Amazon Kerfuffle: Sock Puppets Real or Imagined

Before this spins out of control, I’d like to get something on the record. 

I posted a question on Amazon’s Kindle Forum regarding an invitation I received for Amazon’s  Whispercast program. Whispercast allows a person to register a group of Kindle owners, and then send materials to their Kindles. You can imagine this would be useful for teachers.  Today I got an invitation to be included in a group by somebody I don’t know and whose name I didn’t recognize, and I was then surprised to see that there was no way to find out who had sent the invitation. 

So that’s the question I posted on the Amazon Kindle Forum. 

Let’s just say that I didn’t get a lot of help. In fact, the tone was confrontational pretty much right from the start. I responded in kind, when I should have just gone away and asked customer service my question.  What followed:

–Four or five people piled on. 

–I remarked on this phenomenon, and pointed out that I had heard about bully tactics on Amazon Forums. 

–One person came back with the observation that I reviewed my own novel. To this point:

This was a reference to a specific review that I put up when The Endless Forest first came out because I had had so many emails asking about changes in titles and the order of the books in the series. Here it is exactly as it appeared on the page:

5.0 out of 5 stars This is the final book in the series.
By RL Green on May 9, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am Rosina Lippi, aka Sara Donati, author of the Wilderness series. To clarify some points of general confusion: This is the sixth and last book in the Wilderness series. The whole series, in order: Into the Wilderness (Wilderness Saga 1), Dawn on a Distant Shore, Lake in the Clouds, Fire Along the Sky, Queen of Swords, and finally: The Endless Forest: A Novel. Thanks to all of you who have left comments and such generous words about the books.

At the time I wrote this so-called review, information about the series was not on the page for the novel and there was no way for me to provide it. I decided to post the missing information in the only way that was available to me at the time. Because I had to give a star rating, I gave it five stars. This is, of course, not allowed. But my reasoning was that as I  (1) identified myself as the author and was not trying to fool anybody about anything  (2) provided missing information and (3) did not actually review the novel, that it was not such a terrible sin. 
Until this person on the forum went to the trouble of finding the review and announcing that it existed, I had forgot about it.  I could have deleted at a later date once all the information was on the page, if I had remembered. As it is, it went up in 2009 and I deleted it today.  
This revelation about the non-review has thrown the Amazon Kindle Forum into a killing frenzy. They want my blood. They believe that I am a dishonorable person, and the world should know that. Here’s where it begins to spiral into the stratosphere, when J. Pence starts with accusations. My response follows. 
So I would like to repeat, for the record: any one who wants to examine the reviews of my novels on Amazon or anywhere else to see if I have been falsely inflating the ratings is very welcome to go ahead and do that.  J. Penrose may stay up all night looking for evidence of my perfidy. Everybody has to have a hobby, I suppose, but it seems pretty sad that some people  depend on the Amazon forums for entertainment and excitement.

In Which the Mathematician Fractures his hip

femoralneckYesterday evening the Mathematician was tooling around logging roads on Chuckanut Mountain, when his mountain bike hit a rock and dumped him, really, really hard, on his left hip.  In true Mathematician fashion, he walked home. Took him about forty minutes.

At the ER they said, wow, that’s a great hematoma. It will go away on its own, but let’s get a film, first.

Then they said, wow, broken hip. Didn’t see that coming. 

It’s the neck of the femur, to be exact. And he walked home on that. So sometime today he’s headed into surgery. I won’t be around much, but I’ll post when I can with updates.

The least interesting question about Edna Ferber

I generally avoid the Grammarly blog because … well, if you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you probably know that I have a PhD in linguistics and I find nothing helpful or amusing in endless debates about where to put commas, and titles like this one:  5 Verb Mistakes You Should Stop Making Today make me break out in hives. Academic linguists are not prescriptive. We study language as it exists.  

This is not to say that Grammarly is without merit. It created a lucrative niche by coming up with software that evaluates written language and “corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage and provides citation suggestions.” It is a for-profit subscription service with a lot of subscribers. But they also post about language and writing more generally, and that’s the subject here.

There’s a post dated yesterday with the title 5 Authors Who Died Old Maids.

I am disturbed by this post for a whole slew of reasons. “Old Maid” strikes me as demeaning, to start, but the bigger problem is the premise. 

There is no real way to know about the personal lives of most 19th century women writers unless they made a public statement — and even then, there’s lots of room for debate. (And let me pose a question: do we need to know or is this garden-variety nosiness about famous people?)

Five authors, none of whom married. Should we assume that they would have liked to marry? That they were unhappy about never marrying?  That’s a leap I’m not prepared to take, primarily because there are unstated options. Today or in the 19th century a woman might marry for a lot of reasons — economics, family pressures, love — and she might never marry for even more. Unrequited love, certainly. But it should be obvious that some women aren’t (and were not) interested in marriage in the traditional sense. 

There’s no clear evidence regarding Edna Ferber’s sexuality, but Louisa May Alcott was pretty open about her attraction to women. From the introduction to Little Women (Penguin Classic edition) “… Alcott later commented with pre-Freudian candor on her own feelings: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … Because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.'”  

The post author states:

…plenty of female writers chose to stay single their entire lives. For these women, marital status had no bearing on their creativity.  

I’m not sure how to read that. Does she mean “For these women, staying single had no bearing on their creativity” ? If so, is the underlying assumption that married women are more (or less) free to pursue creative impulse? 

The bottom line is, I need to stay away from Grammarly. But I had to point out for my own peace of mind that women writers in the 19th century were just as complicated as women are today. Whether or not they married is possibly the least interesting thing about them as individuals. 

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. 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.] 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.