Columns > Published on October 2nd, 2014

In Defense of Chelsea Cain

In this column, we’re going to talk a little about an online flare-up, we'll hear a little something about Nicholas Sparks being a jerk at the Laundromat, and we'll cap it off with bit about this author’s time in high school. And these will all end up in the same place, if it works out.

Fingers crossed, readers.

Let’s start this off with what happened online between Chelsea Cain and some other people who are not Chelsea Cain.

Chelsea Cain, author of Heartsick and most recently One Kick, posted some stuff on her Facebook that got folks in a tizzy. Here’s the first post, in its entirety:

I am not your personal customer service hotline. Do not ask me the order of my series or when the book is coming out in your particular country or how to make your fucking Kindle turn on. Google it. It will take you less time and turn up a much more reliable answer.

And the second:

It is almost 1 AM and here I am. Let me clarify my earlier post. I'm here because I want to be here. I spend hours every day reading your comments and questions. I think most of you are super smart and handsome. But if you ask me to take time from writing my next book to answer a question, ask a question. Don't ask me to list the order of my books or ask me if there are any books after Heartsick or ask my how many pages One Kick is. It steals time from everyone. It's so funny to me what social networking has done to all of us. I write stories. I am a person. And I maintain my own FB page. And I will piss you off. This has nothing to do with my books. And here is the thing—I don't care if you like me. I am trying to get through the day. Just like you are.

A few posts (here, here, and here) and the subsequent online responses brought up some interesting questions. What does an author owe her readers, and what does it mean to be an author plugged into social media?

For me personally, it brought up another interesting question: am I still eligible to get my high school writing endorsement?

Let me explain.

In high school we had to take these writing assessments. You'd pick a topic from a pool of three, and then you'd write an essay explaining your position on the topic. If you did a good enough job, you got an endorsement on your diploma.

I never got this endorsement. In fact, in one of the few smart moves I made in my youth, I asked our test facilitator, "Let's say I don't pass this test. Is there a blank spot on my diploma that indicates there should be an endorsement, or is there just a normal spot that nobody would know SHOULD contain something?" Of course, there was no spot that indicated "missing endorsement here", so I figured that as long as I didn't try to get a job at my own high school, this endorsement had no purpose. Which is why I turned in writing assessment essays that included illustrations on the rare occasions I turned them in at all.

Neil Gaiman is 100% correct. George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. Chelsea Cain isn't either.

A big part of the problem was that I didn't care about the topics. Should Kids Be Allowed To Wear Hats In School? That was a popular one, which I didn't care about. I had a giant head. Hats never fit me. It's is a family trait. Last summer I saw an uncle who got a great deal on a Stetson tucked away in the back of a shop. The shop owner gave my uncle a great deal because he figured, unless a circus came to town, this was his only chance to unload what was, essentially, a 32-gallon bucket with a brim.

School uniforms were another popular writing assessment topic. Which I was really torn about. On the one hand, I didn't really want to wear a tie and blazer. On the other hand, this was in the heyday of Britney Spears. My adolescent brain had an easy time coming up with some positive aspects of traditional school uniforms, but it couldn’t really translate those reasons into any sort of palatable text.

Finally, in September of my 30th year on Earth, a topic has arisen that piques my interest. The Defense of Chelsea Cain.

I'll write my essay in five sections, just the way we were supposed to in high school, and perhaps, if anyone is in touch with the Greeley Central High School English department, we can negotiate that diploma endorsement at long last.

Let’s do this.

Introduction: Tell 'Em What You're Gonna Tell 'Em

My high school English teachers always told us to start these writing assessments with a freebie paragraph where you outline what you're going to say.

I'm going to tell you about why Chelsea Cain was right. I'll start with some facts. Then we'll get philosophical, and this will involve an invented story about Nicholas Sparks and Mike and Ike candy. Then we'll talk about an ex-girlfriend's dad. Then the conclusion, where I summarize what I said and leave you with a line that really makes you think. The stinger, if you will. The part that really blows minds and endorses diplomas. The part that I haven’t really come up with yet, but I will. Swear.

