The Last 24 Hours on Goodreads

If you’re coming into this mess cold, a little back story:

On September 20, Goodreads “announced” by posting a thread in their Goodreads Feedback group that they would be deleting reviews focused on the ill-defined concept of “author behavior”. I’ll note here that the Feedback group has a little over 13,000 members, a fraction of a percentage point of the 20 million users Goodreads claims. Posts in Feedback do not go out as a general announcement even to the group’s membership. This was also done on a Friday, and Goodreads is notoriously absent on weekends. Customer Care Manager Kara eventually noted that Goodreads had only deleted the reviews of 21 people.  She refused to comment on the content of their reviews, only giving a hypothetical review – “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that” – that would be forbidden under the new policy. The thread was  quickly abandoned by Goodreads; it’s currently at over 5,500 comments, and climbing.

Kara’s characterization of the reviews they deleted turned out to be a miscaracterization, at least according to my research. A group of Goodreaders including myself started tracking down the original 21 people who had reviews deleted, and we eventually found 13 of them. Many of the reviews Goodreads deleted had no content – neither a rating nor anything in the review field – and Goodreads had taken action solely on the content of the threads below. (A quick note on nomenclature: it’s called a “review” on Goodreads whenever you shelve a book at all, even if the book isn’t rated, or there isn’t any written essay that you would normally call a review.) From the book list given to me by the people affected, the reviews about “author behavior” Goodreads deemed actionable ranged from plagiarism to faking or paying for reviews (which I’ll note is illegal in some places), to pedophilia to racist or homophobic statements to pulled-to-publish fan-fiction to just the usual gamut of social media meltdowns.

At this point the protest reviews started. I reviewed The Secret of Castle Cant by convicted pedophile K.P. Bath, because at least two people had their reviews of this book deleted in the new policy about “author behavior” in the initial 21. So far, none of the protest reviews have been taken down. Mike reviewed Mein Kampf using almost the exact wording of Kara’s hypothetical review – “This author is such a dick. I’m not even going to read it!” Many reviews of this book followed suit, and as far as I’m aware, none of them have been taken down. Reviews of books by plagiarizers and sexists followed, again, with none of the reviews coming down. Some of the protest reviews found books or titles that the reviewers used as a springboard for criticism about the new policy, books like Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship or Civil Disobedience or, most importantly, The Hydra.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because Goodreads started deleting these reviews as “off-topic”. Apparently you’re cool going after the books Goodreads initially targeted in their purge, but use the review platform for dissent, and you better watch yourself. The email to users who had their reviews deleted says at the end, “Please note that if you continue to post content like this, your account may come under review.” Goodreads has taken its gloves off; they may delete your account for your naughty behavior. A good round up of the initial deletions can be found here, but the upshot is, Goodreads began deleting the often-playful, arguably off-topic, and absolutely critical of Goodreads reviews of some of their most prolific users.

hydraAt this point, it’s far too difficult to detail the number of protest reviews out there, cheerfully thumbing their noses at Goodreads management and their ill-defined and self-serving review rules. I’ll just note one case for example. Manny’s review of The Hydra served as a template for the protest reviews, the image of the hydra being a call for other Goodreaders to copy & paste the original content of the review if they were worried about their review being deleted by Goodreads. Some of these Hydra review have been deleted by  Goodreads as plagiarism, despite the explicit call for re-posting. Some users have added disingenuous (but hilarious) “reviews”  of the book to to keep the review under guidelines. Hydra reviews are proliferating all over the site, a full on revolt. I’m honestly interested to see if Goodreads is willing to play whack-a-mole with their most active users, slapping their wrists and threatening their accounts with deletion as the days wear on. I’m interested to see whether they will start deleting accounts. In the past, the Goodreads MO has been to simply freeze us out – witness the complete abandonment of their own Feedback thread – so I’m guessing this will be their course of action now.

But the actions of Goodreads, and their generally closed-mouth and inscrutable actions don’t really worry me at the moment. What worries me is the gutting of the Goodreads community as Goodreads’s top users jump ship for less censorious locales. Elizabeth, one of the top 20 reviewers worldwide, (who is fellow Soapboxer, in full disclosure) wrote a piece today about how she’s no longer posting reviews on Goodreads, making her just the most recent casualty of the new “policies”. I myself (also on that list) have begun taking down my 500+ reviews. From anecdotal evidence, dozens of very prolific users have taken down their content or deleted their accounts, people like Abigail A, BunWat, and Archer, often people who had been users since the very beginning, with thousands of reviews.

