Next week I will be a guest of the Surrey International Writers' Conference in British Columbia, Canada, and one of the workshops I've giving is on reviews. Specifically, it's called, Reviews: How to Get Reviewed, and How to Put a Review in your Rearview Mirror. I'm a blogger and reviewer who regularly gives negative review to books, and I'm also an author of two books, both of which have received positive and negative reviews. I both write and receive reviews regularly, but it's not that experience that gives me an understanding of where Kathleen Hale went wrong.
In an article published by The Guardian today, Kathleen Hale details how she targeted a reviewer on GoodReads who had given her upcoming book a negative review.
When Kathleen Hale stalked, monitored, and then personally harassed by phone and in person a reviewer who disliked her book, she had crossed what should be an obvious line of acceptable behavior. Hale repeatedly sought engagement and demanded attention from a person who did not consent to that contact, and moreover sought through every possible means to unmask a person's pseudonym because she wanted to, and she thought she had the right to do so.
There is a line between how you feel about a review, and what you do in response to it.
Here, in convenient list form, are two things I have learned as a reader, a reviewer, and an author – a micro-version of the workshop that usually lasts an hour or 90 minutes.
When you publish a book, when you create anything and release it into the world as entertainment to be consumed and enjoyed by other people, you lose all control of the conversation about your creation.
I have written about this at length in a book edited by Brian O'Leary and Hugh McGuire. But here's the shorter version: once it's published, it's not under your control anymore. Your name is on the cover, and your name is likely part of the review, positive or negative, as well. But you cannot control what people say about it, and chasing people down, arguing with them about what they said, rounding up other people to tell that person they are wrong, is not helping. It's attempting to quell what could be a beneficial conversation. Negative and positive reviews have a purpose, and they both have important purposes – several purposes, really.
You and your book are SEPARATE THINGS. They are NOT THE SAME.
“Oh, I was reviewed by X. They flayed me alive.”
“I got a review at that site. They ripped me to pieces.”
As far as I am aware at this time, I have no magical powers to flay people, my eyes don't turn black and creepy, and I am not definitely not Alyson Hannigan. So I don't flay people, living or dead. If I had that skill, I imagine I'd be very popular among people who need to field dress an elk.
And I don't rip people to shreds, either. I don't have that kind of upper body strength, to be honest.
I may have disliked a book. Another reader may have disliked a book. That happens a lot. But the book and the author are separate things. A book is not the author, and the author is not the book. If I am offended, angry, disappointed, outraged or completely over the moon with glee about a book, that has very little to do with the author personally.
Truly wonderful people whom I like very much personally write books that are utterly not my thing. And there are books I absolutely adore with every cell in my body that were written by people who I find utterly repugnant on a personal level. Great art is often made by raging assholes. Raging ass work is often created by wonderful human beings.
(Also, where your line of raging asshole prevents you from enjoying a person's work is entirely yours to decide.)
Hale's account of her determination to connect personally with the reviewer leads me to believe that for Hale, there was no separation between book and author. She “longed” to speak with the reviewer, as she said, and that longing makes me question why that contact was so important? Why would Hale order a background check, call that person at work, and then go to her home address? Why was that so important? What was she hoping to gain? What did she win through all that effort? That she was right, that one person was in fact using two names and one or both disliked Hale's book? That if she could just talk to this reviewer, she could…accomplish what? Changing her mind? By showing up on her porch and leaving a creepy book as a gift/message?
As detailed in her own account of her harassment of a GoodReads reviewer, Hale seems to believe she is entitled to know who and where this reviewer is, where she goes on vacation and what other names she might be using. When Hale obtained this person's address, she didn't send the signed books and call it done. She uses it to further her research. She shows up at the woman's house. She calls her at her place of employment. She's entitled to a conversation that she “longs” for and she's going to have it.
But a review isn't an invitation to an author for a conversation. Most of the time, I advise that authors should stay out of the comments of a review. There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost is that, again, a review is not an invitation to an author for a discussion about the review or the reviewer's opinion.
(Also: the Guardian and Hale are both using “Catfishing” incorrectly. “Catfishing” is the deliberate creation of a fake identity to lure a person into a relationship who otherwise would have nothing to do with you. It's hiding your identity and misrepresenting yourself for the purposes of establishing a relationship with someone. Electing to use a pseudonym online is not catfishing. ETA: Jane at DearAuthor explains in detail how inaccurate Hale's account of the reviewer's behavior was, and that Hale was catfishing to gain information on the reviewer.)
I don't understand why the Guardian chose to publish that essay. I don't understand the thought process of the editor who gave it the green light and effectively condoned the stalking and harassment of a reviewer. The fact that the Guardian published it is as disturbing and abhorrent as Hale's actions – to say nothing of the degree to which she and the editors at the Guardian both seem to lack understanding of how inappropriate those actions were. The fear and horror and wariness that Hale's and the Guardian's decisions have created in many people is absolutely real and justified.
However, as confused and horrified as I am by Kathleen Hale's actions, her decision to write and brag about them, and the decision to publish them, I am equally confident that the connection we have to one another as writers, readers, authors and reviewers is not an inherently bad thing. We're all still figuring out how to interact with one another, but I do believe that that given the choice, most people will choose to be kind.
I'm beyond sad that there are people who lauded, praised and congratulated Kathleen Hale for her actions (and repeatedly misused and misattributed the word “bully”), but I do NOT think Kathleen Hale's actions represent us as authors, or us as reviewers and bloggers, or us as people who reside in book-focused spaces online. I believe we are kind, and I believe we are better than that.
Kathleen Hale's actions and her decision to write about them were abhorrent and beyond inappropriate, reachable only through hours of hiking into the Realm of Really Goddam Wrong. Even if the Guardian doesn't see that, and the people who supported and praised her don't see that, and if Kathleen Hale herself doesn't see that, I believe that most of us recognize how wrong she was.
But, more importantly, I believe we know better than that, and that while we may not always agree or get along, we are not enemies.