Should the published writing of professional writers be subject to any criticism? I believe yes. At least one professional writer disagrees.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a longtime writer for Salon. She writes about “culture,” in the most tepid sense of the word. As an essayist, her style is to follow around day-old conventional wisdom like a water skier follows a speed boat. I do not care for her as a writer or a thinker.
Several years ago, I periodically wrote items here explaining why I do not care for Mary Elizabeth Williams as a writer or thinker. Such items constitute a significant part of my job. Gawker has always critiqued the media; Thomas Friedman writes like a child, David Brooks is a simpleton, look at this piece of curdled tripe that Mary Elizabeth Williams published today, and so on. In turn, people write such things about what we write here as well. If you take all of this together—writers publish stories, people critique those stories, those critiques are themselves critiqued, ad infinitum—it constitutes “the public discussion.” Though messy and often insulting, the public discussion is at the center of the media’s value. It is a national conversation that plays out like a Hegelian dialectic. Point, counterpoint, counter-counter-point, you are hack, synthesis. In this way, ideas slowly evolve and become better over time.
By taking a job as a writer and writing and publishing stories, you implicitly accept a position in this national conversation. That means that you, as a writer, have the freedom to write and share with the world what you think, and the world has the right to say what they think about it. You don’t have to agree with what the world says about you and what you’ve written. You’re free to think—and publicly argue—that the world’s position makes the world a god damn moron. But you do have to accept the right of everyone else to have thoughts and say them. It is the same right you’ve reserved for yourself, by becoming a writer.
Which brings us back to Mary Elizabeth Williams. A brief glance at our archives shows that I wrote four posts critiquing Mary Elizabeth Williams. The first was in March of 2011 and the last was in July of 2012. Each one is about Mary Elizabeth Williams’ writing. They are as true today as they were the day I wrote them. You can read them all here.
Today—three full years after the last time I wrote a post about Mary Elizabeth Williams’ bad writing—she has written a column about being written about by Gawker. “I was slimed by Gawker: in the worst year of my life, I became a regular target,” goes the headline, “and it was devastating.”
In it, Mary Elizabeth Williams says that Gawker was being mean and insulting her during a time in her life when she was fighting cancer. She implies that it was monstrous of Gawker to use, in two posts, a (perfectly lovely) picture of her “ that had run in Salon seven months before, when I shared that I had just been diagnosed with malignant melanoma. A photo that had been taken just a few days prior, one of my last remaining images of myself before I learned I was sick.” She presents this use of a (perfectly lovely) photo of her as an assault upon her, rather than as the inevitable result of Google Image searching “Mary Elizabeth Williams” in 2011. She writes that these four blog posts criticizing her writing caused her “constant low-level dread,” and constituted “one of the most toxic things that ever happened in my life.” She also alleges that Gawker had mocked her as well as stories written elsewhere by some of her friends “because we — females in our 40s — had committed the crime of failing to entertain our youthful male media watchers.”
In summation, she writes “For a company that claims to pride itself on freedom of expression, I wonder if they’ve ever considered the profoundly chilling effect their tactics have had on others.”
For Mary Elizabeth Williams, a critique of a bad piece of writing is an ominous and outrageous act that produces a “chilling effect.” On this, I guess I would agree with her—anyone who writes something arguing that a bad writer wrote a bad thing is probably holding out hope that as a result there might be less bad writing in the future. It rarely works, but there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic.
She does not link to any of the Gawker stories about her, or to any of the stories that she wrote that were being critiqued. And, with great sanctimony, she adds that “I am not using [the Gawker writer’s] name, because you know what? This is about the Gawker culture, and because I have it on very good authority that publicly shaming individuals is an ass move.”
Hi. My name is Hamilton Nolan. And I find Mary Elizabeth William’s thesis in this piece to be loathsome and actually dangerous. Her argument boils down to this: any critique of a writer’s work is a personal attack; a personal tragedy should insulate a writer from any critical thinking about her work; and the entire point-counterpoint nature of the public discussion is bad because it may make writers feel bad for their work to be insulted. She waited three full years—until the day that Gawker had reached its very lowest point of public popularity—to opportunistically trot out this argument.
Here is what I believe instead: by publishing a work, a writer automatically invites the world to think critically about that work; people who critique a writer’s work may be unpleasant or wrong in their opinions, but they are not wrong for having and writing opinions; and, in the broadest sense, this messy process of all of us talking about what all of us are saying is what moves the world’s intellectual development forward, at an often imperceptible pace. I say this in the context of working for a place where the writers receive a regular dose of hate mail and online vitriol that is, I would modestly contend, second to none.
The alternative to talking freely is much worse.