When writers get into trouble with readers

There’s a reader out there named Kathleen C. who’s really, really ticked off at me.  In fact she thinks I’m the spawn of Satan.

It’s because of an online interview I did for The Literary Guild, in which I talked about the background for The Mephisto Club.  Here’s the part that got her angry:

Question: Why do you think so many law-abiding people are attracted to “the dark side” of human (or maybe not so human!) nature?

Tess: We’re all fascinated by the very things we’re afraid of. Just look at the tourists in your local aquarium, or in the zoo’s reptile house – everyone seems to congregate around the shark tank and the venomous snakes. We study the very things that will harm us. We feel compelled to know more about them. Maybe it’s simply our instinct for self-preservation: as they say, “know thine enemy”.

But there’s also another, more disturbing reason why the dark side attracts us. We are animals, after all, and we still possess the remnants of a more primitive brain. Perhaps some of us still retain those ancient instincts to kill. Although we may be law-abiding, we can’t quite rid ourselves of those reptilian impulses.

Now, I didn’t think there was anything particularly controversial in my response above.  But oh, boy.  What got her mad was my use of the word “animal.”

“We are NOT ANIMALS!” she posted on the Literary Guild website.  As the Bible proves, “God made us in His image!” she pointed out, and to say we human beings are animals is to commit blasphemy. 

So I guess I am a sinful, Satan-worshiping person and anyone who buys my books should be forewarned that they are rewarding evil. 

Hoo boy.  It didn’t matter that my use of the word “animal” was clearly a reference to the biological realm (I do mention brain anatomy in that same sentence).  It didn’t matter that the #1 definition of “animal”, as stated in the dictionary, quite clearly puts human beings in that category:

Animal: –noun

1. any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.  (Dictionary.com)

The point is, once a reader gets ticked off at you, they cannot be argued with.  They are lost forever.  And Kathleen C. is clearly going to be spreading the word to all her friends that only sinners read Tess Gerritsen.

I’m so often astonished by what ticks off readers.  One reader wrote to rant at me that I had personally insulted her — and every other hospital laboratory technician in the country — because I had made my villain a lab technician.  “Do you think we all go around killing people?” she said.  “I am never reading another one of your books!”

Then there was the gentleman from Greece who got all in a lather because in THE SURGEON, my villain Warren is a student of Greek mythology, and Warren likes to dwell on a particularly horrific myth, the sacrifice of Iphigenia.  “Why do you single out GREEKS as sick and violent?” he demanded.  “Do you think we go around sacrificing our daughters?  You have insulted our country!!”

Then there was the acquaintance who had adopted a son from South America, who was pissed off about my book HARVEST, because it explored the urban legend of children being kidnapped for their organs.  She considered it a direct attack on her, and she ranted that I should have been more sensitive to her situation when I wrote the book.  And she was never going to speak to me again.

And she never did.  She refuses to even go to any parties that I’ve been invited to.

(Umm, lady, I didn’t even know you’d adopted a kid at the time I wrote the book.)

The point is, some reader somewhere is going to take something you wrote as a direct and personal attack on them.  Even if you’ve never heard of this person.  

A few nasty letters or comments from readers can make a writer afraid to write about anything controversial — or even non-controversial.  It seems I can’t even use the official dictionary definition of “animal” without getting an angry Biblical lecture.  Kathleen C., you can bet, will never read another one of my books.

But then, if she gets mad at me for using the word “animal”, is there ANY author out there who doesn’t make her angry, ANY author who doesn’t offend her?

Who’s left to read? 

56 replies
  1. Gwen.S
    Gwen.S says:

    True enough, sometimes the weirdest things gets people all wired up. But I bet after sometime, most would probably feel stupid for creating such a fuss out of nothing.

    Those people mightn’t have realised that authors don’t really have the time to single out every single reader to ‘attack them’.

    I love the way you write. Very very much. Thanks for creating such beauties.

  2. Steve Allan
    Steve Allan says:

    I was pretty much damned before I started reading your novels…so, I can’t wait for the next one!

