A never-ending torrent of advice pours down on the web about how to build a popular website, and aspiring writers are not spared this flood of counsel.
Afflicting far too much of this advice is a truly obnoxious blogging personality disorder: positive-thinking conformism. I’m talking about that sunny-faced variety of aggressive social pressure, typified by hypocritically griping about everyone else’s griping while pretending to give out positive, “expert” advice — advice that has no basis in objective reality.
Worst of all, this unrealistic griping often subtly attacks others who at least try to base their gripes in objective reality, stigmatizing them as trouble-makers and “know-it-alls.”
In all seriousness, what this online happy-thoughts dogma really boils down to is a broadcast form of relational aggression, a type of bullying based on shaming and threats of ostracism. Scan the promotional advice websites, and you’ll quickly bump into the primary tactic of this covert control-freakery, a list of “negative” blogging styles that freshmen bloggers had better avoid if they want to sit at the Cool Kids table.
But, you might object, isn’t it true that being gripey inhibits success online and in writing? Absolutely not, and we’ll get to the abundantly obvious evidence for this later.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The underlying con of many of these advice blogs is to attract ad-driven revenues by dishing out bromides that reassure the pathologically conflict-averse in their playground superstition that everything in life will turn out swimmingly if we all just play nice. It may be difficult to divine motives through the stripper glitter of positive-thinking ebullience, but the profit motive shines through as bright as a spotlight when such a website is slathered with advertizing.
So, this is my first unabashedly negative, unapologetically glass-fully-empty gripe about these advice blogs:
_ 1. Many of them are simply telling you what you want to hear so you’ll buy something from the ads on their site.
Next time you go to one of these promotional advice sites, first check to see if they’re selling a webinar, a self-help book, or other promotional training product. If the site isn’t selling something directly, count the number of ads. Remember: even if it’s an external ad, they are getting paid, by impression or by click. That happy-happy-joy-joy blog entry you just read was bait.
And, yeah, you’re the fish.
But, even if there are no ads and no pitches, the blogger is blogging for some reason, either in service to a career or a need for attention. In other words, one way or another, you’re being drawn in for the benefits derived for them from their website, not yours.
Now, before you think I’m a sign-waving socialist out to denigrate all profiteering, let me point out that every book I mention on this blog rides a hyperlink to Amazon where you can buy it, with a neat commission to me. So, it’s not about the fact that these websites are trying to make money, it’s how they’re trying to making money: with absurd fears and false hope.
Which brings me to my next point…
KEEP YOUR FEET ON THE GROUND
Let’s get back to the most dangerous aspect of this aggressive positivity, the fact that it has no basis in reality. My complaint?
_ 2. Most of these shiny happy people present little or no evidence that their “always be sunny” advice works. (Or, they misinterpret a piece of clinical research to mean something it doesn’t.)
I won’t attempt a general debunking of this positive-thinking delusion, as author and Barbara Ehrenreich has done so far more expertly, eloquently, and thoroughly in her brilliant book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.
However, I will address the specific case of writers and other creative media types who are desperately trying to build a web presence. For those who doubt that anything but a never-budging smile can work the promotion game, there exist mountains of readily available counter-evidence. If this “don’t be negative if you want to succeed” nonsense were true, there would be no Drudge Report, no Daily Kos, no Fox News, and no MSNBC. If it were true, you would have no idea who Perez Hilton, Ron Paul, Bill Maher, or Ann Coulter were.
In the publishing game, there would be no Writer Beware!, no Editorial Ass, no Slushpile Hell, and so on. Most lit agent blogs are overflowing with gripes about writers and publishers and, occasionally, other lit agents. After a lackluster career as a generally innocuous sketch comedian, Al Franken rode a writing career based on griping and “negativity” all the way to the United States Senate!
Griping sells, and more importantly, it attracts, because (for better or worse) human beings thrive on conflict. Being a social animal means being a tribal animal.
The only caveat is that it doesn’t attract everyone. After all, one person’s clever snark is another person’s unbearable negativity. But, unless you’re writing children’s lit or Chicken Soup style plushcore (the literary equivalent of a Thomas Kincade painting) your target demographic likely falls into the snarky grown-up category.
A SMILE STAPLED ON A HUMAN FACE, FOREVER
If you, as a writer, are still doubtful that anything but a consistently cheerful attitude can attract people, think about the most basic writing advice you can imagine, that your story must have conflict. A novel or short story can have the most engaging characters, the most gorgeous prose, the most attractive setting … but if there is no conflict, the readers are going to yawn and move on to something else.
