Last week, The Guardian posted an op-ed piece from YA author Kathleen Hale titled, ‘Am I Being Catfished’? An author confronts her number one online critic (I’m using a Do Not Link filter so the site doesn’t get a hit from your click). Let me break down the article for you.
In response to a query on Twitter asking for ideas for her next book, someone tweeted at Kathleen Hale. Hale followed the blue link road to Goodreads, where the reviewer gave Hale’s book a 1 star rating, after a series of reading updates, which chronicled what she didn’t like about the book (this is fact, as you can see by the link above. The reviewer in question gave the book 1 star after outlining her reasons for not liking the book).
Per Hale’s account in The Guardian article, this had a snowball effect in which other readers changed their ratings and/or quoted the 1 star review with caveats in their own higher ranking reviews.
Curious to see if Blythe had read my book, I clicked from her Twitter through her blog and her Goodreads page. She had given it one star. “Meh,” I thought. I scrolled down her review.
“Fuck this,” it said. “I think this book is awfully written and offensive; its execution in regards to all aspects is horrible and honestly, nonexistent.”
Blythe went on to warn other readers that my characters were rape apologists and slut-shamers. She accused my book of mocking everything from domestic abuse to PTSD. “I can say with utmost certainty that this is one of the worst books I’ve read this year,” she said, “maybe my life.”
Other commenters joined in to say they’d been thinking of reading my book, but now wouldn’t. Or they’d liked it, but could see where Blythe was coming from, and would reduce their ratings.
In the following weeks, Blythe’s vitriol continued to create a ripple effect: every time someone admitted to having liked my book on Goodreads, they included a caveat that referenced her review. The ones who truly loathed it tweeted reviews at me. It got to the point where my mild-mannered mother (also checking on my book’s status) wanted to run a background check on Blythe. “Who are these people?” she asked. She had accidentally followed one of my detractors on Twitter – “I didn’t know the button!” she yelled down the phone – and was now having to deal with cyberbullying of her own. (“Fine, I’ll get off the Twitter,” she said. “But I really don’t like these people.”)
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian article)
Despite many telling her not to, Hale then began a months long campaign to find out everything she could about the reviewer. She found some information that made her believe the reviewer wasn’t blogging under her real name, and she set out to solve the mystery of who she really was.
thinking back through what I knew of Blythe – her endless photos and reviews complete with Gifs and links, which I now realised must have taken hours to write. The only non-generic photo on her Instagram was of a Pomeranian. It occurred to me that a wife and mother with papers to grade might not have a lot of time to tweet between 6pm and midnight. That said, I had a fiance, friends and a social life (if you can believe it), a lot of writing projects, and I still managed total recall of much of what Blythe had said online. I noticed that two of her profiles contradicted each other – one said 8th grade teacher, one said 10th grade – and that most of her former avatar photos had been of the Pomeranian.
Was Blythe Harris even real?
Over the next few months, my book came out, I got distracted by life and managed to stay off Goodreads. Then a book club wanted an interview, and suggested I pick a blogger to do it.
“Blythe Harris,” I wrote back. I knew tons of nice bloggers, but I still longed to engage with Blythe directly.
The book club explained that it was common for authors to do “giveaways” in conjunction with the interview, and asked if I could sign some books. I agreed, and they forwarded me Blythe’s address.
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian article)
Just so we’re all on the same page up to this point: Hale saw a 1 star review and some things the reviewer said on Twitter, and began obsessively following said reviewer online, trying to find proof of her real identity. When given the opportunity, Hale then gained the reviewer’s physical address from a third-party book club.
The exterior of the house that showed up on Google maps looked thousands of square feet too small for the interiors Blythe had posted on Instagram. According to the telephone directory and recent census reports, nobody named Blythe Harris lived there. The address belonged to someone I’ll call Judy Donofrio who, according to an internet background check ($19), was 46 – not 27, as Blythe was – and worked as vice-president of a company that authorises disability claims.
