Over the weekend, a YA novelist named Kathleen Hale published a piece in The Guardian that sent up a social media mushroom cloud. The piece tracked, in painstaking detail, her obsession with a Goodreads reviewer who'd given her novel only one star accompanied by snarky review. The saga ends in a trip to the reviewer's house.
Jezebel has already covered much of what's creepy and/or questionable in Hale's story. Most of what Hale describes is outright stalking: finding a real name, a real address, getting in a real car and driving to that place to confront a real person:
I strolled to the front door. A dog barked and I thought of Blythe's Instagram Pomeranian. Was it the same one? The doorbell had been torn off, and up close the garden was overgrown. I started to feel hot and claustrophobic. The stupid happiness book grew sweaty in my hands. I couldn't decide whether to knock.
The curtains were drawn, but I could see a figure silhouetted in one window, looking at me.
The barking stopped.
I dropped the book on the step and walked away.
Her article also traffics in a great deal of what can only be called rank gossip. She claims, for example, to have heard that her evil book blogger stalked a 14 year old:
"Blythe was involved in an [online] attack on a 14-year-old girl back in May 2012," Parker said. The teenager had written a glowing review of a book Blythe hated, obliquely referencing Blythe's hatred for it: "Dear Haters," the review read. "Everyone has his or her own personal opinion, but expressing that through profanity is not the answer. Supposedly, this person is an English teacher at a middle school near where I lived… People can get hurt," the review concluded.
In response, Blythe rallied her followers. Adults began flooding the girl's thread, saying, among other things, "Fuck you."
Erin writes at Jezebel that she finds this behavior appalling. So do many book bloggers. I find it appalling too, though I suppose I also found the essay relatively self-aware about how appalling it was ("I consider my visit to Judy's as a sort of personal rock bottom," Hale writes, self-effacingly) so the essay qua essay has not worried me as much as it did others.
But blog posts and tweets excoriating Hale have piled up regardless, and people have rightly pointed out that she has what I'll call a back-catalog that suggests this wasn't her first time competing at the Obsession Olympics.
I emailed Hale to ask whether she had a comment on any of this and she declined, writing, "I think the piece speaks for itself."
So I thought this might be a good time to point out: nutso behavior by authors concerned that someone has been insufficiently admiring of their work is... all over literary history like white on rice.
Off the top of my head, I can think of the following nutty anecdotes:
- Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead at a party because Whitehead gave him a bad review;
- Richard Ford (a theme emerges) sending a copy of Alice Hoffman's book to Alice Hoffman with a bullet in it;
- Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal literally butting heads before their famous fight on the Dick Cavett Show;
- Robert Frost setting a fire at Archibald MacLeish's reading because, I guess, he did not care for MacLeish's poetry;
- After Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, again on the Dick Cavett show, that, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the,'" Hellman proceeded to sue everyone involved for over $2 million; and
- About eighty different stories about Hemingway fighting with literary rivals.
I do not defend this behavior, nor would I excuse it with some awful hoary cliché about the psychological toll of making great art. I point it out merely to say, Hale hasn't done much—and has arguably done less—than many writers before her.
What has changed things here, unarguably, is really the internet. Hale's whole story is very much of this current era of the Internet, where we stalk ex-girlfriends and boyfriends and then write high-trafficking confessional essays about them. The whole thing churns on and on.
Some people complain about privilege and there is that to consider. Just yesterday Jennifer Weiner (yes!) made a good point at the New Republic about another author complaining about bad online reviewers:
Clearly, there are people who believe that readers and writers—at least the right kind of readers and writers—are special snowflakes, existing on a more exalted plane than mere mortals. Book people are educated. They are privileged.
Weiner contends that this privileged self-conception is at the heart of so many authors' deep objections to mean Amazon or Goodreads reviews. And yes, it is possible that Hale feels she is entitled to more remove from criticism than she's getting, because she does run in a rarified writerly crowd. Hale is engaged to Simon Rich, the New Yorker humorist who also happens to be New York columnist Frank Rich's son.
But just as a point of data: if being a truly celebrated writer (which Hemingway was), won't protect you from the lows to which insecurity and self-loathing will take you, it's hardly surprising any kind of privilege didn't protect Hale, either.