First Argument: The Facts

Chelsea Cain, in her post, said she is not your personal hotline. She doesn't facilitate questions about the order of her books, the number of pages in them, their release dates. Nor does she act as any kind of Kindle troubleshooter.

Whenever you can quote an authority in academic-ish writing, you should. Which is why I once made the ill-fated decision to quote Ice Cube in a history paper about the triangular trading system ("Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money"). Since then I've become a bit more choosy about who I quote. So how about a Neil Gaiman statement regarding George R.R. Martin’s decision to enjoy his life rather than finishing his books?

Look, this may not be palatable… and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

Neil Gaiman is 100% correct. George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. Chelsea Cain isn't either.

Man, how come every academic paper I write has to include the word "bitch?" Is there a more scholarly word I can use in its place? To mean "put-upon employee?" How about "Bartleby," as in the Herman Melville story? Stick that in your pipe (which you almost certainly have, if you're a professor type) and smoke it (in your smoking jacket, which you also likely have).

How do I know that Chelsea Cain is not your Bartleby? Because I am.

In my regular life, I work as a librarian. I can say with authority that things like series order and page numbers are not Chelsea Cain's personal responsibility, and I can say that with authority because those things are MY responsibilities

People come into the library and ask about the order of books. They ask about page numbers. And they ask about Kindle help. My god do they ask about Kindle help.

Look, these tasks cannot be Chelsea Cain's job AND my job. We have different jobs. I suppose what I’m saying here is that I’m your Bartleby, your bitch in the parlance of Mr. Gaiman, which means Chelsea Cain is not. 

So far, Chelsea Cain's words are factually correct.

Let’s do a little experiment to establish another fact, that Chelsea Cain is right in directing people to Google for answers.

Here’s the procedure for Googling how many pages are in the novel Heartsick:

  1. 1. Type "Chelsea Cain Heartsick" into Google.
  2. 2. Click the first link, to Amazon.
  3. 3. Less than 25% down the page, I find the answer. 336 pages! Armed with that information I can now...well, I don't know why people ask that question, but here we are anyway.

Now let’s try it again, but this time I’ll attempt to ask Chelsea Cain the same question and get my answer that way:

  1. 1. Type "Contact Chelsea Cain" into Google.
  2. 2. The first page of results directs me to contact her publicist.
  3. 3. I go back and try the next Google result. Which takes me to Cain's home page. Then I click CONTACT and get the same publicist page as above. Balls.
  4. 4. Back to the Google search. 5 results down I find her Facebook! Ah!
  5. 5. I sign into Facebook and am presented with the option to post on her wall.
  6. 6. And then, if this is how I’d decided to ask such a thing, this is where I would post.

According to my calculations, the second search was dumb. Feel free to check my math on that.

My point here, the second important fact, is that people are taking the long way 'round when they ask Chelsea Cain these sorts of questions. Not to mention that at the end of the second search I’ve only succeeded in asking the question. I still don't have the answer. How am I supposed to plan my day without knowing how long Heartsick is? 

These two facts, the fact that I’m your Bartleby and the fact that it’s actually harder to contact the author directly than find the information yourself, support the truth behind Cain's words.

You might not like how Cain spoke to these truths, but I'm not asking you to like anything. Neither is Chelsea Cain. Remember?

I am a person. And I maintain my own FB page. And I will piss you off.

All I'm asking for is acknowledgement of the fact that she was empirically correct in what she said. Which closes my first argument. I can taste that sweet, sweet writing assessment endorsement already. 

Second Argument: The Curious Case of Nicholas Sparks's Mike and Ikes

I'm a huge Nicholas Sparks fan in this story. You don’t really know me, so if you feel like I’m being less than genuine about my love for Nicholas Sparks, that’s on you.