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian acticle)
Hale looked up the address she was given on Google maps and, when she decided this must be the real reviewer’s name, paid for a background check on the owner of the house. Hale also claims she verified the reviewers address with a contact at a publishing house (I’ll get to the problems with this in a little bit).
[Incidentally, the online book club has since posted their side of the story, which details how they came to give Hale the reviewer’s address (another Do Not Link address): My side of the story… | Y.A. Reads Book Reviews. In the post, they confirm Hale asked to be paired with this particular reviewer and wanted her address so Hale could send her a “gift” for agreeing to host her. (They also, in my opinion, took this opportunity to make the situation all about themselves. “Gosh, do you see how this affected me??” when they could have taken the opportunity to support the reviewer and apologize for the part they played in the whole debacle).]
A contact at a publishing house confirmed that they’d been sending books to Judy’s address all year, and as recently as two weeks ago.
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian article)
Once Hale had the address of the reviewer, she booked a rental car with the intention of driving to her house and confronting her about using a fake name to give bad reviews. But first she tried to find a better way to confirm her suspicions. She tried setting up a phone or video interview, but the reviewer blew her off. So, in the end, she was left with no choice. She drove to the address she’d been given but chickened out at the last minute and left a book, Anna Quindlen’s A Short Guide To A Happy Life (which even Hale admits was passive-aggressive), on the reviewer’s doorstep instead of knocking. Then she went home and decided to call the reviewer at work.
First she pretended to be doing a factcheck survey and asked the reviewer to confirm her identity. When it seemed like the reviewer was going to hang up, Hale finally broke down and asked if she wrote book reviews under a different name.
“I can’t help you,” she said. “Buh-bye…”
“DO YOU USE THE NAME BLYTHE HARRIS TO BOOK BLOG ONLINE?” I felt like the guy on the Howard Stern show, screaming, “I exist!”
She paused. “No,” she said quietly.
She paused again, then asked, “Who’s Blythe Harris?” Her tone had changed, as if suddenly she could talk for ever.
“She’s a book blogger,” I said, “and she’s given your address.”
“A book blog… Yeah, I don’t know what that is.”
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian article)
Hale has already crossed so many lines here I don’t even know where to begin. But it gets worse. She tries to get the woman to admit she’s really the reviewer, and even asks whether or not she has kids who might be doing it. She admits to us, the readers of the article, she already knew the reviewer had kids. Which is utterly terrifying.
“She uses photos of your dogs,” I said, feeling like the biggest creep in the world, but also that I might be talking to a slightly bigger creep. “I have it here,” I said, pretending to consult notes, even though she couldn’t see me, “that you have a Pomeranian, and another dog, and she uses photos that you posted.”
She gasped. “I do have a Pomeranian.”
“She uses your address,” I repeated. “Do you have children who might be using a different name online?” I already knew she had two teenagers.
– Kathleen Hale (From The Guardian article, emphasis mine)
Hale goes on to detail how she stalked the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts of the reviewer and the woman she believes she’s gotten her online identity from. Eventually , after many months, she gave up and went back to living her life, though she admits she sometimes she grows nostalgic about the situation.
Let’s recap (aka The Too Long;Didn’t Read version):
Author Kathleen Hale receives a bad review via Goodreads and spends months cyber-stalking the reviewer, before gaining her address and visiting her home. Then Hale tries to prove the reviewer’s real identity and calls her at work. Then Hale writes an article about it for The Guardian in a tone which makes it clear she has zero remorse for what she did, and in fact seems to want sympathy for being “catfished” by a reviewer who dared to give her a 1 star review and possibly wasn’t using her real name online.
There are a couple things I want to talk about here.
1) The term “catfish” generally refers to someone who creates an online persona with the specific intention of creating a romantic relationship under false pretenses. By Hale’s own account, the reviewer in question didn’t create an account simply to deceive Hale. She didn’t even engage Hale, with the exception of possibly tweeting her direct in response to an invitation from Hale herself.
