When you start writing professionally, namely about yourself, people don’t really tell you that putting that kind of work out into the world can feel dangerous. Dangerous to your sense of safety, dangerous to your sense of self, to your relationships, and perhaps even to any potential future career. Write the wrong thing — and here, wrong can mean anything from merely obnoxious to cruel or racist or wildly incorrect or otherwise offensive — and it’s easy to be misunderstood, or eviscerated online, or fully canceled, whether for good reason or not.
This fear has only become exacerbated by constant online feedback. While literary backchannels have always shared negative book reviews, dreaded one-star Goodreads reviews now keep authors up at night, adding to that feeling that everyone can witness (and contribute to) your public failure. Plus, no one likes being the center of a Twitter pile-on, even when it might be ultimately deserved. We’re all waiting for someone to tell us we’ve written something that failed — and we’re all anxious about how devastating the consequences might be.
Which is why, perhaps, the author Kathleen Hale has become a representative for a worst-case scenario of what can happen when someone writes something that has been deemed “wrong.” But Hale’s story is not just about a singular personal disaster — it also speaks to the nature of criticism today, so-called cancel culture, and the growing power of Goodreads, especially for emerging genre writers.
In January 2014, Hale was a 27-year-old freelance journalist and essayist, living in New York with one recently released YA book and a second under contract with HarperCollins. Her debut, No One Else Can Have You, was considered controversial for a book marketed to teenagers. The dark comedy, which included references to murder and abuse, raised the ire of some reviewers online — including on Goodreads, an online community that has become a major driver of book publicity, where anyone can leave reviews of nearly any book. Hale wasn’t a household name, and her book wasn’t tracking to be among the most popular YA books to be released that year, so she followed her publisher’s advice to be more online and spent the next few months writing a handful of pieces in hopes of getting her name out there. (She underestimated how well this would work — for all the wrong reasons.)
And then Hale did something that ruined her literary career before it ever really hit its stride. You’d be forgiven if you don’t remember the exact details of that particular five-year-old internet spiral. It began with an October 2014 Guardian essay about confronting an unfriendly Goodreads reviewer.
Blythe Harris, a then-influential book blogger and prolific reviewer on Goodreads wrote a one-star review for Hale’s book before it was released. “Fuck this,” the review said, according to Hale. (This particular review of her book no longer exists, beyond Hale’s description of it.) “I think this book is awfully written and offensive; its execution in regards to all aspects is horrible and honestly, nonexistent.”
But it wasn’t just that Harris didn’t like Hale’s book; it was that she was encouraging others to avoid it as well. “Other commenters joined in to say they’d been thinking of reading my book, but now wouldn’t,” Hale wrote in the Guardian essay that documented her obsession with Harris’s review. “Blythe went on to warn other readers that I was a rape apologist and a slut shamer. She said my book mocked everything from domestic abuse to PTSD.” (In an updated version of the essay in her new collection, she adds, “She’d only read the first chapter, she explained, but wished Goodreads allowed users to leave scores of zero, because that’s what my novel deserved.”)
One scroll through Goodreads and you’ll see every author gets a bad review like this. No book is immune, not even the Bible. But something about this review in particular, this blogger, this critique made Hale unspool.
“The internet kind of drove me crazy in 2014,” Hale told me over the phone, in one of two interviews in late May. “I think that my experience is on a continuum of what normal people experience online. I think even the healthiest people are driven a little mad by the internet.”
Not only did Hale start digging into Harris’s social media presence, but once she discovered Blythe Harris was not who she said she was — according to Hale’s investigation, she was not using her real name and had taken photos from another woman’s Facebook page — she also paid for a background check to find out where she lived, aided by an unwitting assist by a book club who forwarded her Harris’s address after Hale said she wanted to do a Q&A with her. Hale then rented a car and drove to what she believed was Harris’s house. She didn’t end up making physical contact, but called the person who lived at the residence, pretending to be a fact-checker in hopes of figuring out Harris’s real identity.
