the reviewer’s universe

Kerfuffle, Unlimited: Dear Author in Distress

I’m the first to admit that I’m out of the loop. I try not to spend a lot of time wandering in the ether; as a procrastination method, it’s excellent. And most writers really don’t need any more ways to procrastinate.

Having said this, a couple of comments left here and on my Facebook page made me curious, so I went in search of the things mentioned. And that’s how I ran into the whole Dear Author v. Ellora’s Cave Kerfuffle. And it is a Kerfuffle with a big, big K.  I’m not going to go into all the details here (you can read about the whole mess here, here, here, or here) but to summarize:

1. Jane Litte of Dear Author wrote a post about Ellora’s Cave, a publishing house, summarizing everything she had learned about their less than ideal business practices and financial dealings. She was specific and detailed in some of her criticism.

2. Ellora’s Cave is suing Jane Litte and Dear Author. The lawsuit began in September 2014 and is still gaining steam.  Initial reactions were very supportive of Jane’s position. Smart Bitches Trashy Books wrote about Jane’s situation and organized a legal fund. 

for reads by readers3. In the course of discovery — where lawyers spend time researching the facts — the fact that Jane Litte is not only the primary mover behind Dear Author (with the phrase “for readers, by readers” placed prominently) and its approach to reviewing romance novels, she also has published romance novels under a pen name, something she didn’t reveal to her Dear Author readership until that fact became public by means of her deposition.[1. In fact, Jane Litte is also a pen name. In the legal proceedings publicly available on this case, she is identified as Jennifer Gerrish-Lampe . The purpose of this double-layer of anonymity is unclear to me.]

4. Jane Litte has written at great length and in detail about her decision to remain anonymous as a novelist. She remains convinced that it was the right decision, but openly acknowledges that some people will take exception.

5. A good number of people have taken exception, and loudly. Initial unconditional support for her plight became conditional in many quarters. Individual reasons for unhappiness about Litte’s non-disclosure are complicated. 

So that’s it in a nutshell. Now, after thinking about all this for a couple days, I’d like to make a couple observations.

Litte’s position is that EC sued her in an effort to intimidate her, and curtail criticism. I agree with her that it’s important to defend the right to free expression and I hope that the court case would sort all that out in her favor. The issue of her writing novels anonymously while running a review site is a different matter.

Dear Author and Smart Bitches have both mentioned authors who responded with glee to the news that Litte was being sued.  Both have been disdainful of the persons who have been openly gleeful. 

This is where I need to point out something that has bothered me for a long time. I touched on it a few days ago in a post about negative reviews, but here it is more succinctly:  Websites and website authors who provide reviews for any reading community have rights under the first amendment to the constitution that should be protected. But those same websites move beyond expressing opinions by fostering a toxic tone and atmosphere.  I believe that some of the gleeful reaction to Litte’s situation has to do with that tone.

Litte spent ten years putting together a popular, well structured weblog about romance writers and novels. The set up was provocative, in that the reviewer was writing directly to the author. In a very short time Litte established herself as an arbiter of author behavior, and she did it vocally and with what struck me as glee.  Her readers did not challenge the way she assumed authority; they supported her in it.  One aspect of this was her habit of identifying authors whose behavior she didn’t approve of, and putting them on a public list called Authors Behaving Badly. 

Full disclosure: None of my novels have been reviewed at Dear Author, so I am not resentful about a bad grade (but I do think the grading approach is questionable); on the other hand, Litte did put me on that list in 2006 for defending a specific weblog review which was very critical of another author’s novel.  I had no right to express this opinion, as she saw it. 

Authors are always warned not to respond to negative reviews. Litte’s Authors Behaving Badly is a kind of meta review not of the author’s work, but of the author his or herself.  It was really impossible to respond to Litte’s relegation of me to her list without making the whole thing worse. And of course, she knew that. She knew that simply by putting an author on that list, she was suppressing response. 

The problem is far bigger than the Author Behaving Badly list. I wrote last week about the Cassie Edwards debacle that was started and promoted primary by Smart Bitches and Dear Author.  The issue was not outing Edwards’s poor and unethical choices, which was in fact a public service. The issue was the tone. Authors and commenters seemed intent not just on exposing plagiarism, but also on shaming the author. The tone went from critical to cruel. My position is that the whole discussion should have remained neutral in tone, but of course, it wasn’t my call. I sat back and watched it all happen, the proverbial car crash.

Stop the Goodreads Bullies is a weblog run by anonymous readers, dedicated to identifying and stopping systematic bullying of authors on the internet, at Goodreads in particular.  They have written a lot about Jane Litte, documenting some cases of her behavior which are questionable at best. 

Litte has voiced very strong opinions on what’s right and wrong for authors, but didn’t stop to mention that she is herself an author; further, as an author she has done things that she has criticized about other authors.

When all of this is taken into account, the idea that there are authors out there who are gleeful about Litte’s being sued is less of a mystery. 



