On Freaking out

by Adam Reger

This link has gotten around a bit, of British author Jacqueline Howett freaking out on a book review blogger, Big Al, in the comments section. Howett takes exception to the typographical and grammatical errors that Big Al notes in his review, insisting that he downloaded the wrong version of her book. She quickly loses her cool from there, going on to call the blog “Big ALs snake pit and rat hole” (sic) and tangling with the post’s anonymous commenters before signing off with a few genteel posts that say, simply, “F** off.”

I have no desire to pile on or say much about this specific case—really, it’s pretty cut-and-dried, as you’ll see if you read through the comments yourself. (As many commenters note, the irony is that it’s not really a negative review.)

What I’m interested in is how easily this author freaked out, and how the internet facilitated her freak-out becoming a very public thing very quickly. (See here for Big Al’s rundown of just how widely his review of Howett’s The Greek Seamen has been linked to.) Like a lot of things that go viral on the internet, the subtext of people’s enjoyment over Howett’s meltdown includes a heavy dose of “Thank God that wasn’t me.” (The rest is a vigorous sense of outrage. Other recent, writerly classics of this genre include the editor who reprinted a freelancer’s work without pay, then suggested that the writer should pay her and the Columbia University professor who wrote a condescending letter to her former students telling them how great Columbia is.)

For me, and I’d suspect for many writers who are on the internet, the sense that that could be me is strong. While I don’t think I’d freak out to that extent, the internet makes instant, extreme flip-outs alarmingly convenient. Within the last few days, in fact, a friend and I both used Twitter to express frustration over poor treatment, from an educational institution and a literary magazine, respectively. (I’m being extra vague on purpose here.) And we both deleted those tweets within about an hour, coming to our senses and recognizing the possibility, however small it might have been, that someone with hiring and/or publishing powers might eventually see it.

In a sense, it’s something of a luxury to be a mostly unknown writer still, to have few Twitter followers and zero who would do anything like take a screenshot of, or otherwise archive, an ill-advised tweet. (My tweets may not even have been read by more than one or two people in the time that they were up.) Howett could have done what my friend and I did, though she quickly passed the point of no return. While in one sense I feel bad for her—as a few commenters note, this flip-out doesn’t bode well for future readers paying for her books; one suggests she’s going to need a pseudonym—in another it’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone who doesn’t get the basic ground rules of the internet at this point. Especially someone using it to self-publish: the internet is your printing press, your book distributor; why fail to understand that it can also function as a vicious tabloid? (Especially if, like Howett, you live in England, home to many aggressive tabloids.)

As much as we like to view the internet as something entirely new, its novelty is in its combination of many different media, a super-communicator. Best not to say anything here that you wouldn’t say into a reporter’s microphone. The difference, of course, and the challenge, is that we have constant access to this forum, whereas the reporter’s microphone is rarely stuck into our faces.