February 11, 2013

You wrote a book; now step away from the keyboard


I know it’s hard, but trust me, just step away.

It’s time for another exciting episode in everyone’s favorite series, where we feature writerly hijinks, hoodwinks, and bad online behavior of all sorts.

Our first case features a recent review in Bookforum of Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau. The book is reviewed by Charlotte Shane, who does a rather efficient job of cutting it to pieces with the sharpest and most merciful tool available to reviewers: direct quotes from the text. In this case Prioleau’s liberal use of unfortunate jargon is wielded to bloody effect. But Shane’s dispute with the book is with its entire premise. She writes:

Call it the “someday my prince will come” approach to sexual satisfaction. “What’s wanted—craved deep in our ganglia”—Prioleau writes, “are men who will restore sensuosity, satisfaction, and primal joy.” In other words, our only job as presumably straight women is to “pick men” who “move the needle” of our “internal pleasure-meter” rather than moving that needle ourselves. If you haven’t yet experienced sexual ecstasy, it’s because you haven’t found the right partner. Pardon me—I mean you haven’t been found by the right man.

The review is interesting if not particularly remarkable. Or was, that is until Prioleau broke what has been the cardinal rule for authors since around 1993 or so: don’t take it up in the comments. Prioleau — or someone using her name — left the first comment on the review and boy is it a doozy.

Some context is helpful here: Shane is a sex worker in addition to being a damned good writer. She’s been blogging for years, and has recently begun to publish reviews and essays about sex work and other topics in places like The New Inquiry. Prioleau — a formidable Liszt of online search, it seems — must have come across Shane’s other career while indignantly googling her. What did Prioleau do with that detail? To the comments!

This is my first review by a prostitute—and a first book review for this prostitute (to my knowledge). I have no quarrel with prostitutes, as long as they know how to read. But “Nightmare Brunette,” as she calls herself, apparently didn’t read SWOON.

It goes on in that vein and ends, hilariously, with an emphatic “Betsy Prioleau, Ph.D.”

The issue here is not that Prioleau is somehow outing Shane. Shane is a vocal advocate for sex workers already. And while the word “prostitute” has complicated connotations, those, too are beside the point. The point is that Prioleau thinks she is outing Shane. The point is that Prioleau is using the word pejoratively. The point is that leveling ad hominem attacks at your critics is bad enough, that those attacks might be based on class snobbishness is worse (imagine, rather than “prostitute”, any other profession being used in the sentences above: “I have no quarrel with airline maintenance workers, so long as they know how to read”). The point is that Prioleau is trying to shame her reviewer; failing, absolutely, but trying. She should have stepped away from the keyboard; maybe even before she wrote the book.

Next, we have a veteran blowhard in science fiction circles, the novelist Vox Day. If you’ve been pleasantly shielded from knowledge of this gentleman before now, let me apologize for even mentioning him. Vox Day is the pen name of one Thomas Beale. He is a libertarian, misogynist, racist, Christian fundamentalist who writes militant science fiction novels and books attacking atheists. And I don’t mean he is any of those things in a veiled or hesitant fashion. This guy? He’s the pits. His blog is here, though I don’t recommend reading it. Day is well known for trolling other science fiction authors, among them Charles Stross.

Recently, John Scalzi, about whose financial frankness I’ve written already this year, has mentioned he’ll be giving up the post of President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Day then announced he’d like the post. This led to the textual equivalent of dry heaving on a few blogs, which in turn led Day to mock Scalzi some more. When I say mock, by the way, I mean that Day attempts to shame Scalzi for respecting women. The pits.

Anyhow, sordid as all of this is, it’s also a bit tired. After all, Day has made being vile on the internet his brand. Scalzi, however, has done something novel: the “Counteract a Bigot Pledge Drive”. On February 2nd, Scalzi, weary of reading his name on Day’s blog, decided to use the man’s tireless trolling to work some infuriating good in the world. Every time Day used his name, or even referred to him without using his name, Scalzi pledged to donate money to RAINN, Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign and the NAACP, up to $1,000. Readers of his site soon got in on the action, pledging to add money of their own, and by this time total possible pledges are somewhere north of $60,000. All of which would be a fun experiment if not for Day’s predictable inability to restrain himself. He’s mentioned Scalzi many times since, meaning that even a week later real money — about $1,500 and counting — will be given to good organizations. Organizations Day hates. Scalzi writes,

I was surprised when people asked to join in and genuinely amazed both at how many people came along and how much money has been pledged. At this point, I’m pretty sure it’s not about me and my name anymore. It’s about people in the science fiction and fantasy community, and in the online community, saying where their values stand — and what bigotries they as people stand against.

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.