Yesterday Karen Templer announced that she was shutting down Readerville, her long-running site dedicated to books, writers, and readers. This saddened a lot of people, including me—I liked the site, and, more selfishly, Templer was one of the first people to approvingly take notice of what I was doing. But Readerville’s closure didn’t spawn any grim handwringing over where we might all go to talk about books now. Templer herself notes that today the field is wide open for that:
I’m thrilled at the vast assortment of tools for people to connect online—from blogs to Facebook and Twitter, to the many social book cataloging sites, and beyond. Readers have resources nobody could have imagined nine years ago, and it’s a joy to see books being talked about in every corner of the Internet.
Those conversations go in a million directions, but last week Yen Cheong, assistant director of publicity at Viking and Penguin Books, considered whether the kinds of people hosting those conversations roughly split into two camps. Working from some thoughts by Sarah Weinman, Cheong notes that there’s a distinction between “first wave” litbloggers like Weinman, Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, and others, and “second wave” book bloggers running sites like Booking Mama and Beth Fish Reads, and others I would never have known about had Cheong not written her post.
My ignorance of the second-wavers is one of the things that helps peg me as a first-wave litblogger, as Weinman suggested. I won’t bother parsing figuring out who belongs in what wave, which strikes me as the dullest insider-baseball conversation imaginable. But the comments on Cheong’s post brought up what I thought was a very interesting conversation about engaging with commenters, and how they relate to perhaps more “journalistic” bloggers. I was particularly struck by a comment by Trish of Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin?:
The first wave is talking at the reader and sticks with a journalistic style of writing. The second wave is in it for the conversation. I don’t know any book bloggers (as opposed to lit bloggers) who have comments disabled.
I’m not saying the first wave is wrong, though it’s certainly not my preference to shut down conversation by turning off comments, so I obviously prefer the second wave. However, it just seems silly to not have conversation on a blog about books when reading is such a solitary hobby anyway. Readers tend to want to talk about what they’re reading, want to talk about books and authors and their book club.
So while I really admire what the lit bloggers did to start up what I would call book blogging, I think they continued a style that newspapers are finding unsustainable.
The “unsustainable” argument doesn’t wash for me. Book blogs, first-wave or otherwise, don’t operate under the same profit motives that newspapers do—a blog’s sustainability is attached to little more than the willingness of the blogger to get up in the morning and make time to write, and you can’t declare bankruptcy if you’re making nothing. But Trish’s overall point about how litbloggers relate to readers is well-taken. I’ve bounced around a few newsrooms and known plenty of journalists, and the relationship between writers and readers has long been awkward. Journalists often have a defensive posture toward readers because we are often literally asked to defend ourselves. Before blogging became essential parts of newspaper sites, people didn’t usually reply to articles and reviews by sending letters and e-mails saying “FIRST!” or “Nice post!”—they wrote to let you know what an idiot you were for holding a particular opinion, they wrote to call out your errors, they wrote to threaten lawsuit, they wrote to wonder out loud about the sanity of the people who ran the paper because, after all, they hired your sorry ass. People who wrote in with praise, let alone an eagerness to start a conversation, were a little suspect. Publications have a thick skin when it comes to negative feedback—the Washington Post runs a lively weekly page, Free for All, dedicated to nothing but readers calling shenanigans on Post journalists. But its very existence bears out the difficulty of the relationship—readers were people around whom you had to have a thick skin, people you had to make room for. No Post staffer who values the respect of his or her colleagues would suggest the paper run a weekly page of letters full of praise.
So by the time journalists waded into blogging, plenty of them didn’t do it very well—interaction was a relatively foreign concept, and it positive feedback was going to be rare except for star writers and columnists who’d acquired large fan bases. I recall a number of staff-meeting conversations in which Web folks would train editorial staffers about how to directly engage with commenters, which led to a lot of posts that clumsily closed with some iteration of “So, what do you think?” Insincerity was built into the process, because it was presented less as something that we might enjoy doing or that might improve our work and more as something that might help the publication make money someday. The argument was that (imagine Al Pacino in Scarface talking here) first you got the comments, then you got the page views, and then you got the money. I’ve always been cynical about that line of thinking—heaven knows that online ad revenue is nothing to bank on right now—and that feeling that only got bolstered when the comments on a post would, as it often did, melt down into a cavalcade of jackassery. “I’ll care about the commenters,” my stock line went, “when I have proof that one of these fuckers is gonna buy a futon.”
Now that I run a blog with no ambition to sell you a futon (or even a book), my attitude towards commenters has eased up. And plenty of journalists have gotten a lot better at building relationships with readers. Me, I still do a poor job on that front—my interest in presenting and thinking about information still trumps my interest in starting conversations. But I hope I get better in time, and this may all just be evidence that people who blog about books are settling into some familiar roles with new shapes; the litbloggers are doing what many daily newspapers played before they were forced to cut or eliminate their coverage (though hopefully with more awareness of and engagement with readers), and the bookbloggers get to supplement, if not replace, the traditional in-person book club. And there’s one other change, which wasn’t much discussed in Cheong’s post or its comments: the increasing role of bloggers with a more academic bent. Relatively new sites like Andrew Seal‘s and D.G. Myers‘, along with new efforts like Dan Green’s Critical Distance project, suggest to me that even very high-end critical outlets like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s will have their authority challenged as well. I don’t think we’ll see the imminent collapse of for-profit enterprises dedicated to paying smart people good money to write criticism, nor are English departments going away anytime soon. But access to serious and sustained critical thought has never been easier, which bodes well for everybody.
So, what do you think?