Bad Reviews, Bullying, and How Not to Stick Your Foot in It (An Entirely Subjective Guide)

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Quick quiz: which of the following counts as bullying?

  1. A critical review.
  2. An extremely snarky critical review loaded with GIFs.
  3. A reviewer telling the author of the book that she is uncomfortable with him commenting on her review.
  4. A post on a second blog by a second book blogger detailing why a reviewer might be uncomfortable with an author commenting on the review.
  5. The same author being shut down by commenters on the second blog after he attempts to air his grievances there as well.
  6. The author of the second blog being harassed on Twitter by (male) fans of the (male) author and (male) bloggers who disagree with her post, including name-calling and accusations of bullying, misogynistic slurs, and a rape threat.

Answers:

  1. No.
  2. Despite what Nathan Bransford may think, no.
  3. Still no.
  4. Still no.
  5. Also a no.
  6. The blogger won’t admit it as such, but in my view – yes, absolutely.

By this point the Twitter shitshow has dissolved in platitudinous (but still wise) advice by John Scalzi on communication issues, profanity-laden (but also wise) advice by Chuck Wendig on not responding to critical reviews, and conversations within the SF/F industry on the dividing line between fans and creators, if such a line exists at all.

What’s not being discussed in the strong undercurrent of misogyny that’s belied this recent debate. And that’s a shame.

I’ve honestly got to wonder – if the author of the Strange Horizons essay was male, and/or if the inciting incident had taken place at a male-oriented instead of female-oriented review blog, whether there would have been such a backlash against Renay’s points. Seems to me like a lot of (mostly male) authors are getting bent out of shape over the idea that they aren’t entitled to be posting in (mostly female) fan spaces. Mmm-hmm.

That Renay then got accused of “appropriating social justice-rhetoric” and “using pseudo social justice concepts” to cover up her “bullying” by such industry heavyweights as P Nielsen Hayden even as she was on the receiving end of name-calling, crude female-only slurs, and a rape threat is…well, problematic, to say the least. “We care about social justice for you only inasmuch as we actually like you,” is probably not the most welcoming message to send female bloggers who worry about stepping on male industry toes. (And, yes, you’re right, that is one of the male bloggers who’d been harassing Renay on Twitter asking why people “just can’t be civil.” The irony is not lost on me.)

So, to wit: we female bloggers can’t criticize authors because it’s bullying.  We can’t point out the problematic power-dynamic of a male author coming onto a female fan space because it’s gauche of us to even think that’s privileged behavior, and how dare we use such social justice-rhetoric. And we can’t expect the people valiantly defending the ideals of social justice from uppity female bloggers to defend those same bloggers when they’re on the receiving end of actual misogyny.

That’s like being stuck between a rock, a hard place, and a big fucking metal spike. And all three hazards arise from the same idea that a man is entitled to dictate to a woman how she should communicate, both in public and in her own (internet) home. A male author can dictate to a female blogger how she should interpret his work, and that if she doesn’t listen to him she’s rude. A male blogger can dictate to a female blogger how she should respond to that male author, and that if she doesn’t listen to him she’s a bully. And a male editor can dictate to a female blogger whether or not she’s allowed to define her own personal experiences using social-justice terms, and that if she doesn’t listen to him she’s making light of others’ real oppression.

The lesson here seems to be that if female bloggers do anything other than welcome male intrusion, then they will be castigated by other men.  You know the old misogynistic joke, “If I wanted your opinion, I’d give it to you”? Yeah. Seems a bit appropriate here.

I really don’t think an author should be surprised that their appearance on a fan blog might engender some defensiveness or worry that that the fan space is no longer “pure.” It’s true that the line between authors and fans has blurred with the advent of social media, particularly Twitter and Tumblr, and within writing communities like Absolute Write. But dang – I still freak out a bit (in a good way!) when I see that an author I admire replied to my tweet, or gave me a rep point on AW. Authors (and TV creators) do still have a quasi-mythical quality to them. I bet that seems pretty silly to most authors, and it’ll probably seem pretty silly to me when (*fingers crossed*) I’m published, too.

