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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to handle mean, baseless "reviews" -- Guest post

Last night the Twitterverse exploded around Kathleen Hale’s essay in The Guardian, Am I being catfished? An author confronts her number-one online critic. I’d read it a few days ago, thought it had a great ho-lee-shit quality about it, and scheduled a tweet for later in the week.

Little did I know.

If you haven’t seen it yet, a Goodreads user writing under the handle “Blythe” wrote a review of Hale’s book. Hale thought “Blythe” got it factually wrong, and took issue with the tone. “Blythe” harassed Hale via social media and did everything she could to bring down Hale’s ratings, including commenting on positive reviews of the book to say that reviewer had it wrong.

The We Hate Hale camp’s position is summed up nicely here.

And here’s a post on Bustle with a more nuanced view.

“Book bloggers,” which appears to mean anyone who has a blog and writes about books, or puts comments on other sites that write about books, are shocked—shocked!—that trashing people’s work on the internet as meanly as possible may well be free speech but is not in fact free from consequences.

The pearl-clutchers now terrified to post their opinions are laboring under the impression they are reviewers.

They’re not.

They’re hecklers.

This is not to say all comments must be positive. Or represent an in-depth engagement with the text leading to a thoughtful assessment of the positives and negatives and where within its particular canon the book should be placed (that would be a “review”). But little gems like

Fuck this.

are the moral equivalent of the guy yelling “you suck!” at a comedian. “Fuck this” doesn’t add anything to the dialogue. It’s not even a statement of opinion. It’s a deliberate, nasty jab intended to hurt the author personally and financially. And for those still heady with the power to depress sales and writers, it’s not as retribution-free as it looked.

As writers, we’re counseled not to engage with reviews. At all. Ever. And for thoughtful reviews—or even statements of opinion such as “Bad writing and it was a waste of time to read it”—that’s still the best policy. A genuine review by a qualified reviewer can, after the initial pain subsides, be tremendously helpful (it’s usually the first time we’ve heard from someone not already in our corner).

But for the assholes yelling “Fuck this”? Don’t engage as the writer with a reviewer. Squash them like a comic with a heckler.

 STEP ONE: The heckler must be loud enough to be heard by everyone else. 

If you can’t hear them clearly, nobody else can either, and putting down that heckler makes you look mean. For writers, this means don’t seek it out. If you can’t “hear” it, chances are most people outside that immediate community can’t either.

But if it’s coming across your social media, and other people have first identified it as mean, so it’s not just your tender sensibilities? Get on that shit.

STEP TWO: Only engage if you can win.

You’re not in this to be reasonable. You don’t want an apology, an acknowledgement, a recognition or to present your own case. You want to crush. Make them look like an idiot spewing meaningless vitriol.

Fuck this.

Mom, please stop using the Internet.

Craft your response like poetry. Cynical, funny, poetry. You know full well you’re poking an asshole with a stick, and isn’t that funny, gang, when we’re all in it together? The same jackasses who “Oooooooo” with the heckler will laugh at them—even louder, because you one-upped the guy who thought he was smart. The audience doesn’t actually give a shit about who’s “right,” and they aren’t smart enough to tell the difference anyway. (Individual audience members are plenty smart, but the pack is only as smart as the dumbest and most-easily-offended member.) They will side with whoever is the most entertaining, so be that person.

STEP THREE: Be prepared for even more fallout.

They might have more words in them. They might be smarter, or more obsessive than you. They might look you up online and trash you everywhere else they can.

Then again, you might get an essay out of it.

Yes, some parts of the Internet are elegant, intellectual salons. But most mass-review sites are little more than fanboys squeeing and high-school mean girls using authors as cannon-fodder. Every now and then someone says something worth hearing, if only by accident, but why wade through the pettiness to find it? Get a friend to scan for pull-quotes. Then go buy somebody else’s one-star book.


Allison K Williams is a freelance writer and editor based in Dubai. Her previous work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Brevity and the New York Times. She blogs at and edits at



  1. "But little gems like 'Fuck this.' are the moral equivalent of the guy yelling “you suck!” at a comedian."

    Only if you assume that the reviewer's comment was intended for the author. Since the author is not the intended audience of a review, I'm having a hard time accepting your premise here.

  2. Well, did the comedian suck?

  3. >>“Book bloggers,” which appears to mean anyone who has a blog and writes about books, or puts comments on other sites that write about books, are shocked—shocked!—that trashing people’s work on the internet as meanly as possible may well be free speech but is not in fact free from consequences.<<

    So you think the consequences someone should face is being stalked?

    Actually, the consequences to free speech (like writing reviews or blog posts) is that someone else writes something that disagrees with you.

    For instance, I think your use of the term "The We Hate Hale" camp is irresponsible and wrong and that Jim Hines' articles was the most articulate and well-researched one I've seen. But the consequences of your writing that, no matter how incensed it makes me (it doesn't make me incensed) should not be that I track you down.

    Stalking is wrong, no matter how angry or justified one feels they are. Stalkers always find a reason why they should do what they do and no matter than Hale says she shouldn't have done it, the tone of her article does not agree with the words.

  4. This piece concerns me on a few levels.

    1) The reviewer goes beyond her initial fuck you review and goes into more thorough criticism in the thread.

    2) While the reviewer's twitter behavior (the copying/mocking) was immature and not very nice, the author's behavior as admitted in that Guardian article was completely inappropriate.

    3) Trying to pound away your haters is absolutely horrific brand-building, and stinks of PR disaster to me. You may think you're being smart and awesome, but I doubt the rest of the Internet will agree. Authors have a brand image to build and protect, and trying to stomp your haters is a recipe for disaster.

    What about positive measures like reaching out to bloggers, critics and influencers that like your work? Devote extra time engaging with them. Offer freebies to them to actively promote your work--signed copies or record a passage of you reading their favorite section for them to share. Offer a giveaway of a free short story. Find ways they can help lift your image. Ask them if they wouldn't mind leaving a goodreads review if they haven't already. Don't astroturf by getting all your friends to go in and leave 4-star reviews, but get the people that genuinely liked your book to speak up. Ask them not to respond personally to bad reviewers, but perhaps address some points in their own review in a general way, "Some have said this, but I have this take on it..."

  5. "most mass-review sites are little more than fanboys squeeing and high-school mean girls"

    You edit at Your advertising shtick is your unkindness? Presumably, writers pay you to be "mean" about their works in progress. Yet readers who are the intended audience of books aren't allowed to express their views on the end product? Aren't allowed to tell other readers, the intended audience and potential buyers of books, what they think is wrong with a book? Criticism by readers is "mean" and "baseless"? You've got a lot of nerve.

    Incidentally, way to deflect attention from the potentially actionable behavior of an aggrieved author by focusing on "mean girls" who express opinions. Good job.



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