Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Sound and the Fury (of Internet Flame Wars)

So for anyone who's been on twitter in the past couple of days, I'm sure the news that there's been yet another kerfluffle in the epic YA Reviewers Vs YA Authors war comes as no surprise.  Let's call this one Round Fifty Bajillion, shall we?

Being as I have no connection to anyone in the Goodreads thread, am not yet an author, and am too lazy to actually review books, I read said thread with the kind of morbid fascination I normally reserve for viewing Joel Schumacher movies.  This isn't to say that it was a new or unfamiliar phenomenom to me - I am a hardened veteran of internet wars in other arenas and have conducted myself embarrassingly on more than one occasion.  Hell, there are certain parts of the internet where my name is used as a verb - but don't ask.  It's a long story, and I don't look pretty in it, so I'll only lie anyway.

My point is, this shit happens.  We get worked up, we say things we shouldn't, and as we have ostentatiously large vocabularies with which to arm our insults, things get ugly real quick.  We are all imperfectly evolved monkeys after all - the urge to occasionally fling our own poo at each other is hard-wired into our DNA.  (Or something like that.  I dunno.  Biology wasn't my best subject.)

Problem is, we're all so busy pointing fingers in the aftermath that we rarely bother to take a good hard look at ourselves.  But it takes two to tango, as much as we try to pretend otherwise, and there were some gross misassumptions being thrown around on BOTH sides of this most recent argument which all but guarantee that it will happen again in some form or another.  And as I'm hoping the next big internet kerfluffle is about something a little more interesting, like say, Zombie Dinosaurs Were Responsible for Ending the Vietnam War: True or False, I thought I'd point out some of those misassumptions here in a blogpost I shall inevitably regret when I sober up in the morning.  Please know that not everything I say in this post is directed at the Tempest review thread that....its simply the most recent brouhaha in a long line of YA review brouhahas and it (and even moreso, the responses to it all around the 'net) have gotten me thinking.

First off, there's a LOT of talk going around about readers and reviewers railing against authors for weighing in on their reviews, and how this is like censorship and etc, etc, etc ad nauseam.  The thing  It's really not.  And the more people say that, the more people who don't know any better will start to really believe it, and the more I will bang my head against my desk when my doctor has told me any more concussions and I'll start randomly speaking in tongues like Klingon and High Elvish, which has the potential to be mad embarrassing, yo.

See the thing about free speech: contrary to popular assumption, it does NOT equal freedom from the SOCIAL consequences of your speech.

You get to say whatever you want on the internet, this is true.  About the books you read, the authors who write them, whatever.  You get to say it however you want to, as well.  You can be angry, sarcastic, passive aggressive or even speak in rhyme.

What you can NOT do however, is dictate how people respond to you.  Nor can you dictate who composes those responses.

Look, however you try and spin it, the review that sparked this most recent argument was antagonistic in tone.  I don't say this as a condemnation, just as a point of fact.  It was about a hot button issue for the reviewer, and lord knows I have hot button issues of my own - queef me a smoke signal about bisexuals being misrepresented and I'm likely to show up two seconds later with nuclear warheads armed and at the ready.

All I'm saying is if you're going to put something like that out there you need to hold yourself responsible for putting it out there in the manner you chose.  You can't start the party off with some righteous hellfire and brimstone and then get pissed that when dissidents eventually show up, they're not wearing their Calm and Rational Discourse party hats.  You're the one that set the tone, and as like begets like, people respond accordingly.  This is basic schoolyard politics.  We learned this stuff in grade school.  You can run up behind little Sammy Stickuphisass on the playground and push him over if you feel like it, but its disingenuous to then run to the teacher and play the victim when Sammy turns around and pushes you back.  Take whatever tone you want on the internet and vent accordingly - just don't expect to be disagreed with in a kind and thoughtful tone.

But, you might say, I have a right to say what I want about this book I purchased without having to worry about the author looking over my shoulder and weighing in on what I say about it.

No.  Wrong.  You absolutely do not have that RIGHT.  The fact that MOST authors do not do this has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with them and their personal desire to conduct themselves professionally - with the provision that there is no single standard for professional behavior and they all have to make their own decisions on what constitutes behaving professionally.

But make no mistake, the generally accepted standard of behavior in no way gives you some right to say whatever you want about an author's book and expect that they know better than to engage you on it.  I'm not saying this is a good idea for authors - in fact, I think its a freaking godawful idea for authors.  I'm just saying, authors or friends of authors who DO take umbrage in regards to a review aren't breaking some law.  You don't actually get to go round up in the internet in defense of yourself if you crossed the lines of good taste because you were operating under the assumption the author 'knew better' than to return fire.  (And please note, I'm not actually talking about the Tempest review when I say this - I think the initial review was antagonistic but not overly so, and did not actually cross any lines into attacking the author personally - but let's not play the 'I've never seen a review that went too far' game, mmkay?)

My point here is simply that I've seen too many reviewers getting dangerously close to that line-of-good-taste simply because they know the author is going to come off looking bad if they speak up about it.  If this is or ever has been you, let's be real - you're taking advantage of social economics, not waging the war of the underdog against the big bad asshole author.  There is no actual unwritten law that protects you from authors getting pissed at you...and there sure as hell is no unwritten moral law that excuses you from behaving like a mature adult just because you dropped eight bucks on a paperback.

