Tuesday, March 29, 2011

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What it Means to Me*

I’ve very recently read a truly vitriolic exchange between an author and someone who reviewed one of that author’s books. Among the many things that struck me about that exchange was (especially towards the end of the exchange) the blatant disrespect in it. What “counts” as etiquette and “good manners” has changed over time and of course it’s also deeply affected by culture. But underlying manners, “social graces” and so on is the basic assumption that we all deserve to be treated with respect. As a matter of fact, the desire to be respected (I don’t mean cheered on by crowds, but simple basic personal respect) is a very important part of our human makeup. It’s almost as important as our basic “survival needs” and our need to be loved. We certainly see it in real life, and it runs all through crime fiction, too, in large and small ways.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet young Oliver Manders, who works in a law office. He affects a world-weary, blasé manner and enjoys saying very irreverent things, especially about established religion. One evening he’s invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Also invited are the Reverend Stephen Babbington and his wife, as well as Lady Mary Lytton Gore and her daughter Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. During the party, Reverend Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Egg is convinced that Babbington was poisoned, and asks Sir Charles to help find out the truth. Hercule Poirot has also been invited to the party and he gets involved in the investigation as well. Not much progress is made, but then, there’s another, very similar murder. Manders happens to be “on the scene” at that death, too, and comes under suspicion. As Poirot gets to know Manders (and the other suspects), we find that beneath that jaded exterior, Manders is really desperate for respect. He’s illegitimate (which at that time was a scandal), and has other social marks against him. He’s also young and immature, so he’s somewhat ill-at-ease. All of this makes him more than usually eager for others’ respect. When Poirot solves the murders, he’s able to give Manders some guidance about the important role he can play in life, and it’s interesting to see how just that measure of respect makes a big difference to Manders.

In Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw), respect is an important issue for Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy. Mrs. McGillicuddy is traveling by train to visit her friend when another train passes her going in the same direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out of her own window and into the window of the other train. What she sees shocks her: a man is strangling a woman. Mrs. McGillicuddy tries to get someone in authority to do something about what she’s seen, but no-one does very much. To be fair, there is no dead body on the train, and no-one has reported a missing woman. But the conductor’s view and later, that of the police, are coloured by their basic lack of respect for Mrs. McGillicuddy’s ability to remember and report accurately what she saw. More than once the point is brought up that as an elderly lady who’s likely to have all sorts of fanciful thoughts, Mrs. McGillicuddy is hardly to be respected as a reliable witness. The only person who does believe Elspeth McGillicuddy is Miss Marple. Once she hears her friend’s story, Miss Marple makes her own plans to find the body and track down the murderer.

There’s an eerie picture of how important respect is in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery Novelist Harriet Vane has been invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College Oxford, for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. Vane is at first quite reluctant to go, but she decides to attend, mostly for the sake of an old friend. She’s received warmly, and is glad she’s “gone home.” Then, two months later, Vane receives a letter from the Dean of the College, asking her to help solve a disturbing mystery. Someone’s been writing anonymous threatening letters and committing vandalism at the college. The Dean doesn’t want to have the police called in, so she asks Vane to investigate. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury under the guise of doing research for a novel. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers that the vandalism and other frightening events at the school have been committed out of a desperate need for respect.

That’s also true of the terrible murders in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. That’s the story of Eunice Parchman, who works for the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family. One tragic Valentine’s Day, Eunice Parchman kills four members of the family. We know who the murderer is from the first sentence of the novel (in my personal opinion, one of the finer first lines in crime fiction!):

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

We also see as the novel evolves how Eunice Parchman’s need for basic human respect motivates her assumptions, her views and the murders.

And then there’s Evelyn Matlock, whom we meet in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. She’s what you might call housekeeper to the wealthy and well-connected Berowne family. The family took her in when her father was convicted of murder and sent to prison, and now she acts as nurse to Lady Ursula, the elderly family matriarch, and as housekeeper. While the family does not physically abuse her, it’s clear throughout the novel that they have very little respect at all for her. They don’t even refer to her by her name; instead, they call her “Mattie,” a name she dislikes intensely. The Berowne family gets mixed up in murder when Lady Ursula’s son, Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne, is brutally killed. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate the murder and get to know the members of the Berowne family as they look into the death. In the end, the team finds out who killed Berowne and why, and when all is revealed, Evelyn Matlock has this to say:

“This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”

