Brooklyn Bridge & an Elusive Artist

There must be thousands of images of the Brooklyn Bridge out there. I've collected maybe fifty from the years 1883-1885,  photographs and paintings, even architectural drawings. I have images of the entrance to the bridge and the promenade, and pretty much everything there is to see.

The Brooklyn Bridge. Click for larger image.
The Brooklyn Bridge. Click for larger image.

This is one of my favorites. It's stylized, and maybe that's why I like it.  I haven't ever been able to track down the artist, though it seems to have been painted just about the time the bridge opened. The closest I've come is R. Schwartz.

Catfisher-Reviewer-Flareups: I am not Tolstoy.

via the desmoine register

There's an article on The Guardian website dated yesterday: Am I Being Catfished? by Kathleen Hale, a novelist. I have read it three times now, trying to unravel all the complexities. I find it interesting because like any author, I have to deal with online reviews. Or better said, online reviews exist and have repercussions, whether I deal with them or not (and  any author will tell you, it's better to not).

To sort out the basics in Hale's article, I started with my understanding of the term catfishing: Person A pretends to be someone s/he is not to draw Person B (or even, multiple Persons) into an online relationship. Usually romantic in nature.1 Apparently (I am the last to figure this out, I think) the term catfishing is also used to describe persons who assume false on-line personas in order to systematically harass authors. Hale's article is about her own experience with a reviewer who turned out to be a catfisher, which she discovered by giving into her own obsession with the whole phenomenon. It's a story told with a lot of fun poked at herself, and well worth reading, but it caused a minor tornado of confusion in my own writerly brain.

In an effort to sort it all out, I followed some links provided, most importantly to (Stop the Goodreads Bullies). First thing to note: the website deals with Catfish/Reviewer/Bullies on all websites, not just Goodreads.  I haven't got very far into untangling the stgrb website, first, because it's dense and the structure isn't very intuitive, and second, because it feels like a black hole that could suck me in. And I have enough black holes in my life already, mostly self generated.

The general idea at seems to be that on-line book review sites of all kinds should not promote or even allow catfisher/reviewers free run. The  idea is not to stop or  mediate negative reviews but to curtail deception. There is an important distinction here:  A person who reviews a book anonymously is qualitatively different from a person who claims certain kinds of authority when reviewing, in order to achieve an unstated goal. An extreme example: If I set up an online personality for myself in which I am a forty year old Navy veteran with fifteen years experience as a pilot, and then go on to review books about aviation, I am not expressing an opinion so much as acting out negative feelings in a deceptive way.  Because the concensus is that authors should not respond to reviews of any kind, they have a choice: ignore the vitriol, or protest the deception and risk a full-frontal assault in which the catfisher/reviewer will then systematically heap hell on the head of the author, but again: the author is not supposed to respond in any way.  Is it possible to weed out such catfishing reviews? I have no idea, and that's not what concerns me at the moment.

First real question: Is this important?

Obviously it's important to the author of the book, especially if we're talking about a systematic attack in the form of multiple negative reviews from catfishing compatriots.    The thing is, it is even more  important to the catfisher/reviewer, as Hale points out, because catfishing seems to be first and foremost a demand to be heard.  Again: Is this important to anybody else (author or catfisher/reviewer)? Probably not.

Second question: Is it interesting?

Absolutely. To me, at least. What moves people to spend many hours constructing false personas and then more hours to establish that persona online by tweeting and posting and instagramming?  What is gained? Does that person get some satisfaction out of being heard from behind the mask?  Why the layer of deception? I can't answer that question, though I'll continue to think about it.

Another wrinkle here, and one that is more relevant to me personally: the idea of the catfisher/reviewer as a powerful entity who can summon a hoarde of rough-riders to stampede a targeted author into the ground. Hale's article seems to be claiming that this is not only possible, but that it happens on a regular basis. There are well-known catfisher/reviewers out there in the ether, and  authors tip-toe around them  for fear of being targeted for destruction.

