Writing my Weird Things column for The Guardian, I regularly mention books that relate to the theme at hand. And I’ve done a fair amount of reviewing, both professional and For-The-Luv. I tend to be a nice cuddly reviewer, although I have filleted a few books when I thought they called for it. What I’ve never done, and never will do, is go after an individual writer for being less-than-perfect in their work, or even in their moral outlook of the world. I review books, not authors.
Recently there have been a few stories that illustrate how much ‘reviewing’ is changing in our online, interconnected world. Stop the GR bullies popped up last month as a misguded attempt to ‘out’ aggressive negative reviewers on Goodreads, who in extreme cases hound authors across the internet. This week author Liz Williams made an extended attack on a reviewer / agent provocateur / troll (take your pick) which has lead to a coordinated attempt by some in the Sci-Fi writing community to ‘ex-communicate’ said reviewer, which lead in turn to this post by Cat Valente saying why she wasn’t bowing to peer pressure to make that move. Both highlight the ongoing phenomenon of ‘reviewers’ who make the most vicious personal attacks on authors for violating moral or ethical principles the reviewer advocates, or simply for writing ‘bad books’.
The dynamics of aggressive reviewing are very simple. It attracts attention. From readers, and most of all from the author. A determined aggressive reviewer can systematically demand the attention of any given online community by working their way around the significant players in that community and picking as many fights as possible along the way. For a person who has nothing to contribute and no value to add then, a strategy of aggressive negative reviewing is a way of gaining a level of notoriety and a pseudo-status in a community. As there is no end to people’s hunger for notoriety and status, there will always be people on the edges of every community who do this.
(It’s worth noting that the strategy is limited. And because what the aggressive reviewer really hungers for is status in the community they are abusing, they inevitably implode when they realise they’ve destroyed that possibility.)
So the question is, what to do about these people? My assertion is that it’s futile and counterproductive to try and ‘out’ them or ‘excommunicate’ them. Attacking them in any way is just a waste of time, because it’s clearly what they want. ESPECIALLY IF YOU BECOME THEIR TARGET. Rising to aggressive negative reviewers is pumping fuel at an opponent who is made of fire. So what then? Here, I believe, are your three options:
1. Ignore. Pretty simple. Block on social networks. Ban from comments. Don’t link to anything they say. If mutual connections insist on dragging you in to the conflict, block them too.
2. Friend. This is harder. Have the discussion with the aggressive reviewer, but maintain an impermeable positive and friendly attitude towards them. The point here is that often what the aggressive reviewer really wants is your attention, and if you give it freely they may well roll on their back like a puppy with glee. Or not…in which case revert to (1) or…
3. Hate Surf. The worst aggressive reviewers are like bombs waiting to explode, so if you’re looking for a big chunk of online attention you can set them off then ride the concussion blast waves. Just like doing this with an actual bomb, it’s a majorly risky endeavour, but the world of writing is littered with feuds that both parties have continued because they wanted the attention.
The point in all three cases is that the fact that someone is saying nasty things about you or your work online is an issue you need to own. If you respond to the aggressive reviewer in their terms then you are being manipulated. The deeply offensive, personally insulting review is a very deliberate strategy intended to get a very specific response. As soon as you give in and respond as demanded, you have already lost.