I was out of town this weekend, and when I got home, I had all sorts of messages on twitter and Facebook. “Have you seen this?!” followed by a Do Not Link link. “I have to know what you think about this!” Well. I feel sick. And scared. Every time an author has a meltdown at a blogger, we all shout the same things into the social media vortex. “Every book gets bad reviews!” “Bad reviews can sometimes sell the book better than a positive one!” “It’s a matter of personal taste.” But then another author v. reviewer interaction comes along, more extreme than the last. Sites like Stop The GoodReads Bullies encourage abuse of and retaliation towards bloggers, stoking the flames so that each new “drama” is more radical and perplexing. I’ve long said that a site like Stop The GoodReads Bullies was going to get someone killed. And I am not exaggerating or being histrionic when I say that I fear that author Kathleen Hale’s actions have opened the door to that possibility. I don’t say that lightly. By Hale’s own admission, she stalked blogger Blythe Harris. In a long, unhinged essay for The Guardian, Hale tells the story about how a blogger caused her mental anguish significant enough to justify not only online stalking, but a premeditated visit to the blogger’s home, followed by the article exposing Blythe Harris as a blogger using an online pseudonym. The opening of the article draws on the time-worn cliche of “book babies” (with a tasteless comparison to Post-Partum Depression) in what is a transparent plea for a level of sympathy that excuses the actions that will be recounted in the rest of the tale:
“In the months before my first novel came out, I was a charmless lunatic – the type that other lunatics cross the street to avoid. I fidgeted and talked to myself, rewriting passages of a book that had already gone to print. I remember when my editor handed me the final copy: I held the book in my hands for a millisecond before grabbing a pen and scribbling edits in the margins.”
As an author, I find this to be worrying behavior. I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t diagnose or declare someone mentally ill, so I won’t. But I will say that if one of my author friends were behaving this way, I would be gravely concerned for them, even if they were inexperienced or anxious over the release of the book. At first read, I assumed this description–and the following anecdote about her editor pulling the red pen from her hand–were humorous exaggeration. As the article continued, I began to doubt. According to Hale’s recounting of the story, she was approached by Blythe Harris on Twitter:
Her name was Blythe Harris. She had tweeted me saying she had some ideas for my next book. “Cool, Blythe, thanks!” I replied. In an attempt to connect with readers, I’d been asking Twitter for ideas – “The weirdest thing you can think of!” – promising to try to incorporate them in the sequel.
The order in which these events are listed is disingenuous; Hale makes it sound as though Harris contacted her to suggest ideas apropos of nothing, when in reality, Hale invited conversation, a fact that is dropped in as an afterthought. Hale’s curiosity led her to Harris’s GoodReads profile, where she found a one-star review of her work, with some harsh words expressing Harris’s dislike of the book. Hale writes about the warning that pops up when an author tries to leave a comment on a GoodReads review, but she doesn’t admit to leaving a comment. Whether or not she did, I have no idea; Harris has since made her GoodReads profile private.
“Blythe appeared on a page called Badly Behaving Goodreaders, an allusion to Badly Behaving Authors. BBAs, Athena Parker, a co-founder of STGRB, told me, are “usually authors who [have] unknowingly broken some ‘rule’”. Once an author is labelled a BBA, his or her book is unofficially blacklisted by the book-blogging community.”
Athena Parker is a pseudonymous identity that convincing evidence has linked to author Melissa Douthit. As STGRB has routinely stalked, threatened, and doxxed bloggers, using Douthit as a source in an article about stalking is either hilariously contradictory or tragically appropriate.
“In my case, I became a BBA by writing about issues such as PTSD, sex and deer hunting without moralising on these topics.”
I have to argue that the rest of the events in Hale’s anecdote are what make her a badly behaving author, not her choice of subject matter. She describes an “attack” Harris made against a fourteen-year-old GoodReads reviewer. Some authors and readers have pointed to Harris’s interaction with the teen reviewer as “bad behavior on both sides,” of this issue, but Hale’s obsession didn’t start with seeking justice for that incident, it was incited by a one-star review. As far as I can tell from Hale’s own account, the only action taken by Harris that justified Hale’s relentless stalking was that single review. The process of retaliation began the moment Hale engaged with STGRB. According to Hale, she was advised by a friend who was an editor to reach out to other authors who’d received negative reviews from Harris. I find this claim dubious in the extreme, but perhaps Hale found the one editor in publishing who feels engaging with a critic is a sound decision. She contacts several authors and finds only one who will speak, under condition of anonymity:
“She responded – “Omg” – and immediately took our conversation off the record. “DO NOT ENGAGE,” she implored me. “You’ll make yourself look bad, and she’ll ruin you.””
This is the advice Hale should have heeded. Instead, she continued to monitor reviews, following a “ripple effect” in which she implies that Harris’s review tainted the opinions of others. After searching her name on Twitter, Hale finds that Harris is “ridiculing” her:
“Confronting her would mean publicly acknowledging that I searched my name on Twitter, which is about as socially attractive as setting up a Google alert for your name (which I also did).”