Maybe this is no thing. Maybe, as people keep telling me, there at 20 million Goodreads users out there willing and able to review two books a week on a wide variety of subjects, with a broad following and the trust that they’re not just corporate shills, only these hypothetical new users are willing to play ball. That’s why Amazon bought Goodreads, after all, isn’t it? To find a stable of reviewers to aid in the discovery process, a process much hampered by Amazon’s own review strictures: no profanity, no ties to the author, no personality, and downvoting outlying opinions into oblivion. Relying on the 1% rule, likely the active membership of Goodreads is significantly less than their bandied 20 million, a community of lurkers watching the output of the very few. Goodreads has it in their best interests not to lose these people, unless they are relying on the most narrow and inflexible ideas about what constitutes a good readership. Which, certainly, they may be.

In a Forbes article about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads, the writer notes:

For me, there are no “professional” critics that matter anymore. In our new social world, the crowd must decide. That means authors and readers everywhere now have greater access to each other and the best books won’t be held back by traditional road blocks. Obviously, for authors, this makes it more essential than ever to have a solid social media plan, to be accessible and to build a following – because relying on the old publishing guard won’t cut it anymore.

That age is over.

Goodreads is trying to sand the edges off the crowd, silencing the voices most trusted, most invested in their reading, because sometimes the crowd decides certain books aren’t worthy of either reading or review, and that apparently can’t be allowed under the new mercantile system. With the proliferation of self-published works, the avid readers on the frontlines are acting as slush-pile readers for million of books, and if they (we) decide a book shouldn’t be undertaken because it’s likely that a negative review will result in the author flaming or doxing you, that’s not on Goodreads to get in the middle. It’s not on Goodreads to police reviews as “off-topic” when it’s clear that they’re just silencing dissent. There is no “off-topic” in a robust social media, which is ultimately the problem here, right?

So far, I’ve been writing as bloodlessly as possibly, doing my citizen journalist shtick to the best of my ability. But this change on Goodreads’s part is killing me. I haven’t cried so much about social media in a long time, each review I take down feeling like a lost thumb, each time I see posts by [deleted member] another lost companion. Due to my call to find the initial 21 users, and then later to hear from anyone who had deletions, I’ve had an inbox full of messages from users detailing their deletions. So many of these messages were confessional, long stories about being hounded over multiple media platforms by people who are technically “authors” for something the reviewer said or did, often not even about the “author” in question. I can take 50,000 words, not even in any particular order, and upload them to SmashWords or Kindle, and poof, I am an author. So many of these reviews about “author behavior” were the personal reactions of people being harassed on social media by other people hawking unedited ebooks that would never, ever make it off a slush-pile. That this is out of bounds on a social media platform, that I can’t decide what’s on-topic, that’s a shift in policy quiescent content-generation and away from a social media. We Goodreaders are either a product, or a community, and right now the fight is on.


Giving Offense: Full on Revolt on Goodreads

I’m reposting this review from Ruby Tombstone with her permission:

Would GoodReads Censor A Review On A Book About Censorship? Let’s find out, shall we…

I’ve been an active GoodReads contributor for a couple of years now. I review every book I read, I run a discussion group, I’m a GR Librarian. I spend countless hours every week, (well, they are probably countable but I can’t be arsed), on this site creating content for GoodReads Amazon. I won’t pretend I’m happy about that last bit.

When I first joined GoodReads, I spent a lot more countable-but-not-presently-counted hours up to my eyeballs in administrative tasks associated with the book data we all use. I stopped doing that when the mountains of data and content that I had created was sold to Amazon without my seeing a cent of the profits. Since Amazon have been here they’ve done some pretty shitty things, and they really don’t seem to value the hard work I’ve done for them. They seem to be quite content making out that they are doing us all a favour, providing us with a free (albeit dripping-with-advertising) service – rather than acknowledging that they’re making a fortune from our content and data.

Now it seems GoodReads has decided to go hard with a policy of deleting reviews and bookshelves* they don’t like. I really can’t be much more specific than that, because that’s about as specific as GoodReads has been. From what little they have communicated to us, it seems to be “anything anyone working for GR thinks could offend anyone else or could potentially be perceived by anyone else as an insult to a writer”. There is no way of knowing what that might be. We’ve been told that any posts or shelves focussing on the author’s behaviour will be deleted. This includes authors who harass GoodReads users, and presumably precludes us from even discussing something like Mein Kampf. This is censorship, as if you need me to point that out, and that is a very slippery slope.

