Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Ramble: Thinking Out Loud about Book Blogging and Discussion

Roger has an interesting post up today about books and book blogging in which he says he worries that all we bloggers may well be better talkers than listeners (that is, more interested in putting our own writing out there and having responses to it than responding to other people's writing), and that this tendency may one day kill professional reviewing (if I'm understanding his post correctly). I do not quite see the connection between the two things, because, to me, the best professional reviews stimulate discussion -- I still think about the perceptive last line of Roger's review of the horrid Boy in the Striped Pajamas whenever someone brings the novel up. (The line is quoted in my review at that link if you're curious.) And if they're not stimulating discussion and further thought on deeper issues, if they're just meant to be one-way responses to a book (yes it's good / no it isn't) for other people to read, then isn't that just talking rather than listening anyway? It's still purposeful and important talking, and often just the kind of talking overworked librarians and readers need, to help them choose the right or best books for their libraries. . . . They're two different things, is what I'm saying, and I don't think they cancel each other out. If I've misunderstood you, Roger, I hope you'll clarify the point, either here in comments or on your own blog.

But thinking more about online book discussion . . . Yesterday Mitali Perkins and I had a brief, albeit (to me) stimulating exchange on Twitter, of all things, about romantic/sexual mores in fantasy. She asked, "Why do SF/fantasy authors import our society's current mores about sex and romance into their imagined worlds lock, stock, and barrel?" I thought she was talking about gender roles, so I replied with five tweets involving polyamory (thanks, R. J.), my own reading tastes, societal structures in fiction, and the alas-overlooked middle-grade fantasy novel Questors by Joan Lennon (which I recommend highly for any fans of Diana Wynne Jones). Mitali answered that actually she had been thinking about the fact that 2009-era sexual mores appeared in worlds that did not yet have modern technology or language, and then I replied to that, and then we both got on with our days. It was just the kind of conversation about books I love most, thinking through issues both political and literary out loud, with people whose opinions I respect; but I felt frustrated by the fact I kept having to limit my out-loud thoughts to 140 characters, and that it would be nearly impossible for anyone chiming in late to follow the discussion easily on Twitter, which moves along so quickly, which meant that few other people could (or did) chime in.

So here's what my Web 3.0 would look like: a forum in which any registered member could come in and post a discussion topic, which everyone else would respond to. I could repost my thought piece on the definition of YA literature, say, or Roger could repost any of his favorite past provocations or introduce new ones, or Mitali could post her question above or any of the other fascinating topics she often raises about race, gender, and equity in children's literature. An interested reader could log in, scroll through all of the questions, and respond to the discussions all in one place; and it would update in real time, as Twitter does, so if Mitali and I found ourselves in a topic together, we could carry on just the sort of discussion we were having yesterday, back and forth, clarifying points and stimulating further discussion. And it could have rooms to discuss various books of the moment, like, say, Catching Fire; and because it wouldn't be hosted on any one person's site, no one would be the ultimate authority, the way it can sometimes feel in blog comment discussions. (Plus the person who set it up would make sure the response boxes had plenty of room to type and format comments easily, unlike the way does comments -- which is why I'm responding to Roger's post here rather than in a comment over on his blog). There could even be the opportunity to vote for topics/comments/responses one finds especially useful, the same way there is on reviews or NYTimes article comments. This technology already exists, I know -- it would just take someone to find the right webspace and organize it for the kidlitosphere as a whole.

. . . Okay, so now I am pointedly not volunteering, I admit. And these sorts of discussions already take place in blog comments and on listservs like adbooks and my beloved child_lit, so such a forum may not be necessary. But that's my dream for a space where we can all discuss the books we love easily and at length, an ongoing conversation sometimes prompted by and incorporating reviews, and going on to the big questions that inform our thinking, writing, publishing, and ultimately the whole literary art.


  1. I went back and re-read your review of Boy, and it made my day. Such a great review for such an awful book!

    Hmmm...I actually think that book blogging is stimulating the book industry by bringing in a greater readership. I can personally attest to the fact that my last three (at least) book purchases have been made directly because of book bloggers. And--more importantly to the book industry--I actually buy MORE brand new (and often therefore hardcover) books in order to participate in the conversations on book blogs.

  2. I read Roger's post a different way: that a good conversation about books (or whatever else in culture - politics, society, etc) requires good listening by all parties, and maybe the ease/immediacy of blogs and other technology winds up giving the conversation more of an "oooh oooh oooh me me me!!" hands-shooting-up-in-the-air tone, than a "hmm, let me ponder that for a week or two and get back to you with my thoughts" kind of tone. Because in a week or two we will have all moved on. There's still a conversation going on, but maybe we lose something by the immediacy and number of channels by which to have that conversation.

    And, it seems to me that a lot of the conversation is about the conversation, rather than about the books themselves. Since web 2.0 brings us all closer together, we are (I am, I should say) reluctant to talk as honestly about the books than we might from behind the safety of the title Journalist. Because they aren't just books any more - those of us in the loop know all the authors, too, and it's hard to separate sincere reactions to craft and story from the social network of friends.

