Catfish, Elephants, and Other Concerns of the Critic


A Tale of Two Bloggers

Normally I wouldn’t bother putting my two cents in regarding the much-publicized woman-hunt of Kathleen Hale for the blogger/catfish known as Blythe Harris. By nature I tend to shy away from the sensationalizing of violence, which—as far as I’m concerned—includes Internet squabbles, cyber-bulling, trolling and the like. As many who participate in online forums can attest, engaging in these kinds of conflicts can put one at risk of attracting the disfavor of a fan community you might not even have known existed, in the same way that deep-drilling might implicate  the wrath of the Mole Man.

In sum, on a regular day I would have chalked all this vitriol up to sour grapes and soggy blankets except that two bloggers I follow with a certain regularity, John McCalmont and Damien G. Walter, both wrote about it…

…from entirely different perspectives!

I follow these bloggers because I believe that they are in the blogosphere for similar reasons to mine: to put paid to the notion that genre fiction is somehow less than literature. They take such fiction seriously and strive to be honest about its weaknesses and strengths. They are honest, mature writers who do their best to write fairly and humanely.

So you can imagine my surprise when….

  • Jonathan McCalmont saw in the “stalking” of the reviewer, Blythe Harris, an eerie similarity to his experience as a reviewer of genre fiction.
  • Some of Damien Walter’s recent posts confront the indecency of online reviewing. He also had recently written censoriously of the inherent misogyny of the mostly young and male Gamer population. From this perspective, Walter sympathized more with the author, Kathleen Hale, who, if her account is to be believed, had been pilloried by a catfish.

A Matter of Perspective



The different perspectives on this issue bring to my mind the fable of the blind monks and the elephant. When the king, a wise man, asks the blind sages to describe the beast, each one, only able to examine a part, cannot reconstruct the whole. As such, only a partial picture of the elephant is formed, one that reflects the direct experience of the individual.

Or in this case, the writer. Yet, in the labyrinth of the Internet, how else can one interpret all that goes on?

The net has a problem in decency. Its mixture of easy anonymity and far-reaching connectivity creates a universe comprised of endless subjective realities. People create identities and then shed them, like a snake sheds its skin. Only the “me, me, me” Millennials—that generation that most articulates the rules of engagement in the virtual realm—seems truly at ease in this roiling sea of identity and reflection, where “nothing is as it seems.”

But this battle of identities between Hale and Harris takes place not only in the virtual playground. It also transpired in the of war that is publishing. In other posts, I’ve written on the issues besetting publishing in the digital age. Hale and Harris’ cat-and-mouse game is symptomatic of the breakdown of established norms in the publishing industry because of digital disruption. More it is a gross example of a new form of criticism: anonymous and personal.

McCalmont writes of his experience as a reviewer:

“I started reviewing under the principle that a reviewer’s right to express their opinion about a book was sacrosanct and when you realise that this right has suddenly been taken away it cannot help but make you feel alienated from your culture (am I *that* out of touch?) and just that little bit more careful when choosing which books to review (does this author have a history of going after their critics and do I think that my review might prompt such a response?).”

This is the danger of the secret fan community that I mentioned in the introduction. One that lurks just below the surface of the digital waters, waiting to pounce when their territory has been trespassed upon. Attacks against criticism have become personal, subjective. What criteria for quality is upheld in such attacks against the critic? None.

Likewise, authors can be attacked in the same way. With the democratization of publishing brought about by E-books, the worst writer now has the same opportunity as the best to get their stuff out there, albeit without any of the assistance that a traditional publishing house would provide.

A vicious cycle of horrid prose trashed by horrible critics has begun and shows no sign of abating.

This makes the words of John Gardner, in his book “On Moral Fiction”, that much more timely:

[P]roper balance…, is as crucial for the critic as for the artist, since critics go wrong in the same way artists do.


Or to put it another way, whatever ails writing of the times will also ails its criticism, whether positive or negative. Gardner chastises the writing of the 1970s, saying that it is overly concerned with impression and shock value rather than substance or the seeking of moral truth.

If he were alive today….

If it takes like shit, smells like shit… 

It probably is shit. Or, to put it less bluntly: If there is nothing of substance to criticize—and rest assured, many of these self-published writers are lacking in both form (grammatical errors, malapropisms, tone) and originality—how can one expect the reviewer to write seriously about it? There is nothing for them to write. Except perhaps a personal attack. A poor product does not merit genuine criticism.

Thus the devolution of writing and its reviewing into dogfight (or catfish-fights?)

It’s enough to make one want to crawl back into the Ivory Tower. At least there criticism wasn’t personal, at least on the face of it. Certainly the criticism levied by serious critics upon serious works of art was rarely so blunt or so crude as you find nowadays by self-styled trolls and catfish.

How the (Virtual) West Was Won



There is something quintessentially American Dream-esque about all of this struggle.

Firstly, it is decisively anti-intellectual. The loudest, most aggressive voice wins. The person with the most vociferous proponents drowns out those timid voices of reason.

But that’s not just it:

By nature, Americans stake out and conquer territory. The meek should beware. As GamerGate showed, when a sensible outsider infiltrates a niche community, tucked away far from the prying eyes of the civilized world, they find the denizens of this Wild West ready to “run them out of town.” These “Gamers” are William Golding’s Fly Lordlings, terrible in their freedom, but free nonetheless.

But the digital domain, like the myth of the American West, is not just some savage hinterland, it is also the future. Thus, it must be navigated, especially if, as a writer, you want to survive the publishing slaughter…ahem, disruption.

To labor in obscurity, painstakingly crafting sentences, as William Gass might, or to ruminate for hours on your theme, as Mishima Yukio did, night after night in penumbral solitude. Well… those days are over.

Instead, gentle writer, get ready for the rodeo and put on your thick skin: it can get wild in here.

One thought on “Catfish, Elephants, and Other Concerns of the Critic

  1. Joe Beam September 23, 2015 / 6:49 AM


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