Don’t Attack Reviewers
Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:
I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.
It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.
I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.
The first time I took a step back from genre culture was as a result of being stalked for daring to publish negative reviews. The stalking was limited to some creepy comments and a rather cack-handed attempt to run me out of town on a rail by posting a long diatribe in the comments of a number of widely-read blogs but It did give me pause for thought and a reason for cutting back on my reviewing.
The second time I took a step back from genre culture was a number of years later. Alienated from the field, I had set up this blog as a means of encouraging myself to write about a wider array of things but I had been slowly drifting back towards the field because of a number of decent friendships that made me feel as though I was welcome. After a sudden change in circumstances left me with a good deal more spare time, I decided to increase my output and so started volunteering to review a wider range of books and generally chasing the field by reviewing stuff that was already being widely discussed.
In February 2009, I reviewed Ellen Datlow’s anthology Poe for Strange Horizons. I liked some of the stories but not all of them and was largely unimpressed by the anthology as a whole. A few days later, the Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow appeared in the comments to take issue with things that I had said. She was later joined by the author Anna Tambour whose contributions make little sense even upon re-examination. Curious as to where these authors and editors were coming from, I backtracked and came across a discussion of the review on Datlow’s blog. I later commented in public about Datlow’s willingness to go after her critics and she responded by saying that she didn’t believe that I had actually read her work.
In hindsight, this type of stuff seems like weak beer. In the past five years, online discussion has grown considerably more hyperbolic and an editor linking to a negative review on their blog would most likely result in 110 comments rather than 11. However, I started reviewing under the principle that a reviewer’s right to express their opinion about a book was sacrosanct and when you realise that this right has suddenly been taken away it cannot help but make you feel alienated from your culture (am I *that* out of touch?) and just that little bit more careful when choosing which books to review (does this author have a history of going after their critics and do I think that my review might prompt such a response?).
A couple of years later, I took it upon myself to review Jo Walton’s Hugo Award-winning novel Among Others. By that point, I was aware of the growing willingness of authors to go after their critics and so had fallen into the habit of publishing my reviews on an external site rather than my blog. However, when I posted a link to the piece on my blog, I made the mistake of expanding upon some of my points to the extent that this provoked a link directly to my blog as well as to the review. This time, the link prompted 82 comments. Later that summer, Jo Walton appeared on a panel at Worldcon and reportedly discussed my review at some length. I still don’t know what was said at that panel but I do know that Jo Walton later wrote me an email in order to apologise.
It was around this time that my genre reviewing output began to decline. I stopped chasing the conversation and when Strange Horizons stopped sending me emails inviting me to review, I never bothered to chase them. The community had spoken and I didn’t belong. I even spoke out online about how I was completely done with genre reviewing and I didn’t even think about reviewing another work of genre fiction until I encountered Tim Maughan’s short-fiction collection Paintwork. While I am now closer to genre spaces than I was in 2011 and 2012, I’m no longer a regular reviewer and most of my writing takes the form of either columns published in a magazine or cultural commentary that I consider fan-writing rather than literary criticism.
Having written all of this out, I now realise that it seems extraordinarily petty. In hindsight, I wonder what I was worried about but that anxiety did sour me on the genre community and was directly responsible for my ‘career’ as a genre reviewer coming to a rather ill-tempered end. I sympathise with Kathleen Hale’s critics because I received far less intense blow-back for my reviewing and collapsed like a house of cards. These days, I consider anyone who dares to post a negative review to be heroic because I know what it’s like out there and I know that I probably don’t have another dog-pile in me.
In order to get a feel for what it can be like to be a genre reviewer in the current climate, I invite you to take a look at the comments to this overview of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by the Book Smugglers as well as the column by Renay that those comments inspired. Aaronovitch also responded to the column and when the fight eventually spilled out onto Twitter and into the wider genre blogosphere, Renay found herself on the receiving end of some very unpleasant threats. When asked not to impose his intended interpretation upon his fans’ readings, Aaronovitch got angry, started insulting people and later claimed that the term ‘fan’ was itself problematic and promptly resigned from fandom for about as long as it took for him to be invited to be a guest at a convention.
