Who Can Protect The Best Interest of The Reader?
Anyone who’s spend any length of time on Twitter likely knows about #fridayreads, the hashtag started by Bethanne Patrick, aka The Book Maven, who created, among other things, NPR’s The Book Studio. In fact, I know some people who have actually unfollowed Patrick because of the FridayReads cheerleading, which, admittedly, can get a little intense at times. Still, I’ve always liked FridayReads, not only because it reminds me to share my own book recs on Twitter, but also because it’s an incredible resource for readers looking for new books to try.
And then came Jennifer Weiner. You remember Weiner and Jodi Picoult’s criticism of the NYTBR and other book venues for privileging white male authors and all but ignoring female-authored books. So when Kit Steinkellner blogged a piece for The Book Riot entitled “Why Aren’t Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult Pissed at Jeffrey Eugenides?,” because The Marriage Plot has garnered so much press, including a Times Square billboard, Weiner discerned that Bethanne Patrick was Book Riot’s executive editor and opined to her readers, via Twitter, that perhaps “her readers” should stay away from FridayReads. While she deleted her original tweet, she explains her point to Jane:
From there Weiner began to question FridayReads for its promotional aspect, which caught the attention of the Washington Post and extended to Weiner’s own blog, in which she says,
Nobody’s running a literary blog or magazine to get rich. Most writers who maintain blogs end up losing money, not making it. Should a blogger decide to try to turn their hobby into a paying endeavor, nobody rolls their eyes or clutches their pearls. We’re all used to seeing ads alongside a blog post, or a request for sponsorship on a literary website, or a virtual tip cup at the bottom of a post or a review with a note saying, “Hey, if you like what I’m doing, consider supporting it.” I don’t think anyone begrudges the Fridayread folks the ability to make money from their endeavors, if they’ve found a way to do it honestly.
But honesty matters – to readers, to writers, to bloggers and Twitter users, to those who’ve chosen to monetize their content in a clear and public way, and those who continue to do what they do for community and good karma instead of cash. . . .
I don’t know Bethanne Patrick or her colleagues, except on the Internet…but I believe that you know people through their actions. If they’re honest, if they’re ethical, you can see it in the choices they make. If they aren’t, no amount of indignant insistence otherwise will change your mind.
Patrick responded on her own blog, pointing out that she has tried to keep FridayReads transparent via its FAQ page, which Weiner was, in fact, linking to in her tweets pointing out the promotional elements of the event.
I have what would politely be called a multi-layered response to this fracas. On the most visceral level, while I have read, enjoyed, and recommended several of Weiner’s books, I have long found her a problematic spokesperson for mainstream media’s neglect of women’s fiction. I should probably be grateful that in her call for transparency she was herself pretty clear in connecting her criticism of FridayReads to the personal affront she took at the Book Riot post, which was admittedly snarky and belittling of Wenier and Picoult’s Franzenfreude campaign, part of which included a very clever call for alternate book recommendations, a bit like FridayReads, in fact:
Instead I feel frustration that a woman who has become a de facto spokesperson for the plight of female-written commercial fiction so profoundly personalized her very public Twitter campaign against FridayReads, because that personalization threatens to legitimate the persistent marginalization of female authors as unserious and incapable of taking grown-up criticism (i.e. they weren’t nice to me so I’m not going to be nice to them!). Also, despite Weiner’s insistence that she doesn’t begrudge the FridayReads folks of monetizing the hashtag, her somewhat righteous invocation of the FTC regs and the lecture on honesty and transparency undermine her alleged approval. The irony that she has monetized her own writing and utilizes her own Twitter muddies things a bit, too and undermines the seriousness of even her most valid criticisms.
And then there is the whole “my readers” should stay away from FridayReads because they won’t be welcome, thing, even when it was reconsidered as a recommendation to participate with Weiner’s books, because “[I]magine their nose-hairs curling in rage every time they see mah name!” Weiner’s perception that FridayReads is some kind of ‘place’ where readers are welcome or unwelcome depending on whether the organizers like the authors whose books are being named suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of FridayReads, making Weiner seem more lucky than anything else that she was able to get so much traction on the transparency issue.
Moreover, it’s a problematic construction for readers who don’t just read a single author’s books (i.e. the overwhelming majority of readers). On the one hand Weiner seems to be saying that readers shouldn’t be commercialized by publishers and accusing FridayReads of participating in that process. And yet, how is her own advice and direction to “her readers” any different? In whose interest is it for readers to either fearfully avoid FridayReads or enrage its organizers’ nosehairs by shoving Weiner’s name in their faces? The presumptions alone at work in that choice are immensely problematic for readers to presume to take on as their own.
