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Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

HP Lovecraft: Also A Dick

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

I should just do a series of pieces on dick writers throughout history. It’s not like I’d run out of material.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately, because I tripped and fell over a Collected Works. But I’ve been reading mainly the collaborations; stories he either wrote with other writers while he was alive, or left unfinished at his death and which were completed (some say appropriated) by August Derleth.

Lovecraft does somewhat crack me up. He was paid by the word and it’s really obvious; my favorite example is when he says “that room set aside for the preparation of food” rather than “the kitchen”.

It’s a struggle, having any kind of relationship to Lovecraft’s narrative these days. His presence in our culture is complicated. Certain characters and tropes from his stories have become so popular that they are touchstones even without their direct presence — much like Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet, you don’t really have to read the stories to know the general gist. You can buy Cthulu as a plush doll, and crack jokes about raising demons using his name; the idea of the dark, horrifying New England landscape permeates our consciousness of Lovecraft. The stories themselves have a loyal following, which I think is attributable in part to the cohesive nature of the universe — like Stephen King, Lovecraft’s stories generally sit within one narrative and share certain supernatural constants despite being outwardly set in “our” universe.

But even fans of the overall narrative of Lovecraft’s work are aware that Lovecraft’s writing contains very problematic elements, racism most prominently. These are not incorporated into the work unthinkingly, either; Lovecraft held active ideologies, racist and anti-immigrant, that he openly expressed and which clearly influenced his work. What I mean by this is that he wasn’t unthinkingly racist, which is still wrong but relates to the era in which he was raised and in which he lived. He was actively, consciously racist, with the firm belief that the white race (specifically Anglo-Nordic cultures) was inherently superior.

It manifested in one of the more insidious forms of racism, that of “cultural preservation” — segregation under a more anthropological-sounding name. The problem with racist “cultural preservation” is that it rarely seeks to preserve any culture but the dominant one it belongs to, which is permitted to corrupt or destroy all other cultures or given a pass on already having done so. This is very visible in his Innsmouth stories, which involve the corruption of a small New England town via the Polynesian wives that some of the town’s white sailor-residents bring back with them, who give birth to strange and monstrous water-dwelling children.

On a metaphorical level, Lovecraft’s narratives fail to distinguish between “different” and “other” or between “other” and “monstrous”. Different is not merely something to be feared, but an active corrupting influence. This is neatly turned on its head by a magnificent five-author round robin story, The Challenge From Beyond, in which Lovecraft immediately derails the story into his standard “aliens bent on invasion possess the body of a man” — if nothing else, one must say he commits. But the writers who follow him in completing the story, Robert E Howard and Frank Belknap Long, invert the story so that it is the human being, his consciousness transplanted into an alien body while the alien takes his, who becomes the Outside Invader. The alien, helpless to control his body, drowns; the human, empowered by human ambition in a nonviolent society, steals the aliens’ prize idol and becomes their god-king. I can only imagine Lovecraft’s reaction when he read it.

Unlike Ray Bradbury, I enjoy Lovecraft’s work in spite of the author being a dick. That said, I am always conscious of his politics when I do. In some ways, it makes for a more enjoyable experience, because on one level I simply enjoy the stories while on another I enjoy taking them apart critically to pinpoint flaws and failures, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy doing that?

I haven’t found, though I’m sure (I hope) it exists, a roundup of Lovecraft’s writings on race or an analysis of his works from a race-studies perspective. I did find one great article, Pop Culture’s Racist Grandpa, by Betsy Phillips, but very little otherwise is immediately visible, unless it’s an immediate track to something else. There is a thesis floating around that Lovecraft’s racism had a lot to do with his fear of sex and women, in that most of the racism in his work is linked to the concept of miscegenation, but while this is an interesting thought it’s a sidecar to the motorcycle of awful that is Lovecraft’s views on race.

It seems like a lot of discussions of Lovecraft start “Of course he was a racist, but — ” before moving on to talk about his literature, as if they were two different things; it’s not about apologia, at least not usually, but more about acknowledging his racism and then ignoring it as a part of his literature. (I am guessing most of these “racist-but” statements are  by white people.) I would like to see a criticism of his work and its relationship, directly, to his racist views, by someone who knows what they’re doing. But I suspect that person would be shouted down by people holding Cthulu plushies and rushing to tell them about that time Neil Gaiman wrote an HP Lovecraft-Sherlock Holmes mashup fanfic.

