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Are Negative Reviews a Form of Bullying?

That was the question writing coach and consultant Martha Alderson was asked, specifically about some negative reviews she had received on one of her writing books. Martha answered that question in the affirmative:

[The writer] wanted to know if I felt the negative reviews on Amazon for The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master , especially the ones that are so personal, are bullying. Yes, I can now say, yes, I felt bullied. Her question led me to understand how much criticism and bullying and judgment and punishment I’ve received for being different my entire life — as likely you also have to one degree or another.

Problem: The negative reviews worked. Rather than believe the vast majority of reviews which are positive in warm and incredible ways, what I surrendered my own beliefs and pulled back from writing about so much that brings me joy — like the Universal Story, the Writer’s Way, the journey all of us share. I allowed the antagonists to fell me.

What were some of the “personal” attacks the “antagonists” employed in their bullying? Here’s some excerpts from the five 0ne-star reviews the book has received:

txrey: This was one of the most disappointing purchases I have made. This is not a regular book on writing but one based on new age spirituality. Part way through the first chapter, I realized I had made a bad purchase. This is not what I thought I was buying.

Brian: I’ve read a lot of books on writing over the years. Some good, some bad…and then there’s “The Plot Whisperer”. Wow. This is such crap I can’t believe it got published. I was looking for practical advice on plotting, some help in getting past some rough spots, and instead I get a bunch of new age channeling of energy. From page 3…”This is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual and emotional guide to writing.” What I was looking for was a practical guide to recognizing and correcting plot pitfalls, not a lot of nonsense about writing “lifting you to a higher truth.”, or muses that appear as snippets of a dream and magically connect you to the “universal story.” Please. If you’re looking for practical advice in plotting out your story, about where to foreshadow or where to plant hooks, keep looking. This ain’t it.

G. “G”:  The Plot Whisperer has very little information on writing. It is a feel good book, crammed with cheesy mantras meant to uplift you. This book should be listed under the “new Age” category, as it is new age, if nothing else. You’ll read the phrase “universal Story” over and over again. We are all linked through our “universal Stories.” Yes, that’s right people, new age filler.

C.C. Martin: After considerable searching, I was able to come up with only two titles of allegedly “prize-winning” historical fiction books written by Alderson: Parallel Lives and Spirits of War, but try to buy one or find a review! They certainly are not available on Amazon, and Google offers only a passing reference to their very existence. Apparently Alderson is one of that swarm of charlatans who has discovered it’s more profitable to write about writing than actually to write!

Are these reviews fair? I can’t say. I haven’t read the book. What I can say from perusing them, though, is that they don’t seem like bullying to me.

They seem like the standard “negative reviews” you’d find on Amazon.

Mind you, I think the ascription of bullying is far too prevalent in our culture as it is. Not only is the definition blurry, it’s potentially quite subjective. The person who HAS been bullied could interpret something rather innocuous to me as bullying to them. So I must be cautious about labeling something NOT bullying without knowing the inner-workings of someone’s psyche, both the recipient and deliverer of said bullying. That said, I fear that crying “bully” has become the new “racist.” It’s a convenient ad hominem used to silence and stigmatize critics, or to simply skirt the recipient’s responsibility to not respond to morons in like fashion.

Some particulars about this case that I find interesting:

The author received 85 five-star reviews for that particular bookas opposed to the 5 one-star reviews. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, the small number of negative reviews seem to have had a disproportionately detrimental effect on the author, even to the point that she considered stopping writing.

Also, one of the main charges against this book is the author’s incorporation of New Age beliefs. As one reviewer said, “This book should be listed under the ‘New Age’ category.” If that’s the case, it would seem to be a legitimate gripe. Indeed, some reviewers seemed to like the book precisely for this reason, that it “translates Jung and Campbell into everyday English” and that it tackled “the biggest roadblock to success–the writer’s psyche.”