Which brings me to the “transparency” and “honesty” issue. The fact that Weiner has become so well-known for her off-page commentaries is a testament to the power of social media and the breaking down of certain barriers between authors, publishers, and readers. The viral power of tweets and hashtags have created new opportunities to be notable, noted, and even notorious. Which makes the desire to establish boundaries, guidelines, and transparencies even more understandable and difficult.
As Weiner’s own tweets, with links to Patrick’s FAQ page demonstrate, Patrick wasn’t exactly hiding the promotional aspects of FridayReads. In fact, I was surprised to learn that up until several months ago, Patrick was giving away books from her own collection; I always assumed that the books were donated by publishers, and in fact assumed some kind of publisher support long before the program had any. I am personally less suspect of ventures that rely on the support of multiple publishers, because I am less likely to feel there is a bias, although that does not solve the problem of transparency, per se. I also think that Weiner’s implication that FridayReads (and more specifically Bethanne Patrick) is pimping for publishers weakens her credibility by hyperbolizing the relationship between publishers and FridayReads. She refers to Patrick “selling” books and likens publisher sponsorship to “slipp[ing] … some cash” or “expect[ing] a favor later,” in return for a book recommendation. I don’t see the same intent to deceive that Weiner does, and I do think there’s a substantive difference between trying to bury a connection and failing to disclose obviously enough to meet the expectations of strangers who aren’t necessarily privy to things you may believe are more widely and obviously known. There is a sense of insularity online that can distort in various directions one’s sense of being known and understood, which I think is often in play when these issues arise.
In general, though, I’m not sure how much of a problem there has been with FridayReads’ transparency; that is, if none of the publisher sponsorship was known beyond the FAQ page, would it fundamentally change or diminish the value for readers participating in book recommendations (and potentially winning a randomly awarded free book)? I don’t think so, because I don’t see FridayReads as much different from any other forum in which readers recommend books and have the potential for winning a publisher-donated book. It’s no secret that publishers utilize blogs, messageboards, and social media venues to cull information on reader likes and dislikes and promote their own books, which is presumably their interest in FridayReads, as well. And the disclosure solution turned out to be straightforwardly simple: the #promo hashtag for promotional tweets. But even in absence of that new hashtag, I have to ask: were readers really being duped by potentially false recommendations and publisher payola, or is Weiner the one underestimating readers to serve her very personal interest in FridayReads?
If Weiner has been paying attention to the broader online communities centered on female-authored fiction, she must know that these issues have been under discussion for several years now. I’m not sure how much Weiner actually contributes to the discussion, especially given the emphatically personalized nature of her critique. Which is not to say that this is an unimportant discussion or that we should not all be having it openly and – ideally – civilly, precisely because the online landscape is shifting so dramatically. In academic and literary circles, authors serving as reviewers has been a long-standing tradition. In genre fiction communities, readers, bloggers, and authors are themselves contributing to multiple venues, sometimes for payment: RT Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, USA Today, Macmillan sponsored Tor.com and Heroes and Heartbreakers, New York Journal of Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc. Not every individual is taking special pains to disclose these ventures, and I haven’t seen a lot of accusations of nefarious intent from the general community.
In many ways I think these new opportunities provide genre books with wider recognition and respect, and they provide readers with more venues for discussion. In other ways these relationships provide challenges, because we are all, in fact, reading and talking about commercial fiction, which means that publishers and authors are always looking for ways to capitalize on the independent activities of readers.
Although Weiner has bristled at the suggestion that some of her soapboxing has a mercenary intention, I don’t find the charge particularly objectionable. After all, I assume that authors move through their careers with self-interest their primary driver. Ditto publishers. And, ideally, readers, too, should be looking out for their own self-interest, which may not be the same for every reader, even if it is identifiable across readers generally. And along with the concerns regarding disclosure and transparency in this new reading and writing environment, I think we also need to be talking about ways to protect the self-interest of readers, just as we take that for granted with authors and publishers. And in many ways, having readers participate more broadly and more formally in book discussions – through blogging, reviewing, and other ventures – opens up more spaces into which readers can identify and pursue their own interests as readers. The concern that bloggers, reviewers, and readers are somehow becoming the pawns of publishers, for example, is not insignificant or irrational, but I think we need to look at the flipside, as well – in the ways that readers can remain just as self-interested as we believe authors can be, even if they’re receiving free arcs, advertising money, or even pay for reviews and/or blog posts.
Currently there is a good deal of justifiable suspicion and confusion regarding the short and long-term effects of all this boundary destruction. Rules, such as they are, have been applied haphazardly, and lines of “acceptable” behavior continue to shift, both for individuals and across communities. Still, if readers are going to maintain their own independent interests, which is more likely to make that happen: refusing to participate in FridayReads or reviewing books for the USA Today Romance blog? Or perhaps that’s an unfair way to pose the question. Let me ask it this way, instead: can readers commercialize their own self-interest as a way to preserve their independence?