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.

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

  1. I think the “nasty stuff”, as you put it, is the real problem with any review. I’ve seen plenty of it as I’ve read around the ‘net. And, honestly, whenever I see a review (anon or not, professional or not) which seems to be too personal or vindictive, I quit reading because, once that happens, the review is worthless. It becomes not about the book (or movie or whatever) but about something else entirely. To be honest, I am much more likely to read a book because a “regular joe” said it was a good than if a professional reviewer said it was. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t read Publisher’s Weekly but I do read reviews in the mass-market type magazines and I can’t even tell you the last time I was moved to read one of the books which was reviewed.

    As for anonymous blogging. I have both a forum and blog and my real name is out there for the world to see. But I have no axe to grind and the way I look at it is that it’s “pre-publicity” for when and if I get published — so I don’t want to be anonymous. However, I do think there are good reasons for anonymity. Your example of the woman going through infertility treatments is a great one. It’s a way for her to share some very personal information without feeling like everyone she runs into knows her secrets.

    I also think what you said about all the reasons some folks choose to remain anonymous are true as well. I don’t personally agree with them — seems to me if you have something to say, you ought to be willing to “sign the document”, so to speak. Of course, in reality, who knows for sure who anybody is on the internet. I have people from all over the world who visit my forum but they wouldn’t know me if they saw me on the street (nor I them). So, in a way, unless we are famous for some other reason, we are all anonymous to a certain extent.

    Anyway, back to book reviewers. I’m a little on the fence about authors reviewing other authors. It’s not that I don’t think it can’t be done well but I’ve seen reviews which just end up sounding, well, snarky, and sometimes that reeks of professional jealousy or dislike on a personal level. And that makes me cringe. I guess I just feel, if someone has reached a level of success, that’s not the time to knock somebody else. Does that make sense? Of course, if it’s an anonymous review, then who’s going to know?

    If I’ve actually answered anything you asked, Rosina, it will be a miracle.

  2. I don’t think there are any answers, per say. Just differing positions and opinions. As far as authors reviewing other authors, one way to look at it is, who understands better what went into the creation of that book? Who understands the mechanics better? Author reviews of authors can be helpful, illustrative, thoughtful, but really to have any heft (in my opinion) they can’t be anonymous.

  3. I fit into the informant blogger, though I would have guessed the witness-protection. I’ve dealt with too many security issues and so remain fairly illusive. Thus, I don’t mind people using an alias like I do. Still, I think people should be honest. But the dishonesty of spewing on the net goes along with speeding unless a police car is visable, receiving cash instead of check so the IRS doesn’t know, etc.

    My sympathies towards the bad stuff going on for you. I also have way too much bad stuff, but, well, I don’t say specifics on the net, even in emails.

  4. I may be totally different from others on this but, when I read a review of a book, I’m just trying to figure out if the subject matter will interest me and whether it’s a good read. The mechanics and creation don’t really matter to me (at this point). My interest in those comes later — after I’ve read the book and want to know more about the author and how she/he writes. Which is why I tend to end up on an author’s website if I enjoyed their work. And it’s what keeps me coming back (here) because so many authors don’t discuss the mechanics and creation process, which for me is very interesting — but only coming from the author, not from the reviewer (again, I ask, am I making any sense?!!).

    Now, I think I understand what you are saying — an author’s review of another author may have some some insight that a non-author wouldn’t have, an ability to pull something from the book that a non-writer might miss. And that’s certainly not a bad thing.

    But, I think, in the end, I would like to know if the reviewer is also an author — even if they aren’t named.

  5. asdfg — I absolutely understand the need for anonymity in cases where there have been security problems. Also, you’re not out there reviewing books, so there’s no need for you to establish your credentials or clarify any conflicts of interest.

    Lynn — If an author reviews another author’s book in a public forum such as a weblog, in my opinion s/he is obligated to make any conflict of interest known. If the reviewer is anonymous, there’s no way to establish that. Which is why I find such reviews untrustworthy. There was a huge debacle a couple years ago when it looked as though a reviewer calling him/herself Angus Troll — who had glowing reviews of Diana Gabaldon’s work on Amazon — was exposed (or so it seemed) to be Diana herself. The uproar was tremendous, people insisting that couldn’t be the case, people asserting they knew it wasn’t the case, and then other people pointing to alleged evidence. If the no-anonymous-reviews policy had been in place on Amazon, none of this would have happened.

  6. How does Amazon know, though, who a “reviewer” really is, even when they have a name? I could write up a review on Amazon (and have) but they don’t know me from Adam. I could be anybody.

  7. Lynn Irwin Stewart »

    You have to log in at Amazon if you want to leave a review, and now they ask for credit card information in order to set up a basic account. There are two modes: using “real name” or a nickname — the nicknamed reviews are anonymous, but if there’s a pattern of flaming, Amazon knows who it is and they will take steps to correct the situation.

  8. I guess I’m signed up to use my “real” name because I’ve left “reviews” (well, I wouldn’t really call them that but I’ve made comments on books I’ve read) there and I haven’t been anonymous.

  9. Bravo, Bravo, Great job** to the continuous sound of clapping**** Encore, Encore.

    I know this has little to do with the topic at hand other then it could loosely be called a reveiw but I just got finished reading Pajama Girls and wanted to let you know how much i enjoyed it.

  10. I’ve come across very few anonymous reviews written in Australian publications. Even the two-sentence handwritten recommendations on the bookshelves at Dymocks are signed by the staff member who wrote them.

    I think that there may be a cultural aspect to the motivations of anonymous blogging (and to a lesser extent, reviewing). In Australia, we have no First Amendment. This isn’t to say that we don’t have freedom of speech here; we do. Is it a constitutional right? Nope, not really. Rather it’s sort-of ingrained in our social and political institutions – I say ‘sort of’ because the boundaries of that freedom are governed as much by contemporary social mores as they are by legislation. One of our longer-lasting social mores is the old ‘say it to his face’ mantra. Knock a man down, sure. Tall Poppy Syndrome is a facet of much of Australian society. But be fair about it, and let the bugger see the guy who’s putting the boot in.

  11. Rosina, it is so cool that every comment has a flag of the country the comment comes from. I just noticed that.

  12. i like the flag but if it’s to represent the persons country mine is wrong. is there something i have to do to fix it?

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