E.L. James and The Twitter Lynch Mob That Descended Upon Her

torches_pitchforks1Not so long ago, a literary phenomenon took place. Perhaps it was one that many writers and would be writers couldn’t understand but it was a phenomenon nevertheless. A woman wrote some “Fan Fiction”, presumably for her own amusement, and published it on her blog. It was so popular that someone — or perhaps many — encouraged her to simply change the name of the characters and release the book on her own as an original work of her own. This writer, E.L. James, and this book, Fifty Shades of Grey exploded. It created enough of a buzz that a publisher offered to release the book to the world at large. Naturally, James accepted this offer and what occurred afterwards is something you never see in the literary world anymore (The Harry Potter series being the only exception). The book sold in the millions and made author E.L. James and her trilogy a household name. Rarely, if ever, did a self-published book ever climb out of obscurity to become a world wide phenomenon.

This gave hope to many others out there who were doing the same thing. It also helped begin to erase the stigma of being a “self-published author”. In its wake, tend of thousands of writers who would have never considered publishing their own work suddenly started doing so and this wave changed the whole nature of publishing in general. Naturally, none of these authors matched or even came close to achieving the kind of success that E.L. James had. Nor will they. The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was a fluke and it’s doubtful it will ever happen again. It made E.L. James immensely wealthy. It made her one of the all time best selling authors. The reason this happened was because millions of people bought and read her book – from the literary snobs to the middle aged housewives. Everyone, it seemed, got caught up in the frenzy.

Just because a work of literature becomes such a phenomenal success doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any good, of course. Pop music and Hollywood can attest to that and has for decades. Everyone I knew was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Curious, and being a creature of literature myself, I picked up the book and began reading the first chapter. Let’s just say that it wasn’t for me and I put the book down and told myself that I wasn’t going to bother reading it. Simple. The end. That was all anyone had to do. But millions of others didn’t do that. They bought all three books, devoured them, discussed them, eagerly awaited for the film based on these books, then, in the millions, went to see the film. Sounds to me like there were a lot of fans of this book and of E.L. James in particular. Personally, I couldn’t understand what the appeal was but what I think doesn’t matter. I didn’t like the writing, the story idea, the dopey film, so I avoided them, turned my attention elsewhere.

Being a writer, I was bound to discuss this phenomenon with other writers. All of us were perplexed by the book’s popularity. All of us said that there were far more talented authors out there who never get a chance to be read yet this book sold in the millions and had a world wide readership. All of us began to question the entire notion of what it meant to actually get published. After all, all you ever hear and read about is how one’s work must be “top quality” for a publisher to be interested in you, how much hard work goes into writing a novel, and so on and so on. Judging from the quality of the writing, the Fifty Shades of Grey series seemed to fly in the face of all of that. The writers I know personally merely shook their heads and sighed a collective “Go figure”, then went about the task of writing our own works. The writers in the literary world at large — especially those lurking around social media — had all sorts of fits and obsessed on it for months on end. But yet they all bought the books and read them.

With the recent release of Grey — merely Fifty Shades of Grey retold from the man’s perspective — once again the book flew off the shelves and furthered James’s popularity and her bank account. She must have felt immensely proud. She had a legion of fans out there who bought and read her newest creation. So, she decided to (or her publicist decided to) come up with the idea of having a Q&A on Twitter under the hash tag #AskELJames. What occurred was nothing short of a lynch mob, “shaming” and insulting the author with wild (and some would say reckless) abandon. One tweet after another came through the feed, each more mean, insulting and snarkier than the one before. It was the typical case of building someone up then gleefully tearing them down.

Many writers rejoiced in this and many of them were having tons of fun tweeting James with their witticisms. All day long the Twitter feed showed the world how many other writers (and readers) behave, something I myself, and many other writers I know, know all too well. The literary world is full of petty, childish, envious, jealous people who think they are God’s gift to literature and that gave them the right to descend upon James and publicly ridicule her — and did it with relish. They thought it made them “cool”. They thought it would make others see how “witty” they were. All it showed was their true character. It also showed, or gave a glimpse of, how unprofessional many of these writers and would-be writers were. They created the phenomenon yet they are perplexed about how it happened.

What happened also shows the character of the literary world in general. While there’s always been writers who were envious of other writers’ success and this kind of sniping and bitching has been a part of the literary world for centuries; and many writers revel in it. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy the requisite “Hatchet Job”? Who doesn’t love to watch another writer being “taken down” by the critics when they become just a little too popular? It occurred to me that this isn’t only a problem in the literary world. It’s a problem in the world at large.

How E.L. James was abused on Twitter is illustrative of who we are as a people, a culture, a nation. “Public Shaming” has become the new pastime, our version of the Roman Colosseum. Our “Bread and Circuses”. No one says that you have to like her work or even think she’s a good writer. Then again, no one said you had to read them either but millions of people did. So E.L. James isn’t the next Shakespeare. Is that good enough reason to pounce upon her and tear her to shreds?