2) The term “doxing” generally refers to the act of searching for, and publishing, information about a person online, in an attempt to serve up some vigilante justice. What Hale did was doxx the Goodreads reviewer. She makes it sound like it was in response to bad things the reviewer did to Hale first, but all evidence I’ve seen points to the reviewer doing nothing more than talking about how she didn’t like Hale’s book, citing specific reasons for her dislike. Even if she went on a campaign to stop others from reading the book, the reviewer did nothing wrong. A book is not its author.
3) The term “stalking” refers to unwanted or obsessive attention from an individual and can include “following the victim in person or monitoring them” (per Wikipedia). While it seems the reviewer did nothing more than give Hale’s book a negative review, Hale’s actions read like stalking to me. Going to a person’s home, calling her at work and obsessively monitoring her social media accounts obviously rides the line.
4) Hale mentions Stop the Goodreads Bullies (STGRB) in her article (link to our piece about STGRB, with links to other sites with info about their actions). Lest we forget, that website is owned and maintained by an anonymous person or persons who got their start by doing exactly what Hale did here: Searching for and posting personal information about those they consider bullies on their website, even going so far as to post real names, favorite restaurants and photos of their children. The irony of Hale quoting a blogger who uses a fake name in reference to the reviewer she wants to out as having a fake name should be noted (and dare I say mocked?).
5) Jim C. Hines posted on Twitter today that he read an article in response to Hale’s actions that included her address and photos of her house. I don’t know Hines (I don’t follow him on Twitter or anywhere else online) and I didn’t see the post in question, but I really hope it isn’t true. To reveal personal information about Hale makes us no better than she is.
6) I’ve seen quite a number of well-known authors and prominent figures in the book community speak out in support of Hale. Like literary agent Jessica Faust who says Hale was “brave” to post about her account. Kat of Book Thingo put together a great list of others who have shown support for Hale. Buzzfeed also posted a good round-up of those who support Hale, and those in the book community who think her actions were heinous.
7) The fact that this article was published at The Guardian, in the book section, gives it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. By posting the article, The Guardian is basically saying they condone Hale’s actions. Which is just as terrifying as Hale having done it in the first place. The majority of the comments on the article are from other authors who think Hale should be applauded for trying to out her critic.
Personally, I have to say Hale’s article scared the crap out of me. The idea that an author would spend months trying to discover my real identity, show up at my house or call me at work because I didn’t like her book is terrifying. The idea that an author would question my identity and try to find proof of my real name is equally terrifying. It’s also a bit hypocritical, considering the majority of authors write under pen names. I’m not sure why a blogger using an alternate is so wrong or different. The irony of an author questioning why a blogger would use an alias after spending months stalking one isn’t lost on me, either.
Not only that, but when I think about the number of publishers and authors who have my address, I wonder if this is the beginning of the end of publisher sponsored giveaways/ARCs. Hale says she confirmed the reviewer’s address with a publishing contact. So what she’s saying, essentially, is that my personal information isn’t protected. Can any author, disgruntled or otherwise, confirm my address with the publishing houses who have them? Do I need to be concerned about the fact that my daughter has received review copies from publishers? Do I need to worry about forwarding a reader’s information on to an author/publisher when they win a sponsored contest on our site?
Hale’s article brought up a lot of feelings, but none of them are the ones she seemed to want. I didn’t find it funny that a neurotic author fell down that rabbit hole. I hope you don’t either.
Here are some additional articles about this situation:
Dear Author – On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity http://dearauthor.com/features/essays/on-the-importance-of-pseudonymous-activity/
Dear Author – Poisoning the Well http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/poisoning-the-well/
Smart B*tches – The Choices of Kathleen Hale http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/the-choices-of-kathleen-hale
Blame My Bookshelf (blogger is 15) – A Response to Kathleen Hale http://blamemybookshelf.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/an-response-to-kathleen-hale.html
Sunita -The Rising Costs of Membership in the Booktalk Community http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/the-rising-costs-of-membership-in-the-booktalk-community/