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Taking the “Bull” out of Book Review “Bullying”
















By way of introduction

So I’ve been listening to Anthony Bourdain read his own book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People who Cook, and I’m struck again and again by what I would call Bourdain’s snarky generosity. From the opening scene of the book, in which he describes an almost shamefully indulgent and erotic dinner featuring the coveted and illegal Ortolan, to the chapters in which he lays bare his own personal failings, as well as his ruthlessly candid critiques of many other chefs and foodie personalities, Bourdain’s narration is seductive and enlightening. Seductive because he stands as ready to criticize himself as the others he holds to the flame of his Truth, and enlightening because he stands as both insider and outsider to the world he is opening up to the uninitiated reader.

Along the way, Bourdain casually mentions Jamie Oliver as “heroic” in the world of food. Oliver, who is so reviled in some circles that he has an entire website devoted – according to Bourdain – to presenting twisted, photoshopped images intended to express the most profound dislike for whatever Oliver represents by what are likely some of his most extreme critics. Bourdain criticizes Oliver, too. And although I have not visited the site to which Bourdain refers, I am struck by his respect for Oliver as a man who has, in his words, dared to make the British government look bad by exposing what is served to children by way of school lunch.

As I was listening to this part of the book, I couldn’t help but think about how you don’t really hear guys like Oliver and Bourdain complain about “foodie bullies,” even though both of them have made more than a few enemies and gotten more than a handful of scathing reviews along the way. Bourdain tips his hat to Oliver’s willingness to pursue his unpopular agenda in the wake of the website devoted solely to his metaphorical disfigurement. And it makes me wonder, yet again, why bookish folk, especially authors, have become so obsessed with the belief that so-called “bullying” is being directed at them.

A few recent examples

Remember back in September, when former agent, current author Nathan Bransford wrote that post called “The Bullies of Goodreads,” in which he insisted that

Sure. Not everyone is going to like a book. The point of Goodreads is telling the world what you think. But reviews that are over the top serve no purpose. They are not funny. They are not constructive. They are just plain mean. (UPDATE: I removed links to specific posts because some were concerned that these people could be targeted. Those reviews are online if you want to search).

Reviews like these demean and dehumanize authors, and in fact the only way someone could write reviews like these is if they pretend the author and everyone connected with the book are some dispassionate robots who have no feelings. (Or they pretend the author isn’t going to see it, but come on).

Everyone knows that it takes a thick skin to be an author. But no one who writes a book deserves to be subjected to online abuse. It’s one of the strange aspects of online life that it feels like nothing to attack someone through a computer screen, but the recipient of that attack feels as acutely as if it happened in “real” life. Make no mistake: These aren’t reviews, they’re personal attacks.

Ben Aronovitch adopted a similar logic when his foray into a Book Smugglers discussion of his book was perceived to be intrusive and chilling to the ongoing reader discussion:


And ebook maker Gav Reads went so fall as to call out Ana and Renay as “bullies”:

Just recently, an author named Angela Graham wrote a post on her Facebook page, titled “I want to apologize in advance for this…”, in which she does anything but apologize for what is, at best, an indirect, unsubstantiated assertion that a blogger is somehow “attack[ing] an author simply because they felt overlooked by not being added in a book’s acknowledgments or that an author did not take their idea for a book plot.” There are several references to “bully,” and when asked in the comments to offer direct evidence of this strange “attack” on her “livelihood” (with attendant invocation of the children she has to feed), the author responds this way:

I understand and can appreciate that. I do have things I could share but I don’t want to escalate the situation or pull anyone else in. I am not asking anyone to do anything my goal was simply to show her that I would not sit back and ignore the jabs she was throwing. By saying my peace I hope she will leave me alone and think twice before attempting to damage any other authors reputation. All I can assure you is, I wouldn’t put this out there if I didn’t have proof in writing that showed me clearly the problem was growing out of control and effecting me in many negative ways when I had thought it had died. Whatever you decide I would never get pissed at you<3

If you have read my previous two posts, “What the Personal Becomes Professional” and “The Thin Gray Line Between Author Recommendation and Book Promotion,” you can see the muddling of personal feelings and professional values, books and authors, and commercial and non-commercial speech in each of these examples. I’m going to unpack all that a little more in a few minutes.

What is bullying?

First, though, we need to address the issue of bullying, specifically its definition and proper use. If you scan through the comments on Angela Graham’s post, you can see various anti-bullying graphics, as well as liberal use of the term as if it is a foregone conclusion that this unsubstantiated (for the sake of keeping it from escalating, because nothing escalates an issue faster than actual evidence) set of accusations (there seem to be a few buried in that post) constitutes bullying.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Defining Bullying Down,” Emily Bazelon notes that

The word is being overused — expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words…

Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term. . . .

The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.