What those involved in this lynch mob failed to grasp as they gleefully heaped tons of abuse on James was this: she’s a human being and no human being likes to be publicly drawn and quartered for the general public’s amusement. What does this say about us – or more accurately — what does it say about the tens of thousands, if not millions, who took part in this debacle? It’s perfectly legitimate to dislike the books. It’s perfectly legitimate to voice your opinion about the books. What isn’t legitimate is to take part in trying to destroy another human being for your own amusement, so you can feel better about yourself, either personally or artistically.

What have we become?

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About the Author:

Born and raised in New York City. I am a musician/writer/painter who has poems and short stories published in about 40 magazines and journals throughout the United States, Canada and Europe and also has 12 books under his belt:
"Standing On Lorimer Street Awaiting Crucifixion" (Alpha Beat Press, 1996), "The Terror of Your Cunt is The Beauty of Your Face" (Black Spring Press, 1999), "Street Gospel Mystical Intellectual Survival Codes" (Budget Press, 2000), "Scrape That Violin More Darkly Then Hover Like Smoke In The Air" (Black Spring Press, 2001), "Existential Labyrinths" (Black Spring Press, 2003), "Window Shopping For A New Crown of Thorns" (Lulu Press, 2007), "November Rust" (Lulu Press, 2007), "My Arrival Is Marked By Illuminating Stains" (Lulu Press 2007), "A Symphony of Olives" (Propaganda Press, 2009) and "Divertimiento" (Propaganda Press, 2009). His second novel "Naderia" was released in January 2011 and his third, "Be Still and Know That I Am" (Beat Corrida) was released in September 2011. He is also currently playing guitar and bass for NYC singer/songwriter Linda La Porte. View My Profile

  • Dani Heart

    I didn’t read the books, but you are the only other person besides my wife I know who didn’t. LOL Congrats to James. It really doesn’t matter whether or not people think she can write. I guess if I was her I would be laughing all the way to the bank. I totally agree with you about the public shaming. I think jealousy is such an ugly ugly thing, and I think that is truly what is at the heart of what happened. I did go and see the movie, and the thing that bothers me most about the books and the subsequent discussions were the way that society in general dismisses Grey’s stalking sociopathic behavior as romantic. That says something else not good about society in general. I think the trap that Anna falls into, while it ends well for her, doesn’t end well for most women. This is exactly how abuse begins. So it bothers me that young women who read and romanticize this character will in some way apply it in the now and fall victim themselves to a real predator. I have another opinion about why the books were so popular and that is the dumbing down of our society in general. We are so conditioned by sound bytes, news blips, media at the speed of light.. that I think not a lot of people have time for, or the attention span for, much less the patience for the way that true literature unfolds. This series gave so many what they craved some kinky sex, (guilty pleasure) a heroine that transforms a bad boy into everything she’s dreampt about, who then wooes her and makes her wealthy beyond her wildest imagination and they live happily ever after.. or so I’m told. And you don’t have to look up any words or go back and read a paragraph a few times to re-grasp the context. Perfect! But still, that’s no reflection on James, she is a genius for giving the public what they wanted and now she’s wealthy beyond her dreams.

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  • Julian Gallo

    Thank you, Dani. I don’t know the particulars of the books or the plot. I just have a general idea. As to whether or not James is romanticizing abuse, I can’t speak to that because I just don’t know. I do know that a lot of the criticism she was getting was based around that and I suppose that’s a legitimate issue to discuss. I wanted to focus more on the way the author herself was abused -- by everyone else (kind of ironic). I think its completely valid to criticize the work itself but many of these comments crossed the line and got very personal -- almost gleefully so in a lot of cases. There’s no need for that, in my opinion. It’s not an inanimate object on the other side of the screen but a human being.

    As to why it was so popular -- who knows? It was “trendy” (and you know how important it is for most people to not feel “left out” of any pop cultural minutia these days); or “morbid curiosity” in some cases; perhaps even word of mouth and media hype. All of this plays into it, of course. It became a “thing”. It had its “Fifteen Minutes” then everyone went on to the next “thing”. Sometimes it becomes like a feeding frenzy and everyone feels they must have a taste, I don’t know. I suppose one could go on about the book’s “literary merit” (in my view, it doesn’t have any to speak of) but there are people out there who thought it was “great” and enjoyed it -- perhaps for the reasons you state.

    However, these folks are the one’s who made E.L. James the popular author she now is. If not for them, she’d me like many others -- known to a few, unknown to most. So these folks created the “EL James/50 Shades Phenomenon” then get all self-righteous about how bad they think it is and feel it necessary to *personally* abuse the author for what they themselves created. Yes -- THEY created the phenomenon by buying and reading and discussing this book in the millions. Otherwise it would have merely been just another Romance/Erotic/Fantasy book, known only to those who like that sort of thing.

    To me, this whole thing reeks of getting pleasure out of abusing someone -- which, if you think about it -- is highly ironic, indeed.

