The Soapbox: On Kathleen Hale & The Thick, Opaque Line Between Standing Up For Yourself And Harassing Your Detractors

Author Kathleen Hale has been in the middle of a shitstorm this weekend because of an essay she wrote for The Guardian about how she stalked a Goodreads reviewer to try to prove that she — the reviewer — wasn’t who she said she was. Why that matters, no one can really figure out. Hale’s beef was that the reviewer, who goes by the name Blythe Harris on Goodreads and elsewhere but — at least from what Hale could infer — is presenting a false persona online (who’s named Blythe these days, anyway?) posted a pre-release review of Hale’s book No One Else Can Ever Have You that was profanity-laced and described problems with the book that had no apparent correlation to the book itself. Hale obsessed over it, found out that there’s a whole community of online reviewers who bully authors for no apparent reason, and proceeded to dox Harris, both privately, and, ultimately, more publicly through the Guardian essay. Hale went so far as to book a car rental months in advance and showed up on Harris’s doorstep.

And, look, Harris, to be blunt, sounds like an entitled bitch. But who the fuck cares? Hale’s essay is a confessional: She mentions repeatedly that she’s kind of crazy, and calls showing up at Harris’s house a personal low. That’s not going to protect her from the general public being appalled by her behavior, though. You can’t just call yourself crazy for stalking someone and laugh it off and expect that to be the end of your accountability. There’s been a frenzy of pretty strongly-worded think pieces about Hale’s essay, including this article from the Daily Dot, which points out that Hale seems to have a history of stalking; Hale published a Thought Catalog piece last year about how she stalked a girl and poured hydrogen peroxide on her in retaliation for a molestation accusation the girl leveled against Hale’s mother.

Hale’s not alone in completely overreacting to a troll — author Margo Howard published a similar piece in The New Republic last week about how negative pre-release Amazon Vine reviews of her book constituted “ad hominem attacks” and approached “tortious interference” while simultaneously talking about online book reviewers like they’re plebs who couldn’t possibly know how to read a book, just because they happened to dislike hers and posted a scathing review of it. Authors aren’t entitled to good reviews, of course, which seems to be one of the problems here. Both Howard and Hale seem to completely overestimate the importance of bad reviews from the review community, too — as a consumer of books, I both do not depend solely on the number of stars a book has to tell me if it’s worthwhile and have the intelligence to tell if a review is nuanced and considerate or not. I think the same is true for most of the book consumers they would want to have reading their books — consumers who pay attention, read closely, and apply critical thought to the things they’re reading.

But the other part of the problem, the biggest part, is the way Hale and Howard responded to these reviews. Howard went on a sort of bratty diatribe about how unfair it was that the dum-dums were “sabotaging” her book, which makes her look bad. But while she got obsessive about the idea that this community of reviewers could influence her book’s overall score in a meaningful way and affect sales, she at least didn’t zero in on one person to obsess over and then cross the (not very blurry, not very thin) line between indignation and predation.

I get what it feels like to read these reviews that feel personal, because I read the comments on my articles, I Google myself to see if anyone’s saying anything about me, I search Reddit for my name and for my articles because I write about social justice a lot and Reddit has a big anti-social justice community. I pay attention to my reputation, and I pay attention to the people who don’t like me, which is sort of insane because it’s not that productive. I don’t know what primal impulse makes me want to know who and why people don’t like me. I don’t want or need their approval — I think it’s that I want to prove that they’re wrong.

