The other night, I got my first piece of "hate mail". Well, it wasn't hate, exactly, but it was about my novel, Songs for the New Depression, and this person clearly had an issue. He wrote, "This book is a piece of garbage made for cliche homosexuals who are nostalgic for a life that they never had. It's a disservice to our generation, the most recent ones, and the actual diversities in the gay community. Saccharin to the max. You all are suckers."
Now, my first thought was to just delete the comment and try to brush off the sting. After all, I fully realize that not everyone who reads the book will love it, though the reaction thus far has been incredibly positive. Still, there was something about the way he described the book as "saccharine" which didn't feel right to me. People have used words such as "riveting" and "brutal" in describing the book, but there is little about the story or lead character which is remotely sugar sweet.
So I wrote the gentleman back.
In part, my note said: "I'm sorry you didn't like my novel, Songs for the New Depression. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion, and if you actually read it and thought it saccharine, that is entirely fine with me--you are welcome to your opinion, and I appreciate your sharing it. I do, however, take issue with your comment that the book is somehow written for those nostalgic about a life they never had. The novel was loosely based on my partner, Shane Sawick, who I put into the hospital on the day I turned 30, and who died just two weeks later. Having watched countless others die as well, I assure you that few of us who lived then are nostalgic for that time. The book is really about facing our own mortality, finding redemption, and living fully and authentically, which I think are themes that all people can learn from, regardless of their individual experiences. If, as you say, you did read it, then we'll just disagree about the intent and quality of the work. If, however, you have not read the book, if you give me a mailing address, I'm happy to send you a copy, so you can evaluate it more fully."
He responded quickly, confirming that he hadn't actually read the novel, but had based his feelings and subsequent actions on an advertisement for it.
There are two important elements in this exchange I'd like you to consider.
First, without full knowledge or understanding of something, he took the time to put a negative thought out into the world. His anger came through in his writing, and it upset me in return. What good did such negativity do either of us?
Second, and more importantly, is how I decided to deal with the situation. After initially reading his first email, I deleted it, but then thought better of it. Had I done as I originally had intended, his stated issue and anger would have burned through me, making me question my work and allow my insecurities to take center stage.
But instead I retrieved his email and wrote him back.
My first draft, however, was very pointed -- it too written in anger -- and would surely have prompted a similar response from him, allowing that negativity to simply spiral out of control for both of us. Instead, I allowed my finger to hesitate above the "send" button, eventually deciding on a different and more open approach.
In his following note, confirming that he hadn't actually read the novel, he wrote of my measured response, "Bold move."
There is nothing bold about being kind and extending understanding. We've all made mistakes (drunk facebooking, anyone?), but as we evolve, hopefully we learn to give each other room for such mistakes, and not take on others negativity as our own.
The energy that we put out into the world has power, and the effects of our choices can have ramifications far beyond our limited sight lines. Use your power wisely.
Causes Kergan Edwards-Stout Supports
AIDS Services Foundation/Orange County, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Literary