If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say by Leila Sales Tackles Call out Culture in the Age of Twitter and Social Media
“Call out culture” is one of the realities of being public on Twitter or any social media. Anything you post is part of the public discourse, and unless you have done a good job of retro-actively cleansing your problematic internet history, there is always going to be something in your past that can be dug up.
There is no such thing as an “unproblematic person.” None of us were born “woke” and if there were purity tests for feminism and intersectionality all of us would fail in some way. The important thing is to sometimes take the “L” we are given and truly improve in order to become better people. However, there is a feeling that sometimes we don’t give people, especially younger people, a chance to make mistakes and learn to be better because of it. We hold past misdeeds against them and never allow them to change.
Go back long enough and you can find something problematic about anyone. As someone who has been attacked online in my youth—rightfully so—for making ignorant nonfeminist comments, I can say that once I see evidence of change, I try to take it in good faith. We are not the same people we were ten years ago. People grow and change and change their minds. Y’all have seen me change my mind from one day to another. Part of the reason I’m okay with that, even though it may make me seem “childish,” is because I think it’s important to know that we should grow with new information and we shouldn’t hide that because it’ll make us look dumb. What makes us look dumb is trying to be, as my mother puts it, “wrong and strong.”
What drew me to If You Have Nothing Nice to Say is that the heroine, in the beginning, is the perfect story of a white girl trying to be funny on the internet, but ends up just putting her massive foot in her mouth. The character Winter Halperin, after coming in second-place at a spelling bee, posts this on her social media: “We learned many surprising things today. Like that dehnstufe is apparently a word, and that a black kid can actually win the Spelling Bee.”
What follows is reading Winter’s experiences as her racist tweet goes viral and she becomes a pariah among her friends and community because of what she said. The book never asks you to be on Winter’s “side,” except when it comes to death threats, it just shares her story and the stories of others like her. People who allowed their worst moments to become internet moments.
The most important thing about If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is that it teaches you how to apologize. How to actually accept responsibility and grow from it as a person. It doesn’t justify the hateful language that some people throw on the Internet, but it does explore that their hyper-elevated rage doesn’t excuse the original bad behavior. Winter is forced to deal with what inside of her made her put that message in the first place, and that I think is really important to explore, because those mindsets don’t come out of thin air.
That is something I think we can all appreciate as we navigate the toxic spaces online that we also love. Because as much as we can rag about Twitter, Tumblr, etc., they have also provided a lot for marginalized communities and have given us, in some cases, a better education than we ever got in high school.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is in stores now.
I got the chance to speak with Leila Sales and ask her some questions about her novel, including what inspired the story and why she decided this topic needed a YA narrative.
TMS: One of the really gutsy things about this work is that the main protagonist, Winter, is a really frustrating protagonist. While you feel sympathy for her, there is also this sense that she just doesn’t understand how to be an empathetic person. How did you come up with that character and stick with making sure to make her sympathetic without erasing her issues?
Sales: I believe that you can feel sympathy for anyone if you get to know them well enough. If you know only one thing about a person—e.g. “He’s the one who shot that lion” or “She’s the one who stepped on my foot and didn’t apologize”—then it’s so easy to dislike them.
But the more you get to know an individual—their relationships with their family and friends, their fears and ambitions, the upbringing that led them to this point—the harder it is to just write them off. So with Winter, yes, she is frustrating, and yes, we would want her to be different in many ways. But we’re so close to her, and we know her so intimately, that we also have to feel sympathy for her even if we don’t necessarily “like” her.
Part of the challenge is that the book leads with Winter’s least likable attributes. They’re right there in chapter one, sort of challenging the reader to reject her. Because in real life, that IS how these things go. The first—and often the only—thing we hear about a stranger is what they did wrong, and we form our opinions based solely on that.
There’s another way to tell Winter’s story where you start out showing her likability and vulnerability, and then let readers know her flaws once you’ve gotten them on her side. E. Lockhart does that so brilliantly in WE WERE LIARS. I just wanted the reader to experience Winter’s story as much like a real-world internet scandal as possible.
TMS: As a black reader, it was often hard for me to totally understand empathize with Winter because her comment was so irritating and I think that’s the point. You explain Winter and you ask us to watch her journey, but you never ask us to like her. As an author, were you nervous at all about people sort of coming in with bad faith about the book and not giving it a fair chance to tell its story?
Sales: Yes, absolutely! Like Winter, I want everyone to like my writing. That’s one of the things about Winter that I relate to most strongly: I seek external validation. And I know that it’s easy to conflate an unlikable protagonist with an unlikable story. So I worried—I still do—about people not liking my book because they don’t like Winter’s behavior, or because they refuse to even conceive of liking a story on this topic.
Ultimately, though, the point in these situations ISN’T about whether you like the person. As far as I’m concerned, it does not matter whether you want to hang out with Winter, whether you have been in her shoes, whether you think the public response to her is warranted or completely overblown. The point is to make you recognize her humanity. To understand that, when you go after a stranger online, there is a human being on the other end, with feelings as genuine and important as yours, who will be grappling with your words long after you’ve forgotten all about them.
So if readers don’t like Winter, that’s fine. But if they go through the whole book and still think, “I would happily attack any idiot who made a stupid remark like Winter’s,” well, that would make me feel like I hadn’t done my job.