She talks about the way in which the ubiquitous use of the term “bullying” has actually made it much more difficult to discern and deal with actual cases of bullying, and offers this distinction:

One way to better identify real bullying is to listen to how teenagers themselves describe their interpersonal conflicts. Most teenagers can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call “drama,” which, the researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have shown, is an accurate and common name for the ordinary skirmishes that mark most children’s lives. In fact, it’s drama that’s common, and bullying, properly defined, that’s less so.

Her argument is supported by a recent study led by University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong and published in the Journal of Criminology. The study found that in some cases, anti-bullying campaigns actually increase bullying. Jeong says that “One possible reason for this is that the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs.” In other words, the real bullies are able to manipulate the system to their own advantage.

Terms like “abuse” and “harassment” and “bullying” are being used as readily as words like “mean” to refer to an incredibly diverse collection of things in book communities, especially YA and Romance, and where there is mere “drama” on one end of the scale, harassment is also a specific category of conduct (remember that conduct and speech are not legally defined the same way). In California, civil harassment is defined by the following three criteria:  1) Unlawful violence, like assault or battery or stalking, OR 2) A credible threat of violence, AND 3) The violence or threats seriously scare, annoy, or harass someone and there is no valid reason for it. The standard for determining credibility is that of the reasonable person — that is, would a reasonable person believe that their safety was in jeopardy. While the bar for something qualifying as “drama” is relatively low, the bar for harassment is quite high, which is one reason the misapplication of “bullying” is such a problem.

But let’s go back to the psychological definition of bullying for a minute: physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. Two things are striking about this definition. First, there is a repetitive aspect to bullying, and second, there must be an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim, with the bully having enough power over the victim to be able to repeatedly inflict physical or verbal abuse over time.

Who holds the balance of power

This is a tricky question, because it depends on what kind of power you’re talking about, and about how that power is distributed and utilized. Rose Fox neatly articulated the author is the primary authority on his or her own work thesis, and that argument is not insignificant. Regardless of what economic power the author perceives the reader to have regarding the sales of his or her book, a vast, vast majority of the time an author steps into a discussion of her own book, there is a resulting disruption. Sometimes that disruption is perceived as positive — when, for example, there is a fan reaction to the author’s presence, a sense of excitement over having the author comment. But that reaction still marks a disruption in the book discussion, because the author has been raised up by his or her fans, to a higher level of authority on the text than mere readers. Sometimes the disruption is negative, and this often happens when, as in the Smugglers’ discussion, the author is perceived to be trying to direct conversation around his or her own assumed authority over the text.

But there is another kind of power we haven’t really talked about, and that is the power of the author as commercial brand. I discussed this at length last week, and won’t bore you with another re-tread of that argument, but I do want to revisit an aspect of the logic behind giving commercial speech more legal scrutiny, namely the fact that commercial speech is perceived to be more resilient, because of the economic investment of the speaker. In other words, when you stand to make money from your brand, you have a much deeper investment in making sure your speech is a) able to be heard, and b) heard in the way you want it heard.

There are a couple of implications we need to consider here. First, the fact that commercial speakers perceive themselves to have more to lose when their product is not viewed in the way they believe will make it economically profitable. Non-commercial speakers don’t have an economic investment in the product being discussed, and must therefore stand on some personal belief or principle in order to keep speaking. The incentive is lower to stand by non-commercial speech, thus the law perceives it to be more in need of protection. So when you have an author pitted against a reader who did not like the author’s book, the author has a much greater incentive to have her commercial speech prevail.

Moreover, and in addition to this greater incentive, is the fact that authors can simultaneously occupy two positions in the same public space (the “marketplace of ideas“); that is, authors can speak as their commercial brand, and they can speak as a reader, depending on whether and how many pseudonyms/names they use, and depending on the circumstances under which they speak. This, I believe, is an incredibly important point that is often overlooked. It literally multiplies the power of speech authors have in both the marketplace of ideas (book talk) and the commercial marketplace (book selling).

Certainly there are circumstances under which an author may not have the economic or critical presence that a well-known reader reviewer does. And these situations can seem to favor the social networking power of the reader reviewer. However, I think what often happens in these situations is that the author in question, who feels personally attacked (and note that several of the authors above, namely Bransford and Aronovitch, are hardly shrinking violet newbies with no readership), sort of combines all of the individual critical voices together and calls “bully,” not because there is a repeated pattern of victimization, but because more than one reader criticizes the author’s commercial product.

This is not bullying. Just as it’s not bullying for a reader to use gifs and snark and even outright sarcasm, parody, and harsh irony in describing a personal reaction to the author’s commercial product. However, because it is in the perceived economic interest of the author’s commercial presence to have his or her product viewed in a positive light, an accusation of bullying can, in fact, create the illusion of personal abuse and/or harassment as the author merges the personal and professional aspects of her voice, empowering her readers with her commercial (authorial) voice in accusation, while simultaneously claiming personal victimization. Think about how often authors who use the language of bullying do so in conjunction with a claim of empowerment. Take Angela Graham, for example:

I don’t believe in retaliation but I teach my children that when you have a bully in your life don’t sit there and take it. You hold your head high, show them they can’t hurt you and report them. That is what I am doing. I am not talking and slandering behind her back, ranting in some secret room or ducking my head and taking it lying down anymore. I AM PUTTING IT OUT THERE IN THE OPEN. I MAY BE INVITING BACKLASH…BUT I’M NOT A COWARD.