(Yes, I’ve read it. My professional opinion: Eh.)

Anyway: HP Lovecraft was a writer whose dickishness was so inherent and ingrained in his admittedly otherwise pretty great fiction that I can’t find it in myself to actually dislike him; he was just so sad and wrong about things. And he took so many words to be that way.

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I Regret Nothing

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

That post title is a bit of a lie, but it’s also an excellent opening thesis statement. At least, I regret nothing vital.

I am catching up on about three months of back-reading, and my latest read is “The Author Sends Her Regrets” by Elizabeth Minkel, one of many reactions to JK Rowling’s recent remarks about what she might have done differently in her books. Minkel’s article echoed a lot of thoughts I had about Rowling’s remarks, but more importantly, it moved on to showcase five “Authorial Regrets” — mistakes that five great authors in history made, and how they dealt with them later.

I was charmed by Charles Dickens about-facing, even if only partially, on his portrayal of Jews; a person capable of stepping outside of their accultured prejudices in Victorian England wasn’t exactly common. And I recognized F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts to quantify what did and did not work about a failing novel, though I haven’t read either version of Tender is the Night and can’t actually say whether he fixed what was broken. Anthony Burgess and JD Salinger I have less sympathy for; if your biggest regret is that a book you weren’t that fond of made you famous, I have a hard time really empathizing. Ray Bradbury I have an even more difficult time sympathising with, because I am well documented in thinking he was a dick, so perhaps the less said there the better.

But the upshot is that it got me thinking about what I regret, in terms of being a writer, and the answer is not much. I am potentially a lot less complicated than the people the article talked about, in great part because I’m not as famous, but even in terms of fanfic — well, for example.

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange and said,

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about…

Now, I have read A Clockwork Orange, and after reading it I saw the film, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him about the latter — although I will say that, while flawed, the film very pointedly expresses the institutionalized brutality of the society in which Alex is incubated. But whether or not the film was any good seems somewhat irrelevant to me because the book was so spectacular — brutal and cruel, but amazingly executed as a pointed critique of British culture at the time and written in a language that bore only about a two-thirds resemblance to modern English. But Burgess calls it a jeu d’esprit, which when I googled that it turned out to be “a lighthearted display of cleverness”. He thinks the book’s a lightweight, and he wrote it in three weeks, for the money. If I could write a book half as good and iconic as A Clockwork Orange in twice the time, I’d feel pretty fucking great about myself.

Here’s the story as I love to tell it: a few years ago I was riding the train home when I got an idea for a fanfic set in the fictional universe of the television show Torchwood. It would be about the alien-hunting cast of Torchwood discovering an alien that looked exactly like a small grey cat, who only communicated in the kind of language you see in the LOLCat meme. I roughed out the story on the train, polished it when I got home, and posted it the next day. And it exploded. It got featured on a couple of well-known literary websites, even (which alas did not lead to networking opportunities for its author).

I wrote the damn thing on the train. And it will probably end up on my tombstone. (HE COULD HAS FANFIKSHUN.)

But for all I complain about the fame of “The LOLCat Fic“, I’m laughing while I do it — shaking my head over fate, but unashamed of it, because I know that within certain parameters it was the best work I could do. If I was going to write a story about LOLcats, by God, it was going to be the best, funniest, most interesting story I could possibly make it. I don’t regret it; I’d be a fool to regret something that has made others laugh and brought a certain measure of fame to me personally, at no cost to my dignity (not that I’ve ever had much to begin with, but I was creating something with intent, it’s not like I’m making an ass of myself on national television).

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for the money, and I get why if that’s the case it might not be his best work, or at any rate he might not think it is. And sometimes you do have to work for the money rather than to please oneself. But that’s why I have a day job — so that I can always be sure the stories I tell, even if I’m not as prolific as a full-time writer, are fully the best work I can provide.

