I keep writing and deleting this post. No one needs my thoughts on this matter; no one asked for them. Others have explored this topic much more elegantly and insightfully (see here, and here, and here, and here). This is little and it is late. But I can’t leave this unsaid.
Talking about books is the most important part of my intellectual life. When I was a freshmen in college, I was an English major, but considering changing to classical archeology (true story). Then I stumbled into the first half of the American literature survey. It was as if I had landed on a planet with more gravity. Everything shifted and settled around me; everything changed.
In that class, I found people talking about books in the way I did in my head except they did it out loud. And they did it better than I did: more insightfully, with connections to texts I’d never heard of, respecting theories I didn’t understand. So I kept taking English classes. I studied British literature and Irish literature and literature in translation. I analyzed contemporary popular culture and critical theory and linguistics. I wrote about Austen and Shakespeare and Marx. I fell in love with New Historicism. But thanks to that first college literature course, early American book culture stayed central in my heart.
For a while after college I did redacted things in Washington, but I missed books. I missed talking about books. So I went to graduate school to get back the feeling I got from the literature classroom. And now I do it all day.
When I started reading romance almost four years ago, the reason I kept doing it wasn’t how romance did deeply imaginative things related to gender norms and sexuality (though also that), it was the book culture I found online. Here were people talking about books in way I did at the university except without all the things that can come with academics–some of which had become loathsome to me. The online romance discussion seemed more radical, more subversive, and more democratic than what was happening in my university classroom.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I felt like I could start writing because of the online romance community. The academic world routinely makes me feel stupid and disempowered, but romancelandia does the opposite. The book culture around romance gave me permission to use my voice in a way I’m not certain I would have otherwise.
I don’t think this is about Kathleen Hale anymore. Not really. It’s about the fact that the book culture online has stopped feeling fun. Since I’m now writing and have a vested (albeit tiny) commercial interest in that culture and since I don’t review (related to my author role), I’ve mostly seen this from the sidelines. But the hype machine and its relation to book blogging seems qualitatively different today than it did 3.5 years ago when I started reading book blogs.
I have no solutions here, but it breaks my heart. Because every time I read a good book, I feel less alone. I feel more connected. I feel human and giddy and alive. And online book culture at its best networks those private reactions and feelings. Amplifies them. And it can be awesome.
I don’t know how to preserve it. And to the extent that my author activities may have taken away from anyone’s fun or just contributed to the blurring of public (in the Habermasian sense) and commercial spaces, I am sorry. Because if there’s no joy in talking about books, I don’t know what else we’re doing or why else we’d be doing it.