I hope everyone is having a happy New Year and that for all, the coming year is better than the one just passed. We’ve got a couple of terrific columns planned for this month. Next time Robin will be bringing you her annual “buried treasures” column and kicking off our annual reader’s poll which, for the first time, will include a category for favorite short story.
This column will focus on the “anger phenomenon” I’ve noticed between readers and authors on the Internet. Not only is this tremendously sad, but I believe it is systemic. Several readers and authors have sent me their thoughts on the subject; all will be presented below.
Anger on the Internet
After a message board discussion eventually turned unpleasant in early December, I started to think about what causes anger among the online romance community. I’ve shared many times my experience starting the Prodigy Romance Listserv in 1997 (now AARlist), but bear with me as I re-tell it.
When the Prodigy List was in its infancy – throughout its first year – it was far more intimate than it is today. While there are now roughly 800 members, there were less than 200 members in that first year. Many were readers and many were authors, and all the authors wore their readers hats when they posted. I’m going to assume they found it fairly easy to do so as they did it so very often.
Fairly early on there was a marvelous discussion on wallbangers; both readers and authors eagerly participated and though there were two distinct “camps” throughout the discussion, the tone and content was adult and helpful. There were no flames and no defensiveness, just a free and open exchange of ideas. I do not believe that discussion could happen today, which I find very sad.
Intimacy alone, however, does not explain why that discussion could not happen today. There is simply too much anger involved, which is ironic when you consider the books that bring us together are romance novels. We’ve talked around the anger idea before, but I don’t know that we’ve ever really delved into it at a systemic level. I think we need to and will begin the process here.
If you’ve read my commentary long enough, you’ll know that I believe today’s romance authors have been insulated from mainstream criticism of their work because the number one publication devoted to romance novels is a fanzine. Which means that when sites such as AAR began to post reviews not based on the premise that all published books are at the very least “acceptable,” many authors did not know what to do and how to behave. The immediacy of the Internet compounded problems as some authors who complained badly (and some complained very, very badly!) had their complaints forwarded ’round the world in hours through discussion lists, message boards, and private e-mail.
For readers, however, sites such as AAR were what they’d been waiting for years – or since they realized RT-type reviews were encoded at best and PR blurbables at worst. For instance, 25 of the 33 historical romances reviewed in the December 2001 issue of RT received a rating of 4 or 4+ and the remaining 8 books received a rating of 3, which is considered “very good.” (Apparently no historical romance published in December was simply “good” or “acceptable.”) In reading some of those reviews, it’s difficult to tell without reading very carefully between the lines just why some of those books received a 3 as opposed to a 4. It is precisely because of these reviewing practices that readers come to sites like AAR, join lists like AARlist, and get what they crave, which is interesting, two-way discourse with intelligent people who love what they love – the reading and discussion of romance novels.
And it all seemed to work okay until a subtle change began to cast a shadow. Some of the very same authors who were able to at least talk about the negatives in the genre no longer felt able to do so. More and more private email from authors came to me asking that I keep their names separate from their comments, as though it was considered a betrayal of the author sisterhood to say something negative or to even admit that they enjoyed the site and in particular, the reviews.
At the same time, some authors posted very publicly when readers tried to begin to talk about books they didn’t care for. In time, readers were talking among themselves about Author X or Author Y and how they inevitably stifled discussions that weren’t wholly positive. What seemed worse was that the very excitement of being on a discussion list with an author or participating with an author on a message board seemed to have diminished for many readers, who felt that merely by the presence of authors, open and honest dialogue about the merits of a book was not possible. (Which was why, btw, we created canwetalk, AAR’s second discussion list – for readers only. There have been author-only discussion lists for a longer period of time, and those seem to me to be the perfect place for authors to vent to one another and to support one another.)
That cast shadow was no longer subtle, it had gotten darker and deeper and a sense of militancy had become ingrained no matter where you looked. As publisher of AAR, whenever I post reviews by certain authors, I know their friends, fans, local RWA chapter members, (and even, upon occasion, family members), will become involved. Any true discussion of the book is lost as those who happen by try to figure out why a review or a post caused such a furor.
None of what I’ve detailed thus far is new to anyone here, I’ll bet. I’ll also bet that the reason things are getting worse rather than better is that we haven’t dug deep enough to figure out what’s going on underneath all this. It’s more than just authors defending themselves and their friends and colleagues, and it’s more than just readers wanting to be able to talk freely without feeling stifled by those who tell them it’s wrong to talk so negatively about someone’s blood, sweat, and tears. What it really is, I think, is a publishing industry doing a disservice not only to its authors, but its customers through greed and carelessness.