The need for respect actually runs throughout this novel. It’s an important motive for the murder. It’s also important to DI Kate Miskin, who’s new to Dalgliesh’s team and anxious to gain that respect

We can see what the terrible consequences are of lack of respect in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). In that novel, DI Lucia May is called in for what’s supposed to be a very routine investigation. Newly-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski has walked into a crowded auditorium at the London school where he teaches and has shot three students and a teacher, then turned the gun on himself. As May begins to learn about Szajkowski and about the people at the school, she discovers that this was not a case of an unbalanced person who suddenly “snapped.” Rather, the school’s culture of bullying endorses a basic disrespect for anyone who’s not in the “right group.” The more May investigates, the more of a resemblance she sees between the school’s culture and the culture of the police station where she works. We see in that workplace, too, a clear and troubling lack of respect for May and the work she’s trying to do.

There are also, of course, dozens of novels, some good, some not, that feature serial killers who murder in order to gain respect or because they felt they never got respect. I'm sure you could think of as many as I could.

Every society and era is different. Because of that we have different ways of showing respect and being what many people call civil. But whether it’s letting someone ahead of one in traffic, graciously granting a point in an argument, or being humble about success, basic respect is an important part of the “glue” that holds us together. Forgetting about that respect can have devastating consequences.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aretha Franklin's Respect.


  1. I do understand that writers may feel angry, disappointed, sad etc when they read less than glowing reviews of their books, but in my opinion the writer should ALWAYS shut up if he/she is not able to say something positive about the review.

    Readers are entitled to dislike OUR books, just like several of us review books once in a while that we didn´t enjoy for some reason. Of course I also expect reviewers to be polite and never scathing or personal, but no matter what, rule no one applies: shut up if you can´t be positive.

  2. Dorte - I agree wholeheartedly. It is so important for writers to restrain themselves and behave politely, even with a less-than-positive review. It is very difficult to do at times, but it's essential.

    And you make a well-taken point about reviewers as well. Of course a reviewer is entitled to think whatever s/he wishes about a book. Many things are subjective anyway. But there is no reason to let a review get personal, scathing or in other ways unprofessional. There are ways to be clear about what works and doesn't without being disrespectful.

    In my opinion, both sides (and that goes for any situation, not just author/reviewer) need to be respectful. To lose one's basic respect for other just spells disaster. It really does.

  3. Yes, I agree. A writer should never respond to a negative review. At least not in public. Now, if one happens to meet the reviewer in The ladies room??? All bets are off! Ha ha.


  4. I've reviewed before and I've another one out in May. I consider myself to be extremely critical, have the highest expectations, but I still can't imagine eviscerating a piece (after all it's the piece we critique, not the author). That being said, as a writer I have been totally annihilated before and I think it comes with the territory. Best thing I can do is keep my integrity, not argue, and press on.

  5. Cynthia - LOL! Yes, the Ladies' or Gents' is another matter, isn't it? But you've got a very well-taken point. Writers need to behave professionally and respectfully, even when their work is panned. Reviewers need to review in a professional and respectful way. Particularly in public.

  6. Margot, I notice that all your wonderful examples are set in England where class is still a very important factor, and bullying in school almost a national tradition.
    I sometimes think we are moving backwards to the world of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter especially now with unemployment levels so high, and the prevalence of unpaid internships for the children of the wealthy.

  7. Sarah - You put that so well. As writers, we really do best when we keep our sense of integrity, do our very best work as authors, and not let being panned (even in an unprofessional way) get us down for too long.

    I'm glad you have high standards and do not give recommendations unless a book deserves it. That's another way of keeping your integrity and I like that. It's important. As you say, though, having the highest standards does not mean the reviewer needs to get personal. One can critique a piece of work without attacking the author.

  8. Norman - I hadn't thought of that when I wrote this post, but as I see now, you're right. I didn't do that deliberately. It's not just a U.K. problem, either; I think losing that basic respect for others costs us ourselves no matter where we live.

    You make a good point about economics, too. I don't have the hard data, but I suspect there is probably a relationship between relative economic growth or the opposite and the way we treat one another...

  9. I don't know how you do it, but you manage to make me see Christie novels differently each time I read your posts. Great insight.

  10. Am I the only one who feels sorry for that author? Her waspish (and later profane) comments on Al's review blog were, it seemed to me, made by a young, inexperienced, somewhat ignorant (and possibly drunk!) person. Then about 500 people weighed in and had a go at her. I know her actions were very ill-advised, but it is hard to take criticism; her error was in writing down what many people might feel (though oddly, the review of the book was kind; the poor grammar and proofreading were at fault, but the author misunderstood and thought the criticism was about formatting).

