:
I created an online persona.
Let’s call him Adam, for simplicity’s sake.
Adam was several years older than me. Confident. Tall. Wiry. Cocky. Single, of course. He was a funny flirt, a writer, and after conversing with some SF/F writers in an online forum for six months, he got invited to edit an early online magazine, which I did for six months more.
Being Adam was a fabulous escape from my shitty life. It was the one place I could feel confident, because I was being somebody else. But giving myself that confidence boost meant duping a lot of people. Flirting with a lot of women who thought I was a hot 20-something dude (and probably a lot of 40 year old dudes pretending to be women) and spinning tales about a life I certainly did not have. And I did that with many people who were being open and honest with me in return. It was the wild west of the internet, though, and I didn’t take much at face value. I had learned in the early days of the internet that you could be far more confident, and get taken more seriously there than anywhere else at that age. I remember getting into conversations with people in online forums when I was 15, and having them speak to me as if I were an adult. It was addictive. It was an escape. It was fabulous.
It was all a lie.
Now, to be honest, Adam didn’t rant about how author so-and-so should have acid thrown in their face, or such-and-such should have his dick cut off, but I conversed with several writers in the field (and interviewed a couple of them!) as this dude, and edited stories as this dude. I went around telling lies to people, because it was too painful for me to be anyone else but a fictional character.
Eventually I escaped my shitty relationship, and quit editing the magazine, which went defunct soon after. I needed that persona to survive that year and change, though, and it worked. It reminded me there was a life outside myself, one I could build. If I had the strength to be that confident as Adam, I could learn to be that confident as Kameron.
I started my blog in 2004, after traveling around the world and getting a couple of fancy academic degrees. I’d gone out and built the life I wanted, and I was ready to be me. But I had to become someone I didn’t hate before I could do all that.
I’ve spent over a decade learning to rein in my anger, my resentment, my hatred for people, for situations, for bullshit. I used to get into angry screaming fights in my teens. I’d lose my temper at the sound of loud voices. I’d snap, lash out, grind people under my boots. It wasn’t until I was 27 or 28 that I realized I wanted a real healthy human relationship that lasted, and that if I wanted to do that, I had to learn patience, compromise, discipline.
I had to learn to talk out the seething anger. I had to learn where it came from, and stop trying to destroy people with it. I learned my limits. I figured out I was severely introverted, and that when I was ready to lose my shit, I needed to tap out instead, and retreat to a dark place to gather myself again. Much of my anger, I realized, was driven by anxiety and fear. When I’d remove myself from overwhelming social situations, I was better able to manage it.
But all this took time.
I had a lot of growing up to do.
I’m still angry a lot. I use tactical anger in many posts. But when I lose my shit now, it has a purpose. It’s no longer just blind rage on the internet. Confidence helped with that, but mostly it was just getting older, it was getting a chronic illness, it was finding that the life I was living was not how I wanted to live, and changing it.
I was lucky in that I could do that. I had the resources at my disposal. My parents are solidly middle class. I have academic degrees. I’ve been working regularly since I was 16. I’m white, I’m reasonably presentable, my physical limitations are not obvious.
I made the choice to change my life, and with those resources, and my own will, I was able to do it. But it was a hard slog, learning not to lash out at everything with hate. Learning to be somebody I liked.
In my early days of reviewing on my blog, back when it was called Brutal Women, I said exactly what I thought of the bullshit sexism I saw in books. I received more than one angry email or comment from an author who thought their hurt feelings at being called out for writing a sexist book was some kind of crime. As if I’d actually physically taken a knife to them myself, when it fact it was their own ego-google search that led them to my review, and their own eyes that continued to read it, and their own fingers that typed up the email to send to me so they could engage with me and hear my opinion, once again, first hand, delivered to their inbox at their request.
Emailing me to argue about whether or not your book is sexist after I already said so online? Dick move, my friend.
That said, time heals many rifts. Many perceived hurts. Many perceived wounds. Or they at least scar over. And I am, at least, on “colleague” terms with all those folks today.
Though I have scaled back those honest reviews, I miss them sometimes. I miss saying what I really think. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t occasionally consider creating another persona, a pseudonym, who could speak the raging, blinding, ballsy truth I want to piss all over the internet some days.
But I realize this is my career. I’m a grown up. I suck it up. I save the pseudonym for another day.
I carry on.
