Blythe Harris and the stalker

(Rough draft of what I’ve written for my own blog.  Comments?)

I read Laura Miller’s piece at Salon.com regarding the Harris/Hale incident and no, I don’t think it was balanced.  Far from it.

But since the only way to respond is to give Salon access to my friends list on Facebook, I guess I won’t be responding directly.  I’m too tired to figure out how to use my Google identity.

Identity is precisely the issue that Miller’s piece misses.

Miller gave Kathleen Hale specifically a distinct identity, mainly just by using her name and linking to the essay she got published in The Guardian.  Blythe Harris, regardless whether that’s her real name or not, was stripped of personhood by Miller.  She was just another nameless, dehumanized blogger instead of a reader and reviewer with a name and a style and fans.  She was lumped in with all the other bloggers and reviewers, some good, some bad, some vicious, some pandering.

She was stripped of her humanity, her identity, the way Hale stripped her of her privacy.

Miller was fairly firm in her criticism of Hale, but she still granted Hale the dignity of an identity.  Hale remained a person through the dissection.  Harris never had that.  She was relegated to non-personhood, a faceless, nameless generic book blogger who wrote a negative review.

Another thing Miller didn’t bring up was how Hale got that essay into The Guardian.  She’s not just some up-and-coming YA author who got a bad review, wrote a funny/weird article about her descent into (temporary)madness, and sent it off unsolicited to her local newspaper.  It wasn’t pulled out of the slush pile by some eager editor looking for something new and exciting to generate buzz.  Hale has very, very, very high level connections that gave her access to that kind of exposure, connections Blythe Harris doesn’t have.  In other words, Kathleen Hale is important enough to be a real person; Blythe Harris is nobody and doesn’t merit even a name, an identity.

Nor did Miller stress — if she even pointed out at all — that Harris was one of many readers who didn’t like Hale’s book.  Even before the onslaught of 1-star ratings since the Guardian piece was published, there were a lot of negative reviews.  Why did Hale choose that particular reviewer to stalk?  Was it because Harris did indeed have a following?  Was it because Hale saw Harris as having some potential power that the other reviewers didn’t have?

Hale admits she investigated the Stop The *** site, and saw Harris’s name there.  She admits she knew Harris had a reputation for being a harsh critic.  Did Blythe Harris, because she had an identity with some authority, become in Hale’s mind more of a personal antagonist than Blythe Harris saw herself?

If so, it seems Hale was much more bent on someone’s personal destruction than Harris ever was.  And if so,  Hale begins to look even more unhinged than before.  (Miller called her “a nutcase.”)  Harris didn’t like Hale’s book but apparently had nothing against Hale personally.  From the tone of her review comments, she seemed to treat the characters in the book with more respect as human beings than she even took notice of the author.  Was Hale, in fact, projecting a lot of herself into the character of “Kippy,” and she therefore took Harris’s criticisms more personally than they were intended?  I suppose that’s possible.

Given all that, then, it’s additionally disturbing to me that Laura Miller put Kathleen Hale the human being in the spotlight but left Hale’s victim, Blythe Harris, in the shadows.  The victim becomes victimized again, perhaps simply because she was a victim in the first place?

Miller’s writing essentially took Hale’s actions one step further in a dangerous direction, that of silencing critical reviewers.

Each time the book community goes through one of these “kerfluffles,” a few more unpaid, volunteer reviewers drop out, or cut back on who and what they will review.  Not all the reviewers on Goodreads, for instance, have formal blogs.  Some withdraw from Goodreads and stick solely with their more easily moderated blogs.  Others move on to Booklikes or Leafmarks or other sites where they feel more comfortable putting personal reactions about the authors into their reviews.

Few, or perhaps even none, of the authors publicly involved in any of this seem to have felt so threatened that they claimed they weren’t ever going to write again — with the possible exception of one (unnamed here) YA/NA author who withdrew her debut novel from publication when she encountered a certain level of criticism, and I’m still not convinced that she ever had a book to begin with.  Regardless, the avalanche of author-published books shows no sign of slowing down.  Authors are not withdrawing from the marketplace even when their books aren’t selling.  They are still begging for reviews.  (The issue of buying reviews isn’t relevant here.)  Even those who felt so battered by criticism that they fled to the welcoming arms of “Athena Parker” and the “Stop the. . ..” site never withdrew from the publishing arena.  If they did, they did it so quietly that no one paid any attention, which may have had more to do with their lack of readership than with any coordinated efforts on the part of reviewers.

I suspect Miller did much of her “research” by reading the other blogs that have been posted in the few days since the Guardian piece was published.  I don’t think she went any further than that.  But what I’m personally concerned about is Miller’s silence on Hale’s connections.  That silence lessens the power differential between Hale and Harris and makes Hale look far less dangerous, far less threatening that she really is.  And by mitigating the power differential, Miller makes Harris, even without a name, look more threatening, more dangers, more to blame for her own victimization.

