The dark side of book reviewing

book reviews, ramblings

This just came to my attention today. I’m a bit late to the game, but my focus has been dedicated to the real world for a while now. I’ve simply been neglecting the virtual. Shame on me.

While I’ve been gone, a big controversy concerning bullying on Goodreads has come to light. Initially, I did a double-take. Bullying? Goodreads? It’s a book review site. How much bullying could there possibly be?

The allegations are pretty incredible. The issues find their root in the practice of some reviewers deciding to give one-star ratings to books they haven’t read. These books are sometimes also put on unfortunately-named bookshelves, which, theoretically, presents a sort of libel situation. For example, these shelves are given names like “author should be raped,” and other vulgar descriptors. These sorts of things prove to be, to put it mildly, disheartening for indie and self-published authors. It’s bad enough to get a negative review, but to be mocked and ridiculed is something else entirely.

In retaliation to this practice, a concerned group of Goodreaders started a site called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. The focus of the site is to serve up justice where the Goodreads admins will not. The majority of the posts focus on screencaps of comment threads that supposedly reveal bullying in action. The problem, of course, is that it’s very difficult to tell apart the actions of this site’s writers from the behaviors they’re rallying against. For example, STGRB posts real names of Goodreads users who they have a problem with, provides questionable versions of events (that conveniently require interpretation), and gives access to situations taken outside of any context that might be considered meaningful. It’s difficult to make the claim that shelving a book on an inappropriately-named shelf is bullying while calling out an offender and tagging the post with something like “Asshats.”

This is a realm, I think, that not many people are aware of, but it touches on so many of the core issues that surround book review communities. To what degree can an author be criticized? Is it acceptable for an author to interact with reviewers? Are the angry responses that reviewers hurl at authors who question negative reviews instances of bullying?

Bullying is a serious issue. Unfortunately, it seems to have become a buzzword that’s hefted about by groups that feel they’ve been wronged in some way. That detracts from the seriousness of actual instances of bullying, which probably get buried beneath the deluge. I am certain that some of the allegations made by STGRB are legitimate, just as I am certain that a good deal of the information they publish to their site is immoral and hypocritical. There’s not denying, though, that the lines here are very fuzzy.

In my opinion, it’s important that we allow readers to honestly review and, more importantly, react to the books they read. Not everyone is a trained reviewer, so, inevitably, we’re going to see things that look like attacks on an author’s character. In these instances, though, I would argue that the slander is hyperbolic. To say that an author should be killed is simply a crass way of saying that the reviewer had a strong negative reaction to the book. Has that author been treated unfairly? Probably. Should the review be flagged as inappropriate? Probably. Has the author been bullied? Probably not.

The larger issues, and bigger offenses, seem to come about when wronged authors and angry reviewers meet in the comment sections of reviews. Here, a review has been posted and an author has expressed some opposition to it. From there, the reviewer is offended by the obvious subjectivity of the author and the anger that comes with someone showing the audacity to openly disagree with an opinion of a work. Conflict resolution 101, right? We know, though, that lots of folks don’t really excel in that area. And the Internet, unfortunately, is not the place where one goes to start exercising restraint and level-headedness.

As an indie author myself, I have a firm policy of not responding to negative reviews. It’s pretty well understood by most authors that interaction with readers is appreciated by some and abhorred by others. It should come as no surprise that the higher the author’s profile, the more welcome the discussion is. In the last couple of years, there have been numerous instances of authors (specifically YA authors, weirdly) trolling negative reviews of their works. Obviously, this is bad practice. And these negative interactions leave reviewers with a negative opinion of a book AND of the person who wrote it. Which is where the slander seems to come in to play. The logic goes thusly: If you were a jerk about me not liking your book, I will make sure that no one reads it. It’s simple enough.

Of course, we’re talking about someone’s book. This thing they worked so hard on, that they loved and cared for. It’s a very personal thing. And it’s hard to watch it get picked apart by strangers on the Internet, the very place you’d hoped to sell the thing. I’ve personally felt this sting. But, you know, that’s the nature of the beast. You put your stuff out there and people are going to read it. Not all of them are going to like it. It’s best for authors to just keep their distance. Don’t respond to reviews at all. And if you feel compelled to against your better judgement, seek out constructive criticsm. Authors don’t have a leg to stand on when criticizing someone’s reaction to their work. Even if the author thinks that person has not read the book. It’s unprovable and irrelevant.

All those things aside, it’s truly depressing that things have gone this far. They’re book reviews, for crying out loud. This is a person’s reaction to a piece of media. This is a clear view of one of the darker sides of the Internet and is a case in point for why we, as human beings, can’t have nice things. We should probably just blow it up and start from scratch. Perhaps there could be some sort of process for being allowed access to the Internet again, like there is when one buys a handgun.

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