It’s been over a month since Kathleen Hale published an article on The Guardian titled ‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic’. I read this article the day it was published and I remember how shocked I was. I couldn’t understand the lengths a person would go to in order to confront someone. I remember being confused by the things Kathleen Hale was saying and doubting their legitimacy.
But let’s back up.
In order to understand the full story, I highly recommend you read the link posted above. It’s a fascinating (and mildly terrifying) article and I think it’s important to know the whole story and Kathleen Hale’s point of view. However, if you can’t be bothered, I’ll summarize for you.
- Kathleen Hale wrote a YA novel called No One Else Can Have You. It is her first novel and she is understandably extremely protective of it. It’s her baby, and it’s a personal part of her that she released into the wild. I’ve never written a book, but I understand how terrifying it must be.
- Due to her worry about the release of the novel, she starts checking Goodreads for reviews, which usually authors tend to avoid. Around the same time, a 27 year old book blogger, Blythe Harris, reviewed her book and marked it as a DNF (did not finish). Her review succinctly said “Fuck this.” In the comments, Blythe and her Goodreads followers discussed what they found the most offensive about the book. The comments were unfiltered and therefore, quite harsh. Nonetheless, they were all about the problems with the book and didn’t reference Kathleen Hale in any way.
- Kathleen Hale gets a little drunk and goes on Twitter where she makes some mean spirited comments towards book bloggers who are also authors. She gets bombarded with messages from people telling her that reviews are for readers, not authors. She also gets a bunch of one-star reviews from people who label her a Badly Behaving Author (an author who doesn’t handle negative feedback with grace).
- Kathleen Hale begins to research Blythe Harris. She engaged in what she refers to as “light stalking” by stalking all her social media accounts. She begins to doubt the truth behind what Blythe Harris says about herself (finding some contradictions) and starts to whether if Blythe is even real.
- A book club wants to set her up with a blogger to do an interview. Kathleen Hale suggests Blythe Harris, and under the pretense of sending a book to her, gets her address from the book club. She uses this information to do a background check on the person who lives at the address and finds out the woman living there is not Blythe Harris, but a 47 year old woman whom Hale refers to as “Judy Donofrio”. Unlike Blythe who claimed to be an 8th (or 10th) grade teacher, Judy works in insurance.
- Kathleen Hale then proceeds to rent a car and drive to Judy’s house. She looks around the property, looks into the owner’s car, but at her doorstep, she becomes uncomfortable and leaves without confronting the person living there.
- She calls Judy’s place of work under false pretenses and asks her about her connection to Blythe Harris. Judy denies being or knowing Blythe, but Blythe’s Twitter and Instagram accounts are set to private an hour after Hale gets off the phone with Judy.
- Hale then proceeds to confirm that Judy’s address is the same as Blythe’s by contacting a publisher and finds out the publisher has been sending books to the person who lives at the address. These books have been sent as recently as two weeks before the call.
- Hale calls back, tells Judy who she is and asks about Blythe. Judy gets very upset, begins to cry and tells her that the picture of Blythe is her friend Carla. Hale gives Judy her contact information, Judy says she’ll message her on Facebook, and then proceeds to block Hale.
That’s pretty much the whole story minus a few digressions and side characters. Now, giving Kathleen Hale the benefit of the doubt and assuming that Judy was actually Blythe Harris, the most important question here is…”So what?” There’s no rule that says someone has to be truthful with their identity online. Lots of authors use pseudonyms, why not bloggers? Privacy is so hard to come by (as this article hammers home) that it seems unreasonable to believe that people won’t use aliases. I follow Blythe Harris on Goodreads and knowing that her name isn’t Blythe and she’s not a teacher doesn’t change how much weight I give her opinions. Perhaps it changes the way I see her, but it doesn’t change how much I trust the validity of her reviews. The worst thing she did was steal someone’s photo and use it as her own, which is a little morally ambiguous, but not illegal.
The most heinous part of this story is that Hale actually had the audacity to not only do a background check on a person for no real reason other than her curiousity and hurt feelings, but also to drive to that person’s home and attempt to confront them directly. I’m betting that’s exactly the reason why people don’t use their real names online. There is no good reason to do this ever. This is so completely over the line. The line is a dot to Hale.
The writing business is difficult, and if you can’t handle negative reviews without becoming argumentative or a complete stalker, you shouldn’t be writing a book, period. I had an experience with an author where he sent me an advanced copy of his second book because I’d enjoyed the first. I actually really liked his second book as well, but made some negative comments about his portrayal of women since it’s an issue I’m really aware of. Hearing him argue with me and attempt to change my opinion made me feel very awkward. An opinion can rarely be changed and attempting to try is pointless, especially if the person who is doing the attempting is defensive and protective over the book. An author will never change a reviewer’s opinion and attempting to try can make the reviewer uncomfortable and reluctant to read the author’s works again.
So I understand the backlash against Kathleen Hale. I understand why people can’t comprehend her actions. I understand why they’re one-starring her book and warning their friends away from her and everything she represents. I understand why she’s the scandal of 2014.
Then again, I also know how hard it was for her to put a piece of herself into the world and have it be torn down not for the quality of her writing, but for a decision she made (that she probably regrets). I understand how sensitive writers can be and how a negative review can feel personal even when it’s not. I understand how hard it is to keep silent when you feel that people don’t understand what you were trying to convey.
I can see where she’s coming from and I can empathize with her hurt, but I can’t condone her actions. Not at all.
Now here’s where the line gets blurry for me. I try and preach complete objectivity. What this means is that I try extremely hard to separate the book from the author. I try not to be of the camp where people refuse to give authors they dislike, or don’t agree with politically, money by supporting their books in any way, shape, or form. I prefer to treat the book as a separate entity and judge it entirely of its own merits. The book is a black box, and anything outside the box is irrelevant.
For example, I found out that Orson Scott Card is completely homophobic. What this means for me is that I find his politics disgusting and completely backwards and I’ve lost all respect for the man. I have no desire to converse with him or have my books autographed by him. Be that as it may, Ender’s Game is still one of my all-time favourite books. The story and the writing are amazing and I won’t stop recommending it to my friends.
So that’s what I try and follow. I’ve dealt with some difficult authors that I’ve lost all respect for and never plan to converse with again, but I’m still going to read their books if they sound interesting. But these are my personal beliefs. They’re the values I stand by as a reviewer, and I think everyone should be free to make their own decisions about this. I think it’s fine that other reviewers are choosing to one-star Hale’s novel without reading it, that’s their decision to make and those are their values. There is nothing wrong with it.
Personally, I won’t one-star Kathleen Hale’s novel and will eventually read it. I’ll review it as its own entity and I won’t let her actions color my judgement. Kathleen Hale made some mistakes and she most likely needs some psychological help, but that’s her business. My business is reviewing books and I’m just going to keep doing that.