Lauren Hough, Pumpkin Farming, and Literary Citizenship
By Brian Asman
On April 12th, 2021, Lauren Hough’s debut, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, was getting solid advance buzz and some very kind blurbs from the likes of Roxane Gay. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “moving account of resilience.” Hough, an Air Force vet and former cult member, seemed poised for success.
Then, as all too often happens, she put her foot in her mouth.
Hectoring reviewers over any review, let alone a positive one, is a serious breach of author etiquette. Reviewers do not owe authors fawning praise. Reviewers owe authors one thing, and one thing only: their honest opinion.
More on that in a moment.
Hough, for her part, decided not to take the high road by recognizing her mistake and walking back the offending tweet. Instead, she doubled down, by claiming she was high and dropping more bon mots like “eat shit” while insinuating she was bravely standing up for authors everywhere. I won’t recount everything she’s said, some of which is much worse than what’s been recounted here, but one can only imagine some poor, frazzled publicist in the basement of Vintage urgently screaming into a phone for her to log the fuck off like Tom Atkins at the end of Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
That doubling-down decision did not go well for her.
Prior to her tweet, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing had something like a 4/5 rating on GoodReads. That is very, very good—Moby Dick has a 3.51, for comparison. At the time of this writing, Hough’s book has a 1.61 average, largely due to a barrage of one-star reviews—858, to be exact—that were almost all posted post-tweet. Many of those reviews explicitly state the poster hasn’t read the book or contain ad hominem attacks against the author (who admittedly started it, but come on, grade school was a long time ago).
Hough’s initial mindset is difficult to understand. Four-stars is quite favorable, and for indie writers who have to beg, borrow and steal to score double-digit review numbers, even poor-to-middling takes are appreciated—at least someone cared enough to say something, right?
What’s easier is understanding the community’s response. Don’t like your four stars? Well, suck on this! It’s instant karma, schadenfreude, whatever. Hough very clearly violated the mores of the literary world, and paid the price in real time. End of story.
Well, not exactly.
I’m not interested in psychoanalyzing Hough from afar. I think it’s fair to say she used her position as a buzzy debut author and blue-checked Twitterer with 60,000 followers to beat up on some random GoodReads users. That is, in anyone’s estimation, not fucking cool. To be more precise, she acted like a bad literary citizen, and the literary community reacted in turn.
By acting as bad literary citizens.
And now we come to the much larger question—what should we as a community do, and I’m talking about the broader literary community (although anyone who’s been hanging around the bizarro scene for any length of time is probably thinking of any of a half-dozen different controversies as we speak), when someone violates social norms? What’s the appropriate response to behavior which is mean, or offensive, or unethical, but stops short of actually harming anyone?
And what do we do when we’re caught in a feedback loop?
There is a man.
Spend enough time haunting the comments sections of GoodReads reviews, and sooner or later you’ll come across him. He appears without warning, delivers the same ominous message, and then disappears forever, possibly because his latest sock puppet account has been banned for indiscriminate spamming. Some reviewers even consider an encounter with him to be a mark of pride, a sign they’ve “made it.”
I’m talking, of course, about the author of Pumpkin Farmer, Michael Hughes.
Ah, here he is now:
No writer is a stranger to the grind, and every single one of us, at some stage in our career, has had to work our asses off to get someone, anyone, to take a chance on our work. Self-promotion is arguably harder for some than actually writing. But there’s a time and a place for everything. Popping up the comments section of a book about erotic gardening with a link to your thriller is probably not going to win you any fans.
Quite the opposite, in fact:
Over the years, 2015’s Pumpkin Farmer has garnered a whopping 215 one-star reviews, many from folks who, once again, explicitly state they haven’t read the book (FWIW, there are a few genuine negative reviews in the mix, along with a number of positive ones that do not seem as though they’ve been written by robots). Hughes has developed a reputation as a pest, and the question of whether or not his book has any literary merit has now been lost in all the noise.
Like Hough, Hughes violated the unwritten rules of the book review world, and paid the price (albeit on something of a smaller scale). Also like Hough, he’s not the most sympathetic figure—the review-bombing of Pumpkin Farmer has been going on for several years, but still he continues to utilize the same spammy marketing methods (a number of reviews I saw contained some variation of “the author badgered me into buying his book,” so on some level this approach is working).
Still, should only sympathetic figures receive fair and honest treatment? Once again, we find ourselves wondering how to disentangle art from artist. In this one narrow circumstance, however, I think we can dispense with most of the philosophizing. Book reviews in general, and GoodReads book reviews in particular, are reviews of books, not of authors.
It’s right there in the name.
What are the ethics of a book review?
The question partly turns on who’s doing the reviewing. There is a distinction between the ethical questions a professional book reviewer might consider and those of a layperson logging onto Amazon or GoodReads, but one principle should be front and center regardless.
