Salman Rushdie and author danger: a cautionary tale

Last week’s attack on Salman Rushdie underscored, for me, one of the harder realities of being a writer. You get hated by total strangers. And sometimes they go berserk.

Its sad that authors get targeted, physically or otherwise. One might argue that Rushdie was a special case; but on my experience it’s a risk all authors face. Just writing something is enough to provoke somebody. It’s actually true for all the arts. Look at what happened to John Lennon, or the time someone pushed Frank Zappa off stage in London, seriously injuring him.

My own experience is salutary: I write academic and popular stuff on history and science, which you’d think is innocuous – yet I’ve been spat on by strangers, confronted by strangers quivering with anger and clearly barely able to stop themselves hitting me, and serially abused by viciously hostile strangers whose sole lifetime goal, apparently, is to destroy my good name and income. Just writing stuff to educate or entertain those who share my fields of interest is, it seems, all it takes.

A selection of my books – I mean, who could find any of this so offensive they have to destroy me?

Why strangers attack authors

Why do strangers explode out of nowhere, frothing with hatred? First off, this has to be put in proportion. As even Rushdie’s case reveals – the ‘haters’ are a small minority. Again in my own case, based on my sales figures, only a tiny minority of those who buy my books respond at all, either by approaching me or publishing some commentary – it’s a tiny fraction of a percent. Still, the fact remains that more than 90 percent of the feedback I do get is abusive. The pattern is clear: people who like my stuff aren’t motivated to tell me. Those who dislike it explode with open hatred and have to destroy me.

In non-fiction, I’ve found the worst examples are academics. Not all of them, of course. Just the ones who view the field as a zero-sum game and have then wrapped ‘their’ topic around their sense of self-worth. The fact of my writing in ‘their’ territory becomes an insult to their very soul and means I must be utterly destroyed with all the frenzied anger they can muster. I have never understood this – to me, everybody has something of their own to contribute to any field and all should be welcomed. But I appear to be a minority. I’ve had academics run crusades against me for intruding into their property – there’s one who’s been abusing everything I do for over twenty years, all without once actually approaching me for a discussion. But I first realised this attitude might put me in physical danger when I was accosted in the Archives New Zealand reading room by a stranger who stood over me with balled fists and roared at me, quivering with anger and clearly having trouble stopping himself hitting me. I felt that if I stood up he’d have clocked me one. Turned out he’d had books rejected by my publishers on the same topic as mine. This became my fault and when he saw me in the reading room, it seems, he saw red.

I’m far from alone – it’s a common problem in non-fiction writing. Last year a friend of mine was physically pursued out of a reading room by a stranger who accosted him, demanded to know what he was researching, and openly told him to ‘keep out of my territory’. It wasn’t subtle.

A fellow writer responding to my writing in their personal territory…

Reader feedback

I also get reader feedback of the same style. Again, it’s from a tiny minority of readers – at most I’ve had one per book – but all fall into the same pattern: ‘Dear Mr Wright, I liked your book —-, but on page…’ Inevitably it’s some data-point they think diverges from whatever they believe to be true, for which it’s my fault even though I’m correct to source. The worry is the persistent ones. There was the car enthusiast who wrote multiple times to my publisher of the day, Random House, to ‘correct’ captions in a series of pop-culture books I wrote. ‘Gentlemen,’ he would begin, collectively addressing the Random House editorial team (who were all women, incidentally), before outlining the latest ‘error’ he’d decided I’d made. His ‘correction’ letters eventually began arriving to my home address. Yup, I had a stalker.

My favourite is a multi-page rant from a university academic, who’d decided every publication on a topic was wrong. That included mine – but he blamed me, personally and alone, for everybody else’s ‘errors’. He told me he’d been dissuaded by colleagues from writing earlier, but when he saw a newspaper article by somebody else, repeating these ‘errors’, he had to let me know I was personally responsible. The fact that the article didn’t cite my work wasn’t apparently relevant: I, alone, was to blame. Ouch.

