The Lady Stoops; We Should Pity; Or, Life Lessons I've Learned

As a blogger, I avoid the “personal.” Yes, in some sense every blog entry is “personal” because it reflects my perspective. But I generally comment on (okay, rant about) general topics rather than matters relating to my private life. But every blogger in entitled to a freebie. Every blogger gets a day when he/she says “Today I’m writing about a personal matter; apologies in advance.” Today is my day for that. (Don’t worry! I’m not dying. As Life Issues go, this is trivial stuff.)

I want to go on record about a matter, and this is the best way to do it. Not, mind you, that this is much of a “record.” I have a readership of approximately three. Still. Again, what follows is an exercise in complete self-indulgence.

Although I write books, I don’t think of myself as a “writer.” Nor do I spend much time with other “writers.” There's a reason for that.

Back when I had just launched my career as a writer, I dived into the digital age by using the internet to find other “writers” to hang out with. I was unsure of my abilities and thought it might be useful to find others who were in the same boat: unpublished but hopeful. 

As a result, from late 2002 until some point in 2007 (or maybe 2008?), I was a member of an online “writing” group. Truth be told, the action there had little to do with writing. Mostly it consisted of a bunch of very smart, funny women (them, not me) commiserating about life’s daily weirdness. 

I’m still friends with several of the women I met in one or the other of the variations of the original group, but as time passed, I discovered blogging and other people’s blogs and Twitter. Blogging in particular became a passion, and I realized that I no longer wanted to spend time in a writers’ group. 

By that time I’d also, alas, discovered that some writers, like some people, are unpleasant people.  Many writers are insecure; many have monstrous egos; many are starstruck. Etc. Writers’ forums are filled with insecure, and often unkind, people, all scrambling for their piece of a small pie. I concluded that hanging around with writers was not the most, ummm, healthy use of my time.

So sometime in late 2007 or early 2008, I turned my back on writers’ groups and writing forums. Still, my short-lived excursion into the world of “writers” was important. I made some close friends, people I expect to remain friends with for years to come.

I also learned some valuable life lessons: Money can’t buy you happiness. Or class. Or integrity. Or, as I prefer to put it, the content of one’s character matters more than the content of one’s checking account. An interesting example of that lesson surfaced recently.

First, a series of disclosures. (These are relevant, at least to me. If I don’t include them, I would definitely be concealing relevant facts.)

Disclosure #1: 

One of the people in my writers’ group was X, the author of a mega-bestselling book. Mega. Worldwide. 

X and I were close friends from late 2002 until early 2007. We visited each other’s house; we broke bread together on many occasions. We were friends while she wrote Mega Bestseller, when it was published, and when it landed on every bestseller list in the country.

Her life changed, and did so literally overnight. She no longer had to worry her family’s financial future. Her good fortune (and her bank account) increased when she received a $5.2 million dollar contract for her next two books. 

For a writer, this is the equivalent of winning the lottery, and I was, and am, happy for her good fortune. 

Let me repeat that, because it’s an important point: I was happy. I was not jealous of her. I am not by nature prone to jealousy, and that played no role in what happened later. (Years ago, when I was still a young woman, I learned first hand how destructive and irrational jealousy is. I remain grateful for that life lesson.) Many aspects of the publishing industry drive me nuts, even make me angry, but her success was and is not one of them.

As you might imagine, X was overwhelmed by this change in her life. She suddenly had people in her face 24/7; people wanting a piece of her; people wanting some of her money. Etc. 

While that was happening, I published my third book (Ambitious Brew). It did about as well as I expected. It didn’t make any bestseller lists, and the only money I’ll ever earn from it is the advance my publisher paid me to write it. 

That’s par for the course for 99% of writers. We don’t earn money from our books. We can all hope to, but we don’t. 

Still, the beer book had a profound affect on my life, and for the better. I’m grateful everyday that my husband makes it possible for me to write my books, ‘cause my sales sure as hell aren’t going to pay the bills.

At the same time that my book came out and X hit the big time, I entered the hell that is menopause. I won’t bore you with the details, but ohdeargod, what a misery is menopause. It messes with your mind in a serious way; it’s a psychological event as much, if not more, than a physical one.

As if all that were not enough, and to make matters much worse, at the same time I also lost the use of my right arm. The timing was coincidence (the problem had been building up for a long time), but the result was excruciating pain. Plus, ya know, I didn’t have a functioning right arm. Bummer. It took me two years and thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of physical therapy to regain my arm, during which time I remained in excruciating pain and drugged by painkillers that didn’t do much good. Again, bummer.

Disclosure #2.

Smack in the middle of all the above, my friendship with X ended, thanks to some well-placed falsehoods and innuendo on the part of a third person who was, at that time, a mutual friend. Let’s call her Y. (She, too, is a bestselling author.) The break was unexpected and abrupt (at 8 am we were friends; at 5 pm we were not. Whew!) 

It was also painful. X and I had been close friends, or so I thought, but she chose to believe the lies of Y rather than checking with me to see if what Y had said was true. This was especially painful because we both knew that Y is a practiced liar with a long history of concealing the truth. (I know. I know. Why was I friends with her? I dunno. Not one of my better moves.) 

Looking back, I realize that neither X nor I were thinking clearly. Thanks to an idiot doctor who misdiagnosed my arm injury, I wasn’t taking any painkillers so my brain was fogged by pain, and X was overwhelmed by her success. Had Y chosen to do what she did, say, six months earlier, the outcome probably would have been different. But, whaddya gonna do?

Disclosure #3.  During the time I was friends with X, she urged members of our writing group to post positive reviews of our various books on Amazon. I was still new to the internet (near as I can tell, I was the last person on the planet to stop using DOS) and I didn’t realize how, well, public and permanent the digital life can be. I dutifully trotted over to Amazon and posted a five-star review of her first book. 

