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Letters of Opinion

Dear Author

Poisoning the Well

For better or worse, I have always been a fighter. For the people and principles I care about most, I will go to the mat, and the more unfair a situation becomes, the more energized to set things right I seem to become. I’m one of those cynical idealists who generally doesn’t trust people and yet can’t stop believing in basic ideals about how justice prevails and everything comes around in the end.

But over the last year –and especially the past month– I’ve seen things in and around our book communities that, honest to God, have so shocked and appalled me, and that seem so far beyond what any decent human being would do, that I can’t even figure out where and how to engage effectively and productively. It’s like one of those computer games where you can’t get from point A to point B without stepping in an unseen sinkhole or explosive trap.

This weekend, when the Internet exploded with The Guardian’s appalling breach of reader trust in publishing the disgusting account of author Kathleen Hale gleefully stalking a reader-reviewer, right on the heels of the somewhat less damaging, although not completely unrelated rant by Margo Howard over negative Amazon Vine reviews, I feel like we’ve reached a new level of ethical corruption in our book communities, where corporate systems – be they publishers, newspapers, or even authors — are more openly and unapologetically preying on readers, while readers seem to have fewer and fewer places to find safe harbor.

That, for example, The Guardian saw fit to publish the Hale piece, despite all of its obvious problems, is not merely baffling to me, but downright horrifying. How could anyone miss the massive hypocrisy of the moment where Hale’s obsessive distrust and pursuit of a pseudonymous reviewer is unselfconsciously eclipsed by her wholly uncritical trust in and promotion of a pseudonymous practitioner some of the most vile online vigilante injustice against book bloggers we’ve seen in the past decade? How could anyone think that publishing a professional author’s vaguely apologetic and yet not at all regretful hunting down of an amateur book reviewer was a good idea, especially when the author made a slew of completely unsubstantiated and suspect claims against the reviewer, who had NO VOICE in the piece. And for those of you who may have been taken in by Hale’s obviously practiced ‘aww shucks’ confession of her obsessive tendencies, think about the fact that every single thing you think you know about that reviewer comes from a person who a) writes fiction for a living, and b) has absolutely no incentive to fairly represent, let alone make sympathetic, the person she’s hunting down like an animal.

And perhaps worst of all, The Guardian, in running that piece without context or counter-point, threw their considerable journalistic weight on the side of vigilante injustice and thus far seems content to hold to that position. We also know, direct from Hale, that a “contact at a publishing house” confirmed private blogger information with her, and I know we’re all holding our breath in anticipation of a statement from Harper Collins.

But the fact that ANY publisher might have furnished that information to Hale is likely scaring the hell out of anyone who has provided their address to an author or publisher for an ARC or contest. To those authors and editors and promotional staff who have not violated the trust of readers, thank you. To those of you who have spoken out in support of readers and reviews of all varieties, even snarky, sarcastic, snotty reviews, thank you. It sucks that you end up suffering the consequences of these incidents, too.

But for me, the lesson here is explicit: there are publishers and authors who are more than willing to exploit the value of readers to promote their books and then equally willing to participate in the ruination of that valuable resource, should it not seem valuable at the moment to them. Many of us are used to the systematic devaluation of female voices in, well, virtually every community you can name. But this feels like a sucker punch to the gut, and now that I’m getting my wind back, all I can say is congratulations to any of you who helped, supported, or cheered while Kathleen Hale — or anyone like her — lashed out at a reader-reviewer. Not only have you helped diminish the serious implications of real bullying (because wishes are not ponies and negative reviews are NOT bullying), but you are fundamentally damaging the community you simultaneously rely on for its honest, spontaneous enthusiasm about books. You are, in fact, poisoning the very well from which you’ve been drinking.

That there are authors who are endorsing Hale’s behavior is reflective of how twisted the power relationship between authors/publishers and readers is. Authors who are professionally producing commercial products for profit feel entitled to hunt down those who have expressed their dislike of those products, but authors are the powerless ones here? This skewed dynamic, by the way, is one of the reasons I think it’s so important to fight the ‘specialness of books’ rhetoric – because the more we buy into that kind of exclusivity, the more we seem to be removing authors (and publishers) from the realm of commercial producers, and, therefore, from their role as business people and even corporations unto themselves. And let’s not forget how many of these business people see no harm in purchasing positive reviews or hiring marketing services to promote their work, regardless of the ethics or legality of such endeavors. Apparently the decision to ‘put food on the table’ by writing books has become license to stalk. Good to know the rules, although for readers this is no game.