Saying that a business is greedy and careless is not exactly earth-shattering news, I know, but when a business deals in the commerce of a creative art and instead of focusing on the art itself focuses more on the commerce, there’s bound to be a problem. Here’s what I think that problem is: there are too many romances published each and every month and quantity has become more important than quality. There are nearly 150 romances published on a monthly basis. With huge numbers like that, a large number are bound to not be very good. Indeed, if a basic bell curve were applied to this number, 60 of the 150 would be below average and another 30 would simply be average. Added together and the result is that fewer than half of the romances published each month are above average.
Granted, this bell curve would result in similar percentages regardless of the number of romances published, but it’s the overwhelming volume that exacerbates the problem of mediocrity, sameness, and bad books. I understand it’s very difficult to get published to begin with, but once a contract is signed, it seems to this outsider that all those authors who write mediocre or bad books are told by their editors, publishers, colleagues, and friends that their books are terrific. RT tells them their book is, at the very least, acceptable. So how come there are readers and web sites that say their book isn’t terrific, that it’s mediocre, the same as 20 others released that month, or worse?
On the other hand, who hasn’t heard of the mid-list crisis over the past several years? Without buying and publishing books of new authors, who will replace other authors who are at the ends of their careers? It’s quite a quandary, I’ll admit, but one of their own making, the publishing industry, I mean. Some new authors are paid less for their manuscript than the cover artist receives for creating the front cover. Some authors are quite proud of the fact that their work “wasn’t edited at all!” before being published. And, as I wrote in the last issue of ATBF, some authors are invited to participate in book series’ thought up by an editor based on a gimmick rather than a true idea (think “high concept” movie).
The result is that too many books are published before their time or shouldn’t have been published at all. And romance readers, who tend to buy a lot of books and now must plunk down sometimes $7 or $8 per paperback, are not happy campers. And when a review, say, at AAR, states that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, some readers are glad to know someone has put into words exactly what they feel. And when an author ventures into this dangerous territory, their every last deed is remembered: didn’t they say something snide the last time they received a negative review? Didn’t they say something somebody didn’t care for the last time one of their colleagues received a negative review? And so it goes.
The flip side, of course, is that without the vast numbers of romances being published, there wouldn’t be enough variety to satisfy everyone. Well, guess what? Quantity does not equal variety. Of the more than 80 series titles, for instance, being offered in January, can we honestly say that all the baby, secret baby, cowboy/rancher, and spy romances offer tremendous variety of simply more of the same? This same argument can be extended beyond the series romance realm and into single title releases, at least according to a current thread on our Potpourri Message Board right now about the sameness of books being released by Avon.
My solution to this problem would be multi-pronged for publishers:
Publish fewer books;
Not to think of readers as mindless consumers who will buy a packaged product as though we’re going to vote the straight party line in an election; and
Spend more time, money, and effort developing authors.
There are a couple more items on my list and they pertain to authors. Until the underlying cause is dealt with, authors need to know that, fair or not, a segment of the online romance reading community is angry and will focus that anger on authors if they are not perceived to handle criticism well. And, also fair or not – but true – because authors are selling a product, they are held to a higher standard in public forums than readers are. All of which means that charting a course through a site such as AAR can be difficult and not everyone who posts to its message boards does so effectively.
The Online Community Weighs In
In an effort to help get to the bottom of this well of anger, I asked the AAR community to help me explore the following:
“My sense is that the anger is systemic; authors who are used to being treated with RT-type kid gloves are butting up against anger by many readers who believe they are being forced to accept sometimes sub-standard books as good. I would love the chance to work with anyone on developing this theory of mine, be they authors or readers.”
Five members of the community responded. First was Sandy Creelman aka Sandy C, then Jill Rosenberg, both of whom are readers. Then came June Robertson, who straddles the fence as an as-yet unpublished RWA member. At the same time, I heard from Eileen Wilks, series romance author and an AAR-designated “buried treasure,” and author Tracy Cooper-Posey. Each has written their thoughts on this subject, each from their own vantagepoint. You may not agree with their comments any more than you agree with mine, but I think the picture presented here is not one-sided in that it begins to attempt to provide a basis for understanding. I hope that more readers and authors will participate in this discussion over the next two weeks on our message board.
When you come right down to it, it is rather absurd – isn’t it? – for there to be even occasionally a strong level of animosity over words written to entertain us? If we were arguing over Kashmir from the perspective of the Pakistanis and the Indians I could better understand, so let’s all take a chill pill, take a deep breath, and begin reading. Oh, one final thing – everyone who participated in this column has a different view of AAR and how our boards function. That might make a difference in how their pieces are conveyed. First up is Sandy C.
Where is All the Anger From?
I don’t think your theory represents the total picture. There are two or three other factors at work.
Is it really just writers, who have been treated with those kid gloves and who are unable to cope publicly with reader honesty or is it something more, something more manipulative and its backfiring somewhat? If it were just reader and reviewer honesty that they had to cope with, I would think this would not be such a big problem. However, in a public forum, that is not what they are coping with and they know it, you know and I know it. We are talking about sales here and the affect that public forum is having on sales. In some cases, are we are looking at possible manipulation of that publicness to boost sales or at least affect it so that is does not harm sales.
