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Monday, March 10, 2014

When Did ‘We’ Get So Touchy? (In Defense of the Personal Opinion)

Or: (Not Every Negative Review is Bullying)

First of all, this post is not meant to suggest that there is ‘no such thing’ as literary cyber-bullying (as a distinction from other forms of cyber-bullying that I have no experience with), or that literary cyber-bullying is not a very real problem. It is. I have seen it happen. But I have also seen a trend of "instant touchiness" in the literary bullying events I have watched unfold.

Personally, I have no problem with someone posting a low star rating with no review, or a review that tears my work to shreds, or even attacks me in a direct or indirect way. I can't say it doesn't hurt, but I suck it up and move on. I have my tricks to help myself get over it (like looking for something that will help me improve my work, or noticing, 'hey, that person gave Mark Twain a 2 star review, too!) but these things are not the reviewer's responsibility to provide.

To me, someone leaving an honest review--even if it says 'I have not and will never read this book because...'--is just a fact of being a writer and a risk of putting my work out there for the world to see.

I try to remember that with the written word, tone is very easy to misread and project my own judgment upon. So I try my best to assume the person writing is coming from a position of neutrality. And if there is no question about their feelings, I do my best not to take their words personally, because it is more about the reviewer than it is about me, as long as I don’t add myself into their words by replying.

Any published author is (dare I say) becoming a celebrity in at least a small degree, and as such, needs to develop a tough skin or they really have no business publishing their work. Not everyone is going to love their book, and that is a fact. Even Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Shakespeare have negative reviews.

The reviewer, in posting a review, is also offering their words up to public opinion, just by virtue of being on the internet. Not everyone is going to love what they have to say about the book they are reviewing. They would surely benefit from a thick skin, too, or maybe they should think twice about posting their review for everyone to see.

But offering a simple opinion often turns sour when someone takes another person’s opinion personally. I shake my head when ANYONE, including and especially the AUTHOR, jumps in and puts the reviewer down for expressing their opinion. It is an opinion, and everyone has the right to have and express one. Some people choose to be more blunt and/or harsh about it, but that reveals more about them than it does about the work they are reviewing.

So often what could be an interesting discussion on differences of opinion becomes a slugfest, resulting in some horrible things being said under the flag of anonymity that the internet provides. This anonymity allows people to write things that they would never say in person--which is both the beauty and the terror of the internet.

What confounds and astounds and disheartens and amazes me is when what could be an enlightening discussion turns into a crapfest of people slinging insults at each other, and it goes on for days, and hundreds of posts, with everyone so defensive and trying to prove their point until no one can be heard in the cacophony of words.... That, to me, is literary bullying at its worst, and often there are authors who join in the fray, hurling mean-spirited words with wild abandon, or sometimes even making a misguided attempt to bring rationality to an irrational situation.

The other disappointing aspect of the simple review that turns into an orgy of hate and apoplexy is when not only the initial reviewer (if they hadn’t already done so) and all the people who ‘side with’ them in the brawl, go out and hit any author who disagrees with them with a rash of one star ratings and/or shelve their books on virtual shelves with truly eye-popping names meant to express their disgust and/or fury at being disagreed with. Shelf names are basically another a form of expressing an opinion, buried in several more layers of anonymity. I can’t take those personally, either.

What I find most distressing about the shelves is that they are there forever, unless removed by site moderators. Even if the person who shelved it changes their mind and takes the author off their ‘shitlist’, the shelf remains, as “-1 user shelved this book as....”

Once upon a time, people could disagree without having the end result be a bullying session gone wild. Once upon a time, disagreements could unfold and be worked out, and then disappear down the ages, the vitriol having only gone so far. (Not all, of course. Hatfields and McCoys, anyone?) And maybe the great debate about literary bullying will, too. As the world gets smaller and more and more people can be involved in other people’s lives on a rather microscopic level, the more people will either need to grow a thicker skin, or be miserable living in, and taking personally, the judgment of others.

Again, I’m not condoning literary (or any) bullying, but I do think the line between personal opinion and bullying is a little farther out than a lot of victims think, and taking up arms to defend against a negative review or rating really just makes the situation escalate that much faster. Let’s face it, we live in a time when people are tired of feeling compelled to be “P.C.” when posting their opinions. And some people even feed off the drama created when they fail to act with “correct” manners. The fastest way to shut people up is to not give them anything to feed on. Like the fisherman who goes fishing at the wrong time, and the fish refuse to bite. Like the toddler whining for attention; ignore them and they will go off and find someone else who will listen, or they’ll get bored and move on to something else.

I love that America is still the “Land of the Free” and I would hate to see censorship become a reality. That being said, I wish people could learn to moderate themselves, because having the right to your opinion is closely tied to the ability to hurt with your words. It may not be the reviewer’s ‘problem’ if the author gets hurt, but the atmosphere it creates affects everyone, and wouldn’t the world be a happier place if fewer people were hurting?

In summary, I call on us all to remember the immortal words of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”

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