JT’s comment regarding the Jane Litte non-disclosure summarizes my own take very closely. I reproduce it here:

Deljah wrote: “However, not many people have positioned themselves as and created a reputation as an industry watchdog, a champion of disclosure, and foremost reader advocate who carefully examines and sounds an alarm about ethical issues and integrity. Not many people have vigorously put forward standards in such a public way, year after year, while at the same time violating those same standards in the name of self-interest. Jane’s/Jen’s behavior reflects staggering hypocrisy, and the fact that the disclosure was forced just adds to it. It should not be swept under the rug.”

This. 100%, this. Jane has yet to acknowledge her hypocrisy. I do not expect her to. Like I commented on the Smart Bitches blog, I’ve found that hypocrites rarely own up to their hypocrisy. Jane set herself up as a community watchdog, going after anyone she felt was acting in a way she deemed Behaving Badly. She demanded transparency from others while concealing herself as an author on private groups. It’s Jane’s right to justify her actions, to try to make it seem less than sneaky by saying the groups had hundreds and hundreds of members and by excusing her bad choices away with whatever reasons she decides to give…even though she rarely gave anyone else that same respect if someone was in her crossfire. The truth remains, though, Jane demanded a certain standard from others all the while acting in a way that is less than that standard herself. Jane would have pounced on anyone she caught catfishing. Yet there she was, doing exactly that to authors who had no idea they were interacting with Jane Litte. No amount of self-publishing information Jane shared as Jen Frederick on those groups can erase the way she lied by omission to authors who, Jane must know, might not have welcomed her as Jane Litte.

Sarah (SB) wrote: But no one is just one thing. We are all complex humans who are making decisions based on what we know and think is best at the time.

My reply to that was: You and Jane reduced countless authors/editors/publishers to ‘one thing’. You and Jane gleefully crucified ‘complex humans’ who might have made decisions based on what they knew or thought was best at the time.

It would be refreshing to have Jane apologize for reducing others to ‘just one thing’ if she felt they acted badly, and to have her treat people respectfully and with a bit more care now that she’s acted in a way that, by her own standards, is an Author Behaving Badly.

edited to correct typos

Reviews: the good, the bad, the shaming

shame has a piece today at Women Writers, Women’s Books which has me thinking hard. “Leave E.L. James Alone, Already” is a heart-felt appeal to writers not to join in when their colleagues are getting bashed. 

The essay was born when she came across the #AskELJames thread on Twitter just recently. The thread became the subject of wider debate when a group of people with a complaint in common began to ask James pointed questions. From USA Today, this summary:

Shortly after the Q&A started on Monday afternoon, the #AskELJames hashtag was overtaken by Christian Grey haters who accused the author of being homophobic and misogynistic and romanticizing stalking and abuse. Others took issue with her actual writing, asking things like, “Which do you hate more, women or the English language?” 

In response to this, Amy suggested that it’s never okay to voice a negative opinion about another writer’s work. She only posts a review if she can give it four or five stars:

Because books are art. And art is subjective. And art lays a soul bare. And who the heck wants to be responsible for stepping all over someone’s soul?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

She suggests that we leave reviews to reviewers and keep writing. Her bottom line:

Don’t lie. Don’t be insincere. If you don’t like a book – especially from a fellow woman author – who would blame you for politely excusing yourself from the conversation?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

Amy has a point, of course. But it seems to me she’s conflating a lot of very different issues. 

Reviews come in all formats. Sometimes writers are asked to review books, sometimes they review books on their own websites or on sites like Goodreads.  Reviews can be well done, or poorly done. More importantly: a positive review can be badly done, and a negative review can be well done.  Here’s an example of a poorly done positive review: Great book! I loved it!!!

I would not call the E.J. James twitter thread a review. A thread that devolves into an exercise in bashing is an attack. It’s a bully-bullshit session. It’s an unworthy exercise, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.

There are a lot of bullies hanging around in the ether, and sometimes they join forces and form bands when they have a particular enemy in mind. The enemy can be a single individual, as was the  case with the E.L. James twitter thread, or it can be a whole class of people.  This happens in all kinds of fandoms. My daughter follows dance competitions and discussion online, and she has read me some truly disturbing bully-band attacks focused on one person who voiced a less-than-reverential comment about a performance by their favorite dancer. Personal attacks on an individual because that individual voiced a dissenting opinion. 

It’s a phenomenon that somebody somewhere must be studying. At least, I hope someone is looking at it, because I see it as an example of the worst of human group behavior. But let’s be clear: everybody does it. Writers bash other writers, and on occasion, readers gang up on writers. Sometimes for good reason.

