Well, this has been a problem for a while, and it’s in need of a solution. I’m not sure that I have a good one. The problem stems from another very real problem, which is that authors fake reviews and pay for reviews. It’s not just authors, of course. This is a problem in the restaurant and hotel industries, and probably every industry where reviews correlate with income. There are those who fake positive reviews for gain and competitors who fake negative reviews for spite. It has been covered in the New York Times and on hundreds of blogs and other outlets. It’s a real problem with serious consequences and no easy solution.
One of the many problems that stems from this is that innocents are lumped in with perpetrators. The sports world has been dealing with this for a while now, as those who use performance enhancing drugs cast a dark shadow over those who don’t. And when national heroes like Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens are implicated, the assumption becomes that everyone does it. But everyone doesn’t. Except that it’s practically impossible to prove a negative.
You can clock me speeding down the road and give me a ticket, but how can anyone who drives a vehicle prove that they never speed, not ever? This is the classic recipe for a witchhunt. Anyone can accuse, and the only defense is to profess innocence, which is what the guilty and innocent do in equal measure. I find that it’s quite fitting that I’m sitting here in Boston, just a stone’s throw from Salem, thinking about these things.
A fellow writer has spent the last month being hounded by an anonymous accuser. This person is claiming that she pays for reviews. There is no evidence, but of course, the author can’t prove the negative. Compounding this injustice is the fact that the accused author has dedicated much of her time and energy into fighting for the rights of other authors. I can’t go into detail without outing her, and the details aren’t important.
During this month-long vendetta, hundreds of other authors have been accused as well. These lists of names are being used in an attempt to buttress the vapid case against her, and I know several of the other authors on this list quite well. I’ve received emails from several of them and others on the list, and by their shock and indignation (and association with them, both in person and online), I don’t doubt their innocence. Why? Because it is very easy to know how innocent people get tangled up in this when you are one of them. These days, bestselling authors with a ton of reviews are presumed guilty until proven guilty. Ask any major-leaguer who leads the league in home runs what they go through as the season progresses. This is the new and ugly norm.
Along with an inability to prove innocence, there are many ways to appear guilty. If you publicly appreciate reviews, as I have, you’ll get a lot of first-time reviewers, which is supposedly an indication of guilt. And if you are a bestseller, you’ll get a lot of tack-on reviews that are designed to make the professional (hired for pay) reviewer look legit, which means the stain is now equally on you. In fact, if someone wanted to “prove” you engaged in this behavior, it would only cost them $50 to buy 10 reviews for your books. It’s easier than leaving a syringe in your locker.
People whom I admire are wondering what they can do about this. I understand their frustration. It’s hard to know what you can do, other than turn to loved ones for support. I used to protest these accusations on Facebook, where I felt that I was safe with friends, only to have people claim that I was trying to raise a posse. I’ve responded to accusatory reviews by politely saying that I would never engage in such behavior, only to be told that it’s rude of me to respond to this libel. I’ve since learned that the people who point and scream “witch” are given much support by those who tamp down any attempt at claiming innocence. The rules are simple: Anyone can cast aspersions on your character, and you’re not allowed to defend yourself. You are tied to the stake and expected to enjoy the burn.
The most common advice given is silence, to just ignore it, and I have mostly heeded this advice. I have chickened out. It has left me feeling like I did in middle school, where I was regularly bullied. I remember pretending to be sick so I didn’t have to go to school and deal with a kid who once pointed a gun at my brother, pulled the trigger, and laughed when it clicked. A kid who pushed us into thorny bushes (why the hell do they plant those at schools?) and who roughed us up when anyone wasn’t looking. I really did feel sick most mornings. My stomach would twist up in knots, and I lived in constant terror that I’d be targeted on a whim. I was also afraid to stick up for anyone, because I didn’t want to be targeted. We all felt this way.
This is very much what it feels like to have a public presence that can be torn down at any time, this feeling of vulnerability and fear. The people who do the accusing have nothing to lose. Some seem to take sport in it. Some, I’m sure, feel that they are doing the world a favor, and that it’s okay if a few innocents are lumped in with the perpetrators. This is the dark slice of what is otherwise an amazing ability to connect with readers, 99% of whom are positive, supportive, and wonderful. But it’s that other 1% that you live in terror of. And you know that if you say anything, if you stick up for a friend, that you’re next.
In a forum thread yesterday, anyone who spoke up about a similar issue promptly received a spate of 1-star reviews from one of these accusers. Over a hundred books in an hour were hit, including all of mine. I personally don’t care, as I am lucky to have tremendous support and an incredible number of unassailable reviews from readers, bloggers, and major media outlets. But I am watching friends get attacked. And they have much more to lose than I do. And I think I’ve been a chickenshit for quite long enough. I’m more than a little upset at myself for being such a coward for so long.
I don’t know if this is the best solution, because there isn’t really a good one, and there are elements of this solution that make me feel really hurt inside. It requires me bringing my previous dog into this, Jolie, whom I loved more than life itself, and whom I can’t think about without crying. (Yeah, I’m one of those weird dog owners. I accept that.) I really hate dragging her into an ugly debate, but the same reason I hate this is the same reason she’s needed. It’s because no one who knows me can doubt how I feel about her. Linking this surety to an unknown, to an unknowable, to an accusation, is the best solution I can think of. (It helps that Jolie never knew what in the world I was mumbling to her all those years; she just knew that I loved her and that she loved me. Which was enough.)
What we need are declarations that are unassailable. Perhaps these don’t exist, so they have to get as close as possible. And these declarations are not meant for those who don’t know us but for the ones who do. Because it’s the baseball player who worries what his mom thinks—this is the baseball player who tosses and turns at night. “Mom, I’m innocent” might not be enough. He wants her to really know. He wants his teammates to know. His loved ones. His true fans.
That’s who this is for. Because plenty of other people with blackness in their hearts will assume guilt until guilt is proven. What they choose to believe, however, says plenty about them while leaving the facts unchanged. This is an important truth to grasp. Knowing yourself is the most important thing. Watching others pick and choose how they know you—this tells you all you need to know about them. I felt liberated when I realized this. I began to see others for how great and not-so-great they are. (The next step is to learn not to judge them when they do not-so-great things.)
Without further ado, what follows and concludes this post is my Declaration of Integrity. It’s for my mom and for the people who matter the most to me. For my wife and my sister and my colleagues and the readers who appreciate my work and have written so many amazing emails, comments, and reviews. I thank you. Perhaps this is something other authors will find useful to do for themselves, but I also urge those who want to stay quiet to stay quiet. This is a risky thing, inviting attack and attention. You have my sympathy and support, however you handle this. Everyone will seek out their own solution. But I’ve waited far too long to say this:
I, Hugh Howey, have never paid for a book review in my life. I swear this on my life and on the life of my beloved dog and faithful companion of ten years, Jolie. May she rest in peace. And may the accusers and accused alike find peace in their hearts as well.