Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jealousy – the easy answer

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Last week, I wrote a post about personal attack reviews against authors.  The post got some wide attention and as a result I was interviewed on the subject by The Guardian as part of an article they did about a petition currently circulating which asks Amazon to disallow anonymous reviews and comments on the site’s forums.   My interview was not on the petition – which I was in not familiar with– but on attack reviews in general and my experience with them.  During the course of the interview, I was asked if the attack reviews were caused by “an odd sort of jealousy”.  I think the reviewer expected me to say yes.  My answer was no.

When the topic of negativity or personal attacks comes up in discussion, I often hear people automatically say, “Oh they’re just jealous.”  It’s possible this is the case some of the time, but I would argue that ascribing all negative behavior to jealousy diminishes the conversation and negates the possibility of coming up with constructive solutions. 

To be honest, until the question was posed to me in such a direct way, I’m not sure I had truly thought deeply about the answer. Reviews that personally attack the author instead of criticizing the work are wrong.  Plain and simple.  There is no excuse for a review of the work that calls the authors names or threatens physical harm.  But do the people who write those reviews know they are wrong?  They should – or most of them should – but do they really?

My knee-jerk reaction to that question is YES!  Hell yes!  They know.  Or at least most of them should know.

And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that answer is flawed.  In fact, I believe that most of the people who post personal attack reviews believe they are not only acceptable, but that those reviews are rewarded.  And for that, we are all to blame.

Let me explain. 

When I was in my final college years, the Internet was just beginning.  (Yes, this sounds like the age of mammoths and saber tooth tigers, but in actuality was the 90s.  Go figure!) But it wasn’t until after ringing in the 21st century that the Internet became the social hub that it is now.  Blogs, social media and websites suddenly became a new an exciting tool for marketing.  Because of this, publishers and authors leapt onto the bandwagon of all things Internet to get the word out about their books.  And those with blogs and websites and social media outlets that got the most hits, retweets and likes were considered successful in spreading news about books.  That success was rewarded with…stuff.  Books!  Advanced reader copies!  Swag!  Party invitations at BEA, ALA or other conferences.  The more hits you get, the more the rewards. 

Score!  Right?  Okay, maybe not. 

But think about it.  What draws the most hits to a blog or gets the most retweets or shares?  (And I’m not talking about cat photos here.  Those are in a category all their own.)  What gets you clicking on a link that someone shares?  Do you click on the thoughtful article or the one that promises controversy?  In my experience, sensational headlines and a promise of snark gets people clicking every time. 

Because the old traditional marketing methods were so expensive, publishers both self and traditional embraced the growth of the Internet as a marketing tool.  I would argue that the growth of that tool became more important to many than the level of conversation it led to.  Hits and likes and shares and retweets have become measurable benchmarks for success online.  So is it any wonder that those who see those numbers rewarded embrace the methods they observe that achieve them?

Many people say that numbers don’t lie.  In this case, I believe they do.  The numbers are wrong an the culture of rewarding those numbers needs to end before any true change can be seen.

So, I ask the question now to you that I was asked.  Is jealousy to blame for the personal attack reviews on authors or the way many defend the belief that those reviews are perfectly acceptable?

What do you say? 

I say no.

And while I would argue that jealousy isn’t the answer, neither is the phrase “Trolls will be trolls” that I have seen so often posted.  To dismiss the problem as a result of jealousy or to label those actively participating in the behavior as trolls lowers the level of conversation and leads nowhere.

Last week, I was nervous to post on the subject of personal attack reviews because I feared the pushback I have seen others receive online.  I’m still worried, but I am continuing to talk on this subject because I believe a line needs to be drawn and that if I don’t draw it I am offering my tacit agreement that the behavior of personally attacking authors alongside their work is correct.  And I don’t agree.

And I don’t believe you do either.

Regardless of what is to blame for this problem, I have a firm conviction that we can create change.  I believe in the book community and the love of the written word that binds us.  I believe that we can turn back the tide if all of us who love books – authors, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, Internet retailers and the rest of the amazing reading community – draw a line in the sand together.  A line that is about respect for our mutual passion and a true discourse about the works we connect with or dislike.  By raising the level of conversation and not adding to the numbers of those who tear the conversation down, we can make a difference. 

So----who’s with me?


Gerald So said...

I'm with you, Joelle. In fact, allow me to quote my review policy, blogged a year-and-a-half ago:

I make no promise that I will post a review, so if I really don't like something, I don't review it.

With an academic background in writing and teaching, I can hone in on the material and not sound as if I'm grilling the author (because I'm not). I think reviewers have an obligation to give a balanced view of the material, pointing out what they liked, but also pointing out what others might not like (e.g. "The violence may be too much for some, but I found it appropriate to the story").

Devon Ellington said...

I think there's a way to diplomatically review something you don't believe works, without attacking the author.

As someone who makes a part of my living writing paid reviews, I make sure, even when I don't feel a book worked, to point out any part that did, and mention WHY what didn't work didn't work for me.

Also, if it's a book by someone I don't like personally, but whose work I like, I focus solely on the work. If it's by someone whose work I don't like and I can't stand, I ask my editor to reassign it. Too much work goes into a book for it to get an unfair review.

I think there need to be standards for reviewers, and part of that has to be a policy on sites of no personal attacks allowed. And reviews must go beyond, "I hated that." A reviewer has to qualify why something worked or did not work, beyond personal distaste.

AND reviewers must actually READ THE BOOK before making a judgment on it. Not a blurb or a sound byte, but READ THE BOOK.

I don't necessarily click on controversial headlines, unless I know and respect the author, or the person who suggests the link. Too many people get away with demeaning others without repercussions. If you have even a half a brain and the ability to discern a fact and do some research, you can fashion a reasoned argument when your opinion differs from someone else's. Anything less than that needs to stop being rewarded.

I agree -- I don't think it's always jealousy that motivate. I do think these attacks are created by individuals who only feel good about themselves if they can hurt someone else, and that is a symptom of a much larger societal problem.

Kristopher said...

Another well thought out and eloquent post Joelle.

I completely agree that in many ways, we as a society have brought this on ourselves. We celebrate the snark where ever we can - internet, tv, lunchroom, water cooler.

I often wonder why people go back to blogs that have reviews like "I hated it" or "I really enjoyed it" What does this really contribute to the conversation? And how does that help you to know if the book is right for you. Maybe, over time, you might see a trend in liking the same things as a certain reviewer, but still a more detailed review seems preferable.

Like Gerald, I don't do negative reviews. My blog is mine, so I can do with it what I wish. I just don't like negative energy, so I choose not to talk about the books I don't enjoy - and there are many.

The culture of "more hits" "more success" is really not something I buy into - but I am in the minority as you point out Joelle. I would rather put out good quality work and know that people will find me rather than post something controversial simply to get hits. (I should note that there are some blogs that do a good job covering controversial topics, but not just for the sake of being sensational).

This makes for a slower build for the blog, but I am ok with that. I don't do giveaways on my blog either. I'd rather people visit me for the content, not for a one time visit to try to win something.

Kristi said...

Thanks for these two posts.
So much important content in both.
Thought provoking. I also search for answers.
I agree with you in welcoming both raving and critical posts about my writing. But a personal attack is going too far.
I've been preparing myself for those. After I stopped reading all the extremely nasty posts on a Salon article I wrote (I only read a handful before I was too sick to read any more but they were all very personal attacks on me and my family), my husband agreed to be my official "troll buster" for future articles and reviews when my book comes out.
I'm willing to read someone critical of my work, but I refuse to read comments critical of me as a person. It's not worth it.