Kerfluffle Watch: WTF, Is There Really Some Sort of Posse Comitatus Coming After You?

If you read that title and were totally confused, good for you. But you’re here, and reading, so I’m going to give you a brief executive summary. Here goes:

There is a debate right now about whether or not a contingent of individuals who regularly review books (it seems to be mostly related to Goodreads) are bullies who intentionally target authors with the intention of damaging their sales or reputations. In response, comments to these reviews have descended into, shall we say, pits of inelegant discourse. There has also been a site set up to discuss these “bullying” reviews that actually provides personal information about reviewers, including where they live, with whom, and even (in at least one instance I read before I started feeling very sick about the whole thing) where they regularly eat. I know better than to judge a site by its comments, but I was also given cause to raise an eyebrow at someone’s ire about how a particular user “shelved” the books she’d read–because if readers couldn’t understand why the books had been shelved where they had been, the reviewer was shelving irresponsibly and (to draw an implied line to the title and mission of the site), possibly in a bullying fashion.

So I’m supposed to worry now about where people are shelving my books in their own mental and virtual libraries? Because that somehow should make a difference? Good grief. Executive summary over. Kate’s comments to follow.

I wish I could just step into the middle with both hands raised and yell, “Stop.” I can’t, obviously; I’m just a relative newbie author with enough disgust in her heart over this to want to say something. But I want to say it, so here goes, even if nobody reads it.

The interwebs are a public forum, and if you choose to put material there, you invite commentary there. And if you are an author and you put a book into the world, you invite commentary upon that book. It isn’t bullying for someone to say he or she doesn’t like what you write–whether that bit of writing is a book or a review. It isn’t even bullying for someone to say that he or she hates what you write–whether that person hates the writing, the editing, the illustration, the story, or the ideas behind it.

On the other hand, it would be absurd for a review to proceed from “I hate this book and everything in it” (not an elegant or persuasive argument, but whatever; it’s a response to the book that reflects the reader’s opinions, and therefore a review) to “I therefore think I probably hate this author and everything she stands for, and someone should kick her dog” (which I think would make me curious about the reviewer’s sanity and what button I’d pushed to knock it so far offline). But not in a million years would I respond to either of those reviews, and even in the case of the latter, while I might spend a moment indulging in a mental WTF, I wouldn’t want to lose real writing time worrying about it. Not when there’s a handwritten a letter from a fifth-grader on my desk that needs writing back to.

Also because anyone who’d suggest that someone come after my dogs is obviously not rational and equally obviously not a professional. Baiting irrational people is a dumb thing to do unless you trained for it by poking bees’ nests with sticks, and it’s hard to look like you’re behaving professionally while trading pot-shots with those who are plainly not. Plus, you know, I have other stuff to do. Like write back to a fifth-grader named Fred, which is what I should be doing right now.

Responding to negative reviews is just plain a bad idea, even reviews that are factually incorrect. I once had someone accuse me of ripping off the events of the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” apparently entirely unaware of the centuries-old tradition of musicians challenging the Devil and/or trading with him for musical capability. This was one of my first reviews, and I was horrified. Not only was I being accused of plagiarizing a song, but by someone without the folklore chops to know that both I and the song in question were referencing not only a previous tradition in American blues, but hundreds of years of crossroads tradition from around the world.

Know what I did? I shut up. Because it was a legitimate review. If people had to be crossroads scholars to enjoy the book, it would have had a very narrow readership. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was this reader’s point of reference, and you know what? That’s fine. It was a legitimate review. Done. Thanks for the review is the only appropriate response, if, in fact, any response is merited.

Where things become bullying is when it becomes personal, but most authors (most that I know, myself included, and, I suspect, a good chunk of the rest of authors out there, if you ask reasonably and get an honest answer) acknowledge that there is a gut-level instinct to feel that comments leveled at their works are in some way leveled at them personally–and learning to overcome that instinct is a thing you have to actively work at unless you’re born with abnormally thick skin. Also, people do feel strongly about what they read. Sometimes readers do have a hard time distinguishing between the author and the work (Philip Pullman springs to mind as one example). So it’s easy to see where the emotion comes into play, both from readers and authors. That doesn’t make it easy to rise above it, but it’s critical for authors, at least, to do so. Basically every writer you’ve ever heard of (for anything other than a vitriolic response to a review, that is) had to learn to do just that: rise above, and get back to writing. Because what’s said on the interwebs lives there forever, and books, even tremendously well-written and loved ones, do not always live forever. Also, things said on the interwebs are often easier and cheaper to find than one’s books. They are certainly capable of packing a very powerful first impression.