I think the writers are expecting readers to be what they are not. Publicity agents. In some cases we enjoy the books and by discussing a good book that may help to promote a book. But it works both ways. If we dislike a book we are going to say so. Some writers do not feel we should have that right unless we only say positive things.
The fact that many readers are simply tired of being openly treated as dumb consumers and/or manipulated into silence by the industry or made to feel guilty because we like to discuss the books we have paid for and read. This is something that is different than just buying sub-standard books.
Publishers and writers hate honest reviews, or to the point, low rated reviews because they believe it hurts sales. They dislike open discussion of those bad reviews because that means that people are paying attention to the review because they believe it hurts sales. And let’s be honest here – its about sales – not creativity. Its no longer about creativity until the writer has a certain amount of power. Unfortunately, in some cases, after they have had that power for a while, they seem to lose the creativity and become complacent. So they are back to square one again.
Heres a multiple-choice question for an author: You are a writer of a novel that has just received a D by AAR. And worst of all, they have a really serious thread about the book going on at the Reviews Message Board, where the readers are discussing the reasons they disliked the book. What a nightmare! You:
1. Join the discussion and politely explain your motivation for writing what you wrote or how you wrote it. You do so with the understanding that it may not make a difference or sway opinion.
2. All of 1 above. When you are not able to convince the posters that what you said makes a difference or cant seem to change their mind you say oh well you cant please everyone and/or its no skin off my back if you didnt like my book.
3. All of or part of 1 and 2 above and counter-attack the idiots picking apart your work. They have no right to be so cruel and I have every right to defend myself. And you are hurting the romance industry by trashing books in a public forum or How disrespectful can you get?
4. Doing all or any part of 1,2,3 with the idea of Well if its going to get a bad review maybe if I stir up enough controversy here it will increase sales.
A writer who acts under the 1st choice and the 1st choice only will usually have no problem. They clearly feel a need to defend or discuss motivating factors about their work but do so in a non-confrontational manner. They remember that it is a public forum that really is for readers and reviewers to discuss the books and the reviews. They hope that by doing so someone will read it and be interested enough to buy the book anyway. They do not hang around and respond to every poster. Every time I have seen a writer try to hang around and defend themselves to every poster the situation has degenerated into one of the other scenarios.
A writer who acts under the 2nd choice may have saved her pride but has put readers on the defensive by basically telling them: I really dont care what you think. Which of course causes the reader to say: Well, why in the Sam hell did you post?
A writer that acts under the 3rd choice has made matters worse. In essence, the readers believe they’ve been called idiots and that their free speech has been called into question at a venue dedicated to them having a place of free discussion about books.
A writer that acts under the 4th choice just manipulated the readers. Unfortunately, the reaction from those angry posters will last quite a long time. I mean you just told the people that shelled out $$$ for your book that you could care less about what they think, that they are idiots, but let me use this to make a sale. How angry do you think they should be?
Readers understand that writers do not want bad reviews. We also understand that discussing a book that some have called badly written is painful for a writer to see or read. But I will defend our right to discuss books we have bought without censorship or guilt in a public forum that has been set up for that purpose. I paid for the right to explain why I feel a book is well or poorly written when I bought it; as long as I do so without being personal, I don’t see a problem.
Many of us enjoy interacting with authors in certain forums such as fan boards and on other boards at AAR on special topics. But in areas of serious discussion about reviews and books, many readers do not feel comfortable having a serious debate about a book with its writer looking over their shoulder. When a writer does interact, they choose to do so in a public forum. They will earn respect if they handle themselves well; if not, to readers who are simply discussing the book they will appear like a spoiled artist with a bad attitude. As a result they will be treated like a petulant child because they have forgotten the purpose of the board. Regardless of the affect on their sales, the purpose of the board is for readers to interact with reviewers and other readers about the books and reviews.
I know there is really no solution to this problem. As long as AAR is a site for honest reviews and open discussion, writers with low reviews are going to be angry and worried. How they choose to handle or cope with that is the problem. Readers love discussing books online with other readers. We love debating the good points and the bad points. What kind of interaction and debate can you have when all you talk about is great books? Its the differences of opinion that I think supports creativity and ideas This is so totally foreign to that sisterhood concept writers talk about. That concept supports the idea that if we all say we are happy and positive, then the whole world will be happy and positive. How do we let publishers know that trends they are promoting are not working?
Online discussion of books will not go away; publishers and writers cant control it. It used to be local readers groups that satisfied this need. The ‘Net opened it all up. What they do not understand is that if AAR were to shut down tomorrow, another site would eventually pop up. AARs popularity and longevity is because of its commitment to serving readers has been steadfast. Some writers question the right for such sites to even exist.