I'm a big fan. I loved that book about the magic, time-traveling mailbox. Wait, was that him? Or was that a James Patterson. Crap. Well, either way. I'm a huge fan. I buy all his books, I enjoy them. Especially...The Notebook! That's a Sparks joint! 

Let's say I bought The Notebook, the Nicholas Sparks story that taught the world just how alluring Ryan Gosling is with wet hair. Let's say I bought that book, and then I buy all his other books, and then I meet Nicholas Sparks at the Laundromat. He's fallen on hard times because he wrote a book about a magic, time-traveling mailbox, and then James Patterson sued him like crazy. Now he’s forced to use a Laundromat with the likes of me, with the scumbums and occasionals who need to handle a peed-up area rug.

We say hello. I speak to Nicholas Sparks a little awkwardly because I'm such a huge fan. He thanks me, and as we shake hands I can't help but notice he's wearing a fanny pack stuffed with quarters for his laundry. I tell him how much I love his books, how I have all of them in soft cover and hardcover. I think about making a punny joke regarding his title Three Weeks With My Brother and how that amount of time is more like THREE YEARS with MY brother. But I don’t because I’m too nervous.

When yo​u buy a book, think about it like a contract. That contract is for the one book. Not for a series, not for merchandising. Not for an on-going relationship.

I start loading my stuff in the dryer while I tell him how much I loved another one of his books, the one where there’s this guy and a girl and they do love stuff. It's during this time that I notice I'm one coin short of what I need to get my dryer tumbling.

I lock eyes with Nicholas Sparks. His are dreamy. Poorer than ever, but still, dreamy. And then he pulls a handful of quarters from his fanny pack, and instead of handing one to me, Nicholas Sparks starts cranking quarters into the candy machine in order to claim all the Mike and Ikes inside. Not boxes of Mike and Ikes from a vending machine, mind you. The loose, quarter machine Mike and Ikes that have been in there since 1974.

Nicholas Sparks was a jerk. A real big bastard. Not only is my laundry soaked, but now no one else who visits this Laundromat will be able to temper the misery of laundry with the fruity, satisfying chew of a Mike and Ike.

My question is this: Did Nicholas Sparks owe me that quarter? If I bought his books, if I loved ALL his books, if I gave him 5-star reviews everywhere I could, does he owe me a quarter?

The answer is No.

When I purchase a book, that's the beginning and end of our transaction in terms of who owes who what. Okay, if the book wasn't what I was promised, if somewhere in the middle of the rising action the text fell away, leaving only a hand-scrawled message from Nicholas Sparks that said, "No time to finish this book, losers! #YOLO! —Sparky" Then yes, I was duped and deserve some kind of refund. Maybe even a total refund.

But that didn't happen. The story was completed. From what I've gathered, the old man got his memory back, used his superpowers to save the ghost boy from the haunted graveyard, and all was well. I bought his book, I got the book, and that's the transaction.

When you buy a book, think about it like a contract. That contract is for the one book. Not for a series, not for merchandising. Not for an on-going relationship. Chelsea Cain fulfills her end of the contract up front when she writes the book. If you feel like she owes you something, a certain response to a query, I'd point out to you that you're creating a new contract with her, and if you think Nicholas Sparks is not required to give me that quarter, you're agreeing as well that Chelsea Cain's time, the time it takes to craft a response, is worth less than 25-cents.

Yes, we all hope our favorite authors, our favorite sports stars, and Nicholas Sparks will act the way we want them to if we're lucky enough to interact with them in some way. They have to interact sometimes, but sometimes, sometimes they just need to do some damn laundry and eat some Mike and Ikes.

If you're not convinced, let's look at your side of the coin.

Let's say you buy the Nicholas Sparks novel A Walk To Remember because you saw the movie and found Mandy Moore enchanting. As we all do.

You buy the book, and it sucks. Remember, this is purely hypothetical. If you're reading this, Mr. Sparks.

Now, my question for you, does your purchase of the book, your participation in the art of Nicholas Sparks, mean that you have to write a positive review of the book? Of course not, right? You bought the book at the set, market price, and that's the exchange.

