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:
@renay We’re just people Renay – we’re not the other, some of us our nice, some horrible some of us are indiscribable – but just people.
— Ben Aaronovitch (@Ben_Aaronovitch) September 15, 2013
And ebook maker Gav Reads went so fall as to call out Ana and Renay as “bullies”:
— Gav Reads (@gavreads) September 15, 2013
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.