The author of this book, J.M. Coetzee is a famously reclusive, reportedly humourless bloke. Am I allowed to mention that anymore?

GoodReads made these policy changes sneakily: no emails to us, no warning or notification of any kind for the people having their reviews deleted, no response to our reasonable concerns. Reviews and shelves are quietly being deleted, and there have been plenty of screenshots around to prove it. So now I am not only outraged by the knowledge that our posts are actively being policed and censored, but I’m quite frankly creeped out by the whole thing. Who is making the decisions? What are their criteria? Why do they refuse to talk to us about it? Why are they doing it so stealthily? Why can’t they notify someone who’s about to have their content deleted?

Most importantly of all….. where will it end? That last question I CAN actually answer: A site where the bulk of the reviews are positive and critique-free – whether or not that book deserves it. Where any negative reviews are limited to “it’s my fault for not picking a book which is more suited to my peculiar tastes”. A site where people can’t talk about the elephant of author behaviour in the room.
A site where all reviews are suspect.

The whole value of GR has been that we can see honest reviews from people we trust. If people can’t write an honest review about their experience with the book (and its author), then that review has no value.

GOODREADS: Please just do the right thing. People have invested a lot of time and effort in this site. They will cooperate with you IF you treat them respectfully. Censorship, though….. obviously that’s going to go down like a tonne of bricks on a literature site.

*For the benefit of people who don’t use GoodReads – “bookshelves” on GoodReads aren’t just used to sort our lists of books, they are a tagging function. They are what we use to comment succinctly on a range of issues relating to that book. They are also what we use to warn each other about spammers, abusive authors, sock-puppet (fake) accounts, and anything else that a potential reader/reviewer may need to know before they engage with that book. I say “engage” because even shelving a book as “want to read”, alerts the author that you have shown interest and can open the door to that author targeting you.

[edit] Postscript:What annoys me no end, is that the media and some other commentators are portraying GR users as if we’re simply refusing to accept the corporate reality of a “free-service” that Amazon are providing us with. What they don’t seem to be aware of is that, unlike many other sites, it’s the users that created this database, including the book data, as well as all the content, as well as taking care of a lot of their administration, as well as a big chunk of their “help” functions etc etc. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to have certain expectations of the site we built & maintain.

[edit] Please also see Carol’s excellent summary of ways you can help spread the word about this issue:…

[edit] Must ReadCeridwen’s Brilliant Analysis of the Deleted Review Data:…
This shows the authors associated with the deleted reviews & bookshelves as well as showing the real target of GR’s censorship – The comments threads.




The reason I’m reposting this review is  that last night and through today, Goodreads has gone on a binge deleting “potentially off-topic” reviews – their words – which also happen to be kinda sorta absolutely critical of the new censorship policy they enacted two weeks ago. They’ve been playing whack-a-mole with dozens of hydra-like reviews that keep popping up as fast as they can delete them, slapping the wrists of some of their most copious users and threatening that their accounts will “come under review”.

Dear God, you guys, what is going on here?

Heretofore, so much of the media about the Goodreads policy change has focused on the alleged bullying of a self-published author, and how “both sides were wrong” and a bunch of other mealy-mouthed garbage. I’m not even going to get into the definition of bullying, and how it’s being used without any real rigor in this whole mess. (I’ll just say the self-published author attributed her misunderstandings of Goodreads to PMS and leave it at that.) The shift to deleting content about “author behavior” was one thing, but now that Goodreads is going after the “off-topic” review, now, that’s something else.

Goodreads has always had a light hand when it comes to the content of reviews. To quote Kara, Goodreads Director of Customer Care:

What we try to do is provide room for our members’ own personal approach within our overall principles rather than set rigid guidelines. We’ve found it has worked well for the community overall so far and is something that readers value.

Or CEO Otis Chandler, talking about five-starred “pre-reviews” by fans well before the book had been read:

I agree that it’s a shame some books have to suffer ratings that clearly are invalid. However I can’t think of a way to prevent it, and I didn’t see any ideas in the thread either (I did skim though). I hope you’ll appreciate that if we just start deleting ratings whenever we feel like it, that we’ve gone down a censorship road that doesn’t take us to a good place.

As for manuscripts or yet-to-be-published books, I have no problem with them being in the database. It’s kind of cool to have a record of in-progress books, and I don’t think it hurts anything. I do think we’d need to remove any that weren’t serious in their intent to be a finished book one day.

