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â€œI Feel Myself Being Actively Dehumanized All the Timeâ€
â€˜Shrillâ€™ author Lindy West on combatting internet trolls and using humor as a tool
Book of the Month, Lindy West
When Judge Joel Stein and the BOTM Editorial team selected Lindy West's memoir, Shrill, for June, I couldn't wait to get Lindy on the phone. We talked about her ongoing battle with internet trolls, how she brings up serious topics (rape, body shaming, feminism) with humor and wit, and embarking on her ambitious book. Read our interview below.
I listened to your This American Life episode and I remember thinking how incredibly screwed up it was for that internet troll to impersonate your dead dad and harass you. You very maturely and with incredible strength took him on, and he actually apologized. When I found out this was that Lindy West whose book we were evaluating - I was SO excited to read it. And Shrill did not disappoint. So then when I went on your Twitter feed to start researching what questions I would ask you - I saw that very same day you were battling yet another internet troll. You were posting Instagram messages from someone you called, 'œthe moistest little turd I've ever interacted with.' What gives? People still haven't learned their lessons?
Well that guy was pretending like he wanted to be featured in my next book. He had listened to This American Life and said he thought that what the troll did in my story was pretty funny, so it inspired him to also come harass me. Then he was like, "you're so nice to the guy on the radio, why aren't you being nice to me?" I don't know what the mental state of these people is - it's kind of baffling to me - but it's not like I expected it to go away after This American Life. It definitely lightened up a bit for a while, just because that piece was so revealing of who internet trolls are. You couldn't listen to that piece not thinking that these are the most pathetic people on the planet. After the piece aired, it was sort of like anyone who came at me for a couple months was just waving a big flag saying, 'I HAVE EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS!'
So I think it deterred people for a little while, although there was also a backlash in the other direction where I had "truthers," where there were a bunch of trolls trying to prove that it was a hoax and that I'd hired an actor to pretend to be my troll. You can find it all online if you search 'Lindy West troll hoax.' So that was exciting. But basically, eventually they just go back to normal. This is a problem that's pervasive on the internet, and it has to do with misogyny and the way that men are trained to not regard women as human beings and also to chafe at the notion that feminists might actually change the way gender functions in our culture. So you can't really solve it and expect it to go away until you fix misogyny, which is a tall order. So I definitely think that my piece had an impact - certainly on me personally - but there's still a long way to go.
You've tweeted about our June Guest Judge, Roxane Gay and said: 'œRoxane Gay is a staggeringly elegant thinker who fills and breaks and fills and breaks my heart.' In reference to an article she wrote about The Biggest Loser. Neither of you is afraid to discuss topics like feminism and body image and their relationship to pop culture, and all with a sense of humor. I'd put Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer in that camp as well. Do women have to be funny in order to bring up these topics?
No, that would be kind of a limiting, presumptuous thing to say. Because some people aren't funny, and that's fine [LAUGHS]. Humor happens to be my coping mechanism of choice, and it's a great way to draw people into your writing. But also - I think I don't get taken seriously the way that more academic writers do. I write a lot of jokes. I put a lot of jokes in my work, I include jokes even when I'm writing about things that are serious, and that causes a lot of people to not take me seriously and to think of me as kind of flippant and like I'm maybe not taking these issues seriously, when really I'm just writing from my perspective and the way my brain works and always has worked is that I process things through humor. So it has its pros and cons. I think that it definitely, for some people, is a really great way to engage readers and I sometimes think about my work as grinding up an aspirin and putting it in applesauce or pudding. To draw people in with work that's just straight ahead funny, but also contains within some less palatable ideas about feminism and social justice. And that's been really successful for me, but I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's the only way to get your point across. But no, my answer is I don't think so. It can be really helpful, but it can also be -
Detrimental - a little bit - I mean I wouldn't trade it. If people want to not take me seriously, that's a failure of their reading, not a failure of my writing.
Let's talk about the process of writing this book - you're used to writing for these blogs and on your own twitter account, with instant feedback from your audience. How is it different working on a longer-form project like a book, and having to wait for all of that feedback?
Ohmygod it's SO different. It's so different. It's so different to the point that I kind of forgot people were ever going to read it and I'm really freaked out right now. Because it's so scary, because also when you're not getting that instant feedback - when I'm writing for a blog or for something that's going to run tomorrow - I'm really careful. I'm cautious, and I don't make myself extravagantly vulnerable the way that I do in this book. But just sitting along in your house for a year - I got into some really intense personal issues that normally I might have thought twice about, if I was just going to throw it up online. I think it's good ultimately for the book. I think that makes it a more, sort of layered, nuanced, piece of writing. And I'm glad that it has that depth to it. But yeah it's definitely different. It was a really, really isolating, solitary process that was really hard. Surprisingly hard. It was harder than I expected. Especially when you've never done it before there's a lot of uncertainty. I was really worried the whole time I was going to accidentally write an 80,000 word blog post and not really exhibit any growth or be able to build something cohesive. I think in the end I did, and I'm really proud of what I made.
Awesome, I think you did too. Why did you decide to write a book? Was it with that in mind, that it would be this larger story with an arc, why was it the format that you chose at this time?
