Things Get Mean When Everyone's a Critic

On the Internet, everyone can have an opinion. It is in this place, where backlash can beget backlash on both sides, for those criticized as well as those doling out the negative comments, that the book review now exists. Call it the new equality, for good or for bad. It's not nice and it's not mean, but it is a free for all. 

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Despite all the recent talk of book reviewers being too nice, it's not that negative or even nasty book reviews aren't being written. A cursory look at a few Amazon reviews offers up negativity as well as positivity, as does a scan of reviews from professional critics. But in a lot of those cases, the duty of offering up the point of view the author may not like appears to have fallen to the amateurs—the reviewer, the avid reader who's commenting on her own personal blog on a book she's decided to read. Not all writers are very happy about that. Some of them respond in kind.

There's an anecdote going around that demonstrates this. Earlier this month, Emily Giffin's latest book, Where We Belong, got the following one-star Amazon review:

Giffin's husband, who later identified himself as such (his original comment has been deleted from Amazon but is available on several blogs, including Book Goggles), wrote "Really? An 'avid reader' that has written one review in their entire existence on amazon. Beware people. Psycho alert." And so the Internet firestorm began, with people attacking Giffin and her husband, people responding by supporting them, people then supporting the reviewer, and people attacking the reviewer (that one-star review remains up on, with 60-some comments of its own. It does not, in this writer's opinion, fall under the category of "nasty," though it is, without question, negative).

A blogger and professional wedding photographer who writes as Corey Ann (and reviews under the name Corey A. Doyle) then got involved. As she wrote on August 23, in a post titled "2 Authors Behaving Badly: How I Pissed Off Legions of Emily Giffin Fans," she'd recently read Where We Belong. She had gotten the book for free as part of the Amazon Vine program, with which she says she's done some 200 reviews. "There were a few things I didn't like," she told me, "But I didn't hate it. Before this I actually liked Emily." She posted a 4-star review of the novel on the site, but upon noticing that the one-star reviewer was getting "torn apart," she changed her review to a far more negative one: "It was a good beach fluffy read but the ending somewhat annoyed me. Then Emily ruined the book — and her novels — forever for me by acting out online." That's when, she told me, "Emily pops up on Facebook, talking about I changed the review from 5 to 1 star—it was never 5-star—and people are going crazy. It kind of spiraled from there." Corey Ann has posted many of Giffin's online responses, which have since been deleted from Giffin's Facebook page, along with Amazon and other comments. Other bloggers also picked up the story, most of them apparently siding with Corey Ann, though Giffin's supporters were adamant, too. "I got three phone calls, all unknown," says Corey Ann—one a hang up, one a call to tell her to take down the review, and one, she says, an exhortation to commit suicide because she must be so miserable.

The fervor eventually died down when Amazon removed Corey Ann's review. She says, "I guess from Amazon's side, they didn't want it to get uglier. I get what people are saying. I'm not allowed to review what the author did, I'm only allowed to review the book. I shouldn't have changed it. I should have just put an addendum." She wrote an email explaining what had happened to the retailer but says she hasn't heard back. And despite the phone calls ceasing, everything that's happened online has left a bit of a bad taste in her mouth. She says, "Once Emily heard how awful people were getting, I expected her to be like, you guys, this is crazy, but to see her say I must enjoy the attention and if I didn't I wouldn't leave my review up.... She was saying 'we apologized.' but she never apologized."

Giffin responded to our request for comment with the following statement, via her publicist:

"Although I have never willfully hurt another through social media, I understand the impact of my posts last week and apologize to any and all who were affected by them. I will continue to strive for open, honest dialogue with my readers, but will be more mindful of my words in the future." 

Earlier in August there was a lot of discussion about whether book reviewers had gotten too nice due to just that: social media. Jacob Silverman kicked it off with a piece called "Against Enthusiasm" for Slate, an indictment of what he called "the epidemic of niceness in online book culture." Others, like Emma Straub, whom Silverman used as a poster child for "niceness" in his article, as well as The Rumpus' Michelle Dean and author Roxane Gay, countered his argument, Straub in a piece titled "In Celebration of Enthusiasm." Gay added in her Salon post, "There has been a long and rich history of lamentation and garment rending over the state of criticism so it’s always amusing when there’s a new entry into this race, as if these concerns are new or peculiar to our time." A couple weeks later, Dwight Garner made a case for critics who are actually critical in The New York Times. Elsewhere, Lev Grossman wrote in Time that he'd given up writing nasty book reviews (in favor of writing more generally about hate reads, in that case), and J. Robert Lennon, writing for Slate, explained how to write a good bad book review. Even more recently, an article appeared in The New York Times on the new wave of book reviews. This time it was about money, as evidenced by Todd Rutherford's website,, through which, in its brief existence, he penned reviews for cash. He made a decent amount of money doing so. On the one hand, everyone is too nice. On the other, way too mean. How do you tell the mercenaries from the honest reviewers? And what to make of the author who fights back? Underscoring it all: What's the state of the book review, in a time of social media?