Hale felt that Harris’s assessment of her book wasn’t just hurtful, it was wrong. And worse, she was influencing other people away from her work, which not only had implications for the success of Hale’s debut but potentially whatever she wrote next. In her Guardian essay, Hale laid it all out: “Blythe’s vitriol continued to create a ripple effect: every time someone admitted to having liked my book on Goodreads, they included a caveat that referenced her review. ... Writing for a living means working in an industry where one’s success or failure hinges on the subjective reactions of an audience.”
Hale went to great lengths to argue that both she and Harris were doing something wrong; that Harris’s anonymity as a critic and apparent campaign against a debut author was unfair, and that Hale, to use her own words, had clearly gone “nuts.” And while the Guardian piece doesn’t leave you feeling like Hale is a hero for simply doing what all writers secretly want to do, she doesn’t come off as a complete villain either.
The reaction to the piece was both predictable and outsize: Goodreads reviewers and book bloggers called for Hale’s head. “When an author stalks a reader, turns up at their doorstep unannounced, and calls them at work, it’s not because the reader deserved it,” wrote one blogger. “It’s because the author decided that their need to control how a reader reacts to them and their work gives them the right to violate the reader’s privacy and threaten their sense of security.” Hale said Goodreads banned her because of what happened between her and Harris. Goodreads declined to comment on the particulars of Hale’s situation, saying in an email, “While we don’t share details about any specific moderation, our goal is for Goodreads to be a welcoming place for all of our 90 million members to express their diverse, personal opinions about books.”
“My career in young adult literature was finished.”
Hale was repeatedly called a stalker, and not in the tongue-in-cheek way she might have intended. Harris seemingly left the internet forever, which only further fueled the internet’s rage, particularly among the YA community members who considered her a digital friend and valued voice online. On Twitter, #HaleNo trended internationally, and continues to be used by people angry with Hale’s presence in the book world. A few influential people did wade in to tweet in support of Hale, including comic John Mulaney and the writers Anne Rice, Robin Wasserman, and Frank Rich (who is now Hale’s father-in-law).
Hale was also doxed: People sent her Google Maps photos of her mother’s home, so she could experience how Harris might have felt being pursued by Hale. “My phone was buzzing with threatening messages from strangers every five minutes or so for two and a half straight months until I just completely disconnected from everything,” Hale told me. “The real-life effects of that little uproar around me — my little internet scandal — were that my career in young adult literature was finished.”
The sequel to her debut, Nothing Bad Is Going to Happen, was released in 2016 to little fanfare and almost no promotion. According to Hale, her book editors said they “weren’t sure how to market a young adult novel … without bloggers.” On Goodreads, the book was again panned with an overwhelming majority of one-star reviews, many of which were written before the book was even out, encouraging others to avoid reading it altogether.
In the five years since Hale originally wrote her Guardian essay, she’s been offline in a big way. No Twitter presence. Private Facebook. Private Instagram. A few essays a year. Since the controversy, she’s also pivoted to reporting (she’s recently written for Hazlitt, GQ, and Vice) and she said she’s been writing for Netflix, Marvel, Hulu, and HBO. (In our interviews, Hale wouldn’t specify which shows she was writing for.)
But Hale has now decided to reemerge into the literary world with her first collection of essays, aptly titled Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. The book, published earlier this month by Grove Press, comprises six previously published essays and includes an updated version of her Guardian piece, now called “Catfish.” And while Hale spends a few paragraphs talking about the aftermath of publishing the piece, it’s no mea culpa. “I’ve never been the perfect victim — the girl who starts off weak and becomes unwaveringly strong,” Hale writes in the collection’s second essay, “Prey.”
The reactions to the new collection have been predictably apoplectic. Goodreads reviews for the book have been horrible and many bloggers have called for the book’s publication to be canceled. But you don’t need to tell Hale that what she did five years ago was wrong. “Anyone who reads [“Catfish”] knows that I’m not proud of myself, I’m not bragging. I acted crazy. It’s a self-excoriating essay,” she told me. “What’s at the heart of all this is that I almost rang another woman’s doorbell. But I didn’t. I almost rang her doorbell and I think that really, really frightens people.”
