For the last week, I have been in Rarotonga. For those of you who don’t know where that is (and I certainly didn’t when my mother moved there to do charitable work ten years ago), it’s one New Zealand’s Cook Islands. On my travels back, I read the New Zealand Herald, which has to be one of the broadest of the broadsheets. After getting used to the mini-me versions of newspapers in the states, the massive publication that is the New Zealand Herald was a treat.
But the thing that intrigued me most was an article I found by Tracey Barnett. The article highlighted how vociferous, angry and aggressive people can be lately toward one another. Barnett discussed a face-to-face encounter to highlight this, but she also mentioned the reader comments she gets to her articles. These can be just as aggressive and angry, she says. “This is especially true,” she writes, “when the comments are particularly cutting and personal. A letter might allude to placing my views where the sun 'n' air don't shine. “But,” she wrote, “everything changes when I write back - that is, when I become real.” When she personally addresses certain reader comments “suddenly, their demeanor improves. They go from Ozzy Osbourne to Justin Bieber. Words are tempered into kinder and more socially acceptable language. Immediately, that strange wall of safety, that false anonymity is broken and usually a respectful exchange is restored.”
I mentioned Barnett’s article to a couple of fellow American writers when I returned. Every one of them winced. Every one had stories, usually numerous, about reader comments on the internet that had really and truly stung them. None expected readers to respond in a resoundingly positive way to something they’d penned. We writers like to be able to have our say—all hail the first amendment—and so we want readers to do the same. But as Barnett pointed out in her article, a little civility goes a long way. And there seems to be a divide in what people write when they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity versus what they say when they sign their name.
Yet one well-known author I spoke with said he recently published a feature article in a major magazine. He purposefully tried to avoid the comments on-line, having found them unhelpful before, but he couldn’t avoid the personal message he found in his Facebook in-box—a message full of vitriol, railing about his hideous writing skills and in the demise in his style. And the woman writing the message clearly identified herself. The lack of anonymity hadn’t mattered in this case.
I think Barnett was largely right in her article though—writers recognize that we’re putting ourselves out there and therefore opening ourselves to responses. The hope is that readers realize we generally write by ourselves in a room, in a vacuum. We send our work into the world, hoping it touches someone in a good way. If it doesn’t, we’re willing to hear about our failings in a constructive way, but as Teflon as we try to make ourselves, we can be a touch wounded too. I know I’ve encountered the same problem occasionally when I’m a reader, rather than a writer. I might not be as careful with an anonymous comment as when I know my name will appear.
While thinking about reader response, quick judgments, and harshness from an unnamed source, I realized my first nonfiction book coming out September 14th, Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him, dealt with that very topic. Harsh quick judgments landed a young man in jail for nearly six years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Whether I sign my name, or comment anonymously, I’m going with what Barnett recommended, Don't split who you are. Apply the same standards of respect in every element of your life.