With the changes in the publishing world, more and more the reader is becoming king. Never has the reader had so much power in what becomes hot or not than now in the age of online reviews for writing. And with the rise in self-publishing where the gatekeeping is now directly in the hands of readers, authors rely on their ability to review in order to be discovered and to gain momentum.

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Goodreads has been at the heart of controversy for a few weeks now due to the much publicized case of Lauren Pippa. I wrote about the situation but withheld her information and links due to what seemed like a mass attack. Further inspection showed that Lauren, who has now decided to publish under a different name and closed down her website, made some rookie mistakes in dealing with her difficulties. Because of those mistakes, such as addressing reviewers directly back and forth rather than ignoring and going about the business of writing, many in the writing and reader world claimed that she was not bullied at all and deserved every criticism. The story keeps its traction because it’s a concerning situation, the latest coming from Nathan Bransford.

What disturbed me was the amount of people claiming that none of what was done on Goodreads nor the comments made online, especially under the Salon.com article, were bullying. It made me think about what bullying is, why people don’t like using that term in certain scenarios, and whether or not reviews can really be seen as bullying or if they’re just honest critiques.

Bullying is usually defined as force used to intimidate others. It’s a way to express power over someone else. We’re used to seeing it in the context of school, which begs the question of whether or not the power of reviews is just the new schoolyard. But does posting a one-star review show signs of bullying? Or is it a reader’s right to express their dislike of a work freely on sites like Goodreads? It’s in the expression of our views where the answers lie.

We all have thoughts and feelings about various things that we express in different ways. To a friend in person, I have eviscerated a movie before. If I post my “review” thoughts of the same movie on Facebook, which still feels more “private” than say Goodreads, I have added snarkiness to my comments. But I know that whatever I say online can be seen by more than just me, and it’s never good to put anything there that shouldn’t be said out loud to the face of that person or organization.

Critiquing is a good thing. I do look for books that have multiple reviews and comments that state why the reader liked it. In a way, it’s a literary analysis. You can always just say you liked or didn’t like something, but your opinion matters more when you can back it up with evidence from the book itself (and yes, I know that’s all English teacher-y, but remember – I am one). If the dialogue is stilted, the characters aren’t very developed, if the plot is too simplistic, if the ending doesn’t make sense – these are all critiques I want to see readers make because that really affects me and my purchasing power.

But when does a critique cross over to the inappropriate? That question is being asked in direct correlation with Goodreads because several regular reviewers are getting called out as bullies. The website Stop the GR Bullies is making an attempt to bring to light examples of what they consider bullying on the site. They have good information in there to help those who are considering creating an account on the site as well as links to clear examples, sometimes capturing screenshots before examples are deleted. The site got much attention after the Salon article as a source of people helping in the situation of Goodreads bullying.

However, one of the sites more questionable tabs is the “Badly Behaving Goodreaders” list. The page suggests blocking anyone on that list, and the list is long. Random clicking through the list does give me pause on a few of the accounts. A quick view of over five of the accounts shows that there are issues there when some of the shelves of the accounts have derogatory names, such as “never-f*king-read”,  “cut-off-my-b*lls”, and “f*k-no”. Many of the accounts are Goodreads Librarians, and some express anger at the author tactic of aggressive soliciting for reviews. Several shelf names include something about aggressive author or badly behaving author, and perhaps they have the right to those names based on their experiences.

I question whether or not a list like this is its own form of coercion. Just because it may be in the guise of doing something good doesn’t make it right. I think it’s wise that someone is keeping track of those that may not be using their account according to the Goodreads policies, which has its own issues that add to the problems, but calling people out with links to their accounts seems harsh. At the same time, it could be used for authors who do experience a more than negative review from one of these accounts. The site overall is helpful in pointing out instances of possibly bullying, but it needs to be careful that it doesn’t cross the line.