    As an editor of a scientific journal that rejects 90+ per cent of what is submitted, I have received far worse, abusive emails and letters from the rejected over the years. The difference, they were addressed to me and a professional person never tells ;-)

  11. Charmaine - Why, thank you :-). That's very kind of you. And I'm glad you enjoy my Christie comments :-).

    Maxine - I don't think you are at all the only one with sympathy for that author. I felt for her, too, and I'm glad you brought that up. It is hard enough to be rejected, however kindly. Trust me. As you say, to add to it all, so many other people chimed in and had their say, which had to make things so much worse (glad you brought that up, too). And if one's inexperienced and hasn't learned how to handle criticism, that simply compounds the issue.

    In the end, reviewers need to remember to review in a professional way that avoids personal remarks. Authors need to learn to accept criticism gracefully. Criticism and rejection are upsetting, but accepting them is a skill that one needs to develop if one's going to write. Those who comment on review fora need to remember to be respectful, too and keep in mind that "mob mentality" helps no-one.

  12. Maxine, as Margot didn´t link to the exchange (as far as I can see), I didn´t know who attacked whom. I just spoke about writers in general :D

  13. Dorte - I'm glad you did. It's a larger general issue.

  14. OK, second time I'm trying to post (even blogger doesn't respect me). I'm sure the first time I wrote these I was much more articulate and erudite :)

    On the issue of that author and that reviewer I think people need to leave her alone. I don't actually feel that much sympathy for her (Maxine I took a look at her You Tube channel and she is as old as me at least if not older) because she really did bring it on herself - the original review was actually pretty decent and pointed out positives as well as the negative and if she had not come back with her barrage of swearing and ranting few people would have ever read the negative review that she was so worried about. Now thousdands of people have read it (the argument having spread to amazon) and she has to accept the consequences of her actions. Of course I think the rent-a-crown in the comments and at amazon are equally unhelpful but that's the flip side of the internet - just as you can publish what you want so can others say what they want.

    As for respect - try being a public servant. Everyone feels entitled to demonstrate their lack of respect for us. It is acceptable for everyone from friends and family to the media to make jokes about our work ethics and general level of corruption. And as for politicians - it's no wonder to me that only publicity junkies and morons go in for the job these days. No sane or intelligent person would subject themselves to the barrage of abuse, cursing, yelling, being spat at, having things thrown at you, being stalked and harrassed...

    On the subject of this post - crime fiction - I can't think of an example to add to the discussion. I seem to be able to recall a couple of plots where women of a certain age finally act out after years of disrespect but am now thinking that might just be my own increasingly murderous fantasy life invading my waking moments because I can't think of a title to match the plot :)

  15. Bernadette - Your point's a well-taken one, both in the specific and in the more general sense. We bring consequences on ourselves. If we behave disrespectfully, we have to face consequences. I still think it doesn't help matters when onlookers, in or not in the blogosphere, egg people on. But people do need to take responsibility for their actions and for what they write.

    I can't imagine the kind of disrespect you and your fellow public servants. At least where I live, they are often overworked, underpaid and blamed for everything. There are, I am sure some corrupt public servants. There are also quite a few corrupt people in private business. I don't wonder you get fed up. I know I would.

    I'm not sure those plots you mentioned are just your imagination. They sound familiar, and I should actually do a little poking around to try to see if I can find some novels that match your description. It sounds intriguing even if you did just come up with it yourself.. ;-)

  16. Bernadette - Might you be thinking of The First Wives Club or Sophie Littlefield's heroine taking action against an abusive spouse?

    I have always believed respect must be earned.

    Reading the first part of the exchanges I lost respect for the author not the reviewer.

  17. Bill - I actually thought of Sophie Littlefield, too, so thanks for mentioning that :-).

    The word "respect" is an interesting one. On one level, there's the simple basic respect to which most people would say we are all entitled. We all deserve to treated courteously and with dignity. At another level, there's the kind of respect that you mention. That's the kind of respect that many people think does need to be earned. That's a very interesting distinction you make.

  18. I can never understand why some reviewers feel the need to also review the author. The review should be about their thoughts on the book and the writing.