I think that the Strange Horizons blow-up neatly demonstrates the power dynamics involved in choosing to express yourself in genre spaces: If a fan says something and gets into trouble, they can rely upon their friends to back them up. When an author says something and gets into trouble, they can rely upon their friends, their fanbase, their publisher and their agents to provide support. Some of whom will have a financial interest in the author’s career. When Renay popped her head above the parapet and dared to say that maybe we should think about our cultural spaces in a different light, she was attacked and threatened to the point where her later columns were noticeably more personal and less likely to attract attention. When Ben Aaronovitch went for a fan, people with ties to the industry bent over backwards to make him feel welcome.
The power imbalance is so pronounced that I find it difficult to believe that anyone could write something as privileged and insensitive as that which recently appeared on Robert Jackson Bennett’s blog:
In my experience, artists aren’t the powerful ones in this situation. We’re vulnerable, powerless, and desperately exposed, and it’s assumed that we’ll stay that way. Granted, we chose to be in this situation – we’ve put ourselves out there before the world – but the increased anonymity of the internet means we catch a lot more tomatoes in the face than we used to, and it’s assumed we’ll grin and bear it.
I don’t even want to know what kind of corrupted and malformed neural pathway might lead you to look at my history as a reviewer or the reaction to Renay’s column and conclude that we were the people who had the power in those situations. Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one who had the power when a manifestly troubled writer decided to turn up on her doorstep? Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one with the power when an article was written about her in a national newspaper? Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one with the power when she decided that she felt unsafe with unlocked accounts? No.
Setting my own experiences and feelings about authors responding to critics aside, I think that much of the discussion surrounding Hale’s piece ignores the structural causes for these types of confrontation.
The reason that authors are starting to ‘catch a lot more tomatoes in the face’ is that the publishing industry has royally fucked them. Step back a single generation and you will find that most of an author’s PR was handled by their publishers. Sure… an author would have to do the occasional interview and maybe the odd public appearance but when a publishing house decided your work was worth publishing they put their weight behind it allowing you to spend your time writing rather than hustling for PR and managing your brand. What has happened over the last ten years is that authors have been forced to become so involved with their own PR that there is no longer any distance between them and the people discussing their work. The reason the taboo against authors responding to reviewers has been replaced with a taboo against negative reviews is that there is a world of difference between having your PR people turn a blind-eye to the things being said about you in another room and being expected to sit quietly in front of a bunch of people discussing your failings.
The changes in the social protocols surrounding reviewing show how the lack of distance between authors and fans has put fan spaces under pressure to conform to the requirements of the modern publishing industry: A literary culture built to meet the needs of fans naturally encourages robust criticism because robust criticism encourages fans to talk amongst themselves and a negative review is no bad thing (whether you agree with it or not) because it aims to prevent fans from spending money on books they won’t enjoy. Conversely, a literary culture built to meet the needs of literary professionals has no interest in protecting people from bad purchasing decisions. This type of literary culture emphasises not only positive reviews that help to sell (sometimes terrible and offensive) books but also coverage of the types of things that publishers want. Why encourage fans to find their own areas of interest when you can drive them towards the blogs of people who review the right type of book in the right type of way and at the right time? A literary culture built to suit the needs of literary professionals has no need for independent or idiosyncratic voices and absolutely no need for reviewers who dare to point out that the hot novel of the moment is a waste of money. However, a literary culture built to suit to needs of its bourgeois professionals may feel the need to set out a set of rules that the lower classes would be wise to follow, hence Robert Jackson Bennett laying down the law as to where and when it is acceptable for critics to express their own opinions:
In other words, when you leave your platform, your own personal space of the internet, and go to someone else’s, or even to a community platform, it requires a different code of behavior. This isn’t your space anymore, so you need to act differently. And remember, you’ve had your say back on your own platform. That’s the place to speak your mind.