For the most part I’m just pissed way the hell off and galled that authors like Hale benefit at all from the precious resource of honest reader reviews. But I know that many readers are legitimately scared. Blythe Harris has apparently announced that she is giving up book blogging. And anyone who believes that this is a victory does not yet understand how important it is to a vibrant bookselling community to have a diversity of honest reviewing voices, nor how the real value of those most positive reviews is revealed only in the context of the negative ones.

For the first time in the decade plus that I’ve been engaging in book talk online, I feel like in every facet (NOT every author, editor, publisher, and journalist, but every part) of the book writing and publishing industry there is some kernel of tolerance and even advocacy for the victimization of readers, who, if we are to believe all the marketing rhetoric, are supposed to be one of the most important constituencies when it comes to keeping the industry in motion. Theoretically, ideally even, one would think that you would want to protect the autonomy and safety of those you rely on to purchase your books and indirectly market them through independent reviews. Oh, how quaint and nearly old-fashioned Signet’s ethicality in the face of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism case now looks. Although perhaps we should have taken more seriously and ominously Kensington’s acquisition of Janet Dailey or their silence in the aftermath of the Deborah Anne MacGillivray revelations.

Not that I begrudge any publisher or author those business decisions that legally maximize their profit – after all, that is part of what makes commercial publishing a viable industry. And the fact that genre fiction, especially, seems to draw so many of its authors from the ranks of its readership makes all these violations seem particularly illogical, even depraved.

In fact, one of the things that strikes me as so odd about this whole fiasco is that we routinely tolerate – even advocate – pseudonymity in the creation of author names, especially when the specter of social disapproval is strong (erotic fiction, for example). But even in more mundane circumstances, like when an author continues to review, or is trying to re-brand, perhaps in a different subgenre or genre, pseudonyms are wielded like shields of divine protection against the possibility or harassment, stalking, and other unseemly effects of daring to be an artiste. If we are so willing to let those who are writing for commercial profit these protections, why in the hell would we not extend them to reader-reviewers and bloggers, many of whom are getting nothing out of their reviews except the fun of talking about books with people on the Internet?

When I really think about this, I realize it’s been growing in plain sight for many years. I know that there have been some more blatant examples in the past few years, but all of the ‘oh, we should be nice in our reviews’ talk, tales of the so-called Dixieland Mafia, reader stalking of yore (remember the Emily Giffin incidents), and other admonitions associated with “mean” book reviews have been swirling for years, and apparently we are at a point where enough momentum has built that readers no longer have any reason to trust that an author, publisher, or media outlet will protect their rights and interests at the most basic level of legality, ethics, or human decency. And that’s a seriously fucked up state of affairs, especially when you think about Sunita’s point that the value of the community – its honest, spontaneous, and sometimes viral conversation — is what has made it a target to begin with. It’s clear to me that unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with, that no one who justifies the victimization of others would ever think it’s okay if it happened to them. Logic won’t prevail here, and calls for human decency and accountability continue to go unanswered.

So where are we now? Have we finally turned the final corner into complete corruption and chaos? Is there nothing for readers to do but evacuate the community completely, leaving it to those who refuse to do something to keep reading safe? As I said initially, I have always been a fighter, but I am at a loss at this point. I do know that our book community still has many important voices, and it wasn’t too long ago that we saw a powerful communal stand against the silencing of book bloggers. As inspiring and awesome as that was, we’re clearly dealing with something that manifests destruction in myriad ways and from multiple directions at once. Just yesterday a UK reader reported being physically assaulted by an author. How many more have been threatened, stalked, harassed, or even assaulted?

And yeah, I get that not everyone likes everyone else, blah blah blah, but if you look at those standing most steadfast in support of reader rights, it’s reader bloggers – not just the bigger blogs, but all of the wonderful, intelligent, engaged, generous, and interesting readers who care enough about books to put up with all the unwarranted bullshit that being online attracts. And among all of these voices, there has to be something we can do. I know that for the foreseeable future I’m done sending traffic to The Guardian via the Dear Author news. But there has to be more. Among the options that come immediately to mind:

  1. Make our blogging communities private to protect the book talk. This would allow us to keep our priorities intact and to keep ourselves from being so easily exploited and preyed upon;
  2. Stop taking ARCs from publishers, and only take them from trusted authors. It does seem that these promotional items are viewed by some as a contract or an entitlement;
  3. Shut down completely and let the industry professionals deal with this amongst themselves. Let’s see how great things are when there are only 4 and 5 star reviews out there, and god knows how many of them actually authentic;
  4. Collective boycotting of authors, publishers, and/or newspapers. This is unwieldy, I know, although I don’t think a bunch of petitions would do anything at this point.
  5. Would anyone be up for a coordinated, temporary (week-long?) review blackout?

But what do you think? What are your suggestions for how our book communities should be dealing with this? And where are you, personally, in dealing with this?


ETA: The blogger who initially provided the reviewer’s address has posted her account of the incident, and not surprisingly, it differs in important ways from Hale’s. To wit:

Let me back track a second since this seems to be the super important part. When KH requested Blythe as her blogger, she also asked me to get Blythe’s mailing address for her because she wanted to send her a gift for hosting her for the Bash. I sent Blythe an email and she seemed super excited and gave me her permission to pass on her mailing address to KH. It seemed safe and simple. I read in KH’s article that she was requested to donate some signed books and that’s why she wanted Blythe’s mailing address. When we send invitations out to the debut authors we give them a set of questions. One of those questions is whether or not they will be hosting a giveaway for the event and if it will be open to US, US & CAN, or INT. We never ask any of the authors to host a giveaway nor do we ask them to donate specific prizes. If they have questions about the giveaway we answer them, but that is completely up to them. Most of the authors chose to do a giveaway this year, but we did have quite a few who did not host one.

Additionally, Hale has indicated to someone on her Tumblr (a screenshot is available here) that she is “proud of myself” for her article. Just let that sink in for a few minutes as you think about how our reading communities need to respond.

And here is Harper Teen’s completely anemic Twitter response to Jane’s inquiry about the incident: 

We were not involved in this incident, and we do not disclose our blogger contact information as a general matter.

Extended version of UK reviewer’s recent attack report, as well as Yahoo’s article on another incident involving the same author. 

Dear Author

The Isolated Romance Heroine

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Romance and life philosophies, and during the vibrant ensuing discussion, Liz Mc2 made a great point about how the more Romance novels narrow their focus to just the couple, the less we see of their interaction and engagement with the outside world. As she put it:

Of course there are exceptions, but when the larger community context is a vestigial part of someone’s life as represented in fiction, so many things that matter to people in real life get dropped out.

On Saturday, Miss Bates’s review of a Ruthie Knox novel prompted a long and winding discussion about, well, all sorts of things, but among the topics discussed was the social and familial isolation of Romance protagonists, especially heroines.

The isolated heroine has long been one of my Romance soapbox topics, because as useful as it often is in a genre where you want individuals to forge an intense, possibly unbreakable romantic bond, it can also make the heroine more vulnerable and disempowered.

We more often see the isolated heroine in historical Romance, whether she be the orphaned governess or powerless daughter forced to marry The Wrong Man (or The Right Man who initially appears to be The Wrong Man). And there seems to be a strong perception that women were more isolated in the past, although I think this may have more to do with the ways in which we conceptualize connectedness and independence and social power in a contemporary context. In any case, historical Romance more often seems to rely on the trope of the isolated heroine to place the heroine in a position where she can meet, fall in love with, and ultimately marry a man she might otherwise never have access to. Whereas authors of contemporary Romance — like Shannon Stacey, Julie James, Erin McCarthy, Kit Rocha, Jessica Clare and others — are more inclined to feature female friendships, if not necessarily close family relationships.

Still, the trope of the isolated heroine is hardly obsolete, as Truly Yours, the book that initially gave rise to the epic Twitter conversation demonstrates. The novel apparently makes use of the ‘innocent girl alone in the big bad city’ trope, with the hero set up as her protector. And I was talking with Jane about Linda Howard’s books, where you see some of her lighter books, like Mr. Perfect, Open Season, and To Die For (the Blair Mallory series), featuring better connected heroines, with darker books, like Dream Man, Diamond Bay, and Shadow Woman, isolating the heroine from family, friends, and even society.  Harlequin Presents often makes use of this trope, as well.

There are many reasons that the isolation of the heroine can be useful. I encourage you to read through the Twitter discussion for some of them, including word/page count limits, the creation of conflict, the need for hero and heroine to ‘forsake all others’ for the romantic bond to form, and creating vulnerability in the heroine’s circumstances that hasten her romantic attachment to the hero, who may or may not appear in protector mode. Some authors, like Courtney Milan, often present the heroine as somewhat self-isolating or socially marginalized as a way to illustrate her strength and necessary independence. There are myriad reasons for a heroine’s isolation, and not all of them end of diminishing her relative to a male partner.