By invoking the personal attack language, the author is overtly assuming two places and two voices within the dual marketplace (ideas and commerce), utilizing these two positions to generate support from other authors and readers, with the (perhaps inadvertent) aim of drowning out and overpowering the so-called “bully.” This does not make the accused bully a “victim,” however, any more than the author is a “victim” of the reader’s harsh criticism. However, the author’s seemingly unquestioned ability to slip between the personal and the professional in defending self and product is a privilege that the reader cannot claim, and if anything it nudges the balance of power away from the reader.

Let’s just call it what it is

Drama. So very much of this back and forth is drama. Oh, I’m sure there are real instances of defamation, harassment, and other actionable offenses perpetrated by both authors and readers. However, they are not the norm, which is why, when we see an example so clearly, it draws considerable attention. The much less glamorous reality is that sometimes people make an ass of themselves on the Internet. Sometimes we each say something we should not, and someone else gets offended. Sometimes we each say something perfectly legitimate and someone else gets offended. Sometimes the ensuing defensiveness is warranted, sometimes it seems petty. Sometimes thin skin causes an author to over personalize criticism, and sometimes a reader can personalize a book in a way that causes an extreme response. All of it can generate drama, some of which generates productive discussion and exchange of valuable ideas and insights, some of which does not. Drama, in and of itself, is not bad. It can be a function of a community’s growth and internal negotiation, and it can be a mark of a community’s relative immaturity.

Let’s circle back to that quote from Nathan Bransford, in which he says that the only way readers can say some of the things they do about a book is to forget that authors have feelings. Dude! Yes! Because books are commercial products, and if readers cannot put aside the actual creator behind the product, we have absolutely no shot at connecting with the book itself. Does Bransford seriously want me wondering to myself what he was thinking or doing when he wrote a particular scene? That, more than anything, strikes me as creepy and over the line. Of course I know someone has written the book I’m reading, but if I am thinking about anything beyond that book when I’m reading it, that book has failed to hold me within the bounds of the story.

And if I then have to temper my response in writing a review because the author might have hurt feelings, I am no longer reviewing the book; I’m creating an artificial record with all sorts of assumptions about the author that, again, seem to me to be crossing a professional – personal line.

Because if Bransford wants me to take the author’s feelings into consideration when I review the book, doesn’t that implicitly invite all sorts of smarmy and inappropriate consideration of the author, as well? And who wants to go there? That way lies — dare I say it — something much more akin to bullying than book reviewing.


isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. Ceilidh
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 07:03:13

    It feels like we have this discussion every week in blogging. It’s exhausting and continues to baffle me that so many see “I hated this book” as being equivalent to bullying. Bransford’s example particularly aggravated me because he jumped into something he clearly knew nothing about, happily condoned STGRB without properly researching them (something that’s not hard since googling them reveals a whole page of pieces exposing their harassment and hypocrisy) and then he oh so just happened to pick examples of “bully reviews” that were all women younger than him.

    I’m once again reminded of the “Be Nice” post Becca Fitzpatrick wrote, in which she gleefully recounted denying a cover quote to an author who had once negatively reviewed her work, then used this as a warning to reviewers who wanted to be published writers one day. That threat stank of smugness beyond belief. Publishing is a business, it’s not a glee club.

    And as a Brit, I loathe Jamie Oliver because he’s a classist jerk who wrote a book on “money saving meals” that called for a £30 cut of meat then sneered at the increasingly large group of impoverished people in Britain who dare to feed their kids chips and cheese. He’s a nasty little man, even with all the work he’s done for school meals.

  2. gayle63
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 07:17:41

    I agree with Ceilidh – There’s no end to this topic and it’s getting wearing, and there is surely misbehavior on both sides of the equation. It seems to me that some reviewers need to grow a thicker skin. They’re the ones I see complaining the most when they get a negative reaction to their negative reviews. If a reader or author (although I agree, authors should stay out of it) calls them “mean” or a “bully,” well, that’s just their opinion, and they are entitled to their opinion. Once you put something out there on the Internet, including a review, you’re as open to criticism as anyone else.

  3. Liz Everly
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 07:44:15

    I think the conversation is getting wearing–but yet it’s a very important one. I don’t think writers should ever comment on a review. I’m a newbie romance author, but I also write mysteries and nonfiction. Writer friends have told me time and again not to pay any attention to the reviews, not to even read them. They are absolutely right for a lot of reasons. Some folks are just plain nasty online because they can be. Just because a reviewer writes a negative review doesn’t make them a bully, though. If they follow the writer around online, hounding them, and perhaps threatening them, (which has happened to me in my nonfiction column writing), that’s another matter.

