Iris Murdoch said, ‘A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.’
American young adult author Kathleen Hale may want to take heed of Murdoch’s wise words, or those of Stacia Kane (‘Authors, reviews are not for you!’), or any one of the many authors out there who warn their peers not to read bad reviews, and especially never to respond to them. It invariably does not end well: just ask Anne Rice.
But reading and responding to a bad review is exactly what Hale did – and then some. In an article for the Guardian titled ‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic – Hale details her spiralling obsession with Googling herself and tracking online responses to her debut young adult novel, No One Else Can Have You. This obsession culminated in what she terms the ‘light stalking’ of a Goodreads user who gave her book a 1-star rating and, according to Hale, unfairly denounced certain plot points. Hale paid for a background check to determine the blogger’s real name and home address, and then turned up unannounced on her doorstep.
Understandably, book bloggers and Goodreads users are angry over Hale’s piece, and especially angry that the Guardian offered her a prominent platform upon which to detail her illegal activities (which many would describe as harrassment).
Dear Author blogger Jane Litte does a credible job of dissecting Hale’s article – boiling it down to an author crossing boundaries (many of which are illegal) over an unfavourable status update relating to her book. Many have argued that Hale misrepresented her whole article by repeatedly using the term ‘catfishing’ to describe the reviewer’s behaviour. The reviewer, ‘Blythe’, did not set out to hide her identity from Hale specifically, nor did she do so for the purposes of establishing a relationship with her. Really, when Hale went to such lengths to track her down, is it any wonder why many online critics and reviewers use pseudonyms? Hale’s behaviour has also been criticised by influential book blogs including Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and popular Australian blog Bookthingo.
But as the dust settles on Hale’s article, a new wave of criticism is mounting. Accusations of nepotism highlight the very reasons so many readers are turning to individual book blogs and social networking bookshelves like Goodreads for reading recommendations, rather than more serious traditional literary journalism channels. Since her article came out, Twitter users have collectively uncovered many issues of partisanship which further tarnish Hale’s piece.
And if Kathleen Hale was frustrated by a reviewer’s constructed online persona, then it’s only fair that Hale, and the Guardian, be held accountable for withholding pertinent information in relation to her article.
The first issue is that Kathleen Hale is published by James Frey’s Full Fathom Five, a company which produces commercial YA novels – or, as Gawker described it, James Frey’s Young Adult Fiction Sweatshop. The Full Fathom Five ethos has long been a point of contention for book bloggers and the wider publishing community, particularly after a New York Magazine article detailed one author’s experience with the company, revealing the brutal contracts offered and the uncomfortable philosophies churning the ‘creative’ machine. The author explained: ‘He [Frey] encouraged me to start imagining product placement – “think Happy Meals” – because merchandise is where you make money in these deals.’
When this information emerged, many book bloggers became uncomfortable reading, yet alone promoting Full Fathom Five’s books, given their questionable treatment of aspiring authors. A user on Goodreads (the site Hale and many other authors take issue with) even created a comprehensive list of Full Fathom Five books, presumably to promote ethical reading habits via an informed boycott. Of more than 170 one-star reviews Hale’s book has received on Goodreads, some of them are probably “moralising” reviews, highlighting the reviewers’ anti-Full Fathom Five stance.
Further fallout from Hale’s Guardian article emerged amid concerns that her publisher had somehow helped her locate the book reviewer’s home address, or confirmed Hale’s independent research – an allegation the author vehemently denies. Twitter users became sceptical when it emerged that Kathleen Hale’s fiancée is Simon Rich – whose mother is an executive editor of HarperCollins (Hale’s publisher). Once this connection was established (in a New York Times article, ‘The Family Franchise’) it also cast aspersions on the vocal support for Hale and her article from Frank Rich – writer, executive producer of Veep, Simon Rich’s father and Hale’s soon-to-be father-in-law. People were also quick to criticise comedian John Mulaney for supporting Hale’s piece – it was revealed that Simon Rich used to write with Mulaney for Saturday Night Live. Simon Rich also features regularly in the Guardian.