You run into Nicholas Sparks at the Laundromat, and this time YOU have the quarters. Are you obligated, because you enjoyed his book, to give him a quarter? No.

You enter into a pseudo-relationship with an artist when you purchase his work. However, that relationship does not dictate your future behavior in regards to that art or its creator, nor does it dictate your behavior, in general. You can, of course, CHOOSE to become a devotee of Nicholas Sparks, or you can elect to actively mock him in a column, but the simple act of making a purchase and experiencing a piece of art does not put you under any sort of contract, nor does it put the artist under one.

This whole issue goes beyond whether or not Chelsea Cain should be nice on Facebook. It's about whether or not she is obligated to behave a certain way because people bought her books. 

Nicholas Sparks's contractual participation ends with the last piece of punctuation in his book. Your obligation ends when you purchase the book legitimately. After that, it's basically a handshake. Each of you go your separate ways, and each of those separate ways include a stop at the bank to get a roll of quarters.

Third Argument: My Ex Girlfriend's Dad

So we've established that Chelsea Cain was factually accurate and that she is not obligated to behave within any certain parameters based on the fact that people purchased her work. That brings me to a bigger, even more important point.

I can't remember if my high school English teacher told me to put the best point first or last. This is why you should pay attention in school. Ugh, I can't believe I just wrote that. Don't pay attention in school, kids. I'm an adult with a career, and I'm telling you that they're wasting your time.

Back to Chelsea Cain.

A lot of the blow back I read online went something like this:

Geez, you could be nice to your fans. If I made as much cheddar off writing as you, I'd be a little more grateful to the people who bought my books.

Okay, most of the people didn't use the term "cheddar." That's a bit of what we call "artistic license." Another crucial writing assessment technique.

Let me explain why the If/Then logic is flawed here, and let me explain it via a story about my high school girlfriend.

My high school girlfriend, her parents were divorced. She lived with her mom, who was kind of horrible. She treated my girlfriend like a true Bartleby. My girlfriend took care of her much younger siblings every evening, all weekend, and all summer. This wasn't like a fun, nanny, be close to your siblings situation. This was a thing where she woke up to take care of the kids in the morning, fed them all their meals, and if they took a nap, my girlfriend celebrated because she might have time to finish staining the fence in the backyard. On top of all this, her mom was not very nice about the whole thing.

It sucked.It really sucked.

My girlfriend lionized her father, who she never saw. She always wanted to visit her father. And who could blame her? She badly needed to get away from the Bartleby life and have just an occasional, normal teenage life.

My girlfriend blamed her mother for the fact that she never saw her father. Her mother, who was remarried and was quite wealthy, wasn't getting the child support owed by my girlfriend's father. No check, no visit. In the two years I knew this girl, I think she visited her father once.

I kept my mouth shut. But I knew the truth, and the truth was that in my girlfriend's mind, her father was perfect. And he remained perfect because he was never around to prove her wrong. He was never there to enforce a curfew or make her do homework. He didn't have to be a parent. He didn't exist, and because he didn't exist, he never promised anything. It was impossible for him to let her down.

Here's where the analogy comes in.

Chelsea Cain was attacked with this message:

Chelsea Cain is lucky to be a bestselling author, and if I were in her shoes, I would behave differently.

If you ever think like that, if you ever think, "If I only had X" or "If I could just do Y" then stop yourself. Right in the moment, cut that thinking right off. What you talk about when you say those phrases is an idealized version of yourself. A version of yourself where all your personal flaws are extinguishable because of a change in your circumstances. I would hire a personal trainer and be in great shape. I would give to all these different charities. I would donate to a different awesome Kickstarter every day! If this one good thing happened, I would become this good person.

You are saying that this idealized, non-existent version of you would be a certain way. It's an easy thing to say because, much like my high school girlfriend's father, that idealized version of you is not going to show up on your doorstep to prove you wrong.