So after all this, what would possibly compel a writer to return to an audience who still wants nothing to do with her?
If you’re not an author, it might be tough to understand the hold that Goodreads can have over your self-esteem. Goodreads, founded in 2011 and acquired by book sales juggernaut Amazon six years ago, can truly make or break your book, especially in genres like YA, fantasy, or romance. The site has helped remove a lot of the gatekeepers that have kept the book industry from changing; a New York Times review is wonderful to get, but you no longer need it to make it big. “Literary criticism is still very elitist, very old, white, and male,” said Kayleigh Donaldson, a former YA blogger who reviewed Hale’s first novel and is one of very few people willing to talk on the record about why she opposes the publication of Hale’s essay collection. “I loved Goodreads so much, [seeing] that variety of voices talking about popular YA.”
Goodreads also has very real commercial impact. With its 90 million members, digital word of mouth can push book sales in a significant way. (Author Celeste Ng specifically credits Goodreads for helping her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, debut on the New York Times bestseller list.) The site does book giveaways, hosts Ask the Author features, drives early reviews through advance reader copies, and has its own list of Best Books of the year. Google a book, and the Goodreads page for it will likely be prominent among the top results.
But since there aren’t any gatekeepers stopping anyone from giving their two cents about a book, Goodreads can be a frustrating experience for authors. People are free to review books they haven’t read or refuse to read. (That’s what’s currently what’s happening with Hale’s new book, which has an average 1.22 stars out of 5.) It means that The Catcher in the Rye has a bunch of one-star reviews because “Salinger tried just too damn hard to make [Holden] ‘universal.’” It means “Dickens is a jerk” counts just as much as any other review for Great Expectations. (This isn’t to say any of these reviews are wrong; plenty of classic books are actually just white nonsense. But it is, at least, probably not the review that Charles Dickens might have expected when he wrote the book in 1861.)
“Part of the writing process is sharing the writing with an audience. I don’t think it necessarily means we enjoy being in the public eye at all.”
My own essay collection came out in 2017 and I still have a lexiconic knowledge of all the bad reviews I received. Every negative or lukewarm review has made me mad, and forced me to get off my computer and do a few laps around the block until I could get back to work. Plus, I’ve also had people get a little hot with me on the internet, and that anger has had tangible consequences. Last summer, someone got ahold of my personal cellphone number and called me repeatedly at all hours of the day and night, using various numbers impossible to block, asking if I was “that Indian bitch from BuzzFeed.” So, look, I get it.
And after two conversations with Katheen Hale, it’s clear that she still feels wronged, not just by Blythe Harris specifically, but by a culture that accommodates anonymous vitriol. “If anonymity is important because it offers protection, then who are we protecting?” she asked me during our first conversation. “People were really taken aback by my essay because I was exploring the ways in which face-to-face interaction, non-anonymous interaction of any kind in modern society, has become increasingly and inherently confrontational or aggressive.”
Critique comes with being an author — and critique about personal writing can feel particularly weaponized, since that writing is fundamentally intimate and revealing. But you also have the option of not putting yourself through all this, again and again. “I feel like I’d need to go to school for psychology for a long time to explain it, but I wrote a book about myself, and I am also private,” she said. “As writers, we’re driven to write. Part of the writing process is sharing the writing with an audience. I don’t think it necessarily means we enjoy being in the public eye at all.”
Now 32, Hale lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the TV writer and humorist Simon Rich, and their 2-year-old daughter in an internet teetotaler's dream. Their home is far enough in the hills that she has no cell service, and she said they can’t put in a landline because their phone would become a receptor for the Spanish-language radio station they live close to.
