Giovanna Pompele is, in addition to being an adjunct professor in Miami, an avid reader who spends time on literary Twitter. It was there that she once committed the ultimate literary-Twitter faux pas: “I tagged [an author] on Twitter on a four-star review in which I explained why I docked the star,” she told me in an email. “I have regretted that ever since.”
If you didn’t know, now you do: “Don’t tag authors in reviews that criticize them” is the latest addition to the largely unwritten rules of Twitter etiquette, and it’s one for which authors have started banging the drum. Most recently, it came in the form of a plea from novelist Rebecca Makkai:
Makkai, author of last year’s The Great Believers, was echoing a complaint that such literary lights as Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado have also voiced:
But do authors really face an epidemic of tweeted criticism? Shouldn’t they be able to handle a few negative comments? What is going on here? And, as an online writer who sometimes gets rude tweets directed my way, can I get in on it?
Makkai told me it’s like this: It’s one thing to be panned in the New York Times; that, authors can make the choice to read or ignore. But no one prepared them to be going through their normally staid mentions on Instagram or Twitter—because after all, most are not famous-famous—and then suddenly be confronted with a reader talking about how “meh” their book was. (Bad reviews are also common on Goodreads, but authors are warned to stay far away from Goodreads in a way they don’t expect to have to stay away from other platforms.) Are people just confused about when to employ the @ sign, or are these @s malicious? Authors aren’t sure, but they say this is a persistent annoyance.
Makkai has certainly been there. “Someone basically posted a picture of a stack of books on Instagram and, in labeling all the stuff, @-ed all the authors, but then went on to say which books they didn’t like. In the conversation that ensued in the comments, the original poster is actively talking people out of buying a couple of the books.” And what author wants to see that?!
She elaborated on the awkwardness: “You have invited this author to witness this conversation. This author cannot break the bounds of decorum and participate in it, so we’re supposed to pretend we can’t see it, basically.”
Machado, who wrote the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, described the feeling in analog terms. “In the olden days before tweets,” she told me, “it would be like ripping out a bad review that you had written in the newspaper and then mailing it to the home of the author and then being like, ‘Why are you so mad? I just wrote a review and wanted you to know about it.’ ” She said she has lately decreased her exposure to flyby negative mentions by tweaking her notification settings and turning on Twitter’s quality filter, which tends to exclude random mentions from people you don’t know.
When Makkai’s tweet from earlier this month went around, she earned her share of retweets—including one from actress-author Amber Tamblyn that helped the message spread—but also encountered, naturally, some pushback. One response read, “Venture into public arena & public has the right to judge if work has merit or not.” Another: “[T]he power of social media is that it gives everyone a platform to share their views with the world. … But the literati only want to participate if the feedback is positive. Cake…have…eat…No?” In short, if they want the good Instagramming-their-books-on-the-beach tags, don’t authors have to accept some of the negative too? Why should everyone else be responsible for protecting authors’ feelings?
But Makkai stressed that she’s fine with negative opinions about her work. All she and other authors are asking is that readers not tag them when they express those opinions. “No, no, no—I don’t think you understand how the @ sign works,” she said of this kind of criticism. “You are tapping me on the shoulder electronically to then talk about me as if I weren’t there.”
Pompele, the reader who regrets that four-star review, said Makkai’s thread “really clarified something for me that I was doing instinctively.” Now, she said, “I wouldn’t tag anyone with a negative comment unless they were unbelievably outrageous and offensive.” (Well, except maybe Murakami, whom she thinks can take it, Pompele said.) Still, she added that she understands some of what might motivate readers to bad-tag: “I think some people believe they are doing genuine literary criticism and that it is important for authors to get honest feedback, that they’ll appreciate it. I think it comes from a place of disconnect with the author as a human being and a visceral relation to the work. Some readers take their reading very seriously and invest a lot of time and thought in it. I think they relate to authors as peers, even to the point of thinking that their negative comment will help authors.”
As with, well, kind of everything these days, the real blame may lie with our economic system—particularly the way we buy books. “There is some element of it that I feel like is a spillover of capitalism in the way that people will go on Amazon and review something they bought,” Machado said. But “it’s not like a toaster you bought that’s faulty and you need to contact the supplier to let them know the toaster doesn’t work. That’s not what a book is.
“It’s like, ‘I am dissatisfied with this product that I purchased and I need to tell someone,’ ” she went on. “You can put a review on this page or you can email the manufacturer, and they’re like, ‘Right, the author, that’s the person who made this faulty thing that I dislike.’ I’m not saying people are literally having these thoughts, but I think this is the impulse.”
This all speaks to me. When I write posts for Slate, I half-expect Twitter randos to pop up in my mentions telling me what an idiot I am. It goes with the job. And yet I agree with Makkai and Machado that books are a different animal. If articles are snapshots of a moment in time, books are more permanent, and novels fit more firmly in the category of “art” than journalism. I’ve always had a comment thread below everything I’ve written, and in Machado’s metaphor, my work definitely lands between toaster and novel on the toaster-art continuum. Whereas an opinion expressed in an article may evolve, an author is never going to rewrite her novel’s second half because one reader found it slow and said so on Twitter.
And if a reader truly has a bone to pick with an author, Makkai said, she suggests sending an email. “I think so many of these people would never do that because they feel like that would be stepping over a line,” she said. But when you tag an author with not-nice comments, she said, “you’re stepping over the same line.”