Books

Author Lauren Hough’s Rescinded Award Nomination Is a Reminder That Online Literary Drama Leads Nowhere Good

Writers: Step away from Twitter, and don’t even think about tangling with Goodreads.

Black and white photo of a woman with short hair smiling broadly next to a wooden post
Lauren Hough. Karl Poss

As the New York Times reported Tuesday, Lauren Hough, author of the acclaimed essay collection Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, was un-nominated for a Lambda Literary Prize for coming to the defense of a writer friend on Twitter. After being told a month ago that her book was a nominee for best lesbian memoir, Hough was recently informed that Lambda Literary, an organization that, according to its website, “nurtures and advocates for LGBTQ writers,” had withdrawn her book from the finalist list for the prize.

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The reason? Online drama. Hough’s friend, writer Sandra Newman, was embroiled in a social media pile-on when she tweeted an announcement about her forthcoming novel, The Men, briefly describing it as a dystopian yarn set in a world in which “everyone with a Y chromosome suddenly, mysteriously disappears.” This scenario prompted complaints that the novel was transphobic, although very few of the complainants appear to have read the book. (Here’s a brief Twitter thread about The Men by Slate contributor Isaac Butler, who has read it.) Hough—who wrote in her Substack that Newman had supported and counseled her as she sought to publish Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, her first book—maintains that she took to Twitter to tell Newman’s critics “to read the book before condemning it.” Lambda Literary says that unspecified tweets from Hough “exhibited what we believed to be a troubling hostility toward transgender critics and trans-allies.” The exact content of these tweets is unclear as, according to the New York Times, some of them may have been deleted.

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It’s upsetting that people persist in condemning the content of books they haven’t read, and even more concerning that an organization would blackball a worthy book from prize consideration because its author has been deemed guilty by association. Yet coverage of this affair has prompted ominous yet vague comments that reporters are not conveying the whole story. Sure enough, this is not Hough’s first time at the Twitter-beef rodeo. Last year, in tweets since deleted, she denounced “assholes” who, when mulling over whether to give her book a four- or five-star review, opted for four stars. To my complete lack of surprise, the site where these slightly-less-than-glowing reviews appeared—in a sense, the wellspring of Hough’s contentious relationship with online critics—was Goodreads.

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A word of advice to all authors: Stay away from Goodreads. Ostensibly, Goodreads, owned by Amazon, is a place where authors can interact with their readers, but from its earliest days, those interactions have proven fraught and inflammatory. It’s almost never a good idea for authors to respond to any reviews of their books, but when the reviewers consider themselves to be small fry just trying to share their thoughts with their online friends, the result can be even more volatile than a testy letter to the Times. Hough’s complaints about Goodreads reviews came across as a high-profile author bullying a handful of ordinary readers in a public forum, and the dispute escalated from there, making Hough the main character in one sector of Twitter for the better part of a week—a prelude to this larger dust-up, and one that was totally avoidable. In grand Goodreads tradition, people who’d never read Hough’s book but objected to her treatment of the reviewers began to leave one-star reviews on the Goodreads page for Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, dragging down the (otherwise well-received) book’s average rating to three stars.

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This might seem trivial, but getting into ill-considered disputes with Goodreads reviewers can result in big trouble—in part because authors always seem to misjudge the gulf between how they view themselves (plucky, underdog artist) and how Goodreads users view them (powerful author come to bigfoot them). And so authors battling Goodreads users can go right over the edge. In 2014, author Kathleen Hale became so obsessed with a person who’d panned her book on Goodreads that she hunted down the reviewer’s address, went to her house and knocked on her door. Other authors have resorted to doxxing reviewers who displeased them or telephoning their employers to suggest that they be fired.

Last year, the British educator Kate Clanchy took umbrage with some Goodreads reviews of her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. These reviews complained that language Clanchy used to describe some of her former students was outdated and racist. Clanchy falsely complained that the Goodreads reviews used “all made up” quotations from her book. Debate raged in the U.K. press about exactly how offensive Clanchy’s book was (many of her former students rose to her defense), but she apologized, agreed to revise the book, and then finally “parted ways” with her publisher, apparently over an inability to incorporate the input of multiple sensitivity readers into the revision. Before Clanchy got into it with Goodreads reviewers, she had an Orwell Prize–winning memoir of her life’s work on the U.K. bestseller lists. Now she’s writing about being canceled on Unherd.

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Goodreads reviewers seem to never forget or forgive the authors who challenge them. (Check out the Goodreads reviews for the book Hale wrote five years after her expedition to confront her reviewer, Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker.) But besides earning their undying enmity, authors who get into it with Goodreads reviewers tend to turn into the worst versions of themselves, reshaped in the reviewers’ combative, defensive mold, trailing outrage and deleted tweets saying god-knows-what in their wake. I don’t know what Hough’s online life was like before her own contretemps with Goodreads, but it’s gone nowhere good since.

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The drama and defensiveness that now seem the dominant mode on literary Twitter was, in fact, born on Goodreads. After all, Goodreads itself doesn’t offer many avenues for either side to vent its spleen, while Twitter provides an outrage-friendly platform to let it all hang out. Whatever it was that Hough posted in defense of her friend, Lambda Literary felt she was using her platform “to harmfully engage with readers and critics.” Writers, heed my warning: Resist the urge to harmfully engage with readers and critics! Even though your books are your babies and you can’t bear to stand by while they’re maligned by know-nothings and philistines, keep your protestations to your own inner circle. And stay off of Goodreads. That way lies disaster.

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