    Now, when I get to Hell, will all of my favorite writers be there? 🙂

  3. Rachael from NJ
    Rachael from NJ says:

    Ok there are some crazy people out there and that is the only reason I can think of, why that woman would freek out over you using the word animals. I bet she’s never even read your books. If she was a reader of yours, she wouldn’t have been so rude and idiotic.

    Don’t try to please anyone. Write whatever you want and us loyal fans will keep on buying your books and loving you.

  4. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    “Kathleen C. is clearly going to be spreading the word to all her friends that only sinners read Tess Gerritsen.”

    If lovin’ Tess is wrong,
    I don’t wanna be right.

  5. Reivan Koa
    Reivan Koa says:

    Well, I guess like you’ve said before, “You can please everyone.” Besides, I think you will gain 10 readers every time one reader writes a controversial comment. Some people like to find out what was so controversial. So, you loose one and gain ten.

  6. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    This must be one of the reasons why they say writing is an act of courage. Seems as if everything a writer does is open to criticism — from the first word scratched down to rejection after rejection to the angry fan letters. The possibilities for pain are staggering, but when the writing is going well, nothing else matters.

    At least I hope so.

    Keep smiling, Tess! We’re all in your corner.

  7. claytonh2
    claytonh2 says:

    Yikes,blasphemy! I’ve called my local bookseller and asked them to wrap my copy of the Mephisto club in a plain brown bag.

  8. cmmiller
    cmmiller says:

    Could’ve been worse. You could’ve gone further with the primal-instinct-to-kill thing and gotten into touchy subjects like, oh, the death penalty… you know, the things that would’ve cemented your position as a Satan-worshipper. 😉

    To quote Billy Joel: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun….”

  9. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, I am sure you know that regardless of any criticism you may receive, if there’s one thing worse than people talking about you, it’s people NOT talking about you.

    Meanwhile, there are many Gods in the diversified minds of this planet’s civilisation and only one of them is mentioned in another work of fiction, a book called The Bible. Personally I don’t believe in any of them because I’ve never met one in person. You created, for example, The Surgeon, so does that mean that he really exists? Of course not. So why should it be any greater a certainty that God exists? Just because sales of The Bible have (so far) outstripped those of The Surgeon? We all choose to believe or not to believe, I just wish that these beliefs could be kept private and the right of an individual to make that choice should not be questioned or condemned. What a peaceful place this world would be if only were so….

  10. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    My pet peeve is people who get cheesed off with an author for killing a pet/animal in a mystery/suspense/thriller novel. The piles of dead human bodies seem to be OK, but the minute you kill the dog/cat/goldfish/canary they practically have a sputtering seizure.

    Seriously, it’s one of my hot buttons….

  11. patrickshawnbagley
    patrickshawnbagley says:

    Well, that’s me converted. I can see that you worship the dark powers. From now on I will only read “Left Behind” novels and books by Hal Lindsey. Sorry, Tess, but I don’t want to get dragged down to hell with you, Steve and Dusty.

  12. Cumulus
    Cumulus says:

    Kathleen C. was absolutely correct. Only sinners read Tess Gerritsen’s books. Since the biblical text says that “everyone has sinned,” then everyone can enjoy the books, even poor misguided Kathleen C.

  13. Eva
    Eva says:

    Hi Dr.G
    This is my first post. I just discovered you about a month ago and now I am having such a great time catching up. My first book was Vanish, loved it so much went to Amazon site and ordered every book you have written. I also love your website…
    Now about the twit who will not read you anymore cause gasp! horror! you compared humans to animals. In most instances we should be so lucky really. I am looking at my 3 cats and they are the sweetest most loving creatures in the world.
    Other people have said it already but for every reader you lose, and good riddance..you gain 10 people who really love good writing.
    I am counting the days until Mephisto Club is out.
    Eva,a new fan in Canada 🙂