I may have regrets in life, I’m sure everyone has a few (perhaps too few to mention?) but I find it hard to regret even the errors I made when I was younger: they were part of a learning curve, and at the time they were the best work I could produce.

Papa, Where Do Bad Books Come From?

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

In my last article about the power and ego of newspaper critics, I talked a little bit about a brutal review of a “bad” book. I don’t actually know the book is bad; I haven’t read it. But I have read bad books in my day.

I wanted to do a piece on bad books and how they get published — but I don’t work in the publishing industry, and I actually have a very superficial understanding of how publishers select books for publication or the pipeline process those books undergo.

When you research a question like this (and by “research” I mean “google”) there is one predominating answer: that “bad” is subjective, and that whether or not they’re good isn’t as relevant as whether or not they sell. You see this over and over, but it’s not just something of an insult to agents, editors, and readers, as bookendslitagency points out here.

This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. It implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books.

It’s also essentially irrelevant to the discussion I want to have here, which isn’t about books I don’t like or one-off stinkers from acclaimed authors. It’s about objectively badly-written books. Say, first novels you can’t believe an agent bought, or the dreariest nonfiction books in existence — books that have material problems that could have and should have been fixed.

I’ll be honest: lacking any other experience, I had a theory that blackmail was somehow involved, or possibly sexual favors. I mean, I come from the theatre; we all know what the casting couch is. And while writers are not by and large the Beautiful People, we are frequently painfully earnest, which has a sort of charm, I suppose.

I’m sure there is some of that, though probably not as much as I’m envisioning. What it seems to come down to are two options — one a little more likely than the other.

One of the theories is the “pitch” theory, which I picked up from Bret Hartinger’s ruminations on the subject. He suggests that most books and movies are based on a “pitch”, and the ability to sell the pitch is perhaps often greater than the individual’s ability to execute it. While the concept of a pitch is pretty visible even to people outside the film industry, I know that for first-time writers, generally you can’t get away with it in publishing. If a publisher knows that you as an author are capable of following through on an idea, that’s one thing, but if you tell a publisher “I’ve had this great idea for a novel — but I’ve never been professionally published” you become the sad butt of a running industry joke. This might be slightly less common in nonfiction, but I know that when I was submitting manuscripts to editors and agents (oh, the bright-eyed days of my youth) they wanted an outline and/or ten sample pages with the guarantee that if they wanted they could see the entire finished text. So while this theory may be accurate, it also tends towards the “already published author” side of things, where we’re not going.

The second and more likely option, with which I’ve actually had some experience, is the “Boss Book” theory. KJ Charles talks about it here.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats] Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

I have an editor friend who occasionally emails me bemoaning the prose they have to read and attempt to make respectable. They sometimes get pushback from their authors, too — authors take note, “My friends think it’s fine!” is not a valid defense of your manuscript. When I asked why this book ever made it this far, my editor friend said, “Her [relative] was the acquisitions manager.”

But that’s not where the story ends, because as it turns out, the market actually supports all these terrible books. Charles goes on to say:

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

When you pick up a dreadful book by someone who’s not famous enough to get away with it, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you are collateral damage of a Boss Book.

On the bright side, some author had fun getting published, made a little money, and still contributed to the success of another book. Even if that other book was also awful — at least it was a wanted awful book.

Cruelty and Criticism

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while ago — actually long before I started this blog — a book was published called The Book Of Kings, by James Thackara. I haven’t read the book. I’d never heard of it until I came across a link to a review of it. I’m not even sure how I found the review. I think it must have been in some kind of “cruelest reviews ever” roundup.

That’s not actually a joke or an insult. I think that’s genuinely where I found it. And the fact that I clicked the link is something we’ll come back to.

The Book Of Kings was not James Thackara’s first novel, though the review claims it is. Thackara published America’s Children in 1984, Ahab’s Daughter in 1989, and The Book Of Kings in 1999. He claimed to have been working on Kings for over twenty years, so I suppose that’s where the review got the idea that it’s his first. It received some critical acclaim and some just plain criticism, but the Observer review (later reprinted in the Guardian) by Philip Hensher was a standout for nastiness. Given the praise the book received in other quarters, it’s possible Hensher was making an eye-popping attempt at pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on. Certainly his review is infamous even fourteen years later; it made it into Thackara’s wikipedia page.

