Cancel Club: Jane Roper on Online Shame, Responsibility, and Fame
Jane Roper in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writer Jane Roper joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss cancel culture and her new book, The Society of Shame. Roper teases out some of the similarities and differences between the group in her novel and the real-life “Gathering of Thought Criminals” as recently covered in the New Yorker. She discusses what social and moral offenses can and cannot be forgiven. She reads from her book as well as the New Yorker article by Emma Green.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf, and edited Han Mallek.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: How did you come to invent the group “The Society of Shame”?
Jane Roper: When I first started writing The Society of Shame, I very much had the hero’s journey in mind. In the hero’s journey you have the call to adventure, right? So Kathleen is called to this adventure of being the face of this #YesWeBleed menstrual rights movement that she becomes the figurehead of. She refuses the call, like the hero does.
But then there’s the entrance of the mentor. I knew I had to get Kathleen some sort of mentor to help her through this crazy upheaval in her life. That’s where the idea of Danica Bellevue—who’s this canceled bestselling romance author—and her Society of Shame come in to help Kathleen navigate her new circumstances.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I wanted to explore the ways that online shame and fame work. As I was thinking about that, what I was pondering was just how isolating these things can be when you’re called out on something, when you’re ashamed. It’s overwhelming, right? The whole world is looking at you and judging you, maybe reducing you to a single act or a single image.
So you can imagine how someone like Kathleen, who’s whirling around in this chaos, might be attracted to the community that a group like that could offer—banding together with other people who’ve been in this experience. So that’s where the idea came from. It made sense to give her something to both find meaning and belonging in but also end up having to push back against a little bit. Society of Shame worked well that way.
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, I found that I had my own views about who in this group I felt sorry for and who I did not. It was kind of a Venn diagram. Really, it matters case to case, at least it did for me. Could you talk about the fictional members of that group and the different scenarios that got them in trouble?
JR: Yes, absolutely. You’re so right, and I’m glad you said that about case to case. I think that’s something that gets lost in the whole conversation about so-called “cancel culture” is how unique each case is. In creating this society, I tried to provide a spectrum of people who are more or less loathsome—some folks who’ve done something really egregious and some who maybe are more forgivable.
On the egregious side, you have Mona, who is this middle-aged white woman who calls the police on a Black utility worker who’s in her yard thinking that he’s a prowler or criminal. You have Brent, who’s this frat guy who shows up in the background of a photo of an elderly couple’s anniversary party, and it looks like he’s mooning the camera–he’s actually not, but nevertheless. There’s Michael, who is a former Catholic school teacher who gets caught using his work computer for sex camming and looking at porn. Then there’s Annabelle, a mom, who someone captures on camera scolding her child in the aisles of a Whole Foods, and then a bunch of cereal falls on her coincidentally and it gets made into a GIF.
VVG: Would you add Danica to that?
JR: Oh, yeah. Danica, the matriarch of the group, made some really disparaging comments about her readers, like, “I don’t want my work to only be read by overweight housewives in the Midwest” and said some other things that turned the public against her.
WT: To go through my list of what I feel—I’m sure everybody may have different feelings, but Mona? She’s the one who called the cop on that guy. That’s very similar to an incident that happened in Central Park that I remember where there was a woman who called the cops on a Black person who didn’t have his dog on a leash. No sympathy from me. And Michael, the porn at work… no sympathy, I mean, come on. Use your brain, right?
But with Brent, okay, he’s mooning his friends. He said he didn’t know the old couple was there. I felt like… eh! Maybe as a former frat guy I’m being too nice. But he’s not sexually harassing someone, he’s messing with his buddy. So I felt like it was no big deal. And the woman who was scolding her child who had the cereal fall on her, that’s just a bad luck thing.
JR: Yeah, and there’s some ambiguity in there too, right? Because we only know little pieces of each of their stories, and we don’t know how they reacted in the moment. We don’t know. I mean, what the book does explore is how they react after the fact. For example, you’ve got the porn watcher guy, who is very sorry for what he did and is really trying to improve himself. Whereas Mona—who made the phone call on the Black utility worker—is in pure denial, saying, “Oh, no, I’m not racist, because I read this book by a Black author. I have a Black friend.” So the way they respond—
WT: She’s using all the terrible excuses. And Danica does call her out on that, but she doesn’t seem to hear.
VVG: I was surprised that… I mean, I was so strongly aligned with Kathleen. There’s a moment where Kathleen feels a twinge of sympathy for Michael, the Catholic school teacher. And I was also like, “But he’s sorry!” And then, “What?!” One of the great pleasures of your book is its invitation to judginess because so much of the humor is in Kathleen’s assessments of others, her difficulty with their assessments of her, and all of these scenarios… the scenarios that you’ve invented are so specific. Could you talk a little bit about workshopping and picking these scenarios? Are there details that you changed or that you wiggled around, and how did some of those evolve?
JR: It really was a big part of the book’s evolution to figure out who these people were and what they did. And to your point, I wanted readers to ask, what is forgivable? You know, what’s not forgivable? When can people be redeemed? Should they be given the chance to be redeemed? Or are there some things we just say, “Nope, sorry, you blew it” to?
One of the things that I did with the school teacher Michael—since you mentioned him—I originally had him going to a nail salon that was a front for prostitution. But somehow that just made him way creepier and grosser. I needed readers to be able to have some empathy for him or at least give him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he’s going to make good and improve so that they’ll feel that same kind of sympathy that Kathleen feels for him. But yeah, having him go get a handjob at a nail salon was just too icky.
WT: On the other hand, Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, seems to have survived that just fine.
JR: That is true. But do we want to cuddle up with him? Not so much.
WT: He’s canceled for me, but that’s because of the team he owns. But I’ll cancel him for that other thing, too.
JR: Hey, Bostonian right here. Actually, no, I have no loyalty to the Patriots, so fire away.
WT: Uh-oh, now you’re going to get canceled! This is the podcast that ends your career!
JR: No! No, I could not care less about the Patriots. So please feel free to disparage Kraft as much as you want.
• “The Party is Cancelled” by Emma Green, The New Yorker • “‘Central Park Karen’ Amy Cooper Loses Lawsuit Against Former Employer” by Patrick Reilly • “Florida Women Plead Guilty in Sex Sting Involving Patriots Owner Robert Kraft” Associated Press • Thomas Sowell • Tyler Fischer • “‘Nobody imagined it would go on this long’: Bud Light sales continue to plummet over Mulvaney backlash” by Rob Wile • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 1, Episode 2: “Jia Tolentino and Claire Vaye Watkins Talk Abuse, Harassment, and Harvey Weinstein” • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 4, Episode 13: Cancellation or Consequences? Meredith Talusan and Matt Gallagher on Accountability in Literature ‹ Literary Hub • “Uber’s Diversity Chief Put on Leave After Complaints of Insensitivity” by Kellen Browning