Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Power of Reviews

On Friday author Kathleen Hale wrote an article for The Guardian about her experience being catfished. On Monday Twitter, and a number of blogs, got quite excited about this topic and lots of people had lots of opinions. I came upon the article when Jessica Alvarez mentioned it to me and before reading anything about it I went to The Guardian article. I wanted to base any opinion I had on what Kathleen Hale had to say rather than read the opinions of others first.

Even without reading what others thought I know that some people feel that Kathleen Hale was catfished, others feel she crossed a line herself and was not the victim or the only victim and still others wonder if the entire post was made up. After reading just Kathleen Hale's post I do stand behind her in some respects. Not all, but some.

I've been in this business long enough to know the impact a review can have on an author. I've seen smart, successful authors completely lose all self-confidence because of one review or one comment on a writing loop or in a blog. In most cases authors who reacted this way were not the stereotypical "neurotic" or introverted authors. They are almost always people who are successful in various different aspects of their lives. They deal with high stress jobs, families and seem to juggle an entire life on top of a writing life. In other words, these are people who have faced adversity before and wore it well.

In fact, while I'm not an author, I've been one of those people. After six years of blogging about what I really thought it was bound to happen. And happen it did. Time and time again. There were times when the comments on the blog got so contentious I would stop sleeping. I panicked that I had alienated my clients, editors or ruined it for all of us. There were times I would have to shut down the computer and walk away for the day. But each and every time it happened walking away was always the best answer for me.

In Kathleen Hale's case the only story we know is hers. As of yet, to the best of my knowledge, we haven't heard from the reviewer she's charging with catfishing. A term by the way I had never heard until reading her article. Whether or not she was catfished, in my mind, doesn't really matter.  Fro a variety of reasons reviewers and bloggers act anonymously. In some ways it's one of the great things about the Internet. It's also one of worst things. Being anonymous allows us to really say what we want to say and what we think. Something a lot of people wouldn't be comfortable doing under their own name or couldn't do (it might hurt a career or their own reputation in some way). True confession here, before starting the blog I used to comment anonymously all the time on writing forums. I acknowledged that I was an agent, but I was uncomfortable giving my real name. I didn't want what I said to bite a new agency in the butt. Was I catfishing? I don't think so, I was just giving an opinion. And certainly there have been a ton of anonymous publishing bloggers and Tweeters, people who just want to say what they believe without facing repercussions.

Did Kathleen Hale go to far? Probably. Personally I think any time you start tracking down someone in person you are probably going to far. But I get how someone can go there. Putting yourself out there, whether its by writing a book, an opinion piece in a magazine, or a blog, is a scary, scary thing. Sure you feel great about saying what you believe or finding others to read your work, but at the same time you know you're going to face a backlash. That reviewers will hate what you write and have an opinion about it that differs from your own and you know they're not going to be afraid to say something. Especially because they have the right to remain anonymous in any way they see fit. And when we or our opinion or our writing is attacked it's hard. It often impacts our psyche in a big way.

Personally I've never gone to the lengths Kathleen Hale did to discover the truth about her naysayer, but I get it. Sort of. When someone says something really awful about you or your work you want a chance to discuss it with them. You want a chance to defend yourself without sounding defensive (which is often what happens when you start that discussion on comments). And probably you want the chance to discredit that person. To say, you are wrong and how would you know anyway because.... When someone posts anonymously she knows a whole lot about us, but we know nothing about her. It takes all the power away from us and gives it to her.

There were times when I have been attacked on this blog. Right or wrong, people came out to do whatever they could to discredit me and attack me and my professional integrity. I was scared, I was angry and I Googled. What I learned early on however, and what Kathleen Hale admits to learning in the long run, is that the best answer is to just sit quietly and, as they say, this too shall pass. Let the topic speak for itself or let the other readers comment and take care of it. Sometimes the biggest mistake we can make is saying something at all. What we're doing in that case is exactly what the naysayer wants. We're giving her attention. It's sort of like when Buford grabs my slipper and runs around the office with it. I have the option to chase him, call him and feed him treats. To give him the attention he wants. Or I can sit and work and watch him slowly drop the slipper, confused about why he's not getting the attention he wants.

I'm actually pretty impressed that Kathleen Hale wrote the article at all. Maybe she did it to finally get back at the reviewer, or maybe she just decided to put it out there and get rid of her moment of weakness once and for all. Either way it took bravery. Once again she's getting hit with a lot of opinions from a lot of people who don't know her. Sure its a choice she's making, but as writers I think we all know how difficult it is to face the opinions of others.



