Goodreads bullies?

by Tom Ingram

The latest Internet kerfuffle is about the website “Stop the GR Bullies“, which is apparently dedicated to trashing Goodreads reviewers who give negative reviews. The claim of the StGRB folks is that these reviews constitute “bullying” of the authors, and they respond quite harshly, in some cases posting names, addresses, and even information about where their target “bully” can be found at certain times of day.

This is interesting to me as a sometime amateur book reviewer (though not one who uses Goodreads, luckily). You see, from a quick glance over the StGRB site, most of the “bullies” they respond to have written reviews that are objectively quite tame, for amateur Internet critics. Seriously, I’m currently reading a collection of music criticism by Shaw, and the things he says about Brahms (in a newspaper, no less) are nastier than anything I’ve seen quoted on StGRB. I don’t think I’m a particularly vindictive reviewer, but if I had a Goodreads account, I might well be one of their targets. In my most recent book review, I said that Michael Moorcock “might be full of shit.” I called Paolo Bacigalupi racist and sexist, and George Dickie parochial and gibbering. I’m about to call Roger Scruton childish and repugnant. All this in reviews that I think are quite reasonable.

Compare those remarks with a few taken from StGRB. The first thing we should get out of the way, before we talk about the more sticky issues at work here, is that these reviews are not more strident than the average. Indeed, the StGRB about page shows that the (anonymous) folks behind it are nothing more than the standard-issue lily-livered opinion-mongers who turn up in the comment threads of negative reviews everywhere. The ones who expect you to use “but that’s just my opinion” as a hedge. Such people are usually mere intellectual cowards who never get anywhere—you’ll never see Shaw saying “but that’s just my opinion”—but these ones, as we’ll see below, are dangerous and scary.

It’s not wise for authors to read reviews of their work. This goes especially for amateur reviews on blogs and social networks. The review is written for the potential reader. The critic provides consumer advice and (if I may borrow an idea from Roger Scruton) recommends a certain response to the thing reviewed. It is possible that the author will want to read in-depth critiques in order to develop the weak parts of their technique, but I would imagine that the most common criticisms filter down to the author even if they don’t read the reviews. Some, like John Scalzi, just take a perverse delight in reading good-quality negative reviews of their work. In general, though, an author reading a negative review is asking to have their feelings hurt—and most of these “bullying” instances are about hurt feelings, not genuine harassment or defamation, which is a different matter entirely. Certainly, an author should never respond to a review, especially a negative one.

Let me give you two anecdotes as illustrations. Once I made less-than-complimentary comments about the Eragon books on a forum. A member of the forum responded to me in a PM saying something like, “If I were Christopher Paolini…”. I have no idea why, but for some reason I misread this as “I am Christopher Paolini” and responded as such, much to my embarrassment when I later reread the message. But in that brief period where I thought that the author of Eragon (or someone pretending to be him, which is even more frightening) had actually found and responded to my comments, a wave of dread came over me. Now everything’s different, I thought, Now I have to check every offhand comment I make about books and make sure it’s nothing I wouldn’t say to the author herself. I maintain that, if the author actually had responded to me, that would be grossly inappropriate.

More recently, when the Christopher Priest affair happened, I wrote a post about it. At one point in that post, I commented on John Scalzi’s reaction, which struck me as guarded and cautious. To my surprise, Scalzi actually turned up in the comments to correct me. Now, in this case, there was no indiscretion; Scalzi was entirely within his rights and responded with unfailing politeness. Even so, it was a bit disconcerting simply because I’m an Internet nobody, whereas John Scalzi is a fancy sci-fi author who could probably order the SFWA secret service to have me whacked.

There is an inherent power imbalance between authors and reviewers, especially amateur reviewers. Even the knowledge that a real, proper author is aware of your existence can make you uncomfortable as a reviewer. As a result, we maintain a polite fiction that authors are completely unaware of any reviews written about them. This works out well for everyone. When an author responds to criticism, only two things can happen: either it intimidates the critic and weakens the culture of robust criticism from which everyone, including the author, benefits, or it makes the author look like a complete asshole (see: R. Scott Bakker versus Requires Hate).

In many of the cases that StGRB has posted on their site, an author responded to a negative Goodreads review or interacted with the reviewer in some way, the reviewer understandably freaked out, and everything went downhill from there. This is always the author’s fault, and cannot rightly be described as an example of bullying. Some of them (the first few at that link) are perfectly ordinary reviews whose only flaw is that they aren’t couched in wishy-washy terms. In one case, the author’s daughter edited her review to respond to a negative review from a “bully” and posted information about the “bully”‘s career. She promptly received a verbal smackdown for being creepy as hell. The only complicating factor here is that the author’s creepy daughter was fourteen, but no one had any way of knowing that. And anyway, surely fourteen is old enough to be held accountable for creepy stalker behaviour.

Speaking of, that’s perhaps the worst thing about StGRB: they post profiles of their “bullies”, complete with pictures, real names and addresses, and (in one case) information about daily habits. Regardless of whether you think the Goodreads reviewers have been too strident (they haven’t), this is beyond the pale. Publishing someone’s name and address in that way is an implicit threat. It’s compounded by the fact that all the “bullies” are women, which makes the implicit threat a good deal graver. This is immoral and quite possibly illegal behaviour, an unambiguous case of something much worse than “bullying”. We should not tolerate such things on our Internet.

(This is, I fear, where the modern thin-skinned tendency leads. It starts here and ends inexorably here. To push things back the other way, I will make sure my next negative review consists of nothing other than the words “fucking dumbass”. ETA: or this)

I don’t know if anything can be done to have the personal information removed, but we certainly should not give aid and comfort to such nasty little trolls by entertaining any notions that the harassment is not that bad or the victims deserved it. So, to the victims: you have, by definition, the unreserved support of all decent people on the Internet. To the perpetrators: may your shaving water be forever two degrees too cold. May you forget to plug in your car every day this winter. May strangers subconsciously sense the moral pollution of your crime and move away from you on the sidewalk. There, is that nice enough for you?

HT: Foz Meadows via Scalzi.