RT chose to give authors and publishers a certain safety zone in respect to the work that is published. I think this hurts the romance industry so very much. It shows a lack of respect for the work in general and a lack of respect to the consumer that magazine is targeting. There is a clear line that is drawn and that line does not include or conceive of a bad book. How effective is a great rating if there is nothing lower than acceptable? The magazine has become for many of us just one big advertisement. I havent really looked or taken the reviews seriously in years and believe it sends a dangerous signal to the rest of the industry that romance writers cant be seriously reviewed and therefore taken seriously.
But is this really at the bottom of that anger today? I think that boards like those at AAR have been around long enough and have achieved enough notice that writers have had ample time to learn to deal with them. That they are still trying to stifle them by throwing out comments like you are hurting or not supporting the industry tells me that they still have some hope of doing away with them and therefore are not ready to be taken seriously as a writer. I liked the comment that was something along the lines of do you think a NY Times critic is worried about the writers feelings when they review a book? And she/he probably didnt even pay for the damn book.
I think the anger has more to do with the perceived impact of message boards on sales; open discussion seems to be a threat to the industry and to writers. Readers feel the need to discuss good and bad books in an atmosphere that promotes open discussion. As long as writers challenge our right to do so and/or they take us to task for doing so there is going to be anger.
I Don’t Get It
I think when a discussion combusts like one did last month at AAR there has to be some fuel lying around, and a healthy spark to set it off. Therefore, there must be anger lying underneath the discussions somewhere.
I tried three times to write an analysis of where such anger might come from and each time all I could create was unsubstantiated supposition and amateur psychoanalysis – both of which sounded arrogant even to my ears. In the end, therefore, I decided to return only to my own feelings. These may still sound like lecturing – that isn’t intended, but if that’s how it is read … oh well.
Am I angry? No. I’m not. If I sit quietly in my brain and wait no furry little monsters appear – I can’t even seem to coax any out from the corners. I simply don’t understand what there is to be angry about.
The avenues for talking about romance novels have expanded with the Internet so that there is now a place for everyone. The industry itself has a healthy percentage of the mass-market paperback market. Even though I complain, as do others, about this or that “type” of heroine or hero and certainly think we could use some new locals in historicals, the scope of Romance has widened. In the eighties it sometimes felt like one size was supposed to fit all readers. Now, the choices range from sweet-sweet inspirationals to erotica. Once taboo subjects are open for writers to explore. Yet still, the old style survives for those who like it.
So why the anger?
Some have suggested that authors are angry because they are used to being pampered by RT’s style of “soft” reviews. I suppose – maybe. But, I think about my author friends and shake my head. I think about my own attempts to be published and shake it some more. You know, just going through the experience of critique-groups, contest losses, and editor rejections has put a suit of armor around my ego a dragon would have trouble shredding. My writer friends are tough. The fact that someone they don’t even know writes a review that says, “Your book sucks”, isn’t going to give them more than a sting – and AAR reviews are much gentler than “Your book sucks.”
Authors contend with editors who shred their work before it’s published, with “fan” letters that are little time-bombs waiting in their mailboxes to explode with “You suck and I wish you would die” (no, I’m not exaggerating). And, let’s for one minute look logically at those RT reviews. Does anyone with the brains of an ant read those and think, “Yeah, a ‘1’ means ‘acceptable'”? Look, whether it is AAR or RT, the reviewer had 5 choices for “grade” on a book. In RT those are 5 – 1 and at AAR they are A – F, but the point is still the same. If a reviewer reads your book and assigns it the lowest score they are saying, “Your book isn’t any good” and the niceties associated with RT’s ratings don’t really mean anything at all. Rather, as an author, I’d be more concerned about a RT score because it reaches a larger audience and, presumably, more people will use that rating to decide whether to buy a book.
Okay, so I still don’t understand why authors would be angry. But, I’m not published yet, so maybe I’m missing something here.
What about readers? I am a reader and have been for over 20 years? What have we got to be angry about?
That someone is going to take away my ‘close personal relationship’ with authors? First off, if I have a close personal relationship with an author it is based on a whole lot more than whether I visit and post on AAR. If my relationship is based on visiting authors on web-sites such as these, that’s fine (I do have those kinds of relationships with authors too!). But, if AAR drives an author away, there will be some other site I can visit them on. If the author is hanging around to talk to me, well, then she’s getting something out of the relationship too (ego-boost when she’s down, maybe? Everyone needs that!). So, why get all bent out of shape? I still don’t get it.
Maybe people are just protecting their favorite authors’ feelings. If so, refer back a few paragraphs. Authors are tough. It’s okay to be offended and such, but one can be civil about it. No reason to go on a verbal crusade.
Does someone think that they are going to lose their rights to express their opinions here? I suppose a threat to my civil rights would get me riled up too. But, that’s just not going to happen. The fact that someone posts: “Shut up! No one wants to hear you!” doesn’t give them the power to make anyone comply with their demand. All it’s likely to do is get their own post deleted. And posting something like: “I have given your demand due consideration and, no, I will not comply” – well, that could feel kind of good in that self-righteous, moral-high-road sort of way.