I’m not even trying to cherry-pick quotes from Goodreads management, I’m just trying to show how its been for a long time: Goodreads hasn’t cared about off-topic reviews until now, because off-topic reviews are what have made this social network. Reviewers have been given wide latitude to rattle and chatter, tell stories and goof, make friends and enemies, the whole gamut. Sure, a lot of it has been tempestuous teapot stuff, but who really gives? To quote the author of one of the books used as a protest:

I don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but Goodreads shouldn’t be deleting reviews, period. People are smart enough to look at them on their own and make up their mind, and deleting reviews undermines the integrity of the site.

We are not academics or professionals, but citizen readers on a social networking site. We haven’t so far been required to be “on-topic”because this was our party, a gathering place for discussion and socializing and just plain messing around. Now that the community has been bought and sold, we have to prove our utility though, and all of our social shenanigans must come to a halt. I resent this immensely.

Our anger at high-handed and vague policy decisions is not off-topic at all. It is the heart of a dispute about a database and a social network that is largely user-built, from the millions of hours Goodreads Librarians have put in correcting the database, to millions of reviews people have added to this site. It absolutely burns me that Goodreads can turn around and wave this changed terms of service at me like I’m some unruly child who needs to be checked. I’m not your product, or an idiot. I can see what you’re doing with these deletions, and I can tell you, Goodreads, it’s not going to work. I’m still fighting for a community I believe in.

I Aim to Misbehave: Books by Pedophiles

Look, I know everyone is sick of talking about the new moratorium on writing book reviews about “author behavior” here on Goodreads – dudes, that was so last week – but I’m not. I’m still pissed as hell.

Last week I compiled a database the book reviews Goodreads deleted from 13 of the 21 people affected by the “policy change”. (And in your link-whoring department, full analysis of the deletions here.) Two of the users had reviews from this book deleted. Here is a screencap of one of the deleted reviews, because while Goodreads can delete something, Google cache is forever:

This book was written by a convicted pedophile. 'nuf said.

K.P. Bath was convicted of owning child pornography and sentenced to 6 years in prison. And it is ‘nuf said. This children’s book was written by a pedophile. Please tell me how this “author behavior” doesn’t have a direct bearing on the content.

I’m not going to link to the dozens of reviews that note this fact and nothing else, but they are still up on Goodreads. You know why? Because this policy about author behavior is complete bollocks. This “policy change” was a witch hunt, pure and simple. 21 people had their reviews deleted because the management at Goodreads didn’t like them personally.

21 people.

I aim for 22.

The Goodreads Killer: Kicking Down

Not so very long ago, a site came online called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I would urge you not to google this site right now, and I’m not going to link to it, but I am going to note its name straight up. Fuck Voldemort. I’ll name the blog that shouldn’t be named. They claimed they were taking a stand about the big meanies on Goodreads who had the temerity to write bad reviews; uppity bitches and all. The very first posts on the site were a series of profiles of Goodreads reviewers outing their real names, the names of their spouses, editorializing on their parenting skills, and, in at least one instance, noting the places they lunched, avowedly so they they could “get a taste of their own medicine”. This, friends, is a direct threat to readers, and more specifically on female readers (which they all were), offering up personal details of people to silence them with the possibility that psychos might call them at home. Which, again, happened in at least one instance.

Now, while I wasn’t targeted by the STGRB freaks in their initial outing, many of the people targeted were my friends, and I was afraid for them. Due to swift action, STGRB ended up scrubbing their site pretty fast of the most egregious and probably legally actionable content. Also, they were forced by a national organization against school bullying to take down the banners they had festooned all over the site. Unfortunately, the post I had that detailed the screencaps of their most terrible shit has gone down, but I saw all this stuff with my own eyes, and if my google skills were better, I could find documentation. (ETA: There’s a round-up of dozens of blog posts about STGRB and their tactics here.) There’s a lot wrong with STGRB’s tactics and philosophy, but one of the biggest problems is that it reduces the critical dialogue to personal threats. When I say, “I don’t like your book,” the response “I know where you live” is a critical non sequitur with teeth. I’ve fought with all kinds of readers about interpretation. I hate with a white hot intensity when people say that Lolita was complicit in her rape, for example. But a rebuttal of that nonsense that hinges on the other person’s address is no rebuttal at all.

