The typical plot of a Sophie Hannah thriller sounds ridiculous when you condense it. A man yearns for a family. His wife has a child to please him, but she does not love her daughter. Desperate for affection, the little girl gets angrier and angrier and throws an electric heater in her mother’s bath. Realising her mother is hurt, she throws herself on top of her, and electrocutes herself as well. To cover up the scandal, the father hides the bodies. When a spiteful classmate of his daughter hints to her mother that she knows about the tensions in her family, he kills her and her mother, and hides their bodies as well. Then he has an affair with the novel’s heroine, kidnaps her, locks her up and tries to impregnate her so that they can raise in captivity the happy family he could never enjoy in freedom.
Absurd, as I said. And Hannah would produce forgettable potboilers if she did not have the literary skill and cool awareness of our weaknesses to take commonplace desires for a happy family, or a dream home or sexual adventure’ and push them to their extremes. She has revived the apparently exhausted detective genre by inventing a new style. You could call it every-day Gothic or ordinary extremism. But whatever label you stick on her books, they stay with you because you are likely to share or at least understand the motives of the killer.
Journalists should worry therefore that in her latest thriller – The Telling Error, out in the spring – Hannah builds her plot around the apparently commonplace desire to murder newspapers columnists.
We find the victim, Damon Blundy, trussed-up by his laptop, and suffocated with masking tape. Blundy is a Rod Liddle-style pundit: right wing, prejudiced and a perennial picker of fights, but also compelling and honest in his way. Hannah makes clear that the names of possible killers could fill the rest of her book.
The police ask his wife for a list of his enemies.
“It’d make more sense to give you a list of people who didn’t hate him. Me. There that was quick.”
A weary detective surveying the embarrassment of suspects mutters,
“I wish Blundy had considered the inconvenience to us in the event of his murder. It’s going to take us until next year to interview everyone who might have wanted him dead.”
The Web makes her story credible. Furious tweets, comments for and against Blundy on newspaper web pages, and illicit hook-ups on dating sites power it forward. The Web has allowed hatreds to flourish, and not only in novels. Online anonymity makes it easy to threaten and smear. Meanwhile open access creates an equality of arms. Before its invention, newspapers and publishers received all kinds of letters from cranks. We would throw them in the bin, often without acknowledging receipt. If you are a Johann Hari-style cyber-stalker today, or an obsessive commentator on a newspaper’s web pages, your views are acknowledged and gain a kind of credibility. Certainly, you can fool yourself into believing that you are no longer the isolated embittered man whose screams are lost in a void. Your voice carries and registers. You can see the proof of your success on screen.
I don’t believe that the human race changes, and we are a more unpleasant species than we were 30-years ago. It is just that the Web gives the bully and the hysteric a new prominence.
Without wishing to diminish the online harassment, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism that follow, far fewer writers than you would imagine worry about online hate campaigns, let alone think that they could one day end up in danger like Hannah’s luckless victim. When newspapers first began publishing anonymous abuse under articles seven years or eight ago, I thought journalists would see it as an attempt by managers to undermine their increasingly casualised work forces, and fight back. At the very least, I assumed that women journalists would resign and sue employers who had published sexist insults under their copy for constructive dismissal; or that the National Union of Journalists would demand that publishers remove the coward’s cloak of anonymity, and say that commentators must find the courage to write under their own names.
Nothing of the sort has happened: and not only because at national level the NUJ is one of the worst led unions in Britain. Most journalists are like Hannah’s, Damon Blundy. They don’t care what people say about them online, for reasons which are largely good, and worth following yourself.
1. There’s a strong feeling that if you give it you must take it. This can manifest itself in the taboo against journalists suing for libel. The taboo is far from universal – Private Eye frequently complains about journalists resorting to laws that limit the very freedoms journalism depends on – but it is powerful and reasonable restraint. If a national newspaper, the BBC or any other kind of serious critic goes for you, you respond, of course. But to complain about every criticism is petty, and undermines your own right to criticise others.
2. It’s also demeaning. I’ve noticed on Twitter that when someone responds to mad or sexist abuse, rather than ignoring the abuser or blocking him, there is a perceptible moment of delight when the ranter realises that – at last – he has hit his target and made her notice his existence. You should never give them the satisfaction, however tempting it is to respond in kind. Online arguments are like watching pornography. The excitement catches you for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel dirty and wonder what the point of it was. It is for this reason that journalists take aside young colleagues and tell them never to read the comments on their pieces. You have or ought to have better things to do with your time.
There’s an ex-athlete in The Telling Error, banned for life for taking drugs. He spends his time scouring the Web, tracking down every mention of his name and arguing on Twitter with anyone who wants to abuse him. Without giving too much of the story away, he ends up quite mad. I have seen writers go a part of the way down that road too, and have no wish to join them.
3. Not just professional writers but any writer producing decent work should deliver considered finished articles for the general reader. Allow trolls to drag you into Twitter spats or online comment wars and Nietzsche’s warning about staring into the abyss will soon apply to you. Instead of researching, testing and making arguments for the wider public, you direct your writing at a tiny group of deranged people you can never convince. Inevitably, you start to become like them.
Mutatis mutandis, the same degeneration afflicts writers followed by adoring online claques. Delirious mobs of commentators sweep along the Chomskyan leftists, who say that the Middle East’s troubles are all the fault of western imperialism, or the know-nothing conservatives, who say man-made global warming is a fraud. They reinforce the writer’s prejudices, keep him in a hermetically sealed world, and prevent the overdue rendezvous with reality.
“He’s spending all this time with people calling him names, and telling him they hope he dies,” says the mother of the disgraced athlete in The Telling Error. “He doesn’t just read them, which’d be bad enough – he insists on answering every damn single one of them! He thinks if he engages with them, they’ll see he’s got a good heart, but the worst ones aren’t capable of seeing, because they haven’t got hearts at all! They want to carry on hating – it’s their hobby. Avoiding them, ignoring them, disconnecting – that’s what he needs to do”.
This is good advice and not only for journalists. If writers don’t take it, the Web will kill their critical judgement as surely as any murderer.