Last week I wrote a piece for Book Riot entitled I Couldn’t Finish GONE WITH THE WIND Because It Was So Racist. It’s a piece I’ve been wanting to write for months, a piece I’ve been putting off writing for months, because I knew it was something that was going to get me yelled at. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and then I said what I had to say. And then I got yelled at. For things I wrote BUT ALSO for things I NEVER WROTE. It’s not much of a debate if you fictionalize your opponent’s side. That’s actually not a debate at all. That’s just poor reading comprehension skills. And that’s nothing to be proud of on a literary website. Or anywhere, really. The point is that I knew I was going to get yelled at and I did get yelled at. It really is that easy to predict the future, people need to stop being so impressed with Nostradamus.
I could have written that piece softer, I could have hedged more bets, I could have made more excuses, I could have watered it down. I’ve done that with potentially controversial pieces in the past. And I always hate myself a little bit for choosing that path. Because the watered down version is never what I really meant to say. The watered down version is what I think will be easier for people to hear.
So what do you do when you read a book, and you have an opinion, and you KNOW you’re going to get in trouble for voicing it? You can always keep it to yourself. That’s always an option. If the worst thing you can imagine is social ostracizing, if your darkest nightmare is not death or public speaking but rather being screamed at in a comments section, you can keep your mouth shut tight
The problem with that route, for me, is my favorite critics, the people who I think contribute the most to the cultural conversation, are the people who DON’T do that. My cultural heroes are not born and raised malcontents. They’re not rabble rousers because they’re not having fun unless rabble is roused. They are people who are paying close attention to the world, and when they hear silence where they feel their should be noise, they make noise. Not because they like being labeled noise-makers. Not because they want a thousand decibels of noise blasted back in their direction. But because they can’t stand the silence. Because silence is the same as stagnancy. Nothing changes when no one talks.
So let’s circle back to the subject of the piece. How do you have an unpopular opinion about a book? You have to hack your way through this jungle yourself. You machete your own path. You have to listen to your gut, sometimes for a long time, but if your gut keeps telling you the same thing, it means you should listen. You don’t have to listen. You don’t have to do anything. But what’s the point of having a gut, a heart, a moral compass, a conscience, if you let all those tools collect dust inside yourself? We all have different guts and hearts. My heart and gut tells me different things than yours. Maybe they ONLY tell me different things. But I’m of the mind that if I don’t write with my heart and gut engaged, I’m not a person writing, I’m a ghost, a zombie, something visible, audible, but something dead.
So what do you do when you do voice that unpopular opinion and the sky falls down for a day (the sky will be back up tomorrow, don’t worry, this is the internet and you are not the leader of the free world)? You can respond to your detractors, if it makes you feel better. That rarely works for me. People don’t yell and name-call because they want to hear your response. You have stopped being a person; you have become a target. You don’t listen to a target. You shoot until it is in shreds. There might be some speaking going on underneath the screaming. People that want to talk and listen and talk some more. You can respond to those people if you want to have a conversation. You can respond to everyone if you feel the need to address every counterpoint. Or you can respond to no one. You can know that you said what you had to say. You can let your original words speak for themselves.
The night I posted my piece that attracted so much ire, I explained the situation over dinner with my husband. “I’m sorry you had to go through the wringer,” he told me. “I’m not,” I said. “I live in the United States in the 21st century. I had an opinion people didn’t like. No one’s putting me in the stockade. I’m not getting a hundred lashes across my back. I will not be hung for my crime. And in turn, no one who disagreed with me is being punished for their opinions in any kind of inhumane way that in the past would have been accepted. Expected, even.”
I don’t understand why everyone’s afraid of internet backlash, of the dreaded comments section. In human history, there’s never been a safer place to say what’s hard to say, and there’s never been a safer place to be excoriated for saying it.
So that’s how I deal with my unpopular opinions. You do with yours what you will. That is the beauty of the internet.
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