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Why Do Authors Diss Other Authors?

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Credit: Gerd Altman

You know what’s hot right now, other than global warming? Tearing down your peers in order to promote your new book! And it’s not new authors, desperate for any kind of media coverage they can get – these are well-established authors who all seem to be hopping on the latest controversy bandwagon. But why are they doing it? Does it result in more sales or is a just a ploy to get your name ‘out there’?

For a while there, it seemed like a queue of predominantly white male authors were awaiting their turn to declare that the novel (as they knew it) was dead. Will Self being the most vocal (who even is he??!). It was all a bit pathetic really – writers bemoaning the fact that their work was no longer relevant and choosing to denounce the younger generation for their lack of taste rather than accept that their books mightn’t be as good as they thought they were. Or that, like the rest of us mere mortals, their books have no  guarantee of a warm reception.

Irish author Colm Tóibín recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels.”  

Asked which books he felt were most overrated, he said: “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

So clearly, Colm has read ALL THE BOOKS and they’re all boring. Thanks for that Colm, inspirational.

Poor old John Banville can only write ‘genre’ under a pseudonym, lest his good name and reputation be besmirched by popular fiction. It’s a form of snobbery, looking down one’s nose at other writers, and readers for that matter. Like the ‘real book’ brigade who scoff at eBooks and their readers. Like, get over yourself and the delusion that you are the sole arbiter of good taste. By dismissing things that people enjoy, you are dismissing them and what matters to them. And to me, this seems a very foolish thing to do.

The most recent author to diss an entire genre is Louise Doughty, when she told The Guardian (why is it always The Guardian?) “I can’t bear anything chicklitty or girly.”

Wow. Can’t bear it, eh? Any book in particular, or just every book written by a woman who has been classified under the broadest commercial fiction genre EVER? Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but such an established writer must be aware of how dismissive this sounds to her peers? How many years have female authors been fighting this exact kind of stigma associated with chick lit? It’s a marketing tag, that has unfortunately sidelined contemporary romcoms  written by women as vacuous, vapid and unimportant. The definition of chick lit is ‘a heroine-centred narrative‘, so far so brilliant, and luckily for us fans, promotes a whole plethora of styles, voices and subject matter. In fact, categorising novels by a single criterion is such a reductive exercise anyway, the dismissive tone used by this authors is at best, unhelpful.

I also think the media has a lot to answer for here. If an author is asked their opinion, they have every right to give it. It was the editor’s choice to pick that one quote from the interview and run it as click-bait on all social media platforms. And this seems to be the way of it now – the newspaper takes the most inflammatory line from an article, tweets it and watches the book world have a meltdown. And that my friends, is marketing.

But in case you were thinking literary authors were safe from all this criticism, think again. Sally Rooney has committed a cardinal sin – the worst thing you can do in literary fiction – she has sold a lot of books. It’s one thing garnering critical acclaim, but to be successful in the monetary sense can risk the loss of your member’s card to the ‘serious’ literary writers club. Will Self (him again!) ‘bravely’ took it upon himself to put her back in her place by labelling her writing as ‘lacking ambition’, lest she go getting any ideas that she might have earned her place among the literati. Fortunately we have men like him to save us from our own bad taste.

Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard has her finger on the pulse and her tongue firmly in her cheek with this latest tweet:

 

So is this the future for authors? A newspaper article in which they upset not only their fellow authors, but the millions of readers who enjoy their books?  And while everyone has the right to speak their mind, it is the contrivance to cause controversy that seems to be the PR drug of choice these days. To me, it just makes people look arrogant and insecure. I’ve always been taught that people who try to make you feel small are only doing it so they can feel big. Authors dismissing other genres must have some dire need to feel important, or to be seen as superior, i.e. someone whose work matters. But newsflash, we all matter and a bit of diplomacy goes a long way.

We are all creatures of habit and of course we tend to gravitate to certain styles of writing and subject matter. There is nothing wrong with that and there is nothing wrong with not liking a book. Art is subjective. But when does it stop being an opinion and start being derisory? Good critique is backed up by fact and reason (like books where the characters are under-developped, for example) but generalisations that have no real basis tell us nothing constructive. The truth is, there are crap writers and crap books everywhere. There are crap literary books, crap self-published books, crap traditionally published books, crap YA books, crap detective novels, crap books by men, crap books by women … but to give one broad sweep of criticism to any of these categories is just ignorant and lazy.

I have always found the writing community to be supportive and always remember the first time I read another saying that there is room enough for all of us. We don’t have to compete by putting one another down. Most readers, like myself, read across genres, so in the long run, it’s probably wiser to big up your fellow authors rather than risk alienating your audience. Your readership could well overlap. But just on a human level, as Michelle Obama once said, when they go low, we go high!

11 thoughts on “Why Do Authors Diss Other Authors?

  1. Interesting article, but I don’t think writers diss genres other than their own because they’re insecure, necessarily. Perhaps they just don’t like them, or haven’t read them so make assumptions about them – and that’s something all people do, not just writers.