Reading the review, two questions arose in my mind. First, what purpose do such book reviews serve? Second, how do terrible books get published in the first place?

I wanted to talk about reviews today, and bad books next time, because when you come down to it, they’re not really related. The function of newspaper critics rarely has much attachment to publishing or how it works.

If there are analytics of the functionality of book reviews, they’re very well hidden. I looked, but I have no way of studying the numbers to see if book reviews actually cause a boost or decline in the sales of the books they critique. Surely a positive review in a nationally-circulated newspaper, the kind that is read by people who have the money and leisure to buy and read a lot of books, can’t hurt. The newspaper has never been where I go to find out what books I should be reading, and in this digital age, where there are review blogs and sites all over the place, I don’t go there, either — but I don’t know if in this case I’m an outlier. Analytics regarding the percentage of readers who source their new titles from book reviews are similarly scarce.

Mind you, I’ve done blog tours promoting my books where I had my book reviewed on various sites; I’m not knocking internet book critics, most of whom keep their review blogs out of a passionate love of reading rather than because it earns them any kind of living wage. (The book business is the business of passion and poverty.) I review books myself, as well, though I don’t have a dedicated blog for it, and I use the reviews mostly as a way of tracking what I’ve read from year to year. But the point remains that aside from a given individual site’s statistics, we still have no real way of knowing how strongly a review impacts a book’s sales.

So what is the purpose of such an angry, cruel review? Hensher is presumably not stupid enough to think his review is actually going to prevent people from buying the book. Indeed, people probably bought it to see if they agreed with him, or just to own a book so infamously panned by a prominent critic. And Hensher is by far not the only brutal critic; the club of people who revel in that form of literary criticism isn’t a select one. There are yearly contests for nasty book reviews (this year’s Hatchet Job winner was AA Gill’s “critique” of Morrisey’s Autobiography) and googling “worst book reviews” comes up with a lot of relevant hits. It’s almost a cottage industry, of a sort.

Cruel reviews are only very rarely about the books. Once in a while I’ve been angry about a book, but a book that can inspire such passion is not ordinarily a bad book. I threw The Stand across the room when my favorite character in it was killed, but I can’t deny that however tedious the rest of the book was, King’s characters were compelling enough that I kept reading for them in spite of the plot, and was viscerally hurt when my favorite died. I can’t mock the book, I can’t be nasty about the book, when it caused such a strong reaction. Even when I’ve been bored by a book that is poorly written, I can’t summon the passion to be mean about it. It’s just a bad book. I’d say perhaps it’s permissible to be mean if you’ve bought the book and feel you’ve wasted money, but highly visible literary critics don’t normally pay for their own books — and I get mine from the library.

I think cruel reviews are about critics. Jay Rayner, writing about why people love bad reviews, believes this also:

…if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. […] It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. “My Dining Hell” is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It’s simply because there is an appetite for take-downs.

Even for the reader of the review, it’s not about the book, or in Rayner’s case the restaurant — it’s about seeing how deftly the critic can skewer it. Rayner believes this is because reading about someone else being horrible at something makes our day better, based on Oliver James’ theory of Social-Comparison.

While there may be truth in that, I have a different theory. I think cruelty attracts us. Cruelty involves passion and drama, and a well-turned nasty phrase, if nothing else, can garner admiration.  It’s the same reason we watch boxing matches or police dramas. Passion, drama, and artistry most frequently come together, for humans, in brutality. That sounds awfully cynical, but I don’t advocate it; I just have seen it enough to believe it.

After all, I read a phrase along the lines of “possibly the nastiest review ever written” and yeah, I clicked the link. If you take away the fact that Hensher is stroking his own ego and getting our attention by viciously attacking the creative work of another person — if James Thackara isn’t real to us, and if we don’t intellectually comprehend that this book is twenty years of his life — then it’s easy to enjoy watching a deft takedown.

(In theory. I think Hesher’s review isn’t all that great at being cruel; I think he was giggling to himself when he wrote it about how clever he was, which rarely makes for good writing.)

