Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:
I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.
It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.
I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.
The first time I took a step back from genre culture was as a result of being stalked for daring to publish negative reviews. The stalking was limited to some creepy comments and a rather cack-handed attempt to run me out of town on a rail by posting a long diatribe in the comments of a number of widely-read blogs but It did give me pause for thought and a reason for cutting back on my reviewing.
. . . .
In February 2009, I reviewed Ellen Datlow’s anthology Poe for Strange Horizons. I liked some of the stories but not all of them and was largely unimpressed by the anthology as a whole. A few days later, the Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow appeared in the comments to take issue with things that I had said. She was later joined by the author Anna Tambour whose contributions make little sense even upon re-examination. Curious as to where these authors and editors were coming from, I backtracked and came across a discussion of the review on Datlow’s blog. I later commented in public about Datlow’s willingness to go after her critics and she responded by saying that she didn’t believe that I had actually read her work.
In hindsight, this type of stuff seems like weak beer. In the past five years, online discussion has grown considerably more hyperbolic and an editor linking to a negative review on their blog would most likely result in 110 comments rather than 11. However, I started reviewing under the principle that a reviewer’s right to express their opinion about a book was sacrosanct and when you realise that this right has suddenly been taken away it cannot help but make you feel alienated from your culture (am I *that* out of touch?) and just that little bit more careful when choosing which books to review (does this author have a history of going after their critics and do I think that my review might prompt such a response?).
. . . .
The changes in the social protocols surrounding reviewing show how the lack of distance between authors and fans has put fan spaces under pressure to conform to the requirements of the modern publishing industry: A literary culture built to meet the needs of fans naturally encourages robust criticism because robust criticism encourages fans to talk amongst themselves and a negative review is no bad thing (whether you agree with it or not) because it aims to prevent fans from spending money on books they won’t enjoy. Conversely, a literary culture built to meet the needs of literary professionals has no interest in protecting people from bad purchasing decisions. This type of literary culture emphasises not only positive reviews that help to sell (sometimes terrible and offensive) books but also coverage of the types of things that publishers want. Why encourage fans to find their own areas of interest when you can drive them towards the blogs of people who review the right type of book in the right type of way and at the right time? A literary culture built to suit the needs of literary professionals has no need for independent or idiosyncratic voices and absolutely no need for reviewers who dare to point out that the hot novel of the moment is a waste of money. However, a literary culture built to suit to needs of its bourgeois professionals may feel the need to set out a set of rules that the lower classes would be wise to follow, hence Robert Jackson Bennett laying down the law as to where and when it is acceptable for critics to express their own opinions:
In other words, when you leave your platform, your own personal space of the internet, and go to someone else’s, or even to a community platform, it requires a different code of behavior. This isn’t your space anymore, so you need to act differently. And remember, you’ve had your say back on your own platform. That’s the place to speak your mind.
What has changed in the last generation is that the book publishing industry has been bought out by corporations who see the literary world as nothing more than another domain from which to extract money. Thus, the infamously sloppy and old-fashioned publishing industry was put under pressure to perform and in order to perform, belts had to be tightened and resources squeezed including authors who could no longer be allowed to sit around writing when there was marketing to be done. I understand when people like Robert Jackson Bennett say that they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed but it is capitalism and not fans who put them in this position.
Many of the writers who are now compelled to interact with fans in fannish spaces were not members of those spaces prior to becoming authors. Having been told by agents and publishers to set up a Twitter account and get branding, they arrive in fannish spaces expecting the cultural equivalent of an eBay account: Put effort in here, extract money there. Brought to these spaces for entirely selfish reasons, it is not surprising that these authors should find themselves alienated from a set of cultural values devised and maintained by people intent upon using those spaces for different reasons. Faced with a disconnect from the cultural values they have and the cultural values that benefit them financially, some authors choose to either lobby for a new set of rules (as in the case of Robert Jackson Bennett) or lash out at reviewers (as in the case of Kathleen Hale and Ben Aaronovitch) who refuse to act according to the rules that many new authors were lead to expect by publishers who don’t have the time to promote the books they themselves chose to publish.