Looking back on 2022, I confess I’m pleased by what I see. Two books and an anthology published, and two books written for publication in 2023. New house, new puppy, new radio gig, and a calming of pandemic panic that allowed the conference circuit to open up again.
For the most part, reviewers are kind to my books, to the point that I generally look forward to opening the emails I receive through my website. When I do receive the occasional negative email, it generally deals with the presence of too many typos or grammatical errors. Truth be told, the typos annoy me, too.
Then came Boxing Day, December 26, when I found this missive in my inbox from Mary Anne X:
I liked Stealth Attack right up until chapter 17, where Gilstrap once again revealed his proTrump mentality and his anti gun control stance. If he wants his protagonists to fight real corruption, he should have Jonathan Graves take on the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys, or the Trump administration itself. I don’t care if Gilstrap personally supports those criminals, but he’ll lose readers and profits if he doesn’t leave politics out of his novels. I’m done with his projecting such ignorance onto his fictional heroes. There’s better stuff to read. Can’t wait to write a review.
Okaay . . .
Stealth Attack hit the stands in July, 2020, which means I wrote it in 2019. When I read the email, I was confused. I couldn’t remember anything in that book that resembled anything that Mary Anne found so offensive. Recognizing that I am getting no younger, and that my memory isn’t necessarily as acute as it used to be, I pulled the book from my shelf and re-read Chapter 17.
To set the scene, Roman Alexander, a young man who’s very close to Jonathan Grave, has been kidnapped from El Paso by members of a drug cartel and spirited back across the border for reasons as-yet unknown in the story, though evidence is pointing toward human trafficking and child prostitution. Chapter 17 sees Jonathan and his team confronting cartel monsters in a bar in Sinaloa.
Best I could tell, this must have been the offending passage. As Jonathan muses about the challenge they face:
The U.S. State Department had had a travel advisory in place against most of the northern half of Mexico for the better part of a year now. Local gun laws were so draconian that possession of even a single bullet could get you put away for most of a lifetime, so no one was able to defend themselves against the gangsters who terrorized the country. The cartels owned the cops and the politicians, who cooperated by making sure that the populace was unable to resist or defend themselves.
By the time the chapter ends, a child prostitute’s pimp has a very, very bad day.
Let me stipulate from the beginning that every reader is 100% entitled to his or her own opinion. I read every email I receive and every review I can find. I never take offense from the bad ones and I try not to let the effusive ones swell my head. If someone feels passionate enough to share their opinion, I’ve at least made an impression.
The reason I bring this email to the fore at all is the underlying meanness it carries. Mary Anne’s intent, as implied in her concluding sentence, is to harm my career. It’s not that my writing is bad, it’s that I’m a bad person for writing it. It’s reflective of the times, I suppose. Oath Keepers and Proud Boys? I have no idea where that came from.
Here’s my big concern. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve built a following that trusts me to do my best to write a thriller that thrills. The one-off review like this gets counter-balanced by lots of others, so its impact on my career as a writer is negligible (at least I hope it is). For beginning writers, however, a screed like Mary Anne’s could be devastating. It’s mean spirited. I don’t understand the mindset.
I do think it’s interesting that in referring to “Gilstrap” in the body of her email, Mary Anne clearly doesn’t realize that she’s writing to me directly. I wonder if that bit of knowledge would have affected the tone of her missive. I’ll wager $100 that she would not have spoken that way to my face (no implied threat there from me, only suspected cowardice from her).
Now for my next challenge. While I never–NEVER!!!–respond to negative reviews, I promise on my website to always respond to every email. So . . . what to do? Here’s my response:
Hi, Mary Anne.Thanks for your note. I promise on my website that I respond to every email, and I confess that most are more pleasing to address than yours. Sorry to push you away. I wrote Stealth Attack back in 2019, so I confess that you drove me to take another look at Chapter 17. You probably won’t be surprised that I don’t see what you saw, but that’s the nature of books. Once they’re launched, readers’ impressions are all that matters.In today’s hyper-partisan climate, I think it can be too easy to project politics into places where they don’t exist. Fiction can cut close to reality, but at the end of the day, it’s still fiction. In Jonathan Grave’s world, Tony Darmond has been president for 14 years, and I don’t even know how long Irene Rivers has been director of the FBI. I don’t report on real government corruption, but rather create corruption that gives my cast of characters a reason to do what they do.I intend to give my readers a thrill ride that may keep them up at night, but I never intend to anger them. In your case, I seem to have dropped the ball.I wish you a happy New Year.