Allison K Williams said...

Thanks for this considerably more nuanced treatment of the recent events. I loved the original essay (while still going hooooo-leeeeeee-shit through much of it).

With the firestorm, I've written a piece about how heckling is not reviewing.


I'm fascinated reading tweets from bloggers who are shocked that the actual person they're trashing might react to the meanness in a way the original nasty-pants can't control.

Anonymous said...

"In Kathleen Hale's case the only story we know is hers"

Not entirely true ... the only story she presents is hers.

Have a look at the offending status updates and discussions. They tell, to my mind, a very different story from what Kathleen hale presented in her essay.


Jennifer Leeland said...

What concerns me about your post is that by tacitly accepting Kathleen Hale's obsession (albiet with caveats) you are implying that you wouldn't tell your authors the truth. That bad reviews happen. That life isn't fair. That their book is NOT a special snowflake that won't get slammed by whoever for whatever reason. I'm an author and yes, I've had bad reviews. But Kathleen Hale's post had so many red flags in it that I can't tell you how many times I said "No No No!". Do your authors a favor: Let them know that this kind of author behavior is not good for their peace of mind or their career. Let them know that "doxxing" or outing someone's personal information is never ever justified. And let them know that their feelings, however justified, should not rule their actions especially online. Bad reviews are no harassment. Dig a little deeper and it's clear that the "harassment" she's claiming may never have happened at all. Then, study her other posts and it's possible to see that she's not very wise in any of her reactions online. It might have been wiser professionally to see that this kind of post from an author wouldn't be something YOU might want to see from one of your clients. Considering the response, I'd think you'd want to see your authors have a more healthy response.

KT Grant said...

It took bravery for an author to stalk a reviewer? What would you have done if an author found out your information, where you live, what pets you have, if you have children and where they go to school and suddenly appeared on your doorstep wanting answers why you didn't like her book?

Would you think she was brave then?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Jennifer Leeland: I'm sorry if you think I am promoting stalking of any sort. I think any of my clients, and anyone who reads this blog, will know that I am as honest as I can be at all times. I'm not accepting her obsession. I'm understanding what drove her to it. That's different.

KT Grant: I never once condone stalking. I'm saying it took bravery to write that article. It's brave of any person to write anything that they must know they'll be attacked and criticized for. Sort of like this post ;)

KT Grant said...

An author admits to stalking a blogger by using deceitful ways and confronting her face-to-face with the possibility to do harm. I'm confused by how Kathleen is "brave" by admitting this in an article. Again, what if and author had this interaction with you and decided to write an article about it using your real name. What would your reaction be?

What if the interaction ended up like the case of Richard Brittain who did attack a blogger and put her in the hospital because she gave his book 1 star? Is he brave like Kathleen Hale? He wrote about stalking also: http://evarose.booklikes.com/post/1025236/the-richard-brittain-case

Parajunkee said...

Personally, I don't believe her writing that article was brave either. I believe it was her last ditch attempt at "outing" and harassing her obsession. It also justified her behavior to herself and her peers. If it would have been a "brave" article - it would have been titled "Coming to grips with my stalker behavior" or "Dealing with my descent in to mental instability" or "an open apology to the blogger I stalked." That would be brave. That would be admitting that she did something wrong. She casually mentions that her behavior was abnormal and was her lowest point in her life, but never ONCE did she come out and make an apology to the girl she stalked. That would be brave.

And the worst part - she won, with that article she systematically drove the final nail in the coffin and forced her "catfish" out of the blogging world. That isn't bravery - that is continued harassment and stalking. But, I'm not a psychiatrist - it's just my opinion.

Michael H said...

I'm probably being cynical, but I think Hale wrote the article to generate a controversy that would drive book sales. I never heard of Kathleen Hale or her book before this past weekend, and now I'm debating on getting the book to see if it's really as the original reviewer said.

Anonymous said...

I am with Parajunkee's comment above. This is not bravery. Bravery is admitting that your predatory behavior is truly problematic and you are seeking help, and are at the very least sorry. She is flaunting her behavior, as though it is quirky, or cute.

This wasn't even a troll she was obsessed with and stalked, even though Hale portrayed her as one. This reviewer she stalked has been reviewing books for years under a pseudonym, posting both positive and negative reviews of books she reads. She was posting her opinions on Goodreads, which is a site for readers. Trolling by very definition is a person whose sole purpose in life is to seek out people to argue with on the internet over trivial issues.