From my perspective, the most “personal” of the reviews is the one from C. C. Martin who suggests that Alderson is “one of that swarm of charlatans who has discovered it’s more profitable to write about writing than actually to write!” No doubt, this is a serious charge. But bullying?

Interestingly, in her post, Alderson seems to indicate that it is the ridicule of her ideas that she finds most harsh. She concludes:

I now appreciate the gift in the negative reviews that came so fast and the damage so swift and early. For me to do what I love, I’ve got to hold my own power or be silenced by and lose to those who don’t agree with me and ridicule my ideas. (emphasis mine)

So was Alderson really being bullied? Were these negative reviews really a form of bullying?

However you answer that, I think there’s some valuable lessons we writers can learn from things like this.

1.) We musn’t get addicted to five-star reviews. It was Charles Spurgeon who encouraged ministers to be even-keeled regarding praise and critique. “When praised, don’t crow; when criticized, don’t croak.” Frankly, I would gladly tolerate 5 one-star reviews for 85 five-star reviews. The fact that we writers often allow a disproportionately small number of negative reviews  to so affect us says a lot about our addiction to praise.

2.) There’s a big difference between being an “antagonist” and simply giving an honest review. It is quite possible to give a negative review and not be antagonistic. Oscar Wilde said, “True friends stab you in the front.” Being up front and honest about someone’s work, even if that honesty hurts the author, is an important part of growing as a writer and critic. We musn’t automatically assume that negative reviews are a sign of animosity and enmity. In reality, a critical reviewer could prove be an author’s best friend.

3.) Writers need thick skin. It’s boringly cliched, I know. But I’ve always loved that saying, “If you want to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The moment you put yourself and your product out there, someone will hammer it. The only way to avoid the inevitable critique: Don’t publish anything. Other than that, thick skin is a requirement.

4.) Religious beliefs will always raise hackles. I say this as a Christian writer whose had his religious themes critiqued — on both sides. Like THIS REVIEW of my novel The Telling on Goodreads in which the author writes

I actually had to double check the back cover: this book is pitched as Christian fiction, but to my mind there is nothing Christian about it. It uses Judeo-Christian angelology as a backdrop, but it could just as easily be considered New Age.

Whether New Age or Christian, religious idea will always raise hackles. If we’re going to incorporate religious content in our stuff we must be prepared for negative feedback, from one side or the other

So can negative reviews be a form of bullying?  They probably can. I’m sure there’s incidents where reviewers have ganged up on an author unfairly with the intent to damage their career or disparage their reputation. Was the incident above a good example of such bullying? I don’t think so. Not by a long shot.

In fact, I think it serves better as an example of what authors should NOT do in response to negative reviews.

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Randy Streu January 23, 2014, 7:44 AM

    I can’t even take this author seriously. What advice can you POSSIBLY offer if you feel beaten down and bullied by something as commonplace as disagreement with ideas?

  • Kessie January 23, 2014, 7:57 AM

    Also, nobody mentions that reviews are for other readers, not the author. As a reader, I read the good and bad reviews to get a balanced picture. A lot of the time, things that people gripe about are what make me want to read it! And you think those are bad, you should see the reviews Jim Butcher gets on the Dresden books. He has the worst ones at jimbutcher.livejournal.com as examples of “that’s not fair!”

  • Mark January 23, 2014, 8:07 AM

    When I saw the title of the post, I was expecting something with some of the truly bullying reviews I’ve seen. Yes, reviewers can bully. These are honest critics of the book.

    And as Kessie just said, reviews are for readers anyway, not for the writer. Writers can use them to improve future books (if they think there is merit to them), but they are not the intended audience.

  • Kat Heckenbach January 23, 2014, 8:22 AM

    The author needs to take a trip to Goodreads and look up some actual reviews that are actually negative for stupid reasons and personally attack authors. They are out there (and usually include lewd animated gifs), but these reviews don’t even come close to the edge.

