About a week ago, I started writing a piece in response to someone I got into a spirited discussion with in an article’s comments section, complete with accusations that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That comment always annoys me because, for one, the person lobbing it has usually illustrated some heavy ignorance of their own, and two, experiences and circumstances vary so what I’m talking about may or may not match what you’re talking about, so I try not to toss that particular word grenade if I can help it. Ultimately, I was called out with a bullet point list, no less, so I felt the need to respond.
That was before I heard about the Kathleen Hale nonsense. If you haven’t heard about that, read up, in her own words. Then go read this nice rundown and timeline of Hale’s own description juxtaposed with what evidence exists. This is disturbing not just because the author seems oddly detached from the severity of her actions, but far too many in the writing community have actually justified and defended her clearly inappropriate (and fucking epically creepy) actions. Her enablers include some pretty recognizable names, including some that have no business whatsoever justifying anyone’s actions in dealing with bad reviews, Anne Rice. This is a case study in how not to behave. And not simply as an author, but as a goddamned human being. Stalking people is not ok. Running background checks on people who criticize you is not ok. Using an innocent event designed to celebrate books in your genre for your own private agenda is not ok. Hunting down the home address of a book reviewer you don’t know to go there and confront them is not ok. Calling them repeatedly (or at all) at work is not ok. Snooping around at what’s in their car or looking in their windows is not ok. There is nothing that reviewer could have posted anywhere online about Hale’s book or her writing, no matter how insistent or repetitive or nasty, that legitimizes any of those actions.
Anyone who does think that needs to put themselves in the blogger’s place for a minute. Say you wrote a negative review under a pseudonym for a book from an author you don’t know. Say the book offended you to the point that you were particularly blunt in your treatment of it. Say that author tries to get in touch with you and you’ve been avoiding doing so. Then say you walk outside one day to find a copy of that author’s book just laying on your front doorstep. Do you:
A. Freak the hell out
B. Buy a new, stronger deadbolt
C. Buy a shotgun and some shells
D. Call the police
E. All of the above
What you don’t do is think, “Gee, I bet there’s a totally innocent explanation for why this person who feels wronged by me managed to hunt down my real identity and my home address and visit here without my knowledge or invitation. Maybe she just wants to have tea and discuss the finer points of literature. Sure, she could have just emailed but I appreciate her going that extra mile.”
What Hale did is unethical, unprofessional, inappropriate and possibly criminal. But overall, it’s wrong. Just wrong. No excuses need apply.
I’m not the type to say you should never engage your detractors. I’ve rather happily engaged numerous detractors over the years and I’ll continue to do so. That’s the way this post began, as a response to being called out online. That’s why I put that piece aside for a while when I read about Hale. Here was a person who took engaging their detractors to near-felony level. I’m just trying to enjoy a good spirited discussion. The last thing in the world I can imagine doing is hunting someone down and confronting them in real life at their home or place of business. That’s just 22 cards short of a full deck kinda crazy.
Her actions made me question whether or not I’d even finish the other piece but then I thought better of it (coming soon). I’m only arguing the relative merits of various economic theories of publishing. I’m not even certain I actually care about anything personal or private about the side on the other end of the argument. It’s a thought exercise designed to clarify, defend and support my opinions while trying to understand conflicting ones. I do that all the time. I’m not going to let a writer who couldn’t control her obsessions and insecurities enough to avoid super-creepy behavior stop me now.
But Hale’s thing stuck with me. I’m still having trouble understanding how anyone could defend her. Interestingly, there have been many pieces written, including this one, that dug around online, reading things Hale had written, finding out about her connections in the publishing community (and there are some doozies), and trying to find any social media interactions that may apply. What no one has done is use their position to hunt down her address, repeatedly call and harass her, show up at her house, or snoop around in her private space. If someone has/does that, they’d be widely recognized as a psycho. And potentially dangerous. That is precisely what Hale did when she escalated things from online interactions to in-real-life ones. Read her own detailing of the story again. There can be no doubt that Hale is 100% responsible for that escalation. Her own words portray Harris as a person engaging in a pattern specifically designed to avoid her.
There are three basic elements used in her defense/justification that I feel need addressing.
1. The Blogger’s Anonymity
Blythe Harris is a fake name and persona. Duh! You know how I know that? Like sands through the hourglass, no one who’s not an heiress or a soap opera character or both is named Blythe. (Cue someone named Blythe emailing me in 3, 2, 1…) And so what if it is? This is publishing, for God’s sake! Half the shit you’re reading is presented under a fake name and/or persona. Writers use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. Some have had bad career breaks under their own name, some want to try a different genre/style, some want privacy, some are trying to skirt non-compete clauses, some don’t want to be associated with what they write for some personal reason or other. Many writers of romance and erotica have used false names for years, including the earlier-mentioned Anne Rice. And Harris, whether you like it or not, is a writer. You don’t crank out hundreds of reviews and have a blog dedicated to them without being one.
