I was greatly saddened and discouraged last week to see an author tear down another author over how she interpreted his remark in an interview – while a bunch of people dogpiled on, waving pitchforks. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.) I’m not going to provide links or names, although a lot of my blog readers will know what I’m talking about. In a profession where our words and the works of our heart are already judged and picked apart by the reading public, why would one writer do this to another?
We, of all people, know how hard it is to get our meaning across in just the right words – how we edit and revise and rewrite until we think we have the perfect expression of our ideas. And then a CP or editor will completely misunderstand those words or not get the point of them at all, and we have to go back to the drawing board.
But you can’t do that in a live interview. You are stuck with what you said the first time.
Back in 2009, when I was a few months shy of being a debut author and I was still reviewing for Amazon Vine, I wrote a review of Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar that praised her book but complained about the publisher white-washing her cover. To my astonishment (and excitement) I was contacted by someone writing an article about this cover for Publisher’s Weekly. She wanted to interview me by phone.
I was nervous, of course. And I may have babbled a little because of it. We talked about race and book covers for awhile, and then I changed the subject and mentioned the long hair of the girl on the cover. In the book, Micah wears her hair cropped close to the scalp so that she can pass as a boy. “But publishers think they have to put pretty girls on the cover,” I said.
Afterward, I realized how bad that sounded – as if girls who are athletic or wear their hair short can’t be attractive. What I meant and should have said was: “Publishers put girls on their covers that fit within their narrow definition of pretty, which includes long hair even when short hair is an important part of the plot.” But you can’t go back and edit your words in a phone conversation.
When the article was published, my interview was only briefly mentioned, and two quotes were included: One about race. The other about publishers only putting pretty girls on the cover.
It now sounded as if I meant girls of color weren’t pretty. Oh … crap. I know the article writer didn’t do it on purpose, but this was an unfortunate juxtaposition of quotes from different topics in a conversation, one of which was badly phrased. Now my remarks seemed racist.
There were several angry comments directed at me by readers of the article, but luckily, it went no further than that because 1) I was an unknown author and 2) it was 2009 and it hadn’t yet become the fashion to vilify people on Twitter and make memes about them to share on Facebook.
Most of the time, we writers get to edit our words. Sometimes, we don’t. Regardless, we ought to understand how hard it is to get the words right and defend each other when one of us puts a foot in his/her mouth.
FYI, I never did see what was supposedly so offensive in the answer that author gave in his interview, although I thought the question itself was insulting. However, as a fellow writer, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the interviewer and assume that he/she also didn’t use the right words to convey the intended meaning of the question.