If you’ve been floating around in Twitter for the past few days and happen to follow as many authors and book bloggers as I do, you probably caught at least some part of the unfolding drama about author Kathleen Hale and her article in which she admits to outright stalking a reviewer who didn’t like her book. Dear Author has a wonderful summary of the article and events here, if you don’t want to give hits to the original article.
But there are some points I want to add to the discussion, from a personal standpoint.
The first is on the idea of using a pseudonym. This is something I used to do a lot, in regard to, oh, just about every action I ever made online. I’d have stuff connected to my personal real-world identity, but a lot of things I would only talk about if my real name wasn’t involved. I would make journals and blogs under fake names, talk about the hard stuff there, keep so many aspects of my life disconnected from each other because I had this fear of people connecting all the dots and getting a real picture of who I was.
This got complicated. Stuff leaked through. Always. Maybe other people wouldn’t have put 2 and 2 together, but as soon as I made the mistake of mentioned on my craft blog that I watch a certain TV show, and crap, I mentioned the same show the other day on my personal blog, SOMEONE’S GOING TO KNOW! Never mind that this is the Internet and nobody, without good cause, is going to see 2 blogs mentioning the same TV show and assume they’re written by the same person. But I had this paranoid idea that somebody would.
I knew this was unhealthy. And I know that compartmentalizing had to stop. So I worked hard to make it stop.
And yet it was still so weird to see people call me by my real name online, after I started bookblogging. I’d see random people refer to me as Ria, and I’d have a moment of panic. How did you find out that was my name? I comment on blog posts as Bibliotropic. My Twitter handle doesn’t include my real name. How do you know?! Oh, right, my blog’s registered under that name and I freaking mention it on here. Right. That’s how. But I still had that panic because I was afraid of people discovering anything real about me. It made me solid, made me real, made me unable to escape without notice if something in my life messed up and I had to disassociate and start all over again.
(Hey, I never claimed to not have emotional issues. I’ve learned how to deal with many of them. My intent was not to make me seem reasonable here…)
I’ve gotten used to people knowing me over time. I feel like I’ve made some real progress in learning to accept myself and not hide and to not compartmentalize aspects of my personality quite so much. So when articles like this come around, they scare me. I wonder, reflexively, if I might not actually be safer to have hidden myself all along, to use a pseudonym so that if somebody tries to stalk me, they’ll at least have a slightly harder time doing so.
The author in question went to some pretty absurd and scary lengths to uncover the real name and location of somebody who wrote a negative review of her book. She paid for a background checked to be done. She went to their house. In that, I might be safe; I have a hard time getting pizza delivery people to knock on the right door of this apartment building even when I give them specific instructions. She obtained info under false pretenses. And through the original article, there’s this air of, “I was right to do this because I found evidence that the reviewer was using a pseudonym.”
This is one of the many reasons people invent personas for their online selves. Give yourself a new name, tell the world you who a job you’ve always wanted, and for the brief time you’re writing as that persona, you are them. It’s a little bit of escapism. It’s generally harmless so long as you don’t take it too far. And, as we’ve earned in the case of Kathleen Hale, it might slow down people who are trying to stalk you for no reason other than that you said something they don’t like.
Seriously, that author’s actions were creepy. And I get the feeling that she thinks herself justified, because she uncovered evidence that the reviewer in question was an assumed name and persona created by someone else. But that doesn’t mean her review is less genuine, her opinions less valid, and that doesn’t make the reviewer the creepy one for valuing the disconnect between the real world and the online world.
Second, I want to address the issue of bullying, which is a word that’s getting tossed around a lot here when I think that some people don’t really know what it means. In the case of “Stop the GoodReads Bullies,” it’s taken to mean that a bully is somebody who says a negative thing that someone doesn’t like. In, oh, the English language, it means to habitually be obnoxious and intimidating to those you perceive as weaker than you, to be arrogant and overbearing. Thus a negative review does not a bully make. Even if 50 people write negative reviews of the same book, that doesn’t make those reviews bullying. It makes them a lousy piece of luck, sure, but it’s not bullying.
