Ladysplaining the Value of A Literary Culture for Commercial Fiction
A few weeks ago, Jon Stock made a definite name for himself as an author, but not for his books. Stock, erstwhile journalist for The Telegraph, emailed a reviewer who gave his spy thriller a one-star Amazon review, turning the experience into an article titled, “Spy Writer Jon Stock: How I Survived A Literary Mauling.” According to Stock:
To be fair to my latest Amazon reviewer, she is not your average punter. She is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and her review was 700 words of well-reasoned, if flawed, criticism. I know this because I tracked her down. Without wishing to sound like a serial killer, I track down all my hostile reviewers, sooner or later, particularly the anonymous ones (although I’m still working on “FleetStreetMan”). In this age of “sock puppetry”, when authors attack each other online under false names, it’s a necessary part of the job.
Without disclosing to the reviewer that he was a journalist, Stock chronicled their email exchange and published it in The Telegraph, all without the woman’s permission (she details all of this in her comments). It’s also important to note that in his article he changes the title of her Amazon review, replacing a comma with a colon so as to suggest that the reviewer was calling Stock a serial killer, even though it’s perfectly clear in the body of the review that she was calling out Stock on a literary device á la the woman in the refrigerator.
Just two days before, author consultant Ron Hogan chronicled his own wife’s run-in with an author who became angry at one of her reviews. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, Hogan endorses Elle Lothlorien’s view that “Authors Should ALWAYS Respond to Negative Reviews,” because, in her words, “customer = reader,” and that’s just good “customer service.” Hogan’s piece provoked an excellent post by Liz Mc2, including numerous comments from Hogan (he does not allow comments on his own site, Beatrice). One of the most interesting moments in the discussion occurred when both Liz and I asked Hogan what the reader got out of this so-called customer service. That is, we know what the author is looking for, because Lothlorien and Stock both identify in very positive terms a reviewer changing or withdrawing a review after being “tracked down” by the author. But what does the reader get out of it? Hogan’s response: “That’s an issue I’m still mulling over, and would prefer to discuss on my own blog, in my own time, after I’ve thought it through carefully.”
And that, I think, articulates the problem neatly: reviewer tracking is not about the reader; it’s about the author. And in not authentically considering the reader’s position and possible objections, reader tracking overstates its value to the author, too.
But how could something aimed at exposing sock puppets and getting reviewers to change their negative reviews be bad for authors? It’s in the reader comments to Elle Lothlorien’s posts at Digital Book World. It’s in the extensive, unanimous rebuttals to Ron Hogan’s lone insistence that pursuing the reader-reviewer is a good thing. It’s in the reader comments to Jon Stock’s article and in the comments to this Dear Author review.
Pursuing readers chills the reviewing climate and makes readers averse to reviewing books in public venues. The extent to which authors believe public reviews matter is ironized by reviewer tracking’s destructive effects.
It’s easy to forget that a relatively short time ago (i.e. less than ten years), critical reviewing was not the norm, at least not in the Romance community. But all commercial fiction struggles with the question of whether its books are merely meant to be enjoyed and not analyzed, or whether they, like so-called literary fiction, should be able to stand up to critical discussion and reviewing.
In Romance, that culture of critique has risen in tandem with the growth of blogs and reader-driven reviews. And the transition has been rough, the backlash sometimes serious. Besides dealing with sockpuppets and paid-for-positive-reviews, the community is facing doxing in various forms as a method of shaming and intimidation. Trust between authors and readers has waxed and waned, but right now it’s got to be at an all-time low. And yet, some authors authentically believe it’s productive to “track down” reader-reviewers and confront/question them about low-star reviews. Hogan even argued that it would be good for honest communication in the community. I want to argue that not only is reader tracking unproductive, but it’s also going to erode what little trust we’re currently hanging on to, which will have long-term negative effects on both genre fiction communities and author engagement with readers in the process of commercial bookselling.
The Customer Service Fallacy
This is the least persuasive rationale for me, aka the “customer.” If we were talking about toasters here instead of books, would toaster makers be tracking us down to talk about why we didn’t like their toaster and why our rating is so low? In fact, under what circumstances does any manufacturer pursue an individual product reviewer?
But there’s a deeper problem with this analogy, namely that the author is not pursuing the reviewer to replace a defective product; instead, the author is pursuing the reader because she/he believes that the low-star review is impeding sales. In other words, the remedy is aimed at the author, not the reader/consumer.
