Last week, one of those most infamous books of our generation became a blockbuster. For the few who don’t know, Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie adaptation of a book that was originally a Twilight fanfic. Not to say anything bad of my beloved genre – fanfiction – but that isn’t a promising origin story for a novel.
Obviously, Fifty Shades is an easy target for tomato-throwing in the literary world, as was it’s spiritual predecessor Twilight. I’m sure you already know the various insults hurled at both. I can’t really argue – I’ve read excerpts of Fifty Shades and the writing is indeed terrible. I’m amazed that it became such a phenomenon when the romance/erotica/harlequin section of Barnes and Noble is packed floor-to-ceiling with similar, better written books. Was there not a book already published about BDSM with a rich bad boy? I can hardly believe that market was untapped (cue pun noise).
I would almost argue that the reason Fifty Shades became so popular is because it is so bad. It’s the same reason Rocky Horror and The Room became cultural landmarks. When an artist pegs the perfect spot of “so bad it’s good,” they can match or exceed the success of people who simply are good.
But I’m not here to talk about whether bad books and movies are entertaining. I’d rather argue about whether it’s okay for us to rip apart media that never should have reached the public eye. Is it acceptable to be so openly cruel in an era when anyone can see it?
Let me take you back to my first fanfic experience. I was 11 years old and I really loved the Artemis Fowl books (so, basically like now except I was skinnier and didn’t have to pay taxes). I discovered fanfiction.net the summer before middle school and figured I’d give it a go. I’d written plenty of stories before, but never published anything on the internet.
I whipped out my first story in a few days. I admit, I barely edited it. I didn’t put much effort into it. But I posted it anyway and got some nice comments. So, I started a sequel with a bit more care. To this day, I’m not too ashamed of that sequel. Yeah, it’s weak because it was written by a child, but at least it shows the highest ability of my 11-year-old self. The first installment, however, became a bit notorious.
About two months into my fanfic writing career, I stumbled across a LiveJournal community devoted to bashing Artemis Fowl fanfics. And guess whose story ended up as one of their entries?
Their diatribe dissected my writing at length, calling me “an X-Men fan on drugs,” accusing my version of the female protagonist to be a Mary-Sue, made fun of the relationship aspect of the fic, etc.
Okay, I was 11. Of course I responded to this poorly, and of course it was in bad taste of the flamers to bash the efforts of a kid (they sort of apologized when they realized I was so young, but in a backhanded “well, this is still good for you” way). But honestly, that experience stuck with me ever since. Because of that moment, I try to be careful about how I treat other people’s work in public.
Sure, I’ve snickered behind the backs of other fanfic writers in the past, I’ve laughed at movies in the comfort of my home, I’ve put down books because they were too terrible to slog through, and I haven’t censored my opinions on books that I feel are overrated. But I would never comment on a person’s piece of writing directly and say that they were awful. I would never go up to an author at a signing and whine about their book. I would never leave an eviscerating GoodReads review. I would never post a video of myself on YouTube reading someone’s fanfic in mocking. And honestly, I try to realize the difference between works that are poorly made and works that are simply not to my taste (Lord of The Rings is a good example – I respect it, even if I don’t enjoy it).
Did you know that Veronica Roth suffers from anxiety, which is often triggered by bad reviews of her novels? Can you imagine how Ben Affleck must have felt to wake up and see the entire Internet hating him because he was cast as Batman? Look, I know that being a public figure means that you need tough skin – but being human consumers with some form of empathy means that we should remember the artists behind the art. I’m not saying that artists should be blocked from legit critique, and they should not be praised if their efforts are truly poor. But accusing an author of writing like a fourth grader, saying they should never write again, or going out of your way to not like a story because it’s cool to be a contrarian are not real methods of criticism. At that point, you’re not bashing the work as much as you’re bashing the person who made it.
A lot of readers/viewers distance themself from the creators by bringing up money. “Stephanie Meyer doesn’t care if I bash her book – she’s rich and I’m not.” Sorry, money doesn’t solve feelings, and this is also a sick way of casting rich/famous people as sub-human. “Oh, they’ll never see my review – it doesn’t matter what I say!” Really? You think famous people don’t have the internet? That they don’t Google themselves occasionally? Have you seen Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets series?
I think we should take the same approach with famous authors as we would with anyone we could encounter in real life – if we can’t comfortably say it to their face, we probably shouldn’t immortalize it on the internet. While we’re at it, maybe you should be careful talking about people you do know too. And when in doubt about the harsh commentary you may or may not want to make, it’s good to simply follow Wheaton’s Law.