Apr 28 2009
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Dear Ms. Buonfiglio:
This is not a traditional review, per se, but I could imagine no other appropriate way to respond to the public posting of your recent presentation at the Princeton Romance conference, especially since you seemed to make a fundamental distinction between your Romance B(u)y the Boook blog (RBTB) and the rest of the online Romance community. In the spirit of intellectual exchange, as one of those readers and bloggers in that great morass also known as NOT-RBTB, as a formally trained literature scholar working on genre Romance within the larger context of scholarly pursuits, and as someone who is not afraid of a little “heat” in the online community, I feel compelled to offer a different perspective.
First of all, congratulations on your new gig at BN.com – presumably one of the “big gigs with major companies” to which you refer in your talk. You are obviously and rightfully proud, and I do not want that to go unacknowledged. As you point out yourself, we all have as much to learn as we potentially have to teach, and it is not necessarily the most learned who have the greatest insight. Also, beyond your own “self-aggrandizement” as you put it, there are so many issues worthy of study and discussion, including the topic of your presentation, which is the nature of the online community and its usefulness (or not) for scholars pursuing topics in genre Romance.
I want to start with your assertion that “the beauty of the Internet is its being a conduit for First Amendment-type discourse at its ‘freest.’” Technically, of course, there is no such thing as “First Amendment-type discourse,” because speech is either protected or it’s not, and what is not protected isn’t even defined in terms of speech under the First Amendment. But if what you mean is that the Internet is a “marketplace of ideas,” then I certainly agree with you there and would add that the integrity of such a model rests firmly on a commitment to diverse points of view. Further, as Supreme Court Justice Douglas notes, the “function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” A strong statement, and one that may make some people uncomfortable, but one that is essential to the work of academia, where intellectual freedom goes hand in hand with free speech.
Of course, this isn’t a university, and we’re not debating the importance of academic freedom. However, since the panel on which you spoke was “Romance Reads the Academy,” the comparison is relevant, especially in consideration of the following assertion in your talk:
But for the small portion of romance readers online, the immediacy with which we access information and content at romance sites can give us the impression that what’s being written about is a) true, and b) important.
Which is why – especially in the online romance community – we’ve noted the phenomenon of “Perception as Reality.” Basically, the Internet user who isn’t media savvy believes mostly that if it’s written online it must be true. That includes content written by anybody with the impressive skill it takes to register for and own a url — and even User Generated Content (UGC), otherwise known as blog comments.
And this, as well:
As academics, you know to take everything with a grain of salt, right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t fall prey to the biggest trip-up folks face when looking online for information – and even entertainment, which sometimes passes for information – the brutal problem of not being able to separate the heat from the light.
The reason I have separated these points is to distinguish between your comments about readers reading blogs and those about non-blogging (?) scholars reading blogs. In that first excerpt, you seem to be suggesting that readers in general cannot be trusted to understand the difference between a) fact and opinion, and b) truth and untruth (assuming any objective ability to do that). In the second excerpt, though, you seem to be questioning the ability of professional scholars – i.e. people trained to read and analyze — to understand the difference between “important stuff” and, well, sensationalism? propaganda? crap? I don’t understand, frankly, the reference to readers who aren’t “media savvy” or the difference between “working IN Internet – as opposed to hanging around ON the Internet.” I mean, aren’t your own readers “hanging around ON the Internet,” as you put it? And what does being “media savvy,” whatever that means, have to do with possessing common sense about subjecting ANY public statement – yours, mine, Gandhi’s – to at least a minimal level of skeptical scrutiny?
There are many, many additional examples in your presentation, the rest of which basically draws out this case against online “heat” as “[non]viable research product,” “tempests in teapots,” “get[ting] a good bitch on,” and as “muck[ed] up . . . information,” all of which supposedly results in readers who “fear being jumped ugly on.” And these characterizations seem to lead finally to this mandate:
The next time you go close to the ground to research, check out the light and look to sites where the readers say things with simplicity and dignity. I challenge you: When you interact with your viewers, try giving them the tools to move through the heat toward illumination.
For those who haven’t read the presentation as posted, “the light” is synonymous with RBTB, where readers are welcomed, nurtured, and valued, even if they have “never met either Strunk or White” or are what “some might deem ‘limited.’” I have to admit that such descriptions are new to me in terms of characterizing blog readers, but I want to be faithful to your words here. Because I so wholly, essentially, and categorically disagree with and find offense in what you’ve laid out there that I am not sure I can even do my feelings justice in their expression (a true “Derridean gap,” I’m afraid). But I am sure going to try.