  4. KT Grant
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 07:59:39

    Is it “bullying” when an actor or singer is criticized by a critic or the public? What about a blogger like Perez Hilton who used to put down artists all the time for years? People were saying very horrible things about Miley Cyrus after the VMA’s and making it very personal by putting down her looks and calling her nasty names. Red Reed, the movie critic has blasted Melissa McCarthy and made fun of her weight calling her other insulting things along with her performance. This is wrong, but these artists ignore these attacks and continue to do things their own way because they won’t be controlled by those who enjoy putting them down. Artists will speak up against their critics but then let it drop and concentrate on the important things like working on their craft and hopefully become better at what they do.

    Honestly, a movie or music critic can’t make or break an actor or singer. A book reviewer or blogger can’t make or break an author. Why do authors add stress to their lives by reading reviews or reading everything and anything about themselves or their books that may be discussed on blogs or elsewhere on the internet?

  5. Diana
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 08:02:01

    I agree, this conversation is getting tiresome. Maybe I have little sympathy for any of this because I come from a profession, social work, where personal attacks (from my clients) and extremely harsh professional criticism (from co-workers and bosses) are daily occurrences. And, trust me, there is a difference between someone personally attacking you and criticism about your work. I understand that being personally attacked is scary and real and should be addressed, but most of the examples of “bullying” I’ve seen, like 99.9%, have been authors flaming reviewers because someone posted a critical review. And that’s ridiculous.

    So, (some) authors, stop with the hysterical drama. Not everyone is going to love your book. Sorry, but not sorry. Use the criticism to make a better book (or a better commercial product, if that’s what really matters to you) for the next time. Otherwise, log off the internet until you have the sanity and thick skin to deal with being a public persona who creates entertainment products for a living. I mean, do you see Nora Roberts making posts to Facebook/Twitter complaining about mean bloggers or reviewers? No? There’s a lesson there, I think.

  6. Blue
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 08:36:27

    I have to be honest, my eyes glazed over about a third of the way down, so I may have missed some pertinent points. While I find these posts of Robin’s thought provoking, there’s something to be said for a bit of judicious editing.

    As to the topic, I agree with the commentators. This is getting wearing, and also veering into the-lady-doth-protest-too-much territory. That said, I believe this is the most telling line:

    “Seductive because he stands as ready to criticize himself as the others he holds to the flame of his Truth,”

    Bourdain’s willingness to turn the lens upon himself, gives his criticism validity in that he’s admitting that there is fallibility in his profession as a whole.

    Unless readers, reviewers, authors, et al. are willing to admit that some people do cross the line, that there might be validity on *both* sides of the argument, there is never going to be any growth.

    Because if the issue truly was so black and white, a simple ‘opinions are opinions,’ we wouldn’t still be discussing it ad nauseam.

  7. Laurie
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 08:37:09

    “By saying my peace I hope she will leave me alone and think twice before attempting to damage any other authors reputation. All I can assure you is, I wouldn’t put this out there if I didn’t have proof in writing that showed me clearly the problem was growing out of control and effecting me in many negative ways”

    One would think that if one were accusing a blogger of bullying with a negative review that one would ensure that their commentary on the issue illustrated their familiarity with language. I have not read any books by Ms. Graham but when she uses “peace” instead of piece and “effected” instead of affected, it makes me lose all desire to read her books and lends credence to the blogger.

  8. Isobel Carr
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 09:21:46

    @Liz Everly: Liz, I’m with your friends. I do NOT read my reviews (except to find quotes). They aren’t *for* me. They aren’t *about* me. And when I need pull quotes, it’s quite easy to sort Amazon and GoodReads and only look at the good reviews (BIG THANK YOU to bloggers who cross post their blog reviews to these places so I don’t have to use Google and read all the bad reviews, too!).

    KT Grant beat me to the movie analogy. I pretty much don’t see ever movie reviewers being called “bullies” when they shred a film or performance, and actors and directors are every bit as much a brand/person amalgam as authors. I have seen people defending Miley by calling critics of her VMA performance bullies, but honestly, what she wore and what she did while wearing it was all part of a performance and thus (IMO) fair game for discussion.

  9. Ros
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 09:33:41

    Absolutely right: drama is not bullying.

    But I do wonder if there is something about the pile-ons that are very often part of online drama that can feel like bullying, and maybe even become bullying. When one person says something, it’s easy to shrug it off. When ten people say the same thing it’s harder. When hundreds or thousands of people are repeating it, that must be horrific. So although they may all be saying something that in itself isn’t bullying, the cumulative effect might very well feel like it. There was a teenager in the UK who committed suicide earlier this year after online drama. I don’t think any individual was responsible for that, but the cumulative effect of the pile on was too much for her to cope with. That’s obviously an extreme example but it did make me stop and think. When we’re online it’s very hard to gauge the point at which something has already been said often enough and labouring the point becomes oppressive. We all screw up and it’s right to call people out on that. But we don’t all need to keep calling everyone out if that job has already been done. Sometimes it’s okay to just move on.

