The OF Blog: Fans: You got your fannish preconceptions all over my critic's space

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fans: You got your fannish preconceptions all over my critic's space

I've been a bit too busy lately to keep track of the plethora of arguments regarding X, Y, or Z.  Sometimes, I'll learn of something on Twitter and click a link, only to read it 1-3 days later.  So it was with an interesting Strange Horizons article written back on September 9 by Renay of Lady Business.  Her article, "Communities:  You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork," presents in a very cogent form an opinion that many SF/F "fans" have regarding the perceived "intrusion" of authors into "their" space.  It is not a new argument, nor is it one that I have ever accepted uncritically.

Renay makes some rather strong claims early in her article.  This one in particular made me pause and reflect for a moment:

I am probably a minority in considering nonfiction reviews fanwork, but I approach all media from a place of fannish inquiry. I am interested in what I can extrapolate from a source myself, rather than relying on external canonical information from creators. Coming to book blogging fandom, and SF fandom in particular, is downright weird: book bloggers and creators interacting on social media; book bloggers and creators hanging out at conventions; and book bloggers sending review links, both negative and positive, to publishers and the creators! The classification between book bloggers as "fans" or "professionals" continues to shift and become increasingly nebulous as we adapt to the industry noticing us. This has contributed to what I see as creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities for themselves and settling in for the long haul. My eye is on the fact that sometimes creators will comment on my reviews and I'll have to go breathe into a paper bag, because all those "do not engage with creators over fanwork" warnings I took to heart as a teenager are exploding in the name of technological and fannish cultural progress. Because I'm aware of how badly things can go when fans seek to engage with creators, I'm intensely dubious that some creators think it's acceptable to walk into book blogger fan spaces featuring their work and argue about intentions and readings without an explicit invitation.
 There is quite a bit to unpack here.  For starters, the claim she makes that she considers "nonfiction reviews fanwork" is one that flat-out baffles me.  I just do not, cannot accept this line of reasoning, as it appears to begin from an assumption that those who write commentaries or reviews, particularly those who do not often get paid for their writing (as it seems reasonable to infer that Renay does not consider those who are regularly paid for their reviews in the same light, as this would dilute her argument), begin from the vantage point of being "fans," whatever that might ultimately mean if examined closely.  This too-close association, to the point of conflation, of online reviewer (the term "book blogger" I believe has too many misleading connotations attached to it now, or at least it is not a term that I personally think is applicable to what I and certain others write, at least as how the term is understood to be in regards to its application) with "fan" is rather disconcerting.  It is acceptable, perhaps even desired in some quarters, for some to approach this from "a place of fannish inquiry," but Renay in outlining her stance on the issue appears to leave too little space for those of us who prefer to be skeptics when it comes to the works we are considering as we read.  In blunter terms, I am no f'n' "fan" when I read something.  Perhaps I choose to read things that might bring me some enjoyment, but I reserve judgment at all times as to the considered work's aesthetic qualities.  This difference, I believe, colors quite a bit of what follows.

Leaving aside the differences in perception regarding those who write reviews and commentaries, Renay's concerns about the mixing and mingling of "creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities" is something that represents only the perception of a vocal (perhaps too vocal?) segment of this so-called "fandom."  Maybe it's because I am a history Ph.D. dropout who was exposed to academic journals long before I ever knew of organized SF/F groups, but the presumption that there should be this sort of "sacred space" (my words, not hers) for fans to discuss their works of choice is rather ludicrous.  Any body that rejects the inclusion of a significant segment (whether it be readers/viewers, writers, critics, etc.) risks creating something that is incomplete and unstable. 

For years, the notion that authors should not discuss their works in a public forum has been a rather bemusing bromide.  No, what worries some people is that the author, far from dying a Barthian "death," may present an argument that threatens the sanctity of their own views.  Yes, it seems that authorial presence does seem to destabilize certain aspects of "fan" discussions and that it is irritating to those who would rather wish that the author "died" at the limns of the text and that s/he couldn't have interpretive stances that could alter a reader's understanding of the text.  I almost even empathize with that desire to avoid having an authoritative person or body around, as that could, in some cases make certain readers (fans?  Whatever...) reticent to respond.  But no, ultimately I have to reject this view.

