It was not as if I did not know about ‘trolls’, i.e. people who go around the internet usually anonymously making offensive remarks about anyone they choose. Quite often these are well-known people. Recently I have read some of the horrific stuff sent to Classical historian, Professor Mary Beard, OBE and the pro-rape ‘communities’ that FaceBook refuses to remove though it does take down pictures of a woman breastfeeding her child. Ordinary people also suffer trolling and often lack the range of supporters to fight back. It is a form of bullying that clearly allows some people to get a buzz about pushing down others. It is clear that there a individuals who subscribe to an unacceptable view of what society should be, largely violent, racist and anti-women, to shout out their views wherever they chose. Their view of society is so distorted that they get angry at people who seek to instil any sense of humanity into the debate. The ground is fertile, when publications like ‘The Guardian’ and even specialist journals like the ‘Times Higher Education’, as one regular reader of this blog pointed out, have discussions in which commentators just attack the abilities and knowledge of each other in offensive terms, you almost appear to be half-way to the really outrageous stuff from the outset.
In some, perhaps many, cases trolling appears to stem from a sense of inadequacy. As the person cannot run an interesting blog or write a novel, they feel no-one else should be allowed to enjoy the success of doing so. In many cases, like the specific one I discuss below, they seek to assert their superiority by being a better ‘train spotter’ than others and insisting that their spotting of minutiae is important. In the past such people were confined to their clubs of like-minded people. At worst you would encounter them like the Harry Enfield character telling you ‘you don’t want to be doing that’. They were tiresome but avoidable. On the internet they are less easily avoidable and when ratings and sales are important and these days are not allowed to be independent of ‘feedback’ they have a destructive edge. It is the revenge of the geek, they now hold the power online and they are not satisfied even with smearing your reputation, they want you to suffer and to be seen to suffer. It is like a drug that they have to keep coming back to.
In this posting, I am not going to take on the whole trolling community, but am going to focus on those who impinge most on what I do. As a blogger I have been very fortunate that I have not received the kind of attacks so many do, especially women blogging. Running the blog we have the control to delete comments that offend us and can respond immediately. Such facility tends to be lacking when you move on to selling e-books, in my case, via Amazon. I have commented on previous postings about the negative comments I have received so will not revisit those. I have removed almost all the alternate history books which attracted this attention. However, looking around other writers’ books I have seen a common pattern. The one that was sent to me by the regular was ‘The Nanking War’ (2009) by Ryan McCall. This book has been available as a paperback and now as an e-book on Amazon.com the generic and US version of the company. The book considers a war breaking out between the USA and Japan over the Rape of Nanking [Nanjing] in 1937. As readers know, I like alternate history fiction and essays, so this attracted my attention, especially as it neither started from ‘what if Hitler had won the Second World War?’ nor ‘what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War?’ the basis nowadays of a large number of books.
The review on Amazon.com gave it a 1-star. What was interesting was that the structure of the review was almost identical to one I had received for ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’. This is unsurprising given that these troll-reviewers are pretty small in number and unimaginative. It started by saying the ‘I found Mr. McCall's writing to be technically correct and the story is well edited.’ They usually put in a positive, though editing, something the trolls can wheedle out small errors from is often a target. The reviewer then complains that the story fails because even though it is alternate history ‘that history must be grounded in some sort of reality for the reader to suspend disbelief.’ Fine. Now, personally I would challenge this book on the fact that the USA did very little in response to the Rape of Nanjing and in fact did very little in response to the sinking of the USS ‘Patay’ by the Japanese or their invasion of central China. Even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than four years later, it was not clear that the USA would enter the war.
What grounds does the troll-reviewer condemn this book? I quote:
‘Mr. McCall chooses 1937 as the time frame for his story therefore he needs to ground the reality of his story to that year. For example, McCall arms the U.S. Marines in Nanking War with magazine-fed Winchester rifles. In 1937, U.S. Marines assigned to China were issued Springfield 1903, bolt action rifles. McCall's lack of understanding of military rank structure also hurts the story. He claims the Marine Lieutenant was a squad leader. Marine Lieutenants were and are platoon leaders not squad leaders.’