TMS: When Winter decides to go to Revibe and try to atone for what she’s done, we are shown all these other characters. How did you come up with their backstories and the idea of Revibe?
Sales: One of the most challenging parts of writing this book was figuring out how on Earth Winter would be able to redeem herself. The first hundred pages, of her life blowing up—that was easy to figure out because we have so many real-world examples of what that looks like. But we have almost no well-known examples of how someone can move forward after going through that sort of crisis. What DO you do, other than disappearing forever? And even then, you still have to live with yourself—how do you do that?
I rewrote the second half of the book from scratch three times, trying to find Winter’s way forward. I tried a version where she changed her name and went incognito, I tried a version where she was solving some kind of missing-person mystery, I tried a version where she had this whole other romance plotline with a character who no longer exists…
Out of desperation, I started just brainstorming different settings that I’d been wanting to play with. I’ve always loved summer camp, so I was like, “Maybe she… goes to summer camp?” But that seemed random and unconnected to the first half of the book.
I talked about this with everyone, all the time, and eventually one of my friends said in an off-hand way, “Maybe it’s like an internet summer camp.” And that’s how I got to Revibe, a “reputation rehabilitation retreat center,” that’s one part drug rehab, one part yoga retreat, and one part something that doesn’t exist yet. I researched celebrity rehab centers in Malibu to get the atmosphere right, which resulted in my getting a lot of irrelevant Google ads for a while.
A lot of my books bring readers into specialized, closed, and therefore bizarre environments. MOSTLY GOOD GIRLS was set at an all-girls school; PAST PERFECT was set in the world of historical reenactment; THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE was set in nightlife. So for IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY, it made sense to find a place like that for the drama to play out.
TMS: The expectation of perfection comes up in this book with Winter’s mother, who has turned herself into a parenting guru who strives for excellence with her children and Emerson who feels stuck by not being “good enough” at her new college. How do you feel that desire for perfection also plays into Winter’s character and her desire to try and make amends?
Sales: Winter herself believes that perfection is the only acceptable way to be; she got that from her mom and from her background as National Spelling Bee champion. There’s a bit where she says, “I learned that truth when I was still a little girl, competing in spelling bees. I learned that I couldn’t afford to ever say one single letter wrong. I learned that life is all or nothing: it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done something right; all that matters is the one time you do something wrong. And the only champion is the one who is always, always right.”
Sometimes it feels like that is the sort of culture we live in, where every mistake is seen as a deliberate act of malice, where our kneejerk response to someone who has screwed up is to banish them from society rather than try to find a productive way to help them to do better next time. Don’t get me wrong; there are behaviors in this world that absolutely deserve a harsh, swift punishment. But at the same time we need to acknowledge that perfection is impossible, and if we hold anyone to that standard, they will always disappoint us.
TMS: You mention the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Monica Lewinsky as being influences for your book. What drew you to those narratives and made you decide that a YA book about this issue was necessary?
Sales: Thank you for using the word “necessary,” because that is how I feel about this book. There are scandals like Winter’s every day. Living in America in 2018 means that daily online moral outrage is part of our lives. And we don’t have much of a model for how to handle it. It’s hard to have productive conversations about this issue. Jon Ronson does it in SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED, and Monica Lewinsky does it in her TED talk and her essays.
But otherwise, most of our conversations around people who say or do the wrong things is that we all go online and some people say “THAT PERSON IS A MONSTER” and then other people defend them (like, “She didn’t mean it that way!” or “He’s just a kid!” or “He’s always been a great guy to me though!”), and then the first group comes back with “THEN YOU ARE ALSO A MONSTER.”
We are capable of something more nuanced, more respectful, and more productive. I don’t think a YA book about the issue will fix everything, but I wrote it because I believe it can help.
TMS: In today’s social media/twitter-sphere it is hard to tell between people who genuinely mean what they say and those just doing it for the internet fame, something Winter and the character Lisa talk about. It has also made it harder for us to even pretend to have meaningful conversations. What do you think are the flaws of trying to have social justice conversations on the internet, especially when it comes to younger people? What do you think are the benefits?
Sales: The internet is a tool that humans invented, so it’s not inherently good or bad. It’s just humanity in a mediated form. Social media brings out some of our worst characteristics and some of our best characteristics, but it’s not creating anything that’s not already inside of us.
And as a tool, the internet is incredibly valuable. You can connect with people leading very different lives from you, and that makes a huge difference. Maybe you don’t know any trans people, maybe you’ve never had an honest conversation with an overweight person about how they are treated, maybe you don’t know a single Trump voter and think all 60 million of them are assholes. But the internet allows you to form personal connections with anyone, to hear directly from them what their lived experiences are. So these people no longer seem distant and incomprehensible to you.
The challenges to having social justice conversations online are, first of all, just the sheer lack of space and time. I had to write an entire novel to feel like I was even starting to get into it. There’s no way to do it in 280 characters. And even if you write a whole long Medium post about it, where you DO get into the details, who has the time to read it? There’s infinite content out there, so we’re reluctant to commit to any of it because that would mean missing out on the rest. We are great at reading headlines but terrible at engaging with the nuances that most issues actually involve. There is no one simple answer to how to respond when someone makes a moral transgression, even though it happens every day. That’s what this book is about.
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