The right to speak one’s mind about books and plot lines and such isn’t going to vanish. There is no reason to panic and get all hot about that.
These are the only reasons I can think of for a person to be angry, and they don’t make a lot of sense to me. Maybe it’s just that emotions aren’t supposed to make a lot of sense. But, that doesn’t hold too well with me either. One of the things we are supposed to have learned by the time we become adults is to temper our emotions with reason. We are supposed to be able to stop, think, and revise our emotional response according to whether it is logical and appropriate. We are supposed to be past yelling “You suck!” on the play yard like a bunch of 10-year-olds.
And still, there is this unmistakable sense of anger around. Is it illusion? Or is there really some legitimate anger roaring around here. What am I missing?
The Customer is Always Right
A friction exists between readers and authors. This friction and anger can only be a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. Why does this friction exist? I admit that I am viewing the friction from a readers perspective. But I do believe that this is a situation of know your place.
The Question: What is that place? Is it different for the reader than for the author?
The Answer: The short answer to this question is yes. The authors place is much more restrictive than that of the reader.
Lets take a closer look at the situation. Anger arises from the behavior exhibited by authors and readers. Readers may provoke authors and authors may provoke readers. A message board suddenly ignites and there is no asbestos suit in sight. Readers become upset with authors who make provocative statements and vice versa. A poster invariably enters the fray as a peacemaker of sorts and announces the obligation for all authors and readers to behave in a respectful manner. But such peace making efforts have as much an effect as a band-aid for a broken leg. Authors are angry and readers are angry. Authors are angry that readers would be rude and attack them and readers are angry that authors become snarky and provocative with respect to any negative comments made about their work. Both readers and authors believe that the standards of behavior require the other party to behave in a manner that will not provoke the other. Thus readers should only post positive comments and authors would respond with saccharine doses of appreciation. Yet this is not the appropriate relationship for authors and readers.
The relationship between authors and readers is one of seller and consumer. The authors are selling a product and the consumer is purchasing such product. Authors make money by selling to consumers and consumers are willing to part with their money for a product that satisfies their expectations. In other words, the author is in business and that business is selling books for profit.
Based upon the relationship between authors and readers as seller of a product and customer, readers who expect authors to behave in a professional manner are right. Authors that believe readers are required to behave in a professional manner are wrong. The issue is that black and white. As any businessperson will inform you: The customer is always right.
We all know that this adage is not to be taken literally. It is the rationale behind this adage that must be followed for a business to succeed. To make money, one must satisfy ones customers. This is true irrespective whether one is in retail, sells wholesale, provides a service to a client (i.e. doctor, lawyer, engineer), or sells intellectual property (i.e. books and music). How many times have we observed an irate customer? This person may yell and become obnoxious. The businessperson attempts to calm the customer down and satisfy the customer. The businessperson does not respond with the same behavior exhibited by the customer. The businessperson stays in business by not losing said customer and other customers by exhibiting bad behavior.
The reader is the customer. The author is the businessperson. The author is selling a product to make money. That product is his/her novel. The author is therefore required to behave in accordance with the standards of professional conduct. Failure to do so, will not only alienate the reader on the receiving end of the authors behavior but other readers who are angered by how they perceive the authors behavior. The potential consequence to the author is a loss of readership and therefore a loss of income.
Is it appropriate for a book to be critiqued as is any product on the market? Yes. It is appropriate to discuss the weaknesses and strengths of such product? Yes. But if the businessperson expresses his/her displeasure over negative critiques of its product, he/she must be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Is it good manners for a reader to make personal potshots at an author and potentially anger or hurt the failings of the author? No. But the behavior of the reader is irrelevant. The reader is not trying to sell anything. Other readers may become angry at the behavior of a reader behaving badly but there are no economic consequences to the reader. The reader is not in business. The author is.
Lets all say together, “This is not fair!
Thats right folks. Its not fair.
Newsflash: Life is not fair.
I am in no way condoning poor, rude and hurtful behavior by readers. We should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated (or so my mother has continuously told me over the years and she would never lie to me). But the bottom line is that the author is the one selling a product, not the reader and the author has a lot more to lose. I can say from personal experience that I have been soured on a couple of authors based upon the behavior of the authors. Those authors broke the golden rule in business: The Customer is always right.
The readers are not the support group for the authors. The readers are the economic authors life blood. Sites such as AAR provide opportunities for reader and authors to discuss books. The goal being lively discussions about books and the qualities thereof, not to provoke board wars. So to that end lets all read and discuss.
The Dangers of
Okay, I don’t mind trying to answer this but I have to qualify my answer up front: On one hand, I don’t spend any time on public chat boards, although I’ve surfed through, and I’ve been a member of discussion lists that have readers and writers.