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  • Anya

    I didn’t read the books! But as far as writing top-notch literature to
    get published, I was never under the illusion that that was the path to
    literary success. It’s all about appealing to the lowest-common
    denominator and therefore the widest possible readership, which it seems
    is what she did. Writers who are trying to do something different
    probably shouldn’t get upset and just focus on what they’re doing. The
    way I see it, it’s like composers of chamber music being upset about the
    popularity of Taylor Swift when the two worlds are aiming for different
    audiences and purposes.

    And the internet is just full of hate anyway. I hope it never becomes self-aware because it will be nastier than an angsty 13-year-old bully.

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    • Julian Gallo

      That’s a great point. Apples and oranges, for sure. I understand the frustration. It even frustrates me about *other* writers that I’ve read who deserve a much larger readership who get ignored while something like this becomes a mega-best seller but you’re right. This is the way it’s always been, with every medium. The shittiest pop music becomes #1, the most formulaic and inane films become top grossing at the box office, and so on. Those who went to town on her seemed to be (at least to me) those who wouldn’t normally look twice at a book like this — but they did and then they go off on her for it, which is something I can’t understand. The whole thing is just indicative of what you said: the internet and social media just being full of rage and hate and usually over the things that shouldn’t be.

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  • garry crystal

    I read about the Twitter ‘disaster’ yesterday but as far as publicity
    goes I think it was a job well done for her publicist, more publicity
    for the latest book in a series that may now be running out of steam (oh
    wait, another two films are on their way) -- how James feels about it
    all is another thing. The lynch mob thing was probably over the top --
    not worth the effort but that’s the way the internet is now -- the hate
    is out there waiting to be unleashed at a moment’s notice, and there’s
    much worthier targets (usually politicians) than James. I do get Dani’s
    point though, and I’ve read that James just won’t discuss the negative
    aspects of her book at all, and if people do bring these points up on
    social media she’ll simply delete the person rather that answer. Maybe
    she doesn’t feel the need to explain anything.

    Haven’t read the
    books either apart from a few pages on Amazon. I know people who have
    bought them and must have liked them because they then went to see the
    film, and then there are others who said they lost interest after the
    first one or halfway through the second one. I get the irony and agree
    about the shaming stuff on the net -- the ‘Roman Colosseum’ part is spot
    on. Then again, maybe some writers are pissed off because her books are
    seen, by many, as a great success, and they are a success in financial
    terms -- it’s the dollar sign and amount she’s made that’s touted all
    over the internet with every article written about her. As for anything
    else, that’s for the reader to decide. Maybe if Elizabeth McNeill were
    alive she would have thrown in a few tweets, just for a laugh.

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    • Julian Gallo

      Hey Garry -- I hear you. I do think a lot of it has to do with the fact that many writers get frustrated seeing her books become so successful when they aren’t really any good. I don’t disagree with them about the literary quality (or lack thereof) and I didn’t write this to defend her as a novelist but as a human being. What I find interesting about the whole phenomenon more than anything else is the fact that if the book is supposedly “so bad” why did they buy it and read it, support it? It was those who bought the book that made her so successful in the first place. It’s a strange mentality. Was it for a laugh? Perhaps, I don’t know. All I know is when I read the first chapter, I dropped it, moved on. There are far better books to be read, that’s for sure — including the Indies.

      This was more about the lynch mob mentality and the idea that people will build someone up and then find joy in destroying them. It happens all the time and people seem to love to do that these days. As I mentioned in my response to Dani, this book would have died on the vine had not everyone run out and bought it, discussed it, wrote articles about it, watched the news reports about it, and on and on and on. This is what I find so mystifying about all this.

      With regard to her not responding to negative comments about the work or the negative aspects about the subject matter — that’s fair game for anyone to ask. However, there were plenty of books written about this subject (and far better), i.e. “Venus in Furs” by Leopold Sacher- Masoch; “100 Days of Sodom” by Marquis de Sade and these, especially de Sade’s, were far more explicit and yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about those books. Not addressing *these* comments and deleting people for asking them (which I didn’t know about) is just plain wrong. The work is fair game; the personal insults weren’t. The whole thing just reminded me of a crazed mob let loose to destroy the monster -- after creating it, mind you.

      I guess I’m just getting tired of all this “public shaming” nonsense. I’ve been meaning to read that book by “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. I saw him speak about the book and it was a very interesting talk but I still haven’t read it.

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  • “Each to his own taste,” said the man, as he kissed his cow. I had heard enough from friends to know it wasn’t my style of writing. Adjectives say such a lot about a book, and from what I could tell, someone or some thing was always, heaving, flushing, gasping, blushing, thrusting, lip-chewing and the like.

    Poor writing is painful to me, but it is totally protected by the First Amendment. I am free to choose not to read the book or watch the cringe-worthy movie (I saw a preview which was more than enough), which I did. Ms. James is also free to laugh all the way to the bank, which I imagine she does. But I know enough about the story to have reached the conclusion that it is all an erotic, glamorous, high-fashion disguise for brutal rape, and that is Not all right.

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