    When authors publish books, they are opening themselves up to negative reviews. We all want to be that one author that everyone adores, but it can’t happen. Ever. Even THE most popular books EVER have people that hate them. The Harry Potter series has thousands of negative reviews over the course of the seven books. It’s part of the job, part of the experience of authorship. And as said before, reviews are for readers, period.

    • Mir January 23, 2014, 8:48 AM

      There are Nobel prize winners I can’t finish. Just can’t. Poetry or fiction. Doesn’t matter. No writer fits every reader, or even most readers. God wrote a major work and people still call it nasty names to this day. 😀

      • Jessica E. Thomas January 23, 2014, 8:51 AM

        Great point. If people find fault with God’s story, we’re all gonna get some 1-stars.

  • Heather Day Gilbert January 23, 2014, 8:24 AM

    FIVE one-stars and she’s ready to quit? Sounds like she’s not buying her own “writing is art” advice. Because people always hate artists for one reason or another. Maybe she’d never gotten rejected pre-publication?

  • Mir January 23, 2014, 8:45 AM

    Hah. It’s funny you mention the critique of your New Age/Angelology critique. Echoes my Mirabilis comic strip yesterday.

    I write reviews for others who are likely to want to “consume” a product–be it a soup, a pair of socks, or a book. I’m not writing the review for the author–unless I’m a gushing fan who just wants to say “Thank you for the thrills.” Generally, I give what I want: enough to figure out whether this book is for me. This is why I loathe the “Oh, it was great. I loved it” reviews as much as I do the “I hated it; it sucked” reviews. They don’t help a consumer make a decision, especially when the samples available are so limited/brief that you can’t really make a decision. I need the reviewers to tell me if it’s A or B or OMG Z!

    Those reviews were very helpful. I had looked at that book, and the “It’s New Age wahwah” cautions let me know it was not what I was looking for. Instead, I bought THE ANATOMY OF STORY, which is systematic and nicely written and up my alley. I know some folks WILL buy the PW because it has that energy/New Age core–there are readers who WANT that. I don’t.

    I think if negative reviewers kept a courteous tone, it would wound authors less and still be helpful to consumers. The problem is that when one feels cheated, it’s easy to just get really hyper and ad hominem. But that needs to be resisted, unless one was utterly deceived and ripped off (which happens, even on Amazon.)

    I, as a big shopper on Amazon, very much appreciate the folks who take the time to give reasons and details–be it ingredients for foods, weak seams in pants, heaps of typos in self-pubbed works, or that the title of a book may be misleading considering its contents. She should have made the subtitle of the book more clearly about “channeling your inner plotter with the universe’s gracious energy” or something. THEN, folks would be clearer on what they were getting. Her subtitle indicates this would be more systematic, charts, tips, strategies of the classroom or seminar, not guru or meditation, sort.

    As someone who passed on The Plot Whisperer due to those 1-star ones, thanks, negative reviewers. 😀

  • Nissa Annakindt January 23, 2014, 9:01 AM

    I think negative reviews fall into 3 categories— the honest, the clueless and the bullying.

    The honest ones are those who just happened to have a negative opinion, or perhaps those who have discovered a serious flaw in the book.

    The clueless are like the review I read which started out ‘I don’t normally read BOOKS, but….’ These are written by people who are too ignorant to have valid opinion on the book in question but, thanks to our wonderful education, have too much unearned self-esteem to know it.

    The bullying ones are out there, too. I felt the examples given above WERE bullying or at least had a bullying tone. They were personally cruel toward the author, in a way that the reviewers would not had been had they been speaking their review within earshot of the author.

    I do agree that the 5 star review is far too overdone. I reserve it myself for the kind of book that I finish and immediately start reading again. I give out lots of 4 star reviews. My last 3 star review was for a book that had some notable flaws that I’m sure the more bullying type of reviewer would have given 1 star.

    • Kat Heckenbach January 23, 2014, 9:32 AM

      “…in a way that the reviewers would not had been had they been speaking their review within earshot of the author.”

      But that is why we’re saying reviews are for other readers, not for the author.

