Thoughts on Online Book Discussion

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.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Online Book Discussion

  1. I’m with you. One of the problems of any online interaction, especially ones that are in some way driven by commerce, is that it’s easy for a community to get addicted to drama. Drama generates frenzied comments, clicks and gets the base riled up. People start taking actions to support this, that or the other thing that they wouldn’t have taken ordinarily. Experts wade into discussions and make pronouncements that up their street cred with their target audience, whether or not it’s directly related to the original issue. I’m not saying they’re wrong or anything. Just that I find that dynamic exhausting after a while.

    The only way that system loses is for individuals to opt out. To change the conversation. It can be hard to do in a way that doesn’t make one seem tone deaf, but how else can a relatively powerless individual make a contribution to changing a culture? I don’t like the assumption that authors and reviewers have an adversarial relationship so I ignore it. I’m not sure it’s the best response or the only response, but it’s the only productive idea I’ve had.

    1. I think you are absolutely right. All of the things which are toxic today came out of people’s genuine excitement about and love of books. For example, I haven’t really gotten into the psy/changeling books by Nalini Singh, but I remember all the anticipation for one of her cover reveals a few years ago, all the speculation over who the hero was, etc. That was organic; it happened because people love her books. But then everyone wanted to emulate that, to have that level of anticipation for their books because I’m certain it equates with stratospheric sales. So it quickly becomes not about the books at all but about the hype, marketing, etc., like astroturf or something.

      I think you’re right that we just need to focus on the good. To talk about the books we love and the relationships we find refreshing. And for the most part, the online book culture is *so* good, which is what I was trying to say. It’s just easy to get distracted by the bad and to let it make us hard and cynical.

  2. I’m going to chime in to say that HaleNO has been a blessing in disguise, a silver lining … not that I’m of such largesse I’m ready to lay out the red carpet and acknowledge Hale’s truth, or honesty; but my truth is that I’ve pretty much forgotten her and the blogger blackout became something very different. It forced me to take a breath, to really think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. So, Hale aside, I’m with Sunita when she says that I found myself complicit in something that I did not enjoy, or respect … and frankly, recently, found exhausting. The most important thing to rejuvenate was that I was blogging for my own joy and love of books and in order to share in that with others. The interesting thing that mustn’t be forgotten is that the best writers usually write because of their love of books, so they’re readers too. (Though it is also true that your position and commentary is now a more delicate thing.) I’ve respected and appreciated every authorial voice of support: it mattered that some authors vindicated bloggers’ response to Hale’s self-avowed stalking (I found it interesting that somehow the confessional nature of her piece made it all right). I think that if Hale’s piece had made room for regret, self-awareness, apology, taking her licks for what she did (and that would be the true purpose to “confessional” wouldn’t it?), there would have been some ready forgiveness from many blogging corners.

    In the wake of the HaleNO mess, the most important thing to do is not to build walls and make exclusive spaces, for everyone to reassess why they’re doing what they’re doing and to maintain open, convivial places. I’m not so naive that I believe everyone’s going to play nice … but in light of what happened AprèsHale, SansHale, and ça suffitHale, it is a mighty fine place to read and see so many say “I’m here because I love the written word and I want to talk about it with like-minded people” One of my favourite texts is the Paschal homily of St. John Chrisostom when he says of Easter, “the table is full-laden and all are invited to partake of the feast.” Books are a feast for the mind and the heart, they comfort us and help us question and articulate our lives’ most painful moments … and someone wrote that thing that makes you nod and smile and cry. The writer and the reader mirror each other: one cannot exist without the other. The relationship is interdependent; so we either make the circle big, or we choke in it. I’m glad you wrote this post: I really appreciated it.

    1. Thank you for saying this! And as usual, so much better than me.

      I felt sort of pretentious writing it. I was like, “Emma, no one cares about how you love to read.” But I just wanted to articulate that, for what it was worth, I love book discussion. It’s meant so much to me personally and I think we should protect it at all costs. And if this whole kerfuffle helps us find our soul, then something good came out of it. ; )

  3. I don’t really have anything novel to add–you and Elizabeth and MissB already said everything I might have, only much, much better. I’m very grateful for the people I’ve met online that I discuss romance with–I don’t really think of them as reviewers, but as readers like myself. If there really is a war, then I’m completely unaware of it in my own little online circle.
    Having come from a system with it’s own kind of reviews (oh peer review, how I don’t miss you!), I do find the more vehement rhetoric on some sides puzzling. As an author, it’s both a luxury and a privilege to not have to read–and respond–to reviews. A luxury I will take full advantage of. :)
    But I will end with this: If the Hindenburg-sized egos in science can successfully navigate the process of peer review (which is much more personal and devastating at times) without any stalkings or other physical violence, certainly the book community can figure this out as well.

    1. But we both know that academics does have stalkings, physical violence, and general toxicity. ; )

      That being said, the standards of professionalism in academics–regardless of all the ways in which people fail to achieve them–are something that might be needed in publishing. And maybe there’s a way in which the blogger blackout can be interpreted as a community standards/community policing exercise, which would be part of what we’re all saying we need.

  4. I agree so much about the beautiful romance community. I have rarely found one more welcoming. They’re awesome.

    But I got distracted by something. You said you did redacted things. Are you planning to incorporate that in any book in the future as inspiration? Love that stuff.

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