Stop the GR Bullies:
Retaliation & Backlash

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 goesfrom 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.

  • Zak

    I have to disagree with this: “Lately sites like Goodreads that should be a conduit for fostering positive author-reader relationships have turned hostile and bitter.” Hostile and bitter hardly describes the Goodreads community I know at all. I find the majority of Goodreads reviewers give honest reviews that focus on the books, not the personality of the author. There are exceptions; notably a lot of recent reviews of a best-selling memoir have attacked the author instead of the book, but when a book has lots of reviews it’s easier just to skip over the obvious ad hominem attacks of small-minded people, especially those who like to write in all caps. There are negative reviews because not everyone likes the same style, and some books have serious flaws in them that there is no crime in pointing out. (As far as trashing a “Z-list” celebrity, I agree with you: what’s the point? If you come across a truly bad book by a virtual unknown, let them remain unknown.) My for authors is that once a book has been published, don’t read the reviews–you aren’t going to go back & re-edit, are you? Reviews are meant as guides for others looking for good books, not for authors looking for acclamation; keep calm and carry on.

    • To a large extent, I agree with you, Zak. As I’ve pointed out, the vast majority of reviewers are engaged readers who simply wish to share their insights, talk about books they love–or hate–and/or offer advice. I also agree that readers can skip the ad hominem attacks. Many, if not most, readers do; my discussions with readers and bloggers have all confirmed this. And, again, you’re right – readers have different tastes and there is no reason for authors to work themselves into knots over negative reviews. As you say – either move on or don’t read them.

      While you make great points, the issue remains that some–however few–reviewers also behave badly. As I point out several times, authors should NOT respond to reviews. EVER. For any reason. At the same time, I think it’s only fair that we acknowledge legitimate complaints about attack reviews. Goodreads is a site for authors as well as readers. As such, it ought, in my opinion, to be a welcoming environment for both. I am not remotely suggesting that negative reviews be moderated or suppressed. I’m suggesting only that all community members, whether or not we agree with or like one another, should treat fellow members with dignity and respect.

      • I agree. As a reader, even when leaving a low rating on a book, I try to be courteous and respectful. I know what goes into writing a book and how fiercely protective of their work writers can be. As a writer, regardless of how the review is delivered, I try to see even the meanest reviews as a red flag that something might not have worked in my book like I expected it to. If you can learn about your writing from a mean review, it makes it easier to overlook the tone. It doesn’t excuse the tone or harshness, in my opinion, but makes it a little less bitter to swallow.

        I haven’t been unfortunate enough to have the GR Mean Girls attack me in reviews, but a friend did, and the reviewer got personal and divulged personal information about the author because they were “friends” on another site. It was ugly, and quite frankly very mystifying why the reviewer chose to attack rather than just say the book didn’t work for her or that she didn’t like it. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to be courteous and respectful in the first place – what does being mean really accomplish? For me, it destroys the viability of that reviewer’s opinion, which is not, I’m sure, the reviewer’s goal.

        • Sharon, a lot of these reviews are there just to gain attention, and when an author responds, the amount of attention it receives goes through the roof! Is this what the author really wants?
          Their objective is not to give an opinion, not to tell other readers what they think. For them, it is a popularity contest.

  • Since this website came up, and even a bit before that, seeing the behavior of indie authors, I have not read one indie book in the past two months. Before that? I can list atleast 80-100 indie books I have read in the last year. I am just disheartened and dispirited as a blogger.

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Ritesh. The truth is, like every blogger I’ve ever met and the vast majority of reviewers, most indie authors are decent, hardworking people. I hope you’ll decide at some point to give another try.

      • Ritesh, I too hope you change your mind. Yes, there are some indie authors out there behaving badly. There are some trad-published authors out there behaving badly, too – in fact, it seemed to be quite the trend 50 – 100 years ago.

        It’s true that it takes some ferreting out to find good indie authors who (a) are not churning out crap and slapping a cover on it, and (b) act professionally and maturely. But they ARE out there. “Indie” doesn’t mean unprofessional, bad writing, and bad behavior, universally. I’ve read indie books every bit as good – and often better, than some penned by NYT Bestselling authors – Terri Giuliano Long’s In Leah’s Wake being one of them. Please consider giving them a try again.

        • Sharon, I too have read a LOT of indie books which have been amazing, just simply brilliant. So I agree, that all this is hurting these authors much more that it is hurting the unprofessional authors out there. Is there a way to categorize who will be professional and who will not without interacting with them over a period of time? If there is, please tell me! I’d be glad to go back to my old ways of blogging.
          Till this issue is sorted out, I really believe that the risk of reviewing indie authors far outweighs the benefit of reading a good book as there are thousands of amazing books out there waiting for me to get to them.
          You know, I’ve finally found the time to read books which have been languishing on my TBR pile for over a year. Why were they there for so long? Just because I was reading indie books, and trying my best to help indie authors get the word out about their books.

      • I agree Terry that most Indie authors are terrific people. I know that coz I’ve interacted with so many of them. But lately, its become increasingly difficult to judge whether an author will go ‘bonkers’ on a reviewer or not. How do I as a blogger mitigate that risk? Simple, I only accept books from authors I know personally to be good people, or I interact with the publicists for the Big 6.
        So, recently I’ve decided to add a line in my review policy which states that I won’t be accepting indie books for review. If I want to accept an indie book, I’ll either approach the author, or they’ll talk to me somewhere on the vast internet landscape, and contact me there. This way, I’ve eliminated requests from any authors I don’t know. Is this the best possible solution? Definitely not so for the indie authors out there. But it is the best I can do for myself.
        The bigger issue of trad authors behaving badly generally does not impact me personally. I only interact with their publicists, so there is an added layer of protection.

