This is an account, written for my Writing Creative Non-Fiction class back in May, of my encounter with Gilbert Ohanian (previously covered on this blog) and a discussion of similar reactions from other authors to bad reviews.
The internet has a changed a lot of things in a lot of different ways, and although there are plenty of people ready to complain about people spending too much time looking at their smartphones or whatever, most agree that the access to information and the ability to communicate that the internet provides is mostly a good thing. The world is a better place for it. Those who previously would have had no way to have their voices heard can speak out. Issues of global importance can be readily communicated. We can share photos with family or catch up with what old friends are doing far more easily than ever before. But there are some things the internet facilitates that are unquestionably bad.
One example is the phenomenon known as “cyber bullying”, threats and intimidation or psychological abuse over a distance, made possible by the same social media platforms that allow such free and easy communication with friends and loved ones. And when you have such immediate access to other people, it's easy to get drawn in. In the past, if you got angry with someone, you could go home and cool off. They weren't at your house, so there was no way for the argument to continue. Now, they're just a click away. It's so easy to fire off an angry message or post a blog entry to keep the fight going. And on the receiving end, although you may block the person attacking you, it can feel like you're being assaulted in your own house. Particularly if friends or supporters of the other party get involved.
And sometimes these online conflicts go a step further and the harassment begins to move into more traditional channels. Phone calls, even stalking. My experience with online harassment never got that far, but others have not been so lucky. The internet makes it easy for people to communicate with you, and that's generally a good thing, but there are people you don't want to have that power. There are people who will try to do you harm. One of those people is named Gilbert Ohanian.
It all started with an email. I pretty much just use email for mailing lists and notifications, so when I got a message from an actual human my curiosity was piqued. But that curiosity turned to confusion as I read. An author called Gilbert Ohanian had written to me, offering to send me a free copy of his book, Chestnuts: A True Story About Being Bullied, to review. I do write book reviews – on my blog, on Goodreads, on Amazon – but I'm not well-known or highly regarded as a reviewer, and to this day I still have no idea where he found my name or why he contacted me in particular. But I'll read just about anything, so I accepted his offer and a few days later he sent me a copy of the book. To cut a long story short, it was terrible and I said as much in my review.
The book was poorly formatted, badly written, and contained bad advice and unsupported arguments and speculation. And on top of that, this supposed crusader against bullying came off as a bully himself, angry, violent and eager to turn nearly any situation into some sort of conflict. And when these conflicts inevitably arose, he always framed them the same way – himself as the victim of a psychopathic bully. Either he had the misfortune to run into an unreasonably large number of pathological bullies throughout his life, or the problem was him.
What happened after I wrote my review was bizarre. I woke the next day to multiple notifications, on Facebook and Google Plus, of comments and messages from a number of accounts with suspiciously similar writing styles, accusing me of bullying; defamation; harassment; racism; misogyny; fraud, and threatening to have me (and my friends) put on “the scammers list”, along with other similarly vague and nonsensical threats. I will say this for him, he was willing to put plenty of effort into harassing me. On top of all the fake social media accounts he also left comments on 47 of my reviews on Amazon accusing me of not reading the books I review and charging money for negative reviews. I'm not sure who was supposed to have paid me to write negative reviews or why. Is that a thing that happens? I don't think it is.
On top of that he also posted a “rebuttal” of my review on Goodreads along with the claim that he'd never sent me the book – although he did admit to having offered, apparently I just never took him up on it. Strangely, he never backed down from this claim even after I posted the emails clearly showing that he had sent me the book. It's that particular lie that confuses me most; I just don't understand why it's important to him that people think he didn't send me the book. He also became very indignant over being called out on his harassment; It wasn't him, he said. He had nothing to do with those messages I received. In fact, I probably sent them myself for some reason. Then he sent me another email accusing me of bullying – and making more threats and demands – this time pretending to be his own son (but, confusingly, signing the message “anonymous”).
The whole experience was bizarre and hilarious, and died down completely after a few days. I don't know if he realised how crazy he was being or just moved on to some other target, but despite his promises to “destroy [me]” and “hound [me] for the rest of [my] life” I haven't heard from him since. Throughout the whole thing though, what struck me as strangest was one comment he made to me in an email: “P.S.S: [sic] Comedian GloZell Green [sic] probably wouldn’t like you. And she likes everyone!”. GloZell Simon (née Green), apparently, is a YouTube personality and has absolutely no connection to me or Ohanian that I can see. I don't know if he expected me to have heard of her or why he thought her hypothetical opinion would carry any weight. It just came out of nowhere.
This experience with Ohanian got me thinking about the topic, and an acquaintance linked me an article from the other side, so to speak, written by an author who had responded to a negative review. I wouldn't name names, but she published her take on it in The Guardian, so it's already public.
Goodreads gives its authors a pretty clear warning about commenting on negative reviews: “We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it. If you still feel you must leave a comment, click ‘Accept and Continue’ below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).” And it seems that Kathleen Hale (in her own words a “charmless lunatic”) was given a number of bad reviews before the one that she eventually decided to respond to, so it's not clear why this one got to her so badly, but she pushed past the warning and responded.
Reading Hale's story, it seems at first that the reviewer, Blythe Harris, may be a rather unpleasant person, but soon cracks start appearing in Hale's account. She tries to frame it as the reviewer having an unhealthy fascination with her and taunting her on social media, which would be immature and unpleasant, but still not nearly enough to justify the lengths Hale would eventually go to. But in truth, Harris never directly engaged with Hale on Twitter. It was Hale who initiated the contact, Hale who began harassing Harris. Hale went out of her way to find out what was being said about her by this reviewer (despite already knowing that it was unlikely to be complimentary).