    To be clear, I don’t think this ought to be in anyone’s mind when they are writing book reviews, nor do I think negative book reviews are bullying. But when there is big drama that leads to a pile-on, there’s a point at which I think that can tip over into bullying.

  10. Aly
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 10:04:10

    The idea that “Bad Review = Bullying” is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    I was bullied for several years a child, so I know what real bullying is. And if I wrote a book and people reviewed it as awful, then I wouldn’t be personally offended but would try to understand where I went wrong and how I could write a better book.

    Authors shouldn’t reply or comment on those bad reviews, even if they feel that their book is their baby. Their books are their work, and as professionals they should separate their personal feelings from their professional stance. Read each review with a clinical eye, find out what people like or don’t like about it, then explore than in future books.

    And since we’re taking the “Bull” out of “Bullying”, then we should also take the Bull out of Bullsh*t. — And I mean those Bullsh*t paid Goodreads reviews. I’ve found dozens of users who receive free books and ARCs from authors in exchange for positive reviews… so each and every single review they publish has 5 stars and comments like “Amazing! Best thing I’ve ever read! I’m crying, this was so beautiful! Can’t want to see the next book!”.


  11. leslie
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 10:27:16

    @Laurie: Yes! Exactly what I thought too!

  12. Sirius
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 10:47:17

    You know I have no sympathy for the authors who whine that negative reviews equals bullying. I agree that it cheapens what very real bullying means, etc. But I was kind of curious about Angela Graham’s drama – I never heard of this author before, I read her hysterics on FB ( saw Jane’s tweet on DA page so of course I had to click on the link). So anyway I was under impression that she was not claiming that said blogger gave her a negative review but was upset that after they raved about the book she did not thank them enough in the book, right? I think that’s what you are saying too when summarizing that one? Anyway and after that said blogger allegedly started spreading rumors about her and asking other blogs not to support her? Ok if this is the accurate summary of what happened I am still not sure if this rises to the level of real bullying – I do not think so, but to me it is much nastier than even the rudest negative review (to me rude negative review means attacking author”s person – name calling, making judgments about her as a person).

    Basically I guess this example to me if my summary is accurate is worse than many others – I have to shake my head at the level of cattiness that this blogger allegedly displayed. That does not mean that I liked her going on FB , I think it is a horrible public relations but if said blogger is edging her friends not to review her book, I kind of understand the author being pissed. Hope that makes sense – as I said I have no personal involvement with this author, not planning on ever reading her books, but I read it when Jane tweeted about it and was struck as to how little sympathy I had for the blogger if this is what happened . Usually it is quite the opposite for me.

  13. Avery Flynn
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 11:04:00

    With the rare exception, negative reviews – even the most nasty, mean-spirited, gif-heavy ones, are not bullying. A more correct word would be rude. It’s easy to be rude on the internet. It’s easy to find the perfect sarcastic gif. It’s easy to be too protective of something you’ve created. Really we all need to just simmer down and act like grown ups.

  14. Lucy Woodhull
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 11:40:32

    I swear, one of the biggest things I’ve had to learn with online participation is when to just walk away. I don’t mean if someone is say…putting your address son the Internet and encouraging trolls to visit you with a hammer — I just mean that before you jump off the cliff into a pointless back-and-forth, think. Speak your piece respectfully and then walk away if you don’t want to listen to the tear-downs, or just stay silent.

    However, as an author, I have a zero commenting policy for myself. No comments on book reviews, no comments on threads discussing me (heh — not that that comes up a lot, I ain’t JK Rowling). This drama (and it is drama, totally, Robin) is just not pleasant, and I don’t want it to pop up in a search of my author name. Shit will be slung, sure, but I’d rather duck and have it go over my head than pop up to reply and get a mouthful.

  15. Isobel Carr
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 11:47:28

    Lorde about criticism in the music industry (sound familiar?):

    “I think there’s a funny culture in music that’s only happened over the last 15 years, that if you have an opinion about something in music that isn’t 100-percent good, you’re a ‘hater,’ even if you have perfectly reasonable grounds for that critique,” she said. “People will say exactly what they think about a movie or a TV show, and that’s fine, but as soon as you say it about a record, you’re like some little zombie in a funny dungeon.”

  16. Charming Euphemism
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 12:24:52

    What struck me just yesterday about this is that it is bad for the authors themselves to view themselves as victims of bullying. Obviously when they complain online and people don’t buy their books, it is easy to see the damage they have done to themselves. But even if they don’t complain in public, it isn’t good for you to feel persecuted and bullied all the time. Seeing yourself as a victim is a powerless and sad place to be.