      The only review on here I can see as pushing the limit is, as Mike said, the one that calls the author a charlatan. But really–she puts herself up as an expert on fiction writing, but can’t produce examples of any of her own? The reviewer has a right to call her on it.

      PS–I have experience getting negative reviews. As have many of my contemporaries. None of us feel bullied. We feel that readers have a right to their opinions, that the reviews are directed at and written for other readers, and if we don’t want to know what they’re saying we have the option to not read those reviews.

  • Jessica E. Thomas January 23, 2014, 10:41 AM

    This is some good comedy, Mike!

  • Teddi Deppner January 23, 2014, 11:31 AM

    I agree with your assessment 100%, Mike. Those reviews are not “bullying”, they’re simply honest negative reviews. The author has her own issues if she’s going to give up writing because of them.

    The more I read discussions like this one (your article and the comments), the more decided I become that I will not read the reviews on my books, once they’re published!

  • Katherine Coble January 23, 2014, 11:47 AM

    Bullying is a real thing. It has real parameters and definitions. It is a psychological problem within the bully and has systemic factors. It often leads to psychological problems for the bullied as well.

    I’ve been bullied by textbook bullies. I can assure that “people saying mean things” is not the same thing as being bullied, just as “bumping into my achilles heel with a shopping cart” is not the same thing as “being run over by a bus.”

    I can further state without equivocation that a negative review is in no way “bullying”, unless it is given by a bully as part of the systemic torment of the bullied. For instance, the person who is my bully in my life would come and say “It’s hard to believe that YOU could even write a book, let alone get published. But seeing as how this book sucks, then yeah. That makes sense.” But this would only be part of an ongoing, lifelong pattern of attack. That’s a bullying review.

    “I do not like this book because it is not a good book” is what we on Planet Earth (at least the English-speaking portion thereof) call AN OPINION FREELY STATED.

    I can’t believe the balls on this dame, to co-opt a real problem for attention and online hairpats.

  • R. L. Copple January 23, 2014, 1:36 PM

    She should be rejoicing in those reviews. It shows they are not her readers and intended audience, and points to the fact that she needs to write a better blurb so those who are not her intended audience will be warned.

    Instead, she chose to blame shift rather that do that evaluation, and play the victim.

    We’ll darn. Looks like I’m being a bully.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman January 23, 2014, 3:11 PM

    When I first read the Title of the article, my first thought was, “Of course negative reviews are not bullying. They are simply more information about whether or not I would like the book.
    Then I read the article and thought she wasn’t talking about negative reviews, but rather abuse.
    I’m glad you quoted the actual negative reviews because now I’m back to my original stance. Those were not abusive reviews. I would be happy if that was as abusive a review as I were to get. Well, I suppose I wouldn’t much like being called a charlatan, but other than that, I thought the reviews were fair as were the five star reviews. We all like what we like and really hate what we hate.

  • Jill January 23, 2014, 3:11 PM

    Yeah, I’d take the 85 good reviews, too, for the exchange of 5 bad ones. I have one negative review (currently), and in a conscious way, I understood that it was flattery because the person was willing to spend the time and effort on the review. Unconsciously, though, the misery existed–somebody didn’t get my book!!! And, though I haven’t read this author’s writing advice book, I can guess why some modern people don’t get it. In fact, she should’ve expected that. I could expound on the reasons I believe that, but it would be off subject, so I’ll restrain.

  • Nicole January 23, 2014, 3:29 PM

    Agreed, Mike.

  • Jill January 23, 2014, 9:06 PM

    Okay, now I’ve actually read her article, and she says, “Now, I see that those negative reviews were simply a warm-up for the full-blown, in-my-face, let-me-kick-you-while-you’re-down bullying that swept into my personal life these past months, destroying everything in its path.” She let them get her down, and then she experienced a lot of actual bullying in her personal life before she came back around. I don’t know; it seems you’ve misrepresented her a little bit.

