People Suck

I’ve held off on writing about the Jacqueline Howett discussion because I didn’t want to add to the pile-on.  She didn’t really need the extra attention.  But with Neil Gaiman also getting into the act, what’s another blog entry?  If you don’t know the story – book reviewer posts courteous, but not entirely positive, review of a book.  Author flips out.  Post and comments go extremely viral.

There’s no doubt that her behavior is frustrating.  She makes self-publishers look bad because people can point and say: Look, self-publishers write terrible books!  They’re unhinged! Actually, this reaction doesn’t make much more sense than saying something like…all Muslims are terrorists.  Yeah, a pretty heady comparison, but it makes very little sense to paint an entire group with a brush because of the actions of the few. Even people who say “The majority of self-published books are bad” don’t have an argument, unless they happen to be reading millions of books.

But that’s a different discussion – the main takeaway from this isn’t just “Don’t respond to reviews” but “Don’t kick someone when they’re down.” Howett should never have responded to the review as she had, but the response to her response has been even worse – because it’s evidence of mob mentality.  People were becoming so cruel on the post that it led one commenter to write this:

“Anonymous said:

I don’t see how coming onto a blog to gloat or laugh about someone having a public emotional meltdown is better behaviour than having an over-emotional meltdown.

Humans suck.”

It isn’t better. Arguably, it’s worse. It’s why people are posting as anonymous. Because then they don’t need to show humility or a modicum of compassion.

For everyone revelling in this — a quick story. I had something similar happen with a colleague who ranted and swore at me. Face to face. When I took him aside in private he broke down and admitted his father had just died the night before. Me pointing an error out to him had been the final straw.

Please don’t forget that behind an easy laugh is a real person. And you’ve no idea who she is or what might have prompted her behaviour.

It doesn’t excuse her. But it doesn’t excuse you either.

Agreed.  It actually gets worse than that because now her book has 103 comments on Amazon, but it’s not ranking that high – meaning people are trashing the book without reading it.  Maybe they’re reading the sample, but still, I don’t really understand the impetus to write a review like this one:

Reading this book only made me pity this author. There are so many run-on sentences, spelling errors, and even more poorly constructed sentences that it makes any form of connecting with the actual content very difficult. Being that this author has written even one book, she no doubt has aspirations of becoming an author. I’m afraid, however, that without a couple of good courses on composition, grammar, English, etc. her dreams may be squashed.

Good job reviewer, you’re participating in squashing her dreams.  Feel better?  It’s no great news that the internet is a nitpicking engine, and people act in ways that they would never do in real life – this is just another example of the viral nature of the internet where people descend on something to mock it mercilessly.  Maybe Jacqueline Howett will take some of the criticism to heart and rework her prose – but the point didn’t need to be made over and over again, with elevating cruelty. Really, the only reason people seem to be doing this is to get a little self-righteous jolt of superiority.  And when compared to bad writing, I’ll go with bad writing.

Update: I didn’t realize just how viral this had become. From Forbes – enough to make you want to tear your hair out:

Howett’s temper tantrum spotlights the fact that, well, self-published authors are often not professional authors. Writers who work their way through traditional publishing channels typically have a writing background that includes receiving rigorous criticism and editing.

Tell that to the growing list of “professional” writers who are self-publishing. The Guardian is more reasoned:

It didn’t surprise me that this teapot-sized tempest went viral within online writing communities, tweeted back and forth with smirky comments. But I didn’t find it entirely hysterical. Is her response pathetic? Yes. Can we surmise that her resistance to criticism may have contributed to the fact that it appears she did not allow anyone to edit her somewhat incoherent prose before she published? Probably. But is it the same thing that everyone who has ever published anything would like to do when he or she receives a bad review? I’m afraid so. And I also fear that everyone who tweeted the link to Howett’s meltdown knows that it’s true. By drawing attention to Howett’s misstep, we make it seem like we’d never do it ourselves. But, by golly: we’d all love to.

  • Part of me hopes this lady comes back with an excellent second book.