  17. Arethusa
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 12:35:03

    Blu: “Unless readers, reviewers, authors, et al. are willing to admit that some people do cross the line, that there might be validity on *both* sides of the argument, there is never going to be any growth.”

    Gayle63: “If a reader or author (although I agree, authors should stay out of it) calls them “mean” or a “bully,” well, that’s just their opinion, and they are entitled to their opinion.”

    This is the fuzzy area that I feel quite strongly about. As far as I am concerned areviewer/blogger is the far more vulnerable party in this power, and it behooves the author to practise more discretion. I get the impression that many authors don’t agree: “If I have to be nice, you have to be nice too.” They are the ones who have more to gain and that is why they tend to be the more vociferous when they feel they have something to lose. And this is why they tend to blur the line between the professional and personal bc they want all the advantages of being a commercial brand, yet wish to switch hats at will take their “personal” recommendations seriously, and consider their feelings etc.

    I see this struggle more and more among romance authors in the community, esp with the rise of self-publishing and social media. I can only think of the F/SF community, perhaps, having similar issues, but I’m not as involved on that side. Lit fic authors/readers don’t appear to be as angsty about it now, although there was a looot of articles about poootering bloggers mucking up the sweet, clear, water of erudite criticism. That seemed to be more about print folks feeling threatened tho, than folks worried about bullying.

  18. Denise
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 12:43:55

    You really think tempering your response to authors online means your review isn’t valid? Because tempering your response online, remembering that folks can’t hear your words or the tone you use, and utilizing a modicum of respect (which has been markedly absent in a few of dear author’s reviews in the past, if memory serves) – that’s simple internet etiquette.

    Really? Your whole review is invalidated? Who’s being dramatic now?

  19. Ridley
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 12:54:02

    A reader could bully an author. Here’s how:

    The reader reads a book and decides it’s awful. They go on Amazon and post a scathing, ad hominem filled review. When that doesn’t quell their anger, they post the review on B&N and Goodreads. Still furious, they search for blogs who reviewed the book and leave lengthy comments. They make sure to tweet all of this to the author’s twitter handle. When they get blocked by the author, they take it to email. Incensed at the block, they start a blog. On the blog, they post the author’s real name and location. Next are the photos. First of the author, then the author’s family, eventually a Google Maps shot of their neighborhood. They follow the author around the internet, screenshotting the author’s activity, and no one stops them, because none of this is illegal. The author now gets to decide between continuing to write or quitting to get away from the abuse.

    That’s bullying. It involves a hell of a lot more than discomfort, offense or hurt feelings. It involves malice, manipulation and real fear that interferes with the target’s ability to function. If this isn’t present, it’s not bullying.

  20. Shiv
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 13:00:07

    It’s a bit harsh to link to aaronavitch in this context. He didn’t claim the review was bullying at all. The original reviewer did get all outraged when he made some mild comments addressing her review, climbed on the victim wagon and claimed her blog was female space etc etc etc.

    Er some author politely disagreeing with your review is not zomg oppression. You may not like the authors comments but it’s not bullying by him either.

  21. Isobel Carr
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 13:33:40

    @Shiv: I must have missed someone saying Aaronavitch bullied anyone. He did mansplain something awful though, all the while refusing to acknowledge that authorial intrusion does tend to inhibit free discussion. I thought it was a sadly myopic display of privilege from an author I’d been a real fan of up until then.

  22. leslie
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 13:54:21

    I’ve decided to buy Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series for everyone on my holiday list….well just because.

    @IsobelCarr: “Mansplain” ? Really? So what that he was oh so very naive to go to The Book Smugglers and comment, but their response was a little over the top. IMO.
    Mansplain….God I hate s**t like that….

  23. Bronwen Evans
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 14:59:43

    The reach and visibility of the internet is leading to a rise in bullying, there is no doubt. You only have to look at the rise in teen suicide to see that (most linked to facebook and twitter) and that is what alarms me. In NZ there is an uproar at the moment about a facebook page put up by young teens called RoastBusters (now taken down) that bragged about getting underage girls drunk and basically raping them. They named and shamed 13 year old girls. The police are now investigating these teens behavior after two years of trying to get the site removed and several of the girls coming forward and reporting the ‘attacks’. It caused a petition of over 100k names – NZ only has 4 million people, a march on Parliament and the Minister of Policy stepping in to review Police handling of the situation. It was bullying at it’s worst – and criminal! Yet, it wasn’t taken seriously because I think we are getting immune to bad behaviour.

    The adage that movie stars and singers get personal attacks, and therefore that makes it okay behavior, is the wrong approach. That almost makes it acceptable behaviour and bullying and personal attacks aren’t.