Another reason the customer service analogy doesn’t really work with authors and books is because the author’s attachment to his or her book as special is what really drives the need to pursue reviewers. And because so many authors are acting as publishers now, the difficulty in separating book from author is an even more vexed issue. Moreover, sites like Goodreads that encourage author and reader mingling can blur the lines, as does the fact that every author is also at some point a reader. But these are also the reasons it is so very important for authors to be cautious about identifying and crossing boundaries.
The “Power Lies With The Reader” Fallacy
This has to be one of the most frustrating myths for the reader to rebut, because it is so well entrenched in a publishing mentality that equates sales numbers with reader preferences. But regardless of what sales numbers do or don’t say about what readers want, in a person-to-person contact, the author has the balance of power, real or imagined. And if you doubt that at all, just go back and read Jon Stock’s justification for pursuing his reviewer: “her review was 700 words of well-reasoned, if flawed, criticism.” Who says it’s flawed criticism? Who has the right to determine that? Stock offers that as a foregone conclusion, without regard to establishing it as a matter of opinion and interpretation. In fact, he asks her if “she might consider writing an individual review for each book, rather than using the same blanket comment for all three,” because he saw one review as “unorthodox and unfair.” And he seemed to have little understanding of why what he did is problematic. In fact, he even went so far as to refer to those of us who found his pursuit of a reader creepy as “loons” on Twitter.
Whatever he felt about the review’s power over potential book buyers, he comes across as comfortable being the authority on his own book, deciding what criticism of the book is “unfair” and “flawed.” I wonder if he considers the “well-written” criticism something positive or negative. How much of this comes down to a question of who has a more legitimate power to persuade? Still, the fact remains that there are many readers – who are not academics nor journalists nor just plain argumentative and confident in their own ability to read – who would be intimidated by having an author contact them. Others might be flattered and impressed that the author sought them out, while others still just might not want to open the Pandora’s Box of potentially bad author behavior. In any and all of these cases, the balance of perceived power lies with the author, and the reader tracking takes on an element of duress, even if unintentional and inadvertent.
But Who Will Take Care of the Sock Puppets?
Apparently Amazon is deleting accounts as we speak, and if anything demonstrates the problematic nature of authors trying to game the system, it’s the seemingly erratic results of the newest Amazon algorithms.
But It’s Just Commercial Fiction, and The Name of The Game Is Selling Books
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the past seven or eight years, the same seven or eight years in which the Romance community, at least, has seen exponential growth in blogs and reader-reviewers, self-publishing authors, myriad digital and small presses, affordable digital reading devices, and astonishing growth in ebook sales, we’ve cultivated an incredibly rich, online book culture.The link is evident: when readers are engaged and excited about books, they talk about them, engaging and exciting other readers, who in turn bring more books into the discussions. And passion for reading and books does not necessitate loving a book; how many passionate debates have begun with a book a reader intensely disliked? The value is in the general engagement, not the particularity of a single opinion.
It’s also ironic, but not unexpected, that this growth has intensified competition for reader eyes and dollars, which has, in turn, led to desperate measures by some authors (e.g. purchased reviews) that are casting a long shadow over perfectly honest authors. I don’t think we’ve yet reached the tipping point at which these strategies or their backlash catalyze contraction and sterility in online book discussions. However, if more authors adopt the strategy of reader tracking, I think we’re all going to be stunned by how quickly the climate chills to the point of stagnation. Trust is already shaky, and even honest, well intentioned authors can unintentionally erode it further.
It’s About Accountability, Not Harassment
Here’s the thing: genre authors write books for commercial gain. Readers, on the other hand, do not have that kind of investment in the commercial success of a book. Most readers I know buy far more books than they love; in fact, books are one of the few things we purchase regularly with no guarantee of gratification. Another interesting aspect of the Stock reviewer is that she received the book through the Vine program, which is clearly disclosed above the review. What’s important about this fact is that it runs against the argument that a free book is more likely to yield a positive review as a kind of informal “payment.” Readers, have neither the investment in nor the obligations to a book’s success that authors do, which is what makes the reader review so potentially valuable. While that lack of responsibility may also seem unfair to authors, is it better and fairer to have readers afraid to review books publicly because they don’t want to be hassled by the author?