So while I wasn’t targeted, seeing these posts scared me, because I know I’d be on the list eventually. Pretty much any woman who says anything in public is going to have to deal with rape and murder threads, from lobbying for Jane Austen on currency, to being a Labor MP, and daring to support said Austen money, to criticizing video games. I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s a scope creep inherent in any “outing” enterprise, and there are real world consequences of said outing. Mostly I practice security through obscurity, because while I may be one of the top ten reviewers on Goodreads, I’m not harboring any delusions of my wider influence or importance. Thank Christ I’m not actually famous, because just a little fame will garner me rape and death threats all day. And get this: I’m just a fucking person

Which is where I am at the start of my read of The Goodreads Killer. I’m kind of irritated just at the outset because this book is serious fucking click-bait, absolutely designed to get people like me – highly placed Goodreads reviewers – to download this shit, read it, and snark. It angers me that I’m doing just that, because while I think The Goodreads Killer is kinda brilliant in its ability to get me raging on the Internets, which will no doubt translate into click-throughs and downloads, it’s not actually any good, you know? I’m not even kidding when I say my husband and I just spent about an hour arguing about this book. My initial reaction was so personal, so fuck you, that I’m glad he talked me down, but be it known that those feelings thrum though this entire review. I am not a lit-crit machine or a blurb generator. This is an emotional response. 

Some fucking tosser goes down to the river to burn his self-published books because critics, is confronted by a smelly dude, and told to go see some Red Headed League or dire consequences. He and league guy talk about how critics are RUINING ARTISTS with their HONESTY AND BULLSHIT and eventually set on plan where self-pub dude is going to kill the critic Bryan. There’s an interlude at this point involving Mr. Writer getting what I think is a reverse cowgirl from a secretary, but the physicality is weak, and maybe it’s just a regular cowgirl. Frankly, I’ve read better sex scenes in monster porn. Also, I skipped every single word of the excerpts from writerman’s novel, because who gives a shit, seriously. Bad examples of “good” writing, if that’s what they are supposed to be. Writer psycho hunts down the critic and kills him in a full on abattoir. The end. 

After giving my husband this run-down, his eyes lit up in little hearts. “That’s brilliant!” he exclaimed! “He’s like totally baiting you with breaking the fourth wall and that set-up is amazing!” 

“Sure,” I said, hedging towards the back door so I could smoke contemplatively in the ridiculous late-August heat. “But it’s not like one thing in that book was intentional. He believes what he’s writing, I think, even if there’s this half-assed satirical gloss.” 

“When have you ever given a shit about intentionality?” I style for a minute, refilling my glass. 

“If this had been written by Vernon D. Burns, I’d know exactly where I stand in terms of latent misogyny and general fuckitude, but that’s not where we are. Michel Foucault in the essay “What is an Author? speculates: 

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

The author becomes a self-annihilating particle, a trademark logo at the edge of the interpretation, receding into the distance, stripped of personhood and imbued with categorical insight. But here the author murders the critic, laying his inevitable annihilation on some twat in Surrey or whatever. Readers don’t wreak the author; the author wrecks himself, because he should and does cease to exist in the work. If he doesn’t, he’s a self-insert looking for a reverse cowgirl from fangirls.”

“Whoa,” my husband said. “There’s no way you actually quoted that shit to me, plus this whole conversation thing is kinda trite, don’t you think? A little obvious and playing for the cheap seats?”

“Sure,” I say. “But it’s my fucking review. Look, I get that there’s some wiggle room here of interpretation, and maybe this is supposed to be a mordant satire of whackadoos who think that it’s okay to kill people because they drank some haterade about a book…” My husband breaks in.

“But what about the prologue!!” He yells!! (This is the only part he’s read.) “Obviously he’s funning. He’s joking around about his revenge fantasies. How many times have you read a review you hated because you thought it was wrong?”

“Every day? I hate reviews every day. But you know what I don’t do? Fantasize about getting cowgirls and then murdering someone. I imagine writing brilliant fucking retorts and then posting them. Sometimes I go so far as to write them, only I never post them. Because if I can’t bring myself to like a review, I’m not allowed to comment.” 

“How is this different? How is posting a hater review different?”

“Fuck, I don’t know; maybe it’s not different. But I see a difference between what I feel like are my personal codes of conduct and and what is acceptable. While I think punitive shelving is lame, I don’t really care if it goes on if it doesn’t cross the line into threats. And while I think bagging an author’s appearance is lame (and usually gendered), I think that’s hella different from posting their address and entreating fucking lunatics to ‘give them a taste of their own medicine’. Which would be what, exactly? Strongly worded email? At the place I fucking lunch? I don’t think so.”

