David Gilmour is a Bad Canadian

I’m not interested in reading books by David Gilmour. In an interview with Random House two days ago, Gilmour stated:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

CBC

Now I know what you’re thinking: here goes another one of them Feminazi queer-loving bra-burners trying to impinge on this man’s free speech. So he doesn’t like the squawk-talk and jibber-jabber of female writers, gay writers, or Chinese writers? What’s it to you? Fair enough, imaginary Internet commenter.

But he’s said something much worse. You might want to sit down for this. David Gilmour, Canadian author, doesn’t like other Canadian authors.

Now, I’m not Canadian, but I’ve played one on tv, and some of my best friends are Canadian. My accent is in the ballpark, and if I drop in a couple “ehs” and “take off, hosers,” I can pass for one. From my intimate knowledge of the Canadas, I know that it is Canadianly constitutionally mandated that every time you have a conversation about any subject, you are required to note which famous people are from Canada. Talking to nerds? You know, Shatner is Canadian. Doing the chicken dance from Arrested Development? Michael Cera is Canadian. People with huge boobs? Boom: Pamela Anderson.

But that’s not all. The Canadian constitution requires that you don’t ever shittalk whole classes of Canadian citizens in front of Americans. You just can’t even do that, or Mounties will triangulate your location and force you to eat a bowl of moose cock and a case of Molson for your reeducation. I presume that right now, Gilmour is being very politely set upon by men in really hot red outfits while they prize his mouth open to accept the ungulate tumescence. (Oops, I started slipping into some of my Due South fanfiction. Is it hot in here?)

Due-South

So there you have it: David Gilmour has committed treason. Now, I know that I’m not allowed to write reviews based on author behavior anymore, but I think maybe Goodreads should make an exception in this case. I’m not dismissing Gilmour because he dismissed all writers who have a vagina, or are homos, or them Chinese. Obviously, that’s his right as a professor of literature who has been entrusted with educating Canada’s tender youth. That’s just table stakes for the Western Canon. But when you mess with the Queen, you get the horns, David. Who’s that knocking on your door?

Personal, Political, Cultural: Parsing the Concept of Author Behavior in Goodreads Policy

Late last week, Goodreads announced a new “policy change”. The announcement opened with a reiteration of policy points regarding reviews which haven’t changed: reviews should be about the book, and members cannot threaten other members. This is what had changed:

[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior – I will not read this book because something the author sad or did – were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don’t use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends’ reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the “community reviews”. This last category was where your review would not show up. This policy of hiding reviews I thought was a fair one: one that maintained the social aspects of the site, as users could signal to one another that they weren’t going to read something, and why, while muffling the effects of these peer-to-peer interactions on the larger community.

But Goodreads didn’t go through and just delete all hidden reviews, nor did they remove all shelves entitled “due-to-author” or similar. In this “policy change”, Goodreads instead removed the shelves and some reviews of 21 specific people. As far as I can tell, everyone else’s hidden reviews are still standing, and Goodreads spokesperson Kara indicated on the feedback thread that it wasn’t just the shelf names, but, like, the general feel of the reviews under that shelf header? Which, frankly, looks seriously personal and isn’t so much a policy change as swatting specific users, especially given the tone of the email they received.

Please refrain from posting content like this going forward. If you continue to act in a way that is contrary to the spirit and intent of Goodreads, your account will come under review.

Admittedly, Goodreads has apologized for not giving users time to edit, because alerting people to major deletions and then acting like people should have magically known the policy would change and were violating it on purpose is bunk.

This is the problem: if the reviews in question were all “this person was a dick to me on Twitter/Goodreads/etc”, then I can see Goodreads justifying their removal under the already existing guideline that you can’t say the author owes you money or whatnot. That could be construed as a personal interaction, and therefore not germane. This is a little complicated by the fact that Goodreads and Twitter are public, and the interactions become a matter of record. (At least until they don’t, as these sorts of interaction tend to get deleted.) But, okay, let’s just call them personal interactions, and say that kind of interaction is off the table, and always has been. No need for a policy change, as it’s just a policy refinement. The personal behavior – in the sense of person to person interactions – of an author amounts to gossip, maybe, fine.

