what you should know about anonymity: yours, mine and ours (in which I admit: I review for PW)

The internet is a wondrous thing. It brings together people from all over the world to discuss and share the things they love: Stamp collecting, horse breeding, politics, antique electric fuses, baseball, the perfect martini, hedgehogs, Sanskrit, Buddhism. It’s hard to imagine a topic that’s not represented someplace, and this is only one facet of the whole enterprise. Sales, marketing, corporate branding, all that has been turned on its head. Banking, investing, selling or buying property — all revolutionized for the consumer’s ease.

And then there are the personal weblogs. People who keep journals about their daily lives for the sake of friends and family. People who start a weblog to keep track of a pregnancy, losing weight, learning a language, battling cancer, organizing a bridge club, caring for a parent with Alzheimers, looking for a job.

The internet is also a free-for-all, a megaphone for every cause, worthy or fabricated. It’s a way to reach out and touch, or reach out and punch neatly on the nose.

I mostly stick to the publishing/reading/book-ish part of the internet. Weblogs by authors and writers, weblogs for readers of a dozen different kinds, review weblogs. Booksellers. Book group organizers. Weblogs by agents and editors. Big name review venues, and teeny little weblogs. Some of them anonymous.

Anonymity is an issue that people talk about a lot, and that they will continue to talk about because there’s a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved. Four years ago Amazon’s lackadaisical anonymous review policy finally backfired and the result was a first page article in the New York Times. Laura Lippman’s concise overview of the whole debacle came down to this:

Why does Amazon allow anonymous reviews at all, especially when there have been numerous reports of vendettas bordering on actionable libel? Legal issues aside, it’s just darn strange as a business practice — and saying the reviews are “popular” is a weak defense. The Paris Hilton video was popular, and Amazon didn’t make that available for downloads. Can you envision any independent bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, handing out Post-its to customers and encouraging them to affix their scrawled thoughts to volumes? Imagine going into a bookstore and seeing little yellow squares stuck to Huckleberry Finn (“An erotic masterpiece,” LF in Montana), Portnoy’s Complaint (“Don’t shake hands with this author” — A reader from Central Park South) and the latest Atkins diet. (“He’s dead, but it might work for you.” Hizzoner, Gracie Mansion) Look, I sign my reviews and I think other people should, too.

In the end Amazon did change its review policy, and my guess is it had more to do with the issue of actionable libel than anything else.

The question of anonymous reviews predates the internet, of course. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, for example, both publish reviews anonymously. The idea, it seems, is that they want a uniformity of tone and approach, an argument that many people don’t find convincing. Quinn Dalton’s essay on this topic demonstrates how destructive one anonymous review from a respected source can be.

Anonymity means the reviewer has nothing to lose by writing a negative review, and nothing to gain by writing a positive one. Fair enough. But anonymity doesn’t remove personal bias on the part of the reviewer—for or against certain authors, or certain types of books. It just cloaks bias behind a brand name, and is therefore untraceable for librarians and booksellers and the authors whose careers suffer or are nurtured as a result.

I have had my share of mean-spirited reviews, some from Kirkus, some from Publishers Weekly, and more than a few from anonymous Amazon customer reviewers. I’m not talking about negative reviews, which any reasonable author expects and will learn from. I’m talking about the nasty stuff. But I think it was Dalton’s article — read some years ago for the first time — that made me want to pursue the subject.

I do some reviewing myself, right here, but I also write reviews for Publishers Weekly. Anonymous reviews, because that’s the way they do it. I’ve been writing PW reviews for about a year now, two or three a month. I started because I wanted to understand the process from the other side and then I found I started looking forward to what might show up next for me to read. I have never been sent a book by anyone I know personally, or by any author I strongly dislike. I’ve seen a few big names, but more usually novels of authors who are just starting out. Here’s something that may surprise you: even if I wanted to get up to anonymous mischief, I couldn’t. The editors do their job. They make sure that the PW style is maintained and word count is observed. They’ve got procedures in place to make sure I read the book I’m reviewing. Most of all, they stand there ready to step on any excess of negativity. Sometimes I think they are too quick with that, but hey, I’m only the reviewer and let me assure you: I’m not doing this for the money, which is negligible. I do it for the perspective. Last year I asked the editor where he had been when PW’s review of my (I think it was) Lake in the Clouds came out with the never -to-be forgot line color by number cartoon caricatures. “Before my time,” he wrote back. I like the two editors, both male, even when I don’t agree with their decisions about my copy. Because my name isn’t on it, I can live with the changes. Usually.

From this angle, it seems to me that it’s sensible to distinguish between anonymous reviews that are vetted by editors, and those that aren’t. Kirkus and PW might get it wrong; off track, mean spirited, even petty. But the anonymity is only one layer deep. There is always an editor there in front of the anonymous reviewer, and a publisher in front of the editor. There are responsible parties.