When we spoke, one of the first questions I asked was how the Guardian essay came to be, especially because Hale couldn’t have been naive to the fact she would undoubtedly get blowback when it went live. She told me she initially spoke with Melissa Denes, an editor at the Guardian, when Denes asked to republish an essay called “Prey” about her sexual assault that originally appeared in Hazlitt. “Prey” is also one of the chapters in Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. (I should acknowledge here that I was an employee at Hazlitt when “Prey” was published, though I was not her editor.) Hale sent her a pitch about Goodreads and the response to her first book. “I don’t think she started off knowing exactly where it would end or if she would find anything out,” Denes told me in an interview in early June. “I think in the end, she says herself, this is the biggest breach of decency I’ve ever pulled. All the way through, she’s saying, why am I doing this, asking her friends, asking experts, why am I compelled to follow the bad news about myself?”
According to Hale, Denes told her to expect some pushback: “I remember an email from my editor at the Guardian saying are you ready for these book bloggers to get upset. I was prepared for them to get upset but I was not prepared for it to become so newsworthy,” Hale told me. “It was a surprise to me that someone like me, I'm really a nobody, nobody knows who I am. When I wrote that article, I was making $12,000 a year on my writing before taxes. The fact that an article I had written for the Guardian generated five years of news — it's pretty insane.”
"When I wrote that article, I was making $12,000 a year on my writing before taxes. The fact that an article I had written for the Guardian generated five years of news — it's pretty insane.”
The response to Hale’s piece was disproportionate in a way that male writers rarely experience. “I felt there was a streak of misogyny in some of the negative responses,” Denes told me in an email after our call. “There’s a rich tradition of male writers and broadcasters (Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, Jon Ronson) tracking their subjects down, and they tend to be seen as bold, interesting, gonzo — Hunter S. Thompson figures.”
That may be true, but there’s no clear answer on why Hale decided to restart the controversy five years later. In fairness, it’s never easy to give a clean answer to your own complicated personal and career motivations. I have to assume that at least part of what compels her is probably what propels most essayists who willingly self-flagellate (myself included) for an ungrateful audience: She just can’t help herself.
In a coda to the updated Guardian piece in her new book, Hale writes about how in the aftermath of the article people told her to kill herself and sent her emails with her mother’s home address to prove some twisted point that they, too, could play at Hale’s game. “One night I changed the passwords on all my various devices and started sawing at my wrist with a serrated knife,” she writes in the book. “When I seemed to run out of space on one wrist, I switched to the other. But then the bloody crosshatching didn’t match. The two wrists seemed uneven. So I tried to even them out.”
After her self-harming, Hale spent two weeks at a psychiatric hospital. “It took me five years to write those two pages,” Hale told me. “That’s probably all I’ll ever write about it because it’s interesting only as the coda to that particular story. It’s just a boring and difficult time.”
Though she and her publisher stand behind the collection, Hale has done remarkably little press, book touring, or any kind of marketing blitz for Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. Reviews in traditional outlets, what few there are, have been lackluster: “The essays don’t work as well together thematically as she perhaps hopes they do,” wrote Kirkus, and the New York Times isn’t much better. “It’s gutsy to portray oneself as messy and mean, but to what end?” Maris Kreizman writes in her review. “Radical honesty and self-deprecation don’t make up for a startling lack of empathy.”
But just because Hale isn’t garnering the same kind of attention as your average literary sensation doesn’t mean people aren’t still fixated on her. “Giving off Kathleen Hale vibes” is now a kind of shorthand for some reviewers to describe an author too fixated on their criticisms. Users on Goodreads are still holding on to their anger, and reviews on the site have been particularly brutal. “I’m not even going to bother reading this book because a stalker of a reviewer SHOULD NOT have a book deal to cash out on this shit!” wrote one reviewer in January. “Fuck this book and fuck the publisher who is putting it out in the world!” wrote another. Plenty more tagged the book as “will-never-read” or “no-way-in-hell.” Hell hath no fury like book bloggers scorned.
“I'm not allowed to exist on Goodreads, and to be clear, just so I'm not quoted out of context, I don't mean that literally,” Hale said. “I mean the reaction to this article that I wrote, people find it so terrifying that I almost knocked on someone's door using publicly available information that they think I shouldn't be allowed to have a job or work. And I think that says a lot about where we are as a culture.”