Another Goodreads member, posting in a private group, made a point that I think is particularly astute:  Miller’s Salon article starts with a headline that makes it appear there are trolls on either side, when there is a huge imbalance there, too, but then you get this lovely picture of the author as smiling blonde innocent.  What I didn’t realize until I read that comment was that Harris isn’t even mentioned by name.  Miller turned Hale into a virtual virgin martyr:  Innocent blonde picture, full name, and no mention of powerful connections.  Harris is dehumanized, stripped even of a pseudonym (both Miller and Hale granted that much respect even to “Athena Parker”), and thrown in with a faceless horde allegedly vicious, menacing, all-powerful career-destroying book bloggers.

Harris is stripped of everything; Hale is portrayed as maybe a little whacko, maybe even a true nutcase (Miller’s word) but she still comes across as the innocent victim, while Harris is left as the nameless, faceless bad guy.  She has never yet been given the chance to tell her side.

Miller did the same thing with another victim of an outraged author:  Maggie Spence got mentioned by name, but the reviewer she tracked down and called at home?  No name, no validation as a person, nothing.  Just a nameless Goodreads reader.  Yet that person has a name, a blog, and posted publicly on Goodreads about the incident.  Miller could have contacted Mahala Burlingame — who uses her real name, not a pseudonym — but instead gave Spence the respect and recognition of naming while relegating Spence’s victim to an anonymity she never sought for herself.

That’s why I didn’t see Miller’s article as balanced at all, but rather tipped very heavily in the Hale’s favor.  There wasn’t really an analysis as much as there was a display of slightly crazy but thoroughly justified Kathleen Hale.

The two words that have been used with seeming abandon in virtually all of these flare-ups are “troll” and “bully,” both as nouns and verbs.  The headline of Miller’s article — which Miller herself may have had no control over — implies that there were trolls on both sides of the Hale/Harris situation, that both were of equal power, and that both were equally at fault.

Blythe Harris, in writing her Goodreads “review” of Hale’s book, broke no rules, did nothing wrong.  She is allowed to have an online pseudonym and create a persona to go with it.  She was given the advanced review copy of the book through legal channels.  Her running commentary on the reading experience followed Goodreads’ policies in addressing the book and not the author.  She contacted Hale after Hale had tweeted regarding ideas for her next book.

Given the nature of Harris’s comments and her online personality, Hale should not have been surprised at a lively, perhaps even slightly hostile response.  But by the time any Twitter exchange — apparently not available for verification any more — took place, Hale apparently had already selected Harris as a target.  The online stalking had begun.

The list of Hale’s misdeeds has been more than adequately publicized, first and foremost by Hale herself.  Harris, however, was unaware of most of what Hale was doing.  Months after the ARC had been delivered and Harris began her review process, there were online confrontations, but they apparently ended in January 2014.  That’s the date of the Harris’s actual “Fuck this” review of Hale’s book.

Over the next several months, however, Hale continued with  her stalking.  She knew and was warned repeatedly that what she was doing was wrong.  She had done similar things before and knew she was wrong.  She continued to do them.  She had a personal issue with a person who had no clue what was being plotted behind her back.

Kathleen Hale was doing very wrong things; Blythe Harris, for all her snark, had done nothing wrong.

Yet for some reason or other, Laura Miller lumped unnamed, unidentified, disrespected Blythe Harris in with all the trolls and vicious book bloggers, while leaving over-privileged, more than slightly nutty Kathleen Hale in the favorable spotlight.

Kathleen Hale had all the power; Blythe Harris had none.

Kathleen Hale had not only the power of her big name publisher — HarperCollins — behind her; she had the personal connections that even most authors with traditional publishers don’t have.  She is reportedly engaged to Simon Rich, a former writer for Saturday Night Live whose parents are Gail Winston, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, and Frank Rich, former columnist for the New York Times.  By  not mentioning those connections, Laura Miller leaves the reader with the impression that Hale is just another young author with a debut book that got trashed by a vicious reviewer.

But Harris explained in substantial detail why she wasn’t enjoying Hale’s book.  She was no drive-by  carpet bomber leaving a “naked” one-star rating without a text review.  She read and analyzed the book and found it wanting.  Even if her comments were factually wrong — and no one has yet shown any evidence that they were — she should still have been permitted to voice her opinion and should have been granted the dignity of being an individual with an opinion.  Miller took that away from her, the same way Hale took away her privacy.

In other words, Harris was exactly what she presented herself to be online:  An online persona.  It doesn’t matter if the name, the avatars, the profile, even the hometown are imaginary.  That’s the nature of the Internet.  Hale gave that persona no respect.  She claimed a certain right of ownership of Blythe Harris’s identity:  It was hers to discover and hers to use or even destroy, regardless who might be hurt in the process.

Neither Kathleen Hale nor Laura Miller granted any rights, not even the right to being identified as an individual reader, reviewer, and human being, to Blythe Harris.

Perhaps Laura Miller should take the advice she so casually tossed out at the end of her essay:

Sometimes the worst troll of all is the one in the mirror.

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