There is no depth to an anonymous weblog, no responsible parties at any level. For a certain amount of money, you can cloak your personal information so that even the ownership of the web address remains hidden. And then there are different kinds and degrees of anonymity. I’ve only ever found one list, from back in 2003 (via Joho):

  • Hiding all biographical facts but using your real name (= shy blogger or professional journalist blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts using your real name (= liar blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= fictional blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= informant blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using a false name (= witness-protection blogger)
  • Hiring someone to boast about your life and sign it using your name (= CEO blogger)

Sometimes the reason for anonymity is clear and compelling. You don’t want to get fired, or make your spouse unhappy, for example. GetUpGrrl was one of my favorite weblogs of all time, smart and funny and important, too. Grrl documented her history with infertility treatment, right up to the point where her son was born to a surrogate. She remained anonymous, and in that case I don’t think anyone even thought of trying to out her, because she had the respect, admiration and good wishes of her readers.

But in many cases there seems no reasonable argument for anonymity. Lorelle the WordPress goddess has written at length about this:

You can stay anonymous by not clearly identifying exactly who you are, but help us to understand at least where you are coming from and why we should 1) care, 2) trust, and 3) read. If you are pontificating about the rain in Spain or number of terrorists inside of the United States, I will want to know how you know this and whether or not to take you seriously.

There are also compelling arguments against anonymous blogging at The Aardvark Speaks, and the more in-your-face position of The Gothamist:

Gothamist does not approve of anonymous blogging: We believe all bloggers should stand behind their posts with their real names. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be blogging.

But anonymous weblogs won’t go away. The Supreme Court has made it clear any number of times: anonymous speech falls under the First Amendment rights, and is protected. ((More detail on the legalities at The Electronic Frontier.)) So there’s no question of legality, unless the anonymous blogger causes real harm to someone else.

There are quite a few anonymous weblogs that focus on some aspect of reading or publishing fiction. Miss Snark — a literary agent — wrote a sharply entertaining weblog, where she was clearly trying to be helpful to people trying to get published — but the masses wanted to know who she was, and eventually she was identified as Janet Reid. At which point she stopped blogging, much to the dismay of her many readers.

I have been thinking about anonymous reviews for a long time (obviously, given my PW gig), and trying to sort out for myself whether they do what they set out to do. Which is? I hear you asking, quite rightly. And no, I’m not going to get into the sticky territory of defining the review in all its forms and approaches. But I can ask a different question instead:

Why anonymous review blogs? I can think of reasons that someone might want to be anonymous, but none of them are encouraging. Someone who has not been able to get their own books published, and has an axe to grind with the industry (and published authors); a person with conflicts of interest (such as the husband of the poet, at Foetry) ((I’ll tell this story in another post; a cautionary tale when it comes to anonymity)); a person who wants to be published someday and therefore couldn’t afford to offend people openly; somebody with strong opinions who likes to stir up controversy, but not be held responsible for it.

Are there any compelling arguments for this practice? I can’t think of one, but maybe you can.

yiiiipppppeee: the Booklist Review

The Booklist review of Tied to the Tracks is in, and as my agent put it: couldn’t be better. I’m relieved and thrilled. The Kirkus review is also in. My agent on this one: For Kirkus, damn good. With the usual snark.

She read both of them to me on the phone, but I don’t have copies or I would post them now.

Edited to add:

here’s the Booklist review:

Tied to the Tracks.
Lippi, Rosina (author).
June 2006. 304p. Putnam, hardcover, $23.95 (0-399-15349-7).
REVIEW. First published May 1, 2006 (Booklist).

Writing under the name Sara Donati, Lippi has authored the acclaimed Wilderness historical fiction series. With her newest novel, however, she turns her buoyant creative talents to the romantic comedy genre with an effervescent tale of a trio of offbeat Yankee filmmakers plunked down deep in the heart of Dixie to produce a controversial documentary about Miss Zula Bragg, literary doyenne of Georgia’s Ogilvie College. While on campus, partners Angie Mangiamele, Rivera Rosenblum, and Tony Russo must work under the auspices of the English department, chaired by Ogilvie’s fair-haired favorite son, John Grant, whose upcoming wedding to the town’s equally fair-haired favorite daughter, Caroline Rose, may be derailed once news of John and Angie’s previous love affair gets out. As the former lovers tap-dance around their still obvious mutual attraction, their friends choose up sides to ensure the wedding either does, or does not, take place. Lippi handles the prenuptial disruption and a dazzling array of hot-button social issues (racism and homosexuality among them) with cool aplomb.
— Carol Haggas