. . . at least to certain people.
As Leo Durocher famously stated, “Nice guys finish last,” implying that a bit of ruthlessness perhaps is not necessarily an unwanted trait in someone who wants to succeed. It’s okay for guys to be a little less than “nice” if they want to win; in fact, it’s almost imperative.
For women, however, niceness is the standard. You must be nice, you must be nice . . . or else.
What you must not be, regardless of gender, is poor, but even so, the effect of poverty on perception is different for men than for women. A poor man can use his poverty as both a motivator and an excuse. Poverty can serve as an opportunity and a challenge, and the man who defeats poverty is generally acclaimed for his ability to rise above his beginnings, often regardless how he does it. That ruthlessness referred to above can excuse some less-than-ethical means he might employ and even bring him praise for using them.
Women, on the other hand, are often not only defined by their poverty but limited by it in ways that men are not. And of course these are sweeping generalizations, but bear with me.
If a woman dares to try to rise above her station, she can only do so at the sacrifice of her niceness.
In other words, there is no way for a poor woman to win. She is condemned to poverty if she doesn’t fight it, or she is condemned for fighting it and not being nice.
We see this played out in two of the 20th century’s most popular historical novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber. Neither heroine “wins” by the cultural standard: Both Scarlett O’Hara and Amber St. Clare end up abandoned by the men they love the most. Whatever other successes they achieved, and both of them achieved much through their determination and ruthlessness, they failed at being properly “nice” women. Therefore they are — they must be — denied the ultimate prize of marriage to the man they love the most.
Some of this changed in the 1970s with the publication of the sexy paperback historicals of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, authors who were of the generation to have been most influenced by the two previously mentioned books. Written in a different part of the century when feminism was evolving a different, more militant aspect, their novels took characters very similar to Scarlett and Amber, put them through the same types of adventures, vicissitudes, trials and tribulations, allowed them to be (slightly) more assertive and ruthless, and in the end granted them the prize of True Love, Marriage, and Happily Ever After.
Certain underlying concepts, however, did not change. The female character still had to prove herself worthy of that happy ending; the reader took for granted that the male character, by virtue of his being desired by the female, was already worthy. If he had to slay any dragons or villains, it was only because they were obstacles; defeating them was not necessary to earning his stripes as a worthy hero, since that was predetermined. Many heroes, in fact, were far from “nice,” but were deemed heroes simply because the heroine loved them.
Much more important, however, was that the real life counterparts to these fictional attitudes did not change.
In the U.S., white women entered the paid work force in unprecedented numbers in the middle decades of the 20th century, first out of personal necessity during the Great Depression, second out of political necessity during the Second World War, third out of personal choice during the social changes from the mid-1960s on. Women of color had worked outside their own homes for generations, often in menial domestic capacities, and often because wage work for men of color was unobtainable. The shift of white women working for wages had a huge impact on both the economy and the American cultural scene.
But cultural norms still treated women differently, and the basis for that different treatment lay in those two words: nice, and poor. Women were still expected to be nice: If they chose to work as teachers or nurses, those were acceptably “nice” occupations suited to their gender. They were expected to follow the norm and seek marriage and family as their first choice of “occupation,” therefore they didn’t need to make as much money as men who would be supporting families. Even if they did the same work, women could be paid less. And if they were poor, then they could be paid less as well, because they were expected to be nice and take what was so generously given to them . . . until their niceness won out and they landed a suitable husband to support them. Working their own way out of poverty was not an acceptable trajectory.
It would be encouraging to think, as we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, that attitudes have changed. They have not.
One has only to look at the way Hillary Clinton is demonized for her political aspirations, and Sarah Palin is not. Palin is criticized, to be sure, but she is not demonized; and the criticisms she gets are not based on her ambition. Her looks and blatant sexuality are conflated with “niceness,” behavior suitable for a woman. Clinton is demonized for having ambition and not being appropriately “nice,” meaning sexy, about it.
As Janet, a reviewer and contributor to the Dear Author website, noted in July 2012, women who review books are still expected to be “nice” about it. Those who aren’t nice enough, who dare to be honestly critical, will be excoriated. Because women read more than men and often have more opportunity in the digital age to “natter on the net,” as Dale Spender put it, more women write more reviews online than men. And women who write critical book reviews come under more fire for it than men. Way more.
Those reviewers dubbed as “bullies” by a certain website are almost all women; they dared to write and post critical reviews. Nearly all the reviews purged by Goodreads in September 2013 were written and posted by women. The most notorious of those reviewers whose accounts have been terminated by Goodreads since September 2013 are women.