  • Cervenka

    There is documented proof (in the form of eyewitnesses and screen shots) that the STGRB site posted personal information about reviewers. To say this “reportedly” happened is a bit misleading; it is proved to have happened, and I myself saw the site when that information was still posted.

    • The problem with this Cervenka is that it is a one sided posting. The site doesn’t post the author’s responses to the reviewers that continues “the fight”! I am reminded of the old adage…”Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” I think these authors need to go back and relearn the truth in that saying!

  • My main issue with the site is that it is a small number of the authors who are attached to the site and are making it tougher for other indie authors. I about fell off my seat when I saw “support Indie authors” badges. Are they serious? My first thought was why would someone support a groups of author when there is a miniscule possibility that if they don’t like the book and state that in a review, they will be stalked, even going as far as stalking the reviewer on Twitter, and bullied until they take the review down. Indie authors are already under a stigma of being “lesser than” by a chunk of the reading community. Significant steps have been taken to improve this stigma, but this type of site takes that progress back 20 steps. I think Ritesh said it beautifully. How many Riteshes are out there who aren’t saying anything? Why is it fair that so many Indie authors, “who play by the rules” are going to have to “pay the piper” for short sighted -professionally immature authors who can’t handle negative reviews? How much damage has STGRB done that can’t be reversed? As I have said to a couple of people since seeing this site, for every closed minded, ignoramus who shoots down Indie authors, STGRB has just added gasoline to the fire!

    As founders of Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, Kelly Anderson and I specifically set up our group to be a support to Indie authors to help them get the word out and necessary reviews for book sales. It is a mission that both of us take very seriously. Our belief is that not all of our members may like the books offered up for Traveling Books, but in the almost 2 years since our group’s inception, we have NEVER had an unprofessionally review written because our members who sign up for the books are just as serious in our goal as we are. Part of my “duties” as moderator is to track reviews so I see each review written. Do all our members love the books placed? No, but we always write professional reviews. Out of that, we have a couple of Indie authors that are specifically stalked by the group for new releases lining up to do reviews!

    As a book reviewer, I ensure that my reviews are written professionally. I take my blog very serious. I am a wholehearted supporter of Indie authors and mainly review Indie books. Yet, I have been on the receiving end of these attacks BY THE AUTHOR for 1 and 2 star reviews. Do I feel it is necessary to stalk the author, set up a website and cut them down? No, but I have been on the receiving end with names that there isn’t enough space to type in!

    Finally, there are either inexperience, ignorant or miserable jerks anywhere that there is a large group of people. In the latter, it is better not to respond. They are probably looking to antagonize, to start a fight. Why give in to them? A drive by review reflects only on the reviewer UNTIL the author responds! In my small literary world, professionalism is non-negotiable for any author regardless of who published your literary masterpiece! There is a lot of competition in book sales, why give anyone any reason NOT to purchase your book!

    • I’m grateful for any reviews, and if they’re bad I always thank the reviewer for their time in reading my work. Thankfully, most reviews are positive. I’m not saying it doesn’t sting but we all have to live with criticism…and I’m always willing to learn.

      Thank you to all who read /review my work – please spread the word then maybe I’ll have more 🙂

  • Any author that confronts a reviewer that gave a negative response has lost in my eyes. Even if there is a cadre of witches spamming bad reviews, that doesn’t excuse attacking your readers. If you don’t want criticism, don’t publish. Period!

  • Writers—whether they write books, reviews or criticism—have been arguing for centuries with one another. It must be part of the profession, I think—how can something powered and steered with so much passion not have it’s fair share of conflict? Plus, people just like to talk. Only years ago you had to work much harder to be part of the collective ranting and raving, relying most anti-climactically on a handwritten letter and a post office. If the letter was read at all, it was probably not read by the person for which it was intended.

    But these days, in the words of the swing music great Billy Eckstine: It ain’t like that anymore. Now our opinions can be shared in a nanosecond with the world, delivered piping hot and fresh into the waiting hands of hundreds of thousands of like-minded—or not—passionate souls, all of whom may potentially have something to say. That’s where the trouble starts. It’s not that people talk. It’s that now more people can listen. The thing to remember is that we are all, at the end of the day, someone else’s audience, and in that we have a choice.

    • And then some criticism is warranted. I offer as example: the above incorrect and unintentional use of an apostrophe in “it’s fair share of conflict.” Passion, see. Clouds even the clearest of minds.

      Excellent post and food for thought, by the way.

  • I like what the I Ching says about this: Slander will be silenced if we do not gratify it with injured retorts.
    Mean reviewers are looking for a fight. Why give them what they want? The author loses every time we fight. It is always best to ignore the trolls.

  • Sonya

    Was the dig at gender really necessary? Women read more, for starters. And the crazies behind the STGRB website are focusing on genres women read more in. There’re just as many harsh reviews by guys, but men always get away with it.

    And it is NEVER right to expose reviewers on the internet. It wrong – and dangerous. One of those reviewers has been receiving threatening phone calls, for Heaven’s sake. If you can’t cope with negative reviews of your books, then stop reading reviews.

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