    • Part of me hopes the same thing. But I read the first chapter and it was mostly a discussion about where the main character was planning to have dinner, complete with a recipe. The original reviewer was far kinder than I would have been.

  • Eh. You missed my Comment there about reviews and how I had a zero-star one for a fanzine I once did. If the book is as bad as stated, there is probably no hope for her in this lifetime. She is not a writer. She’s someone who thinks she can have a payday from her dreck.

  • klcrumley

    I agree that what she did was bad form–and why I have decided to cease to comment on reviews (both negative and positive) from now on. It’s a valuable lesson to learn.

    However, I agree that the “tomato throwing” at the author is completely uncalled for. Flame wars don’t do anything but bring out trolls who like to participate in such “fun.”
    It’s just another case of negativity spreading like wildfire on the net. I guess you’ll have that…
    As you said, “people suck.”

    However, what really annoys me is the double-standard. When people like Anne Rice rant at a negative review and it turns into a huge comment war, she’s “A Diva.”

    But when an indie does it, we’re labeled as over-sensitive nut-jobs who probably can’t handle rejection/criticism and then, they assumed that’s why we self-published. We’re “children” who need to be scolded for our immaturity.

    But Anne Rice…Tsk! She’s the Queen, and has earned a right of passage to behave as such. *rolls eyes.*

    It’s bad form for any author–whether commercially published, smaller press published, or indie/self-published.

  • There is a difference between a professional writer who turns to self-publishing for various reasons, and a non-professional writer who has never been published before, never been subjected to rigorous editing and criticism, and probably never been reviewed before, publishing and then having that content critiqued in a public forum. All of which is apparently true in Howett’s case. That said, you only plucked out one sentence from my article. I go to state that many professional writers (myself included) have fired back online. However, I will say that Howett’s response was a) incredibly overblown considering the amount of criticism, which directed solely at her lack of editing, not at her storytelling capabilities and b) she repeatedly told the reviewer to “F off.” I doubt even Anne Rice did that. Nor did I. Though I’ve certainly felt like it at times 🙂

    Still, I agree with you about the piling on.

    • No doubt there’s a difference, I’m just wary of lumping all self-publishers together as “unprofessional writers.” Especially with the demographic of self-published writers changing so quickly. 99.9% of self-published writers know not to tell a reviewer to f*ck off even if they’ve never written professionally.

    • klcrumley

      “professional” is an attitude and not a means of publication, my friend. 😉

      I am self-published, but conduct myself as a professional. Everyone should, whether we are Anne Rice or some unknown writer.
      Nuff said.

      However, I’ll warn you that there is a rather ugly word for those who judge an entire group of people based on the actions of very few.

  • While most reviews of my books have been “five stars,” reviews from ignorant readers make me reluctant to read reviews. One person criticized one of my books because he said the type size was too large. Actually, it’s the same size that the Supreme Court requires on documents submitted to the court, to enhance readability. OTOH, I have several eagerly-anticipated books on my shelves that I have not been able to read because they use fly-turd-size type. I wrote a review of one, pointing out that I could not read it. A reader complained that one of my books is out-of-date. He bought it despite a strong warning in the book’s Amazon description that says that the book has been replaced by a newer book.

  • Your blog was dead on. This situation reminds me of all the lynch mobs I’ve seen in movies and read about in books, unfortunately even history books. Regardless of Howett’s writing skills and professionalism, what the crowd did with the nastiness of their comments and reviews.

    Reader reviews at Amazon are important. I hate to see them skewed. I’m not in agreement with publishers holding books back for Kindle release or disabling text-to-speech, but my disagreement is even greater with people who have used Amazon reviews to express their dislike of these practices.

  • Thanks for another great post, Henry.

    I think the independent writing community will just have to put up the “bad” writing and “unprofessional” behavior some idependent authors will inevitably offer the world. The traditional, 20th century, publishing community could keep out or throw out what it considered to be bad actors. But presently the gates are wide open. Anybody can call oneself, and inexpensively become, an independent author. I love the freedom, even if it does lead to some ugly scenes at times.

