Sarah Dessen is Your Helpful Reminder to Never Punch Down

Sarah Dessen is Your Helpful Reminder to Never Punch Down

This is your reminder—if you ever required such a thing—that you need a thick skin as a writer.

Hopefully, years of rejection have already toughed up your epidermis to the point where you laugh at form-rejection letters. You shake your head ruefully when some Mighty Famous Bigshot turns down your request for a blurb.

You chuckle at the ludicrousness of it all when you look at your latest book’s Amazon ranking (for the twentieth time that morning!) and see it jittering around millionth place.

…the sad reality is, even the biggest authors seem to have a metaphorical epidermis composed of the finest onionskin.

Even if you manage to persist through all of these challenges and achieve a certain degree of “literary fame”—whatever actually constitutes such a strange beast—it’s helpful to maintain that toughness, if only for your own sanity.

A hundred one-star reviews on Amazon? No biggie. Terrible review in the Times? You’ll laugh about it at dinner.

But the sad reality is, even the biggest authors seem to have a metaphorical epidermis composed of the finest onionskin. Just look at the recent kerfuffle involving Sarah Dessen, a bestselling YA author. Dessen read a quote in the Aberdeen News, the news outlet of Aberdeen, SD, about a college student who—brace yourself—didn’t like her books.

“[Dessen is] fine for teen girls,” opined this young student, “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(This “Common Read” in this context is offered by Northern State University, which the student attended; as the constantly-wonderful blog Jezebel pointed out, other authors on this list include “Manoush Zomorodi, Angie Thomas, Ruta Sepetys, Suki Kim, and Jeannette Walls.”)

Dessen was upset, to put it gently; in a Twitter posting that included a screen-grab of the offending quote, she wrote: “Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”

If that wasn’t enough, some other big-name authors piled on, including Jodi Picoult, who, according to Jezebel, wrote that the young college student’s expression of a personal opinion somehow suggested that “stories about young women matter less.”

And rather than rise to the defense of a student who had the temerity to express her opinion about a YA author’s literary quality to a newspaper, Northern State University decided to take the coward’s way out and throw her under the bus. Check out this Tweet:

Way to go, Northern State University! You have truly cemented your legend as an intellectual bastion of free thought with this one. We award you no points, and God have mercy on your collective soul.

Of course, Sarah Dessen isn’t the only bigshot author to utterly fail the thick-skin test. Recall how, several years back, Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead over a bad review.

Jodi Picoult…wrote that the young college student’s expression of a personal opinion somehow suggested that “stories about young women matter less.”

Rather than break Ford’s jaw (which might have been the appropriate response), Whitehead took the higher path and fired off a witty rejoinder: “I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

But a college student talking to a South Dakota newspaper isn’t in the same position as Whitehead; she has no megaphone, and no recourse for the social-media mob that Dessen’s Tweet no doubt unleashed on her. You can only imagine her stress levels at having a cluster of Big Authors—and not to mention a school—piling onto her for utilizing her right to an opinion.

And hers was a pretty gentle opinion, all things considered. Sarah Dessen, if you’re reading this, and if you were truly traumatized by the idea that your books don’t belong on an accredited institution’s reading list, you should never, ever read any one-star review on Amazon—it’ll give you a coronary.

More broadly, though, there’s a helpful lesson here: In addition to developing that aforementioned thick skin, authors should never “punch down.” It’s undignified, and makes you look like a screaming wimp. Let your work stand for itself, and ignore the haters.

*****

Mystery Tribune’s collection of essays by Nick Kolakowski can be viewed here.

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