If you are an author who publishes and puts your work out into the world, you should expect people to comment upon it. The best-case scenario, yes, is that people will feel passionately positive about it. But joyful passion is not something anyone should expect; it’s something we earn, and the things in our stories that earn that passion from some readers will be the same things that make other readers cringe. What seems most reasonable to me is that it would be really cool if more people like any given book I write than don’t like it, and that it would be flipping awesome if some people really bloody loved it. But if I release a book into the public discussion space, I’m obligated to understand that people will comment upon it.

I do not expect that even someone who throws my book across the room will threaten my dogs. That’s ridiculous. And even if they did, I would ignore it. Until, that is, someone actually walked up and tried to kick my dog (or, to cite what appears to be a real-world happening, made a threatening phone call to my home). At that point, I would call the police, because clearly that is not the action of someone who doesn’t like what I’ve said. It’s the action of an irrational, possibly dangerous human against another.

Anyone who cannot distinguish discussion and discourse in the public sphere from personal attacks: learn to make the distinction, or bite the bullet and run for public office. I don’t care what role you play in the discussion, whether you’re an author, a reader, or a reviewer. Discuss the stories. Discuss the work. Discuss it all with your friends, your teachers, your librarians, your co-workers, your family, your online circles and your networks. Discuss what is wonderful; discuss what is abysmal. Discuss what works and what fails in a book. This is all good, and edifying, and raises the level of discourse and hopefully, the quality of literature and debate.

Unless it doesn’t. Unless it sets out to hurt people, which is what you do when you advocate crossing the line and no longer making it about the books but about the people. When, for instance, you post information about how to harass people in the real world, resulting in threatening phone calls, damage to their property, or implied danger to themselves or their families.

If those who are familiar with the kerfluffle at hand read this and think I’m shouting, “AUTHORS, STOP BEHAVING UNPROFESSIONALLY AND LIKE STALKERS” a bit louder than “REVIEWERS, STOP BEING DICKHEADS” (in the parlance of our times)–well, it could be because I don’t think the problem is “reviewers.” Any reader who posts a review on a bookish site is a reviewer, and those sites exist for readers to rate books. If you’ve read the book, you earned that click. Done. If you didn’t read the book and just clicked a one-star to be mean, well, that’s kind of lame. But I have too many other things in the world to be paranoid about right now to worry about that, and I don’t even know if I feel strongly enough about it to care. I’m paranoid, for instance, about ACTUALLY WRITING THE BEST BOOKS I POSSIBLY CAN AND CONTINUING TO SELL THEM. My next contract will not be decided by my Amazon rating, my Goodreads rating, or any rating other than sales. Future editors might, however, plug my name into Google. I’d rather they saw sanity than irrationality. And if a fifth-grader looks me up for a school project where he or she has to write a letter to an author, I don’t want what that kid finds there to make him/her look for another author to write to.

Anybody who behaves in a threatening and stalkerish manner should be ashamed of themselves, but a bad review isn’t threatening or stalkerish; it’s someone’s opinion. Remember the guy who made a video game where players beat up Anita Sarkeesian, the woman who was raising money on Kickstarter for a project examining sexist tropes in video games? How about we call stuff like that bullying instead?

I’m not saying that I don’t wish we all could be a bit more elegant in our discourse (and since it’s an election year, I reserve the right to wish for elegant discourse really loudly between now and November). But . . . can we not all agree that if one writes a book, one does it expecting–or at least hoping–that others will read it? And that, if enough people read it, some will love it (we can only hope) and some will hate it? And can we agree that the concept of proportional response, while perhaps accepted in international politics, does not apply to the relationship between readers and writers?

Also? Someone hating another person’s book online is not the same as someone publishing details about another person’s home life in order to scare them into shutting up. It just isn’t. Publishing personal information to try and shut someone up is sorta-kinda like making a video game in which someone gets beaten in order to try and shut that person up. If you think someone not liking your book and verbalizing that opinion is on the level of stalking and threatening, or deserves that sort of response…well, this is where I refrain (in this post, at least) from making personal speculations about you. But please stop and think about it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have writing to do.


  1. Thank you. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to give it this much bandwidth, but good grief.

  2. I’ve known about some of the earlier/other conflicts…I’m not really aware of this one but the underlying nature of the issues is probably similar. Although this one does sound like it’s escalated into some scary territory. *sigh*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *