Anonymity, Transparency, and Online Book Reviewing
When I first read about Anne Rice’s new pet project, a Change.org petition to convince Amazon to disallow pseudonymous reviews (they’re not truly anonymous, since they must be connected to an Amazon account), I was perversely charmed by her reference to “gangster bully” reviewers, thinking, ‘Oh, please, we’ve so been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and wore it to the encore performance.’ Now, though, as the number of authors joining Rice’s crusade increases, I realize that we’re truly staging one more performance of this incredibly divisive drama. And I’m wondering just how much more our genre book communities can take of this specious rancor. And perhaps more important, how much we should.
First let’s break down some of the terminology here. Truly anonymous reviews are those in which there are ostensibly no identifying characteristics to the reviewer’s voice or person. This could be anyone writing this review, and as such, there is nothing to judge its credibility, compare its book-to-book reactions, measure its taste, and discern any undisclosed agenda. Anonymous reviews are probably most convincing to those who already hold the opinion of the reviewer, positive or negative, because they exist out of individual and community context. Even if the same person leaves multiple anonymous reviews, each review pretty much stands as a one-off, unless there are obvious patterns linking it to other anonymous reviews. Which, I would argue, spells the end of anonymity.
What I think authors like Anne Rice are really objecting to is pseudonymous reviews – that is, reviews written under a name that is likely not the legal identity of the reader-reviewer, but is an identifiable persona that the reviewer maintains over the course of multiple reviews. One of the first and most obvious problems with this position is that so many authors write under pseudonyms. Consequently, it seems unreasonable, even hypocritical, to demand that reader-reviewers – who ostensibly have no commercial interest in a book’s success or failure – receive less protection and take on more risk than those individuals who have intentionally entered the commercial marketplace for personal profit. Seriously, think about this for a second: why would you demand that the person who profits the least from a book’s success take the biggest risk?
And why is reviewing without pseudonymous protection a risk? For some of the same reasons that apply to a commercial author’s need for a pseudonym. Because people have judgments; because people have children and spouses and jobs; because people have ideas about what it means to read and write certain types of fiction. Carolyn Jewel spells these risks out in her recent post on this subject, noting that “If reviews must be accompanied by a real name, then there are reviewers who will no longer be able to post reviews for reasons that have nothing to do with mean, hateful, or threatening content in a review.”
Serendipitously, I happened to watch an episode of Bravo’s execrable new show, Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, and one of the men featured on a show, a 30-something single dad, had a blind date with a self-professed erotic Romance author. Now, in this case, it was obvious said author was trying to get some air time for her name and her books, as she came to dinner, book in hand, and recited a passage at the table. Still, after the date ended (unsuccessfully), the man pondered the question of how safe it would be to introduce an erotic Romance author to his young daughter. If you don’t believe me, check out the video. We know this kind of thing happens, else readers wouldn’t be so happy to be able to read erotic fiction on digital devices that do not expose covers and titles in public. It’s frustrating and reactionary and crazy, but it’s a powerful judgment, and one that can have real power over real people’s lives. So as Carolyn Jewel asks, “Explain to me why Jane Doe author can be anonymous but not Jane Doe reviewer?”
One explanation for demanding the legal names of reviewers is “transparency.” Actually, it’s less of an explanation and more of a word tossed into the ring, as if its very existence carries some unassailable ethical weight. However, like anonymity, transparency doesn’t really apply here, because there are plenty of pseudonymous and real name reviews that do not yield transparency. First, authors who write pseudonymously can review under their legal name without anyone knowing them. A legal name does not guarantee that any hidden relationship, agenda, or compensation is not still hidden. There is no immediately discernible difference between a pseudonymous review and a legal name review when it comes to disclosure of relevant details – was the reviewer compensated for providing a positive review; is the reviewer a writer in the same genre who wants to tank the other writer’s book; does the reviewer hate the author’s hairstyle and want to tank her books; is the reviewer a friend of the author and wants his book to succeed, even though he hasn’t read it…
A recent article on the impact of anonymous book reviewing on the Australian literary culture noted that anonymity is challenging for a robust critical culture. On the one hand, some writers in a small literary community may feel uncomfortable offering critique of their peers openly and without the shield of anonymity. But on the other hand, not knowing who a reviewer is can hinder the credibility of the review and decontextualize the reviewer’s unique “subjectivity.”
I think both sides are correct here. The problem is that in order to have readers want to reveal their identities in reviews, there needs to be an environment of absolute trust. Which we’re nowhere near. Which we may never achieve, at least as long as we know that authors have paid for positive reviews, readers are referred to as “gangster bullies,” reviews are tone-policed, and websites are devoted to the doxing and humiliation of readers who provide negative reviews of certain authors’ books. Or when readers express a likely harmless but still problematic opinion that an author who writes a book a certain way doesn’t deserve to write, live, or breathe the same air as upstanding human beings. There are ways in which authors and readers may always remain at cross purposes, and that’s not always a bad thing. Still, I would argue that it’s not accountability that makes true critical discourse possible. Nor is it honesty that disallowing anonymity and pseudonymity will reveal.
What I think we need to be willing to talk about is what kind of community we really want around books and book talk. Do we want a community and book culture in which readers and authors feel safe to write, read, and talk about books openly? Because building that is going to proceed differently than a community in which certain types of reviews are aggressively discouraged, where readers are punished for being too “harsh” or “uncivil,” and where readers finally get to the point where they don’t feel like leaving a negative review is worth the hassle they can expect from an author and his/her fans.
More and more, I’m feeling like it’s this latter type of community that authors like Anne Rice want to cultivate. We don’t have a systematic study focused on the effect negative reviews have on book sales, but research on other types of reviews (Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) demonstrates that most of the dishonesty is clustered on the positive end of the scale. Trust in bogus reviews can be cultivated for a limited amount of time, but as Sunita recently noted, when reviews become too homogenous, their trustworthiness radically diminishes. In that kind of environment, it doesn’t matter whether people review under their legal names or in every permutation of anonymity; the aggressive discouragement against “unapproved” types of reviews — whether they be the “wrong” tone, the “wrong” content, or the “wrong” format — will inevitably create an unreliable review environment. And if the environment is unreliable, anonymity and transparency become irrelevant. Moreover, this way lies erosion of the kind of authentic reader enthusiasm that can neither be faked nor produced on demand. In other words, this way lies the destruction of a vibrant book culture and independent reading community.
If, however, we want to cultivate a community in which both authors and readers value books as books and reviews as part of a larger category of book talk, we need to embrace and promote different values. We may need to be willing to push ourselves, perhaps beyond what’s comfortable to us in order to understand each other’s perspective better. We may need to examine our own double standards. Why, for example, are some types of books okay with us, but others are not, and are we willing to let others have the fantasies we find untenable without the same judgments we rail against when they’re directed at our fantasies? We may need to think about the way we use words and the extent to which we tolerate feeling offended. We’re all in control of how much rancor we subject ourselves to, and I wonder how many of us have simply overexposed ourselves to things that piss us off, to the point at which we’re triggered to outrage within seconds. Without question, a truly open “marketplace of ideas” will have its fair share of harsh outrage and strident offensiveness, but it also depends on a willingness to seriously and respectfully engage opposing, even outrageous and offensive points of view.
And authors need to lead the charge here. That probably sounds unfair, even like a double standard. But, as I argued elsewhere, authors are engaged in commerce and in commercial speech, which is inherently more robust and tenacious than non-commercial speech. The incentive readers have to speak honestly about books is more fragile and therefore more easily interfered with. This gives authors more power against reader voices, power that does not need to be magnified via a change in Amazon’s reviewing policies. Authors are selling a product. And if they want readers to value that product more than, say, the average vacuum cleaner, they need to value readers regardless of how many stars they give a book on Amazon. Yes, I realize that some readers have taken a pugilistic stance toward authors, but where has this come from? Because let’s face it: readers have zero incentive to warn each other against authors who support their freely and honestly rendered opinions.
I was tempted to say that cultivating an authentically open book community takes a lot more work, but I don’t really think that’s true. It takes a dedicated intensity to keep up the rancor and the aggression over reviews. It definitely takes a different kind of work, and a different kind of investment, to advocate and actively foster a more open, honest, book community. And while it may seem counterintuitive, I’d argue that it’s much more directly in authors’ commercial interest to support this kind of community. Spontaneous, authentic, reader buzz comes from independent reader engagement with a book and is therefore a valuable resource for authors. This is obvious in the vitriol with which certain types of negative reviews are being criticized. So what’s the best way to ensure the survival of this resource? Is it by making readers feel distrustful of authors and concerned about leaving negative reviews? Or is it by accepting that negative reviews are part of the job of being an author (and/or a publisher) and focusing instead on bringing the best possible product to market?