At the Back Fence Issue #237

September 4, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Everything Old Is New Again

Sometimes I remember the “good old days” of the Internet. It seems just yesterday that most of the action was found, not on blogs but on message boards or mailing lists such as AARList, RRA-L, and Canwetalk. The fights could be found there, too. And where you have fights, you also find people joining together, learning something new, coming to an understanding, even just plain having fun.

In the past few years, blogs have become big news. In the romance world they have spawned sites where starting a new controversy can be a form of entertainment. Who can blame them? It’s fun. Lately All About Romance – and not just our reviews, interviews, and commentary, but our message boards and AARList – has become source material elsewhere online and in print (Laurie discovered a recent blog entry about one such kerfluffle and clicked the associated link…which took her to yet another blog!). This creates a bit of a quandary. While All About Romance has never shirked from tough issues, our focus is somewhat different and we operate under a self-imposed set of guidelines, which includes presenting both sides of an argument. Sometimes we feel like the old fogies on the block.

Something else that makes us feel like old fogies: We’ve been there, gone through that, and don’t want to go there again. Flame wars have erupted on AAR and AARList since way back when, and while we used to consider them “news”, we no longer report, as do many of the blogs and even RT, on those incidents. It’s possible that a [relative] newbie to AAR might wonder why we don’t seem to write about Bad Author or Bad Reader behavior. It’s not that we don’t…we have, and just don’t want to rehash it anymore. And yet, by staying out of the fray from that angle, do we risk being “out of the loop”?

Ah, how times change.

When AAR started out, the AAR style was like a bolt out of the blue. With the exception of The Romance Reader, which was also relatively new, serious and critical reviews of romance novels did not exist. Extremely gentle reviews appeared in Romantic Times and a couple of other print venues (such as Affaire de Coeur). These publications were marketing vehicles developed to serve the romance publishing industry and their “reviews” showed it. Only The Romance Reader published serious reviews of romance novels and, while many TRR reviews were critical and funny, the site lacked a message board where readers and authors could talk.

AAR style reviews and critical comments on AAR message boards were a shock to the old, more polite romance world. Not everybody was ready for it. In some cases, taking authors and throwing them into the Internet after they had known only a world where most books got four or more stars at RT was like something out of that movie where those Medieval kids found themselves in modern Sydney, trying to cross a busy highway. Some authors got run over by trucks.

It was only a few years ago, but do you remember how amazing it was to realize you could talk to anyone on the Internet? The romance reading public and the writers had been isolated from each other. The Internet provided an unexpected way for people to talk about books that their friends and relatives dismissed as “trash.” Many authors looked around and said “Hey, this is cool.” They got involved in discussions about all kinds of issues that had never been written about. And they started doing something else unheard of in romance circles—admitting that all the books were not good and some were downright terrible.

The freedom was intoxicating for some but there were authors who couldn’t deal with it. They felt insulted, and they lashed out at reviewers or readers who upset them. They didn’t just get hit by that truck — they stood in the middle of the highway and mooned it. Authors got upset at readers, then readers got upset at authors, and vice versa. Some authors even started referring to LLB as “Laurie Hates Books”.

Do you remember what that was like? Let’s see if you remember these blow-ups from AAR (and AARlist) history. Why? So that some of what you find on the Internet today can be looked at with a bit of perspective, and that everything old is new again.

Way back in 1996, Laurie publishes a reader survey of publishers in her Laurie’s News & Views (now At the Back Fence) column. Kensington/Zebra does not fare well in the poll and, in response, the Kensington webmaster bans her from chats until the publisher himself unbans her. But it doesn’t end there. Some Kensington authors react with horror at the survey, accusing Laurie of “bashing” their publisher. One claims she must have made up the reader responses to the survey while another trots out this old saw: “She must be a wannabe author who was rejected by Kensington”.