I'm not even going to get into the comments I've seen from people who justify their attitude towards authors in reviews and comment threads by saying 'oh they bucketloads of money from their publishing deal so they should just suck it up and deal'.  Umm yeah...that's not actually justification.  It's just you being a dick, and the less said about that the better.

But now for the flip side of the equation, the authors.

Again, look, I get it.  If you've never actually tried writing a whole book and getting it out there for public consumption - that shit will wear you down, kids.  True fact.  It's not actually an extreme exaggeration to say that by the time of publication most authors view their stories as something akin to a beloved child.  And much like sending a beloved child off to school for the first time, the temptation to 'tag along' and just see how they fare out in the big wide world by you know, secretly stalking them from behind bushes and trashcans - it can be overwhelming.  But what authors have to realize is if you give in to that temptation, sooner or later you're going to see some punk bullying your precious baby and taking his lunch money, and while running up to the bullying little shit and kicking him in his pre-pubescent balls will sure FEEL satisfying....its absolutely not going to end well for you.  Hands down, guaranteed.  And this goes for friends and colleagues of the author as well....the general public isn't likely to look any more kindly on you for castrating that smart-mouthed little asshat because you're just the doting aunt or uncle rather than the mouth-frothingly over-protective Mother Bear herself.    

Secondly, this is the internet, and Rule One of Internet Warfare is He Who Shouts the Loudest is most likely to win.  And authors on the internet have Big Voices.  The mere act of getting a blurb about your book posted in Publisher's Marketplace is usually enough to net an author an easy hundred more twitter followers than your average reviewer.  When an author says something on the internet, they say it to more people.  When an author points something out, more people look where they're pointing.  When an author says 'I'm right about this', more people respond with 'you absolutely are!'  The internet is at times an anarchistic wasteland, my friends.  We make Mad Max look like an upstanding citizen of a genteel civilization at times.  Screw the rules of common courtesy, mob rule holds sway more often than not, and just by virtue of being able to say 'I have a book', internet-math ups your chances of having at least a few sycophants at your beck and call.  It's just the way things are.

So yeah, let's not kid ourselves - you don't have to fight your own battles when you're an author.  You just have to point towards them with heavy-handed implication and you can expect friends and fans to do the fighting for you.  Just like when reviewers start things off explosively and then cry foul when it backfires, its disingenuous when an author just points a negative opinion out on twitter and then stands back with a 'oh, but I'm not going to get involved.'  Yeah, but no.  To go back to my Oh So Intellectual playground analogy from earlier, its the equivalent of showing up to a fight behind the bleachers with all your friends from the football team standing behind you.  And if you've never seen how that one ends, you've never slept with the quarterback's super hot cheerleader girlfriend, thinking they were on a break.  (I do not recommend, btw.  Not that I'm uh, speaking from experience or anything.)  But yeah.  Nobody's going to lock you up in Internet Jail if you bring your posse to each and every one of these little soirees....its just, ya know, super hella tacky if you do.

Again, just to reiterate, because pedantic is how I roll, I get it dudes.  I still hope to be published someday myself, and I can tell you right now, I'm gonna absolutely SUCK at the whole behaving professionally thing.  I mean, real talk.  I'm a writer AND an actor.  I come with a double dose of built in insecure neuroses.  If I'm ever lucky enough to land a big bucks publishing deal, the first thing I'm investing in is a tattooed, physically intimidating club bouncer to hover behind me everytime I go online and punch me in the throat if it even looks like I'm about to hit reply to a negative review or comment.  But you what you have to in order to take the higher road.  It's seriously worth it.  Get up and go take a walk everytime someone pisses you off.  Head down to the nearest ATM, withdraw a hundred bucks in singles from your bank account and bring it home, toss it on the bed and roll around in it to make yourself feel better if that's what you absolutely have to do.

....Just don't tell anyone that's how you handle criticism if you do.  That's not gonna go over well either.  Just saying.

So yeah, in conclusion to this epic the end of the day, the writer's obligation to their reader begins and ends with writing the book readers purchase.  The reader's obligation to the writer begins and ends with plopping down however much money their book cost to purchase.  It's THAT simple.  Anything and everything outside of that simple transaction comes with absolutely zero guarantees.

Writers and readers are inevitably going to come into conflict at times.  But when that happens, guess what?  Both sides bear the onus of behaving like mature adults equally.  Neither side is inherently more responsible for catering to the needs or wishes of the other - not the authors, because the reader spent their hard-earned money on them, and not the readers, because the author wrote that story they liked.  Honestly, people need to stop worrying about what other people SHOULD be doing or how they SHOULD handle themselves and just worry about the only thing they can control - how they conduct themselves personally.  And yes, I'm perfectly aware that this entire blogpost is about telling other people how they should behave and I'm absolutely a hypocrite, but like, whatever and stuff.  I'm an imperfectly evolved monkey, remember? 

