Monday, April 11, 2011

Virtual Witch Hunts

By Nathan Bransford

[Originally published at]

There was a pretty unfortunate scene at a book blog recently after a reviewer wrote an unfavorable review of a self-published author's book. The author responded with unseemly umbrage and profanity.

And then the Internet got involved.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of commenters piled on the author with snide remarks and scorn. Then the virtual mob took to Amazon, where they trashed her book, wrote faux five star reviews, and are continuing to have a great time at her expense (96 reviews and counting).

They may not have been wielding actual pitchforks and torches, but there are burnt embers all around the Internet.

Now, I want to clearly acknowledge that the author in question behaved extremely unprofessionally. No author, with the singular exception of Emily St. John Mandel, has ever responded to a bad review and come away looking good. Let alone with rudeness and profanity. It was an extremely unprofessional and unfortunate scene.

But did she really deserve this?

The Heart of the Mob

What are the motives of the people trashing this author? Does anyone really think that a virtual mob scene is going to prevent authors from behaving unprofessionally in the future? Authors have been lashing out over bad reviews for several millenia, methinks an Internet freakout will not bring peace in our time.

In truth, the actions of a mob say a lot more about the people participating in them than the person being scorned. And I think in the dark heart of a mob you'll find a quiet sense of relief. People are secretly and ardently glad that they're not the ones being targeted.

You can feel the relief and sense of superiority in numbers behind the mocking: Well, at least I'm not that bad off. And a hundred strangers agree with me.

But really that's a false sense of security. As the old quote goes, "A mob has many heads but no brains."

To Deserve is Divine

The other justification you'll hear is that the person in question deserved it. She brought it on herself by failing to edit her book or behaving unprofessionally or using profanity or etc. etc. And sure, there are consequences for bad behavior.

But what she deserved is compassion.

We've all made mistakes in our worst moments. We've all taken criticism too hard. We've all lashed out when we should have kept quiet. We've all said things we shouldn't have.

Now imagine that the mistake we made was met not with sympathy and fair consequences but with a mob trying to tear down everything we've ever tried to build.

This is a person who just wanted to have their book out there and has the same hopes and dreams as any other writer. Some rude Internet behavior negates all of that? People will ridicule her and scorch the Earth and trash what this author has built in the name of teaching a lesson?

Let's not kid ourselves that a lesson was taught, other than to remind us, yet again, that the Internet is a terrifying place to make a mistake.

Nathan Bransford is the author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry.


Susan said...

Thank you for this compassionate blog post. It made my heart hurt when I saw this author's review being passed around on twitter.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Well said. Thank you.

N. J. Lindquist said...

Agree 100%. There are thousands of people out there who simply don't know what they're getting into and don't understand the way things work. We all make mistakes. Compassion is a far better response than ridicule.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Indeed, compassion is called for. I've noted that the Internet is a breeding ground for blatant rudeness. I wonder if those folks would be so mean if they were to meet her face to face?

Dana Stabenow said...

Granted that no one deserves the flaming this author got, but I've read some of her posts to that blog and they were, shall we say, intemperate. What's that old rule, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel? New rule: Never pick a fight with someone who buys bandwidth by the meg.

Lori L. Lake said...

I have to disagree somewhat with Nathan. The original blogger/reviewer, Big Al, treated the author's book with a great deal of compassion and respect. He was quite kind, even going so far as to say that the *story* was good, but that he had significant trouble getting through it due to the poor craft and absent editing.

Instead of "hearing" that, the author went ballistic and behaved like a 3-yr-old. Repeatedly. She made a fool of herself while showing more than clearly that she couldn't even write a grammatically correct response. It was like watching a train wreck, and it reminded me that it's never a good idea to respond to any kind of criticism without letting some time pass and perhaps getting other opinions.

I agree that compassion is always desired, but when offered a compassionate review, the author still attacked. That speaks volumes about her professionalism.

Polly said...

Thanks, Lori. I felt the same way when I read her response. This is obviously a young gal who hasn't learned to accept criticism. She would have benefited from a good critique group before hiring a good editor. Any writer who's queried or submitted his/her work knows that rejection comes long before acceptance when it comes to publication. It's a necessary part of paying our dues. Writers must develop elephant skin to get anywhere, and even then...

Pat said...

If you followed this, you'd know she is a 51 year old woman and this was not her first novel.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree that the author in question behaved extremely unprofessionally in her response to the polite, if negative, review to her book. Her tirades were childish & kept proving the reviewer's point about her poor grammar.

However, I also agree that the hate-mongering that followed her ridiculous posts went WAY overboard. Many who responded did so with just as little tact as she originally did.

I agree with you, Nathan, that it was a witch hunt, & I began to feel quite a lot of empathy for her after reading several of the responses. I stopped reading after a fashion, because it was obvious that nobody had anything new to say, but seemed to want to simply jump on the bashing bandwagon.

I also think your assessment about the insecurity behind all the hating. Very nice post, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Whoops...I meant to say "I agree" with your assessment...

Hope there isn't a bunch of grammar bashing coming my way. :)