I suspect the people performing this way have entangled validation of their self-worth with their enthusiast interest, defining ‘knowledge’ as a measure of that worth. If I publish something that differs from what they believe to be true – let’s say my source says the distance between bogies on a railway carriage is 18.101873363190981 cm, but they are convinced it’s 18.101873363190891 – then I have insulted them at the deepest level, and that has to be avenged by ruthlessly destroying me at all cost. No discussion. No compromise. And they have to win.

Actual photo of an enthusiast responding to one of my books.

Beware of strangers offering favours

One might suppose most people have good-will, and I think they do. But I am cautious. There was the time a gentleman wrote offering to ‘help’ with a book he’d heard I was writing; I politely thanked him, but declined the offer, as the book had gone to print. A week or so later, the local newspaper printed a full-page attack on my work. Apparently I hadn’t replied according to the script in his head, so he avenged himself by going behind my back to the media. They then failed to approach me for comment before publishing – a serious lapse of journalistic protocols. The editor agreed they’d erred.

What frustrates me is that if somebody has a problem, all they need do is talk to me in civil fashion. But it never seems to happen. Luckily all this reflects only a minority – as I say, a very tiny minority – of people who read my stuff. But they are rather noisy about it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022

13 thoughts on “Salman Rushdie and author danger: a cautionary tale

  1. Matthew, you have my sympathy. There is a small percentage of the human race that is, frankly, wierd – ego dominated and deluded by their own minds, and very prone to projecting problems onto other people. You appear to have suffered from them more than most. Any idea why your books might attract such people?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not just me – happens to a lot of writers. Numerous colleagues of mine have had the same kind of experience, including being harassed, defamed, etc. I am not sure how many have been physically threatened or spat on (as has happened to me) but it’s bound to have happened. It’s that issue of people attaching self-worth to something that others can also engage with. I believe the same phenomenon exists in other fields altogether, including (according to my sister) wool-crafts. Definitely a ‘human’ thing that a certain percentage of people seem to display.


    1. No question about the viciousness of the academic mind-set – it’s why I never pursued a career in it: the ethics of the field when it comes to interpersonal conduct were void by my standards. What perturbs me about the history academy locally in NZ is the way a number of academics have pursued me out of that field and into the public arena in an open effort to destroy my good name and commercial income – usually on the fantasy that, because I’ve written books for a commercial audience, I must be ignorant of academic principles and therefore must be stopped. I’d laugh – a lot – if this sort of rubbish didn’t hit my bank balance. Right now I’m wondering what to do about a military-academic historian who’s been serially gas-lighting for the past couple of decades. His response to my last book in ‘his’ territory was a series of articles and put-down reviews pivoting on open denial of my scholarship, which he spammed across various publications; he circulated photocopies of my work to his colleagues; and his little group began pressing reviewers to join the band-wagon, etc. It was a pretty obvious effort to systematically do damage. One hesitates, of course, to dignify such conduct by engaging it, but there comes a point where something has to be done.

      I think the mind-set that drives the enthusiasts to similar conduct is also similar: wrapping self-worth around a topic. In terms of history enthusiasts, the Dunning-Kruger principle applies in that many of the self-appointed ‘experts’ aren’t qualified in history or any related field (noting that the critical analysis skills of the humanities are transferable). So they are not aware of basic analytical principles, critical analysis and so forth, instead taking data-points as literally true without assessing the nature of the source. As a result, if I have one source and they have another – the sources, inevitably, disagreeing with each other – it becomes ammunition for them to publicly attack me for being ‘wrong’. There’s also the issue of the rough-edged human conclusions that usually emerge from analytical history, set against the ‘perfect past/warm nostalgia glow’ vision often portrayed by enthusiasts.

