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

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.


Dear Author

The Thin Gray Line Between Author Recommendation and Book Promotion

Last week I talked about the way the personal and the professional often overlap in the Romance community around authors reviewing and recommending books. At one end is the elevation of what seems essentially a concern about personal relationships among authors to an alleged professional value that discourages critical review. At the other is the diminishment of the professional currency of an author in the service of an allegedly personal book recommendation. Before I move forward, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that authors have nefarious intent in either of these examples. I have no doubt that many authors genuinely love books they recommend, even when those books are written by critique partners and friends. Similarly, I think it is incredibly easy to let personal feelings affect professional relationships. However, I think that among authors who discourage critical peer review, this overlap of the personal and the professional is deeply problematic, even in the absence of any disingenuous intent, in part because it makes it even more difficult for readers to make informed judgments about author recommendations.

Which brings me to this week’s issue: the author as a commercial brand, and the point at which an author’s speech crosses the line from personal to commercial speech.

Remember back in 2009 when the FTC revised its guidelines to focus on product reviews? Well, they recently revised their guidelines again, and they have intensified their interest in social media as a potentially gray area in regard to product endorsement and commercial sponsorship. The Wall Street Journal provided an example of an actress recommending a weight loss product via Twitter, highlighting the difference between a tweet that simply announced major weight loss and provided the product name and a link to the company, and a tweet that announced itself as a sponsored advertisement.

As Jane pointed out back in 2009, the FTC guidelines seemed more focused on readers and bloggers than on publishers and authors, even though book blurbs, for example, are often blatant commercial endorsements, lacking even a guarantee that the blurbing author has read the book on which her name and recommendation appears. But now we have so many authors who are joining forces – in blogs, co-ops, and other professional partnerships – to help market each others’ books, sometimes in direct ways, sometimes in indirect ways, sometimes in ways that may not even be deliberate commercial endorsements, even though they may amount to almost the same thing for the reader who depends on the author’s brand in buying a recommended book. It’s interesting to see how bloggers have taken steps to disclose the source of books they review when they have no economic interest in a book’s success. And yet, because the economic interest of authors is a given, perhaps, there has not been similar pressure for universal disclosure when it comes to recommending other authors’ books.

The FTC’s position with regard to endorsements is easy to understand: commercial endorsements are associated with positive reviews, while criticism is generally perceived to be more honest. So will the new guidelines mean greater interest in author endorsements? When Sarah Weinman joked that the 2009 FTC guidelines would encourage more aggressively snarky reviews, her prediction raised interesting implications for authors who insist that professional behavior necessitates only positive remarks about other authors’ books. Think of it this way: if criticism is aligned with honesty, and authors are afraid that their relationships with other authors will become imperiled if they engage in public criticism of their peers’ books, then to what extent can readers rely on “professional” authors to give them honest views of other authors’ books? If professional becomes aligned with positive, and positive is aligned with a commercial endorsement, then can’t this uncritical “professional” behavior  be characterized as a form of commercial endorsement?

Commercial endorsements are not, of course, intrinsically dishonest, especially when they come with a disclaimer that they amount to an advertisement of sorts. The difficulty comes with the lack of disclosure and the status of the author as a commercial brand.

Why is this a potential problem? For a number of reasons, one of which is the extent to which authors may be engaging in commercial speech when they make these recommendations. Although we talk a lot about political speech in the US and its almost sacred level of Constitutional protection, we don’t talk so much about commercial speech, even though in a community where authors are more readily marketing their own books (and those of their peers), this category of speech is becoming increasingly relevant to our discussions.

However, commercial speech has itself posed some definitional problems. Very briefly, commercial speech has been defined by several criteria: 1) the speaker is “engaged in commerce”; 2) “the intended audience [is] composed largely of actual and potential purchasers; and 3) “the content of the speech consist[s] of representation of fact of a commercial nature that [are] intended to maintain and increase sales” of the product (Nike, Inc. v. Kasky, 123 S. Ct. 2554 (2003)). These criteria echo what’s called the Bolger test, which also identified three characteristics: 1) is the communication an advertisement; 2) does the communication concern a product; and 3) does the speaker have an “economic motivation” (Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60 (1983)). Additional factors like discussion of price and quantity are also taken into consideration when discerning the nature of the speech (see What is Commercial Speech? The Issue Not Decided in Nike v. Kasky, by Erwin Chemerinsky and Catherine Fisk). For example, authors who tweet out links to their own books, mentioning a price cut, for example, or a Kindle ranking, could easily be said to be engaging in commercial speech.

