In case you needed more evidence that fiction writers were utterly bat-guano crazy: Exhibit 374A is the recent confessional piece in a British newspaper by a "young adult" (YA) author called Kathleen Hale about how she pursued the identity of an amateur book-reviewer on the Internet. The piece is at the centre of discussion among writers right now, because it raises troubling questions about how we react to the great democratic sea of instant reaction and anonymous comment that is the Internet – and how we are pressured to.
The story appeared in The Guardian on Oct. 17. In it, Hale, whose new novel is a murder mystery called No One Else Can Have You, describes becoming obsessed with an amateur reviewer who violently disliked her book on the popular book-discussion site Goodreads. Not only did the blogger insult the book and its author, she attacked other reviewers about it and tweeted at Hale to make sure the author knew about it. After some sleuthing, Hale realized that the attacker was using a fake identity, complete with stolen photographs, and set out to find who she really was. Hale admits to going off the deep end: She ended up actually travelling to the mysterious attacker's home, but fled before a confrontation could take place. Hale has been lambasted for her extreme reaction, even though she is self-deprecating in her piece and admits to a tinge of insanity in her stalking. (It's actually a great read, precisely because it is so honest about bad behaviour, just like any good fiction.)
Conventional wisdom has it that an author should never even respond to a negative review, let alone show up unannounced at a stranger's house, looking for a fight. The intellectual level at Goodreads is known to be embarrassingly low, and most serious authors will claim to never even look at it, let alone engage with it. So why would a successful writer stoop so low? But the issue is a little more complicated than that. It's not just about one writer's hypersensitivity. The fact of the false identity and pictures is particularly intriguing. Posing as someone you're not is fundamentally fraudulent, and we all have a natural urge to try to expose such frauds. When a friend of mine was harassed with anonymous hate messages and vague threats, I, too, wanted to hire a hacker to try to track down and identify such a cowardly person. (I was persuaded not to pursue it.) I completely understand the urge for justice. We all fantasize about the gotcha moment.
There's something else going on here, too, and it's a new phenomenon in literature. It's not just the democratization of comment, the fact that average or illiterate readers now have public forums just like professional reviewers, nor is it even the commercial power of such forums. It's the fact that authors are actually pressured to respond to amateur comment, to "engage," as the PR jargon goes. This is the new wisdom of publishing, particularly for some reason in genre fiction such as YA: It helps to sell your work if you respect the "community" of readers (meaning online community, of course), if you make yourself accessible, if you tweet and blog frequently so as to make yourself as interesting as your writing. The idea is that readers will follow a charismatic person with more excitement than they will follow a body of work.
There is some naiveté in the scornful reactions to Hale's confessions. One romance-literature blogger named Sara Wendell sternly explained, "When you publish a book … you lose all control of the conversation about your creation. … You and your book are SEPARATE THINGS. They are NOT THE SAME." How I wish that were true, but it's in fact the opposite of what the publishing gurus suggest: Enter the conversation, we are told; make yourself your product. Treat your readers as if they were your friends; they will love you for it. A high-minded recluse such as J.D. Salinger would be a publicist's nightmare today. Indeed, Hale admits that her publicist had sent review copies of the book to amateur bloggers such as this one, and that the conflict started when she put a call out to fans asking for stories for her next work. "In an attempt to connect with readers, I'd been asking Twitter for ideas … promising to try to incorporate them in the sequel."
Now, to me, that is a bizarre idea – I can't imagine asking Twitter to write my next book for me – but it does represent current trends in writing. That kind of democratic, participatory approach is common in a Wattpad world – a world in which writing is not seen to be solitary but social, communitarian.
Now here is where an old curmudgeon like me says, gleefully, "See? What did I tell you about all this Internet chatter and daily updates and mutual reassurances? Didn't I tell you it would lead you down this rabbit-hole of unnecessary interaction? Is this really what writing stories is all about?" Now we feel a social and professional pressure to respond to every tweet with our name on it, even if just to be nice, and it's that very niceness that leads us down this road to bat-guano craziness.
The solution is for artists to stop thinking of themselves as corporations with a customer-service division. And to admit that Goodreads and sites like it are no place where even a barely literate adult would ever be caught sober, and that we need never go there.