Toxic Citizens, Bullies Beware

I Y Books ButtonI’ve been thinking more and more that some writers should come with warning labels: “Extremely Volatile,” “Contents Under Pressure May Explode,” “Does Not Play Well With Others,” etc. Perhaps at least with some advance notice, we could choose to avoid situations where citizens of the literary community, especially online, step onto land mines of aggression without even realizing it. To avoid turning this post into an extended nebulous subtweet, I’ll cut to the chase: Why do we often tolerate extremely bad behavior from certain members of our community? 

I don’t know if five years counts as “a long time” — perhaps it’s been just under five — but that’s how long I’ve been an active contributor to the online literary community (though I’ve been a writer since I was knee-high to a grasshopper), both with writing and editing, which means I’ve been a citizen of that community for that long. Citizen is an important word, I think. My default M.O. in dealing with other writers and editors is to treat all of them like a close friend, kindly and respectfully. I treat them like they can teach me something new, with an open mind, because it’s the truth. I also stand up for those who’ve been treated poorly and go to bat for those whose voices have/had been marginalized. I do all of this because I believe in the community and all of the wonderfully diverse things it can teach me and that it stands for.

One of the absolute best aspects of this community is that I am not alone in my approach to literary citizenry. Nate Tower from Bartleby Snopes, as I have written many times, has had as great an impact on my short writing career as a writer and editor as any other single person, offering me time and again the “one or two things” a story of mine needed to be where it needed to be for publication, in other words, to be its best. Diane Smith Fuller from Grey Sparrow Journal and Press gave me a foot into the literary industry by publishing my very first story, and later, my first collection. Molly Gaudry essentially handed the keys to The Lit Pub to me, basically only saying, “Just don’t scratch it!” Dustin Luke Nelson gave me the opportunity to edit InDigest Magazine’s blog with only a similar caveat. In the intact days of Specter Literary Magazine, Mensah Demary offered me a chance to write a somewhat crazy column where I could talk about anything from Borges to video games to quantum mechanics to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. There have been so many more people who’ve been kind and generous to me that I simply cannot name them all. But to these people, I will be forever grateful, and I hope that is enough. After all, how do you even begin to repay that level of kindness?

But — and there is always a but — we should ask ourselves, “What about the flip side to that coin?” What about writers who become aggressive when they are not placated, post haste? What about citizens who become so unpleasant that other citizens placate them just so they don’t have to witness or experience their obnoxious and disgusting behavior? What about those writers whose default M.O. is all of what I’ve described above?

Truly, I ask: Why should we — as editors, professionals, and, above all else, decent human beings — feel compelled to tolerate and even humor this kind of abhorrent behavior?

I understand I’m speaking in generalities here, and will continue using the gender neutral “they,” but I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with a person who embodies all of what I consider to be the worst in the writing community. A person who embodies all of those unpleasant, aggressive characteristics I mentioned above, a person wholly unafraid to tell you that your publication or site or blog (etc.) would be lucky to have someone as talented as they are write something for them; a person who calls names, demeans, and bullies (or tries to bully) editors into getting their way (or trying to get their way), and then has the nerve, the gall to delusionally claim claim they “were under attack” and “simply defending themselves….”

How long are we going to remain silent when dealing with this type of person?

Believe me, I do understand the point of view that suggests that it’s easier to just placate these bullies. It’s easier to metaphorically pat them on the head and let them have cake, pie, and candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s easier to not rock any boat on which you find yourselves in the company of these people. I get that. Honestly, I do. I just don’t agree with it.

The biggest problem, in a manner of speaking, with the person I’ve just described is that they have achieved a moderate to significant amount of success, and they are (purportedly) talented, according to more than a few people whose opinions I hold in the highest regard. Admittedly, the only thing I’ve read of theirs (and now the only thing I will ever read of theirs) is what amounts to screed in the form of an online blowout (of which there are never any winners), where the only thing that was originally being asked of them was simply a degree of patience.

It should be noted that this person has a reputation around the literary community as being aggressive, abrasive, confrontational, quick to anger, and nearly always impossible to deal with. From the numerous people I’ve talked to, they basically all agree that they humor this person, lest they be forced to deal with their anger.

Even after the incident described above (and though the only thing I truly felt was owed was an apology from them), I extended the olive branch because that is what I always do; not because I wanted to placate this person, but because I sincerely believe in letting professional bygones be bygones and in maintaining a working relationship (especially since we share so many friends and overlapping writing circles).

Instead of being even remotely receptive, this person jumped right back into attack mode. Operation Olive Branch was an utter failure. For whatever it’s worth, the offer to work professionally with this person is still extended. I’m not really into writing people off as lost causes.

I suppose the moral here is that, despite our best efforts, certain people cannot be placated (a word I’ve been using over and over today for emphasis). They ever remain a ticking time bomb/land mine/choose your own explosive analogy. And ultimately, they’re just waiting to go off. It’s almost as if they are waiting for a perceived slight so they can throw their weight around and make themselves feel better by trying to tear others down. Maybe this is even something they do without being fully cognizant of it (though I must say, I’m not willing to make that leap yet).

Nonetheless, I still want to give people the benefit of the doubt, which often feels like more of a pain in the ass than it’s worth. This is because — I wholly submit — I truly do not know what extenuating circumstances and precipitating factors are going on in people’s lives. There could be any number of traumatic events and scenarios taking place offline that cause these people’s bad behaviors when they sit down at their keyboards. But still, should we just excuse their unwarranted abuse out of hand? I personally don’t think so.

The online lit. community is beautiful and wonderful and full of incredible people, people I’m proud to call friends and colleagues. People I’ve often never met face-to-face or perhaps just once or twice, but people I’d fly cross country to go to bat for. These are people who shouldn’t have to be bullied or strong-armed in what amounts to their second home, a place they should feel safe and welcome. Rest assured, I have infinite energy when it comes to combating bullies and tyrants. I will never give up; I will never back down from this stance. If you treat our literary community like it’s your own personal bully pulpit, we will butt heads. There should be no tolerance nor quarter given to those who’d abuse this wonderful community, either for their own career advancement or their personal amusement. This is not a threat; it’s not really even a promise (as the tired cliche would have this sentence go): It’s merely a firm restatement of assurance, this is me saying to writers, editors, and citizens contributing positively everywhere: I got your back.

Maybe I should come with a warning label too: “Don’t poke the bear.”

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One thought on “Toxic Citizens, Bullies Beware

  1. t upchurch says:

    Interesting post, it’s a difficult topic to write about because you can’t name and shame without inviting conflict, and yet without naming, it’s can feel like a nebulous essay to write — although the point here is clearly made. I once saw an experienced writer object to a relative newcomer’s feedback on a story, in a writing community known for its friendliness. The conflict saw the newcomer leave the community; it was a sad moment. That said, I’ve only seen it once in about 5 years; most people are very kind and supportive to one another.

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