But I’m a little more worried about what I see as creep in the policy towards silencing  political responses or cultural responses based on the author’s actions or words. Self-avowedlyMike’s review of Mein Kampf is a troll, because of course it’s stupid to say that you can’t mention that  Adolf freaking Hitler was a genocidal maniac. That’s a matter of the historical record, and unassailable. And in fact, when you deny Hitler’s actions, you can go to jail for it in some countries. Manny took the troll a step further in his review of The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving, who was convicted of Holocaust denial in Austria. (The Austrians have, historically understandably, harsher rules about this sort of speech there than in the US.) To quote from Wikipedia, because, shut up, Internet:

In the first edition, Irving’s estimates for deaths in Dresden were between 100,000 and 250,000 — notably higher than most previously published figures. These figures became authoritative and widely accepted in many standard reference works. In later editions of the book over the next three decades, he gradually adjusted the figure downwards to 50,000-100,000. According to the evidence introduced by Richard J. Evans at the libel trial of Deborah Lipstadt in 2000, Irving based his estimates of the dead of Dresden on the word of one individual who provided no supporting documentation, used forged documents, and described one witness who was a urologist as Dresden’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer. The doctor has since complained about being misidentified by Irving, and further, was only reporting rumours about the death toll. Today, casualties at Dresden are estimated as 22,700-25,000 dead.

Irving’s behavior isn’t gossip or personal; it’s a matter of political record. Knowing that he is a Holocaust denier in a history book about the Holocaust is absolutely germane to that content.

Kemper’s review of Josey Wales: Two Westerns is also about the author’s political actions. Asa Earl Carter (who wrote under several pen-names) was a longtime member of the KKK and one of two men credited with the “segregation now, segregation forever” speech by George Wallace. The choice not to read the works of vociferous racists in your precious leisure time isn’t some kind of readerly tantrum, and if it were, what’s it to you? Trigger warning: Asa Earl Carter was insanely racist. That has serious import on his work.

Arguably, GR could take the tack (tact? I’m a little unclear on this idiom) that these are historical actions, and it’s not like the authors are going to be flagging these reviews from the grave (or prison). But let’s take Orson Scott Card. (Take Orson Scott Card! Please!) Paul’s review notes Card’s very active and visible status as an anti-gay crusader. Mr Card has called for the overthrow of the American government, and worked visibly to pass Prop 8 in California. There are boycott movements all over the place for the upcoming film. Noting this isn’t “Card owes me money” or “Card was mean to me on Twitter” but a contextualizing of his work within a political and cultural framework. Orson Scott Card impacts me politically. This isn’t gossip. This is cultural engagement. Of course you don’t have to agree. Of course you can compartmentalize Card’s political beliefs from his work. But the refusal to read Card as a political act is valid too, and it’s a political act that cannot occur without knowledge of the larger context, context provided by reviews such as Paul’s.

I have also taken several swipes at serial plagiarist Jonah Lehrer, in defiance of the new “policy”. The first review was of How We Decide, one of two of his books that were recalled by the publisher for fabrication and/or plagiarism. Drat, I thought, that the book was recalled for its content is actually about the content. So I posted on on his only unrecalled book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. But this is still about context. Lehrer has just an appalling track record of unprofessional behavior – behavior that has gotten him fired from multiple science writing gigs – and this behavior calls into question any science writing this man has done. He wasn’t mean to me on Twitter, he fudged data, which in a science writer in inexcusable. I guess I could append the namby-pamby “to me”, like science writing is about opinions, but I’m not going to. He violated the basic tenets of the subject he was writing about.