I don’t think it’s honestly incorrect to say that the publishing industry doesn’t need the brand of viciousness that Hensher employed in reviewing Kings (or that Gill, who talked a lot about Morrissey as a person rather than as a writer, employed in reviewing Autobiography). But Hensher and Gill didn’t do it for anyone else; not to inform the public of a badly-written book, not to enter into a dialogue on writing with the authors (heaven forbid authors and critics interact), and not to champion higher standards in literary gatekeeping. They did it to get attention. Well, after all, it worked.

But we don’t need self-aggrandizing critics in publishing. We need writers, we need readers, we need critics who are interested in the business of advancing literature and helping people find books they will enjoy. That brand of criticism isn’t about publishing. It’s about public spectacle.

Initially, somewhere in this essay, I was going to say the phrase I’m not suggesting we only review books we like. I’ve gone back and forth, actually, about whether I am suggesting that. Hensher’s style of negative critique is unimportant and unhelpful to anyone; if the purpose of literary criticism is to tell people where the good books are, why shouldn’t we review only the good ones? After all, word of mouth is still one of the most effective publicity techniques for fiction, so giving a bad book no word of mouth at all will only keep it out of the public eye.

But criticism, even outside of academic criticism, goes beyond publicity. Critics, the best critics, should be talking about not just what book are good but why bad books are bad, and how in their view as active, critical, constant readers, these pitfalls can be avoided.

Cruelty can entertain us. Particularly when it’s written down, it’s easier to enjoy it, because nobody’s being physically injured, and we presume no-one’s basic well-being is actively at stake. A good takedown, especially when it’s our “side” doing the taking-down, is thoroughly satisfying. But I believe it’s important to remember that cruelty and criticism are different things, and the former is rarely, if ever, about anything other than getting attention.

And, of course, punching up to get attention is okay; punching down to get attention is just bullying on paper. Always punch up, kids, if you have to punch anyone.

Ode To Notepad (or, A Story Of Versioning)

In Uncategorized on April 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while back I took a class in project management software, which sounds very boring. Software in general is kind of boring to me, though the class was decent. What I really found interesting was the crash course in actual project management that inevitably came along with it, which was a mixture of revelation and “do people really need to be told that?

It was especially relevant that we received a lecture on “versioning” about halfway through the morning. The lecturer recommended that every time you make significant edits to the software file, you should save a new version of the file. This does get a little ridiculous eventually, but it’s a sound technique and I realized I’ve never really talked about “versioning” stories and novels.

For short stories, mainly fanfic, I have a process that adjusts every few years depending on resources, but which has essentially stayed structurally stable since since the days of Windows 3.0 and the usenet. It’s the way I grew up writing because back then there were certain constraints surrounding internet posts, and only one program, one beautiful, tiny, universal program, could handle those constraints:

NOTEPAD.

Thank Christ Microsoft hasn’t phased Notepad out because I’m not sure what I’d do. Back in the day, I programmed HTML in Notepad, but I also wrote fiction in Notepad because the usenet, where fanfic was mainly posted, couldn’t handle HTML. You indicated /italics/ and *bold* with symbols, and forget centering text or embedding images. You sometimes had a 72-character limit per line, and Notepad’s fixed-width font made that easy to determine.

So I got used to working with a very simple, very universal form of text. Especially since, at the time, Microsoft Word ate pretty significant processing power and tended to make itself lag, let alone any other program.

Once I’ve finished the initial notepad draft, the story goes to edits: usually into a googledocs file for my betas to discuss. Once that’s done, short stories get posted as permanently “published” works and rarely get edited unless there’s something offensive or drastically unclear or embarrassingly bad. (It happens.)

My novels undergo a more extensive process, which includes a lot of versions. This used to be just how I worked; now I do it intentionally, because versioning is awesome.

Since I write in a notepad file to start with and then usually post to LiveJournal for public reading (the Extribulum process), the formatting tags like italics and centered text are all in HTML. This is useful, since once I put it into a Word document for further editing I can select an entire novel at once, format it as twelve-point Garamond (my preferred typesetting font) and not have to worry I’ll lose italic formatting. Formatting tags are usually the last thing to go when I’m typesetting; after all, they’re very useful for locating where italic formatting is supposed to be.