Why?  Because what such opinions do is seek to shut down particular voices.  In understanding a text, I do not believe that one should discount authorial intention in toto.  Nor should readers accept what an author says about his/her work uncritically.  Instead, there should be, in those cases of potential disagreement, a lively debate about what was intended versus what was perceived or executed within the bounds of the narrative text.  Sometimes this "liveliness" breaks down into pejorative commentaries replete with ad hominems, but often it does not (but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to enjoying the occasional round of harsh recriminations.  See the 1980s Historikerstreit.)  Granted, it may not be conducive to fannish discussions and that this is largely what Renay is arguing here, but on the whole I believe it is much better for the health of literary discussion (and yes, there is a paradigm shift that accompanies this) for there to be a more "open market for ideas" than sequestered, almost cloistered "communities."

Renay elaborates further on what troubles her about the "intrusion" of "professional" elements into fannish quarters:

After watching many of my favorite book bloggers shift from primarily fanwork toward the industry, I contextualized what I see happening in book blogging amid all the debates about where book bloggers fit. Book bloggers are fans, but as book blogger culture has grown and the ability of blogs to create "buzz" for books has increased, they've continued to grow closer to the publishing industry, which can be a detriment to the fan community around those blogs. It's hard to build a robust fan community when The Powers That Be are so close, and discussions can easily feel observed, or even interrupted, by creators. The very basic idea is a scale, with "industry track blogs" on one end and "fannish track blogs" on the other. I think of fannish book blogs as having some, all, or more of the following characteristics:
  • Primarily purchasing books for themselves, requesting them through libraries, or via book exchange programs for the bulk of their review base. ARCs are supplemental or not accepted.
  • Content is often reviews of books for their own use, such as records of yearly reading, statistic tracking, or personal reading projects. Critical analysis, gaining experience writing, and learning more about genre(s) as a whole can also be factors.
  • Other types of publicity beyond reviews are generally absent in favor of personal reviews, in-depth discussions, and community reading projects.
  • Attending events, such as signings and conventions where creators will speak is often tied more to bloggers' experience as fans, and less to any attempt to develop an ongoing working relationship with creators/publishers or to develop a blog's brand.
  • These blogs tend to not always focus on "new" titles, but perhaps draw from to-read lists, focus on back catalogues, and follow recommendations from friends.
  • Scheduling tends to be more relaxed, less structured, and based on personal schedules of reading/reviewing, rather than connected to street dates.
  • There's a focus on wanting to share thoughts about reading primarily with their existing social networks/friends, rather than attempting to bring in a larger or different audience by "growing" their influence.
Industry track book bloggers (who may have started as fans) may do the above as well as some, all, or more than the following:
  • Support the industry and creators with guest posts from creators, giveaways, cover reveals, release announcements, reviews, round-table discussions, and interviews.
  • Attend industry events. They attend in some ways as fans, but they also attend as fans who have created a recognizable brand and use it to acquire new capital and network with people within the industry.
  • Own interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site. "What do my readers want to see? What's relevant to them?" are driving factors in content decisions.
  • They accept review copies on a regular basis, both for themselves, to follow market trends, and to let their readers know what's upcoming.
  • New book releases are a high percentage of review content.
  • Organization includes a certain level of scheduling and planned events, and a level of consistency that persists over time.
  • There's more explicit interaction with creators and the industry (editors, publicists, etc.).
Over the last few years many previously fannish book blogs I follow have slowly shifted into industry track blogs. I suspect it's why the industry can step into these spaces, which are ostensibly fan spaces because their owners are not being compensated. Some parts of the industry feel comfortable doing so because these blogs parlayed their fannish excitement into looking appealing to publishers/creators. Creators can comment on fan conversation that they were not explicitly invited into, sometimes with interesting discussions, but sometimes with really terrible results.
 Needless to say that I reject, almost with vehemence, the presumption that "book bloggers are fans."  Renay's dichotomous presentation of "fannish track" and "industry track" blogs distorts a rather more complex situation into simplified groups that it is hard for me to look at her points here and not conclude that she fails to present a wide swath of critics and readers who do not fall into her assigned categories.  "Editorially independent" reviewers (while not a great term, it does take into account the times that reviewers such as myself have been assigned books to review for publications, with payment to follow) choose generally what they might think would be an intriguing work, but this occurs within and even outside the bounds of the two "tracks" that Renay postulates above.  Very few, if any, would meet the exact descriptions above, particularly this one:  "[o]wn interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site."  What in the blue hells does this even mean?  I presume there is the assumption of a sort of puppet/puppetmaster role, but personal and second-hand experiences alike have shown this to be more akin to a complex set of negotiations along the lines of "hey, would you consider this?  Thanks.  And if not, no problem."  There is nothing "pure" about any interactions.  But this also means there is nothing that completely "sullies" what that site/reviewer intends to cover.  Renay's apparent bemoaning of this "shift" of some toward "looking appealing to publishers/creators" I believe is rather overblown.  Yes, there are always going to be some (like the too-often-cited case of a visible blog run by a Canadian) SF/F reviewers appearing to be corporate shills, but even that reduces matters into too simple, too neat categories when I suspect the actual situation is much more diverse (and messy.  Messiness as a good trait is a theme here, by the way).