“You’re back on STGRB, conflating them with the ‘pro-artist’ group in the book.”

“You bet my ass I am. Also, you are going to be so mad I’m putting words in your mouth, again.”

“I love you, babe.”

“I know. Anyway, all I’m saying is that this book is shitty on multiple levels, and maybe it’s trying to be clever, and maybe it isn’t, but because it’s so fucking shitty I can’t actually ascertain said cleverness. And I’m pissed I’m writing the review right now, because I’m in a house of cards of click-throughs and likes, where I feed off this bullshit to stay up in charts, and he eats my hater push, and it’s like a dance of the douches. I feel like a douche.”

“You should write that thing about Stephenie Meyer that you said because I kept calling this ‘brilliant'”

“Oh yeah! So, I think the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is fucking terrifying, but that book is a nuclear disaster, and I wouldn’t call a minute of it intentional. Meyer managed to hit a third rail there, managed to touch on something that I felt was profound, but I wouldn’t call it good, and I don’t think she planned it. She was writing from her lizard brain. Which is right where The Goodreads Killer is coming from. It might have hit me in a sweet spot because I’m one of however many people on Goodreads who gives a shit about shelving arcana and reviewer/author politics, but I think it’s mostly an accident, and I don’t like what I think it’s saying.”

“Reading is a passive event. It’s undertaken in interstitial moments, alone, and it’s accompanied by musing and dreaming. That this one book reached out, whether intentional or not, and shook you personally where you live is a notable thing. It’s a fascinating, unintentionally brilliant thing. It’s a fourth wall breaker that can only work for a specific number of people, and that you are member of that demographic, and that you read it, is really something. It’s a brilliant use of social media marketing bait. It doesn’t even matter that it sucks. If it were good, it wouldn’t have the same effect.”

“Yup. But still it sucks.” 

I’m going to dispense with this scenario while I grope to a coda. I am able to see why my husband thought the whole click-baiting, sloppily meta fourth-wall thing was neat, but then he works in advertising, so that sort of thing appeals to him. And I’m not in any way saying that the author of this book is threatening me personally, or that I think it’s some kind of incitement to violence. I’m not new to the concepts of damaged narrators or satire, thank you. I am also not clutching my pearls over cowgirls – forward or back – and I love well done goopy gross-out body horror. But I am way too close to the target of this little “revenge fantasy” – in fact I am the target, categorically speaking – and I have seen ideation like this result in real world consequences often enough for me to think it’s not fucking funny. 

My boy Freud observed that some jokes are masked aggression, and here the mask has slipped, and the anemic “just kidding” appended to the proceedings figleafs over some very misplaced rage. This is the “kicking up versus kicking down” distinction that Patton Oswalt makes in his essay about rape jokes. This book is kicking down. I don’t think reviewers are inviolate, and there’s a lot about Goodreads reviewing culture that I find tiresome. There is super fertile ground here to say some pointed things about all kinds of fascinating topics: anonymity, publishing trends, even the concept of citizen reviewing. Instead this reads like a petulant screed by a psycho who has some serious issues with women. I feel like I do after hanging out with racist family members at the holidays, putting up with a series of ethnic jokes that are as tired as they are hateful. Just kidding! Har har! No you’re not. And that I don’t find them funny doesn’t make me humorless, it makes me a person with working empathy.

The Five Stages of Plagiarism: In Which I Rattle a Little about Word-Theft

It’s probably just the clustering illusion or some other freak cognitive thing, but two relatively high profile cases of plagiarism just came to my attention today. (I’m not saying they broke today, just that I noticed them today.) First, Lianne “Spiderbaby” MacDougall, Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend and horror critic, was caught cobbling her articles together from pretty much everywhere. From the comparative links, it looks as though she started out snagging sentences here and there, weaving them together into a coherent article, but by the time she was caught, had moved into full-on fuck it mode, and was copy-pasting other articles in their entirety. But no matter the manner of the plagiarism, it appears to be systemic to her writing output for a very, very long time. Second, turbo-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer has, for completely inscrutable reasons given that two out of three of his previous books have been recalled and pulped due to plagiarism (at presumably considerable expense), been given a new book deal. What is the punchline to this book deal? Allegations of plagiarism have surfaced for the proposal of the book he has yet to write. I strongly recommend checking out Tom Scocca’s hatecast on the matter, as his ire is beautifully articulated.