The thing about editing, for most writers, is that it’s really, really hard to delete prose you like, even when you know you have to. It’s also hard to delete prose if you don’t like it but can’t remember if it might be relevant later in the story. The process I use helps me retain old copies; I can copy a novel from notepad to Googledocs, then tuck the original txt file away as version one. Googledocs is version two, and then Word is version 3 through version Whatever The Final Draft Ends Up Being. Between edits and typesetting, I’m usually publishing out to my readers something between version ten and version thirty.

Versioning helps because with all these old copies, neatly stored in small txt files or on GDrive, I can delete what I need to delete in the knowledge that my brilliance, however unnecessary, is still there somewhere. If I ever need it, it’s there, but it’s small and unobtrusive in the meantime.

This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a while to develop it. So now I pass it on to you.

As I copy this essay from my “WordPress essays” file into my WordPress Posting Page.

The Liar’s Contract

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today is April first, April Fool’s Day, and so I wanted to take a little time today to discuss the contract between the storyteller and the audience, because I believe there is one and I believe that violating it ranges from “depressing” to “cruel”.

While I don’t necessarily actively apply these expectations to other writers, because we each have our own ways of interacting with our readers, I have a strong belief that when I sit down to tell a story — or to write an essay — I am creating an implicit contract with my readership. That contract requires me to provide my best possible work, to be as clear and as challenging as I can, to put forth my thoughts and opinions in an organized and supported fashion and to uphold the beliefs they represent in action, and to finish the damn story.

The last one is important, and I think it’s where I diverge from a lot of writers. I believe that if you start a story for your audience, you have an obligation to finish it. A lot of people disagree; they believe they own the story and have the right to do whatever they like with it, and that readers who have an expectation of product from them are acting with an entitlement they haven’t earned. But I think that implies a certain amount of failure to respect one’s readers, and respect for the audience is important to me. While I don’t expect writers to bend to the whims of their audience, I like writers less when they react in anger to their audience asking for them to finish the story. One of the (admittedly many) reasons I don’t read George R. R. Martin’s work is that he is ostentatiously, unnecessarily aggressive about this issue, and I find it both attention-seeking and disrespectful.

Respect for one’s readers is why I also frequently get angry on April Fool’s Day, because people do it wrong.

There is a fine line between playing a prank on someone and being a dickhead, and the line falls right where you decide how much you respect the other person and how much you just want to exert your power over them. I have, on occasion, played April Fool’s pranks on my readership, but I have always made sure that they were made aware they were being pranked. When you write a joke chapter to a fanfic, or you post a fake “found page” from an as-yet unpublished book, the decent thing to do is to notify people at the end — you post a “gotcha!” so that people know they’re being pranked, so that they have the opportunity to laugh at what’s going on without feeling used or humiliated. If you don’t tell people you’re pranking them, if you leave them to embarrass themselves by reacting to it, that’s cruel. It’s not okay, and it’s not funny. It’s just a demonstration of power, a symbolic mounting meant to tell someone else that they are less than you because they fell for a trick. They’re not sharing in the joke, then. They’re just the butt of it.

And it also tells them that you are not to be trusted. Especially for people with a long experience of being bullied, that kind of behavior immediately lands you on the list of people who are willing to disrespect others for a cheap laugh. I don’t care for authors who don’t respect their readers, but I actively avoid authors who think their readers are a joke. Writing for oneself is a fine and noble goal, and sometimes a compulsion, but if you make it available for public consumption, you should respect the people who choose to spend their time reading your work. If you can’t respect them, you should ignore them; it’s not like professional writers can’t encircle themselves in layers of protection from the horrible, terrible, tedious people who are responsible for their livelihood.

I’ve broken this contract before, absolutely. I’ve failed to complete stories I’ve started, and I still feel a twinge of pain over it. Sometimes you need to move on, but that doesn’t make the contract any less valid. And I try never to break it intentionally, if I can.

So remember that it’s April Fool’s, and show a little skepticism today — and view with particular skepticism anyone who uses today as an excuse to be a dickhead.