Hale even claims that other authors warned her not to engage with Harris. She says these others told her that Harris would maliciously seek to destroy her career (although there seems to be no evidence for this). So even by her own account she had plenty of reason not to engage and no reasonable motive for her actions. Like Ohanian, she seems to have gone out of her way to pick a fight with someone for nothing more than a bad review.
I was starting to see more parallels between Hale and Ohanian, and I hadn't even read an outsider's perspective on the issue yet. Like Ohanian, Hale was more than capable of making herself look bad without anyone's help. When she makes claims like “[internet trolls] share traits with child molesters and serial killers” it becomes increasingly clear that she's not dealing with reality as the rest of us understand it. And if your own account of your behaviour makes you sound like a crazy person, that's probably not a good sign.
Like Ohanian, Hale went in search of her reviewer's social media accounts – one might almost call it an attempt at doxxing if either of them were computer-savvy enough to do that. At least in my case all the information was public – it turns out that Blythe Harris is a pseudonym, and Hale went so far as to track down the real person behind the account and even drove to her home. She says she left without even speaking to Harris, but even she knew that she was acting crazy here. What did outside observers think of all this, I wondered?
Googling the names involved turns up some pretty illuminating articles, some of which include screenshots of public Twitter conversations between Hale and her critics (Harris and others), making Hale's claim that she hadn't engaged an obvious lie. The general consensus seems to align with my own interpretation; Kathleen Hale stalked and harassed someone for writing a bad review, after harassing other reviewers online. And after the ill-advised article in the Guardian, people went digging and found a couple of other articles previously written by Hale in which she openly admits to other instances of worrying behaviour. It seems she lacks any kind of self-awareness or the ability to see how she looks to other people.
Ohanian may have been harmlessly stuck on the other side of the planet from me, and Hale may have stopped short of doing actually harm to Harris, but it does give one pause. If you write a review on the internet, and the person who's work you're reviewing doesn't like it, how will they respond? No one should have to be concerned for their safety because they didn't like a book (or YouTube video or video game or anything else). But even now there are those who do not believe that Kathleen Hale did anything wrong. It seems astounding (especially as Hale openly admits to stalking, which was a crime last I checked) but some people are still on her side. That is, not just people who know her personally but people who read her story and thought “Yes, that seems reasonable.”
And while these isolated incidents are worrying enough on their own, it gets worse. Some of these overly-defensive authors are forming semi-organised groups. A huge debate raged in one of the Amazon reviews for Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry related to ongoing disputes over the Hugo Awards. A group calling themselves “Sad Puppies” feel that science fiction is being taken over and ruined by so-called “social justice warriors” (SJWs), feminists and anti-racism campaigners. This group has, for the last few years, been trying to influence the voting for the Hugo Awards to exclude books they perceive as being “overly PC” and they are every bit as rabid and frightening in their attacks on critics as those without agendas.
And it's important to realise that the SJW label is applied by the Sad Puppies, not by the reviewers themselves. Write a bad review of one of their books and regardless of your opinions or intent, you may be branded an enemy and set upon by the author and other Sad Puppy supporters. And when these aggressive authors have supporters, things can become very serious very quickly. Emily Giffin can say quite honestly that she never harassed Amazon reviewer AvidReader, and yet AvidReader received harassing messages and phone calls, and it seems fairly clear that it was Giffin's fault.
You see, Giffin's husband got into an argument with AvidReader, and Giffin posted about it on Facebook. Seems relatively harmless, but it turns out that Giffin has fans. Quite a lot of fans. And some of them are perhaps not the calmest and most reasonable people. Giffin would say that she never encouraged anyone to harass AvidReader, and it's true that “there [my husband] sits, in a lather, doing Amazon comment battle with an anonymous person. I refuse to look but you are welcome to” is not the same as “please track down this anonymous reviewer and make them suffer”, but it's easy to see how some may have read that implication into it.
And this all leads us to quite a worrying place, where simply stating your opinion can lead to quite real and serious consequences, from online harassment to phone calls to stalking, often by multiple people. But what's the solution? Is there one? A fearful person may decide to simply disengage, to keep quiet. But the whole point and strength of the internet is that it lets us speak out, that anyone can get their message out there. And we shouldn't have to stay silent because of the bad behaviour of others.
Unfortunately there is often very little that can be done. If you have evidence of a specific individual harassing or stalking you then you can go to the police. But what if it's a crowd of anonymous strangers? What if half of them aren't even in the same country as you? What can the police do when no one individual can be held accountable? What do you do when someone you don't even know is sending you threatening messages and knows where you live? This new freedom to communicate with anyone, anywhere, any time is a two-edged sword. We can all share our thoughts, ideas and opinions, but that means that it's much easier for others to get to us, and it's impossible to know what might set these angry, unstable people off. It might be a book review, it might be an apparently innocuous tweet or Facebook post. And once they latch onto you, there doesn't seem to be much that you can do about it.
Maybe there's a solution. Maybe someone, somewhere has the answer. But until society and the law catch up with this new digital freedom, all you can do is take care. If you're the victim of harassment, document it, report it, drag it out into the light. Even if the police can't do anything, you can use your opponent's own words against them – that is, get the facts out there and make sure everyone can see who the bad guy is. Show their supporters what sort of person they are, and hopefully you'll find that you have more support than you may have thought. In most cases, it's not hard to see who's acting crazy and who's just being harassed. Take the high road and try not to engage, and if you start receiving threats or feel unsafe, go to the police. Because the ability to speak openly and honestly is too valuable to lose to a bunch of crazies with anger issues.