  14. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, I live in the Bible belt and let me tell you it can be a circus. My bookstore and second home is a medium sized retail business and the ladies that own it have certainly learned to go with the flow. One lady came in and was absolutely infuriated that there were books about religions other than hers. Boy did she lower the boom. The other books were blasphemous and she demanded that they be moved to the fiction section. Then there was another lady who came in and was looking for some books for her teenage son who has repeatedly run away from home. One of the booksellers suggested a fantasy book with a dragon on the cover and she exploded. She wasn’t about to expose her son to a book obviously written by a spawn of Satan. Gee, why does Junior keep running away? My point, Tess, is that my booksellers were in business at least as long as you have been writing and they suffer from this as well and they have to keep their cool because without fail there are other customers in the store when something like this happens.
    You know, it’s as if these people go around looking for a fight. If we’re all going below anyway my idea of a good time would be to strap these folks to chairs and read to them and we’d get to pick the books.

  15. Dru Ann L
    Dru Ann L says:

    First time poster: Tess, I read and love all your books. I introduced friends to your work and eagerly await The Mephisto Club. If we are all sinners, then I say “party on”.

  16. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    wow,tess-if your prior books stirred up this much static imagine what weirdos this one will drag out of the woodwork-ironically hell can be found here on earth-always could be-one need only read history,watch a newscast,or read the paper

  17. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i forgot to mention this-people who think writers who don’t know them are writing about them and that their lives are being exposed on tv are probably good candidates for a nice glass of thorazine

  18. Charissa
    Charissa says:

    All I can say is Kathleen C is absolutely ridiculous. I know we all have a right to our own opinions [as long as it’s not hurtuful]. But how about when it’s something as silly as that — keep it to yourself!

    How anyone could possibly be insulted by what you said, I don’t know. Does it really matter if you called us an Animal? Even if you were wrong [you’re RIGHT anyway], why would it matter enough to get so worked up over it?

    – Chrissy

  19. Rob Gregory Browne
    Rob Gregory Browne says:

    A friend of mine always says, “I hope I go to hell, because that’s where all my friends will be.”

    Now, I suppose quoting her will get me in hot water with somebody.

    As for us being animals, I think we tend to prove that on a regular basis…

  20. Rikkesoft
    Rikkesoft says:

    Just look at it the other way around: you should be happy that such people are not reading your books.

    It’s really no good publicity if people with that state of mind would say they like your books.

  21. Craig
    Craig says:

    You know, there are plenty of characters like Kathleen C in Lemony Snicket’s books. I think a great marketing ploy, especially for a children’s author would be to hire some people to follow me around and scream at me and picket bookstores. All the time I’m looking on helplessly, wringing my hands, shaking my head, gazing at the heavens. A few years ago we had a visitng children’s author who had a group stalking her from one book signing to another–although in her case they weren’t hired–they just crawled out from under a rock.

  22. dsurrett
    dsurrett says:

    I’m an ordained priest in a small denomination, live in the deep south, and believe in the traditional Christian faith that’s been handed down since the resurrection of Christ. That being said, who do I read? Tess Gerritsen, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, to name a few. I also write short stories. What are they about? Murder, crimes, vampires, and other aspects of the seedier side of life. That could be because I watch multiple episodes of Law and Order and CSI, as do millions of church-goers.
    All Christians aren’t prudes who never dare touch anything considered ‘secular.’ A lot of us like to read suspense and mysteries. Keep on writing, Tess!!

  23. Tess
    Tess says:

    I discovered that one of my biggest fans is a Salvation Army minister in upstate New York! I don’t think Kathleen C’s rant has anything to do with her religion or being Christian. It simply has to do with a type of personality that can’t stand to be challenged — or can’t stand to deal with uncertainty of any kind. You find them among food obsessive-compulsives as well.

  24. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    And you know what the coolest part of hell is going to be?

    The CRAZIES won’t be there trying to convert us! (At least that’s their contention.)

  25. Peggy Payne
    Peggy Payne says:

    What always gets me is people who think I’ve written about them. It’s never the right ones who think that.

    A guy I used to work with was certain I had written about his divorce in my first novel. Crazy!

    There’s no way to avoid this kind of reaction.

