We’re all tired of click-baity headlines. “She Takes Off Her Left Shoe and Gives It a Sniff. What Happens Next Will Have You Rolling on the Floor” – somehow, in the back of our minds, this evokes images of Buffalo Bill – “It Rubs the Lotion on Its Skin, or Else It Gets the Hose Again” – from Silence of the Lambs. And yet, click-bait still works.
Even as the mature part of our brain says, “No, don’t…I mean it, don’t click that…” the dopamine receptors are screaming, “I wanna roll on the floor! Click it, click it!!” Or the inner cynic is in full battle mode: “NOTHING can make me roll on the floor. Go on. Click it. I’ll prove to you just how strong my resistance is!” The inner extrovert is cringing: “I don’t want to be on the outside looking in – this could be today’s big meme! Click it or we’ll be social outcasts…” Either way, you’re going to click it – because even the mature brain is thinking, “Fine, click the thing – but don’t whine at me when I say ‘told you so.'”
The Mixed Blessing of Click-Baity Headlines
While this kind of headline is great for publicity, it can also twist the message and lead to needless contention. When my friend Mitch Mitchell asked for my thoughts on this Guardian article about author Joanne Harris’s manifesto, I realized there was no good way to sum those thoughts up in 140 character bites. Click-baity bites.
“‘Greater respect from readers’? How arrogant!” That was my first thought – as both a reader and a writer. But wait… seriously, is that how this truly successful writer really feels – about readers?
I searched online to see if I could find what Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, had originally said, in her own words. Unfortunately, many readers won’t. As they judge Harris the way I was inclined to do, they will also be missing out on a great conversation – a manifesto that not only asks for respect for artistic boundaries, but expresses a promise to readers: a promise to give them our best, always; to be honest and true to ourselves, always. This is the piece you should read, first and foremost: A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation. It is billed as “[a]n original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.” Provocation, indeed.
Drawing Boundaries, Making Promises
Joanne writes that the Internet, with its breaking down of barriers between writers and readers – generally a good thing – has also “created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.” You might think this is how Harris sees her readers:
Yikes. She’s right, though – I had a conversation a few years ago with a proud pirate of software, music, and literature in which I was haughtily informed that if an artist’s work was deemed good enough by the public, people would pay for it. After consuming it, they would, perhaps – if they deemed us worthy enough – throw us a crumb. Perhaps we would get to eat that day. I thought, “Please, Sir, can I have some more?” And I thought of Van Gogh, each of his paintings earning millions of dollars to line others’ pockets – after the artist, himself, was dead and buried in the grave. Call me skeptical, but it would be akin to a restaurant serving free meals – trusting that the customer would pay for it tomorrow if they found it sufficiently tasty today.
Authors Gotta Eat
Harris also has the audacity to declare that “not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner.”
While this should come as a relief to people who’ve chosen other professions in life, certain that they don’t have whatever it takes to be a writer, including the desire – it sounds arrogant and elitist to those who’ve been told, over and over, that everyone is (or ought to be) a writer. It sounds as though Harris wants to exclude them from that mythical realm where writers earn “six figure advances” for everything that drips from their pen. Writing can be a great outlet for anyone – provided that the mere physical act of writing is not painful, discouraging, and humiliating – but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a writer. I hereby declare my respect for carpenters, programmers, bricklayers, doctors, nurses, accountants – all other professions – by saying, “I am a writer!” Because I damned sure don’t have the skills needed for any of those other professions – nor do I have the dedication to study and hone them at this point in my life. I’ll pay those who do, or who have, when I want or need their products and services. As Joanne writes, “We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.”
My thoughts immediately turned to Harlan Ellison’s awesome (if strident) “Pay the Writer” rant:
Ellison’s absolutely right – working writers should be paid, if we value their work. Period. We all must eat, and there is room at the table for all of us.
A Sense of Entitlement?
Here is where Joanne Harris really gets to the heart of what it means for readers to have a “sense of entitlement”:
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said.
This reminds me of the debacle over the n-word in Huckleberry Finn – the call to sanitize it and make it more palatable to parents by expunging the “n-word” from it. As Shelley Fishkin argues, “Take the n-word out of ‘Huck Finn’? It’s an insult to Mark Twain – and to American history.” Mark Twain didn’t choose his words lightly, and the only choice a reader rightfully has is to read or refuse to read them – as written. Books expose us to a wide range of ideas – they serve as a provocation and a conversation starter. To change their carefully crafted language is to hobble them and strip them of their power – as well as their usefulness. It is an insult to writers – and to readers.
If you’re a fellow blogger, I assume you’re familiar with the word “spinner”? Software that scrapes your posts and runs them through a salad spinner to churn out “original” blog posts (“original” meaning they’ll pass muster with most online plagiarism detection software) so that you can barf up “content” and earn revenues from automated advertising. That, right there, embodies this “sense of entitlement” and “lack of respect” for writers that we all ought to be somewhat concerned about.
A Promise from Writers to Readers
The truth behind Joanne Harris’s manifesto is that it is not merely a call for “more respect from readers,” but also an expression of respect for readers, a setting of healthy boundaries so that the relationship can continue as a loving one.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
I feel fortunate that this “provocation” led me to learn more about Joanne Harris – @Joannechocolat – to read her thoughts (in her own words), and to engage in this conversation. I love her manifesto – not the abbreviated, paraphrased, misquoted versions of it, but what Harris, herself, actually wrote.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of click-baity headlines, twisting the message, leaving authors and others to defend themselves regarding what they never said at all:
I suppose it’s good training for a career in politics. Or fodder for a new novel, perhaps.
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