    I think there is a line between ‘review’ and a personal attack. A grey line sometimes which makes it hard. Dear Author even has their own policy – so doubtless personal attacks happen – “address the content and ideas not the commenter.”
    I believe that is a fab policy.

    There is nothing wrong with giving a ranking or review you feel is appropriate. I hate it when I get 1 star reviews but only from a reader whose average is high – in other words she loved loads of other books but didn’t like mine. A 2 star review from a reader whose average rating is 2.10 doesn’t phase me. I’m pretty much on par with the majority of the books she reads.

    At the end of the day we are all people and I try to think about what I say about others. But I’m guilty too. I was quite vocal to friends about a certain singer, because it upset me. No doubt readers feel the same about books. When emotions are involved sometimes we forget the ‘people’ side of life. I hope that in the long run this internet visibility and reach, doesn’t turn us into unfeeling and aggressive people. Who knows what this internet behaviour will do over time to our social etiquette… scary

    “Sometimes we have vigorous discussions around important topics like race, religion, sex, politics at Dear Author. We ask that when you are commenting, you address the content and ideas and not the commenter. Comments that do not follow the policy will be moderated. You can read more here or email jane at with questions.”

  24. DrMm
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 15:33:22

    Something I’ve been wondering through all these debates is how much fanfic has influenced how people view criticism. Over the last 15 years I’ve spent in various fandoms, I’ve noticed that fic authors and their fans have grown more and more sensitive towards any sort of criticism, to the point where any negative comment (however minor) can be taken as a personal insult.

    In recent years, there has been such a large influx of fanfic authors turned pro that I think the lines between fandom and the professional publishing world have become blurred and people forget that professionally published works are and should be held to different standards than fanfic is.

    A lot of the bullying commentaries I’ve seen remind me of the flame wars I’ve seen in fandom when someone dares to make the mildest negative comment about a fic or imply it isn’t perfect.

    I don’t know how true my thesis is, but it’s something I wonder about.

  25. Shelley
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 16:10:51

    Dear god! Will these wannabe authors NEVER shut the fuck up??? I’ve got the perfect solution – put these whiny uploaders in a room with children and teens who have ACTUALLY been bullied and parents of children and teens who have committed suicide due to bullying and trade stories and let’s see who wins.

    I am so damn sick of the drama these extremely unprofessional indiduals exhibit on a daily basis. SPAs and even a very few veteran authors, please get a grip and take that class in Professionalism 101 that you are in desperate need of. Angela Graham will not be seeing a damn dime of my money. Ever.

  26. Liz Mc2
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 16:23:06

    I am tired of this topic too. But since the issue doesn’t seem to be going away, I don’t think we should stop talking about it. I appreciate Robin’s point that the entangling of the personal and the professional contributes to accusations of “bullying” over negative reviews. And I see that entangling happening in the comments.

    How can a book review be “rude,” for instance? I can’t be rude to a book; it’s an object, not a person. It would be rude of me to direct the author’s attention to my negative review, in my opinion, because that seems aimed to wound. And it would be rude of me to attack the author personally in my review. Because a review is not “a response to the author,” it’s a response to the book. I feel that readers can’t win (and I’m sure many authors feel the same way). We are told time and time again that it’s not negative reviews authors object to, but personal attacks. But then reviews that are purely about the book are discussed as if they were personal, the line between the book and the author is elided. A negative review may hurt an author (have a personal effect) but that doesn’t make it a personal attack. When I review a book, I don’t feel obligated to consider the creator’s feelings. I’m not addressing her in my review and she is not required to read it.

    I agree that if I post my review publicly, it is fair game for criticism. But the same rules should apply to that as apply to book reviews: don’t make it personal. Disagree with the reviewer’s interpretation, decide that her snarky style doesn’t work for you, say that her opinion is valueless to you because of all the grammar errors in the review. But saying she is a mean, rude bully for her snarky gif review is making the criticism about the person, not the review. “You’re a bully” may be a statement of opinion, but it’s not the same kind of opinion as “This book deserves an F.” To use the word “bully” when it doesn’t apply makes it harder to get people to take real bullying seriously.

  27. Jackie Barbosa
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 17:04:13

    @Liz Mc2: Yes to everything you said.

    I’m not sure when criticism of a *product* became a de facto criticism of the *producer*. When I complain about Microsoft Word, I am not worried that I might be hurting the feelings of the programmers who wrote the code. Why then, should I worry that an author’s feelings might be hurt by criticism of her book?

    I suspect that at least some of the problem here lies in the fact that the product and the producer are more clearly linked in the case of a book and an author than in the case of a computer program and the programmer(s). A book, by its nature, has a personal quality that Microsoft Word doesn’t. And that may be why the personal and the professional tend to elide the way they do. Many people have a natural disinclination to any type of interaction that might hurt the feelings of an *identifiable* other. The programmer is anonymous in a way the author is not, and I suspect that leads to a lot of the calls for courtesy and kindness in book reviewing.