Women are not allowed to not be nice.
Especially if they are poor.
As we’ve seen in the recent unfolding of events involving a well-connected (meaning, connected to wealth) debut author and her harassment of a female reviewer, failure (or refusal) to be appropriately nice is permissible if the woman in question is rich. Lacking similar economic resources, the reviewer is effectively silenced; her stalker is defended, commended, praised, and exonerated. “She wasn’t nice enough,” is the judgment often passed on the reviewer. “She got what she deserved.”
Some other authors even went so far as to imply they approved of what the stalker did and wished they had had the gumption to do it themselves to their own critics. They, of course, were too nice to do so.
The same is said of far too many victims of domestic violence: If only she’d been nicer to him, he wouldn’t have had to hit, smack, beat, bludgeon, or kill her.
All women must be nice, but poor women must be especially nice, or they run extra risks.
I am poor, and I am not nice. I know the risks. I have taken them with eyes wide open, sometimes even with the eyes in the back of my head that many women are expected to have.
I am a reader and a writer and a passionate lover of books, of all forms of the written word. (I can be as critical of the lines a bad actor is forced to speak as of his bad acting.) Because I am not nice, I do not hesitate to voice my criticism of bad writing, and I do not always couch my criticism in nice terms. If the book is crap, I do not hesitate to say it is crap.
Sadly, because I am poor, I do not have the disposable income to buy well-written books. Is it impossible to find free or inexpensive well-written books? Actually, no, it is not. But personal economics is a matter of time as well as cash. I am poor, and so I must work, and the nature of my paid work is such that I do not have hours of leisure time for relaxing with a book or an electronic reading device. (In my case, that device is primarily the Kindle for PC app on the computer from which I do my paid work.) I read, when I have a few minutes, and I must be careful not to become too immersed in my reading lest I devote too much time to it and not enough to the paid work. This means I frequently sample the free offerings on Amazon during breaks from my paid work.
Do you see where this leads? It leads to my reading a lot of bad writing. But am I supposed to read it and not comment on the poor quality, because it is all I can afford and beggars cannot be choosers? Or am I supposed to read it and — instead of complaining — offer free proofreading and editorial services because I am a woman and I’m supposed to be nice? Or am I supposed to say nothing at all?
When readers, individually or collectively, voice their complaints about the poor quality of free or very low priced digital books published by independent or self-publishing authors, they are often told they should not complain about free merchandise. There is an implication that the self-publishing author has no obligation to present a quality product, under the rubric “you get what you pay for.” Since it’s free, the consumer has no right to complain.
Since it’s free, the producer has no obligation to provide a quality product.
Even when the book is not always free, if the reader obtained it free, the above conditions apply. Obtaining the book without paying for it — offered free on Amazon, borrowed from a library, advanced review copy from author/publisher — is an admission of poverty; poor people, and especially poor women, are not allowed to complain.
I made the mistake of complaining, apparently too much, and for that I am no longer allowed on Goodreads. Yes, I’m banned. Yes, shitgrubbers (you know who you are), you may dance now, for a while.
But this does not mean I am silenced. I may not reach the same audience here with this little blog, but I will not be silent. And because my blog will no longer feed directly to Goodreads, I am no longer prohibited from expressing my more direct thoughts.
Perhaps that’s what Goodreads is afraid of. Really, it’s just plain silly to think that Goodreads and/or Amazon is afraid of me personally. I have no power, no authority. They had the power to erase me and everything I wrote from their sites, which is what they did. So why should they be afraid of me? I am no one. I am, in the grand scheme of the Amazon megalithic empire, less than nothing.
And yet, if I were nothing, they would have no need to erase me. Why erase nothing? Why bother?
Let’s face the reality of the situation. I am not selling hundreds of thousands of copies of my books via Kindle Direct Publishing; many of my online writer friends are selling waaaaay more than I. I do not have a popular book blog. Thousands of fans are not following me on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and whatever other social media is out there. What, then, made me so dangerous that Goodreads had to terminate my account?
Was it because my critical reviews had become too painful for some people? Was I getting too close to some secret information that someone in power didn’t want known? Was I disrupting the sales of commodities that someone was handsomely profiting from? Or hoped to profit from during the busiest shopping season of the year?
I did not commit any of the sins for which members are traditionally terminated.
I did not spam. Indeed, I almost never talk about my books, do not plug them or push them or hardly even mention them. Even though I have a new little book available on KDP, I didn’t advertise it even where I could have. So it wasn’t because of spamming.