On the one hand, it just seemed like the natural progression. Like, OK I've been a working writer for a decade, I guess the next thing you do is write a book. But beyond that, I was really ready to challenge myself and to see what I was capable of. And I had spent so many years before I was a feminist, political columnist (or whatever you would call me now), as a film critic. And now I comment on the news of the day, and I comment on pop culture, and I analyze that through a feminist lens. And I love doing that, but it's still observing other people doing things and then commenting on them. I really felt a little bit stuck and wanted to transition into not being the person who comments on other people's work, but being the person who makes art. Who makes primary sources. You know? I don't know where that impulse comes from, it just felt like I wanted to see what I could do, and I was frustrated with my work always being dependent on other people's work. Obviously my work isn't independent of everyone else's work because I've spent my whole life being influenced by other writers and other thinkers, but I just mean - when you're a critic, your work can't exist on its own. It's secondary, you know. So I just really wanted to make something.
Based on your experience so far, do you want to write another one? Or too early to tell?
Oh I definitely want to. Especially now that I know how to do it, it's not so scary. And I ultimately really enjoyed the process even though it was really challenging. So yeah, I think I'm going to move on to writing another book proposal, and hopefully transition straight into that once promoting this book is done. I really enjoyed it a lot. I think the medium was really fun to work in and I have more things to say!
Our Judge who selected your book is Joel Stein, who wrote a book called Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity, in which he explores the role of manliness for the twenty-first-century urban guy. In his endorsement essay of your book, he wrote: 'œI finished Shrill a little less judgy than I began. Toward fat people on airplanes. Toward people terrorized by anonymous Twitter users. Toward people who like wizards.' Was that the intention? Was that what you hoped to achieve with this book - less judgment?
Absolutely. I think that the power of personal storytelling is that it's very humanizing, and it helps people get to know you. I think that as a woman, and as a fat person, I feel myself being actively dehumanized all the time. So I wanted to create something that was a deeply humanizing portrait of a fat feminist woman, and also make it engaging and funny and hopefully charming [laughs] so that people would enjoy reading it, and really get a sense of who I am as a human being. And then once then they like me, then it's like, "Haha, you like a fat person!" [Laughs] You know, "You thought you hated us, but you don't, see? See how we're nice and funny and smart?" So yeah that was definitely on my mind when I was working on it. I think that the assumptions people make about the people around them are often cruel and self-serving and I wanted to put something out in the world that counteracts that a little bit.
Also, I don't want to make Joel Stein feel old, but I used to read him when I was a teenager, and I was a big fan. If you want to let him know.
I don't think he gets offended very easily, so I think you're fine with that.
What do you think platforms like Twitter should be doing to combat harassment and this angry vitriol that you've been experiencing? Do you think they should be doing anything? Do you think they've taken steps since the time of the This American Life troll?
Yeah, they have taken steps and I know they're working on it. I don't know, if I had the solution, I would have told them. [Laughs] I don't know, I'm not a computer programmer. I don't know how to make these platforms function better. I do know that one thing that helps is having women writing code. Having women on the actual tech side, where they can offer an insight into how harassment affects female users that male developers might not have. I think that's really important. I think having women in management roles where they're directing the priorities, and at least just having a say in the priorities, is really helpful. Because what we've seen is that we know they've put some time and money into figuring this out, but in terms of actual fixes, what have we seen? It's like, now the favorite button is a heart instead of a star. [We laugh] What is that? You know what I mean? But people are definitely working on it. It might not be possible to fix. Until someone invents a new social network that somehow eliminates the ability to troll altogether, and also it becomes popular enough that everyone uses it, which is just such a tall order, all we can do is make it easier for users I think to control what they see. So what's the best for me is some of these tools that make it possible to block large numbers of people at once. I use Chrome Blockchain extension, where I know the "ring leaders" who send people to harass me, there are just a handful of men with high numbers of followers who hate me and regularly post inflammatory things about me so their followers will descend upon me. With the Blockchain extension I can just go to those users' pages and block all of their followers at once, which is awesome. Honestly that has changed the experience of using the platform tremendously. Just that.
Wow, I didn't realize there were marching orders sent out.
For sure, that's a huge problem. Part of the problem, also, is that the way that the reporting function works, it doesn't take context into account. Because it's not like I get death threats everyday. What I get are hundreds and hundreds of jackasses who have been sent by king jackass to just say slightly irritating, insulting things all day. So you can't report that. If the report function doesn't take context into account, you can't just report someone for saying "shut up," or "shut up you're fat." That's not a ban-able offense, nor should it be. But when it's part of an army of hundreds and hundreds of people coming and all saying that to you at once, that actually does have an effect, that is harassment, and they sort of skirt consequences. Each individual message can be relatively benign, but when you're in the middle of hundreds of them, it's really alarming and very distracting. It makes it really hard to do your work. So I don't know. I wish I knew how to fix twitter. [Laughs] I do know that they're trying. I know that there are people there who genuinely want to figure this out. It might not be possible to retroactively make this system troll-free, since trolls have already figured out how to exploit the system.
My final question for you - how does it feel that your book was selected by Book of the Month as a featured title?
Aww. I'm so delighted and so honored. I still feel like I just started this job - you know? [Laughs] I feel like I'm still just a new writer figuring this out, so to be recognized by such an old, respected entity, it really means a lot. It's very validating and I'm gonna go have a glass of champagne. I'm deeply grateful.
Good - you should! Thank you, Lindy!
This interview has been edited.