But let’s take this a step down, away from the political or professional. One of the reviews deleted under the new policy was Steph Sinclair’s for The Secret of Castle Cant: Being an Account of the Remarkable Adventures of Lucy Wickwright, Maidservant and Spy. The author, KP Bath, was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to six years in prison, which is also a matter of record. It is germane to a review of his children’s book that he is a convicted pedophile. To quote U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton:

“It is shocking that a children’s author would contribute to the trauma these kids endure — both physical and emotional trauma from the sexual abuse itself, and psychological trauma from knowing that images of that abuse are circulating on the Internet.”

This is not gossip. Multiple reviews still left on Goodreads note this fact and literally nothing else about the book. I reviewed Jerry Sandusky’s book and noted his conviction on 45 counts of child abuse, and I’m not the only one. They are all still standing, because it is patently ridiculous to say that Sandusky’s conviction doesn’t have a bearing on the content of his self-elegy about how great he was to kids, or that Bath’s pedophilia doesn’t factor into his children’s book. That there are many, many reviews still standing that note these facts makes me wonder what the sandwich is going on with this new policy.

It’s looking to me that Goodreads is swatting very specific users, and backing it up with confusing, badly considered “policy changes” that aren’t so much changes as after-the-fact justifications. Out of a site of millions of users, that Goodreads went after 21 people looks underhanded and sneaky. The reason they cannot with clarity articulate what exactly the policy is – it’s not shelf names, or maybe it is; of course you can talk about the author, unless you can’t – is an indicator that it’s not a policy change but the ass-covering actions of an institution acting on some kind of personal whim. Which is absolutely no way to write policy.

But then, it’s not really a whim, more of a signal to users that Goodreads is changing its focus from community development to marketing to authors. Amazon acquired Goodreads last year, and I think this is the signal that things are going to change to a more business friendly site. There have always been important differences in Amazon and Goodreads reviews: Goodreads allows profanity, for example, because it’s not a store, but social network. (The terms of service, like most social networking sites, specifically disallows users under the age of 13, so you don’t have to think of the children.) There has never been a downvoting system on Goodreads either, because it really doesn’t matter if the review is “helpful” to every user; it has not been about sales. While I’ve been reluctant to engage in paranoid tin-foil-hattery about how Amazon was going to ruin everything, it is not mouth-frothing to note that Amazon has to make their money somehow, and I can tell you it’s not necessarily going to be through book sales, but the marketing dollars of authors.

In this interview by Community Manager Patrick Brown about Goodreads uploaded in August, he focuses largely on the utility of Goodreads to authors. explaining their recommendation algorithm and discussing how the social networking aspects fuel the discovery process. (Discovery being  the buzzword these days about how writers go about getting a book into the hands of readers, as the traditional publishing model splinters and bursts into flames.) Reviews that focus on author behavior – and of course we are not children, so we know this means negative reviews that focus on author behavior – are disruptive to the discovery process from the point of view of the author: you are hearing about my book all wrong!

So, so many of the writings I see out there discussing this policy change note the recent allegations of a young woman who claimed to have been bullied on Goodreads. Salon asks: Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads? They repeat her initial claims that her book was tagged with shelves titled “author should be sodomized” and “should be raped in prison”. The link to her Tweets, which was the only evidence of this claim, goes to a deleted page, and there was never a link to any Goodreads shelves, because they never existed. (Here we get into the issue of why a self-referenced post on Twitter isn’t a credible source, for those paying attention,  journalists.)

If you actually bother to read to the end of the article, there’s a lame ETA noting that that she eventually issued an “LOL, my bad”, admitting she misunderstood pretty much everything about Goodreads reviewing culture, the shelving system, and that the rape and death threats had never occurred. If you want an extremely thorough accounting of the timeline of events, check this post on ThreeRs, which documents copiously what exactly happened.