It is on this basis that the reviewer gives the book 1-star. This means it will not be recommended to people searching for alternate history and given that sales end once you have a 2-star review, he might as well take the book off sale. As my correspondent highlights, these minor details would be overlooked by most readers anyway. In addition, given that it is alternate history, what is to say that the USA would not have issued different rifles? The US Marines in China were a garrison force not one going to war. In addition, many officers who have gone into combat have ended up taking different roles as a result of local circumstances. A further point is, if the reviewer felt these small issues utterly undermined the book, then s/he could have written to the author. You can amend and republish a book written in English in under 12 hours on Amazon, sometimes far quicker than this.
Of course, the objective of the reviewer is not to alert readers to minor errors or show that the book is no good. Ironically these trolls often laud the good aspects of a book and then make judgements on minor points as if any spelling or grammar mistake or any technical detail which does not fit their memory is enough to damn an entire book. On this basis, Ian Fleming’s James Bond series with their erroneous technical details about guns and geographical locations should not be in print. The same goes for work by Henning Mankel and Philip Kerr. Even Robert Conroy and Harry Turtledove that the reviewer recommends instead, have made such minor ‘mistakes’ in their work. There is no capacity for the author to diverge from what is perceived to be the ‘truth’ despite writing fiction. It goes for genres as a whole too. I had ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’ rated 1-star not for the quality of the book, but simply because the troll-reviewer felt that there was no demand for a 1940s pastiche. He had made a judgement for the entire reading population about what they might like to read and sought to censor a whole genre.
I accept that books may be poorly written and this should be highlighted to readers. However, the utter condemnation of a novel simply because of minor, easily altered aspects or the type of novel it happens to be, is unproductive. It utterly crushes innovation. Authors of the 1960s and 1970s could not have moved on contemporary writing if they had been open to the kind of attacks writers of nowadays face. It seems that there are particular approaches, with nerdy attention to passing details that are the only acceptable books. I guess this is why there are no many novels dealing with Islamist terrorist attacks as these appeal to the mindset of the trolls.
I wondered if there was a way to deal with troll-reviewers. I have no desire to write the kind of books they insist upon and yet do want to get my work out there. Ultimately, I think once I have got my career back on track, assuming that ever happens and I do not slide even further, then I will make my work free once more. For now, however, I welcome the little bits of income and what they can buy for me and the ones I love. ‘The Guardian’ provided some anti-troll guidance: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jun/12/how-to-deal-with-trolls
However, what was suggested to me was that more of us need to become ‘goats’. The term might not be an attractive one, but apparently comes from the fairy tale, ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’ about a trio of goats who trick and then butt off a troll that lives under a bridge they have to cross. You have to have a strong stomach as I guess the trolls will turn on you if you goat. I have seen people who have challenged such reviews patronised as naïve and ignorant. However, you have to believe that you are right and remember that some poor author has spent months, perhaps years, writing a piece of work. While some writers may need to enhance their skills, no-one intentionally puts up a shoddy, rushed book. However, all of this effort can be destroyed by someone bored for ten minutes or less, over their lunch break, who wants to boost their own ego by kicking someone else.
Yes, if the book is bad, then a critical review is fine. However, it needs to be constructive and not simply bury a book because it does not cover some niggly detail or is a different kind of book to what the reviewer wants. I have heard that writers of gay fiction get this all the time. Despite labelling it as ‘gay fiction’ which you can do on Amazon and having covers which suggest the content, they get virulent complaints from male readers who feel they have been ‘tricked into reading this filth’.
Challenge reviewers. It seems easier for people in general to comment on reviews on Amazon than it is for the writer to respond to them. If the book has some minor errors, then it probably deserves a 3- or a 4-star rating, not to be condemned forever on the basis of these. Challenge reviewers who argue that no-one will want that genre. That is not a question of quality, that is a question of consumer choice. If it gets a 1-star, then of course, no-one will go near it. However, a writer can quickly tell which genres do not sell, they need no reviewer to tell them that. Challenge reviewers who make patronising judgements especially on the age, gender or nationality of the writer. A lot of great fiction would not have come about if writers had faced these prejudices so extensively in the past century. There was prejudice, but there is no place for it now. The internet is supposed to be free to speak and express ideas and self-publishing is an element of that now. However, if trolls are free to shut down innovation and a range of authors, we are effectively seeing amateur censorship, intolerable in large parts of the world.
I am going to be using my own goats in an attempt to get back at troll-reviewers. Thus, I would encourage you to get out there goating for other writers, starting with poor Ryan McCall if you can spot no-one else just yet. Be proud, be a goat!