It was a fun rabbit hole to fall into this afternoon, charting the ways the scandals break and various reactions to the plagiarism. There’s a plagiarism playbook out there, which runs something like the Kubler-Ross model of grieving:

1. Denial. “I’ve never even read the book I supposedly plagiarized from.”

e.g. Alex Haley, after getting busted for plagiarizing from The African when he wrote Roots.) I didn’t know large swaths of Roots were plagiarized, even though the suit happened in 1987 and the trial, despite the out-of-court conclusion, is pretty definitive. I liked the deposition by an old classmate that he’d actually given Haley his copy of The African years before he published Roots. How bad do you have to piss off your classmates for them to do that?

2. “Mistakes were made” style apologies.

Lehrer, after getting busted the first time for self-plagiarism and manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes, describes how he barfed “into a recycling bin” (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) He then goes on to describe his systemic plagiarism as a “lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes.” Uh, no. there was nothing desperate about the ongoing theft. That wasn’t a mistake, or an unfortunate case of cryptomnesia. When copy-paste is involved, it’s not an echo or a memory unwittingly recalled. 

3. Acting like the plagiarist is somehow more sinned against than sinning.

From an email from Spiderbaby to a blogger who was one of the first to detail the thefts: 

Hi – my name is Lianne. 

I’m asking that you please stop writing about me online and let me address the issue. I’m writing an apology for my blog now that I will make available for everyone. I’m undergoing some issues right now and I’m receiving emailed death threats (and have been for the last month) which is why I haven’t commented at all on any of this.

The email goes on to reiterate the above statements three times, like she couldn’t figure out how to say what she was going to say and then say it. You can get out of practice with writing, apparently. I am aware that it’s a pretty big nightmare to be a woman in certain fan communities, and that rape and death threats are par for the course when women, well, when women do anything. I don’t think that is an appropriate response to plagiarism. But let’s decouple the actions of fan culture shitheads from the problems of being a plagiarist. No, she shouldn’t get death threats for being a plagiarist – and it’s notable that the fuckwit Lehrer keeps getting book deals when she gets told to die, in your fucked-up gendered response category – but sweeping her actions under the rug won’t make the shitheads go away, and it doesn’t dispute the facts at hand.

4. It’s not theft, it’s post-modern “mixing”! You old people don’t understand.

Teen phenom Helene Hegemann gets busted for lifting copiously from another writer’s novel, claims that “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Which, allow me to make a jerk-off motion with my hand. I mean, heavy hitters such as Lethem have published avowedly lifted works such as The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in Harper’s, which cobbled together an essay on appropriations and authenticity in art by stealing every single line. This smells faintly of vinegar and water – or as we would say in French, douche – but at least it’s upfront, and more importantly, the theft is an important meta-factual part of the argument of the the essay. Lethem’s not stealing because millennials don’t understand personal property the same way, lol, but because theft and originality are like a steak dinner and the dog under the table – they are always going to be in the same room. One’s going to end up inside the other eventually. 

5. Ca$hing in like a boss! 

I’ve already mentioned Lehrer, who seems entirely unrepentant, and will continue shaking his stolen tailfeathers as long as idiots in publishing are willing to keep handing him money. I honestly don’t even understand the thought process of these editors, who say a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff about “second chances”. We’re on at least the fourth chance with Lehrer, after two books have been recalled and he got hugely fired from the New Yorker. It seems like a bad bet to keep letting him “write”, and seems like a questionable thing to do when Big Six publishers are besieged by Amazon and shifting business models and whatever. (Not that Amazon is dealing with plagiarism any better. Welcome to the Way It Is.)

But then there’s Q.R. Markham, nom de plume of the Brooklyn bookseller Quentin Rowan, whose debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was recalled within weeks of its release by Little, Brown, due to the fact that it was a quilt of dozens of other fictions patched together. Rowan ended up the subject of a painfully lame New Yorker profile. Sample lines:

 “As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces.”

I mean, come on. That is such unbelievable bullshit. Sure, it’s totally true that a literature, in the sense of works understood by its writers and readers to be in the same stylistic ballpark, are going to riff ideas and images off of one another – genre as a scaffold of shared experience – but this isn’t anywhere near copy-and-pasting someone’s work without any fucking attribution. Maybe I’ve been unduly influenced by the thousands of FBI warnings I’ve been subjected to when watching movies, but the right to copy is a real thing. It’s called copyright, motherfuckers.