None of these connections negate Hale’s story – the unreliable narration of the article itself does that just fine. If you want to talk uneasy alliances, Goodreads was purchased by Amazon in 2013. Users moralising over Full Fathom Five’s harsh author contracts and threatening to boycott their books should probably rethink their decision to engage with Goodreads, given its parent company’s standover tactics in negotiations with Hachette. But it is interesting to note that many readers feel they have been betrayed by the Guardian and by Hale’s supporters, particularly those who are YA authors, who failed to openly acknowledge their personal connections.
The tangible power Hale wields, evinced by her numerous connections and Guardian platform, enabled her continued harassment of her 1-star reviewer. The vocal support and defence put forward by Hale’s influential friends and family appears to be a case of privilege feeding narcissism. We can’t be certain of why the Guardian published Hale’s dubious piece in the first place, considering it is borne out of an evident imbalance of power, and contains questionable angles and elements of commercial clickbait.
In many ways, this debate harks back to a Wheeler Centre article from earlier this year, ‘No Baggage or False Freedoms?: On Anonymous Book Reviews’. The piece looked at anonymous reviews in arts publications like the Saturday Paper, rather than exploring the customer reviewers that are the basis of Goodreads, Amazon and independent book blogs, but there are clear parallels between the forms. Author and theatre critic Alison Croggon pointed out that by revealing their identities, reviewers make themselves as accountable as the authors they review. ‘It seems to me only fair that I should put myself out there, just as the artist has. It’s a question of good faith,’ said Croggon. At the same time, Australian literary culture is ‘somewhat insular and not particularly robust,’ according to writer, reviewer and publisher Andrew Nette. In such a close-knit arts community, where everybody knows everyone else, publications are beginning to use anonymous reviews as a marker of editorial integrity.
These issues of anonymity and accountability are further distilled in the fallout from Hale’s piece. The head books writer for Bustle, Caitlin White, has called for common sense on both sides of the Hale/Catfishing argument. Her appraisal is fairly objective, though she does take a lot of Hale’s accusations against her reviewer as truth. White suggests both the blogger’s and author’s actions were questionable However, her apparent objectivity is compromised by her glowing review of Hale’s book from earlier this year, and her declaration that she is on Team Hale (in a tweet she subsequently deleted).
Setting aside Hale’s dubious moralising, not to mention law-breaking (calling it ‘light stalking’ does not lessen the fact that she did indeed stalk a woman), her article contains valuable lessons about the rise of “citizen” book reviews, and the power and influence readers can exert.
Hale’s story may go some way to explaining the popularity of sites like Goodreads (which has 30 million members), highlighting some of the many reasons people turn to these sites for their recommended reading.
Goodreads aims to create a cosy online book hangout, stating, ‘you can find your next favorite book… and on this journey with your friends you can explore new territory, gather information, and expand your mind’. All this, while they use extensive data analytics to track users’ behavioural patterns – ‘our recommendation engine analyzes 20 billion data points to give suggestions tailored to your literary tastes.’
Goodreads’ review system is as fraught with problems as Amazon’s customer reviews have proven to be. Goodreads users (and I am one) would be the first to admit that it is a platform where online bullying and trolling can and do occur, and changes are desperately needed to eliminate these and make it a truly safe space for users. But it’s also a site built on promises (however double-edged) to foster community and provide a platform for users and their friends to swap reading recommendations. Goodreads may be driven by commercial imperatives, but a case like Hale’s, which is immersed in its own bias, explains why readers turn to citizen sites like Goodreads which they can believe are free of these same murky ethics.
Hale’s article could justifiably have investigated the various ways Goodreads fails to foster the positive community environment it publicises, many of which she alludes to. Author and blogger Foz Meadows touched on these issues back in 2012, including the pertinent fact that the ‘Goodreads rating system specifically allows users to post reviews and ratings for books that are not yet published, but which appear on the site’. Instead, Hale’s article airs her own petty narcissism as she publically admits to having crossed lines of privacy and human decency.
Frustrated authors in Hale’s situation would do well to take Neil Gaiman’s advice when it comes to bad reviews: ‘When you publish a book – when you make art – people are free to say what they want about it. You can’t tell people they liked a book they didn’t like, and there is, in the end, no arguing with personal taste. Different people like different things. Best to move on and make good art as best you can.’