    I thought scifi was about spaceships and aliens until I read some scifi books!!! And since I’ve been writing dystopian/post apocalyptic books, I have had many reviews saying ‘I didn’t think I’d want to read a dystopian book, but….’

    We all make judgements about stuff we don’t know enough about to offer an informed opinion. Like I said in my tweet reply – it’s just human nature. Would be lovely if we were all fair and rational, but sadly we’re not!!!

    1. Well that’s a very common sense reply Terry! All I can do is agree with that 😀 You’re right, they’ve made assumptions and they’re only human. BUT there does seem to be a trend for this at the moment, which makes me a little bit cynical about the whole thing. Maybe it’s the press trying to get more clicks, maybe it’s the author hoping to stir things up for a moment in the spotlight – either way, I think if you’re in this business, you learn very early on not to diss your fellow writers (and their readers). I wrote in an article that my debut was historical fiction but was marketed as historical romance and someone took umbrage with that – assuming that I had a beef with historical romance (which I don’t). It taught me to always show respect for other genres because even a perceived slight can make you look like a dick. Like you think you’re superior to everyone else. And, like you, I’ve ended up loving books I assumed I wouldn’t like in genres I didn’t think I’d enjoy, so you’ve always got to be open to the fact that genres are just a marketing tactic and don’t reflect on the quality. Or maybe they just don’t care, which is also their prerogative, but it always seems to happen when they’re promoting a new book …

      1. It’s not something I’ve noticed, to be honest! I agree with Jessica, too – if we have an opinion we are entitled to express it. Once we stop doing so for fear of offending someone or not coming over as ‘nice’, everything becomes so vanilla and Stepford Wife! Perhaps people should stop being so damn sensitive.

        Romance novels bring me out in hives, too. There, I’ve said it. 😀 😀

      2. Release the hounds!! 😀 I get what you’re saying about expecting people to come over as nice (especially women) but I don’t believe that’s why people reacted the way they did. I think the majority of people can handle constructive criticism and an honest opinion. Again, I believe it’s the implied snobbery … Like when Ian McEwan was promoting his new book about AI, he tried to distance his own work from sci-fi by saying he was ‘actually looking at human dilemmas’. The implication being that ALL THE OTHER sci fi writers are incapable of this kind of depth of thinking/narrative. Anyway, bottom line, I think if you’re in the privileged position of being interviewed for the Guardian, if you’re at that level, the least you can do is not diss entire genres. We’re writers, we make our living with words and should understand the power of them.

  2. A lot of things bother me a lot – but this isn’t one of them. I have preferences and dislikes in music, fashion, film, architecture, food, travel and books and I don’t see why I or others shouldn’t express them. Sure, we may be guilty of generalising, but any preference of anything implies that. (Agree that Will Self is a bit of a mouthy, verbose, self important character but have found ignoring him and turning the page works well.)

    1. Good point, maybe other peoples’ opinions only matter if we allow them to matter. However, it’s not so much the fact that they prefer one type of book over another (as we all do) it’s the implication that those books hold no value compared to what they enjoy (she went on to say romance books bring her out in hives) and the fact that all of these writers were using that platform to promote their own work. I just find that a very negative way to connect with readers. But ignoring them completely is a good way to go!

  3. Personally, I have no issue with any of these author comments. They’re not personal attacks against other authors, they’re opinions. It’s good that people have opinions and are free to express them (in some countries anyway). Things like this generate discussion and debate (such as your post!) and I think that’s positive. I can’t stand romance novels, that’s just me. I don’t think romance authors are bad writers (clearly not given romance sales) but I don’t want to pick them up. I also don’t like artichoke but it’s not a personal attack against artichoke farmers! 🙂 I enjoyed reading your post, it was really interesting to get another perspective.

    1. I appreciate that feedback and totally agree, it’s good to generate discussion. There are different ways of viewing it – either as a PR strategy or a genuine opinion, or both! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but some people (including me) found their comments and language a bit derisory, which, coming from a fellow author, is poor form. Anyway, as Terry said earlier, we can’t expect everyone to be considerate to their peers and as you say, it’s good that people can express their opinions freely 🙂

  4. On the money, Evie!
    I agree with virtually every point you make, as did a great many successful & well-known/famous authors in response to comments & articles in the Guardian featuring the people you single out.
    I am so tired of literary snobbery. Yes, we are all entitled to an opinion. Being ‘famous’ doesn’t mean an author is ‘entitled.’ xXx

    1. Thanks Carol 🙂 Yes, I saw the response on Twitter and Facebook and it seemed the general consensus was that literary critics might earn their living from writing snobby reviews, but authors don’t! I think there is an onus on us to be respectful of our peers and I don’t think that necessarily conflicts with anyone’s right to an opinion. Like I always say, there’s a way of saying things and authors of all people should be able to find that way! Hope you’re well, always lovely to hear from you xx

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