  26. wordworker
    wordworker says:

    Tess, don’t sweat it. No matter what you do, you can’t please everyone. As a writer myself, I expect to lose some friends when my work is published. The first ones to go will be the ‘book snobs’ who will find my material to be a lowbrow read. The next to go will be the ones who will think I’m a freak with ‘animal’ thoughts. This second group will include some fellow Christians. Fine. Whatever. Good riddance to small minds in advance.

  27. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    It’s hard not to take comments like that personally. It’s classified as the “you can’t please everyone all the time” category.

    It’s like with the DaVinci Code. It’s fiction. It’s not real. Yes, he uses some historical facts, but it’s still fiction. If people start forming a religion based on his fictional theories, that’s their problem.

    I’ve been waiting for THE MEPHISTO CLUB for a long time and I can hardly wait to read it. Considering my past reads of Tess Gerritsen books, I expect to stay up all night to finish it and enjoy every word.

  28. Ursula
    Ursula says:

    Everyone’s got a trigger, some are obvious, most are not. As a writer, write your vision. If someone tweaks, there’s nothing you can do, or should do. If you start to second guess that vision, or try to alter or water it down and write by committe to not offend, then the vision dissapates and is lost. I love your books, and as an RN, I had NO issue with a lab tech being portrayed as a villian (*BEG*). Be true to you and your true fans will follow. Yes, you might lose one or two here and there when you hit the magic trigger that sends them off the deep end: but, you can’t account for madness. It just is.

  29. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    this blog entry has everyone going-well,i will never tell anybody what i really believe because it’s nobody’s business,but tess deserves all the credit for getting us started

  30. writeforlove
    writeforlove says:

    We guide a lot of our articles around a particular saying at the magazine I write for:

    “Bring on the hate mail.”

    To me, it means that I’ve done my job of evoking emotion in a reader, regardless of what crazy antics they spew. Controversy begets more readers, even if you lose some along the way (although I agree with you and don’t think what you said was really all that controversial).
    The bottom line is that you’re an excellent writer that delves into fascinating topics…if readers can’t handle that, then you don’t need them. It’s like a substandard client- you bend over backwards for them, and they don’t pay. So you drop them like a bad habit. There’s plenty of fish in the sea to waste your time catering to the unappreciative.

    PS- I spotted Vanish in paperback tonight in Target in the bestseller aisle. I took one out of the stack and placed it on the front “new in paperback” bookshelf that faced the passer-bys (i didn’t cover another’s author’s book, i just squeezed yours in between them). It’s a must-read!!!!

  31. BA
    BA says:

    There is no bad press! Kathy C.’s friends will be sneaking this forbidden book under their sheets with a flashlight!

  32. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I had a simliar experience, i did a report for school and one kid went completely bonkers over something I said. I think i mentioned evolution *GASP*

    I just finished Gravity for the second time, although it is my favorite of all your books, i have still loved every single one. I actually almost stole Body Double at an airport, i was so wrapped up in reading the back I just kinda walked away. I ran back and paid for it, of course. I also recently read Vanish, which was great too!

  33. Tess
    Tess says:

    thanks for increasing my exposure!

    And re: the evolution controversy, I was once on a national radio show talking about creepy science. The host asked whether i believed in evolution, and I said “Yes.”

    Boy, the hate mail THAT generated!

  34. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    I’ve long suspected you were the spawn of satan. Something about that look in your eye. Then again that could be what I like about you.

  35. Meike
    Meike says:

    “# Gabriele Says:
    August 30th, 2006 @ 12:50 pm |

    You believe in evolution, and not the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How dare you. ;)”

    Yes. There will be Beer Volcanoes and Stripper Factories. All hail the pirates! 😉

    Seriously, though. Kathleen C. sounds like she belongs over at http://www.fstdt.com. She’ll fit right in.

    There’s just no talking to some people.

  36. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    robert crumb had the right idea-we should discuss the great questions over steaming plates of boiled cabbage

  37. wordworker
    wordworker says:

    Hi Tess! This post has hit a nerve with me. I’ve read it three or four times now. I’m not even published and I have suffered the ultimate rejection. My own mother disapproves of my work. I should not have shared it with her. Both of my novels deal with time travel in one form or another. My mother was quick to tell me that I should not write about this topic, as “only God can control time”. Isn’t that the ultimate? Give me a break, right? I know her reasoning (or lack thereof) is silly, but she’s my MOTHER, so this bothers me. I know my previous comment would lead you to believe that I couldn’t care less about rejection, but I’m pretty sure I keep coming back to this post because I’m still ticked off. Maybe I’ll blog about it.