I have no sock puppet accounts, and never did.
I have never taken any money to post a review. I’ve never even entered any of the giveaways on Goodreads, so I got no free books that needed to be disclosed. I won one book on Booklikes, and fully disclosed it. I don’t have an account at fiverr. I do disclose whether I purchased the book, obtained it free, or based the review only on a sample.
I’ve never responded to anyone who reviewed my books, not negatively, not positively. I do not go around posting statuses thanking each and every person who shelved or rated my books; I really do believe that authors should not do that, and so I don’t. I’ve never flagged a review of any of my books even though I suspect there are some that are worthy of being flagged, only based on what I’ve been told by others. I do not look at my reviews or ratings, period.
I’ve never attacked another reviewer in their review space. I’ve participated in some discussions, even heated discussions, that arose in other reviewers’ spaces, but even those have only been very rare, and generally I’ve done so to support the original reviewer. If I don’t agree with the reviewer, I just ignore them.
But I insisted on posting negative reviews, and I insisted on standing up and talking back to The Powers That Be on Goodreads. I guess, like butthurt authors themselves, they couldn’t handle the criticism.
I had plenty of criticism of Goodreads management, primarily for their failure to police the site regarding massive sock puppet account creation, paid reviews and “like” votes, and the various other schemes authors employed to boost visibility of their books and, they hoped, boost sales as well.
I suspect, however, that the real reasons for my banning are three specifics. I don’t expect anyone from Goodreads to confirm or deny; I know that I am essentially a non-person to them now.
First, I did not mince words when it came to the recently instituted policy of Goodreads to add advertisements, in the form of “editorial content,” to users’ real-time update feeds. Despite assurances from “Emily” that the insertions were not advertisements and that the editorial team was entirely separate from the advertising team, it seemed abundantly obvious to me that Goodreads users were being spammed by Goodreads. Two books were advertised in my feed, and I promptly placed both of those books on a new shelf: Special Treat. I already had a shelf titled “Treat,” which was my code word for spammed books and spamming authors. (“Treet” being the Armour version of Hormel’s Spam.) Did Goodreads decipher my sooper-seekrit code and decide that shelf was unacceptable? It certainly didn’t violate any rules about shelving based on author behavior since the authors weren’t involved. I had had the “treat” shelf for several months.
But I had also been very vocal(sic) about the ongoing problems Goodreads had with sock puppet accounts and other spammers. Other users were fighting the good fight about the spammers in the Quotes and Quizzes departments of the site, which I never used. The site’s IT “developers” were supposedly working on ways to eliminate and/or block the literally thousands of non-U.S. spam posts, which was certainly a needed administrative function. But there were other problems that vexed users and which seemed to get no attention at all. One of those issues was the inability to flag so-called “naked” ratings posted by apparent sock puppet accounts.
These accounts had come to my attention in late fall of 2013, shortly after the major purge in September. They were posting 5-star ratings — without reviews, thus “naked” — to the books identified as being written by one Jennifer Smith. The books had been originally published by Noble Romance Publishing, a defunct publisher, under the bylines of Rie McGaha and Reese Johnson. At times there were more than 100 of these ratings posted to these books, first with bizarre screen names that were just numbers, then with other combinations. Avatar pictures were lifted from the internet with no regard for copyright. Eventually, whoever was behind the socks evolved the program to populate the accounts with fashion pictures, hence the moniker “socks in frocks.”
The socks in frocks accounts also began posting 5-star ratings to some obscenely over priced ethics books for children with titles like I is for Integrity or some such. The prices on Amazon were in the neighborhood of $16 for a 7-page “book.” They showed no actual sales rank, but the same socks that were rating the Jennifer Smith books were doing likewise for these books. Anywhere from one to ten new accounts were added daily.
No matter how often they were reported and removed, more returned, almost like the apprentice’s brooms. At one point, “Emily” bragged in a Feedback thread that they had finally been removed and the problem was solved. Within minutes, they were back.
I wasn’t the only one to complain about them; LobsterGirl did, too, and in fact she was the one who started the entire thread about them. But LG remained an active reviewer of many books, a top reviewer, a top librarian, and thus an asset to Goodreads. I didn’t have the time to do that; I was not an asset.
Second, I spent a lot of time — which I really couldn’t afford to spend — on the ferreting out of information to identify Goodreads users who were actually members of fiverr.com who were selling review services. For $5 per “gig,” they would write a five-star review and post it on Goodreads, Amazon, or anywhere else the author wanted it posted. Some would charge $5 just to post a review that the author herself had written!
