It hasn’t been an impressive time for the author community in the last few days. Kathleen Hale got a full page article in the Guardian (trigger warning for stalking, general warning for repellent disingenuousness and dishonesty) which allowed her to massively extend her stalking campaign against a reviewer. Another author one-upped Hale by travelling the length of Britain to hit a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle, leaving her needing stitches and pressing charges. What next? The British government selling arms to writing groups on the sly?
This behaviour, coming on top of far too many incidents of online and other harassment, has led to a lot of angry pushback, including a number of blogs holding review blackouts to make the point that authors need reviewers. I see reviewers saying things like, “I’m going to stop reviewing, it’s not worth the stress,” or “I’m only going to read books from dead authors because at least they won’t come round my house.” (On the evidence of this week, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Some people will clearly resent that one star from beyond the grave.)
Of course, most authors aren’t like this. Most of us don’t respond aggressively to reviewers in words, let alone call them at work and turn up at their house and write malevolent articles in national newspapers about them and physically assault them. Most don’t, but because of the way fear and intimidation work, a number of reviewers are scared that the next time they one-star a book, the author will be one of those few who do. So the question going round reviewers is, very simply, how do I tell?
Various solutions have been mooted. The #AuthorYes hashtag has been used to name authors who have a track record of not being aggressively unpleasant at people. Suggestions have been put up of kitemarks or websites to identify ‘safe’ authors, and just as quickly shot down as impractical. Some authors have their review policy (‘I promise not to stalk you!’) stated on their website (as I do), but a lot of people have pointed out that that means nothing. It’s behaving well that counts, not claiming that you don’t behave badly. Words are empty.
And this is true, but I’d like to give a reason why a public review policy works for me.
My page says that I don’t read Goodreads or Amazon reviews and that I will never respond to them, either directly with abuse/stalking/wine bottles over the head (that bit’s implied), or with encouraging my fans to go after reviewers.
You may say: Yeah, whatever, you could be lying. And I could. This is the internet; people lie. I could be poring over every word posted about my books on Goodreads. I could be making obsessive lists of people who say mean things and drawing angry penises on them. I could not be a cat-owning freelance editor at all. Maybe I’m an international hitman who writes gay romance while I’m waiting to shoot controversial politicians, and the cat is a catfish. You’ll never know.
But the point isn’t whether I can make you believe I don’t hale out over reviews. (This is a new verb which I hope to see adopted.) The point is, my posted reviews policy keeps me on track.
I know reading Goodreads /Amazon reviews is a bad idea. I used to read them, and discovered what a bad idea it is first hand. I have done a flowchart on what a bad idea it is. But I’m still tempted because I’m a human. When I go to Amazon and see on the thumbnail that the number of reviews has jumped and the star rating has changed, my finger twitches over the mouse. But I have a posted review policy and if I click, I’m a liar.
And say I am a liar. Say I fall off the wagon and read my Goodreads reviews (declaration: this has happened) and there’s something really stupid and wrong there that any reasonable person would understand I just had to take issue with…
Well, I’m already a liar to myself by reading the review. But if I respond, I brand myself publically as a liar—as someone who has just done something she said she would not do. If I so much as subtweet a grumble about a bad review, someone will recognise it and know I’m a liar. If I link to it on my Facebook page with a hurt comment about ‘why are people so mean?’ in the hope that my fans will give the reviewer a hard time, I will be waving my hypocrisy and dishonesty like a banner. If I leave a snide or angry comment on a review, I will deserve extra condemnation because I said I wouldn’t do that. I’ve given myself a Toxx clause, to make myself stay the hell away.
This is not to say that reading reviews is a bad act. Read them by all means if they don’t act like Dr Jekyll’s potion, turning you into Author Hyde. But obsessing over reviews is where all this appalling absurdity seems to start.
So I have a public stated review policy, not because I expect anyone to take my word for it, but because it raises the stakes for me when I’m tempted to read reviews, let alone respond. It’s the reminder of your weight stuck to the fridge door, the green sash of the Victorian teetotaller, the Note To Self that says: Right now I am thinking clearly how I should behave, and I am taking this opportunity to control the behaviour of my future self, who may be less reasonable.
Obviously I hope that I’d never behave like Hale even if I read every word of every one-star review. Frankly, I’d hope that nobody would. But even normally reasonable people can get obsessed if they feel they’ve been wronged (eg by someone giving their masterpiece a mere three stars on Goodreads), and the internet fosters obsession. We all know how quickly upset can turn to anger and retaliation, how fast responses can escalate, how very easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole.
I’ve nailed my review policy across the mouth of the rabbit hole. To reassure reviewers, sure, but primarily to keep myself out.