Please also keep in mind that you are basing your judgment of this situation on only Hale's recollection of events. You are treating this as though everything she says about the reviewer is real, which we know is not the case. What we DO have is a recounting by an unhinged woman who writes fiction for a living, and is not motivated in telling a necessarily accurate portrayal of events, because they don't fit her victim narrative.

I find this post supremely alarming. I urge you to reconsider the stance you are taking.

Shiloh Walker said...

Your idea of bravery and mine are at two ends of the spectrum. My idea of bravery are those who put their books out there, knowing some will love them and others won't, and being willing to accept that.

Just accept it--not freak out and run around screaming why somebody doesn't love them. She couldn't accept it, so she chose to stalk somebody. THEN she wrote about her account and people who approve are validating her actions.

That tacit approval is wrong.

The fact that there are several conflicting accounts and that numerous bloggers are now discussing retreating from the reading community and/or quitting and/or no longer accepting ARCs from anybody they don't personally know should bother people. A lot.

Aimee Duffy said...

Being a writer, I've felt that oh-no-they-will-hate-me over and over again but at the end of the day it's not ME that readers don't like, it's the book I've written. Trying to separate myself from my work isn't easy - especially with the amount of time, hard work and tears I've put into it.

I was faced with terrible reviews when I signed with a bigger publisher. I've even found negative comments (after I've gone searching twitter for them, much like she did).

Instead of staying quiet though, I engaged in conversations with the bloggers who read and commented on my books - even if it was good or negative. I respected their opinion and took the time to understand what I did wrong and why it didn't work for them. I saw that all criticism, whether it's negative, nasty or praising could help me grow as a writer and a human being. It never once occurred to me to track anyone down and visit their home.

I'm really worried that because of what this particular author did, it will reflect badly on all of us when the truth is, criticism (good and bad) comes with having your work for all to see. It's part of the job, and if she can't handle a few negative tweets then why is she in the job in the first place? I can't agree with what she did and I can't condone it especially since, where I come from, she committed a crime. To me the article in the Guardian was nothing more than a confession.

I also agree that it could be a publicity stunt and have to admit, it's a ballsy one. Still, the author has lost my respect and I really hope it doesn't put bloggers off doing what the vast majority of us authors appreciate them for doing.

Just my 2c.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your view. As a longtime author I can understand Kathleen Hale's pain and frustration while not supporting what she did. I find it deeply revealing that the reviewing community has reacted to this discussion with calls for blacklists and boycotts of everyone who disagrees with their hardline stance in the slightest. They're only proving that a very belligerant bully-world does, indeed exist.

Jennifer Leeland said...

Debrorah Smith, as a longtime author I, too, understand the pain and frustration that comes with bad reviews. I would hope that if my personal information was obtained and a reader came to my house and called my work that the author community would rally to condemn that reader behavior. Not excuse it as "Well, she was a FAN. It's all okay because sometimes fans get a little obsessed."
Though we can understand someone's reaction to rejection, most of us understand that tracking them down when they don't want to be found is not healthy or right or, in some states, legal.
I recognize that Jessica may have been expressing sympathy for the frustration that comes from being slammed online, but it's the passive encouragement that makes this possible.
I've always had nothing but respect for Jessica and her professionalism. I'm absolutely sure that she would never have allowed this behavior to get to this point with a client.
To call the book blogger community's response "bullying" when they've decided not to tolerate this behavior in an author is, at best, disingenuous. We boycott those who offend us. We all do. There are authors I will NEVER buy. I don't consider it bullying to boycott an author or a publisher if there is hinky stuff going on.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I want to thank you all for your comments. That's one of the things that I love and that terrifies me about the blog. I love the discussion, I'm terrified by what people will say. Rather than reply in a comment I'm going to reply with another blog post tomorrow. I think posting a post will keep the discussion on a broader level. That being said, please keep the comments here coming.

Anonymous said...

You may not have seen this, but it gives KH's recent article chilling context: http://thoughtcatalog.com/kathleen-hale/2013/02/169836/

This is not the first time KH has stalked someone - the article describes how she stalked and attacked another girl when she was only 14.

TS said...

It disturbs me that you "get" Hale's vicious and months-long stalking. Though I am happy to hear you've never gone that far.

Calling the stalking (and glorifying of that stalking) of a woman "brave" is absolutely appalling. If my agent showed such anti-woman and poor judgement, I would be looking for another agent.