I didn’t think the book warranted five stars (left to my own devices, I would have given it three), but I wanted to be a good team player. (There was an alarming amount of group-think in our group. I'm notorious for not functioning well in groups, so god only knows what I was doing in a group to begin with.) (I lasted a grand total of a week in Girl Scouts.) 

I’ve always regretted doing that, but never more so than when another member of the group, Jill Morrow, published Angel Cafe. It's not the kind of thing I generally read, but I enjoyed her book. It was well-written, well-plotted, and contained a compelling cast of characters. I gave it an honest five stars, but that’s when I decided that I would no longer participate in the phony review racket. 

To this day, I avoid writing reviews for my friends’ books, unless I’m truly moved by my enthusiasm to do so. I also carry that practice into reviews of books at Amazon (or Shelfari or Twitter or wherever): Writing books is hard work, so my view is that if I can’t think of something good to say, I don’t say anything. If I can't give it five stars (or, on Twitter, five thumbs up), I keep my thoughts to myself.

I regard reviews as expressions of personal preference. I may not like a book that you love. Doesn’t mean the book is “bad.” Just means I didn’t like it. Doesn’t mean I think the author is a bad person. It means I didn’t like the book. Period. End of story.

Disclosure #4:

My first trade book, a history of Key West, also came out during the writing group days. Four members of the group took it upon themselves to give the book five-star reviews. I did not ask them to do so, and I was uncomfortable that they had, especially because two of the four had not read the book. If I could delete those reviews, I would, but I can’t. Like my own bit of five-star deceit, they remind me of what matters in life.

Disclosure #5.

Five-star reviews of books at Amazon cannot be trusted. That point was driven home when, during the writing group days, X posted a five-star review of a book she’d never read in exchange for a radio interview. I was astounded and appalled, but I soon learned that the practice is common. So when I read reviews at Amazon in order to decide whether I want to buy a book, I ignore the five-star reviews. There’s a good chance they’re bogus.

Disclosure #6.

X recently published a new book. Right before it  came out, I sent her a message on Facebook, wishing her well. Again, I hold no grudge against X. I’m sorry our friendship ended the way it did, but my anger and hurt about how it  happened are long gone, and I wish her well. 

I was eager to read the new book. Based on her previous Mega Bestseller, I figured she'd hit this one out of the park. I got a copy from the library (I don’t have much money for books, so I spend it on books whose authors need the money; X does not.)

I abandoned the book after about page fifty. It didn’t hold my interest. Doesn’t mean I wish X ill. It means I didn’t like the book. Period.

And now to the point.

A few days ago, I learned that X had posted a message on her Facebook page urging her “friends” to post positive reviews of her new book at Amazon. Why? Because, in her words, she was “being slaughtered” at Amazon and she wanted people to post positive reviews in order to “bury some of the horrific ones.” (I was not surprised. She’s made this same request to her friends for every book she’s written, although never in such a public fashion.)

For the record, X was far from being slaughtered. Most of the reviews there were positive, four- and five-star reviews. (At least two of the five-star reviews were written by X's friends using false names, but even subtracting those, the five-star reviews outweighed the others.)

In my opinion, this was not one of X’s smartest moves, but hey! I know how the system works, so I wasn’t surprised. 

The next day, however, one of her Facebook “friends” took exception to this request. He or she posted his own “review” at Amazon, alerting readers to the fact that many of the five-star reviews had been solicited. 

No surprise, X’s many fans jumped to her defense, arguing that there was nothing wrong with her request, and that this is what writers “do” in order to promote their books.

But both the critic and the “friends” are missing the point (at least in my opinion, such as it is). To wit: X deserves neither scorn nor praise for her action. She needs our pity and compassion. 

Consider these facts:

There are three million-plus copies of Mega Bestseller in print (I’m not sure if that’s in the US or the world as a whole). Let’s say X earned a dollar per copy. (She earned more, but I’m keeping the math simple). 

She got $1 million-plus for the film rights. She got roughly $2.5 million for writing her latest book. That totals $6.5 million. (Again, I’m underestimating her earnings.) Her agent gets 15%, and taxes took, what?, another 35%? 

Put another way, bare minimum, she’s cleared close to $4 million dollars. Add to that the hefty bonus she got for every week that Mega Bestseller sat in the top ten on the New York Times bestseller list. (The book is still on the Times extended list. All told, it’s now been on the list for more than four years. That’s amazing!) Thanks to her success, she has many paid speaking engagements, for which she likely earns $10,000 to $15,000 a shot. 

And the money continues to roll in. When the movie comes out next year, for example, Mega Bestseller will gain new life and bring in more money. Plus her first two books are still in print and no doubt sell at a steady clip, thanks to her fame. 

The new book, entered the New York Times bestseller list in the top ten. It will likely climb in weeks to come and stay there for a long time. (And Mega Bestseller is still on the Times list.) No doubt her contract for the new book also includes bonuses for each week it’s on the list. (These bonuses, by the way, are not small. We’re talking thousands of dollars each week.) She is already guaranteed $2.5 for her next book.

In other words, X is both rich and famous. She’s also a wife and mother to three children (who are all sweethearts; they’ve got good parents).

And despite all of that, she’s so insecure that she asks Facebook friends to help her hide the “slaughter” on Amazon. (Which, again, can hardly be called slaughter.) Apparently money and fame and success are not enough. Apparently she wants/needs universal, unequivocal adulation.

So finally to the point.

Friends, the lesson is simple. Cliched to the max, but simple: Neither money nor fame will buy happiness or integrity. And if your sense of self-worth depends on the adulation of strangers, well, you’ve got problems that money and fame won’t solve.

And X is someone to pity rather than scorn. 

Thanks for your indulgence. It won’t happen again.