The damage had been done at this point, unfortunately, because in this brave new journalistic world that drives blog-arms of media outlets to half-ass their sources in order to get pages up fast while the controversy is breaking – page views! (I’m assuming things here about Goodreads’s motivation, but I can’t really figure why they’d kick this hornet’s nest so hard if they weren’t attempting to appear “tough on bullying” or something. Especially factoring in the recent rape threat meltdown on Twitter.) In this sloppy, bloggy new journalism, you get articles like this one on CNN, which credulously reiterates the fiction that an author had been bullied on Goodreads ZOMG, citing the Salon article, ignoring the retraction, and anemically noting that:

It’s hard to corroborate Howard’s story when she’s deleted her Tumblr (it’s not available in Google’s cache) and many of the Goodreads reviews and shelves allegedly devoted to bullying her have also been deleted. In addition, Howard backtracked on some of her statements.

Spoiler alert: you can’t corroborate the story because it didn’t happen that way at all.

But let’s just backtrack. Let’s say Howard’s books had been shelved in ways that said she should be raped and murdered. This would be horrible and wrong, and it would be right of Goodreads to delete these shelves and ban the users who said such things. I have seen threats on Goodreads – usually users against users and not involving authors at all – and Goodreads has always been good about deleting them once the comments have been flagged. (And sometimes going so far as to ban users.) The policy in place was already equipped to deal with personal threats.

Extending the Goodreads Terms of Service to this vague, mushy, overly broad policy about “author behavior” doesn’t solve Goodreads’s PR problem out there due to bad journalism, irresponsible blog posts, and the fact that people on Internet can suck. Maybe what they mean is “Twitter isn’t a credible source” (actually, no it isn’t) or “no more personal interaction stories, even secondhand ones” (ok, that’s a shift, but a slighter one than this encompassing “behavior” nonsense.)

Goodreads has been reticent to discuss specific user’s deletions, which I guess makes sense in terms of not gossiping in public about users, but in terms of parsing what exactly they are looking for, make it very difficult indeed. Goodreads employee Kara notes:

Anyone else with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do.  [emphasis hers]

I take this to mean that reviews not adhering to this vague policy written after the announcement will be deleted without notification. Given that I can’t even tell what’s actionable anymore,  I find this incredibly chilling. Way to turn a PR problem into a firestorm, Goodreads.

The implementation of this policy change has been breathtakingly badly managed, and the thinking behind their shift muzzy and indistinct, when it doesn’t look calculated towards aims that have nothing to do with the reviews in question.  Goodreads has moved from muffling users to silencing them because they are shifting their focus from peer-to-peer interactions – a social network – to the marketing potentials in a website of 20 million readers. It’s been said before, but the user is the product on any social networking site. They can’t sell you if you won’t behave.

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How We Decide: Trolling Goodreads

This book was pulled by its publisher because it was plagiarized and contained fabricated sources. This is the second book of Lehrer’s to be recalled by the publisher for plagiarism, the first being Imagine: How Creativity Works. (Pretty fucking ironic title, amiright?) He has only “written” three books, so two out of three is pretty bad. He was fired from his New Yorker gig for self-plagiarism as well. (Basically, he was recycling content like a lazyass, although he also lifted from Malcolm Gladwell.) For some reason, publishers keep thinking it’s a good idea to throw money at this asshole, even though there are allegations his most recent book prospectus was plagiarized too.



Jonah Lehrer is an unrepentant serial plagiarist who has stupid and ugly glasses. I will never read this book because the publisher has recalled it, and because I hate Lehrer’s face. How’s that for your author behavior, bitch?
—-

This is my most recent review on Goodreads, which is in response to the change in Goodreads policy concerning reviews that primarily talk about author behavior, not the content of the book. Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior – I will not read this book because something the author sad or did – were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don’t use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends’ reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the “community reviews”. This last category was where your review would not show up.