"I knew that people were going to be upset that I had been allowed to publish anything, much less a collection that included this one controversial essay.”
But for all the anxiety that Hale feels about her personal safety, her actions made a lot of reviewers and bloggers feel similarly afraid. “There was an entire website called Stop the Goodreads Bullies, which was basically doxing people on Goodreads and positioning them all as these massive abusers and bullies while putting their personal information on the internet,” Donaldson said. (The site is no longer up.)
Keeping Hale from profiting off anything related to her Guardian essay — and perhaps receiving retribution for driving Harris off Goodreads and the internet, and against “bad” author behavior in general — seems to be what a lot of reviewers and bloggers want. “It’s the specific banking and profiting off this instance that sticks in a lot of people’s throats,” said Donaldson. “When you bring back that narrative, almost five years since it originally happened, I think that’s when people start questioning the motives. Why now? Did you think enough time had passed that people have forgotten, that [they] think of it now as a joke, as something we can all have a laugh about?”
I asked Hale more than once why she would republish this particular essay, but my questions were mostly brushed off, beyond the fact that it was Grove’s suggestion to publish a collection of Hale’s essays. “People think that I expanded this essay into a book,” Hale told me. “No. It's one of six essays and I write about lots of things in the essay — and altogether, it's a meditation on the internet and obsession and animals and being a woman and stuff like that.” But what about the title, which seems designed to rile people up and remind them of the essay that caused her such distress in the first place? “There's nothing else to call it. I knew that people were going to be upset that I had been allowed to publish anything, much less a collection that included this one controversial essay which is one of six essays.”
But Hale, ultimately, is her own worst enemy, the reason she got into this mess to begin with. Her return to the literary world is neither a bombastic refusal to apologize nor a self-effacing apology and plea to be let back into the room. We may be living in the era of weak apologies, but Hale just isn’t that sorry.
I have written about the alt-right, Trump supporters, and how dumb movies are, and nothing has made me more nervous than writing about Goodreads, book bloggers, and Hale. I’m a published author with friends in the publishing industry, and I have personal relationships with other writers to maintain. No writer with any aspirations to write books wants to piss off an influential community whose respect you not only want, but need for commercial success. Nor do I, frankly, want to piss off Hale, whose influential family includes a successful humor writer husband, a television producer father-in-law, and a HarperCollins executive editor mother-in-law. (Hale, through her publicist, refused to answer any questions about her family, namely whether they helped or hindered her return to publishing.) It’s inside baseball, sure, but it’s real: Writing much of anything about this could put me in an awkward position, with possible retribution from either side.
While working on this story, I also found it remarkably difficult to find sources who would talk to me. HarperCollins, Hale’s first publisher, refused to comment. Hale’s editor, Peter Blackstock, initially agreed to an email interview, only to ignore most of my questions, instead telling me, in part, that “Grove is excited to be publishing Kathleen and we encourage people to read the six essays and make up their own minds.” Former editors of Hale’s did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a handful of book bloggers who had previously written about Hale. Hale only agreed to speak to me if the critics quoted in the piece were willing to publish their real names. Remarkably few people answered my repeated requests for comment, even people who had, in the past, written about Hale and the controversy surrounding her initial essay.
It’s hard to blame anyone for their reticence. Twitter, Goodreads, and other book blogs are necessary places for people to talk about books. But they can also be toxic and cloistered.
At the beginning of the year, YA Twitter drove an up-and-coming author to cancel the publication of her own book after the book was accused of being racist. (The author ended up reversing her position, and Blood Heir is expected this November. So far, it has an impressive 4.20 on Goodreads.) The Black Witch by Laurie Forest initially tanked after Goodreads reviewers accused her book of being offensive and dangerous. In her Vulture piece on the toxic YA book scene, Kat Rosenfield wrote about the challenges of even reporting on the topic. “Rumors quickly spread that I had threatened or harassed [book blogger Shauna] Sinyard; several influential authors instructed their followers not to speak to me; and one librarian and member of the Newbery Award committee tweeted at Vulture nearly a dozen times accusing them of enabling ‘a washed-up YA author’ engaged in ‘a personalized crusade’ against the entire publishing community,” Rosenfield wrote. “With one exception, all my sources insisted on anonymity, citing fear of professional damage and abuse.”
