Beyond the Valley of the Trolls

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In the wake of author Cody James’ withdrawal from The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, her publisher Dan Holloway explains that he doesn’t expect special treatment online for those with mental health difficulties, he wants everyone to be treated with respect in cyberspace:

Last Tuesday I had a strop and flounced out of The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize because I didn’t like the review Sam Jordison had given to Cody James’ book The Dead Beat. Or I pulled a publicity stunt. Or I pulled the rug from under my author. Or I was just “precious, disingenuous, and pathetic” depending whom in cyberspace you listened to.

Inevitably this piece will centre on the Not the Booker events, but I want to begin to tease out some points that touch on wider questions of mental health, the arts, and how we behave online, and towards practitioners of the arts. They’re subjects I’ve written on before, in pieces such as Dealing With The Dark Places.

What I wondered throughout was what they would have had me do differently? Of course, they didn’t know the full story. I had posted a press release that was true but not complete. Now this poses the further question of whether the full story is relevant. After all, what mattered was that people had their soundbite sideswipe snipes, and nothing gets you more retweets than a well-worded snipe. More to the point, isn’t this how discourse has evolved in our cyber-age? Our words dissociate themselves from us and echo around for free comment (even though that comment sometimes reattaches them in the form of personal judgements)?

Hold that thought. I’ll come back to it. In the meanwhile, Cody James has very bravely let me write this piece. I hope it does justice to her, and to the wider questions of art, mental health, and internet behaviour that she wants to be the good that comes out of this.

Alistair Campbell often recounts the story of how he told Tony Blair about his breakdown before taking on the advisory role for which he became infamous. Tony asked him if he’d be OK in the job. Alistair said yes. That was the end of the matter. Whatever you think of Alistair and Tony, that story exemplifies the very best practice on both sides.

Going back to July this year, my thoughts were turning to Not the Booker Prize. It was perfect for an author like Cody with a devoted and rowdy group of fans. I knew it would get, as its organiser Sam Jordison says, rambunctious. I asked Cody if she was OK with that. She said yes. That was it. There was a brief wobble early on when Cody briefly wanted to pull out at nomination stage. We had the same conversation with the same outcome, and that was it.

This raises the question whether I should have let her enter knowing that she had a history of mental health issues and had previously attempted suicide. This is a question that doesn’t really deserve to be dignified with an answer, but this is an appropriate place to give one. I’m often asked how I plan when I’m bipolar. The answer is, I know that I may get ill at any time. And if I do so, I will have to put pretty much the whole of life on hold for months. But I may not get ill. And if I live my life as though getting ill is a sure thing, I would do nothing. As for the further question, “but is that fair on everyone else involved?” Prima facie that’s a reasonable point. Especially when it comes, for example, to the workplace. But on second sight, it’s fairly simple. If you take this approach as a society, you’re basically writing people off. You may want to do that. But admit it.

So, once we’d decided to go for it, the next question (and this applies in the workplace too, though that’s a whole other ballgame, and brings up a host of legal issues not applicable here) was whether to tell Sam. Now, frankly, my first instinct is that it’s nobody’s beeswax, but there were better reasons than that in this case. First, it would have put pressure on Sam’s review. There would always be the sense that it was over-lenient. Or, worse still, that there was a sense of the book being not bad considering. We are only interested in being reviewed by the same standards as any other book. The reason we can talk openly now is that Cody has withdrawn from the public writing arena altogether.

Sadly, Cody needed to pull out. I’ll talk about why below, but the fact is, I got a message from her saying she needed to withdraw, and would I put out a statement. Which brings me back to my original musing. What would people have done differently in my position? It’s very easy to say they are just commentating, they don’t have to come up with alternatives, but that’s a cop out. Having made the decision to withdraw, how should I have gone about doing it? How much should I have divulged? As it was, I issued a statement that was 100% true but did not include the key element discussing Cody’s mental health. As a result, it looked a little like a flounce. Which is the price to pay for not disclosing. True, no one who criticised the statement actually read the bits about the reviews not being the root cause, which they weren’t, but it’s always easier to imagine that someone is making excuses for a hurt ego than trying to understand what might actually be behind something. But how we looked was irrelevant. What mattered was doing what was right for Cody.

On the other hand, we could have been completely upfront from the start. It wasn’t something Cody was really up to discussing, so I had to make the call. In the end the reasons I made the call I did was that I felt it wasn’t my place to say anything without having Cody’s explicit consent. And further, if I had talked about her mental health, there was a danger of making it worse, with people making falsely helpful compliments on the “it’s OK after all” or tea and sympathy “there there” line, or worse still that she’d find herself the centre of the kind of disgusting bile I saw bandied around the web after Amy Winehouse’s death.

So here’s the nitty gritty of it. Cody’s withdrawal was not triggered by any of the comments on the Not the Booker Thread. If there was something specific, it was comments elsewhere in cyberspace, but it was also a need to get out of the spotlight and into some private headspace, which is why the astute amongst you will notice that The Dead Beat has disappeared from most outlets, and Cody is on hiatus from the web. There are some physical copies left, and it will take a while for the withdrawal to be effective in some places, but once the book has gone it’s gone (unless Cody decides she wants to put it back out there in which case we will, of course, oblige).