As controversial as this approach was, I thought this was a reasonable approach, in the end. I had some problems with implementation, which were two-fold. First, it was applied to reviews that didn’t actually violate the policy, such as David’s oft-deleted review of The Giving Tree. That was just pearl-clutching about naughty words in a children’s book review (though David does note that Shel looks like the devil. Shel does though.) And second, Goodreads didn’t alert anybody when their reviews were hidden. It’s possible they do now, but I kind of doubt it. I’ve always been careful at least nominally to talk about a book when I’m also shouting about some damn thing going down on Goodreads – such as this review, or this one – so I haven’t had any hidden reviews. At least the last time I emailed Goodreads about whether I had any hidden reviews, which was their really shitty, opt-in solution to their problem, as far as I’m aware.

I can in many ways understand the policy to hide reviews. There are a lot of ugly, often stupid conflicts between authors and reviewers out there today, and in managing a social network, trying to cool down the rhetoric makes sense to me. So you note that such-and-such author is a jackass, fine. But that review was kept to your friends (or followers, I think), or to people who want to seek out these hidden reviews. (For example, there is a round-up of hidden reviews in The Hidden Reviews Club on Goodreads. You’re welcome.) This policy wasn’t my favorite, but I could live with it because it sought to split the difference between people using Goodreads to note to themselves a book that they didn’t want to read, and keeping the book page from filling with unread dismissals. If only they could keep the book pages from filling with “pre-reviews” which are useless to me, but then just because they’re useless to me, doesn’t mean someone else can’t find value in them, I guess. Anyway, point being, this policy didn’t silence reviewers, it muffled them.

But now, apparently, whole shelves are being deleted, along with all their reviews. A friend noted her due-to-author shelf had been deleted, along with a large number of reviews that didn’t actually violate the new TOS. The policy was implemented like swatting a fly with a hammer, with no nuance, and certainly no warning. A lot of people are crediting this change in policy to the actions of Stop the Goodreads Bullies and their allies, including STGRB themselves. (And I urge you not to directly visit their site, as they are known doxxers and assholes. Round up here if you want the story.) I find this unlikely; I imagine Goodreads is as sick of them as everyone else is. I believe this change is in response to irresponsible posts such as this one in Salon that asks, “Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads?” The short answer is no, a debut author did not get bullied on Goodreads, as the lame appended ETA in the article notes. (Also, a really brilliant piece of citizen journalism that documents that whole stupid mess can be found on Three Rs. You’re welcome.)

So, in the spirit of plagiarism, which is the one I wrote this review in, I’m going to quote extensively from Mike’s comment in his review of Mein Kampf, which is a two-line dismissal of Hitler’s manifesto that focuses on the author’s behavior:

Let me step back and say: I seriously, seriously doubt that the moronic TEH-BULLIES! crowd had anything to do with the new policy. I do imagine that this is an attempt to craft rules which prevent the flaming wars which emerge at a vibrant social network predicated on asserting one’s opinion. I would disclose that I’ve met, and liked, and really trust/like the person who really trusts/likes, one of the GR staffers. But even if I didn’t know and trust this person, I’d probably be inclined to think that–even as (cue the Pet Shop Boys) making lots of money is a goal–the site hasn’t gone and isn’t going through some radical shift to be an eden for the self-published or the major bookselling reich. (For the record, I don’t think Amazon is the devil, either.)In other words, I take the new policy’s intentions at their word: to try to refine and enhance community engagement with one another.

But I wrote this review for three reasons.

One, a regulation or a strong opinion is like a dare to me. I take enormous, childish or child-like delight in fucking with rules and rule-keepers and firm believers. This really was like my late-night calls to 1-800 numbers, or my tendency to screw around in institutional emails — it’s FUN. 