As a survivor of a stalker, it deeply saddens me that you defend a person who has a history of assault and stalking, especially when she's writing in a category that puts her in direct contact with minors. The woman has so little self-control that she poured peroxide over a molested girl's head when she was 14 and then spent years after harassing and stalking this girl. She rented a car MONTHS in advance in preparation to stalk a reviewer who gave her a bad review. She has a history of writing about the people she's attacked and profiting off it. How do you "get" this behavior? Truly, I would like to know.

Hale had no right to reveal anything about the blogger. Not only did she stalk her, but she re-victimized her by writing about it on an international platform. It does not matter that Hale's feelings were hurt. Nothing justifies stalking. What if Blythe had been a teenager who was lying about her age to seem older? Would you still support Hale's actions if she'd gone after a minor? If she'd been a man?

Woman on Woman threats and violence are not taken seriously in our society. You are contributing to this problem with this blog post by saying Hale "probably" went too far. Sincerely? Would you say the same thing if someone you rejected showed up on your doorstep? One of the reasons the LGBT community has a problem with getting people to take LGBT domestic violence seriously is because larger society does not take same-sex stalking/threats/violence seriously. In fact, woman on woman violence is deeply fetishized in our society. Considering Melissa Anelli (Of The Leaky Cauldron) has been dealing with a vicious and disturbed female stalker for over 6 years, I urge you to please examine your internalized patriarchal biases about men and women and realize that just because it was a woman doing this to another woman, doesn't make it less serious than if Hale had been a 200 lb man showing up at Blythe's door.

If your authors cannot handle a poor review, then they should not be reading them. It's really as simple as that. I am deeply discouraged that a publishing professional such as yourself supports such a disturbed and dangerous individual. Or that you're impressed that she gloated about her prolonged and disturbed stalking on an international platform. Have you actually CONSIDERED the human being at the center of this? The one who did nothing but express her opinion about a book, had Hale show up at her door, call her repeatedly at her job, and now has had a totally biased, one-sided story about her spread across the entire globe? The one who has been driven from the book community she was a part of because she no longer feels safe? What about that woman? I guess it's okay that she'll forever bear the marks of stalking, because Hale impressed you with her revenge. Absolutely appalling.

I will be recommending that the querying writers I mentor avoid your agency, since you clearly do not care about blogger safety. Considering there are tons of teen bloggers out there, this seems like a genuinely callous and immense oversight of yours.

Unknown said...

I've read numerous blog posts about this incident and this is the first one where I've felt so strongly compelled to comment.

The reason? I am simply stunned.

By saying that you stand behind her "in some respects" is disheartening. It's also wishy-washy and I believe it's your attempt to be neutral so that no one from either camp will point fingers.

You write that you don't condone stalking yet not once in your article do you come right out and say that what she did was WRONG.
You write in one paragraph that it's best to be quiet about such things, yet in the end you call her "brave" for writing the article. What?

You can understand where she's coming from all you want, it doesn't mean you can't also condemn her actions.

I'm an author and you know what's worse than getting a scathing review on Goodreads? Getting a one-star rating with NO REVIEW whatsoever. I have no idea why that person didn't like my book. If I let it, that's the kind of thing that can drive someone crazy. If I let it, I too could become so obsessed with wanting to know that I could send them a message on Goodreads or Twitter or wherever and beg them to tell my why, why, why.

But I don't. And I would never ever spend MONTHS figuring out how I could confront them and make them tell me.

As for Hale's claims of the blogger's calculated campaigning to ruin the sales of her book, after reading Hale's own examples/admissions in her article to being self-obsessive and narcissistic, I'm more likely to believe it was all coincidence yet Hale perceived it to be an attack rather than accepting the fact others didn't like her book either. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it was true. That still does not give her the right or justification to track down the blogger at her home or at her job. IT WAS WRONG. It was, and still is, disturbing. And rather than some patting her on the back and saying "there, there," everyone in the publishing industry should be outraged.

As an agent who represents published and aspiring authors, I would've thought that you would've used this forum to caution your authors from taking reviews too personally and use Hale as the example of what not to do. Ever. Instead, I think your own experiences with people attacking you for your opinions on the blog colored your reading glasses and while you may be trying to convince us that you don't support her, your words just don't back that up.

By answering "Probably" when asking if what she did crossed a line tells me that you are indeed validating her actions and that's a damn shame. Why? Because Jessica Alvarez was at the top of my list of dream agents. Now, there is no way I would ever want to be associated with this agency.

And there's no probably about that.