    This reminds me, in an odd way, of some studies that have been done about how our brains work when we have to make certain kinds of moral decisions. In one example, they gave the subjects a scenario in which a train is barreling down the tracks and will wind up killing five people if it isn’t stopped. A man is standing on a bridge, and if you push the man off the bridge, his body will stop the train before the five people are killed. From a logical point of view, this makes sense: one death is surely better than five. But most subjects said they wouldn’t push the man from the bridge. HOWEVER, if instead of having to push the man from the bridge, the subjects could pull a lever that would result from him falling from the bridge and stopping the train, most said they would do it. The lever *depersonalized* the act of injuring the man, thereby making the logical choice easier to make.

    By the same token, I think it’s easier for many to write a mean, snarky review of a product like software or machinery because the producer is depersonalized. We simply don’t consider the feelings of a nameless, faceless person (or people) who work in a factory or an office building. I think we should treat books the same way, but it can be hard for people on both sides to do so, perhaps because it’s wired into our brains on some level.

    P.S. I’m not sure I would push the guy OR pull the lever. Just saying,..

  28. Joanna Chambers
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 17:59:19

    Thanks for another great post on this series of thorny interrelated topics, Robin. I’ve read the last few of these posts with great interest and have been letting your thoughts brew, as I consider what this means for me personally, and more widely for the online reading community (if you can call such a nebulous group a community). Whilst I have sympathy with the repeated declarations of fatigue with this topic in the comments, it also feels, personally to me, that it’s coming to something of a head – along with other topics you’ve mentioned in the earlier posts – if only in my own mind.

    Excuse me if I bactrack for a moment to last week’s post around author recommendations. I’ll be honest – when I was first thinking about your post of last week, I got kind of annoyed with the notion of potentially onerous disclosure – yet the arguments you set out nagged at me. I rehearsed well-worn arguments in my own mind – I blogged for years before I published anything and I’m up front about only reviewing books that I like. I’ve justified that with reference to two true facts – that I only blog about books I genuinely like and that I’m simply not interested in talking about books I don’t like. But thinking about your post re author disclosure made me question this a bit more, and while I’ve still come to no firm conclusions on the point as yet, it did make me decide to pull back a little while I think about this more.

    I found those thoughts leading me into thinking about another issue, namely, the bombardment of social media and discussion forums with promo and quasi-promo material by authors and others, thereby driving users away. Whilst I don’t equate my occasional independent (yet, I admit, invariably postive) blog posts about books I’ve read with the most egregious promo behaviour, this conversation, or series of conversations, is making me consider that I want to think a bit more about what I put out there.

    Maybe the time has come to think – really think – about how we engage with one another meaningfully and create good / better places to interact. I find myself remembering a post you wrote some years ago about forging community rules, and whilst I think I disagreed with you then, I now find myself warming to the idea of some kind of – I don’t know – rules of engagment/ voluntary code that would support a robust discussion environment and block these tiresome and increasingly frequent dramas around so-called bullying and what does or does not constitute an appropriate or professional review – all that stuff that keeps coming around. Because yes, it is tiresome but it’s not going away.

  29. On anxiety, radio silence, and being a nutcase writer/artistic-type | ccdenham
    Nov 28, 2013 @ 12:58:08

    […] Of course, I guess it could apply to any sort of cray-cray that occurs out there. But it was this post by Janet at Dear Author that got me thinking (this time, […]

  30. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Abbreviated linkity on a day when I sad there’d be none
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 02:07:17

    […] “Taking the ‘bull’ out of book review ‘bullying’“. […]

  31. carmen webster buxton
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 12:03:38

    In a previous life, I used to be an art teacher. A point that was drilled into us in art education classes that I have found useful in my writers’ group, is to always assess the work and not the person who created it. This is equally true whether the criticism is favorable or unfavorable. “I couldn’t get engaged with the characters in the book,” is a criticism of the book. “This writer couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag,” is an attack on the writer, This is not to say the writer shouldn’t strive for a thicker skin, or that he or she should respond to personal attacks (a no-win situation, basically), but this rule always provided me with a guideline in writing critiques and reviews.

    I do agree the word bulling has been overused lately. I think it’s a serious issue with teens, who often despair of ever finding acceptance if they feel they don’t fit in with their peers, but we need to be careful how we use words or we dilute their power to communicate what we mean.

    I do love some of the comment threads here on DA because people manage to talk about and disagree about books without in any way disparaging each others’ opinions.

  32. BBA: Miscellany & Minutae | Illuminite Caliginosus
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 15:12:51

    […] Taking the “Bull” out of Book Review “Bullying” […]

  33. WTFckery Or Not? Taking Down the So-Called Gangster Bully Reviewers (On Amazon) | Babbling About Books, and More!
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 11:16:41

    […] I leave you with this post from Dear Author back in November 2013 titled, Taking the “Bull” out of Book Review “Bullying”: […]

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