      I didn’t outline it in this post, but there was a group of autodidact enthusiasts in my home district who decided I’d ‘insulted’ various historical figures – despite my analysis being well-based on authenticated sources, of course. They decided to ‘avenge’ these people by destroying me – peddling a succession of increasingly wild lies about my character and integrity in the local paper. In fact it was an effort to drive me out of ‘their’ territory, and it came to an end when one of them also approached my employers of the day, and then – separately – my publishers, to ‘warn’ them not to use me on the basis of the fantasy character and conduct they’d assigned to me. It was a direct effort to damage my income and employment. None of them would engage me directly, it was all behind my back, so I had little option but to seek legal remedies. It was trivial to give the lie to their allegations, and not hard to stop the paper from publishing – I settled out of court immediately. I declined to pursue the enthusiasts for a settlement which, in all probability, would be settled out of court – they had been so crazy in their claims. I was advised none of them had any money and, certainly in New Zealand, the scale of settlement a judge might allocate would be unlikely to make good the legal fees. All I could to really stop them was stop writing in ‘their’ territory – which, of course, had been their aim all along. It shows why gas-lighting is such a successful tactic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I left academia early, and my experiences informed my eldest sons choice not to pursue an academic career.

        As for autodidacts, try IT or Data Networking. Just because you have a PHD in Particle Physics doesn’t mean you can tell me how to develop the data network capable pf taking the output form the LHC……but they know better, they backstab, they talk down to me. I was once lectured by a young PHd about how a particular protocol worked. I had invented it. He would not believe me when I told hiim.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh. I had no idea it was that bad, Matthew. I suspect the Salman Rushdie case has made everyone hyper aware of the ‘nutters’. I agree with you as to why they’re nutters, but when people like that start acting out, it’s time to start thinking seriously about getting them professional help. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In my case the people performing like angry psychotics whenever I write a book on ‘their’ subject aren’t triggered by content, particularly – it’s the fact of my having written in ‘their’ territory in the first place. Apparently this means I must ‘own’ it instead of them, an insult that has to be avenged at all cost… And yeah, maybe the people who think this way do need help. But they won’t admit there is a problem. Sigh…

      The only real triggering-from-content I’ve suffered was the time a local far-right lobby group began stalking and abusing me online as a result of my book on the Treaty of Waitangi. I’d dared uphold the traditional viewpoint of it!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It does. In a general sense the ‘affronted territorial defender’ issue is far from new for me: it’s been a constant experience in 40-odd years of writing, always a minority but inevitably ever-present. All it takes is to write something – anything – in a topic somebody else feels they ‘own’, and …blam. It doesn’t even matter what I write, or – apparently – what the topic is! It’s only a minority, but it’s a noisy one. Not one of them ever considers that – hey – maybe I should be the one exploding in a vengeful rage at THEM for writing in MY territory! 🙂 However, everybody’s under stress just now and this sort of behaviour seems to be emerging as a general issue across a whole lot of walks of life, as society cracks.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, it’s that ‘as society cracks’ bit that worries me. Just exactly how thin is that veneer of civilisation? Just finished a very well written scifi novel about rolling plagues in the future, caused by bacteria etc in the permafrost being release again thanks to climate change. If society breaks down /this/ easily after just one plague, how in heck will we cope if they become the ‘norm’?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree with the cheesesellers wife. Although there’s no excuse for the hateful behaviour of detractors, non fiction in particular is what sets people off. That’s because journalists, non fiction authors and experts are not exempt from bias. I like to read as many sides of an issue that I can and decide for myself what to believe. What is becoming more fraught is opinions that don’t fit the mainstream narrative.

    Would have liked to read what it is in particular that has some people hounding you.


    1. I find that strangers are usually ‘triggered’ not because I’ve said something controversial that makes them angry, but because I’ve written in ‘their’ territory, which is ‘their’ property and I must therefore be driven out and destroyed. The only real exception was the book I wrote on the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, which prompted a far-right lobby group to target me for abuse because I’d written upholding the traditional status-quo, but that faded off after a while. More usually it’s the territorial issue: I write on a whole range of topics and the problem has happened in a fair number of them, irrespective of content (have a look at my website for my list:


Comments are closed.