I've run into this, myself, multiple times, on a small scale. It seems to come in cycles, and almost always has to do with readers who are not only fans of Diana Gabaldon's work, but see themselves as her protectors.  One of these people will get the idea that I (or my work) might be perceived as a challenge to Diana's work, and there's a short kerfuffle on Amazon or Goodreads or somewhere else in which people reassure themselves (and remind me) that I am not Diana, nor am I Tolstoy: I am, instead, the National Inquirer, and not worthy of being read.

When these episodes flare up (as one did recently, on Amazon) I sometimes leave a short response: Sorry to hear that my novel didn't work for you; thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. Usually that puts an end to the flare-up. The point I am trying to make?  I know very well who I am not. I'm not Tolstoy or Dunnett or Gabaldon. Would I like to silence the catfisher/reviewer? Of course I would prefer it if that person didn't stand in front of my books waving red flags and screaming warnings.  But I am realistic and I know that I can't do anything about this, and it isn't worth my time to try.

I will admit that after reading Hale's article, I began to wonder if sometimes the You-Are-Not-Tolstoy flareups  are the work of catfishers.  People who feel the need to tell me I'm neither Gabaldon or Tolstoy, but who have to hide behind a mask to do that.  So I went and looked at some of the Amazon reviewers who were involved in the latest flare-up, and I discovered that the most vitriolic of them (Chellie G) has never reviewed anything else on Amazon, period. Just my first Donati novel. So maybe I have been catfished, but to return to my first question: is this important?

No.  It's not even very hurtful, because it's so extreme that I can safely put the review aside. The person behind this review feels the need to strike out, and to be heard in striking out. Why this is aimed at me or my work, I can't know. And again: not important.

It only took me three hours or so to read Hale's article, follow up on, check my own reviews, think it all through, and write this post. I consider that time a good investment in my sanity.


  1. I tried to articulate to myself the difference between a catfisher and an internet troll, but had some trouble with this until I found an interesting essay: Trolls & Catfish: The evolution of Deception.

Alice Adams on the streets of New York

Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)
Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)

I spend a lot of time looking at images, photos, paintings, portraits, diagrams, maps. It's the way my writing-mind works. I need to see things to write about them.

But I always have to remind myself of something crucial: It's very easy to be misled by the images that are readily available. There are great resources online for almost anything, but the choice is usually both  narrow and shallow. Looking for information about the clothes women wore, you're likely to come away with the idea that every female wore bustles and corsets cinched down to twenty inches.

That's why I like Alice Adam's work so much. She was one of the first female photographers to do documentary work, outside a studio. Her photos are full of information.

This is an organ grinder who posed for Adams, but somehow manages to seem undaunted by the oddity of the request. The lady with him may be a stranger, a wife, a sister — there's no way to know. But what is clear about her is that she is not rich. She takes care of a family or works in a factory (or both). In the winter she wears multiple layers because she wouldn't have a coat, at least, not the kind of coat we think of these days when the issue is getting ready to go outside in January.

This kind of photograph is immensely interesting to me, and very useful. I love the portraits Whistler did in this period, but for other reasons.


(very) bad advice

This is, I'll admit, a pet peeve of mine: More established writers  who seem compelled to issue grand  statements about writing. Such statements usually fall into one of two categories: the do this, don't do that admonitions, or  the proclamation fiction is going to hell in a handbasket because… Note: I'm talking here about those who write fiction. The grammar police have their own crazy little universe, and I am not going there.  But see Geoffrey Pullum's excellent post on this subject (5o Years of Stupid Grammar Advice) at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

People who are trying to write or establish themselves as writers seem to suck up these pronouncements  and run off with them without looking very closely.  Here's my favorite (or better said) least favorite example of the second kind of pronouncement, from John Gardner: If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor.

