Books have long been my refuge from the crazy, ugly real world. Now parts of the online reading community are eroding that safe place.
Books have long been my refuge from the crazy, ugly real world. Now parts of the online reading community are eroding that safe place. 2014 was not a very good year for the reader. Readers were stalked and the stalking was celebrated in a major newspaper. There were dozens of smaller skirmishes and many vocal rallying cries for uncritical support of books and authors. There was a drumbeat, particularly from self-published authors, that readers exist to support the author.
It was also a year in which women were under attack. From being referred to as “binders full of women” to the horrific display of misogyny toward female gamers and gaming developers, the online community seemed especially vile. And it spilled over into the book community with regular ad hominem attacks being lobbed at readers for their reading choices, which had little to do with the books themselves for many times the critics hadn’t even read the books in question. Instead the ad hominem attacks had more to do with the fact that the online discussion wasn’t about the books they felt were stronger, better, worthier than these lesser ones being elevated and praised. Or it was authors who felt that readers didn’t appreciate or understand their work OR worse, assumed that the reader who didn’t like their work had a secret, evil agenda to bring that author down.
It’s enough to want to crawl back into one’s turtle shell and hide.
Dear Author is coming up on nine years of existence. It was established in April 2006 by Jayne and I, because we wanted to talk about books, and specifically we wanted to talk about books with other readers. That it has grown into what it is now pretty much astounds the both of us. Over the years I’ve made mistakes, mostly because I felt like I was still talking to my five friends about books.
And as Dear Author has grown, so have the headaches (and I’m not even talking about the lawsuit), to the extent that I’ve privately told individuals that I’m ready to throw in the towel and walk away from the blog. I’m not going to but I have those feelings. I’m sure many of you have those feelings, because you’ve shared with me your frustration and discontent with the online community, with social media, with the constant negativity in countless emails.
Internally, DA has had discussions about making a safe place for readers where we can talk without fear of reprisal. After weeks of thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak about books. It’s books. How did discussions about books become so fraught and dangerous that we have to hide away? I mean, that’s a bit ridiculous and a lot tragic, right?
Ultimately I understand that we want to talk about the books we love and those we don’t without judgment of us as people. From what I hear from others, we want to be able to share our feelings–both love and hate–without pissing people off. And I guess the question is whether that’s a reasonable expectation.
The community of readers, authors, and bloggers is smaller than we think and larger than we are willing to acknowledge, but no matter the size, it is still intimate. We are connected through a hundred threads from one reader to another to an author to a blogger and the impact runs down those thin vibrating wires long after the first explosion.
And if we cannot separate the personal from the impersonal, we all get our feelings hurt. Even me. Frustration, anger, lack of understanding, and desire to protect our friends all play a part in how we interact. This is not to say that it is the recipient’s fault but rather that each of us need to learn to separate the personal from the impersonal. That we focus on what’s said and what’s written instead of the person behind the words. Meaning when we make a comment online, we address the letters on the page.
I’m not free from those feelings of “What did you see in this book?” Everyone has those feelings but the best way to engage and to allow ourselves to have robust conversations is to assume that the other person on the other end of the computer has the best intentions. Sarah Wendell and I rarely agree on any book. If you listen to our podcasts we have wildly divergent opinions on books and oftentimes, even when we both like the book it is not for the same reasons. However, we are able to respect each other despite holding strong opinions that we are right and the other person wrong.
I can ask the question “what did you see in this book?” with true incredulity to Sarah and she will not be offended. In fact, she will be excited to share with me what she liked about it. And it is the same for me as well. I am sure she has questioned my devotion and love for certain books. Truly, I question my own love and affection for certain books. But I know that Sarah respects me no matter what at the end of the day.
There are authors who write books that I do not like. I really need to work hard separating the book from the author and understand that even if the author should choose to write something that I find personally offensive, it does not mean the author is personally offensive. Similarly, because the reader doesn’t like the book doesn’t mean that she is dumb or offensive or doesn’t get it.
My hope for 2015 is this–that we can return to the topic of books and the issues surrounding books while operating under the belief that the other party with whom we are engaged in spirited debate has the best intentions.
This is not to say that there aren’t some people out there that are terrible human beings. There are. And some people have shown conduct repeatedly online that is juvenile, immature, and not worthy of debate. Ignore them. Answer the people you respect and admire and leave the others behind.
We can do better as a blog, and as a community, to make reading our safe place. Let’s have 2015 be the year we can disagree as adults and still be friends or at least readers with a common interest of loving books.