Seemingly simple in articulation, but difficult in application, for the same reasons that it’s difficult to discern whether an author who recommends a book is doing so in a personal, critical capacity, or in the way of someone who is attempting to sell books and who has an economic interest in the book’s sale (you can also see why paid reviews are so deeply problematic in this context). Still, one of the reasons this distinction is important is that commercial speech is afforded less Constitutional protection than noncommercial speech, and one of the reasons for that – beyond consumer protection from false and misleading claims, which is a substantial factor – is the assumption that speech deriving from an economic interest is less likely to be chilled than noncommercial speech. Part of the rationale here is that someone has a greater investment in a product they economically benefit from – as well as a greater incentive to have that product seen in a positive light. Whether or not it’s true that commercial speech is more potentially resilient, it seems clear that someone with a commercial investment in a product is likely to be much more desirous of having that product viewed in a positive way.

I realize that one author’s economic interest in another author’s book is not a foregone conclusion; at one level authors are competitively positioned in the marketplace. Still, if Author A recommends Author B’s book to Reader C, and Reader C loves that book, isn’t it likely that Author A might benefit from that recommendation with a present or future sale of her book? Also, what if Author A and Author B are sharing marketing costs and cross-marketing their books — doest that intertwine their economic interests? These often undisclosed possibilities (and more) are part of the difficulty for readers trying to navigate an environment in which authors are only providing positive comments about other authors’ books, and representing those recommendations as unproblematic. No one likes to have their good intentions questioned, but when readers are only getting one view from authors about their peers’ books, it can raise questions about the potential commercial benefit that authors perceive to accrue to them by mutually supporting and promoting each others’ books. In other words, in a market where authors see criticism as detrimental to book sales, where is the incentive to recommend books written by market competitors, unless there is a perceived commercial benefit to the recommending author?

At this point I feel the need to mention again that I am not accusing authors of trying to deceive readers by recommending their own and other authors’ books. However, I do not think readers are unaware that a successful recommendation by an author can very easily translate into a future sale for the recommending author, merely as a function of the trust and good faith that an author can build through her commercial brand. Beyond straight marketing, these more ambiguous expressions are, for me, at least, much more problematic, because in the absence of “honest” criticism, and in an environment where such criticism is deemed “unprofessional,” it can be difficult to trust those recommendations as anything but (indirectly) self-interested marketing.

When readers talk about the relative power of the author – both in terms of the authorial voice and the brand – commercial interest plays a key role. Because the economic investment authors have in the commercial success of their own products (books) gives them a greater incentive to quash negative perceptions of their product. And when authors publicly reinforce the shunning of criticism on the part of other authors, it does not help either the case for authenticity around authorial book recommendations or the insistence that readers hold all the power. To the extent that readers do not have enough information to make informed decisions in response to authorial marketing and recommending, their power is being artificially limited. And given the fact that authors have a greater investment in the commercial success of their own books than readers do, it can be tempting to cross a line from mere promotion to the active silencing of critical opinions. And if reader opinions are perceived as potentially powerful, and negative opinions as potentially detrimental, it’s not difficult to see the incentive to have those opinions quieted and/or discredited.

If it is not already obvious, I am working toward a discussion of the whole “bullying” conversation, one that considers this whole dimension of the commercial investment of the author in the sale of her product (her books) in an environment where criticism is perceived as “unprofessional” and therefore against the commercial interest of authors. I think it would help if there was a way to easily discern the difference between marketing (commercial speech) and the authentic sharing of a beloved book (noncommercial speech), but when there is no defined limit to an author’s tastes (e.g. tropes she doesn’t like, books she finds problematic, etc.), ambiguity is likely to persist. And this ambiguity disadvantages readers by clouding informed decision-making. I believe it ultimately disadvantages authors, too, by weakening the genre’s ability to be challenged and to grow through open, honest criticism, but I think that cost is long-term and therefore hidden behind the short-term perceived professional and economic benefit of being “nice.”

So readers, tell me: how do you tell the difference between marketing and un-self-interested book talk? And authors, do you have any system by which you communicate this distinction to readers?