Ellen said...

Thanks for writing a post about catfishing. I hadn't heard of this phenomenon and had no idea how virulent it could be.

Dor said...

A Harvard graduate engaged to a prominent member of a prominent family writing in a national newspaper about going to a woman's home to confront her is not "brave". It's punching down.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Leeland hi!
I am not addressing any of the points you made so well. They are all beside my point, which is that regardless of how one feels about Kathleen Hale, the takeaway from this discussion, for me, has been that the reviewer community will not tolerate an open discussion that disagrees even slightly with its group-think. From the first few hours of the controversy onward, reviewers began vehemently name-calling; labeling anyone they deemed a Hale supporter as "sick" among other terms. Soon that escalated to vowing to blacklist those people (meaning authors.) Lists began to fly. I watched on Twitter as reviewers traded names as if it were a game--"look, I found one who made a comment."

I now understand that reviewers have begun a blackout that extends until next Monday, wherein they won't review ANY new titles. I assume the point is to make some sort of statement about feeling threatened by authors and publishers. Thus, the actions of one author, among thousands, will now be used as a reason to punish all authors.

This type of behavior demonstrates why authors feel rightfully worried about the reviewer community acting against them on a whim--rising up in a coordinated cyberbully campaign. We're seeing that movement in action.

Add to that the posting of Hale's home address and a photo of her home (I haven't verified this, but have seen a post about it); also the flood of vindictive one-star reviews about her book, the campaign to judge her mental health and defame her; and the use of some of her short stories as if they are factual background information, and what you have is a reviewer clique with very shaky ethics of its own.

So, leaving aside any and all assessment of Hale's guilt or innocence, her article has, if nothing else, opened a door on the reviewing community's way of doing business. What it's revealed is not reassuring to authors, to say the least.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Someone is trying very hard to post a comment as anonymous and for some reason not getting through. Since I have the posts sent to me I'm going to post it here on that author's behalf:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The Power of Reviews":

Attempt #4 to post my comment!

What concerns me most about this situation is how scary this most likely was for the reviewer, regardless of whatever questionable online antics she may or may not have engaged in. As a blogger I often have misgivings about sharing my personal information. I've told myself I'm being silly. But the fact of the matter is that I do not have a publishing company, office or publicist to act as a buffer between myself and the online community. I blog from my home address. Which means that I'm putting myself out there every time I provide my address to anyone and yes, that there's the potential for that to lead to real problems. So it's not hard for me to imagine how scary it would be to discover that an author I had an online altercation with knew where I work, where I live and other details about my life.

The Guardian article provides the benefit of Hale's perspective and with it a glimpse of her intentions. But don't forget that at the time Hale was calling Harris and showing up outside her house, Harris did not have that perspective. Can you imagine what it would be like to be living alone and find a person you don't know and who clearly has animosity towards you skulking around outside your house? I would have been terrified.

I imagine it would be incredibly upsetting for an author to deal with such vociferous detractors and I have unending respect for the courage it takes to release their work into the world, knowing not everyone will like it. But I wonder if she thought about how it would feel from the other side to have one's privacy violated to this extent. As bad as it felt for her to have her work torn apart by a reviewer online (and I'm not trying to belittle that experience), I imagine it would have been ten times worse to have that taken offline and to have someone show up at your front door. I don't think that was Hale's intention, but it was the result.

The online book blogging community has been a "safe" place many of us retreat to. And I think what has hit us hardest is thinking about what could have happened. What if someone who had connections in the book world used those connections to track us down and do us harm? (On a related note, I'm shocked by the revelation that anyone working for a publisher would provide or even confirm personal information about a reviewer to anyone else without their permission. This is completely unacceptable, particularly since some are minors.)

We are now left questioning our trust for authors and the publishers who provide us with books to review. I imagine this will cause many bloggers to modify their behaviour and feel nervous about sharing any less than favourable feedback on books - some may even withdraw from online reviewing completely.

You said that posting anonymously takes all the power away from you and gives it to the anonymous user, but in a case like this that power loss pales in comparison to the loss of power that comes with one's actual, physical power being infringed upon and the knock-on effects this will have on the book blogging community. And I find that incredibly upsetting. This goes far beyond Hale and Harris. This will impact all of us.

Unknown said...

Being a writer, I've felt that oh-no-they-will-hate-me over and over again but at the end of the day it's not ME that readers don't like, it's the book I've written. Trying to separate myself from my work isn't easy - especially with the amount of time, hard work and tears I've put into it.