He [the critic] makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce. – H.L. Mencken, Criticism of Criticism of Criticism
Anyone who knows me knows that I have an intense aversion to all forms of Internet cruelty. This means vitriolic blog posts, mean-spirited comments on discussion boards, nasty exchanges in chat rooms, and malicious attacks on social networks and anywhere else Internet trolls gather to taunt and berate one another.
Not surprisingly, the increasingly venomous author-reviewer feud makes me tired.
On one side are the Mean Girl reviewers (sadly, most seem to be female) who make sport of posting derisive reviews, some going so far as to slam the author’s character and integrity. Naturally, the worst offenders almost always post anonymously. As Roger Waters might put it, they play the game with the bravery of being out of range—they shoot with reckless abandon knowing there’s little risk of being caught.
On the other side are immature, hypersensitive, in some cases aggressively hostile authors who seem to think attacking, shaming or bullying a reviewer will somehow negate a poor review. Wrong. Rebuttals make the author look bad. Naomi Blackburn, founder of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book,” a 350+ member Goodreads book club, and one of the world’s top reviewers, knows exactly what readers think. In their eyes, authors who respond to poor reviews come across as unprofessional, she says. “They may even encourage the behavior [unfair drive-by reviews].”
Professionalism demands that we behave graciously and ignore negative reviews—however offensive—in all public forums. Like it or not, we’re public figures. Some people derive pleasure from putting even Z-list celebrities in their place. The social contract permits them to criticize us. That’s part of the job we signed up for. Do we have to like it? No. But it is our cross, our duty, our professional responsibility to grin and bear it. Cry, pout, or whine if you want to, but do it in private—offline.
Incivility: A Serious Problem That Demands a Solution
Although the Pollyanna in me wishes otherwise, the Internet is by nature an unfiltered virtual gathering place for all types of personalities. By supporting and even encouraging their users to post anonymously, review sites like Goodreads foster incivility. Foz Meadows puts it far more eloquently:
In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy.
To date, there seems no “active moderation,” thus giving way to the current anarchy. As long they abide by the liberal Goodreads TOS, users are free to do as they wish.
Now, fed up with “bully” reviewers, a group of authors has decided to fight back by creating a website to “out” malicious reviewers. On the Huffington Post, they write:
A community of writers and readers has been slowly gathering to address what is happening on the popular user-submitted book review website Goodreads . . .
. . . if they [certain reviewers] are given any reason to target an author, they will attempt to destroy that author’s reputation and career for either their own personal amusement or for vengeance. We are not talking about honest book reviews giving their opinion on a book. (Emphasis mine.) What we’re talking about is them trying to create negative hype around an author regarding the author’s sanity, or posting malicious reviews that have nothing to do with the novel or were only posted to join the latest petition against an author.
Stop the GR Bullies urges followers to report “bully reviewers”; these reviewers are then “outed” on the site. Although it appears they’ve removed it, the site administrators have reportedly posted personal information about their targets, including physical locations, telephone numbers and the names of their children.
First, any author who bullies readers or reviewers in any way, shape or form deserves to be tossed head-first into the coldest, deepest, dampest, loneliest of publishing dungeons—and left to rot. As other writers have pointed out already, “outing” reviewers on the site is not only an appalling way to handle the problem, it is downright dangerous. At least one target claims to have received threatening calls and says she’s afraid for her safety. What’s to stop some lunatic from confronting a target in person? And what if the aggressor is armed? Then what? Even if, as we all hope, the worst never comes to fruition, bullying is ugly and morally reprehensible.
If supporters are not dissuaded by ethics, they might consider their self interests. This site has created a backlash against authors, indie authors in particular—though indies are hardly the only thin-skinned authors. Alice Hoffman, Alain de Botton, and Anne Rice have all been guilty of public outbursts. Still, if bloggers, disheartened by a perceived threat to silence negative reviews, decide to stop reviewing indie books, as some suggest, the offending authors will have only themselves to blame.
The fact is, the vast majority of reviewers are good decent people who wish only to share their views on books and help others find and select their next great read. Other than free ARCs or an occasional signed paperback, these people get nothing out of writing reviews. If not for their generosity, it would be infinitely harder to reach readers and share news of our books. And we want to silence them—why?
In an apology posted 7/20, Andrew Losowsky, Books Editor of The Huffington Post, explains why he ran the original Stop the GR Bullies post:
I reached out to Stop the GR Bullies . . . because I thought they were making an interesting point regarding respect and the books community.
Goodreads is an excellent website, but some have expressed concern over its policing of user reviews. I wanted to give the people behind Stop the GR Bullies an opportunity to explain their methods and what they were trying to achieve.
We aim to be a platform for reasonable discussion and debate. I thought this was a good opportunity to host a discussion on this issue.
Soon after the post went live, Losowsky writes, “community members, who seem to be very informed about this particular issue, expressed strong disappointment and anger at our decision to publish it. Others accused us, both collectively and personally, of some highly unpleasant things.” Interesting: a community that prides itself on ideas would rather squelch the possibility for debate than openly address a serious internal problem.
To his credit, despite this dispiriting show of intolerance, Losowsky has allowed the original Stop the GR Bullies post to remain on the site. I’m glad, because it’s time we had this discussion. Hostilities have reached the tipping point; we need to solve this problem before the bitterness boils over and burns the only innocent party: readers.
While it’s right and good to decry the tactics used by the Stop the GR Bullies, the crusade has obscured the real problem—i.e., adolescent behavior by parties on both sides of this feud. Thin-skinned authors ought to grow up, goes the rallying cry, or get out of the game—as if there were no justification whatsoever for any grievance.
Funny, it’s almost always people who’ve never been attacked (or writer-vets who take pride in having been hazed) who say this and, frankly, I’m tired of hearing it. Writing a book takes a long time—for some of us years—and it’s tough, emotionally draining work. That’s not a complaint. It’s simply reality. Criticism hurts. When the criticism feels unwarranted or when it’s intentionally cruel, it’s only human to want to lash out. No one—friend or foe—has the right to suggest we pretend otherwise.
No question, it’s bad form to bellyache or challenge reviewers; it’s equally bad form to post vicious, emotionally charged diatribes and pretend they’re reviews. Sure, some authors rally family and friends to post glowing 5-star reviews. And, clearly, every negative review is not an attack. As blogger A.B. Shepherd puts it, a useful negative review “gives specific constructive examples of what was wrong with a book.” Yes, authors who rage against such reviews need to grow up.
The Mean Girl reviewers—I have to believe they are few—are in a class all their own. As consumers, they insist, it is their right to bash books and authors as they see fit. Anything goes—from demeaning reviews, in some cases of books they haven’t read or that have yet to be published, to ad hominem attacks against authors they dislike. If an author dares respond, they gang up on him, panning all his books on multiple sites, and share the author’s “bad behavior” publicly across their social networks.
Such behavior is despicable and should not be tolerated.
As public figures hawking a product, authors are easy targets. By creating sites like Stop the GR Bullies, we turn the focus away from the very real issues authors hope to address and create animosity toward ourselves and, to some extent, all authors. Meanwhile, poor behavior from the other side goes unchecked, engendering further audacity, giving the Mean Girls ever more rope to hang their author frenemies with.
Lately sites like Goodreads that should be a conduit for fostering positive author-reader relationships have turned hostile and bitter. It’s time to end all the nonsense. That we—authors and reviewers alike—hidden behind the shroud of anonymity, can behave badly does not mean that we should behave badly. We’re a large, diverse community and we have a right to express our opinions. But there are human beings on the other end of these vicious attacks. We owe it to each other—and to ourselves—to create an environment where tolerance, respect, and civility reign.