After a Write Byte by Robin Schone is published on AAR, two fundamentalist Christian romance readers, Puzzled and Puzzled & Honest, post about how they are disturbed by the growing trend of increased sensuality in romance. They also feel that reading romance novels is literally addictive. They have recovered from their addition and are determined to let the rest of the romance world know how they feel. The board steams up as posts go back and forth, asking how much is too much. And both Puzzleds compare sensual romance to pornography. Is Robin Schone a pornographer? Should fans be ashamed of reading this sort of thing? Can sex in romance novels influence impressionable youth? Or, as most posters point out, shouldn’t there be variety so that readers could find all the types of romances they want? Straw men are set up (what’s next, bestiality in romances?), and as usually happens, the straw men are burned down and their ashes used to make soap and fertilizer. It was this interlude, btw, that was written up as a lead article at Salon, way back in 1999.

On AARList in 1999, after a negative review of a new Susan Johnson book is posted on The Romance Reader, an e-book author takes review sites to task for “trashing” sensual romances and always giving great reviews to sweet romances. Clearly, it must have something to do with Puritanism. Yet it turns out that the reviewer in question is a fan of the Johnson’s previous books and simply didn’t like the new book. The line that really upset people in the review? “But first I’m taking a bath.” Heck, I’ve often felt like taking a bath after reading books in which I thought the authors were using their novel as an excuse to promote their point of view to the extent that I felt as if I had to wash it off me. But that doesn’t stop me from reading books by authors with whom I disagree.

In the year 2000 (give or take a year), there’s a discussion of what constitutes spoilers on AARlist. One poster mocks the concept that revealing the outcome of a historical event could be considered a spoiler. Another poster is furious about this attitude. After all, she points out, people in other countries might not know who won America’s Civil War. For some reason, posters from other countries are insulted by this! Hey, they’ve seen Gone with the Wind, too!

In 2000, debut author Eloisa James becomes upset when readers bring her to task on the errors in her novel Potent Pleasures. She could have moped and stewed and left the list, as so many have done. But instead, when the book was released as a paperback the next year, the errors were corrected. Since then, Eloisa James has become a popular author whose new books are often discussed on AAR’s boards.

On the Reviews Message Board in 2002, an author posts an angry response to a review of her book at AAR. Then her daughter posts in her defense. Later, a couple of posts show up from readers defending the author’s book. All very well and good, but the posts turned out to have come from the same computer as the daughter. Whoops. Inspired by this mystery, Marianne Stillings (then one of our reviewers) penned a parody post coming from the author’s dog.

Earlier that same year, a negative review is published of a relatively unknown author’s book. The Reviews MB suddenly blossoms in the middle of the night with post after post from previously unknown romance readers, all of whom are appalled at the review. They compare the review to criticism of Mark Twain and claim that that the reviewer only liked books written at a fifth grade level. After a bit of sleuthing, Laurie realizes that all the posts came from the same computer! After she deletes them (one of our message board moderating policies requires that we delete fraudulent posts), the original poster becomes irate by the assumption that a multitude of posts being made in the middle of the night from one computer were perhaps not written by six individuals. Her response? “We are six poor students living together and sharing a computer to save money.” If more humorous romances were written like this post, I’d buy them up.

Also in 2002 (hey, this was a busy year!) Laurie starts a thread on the Reader to Reader Message Board linking to a newspaper interview of inspirational romance author Robin Lee Hatcher, formerly the president of RWA, formerly a writer of historical romances. In this article Hatcher pretty much disowns her old historical romances. The RTR board explodes with responses on all side of the issue. Nora Roberts posts that she’s offended by Robin Lee Hatcher’s quotes in the article. But Hatcher’s friend, author Rosalyn Alsobrook, says she can’t believe Nora Roberts herself wrote the post. Meanwhile, another author is appalled that Laurie dared to post a link to a newspaper article, apparently confusing The Idaho Statesman with the National Enquirer. Most surreal post award goes to the poster who says, “I have to ask who the mysterious LLB is who posted this article in the first place. Why are you too afraid to admit who you are?” Uhm, because everyone else knows that she owns the site? Wanna bet that this poster was given a link and told “Quick, go post a response to those evil women on AAR!” Laurie put together quite an editorial as a result of this debacle, which included some 200 message board posts (some of which were archived online for said editorial).

