The Hysterical Reader
What I don't understand is how riled up everyone is over a handful of people's comments – because when it comes down to it, that's all we are, a handful of writers and readers in a huge population of writers and readers. And yet somehow this single post with its associated comments achieved mammoth stature by all the ensuing moaning from romance writers.
“Hit a nerve, has this subject? :)”
"Oh dear, am I being a hysterical young lady? Do forgive me. *eyeroll*" http://community.livejournal.com/fangs_fur_fey/173447.html
Most of the published authors who've commented on the post and who've e-mailed me off-loop are pretty much laughing their butts off at X's response, and I'm wondering if in part it isn't because the response was intended to frustrate, and we've all been so frustrated for so long with receiving this kind of criticism and doing the smart thing and ignoring it, that maybe the frustration is what's fueling at least in part the anti-letter-writer reaction. Whatever it is, it's real and it's widespread, so there's something there that's hitting a nerve in writers, and in me particularly.
Our human-ness is seen to lie not so much in what we are individually, as in our relations to one another; and even that individuality is but the result of our relations to one another. It is in what we do and how we do it, rather than in what we are. Some, philosophically inclined, exalt “being” over “doing.” To them this question may be put: “Can you mention any form of life that merely ‘is,’ without doing anything?” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the most vociferous feminist writers of the 19th century. Niece to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the classic The Yellow Wallpaper and Herland (which I always think of whenever someone mentions Dara Joy's Ritual of Proof), Gilman was a harsh critic of the way society at large and in particular the medical profession viewed women — as hysterics. Greek for womb, "hyster" and its suffix were not attributed to women by accident; in fact, one of the predominant Victorian theories about women and "nervous disorders" was that they derived from a traveling womb, and many an autopsy was performed in women diagnosed with hysteria to determine the condition of the uterus. Women diagnosed with the disorder were subject to all sorts of "treatments," from being masturbated to orgasm to having the lower pelvis pummeled with water (an external douche of sorts). One of the identified causes of female "nervous disorders" was work beyond the domestic sphere.
The feminine connotations of hysteria continue today, even though we no longer recognize the term as medically valid, the emotional baggage of that diagnosis remains embedded in the word. Because to be hysterical is to go beyond the bounds of emotional reason; it is, in fact, to be unreasonable in the sense of being unable to control one's emotions and to be illogical, both of which are still associated more with women than men. So is it any surprise that the word or its synonyms are invoked during debates among women over Romance, an overwhelmingly female genre? Whether it's that Romance readers or authors (who are also readers) are "riled up" or "moaning" or, even more pointed, crazy, the stereotype of the irrational woman seems to be alive and well in the genre.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century, because it's not just men who are resorting to such an informal diagnosis ("Don't get hysterical, now, dear–Ã‚ ), but as women we're inflicting it on each other, in relation to books of all things. I think we all remember the back and forth that went on here and over at Fangs, Fur, and Fey more than a week ago. But just this weekend, there was another small skirmish at Jennifer Crusie's blog when Crusie posted both the text of a reader letter sent to fellow author Lani Diane Rich and Rich’s response to the letter, of which Crusie which was enthusiastically supportive. What followed was two days of discussion over a number of issues, including the question of whether and how an author should respond to a hostile reader letter, whether it's okay to publish private correspondence without permission of the sender, whether such a reader letter should be held up to public mocking (whether, indeed, it's a virtue), and where the lines are to be drawn in the relationship between reader and author. Jane and I were definitely in the minority of posters who were extremely uncomfortable with the publication and public mocking of a private reader note, and I have to say, I'm still feeling the effects of the whole situation — thus this little essay.
There really are very few issues on which I'm not ambivalent, outside of things like support for a broad interpretation of the First Amendment and my opposition to the death penalty, torture, animal cruelty, and raisins in my bread pudding. So I was surprised I had such a strong reaction to the Crusie – Rich incident. I know that most of it has to do with the fact that the reader letter was sent privately. But as for the leftover feelings, maybe it's because I associate both authors with a strong, articulate, thoughtful, and civil online presence. Maybe it's because it reminds me a little of that whole J.Wallace scandal revealed on the Smart Bitches blog last year. Or maybe it's related to the word "crazy" and the diagnosis and public mocking of the hysterical reader.