Maybe I’m being insincere in my outrage though, because I want to put on the boxing gloves when people dismiss 50 Shades of Grey as plagiarism, because while that book is totally shit, and it started life as fan fiction, it’s mostly shitty in its own special shitty way, and, as far as I can tell, James wasn’t copy-pasting huge swaths of Twilight. She was just taking a bad idea (one that did not originate with Meyer, I’ll note) and made it worse. Good job. Maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition of plagiarism, which I’ve mostly built using hazy understandings of copyright law and fair use, but I seriously cannot credit any criticism of 50 Shades based on Twilight being super original in its stalker-hero and average-yet-special protagonist. I can credit criticism for tons of other reasons, just not that one.

Anyway, the New Yorker article ends with Markham/Rowan chatting excitedly about how some fool publisher had decided to publish his next, presumably-not-stolen novel. Cha-ching! Let’s win from our fail, brothers and sisters! I’m cheered to see that book in question, Never Say Goodbye, has one one-star rating on Goodreads, no one has written a review, and only eight people have shelved it. (Although I would like to know wtf with the publication date of September 11, because there are lot of reasons why that might be problematic. Whatever.) One can only hope Lehrer’s new clusterfail of a book will sink without as little comment, but I suspect that will not be the case.

So. I meant to write a post about my own experience with Internet plagiarists, specifically the adorable Texas educator who trolled a bunch of reviews on Goodreads, including one of mine, which resulted in the discovery of dozens of his plagiarized reviews – stolen from such out-of-the-way reviewers as Roger Ebert – and the resultant crowd-sourcing of the links necessary to take his stolen shit down. It’s a long story, and one full of lolcats, and maybe I’ll tell it tomorrow. That experience very much made me think about the psychology of plagiarism, which is such an odd thing, and something I barely touch on in my link-fest here. (I’ll just say that writing about plagiarism makes me twitchy about linking to anything that might even remotely be source material, because, Lord, do I not want to get caught not citing sources in a post about not citing sources.) Goodnight, friends, maybe we’ll talk about this some more later.

Governor Dayton Should Tell Amazon to Suck It

I found out this morning that Amazon will be canceling my affiliate account as of July 1st, as they are in a game of chicken with the State of Minnesota over the sales tax bill that just passed. It didn’t take me long to google up some apologia for this infantile and clearly extortionist behavior from Amazon:

 The problem is, if passed, Amazon will simply cease having Amazon Associates in Minnesota. Minnesota Associates are relatively unimportant to Amazon. With no Minnesota Associates, Amazon will nullify the effect of the law. Amazon will continue not to collect sales tax. Because of this, the law will be totally ineffectual in raising state tax revenue.

As an end result, Minnesota bloggers will be harmed without any tax benefit to the state. In addition, small retailers in the state also will receive no benefit from the bill’s passage. Because Amazon will continue to sell without collecting sales tax, small retailers will be at exactly the same competitive disadvantage as they were before passage of the bill.

 from Online Sales Tax Will Only Hurt Bloggers

Which, no freaking doy. That’s what the threat from Amazon is designed to do, wind us up like good little soldiers for the corporate bottom line so they can keep throwing us scraps. I resent that incredibly, and Mark Dayton should tell Amazon to suck it.

I signed up for Amazon Affiliates because it’s an easy way to get covers and art without having to worry about copyright all the time, and to defray the relatively minor costs of keeping the blog in domain names. I’ve made, like, $10 in the entire time I’ve had the account, which is totally due to my blog being – how do I put this – not very popular. I have however, set up hundreds of links which, annoyingly, will continue to drive people to Amazon even after they stop paying me. From Amazon Throws Tantrum, Screws Minnesota Associates:

This is where fine print rears its ugly head. If the contract between associates and Amazon was a normal business contract, it would not likely be possible to terminate it with just a few days notice. At the moment, Minnesotans who use the Associates program, collectively, have a gazillion links on their web sites and blogs pointing to Amazon, and Amazon will continue to reap the benefits of those links (or force Minnesotan web developers and bloggers to spend considerable effort undoing the links), while Amazon will not be holding up their end of the bargain.

So that’s just freaking great. I swear by all that is holy that I will take down every single link to Amazon if they persist in this antisocial nonsense. Amazon should not be rewarded for blackmailing bloggers to fight to keep them from contributing to the welfare of the state they do business in. I refuse to do it.