But, two, there’s a reasonably sincere philosophy behind the cat-calling and game-playing. I think rules work best when least intrusive, when most responsive to community engagement. I think communities are stronger when its members constantly mock, abuse, test, tease the rules which ostensibly govern us. And I think this is most wonderfully embodied in online networks with serious, smart, engaged, funny, rule-breaking, opinionated members like this site. Community rules tend to bubble up, and shape discourse. I think that isn’t just preferable to imposition from above. I think it makes more sense to what you’re trying to create or facilitate. If you want a vibrant social network, keep the TOS concise, minimally invasive, and unambiguous. Otherwise you will spend ALL of your time regulating the TOS, and members will spend an inordinate amount of time leaving in a huff, or flagging and demanding TOS attention, and… (I also think *practically* rules DO emerge. The community defines its standards, and upholds them. Such regulation is more fluid, sometimes more heated, sometimes plain rough. But such regulation is an emergent property of social networks.)

Three, as many have pointed out, in the feedback section as well as in other places where debate about the new regs rages, the imagined neat line between an attack on an author and a book-centered attack is not a fixed boundary, and it will be devilishly hard to put the fences up reliably, consistently, fairly. I think the new regs are categorically fuzzy and confusing — and see point Two.

 

I think Mike pretty much nails it here.

But back to Lehrer, and How We Decide. There are eleventy million books out there, which is [11ty million minus a couple thousand, give or take] more books than I will ever in my lifetime read. We have to parse the millions for their worthiness to pass under our eyeballs; we have to decide what we think is worth not just our attention, but our hard-earned dollars. I’m not going to read another Orson Scott Card novel, for example, because that guy’s anti-gay bullshit is horrible to me. (And hey, I even liked Ender’s Game.) You don’t have to agree with my reasons, but a lot of people out there do. It’s valid to compartmentalize the author’s views from the creative output, something I have to do all the time when I pick up historical works by, say, fascists or assholes. (TS Eliot represent!) But it is equally valid to say: I will not read this book because I don’t want actual money going to actual people who are actively working in the world towards ends I despise. Or even just, fuck what the writer said on Twitter.

So I get that Goodreads is trying to work some spin against some really fucking shitty journalism, but this is the wrong fucking call. I recently did an interview about my experience on Goodreads, in which I said that the site changed my life. It did. I love how my fellow goodreaders have challenged me as a reader and as a person. But, again, I’m dealing with high-handed, badly considered bullshit policy choices that seem to correct the wrong problems. There was a lot of howling when Amazon bought Goodreads, and I predicted that the policy changes that drove me off the site would be incremental. I’m not bailing yet, because I believe still in the community, but I keep considering my line in the sand. (Implementing downvoting, for sure.) I’m hoping I don’t just end up like the frog in the boiling water, accepting an escalating heat because, frankly, the idea of leaving makes me miserable. This policy change makes me miserable too.

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Revival, Volume 2: Winter isn’t Coming; It’s already Here

The second volume of Revival is not quiiite as awesome as Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends, but some of that is just the inevitable settling that occurs when reading a series which starts with such a bang. Revival, Volume Two: Live Like You Mean It collects issues 6-11 of the ongoing Revival series, which details the travails of the town of Wausau, Wisconsin in the days and weeks after a discrete number of their dead get back up. 

a figure digs through snow to get at the frozen earth of a grave. it is snowing in the foreground

These reanimated people aren’t cannibal shamblers, and the reanimation does not appear to be contagious. Although the setting, art style and dialogue is naturalistic, there’s an edge of the supernatural: rural noir, Midwestern Gothic. While the revived seem mostly unchanged, some are still…twitchy, and everyone is on edge. The town is quarantined; various jurisdictions jockey; locals sandbag the Feds; religious leaders attempt to score points; scumbags attempt to profit. You know, the usual with a civic trauma. 


This second volume sinks into the boredom and profiteering of the quarantine, with minor revelations punctuated by lots of wheel spinning, both literal and metaphoric. Winter is deepening. I wasn’t real enamored of the meth brothers and their theatrics – it felt like too much of a red line under a point – but the several conversations between two central sisters, the weird, dumpy religious lady lit up with her faith, the Hmong woman’s monologue – all of this worked in the strange, understated, deflected language of my Midwestern people. 

cops talking at a roadblock

Fuck it, Tim Seeley is my new boyfriend.