Are you putting an honest opinion out into the world? Have you actually read the book, or are you simply dogpiling an author who did or said something you didn’t like? This is not to say one shouldn’t review books they didn’t finish (as a layperson), but rather if you didn’t finish a book, the honest thing to do is to state that in your review.
Review-bombing is a fundamentally dishonest practice because it’s not about the art, it’s about the artist. This is distinct from a genuine negative review, which engages with the content of the work on some level. It can even be informed by the reviewer’s perception of the author, especially when it comes to memoir (if Harvey Weinstein were to publish a book, I don’t think anyone would be able to review it on literary merit or lack thereof alone, and for good reason). A genuine negative review can have several purposes—one might want to warn potential readers away from a work rife with paper-thin characters, or to vent about a particularly frustrating reading experience. That’s all okay, because it comes from a place of honesty. You, dear reader, are allowed to feel any way you want about any book in the universe.
Review-bombs are different in both content and intent than a genuine negative review. They usually make little-to-no effort to disguise the fact they’re unfamiliar with the text, are dripping with vitriol, and are often quite short (as in the examples above—one person even just wrote “TIMBER”). They’re also intended to punish the creator, rather than communicate anything about the work. Review-bombs can be naturally-occurring or coordinated (see the campaigns against The Last Jedi or various video games on Steam), but the end result is the same. The creator suffers, yes, but someone else does too.
Anyone who wrote a legitimate review.
That’s right, your own carefully considered opinions are now being drowned out by a chorus of negativity for negativity’s sake. Those who read the book and gave a one-star review should be especially pissed off—after all, you did the work, and now your review’s being lumped in with a bunch of knee-jerk reactions.
But hey, we really showed her, right?
In Hough’s case, her intentions—as much as we can parse them from the fragments of her persona exposed to the public via Twitter—seem rooted in entitlement, powered by the odd belief that anyone who doesn’t think her a genius is being disingenuous. How ironic, then, that her complaints about allegedly insincere reviews netted her hundreds of actually insincere reviews?
The intentions of all those one-star reviewers are arguably more honorable than Hough’s—many of them surely see themselves as fighting back against a bully (while others were probably just drawn to the blood in the water). But there’s a difference between standing up to a bully, possibly through tweeting one’s disagreement, and becoming a bully yourself. It’s like the brilliant South Park episode “Butterballs,” which sees supposed anti-bullying guru Bucky Bailey harangue and berate everyone he meets into doing his bidding, culminating in Stan Marsh singing this little ditty:
The irony is self-explanatory.
I’m not interested in adjudicating which of these things is worse. It’s entirely possible to say that Hough’s initial tweet—and continued combative antics—was completely out of line, or that Hughes’ excessive spamarketing cannot go unaddressed, and review-bombing should also not be tolerated.
To be clear: in either case something needed to happen, if only because any onlooking authors might be inclined to emulate Hough or Hughes’ behavior, which could have negative consequences for us all. A reviewer might be less inclined to give their opinion, if they’re worried about being targeted by creators with abuse (or spam). And with art, it really is a case of the more opinions, the better. Experiencing art first-hand is great, but re-experiencing it through the lens of fellow fans and critics is an incredibly enriching experience, one we don’t want to lose.
At the same time, we need to remember that not everyone navigates social norms easily or successfully, and a little grace goes a long way.
Being a Good Literary Citizen isn’t the hardest thing. Everyone’s got a different definition, but for me it boils down to three things: be honest, be kind, be charitable.
Be honest—say what you mean, mean what you say. Don’t say things you know to be untrue, especially if you’re facing off against a bad actor. In that case, it’s even more important to lean into honesty.
Be charitable—don’t presume others are acting disingenuously unless they give you a good reason to think so. If you’re an author, a negative review just means the reviewer didn’t like your book, they aren’t carrying out a personal vendetta.
Be kind—even to people you don’t think deserve it. Especially to people you don’t think deserve it. A particularly bad tweet might be evidence of some deep-seated personal deficiency, or of a bad day, an incomplete thought, or even autocorrect.
Most people are pretty decent Literary Citizens. Some are not. And when someone steps out of line, it’s of paramount importance that we as a community deal with bad behavior in a thoughtful, ethical way.
A way which preserves our own Good Citizenhood.
Brian Asman is a writer, editor, producer and actor from San Diego, CA. He’s the author of I’m Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today from Eraserhead Press and Nunchuck City and Jailbroke from Mutated Media. He’s recently published short stories in the anthologies Breaking Bizarro, Welcome to the Splatter Club and Lost Films, and comics in Tales of Horrorgasm. An anthology he co-edited with Danger Slater, Boinking Bizarro, was recently released by Death’s Head Press. He holds an MFA from UCR-Palm Desert. He’s represented by Dunham Literary, Inc. Max Booth III is his hype man.
Find him on Instagram or Twitter (@thebrianasman), Facebook (brian.asman.14), or his website www.brianasmanbooks.com.