What has changed in the last generation is that the book publishing industry has been bought out by corporations who see the literary world as nothing more than another domain from which to extract money. Thus, the infamously sloppy and old-fashioned publishing industry was put under pressure to perform and in order to perform, belts had to be tightened and resources squeezed including authors who could no longer be allowed to sit around writing when there was marketing to be done. I understand when people like Robert Jackson Bennett say that they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed but it is capitalism and not fans who put them in this position.
Many of the writers who are now compelled to interact with fans in fannish spaces were not members of those spaces prior to becoming authors. Having been told by agents and publishers to set up a Twitter account and get branding, they arrive in fannish spaces expecting the cultural equivalent of an eBay account: Put effort in here, extract money there. Brought to these spaces for entirely selfish reasons, it is not surprising that these authors should find themselves alienated from a set of cultural values devised and maintained by people intent upon using those spaces for different reasons. Faced with a disconnect from the cultural values they have and the cultural values that benefit them financially, some authors choose to either lobby for a new set of rules (as in the case of Robert Jackson Bennett) or lash out at reviewers (as in the case of Kathleen Hale and Ben Aaronovitch) who refuse to act according to the rules that many new authors were lead to expect by publishers who don’t have the time to promote the books they themselves chose to publish.
As an occasional critic and commentator on the world of science fiction literature, I am concerned about the changing attitudes towards fan spaces. I am concerned not only because I have become more and more conscious of how scary it can be to express a dissenting opinion in genre culture but also because I wonder whether these types of business practices are sustainable in the long term.
My views on diversity and inclusivity in fandom rest upon a vision of society that might be described as Darwinian if that didn’t invoke images of Richard Dawkins shouting at Muslims or libertarian plutocrats blaming the poor for being the victims of economic oppression. In my view, everyone who decides to ‘do’ cultural stuff makes a decision as to which cultural spaces are deserving of their attention. The more attractive a cultural space is to potential members, the more that cultural space will grow and benefit from their continued emotional and financial investment. In a sense, all of a culture’s fandoms and spaces are ‘competing’ for resources in the form of new members. A literary culture built to service the needs of fans will develop values that protect fans and allow them enough space to find themselves and do what they want to do. Conversely, a literary culture built to service the economic needs of a professional literary class will seek to restrict fans’ agency to the point where they are merely passive recipients of PR and economic resources to be exploited by those deemed worthy of entry to the professional classes. Is a literary culture that emphasises the passive nature of its non-professional participants really more ‘competitive’ than a literary culture that allows non-professionals the space to express themselves freely? Would a 14-year old version of you rather invest in a cultural space where they are expected to sit still, pay up and help to sell stuff or a cultural space that allows people to find their own voice regardless of what it might have to say? I am not convinced that a literary culture built to service the needs of a professional literary class is as viable as a literary culture built to service the needs of book readers everywhere. I think that frowning on negative reviews whilst turning a blind eye to attacks on reviewers silences voices and makes it much less likely that fandom will attract new voices to replace those who have been silenced in the past. I am sympathetic to writers who feel overwhelmed and horrified by readers’ refusal to be passive economic resources but the answer is never to intimidate, ostracise and occasionally stalk those fans that refuse to conform to their professional requirements.
Authors (like Ben Aaronovitch or Kathleen Hale) who attack reviewers are not freak occurrences but a direct result of increased commercial pressure being placed on cultural spaces. The more international capital requires profit, the more corporations squeeze their publishing arms and the more the publishers squeeze their writers, the more writers wind up attacking reviewers who dare to disrupt their branding strategies. The rising pressure on our cultural ecosystems mirrors the increased pressure on real-world ecosystems and shifting to a set of values that discourages negative reviewing whilst turning a blind-eye to attacks on reviewers is really no different to shifting to a set of values that turn a blind-eye to fracking, clear-cutting forests and strip-mining mountainsides. Like all cultural spaces, fandoms are valuable resources but apply too much pressure to those resources and you risk destroying them not just for yourself but for the authors and fans that come after you.