Gay is right: It's not that book criticism is new, nor is lamenting about the state of it. But there is a new question of authenticity and responsibility here, and it very much seems to have to do with the Internet as we know it. The more authors share themselves via social media, for example, the more tied writing and personality become—not that that's all bad; publishers clearly think it helps sell books, and probably it does in some cases at least. At the same time, there is danger in all this sharing, or the potential for it to go wrong, for example, when an author clearly states feelings, and, perhaps, fans respond in a way that they hope will support their beloved writer.

Yet book reviews are not science; they are, by definition, a matter of opinion. They can be negative or positive or somewhere in the middle, but the thing that makes them right—the thing that makes them valuable—is honesty, conveying a point of view deeply felt by the reader. Yes, a certain kind of fairness and open-mindedness is expected as well, but why read something without an opinion? And on the Internet, everyone can have an opinion. The scope and breadth and accessibility it provides for anyone to have a voice who wants one is unprecedented. It is in this place, where backlash can beget backlash on both sides, for those criticized as well as those doling out the negative comments, that the book review now so frequently exists. It's a place where voices we might not have heard, the voices of unpaid bloggers and commenters and at-home critics, can be as loud as anyone else's online, and their punishments for saying the wrong thing as harsh as those might be for the professionals. Call it the new equality, for good or for bad. It's not always nice and it's not always mean, but it is a free for all.

Silverman wrote of the so-called niceness epidemic, "Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone's book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media's centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely." Perhaps this is true, but in all this talk of niceness we've suddenly forgotten the immense power of retaliation, the outrage that can ensue when someone says something that others consider wrong, the near-immediate ability to extract a Twitter apology that we've seen again and again online. Every social media action is likely to create another social media action, whether that's defense, anger, demands, a blog post, a Tweet, a Facebook response, a like, a negative Amazon comment, or any other number of other reactions that can happen online. The question is not "Are we too nice?" There are very few people who can resist the ability to lash back once the first strike has been made. It's too easy, just a tweet, just a Facebook post to your friends, and suddenly, warring forces have been motivated, lines have been drawn in the sand. The question is, how far do we go?

Despite the equalizing element of social media, though, the writer still remains the person in power in most cases, and while any writer must feel a sting at a negative review, that doesn't mean they should try to eradicate them. I think most people in the business of creating words would agree that more important than negative or positive, niceness or meanness, is the knowledge that the review is honest and has been conveyed honestly—it is not paid for by the author or publisher; it has not been done out of fear of retribution, or to curry favor. Similarly, any reviewer should be more concerned with truth in a review than anything else. As Straub wrote in response to Silverman, "1. Reviewers always have the right to say whatever they feel to be true. I have never once argued with a bad review. I expect them, and will receive them, over the course of my career. I also happen to have a very thick skin."

Some have thicker skin than others naturally; others need to work on it. But it would be wise, when it seems the snowball effect is starting, to take a lesson from blog world and remember that in many cases "bad" publicity is better than no publicity. A book that causes positive and negative opinions has a far better chance of success than a book that is, simply, bland. It would be great if reviewers would automatically understand what a book is about and get the review right and be favorable, too. But even in cases when that doesn't happen—for instance, with author Patrick Somerville, who received a negative as well as partly erroneous review of his recent novel, This Bright River, in The New York Times—it's not all bad, necessarily. He wrote in a post on Salon, "The New York Times panned my book, then had to correct the review to fix all their errors. So why am I not angry?" His explanation: "In the end nothing matters but the work.  You can’t control how it’s taken, and the act of telling a story always involves a gap." Writing is a leap of faith. Reading book reviews probably is one, too. But if it gets someone to read, much less comment, maybe a bad book review isn't so bad. Giffin's Where We Belong now has more than 230 comments on Amazon. Most of them are positive, for what it's worth. The book is ranked at #139 overall. She's doing just fine.

Worse than a bad review is an attempt to quell one, or to fight back with more negativity. As Corey Ann told me, "It's sad. I have all these people commenting saying I'm ruining [Giffin's] life. But you should be able to review they way you're going to review." That much seems self-evident. If reviewers are afraid to review honestly—whether that's nice, mean, antagonistic, or sycophantic, in the way in which they truly feel, without repercussions and retaliation—we're in a time when we don't really need a book review at all, because a review without honesty is meaningless.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.