A reciprocity of a different kind

I’ve thought long and hard about how to put this. I’ve agonised over it, gone round and round in circles in my head, practised words that never sounded right, stepped back from the circle and put it off, again and again.

Because I need to ask you for reviews, but without making it sound like there’s any expectation or obligation or pressure. I need to ask you for reviews, but without offering anything in return – nothing more tangible than thanks and gratitude – because this isn’t about enticement or rewards; because it depends on a reciprocity of a different kind. I need to ask you for reviews without sounding like I’m begging. Because that word has come up; that word has been thrown at me by trolls, “Look at you, having to beg for reviews”, and it cut me. Deep. I need to ask you for reviews, and I don’t know how. A full four years after I published my first book, I still don’t know how.

Because I want to ask you for reviews without asking, without having to ask, and it’s impossible. Because if you want something, you have to ask. If you need something, you have to ask. And therein lies the obligation; therein lies the dept: you owe it to yourself to ask. To draw a circle and stand in the middle, exposed, for everyone to see, and ask. Knowing that you might be rejected. That you will be. Knowing that rejection is a certainty.

I didn’t know about reviews when I first started out, four years ago, as a “published author”; I didn’t know about them before, in all my years as a reader. I didn’t know what they meant, how much they meant, how much of an impact they could have. I didn’t know how it felt to have none, or to get your first one. I didn’t know how it would feel to watch that number grow, to have a trickle of strangers pick up your book and read it and then return to Amazon unprompted to post a review because they wanted to share what it had meant to them. I didn’t know how a certain number of reviews could affect your visibility and your ranking and your sales, that mad, almighty Amazon algorithm than has the power to make little lines appear on your sales dashboard graph. And I didn’t know about the trolls. I didn’t know that there were people who knew about reviews, and who would randomly, arbitrarily, inexplicably manipulate the system for the express purpose of doing you harm. Who would go out of their way to place obstacles in yours, to belittle you, to discredit your work, to destroy you with a few careful, careless words. I didn’t know any of this then, but I know it now. Reviews matter.

And we make jokes, those of us who find ourselves exposed to judgement and critique; those of us who, for whatever reason or cause, place ourselves in any kind of spotlight – no matter how small or faint. We laugh, those of us who find ourselves under attack, “Haha, you have a troll; that’s a sign of success!” – but honestly, no: not in my book. Rejection is one thing, indifference another, and you will never please everyone, you’ll never be that person (author, artist, actor, politician, friend) that everyone likes, but the fact that there are people out there so bitter, so angry, so unhappy that they set out to take others down, to deliberately cause them damage, cannot be any measure of success, neither personal nor universal. It is a symptom of a very fucked up society that we’re supposed to be OK with this. That we’re supposed to shrug it off, to toughen up, grow thicker skin, grin and bear it, take the high road, claim the moral high ground.

Speaking for myself, I can tell you that tough doesn’t mean unbreakable, and there are words, perfectly targeted razor blades of hate, that can cut through the thickest of skins, and expose what we all are, underneath: vulnerable. Insecure, frightened, uncertain, and trying to make our way through this life as undamaged as possible. Speaking for myself, I can tell you I never set out to make any claims or take any road except my own, such as it is, as high or as low as it might be. I am prepared to cross a certain number of bridges on my way, but I cannot accept that ignoring the trolls lurking there, being advised to grin as they sink their teeth into me, as they chew up everything I’ve worked for and spit out vicious one-star reviews is any kind of sane response to the situation. Or in any way productive. All it does is foster the troll mentality, set them up in quaint little burrows, wifi-enabled, under their bridges, whence they can launch their attacks in extra comfort. I see nothing to grin about here.

And if we’re gonna talk about morality: speaking for myself, I find the whole thing morally questionable, and highly irresponsible. For both sides. Because, in school- or workplace-bullying, we have at least acknowledged that both parties need support. We do not advise the child who’s had his head held down the toilet to grin and bear it, nor the woman who’s systematically undermined and ostracised at work to grow tougher skin. We do not congratulate them on their status as victims and targets of abuse. And the perpetrators in these situations, those who are driven to cause harm to others, are not simply dismissed as “bullies” and allowed to carry on, nor abandoned to their hatred and unhappiness until they consume them. They are seen as people, probably battling with untold shit of their own, who need help as much as those they victimise. They are not just cast as storybook monsters: they are given a chance at healing, and redemption.

It sounds like I have sympathy for the bullies and the trolls. And, on a human level, I do. There is probably suffering behind their words and actions, and my skin is not so thick that I am untouched by their pain. But when we cross into some fucked-up cyber-fairytale where I am cast as a victim of success and the monsters are allowed to roam free and we’re all ruled by the Almighty Algorithm in the Sky, no: there is obligation here, there is responsibility, and it’s on me. I have to stand up for myself. Amazon is not a kindly schoolteacher or an understanding boss; Amazon is a business. It does have systems in place (more algorithms) to ensure the objectivity of its reviews and ratings, but they can only go so far. Beyond that, it cannot protect me. Amazon is a jungle, and I refuse to be cast as prey.

I can stand up for myself, but I cannot take on the bullies on my own; I need my pack. So here’s what I’m asking of you: to stand beside me. To be my allies, to be my pack. And if you have enjoyed reading any of my books, to say so. I cannot take the bullies down, nor their reviews; I cannot fight the trolls with fairytale swords, but I can fight them with words. Yours, this time. Your words are the antidote to their poison. My words have gone into my books; they are the best, the most I have to give. My books are all I have to say for myself, and I say this in the most unassuming way possible: I cannot do any better than this. They are my best effort to make sense of the world, my best attempt to connect with those whom I share it with. And if I have been successful in that, I am asking you: please say so. Without obligation, without reward, and prompted only gently. By choice. Just like you chose to read my books in the first place; just like I chose to write them, and put them out there to be judged. Knowing that rejection was a certainly but hoping, nonetheless, to forge some ties that go beyond a financial transaction. For a reciprocity of a different kind.

Thank you.

Below are Amazon universal links to all of my books; they should, in theory, take you to each book’s page in your local Amazon store.

100 days of solitude

you can’t name an unfinished thing

This Reluctant Yogi: everyday adventures in the yoga world

Collected: essays and stories on life, death and donkeys

Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant

Common People

Death by any other name

For Now: notes on living a deliberate life

P.S. Even those books that have, so far, escaped the attentions of trolls could do with a bit of review love. 🙂