Update: What I would like to see on the site’s “Badly behaving Goodreaders” is a clear definition of what lands a person on that list. And the infractions should be clearly spelled out. Also, I think that those that are on the list should have clear monitoring before and after being added. We who view that tab have to trust those that have added the accounts there as having good cause. I would also like to see a way for people to be taken off the site. For example, perhaps there’s a warning list for those with only one clear infraction. Or if someone doesn’t believe that they deserve to be placed there, there should be a system in place to randomly monitor their account and then take it off if indeed it turns out to be erroneous. And most of all, everyone deserves a second chance. There should be a clearly defined way for those placed on the list to get off of it. Those types of changes would help it not seem as subjective and possibly its own form of attacking.

What makes a review more than negative and bordering on mean? While snarkiness and exaggeration can be comical, the question is how they are used when writing a review. Is it snarky to say that reading someone’s book made you want to gouge out your eyes instead of finishing it? Yes. Is that a productive review used to help others make a decision to read the book or is it more to gain attention for the reviewer? That’s the bigger question.

There are so many ways to give an effective review. Talk about the character, the story arc, the world building, the ending, the dialogue, the setting, and any other number of facets of the book. If you couldn’t even get that far, it’s fine to express a less-than-stellar opinion of a book. Not all books are great or even good. And a true opinion is valuable. If you give a book a one star or name your Goodreads shelf  “should-be-no-star”, I want to know why. Being slightly sarcastic is okay, but there better be some meat on the bones of the review for me to take you seriously.

But it may be going too far saying that a negative review is a form of bullying. Bullying requires a coordinated effort. If there’s a coordination of negative comments and reviews, then it can be considered as bullying. If there’s an intentional piling on to a situation to express negative opinions in order to single out someone in order to harm them whether it’s their reputation, their sales, or their career, then it could be considered bullying. If it’s just a separate collection of lower-starred reviews, then it means that the book potentially isn’t that good, and using the term of “bullying” in order to explain negative reviews is the wrong use of the term.

I’m reminded of the Burn Book from the movie Mean Girls. The comments made in the Burn Book were meant to humiliate, but really it was meant to entertain those who created it. It established who had the power and how those people wielded that power, tipping the imbalance of that power. And reviewers do have that kind of power over authors right now.

So how can you tell if your review is an honest negative opinion that you’re sharing or if it is harmful? Here are some ways to know:

  • Are you making any insulting comments about the author that you wouldn’t make to his or her face? Just because you’re using the internet doesn’t mean that general polite rules don’t apply. Keep the comments about the author to critiquing the writing and leave the schoolyard insults out.
  • Do you only post one-star reviews? Creating one-star reviews aren’t a sign of bad reviewing necessarily. But if you intentionally only post one-star reviews because you want to point out only bad writing, then you may want to question your reasons. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad books out there. However, having reviews of varying levels of stars helps give your opinion legitimacy.
  • Do you create inappropriate bookshelf names? This really only applies to Goodreads, but some people do create intentionally insulting shelf names in order to emphasize the negativity. It’s something that reviewers feel is their right and don’t want censored, but again, it goes under general polite rules. Post a one-star review under the “don-t-read-this” shelf rather than a “i-d-rather-kill-my-grandma” shelf.
  • Have you been involved in coordinating negative comments or a purposefully low rating of an author with other reviewers? If you’re involved with communicating with others in order to purposefully post one-star reviews or negative comments on the author’s page, then you are participating in a form of bullying. Even if you came into the party independently, if you join the attack with your own negative comments, you’re part of the bullying.

I’m all for reviewers who express thoughtful critiques of a book. They’ve taken the time to read someone’s work and comment so that you can make a more informed decision about choosing what to read. Sometimes they’re the ones who catch those who are plagiarizing, although I hope that if they do reveal a plagiarist that they are careful about how they go about making accusations and bringing the situation to light. And in general, it’s hard or even impossible to police the internet and reviews online.

The only reviews we can police are any we post ourselves. Remembering that the review is about bringing attention to the book and not to ourselves can help. It’s great that the reader rules! It’s even better when the reader rules benevolently.