Act like adults, or don't.  It's totally up to you.  But if you choose not to, accept that you played your own part in whatever follows, and don't run off crying foul to the rest of the internet because so and so hurt your feelings.

Some of us are busy playing Skyrim, thank you very much.


  1. This kind of thing seems to happen every few months. Now I have to go and read what happened with this Goodreads thing, shake my head, and remind myself not to do that!

  2. I never understand why people do this. If you ignore the review, then it fades into obscurity. If you lash out, it goes viral and stays attached to your name and book for all time. You may even warrant your own entry Fandom_Wank, and then you're really in for a ride.

  3. @Lydia - yeah, its not even so much this particular Goodreads thing so much as the fact that this same subject seems to come up CONSTANTLY that prompted this post.

    @Josin - oh agreed. I personally believe that responding to reviews or directing people to them is the worst possible thing an author can do. That said, I do think some reviewers (not this one) cross definite lines because they feel they can get away with it. Bottom line, I just think we all need to just worry about holding ourselves accountable for behaving like adults, period. *Shrugs*

  4. This was long, home skizzle. But fun.

    You have such an amazing relatability in your words, and I find that infectious and amazing and holy-shit-batman-fantastic and all that good stuff.

    We'll be hearing about you real soon. Oh yes indeed.

    I always seem to miss out on these sort of squabbles. It's not like I'll actually join in (I only comment when I have something positive to say), but I do have issues with this subject in general.

    I am of the firm belief that a review should thrash the written word and not the writer. Likening the author to a monkey or having the mental capacity of a teaspoon is terribly demoralizing and WRONG! There really is no need for it. A lot of the reviews, as of late, are so snarky they hang between satire and bullying. And in this age of technology, reviewers can add little JPEGS, GIFS and MP3S to their write up and these often depict innuendos that are hurtful both emotionally and mentally. (Goodreads is a haven for these sort of reviews.)

    I don't think authors should reply to these things. It brings them down a notch and makes them appear as though they have nothing but time to troll the comments. As someone who studied PR, it's a tasteless tact--unless you comment on a review with a large readership and what you say can cause a scandal that will ignite the social networks and get your name out there. But other than this, refrain...from...typing...witty...response!

    I'm sorry, but I do not have time to troll a topic that does not enhance an aspect of my life. I have stuff to do. I have a three hundred dollar cable bill to pay and a dog to feed that shits on my bed--a negro aint got time. :D

    Plus, I need to level my Wizard in Skyrim. Have you any idea how hard it is to play a frickin' MAGE?

  5. Huh. I missed this. Blame it on the hormones making me take afternoon naps as if I'm ninety. Now I'm off to check out this a few hours or so. Must go sleep first.

    Btw, love your rambling-ness. We need more people like you in this world. Hey, I'm curious about that name-verb thing. Hmmmm...How is "Kalen" used as a verb exactly?

    "You watch your mouth or I'm a-gonna kalen you." (or something. Hee!)


  6. Am/was totally unaware of the Goodreads thing (and glad of it) but truly enjoyed your rambling-ness,Kalen. Not simply because I agree with what you wrote, but because you're such a clever writer. Can't wait to read more of yours.

  7. I knew there was a fracas, but I had no idea what it was about. I am glad I missed it -- but yeah, figures. This shit really does seem to happen once every so often. I remember once Anne Rice flipped out on someone on, like, Amazon or something. It was NATIONAL NEWS. So goofy.

    Yeah, well, I definitely know what it's like to have people say both and horribly disparaging, not to say outright mean things about my books. I've found that the latter makes me laugh... but I don't know that it would've a few years ago. I get the impulse to defend your baby, don't get me wrong. But yeah. Dude. WTF.

  8. I totally missed the drama (whew!). I just don't understand why authors keep doing this. Every time it happens, we get a flood of 'I'D NEVER BE THAT STOOPID' until the next time it happens.

    Kalen, I like the way you think.

  9. I wanted to add that while I cringe for the author every time this happens, the way the reviewers handled themselves also kind of chafed, but I didn't know how to word exactly why. But you nailed it.

    All I'm saying is if you're going to put something like that out there you need to hold yourself responsible for putting it out there in the manner you chose. You can't start the party off with some righteous hellfire and brimstone and then get pissed that when dissidents eventually show up, they're not wearing their Calm and Rational Discourse party hats. You're the one that set the tone, and as like begets like, people respond accordingly.

    YES. (Authors should still NEVER respond to reviews though.)

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  11. GAR. Blasted typos...

    Great post! And you put it so simply: "at the end of the day, the writer's obligation to their reader begins and ends with writing the book readers purchase. The reader's obligation to the writer begins and ends with plopping down however much money their book cost to purchase."

    An author needs to know him/herself well enough to predict how they'll handle bad reviews. I already know I'll SUCK at it (very sensitive ... not that I'll respond to the review with vitriol, I'm more concerned that it will clog up my writer's veins and the words won't flow). This is why I'm planning to let my writer pals email any good reviews they find, which in turn will be up to them to ignore/filter out the baddies. And I trust them to do that.

    Great to see you out and about again. Hope your new year is off to an awesome start!

    P.S. majQa' (well done -- in Klingon)

    Live long, and Kalen. :)

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