Some of these fiverr shills had hundreds of reviews on Goodreads. Virtually all were 5-star ratings. Michael Beas, before his removal from Goodreads, had 388 ratings, 351 reviews, with a 4.90 average. He was ranked #97 Top Reviewer.
Some of the fiverr shills were also Goodreads authors. Beas was one. Cheryl Persons was another. Pat Hatt, author of many, many children’s books, is a fiverr seller. Hatt is also one of the very few fiverr sellers to actually remove his reviews from Amazon. After much of the evidence documenting Hatt’s career as a paid reviewer was posted on my Booklikes blog, he changed his name on his Amazon account, then proceeded to shut it down.
I carefully documented the accounts of the fiverr shills, took screen shots, compared dates and texts, and dutifully reported to Goodreads. I reported a few to Amazon, too, but when nothing happened there, I quit. I didn’t have enough time. But Goodreads really did seem to care, at least at the beginning. Accounts were removed, and I received little email notes from “Emily” and “The Goodreads Team” thanking me for identifying them.
A chance contact with another Goodreads user led to the development of a master list cross-referencing the buyers of fiverr services with their Goodreads accounts. To date, that list containes over 500 accounts. Does this mean all of them have purchased fake reviews for Amazon and Goodreads and other review sites? No, it doesn’t. They may have purchased other legitimate services also offered by fiverr sellers, such as proofreading, blurb-writing, and so on. There are, however, fiverr gigs for “likes” and other “votes” that will move a book up or down in the Amazon and Goodreads rating system. An author can buy Listopia placements, for instance, or votes on Listopias.
As this other person and I compared and combined notes, we uncovered a sock puppet “ring” that was responsible for over 2,550 5-star ratings on Goodreads, and uncounted “likes” of those ratings. The leader of the group was a professional book promoter, as well as a Goodreads author. Her account and all the sock puppet accounts were removed; when they tried to set up new accounts, those, too, were documented, reported to Goodreads, and removed.
No matter how many reviews and accounts were removed from Goodreads, nothing happened on Amazon, and I probably should have taken that as a warning. I didn’t.
I believed I had the support of Goodreads, that they truly cared about the integrity of the reviews and the value of them to readers. I really should have known better.
Some of the shills tried to set up new accounts at Goodreads. Many of those accounts were identified and removed, some literally within minutes of reporting. The master accounts at Amazon, however, remained intact. Names were changed, often more than once, but Top Reviewer rankings (a draw for selling fiverr reviews) remained.
I made mistakes in some of my research, and the accounts didn’t get removed. Sometimes I got notes from Goodreads about it, sometimes I didn’t. Even though I had documented Pat Hatt’s identity as a fiverr seller and even though he removed his account from Amazon, Goodreads gave me an explanation as to why nothing had been done to his account there: They had “back end admin” information that didn’t match. I thought this was suspicious, but there wasn’t anything I could do.
Then came the issue of Kelsey McBride, owner of Book Publicity Services, Inc. She was reviewing her clients’ books, giving them 5-star ratings, on both Goodreads and Amazon. Even though statements had been made in public forums on Goodreads that publicists’ reviews were in violation of the no commercial reviews rule, McBride’s reviews stayed. She even came to Booklikes and posted on my blog there . . . and she did so while having two operating accounts at Goodreads and at least one suspected sock puppet account.
I tried and tried and tried to get a clear statement from Goodreads about the legitimacy of a publicist’s account, but couldn’t, and in the end McBride’s account remained, along with all the 5-star ratings.
Through it all, I thought I was doing what both Goodreads and readers wanted: To have honest reviews, good and bad, and get rid of the frauds. I thought wrong.
Third, I wasn’t nice enough to the other authors. The negative reviews were one thing, but it was the comments in the various discussions that weren’t nice enough. I didn’t call anyone names — though I was called names by other Goodreads users often enough. I didn’t tell anyone they were stupid or untalented. At worst I told them their books were poorly written.
Sometimes they insisted I was wrong in my assessment, because they had after all paid for professional editing and/or proofreading. In some cases they had paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for these professional services. And yet, eventually, when I and others on the forums pointed out the books’ errors, the authors ultimately agreed.
Perhaps I should have been nicer. Perhaps I should have let them persist in their delusions. What do you do, though, when someone begs for reviews and the book is just poorly written? What do you do when the book has a glaring typographical error on the cover? On the dedication page? In the first sentence? And the second, and the third?