It's sickening that books and art might suffer because their authors are their authentic selves on social media or in the public eye.

What you're doing when you say Chelsea Cain has a certain something that should cause her to act a certain way, is to compare Chelsea Cain, the real, actual, flesh and blood Chelsea Cain, to the idealized version of yourself that doesn't exist. Which is supremely unfair.

The real Chelsea Cain is a person. She lives in the same world as you, not the idealized version of you, but the real, actual, flesh and blood person you are right now. She pays bills. She works. She gets in her car and the CHECK ENGINE light comes on. She gets hassled at the airport.

If you want to be fair, compare yourself to Chelsea Cain. Put your real self in that hypothetical moral cage match with Chelsea Cain. Say what you actually do. Don't tell everyone how you would react to the question Chelsea Cain gets over and over. Tell us how you react to the question YOU get over and over. The "Where's the bathroom?" from work or the "Why is your hair like that?" look from everyone. Because it's not the one silly question that breaks a person down. It's the one silly question for the hundredth time on the same day the CHECK ENGINE light comes on and you don't get the work done you should have and you forgot to pay the stupid Nicholas Sparks fan club bill this month and now you won't get exclusive offers.

I'm not saying that Chelsea Cain has it harder than anyone else, or that she's a saint. I'm saying she's real, and what you do, if you compare her to an imaginary being, is to say she's not.

Conclusion: Tell 'Em What You Already Told 'Em And Then BLOW SOME MINDS

Chelsea Cain was not incorrect. Chelsea Cain has completed her obligations to fans when they get her complete, non #YOLO-ended books. Chelsea Cain suffers in comparison to the imaginary version of you that saves dolphins and speaks French.

The arguments I've made so far have mostly been about how Chelsea Cain was right. Not about whether she made people happy.

Can I tell you something? Her answers, her posts? They made me happy. Because I read those, and damn it, I knew that Chelsea Cain was a real person. I knew that there sure as hell wasn't some faceless company running her social media for her (which, by the way, is the proposed solution one outspoken critic of this event provides, and it just so happens that she provides this service at a cost. I call conflict of interest on that play!).

I want my books written by writers. Not marketers. I'll take an author over a marketer any day of the week. It's sickening that books and art might suffer because their authors are their authentic selves on social media or in the public eye. Which is how Chelsea Cain did it. Have you read her books? They are blood and guts. A little Facebook wrist slap does not cross any of the lines she's established with her voice as an author. We're not talking about Eric Carle telling kids they can take the Very Hungry Caterpillar and see if it can eat through their dumb, thick skulls. We're talking about an adult talking to adults in a consistent manner.

Can I drop a few Cain quotes pulled off Goodreads?

Our relationship is complicated by the fact that I am emotionally retarded.

Her body was spattered with tiny bits of the reverend’s flesh and blood, like someone had combined shrimp and tomato soup and then forgot to put the lid on the blender.

One more, apropos of the situation:

Something about the way she moves through the world does not lend itself to the care of fragile objects.

If you were offended by what Chelsea Cain said, then I would guess you're not much of a fan (one anti-Cain blogger admitted, right from the get-go, to having no familiarity whatsoever with Chelsea Cain, which seems to negate a lot of the cred there).

When I see the lines quoted above, and when I read what Chelsea Cain put up on Facebook, I hear an authentic voice that has something to say. Which is why she should be writing books, and why I'm damn glad she does.

If you've got a voice, and if you've got something to say, you're bound to offend people. If you're one of those offended parties, I recommend you sit down with a box of Mike and Ikes, dip them in water so all the flavor will be washed away and you'll be left with only the bland gelatin. Then, seek out Nicholas Sparks on Facebook. Trust me, if inoffensive is what you want, you will be in a paradise of flavorless gelatin and numbing social media content.

The author is now prepared to accept his high school writing assessment endorsement. Whether that be in the form of a stamp, seal, or some sort of sticker.

Read more about Chelsea Cain right here.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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