On the other hand, two facts make me ideally suited to answer this question: 1) I’ve been to reader conventions (primarily RT) where readers and writers mix in person. 2) I met my husband on the Internet and we courted by email, before I moved from Australia to Canada to marry him, so I know something about maintaining a relationship via electronic messages.
Having laid the base, let me tackle the rest.
Authors in this decade have the unique advantage of marketing their books directly to thousands of readers, in one-on-one sales pitches, every time they send out email or post to a message board. There are a lot of authors on-line – the Internet is the perfect medium because everything is communicated via the written word, and authors revel in it. That makes a lot of authors out there, mixing it with the electronically oriented readers, directly and personally. And for readers, this could be a major bonus for them – they have two-way dialogue with their favorite authors and get to know them a little. Having had my own author-idols, and wishing I could spend just five minutes in their company, I can see how meeting them on-line would be incredibly attractive to readers. The reason for the flame-wars, though, is two-fold: Badly composed messages, and authors stepping out of their expected role. Let me explain this.
Messages on the Internet have a high probability of being misinterpreted by the receiver, who doesn’t know the sender/poster intimately enough to understand the meaning behind the words. I’ve had a lot of experience with this. I maintain online relationships with family members back in Australia, and I’m still best friends with my best friend in Australia, to say nothing of meeting and getting to know my husband on-line. I’ve been a member of a lot of discussion groups, and seen flame wars break out. I’ve even been singed myself on more than one occasion, and usually, I’ve been surprised by the outbreak of hostilities, because I wasn’t aware that my words could be interpreted another way. Unfortunately, too many messages tend to be dashed off quickly, and often posted or sent without a re-read. This is especially true when your emotions are running high, and you simply want to kick back at the person who just scraped your feelings raw with their livid remarks. I’ve done that, and lived to regret it deeply. I know I’m not the only one with that regret.
Everyone dashes off quick posts. Everyone. Including authors, whom most readers believe are expert in saying exactly what they mean, with no chance of misinterpretation. Therefore, what the reader interprets must bee what the author intended. Readers, as non-writers, shouldn’t be expected to tap out thoughtfully composed, carefully orchestrated messages – after all, the thinking nearly always goes, it’s just a post. Everyone’s always casual because that’s part of the fun of the Internet, right?
The trouble starts because authors fall into the same habit of expectation, and respond in the same fashion. They forget that they are authors. They’re probably sitting at home in their pjs, their favorite coffee cup at their elbow, sans makeup/unshaved, feeling like anything but a glamorous author – and the reader doesn’t know that.
I’ve been to numerous reader conventions and watched some of the really big names in the industry meet and mingle with readers. The readers are there to meet their favorite authors, and even if they don’t admit it aloud, they want glamour and mystique – especially in the romance industry. They don’t mind finding out that the author is delightfully human. But “human” means the positive side of human. Readers love that their big name authors have a sense of humor, love to dance, secretly adore Bing Crosby, have a fondness for Moet Chandon, whatever the foible, so long as it’s positive. Yet they still want the glamour, the extraordinariness. The foibles may even add to the glamour. Readers enjoy authors’ book more if there is something a little bit extraordinary about the author. That degree of extraordinariness is what allows the reader to relax and maintain their confidence that the author isn’t going to let them down. Seeing the warts and all side of an author can be disconcerting for the reader for it tells him that the author can make mistakes. They can screw up. The author will have to work much harder with the next book to get that reader to let down their guard, suspend disbelieve and enter the story world completely. That reader confidence in the author is such a delicate thing.
Especially in the romance industry, authors are very good at giving the reader that extra something. In person, the exceptional authors never forget that they are authors, that they are in a professional role and should not step out of that role regardless of the provocation. The last thing they would do if a reader harangued them would be to put their hands on their hips and trade insult for insult. Yet that’s exactly what you see on-line, day after day. To my mind, this is a cardinal sin that some authors are committing, and it damages the industry as a whole.
I’m not at all surprised to hear that reader-only lists are becoming more popular – readers want a place where they can criticize poor novels in relative security. Author-only lists should serve a similar role – a place where authors can let down their hair and be human, kvetch with the best of them. There is a place for reader + writer lists; but authors should approach them with the same wariness they would a basket of rattlesnakes or a minefield. Or, to put it in a more positive perspective, authors should participate in reader & writer lists in the same professional-author mode they would use at conventions.
To be completely fair, many author do maintain a completely professional presence on the ‘Net. It’s the few that, in a hot moment of hurt feelings, forget their designated role and strike back, that create the problem. I was one of them, and have since reduced my activities on the net to a few trusted email discussion groups (primarily writers’ groups) where I lurk a lot, and only occasionally reach out. I do, however, still answer email from readers who email me directly, and I’m very careful with my responses.
