Sally Fellows, RIP

How is the death of a passionate reader from Omaha, Nebraska connected to the fake review scandal? Read on.

My life as a published writer and the mass use of the Internet dovetail in an interesting way. (Well, it’s interesting to me.) I bought my first computer, a Mac Classic 2, in 1993, and wrote my first book on it. Sometime in 1994, maybe 1995, I bought an external modem and connected to the “Internet” via a free CompuServ program. Yes, I am approximately 9,000 years old. There, I discovered a board of crime writers, some published, most yearning. Some of them, as I would come to learn, were very accomplished people – Val McDermid, Kate Charles. Others were wannabes. I was a wannabe verging on be: an agent accepted my work in June 1995 and I was signed to a publishing deal in the fall of that year. I read about this mysterious gathering called “Bouchercon,” in which writers and fans gathered.

In 1996, I went to my first Bouchercon as a truly pre-published writer. I will come back to this. Just trust me for now, it matters to this story.

And in 1997, my first book was published. Because it had taken a while for me to land an agent, then a deal, my second book was essentially done by the time I sold my first book, which meant it could be published in 1997 as well. I joined the Dorothy L listserv. At some point, possibly 1998, maybe earlier, I began checking my ratings on Amazon.

Amazon’s decision to allow readers to post negative reviews baffled me. This was, to repeat, early in the days of the Internet. There was no Yelp. There was no real culture of consumer reviews. This was so long ago that there was no Google. (Altavista, anyone?) It was a time when genteel independent bookstores might put a card, a so-called shelf talker, under a book and anoint it a “staff favorite.” And, yes, maybe some stores or chains sold that service; I can’t speak to that. But one did not walk into a bookstore and find a card proclaiming that the book above it was a steaming load of crap. Allowing customers to bash the wares in one’s shop seemed an odd way to run a business. Amazon explained that it was more interested in the community than it was in the people who wrote the books they sold. Fair enough.

At some point – I believe it was 1998, possibly 1999 – Amazon had a glitch. Not the later glitch, that was reported in several newspapers, but a fleeting precursor to that one. In one 24-hour period, something failed, and e-mail addresses – identities, in a sense – were revealed. Because I had a new book out and I was obsessively checking my rankings, I found out that two particularly negative reviews of my second book were written by people I knew, people from the DorothyL listserv. People with whom I had utterly benign online relationships – or so I imagined. One was Russ Parsons from the Los Angeles Times. IIRC, Parsons used his experience at that newspaper to proclaim that the scenario I had described in Charm City could never happen at any newspaper. (Russ, if you’re reading this – the details of my books were accurate, as they pertained to the Baltimore Sun. Also, I thought it was really, really amusing when you reached out to me later to ask for intelligence about your new editor, John Carroll. I wanted to say: “You slagged me on Amazon! Anonymously! Why should I help you?” But I suck at confrontation, so I just got off the phone as quickly as possible. Ah well, John Carroll has come and gone.)

The other guy, whose name I don’t remember — and I would use it here, if I did, because this is all about owning our own names, owning our own shit — was a wannabe writer. To my knowledge, he never made it to “be,” although it’s possible he self-published or found a home with a traditional publisher.

The reviews bugged me at the time, largely because of the hypocrisy, the classic O’Jayness of it all: They smile in your face, etc. And in the interest of full transparency, I’ll admit that I asked friends to post positive reviews if they liked my book. I wanted to make it so that the negative reviews weren’t at the top of the list. This was before Amazon started breaking out the sampler of low and high reviews, or using the “readers found this useful” gauge. But, to be clear, I asked only that friends post their authentic responses and I never tried to game the star system. That was thirteen or fourteen years ago and the only time I ever made such a request.

And, by the way, if you think I’m just chafed because they wrote bad reviews — no, it’s the hypocrisy. David Ulin and Elizabeth Hand have both written less-than-glowing reviews of my work and I have nothing but respect for them. I’m also okay with Maureen Corrigan, although it has to be said: Her review of The Most Dangerous Thing did raise the question of whether she made it to the last line of the book. (Digression: I assume she did and it’s her syntax that’s the problem. But it’s a question I get asked a lot because if someone read the last line of the book, then one does know what the most dangerous thing is, according to the book at least. If one finds that statement unconvincing, but is trying to avoid a spoiler — then it’s possible to write that one doesn’t know what it is by book’s end. But everyone cited above is a professional, whose critiques appeared under their bylines.) (Another digression: Do you know how hard it is to be panned by a writer as good as Elizabeth Hand? It’s really hard. But if I met her, I’d actually be rather excited.)

Google arrived. I used it. I abused it, searching for myself until I was sick of myself. I stopped. I won’t go so far as to say that I don’t read my own reviews, but I never do generic Google searches about myself. Can’t date that precisely, but it was clearly beginning to start around this time.

We jump ahead to 2012. I am a writer with 19 published books, a perennial bestseller in the U.S. (at the low end of the charts, but still on the charts) and, I think, maybe another country here or there. I am published in 20 languages. I have the great good fortune to be a fulltime writer, making a very nice living and writing exactly what I wish to write. Sometimes I get really nice reviews. Sometimes I don’t. The book I published this year is probably the best-reviewed book of my career. I am on Facebook, but not on Twitter. Just a personal choice. I engage with readers as much as possible, but I don’t respond to anonymous e-mail. I still don’t Google myself.  I eventually read all my reviews. Eventually.