Authors, if you are unable to handle dissenting opinions of your work and your public statements, never search your name. Never set up a Google alert for your name. But what truly troubles me about this paragraph is Hale’s concern that publicly announcing her vanity searches would not be “socially attractive,” yet she seems to find nothing unattractive about publicizing her methodical stalking of Harris. Does this mean that Hale finds her own actions acceptable? Hale describes what she did next as “light stalking.” This included tracking down all of Harris’s social media accounts, and consuming material that was unrelated to Harris’s book blogging. Months later, against the advice of the anonymous author she again contacted, Hale requested that Harris interview her for a book club. Hale doesn’t admit openly to requesting Harris with the goal of obtaining her address, but she is provided with the information. Hale used it to find Harris’s home on Google Maps, to ferret out her phone number and even check census records in order to learn more about her. What she learned was that Harris was using a pseudonym–not a crime, even if Harris did once make a claim to the contrary. Hale makes plans to confront Harris personally, at Harris’s home. Though the anonymous author once again pleads with Hale not to, Harris reserves a car for a date months away. She continues to stalk Harris via social media, collecting information to prove that Harris was not what she seemed, and that Hale was being “catfished.” She attempts to back up her paranoia with professional opinions; one must wonder how the sources cited feel about their words being used as vague justification for Hale’s actions. But Hale wasn’t being catfished–Harris had been reviewing books as Blythe Harris before she reviewed Hale’s book. Harris had not concocted an elaborate persona in order to trick people; many bloggers review under pseudonyms to avoid having their public hobby linked to their private lives, much in the same way that authors use pen names to separate themselves from their work. Hale concludes her self-pitying narrative by explaining how she went to Harris’s house and confronted the person who lived there, a woman named Judy who made excuses for her links to Harris. Or, when looked at from a different angle, a woman named Judy who, unnerved when a stranger from the internet showed up on her doorstep, tried to protect herself. Hale continues to contact Judy and Harris via social media, until both of them block her and make their accounts private, a step that Hale sees as an admission of guilt, rather than the actions of terrified victims withdrawing to avoid further contact. The details are presented in such a straight-forward, unflinching manner that it becomes painfully clear that Hale, despite calling the personal visit a “low-point,” has no remorse, and expects sympathy and understanding from the reader. She received it in spades; Neil Gaiman leapt into the online fray to declare Hale’s article fascinating, though he states that he doesn’t condone her actions. Anne Rice (predictably) praised Hale, although one has to question one’s actions if Anne Rice approves of them. Comedian John Mulaney is also a fan, and Frank Rich, a fellow Guardian writer and her future father-in-law, threw his support behind the piece as well. Danielle Paige presumed to speak on behalf of all authors in an incendiary tweet that sparked dozens of replies:
‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her no. 1 online critic @halekathleen did that thing we all want to do! http://t.co/HN1BRgK7Fo — danielle paige (@daniellempaige) October 18, 2014
Others blamed Harris, or insinuated that her behavior was equally as disturbing as Hale’s. I am forced to reiterated that the only thing Harris did to set this stalking behavior in motion was to write a one-star review for a book she didn’t care for. Hale was not catfished. Hale is not a victim. She is an author obsessed with public reception of her work, and comes across as a deeply troubled figure. The victim in this story is Blythe Harris, whose privacy, both online and off, was grotesquely violated by a woman who was repeatedly advised to disengage. All this, for the crime of disliking an unstable writer’s book. For her part, Hale seems to view this essay as a comedy piece, stating:
@gabydunn thanks man. The piece is self-deprecating and the fact that I am bonkers isn’t news to me. Xx — Kathleen Hale (@HaleKathleen) October 18, 2014
I have to assume that were the roles reversed and a persistent blogger had visited Hale at her home, she wouldn’t have such a blasé attitude toward stalking. But as Twitter user @Bibliodaze eloquently explained:
@TracyClark_TLC @Jenny_Trout They see Blythe & reviewers in general not as people. Hale depicts Blythe as a character in her story. — Bibliodaze.com (@Bibliodaze) October 19, 2014
In the coming months, I suspect that fewer blogs will host book tour giveaways with physical prizes that require an author to receive an entrant’s address. I suspect also that fewer bloggers will accept physical ARCs, and for a while, author/blogger interaction will be more guarded than it has in the past. There is no way for them to discern which authors will cross the line and visit their homes with accusations. There is no way for them to discern which might go further. I expect a few pseudonymous bloggers to stop reviewing books altogether, even as Hale supporters backpedal from their threats to reviewers:
The takeaway? Do not cross @HaleKathleen — or writers in general. You will read every word. Promise: http://t.co/x4kD2k9WDb — Amy MacKinnon (@AmyMacKinnon) October 18, 2014
Hale’s actions have harmed not only the book blogging community, but authors who will now be viewed with suspicion and caution by bloggers. She’s limited opportunities to reach out to readers via book blogs, not just for herself, but for all of us. The most troubling aspect of this story is that Hale, after writing an in-depth admission of stalking, is receiving any support or accolades at all. What she has done is not brave. Perhaps it’s not serious enough for the law to become involved, but the behavior itself, the stalking and intimidating, is at the very least a prelude to a crime. Hale didn’t go as far as assaulting Harris, but her supporters have, through their pseudo-intellectual praising of her bravery and “fascinating” retelling, normalized and rationalized the abnormal, irrational behavior that will one day lead to a violent altercation between an author with a wounded ego and a faulty moral compass, and a blogger who reviews the wrong book. I hope that those closest to Hale will view this article for what it is: a confession of dangerous behavior perpetrated by a deeply troubled person. I would have thought this would go without saying, but the lesson here is: Don’t do this. Ever. For more information on Hale’s essay, visit Dear Author, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and this Storify of relevant tweets.