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 stgrb.com (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 stgrb.com 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 stgrb.com, check my own reviews, think it all through, and write this post. I consider that time a good investment in my sanity.