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Wrong and Wrong: Reviewers, Cliques, and Bullying

NOTE: Sorry again for the delay! But here’s the now edited post I had wanted to publish yesterday. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!

Internet Drama is ugly as hell, and I usually try to keep well clear of it. It’s always a train wreck, with at least one party and often more in the wrong. Typically, it is a storm in a teacup and over just as quickly. I don’t comment, I don’t wade in with The One True and Correct Opinion (ludicrous as that concept might be). I lurk, and I observe the train smash off the rails like some kind of digital rubber-necker. But the recent GoodReads Bullying Bru-haha has had me giving it quite a bit of thought, and I find that I can no longer resist weighing in.

Here’s what I think: on the one hand, the creators of the Stop the GR Bullies web site have crossed an important line and broken the social compact between readers, reviewers, critics, and writers. Their methods are deeply flawed, unethical, and morally bankrupt. And their underlying cause – to protect authors against “bullying” reviews – arises out of the most dangerous mix of ignorance and good intentions.

On the other hand, I think many in the reviewer community are just as ignorant. The idea that the reviewer label and the Internet’s capacity for anonymity absolves a writer of responsibility for their behavior is laughable, and to me at least, offensively stupid. We reap what we sow, and if we’re douchebags to people, our moral high ground becomes a little shaky when people are douchebags to us.

NOTE: For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume you are familiar with the Stop the GoodReads Bullies web site and related controversy. If not then I suggest you check out the discussions in the blogsophere. Foz Meadows’s, John Scalzi’s, Stacia Kane’s, and SB Sarah’s are particularly recommended.

Reviews Are a Natural Consequence of Published Work

Any art – whether written, painted, sculpted, spoken, sung, etc. – is a social act. It is made by one or more individuals, perceived by one or more members of the audience, and the resulting exchange is by its very nature social. With more art than any one individual could consume in a lifetime, reviewers (who I differentiate from critics) fulfill an important function: to aid the audience in identifying and selecting the works of art they want to consume.

Reviewers need not be paid. We need not, in fact, have a platform. When a friend asks us what we thought of a movie, we fulfill that reviewer function when we answer. Reviews are the natural consequence of consuming art, and this is the first fact which I believe many of the Stop the GR Bullies supporters fail to recognize: when we publish a book – whether self pubbed, indie pubbed, small press, or Big 6 – we do so because we want people to read it, and consequently to form an opinion of it.

Of course, we all want our art to be liked. We want it to win awards, fly off the shelves, and give us the cash to buy a small island. But when we make our art public, we are telling the world that we are prepared for whatever response it might produce in our readers. Those responses might sting. In fact, they might hurt like hell. But the moment we release our art into the world, we grant our audience the right to form and express opinions about it. If we’re not ready to hear those opinions – good, bad, or ugly – then we shouldn’t publish our work. When we publish, we become public personas, and must live with that fact.

Reviews Are Not for Writers

The corrollary to the above is that reviewers are not there to help writers sell more books. Many of us are happy when that happens, but quite frankly most of us don’t really care: the responsibility we take on (usually without compensation) is to provide an assessment of the art we consume. That assessment isn’t for the book’s author.

I tend to write very analytical, in-depth reviews. I try to dissect the books I review and see what makes them function as stories, as narratives. I do so to learn about craft, to strengthen my own writing, and when I publish my reviews, I hope that my findings will help other writers strengthen their writing as well. But the author of a reviewed book doesn’t figure into the equation at all. Sure, I’m glad when I hear/read that an author whose work I’d reviewed appreciated my analysis. But that’s not why I do it.

Reviewers can and do interact with authors and publishers in many ways. We receive complementary review copies, we do interviews, giveaways, etc. But none of this interaction represents a contract between the reviewer and the writer. For reviewers who take their reviews seriously, a free review copy doesn’t buy our integrity. And that is something that authors – especially, in my experience, indie/self-pubbed authors new to the travails of being a public figure – should understand.

There is a reason why the big six publishing houses don’t care about bad reviews. Remember the old saw that any publicity is good publicity? Publicity – good or bad – drives book sales. I’ve heard big six publicists even say that their data suggests that negative reviews drive more sales than positive reviews. People who feel stung by critical reviews, who were offended by a reviewer’s invective, should remember that.

Whether a reviewer gives a star rating, writes a single sentence, or posts a two thousand word essay doesn’t change the fact that the book’s author is not the reviewer’s intended audience. If that’s not the case, then the reviewer isn’t really writing reviews: they are trying to engage in a dialog with the author, which is a different form of discourse entirely, subject to a different etiquette and to different norms of behavior.

The only people to whom the reviewer is responsibile are their readers. If that sounds like something one might say about authors, well…there’s a good reason for that.

The Reviewer as Public Figure

Most reviewers, I think, would agree with me when I say that the act of publishing a book automatically makes the author into a public figure, subject to the public opinions of consumers and media alike. But I think many reviewers, in particular those whose rhetorical style tends towards invective, forget that the exact same principle applies to their own reviews.

A review is itself a piece of media which if we post to a public place (GoodReads, blog, newspaper, etc.) exposes us to the same public discourse as the artist whose work we criticize. The Internet affords us great anonymity – hell, I make use of it on this blog. We may choose to keep our real names off of our reviews for a myriad of personal and professional reasons. But just because we can be to some degree anonymous does not change the public nature of our reviews.