    Karen, I especially liked reading your comments on the double standard. I’ll let Henry speak for himself, but I believe he agrees with you on that.

  • Melissa

    This “news” (should it be news at all?) was all over the Internet – even in a forum filled with journalists and freelance writers, which is where I was alerted to it. I contemplated some of the reasons the author responded as she did. Maybe this book has a special meaning to her. Perhaps a character is based on someone she loved and lost. Maybe she got the news that someone close to her was dying of cancer that morning. None of us can know.

    All I do know, as someone who was brought up to show tolerance and compassion, is that the responders’ behavior was far more abhorrent than the author’s by a long shot. It takes a fair amount of time to bop over to Amazon, download her book (or a sample of it), read it (or at least claim to) and write a scathing “review” in which the author’s behavior is mentioned. Irrelevant. Obviously, some people who engaged in the exchange simply couldn’t get their teeth out of this. The premeditation of the mob sickens and frightens me.

    I couldn’t find any reason to retweet this story. Even commenting on it makes me feel vaguely … icky. I also hope the author comes back with a really great novel. In fact, I’d edit “The Greek Seaman” gratis, as I work with writers for whom E is a SL.

  • I think she should write a book about her experiences. Hell she could say that she was “Featured in Forbes” – how many of us can say that? A book about her story and the comments it generated would be an interesting non-fiction.

  • RF

    The point is that there are two kinds of bad reviews: subjective and objective. The former considers plot, characterisation and tone of voice, and I can (to an extent) sympathise with writers who react badly to adverse criticism in these areas. The latter, however, simply considers the actual mechanics of writing (grammar and punctuation) and there is no room for subjective disagreement.

    In this case, the review was actually pleasant and favourable on the subjective points, but critical on the mechanics of the author’s writing. That criticism was clearly correct: based on excerpts from her work, the writing on her blog and her responses to the negative criticism, this writer is not adept technically and needs to learn her craft.

    On that basis, I’m not sure why I should feel sympathy towards her: the reviewer correctly pointed out her areas of weakness, enabling her to improve, and she responded with a catalogue of abuse and thinly disguised threats.

    Ultimately, what this illustrates is not the dark side of human nature but the downside of self-publishing. For the first time, people who cannot write to publication standard can now cheaply get their words in print and submit them to reviewers. The result, in many cases, will be public humiliation; we can expect a lot more of this to come.

  • I didn’t think Big Al’s review was all that terrible, to warrant a tantrum like that. She seemed, (and should) to be angry at herself for uploading the wrong copy, I guess. I think she said that. But responding to bad reviews with anything other than, “Thanks for the time.” is probably a bad idea. like twenty people woulld have even noticed.
    There was a comment on Al’s Blog-“this is exactly why I won’t review self published.” And I couldn’t believe the narrow minded ignorance I was reading, (stereotyping kind errks me) especialy coming from some proposed professional doing reviews.
    I didn’t look at Howetts amazon, I heard it was pretty bad, and thats a shame that people have nothing better to do with their time.
    In Self publishing-editing is crucial, can’t even express that enough. Even after a professional editor, there’s gonna be problems.
    People will forget all about it soon enough, or people will buy her book to see for themselves, (even better for her)
    Maybe she get a reality tv offer, where she walks around going off on reviewers, publishers, readers. That might be kinda fun.
    But I’ll bet the attention has boosted some sales in her corner anyway.
    I think the lesson is only keep the final draft handy, bury the rest some where in your files.

    Kevin Lynn Helmick

  • As a self-published author with many years of experience honing my craft, I can only say that there are terrible actors who rake in millions of dollars in ticket sales just because of their bad behavior, just as there are “professional” authors who use their notoriety like a club to beat readers over the head with their so-called “expertise”. I chose to self-publish because I’m not getting any younger and I was not going to wait for the traditional publishers to get their act together in the 21st century. That said, I thought it amateurish for the author of the book to respond to negative reviews after the book was published. Certainly that only served to throw gasoline on the fire; but she should have gotten somebody to read the book before she even published it. Nuff said.