Call 976-QUERY: On Gendered Abuse in the Toxic Wild West of the #WritingCommunity

This was going to be a thread of tweets, in response to the flurry of activity in the #WritingCommunity on November 3, 2019. After I hit 40 tweets I decided an article was in order, so lets see if I can stitch it all back together.

I had hoped not to also write a manifesto on top of my other #writing commitments this week, which include a rather immense bar exam on top of the usual demands.

But part of that bar exam has involved internalizing the rules of professional conduct of a tightly regulated profession which (in spite of the lawyer jokes) is one whose standards of honesty, candour, and above all the ethical treatment of other people are standards that many unregulated professions would do well to adopt.

Professional conduct in high-powered jobs often comes down from on high, through government colleges and the like. For Ontario lawyers, the Law Society is in-between as a formalized body of self-governing peers with formalized requirements & processes.

The #WritingCommunity, on the other hand, is a Wild West of people (#writers, #litagents, #editors, #publishers) flying largely solo. We don’t like to think about our arts as “labour,” but we are an amalgam of independent contract workers working through independent brokers for independent salespeople.

The ethical oversight is, needless to say, quite limited. Even more so, once we start crossing borders, where professional regulation is all but impossible. You don’t need a licence to write a novel, and that’s how it should be. The demands of free expression in the arts outweigh our duty to regulate. Whether you can make it as an #author, whether you publish traditionally or not, depends on the community you can build for yourself and the connections you can make to readers and to other literary professionals.

You don’t need a licence. All you need is a good book, or a few good books, and the ability to sell them, either to readers directly (hard, no matter who you are), or to your fellow professionals (easier, if you’re a decent human).

As I tweeted yesterday, the “choke point” for most writers, the bottleneck governing our success, is our relationship with people who let us cold call them, or cold email them, or otherwise step into their life in a fairly assertive and unsolicited way, to push our work onto them. Any traditionally published writer will vouch that turning a total stranger into an ally, turning a distant professional into someone interested in your success, is a difficult and delicate proposition. Your odds of success definitely depend on the quality of your writing, but let’s be fair: there’s some schlock on bookstore shelves because the right connection was made between a human eager to be published, and an initially indifferent person who became eager to get them published.

The whole business, then, is an unregulated space that hinges on receptiveness. We underestimate as both artists & businesspeople the importance of receptiveness in the success of our work. Receptiveness explains, within a very broad range of quality, while I am going to like #TheRiseOfSkywalker on its release, any why others are not, unless its quality skews far outside accepted norms. So we depend on receptiveness, and more particularly we depend upon vulnerability. We depend on strangers opening themselves to us and our words.

And whether they are trolls or bullies, or sincere and terrifying people with toxic egos, the people who hurl abuse and slurs, obscenities and profanities, threats of death and incitements to suicide, at the people on whose openness and vulnerability we wager our careers, are not just blacklisting themselves. They are eroding the openness of our gatekeepers. Their private abuse of people in the #writingcommunity is an act of war on that community (and it is almost always in private, where they expect some nonsensical and toxic presumption of confidentiality will hide their abuse from sight).

There stereotype is that authors who abuse others in this community are hacks who couldn’t make it, and have a bone to pick with others’ professional success. That’s certainly true sometimes, though I imagine that plenty of successful and even well-known offenders also exist.

For some, I think, it’s not even about the writing. Someone pointed out to me the ways in which the rapid degeneration of friendly correspondence to hate speech and death threats in many ways mimics the typical progression of a phone-sex call: the caller, who is almost invariably male, makes cordial contact with the professional, who is almost invariably a woman, whom he feels is under some professional obligation to speak to him—a captive audience. Then, as soon as pleasantries are exchanged, how fast he is to delve into the abuse, the assertion of a power dynamic that isn’t really there, in order to fulfill what in most cases is the quasi-sexual power fantasy of the toxic initiator.

Literary agents and editors are in some ways like phone sex operators, and in some sense like restaurant wait staff: an overwhelmingly gendered service industry of professionals who affect a social persona, who must not only observe professional conduct standards but must also be polite, positive, happy…and who is an obligation, at least initially, to provide polite and deferential service to whoever walks in the door.

More often than not, this results in a transaction that’s either (a)really great and human for both sides (rarely), or (b)professional and “good” but ultimately dehumanizing and unsatisfying between two decent people: “I just didn’t connect with your characters,” and so on, but “wish you all the best.” But we have also heard the war stories of people who work in these spaces, and who have had (c)really toxic contact with people who say & do really repulsive things—sometimes not even because their professed desires (to be published, or otherwise) are genuine, but because it’s the abuse of power that scratches their itch.

