“Punching down” doesn’t always feel like punching down


I want to follow up on Friday’s Hugh Howey post without actually talking about Howey (much). I briefly mentioned the idea of “punching down” in that post but Tobias Buckell talked about it more extensively in his post on the subject.

It’s worth clicking through to read what he’s written, but for those that won’t: “Punching down” is attacking someone who is weaker, more vulnerable, or has less power than you. “Punching up” is attacking someone who is stronger, more powerful, and more influential than you. Mocking a rich guy who locked his keys in his Audi is punching up. Mocking a single mother who’s just been evicted because she was laid off is punching down.

Needless to say, punching down is what villains do and I’ve talked about it here on the blog more than once as a way to make sure the sympathetic characters are actually sympathetic. That’s the context of a fictional narrative, though. Most of the time, when people talk about punching up, they’re talking in terms of politics.

Leaving aside the question of whether the offending conversation Howey described actually happened (which I hadn’t considered at first, but Nick Mamatas brought it up and now the whole incident seems just too perfect), Howey is a best-selling author with a serious movie deal and six-figure print-only contracts. He’s doing well. The person he slams is, according to his story, a social climber trying to make herself seem important by offering to connect writers with agents. What’s more, he makes her sound desperate and a little delusional. Is his story, as he himself tells it, punching down?

Absolutely. And yet, I’d bet Howey himself would be surprised to see it this way. I imagine he still imagines himself as the upstart self-publisher, the guy who has to do it all himself, with no help from anyone. I’m sure he sees that scorn, whether it actually happened or not, as the “punching down” he endures every time he goes online or meets someone uninterested in his books.

I’m sure that, to him, this woman had aligned herself with the supposed gatekeepers of NY publishing, and he felt free to take a swing like any hard-pressed hero.

I can’t speak for Howey himself but in my experience putting out a book, either by yourself or through a publisher, feels nothing at all like becoming powerful. Just the opposite, really: We do a shitload of work and then, finally, this thing we made goes out into the world alone. All our hopes for success and praise are mixed with the expectation that everything could collapse, that people might be bored or dismissive or contemptuous. Worse, they might not even know we’re there.

And readers often treat writers as though we’re faceless corporations, like Bounty paper towels or something. They tweet insults directly at the author and act amazed that a real writer with a publishing deal would react angrily.

Readers need to have the freedom to say whatever they want about our books–they deserve it–and a book culture where everyone is nice all the time would be toxic. So when people are kind to my work I’m grateful. When they’re cruel to it, I shrug it off. I tell myself it’s not personal even when it’s clear from the review that it was meant to be. As Toby says in the blog post linked above, when people talk shit about your work, it stings.

So, writer as a position of power? It might be for some, I guess. Maybe if you’re Guest of Honor at a lot of conventions, or you teach writing to eager young folks, or getting a movie deal with a profile in the WSF, or something, that might feel like power.

But the publishing part of being a writer, when you send a book out into the world, whether it’s through a publisher or on your own? That feels like vulnerability.