Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trolls, Harpies and Civilized Discussion

From the time two years ago when the first book of my four volume historical novel Montfort was published, it and I have been the target of a little group of on-line attackers.

How did this happen? The initial and ongoing target is not actually my books, the attackers for the most part haven’t read them. It’s the blurb for the first book. 

The blurb actually came into being in 2005, long before the books were in print. I had my doubts about using it since it wasn’t intended for book promotion, but my academic advisers loved it. 

When the blurb, and by implication the book, was attacked by this little group of trolls I asked Amazon to change the blurb. Their response, in red print, was “93% of the people who see this page buy the book.” They would only slightly amend the most targeted statement to a question. Here’s how the blurb came into being.

I had been working on Montfort since 1977, but I also wrote plays and screenplays. After seeing “The Lord of the Rings” it occurred to me that Viggo Mortensen might be a good choice to play Simon de Montfort, so I wrote to my Hollywood lawyer/agent. It had been a while since I'd written to him and my letter came back – he had moved. 

Letter in hand, I was grumbling. Our house guest, an acterss and film producer, asked what the problem was. I told her, and she immediately exclaimed, “Viggo! I know Viggo. I have a friend who wants to produce an epic trilogy with him. Would there be a part for Johnny Depp?”

My friend, be it understood, really does know nearly everybody in Hollywood. All she asked of me was that I sum up my book of 1650 manuscript pages in five or six compelling sentences. I managed to do that.

He was deeply religious and the greatest knight of his time, 
but he married a nun who was the King of England’s sister. 
Was he the Queen’s lover and father of the heir to the throne? 
King Henry III wanted him dead at any cost. 
He conquered England and founded parliament.
For 700 years it was a hanging crime to speak his name: 
Simon de Montfort.

While that summation differs from the works of most other authors, it was, in brief, the conclusions thirty years of deep research, much of it in 13th century documents, indicated.  

We got a return email from my friend's friend asking for the scripts – three of them. I said “Who is this friend of yours for whom I’d be doing all this work?” “Oh,” she replied, and named the CEO of a major Hollywood studio.

I spent the next three years writing those three scripts – and a fourth, a single script of the whole span of the story. For, by the time I had finished the three, the CEO had left his company and was starting up his own company, with my scripts in hand.

When I decided at last that I really must stop this endless research and readjustment of my manuscript, and get Montfort into print, I consulted my academic advisers, professors of medieval history. They urged that I use the blurb. They felt strongly that the blurb was just the thing to reach beyond academia to new readership. No doubt it has.

But very soon it picked up a troll review on Amazon – someone who made a point of not having read the book but ranted over the blurb because it differed regarding Edward I’s birth from conventional modern histories and a popular novel written some years earlier.(The troll review has since been toned down.) 

Professors who specialize in the period think my views regarding Edward intriguing. I’ve never claimed that I’ve discovered an irrefutable truth.

Shortly after the troll item appeared  on Amazon I found that a search of my name turned up a lengthy attack on my book and on me in an Historical Novel Society chat thread. Here was an astonishing exercise of several established novelists behaving like bullies attacking the "new girl on the playground."

None of them had read my book, but they accused me of commercial lewdness. One of these attackers said that (I apparently) had Queen Eleanor so devoted to sex that when she wasn’t in bed with someone she was masturbating(sic!) 

There is a Queen Eleanor in my book, but this remark was so remote from anything I’ve written that it left me entirely astounded. Later in the chat it appeared that I was, perhaps deliberately, being confused with another author, one who wrote of Eleanor of Aquitaine (which I do not) and whose work these trolls evidently didn't like.

The Historical Novel Society’s own review is strong in its praise of Montfort: 

When reading through the ample “historical context” notes that follow each volume of Katherine Ashe’s utterly remarkable tetralogy of novels based on the life of 13th-century warrior-statesman Simon de Montfort, one thing becomes obvious: she could easily have produced the most authoritative English-language biography of her subject ever written.

Since the HNS chat attacks in 2010, I’ve had complaints from readers who claim they’ve been brutalized on Amazon chat sites for writing enthusiastically about my work. These attacks have been by some of  the same established authors who attacked me before, with the addition of a few new recruits.

The most recent manifestation of this bullying occurred over four days this past week on my Facebook site, with one of the old, implacable bullies and four new converts. 

Only one of the five appeared to have read my work. The crux of his complaint seemed to be that I write so persuasively I have a responsibility to be accurate. He then brought forth selections from 13th century writers and later historians that differ from my views. 

The surviving records from the time of Simon de Montfort are filled with differing and contentious views. It’s been my business for over 30 years to sort through them, taking into consideration the politics and purposes of each writer.

The aim of my books has been to use the novel form to take a fresh look at what these 13th century sources may mean. I state clearly in each Author’s Preface that the following pages are speculation, and I provide 181 pages of  bibliography and Historical Context (footnotes) in the 1585 pages of the four volumes of Montfort, citing my sources, with page numbers, and explaining the reasons for my interpretations. 

The absurd theme of my hecklers is that I don't support what I've written -- no one else supports their historical novels as I do. My aim, as I've often stated, is to use the novel form to offer speculations where what remains of an historical record is vague, implausible, contradictory. And where other authors have freely glossed over these problems with their own fictions or interpretations.

I welcome discussion. My speculations are indeed controversial. I ask no one to "believe" what I write. Belief isn't the domain of any novel. And Montfort was very deliberately written as a novel. What I ask is: does this line of thinking make sense of the surviving material.

The Web offers tremendous opportunity for a community of  free exchange of ideas. How do we change this rude and hostile blighting of a great intellectual asset?

book website:
personal website:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series