Today I read an incredible essay by Meghan Daum in The Believer – “Haterade.” Equal parts autobiography and social commentary, the article analyzes hater culture on the internet – horrible comment boards on news websites or blogs, vitriolic email criticisms to authors, and so forth.
Maybe I’m naive, but I was shocked by some of the critical comments that Daum quotes. This made me pretty sympathetic to her critique of hater culture on the internet, which not only dumbs down the (often already low) level of discourse on the Web (and, now, in every other medium, since everything’s everywhere), but contributes to what the conservatives rightly call the “coarsening” of our culture. Not that I believe America ever was, or should become, a high-toned society, but really, we are not better off when anonymous haters can tell Daum:
What a pathetic, inept, and uninformed person you are. Your articles are brainless, and when I read them I think of how miserable as a person you must be. Probably a fat ugly little girl who needs to prey on others to feel better…A fat, ugly squashed bug.
Which brings me to my own current experience with internet haters: the anonymous and horrible crap that’s being vented by “readers” on the webpage for Shannon’s book. I won’t quote any of them, for at least four reasons: most are awful (being badly written, cruelly vitriolic, or both), many are stupid (betraying the commenters as very poor readers), at least some of them are coming from a person or people we know, and – most importantly – the negative comments are more than outweighed by the numerous thoughtful comments.
Now, don’t misunderstand me and think that I am (or think my wife is) a delicate flower who can’t stand being criticized. To the contrary: both of us learned in grad school to take some hard knocks and profit from them. I have to be similarly flexible (or bulletproof – pick your metaphor) to do my grantwriting at Carleton. And Shannon’s been a blogger for a long time, in which role she’s received some pretty awful comments.
But but but, there is a huge difference between, say, redlined comments on a grant-proposal draft and a “review” on Shannon’s B&N.com page such as
I truly expected a really helpful read, the answer to my many answers. Failed to live up to its title and expectations I had. :(”
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one quote.) Constructive criticism exists to improve the writing to which it responds, and the writer and the critic are in a relationship that assumes the value of the writing. On the other hand, a half-literate “review” on B&N.com exists only to tear down the writer. It actually prevents any sort of meaningful connection between the reader and the writer, and rests, as another couple reviewers say, on the readers’ idiotic evaluation of the writing as a “joke.”
Thankfully, Shannon knows all this. A few days ago she called out the negative commenters in a post on her blog. In addition to requesting that anyone who’s read and liked the book post a comment to that effect on the book’s page, Shannon said (in part):
If you’ve been following along at home, you know that there’s been quite a bit of drama over at my book’s Barnes & Noble page. I’ve been blessed to get a ton of super-great, five-star reviews over there, which is thrilling and exciting. I’m grateful for every one. However, I’m being dogged by a troll reviewer who has been putting up hateful “reviews” for every good review that goes up, from the very first day of release.
Many of these comments have been flagged as abusive, off-topic, or inappropriate. My publisher and book marketing manager are in contact with Barnes & Noble regarding an investigation. But in the meantime, this person or persons is/are intent on continuing to bring down my ratings average by putting up a 1-star review for every 4- or 5-star review that goes up. (Fortunately, most potential buyers and reviewers are smart enough to notice the suspicious nature of these troll reviews, and more than one have actually mentioned it in the comments.)
As you should expect, the fact that my talented, hardworking wife has been attacked like this on the internet angers me, and I applaud Shannon for standing up to them. I (we!) value the exchange of views, even opposite ones, but I think the hate by the comment trolls is beyond the pale of normalcy or value. Which is probably why I felt such a strong jolt of satisfaction when Daum wrote in her Believer essay, “These days, being attacked isn’t just the result of saying something badly, it’s the result of saying anything at all.”
We’re all lucky that some of us are brave enough to say something good anyhow.