I have seen this quoted many times by many different writers with something approaching reverence. Gardner was by all reports an excellent teacher, but this statement? Meaningless. The comparison between making furniture and writing fiction, and the success or failure of either is specious at best.   To me it sounds like a cranky old uncle scolding kids for the imminent end of the world.

Just today I came across a more recent example of the 'do this, don't do that' category,  with the foreboding title "45 Ways to Avoid Using the Word 'Very'" posted by a group who offers writing courses in South Africa.  Two examples of their suggestions: instead of writing 'very clever' write 'brilliant' and for 'very bad' write 'atrocious.'

This kind of blanket advice will rarely do you any good. What if your POV character is a child complaining about eating vegetables?

Grandpa: You know your grandma and me have been growing asparagus in our garden since your dad was a little boy. It's a great treat, fresh asparagus from the garden.  How does it taste to you?

Four year old: It tastes bad, grandpa. Very bad. Can I have Fruit Loops instead?


Four year old: Do you really think so, grandpa? Maybe it's an acquired taste, but I find it inedible. Atrocious, as a matter of fact.

If you're writing about a precocious four year old, then sure, you could get away with this. In general though, a list of phrases to use is never going to work for every character and every scene. So why publish such advice?

The other example — using ' brilliant' for 'very clever' — can get you into just as much of a pickle.

Guy 1: You're a half hour late.

Guy 2: Jenny hid the car keys on me again.

Guy 1: Very clever, that Jenny. I warned you.


Guy 1: Brilliant, that Jenny. I warned you.

Sarcasm and snide are hidden in that simple 'very clever.' If you substitute 'brilliant' for 'very clever' then there's some confusion about Guy 1 and his intentions. Maybe he's being sarcastic, but maybe not.

So the bottom line is, avoid quick bits of advice with global solutions to something that isn't even a real problem.  Be wary of overusing very sure, but don't twist yourself (and your characters) into a pretzel to avoid it.  Don't take anybody's admonitions (including mine) at face value. Look closely before you fold it into your personal encyclopedia of writing advice.


Running out for Milk in 1883

Bodega is word borrowed from Spanish and well established as a general term for a convenience or corner store — in Manhattan and in LA, at the very least.

In Chicago when I was growing up in Chicago we just called them corner stores. Sometimes they were referred to as . mom-and-pop shops because many of them were run by a married couple and their extended family.  Kids were sent down to the corner shop a couple times a day, for bread and milk or (I remember clearly) cigarettes. No age restrictions at that time. Some of the stores were very bright and clean, but a lot of them were a little creepy, with dusty, out of date cans of green beans and fruit salad. Which puts me in mind of Lilek's Gallery of Regrettable Food. The problem is, once you've looked at the old advertisements and recipes, it's impossible to forget those images. People really cooked this stuff. And then ate it.

Tyson's-Market SE Corner 44th and Fifth
Tyson's-Market SE Corner 44th and Fifth

In Chicago corner stores went out of business as large grocery stores came along, but some have survived. In New York they are still everywhere.  They've got a history.

Consider the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, where in 1883 you'd find Tyson's Market, maybe the first bodega, ever.  The story of how Mr. Tyson fought the rich and powerful to hold onto his butcher shop/tavern/corner store (found here at the Daytonian in Manhattan) gives you a good sense of how quickly things changed on Fifth Avenue.

Note the tree in the image above, which was taken in winter. It was a landmark of its own, the Old Willow.  You can spot it in the image below (also from the Daytonian in Manhattan). Nothing bucolic about Manhattan in 1884.

Fifth Avenue ca 1884
Regimented rows of stoops lead to side-by-side brownstone mansions on the west (left) side. In the distance is the white marble St. Patrick's Cathedral and in the foreground is Temple Emanu-el. The lone tree in the etching is the old willow tree, obscuring Henry Tyson's 5th Avenue Market — New York's Great Industries, 1884 (Daytonian in Manhattan)
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