In October, film critic Christopher Smith (pictured) self-published the thriller, Fifth Avenue. When his book cracked Amazon’s top 10 bestseller list, he faced homophobic insults and death threats in a now-deleted post on an Amazon.com discussion board.
We caught up with Smith to talk about the controversy. Our interview follows below…
UPDATE: This interview has generated criticism from a number of readers. We have collected some reader responses here.
Q: Did you expect to deal with controversy when you put Fifth Avenue out there?
A: I did ask friends about a few specific scenes in the book and wondered if I should censor myself from telling the truth in those scenes. I don’t believe in censorship, so I decided not to self-censor, especially after reading Stieg Larsson‘s books, which can be brutal.
I think the controversy came down to the fact that the character in question, a man, has an unusual sex scene with another man. It was meant to inform his character, and it does. I had no idea that scene would create the controversy it did.
Q: Does your book continue to sell despite the smear campaign?
A: Because of the smear campaign posted on Amazon’s discussion forums, in which people actively organized in an effort to bash the book for its gay content, it did hurt sales for about a week. Still, the book never fell off the Top 100 best-seller list. Now, it has climbed back up the list and sits in a high position.
Q: In your fight against this slander, what do you hope to accomplish?
A: By going public with what happened to the book and to me on those discussions forums, which often are caustic and filled with hate, I decided to reach out to the press because what they were doing was wrong. Gay bashing is wrong. A smear campaign against a book is wrong. I knew I had to stand up and fight back.
As a critic, I expect honest reviews, not repeated calls to action to destroy a book and its author because it features a gay character who has a brief scene of graphic sex with a man. The movement they organized had a lynch-mob mentality to it. I didn’t fully understand it, but I wasn’t going to stand for it, particularly because anyone could have been reading their vitriol. Given the recent rash of gay teen suicides, what if a gay teen came upon that forum and read the hate within it? I couldn’t allow that to happen, so I decided to fight back and counter their hate by doing something positive–getting that forum removed. It took three days of repeatedly calling Amazon to do so, but now it’s down.
Q: What emotions did the smear campaign invoke from you?
A: I felt violated by their campaign. I was sent death threats from people, one of whom wanted to “take me behind a barn and shoot me dead in the head.” I felt like I was the Scarlet Letter. I also felt a bit sad for these people, because if a writer can’t write about all of society–and all of its depths–then we are regressing as a society, which is worrisome.
Q: What stigmas are still associated with books featuring gay sex/romance?
A: Some just aren’t comfortable with gay sex. There always will be stigmas. But as a writer who writes about all sorts of characters, if one character happens to be gay, I’m not going to censor their lives for it. I’m going to explore their lives. That’s what writers do.
Q: What are your plans as a writer for the future?
A: My next book is half-written and should be finished by spring. It’s a Wall Street thriller called Running of the Bulls. I’m excited about it because it features the hit-man from Fifth Avenue, who I love writing about because he’s smart and often witty. You’re not supposed to like him, but many readers have written in noting that he was their favorite character. I think he’s going to get a book of his own. Given the drama he’s just endured, he deserves one.
Q: What inspired you to write Fifth Avenue?
A: When I was in my 20s and 30s, I visited New York City on a monthly basis. A friend of mine, Ted Adams, who lived on Sutton Place and was a direct descent of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, had an entree into Fifth Avenue society because of his lineage. He would take me to these over-the-top dinner parties and cocktail parties, and during them, he would lean into me and tell me everyone’s secrets, some of which were rather base.
Since this society is revered, some of the secrets were as surprising as they were salacious, to say the least. They included everything as common as gay men married to straight women straight down to who was hooked on whatever drug was popular at the time to one person known for visiting sex clubs in New York. As I listened over the years, I knew I had to write a thriller about Fifth Avenue that would incorporate these elements and perhaps challenge how people view what arguably is New York City’s most famous thoroughfare.