Even Chekhov’s little plot-denying slices of life contain conflict.
If conflict interests human beings in books and short stories (and politics, and celebrity feuds, and neighborhood gossip, and so on) why are we to believe that it repulses them otherwise? The evidence out there in the real world certainly doesn’t support this. In fact, the positive-thinking glad-handers themselves thrive only by griping and moaning and condemning those who gripe and moan and condemn!
Except themselves, of course. Their griping is different, because it’s anti-griping griping. You know, like murdering for non-violence. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and all that other “positive” stuff.
And, if you think invoking Nineteen Eighty-Four is rash hyperbole in the context of professional advice, ask yourself whether the fear of forever failing to get published wouldn’t feature in your Room 101.
There will always be a sly and wicked force at the center of the web, looking to make money by pushing unrealistic fear and offering unrealistic hope. Don’t fall for it. Instead, remember that other insistently positive authoritarian figure at the center of a web: the Beldam from Coraline. Just like Orwell’s Big Brother, the Other Mother also requires that you surrender your vision in order to be accepted.
Do not give up your soul. Look at success with your own open eyes and judge for yourself how it actually comes about.
Of course, I’m not saying that you should become an internet shock jock and set new records of unrestrained vitriol in your blog.
First, remember how I italicized “try” in my statement above, when I spoke of “others who at least try to base their gripes on objective reality.” You really have to gripe from an informed and open-minded perspective. Make sure you keep your facts straight. And, where you know you’re slipping into an unpopular niche position, be prepared to bring out heavy rhetorical guns, either evidential or logical. If you can’t pull out those guns, maybe you should reconsider pulling out the criticism.
Keep in mind the Asch conformity experiments, in which test subjects were put into groups with other participants who were secretly in cohoots with the researchers. When these secret plants insisted that two lines which were obviously different lengths were in fact the same, the test subjects consistently followed the crowd rather than their own eyes.
If you can’t lay a ruler down to measure that line, you’re unlikely to convince anyone no matter how wrong the majority is.
Second, it’s okay to hate the game and the player, but don’t hate the league. You got a gripe about the way some X’s do things, whether it’s agents, publishers, booksellers, or other writers? Go ahead and be honest and authentic about it. But, don’t lay waste to the entire X group for the behavior of a percentage of X’s, even if it’s a sizable percentage. And, most importantly, realize that good people often do very bad things (and smart people, dumb things) out of professional or cultural habit.
Go ahead and gripe but give people an exit, a way to save face.
There are ways to complain and point out flaws — what positive-thinking Torquemadas would call “being negative” — without being toxic. Sure, it’s often difficult to remain authentic without burning bridges, but it can be done. If you’re really clever, you can find ways to build new bridges as the old ones burn.
EVERY. SINGLE. THING.
But, even if you’re not that clever, understand that you’ll generate more attention with the fire of a burning bridge than with the timid and disingenuous praise of a badly built bridge. Remember that it’s the finger-pointing kid who brings the climax in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” not the multitudes of uncomplaining subjects who stand blandly (and anonymously) silent in the background.
Do you remember the story of Cheery Chipmunk who watched admiringly as Bumbler Beaver’s poorly built damn slowly fell apart? Of course not … because, unless you took a very sarcastic approach to the tale (i.e., going negative), it would be a boring and dissatisfying story and nobody would want to read it.
Most importantly, a gripe can be the spark of improvement, so long as it’s based in reality and sound reasoning. John Adams (a world-class griper if there ever was one) praised a sermon from 1750 that was essentially one long rant attacking the biblical arguments propping up the Divine Right of Kings, calling it “the spark that ignited the American Revolution.” The Declaration of Independence is essentially a list of gripes, penned and polished and organized by a bunch of trouble-making know-it-alls.
Necessity may be the Mother of Invention, but Complaint — with its persistent attention focused on that Necessity — is the Father. In fact, everything we have that separates us from wild animals is the result of someone complaining, either to others or in her own head, that something was simply not good enough and had to be made better.
Everything positive that we enjoy as 21st Century human beings is the love-child of informed griping. Every. Single. Thing.
It’s okay to be negative sometimes and, since being negative is often the only way to be honest and to make progress over the obstacles in life, it can occasionally be the most positive choice you can make, as a writer and a responsible contributor to the culture of literature.