Now, if those same 50 reviews were all written by the same person using sockpuppet accounts, then yes, that is bullying. And if the 50 people who wrote those reviews continually seek the author out and make disparaging comments about them or their books without provocation, then yes, that is also bullying.
I’ve written negative reviews. I’ve written them in a snarky tone sometimes. I’ve cross-posted them to various review sites. That doesn’t make me a bully. It sucks for the author who wrote a book I felt had a lot of problems, but it doesn’t make me a bully.
But by the definition of some, the very fact that I said something negative, something that might have upset someone else, makes me a bully. Which is the thought process behind, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Which is a wonderfully guilt-trippy way to tell someone to shut up and that you don’t think they have anything or worth to say. You, reviewer, are not stroking someone’s ego, so you should shut your mouth.
Which brings me to another point, brought up by some, mentioned in multiple articles about the issue, and an area where my opinion diverges from the popular one. I don’t believe that reviews are for readers only and not for authors, and I don’t believe that any author-reader interaction is unwelcome and harassment.
I’ll address each point separately. First off, the idea that reviews are for readers and not authors. Why do I disagree with this? For one thing, because there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. For another, because the relationship is something symbiotic anyway. What a reader does affects the author. If a review is only for readers to determine whether they should or should not read a book, then that affects the author’s sales and stats. So right there there’s a connection. If reviews were only for readers, then authors and publisher wouldn’t send some reviewers free books and pay for shipping so that the reviewer could read something in advance, or just read without having to buy the book at all. They’d wait until the book was bought. Their hope is that early reviews will drum up increased sales by building hype. Which affects the author and the publisher.
If you run a blog and don’t accept any review copies, then I think you’ve got a free pass to say that your reviews are for readers only. But I find it rather hypocritical for someone to say that while accepting free stuff from the very people they claim have nothing to do with the reviews.
But the main reason I consider it to be false is because it’s not like authors get nothing but money from what our reviews say. Maybe I’m thinking too much of myself when I think this, but I’m certainly not thinking too much of others and their influence. What reviewers say is likely to be indicative of what readers think, and that can help an author post problems with their novel that weren’t seen before, through all the stages of editing. When you write and edit something, you get close to it. Phrases that may make sense to you may come across as very clunky to others. A scene may make perfect sense to you because you know what’s going on, but it might come right out of left-field for a reader because things weren’t set-up well. Stuff you thought was awesome might actually come across as really sexist to a large percentage of readers. This is stuff that’s important to authors. Very important. Stuff that could and often does influence how their next novel is written. Believe me, authors do read reviews. Even mine. I know because some have thanked me and made reference to stuff that I’ve said, or we’ve had discussions about the finer points of a scene or a what-if scenario.
I’d also like to point out that authors are readers too, so by default, “reviews are for readers” applies to them anyway.
Secondly, not all author-reader interaction is unwelcome. It is if readers don’t want that. But if they’re fine with it, how is imposing someone else’s preference going to do anyone any good? Yes, it’s a good rule of thumb for authors to not engage and defend when it comes to negative reviews, because things rarely end well, but that doesn’t mean that there should be no interaction at all.
If a reviewer wants it, then fine. Go nuts. If a reviewer says that they welcome all author comments, both positive and negative, then let the interaction commence. (Bearing in mind, of course, the actual definition of bullying.) If someone says they want no author interaction, then also fine. That’s their choice, and it ought to be respected.
But I’m not someone who clings to the idea that it’s a hard and fast rule that should be followed despite what both parties may want.
This is the only way I feel any sympathy for what Hale experienced. She was told that she was wrong in one area for reasons that are entirely subjective and based on personal choice.
(Ignore the Halloween name. I don’t usually reference myself by bad bowel movements. Usually…)