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Controversial fight

Getting Controversial: Good Idea or Not?

Today I want to expand on something that I’ve touched on in prior posts and which is a hot-button issue given the current political climate:

The issue of authors using their platforms to discuss controversial subjects.

I’ve seen many authors posting political rants and opinions (on both sides) on their blogs and social media. It works for some, bringing them even more fans. But for some (possibly most) it’s a risk that doesn’t pay off, or which outright costs them readers. What makes the difference? When is it okay to let your opinions fly and when should you keep your mouth shut?

First of all, if you don’t care about making money from your writing, or having fans, by all means let the opinions fly.

Say anything you want. It won’t matter if you torpedo your career because you didn’t care about having readers, anyway. And the truth is, you might get lucky, hit a nerve, go viral and generate a following. Probably not, but if you don’t care either way, then by all means have at it.

For the rest of us who want a long-term career, a more measured, considered approach is probably in order. 

If your work is about a controversial subject like politics, religion, LBGTQ issues, or race, then you’re probably going to have to get controversial on your blog and social media. What seems to make the difference in success or failure for these writers is the approach. Those who speak about facts in an informed, serious, and knowledgeable way seem to have more success than those who simply spout off the first, unfiltered thoughts that pass through their heads. Your opinions aren’t facts so don’t present them as such unless you want people to call you out.

A rant can work, but keep it focused and informative, not just pure anger and emotion. Throw in a little humor to soften the blow. If done well, even people who don’t share your opinion might at least be moved to admit that they respect your opinion and your way of expressing it. Show that you know your stuff, not that you’re just blindly reacting to the news of the day.

 

Controversy

If your work doesn’t require that you talk about controversy, then it’s probably better to just stay out of it.

You don’t want to post things that might alienate potential readers, agents, or publishers. Remember, the internet is forever. The rants you post today will still be visible long after today’s issues are old news. Do you really want people stumbling on your rage-posts ten years from now, long after those issues have been resolved or replaced by more important/urgent issues? When you put your work out there, people will Google you. You have to decide whether you want their first impression of you to be something that they may find offensive, or at least disagreeable.

While it’s illegal for someone to discriminate against you based on your beliefs, you’re never really going to know if that agent, publisher, or client didn’t take you on because of something you posted. They may say it’s because someone else was better suited for the work, but it may also be because they looked you up and either disagreed with your beliefs and didn’t want you on their team, or because something you said deeply offended them. There’s no way to prove it either way, so best to remove all doubt and remain neutral, or at least not rabidly partisan.

The exception to this rule seems to be authors with huge fan bases.

When you have two million fans, angering even ten percent of that base isn’t going to hurt too much. And in the world of publishing, someone will always be willing to hire/publish someone with that kind of following, no matter how divisive they may be. The rest of us can’t afford those kinds of losses and aren’t given that kind of leeway.

There are also authors who know that the majority of their fans share their beliefs. If you’ve been active on social media and blogging for a while, you’ve probably gotten a sense from the comments and interactions of which side the majority of your fan base supports. In that case, you may just be “preaching to the choir” and risking very little by stating your opinions.

I find that both Chuck Wendig and John Scalzi frequently post controversial items, but their fan base also mostly agrees with them so they’re able to “get away with it.” (Note that they also have huge fan bases and aren’t as desperate to add readers as a new, unproven writer is. The combination means that they can post pretty much whatever they want, a luxury not available to most of us.)

I’ve seen several authors say, “But I have to speak out. I can’t censor myself just because I might lose some readers. Silence only makes things worse.” 

Well, that’s generally true. The greatest wrongs in the world have usually been accompanied by silence, whether that silence was actively forced upon the people or was simply a cultural agreement to keep quiet to avoid endangering themselves further.

The thing is, there is a difference between a silence that doesn’t endanger your work and total silence.

Just because you’re not spouting off on social media or passing around the latest news clip doesn’t mean that you aren’t involved.

You can be involved in ways that don’t endanger your career. Give money to causes that you believe in. Write and call your representatives until they know your name and dread hearing from you. Teach. Volunteer for causes that need your help. Vote for whatever changes you want to see, and that includes tiny municipal elections. Change doesn’t just happen at the federal and state levels. Many changes begin in your city or town, so get involved there. Go to city/county meetings and make your feelings known.

In fact, many of these options are far more productive and helpful than passing around the latest meme or getting into a flame war on Facebook with people whose minds you’ll never change. True, they require more effort, but the best actions usually do.

You don’t have to drag your writing platform into the controversial muck to make a difference. 

There’s a time and place for getting into controversy and only you can decide how or if you want to approach it. Just do so with some consideration to the long term effects it might have on your writing career. If you’re prepared to live with the consequences, then wade in. Otherwise, stay in the middle and find your outlets for change elsewhere.

 

(Photos courtesy of PeterDargatzRyanMcGuire)

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