Having lived on the other side of the review divide, I have a particularly healthy(?) relationship with angry reviews of my own work, in particular the sort of angry reviews that have reached the level of those by Requires Hate, who was known for writing seething, hate-filled, pus-spewing reviews full of such vitriol that they were both horrifying and entertaining in equal measure. I eventually had to block that reviewer because people kept RT’ing her on my timeline, and my life was just too short to wallow in the mean-spiritedness of it all. And yet, when RH reviewed GOD’S WAR, it was not a big deal at all, to me. The review boiled down to “This book is so fucking white it’s whitey white white written by a white person” and I’m like, well, yeah, that’s true. You really can’t debate or cry about that. And the buried, useful parts weren’t anything I didn’t already know. I shrugged and moved on, because let’s be real, my friends, I’ve read worse reviews of my books, and I’ve written some pretty angry reviews of other people’s books.
I’m an adult with book deadlines. I move on. I have shit to do.
The reviews hurt the writers who read them (don’t ego-search!). Turned off a lot of readers who might have otherwise bought the book. But they also hurt the reviewer who reviewed them, in the same way I was hurt by all those sexist novels I ranted about back in 2004-2006, just as often as they were about entertainment. I understood the feeling, even if I was put off by how it was delivered. It may have lost folks some readers, just like a bad book review at any other blog, but it didn’t ruin anyone’s career. The hurt was not a real knife to the throat, but hurt feelings of someone pointing out perceived failures for the entertainment of a horde of readers looking for a public savaging of someone’s work.
It turns out that I’m a big kid, and if I don’t want to read reviews like that, I don’t have to read it. So I didn’t.
I blocked RH. I didn’t read the blog.
I moved on.
At the end of 2012, I read an astonishingly beautiful short story that had me so enthralled that I read the whole thing on my phone, hiding the phone under my desk at work so I could finish. It was the sort of fiction I wished I was talented enough to write. I saw a lot of the same themes that fascinated me– war, relationships between women, SFnal worlds that felt more like fantasy. But it was from a gifted writer who knew how to turn a phrase with far more beauty and passion than I’d ever been able to.
It was mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, to see writing that good. I fell in love with it immediately.
It turned out that the author’s work was all like that – exceptional, intricate, lovely. I voted for her for the Campbell Award without hesitation, and told everyone else to as well. I followed her on Twitter. We had lovely conversations. She tweeted about bees and makeup and beautiful stories.
She was fabulous. The writing was sublime. I was in love.
It was all a lie.
Back in 1967, a writer named Alice Sheldon created a whole new life, an entire persona, called James Tiptree, Jr. She managed this fiction for many years. Robert Silverberg famously said of Tiptree, “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”
Sheldon found a particularly beautiful world in that persona, for many reasons, among them the confidence and freedom it brought. After she was outed as Tiptree in 1976 (after fans saw a letter of Tiptree’s about his mother dying in Chicago, they looked up the obituary, and made the connection) she said, “My secret world had been invaded and the attractive figure of Tiptree — he did strike several people as attractive — was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia.”
Being outed was devastating, but the secret, like all secrets, was bound to come out, and Sheldon must have known that as much as RH did when she decided to turn her hand at publishing fiction in the very venues she’s critiqued, befriending the very authors whose work she’d been shiv-grindingly reviewing for the lulz. The house of cards always comes tumbling down.
Sometimes you are well prepared for it. Sometimes you’ve completed the transition, and moved on, as I had with Adam. Sometimes you haven’t.
When secrets come out, sometimes people feel betrayed. I’m sure Silverberg felt sort of silly, probably the way I felt at being duped when I learned the writer who wrote the fiction I loved was the same one pissing vitriol over the internet. I was lucky in that I got to sit with the uncomfortable knowledge that it was very likely the same person for several months before it was confirmed. It gave me time to digest the anger, sure, but more than that – the grief. I physically grieved for an online character I’d developed an affection for the last two years. It was like losing a real person.
The idea was actually brought to my attention by the writer herself in a DM conversation that someone was looking to draw a connection between the two of them, and when she admitted to knowing about the RH review of GOD’S WAR, I felt a clench of sadness, because the sort of writer she pretended to be online was not the sort of person who would know about that review.
But RH would. Because RH had written it.
The manipulation was masterful. I often wonder if RH has a day job, because let me tell you, it all sounds super exhausting to me.
On the internet, no one knows who you really are. You can be anyone you want to be. Some of us are better at pulling that off than others.
