And so we come to the end of the Book Tour Tool Kit – at least for a while. It was great fun for me -and I hope for a lot of you. If you have any other issues you’d like to suggest, I’m always open to suggestions.
One reader chastised me for not dealing with issues of race and prejudice when it comes to bookstore signings. I’d be happy to post a contribution on the issue if anyone would like to submit one.
And now for our usual Friday therapy session with Dr. Sue O’Doherty.
I occasionally give workshops in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. There are two scheduled for next month: March 18 (Overcoming Writer’s Block) and March 25 (Overcoming Fear of Success). For more information, or if you’d like to be notified about future workshops, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
HEAVILY EDITED LETTER CONCERNING A PROBLEMATIC POSTER
Dear Dr. Sue,
I belong to an online community for writers. There is one novelist who constantly brags about her success and her deals. And everyone cheers her on—at least to her face. But behind her back everyone talks about how awful her books are. Yes, she gets sold, but a lot of crap gets sold.
My problem is, I don't have the guts to say anything. And I'm not alone. What's going on? This isn't about jealousy. She's not even as successful as the people she disturbs the most. Rather, she seems to have manipulated everyone into playing her game with her and it's dragging the community down.
Truth or Consequences
You provided so many identifying details about the author in question I had to wonder whether, in your frustration, you hoped she would recognize herself and clean up her act without your intervention. Because your letter came in unsigned through the Publishers Marketplace site, I couldn’t email you back and ask you to reword it. I nearly decided not to use it, but it touches on an important issue that I often hear discussed, but have never received a letter about. Instead, I edited out most of the identifying information—so if any readers think they recognize a member of their own online communities, they are probably mistaken.
Certain individuals do exert a mysterious control over groups, whether live or online. As you point out, this power appears unconnected with intelligence, ability, or personal charm. Although envy would be an understandable response to someone who is well published despite substandard writing, I agree that this is probably not the source of your discomfort. Groups seldom hesitate to bash those whose only offense is a higher level of accomplishment. Rather, this author sounds like one of those people who inspire fear that feels almost primal, and that baffles us because its source is hidden or indirect. Sometimes the individual projects a trait, such as extreme hostility or emotional fragility, that a group picks up on a subliminal level and shies away from confronting. At other times, especially in groups that place a premium on “niceness” and getting along, a relatively innocuous characteristic (for example, obliviousness to the tone or content of a discussion) can make the offender a target for the group’s disowned aggression. In this case, it is the group’s own antagonism that is threatening, because addressing it would entail acknowledging “not-nice” impulses of participants. In either case, the tendency is for the group to bond through backchannels but refrain from tackling the problem directly.
If this situation occurred in a community of friends or a face-to-face writing group, I would suggest a tactful but firm confrontation, including a discussion of ways the group has played into this dynamic. However, online communities are not “real” communities. We all know this, but it’s hard to keep in mind when someone’s posting style is as painful to us as our Uncle Jake’s lectures on politics or a two-year-old asking “why?” for the thousandth time. We feel we know the poster—what she looks like, what her life is like outside the community, her state of mind as she posts, the tone she intends to project. And, as anyone who has met an online acquaintance face-to-face can testify, we are invariably wrong. Even if we have seen her jacket photograph and spoken on the phone, there is that ineffable something about the person that is different. We discover that what we had read as an offensively snarky posting style is actually an impish sense of humor; that her wet-blanket negativity is a symptom, not of meanness, but of depression; that her friendly and supportive missives translate as cloying sycophantism in the flesh.
The poster you write about, in other words, could be a vengeful, narcissistic idiot. Or she could be boasting to compensate for some other problem—deep insecurity, an empty relationship, grief or loss that you know nothing about because you are not involved in her real life. On the other hand, you could be reading content or tone into her posts that is not actually there, due to individual or collective issues within the group.
Even if you are certain that the problem is all hers, and even if she is hijacking important discussions to feed her ego, I would advise against confronting her unless she attacks someone else. There is no tactful way to tell someone in a public forum that simply talking about herself is offensive. I would bet that others in your community also mention their successes on occasion. The difference between occasional sharing of good news by an involved and sympathetic group member, and constant boasting to the exclusion of other topics, may be obvious to everyone else, but your objections would be hard to communicate, especially since your posts, like everyone’s, are subject to misreading and misinterpretation.
Very few people are able to respond to public shaming by saying, “Thanks for pointing out that I’ve been acting like a jerk. It won’t happen again.” Anger, defensiveness, and hurt feelings are the more likely results, and, again, you don’t know what other circumstances she may be coping with. And if the other posters who can’t stand her join in, the discussion can veer rapidly out of control, turning a sincere effort to address a problem into an ugly exercise in group bullying.
What you can do is refrain from responding to objectionable material. I know this is harder than it sounds; her posts evoke strong reactions that seem to demand action and resolution. But keep in mind that silence is, in itself, a powerful tool for exerting control.
If the group was talking about, say, procrastination, and she jumps in to brag about her latest deal, open a new window apart from the forum, and compose the post you are tempted to send. Save and file the post and return to the original discussion, ignoring her comment (or acknowledging it briefly). Later, when you’re calmer, review your unsent post. Does it reveal anything that surprises you? People who spark strong negative feelings in us often have a great deal to teach us about ourselves.
If you stop taking the bait, other posters may join in this campaign of silence. With luck, your problematic poster will get the message and join the group. If she does, be sure to respond to her in that context, to reinforce her prosocial behavior. Even if she keeps posting only about herself, the rest of you can stay on-topic yourselves. Remember, she has only as much power as you give her.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A well-published author herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.