This past July, I was one of maybe 300 people who attended the E-Publishing panel at Harrogate. Since then, it seems as if thousands of people were in that room at the Swan Hotel, but there were really only 300 or so. And the fact is, the issue of “sock puppetry” zipped by most of us, although Steve Mosby deserves credit for putting that term into play when Stephen Leather described his use of false accounts to praise his own work.

Jeremy Duns, whom I do not know despite “friending” him on Facebook, has done estimable work in the past year, tracking down all sorts of literary frauds and abuses. He jumped on the Leather story. This past week, he broke the story about RJ Ellory. Duns is a new kind of journalist, working freelance, publishing his findings on Twitter. But, best I can tell, he has the same ethical make-up as most trained journalists. There has been some back-and-forth about his decision to record a conversation with one figure in the Leather story; I can’t speak to that as an issue of law, because I don’t know UK law. Personally, I’m a little on the fence about that, but nothing else in Duns’s work has prompted anything but admiration from me.

Now, a digression about cheating. If you write a fake review, extolling your own virtues, it still doesn’t make the words true. If you plagiarize – not an issue here, but one I’m passionate about – you may cash a check, but everything else connected to your experience as a writer is fraudulent. Reviews, praise, attention – it belongs to someone else. It is one of the most illogical things that a writer can do and I believe it almost always signals some kind of internal turmoil. Or straight-up sociopathy. I understand the yearning to have one’s work called “a modern masterpiece”, as Ellory wrote of Ellory. I also understand that when the praise comes, it never feels the way you think it will, that there is no prize, no paycheck, no ranking on the bestseller list that will make you feel transformed in a significant way. The pleasures of these things are sweet, but as thin and non-nutritive as cotton candy. In my household, we are big fans of Cool Runnings, the film about the Jamaican bobsled team and John Candy’s speech is corny but true: If you’re not enough without the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it. You definitely won’t derive any pleasure from spray-painting a disc and calling it a gold medal, or trying to tarnish your teammate’s very real gold medal, or claiming to have run a marathon in under three hours when it was really closer to four. Whoops. Sorry for that digression into American politics.

The day I was nattering about Ellory on Facebook, I learned – via Facebook, in fact – that my friend Sally Fellows had died. Sally was a prolific and accomplished fan/reviewer. She wrote for what most people call fanzines – I don’t like the term “fan,” so I don’t care for “fanzine” — and posted her reviews to the listserv DorothyL as well. She was a generous yet tough critic, very much in keeping with the high school history teacher she once was. She didn’t want to quash anyone’s dreams, but she also didn’t want to over praise. She was a tough, self-sufficient woman. She also loved a good glass of red wine. Or two. Long before I knew her, I yearned for her approval on the DorothyL listserv, which I joined in 1997.

It turned out I did know her. I met Sally at my first Bouchercon in 1996. (I told you I would come back to it.) I was so full of myself, so amazed at my own ability to string 100,000 words together and get them published. Years later, as we became friends, Sally loved to tease me about the self-important puppy that I was, all but rolling on the floor. “I wrote a book! I’m an author!” I didn’t yet understand how vital readers were to crime fiction, how Bouchercon was their convention and we (the writers) showed up out of fealty to them.

Six years after that meeting, I sent Sally the first chapter of my first non-series book, to see if I was headed in the right direction. I wanted to be able to tell my publisher that I knew a schoolteacher in Omaha who didn’t find it too dark. I knew, of course, that was disingenuous on my part, that the description did not even hint at the totality of Sally Fellows. Sally loved what she read and encouraged me to write the book, which became Every Secret Thing. In 2007, my twelfth book, What the Dead Know, was dedicated to Sally and another longtime reader, Doris Ann Norris. It would prove to be my breakout, critically and commercially.

Sally is the kind of reader/reviewer that Amazon’s utopian model of community imagined. A passionate reader who would take time to share her thoughtful opinions on books. She was never casual about her reviews. She didn’t let personal biases creep into them. (And as someone who attended crime-writer conventions, she knew that some of her favorite books weren’t always written by her favorite people, and that some people she quite liked didn’t write books to her personal taste.)

Plus – she signed her name to her opinions, wherever they were published. Let’s not lose sight of that. I don’t think Sally trafficked in Amazon much, but she did post her reviews in the DorothyL digest and shared her opinions via e-mail and a private digest to which we belonged.

When I first read about Ellory’s actions, I said I couldn’t imagine a remedy. But Jeremy Duns – again – has suggested that online retailers require verified accounts, or ask that people link their reviews to Facebook/Twitter accounts. I think that would be a good start. I know some readers worry about putting a name to negative reviews, lest rabid fans come after them. And these worries are not groundless. But while there are very good reasons to use the cloak of anonymity, a bad review is not among them. If you can’t stand behind your opinion, don’t post it. The disappearance of anonymous reviews would, I think, actually change the tone, move it to something more civilized. I wondered just last week why people on Facebook tended to be so much more positive and kind. To paraphrase several respondents: Because they’re supposed to be friends – duh.

But I’d be fine with readers sharing criticism via Facebook, especially on the author page. (Don’t want to crowd out the kale and shoe porn on the personal wall.) I have learned things from bad reviews. I’ve gotten pissed off, too, at comments I think are unfair or missing the point. But it’s a privilege to be reviewed, especially by someone who’s not drawing a paycheck. Just use your name.

Any writer – or reader, for that matter – who writes reviews under a fake name is a disgrace to the memory of Sally Fellows and to all the heartfelt readers who take time to write real reviews under real names. Is this a big deal out of the tiny world of writing? No. But precisely because crime fiction is a small world that has prided itself on its collegiality, this matters. Sign your name. I did.

 

 

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