    I add to say it, but it seems we are losing more and more respect for each other each day. In a book it makes for interesting plots with twists and turns. However, in real life it's sad. I don't know if our elders had more respect for others or just knew how to keep it to themselves.

    Margot, another wonderful post that makes one stop and think. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  19. Wow, what an important post! I agree with your last line: Forgetting about that respect can have devastating consequences.

    I know 'that author' will regret her vicious words. Maybe not today but soon. But, she will have to accept the consequences. I feel bad. Horrible.

    In my case, I know my writing is still a WIP. I will have to improve for many years to come. I didn't grow up with English as my first language and I didn't learn grammar. So, I'm learning it now.

    I'm astounded at how much bad press she received. Not just on the blog but on her amazon site, many people went over and gave bad reviews.

    A real sad situation.

  20. The comment about Judgment in Stone reminds me of THE READER. She doesn't kill but she seems untouched by the fates of the Jews at her hands as a Nazi concentration camp guard until it becomes clear she has no idea of what is going on because she can't read. And then she can't forgive herself.

  21. I think lack of respect for others is a terrible problem in the real world in the U.S. Bullying has led to several teenagers committing suicide and bullying is simply a cruel form of disrepect. My husband has Parkinson's and therefore moves very slowly and uncertainly. Particularly young people don't show him the respect he deserves, and if I don't step in, they will shove him aside and laugh about it. It makes sense then that fictional people kill for lack of respect.

  22. Mason - Thank you :-). You know, you raise a very interesting question. There's always been disrespect in one way or another, but you could be right that things are different now.

    You're right, too, about reviewers and authors. A review should be about a book, not about the author. Reviewers shouldn't "get personal" or be scathing. For their parts, authors need to be graceful in accepting both criticism and praise.

    Clarissa - It is, indeed, such a sad situation. We can all learn and grow as writers and to be perfectly honest, I've almost never read a book that couldn't have been criticised for one thing or another. Writing a good book is hard. Writing a perfect book is next to impossible. And then there's the issue of differences in taste. So negative reviews happen. Opinions differ. The key is in the way the people involved handle the situation. Some basic respect goes a long way when it comes to communication. And let's face it: treating others with respect can only help one's personal and professional reputations.

    Patti - Thanks for that example! It's a haunting illustration of how important literacy really is and what the consequences can be when one cannot read.

    Barbara - I am so sorry to hear of the way your husband has been treated. You're quite right that that sort of treatment, and bullying, too, are examples of blatant disrespect. And as you've pointed out, that sort of disrespect has had terrible consequences. Studies have been conducted to find out why bullying happens and how to prevent it, but underneath it all, it's a basic awareness of the right of others to be treated with respect. It's so important that you're right; it makes sense that fictional characters kill because of it.

  23. What a profound post, Margot. As so many of yours are. Respect is the glue that binds civilization together, and once we lose that, we have lost what makes and keeps us human. How difficult can it be to be polite, and yet make a point? Specially since you know that not showing a little bit of respect to the other person may some day cost you dear.
    And great examples, as always.

  24. An excellent post, Margot and reading everyone's comments was fascinating. Thanks!

  25. Natasha - Thank you :-). That's awfully kind of you. And you are so right: once we lose the basic respect we should have for one another, we also lose what makes and keeps us human. I really admire that comment of yours! You would think it would be possible to make point and be heard, and still respect others' views, but so often that doesn't happen. And there are so many sad and horrific examples of what happens when we don't - too many for me to list...

  26. Elspeth - Why, thank you! I've enjoyed and learned from everyone's comments as well - including yours :-).

  27. I read everything too, the original review, blog discussion, amazon etc. I still feel that the author is being over-punished for a few hasty and agreed inappropriate comments. I suppose self-published authors don't get any training in how to handle feedback. I particularly felt irritated by the 500 commenters on the blog telling the woman to shut up when she had long since stopped commenting. All very petty - why didn't the people complaining restrain themselves either, rather than looking self-justifying and holier-than-thou? ;-) (I don't mean the discussion here of course, I mean the discussion at the amazon reviewer's blog).

  28. Maxine - I think you raise two important points here that are really worth remembering. One is what can happen when "mob mentality" takes over. Self-restraint can be hard enough at times, but it's even harder when a group has "fixed" on a target (in this case one person). Getting swept up in that kind of mentality without thinking can have really serious consequences. The other point you make is that it's important to be prepared to deal with feedback. Part of that is learning to understand what that feedback means (i.e. making sense of what's said). The other is knowing how to respond to it.