Tuesday Trash Talk: When You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

Remember what your mother told you? “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

One of the upsides to the Internet–the ability of just about anyone to say just about anything in a public forum at just about any time–is also one of its major downsides.

Take, for example, the author who goes off the rails when her book gets a poor review (we’ve seen this enough times recently that I don’t think I need to provide any links to this phenomenon). Believe me, I understand how hard it is to stomach a negative review, especially when you think it’s just plain WRONG, but honestly, authors HAVE TO learn to sit on their hands and not respond at all unless it’s to say, “Thank you for reading my book. I hope you like the next one better.” Because beyond that, there’s pretty much nothing you can say that won’t make you look like a raging lunatic.

But it’s not just authors who are victims of this phenomenon. Apparently, there’s an event on Twitter called #queryfail, wherein agents who tweet apparently take turns posting snippets from the bad query letters that they’ve received and/or rude follow-up correspondence they sometimes get from authors they’ve rejected. All of this is done under the auspices of “teaching” unagented authors “what not to do” when querying agents. This also crops up from time to time on agent’s blogs, the most recent installment I’m aware being of here.

What’s the problem, you ask? After all, these agents are just trying to help authors learn from others’ mistakes.

Well, in a nutshell, it comes down to this: You don’t post people’s private correspondence without their consent. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a rude asshat who didn’t learn the aforementioned rule about saying nothing from his momma, and it doesn’t matter whether the letter is filled with hilarious gaffes in word choice, punctuation, grammar, or anything else. Unless the writer has specifically given you (be you agent, author, reader, or none of the above) permission to share and dissect his or her communication, what is shared with you in confidence should be kept in confidence. Just because it’s easy to lift passages from an email and it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s any less private.

(Note: This is distinct from something shared with multiple people on a Yahoo loop or other more public forum. Although I don’t necessarily think it’s okay to repost something originally intended for a closed circle of people, either, at least in that case, the writer doesn’t have a true expectation of privacy when sharing a communication with multiple people.)

But more than that, I’m bothered by the presumption that posting these sorts of things is helpful to the writers who actually take the time to read agent blogs or follow #queryfail. Because frankly, I doubt that. The writers who are paying attention to these things are not the sorts who send rude, abusive letters when they receive rejections. They are very unlikely to be the sorts of authors who send out form query letters addressed to “Dear Agent.” And while they may not be writing query letters that can hook agents into requesting pages, the egregious, atrocious ones do little to demonstrate how to correct this problem.

Moreover, I have a suspicion that most agents know this. So why are they posting this stuff. In all honesty, I think it’s because they can. And particularly when it comes to rude or angry correspondence from rejected writers, I think there’s a healthy dose of self-pity and defensiveness involved, just as there is when an author pops off after receiving a bad review. “See how mean people are to me? See what I suffer?” It makes us feel better when other people sympathize with us and tell us we’re right and the other guy is wrong.

Moreover, in the case of agents, my bet is that a lot of the sympathy such venting receives in the online environment is more self-serving than genuine. Because what unagented author is going to do anything BUT sympathize with the agent and agree that the author in question is sadly delusional/rude/whatever? The last thing any author seeking representation wants is for an agent to remember him/her as the person who suggested that posting private correspondence for public dissection without the sender’s consent might be at best morally ambiguous and at worst completely unethical.

But seriously, should we EVER do this in public? Does it ever make us look good? I say no, it doesn’t. No matter who you are, belittling other people only makes you look smaller.

Your mother was right. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”