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.

Faulkner, pajamas, progress

I’m reading at Village Books here in Bellingham tomorrow night. Last week I sent out my usual email to friends asking them to try to stop by, and announcing my intention to wear pajamas to the reading. Thus far I have got promises from seven other people who will be showing up in jammies. So if you’re within striking distance, come on down. Treats for all those brave enough to dress up. Or, actually, down.

Yesterday our neighbor Bob (of X-Files fame) called me to read me an excerpt from an interview with William Faulkner. It’s the famous 1956 interview Faulkner did for the Paris Review. ((You can see the full archive listing on the Paris Review website, here but there’s only an excerpt from Faulkner’s.))

This was the bit that made Bob call me:

Q: Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?
Faulkner: Ninety-nine percent talent … Ninety-nine percent discipline … Ninety-nine percent work ….

And then this really made him laugh:

Q: Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?
Faulkner: …If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

[asa left]0312361750[/asa] They are publishing all the Paris Review author interviews, which are interesting reading. With a proviso: remember that these are critically successful writers, but each one of them struggled his or her way through every sentence ever put down. They had an approach that worked for them, and that’s all they can share. Though it may sound as if you’re being told how it must be done, please remember: there is no such thing. No absolutes, no secrets, no magic formulas. And probably not a good idea to rob your mother, either.

And all of this reminds me that I put in a revolving quote box in the far right hand column. I’ll be adding the 99% one of Faulkner’s to it asap.

I’m writing pretty well, and now I’ll go back to that.

PS don’t forget to vote in the caption-me poll!

shifting strategies

Someplace or another I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez, the master of modern day magical realism. In that interview he talked about his writing process, and the thing that jumped out at me: sometimes it takes him weeks to get the first paragraph right, but after that, the story moves.

I think probably a lot of authors have this kind of mental process on one level or another. In my own case, I think of it as the subconscious traffic cop holding up one of those stop signs until I’ve got that one paragraph or sentence down in a way that suits the story as it is developing behind the scenes. If you push ahead through the stop sign, you are bound for trouble.

In my experience it can be the worst feeling, being so close to getting it right… but not quite close enough. Every time you look up from the screen, there’s the cop waving that sign in your face. I have lost many hours of sleep over the years arguing with my subconscious traffic cop. I have gone into light hypnotic trances in places where I should have been paying attention, trying to grasp a sentence by the tail.

A few years ago I broke the established pattern. I’m not really sure how it happened. I had been agonizing over a scene that I just couldn’t do without. I’d start and rewrite and restart and rewrite, change pov, change settings, and pretty much stand on my head but it just would not work. My muse, that insufferable bitch, was having a grand old time making me writhe, and using the opportunity to flirt outrageously with the traffic cop.. And then the most outlandish, most revolutionary idea came into my conscious mind. Without allowing myself to really think about it, I wrote these words on the page:

[market scene here]

And I moved on. Later, a few days if I remember correctly, I went back and tried again without any luck. So I just left it. Then one day out of nowhere, the solution came to me and I wrote the damn scene in about an hour flat.

Where was the traffic cop, I asked myself. The one who had held me up so many times for so long, in league with my muse, the sadistic bitch. Was he just… gone? And why am I so sure he’s a he? What’s a male traffic cop doing in the employ of my subconscious? Dad, is that you?

Never mind, I told myself. Let’s just pretend for the moment that the cop and the stop sign are both gone, and you will never again be blocked by that one sentence or paragraph or scene. From now on you’ll just put the pesky thing in brackets and move on. For example: [civil war here] or [destruction of the solar system here] or [the meaning of life here].

But of course the cop wasn’t gone for good. He’s there, but he’s not quite so ruthlessly by-the-rules as he once was. Once in a while I can pull out the brackets without his whistle rattling my eardrums. As I did just yesterday. This time it was:

[what she notices about the birds in the woods beyond the strawberry fields on this early spring evening]

The traffic cop grumbled a little, and then settled down. So maybe he’s getting more mellow as he gets older. Which is odd, because I most certainly am not.

cecilia 33

Way back in October Cecilia 33 left a comment with a question:

I am a Language Arts teacher. I like to tell my students when they write they need to always ask themselves,”Do I need this information in my story?” For students of all ages it is hard to take things out, to edit. I think I will try your exercise of stripping the words from sentences that are not needed and then slowly add some words back. I think it will make the writing tighter and more directed.

Did you ever notice that some writers use the same descriptive words and phrases over and over? Young writers, (school age) do that as well. How do you find descriptive words to move the story along, but do not become overused?

I think most authors are aware of this tendency. I myself obsess about over-using expressions or words, and I’m hyper sensitive to it in other people’s work. To some degree I don’t think it’s avoidable, much like a nervous habit. If there is one author with a large body of work you’re very familiar with, you probably can name one or two personal quirks this way.

So there’s two problems: not to over-use or re-use the words that are deeply embedded in your psyche, and not to become so paranoid about doing so that you freeze up and can’t write at all.

Have you noticed quirks like this in one body of work? Here’s an example I think I’ve mentioned before. For a long time (maybe not anymore) if Stephen King had a pie to mention in a story, that pie had strawberries in it.  I know that in my case, the word oddly tends to show up a lot. I always do a search to root out the little buggers, and I’m always amazed, later, at how many I missed.

Got examples?