Joanne Harris, A Writer’s Manifesto, and Click-Baity Headlines

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.

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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11 thoughts on “Joanne Harris, A Writer’s Manifesto, and Click-Baity Headlines”

  1. LOL! Look what I started!

    First, as you invoked Huck Finn, it invoked in my mind an episode of Family Guy where Peter reimagines them on the river on a raft and he calls one of the main characters “N-word Jim”… doesn’t quite hold the same gravitas does it?

    I agreed with Ms Harris’ assessment (though I have to admit I’ve never read the book or seen the movie) of how people view writers these days. Heck, the same thing goes for musicians and movies. You know that for years I’ve advocated that I blog first for myself and then for my audience, and I write in my style because it’s the one that suits me. Just because social media has given a platform where others can immediately comment & criticize doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to it or even listen/read it.

    And changing someone else’s work just to suit you… well, in a way we’ve all done it here and there. For instance, every once in a while I’ll quote something someone said on one of my blogs, but since I don’t use any curse words I’ll throw in those stars… like the media does these days when they don’t want to get called out for promoting racial slurs. Then again, that’s not literature, so I feel no qualms about it.

    I’m with Harlan; pay me! 🙂
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…I Am A ProfessionalMy Profile

    1. And you’d change the quote to say “n*****” not “African American gentleman,” wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s fine to omit or edit in your own space – but not to take whole works and “sanitize” them, changing their tone and meaning until it’s no longer reflective of the time, the culture, or the story that the author intended to tell. It’s not a writer’s job to make people comfortable, unless it’s a children’s bedtime story. Then it is.

      1. I never intentionally use the AA term, since I didn’t grow up with it. Still, I’d rather use the stars (my mind’s slipping so I can’t remember what they’re called right now lol) than change it up and alter the intention entirely.

        Wasn’t it just last year or so that there was a company in one of the “I” states that took movies and edited out the bad words for people?
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Fitbit Trackers; Let’s TalkMy Profile

      2. I don’t like the AA term because a lot of people it might apply to don’t like it, either. And it’d be like me walking around calling myself German-Swedish-Scottish-American. Accurate, but wordy – and being born in Florida, I think plain ol’ American fits best. I’d rather claim my green eyes – they’re more unique! – than my white skin or blonde hair, neither of which are anything but descriptive. I am many things, but no one label comprehensively sums me up. I suspect the same is true of you.

        Slurs of any sort can be hurtful, enraging, contemptible, but so can attempts to alter history and sweep it under a rug. And I don’t think we can have it both ways.

        Golly – there’s a film company that has Rhett saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t care”? That’d be a shame.

  2. Are you lookin’ at ME when you dis click-baity headlines? ‘Cause I maintain my Friday headlines are not click-bait, they’re mash-ups! Yeah, yeah, that’s it.

    Loved CHOCOLAT so much I paid cash money for a copy of the book. It’s one of those books that makes you sigh with pleasure when it’s over, because you know you’ll love it when you read it again.

    Loved the movie, too, in spite of the changes (talk about changing a writer’s work to suit yourself!). Because, if nothing else: Johnny Depp.
    Marian Allen recently posted…Koko’s Persian MysteryMy Profile

    1. Hahah!! No. I’m not dissing your click-baity headlines. Those ARE mash-ups and curiosity generators – anyone who reads one and thinks “Oh, that’s what the post is going to be about, exactly” is not paying attention. Yours are “Absurdist art.”

  3. I think both sides need to respect each other. But what “I” need for respect, and what “you” need, might vary a bit. The respect “you” can offer, and the the respect “I” need might also vary. Or vice versa. So we have to try accommodate each other. Not just “you and me”, but everyone. And when you get famous, well that comes with a price.

    As for “pay me”, yes… but a lot of good and successful people have been very generous towards newbies and so forth. And some utterly generous people have chosen to give away their stuff for free. Sometimes before they realized how good it was…..

    1. I CHOOSE to give my stuff away for free every time I post on this blog. But I don’t acquiesce to anyone’s demands that I do – and if someone wants to hire a writer, I don’t work for the “free exposure.” And yes – most of us, I think, are pretty generous to newbies (and all colleagues, really) – but there’s generous and then there’s going to a neurosurgeon and saying, “I think brain surgery’s cool, can you teach me how to do it? I have a free weekend coming up.” 😀

      1. But then there is the Oath…. What one chooses to give, depends on what is asked, and how, and when, and by whom. And that applies to any career. Consider Livingston, and Bethune.

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