Most reviewers, I think, are prepared for people’s disagreement. Many of you have often disagreed with my assessments or comments, corrected me when I got facts wrong, etc. and I love when you do. That is part of the dialog in which reviewers engage, and that dialog can and should sometimes get contentious. And yet, the tone of that dialog – anonymous or not – gets set by the initial review.

Imagine for a moment that you are at an art gallery with a friend. There’s a little wine, tiny cubes of cheese, and the artist herself is there beside the gallery owner, chatting with a collector. You quietly ask your friend what they think of a painting. And they start loudly spewing vitriol about the artist and the work, venting their spleen of all the noxious contents therein. Everyone in the gallery can hear, and everyone naturally turns to stare. Would you be embarrassed? Of course you would. Because your friend broke the unwritten social norms of that environment. In the real world, your friend might get kicked out of the gallery, possibly arrested for harassment and making a public nuisance of himself.

Online, a reviewer can fill their review with the same kind of vitriol, snark, and malice and suffer no direct consequences. I myself tend not to write reviews like that, and I usually don’t read them (genuinely funny snark is perhaps the most difficult rhetorical style to pull off, and I rarely see it done well). Sensationalist rhetoric is designed to elicit a response, to get a rise out of the audience, and that response can take many forms.

Thankfully, most people ignore that kind of rhetoric. They adhere to the principle of not feeding the trolls, and that is by far, in my opinion the wisest course of action. It isn’t cowardice to ignore assholes: it’s just common sense. But sometimes, people will react to aggressive rhetoric, and offer tit for tat.

And sometimes, they might confuse a highly critical review with aggressive rhetoric. The two are usually separated by a thick line, in my opinion, but misinterpretation is a hallmark of personal interactions. And reacting to perceived slight, particularly a slight designed to produce an emotional response, is a human tendency.

When reviewers are labelled as bullies or worse, too many of us raise the fig leaf of our reviewer status, as if there were some sort of secret club that lets us be assholes without consequence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Every review we write falls somewhere on a continuum that ranges from the thoughtful and well-argued to the agggressive and offensively shallow. Sometimes, it is difficult for authors and readers to tell where along that continuum it falls. But it is incumbent upon us as reviewers to be understanding of that fact, the same way that we ask authors to understand that we might not have liked their book.

If we make hateful statements about others online, we have to be prepared for others to say the same about us. That’s the natural consequence of having a public-facing persona, anonymous or not. Sorry, reviewers, but that knife cuts both ways.

The Existence of Reviewer Cliques

The Stop the GR Bullies site claims that there are groups of “bully reviewers” who go around hounding authors. The reviewers so accused bluster their innocence and call such attacks ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s because those reviewers have apparently never really studied social networking theory or paid attention to the way online communities work.

Just like a high school, online communities form networks of like-minded individuals. Small or large, these informal associations have different types of members, including influencers, leaders, followers, etc. And they tend to engage in similar in-group activities, be it reviewing, commenting on each others’ blogs, chatting on Twitter, etc. It is easiest to see these groups and understand their extent from the outside, just like in high school.

This is a natural, unavoidable consequence of human socialization. It is also not unethical, malicious, or aggressive. But when authors feel persecuted by a tight-knit cabal of reviewers, they are in part justified: from their position outside of the group, that is exactly how it can seem. To shrug off such claims as author paranoia suggests an appalling lack of empathy or self-awareness on the part of the reviewers: our intention might not be to persecute or hound the author, but the effect from the author’s perspective is just the same.

When it comes to their innocence, I think reviewers protest too much, and claims that no such cliques exist are at best naive, and at worst disingenous.

Where Stop the GR Bullies Crossed the Line

All of this being said, I do not support the Stop the GR Bullies campaign. And that is because they crossed several important lines. Most significantly, they breached and encouraged others to breach the anonymity of people who – for their own reasons – had wanted to remain anonymous. And that breaks the accepted norms of online interaction.

Their defense – that they merely aggregate information that GoodReads reviewers have posted on other sites – is flimsy at best. Maintaining anonymity on the Internet – where behavioral profiles and third party cookies are the norm – is extremely difficult, even when one is technically profficient. With a little dilligent searching, one can peel back the layers of anonymity. But doing so when a review’s by-line is anonymized or pseudonomous is a breach of the reviewer’s privacy. Furthermore, publicizing that information and encouraging other aggrieved parties to reach out is an incitement to persecution.

I might not agree with a reviewer. I might vehemently disagree with what they say and how they say it. But if they choose to participate in online public discourse anonymously, I must respect their wishes. As the threatening phone calls one reviewer has received prove, breaching that anonymity puts people in danger. And there is no review, however vile, that gives anyone the right to endanger anyone else.

The Stop the GR Bullies site is flawed on many levels (its apparent misogyny being another big red flag for me), but this is its deepest and most important flaw. And, honestly, it is a flaw which overshadows the points the site’s creators may be attempting to articulate. It clouds their issue, and ultimately defeats them.

And that is sad. Because I would love to see a discussion of reviewing methods and reviewing styles, and to participate in an active and reasoned dialog on what rhetorical approaches work best for reviews. But something tells me I’m not going to get that on the Internet. And certainly not in the GoodReads Forums, or interacting with the Stop the GR Bullies crowd.

Which is why I wish both sides in this “debate” would just start acting like responsible professionals. They’ve already lost one member of their audience, and audiences aren’t stupid.

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