That being said, there are plenty of online fan spaces where a creator would be welcomed. I think it’s interesting that material created for consumption on the internet – podcasts, webcomics, etc. – generally allows for more interaction between the creator and fans. I know webcomic authors who run forums or post in-progress work on Deviant-Art and podcast creators who reblog fan Tumblrs, and these activities are justly recognized not as the creator “throwing their canonical weight around” but as fannish acts by fellow fans. I love that. I want more author-fan interactions to be that way, and I want to be the sort of author who can have those interactions.

The key, I think, is to not get angry, and to not presume that you have the conversational right of way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with authors engaging fans and reviewers on blogs, Twitter, and the like, so long as they recognize that while they have the power to clarify, they don’t have the power to correct, they don’t have the privilege of directing how fans should interpret their work, and, AND, that they should not become angry or argumentative upon being told they do not have that privilege.

But above all – if it’s made clear to you that you’re not welcome, either by the blogger themselves or by other fans, leave. Forcing yourself into a discussion, and particularly trying to direct that discussion, only underscores those concepts of “entitlement” and “privilege” that everyone is insisting doesn’t possibly exist among authors, uh uh, no way.

And if you are going to respond to a negative review, then you need, NEED, to take more than just a few minutes – hours, days, whatever – to think it through and make sure that you are A) not responding in anger, and B) not making assumptions about the blogger/content of the blog. Most author-responses that I’ve seen fail on one or both of those accounts – and that includes Ben Aaronovitch’s.

This is particularly true if you are responding to charges that your book is and/or you are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. You swooping in and declaring “How DARE you think I’m [insert -ist] or promote [insert -ism]!” will NEVER, EVER go down well, ESPECIALLY is the blogger is a member of the group you’re accused of being -ist against. You flinging poo at someone calling out what they perceive to be problematic content, or you on your perceived privilege, is only going to confirm both the blogger’s and anyone unfortunate enough to see your meltdown’s worst opinion of you.

Well, unless she’s a lady blogger. Lady bloggers aren’t allowed to call out privilege or talk about power-imbalances or co-opt any other social justice language. If you pick a fight with a lady blogger, you’ll probably be okay.

[EDIT 9/17: I wanted to clarify a bit about why, exactly, I thought it was problematic that the people dictating how Ana and then Renay should have responded to the author were almost all men.]

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2 thoughts on “Bad Reviews, Bullying, and How Not to Stick Your Foot in It (An Entirely Subjective Guide)

  1. “The key, I think, is to not get angry, and to not presume that you have the conversational right of way.”

    This is where this started to go off the rails for me, at the very beginning. The mere idea that someone is entitled to be involved in any space, regardless of the owner’s feelings, is antithetical to me. It’s just not how I engage online; people’s space is their own, and I am not in a position to say “I have a right to be here when you’re discussing me/my work”. I have watched discussions of personal space, and how we should treat each person’s space with respect, since 1998. This is possibly enforced by my experience of fandom on LJ, where the owner set the tone and you participated in the comments under said tone, and were told when you were crossing a line. I don’t have enough evidence to say, but almost everyone I’ve seen going “It’s public! Public!!” as a critique of my argument to me or in spaces where I’m likely to see it has been a man.

    When the author came to my article, I read his first comments as disingenuous at best, because it was approached from the position of “get out” immediately, followed by a suggestion that people like me should be putting out policies to help authors, instead of my more nuanced intent of “consider your location and the discussion at hand” which everyone should be doing for every discussion they enter into anyway, even if the subject isn’t their work. Do we all just comment wildly now on the posts of strangers without considering the context of a piece and what we can add, even when we and our work are not the subject? I find that suspect.

    This has devolved into being about reviews, but honestly, I’m not sure why. I don’t see the examples I used as a reviews at all. I don’t notice a lot of discussions happening in reviews on blog these days (I might not be following the popular sites where this happens). What I meant to highlight were wider, multi-fan discussions (featuring more people than just the owner of the space, where it’s often unclear which of those people will welcome the author and which won’t, regardless of any policy) in fan-claimed space, where the creator of the piece is unable to be a fan of their work.

    As this has spiraled out of control, it’s gotten more and more gendered. Before Sunday I might have hesitated to make that argument, but now…what a mess.

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