In Which Everyone Is Sad And Terrible And There Are No Good Solutions

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

On Saturday, the Internet lit up with a horrifically embarrassing story: Kathleen Hale confronting her online critic.


I would advise you to read this article in full before continuing, because it’s probably going to be the most interesting thing you’ve read all week.
But interestingly, a lot of people seemed to miss both sides of this.
Many didn’t see Kathleen Hale as an obsessive stalker, which she clearly was – she tracked her reviewer back to her house, for God’s sake, and still just wants to talk to her.  This is deranged behavior of the worst sort – I don’t think Kathleen would hurt her critic, but boy howdy is this beyond the pale.  (Plus, “Catfishing” is incorrectly used – catfishing is when you lure someone into a romantic relationship under false Internet pretenses, and her critic was merely using a pseudonym.  Kathleen is attempting to misuse the term to imply that hey, I had a relationship with my bad reviewer!  But she didn’t.  She really didn’t.)
But those who condemned Kathleen roundly also missed the fact that her critic (at least as presented here) was kinda dickish, a bully of the tawdry sort you find everywhere on the Internet – the sort of person who rallies folks to her cause, derails arguments, and has no problems trying to insult her detractors into silence by repeatedly mocking them.
I’m all in favor of bad reviews.  If you don’t like something, say so.  Anyone who’s watched me deal with my comments threads will tell you that I’m generally pretty tolerant of people going, “Jesus, Ferrett, that was awful and stupid and you shouldn’t have written it.”  Authors are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to bad reviews, which is patently stupid, because shit, man, Shakespeare isn’t universally loved and you won’t be.
Be grateful for most bad reviews, painful as they are.  They serve a purpose.  They tell people what to expect, so they don’t buy your book and hate it personally.  If you can’t deal with the fact that some people won’t like your book, don’t publish.  Authors are far too willing to call someone with a consistent dislike of their output a “bully.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t bullies out there, though.
Because there does come a point where a bad review steps beyond the boundaries of bad reviews and into power plays.  Kathleen’s portrait of the heckler as someone who wants to have their own show is correct, and some very small but very damaging subset of reviewers have found that bashing creators in entertaining, malicious, and personal ways is a great way to attract attention without really having to show that they can do better.
The instructions we give to authors – and they are good ones – is DO NOT ENGAGE, which is why you’ll notice Kathleen Hale blitzing past Goodreads and her very wise friend and, well, everybody saying to not engage.  But that’s not because there’s some sort of moral imperative involved here.  That’s because, if you are an author, there is no good way to interact with a negative review and not come out looking bad, even if the reviewer is a catastrophic jerk.
That’s why this is all really pitiful.  Kathleen is insecure, and unwise, and ultimately unhinged.  But in a better world, we wouldn’t have critics like Kathleen describes – I’m not necessarily sure whether Kathleen’s portrait of her critic is accurate, given her lack of self-reflection here, but I do know of many authors who’ve endured vitriolic personal attacks as part of the show.  There are certainly critics who are like that.  (Also and people who go, “Well, you wrote a book, you deserve whatever nasty feedback you get!  That’s the price for seeking fame!”)
To me, man, authors shouldn’t go so nuts as to show up on their critics’ doorsteps, and reviewers shouldn’t go so nuts as to think of an author as their White Whale, relentlessly pursuing them for sins both real and imagined, making it a personal crusade to pillory anyone who enjoyed what they didn’t.
These are just books, man.  Nothing’s that important.  And it’s sad all around, watching critics and authors drown in these thimble-sized seas of ego.  That’s all.

2 Comments

  1. Carmen Maria Machado
    Oct 20, 2014

    I mostly agree with you, and I am definitely in the “do not engage” school of thought as well, but the one exception is that I think it’s fair for authors, should they chose, to respond to reviews that are openly sexist/racist/etc.
    Karen’s Abbott’s response to the WaPo reviewer who suggested that her meticulously detailed, fastidiously researched, 500-page book about the Civil War has prose “borrowed from the pages of a woman’s magazine” was amazing, and I think she was right to do so:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-sexist-remark-marred-a-worthy-book-review/2014/10/09/381db856-4d9f-11e4-877c-335b53ffe736_story.html

  2. Carmen Maria Machado
    Oct 20, 2014

    (And by reviews I mean, like, reviews, not every Amazon/Goodreads comment that pops up.)

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