    “All of us have fears. When our fear(s) keep us from our dreams and if we’re lucky, we’re eventually forced to face that which haunts us and be stripped of everything until we learn we’re bigger than our fears and ultimately that there is nothing to fear.

    (All of this drama and personal crisis in my life has very much informed a much deeper and a truer grasp of the archetypal qualities of a crisis to the Universal Story and how it feels to be in the middle of one and then how to get out of the muck. I’m not saying the reviews in anyway touched off my personal problems though the tone and intent and outcome of both are thematically linked in more ways than I knew when I read the negative reviews that brought such feelings of shame.)”

    I have to side with Martha Alderson on this one. It sounds like the reviews set off a transitional phase in her own “universal life story”, and she was aware enough to recognize it. You are going through a similar transitional phase into nonfiction. So let this post be a part of your life story–you coming to terms with who you are as a person and as a writer.

    • Jessica Thomas January 24, 2014, 6:28 AM

      I dunno… This kind of talk is strange to me. The Universal Story…and being in the middle of one. You have a point Jill, but I’m distracted by the deifying of stories and the writing process. This is why I graduated with an English degree (on the post-graduate path) and ended up in computer programing. Computer don’t spew this kind of fluffy…crap… (And yes, now I’m paranoid that I’m bullying.)

    • Barb Riley January 24, 2014, 6:56 AM

      I agree with Jill. I think Martha is misrepresented by Mike in this post. She said she *felt* bullied, and wrote a transparent post reflecting on how much she allowed that negative feeling to haunt her, and perhaps prevent her from pursuing her artistic dreams. But her post was not a rebuttal to the negative reviewers as much as it was for her to come to terms with that’s-the-way-life-is.

      She drew a parallel of her real-life journey to her writing journey, like a double-witness: both are teaching her how to overcome her fear of what others think, and instead, to be true to herself. Also, she’s affirming the necessity of conflict in storytelling via antagonists who are there to mess with our protagonists’ heads and/or thwart their external journeys.

      • Kat Heckenbach January 24, 2014, 7:41 AM

        But her TITLE is “Are Negative Reviews a Form of Bullying?”

        Not “Can You *Feel* Bullied by Negative Reviews?”

        And this: “She wanted to know if I felt the negative reviews on Amazon for The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master , especially the ones that are so personal, ARE BULLYING. Yes, I can now say, yes, I felt bullied.” (capitalization mine since I suck at html) She is NOT pointing her finger at her feelings, she is saying the reviews ARE bullying.

        Also here: “I’m not saying the reviews in anyway touched off my personal problems though the tone and intent and outcome of both are thematically linked in more ways than I knew when I read the negative reviews that brought such feelings of shame.”

        Notice this part in particular: “the tone and intent….are thematically linked…” She is saying the tone and INTENT of the reviews are much the same as the tone and intent of the other bullying she received.

        I took this article entirely to read that she saw these as the first round of bullying she received in her life. And that she almost sees it as being sent into her life to warm her up for the future onslaught. Not that it felt like bullying because *after the fact* she experience real bullying.

        It would be entirely different if she’d just been through a hard period of bullying elsewhere and was too bruised and beaten to deal with the reviews. But the reviews came first.

        And yes, I believe that if she read this post and many of the comments here, she would “feel” bullied by it all. And yes, I think it took some courage to write out that blog and express her feelings. But the fact is: She’s supposedly been in this business for 20 years, and she got reviews that are ridiculously mild by “bad review” standards; and even after supposedly working on strengthening herself and such, she still points the finger at the reviews/reviewers.

        I’ve gone online and expressed by feelings and frustrations about this business and pretty much been told DIRECTLY in the comments of those posts that I need to just SUCK IT UP and deal. And I didn’t accuse those commenters of bullying–I realized that, yep, I do need to do that. OR decide I’m not cut out for this. But it’s Not Bullying if they are Telling Me The Truth.