Moving ahead now, to 2003, after the results of AAR’s annual Reader Poll are announced, an author asks the members of AARlist what the point of having negative categories in the poll was. Some readers agree, and a couple think the categories sound “schoolyard” and “juvenile.” (OK, I’ll tell Roger Ebert to stop being such a baby and doing those “worst of the year” shows.) But others love having the negative because they can start discussions and because they can serve as a form of “venting” for frustrated readers. Many members of the list are probably like me — while they find Time magazine’s Best of the Year lists fun, nothing beats waiting to find out if the movies you hated (or loved!) end up on the Worst of the Year lists. What’s ironic about a “worst” category is that one prominent author complained about the annual cover contest and why we included a “worst” category. The next year one of her books had a particularly atrocious cover, and she began to publicize her book by making fun of its cover to garner interest.

One summer AARList is abuzz with a discussion about rape and forced seduction. Off the list, one member asks me to tell everyone else to stop talking about rape because it upsets and offends her. I point out that the discussion is on-topic, so that would be wrong of me. Instead, I suggest that she delete or ignore those messages. A day or two later, a new poster on AARlist accuses an author of being insensitive because the author said that child abuse was worse than rape. While most readers side with the author, a couple more members magically appear to defend the original poster, and then disappear just as quickly. Lots of amazing coinkydinks, particularly when you consider that the original poster apparently made a habit of joining lists to flame on the topic. But at least there’s never a dull moment.

Since the time I took over AARlist, I’ve always tried to start discussions, and my posts often mix the bad about romance with the good. (For example, “What are your favorite grovel scenes? Also, have you ever read grovels that didn’t work for you, and if so, why weren’t they successful?”) Because while we can rave about the best of romance, sometimes we must rant about what bugs us. (It’s called a discussion list, not an agree on everything list.) Yet some writers on the list have deliberately responded to my posts, deleting the parts where I asked about books that “didn’t work for you” and saying that they refused to respond to that sort of question because they didn’t want all that “negativity” on the list. Sheesh, even the colorful ponies in My Little Pony could disagree on things, so why not grown-ups on a discussion group? There’s that time I started a discussion about romance awards, admitting that “I’ve wondered how that book got picked when there were more deserving books in its category.” Well, I get a discussion. In fact, it results in at least eight angry posts from an author. In one missive, she states that my claims of ballot stuffing in on-line polls are “far fetched,” even though I cite an example. She eventually goes “no mail” on the list, claiming that it’s because another poster had the gall to post a sample of “purple prose” from an old series romance. Yes, we are entering the Twilight Zone, where readers aren’t allowed to dislike a book, and fans who are the slightest bit critical are treated like pariahs. Sorry, I’d rather have a lively debate. At least then I know people are having their say.

These incidents took place years ago. Some, so far in the past that I no longer have a usable archive of posts. Yet today, on AAR and many new sites, readers and writers still argue about reviews, bad covers, sex in romances versus religion, publishers, and how authors should respond to posts. You name it. Sometimes it seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The blogging world is new to most readers – heck, I haven’t visited all the blogs linked in all the blogs I’ve visited. Yet the concerns that drive its hottest debates are generally the same ones that have driven debate all along.

AAR is a mix of authors, fans, and general romance readers – which can lead to a free-for-all. On the blogs, the debate usually reflects some kind of “us versus them” mentality. On some blogs it’s readers versus authors. On some it’s readers versus fangirls. And on others it’s fans versus fans. If you dislike Author A’s books, some fans will think that means you’re insane. But at the same time, if you admit that you like Author B’s books, some fans will wonder how that’s possible. There are fans ready to defend an author in droves, and other droves of fans ready to circle around the fans. Sometimes message boards and blogs can have their own fans, and they will defend their territory. (One thing that sets AAR’s boards apart from blogs is that the fans aren’t afraid to get upset with AAR!) When authors join the mix, you have a combination that can become nasty, but never dull. Because what’s a message board without some author telling the AAR staff that we’re evil wannabe romance writers who can’t tell a good story from a hole in the ground? These debates can give you headaches, but at the same time, they make you think. That sure beats reading the same old “Whatever happened to?…” posts. (Heck, come to think of it, I’ve even see a “Whatever happened to?…” post lead into a minor flame war.)

