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What Happens When High School Students Have to Read Your Book

In the age of social media, teens can be an author’s harshest critics

Paul Greenberg
Sep 12, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

One morning, the students started tweeting at me.

“Hey @4fishgreenberg, is it true that tuna are warm-blooded?”

Another wanted to know if cod were going extinct. Still another student tweeter asked my thoughts on the world’s most sustainable fish. A high school science teacher had evidently assigned my book and found me on social media. And since a whole class full of book purchases makes my publishers happy, I dutifully tweeted back.

But then the bad tweets came.

“Why do I have to read this book by this fag @4fishgreenberg?”

I wrote that I would be telling the teacher about this one.

“I have my First Amendment right to say whatever I want about your stupid book,” he replied.

The tweets from the high school abruptly ceased. Soon, an email came in from the teacher. She was mortified. She apologized profusely. She assured me the student’s Twitter account had been suspended and disciplinary action had been taken.

Seconds later, a tweet came in from a new feed called @4fishisgay.

“Hey @4fishgreenberg,” the new feed proposed, “some fan mail for you.” adjoined was a picture of my book’s cover with a Post-it note: “Suck my dick.”

Once upon a time, writers had something of a lofty, untouchable glow. Writing a letter to the author of one of the books I’d been assigned in high school would have been a stretch. Insulting a writer publicly was unthinkable, unless you were another writer, like, say, Norman Mailer. But now, of course, public discourse is, um, different, and as a writer, you are just as likely to be asked to perform an act of fellatio as you are to list your literary influences.

This, I realize, is nothing new. There were probably trolls at the back of the class at the School of Athens scribbling papyrus wedgie threats to Plato. But what is new is the weird way a book tumbles through the electronic ether, following a fate the author could never have imagined.

Take another academic adventure experienced by my same trolled fish book. A wealthy private day school had booked me to provide a little light intellectual stress relief during standardized test season. I read a passage or two, did my spiel, and was headed down from the stage when a kind-eyed junior approached the podium. “I know this is kind of weird,” he said, “but I think your book was on the English AP.” No, no, I assured him. No one from the testing companies had been in touch; there were a million STEM books out there. But then I gave a second lecture at another fancy school, read the same passage, and had the same reaction from a different student. “Definitely on the test.”

I checked that sad little corner of Amazon.com called “Author Central,” where authors waste valuable writing time tracking sales. There, in tight synchronization with the spring issuing of the English Advanced Placement test, was a sharp spike. Not only had Educational Testing Service pasted a chunk of my book into the test without my permission, but evidently someone also leaked the test, and thousands of others bought my book to get a leg up over their peers. Eventually everything was settled amicably with ETS, but I’ve always wanted to see a copy of the test. “What did the author intend with this passage?” I imagine one of the test questions asking. Answer: The author intended to get paid.

Once upon a time, writers had something of a lofty, untouchable glow. But now, of course, public discourse is, um, different.

At a certain point, I wanted to graduate. Enough with high school. I’d written my book for adult readers, for Chrissake. Couldn’t I get some university gigs? As luck would have it, my publisher had just created its own speakers bureau with the expressed goal of sending its authors to college. So off I went. To colleges hither and yon, in cold, flat, frozen places I’d never heard of. Just like the recording artist who now makes far more bank off his concerts than he does off the actual music he writes and records, so too do we authors find ourselves working the crowds, keeping our books in print and our bank accounts in the black.

How much longer could I pound the pavement and conjure up enthusiasm in places so far from the audiences I originally wanted to reach? And when this last class of freshmen graduates, how many more readers will there be? How much respectability is left for authors in a media environment so full of abridged thought and untethered vitriol?

I thought about all this as an undergrad sped me and three of his fellow ecology students at 80 miles per hour up an Illinois highway toward the airplane that would whisk me away from this particular flat, cold place back to New York. I liked this boy. He reminded me of myself at that age. He liked to fish and hunt and roam the woods. He volunteered to drive me because my book had touched him, made him feel a little less alone in his love of nature. He felt the pain of the loss of the natural world as much as I did, and he told me during the drive that my book had made him want to do something that would save the ocean.

Just then, the doors on the truck in front of us swung open and a dozen two-by-fours tumbled out onto the highway. The nature-loving student zigged and zagged, swerved and dodged. A lesser driver would have sidewinded us into oncoming traffic and killed us all. But this clever boy managed to keep the car straight. With two shredded tires and a gash to the grill, he deftly piloted the car over to the median. In a little while, a state trooper retrieved us and left us at a diner. We shook our heads and marveled at the miracle of our escaping untimely deaths. The waitress came, and I opened the menu.

“What can I bring for you folks this evening?” she asked.

“Bring us,” I said, “bring us something unsustainable.”

Written by

Author of six books including the New York Times bestselling Four Fish and the 2020 quit-your-phone how-to guide Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org

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