        • Jessica E. Thomas January 24, 2014, 8:48 AM

          I think it boils down to overthinking and overanalyzing, both of which are detrimental to a writer who is actually wanting to *produce*. I’ve been guilty of both, and I’m well acquainted with the pitfalls, which is why I think I have such a visceral reaction to books/articles that wax poetic about the process of writing. It’s also (imo) fundamentally why a person would feel ‘bullied’ by simple criticism, because they’ve amplified the writing process to some sort of spiritual growth process. Writing can lead to spiritual growth, but that’s just a bonus.

        • Barb Riley January 24, 2014, 9:28 AM

          Kat, it really seems like she was just trying to explain how her writing experience of feeling shamed by negative reviews served to highlight how feeling shamed for being different can show up in all areas of life. And, whether or not she *was* bullied (by the official definition of bullying), the experience warmed her up for understanding the bigger picture; it was a demonstration of how we can be our own worst enemies if we let others’ differing opinions silence us or make us fearful. Even if she is, in fact, pointing the finger at the reviewers’ intent (which she can’t possibly know unless they told her), what I took away is that she recognizes how opposition (even if it’s only our perception) can either kill you or make you stronger, so to speak.

          • Kat Heckenbach January 24, 2014, 9:56 AM

            Barb, I do agree that she ultimately came to the conclusion that she needed to overcome those negative feelings herself. And that is good. She didn’t let herself give up writing, no matter what. So that is good for her, and an important message. (It just felt framed in the “don’t let the big, bad bullies get you down” idea.)

          • Jill January 24, 2014, 4:41 PM

            Yeah, Barb, I agree. She was asked a question, and she gave an answer dealing with how she felt about the reviews, which preceded a larger picture of bullying in her life. She was connectign the reviews to the larger picture.

            To Jessica: No, I don’t think it’s being bullying to call the idea of universal story “fluffy”, but it is dismissive of the philosophy and research that people like Jung spent their entire lives doing. I’d be very surprised if a modern creative writing program used Jungian critique, however, as he is not popular with moderns, which is why I’m not surprised that she would get a handful of negative reviews. Aside from Jung’s belief that feminism and homosexuality were mental illnesses, his willingness to look at archetypes in stories that are repeated throughout history and across cultures and attach them to a universality among humans is not well-loved by moderns. Modern people don’t believe in universal truths or the power of symbolism. They would rather eschew it, call it all nonsense, or explain it away as vestigual traces leftover from our evolutionary past. The best modern writers, in my opinion, will be those who use story as the way to deeply affect the human subconscious without modern peoples being the least aware of what has just happened, because they call such things “fluffiness”.

            • Jessica E. Thomas January 24, 2014, 9:00 PM

              I don’t trust where Jung got his ideas. I doubt all his ideas were inspired by the occult realm, but how does a person sort it out? But that’s a rabbit trail.

  • Nikole Hahn January 24, 2014, 6:35 AM

    What’s bullying is when the author and his or her fans go after their bad reviewers (not saying it happened here), but bad reviews shouldn’t be taken personally. Like what our guest speaker said this past Sunday, somebody will always criticize you for something. Be a sifter and sift out the useless advice and take the criticism that can help. I read the one and two star reviews first before buying any nonfiction book. I also read them at times for fiction if its a new author. I don’t want to waste my time with a bad book.

  • J.S. Clark January 26, 2014, 7:49 AM

    At the end of this blog, I was thinking, yeah it could be bullying because bullying is about the intent of the presumed bully.

    But bullying is going to happen. Labeling it doesn’t stop it. So, is it bullying?

    Who cares? What are you going to do about it? If this were physical and it happened to my son, I would tell him to hit back. But, otherwise, merely labeling it “bullying” does nothing. It’s like concentrating on the pain of a headache instead of drinking some water and taking a nap.

    Not that I’m saying to reply in kind. In this case, I’d suggest the “bullied” person go out and find some one else’s work to praise. Maybe even the bully. Overcome evil with good. Either way the bully is looking to control the response into either cowing down or provoking a fight, either way don’t give them what they want.

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