I also get what it’s like to feel ganged up on: All websites have frequent commenters and reviewers. The Frisky has a group of commenters who are prolific (‘sup, guys!) and have been active in the community for awhile, but I didn’t know that when I first started writing here. I got into a tiff with one of them and quickly learned several lessons. As a writer, I want to produce an essay that follows a line of thought to a conclusion, have it published, and just sort of leave it there for people to read. Commenters want to have a conversation about it, and it’s not infrequent that that conversation involves them reading (sometimes negatively) into the personalities of the writers. If the writer responds, they will keep commenting often until they’ve beat you down. The commenter I got involved with wound up copy-pasting things I’d said on my social media accounts into the comments on an article, which freaked me the fuck out because I was new to writing online and I’d heard about writers being doxxed and harassed and threatened, and I didn’t know where it was going.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that I didn’t wade into Hale’s waters and start tracking down any info I could get about the commenter. At the time, it was for my own sense of safety, but I know now that it was a giant overreaction. I learned pretty quickly that someone being kind of bitchy to you is kid stuff on the internet, because a few months later, an anti-women, anti-feminist blog wrote an entire article about me and what a giant slut I am, and the comments section devolved into real ad hominem attacks — disgusting statements about my vagina, about my body, about my moral decrepitude; they created a whole life narrative about me that didn’t in any way match up with my reality. They spent hours poring over my self-portraits on my website in the middle of the night, which was creepy. They implied that I give blowjobs to random homeless people, suggested that because I’ve had sex with more than one person in my life that I’d fuck anyone, and called me a “pump and dump.” They tracked down my ex-husband’s name and outed it, which was the most terrifying thing for me (if I’m going to write about the problems I had with him, I would like for him to have some level of privacy and anonymity; I might hate him, but he’s still a human being with his own life — and I’d also like to never, ever have a reason to speak with him again, considering our history). It was, to use a word that people like that hate but that is a part of my reality as a person with PTSD, triggering. I read all 600 comments between two articles about me. And suddenly the dumb argument I had with a Disqus commenter seemed pretty insignificant.

That’s just a taste of real mob action on the internet. Hale and Howard have had their work maligned, just like every writer ever has. They don’t know what it’s like to be obsessed over and made a target. And what I went through is absolutely nothing in comparison to what people like, oh, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu have gone through recently in #GamerGate. The right thing for me to do with the Frisky commenter would’ve been to respect that the Frisky commenting community is part of what makes the site what it is, to appreciate that these people actually read the articles we post and care about the culture of the site, to accept that if we want readers to read our work some of them aren’t going to like it, and to let him say what he wanted to say and disagree with me without childishly insisting on re-asserting my point. By the time I got trolled, I knew that the majority of the time, it’s better not to respond; and by now, I know that the advice Hale got from her friend Patricia is absolutely correct: It’s not worth engaging at all just to disagree. It brings out the worst in you.

I’m not saying, “Don’t feed the trolls.” I’m saying that there’s a difference between reviewers and commenters on the one hand and trolls on the other. Reviewers and commenters are valuable even if you sometimes feel like they’re spouting nonsense, because reviewers and commenters are consuming your work in a thoughtful way, whereas trolls are actually out to get you, and it’s worth knowing the difference. Second, I’m saying that it’s worth being judicious about responding to negativity whether it’s a negative reaction to your work or a negative reaction to you as a human being. Sometimes these critiques (which can be a generous word for it) aren’t worth your time and upset. And third, I’m saying that if you feel like you have to stand up for yourself, arguing directly with people on the internet — much less going so far as to track them down physically — is a poor way of standing up for yourself and can make you at least as much of an asshole, or in Hale’s case a predator, as they are. I led a campaign to have the blog post with the comment section that trolled me taken down by WordPress, and never heard a word from them. Howard went through Amazon to see if she could correct the bad reviews she wanted to have taken down, and they said no. That’s the end of the story. It’s not worth pursuing further than the official channels. What tangible results can you achieve by arguing with people whose minds you cannot change?

The internet can be an ugly place, and it sucks that sometimes people are out to be assholes to or about you. But, you know, ultimately it doesn’t really make a difference in your day-to-day. Why on earth it matters that a bitchy reviewer uses a fake name and picture or is pertinent enough to anything in Kathleen Hale’s life that she could use that as an excuse to harass the woman is beyond me. It’s worth criticizing her, because if she wants to hold reviewers accountable for their behavior, she has to be held accountable for her own. There is decorum for cultural producers; the ability to create is not an entitlement or carte blanche.

[Guardian]
[Daily Dot]
[Thought Catalog]
[New Republic]

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