One of the lures that drew me to writing 30 years ago was that I could say pretty much what I wanted. Publishing as I did in journals or academic books, I could guard my fragile ego from a buffeting outer world. At worst I might receive one or two (or 200) rejection letters, but these came discreetly through the mail and simply noted that the submitted work wasn’t a good fit for the publication in question. The rejection wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t personal. Writing that I did publish generally reached a like-minded and reasonably sane audience.
Things have changed. Today, I and anyone who writes must be prepared for something both unpleasant and personal: hate email.
When I write as I do these days for both print publications that put their content online or for blogs or websites, I still attempt to tailor my writing to the appropriate audience. But even small, specialized sites can have articles picked up and circulated by larger ones. Thus pieces that might have been written for a specific group enter an arena with a vast, diverse readership. On these sites seem to be people lying in wait to be insulted, annoyed, or outraged.
Even the most seemingly benign sort of writing can elicit hate email. I once wrote a lighthearted essay on the history of the fountain pen, describing its appeal to certain sorts of people. Along the way, I made a jab at the phallic yearnings of the fountain pen collector. Emailers jabbed back.
Another piece, in which I expressed nostalgia for the modesty of Victorian bathing costumes and made fun of the European taste for very small bathing suits, elicited a half-dozen or so angry emails, most of them from France, lashing out at my “pathetic sexual inhibitions” and my “disturbing xenophobia.”
My most recent spate of hate email was on a more weighty subject—a literary reputation. It came after I reviewed an exhibit at the New York Public Library called “Shelley’s Ghost,” which featured manuscripts and artifacts belonging to Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. In the online magazine The Smart Set, I described how Shelley’s unpalatable behavior, which the exhibit put on display, sent me back to his poetry. I now thought Shelley’s poems were posturing and overblown; their high-minded rhetoric, which I had liked so much in college, rang hollow. You would have thought that I had advocated book burning. One correspondent, after calling me a philistine and a Puritan, asked, “What author would survive if we judged his work by his private life?” Another accused me of “feminist resentment” because I said that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was more alive in the popular imagination than her husband’s poetry.
The arrows shot at me do momentarily wound. But less so as time goes on. I wince and feel bad for a few minutes, and then I forget what was said. The more hate email I receive, the better I become at ignoring it. The lesson: if you write long enough online, you will develop what writers have not traditionally had—a thick skin.
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