Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"You keep using that word. . . "

The complete quote, of course is:
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
And it comes from The Princess Bride, one of the most exquisite movies ever made, in my humble opinion.

The word, of course, is "bully."  And the people who keep using it are the Speshul Snowflakes (I think that's how it's spelled) who have decided to apply the term to me, identifying me with an Amazon reviewer who has left some rather harsh evaluations of some self-published (and even some traditionally published) romance novels.

Let's look at the definition of the word bully.

By Googling "bully definition" I came up with a whole bunch from a variety of websites.  I've chosen just a few of the first:

(noun) A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
(verb) Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.
(noun) A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people.
(noun) Bullying is the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person, physically or mentally.
Now, to be honest, I can see where an author who received a negative review, especially a lengthy review that detailed what the reviewer considered the book's faults, might feel harmed or intimidated.  I guess I've been lucky that I haven't received one of those reviews, but then hey, I haven't received very many reviews at all!

A negative review, even a really nastily negative review, is not bullying.  A single review from a single reviewer is just an opinion.

If the reviewer sought out every book a particular author wrote and posted a scathing review, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer sought out every positive review left for the book and posted a derogatory comment, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer went to all the sites where the book is sold -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc. -- and posted negative reviews, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer went to the author's personal blog and posted critical comments, that might approach bullying.

But a single review is not bullying.  It just isn't.  It's an opinion.

If the reviewer left nasty reviews on every single one of the author's books in every place published, reviews that were personal rather than addressing the content or form of the writing; if the reviewer left insulting comments on other reviews; if the reviewer stalked the author on her blog, on discussion boards where she posted, or wherever she was even talked about; if the reviewer attempted to harrass the author in her real life, either directly or by disseminating personal information about her that could reasonably be expected to lead to harm to her or her family -- that is bullying.  That is harrassment that goes way beyond a critical review.

Now, hold on a minute.  I know you're going to bring up the subject of negative reviews "harming" an author's ability to make money off her writing.  Unfortunately, reviews both good and bad are an expected part of the writing game.  There are no guarantees of success, no guarantees of good reviews.  Not every writer, even the good ones, succeeds.

Bullying is not just criticism; bullying includes that power and intimidation thing, too.  In other words, a bully wants to be able to influence the victim into doing something.  In the grown-up world it might be called extortion or blackmail.  But there has to be some intent on the part of the bully, some objective he or she wants to achieve relative to the person being bullied.

Most of the negative reviews I've seen are merely expressions of an opinion which leave the author free to ignore the review or act upon them if so desired.  In fact, all of the negative reviews I've ever seen have left the author free to ignore the review.

But what about the person the review is really intended for?  That's the reader.  Reviews are for readers; critiques are for authors.  However, I'm going to give the bullies at the stop-bullying site some wiggle room on this, because sometimes I do think a review can be written in a way that makes it seem like it's addressed to the author.

This is certainly true of some of the reviews posted at the Dear Author site.  Sometimes I think it's a little bit disingenuous of the DA reviewers to even pretend that the reviews are for the readers; when the review addresses the author on every negative point, it's pretty likely that the author is going to get the message.  I mean, yeah, the reviews are intended to let readers know what other readers thought about the books, but really you can't address the author repeatedly by name and not have her think the comments are directed at her.

However, even the most pointed review directed at the author is still not a demand that the author do anything.  There is no threat of retaliation, no "Do this, or else!"  Unless the review is part of a concerted effort to get the author to do something -- change the book, quit writing, whatever -- it's not bullying.  Bullying is not an end in and of itself.  Schoolyard bullying involving children may not have that kind of focused intent; adult bullying of the sort we're discussing here has to have a motivation, an objective.

If we go back and look at the other fundamental purpose of a review -- that it's directed at readers, not authors -- there still isn't any bullying unless the reviewer makes a "Do this, or else!" threat against the reader.  Don't buy this book, or else. . . .or else what?  Buy this book, or else. . . . or else what?  Since the review isn't targeting any specific reader, how would the, ahem, bullying reviewer make good on the extortion?

What we've seen instead, in the case of this particular group of Speshul Snowflakes, is authors who have received negative reviews and who have then deliberately targeted the reviewers with retaliatory behavior.  They stalked reviewers blogs, posted personal information that is totally irrelevant to the business of books and writing and reviewing and promoting.  And they're doing it to make the reviewers stop reviewing.  The authors -- either directly or through various surrogates such as spouses, friends, and sock puppets -- are using bullying techniques to extort silence from the reviewers. 

"Don't post any more negative reviews, or I'll post your kids' pictures."  "Take down your negative review, or I'll post your real name and home address."  "Stop telling the truth about self-published, unedited, unproofed novels, or. . . ."

Since starting this blog over a year ago, I've read a lot of self-published romance novels.  A few mysteries and some fantasy, but mostly romances.  That's my area of expertise and my favorite entertainment.  I've found some good ones -- in fact, I'm reading one right now that's absolutely wonderful, worth every sparkle of a 4.5 star.  But I have also found some real garbage.  I mean just awful stuff.  The kind of crap that editors would reject before the end of the first page.

Telling these authors that they've written garbage may be unkind, but it is also a very valid opinion, especially if that opinion is substantiated with material from the book.   Unfortunately, I think the situation has reached the point where these bullying authors -- hiding behind screen names in exactly the way they criticize their reviewers -- have lost all touch with reality.  They have become so wrapped up in their crusade against negative reviews that they are completely unaware of what they're doing.  If they read this post -- which I'm sure they won't do -- they will think either I'm not writing about them or, if I am, I'm attacking them.  Uh, no, I'm not.  I'm pointing out what they're doing.  It's up to them to make up their minds what to do about it.

I'm not going to post anyone's personal information.  I'm not going to spend hours of my precious time ferreting out who is whose sock puppet, mother, spouse, next door neighbor, or anything else.  But I'm old enough not to be afraid of bullies.  I don't back down.  I may feel a little shock for a while, but that wears off and then I'm back to normal.

This morning, Dear Author provided a link to this article about an Internet retailer who has been sentenced to four years in prison for harassing and threatening his dissatisfied customers.  His actions went a little bit further than what the stop-bullying bullies have done, but not really all that much further.  This should be a wake-up call for the stop-bullying bullies, but I'm sure it won't be.  I'm sure they're is such denial of what they're doing that it will go right over their heads.

So here's a personal message for them from me, Linda Ann Wheeler Hilton:

That's who I am.  That's my real name.  You can probably find out a lot (?) about me on the Internet.  You can post bad reviews of my books if you like, and you know I won't respond because I don't believe in it.  But there are other actions an author who is truly being bullied can take.  And if you try anything, anything at all, that threatens me, my home or my livelihood, or anyone I care about, I will not hesitate one single second to take whatever legal action is needed to keep me and mine safe.  Go write your books, regardless how good or bad they are, and grow up.  You're only making complete asses of yourselves.

But you knew that already.  You know what that word means.

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