First I want to address the proliferation of “we’s” in the talk, for which I cannot always locate the referent. For example, when you say, “we generally think of illumination as private property of ‘the learned’” I don’t know who all is included in that (since it is hardly my perspective, nor the perspective of people with whom I associate, within and outside the academy). Or when you say, “we make romance more relevant online when we regularly present it outside the romance community on platforms whose viewership includes non-romance readers,” I know many Romance readers – me included — who would not agree with that, at all. I’m pretty clear on the “I” statements in the piece, especially when you talk about all that you have done for Romance readers and for the genre and the online community. And I certainly understand that you are speaking from a position of authenticity in your own experience, as we all do. But I also feel as if you are trying to prescribe that authenticity for everyone by distinguishing RBTB as the “right” place to go for “illumination” as opposed to the “sound and fury” of everywhere else (or at least those not on a select list of other spots you have designated as appropriate research venues).
Let me point out, also for those who were not in attendance when this talk was given, that Sarah Wendell was seated next to you, poised to speak right after you, in fact. I would further draw attention to the way in which your own descriptions of the bad places online echo descriptions used to dismiss blogs like Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books. Certainly, the tenor of discussions on SBTB is much different from that on RBTB, and I do not need to stretch very far intellectually to discern a definite subtext of disapproval for Sarah and those bloggers (including those of us at DA) who are more like her than you. Those of us who are not afraid of “too much criticism” or who do not believe that “When those who gather romance communities nurture heat, they invite and instigate their viewers to reactionary, inflammatory commentary that doesn’t just ‘feel bad’ to a lot of people, it literally reduces the commentary’s relevance.” Okay, as far as I can tell, no blog has “viewers,” but beyond that, I find the elision of “heat” and irrelevance patently insulting and untrue.
What, for example, constitutes “heat”? Would that be the reader who insists that rape as portrayed in Romance is destructive for the genre? I guess we shouldn’t allow someone to offer that position lest we be perceived as “trying to oppress readers and authors online, cyber-bullying folks about perfect-right choices like how much sexual aggression they dig in a love scene. . . “ And what about those readers who want to discuss “whether a book is the worst or next-to-worst book of the year”? That might make all hell break loose, especially should the discussion lead to criticism of books. Forget all that high-minded talk about “First Amendment-type discourse” and Justice Douglas’s insistence that free speech should push us out of our comfort zones. Not only does that inhibit “illumination,” it also sets a big “trip-up” for professional scholars who might venture online unsupervised.
See, here’s the thing: if a professional scholar cannot be trusted to apply reasonable levels of intellectual scrutiny to what s/he reads online, that person is in the wrong line of work. It is what we are trained to do. And as a bonus, those of us who were trained in literature are also trained to analyze discourse around books, especially those of us who study popular literature. I can appreciate and admire the pride you take in the community you have created at RBTB (wow, you’re a mere one letter off from SBTB!) and your freedom to run that community any way you like. But it strikes me as unreasonably prescriptive and antithetical to the very principle of inclusion that the Princeton conference was convened to affirm to suggest that the online Romance community outside RBTB is a flaming trash heap of irrelevance.
Because your truth may not be someone else’s, and your definition of civility may not be someone else’s. Certainly, if one element of civility is politeness, I am stunned that you would make the presentation you did with Sarah Wendell in the seat next to yours, especially with the incredibly encompassing and yet exclusive language you employed to offer up RBTB at the expense of online venues that aren’t just like yours. That don’t, for example, accompany information on the Princeton conference with a picture of a young, mostly naked and cut guy with a heart expressing RBTB’s love for Princeton superimposed on his barely-there briefs. For you and your “Bellas,” that might be a wonderful celebration of the genre; for other readers, not so much. Similarly, not every reader wants to engage in a debate about rape in Romance that may get very emotional and, dare I say it, heated. Many readers are shared across blogs, even blogs that are not in tune with each other in style or content. And why should a site need to have the sponsorship of “major companies” to be seen as legitimate; in some circles, especially academic circles, that is cause for suspicion. So thank goodness we – you, me, and everyone — have so much choice online right now!
Seriously, isn’t there enough for everyone? Can’t we all be secure in the knowledge that readers are smart enough to choose what best meets their needs? That doesn’t mean we in the Romance community shouldn’t disagree and debate and even rail at what offends and frustrates us, or that with which we strenuously disagree. How will our knowledge deepen if our views are never challenged? One of the most powerful things that has come out of the online community is the conference at Princeton, and despite the fact that you were instrumental in making that happen, it saddens me that the spirit of inclusion does not seem to extend to those online venues that do not work the way you think they should. Especially when more options merely increase and enrich the marketplace for Romance readers, encourage a diversity of viewpoints, and provide the sort of dynamic exchanges that create exactly the kind of illumination you refer to in your presentation.
Except that it will be different for different people, and it cannot be either pre- or pro-scribed. What you call “nurturing” and see as encouragement might feel confining to others – they might find it stifling rather than liberating. After all, that is your vision, however it is reinforced by your readership. And as right as it may be for you, it is your way, not the way. And whether or not it is the right way depends in part on the goal. If the goal is to build a broad-based, interactive, informed, and engaged community of Romance readers, as you claim, then it seems to me that we need to welcome each other into the conversation, even, and perhaps especially, because of our differences.