Specific comments may not have been the cause of events, but certainly they contributed to the build-up of pressure, which makes this a very apposite place to discuss, briefly, forum behaviour. What I absolutely wouldn’t want to happen is for people to treat someone differently, or with special care, because they have a mental health difficulty. As someone who’s bipolar, I’d personally find it hideously patronising. I choose to get involved in debates, and I can choose to withdraw from them. Whilst I’m engaged in them, I would like to be treated like every other participant.

So no special treatment for me. But, I would like people who take part in debates to remember that every participant is a person. This is what the internet makes it very easy to forget. By and large the more anonymous you are not only the easier it is for your behaviour to differ from what you might consider reasonable in direct debate, but the more damaging it can be. I find insults from people who use their own name hurtful, but not threatening. They don’t keep me up at night or gnaw away at me.

At the other end of the scale there is completely anonymous behaviour, the most insidious is the use of upvoting and downvoting on forum threads. It’s easy to do with a single click, so we rarely even think – it’s just crowd-sourced temperature-taking, after all? Well, no. If you’re trying to behave politely, make intelligent conversation, meet a point with a reasoned out counterpoint, and you get met with stony silence, whilst either side there’s a cheap, sometimes personal, shot that has multiple upvotes, that’s intimidating, upsetting, and pretty much guaranteed to feed into any underlying anxieties and paranoias. It’s like being back in the playground when the cool set sent you to Coventry, turning their backs and revelling in having their own loud conversations that cut you out.

We hear a lot of “if you can’t stand the heat” or “get a thicker skin” comments. These are easy to make, and there’s some truth in them. Any writer who wants to make a living out of it needs to learn to accept the criticism with the praise, the negative reviews with the positive. But that’s become so frequently elided with “put up and shut up” to bullying that I genuinely think people don’t see the distinction. If it happened in the workplace, no one would accept it. “It’s part of the culture” or “get used to it” are what sexists and racists said in the 70s to excuse exclusionary cultures that no one should have to endure. And we now ridicule those kinds of defence for the delusional conscience-cleansing cowardice they are. And yet those same exclusionary cultures exist online and are perpetuated with the same cowardly, conscience-cleansing platitudes but when someone so much as raises an eyebrow they’re either further bullied or met with some easy form of the criticism/bullying elision that puts the problem back with the complainant.

And the fact that many display a thick skin, either because they are lucky enough to have been born with one or have been able to develop one as a survival mechanism, doesn’t make this kind of behaviour any more acceptable. Even if there isn’t a hidden part of the self breaking down behind the exterior, it’s still not right. One place where authors are most likely to encounter this is on the forums of Amazon, where spiteful commenting, malicious reviews (there is a huge difference between a negative review and a malicious one, yet this is another place where the snipers perform an easy elision and label anyone who complains of malice a whinger), and comment downvoting are all too common.

One notable casualty at the end of 2010 was the bestselling author Stephen Leather, who rather cleverly, if cheekily, used the forums as part of a marketing strategy that sent books such as The Basement and Once Bitten sky-high in the charts. Needless to say there was a backlash. “I have had personal experience of that myself with people on various forums saying the most hurtful things,” says Leather. And he is in no doubt as to the reason. “I do think it is anonymous posting that leads to the bullying,” he says, echoing the sentiments famously expressed by rock legend Jack White. “Because they think they are anonymous people say the most outrageous and hurtful things.”

I absolutely understand the value of anonymity. There are parts of the world and topics of conversation where it is impossible to speak, to create that momentum of opinion that goes beyond the brave few sticking their necks on the line, where anonymity is essential. But those places are a far cry from the bulletin boards where many people who take it upon themselves to become armchair arts pundits roam. And in those places, I am rather inclined to agree with Stephen Leather’s observation, “I think people should have to use their real names on forums, and supply contact details. That way people would realise there could be repercussions for bad behaviour.”

There is a lot of talk about rights bringing responsibilities, about the intimidating anonymity of the hoodie. We hear it all the time in the wake of the riots. But the internet’s different, isn’t it? Cyber-anonymity isn’t like wearing a hoodie. There’s no real threat. No real harm done.

Well, newsflash. The internet isn’t some post-modern echo chamber, some theoretical shadowland where language exists in abstraction. Every word comes from and traces back to a human being. Disconnect the words from the people with whatever justification you wish. That doesn’t make it so. And it doesn’t excuse a trigger-happy mouse finger.

Dan Holloway is a writer and spoken word performer who runs the literary project eight cuts gallery. As well as novels and articles on music and publishing, he has written for One in Four Magazine, the aspirational publication for people with mental health difficulties, spoken at conferences on mental health and the media, and sat on various steering groups dealing with debt and mental health.

eight cuts gallery will be giving away the remaining stock of Cody James’ The Dead Beat to anyone who makes a donation to the anti-bullying charity Family Lives. Email eight cuts for details.

(Image via Brandon Doran’s Flickr photostream)