Hey guys, Rose here.
First off, I might as well start this post off with something positive, because while I’m going to try to reflect on the latest stream of events that’s happened over the past weekend, this is probably going to get somewhat long, possibly with ruffled feathers on my part. Tackle hug time.
I will wholeheartedly say that the events of the past several days have affected my reviewing and posting on this blog, because honestly – I felt too gutted to post any reflections on books or the controversies that transpired with the Goodreads community. I’ve called it my reviewing homebase for nearly four years, so quite a bit of what’s gone wrong really is exhausting, and it has me upset, probably more than I can put into words. Much of it isn’t so much the community of people in itself – it’s more of the irresponsibility, non-responsiveness, and unprofessionalism of the staff. Those are strong claims to make on my behalf because up to this point, I’d been supportive of the community with no qualms at all. They pretty much did a 180 on many things that they stood for, and it saddens me. When you mock the people passionately trying to voice their concerns, when you enact policies that don’t give your base a chance to observe rules and regulations, when you lack clarity and transparency for the people you serve, that’s…going to draw criticism, and it’s little wonder that this has gotten so much attention in a critical way, from authors and readers alike, actually.
It’s bad business practice.
I’m going to be as reflective as I can be with this post, but it doesn’t come without some emotionally charged sentiments on my part. I went through three drafts of this post, upwards of 7,000 words, before I deleted all of them and figured I should start from scratch and take a step back to evaluate the discussions. Waiting on my hands proved the right thing to do considering all the messages, conversations, announcements that have happened in the past three days (and today even – I’m posting this on a Monday evening, so it’s off schedule with my usual SS posts).
I’ll start general, narrow into specifics on what happened, and then post my reflections about it in the aftermath. This is still an ongoing issue, so note that I may either have addendums to this post to make with new material, whether it may be in comments, amendments to this post which I’ll delineate as time goes on, or I may make separate post follow-ups.
Let’s get moving.
“The Goodreads Killer”, The Author/Reader Debate, and Reflections on Bullying,
Professionalism, and Censorship
I couldn’t help but think of a recent read of the purported satire “The Goodreads Killer” by Dave Franklin over the current matter. In the book, a fictional disgruntled author plots revenge against a reviewer who negatively shelved and reviewed his book. The book itself was written with the intentions of drawing from, and making light of, the recent tension between authors and reviewers in the Goodreads community and larger social media outlets. But many people thought this book hit a little too close to home, as did I when I read and reviewed it in consideration (plus I had issues with it aside from the proposed “humor”).
Even I’ll admit I’ve grown frustrated, taking on a dual hat as a reviewer and aspiring writer, seeing these tensions time and time again. Largely this tension is caused by widespread, glossing misconceptions about bullying (as opposed to other forms of conflict or insult, and it’s important to make this distinction because they are NOT handled/resolved the same way, not to say that they are issues that aren’t worthy of equivalent concern), about the nature of reviews, about professionalism and positions of power in the scheme of an author (or perceptions saying that one can’t be the other or both) . I’ve blogged about quite a few of the scuffles in my previous Soapbox Saturday posts, but I don’t think I’ve had a post that examines power dynamics, responsibilities, and lines of professionalism/responsibility between these two parties in my previous posts before. That will change as I examine it in my reflections following this current debate.
Even considering that measure, I think it’s wrong to silence people who have concerns and wish to express those concerns in a public format when it comes to matters of professionalism and consumer interest in the public domain. Writers, like any media professionals in the scheme of entertainment and marketing, do have some sense of “celebrity” about them, in that the things they say and do in the public spectrum give them a certain weight in line with their public image. People can choose to agree or disagree with what they say and do, and rightly so. Writers/authors can say what they will, having just as much of free range of speech as any person of any other profession or lay term, but ultimately the ramifications of expression or action can and will subject them to public forms of criticism, including boycotting, if their ideals or practices are deemed problematic by those who take offense to those ideals/practices/actions. And for the record, boycotting isn’t bullying. Neither is holding someone to task for something they did wrong in the public domain against someone who has a share in their business, or even a problematic ideal or prejudice.