In my heart of hearts, I’d hoped it would all go away. God knows people like Harlan Ellison have been saying the dumbest, most abusive and hateful shit for years and no one seems to fucking care, even when they assault another writer on stage. But for some reason folks were really, really upset that a woman who ranted angrily on the internet for the entertainment value of a few hundred people was going to be successful by pure virtue of how great their writing was.
Somehow duping everyone into thinking they were some nice person was a hateful crime against humanity, as if we all haven’t been pretending to be somebody else on the internet ever since there was a fucking internet.
Doxxing, to me, always screams of punishment. It screams of anger. Of fighting hate with hate. Burning someone down to make yourself feel better. It’s me screaming angrily that if I can’t be happy, no one can be happy. It’s me screaming like a shrieking toddler, because somebody who said my cookies were shit is now making great cookies.
It’s me sounding like a fucking bitter jerk.
Life is a game. Some people are masters at it. Life, succeeding at life, is about manipulation, about being the best, about connections and networking. Any rich white dude will tell you that with pride. Many of the writers we uphold as being absolute paragons of the field are screaming racist misogynists who’ve done far worse than write an angry review on the internet or tell people in an email what they really think of their book. They are people who’ve physically abused and assaulted women in the field for years, pinched asses, raped women, told women writers in person that they weren’t worth the shit on their shoe, and we buy their work. We praise their work. We put it on reading lists and say, “Yes, Lovecraft is indeed a racist but he’s a product of his time!” and make awards in their likenesses.
We make excuses for men. We make room for men.
You should keep being Tiptree. You aren’t the same if you’re Sheldon. Sheldon is just an old woman from Virginia. We can burn Sheldon down and erase her.
In truth, many writers are assholes. They aren’t people you want to go to tea with. I don’t like people, generally. I find them exhausting. I don’t want to be friends with Harlan Ellison or Larry Correia or Orson Scott Card. Nick Mamatas has been one of the genre’s biggest fucking trolls for ten years, and nobody blacklisted him or sent around a petition, and when he’s got his asshole meter turned down, he too can be terribly entertaining on the internet.
But they are dudes, and that’s expected. It’s their place to be assholes. To be shit-stirrers. We make excuses for them, and their behavior.
We are assholes for doing it. But we do it.
There is a lot of hate in the world. A lot of righteous anger. We spew a lot of words at people, saying stuff like, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” We get angry for feeling hurt, for feeling duped, when the best way to respond when someone plays a masterful game is, quite simply, this:
“Well played. You’re a remarkable writer. I wish you the greatest success in your career.”
We say that shit because we are fucking adults. Because the writing is good. We’re not here to be friends. I don’t like a lot of writers. But when their writing is not bullshit, I still read it, quite often. The persona may be a lie. All of them may be a lie. Shit, the work may even be a lie! But we are not in love with pixels on the internet, we are not in love with the ideas of people and their petty fucking feuds and scrambling attention-grabbing. We are in love with the work.
Boycott whatever you please. Get angry at me for duping you, you four writers I interviewed back when I was Adam, but if you are going to blacklist people for being duplicitous, or for giving their opinion on the internet, or emailing you their opinion when asked, then you better blacklist me too.
Our actions have consequences. I’m all for consequences, and I support you saying, “Fuck that, I’m never reading that asshole again, not letting them join my club, and cutting off all contact.” Perfectly fair and healthy, desirable, even! But going beyond that, reaching for the pitchforks and torches to destroy somebody? Maybe consider why it is you’re ready to burn someone alive. Is it because they put a knife to your throat, or because you’re angry and hurt that they said something true? Are you angry because you were duped? Because they’re talented? Because they played a good game? Do you just want to burn it all down in hate, in retaliation, like a fucking asshole in turn?
The abyss, my friends. Don’t stare too long in it. You get to choose the person you want to be, so you better choose wisely.
Because let me tell you this, to achieve what you want – the blacklisting, banning, burning, the destruction of another human being’s success, transforming yourself into everything you despise –requires very little.
It requires only that you hate.
Postscript: Trolls are indeed bad people you should distance yourself from. See the roundup here. However, for a cautionary tale of an author who became obsessed with an abusive troll reviewer, and became everything she hated in a quest for revenge and closure that would never be possible, see here. tdl;dr Don’t become that author, friends. The world is full of bad people. Get back to work.
If you really want to push all that rage somewhere, Elizabeth Bear suggests you pour it into supporting women, minorities and other marginalized writers in our community.