Self-Expression vs. Bullying: Wading into the Fray

I was away on holiday (mostly on a narrowboat on the Oxford canal) when the latest Goodreads-related dust-up took off, so I had to catch up when I got home. I’ve been sorely tempted to just stay out of it, or to limit my participation to “you go, girl” comments to those with whom I agree.* But after reading far too many threads full of head-nodding “they deserve it” comments of agreement with the stalkers, I feel the need to speak out.

The way I see it, people have a right to express themselves about pretty much anything, but being a consumer gives one a special right. If I buy a vacuum cleaner and it sucks — or rather, doesn’t suck the way it’s supposed to — I’m going to tell my family and friends not to buy that model, or even that brand. And if I bought it from an online vendor, I might post those same thoughts on the web site, because I’m going to get email asking me to do so, because I want to warn others, and because it helps me feel better about my bad experience to share it and maybe help someone else avoid a similar disappointment. I might even express those thoughts using profane language, hyperbole, humor, snarky attitude or any combination of those things, if that’s how I roll.

Should I expect the inventor of the machine to respond to my comment, telling me that I didn’t use the thing correctly, or telling me that I must be wrong, because of the dozens/hundreds of positive reviews from other consumers, insinuating that my experience isn’t legitimate? Or telling me that the manner in which I’ve chosen to express myself somehow invalidates my experience, so that the conversation stops being about the product and starts being about me and my right to express my opinion of something I bought and paid for? I don’t think so! Don’t tell me that his vacuum cleaner is his baby, and it hurts him to have me say that it’s ugly and doesn’t work for me, especially if I say it in a “mean” way. And if some other consumers join in to agree with my opinion, share similar experiences, or just defend my right to express myself, are we going to be labeled a gang of bullies, with poor Mr Dyson (or whomever) as the victim of our horrible behavior? Nope; not going to happen. Because it shouldn’t. And it shouldn’t happen on Goodreads, either.

I have had some experience of real bullying, albeit less than a lot of folks. My family moved to a new town when I was just starting the 6th grade, so I went to junior high school knowing absolutely no one. From day one, I was singled out by a particular group of girls — my hair was wrong, my clothes were wrong, my figure was wrong, and my intelligence was intolerable. Snide comments and teasing were hard to take, and when that escalated to threats of violence, I became miserable. I knew eight routes home, trying to avoid my persecutors after school, and I lived in fear. I didn’t tell my parents, because I didn’t think they would sympathize, any more than they sympathized with my misery over the move itself (I was wrong on that one, but at the time I was sure they would tell me to tough it out). All my teachers were men, as was the principal, and I didn’t trust any of them to believe me or take my concerns seriously, and I was threatened with even worse treatment if I told anyone. So I just kept my head down, ran home after school, and stayed home sick whenever I could get away with it. It was the worst year of my childhood.

That’s bullying, and that’s just not what goes on when a reader dislikes a book — even if she expresses that dislike in strong, profane or snarky terms. It’s not bullying even if a bunch of other readers agree with her, or defend her right to be as nasty and extreme in her opinions as she wants to be.  Because the author released a product for public consumption, and the consumers have every right to describe, discuss and share their experience of and reaction to that product. The author has no real place in that conversation, and authors who can’t handle those kinds of reactions should avoid reading reactions to their books, especially those conveniently labeled with a low rating.

I spent many years teaching theatre, and I’ve done a lot of acting, and I can tell you that not every audience member has enjoyed every performance. Nobody is a hit every time, and if I couldn’t accept that, and the possibility of negative reviews and comments, I hope I would know better than to go on the stage.  As a director, I’ve had my share of audiences and critics who didn’t understand or appreciate my work, but that’s to be expected. It goes with the territory, and anyone who can’t deal with that has no business in the business.  The same is true of publishing — if you don’t want to risk someone hating what you write, then don’t put your work out there for public consumption.  Or if you can handle the idea but you don’t want to have to hear about it, don’t read your own reviews (or only read the glowing ones); you don’t have to read what people say about your work, because they aren’t really talking to you anyway.

But if you DO read those reviews and comments, and you DO step into the conversation to try to “defend” your work or to object to either the content or the tone of expression, expect a harsh reaction to your intrusion and your defensiveness. You’re not being bullied if that happens.

*Here are a few links to folks with whom I agree:
Ann Somerville, “Why books are like toasters”
Carolyn Jewel, “A Modest Proposal”
Foz Meadows, “Bullying & Goodreads”
Sarah Wendell, “A Few Words on Reviews, Reviewing, and Bullshit”

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Something is very wrong with us, and it’s not bad reviews
  2. Trackback: Reactions against » Readers Have Rights

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