  38. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Wordworker, I can understand that. That’s why I never told my late mother I have gay sex scenes in one of my NiPs. She’d have been shocked, and I would have felt bad. Now, if a publisher said they don’t want that novel because they can’t shelve it at WalMart, I won’t care. And definitely not taking those scenes out, they’re not gratuitous. :p

    You find some weird prejudices among some religious people. I blogged about Tess’ post and someone wrote in my comments she does Roman enactment and once a mother dragged her child off, “stay away from the Romans, they killed Jesus.” *shakes head* Not to mention my online friend does late Romans and those were mostly Christians. 😉

  39. Elaine Flinn
    Elaine Flinn says:

    Oh, Tess! I couldn’t help but laugh when I read your post! I’ve had a few emails and letters from readers bashing the hell out of me for using the ‘F’ word, and for having some of my characters smoke. The best one was from a lady who said my protag’s ‘informal’ chats with God were blasphemous!

  40. Tess
    Tess says:

    that is so painful, to have your own mom reject your work because of HER own hangups. Yes, you have every right to be hurt and ticked off. I sure would be, in your shoes. But you know what? The writing community is a great place to find support, and we all cheer on any novelist who takes chances and draws outside the lines. People who insist on staying inside the lines are borrrring.

  41. Tess
    Tess says:

    welcome to the club for Satan’s spawns!

    And Gabriele — you’re in the same boat with a lot of romance writers who write steamy scenes! Having mom (or even worse, DAD!) read those sexy scenes makes them cringe.

  42. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Lol, I have one advantage. My father has not enough English to read entire novels – he’s read some of my short stories but those are rather harmless in that aspect. It’s only 2 out of my 6 novel projects in various stages that have sex scenes awyway.

    And yes, I do have too many novel projects. Somebody hand me a plotbunny gun, please. 🙂

  43. wordworker
    wordworker says:

    Thank you Tess, Gabriele and Struggler. Somehow, I actually feel a little better now. I guess this just proves what Tess said about a supportive community! Thanks.

  44. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Oh, yeah! I’m a Christian and yet I’ll go to hell to party with y’all! Ummm… Can we each bring a couple truck loads of ice, please?

    Oh, and Tess, we aren’t animals. Hehehe! Mark Twain differentiated us by saying something like, “Humans are the only ones who can blush, or need to.” There are always words of wisdom somewhere within great wits who outwardly don’t seem to take life all that seriously.

    One of the things people really forget — especially if you’re a great writer — is that IT’S JUST FICTION, folks! Great writers make you believe that what their characters say or do is what is truly done or believed in reality. False! It’s just a possibility! And there would be a whole lot more ticked off readers if the story weren’t believable at all. Hahahahaaa!

  45. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    We’ll all go to hell with Dr. G and have the time of our lives listening to her awesome medical stories!!! I always wanted to write romantic thrillers but then having someone read the writing would be embarassing I suppose; especially if it was family!

  46. aut
    aut says:

    WOw, im amused by how unreasonable readers can be. If they are that cauious in finding a hidden insult pointed at them, then, i dont think they’ll ever be able to enjoy a good book!
    By the way, i read you interview by the Literary Guild, i found something odd in question 7, which wrote, Jane Rizzoli has such an electrically charged background: a killer mother and near death at the hands of Warren “The Surgeon” Hoyt.

    im confused about part on ‘the killer mother’? where does that come in?

  47. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    When I first read this post, I thought that I would never get ticked off at an author in such a way. But then, just today I had a difficult moment when J.A. Konrath’s Harry McKade killed a dog for no good reason.

    But he writes really awesome short stories (and, I assume, novels–they’re in my TBR pile), so I’ll forgive him. Tomorrow. 🙂

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