First let me say that I don’t think that we should avoid discussing these issues, and indeed, there was some wonderful discussion on Crusie’s blog over this issue. I am not uncomfortable with talking about uncivil reader letters (albeit the private – public thing is a problem for me). Also, as far as I'm concerned, there is no justification for the kind of letter that reader sent to Lani Diane Rich. None. A letter like that cannot be called civil conversation by any stretch. Is the letter a personal attack on Rich? I don't see it that way, although I could see any recipient reading it that way. It was sent and addressed to the person of the author, even though it concerns the book. Is the letter "crazy–Ã‚ ? Now here we get into even murkier waters as far as I'm concerned, because once a letter, or its writer, is deemed "crazy," what are the implications of such a diagnosis? One seems to be to have a "good healthy laugh abut it." "Healthy," as in, therapeutic, perhaps? As in a way to ward off the "crazy–Ã‚ ? Another is to respond in a way that aims to "neutralize the Crazy," which, again, sounds to me almost like an inoculation, preventative care to keep from going crazy oneself (which I think is what Crusie is getting at in her comments I quoted at the beginning of the piece). And the public nature of the share seems to make it a sort of group healing effort, with the "healthy" readers joined in laughter with the "healthy" authors at a "crazy" letter, and by extension, a hysterical reader.
If the hysterical reader is bad for her "excessive or uncontrollable emotion," then what do we do with the flip side of that image, the fan, derived from fanaticism, which is characterized by "excessive, irrational zeal." In both cases, there is a loss of reason and a tendency toward excess emotion. But as we know, the Romance genre and culture cultivates the fan reader, tolerating and even welcoming quite a high level of enthusiasm, in my opinion. But turn that enthusiasm against a book or an author, and it becomes a very different situation and a very different response. In some ways, I think the genre is built on a level of reader loyalty that is extremely emotional in nature, in part because Romance is built on passion, which is itself a sort of excess of emotion. So there seems to be an irony here that I can't quite resolve.
I am not one of those readers who believes that an author should refrain at all costs from responding to a critical or hostile reader; I don't think that just because an author puts her books out into the public that she has to sit on her hands when arrows come slinging at her. And I very much understand the impulse of wanting to strike back, especially in such a clever way. But, I have to admit that I'm extremely uncomfortable with author-sponsored public flogging of a letter received privately from a reader, especially if the justification for such community activity is either a) that the reader started it, or that b) she or her letter is "crazy" and "abusive." As I said, I'm not even going to argue in defense of that reader letter, because there is no defense. But I am also not convinced of the defense provided for publicly giving the author a high five for a response aimed at "tak[ing the reader] down a notch," if the entire justification for the flogging is that it was an uncivil letter and a first strike. Does an uncivil comment mean all bets are off, then?
At some level, I can't help but feel that the antidote to the hysterical reader ends up ironically endorsing the very thing it’s mocking. Because the example of the hysterical reader’s letter, combined with the authors’ responses, creates another sort of hysterical reader — the reader who can only laugh hysterically at both letters. So we end up with an attempt to convert one form of hysteria to another. But is the conversion successful? For me it wasn’t. Because while Rich’s response may be funny, and while the reader whose private email was revealed may never see the exchange, and while the reader might be completely out of bounds in the letter she sent, I don't feel particularly cleansed by the revelation and mocking of a private exchange as a moment of communal bonding.
In fact, in that collective diagnosis of the hysterical reader, and the subsequent mocking, I feel a little unbalanced myself, because I can't help but believe that at some level we can all, at one point or another, be the hysterical reader, not necessarily by sending an uncivil letter, but perhaps by writing a less than glowing review, or making a comment about a book to which an author takes personal offense, or by having a really bad day on the blogs and boards, or by saying something against which readers or authors feel they must passionately defend themselves (like the exchange from the Fangs, Fur, and Fey conversation about Romance I quoted at the beginning of this piece). And I wonder if the effect of these public diagnoses and “treatments” of the hysterical reader aren't just as ineffective and degrading to our general community health as those water douches were to the women of years past. That does, of course, leave the question of how to handle uncivil discourse, and I don't think there's one answer to that. Obviously keeping quiet about it is an untenable solution, because that “if you can’t say anything nice” philosophy just seems to lead to a lot of hurt feelings and snide digs (and tracking folks down through local RWA chapters, lol).
But tell me, what do you all think of this? What am I missing here in refusing to join other readers at this particular author-sponsored party? Should we simply knock down the private — public boundary and fight it all out, or are we struggling to define a new set of rules? Do I just need a tougher skin and a way to better encrypt my own personal data?