"[Anonymous female trolls] weaponize the language of social justice so that there’s no way to argue with them."
Even more complicated is that Hale seems much more fragile over the phone than she comes off in her writing. She’s blustery and confident when she writes, but in our conversations I could feel her anxiety radiating over the phone. I know it took a lot for Hale to talk to me — she hasn’t spoken to any journalists about her Goodreads ordeal — and the coda to “Catfish” points to all the stress she had to manage after the Guardian piece went live. “Writing about somebody else’s life is always an act of betrayal,” she told me at one point, about her own reporting on other people. It’s apt, because as I write about her, I feel like I’m betraying her.
But the prose in “Catfish” betrays only a sliver of self-awareness. She still talks as if everyone is out to get her for reasons that are entirely unclear. “I think our conception of trolls is that they’re men on 4chan who say sexist things about women. That’s kind of a sexist assumption because of course trolls can also be women,” Hale said. “These anonymous female trolls happen to be like a book club, and what they do in order to troll people is they weaponize the language of social justice so that there’s no way to argue with them. They can very easily turn around and say that they’re being victimized.”
Hale is a conventionally attractive white woman from a privileged family in America, not exactly an obvious target for online persecution by, overwhelmingly, other white women. Especially on Twitter, women, people of color, non-binary people, and otherwise marginalized communities are disporportionately harassed by anonymous trolls, who in turn experience little to no real consequences for their actions. Hale’s “troll,” as she refers to Harris, didn’t contact her directly to harass her. She simply didn’t like her book, and said so on a public forum made for readers, not writers.
After our first interview, Hale emailed me asking to clarify some things in a second call. She had also recorded our interview, and said that after listening back to it, she wanted to add a few thoughts. I agreed, and we set up a time and date, but 20 minutes before we were scheduled to talk, her publicist got in touch to cancel the interview. Later, he sent me a statement from Hale as a Word document. “I’m excited about the book I’m working on now and happy to be able to continue writing,” it said in part. “I wouldn’t have gotten here if I hadn’t been publicly shamed online. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had to switch careers, which has ultimately been really enriching.”
Eventually, I got her on the phone, but only with her publicist’s supervision, a frustrating level of clearance to have to go through in order to speak to an author who is trying to promote a new book. Her reticence is odd given that she chose to publish this book. No one forced her to do it. And no one forced her to include that essay from five years ago that nearly ruined her life.
“The idea of being on the record and answering questions in real time is very nerve-wracking — especially given the nature of most of your questions, which revolve around an essay I wrote five years ago and people have been fixated on ever since,” she told me.
“I’m not saying that the questions are wrong. It’s just, it’s hard.”
Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker is not, in my estimation, a bad book. The title is a distraction from what the book actually is: an exploration of Hale’s role as both predator and prey, throughout her twenties, as a journalist, as a woman using the legal system, and as someone posing as a physical threat herself. In “Prey,” her most memorable essay, she writes about the process of having the man who sexually assaulted her as a college student put in prison. “Catfish,” ultimately, is just a sixth of the collection, but it’s the first essay and sets the book off on the wrong foot.
One of the most remarkable parts of “Prey” is that it ends with Hale refusing to fight to keep her abuser in prison once he is eligible for parole. His punishment, a decade behind bars, she told me, was enough. “If the system is meant to be rehabilitative, then we have to accept that when a person’s sentence has run out, that’s it,” she said. “I guess I started to acknowledge to myself as time went on that I had channeled all of my negative experiences — all the moments that an older man had grabbed my ass or someone had harassed me on the street — I channeled all of those experiences and all of that helplessness into punishing this one person.”
So how long should Kathleen Hale herself be punished?