The Internet provides too many methods for ticked-off readers to get even in a way that can permanently damage an author’s career. I’ve seen readers lodge insulting reviews on Amazon, to get even, and Amazon will not remove even blatantly personal attacks on the author because the reader has a right to voice an opinion. Long after the reader has forgotten the sting, the writer will continue to feel the heat. (I no longer read my reader reviews on Amazon, either. It ruffles my feelings too much.) And those reader-only lists where ticked-off readers bitch about authors who have fallen off the pedestal are archived and available for even the most casual passer-by with a good search engine. As Julia Roberts explained in Notting Hill (and I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Those pictures will get filed. Every time anyone writes a story about me, they’ll find those pictures. They’ll be around for ever. I’ll regret this forever.”
It would be nice to be able to shake my finger and say that readers have an awesome power on the net, and should therefore carry a corresponding responsibility, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not up to the reader to understand the reader-writer relationship, or to make allowances when an author forgets it. The reader’s only commitment is to pay for the book if they want to read it. The reader’s expectation is to be entertained. Period. Authors must understand the unspoken contract to entertain the reader. That commitment carries expectations with it, including the responsibility to behave professionally at all times. To behave in any other way jeopardizes the reader-writer relationship and whatever consequences arise from forgetting that, they are deserved.
The Idea is Preposterous!
Is there some deep, systemic anger between readers and writers – something intrinsic to the relationship between author and reader? My first reaction to this question was something along the lines of: “Huh?” Tension is intrinsic to some relationships – like that between private and drill instructor, for example. Or actor and movie critic. But there’s no hostility built into the relationship between reader and writer, so I had some difficulty understanding what Laurie was driving at.
Having read the column now (all of us were privy to the column in its entirety some days ago and Laurie allowed me to be “the anchor”), I think I understand – and disagree. In my opinion, there is no common well of anger to explore and understand.
Writers are emotional beings. Especially fiction writers. If we weren’t, we’d be writing crossword puzzles. Of course, we’re also supposed to be smart, savvy professionals who know better than to debate with a reader over her experience of one of our books – whoops. Some of us may have slipped up here, judging by what others have reported in this column. I agree that it is unprofessional (and fairly stupid) for a writer to debate with a reader publicly about the quality of the writer’s work. When a reader has a bad experience with a book, no amount of explanation will change that experience. But how many writers are doing this? Think about how many romances are published every year. Hundreds, right? Now think about how many spats you’ve seen spring up between readers and writers on the Internet this past year. Twenty? Ten? Less, or more? I think the numbers alone show that we aren’t talking about an underlying angry reality. We’re talking about occasional incidents when individuals said things they shouldn’t or misunderstood what someone else said – something about as common in cyberspace as fleas on a dog.
Certainly moments of angst or aggravation occur between readers and writers. Readers can feel betrayed by a favorite author who leaves them in some way – by writing a different type of book, using language or plot elements they aren’t comfortable with, or just generally letting them down. I do understand that feeling. Reading is such an intimate way of experiencing stories – a sort of co-creation between the writer’s words and the reader’s imagination that takes place inside our heads and hearts. Readers often feel they own a book or series of books to some degree because they’ve invested their emotions in the story and the characters. Donning my reader’s cap for a moment, I know I feel that way about some of my favorite characters in other people’s books! (And have strong opinions about whether Stephanie should get together with Ranger instead of Joe. )
I should admit that I haven’t seen the kind of ugly exchanges between readers and writers that others have referred to. I hang out on AARlist, and exchanges there are almost always civil, thoughtful, and a pleasure to participate in; I seldom visit the message boards. But I’m not surprised that there is a need for reader-only discussion lists – actually, I was surprised (and pleased) when I learned that writers were welcome on a readers’ list at all. Of course some readers are going to want a list where they can post without worrying about hurting or offending some author – or that author’s critique partner, best friend, etc. Even if the authors on a list are invariably thoughtful and non-defensive (that’s me, surely?) our presence has an effect. An online community is built by the people who participate in it, so a readers-only list will form a different kind of community than one where both readers and authors congregate. Not better, not worse, just different. (Of course, some people never master the “civil exchange of opinions” bit, so any disagreement with them is likely to end in unpleasantness. But that has nothing to do with whether one is a reader, a writer or a dogcatcher.)
Authors are, by and large, very aware of and respectful towards our readership. No doubt exceptions exist, and moments of angst or aggravation do occur. Writing is so damned personal! It’s like getting naked on the page, so naturally it doesn’t feel good if someone points at our lumpy thighs and laughs…or even asks us gently if we’ve considered going on a diet. And reading is intimate. When I put a story before the public, I’m asking the reader to trust me, to allow me into her mind, her imagination and her heart. A reader invests more than money when she buys a book. She invests her hope that this story will transport her, entertain her, compel her. She invests her time, too – and who among us isn’t pressed for time? When a story lets her down, it’s hard not to feel frustrated, angry, even betrayed if her hopes were high.