  3. Twitter tries to offer that with the hashtag, as well as with, where when a conversation gets interesting we shift it into a real-time chat room. We will try that next time we get going on a topic. But I see your point -- listening and articulation can both shape thought.

    When I blog or micro-blog, I definitely don't see myself as a pundit who listens contemplatively and then releases pearls of wisdom into cyberspace. I like to pose questions, blunder, correct myself, be corrected, err, forgive, debate, concede, and then keep reshaping my opinion the next time the subject comes up.

    And as I said on Roger's post (where I've already embarrassingly spouted off too much already), we're in an in-between time on the web. We as users of content will increasingly pick and choose the experts with whom we associate. Will those be quieter, wiser gurus like Sara Zarr? Probably. Loudmouths lose their right to be heard quickly, here as well as in real life.

  4. Cheryl, I'm not sure how your ideal conversation-space is any different from web 1.0 bulletin boards, forums, and such--for instance, the Caucus system at Carleton (which is still going pretty strong). What you describe about the limitations of Twitter is exactly why I don't care for it; I find it really hard to follow discussions and not particularly welcoming for others to join in. Child_lit does some things well, but inevitably there are many problems because of the lack of updates in real time. It's also somewhat time-consuming to sort through the threads I'm not interested in, but others clearly are.

    What I like about blogs--why I started one after reading others' for a long time--is that I can talk about exactly whatever I'm caring about that day in the field of children's literature, without feeling like I'm infringing on anyone else's space. I like it best when people read and respond, of course, but if no one seems interested in what I wrote that day--no big deal. People who come later to my blog can easily read back, and only follow the whole discussion on topics that particularly interest them. That's a lot harder on either bulletin boards or email lists.

  5. I am Twitter-dumb, so where could I find/easily read this discussion? I was/am all about the girl-power fantasy books, and come to think of it, I am struck by how strongly they reflect our own "morals" (for lack of a better word).

    I struggled with this question while writing my thesis on female characters in children's fantasy. Do we recreate what we know, and then show someone defeating expectations? Or do we create something unique, that shows us that limitations are meaningless? Especially, I think, when dealing with female characters, since so many MCs in female-driven fantasies seem to be exceptional and so often surrounded by only men (with a token mother-figure or so), as if other women/girls aren't on-par with their talent, bravery, etc.

    I'm rambling now. But it's very interesting. I would like to hear more :)

  6. Will those be quieter, wiser gurus like Sara Zarr?

    Ha ha! You know I love blogging about America's Next Top Model more than anything.

    In all seriousness and sort of tangentially related - one thing I didn't not expect about my career is that when you write for young readers, suddenly you're expected to be an expert on literacy, kids and teens, issues, and an advocate for the community, etc. Maybe that's not a real expectation but something I put on myself as I recognize that the writers will longevity seem to be involved at that level. I do feel it, though, when I talk to teachers or librarians...that somehow I'm going to have answers about Reading and The Children. So back to the topic at hand - what is an author's role in this greater conversation about kidlit? Whatever we want it to be? Or maybe we should shut up and write?

  7. Now it is time for me to confess I wrote this post in an hour, because I had to leave for something yesterday evening and I wanted to write while the topic was fresh in my mind; and while I was out it occurred to me that I had probably just embodied Roger's point -- that is, not thinking things through fully because I wanted to say something quickly! And Sara's first comment confirmed to me that I did that, which makes me feel rather embarrassed.

    One of my favorite quotations is from E.M. Forster: "I know what I think when I see what I say," and I love discovering what I think through reading and responding to thoughtful topics on child_lit or here. At its best, these discussions turn all of us not into writers or editors or critics but simply readers and thinkers (each with particular practical expertise), sharing in a conversation honestly about the books we love -- the same wonderful atmosphere that prevails in person at Kindling Words or CLNE. And the occasional changed viewpoint or even lack of honesty that comes through having or wanting to be nice to your friends' books . . . That's also the same as what it would be at a conference or cocktail party, isn't it?

    My wish for the (yes, very 1.0) atmosphere of a forum was to move these discussions into a neutral space where people could stop by anytime -- a sort of giant centralized group blog and chat room. That would just provide yet another channel for talk, and as I said, I'm not sure that it's necessary in the end. I am grateful for all the forums we have for discussion now -- reviews, listservs, blogs & their comments, Twitter (despite its limitations) -- for connecting me with all the people worldwide who love children's literature and its questions, and keeping that conversation alive.

    (And now, once again, I have to run off -- to church, this time; so pardon if this has not been said well . . .)

  8. Ha ha, well, pot commented on kettle's post within an hour of it going up, so I am not exactly the model of restraint. :)

  9. Good review, poor book.

    Read a great new sporting comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
    This is an adult sporting comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

    During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.

  10. Two words: Google Wave

    It's coming.

  11. I like your Web 3.0 ideas. I know what you mean about blog comments not being quite *there* yet. I post a review, and others who have reviews up already might post comments on my review, but there's not enough *integration* between everything. You have to look at 10 different pages to get 10 different opinions on the book, y'know?

    Anyway, cool stuff to think about. Thanks for sharing your idea!