Still, the trope’s popularity in genre Romance is interesting. For one thing, it can be characterized as pretty WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) in orientation. Which is ironic, since in so much Western thought, the nuclear family is perceived to be the political, economic, and social core of society, which means that even when the unit is strong from the inside, it must be a meaningful element of the larger society, and for that to be the case, there must be connectedness to outsiders, from extended family to neighbors to childhood friends or those encountered through social institutions (church, organizations, the workplace, etc.). This also goes back to the way in which certain sub genres — historical Romance, Romantic Suspense — seem to make more extensive use of the isolated heroine and why.

How often in the genre do we come across the heroine who has been cut off from family and friends for whatever reason, who is adrift in some fundamental way, and who, in her isolation, becomes the perfect candidate for the ‘found family’ of romantic bonding with the hero. Eve Dallas comes to mind immediately, as the found family is a consistent theme for her relationship with Roarke, as well as all the friends she begins to accumulate after she falls in love with him. Lisa Kleypas’s Travis family series came up during the Twitter convo as an example of a series of books in which family is a very complex notion. But even though there is a strong family ethic at the center of the series – patriarch Churchill Travis is very present in the books – Haven, in Blue-Eyed Devil, is isolated from her friends and family when she is abused by her first husband, and Smooth Talking Stranger’s Ella’s mother and sister abandon her so she will have to take care of her newborn nephew, Luke. Even Ella’s boyfriend refuses to have any part of the baby, although Kleypas does give Ella a strong network of female friends who provide a good deal of support, advice, and interaction, all of which keep Ella from being completely vulnerable and disempowered relative to the wealthy and well-connected Jack Travis. Eloisa James has also written historical Romances with strong female friendships, and I am convinced that one of the reasons Kristen Ashley’s books are so popular is that more often than not her heroines have a) a strong supportive family (that often provides comic relief), b) a wide, outspoken, and diverse group of friends, or c) both a and b.

When a heroine has a strong personal support system, we may get the signal that she doesn’t need the hero, but that the romance is more additive to an already full life than compensatory. Especially when a heroine is portrayed as being professionally successful, I think it’s important to see how those different relationships in her life work to support and sustain her. In both historical and contemporary Romance, I love to see the large, eccentric, perhaps even somewhat overbearing family, not only for comic relief, but also because families are themselves micro-societies, and they have their own cultures and ecologies, which shape children in all sorts of positive and negative ways. Pride and Prejudice, for example, presents a family in the Bennets that is hardly unproblematic, but still very much there and essential to the structure of the novel and the lives of the Bennet sisters. Families may also help catalyze romantic conflict, as in the feuding families trope.

This goes to what I would call the difference between cultivating dependence between protagonists and interdependence. Interdependence has an element of equality, because individuals are dependent on each other to some degree, but they can still be very independent and highly functioning in general. I do think the genre has made a lot of good strides toward equity between romantic protagonists, especially male and female, but I also worry a little that by routinely isolating heroines from friend and family support structures, we may inadvertently reinforce the social agency of men over women.

Of course, there are circumstances where the lack of family – or of a highly dysfunctional family – is essential and even desirable in the genre. The heroine who must marry the man she thinks is all wrong for her because she will be destitute if she does not can give rise to a great deal of emotional conflict and character development carried out in close quarters. Romantic suspense and PNR often utilize the isolated heroine, perhaps because her vulnerability sets up the suspense portion of the story, or her independence gives rise to her power. Thinking about it, I realize that one of the reasons I love Shelly Laurenston’s paranormals so much is because the really strong and complex relationships the heroines have, both with other women and men, including family members, make me believe more strongly in the romantic coupling between two really independent and volatile characters. That they can sustain long-lasting, complicated relationships in other parts of their lives gives me hope that they can do the same in their romantic bonding.

I wonder, though, if there is also a certain lingering fear in the genre that a really strong and dynamic friendship or family relationship will compete with the romantic relationship in a way that would diminish the romance. For example, if a friendship seems more engaging to the reader than the romance, it may undermine the success of the genre imperative of romantic love. And I also have to wonder how many Romance relationships would provoke caring friends and family to warn the heroine away in the strongest terms. All the rakes and super spies and bikers, etc. do not exactly have the best romance resumes, which is part of what makes them so appetizing to so many readers, but also problematic from a real-world perspective.

And in their own way, friends and family can provide a somewhat real-world perspective in Romance. They may be the proverbial Greek Chorus, vocalizing thoughts the reader is likely to entertain. They add layers to the protagonists, and they reveal the network of associations that people routinely have to navigate in their daily lives. But does the well-connected heroine also rub subtly against the persistent notion that somehow women need romantic love for completion, something that I think still drives some aspects of the genre? Or is the isolated heroine merely a trope that helps build emotional suspense and romantic conflict?