I would never tell a reader that I disappointed that her experience of my story was wrong. It’s her experience. I don’t engage in debate with readers on the internet, and don’t know any writers who do . . . and yet here I am, intruding myself into this discussion. Yes, Laurie did ask for a writer’s perspective – but why did I feel compelled to respond? Maybe there’s a lesson here for me – maybe I did take the subject personally to some extent and felt the need to defend myself. Maybe I’m not as different from the confrontational few I’ve been deploring as I’d like to think. Maybe writers are inherently too sensitive – a creative, sometimes argumentative bunch who are prone to taking ourselves too seriously.
Or maybe that’s true of most people, and we really aren’t that different from anyone else.
Some Final Thoughts
A column such as this, which is negative in focus, is perhaps not the most auspicious way to begin the New Year. And yet the New Year is a perfect time to tear down walls between groups of people that serve to create antagonism. It is my hope that through this column and the comments we will no doubt get from both readers and authors that some of those barriers can be, if not torn down, than at least minimized and more of the camaraderie from the earlier days of the Internet can be regained.
In reading my own segment and many of the other segments, it sometimes sounds as though we’re asking that a wall be broken down and for a wall to be built. On the one hand, readers love to interact with authors on one level. But on another level, readers don’t want to hear authors complain about the criticism they’ve received. It’s more than whether or not an author is “thin-skinned;” this last week I heard from many people who felt I was being attacked for some of my comments on the last ATBF MB when, in fact, I simply thought I was in the midst of a very spirited debate. Am I dense? I don’t think so; although perhaps I just have a higher tolerance for arguing given that I live in a house where all of us tend to disagree often and it’s okay.
I can sympathize with authors who get caught up in a message board discussion and can’t extricate themselves gracefully. It unfortunately takes a tremendous amount of skill to handle criticism publicly and to know when to back away; we may be asking too much of authors, with their artistic temperament, to be able to do so. Some sort of separation, therefore, seems necessary to me and I think author-only discussion lists are extremely valuable for that reason.
Still, we encourage healthy debate here at AAR and I expect a very spirited one as a result of this column. Happy New Year, everyone!
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
Has the Internet Changed? – Some of you have been online for many years while others are newbies in comparison. I’ve been online since some time in 1994 and some of the changes I’ve seen I’ve detailed in my segment of this column. What changes have you seen – for the better and/or for the worse?
The RT Argument – One of my arguments has long been that RT’s rating system and reviews insulate authors from real criticism. June Robertson disagrees, saying that just because RT says its lowest rating is “acceptable,” it’s still a low rating. When I look at romances at my bookstore, though, and see RT’s blurbs on every single one of them, I wonder, though, particularly since many a low-rated RT review often sounds the same as a higher-rated RT review. What do you all think?
My Systemic Theory – My theory for the anger that I believe is becoming more institutionalized on the Internet stems from the fact that there are too many romances being published and that quantity cannot necessarily be equated with variety and certainly cannot be equated with quality. Is there something to do this theory of mine or am I way off base?
Sandy’s World View – Sandy ascribes quite a bit of power to sites such as AAR. Though I don’t believe we have nearly the power to affect that she believes we do, what do you think, and what do you make of her arguments on the anger we’ve all noticed?
When Do Authors Get Into Trouble? – Sandy details instances in her segment when authors seem to get themselves into trouble online with readers. Have those experiences you’ve watched (or been a part of) been similar to what she outlines?
From the Fence – June’s segment seems to be saying, at least to me, that both readers and authors have unrealistic expectations from one another online. I think there’s something to that, after all, we’ve often talked about how many readers feel personally affronted when authors stray from the genre in a strict sense. Are unrealistic expectations and a lot of bad manners all there really is to this issue?
The Customer is Always Right – Jill takes a strictly business approach to reader/author interaction on the Internet. Her argument that the customer is always right is in many ways similar to Sandy’s premise. Do authors simply have to take it on the chin, suck it up, and keep their mouths shut in the face of criticism by readers because the customer is always right?
The Limits of E-Communication – Tracy Cooper-Posey’s segment talks about how easy it is to send an email or post to a message board that might be read by thousands of people. Because it is so very simple, easy, and quick, people tend to get careless. They also tend to forget their role in an exchange. How would you respond to her argument?
Huh? – Eileen Wilks just hasn’t seen the type of bad behavior others of us have seen and/or experienced. Her relationship with readers online has only been positive. Are we making a mountain out of a molehill?
January 10, 2002: As discussion has progressed on the ATBF Message Board, the idea of interviewing an editor from a major publishing house came to the forefront. After Carrie Feron, Executive Editor at Avon made herself available, I conducted an interview with her over a period of a few days. You can read our Q&A here.
In conjunction with Sandy Creelman, June Robertson, Jill Rosenberg,
Tracy Cooper-Posey, and Eileen Wilks
Read my interview with Avon Executive Editor Carrie Feron
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board