The best example I know of is the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author.  Wikipedia has the best summary of the situation I’ve come across, so I’m going to quote it here, with their links and footnotes intact:

On 7 January 2008, the romance-novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books[4] accused Edwards of widespread plagiarism after finding multiple passages in her novels that appeared to be directly taken from various works by other authors, including novels, poems, reference books, and websites about Native American history and culture.[1] Many of the passages came from old references, many without copyright or with expired copyright protection.[4][5] One of Edwards’ publishers, Signet, initially defended the passages in question as fair use rather than copyright infringement.[1]

Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, joined the outcry.[6] Two days later, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards’ books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred,[7] and, in April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books “due to irreconcilable editorial differences.”[8] In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not “lift passages”.[7]

On the surface I see nothing wrong with the fact that a group of readers discovered something unethical, and that they made those discoveries public. The author had no one to blame for the fallout but her own poor choices. At the same time, there was a gleeful tone in a lot of the discussion that made me uncomfortable.  For example, a comment made on a Smart Bitches post in 2008: 

So, let me get this straight: you were actually able to read an entire Cassie Edwards book while doing this research? You should apply to work on Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel Program “Dirty Jobs.”

A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.

Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader. I don’t write negative reviews very often, and I can remember only one instance when I was so infuriated by a novel that my tone bordered on outrage. But I will continue to write such reviews, now and then when I see a flaw in a book that strikes me as something worth talking about.  A constructive discussion is a learning exercise for everybody.

image: © altanaka – found on an article well worth reading: Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink


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.


Sock Puppets Infest Amazon Reviews

In my last post a mentioned my lack of confidence in Amazon reviews, and in the comments Rebecca asked about that. It made me realize that people inside of publishing pay more attention to this kind of thing than people outside, so here I am, writing about it.

attack of the sock puppets

I stopped writing Amazon reviews maybe six years ago. There were a couple of simple and practical reasons for this, but there was also the sense that things were not always what they seemed. So for example:

1. After a glitch in their computer software, Amazon/Canada’s reviews suddenly no longer showed screen names, but the review writer’s real name.  A couple of authors were thereby exposed: they were writing glowing reviews of their own work, and not-so-glowing reviews of other people’s work.

2. There have been various expose-type investigations into fake or false reviews, in which author’s friends and family organize good-review campaigns.The Cincinnati Beacon has a story about multiple reviews of a novel that can be traced back to the author’s staff. The New York Times did an indepth story about sock puppet reviews:

[so] writers have naturally been vying to get more, and better, notices. Several mystery writers, including R. J. Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke, have recently confessed to various forms of manipulation under the general category of “sock puppets,” or online identities used to deceive.  [emphasis added]

3. In 2012 a research group estimated that by 2014, 30 percent of all  reviews would be fake — paid for by advertising entities:

With over half of the Internet’s population on social networks, organizations are scrambling for new ways to build bigger follower bases, generate more hits on videos, garner more positive reviews than their competitors and solicit ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages … Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews […] in order to pique site visitors’ interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns. [emphasis added]

A whole new industry has sprouted up around the problem of fake reviews, with different research groups trying out various ways to put an end to it:

“People have been very naive and trusting initially, and then they get taken” by deceptive reviews and imposters, says John Clippinger, an MIT Media Lab research scientist and executive director of ID Cubed. “So now you’re seeing the development of services that are vetted so that [reviewers’] reputations actually mean something.”

3. This trend extends to organized groups of people who try to bring a book down by bombarding it with negative reviews — even if they haven’t read it — because it makes claims which they find off-putting. One example:  a biography of Michael Jackson.

Another example on the Goodreads discussion forum.

There are author herds (sometimes referred to as ‘fan poodles’) who can be made to stampede specifically to trample anyone they believe has wronged their author of choice.  One particularly messy war-of-the-fans took place on Goodreads last year (a full breakdown of the mess can be found in an article on Salon).

We all know about freedom of speech, the right to express an opinion. Unfortunately, that concept seems to have been banned from some corners of the internet. Sometimes even a innocuous comment will trigger an Attack of the Fandom. HelenKay Dimon experienced a vicious fandom attack on the basis of a review she quoted — did not write, mind you, but quoted — which incited the wrath of Diana Gabaldon readers.

4. It’s not great when vigilante fans ride out to punish the competition (or naysayers) but it’s far worse when authors themselves get involved, trying to recruit fan herds to join them in the attack on negative reviews. As in this case, where some of the battle happened on Amazon, in the reviews of a particular book. One excerpt:

The first few comments surprised me – I didn’t think about my review being seen but I had forgotten about Emily pointing people to the one starred reviews, which would mean that mine would come up.  Crap.  I then went and looked at the comments on the other low starred reviews and saw that already her fandom was attacking.  I girded my loins and prepared for it to get ugly but initially, the support was mostly positive.  Then someone must have alerted Emily to the post as I was shocked to see my review pop up in my Facebook feed being blasted by Emily.

So in the end, I see little reason to trust Amazon reviews. I hope they manage to rethink and revamp at some point, but they don’t seem to be very worried about it all.