This week, an author by the name of Kathleen Hale wrote an article for The Guardian, describing her attempts to track down and confront 'Blythe Harris,' an alleged 'Goodreads Bully.' If you're an author or aspire to be one, it makes for disturbing reading.
Personally, I don't think either 'Blythe' or Kathleen emerged from the story as morally victorious. Yes, 'Blythe' certainly displayed all the hallmarks of a professional online troll - but the tactics Kathleen gradually descended to in her somewhat obsessive mission to unmask and confront her nemesis could justifiably have qualified as stalker behaviour by the end. (Not to mention put her in considerable danger - all she knew of this woman was that most of the personal details she'd posted about herself online were lies. What if she - or maybe even he - had turned violent in response to being finally confronted?)
It all started with a tweet, apparently. 'Blythe' offered suggestions to Hale about her next book, to which Hale responded pleasantly - and then subsequently discovered 'Blythe' had already left a blistering, one-star review about her latest book on Goodreads. It wasn't the only one-star review she'd received there, but Hale was particularly aggrieved by this one and so, ignoring the warnings about responding to negative reviews issued to those signed in as Authors on the Goodreads site, she commented back to 'Blythe.' And that, as they say, is when it all kicked off. 'Blythe' enlisted her friends to mount a campaign of hate on Hale and anyone who supported her, while Hale, on discovering that 'Blythe' was on the Badly Behaving Goodreaders list, Followed and Googled the woman to within an inch of her life, to the point where she actually visited her house and, when that failed to result in a face-to-face meeting, phoned her up at her workplace pretending to offer her a book reviewing gig.
A week earlier, the law was changed in the UK so that persistent trollers could be jailed for up to two years, which indirectly resulted in the suicide of a woman who was alleged to have trolled the parents of Madelaine McCann. Trolling has suddenly got a lot more serious, for all parties. But why do people do it in the first place? I'm no psychiatrist, but I have a theory or two.
Imagine your life is... well, not all that great at the moment, in these uncertain times of wobbly economies and our governments getting us into wars for reasons they're never quite clear about. Perhaps you're in a dead-end job you hate, with no chance of promotion or getting a better job because no-one appreciates your skills. Or perhaps you don't have a job at all, and you're finding that the longer you don't have one the harder it is to convince potential employers of your capabilities - whilst simultaneously dealing with the media ranting about the long-term unemployed not really wanting to work anyway, because they're happy to sit around on their backsides claiming welfare for the rest of their lives. More than anything, you've probably got to a stage where you feel like nothing you do or say matters or makes a difference in the world anymore; you're just an invisible drone that just gets walked all over and shouted down at every turn.
Now imagine you've found a magical place where all your thoughts and feelings can potentially be seen by the whole world, in an instant. You can speak the deepest, darkest thoughts of your mind and millions of people will see them. If people agree with them they'll say so, and you'll know you're not alone in thinking and feeling that way - you'll have new allies. And the people that don't agree... well, they can shout at you all they like, but they can't find you or know who you really are, because you're using a secret identity. In fact, you can even work it this way for yourself: anything you say that gets a good response is you, but anything that gets a bad response is actually your online alter-ego - an alternative personality you can slip in and out of like a comfy suit, but isn't the real you at all...
Unsurprisingly, this is going to go to the heads of some people. As long as you never meet the people you're horrible to face-to-face, it's all too easy to kid yourself that you're not doing any real damage, and anyone who gets upset by mere words on a screen should get a grip, grow a pair, etc., etc. Completely forgetting that, if you were to say those same words out loud to the face of the person you're directing them at, you could reasonably expect some nasty repercussions from pretty much anyone in earshot. What the internet has done is to remove the consequences of screwed-up social interactions, and as a result many people have got lazy and unlearned the fine art of treating others as they would wish to be treated. Sounds logical written here, but the problem is hard to solve in practice because human beings don't evolve at nearly the same pace as our technology. Our little fleshy brains are still trying to catch up - and by the time they've done that technology will have sprinted on further down the line anyway.
Bearing all of that in mind, is it really worth calling out someone who gives your work a nasty review?
Are they allowed to rip into all your hard work and call it a pile of stinking trash, using horrible grammar and spelling that would embarrass a five-year-old? Do they have the right to tell everyone outright lies about your book, saying they found it racist/sexist/anti-ginger-people when it clearly, absolutely is not? Are they entitled to say they think the author must be a brain-dead moron with no talent for writing whatsoever?
Erm... yes, they are. Sucks I know, but that's the way it is, unfortunately - because it's their opinion. And any time an author responds to a reviewer to tell them their opinion is somehow wrong... well, you'll never score any points for that, I'm afraid. Yes, that even applies if you think the reviewer got some facts wrong - "I honestly don't know how you can say my book is racist when it doesn't even have any ethnic minorities in it" - because again, that's an opinion the reviewer formed from reading your book. Most importantly, if the angry reviewer is the kind of person who's going to enlist all their friends to carpet-bomb you with bad reviews and generally try to kick your writing career in the 'nads if they decide they don't like you... do you really want to hand them ammo by engaging in dialogue with them? Even if you try to make it friendly and polite?
So stay out of it. Bite your tongue, step away from the 'net, walk away and eat cake (or whatever it is you do to make yourself feel better.) I'd like to say I'm speaking from an unblemished standpoint on this - but of course I'm not. I've had a couple of smackdown reviews of parody lyrics I've written online in the past - and yeah, I did respond to them. I was as polite and friendly as I could possibly have been (considering I was telling them I thought they'd misunderstood the motives behind my lyrics - and yes, I am facepalming as I type this) but even so, my response added absolutely nothing of value to the conversation, and if I could go back now and erase what I wrote I would, in a heartbeat.
Bad reviews hurt, I know. Bad, malicious and completely unfair reviews hurt like hell. But at the end of the day, once your book is published it's not your job to fight for it anymore. Your baby's all grown up now and it has to make its own way in the world, and you can't keep roaring up like a mother tiger every time someone rips into it. Let it go. And write the next one.