The ugly online aftermath that followed the failed attempt to end Salman Rushdie’s life makes us wonder: does Literature need fandom if it can get this toxic?
Whilst Rushdie battled for his life in hospital, trolls ganged up on Joanne Harris, chair of the Society of Authors, for running a Twitter poll asking if authors have received death threats. The time meant for sobering contemplation became a distracting sideshow of rows over wokery and all things detached from Rushdie’s well-being. Hate really begets hate.
Two weeks on, we don’t feel like closing our Twitter account anymore. The literary timeline becomes fun again. But those two weeks since the Rushdie attack gave us time to think about ‘fandom’. We ask three questions:
- Without English Literature, can you tell fiction from reality?
- Why are authors left to market their own works on social media?
- Why is social media used to modulate mood and anxiety?
1. Without English Literature, can you tell fiction from reality?
At some universities, English Literature courses are being scrapped or amalgamated with ‘creative writing’ modules. Allegedly, English Literature as a university course lacks commercial viability. Rishi Sunak, the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, wanted a crackdown on degrees that don’t enable graduates to make money.
We’re not sure what survey his department ran to make this assumption. If anyone knows, please share it with us. But has he thought of surveying those who had taken up Arts and Literature degrees 20 to 30 years ago and see if they’re now owners of businesses? Managers or chief executives of enterprises? See if they acquire additional qualifications such as accountancy, project management or business management later in life to improve their livelihoods? Numeric or revenues aren’t the only KPIs used to measure of business’s performance nowadays. Can’t that be applied to university courses?
To many young minds, English Literature provides the window to another culture and diverse ways of perceiving the world. Via one language, we learn to understand phenomena. We come to appreciate that ‘different’ isn’t necessarily wrong. Through English Literature, our editor was introduced to a genre not considered mainstream in the 1990s. It’s now known as LGBTQ Literature. Because it was under “Literature”, the books our professors ordered from the US and UK remained on the university’s reading list. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lord of the Rings weren’t removed. VS Naipaul is racist and offensive, but his books weren’t excluded either.
If we don’t get more young people to be interested in English Literature, is it going to help them identify what is sacred and profane?
The removal of English Literature leads to two possibilities:
- The ability to appreciate, produce and critique this art form will be in the hands of the elite few, like art history and theatre studies.
- The internet is left in the hands of those who don’t have the media literacy or literary awareness – but are well-versed at using the tools of media literacy for online abuse, as seen in the sad case of a K-Pop star trolling covered by Vice on Spotify.
If we scrap the course and make it exclusive to those who can afford to study it without the worry of getting a job, is it going to help young minds develop critical thinking? The 24-year-old who attacked Salman Rushdie said he’s read a couple of pages of the Satanic Verses. If we don’t get more young people to be interested in English Literature, is it going to help them identify what is sacred and profane – and yet respect the existence of the body of work? We doubt it.
2. Why are authors left to market their own works on social media?
If it’s true that some major publishing houses don’t even bother to promote authors whose book advances are below US$250,000, then it’s no surprise authors are having to resort to promoting their own works on social media.
The emphasis of gaining large followings with little or no support for comment moderation leaves authors having to arbitrate ‘comments’ – by this, we mean the praises, the simping and the trolling – all by themselves. It’s an exhausting, time-consuming exercise that also exposes authors to abuses.
Many creators and independent publishers find this off-putting. They’re torn between spending time creating new works and spending time marketing published works on social media – which also means having to be in contact with trolls. Unfortunately, in a climate where publishing mergers can affect the number of advances afforded to authors, and arguably, the PR energy publishers can invest on authors, marketing one’s own book is inevitable.
3. Why is social media used to modulate mood and anxiety?
The things that enable George RR Martin to form fandoms can also be the very formula that enables swarms of online trolls to ruin your timeline. Ironically, it was on Reddit that we came across an online poster who dissected the formula accurately:
- ‘The intense feelings of loyalty’. Example: Culture of ‘stanning’.
- ‘The anonymity of social media’. Example: Sock puppetry.
- ‘The binary nature of online discourse’. Example: Upvote, downvote, thumbs up, thumbs down.
And we’d like to add:
- The capacity of the online medium to be a hangout for fans and haters alike.
Trolls typically thrive on attention. They get off on conflict.
The intranet is supposed to democratise ideas and support our freedom of speech. But the by-product that comes with it – the social media – reduces opinions and facts to one liners or online previews. People choose what they want to read through what they want to filter. They opt in. They opt out. They swipe left. They scroll up and down. Just like that.
When we have the four elements mentioned above mixed up with a legion of ‘fans’ who are anxious or irate, the result is catastrophic. It’s also not helpful that social media is used to modulate mood and anxiety. Trolls typically thrive on attention. They get off on conflict. If Facebook is the social conduit of envy, Twitter and Tiktok are the birching platforms to rally sad fucks to flame and troll the people they envy. Namely the authors. Some things on social media should really be left in the psychotherapist’s room. But do these so-called ‘fans’ care when they troll Joanne Harris or JK Rowling, or hound Martin – a 73-year-old man – to finish his book? No. Not really. Trolling is never about the people they troll.
More on online decorum
- Government Of, By, and For the Trolls (Anthropology News, 20 December 2018)
- Authentic: The Story Of Tablo (Vice, February-April 2022)
- How to nerd well and not give away spoilers (Story Of Books, 9 May 2019)
- Tips on writing drama and how to read books by bigoted authors (Story Of Books, 5 October 2018)