Over time, what constitutes a flame war has changed. And changed and changed again, and sometimes changed back. In the early days of the Prodigy Romance Listserv (the precursor of AARList), readers and writers alike discussed topics like wallbangers. By the time I joined the list, the tone had changed. In fact, one poster wrote that she thought the term wallbanger was offensive because even if you don’t like the book, somebody else did. Heh. Forget wallbanger, maybe we need to redefine the word “offensive.”

Just as the atmosphere on AARList has fluctuated over the time, so have author attitudes toward sites like AAR. Many authors have come to like sites like AAR, or at least tolerate them. Arguments break out from time to time but most authors have learned to adjust, to understand that a reviewer’s attitude toward a romance novel is no different from Roger Ebert’s feelings about a movie he dislikes. Romance authors are often voracious romance readers and use multiple sites to help them decide which books to buy.

With the popularity of blogs, authors and fans face a brave new world. Like message boards and email lists, blogs are quickly updated and highly interactive. But ownership makes them different from romance websites. Many of them have a highly personal, “in-your-face” attitude. Unlike AAR’s message boards, comments at most blogs are archived forever. 99% of controversial threads at AAR, no matter how frantic, disappear within a matter of weeks as the board reaches its capacity of 700 posts. But unless it gets deleted, an angry blog entry, or an angry comment on a blog, can be preserved forever. In fact, angry or annoying comments can be linked to directly, and bloggers can set up their site so that visitors can find those comments more easily. Some blogs even keep clickable lists of authors who behave badly.

Like many readers, I have been surprised by what a few authors say on blogs. Some authors seem determined to get memorialized on those lists of weird author behavior! Not a week goes by, it seems, without a fight on one or more blogs. If this is Tuesday, it must be a debate about e-books. If this is Friday, it must be a flame war about heroines. Suddenly, talking about wallbangers doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it?

The only thing really new about these debates is the fact they are happening on blogs. The venue makes things different because blog owners have no need for balance. This is fine so long as everyone understand the difference between blog and sites like AAR. And, it should be fun. So, when next you venture out into the on-line romance community, grab your popcorn and be prepared for a bumpy ride now and then. Don’t let it upset you no matter which side you’re on.

Try to relax. We’re discussing man boobs, not the cure to cancer.

Questions To Ponder:

What do you see as the differences (in atmosphere, tone, behavior, etc.) between message lists, these and other boards, and blogs? Are there some sites you won’t visit because you find them too negative? Or for that matter, are there some sites you avoid because there isn’t enough debate?

The article mentioned that the original Prodigy list was more open to debate about bad books, etc. If you have been on-line for a long time, have you seen differences in tone and debates? Have you seen the places you visit become less open to debate, or more open?

Does bad behavior by authors influence how you feel about their books? Are there some authors you will never buy because of how you’ve seen authors act on-line? For that matter, have you ever bought a book by an author because you thought she handled on-line debates well?

Do you remember the first time you met an author on-line? What thoughts went through your mind? Also, do you remember the first time you saw an author behaving badly on-line? How did you respond?

If you’ve ever found yourself embroiled in an on-line debate, even a flame war, what was it about the topic that made you want to post, even to keep on posting? Also, if you’re just a lurker who watches debates, what do they make you feel? Besides the “trainwreck” factor, what makes these on-line wars interesting to so many people?

afterhoursthumbnailBut before heading off to the At the Back Fence Message Board, and while we’re still on the subject of blogs, I am pleased to announce that today we officially launch…

Want to get to know the people behind All About Romance better? AAR After Hours – our extracurricular blog – features entries by many on our staff on a variety of topics. This is where we let our hair down on just about everything but books that have already been reviewed at AAR.

Also, today our pollsters begin the first two in a series of mini-polls that will be conducted on an on-going basis for some time. We begin with the Top Ten Comfort Read Authors and the Top Ten Comfort Read Books. We’d love to have you participate in any and/or all of the up-coming polls.

Anne Marble

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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