The argument is made that there are places for such dialogue apart from standing in a book community, but I would argue that’s not the case if you have a social media network that provides a format for larger discussions about authors and their books. By definition, a social media network is “social”, it is a “network”, it is for the promotion of dialogue, even when the nature of those dialogues may be controversial. Goodreads actually used to be an uncensored, even sound intutitive place for this kind of dialogue, though quite a vocal crowd of dissenters – who claimed bullying (with bullying attributed as a buzz term) voiced opposition to this.
Take the recent case of a NYT bestselling author who has been widely accused of plagiarism in her works. This issue actually surfaced in the past few days for an author by the name of Shey Stahl. Stahl is a former fanfiction writer who came to some success with the novel “Waiting for You,” among other books. But recent uncoverings by Goodreads reviewers, bloggers, as well as Amazon purchasers have accused Stahl of plagiarism from various fanfic writings in her latest book “For the Summer”. Further investigations revealed that it wasn’t just “For the Summer” that lifted content from a popular fanfic, but actually ALL of her published works had lifted from various fics without permission. Dear Author covers this story in more detail.
So the question is: does this notation have a place for discussions in social media, even social media book communities like Goodreads? I would most certainly think so. If social media platforms weren’t available on Goodreads or any other book community to be able to elucidate the matter, I doubt the prompt response to the similarities would’ve arisen, and saved hundreds of thousands of potential consumers from purchasing Stahl’s work. It was a rapid fire response that actually led to the removal of Stahl’s work from Amazon, from the publisher’s end as well as her self-publish platform. It’s difficult to say where the legal turns will settle on this issue, but it’s a victory for consumers as well as the original content creators on one scale, at least for now. Some supporters have remained behind Stahl, but I found it really disturbing that many presented the backlash with the argument of Stahl being bullied in the large sphere of critique – when really the reactions from many were a taking to task from both a moral and legal transgression on Stahl’s part (plagiarism).
And it can be argued that, yes indeed, these discussions and reactions are ABOUT the work and the nature of it. I think it’s difficult for some consumers to separate an author from their work and projection because the author is a marketer, they are a business, they are a piece and stake in the very nature and projected consumption of the work they provide -and there’s an intricate intertwining with that from a marketing standpoint. While there may be an argument in the reverse, authors that are too emotionally attached to their work do not fare well in the critique and consumption of their work – which is dangerous for the successful marketing and distance needed that the profession itself calls for. Some readers may choose to disregard and consume the literature despite the author’s ideals/actions/prejudices, others may not, but at the end of the day, it’s truly up to the consumer as to whether or not they will purchase or pick up that work for their own perusal and reflect upon it. If the consumer wants to mention their interest or disinterest – they should have the open platform to do so without fear of retaliation from those who have a stake in the marketing of the work – interfering taints the marketing of that product, and a book IS a PRODUCT. A WRITER is a BUSINESSPERSON. Goodreads is NOT, and as far as it stands now, continues not to be – a professional review site. The participants in the community are NOT paid for what they do, and volunteers have shaped the community for content contributions.
It would make sense that on a book community where discussion is emphasized among CONSUMERS of books, the consumer’s interests and freedom of communications of those interests would be of priority. Not to discount author participation, but let’s be real: author’s have already had their say in the marketing, the promotion, the actual writing of the book. Once the book is out there, it’s out there. It’s not like a restaurant owner can take the spoon from the mouth of the customer and say “Here, let me put more salt on it, it might taste better that way.” A reaction is a reaction to a work. There’s little you can do to influence it because the reflection belongs to the person perusing the work – whether in perception, reflection, or consumption of content.
But as you’ll see in Goodreads latest shocking announcement and reactions, they are promoting a problematic ideal that threatens to stifle, and has already stifled, much dialogue on the reading experience for many users of the site.