I actually saw someone in a comments thread list a bunch of writers who used their real names and no fewer than three of them were psudonyms, including Mark Twain. Is it possible for a person to be so ignorant of probably the most famous pseudonym in American Literature? Mark Twain wasn’t just a false name, either. He was a character, a constructed persona by Samuel Clemens trotted out in public appearances, stage shows and in his prose. The real man was a bitter, depressive sort, not the charming, cigar-chomping master of wit in a white suit we all know.
Each and every one of us create the persona we want to be in many ways. Does it matter if we named ourselves or if someone else gave us those names. Criticizing Harris for using a pseudonym is nonsensical in the context of writing. More than that, it’s completely and totally ignorant of the history of the art itself. Also keep in mind, both Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have used pseudonyms with fake author photos and back stories in the past, to name just two of many. In fact, Rowling herself started using the initials J.K. in part to intentionally obscure her gender. Was she catfishing us all?
There’s also another reason someone may want to use a false identity to front their public persona, a reason that seems perfectly conducive to this case; to protect themselves from obsessives and stalkers.
2. Bullying/Career Destroying
This is a big one. Those nasty bloggers are just out to destroy your career, one tweet that 75 people will see at a time. And I’d be willing to bet a large percentage of those people belong to their own little insular echo chambers. Look at the way most of these things start, with the author or what have you wading into their space like a bull in a china shop. That’s what Hale admitted to doing here that got her labeled by people other than Harris as a BBA (badly behaving author). There’s a huge subgroup in publishing today that fully absorbed in fighting this so-called bullying and career destroying meme. Does online bullying exist? Certainly and it’s reprehensible and should be fought. But this career destroying stuff? That’s not the bully doing that. They don’t have the power. If it happens at all, it’s the author doing it to themselves.
Look, the Amazon/Hachette dispute has been near-daily news for the better part of six months now. It’s shown up in all the major media outlets, big name celebrities have drawn attention to it. In the circle of people I tend to flow in online, everybody knows about it; all the details, the principles, the circumstances surrounding it. It’s pervasive in that world. But outside that circle? Not one person I know in real life has even heard of Hachette, let alone any dispute. The vast majority of readers don’t either. If something like that, something that’s publicized in major outlets by brand name people every day, doesn’t raise awareness in regular people, you think a Goodreads review and a few snarky substweets, no matter how nasty, is going to make a dent? The only way any of that garbage can have power over you or your career is if you give it to them. Hale did that here in spades. The career destroying phase she was concerned about? She created that all on her own.
Now if you’d like to discuss bullying, let’s look at how Hale characterized Harris in her article:
“Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers.”
I wonder if they share any traits with obsessive stalkers? There is little to no corroboration for what Hale accused Harris of doing. Here is the Goodreads discussion following Harris as she tried to read the book. There’s no career destroying there. I see someone reading a book somewhat analytically. If I had to characterize it, I’d say Harris was being a little nitpicky, but then I haven’t read the book. It looks to me like she hit something early on that struck her the wrong way, likely because, like all readers, she was viewing the text through the lens of her own experience. As she progressed, she couldn’t shake the negative feelings and slowly turned into hate-reading the book, actively searching for things to be pissed about, until, finally, she quit altogether. I don’t do much hate-reading of novels but I do hate-watch some movies now and then, and “fuck this” is an absolutely accurate response to walking away from one of those.
The thing is, as the writer, your intent behind the work is no more important than the reader’s interpretation of it. In fact, your intent is simply just another interpretation. Everyone who reads your work will see it in their own way, and every one is valid to themselves. You don’t control how your work is received, good, bad or indifferent. That’s not a bad thing. In my opinion, it’s one of the features of writing; your story can mean totally different, totally valid things to completely different people. That’s amazing to me. If something someone sees in your work concerns you, the proper thing to do is go back and look at your work from their point of view to get a feel for why they made such an interpretation. That’s what professionals do. Spoiled children throw little tantrums, become obsessive and go to extreme lengths to get the satisfaction they believe they are entitled. I’ll let the reader decide which one they think Hale’s behavior fits.
3. It Wasn’t Stalking, It Was Journalism
“This came with its fair share of [criticism] from people who didn’t read the piece and have little-to-no understanding of journalism.”
Kathleen Hale on the response to her piece.
When I first saw this suggestion, in an article touting Hale’s appearance as a guest of honor at a New York literary festival, I got pissed. It’s the precise point when this piece escalated from a few blunt tweets to an italicized prologue to the other piece I was writing into this full-blown rant. Just for the sake of making myself clear on this, get the fuck outta here with that nonsense! This is not in any way, shape or form journalism! It’s a confessional designed to elicit sympathy for her while demonizing someone else. And she’s practically gloating about how clever she’s being while doing it. Harris isn’t really relevant to this story, just as the object that drove Hale’s actions and now unburdening. It doesn’t seem to matter that we have no corroboration. Her story hit it’s mark with certain people who were only too ready to lap it up and defend it to the hilt.