I suppose the “nice” thing to do is keep it all private and cozy and polite. Send them an email or a private message and point out the error. Don’t embarrass them, but don’t let anyone else know that there’s a problem.
At what point do reviews then become editorial services? Are readers required, obligated to provide this for free to the authors? Are authors more deserving of niceness and politeness than readers? Do readers not deserve to be notified that a given book is loaded with factual inaccuracies, messed up punctuation, and syntax so shattered it’s all but incomprehensible?
I had forgotten, forgotten, completely forgotten. Oh, not really forgotten as in it was totally out of my mind, but forgotten in the sense of not allowing the concept to govern my actions. I’d forgotten that Goodreads was an arm of Amazon, and that regardless any protestations to the contrary, Goodreads was intended to function as a selling tool for Amazon products. Goodreads was no longer for readers; Goodreads was for Amazon. Reviews were no longer for readers; reviews were for selling Amazon products. Authors therefore were not to be discouraged from publishing, not to be discouraged from advertising, not to be discouraged from providing review content that would sell books.
All roads must lead to Amazon, and I had forgotten that. “Nice” really means “nice to Amazon.”
It did not make any difference — to Amazon — that these badly written books would probably not sell. As long as the authors were allowed to believe that it only took more and better reviews, as long as authors were willing to pay fiver shills to buy their own books, Amazon came out ahead. Amazon got free content. Amazon made a few sales. Authors were just mindless, soulless producers, and readers were just mindless, soulless consumers. If a crappy book sold 10 copies, or 20 copies, Amazon made a cut and they were happy.
And it was okay to dumb down the readers, too, because then they wouldn’t know the difference between gold and dross. They’d buy the dross as readily as the gold. And if the poor people who couldn’t afford the gold got instead a steady diet of dross, well, who cares about them anyway? They aren’t buying anything, they aren’t contributing to the Amazon coffers, so who cares?
I made the mistake of caring. And not only of caring but of caring passionately.
Passion isn’t one of those acceptable words. It tends to shove “nice” to the side, especially if one is poor and passionate.
Scarlett O’Hara was a bitch. Some might say she was a selfish bitch, but in her selfishness she also sacrificed for those around her, and she lost much. Amber St. Clare was ambitious, but she was reviled for it because she was poor. Both of them, however, were victims of circumstances beyond their control and they were never able to escape. I don’t think they understood — and yes, I’m granting them the autonomy and self-awareness of real human beings even though they are only fictional characters — how manipulated they were by those circumstances and, by extension, by their creators to fit into the proper expectations.
Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber, years later wrote a semi-autobiographical novel titled Star Money. I read it long before I read Forever Amber, because my dad’s membership in the Doubleday Book Club had put a copy in his collection. But I read it before I was old enough to understand the implications, the connections to the earlier novel and to my own aspirations as a writer. I’ve acquired replacements for most of the books in that collection — Lord Johnnie and The Hepburn and Wine of Satan and Jubilee Trail and Caravan to Xanadu and The Walls of Jericho — but I never went looking for Star Money. It’s now on my list of books to find.
One book I didn’t have to replace was Edison Marshall’s The Infinite Woman. I took that one right from the shelf before my parents downsized and the books became yard sale merchandise. (This was years before I stole a copy of Stand By for Mars! from a Phoenix restaurant.) My copy still has the “From the Library of Don Wheeler” bookplate in the front. Marshall based the character of his first-person narrator heroine Lola Montero on the life of 19th century dancer, courtesan, and eventually countess in her own right Lola Montez, who dared to be ambitious. But Lola Montero’s story of rebellion and self-awareness and ambition was written by a man, just as Ashton Pelham-Martyn’s tale of a lifelong search for justice in a society that hardly knew the meaning of the word was written by a woman. Ash got his happy ending, or at least the promise of one, in The Far Pavilions without being nice; Juli got to come along with him on that happily ever after because she had had her ambitions but remained nice.
There is much more of Scarlett and Lola Montero and Ashton Pelham-Martyn in me than even I am comfortable with. But neither can I deny that it is there, that it is me. Would Scarlett have been the character she is, the cultural icon that she became, if she had recognized at the start how worthless Ashley Wilkes was and how much more worthy Rhett Butler was? Would Amber have been embraced as a true heroine if Bruce Carlton had respected her as a human being and married her instead of seeking just a fortune? If Marilyn French had written Forever Amber, would she have had her heroine walk proudly away from the man who had abused her or, like Marshall’s heroine, taken matters into her own hands at the end and never looked back?