Goodreads employs censorship on the eve of Banned Books Week
On a personal note, I would’ve never come across this news if a much respected reviewer in my circles hadn’t posted an update saying that she was leaving the community for good. And her response was followed by several other people in my friend feed on Goodreads with messages of upset and wanting to find alternative book communities to peruse. For myself, I’m already a part of multiple communities myself: Shelfari, BookLikes, LibraryThing, among others, in the interest of sharing whatever feedback I can about the books I read, have interest in, have disinterest, or just to keep track of in my catalog, wherever the scale they may fall on.
Note that the following announcement made by Goodreads Customer Manager, Kara, was not posted as a site wide announcement of policy changes enacted, so many Goodreads members were unaware of this policy.
This screenshot (warning, large file) was taken today (Monday), but it has been updated several times, with
over 11,000 views of the thread, and more than 2,000 comments, many of them from users complaining about the abrupt announcement, the sudden deletion of user shelves on the basis of being “about the author”. No objective guidelines were given initially as to how GR staff determined these shelves for deletion, nor were members notified before the mass deletion. Worse, several GR users, including Steph Sinclair of Cuddlebuggery (who had her “due to author” shelf removed) reported that personal shelves that had nothing to do with the author, and even those who had written five star, glowing reviews, had their reviews deleted without notice.
Author guidelines were also updated, with pandering messages towards authors who perused books with two-star or less ratings, some with unrated notes as well. Brigid Kemmerer reacted to this on Twitter, as shown in the screenshot on the right.
Many GR users – authors and readers alike – noted the irony of this event occurring on the eve of Banned Books Week, and that it was a display of censorship in a book community purported for its readership. Minority opinions in the group voiced support for the change, and some noted “Author bullying” as the reason, considering various “Do Not Read” and “Bad Author Behavior” shelves.
Many authors and reviewers alike have spoken about this measure and further contributed articulate criticisms of the policy and actions on the part of the service following the change. Some include:
Many have left the Goodreads service entirely for other book communities in response to the news, while others have chosen to stay, but curve the use of the site as a result of the controversial implementations.
Suffice to say, it’s been an eventful and overwhelming response in the past couple of days, and I have quite a few things to say myself in the aftermath of it all.
Censorship and silencing in any measure is the greatest enemy to education and enlightenment on issues, and I’m floored that a book community like Goodreads, whose initial objectives and motivations were to focus on being a reader community (with readers meaning the consumption, perception, and reflection of books among authors who READ and lay readers/bloggers/reviewers alike), would implement a new policy like this so haphazardly. It was completely the wrong way to approach something with such significant tensions.
Censorship stifles learning, understanding, productivity, consumerism, the measure of experience, reflection, even uniqueness. Creativity. The line that is crossed is if we are harmed by our persons and prevent others the ability to reflect and respond to measures of contention, even if we disagree with what they say, even if we may be HURT by what is said. Hurt in itself =/= bullying, guys. I hate the fact that so many people are misconstruing the definition of what bullying entails, and by that, undermining the experiences of those who have been bullied.
Calling an author’s craft lacking or critiquing the finer points of their haphazard spelling and grammar in a book is not the same thing as a young woman of color sitting in a cafeteria hearing a group of kids around her call her the N-word, calling her skin color “dirty” every day for a single month, so much that she has to change schools and the bus she rides to escape it. (The latter is bullying.)
Calling an author out on a plagiarism is not the same thing as a gentleman being videotaped while showering, only to have the video posted on Youtube for the world to see and be subjected to criticisms on his body hair or penis size, or the being questioned about aspects of his sexuality. (The latter is bullying.)
An author getting a 1 or 2 star review before publication, with the unpaid, lay reviewer who’s just using the Goodreads service to catalogue his interest in books, and who isn’t required to write a review is NOT the same thing as a young woman getting bombarded with messages of “slut, bitch, whore” in her locker everyday just because she has a crush on or shares a kiss with someone popular of the same or opposite sex. (The latter is bullying.)