Ron Hogan insisted that not considering the author in creating a book review dehumanized and disrespected the author (I’m paraphrasing here). The problem is that one of the reasons authors tend to react badly to reviews is that they take them as personal assaults. And there are points where that line can be crossed (ironically, Hogan’s wife’s review continued to refer to the author, and while I don’t believe it was over the line, I can see how the author would feel it was directed at him as much as at the book). I don’t really think Goodreads has helped by making it impossible to have your bookshelves appear as functionally distinct from your reviews. Even the “Dear Author” shtick has felt uncomfortable for me over the years, and I try to shift as quickly as possible into the third person in my own reviews. So I do think that readers would do well to stick as close to the book as possible in their reviews.
At the same time, one of the reasons we’re seeing so much hostility from readers toward authors is because readers feel that authors have pushed themselves into the space between reader and book, and made it impossible for the book to stand on its own. Which is precisely what the author who tracks down the reader does, even if his/her intentions are not at all aggressive or malicious. And because the author is the professional, i.e. the one who has the commercial investment in his/her book, he/she must also be the one who accepts responsibility for staying behind the line. For the most part, readers and authors who have familiarity will know what is and is not appropriate. In cases where that is in question, it may just be best to keep quiet, at least within the context of the review space.
And that is another reason why the public space of the book review has been customarily uninhabited by the author. Yes, the author can read the review, and yes, readers should assume by default that the author is going to see the review at some point. But that invisible line between the review and the author is intended to mirror the line between author and book that the reader is expected to recognize in the act of reading and reviewing. And there will be times that line is broken for the reader, sometimes in innocuous ways (e.g. semi-autobiographical fiction), sometimes in more problematic ways (e.g. Cassie Edwards). But even when the reader crosses that line, unless it is truly defamatory or materially damaging, the author does himself/herself no favors by rushing in to defend his/her name and work. And they do other authors no good, either, adding to the cumulative level of distrust between readers and authors. At the same time, I think readers who do not want to be pursued by an author need to hold tightly to the boundary of the book space and not, even indirectly, invite the author in. And if an author does intrude uninvited into that space, do not engage, and if it continues, perhaps even make a note in the review itself that the author repeatedly tried to establish contact.
It’s Not Just A Girl Thing
One of the most fascinating (but not surprising) things about these discussions regarding reader tracking is that they have most recently occurred between male authors (or author representatives) and female readers. In the past two weeks, I have debated extensively with Stock, Hogan, and Jeremy Duns, who, despite a mostly civil exchange, persistently mocked me on Twitter for pointing out that the privileged position of the white male is not necessarily going to recognize the feelings of vulnerability that a female reader might associate with being tagged by a male author (he was also arguing that I made an “ad hominem” attack on him by accusing him of “mansplaining,” thus the title of my post).
While this is not purely about gender, just as it’s not exclusively about Romance, I wanted to focus on the gender issue for second as a way of demonstrating the extent of unintended consequences for authors who undertake reader tracking. The author may not think of it as hunting, but in an online climate where readers have truly felt in physical jeopardy (the Emily Giffin incident, anyone?), these ideological cues are important.
In fact, what fascinates me most about the Jon Stock example, with which I started, is that the female reviewer (a literary scholar, not surprisingly, given the concerns of her review) was critiquing a certain ideology she felt was common in spy thrillers, and evident in Stock’s work. I cannot comment on that, as I have not read his books, but I do think it’s extremely important that the kind of discussion that particular review opened up can be had publicly and without the weighted threat of the author’s influence. NOT because it’s inappropriate for authors to engage in these discussions; quite the opposite, in fact.
But for authors and readers to be able to have the kinds of critical discussions both Hogan and Stock claim they want, there needs to be a baseline of trust and respect, and one time-tested expression of respect in the book community has been for authors to stay out of the review space, to give the impression, at least, that readers should be trusted to conduct conversations about books on their own terms, because interpretation is inextricable from the act of reading, and it’s where all of our reactions – pleasurable and otherwise – are formed.
One of the recent pieces Ron Hogan referenced is an article by John Warner, in which he contacted the author of his “worst review.” And if you read the text of that exchange and compare it to the case studies of Elle Lothlorien or Jon Stock, you see immediately the most glaring and critical difference: there is absolutely no aim to change the reader’s mind, to influence the review, or to reach any particular point. In fact, as Warner writes at the very end of the piece, even after all that discussion, the reviewer doesn’t like the book any better than he did before they started. And that’s okay. It has to be okay if we are to eventually get to the point where authors and readers can engage in open, honest, critically productive discussions about the author’s own books.
Because that’s an end point, not a strategy. And we’re nowhere close to it, at least not as things stand now. The question is, if that’s where we want to be (itself an open question), how do we get there?