For one thing, this story is about herself. It only pretends to be seeking any kind of understanding, and does so at the expense of another human being who had the misfortune of transgressing against the writer. It’s not journalism, it’s a diary entry. You don’t get to excuse hunting her down because you can slap the badge of The Guardian on your chest and call it journalism. It’s a personal vendetta. She admits it’s an obsession that everyone she talks to tells her to stay away from. So, conveniently, she finds a way to justify it, courtesy of The Guardian. “I’m being a journalist so it’s ok that I’m running a background check on a stranger!”
Two questions, if this is really journalism. One, did you verify and document the evidence for your allegations? If not, in some places, so I hear, they call that libel. Look it up. And two, is the Michael Rich you sited as expert medical opinion in any way related to your soon to be father in law Frank Rich and your fiance Simon Rich? Disclosure is another word you might want to learn if you’re going to play act as a reporter.
But, of course, she wasn’t reporting. She used The Guardian as an affirmative defense for her stalkiness, just like she used the Debut Author Bash of YA Reads to drag Harris back into her little vortex and misrepresented herself to get her home address. That’s not journalism either. It’s manipulative and self serving. This was an event to celebrate her work and the work of other authors in her genre and she cynically used that to further her own agenda of getting satisfaction from Harris. The editor who gave her the address clearly is upset and feels betrayed. Plus, she shows some actual contrition in her statement of the type Hale’s article sorely lacks.
“Hale said although the situation is difficult, it led to a rewarding moment in her career, being the third most read author on The Guardian two consecutive days.”
And there you have it. It’s all about the attention. Doesn’t matter how you get it and shame need not appy. It’s narcissism writ large. Maybe when she writes the sequel about her difficulties during the civil lawsuit she’s angling for, she can make it to number two! Aim high! All her nonfiction work seems to be in the same vein; they all contain an uncomfortable amount of oversharing personally embarrassing details. There’s only two reasons for someone to do that repeatedly; a genuine sense of contrition and wanting to help others avoid their mistakes or to manipulate people. From what I’ve seen, put me on Team Manipulate.
“If I can talk about how the Internet cultivates obsession in a way that reads like a horror story, then I’ve done my job.”
Well, she’s certainly done her job here. The only thing is, in this horror story, she’s asking us to set aside the behavior of the machete wielding psycho because the other kids were mean to him at camp when he was a boy. The thing that struck me when I first read her piece was how much it was like a short story I could’ve written. A person becomes obsessed and spirals out of control. The only difference is my story would end in something tragic. That’s what this story actually is. It doesn’t happen all the time or even most of the time, but often enough, this tale ends with someone in jail, a hospital bed or on a slab in the morgue. And I have no impression Hale has even the slightest understanding of how dangerous a road she was on. Her intentions may have been good (I’m doubtful of that) but I understand the Road to Hell is some fine traveling, too, until you reach the overpass.
“Kathleen wrote something that was extremely real, honest, and ugly, and she did so with an incredible amount of grace, candor, and humor, and I do truly believe that the people who feel differently have not read the piece.”
Hale’s friend and editor Haley Mlotek
I think both Hale and her editor, when they say that the people who are criticizing her didn’t read her article, are acting under the impression that she earned some kind of points for admitting her sins. But look at it this way, if I told you I stomped a puppy to death on the way home from work today but I feel kinda bad about it, would I be a better person for being open and forthright about my actions and feelings or would I simply be a piece of shit for having done them in the first place? Or an even bigger piece of shit for now going out of my way to further draw attention to the extraordinarily shitty thing I just did? Admitting you did something and saying, half-heartedly, maybe, it might be bad is not the same thing as taking responsibility for your conduct. Especially when you’re doing it in the service of demonizing the very person you did said shitty thing to.
The ugly little implication here is if Hale wasn’t being totally honest or if there is no corroboration because it didn’t happen the way Hale presented it, that means Harris fits very neatly and indisputably into another category: victim. (For the record, I think Harris is a victim even if she did everything Hale claimed plus a few extra “fuck you” Facebook messages on top.) As such, Hale’s article itself is further victimizing her, as are all the people repeating Hale’s accusations as fact. They’re dangerously close to blaming or shaming the victim or the venerable “she was asking for it” defense. Oddly, that very attitude was one of the complaints Harris had about some of the characterization in Hale’s book. When in doubt, look for patterns in someone’s behavior. Patterns often surface unconsciously and reveal all, whether the person wants them to or not.
Hale is fortunate she’s a woman. If she had a penis and had written the exact same article word for word, changing the pronouns accordingly, the only people coming to her (now his) defense would be the GamerGate assholes. Somehow, I suspect that wouldn’t be her desired audience. But her actions have more in common with their particular brand of vileness than with the actual victim of a bullying campaign. Just remove the gender, and they’re two peas in a pod.