May 28, 2017

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Anonymous Book Reviews: License to Be Cruel

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I started my professional writing life as a political columnist, and I often joke that the vitriolic emails and online comments I received from that side of my life were great preparation for some of the snarkier review journals in my present life as a writer of young adult fiction.

Too many anonymous reviewers use their alternate online persona as a blank check to for cruelty. It’s as if being faceless themselves allows them to forget that there is a living, breathing human being with a full range of emotions who will be affected by their words.

In my own experience, online anonymity led to serious bullying and threats. Last November, a man who objected to a political tweet I’d directed toward another person he followed, scraped a picture of me and my deceased father, on the one-year anniversary of his death, and used the image to create a Twitter account called “SaraC**tWh*r*.” When Twitter shut down his account, he made another account and tweeted a reference to my being on an “I like rape” message board—and threatened to make me a “real victim.” He eventually stopped contacting me, and I never found out his identity.

150306_Up4Debate_SarahDarerLittmanWhile my experience with anonymous book reviews hasn’t been that extreme, what I’ve learned in my decade as a published author is that reviews, anonymous or not (as well as well-written or not), can hurt in other ways. It’s for that reason that I stopped reading reviews on Goodreads. As an author, I’m a voracious reader, and I want to read other author’s reviews, too. However, every time I logged onto the site to track my own reading, I was automatically shown the ratings and number of reviews of my own books. What I find disturbing is when the reviews (some of which are anonymous, some aren’t) contain review of matter that is unrelated to the book, such as the author’s behavior on social media. This is against Goodreads policy.

Ultimately, what being a book author and online citizen means is that there is a lot out of my control. Not everyone is going to like my books, and I can choose to learn from constructive negative reviews, and use the information to improve my writing. I can also choose to ignore truly nasty reviews, because most lack thought and empathy.

So if I get a bad review, I vent to my friends, throw a time-limited pity party, and keep a stash of emergency chocolate close by. Most important of all, I get on with writing the next book. What I don’t do is go to a blogger’s house—like what YA author Kathleen Hale confessed to doing in her last October article in The Guardian—unless I’ve been invited.

Sarah Darer Littman is the author of Want to Go Private? (2001); Life, After (Scholastic, 2010); Purge (all three Scholastic, 2009); and Confessions of a Closet Catholic (Puffin, 2005), winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Her latest novel, Backlash (Scholastic), is hitting shelves March 31. When she’s not writing novels, Sarah is a columnist for CTNewsJunkie and teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University.

Are Anonymous Book Reviews Necessary?
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Comments

  1. Vicki Reutter says:

    Sarah – I am in your camp. As a college newspaper editor, a high school librarian, SLJ reviewer for many years, and now Children’s Literature instructor, I do feel I have a trained eye for good literature. BUT, I also know I have wanted to pan titles that my students loved, and I have loved titles that my editors did not agree were star-worthy. Now and again, there have been books with misinformation, or were banal, or had too many rhetorical devices, and so on. I think these things are easy to point out in an objective manner. Anonymity does bring out the worst of people in most social media forums, and in respected venues I think it is more often pretentiousness. Refraining from a scathing review in a professional journal is an art, and I would prefer not to have my judgment of a book clouded before reading it.

    • Vicki – I think it’s perfectly possible to give an honest, critical review without being cruel. I also think that if we as authors can’t take an honest, critical review without throwing a public hissy fit, then we probably shouldn’t be doing what we do. When my second book came out, I read a review from someone I really respect that was critical, and yes, it was hard to read that this person I respect didn’t like my second book as much as my first. But because I respected that person so much, instead of whining (okay, maybe I whined a little, but PRIVATELY : ) I tried to learn from the critique. After all, I’m always looking to improve my craft, so if there’s a well thought out critique of my book, it would be foolish to ignore it.

  2. Michael Grant says:

    A book review is a piece of writing. Right? So by what logic should a book be subject to criticism but a review be exempt?

    Anonymous reviews are worthless. No review is objective, they are unavoidably subjective, meaning that the preferences, experience and personality of the reviewer are relevant. I loved Roger Ebert but he was a sucker for a pretty shot and would forgive plot holes. Knowing that about him made his reviews more useful to me. An anonymous review could be written by a competitor, an ex-wife, or any number of people with a personal beef or a bias. It’s also easier and safer for an anonymous reviewer to get away with not actually reading the book – something I’ve encountered. We can’t see patterns with anonymous reviews, we can’t see biases, we can’t see self-interest, we can’t see ethical conflicts.

    The book author is out there in the public eye taking his or her beatings, there is no good reason that reviewers should be able to skulk behind cover. Companies that hire anonymous reviewers (presumably to avoid paying them what they may be worth) should change their practice. If I’m out there in public taking the credit or blame for something I wrote, the reviewer should have the courage to step up and take credit or blame for their own work. That’s just basic fairness.

  3. Lisa Silverman says:

    Sarah,
    How awful to have to be subjected to bullying and nastiness in any form- especially anonymously- so you can’t even respond if you wanted to. (Your experience reminds me of the Lindy West story on This American Life who finally found her cyber-bully and asked him why he was so cruel.)
    But I can’t think of one librarian who would give credence to anonymous Amazon, GoodReads or Twitter reviews. I think the thing to ask is if any of the respected review journals who do not name their reviewers ever print awful things like you experienced. I doubt it, but sometimes I have seen some snark, so surely that must sting, too. However, for what it’s worth-I’m with you and think reviewers should identify themselves–if only to prove their credentials as knowledgeable about their subject.

  4. Amy Fellner Dominy says:

    Just had to chime in that I agree with so much of what’s been said here. The shame is that Goodreads has the potential to be so GOOD. An online community of friends sharing news about what they’re reading–what could be better? In many ways, that’s what it was for me before I published and discovered the dark side of reviews. (Now, I wonder how it is that someone is giving my book 1 star while it’s still in copyedits and unavailable?) I add my vote for no more anonymous reviews, and hopefully, a better online world.