An author being criticized for being “unprofessional” when berating a reviewer for the reflection of a book – whether their work or another author’s is NOT the same thing as using language or power to blacklist or restrict someone who is mentally or physically impaired from functioning and living as they will to achieve their goals in life. (The latter is bullying.)
I am tired of the trivialization of the term, and there are so many people (read: authors) I want to critique for their casual attributions of “bullying” in the same vein as legitimate criticisms or debates in the public sphere as the result of missteps or misconstructions that THEY THEMSELVES in their lack of professional boundaries perpetuated or failed to approach with responsibility, or even to claim “bullying” to avoid responsibility for their actions or words or degrees of hurt or offense. For using the term “bully” with the same intention as a slur against another individual – to belittle them, to berate them, to mark them beyond redemption, to not even ATTEMPT understand the root of the reasons why a person thinks, feels, or acts the way they do. To essentially use the term “bully” to rob the aspects of the directed person’s personhood.
Let me approach this from another stance specific to the author’s experience. Many, many, MANY professional authors already know that the profession they work in is a business. Which was why it was so insulting of Goodreads, as a company – to put a message essentially telling authors to “calm down” and what to do when clicking on a 2-star, 1-star, or unrated review. Professional authors should already KNOW the nature of ratings and to not take them to heart, that it is more of a reflection of the raters experience of the work or perception of the work than anything else. And if other people see the review, the rating or an overarching low rating of a book, SO WHAT? Big deal…not.
Readers are not cattle or lemmings or mindless creatures who lack the ability to go their own path or think about the things they peruse. Many of us who are readers are astute and can judge for ourselves what to read or what not to read and why. We can make decisions on what reviews are useful to us and which aren’t. That is not the job of the author to manipulate. An author, a writer WRITES. An author does not make decisions for their readers, it is OUT of the author’s hands for that decision. An author may smile, market their content, be a person who introduces the book dialogue, but it is the reader who has the voice to give in their perceptions, and that should NOT be tainted.
So, Goodreads, I am a reader, and I am a writer. I read, and I write.
Don’t insult my ability to think, speak, or expound on the media that I consume, or the conversations that i have with others about said media.
Don’t insult my ability to call out problematic measures that interfere with the consumption of that media and to warn others if it is a conflict of interest (such as in the measures of plagarism, P2P fanfic, authors berating the intelligence of their audience or jumping to assumptions on ratings or making FALSE rape claims or attacks.)
Don’t tell me that I do not have the right to choose NOT to consume a media, for whatever reason.
Don’t assume that you know the reason WHY I choose to consume or not consume a media.
Goodreads, you are not me. I’m a big girl, I can handle myself and responsiblity for the things I SAY and I DO. Please leave that up to me.
The old business measure of “serving the customer, not the shareholder” applies here, something that I think Goodreads would be better knowing as a business in itself. I was watching a seminar this past weekend from my local university on good business practices from their Business School division. I also had the pleasure of reading Christine Yano’s “PinK Globalization” – which talked about how successful Hello Kitty has been with “cute cool” culture, and how its success came in the “soft sell” – meaning it’s appeal wasn’t necessarily shoved in your face, but it was the consumer who though “Oh, this is really cute, I’d like to have this” and consumer driven by word of mouth and application. To where it went from being marketed in one dimension, to several.
Authors would do well to remember to let the market run its course and expand in its own terms. Harry Potter’s appeal reached many beyond youth on its own terms.
You may not like everything that’s said about your work, but if you try to dip your hands in to manipulate or drive reactions or reflections on your work, it won’t run its course. You may end up insulting the people who are giving your work legs regardless of the nature of the feedback – critical or not. Criticism is a natural thing – it can give strength if you know how to deal with it. And the key isn’t in pointing fingers. Critique of your work isn’t an aspect of your personhood – you are not your book, but if there’s a measure that does come into question of crossing the line to berate matters of your person – know the proper venues to go and where to get help. Explore, ask questions, learn, be receptive to the people around you, even if you may not agree with them. Be receptive, and maybe you may learn something.
Just two cents.
Until next entry, and an otherwise exhausted reader and writer,