It is impossible to side entirely with anyone in the case of Hale v. Goodreads. YA bloggers have compared Hale to UK writer Richard Brittain, who traveled from England to Scotland to hit a young woman over the head with a bottle after she gave his book a bad review. Paige Cee, a YA blogger and reviewer who believes that Hale shouldn’t have been able to publish another book, told me, “It’s kind of like how certain states used to have laws, or may still have laws, that prevent a criminal from being able to make money off any crimes they committed. For instance, Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski, he may have made some money off detailing his crimes and there was a law in place where he wasn’t allowed to do so. They aren’t on the same level, but it’s more the same principles.” What Cee is referring to is the Son of Sam law, which is designed to keep criminals from profiting off the publicity of their crimes, named after serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, who was rumored to have been trying to sell his story.
Hale, Brittain, and Kuklinski have remarkably little in common. Richard Brittain assaulted a teenager. Richard Kuklinski claimed to have killed hundreds of people.
Kathleen Hale wrote one bad essay.
Talking to Hale, I understand the impulses behind her actions fully: Any writer with any kind of audience has detailed fantasies about tracking their worst critics down and holding them accountable. What I don’t understand is the follow-through of actually doing it, namely when it’s clear to her and everyone else that going to someone’s house (regardless of if you rang the doorbell or not) is asking for trouble. The impulse makes Hale relatable; the follow-through makes her impossible to root for.
Hale’s book was recently listed as a “Feminist Literature” selection for a monthly book subscription service from the Strand, a New York–based independent bookstore. Hale said that her publisher gave her a heads-up that a few people were demanding that she be removed, which did end up happening, though the Strand is still stocking Crazy Stalker. “I just think it’s very interesting that I’m not allowed to be considered a feminist because I almost knocked on another woman’s door,” Hale said. Since her book was announced at the beginning of the year, 439 people have signed a petition demanding the book to be pulled from publication. It’s not a huge number in the grand scheme of how public scandals work, but if you’re at the center of that storm, it’s utterly devastating.
“The Strand sells Norman Mailer, who stabbed his wife and said, ‘A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.’ They sell Tao Lin and Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, but people are too afraid to acknowledge my existence in public. There’s something about that that feels very gendered,” she said. (The Strand has since stopped stocking Bill Cosby.) It’s true that Hale has suffered more public consequences for her Guardian piece than most men who do far worse deeds. The writer and former book editor Dan Mallory, whom the New Yorker accused of plagiarism, workplace harassment, and lies about his health, seems to be doing just fine. His debut novel under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window, is being adapted into a movie starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman. His second book is still slated for a 2020 release.
The impulse makes Hale relatable; the follow-through makes her impossible to root for.
It’s also worth noting that Mallory’s publisher is HarperCollins, the same publisher as Hale’s first two books. “I actually had an opportunity to work with HarperCollins again on this next book and they offered me more money than Grove,” Hale said. “I wanted to work at a house that had a history of standing up for blacklisted authors, and Grove has a very storied history of standing up to people who think that certain books should be banned because they're inappropriate. I didn't trust HarperCollins based on their prior behavior to sort of have the balls to work with me on all of that.”
It’s unlikely that Hale will have any kind of literary resurgence anytime soon — according to BookScan, sales are pretty weak. There’s been an absolute dearth of coverage from book blogs, from Twitter readers, and from trade publications. People who ordinarily read and write about memoirists have been silent. “For me and for a lot of the bloggers in this, the best way to respond to this was to completely deny her work in the future,” Donaldson said.
It’s easy to liken Hale to the recent spate of canceled men who popped their heads out to see if people are no longer mad about their misdeeds. But that comparison would be unfair. Hale isn’t a sexual abuser, an unrepentant racist, or even a bad writer. But it’s clear the book world of this era isn’t ready for her return, and may never be. As for Hale, she said her days of writing personal essays are over now that she’s published this particular collection. She told me she’s no longer interested in ruminating about herself.
But maybe the disinterest really lies in no longer wanting to give herself up to the world for judgment. Sharing the worst parts of herself has come at too high a cost.
“It took me a while to know the difference between secrets and stories,” Hale said. “I think not every single one of my secrets is actually a good story.” ●