I’m sure that #litagents will vouch for a high number of very odd women whose “promising pitches” are terrible 400K novels about the adventures of their six cats; but when it comes to the calls and private messages that turn their stomachs, leave them in tears, or make them clutch their keys extra tight on the way to the car that night, I wager 99.996% of those contacts are from men. Of those, some really are just immense egos who lash out when deflated; but many are the real winners who have figured out that hotlines cost $3.99 a minute, but the query process is still free.

Like the gentleman from Monty Python who pays for the five-minute argument but really wanted the full half hour, these are people who take a fetishistic satisfaction from violently upending the personal security of people who are not in a position to easily get away from them. It’s why they save their best pickup lines for people in bars who can walk away, and why they sometimes save their worst and nastiest for people in the service industry.

If you’re an astute reader, you’ll note I’ve raised two things here: first, the abuse that people in the #writingcommunity, particularly editors & agents (who are mostly female) face from people, typically wannabe or actual authors (who are mostly men). Next, the fact that relative to some professions (including my day job), the #writingcommunity & associated industries are a “wild west”—a largely unregulated group of people who, in the absence of professional regulators, have no one to report egregious offenders to. Every profession can turn to the police when things get serious enough: I’m not talking about physical assaults, violent offences, real murders, the stuff of TV drama. I’m talking about the kind of abuse that doesn’t rise to the level where police will take it seriously, yet goes far beyond what any regulated industry—hell, any decent retail store—would force its staff to tolerate.

In the absence of professional oversight, the professional misconduct of writers is less actionable, less answerable, than in almost any other profession. We have no recourse, no reporting body, nowhere we can take direct steps to record and deter and rein in this pattern of abuse before it becomes a culture of abuse. All we have is the #writingcommunity. All we have is the herd immunity that comes with things that in other professional venues might be deemed inappropriate. We live in an age where #CancelCulture can easily go too far: consider poor Bret Kavanaugh (1 T), a 17-year-old kid who got so much abuse over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh (2 Ts) that he had to abandon social media altogether. In many situations, calling out rather than calling in is not the right way to go. There is a fine line between “naming and shaming” and “doxxing,” and it’s easy to accuse people who are doing the former of doing the latter. In cases where a presiding society or association licences its professionals, the best course of action is almost always to file a complaint in private rather than, say, out the offender on a bus ad. Truth may be a defence against libel, but that doesn’t mean the bus ad is a “good life choice” in most professional situations.

That all changes in the #writingcommunity, where there is no oversight, and no regulation, and abusers typically bounce from one gatekeeper to the next, wreaking havoc & harm on vulnerable people whose job is to BE vulnerable. We #writers all

But we know the value of a thick skin in this industry. Consider, then, the challenges of working in the industry with a thin skin, which is exactly what we must do to empathize with people AND texts, to know which book is emotionally a winner vs. a more smartly-written dud.

It’s in my nature to dislike the court of public opinion, which is legally unreliable and capricious even in its equity. I’m not a gossip and I have a healthy fear of the “piranha frenzy effect” our bandwagons of judgment can bring. But even so, these are defences NEEDED to keep our community safe in the absence of other safeguards. The “small world” and the social blacklist are not vehicles of great procedural fairness; but they are absolutely necessary when the only alternative to them is to suffer a culture of abuse in silence—and in so doing, to foster it.

This is my rationale for supporting women in the #writingcommunity (and men too, on the off-chance it happens) who “out” their abusers, screenshotting and sharing messages that might have been delivered with the presumption of confidence. In general, outside the bounds of very personal relationships, I don’t write a word, not a novel nor a memo nor a query email, that I would be embarrassed for my mother to read. Toxic people who do should not count on the presumed confidentiality of a “private” message to save themselves from the professional consequences of their own words.

That’s it; I’ve said my piece on this. It remains to be seen whether anyone will read this whole thread or not (though now that it’s a blog entry, I consider it more likely). I will continue to stand by people with the courage not to suffer abuse in silence either personally or professionally. And when it comes to the #writingcommunity, I recognize that the community itself must serve as the regulatory body. In a landscape of free expression, there are no censors or tone police, nor should there be; there are only the natural consequences of the ways we choose to treat others. If you’re arriving late, a look back at the tangle of my Nov. 3, 2019 tweets should tell you specifically prompted this little talk. But these are important general principles for the future, too.

Just be kind, and brook no unkindness.


Luke R. J. Maynard lives & writes in Toronto. His debut novel, The Season of the Ploughis available now.

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