Again this goes back to the issue of party involvements.  I believe it is foolish to reject out of hand the involvement of what Renay calls "creators," just as I believe it to be asinine to accept without skepticism what said people present.  Yes, it may be desirable in certain times and contexts for there to be walled off, segregated corners for discussion, but it should not be a hard-and-fast rule that governs all interactions between interested parties.  Renay does acknowledge the potential for interesting discussions when all parties are present, but I believe she overplays the moments when things become "really terrible."  Nothing is "really terrible" unless there is no honesty of expression, no moment where one cannot at least learn that some texts (and their authors) are not infallible but only flawed, works of human hands.

And then there's this:
I saw this happen recently in SF at The Book Smugglers: "Smugglers' Ponderings: On the Peter Grant Series by Ben Aaronovitch". To me as a fan, this looked like a case of an author walking into an explicitly fannish discussion to throw around his canonical weight. From my perspective, the blogger (Ana Grilo) reacted much better than I know some fans (including myself) would have if an author had made that choice. The fact that Grant preceded his comment with "Authors commenting on reviews is usually a mistake but . . ." suggests to me he knew that the playing field was not level, yet he spoke, anyway. The nature of the shift from fan blogs to industry blogs is making creators bolder, and perhaps, allowing them to think less complexly about their positions. it's now pretty much about power relations?  Does it matter any if the discussion is right or wrong?  The use of the term "canonical weight" reveals a few things.  First, that despite the annoyance presented at the author making a comment about his text, that he has a "privileged" view of the narrative.  I'm guessing there's a sense of intimidation present, a belief that it is hard to argue against authorial intent?  But perhaps Renay is right in concluding that "the playing field was not level."  If one does not want to pitch intentional battle with/against writers, then perhaps the readers in those cases are to be reduced to secondary roles in narrative interpretation. 

This is a very different interpretation than what I suspect many derived from that paragraph, but it does strike closer to what I found to be deficiencies in Renay's article.  Her view is consistently that of the aggrieved "fan," the reader who feels somewhat threatened when a writer (or "creator" in her parlance, which I presume takes into account TV/film in addition to written stories) makes his/her own assertions regarding the narrative being considered.  This view does not seem to take into account those who view themselves foremost as critics, those who want to tear into the text and to pry it apart, exploring its innards.  For these readers, authorial involvement does not necessarily lead to a sense of being threatened, but rather as an opportunity to delve further, to question and perhaps interrogate the authors, to see in what ways the text itself may be "independent" (in terms of interpretation) of its creator/s.  "Fans" often just get in the way of this because they frequently are not as concerned about what interests the critics and some just refuse to recognize the value of intermingling.  Maybe it's the Hegelian-influenced thinker in me, but I prefer to synthesize information and that involves the occasional conflict with others.

Renay concludes by noting:

As a book blogger who identifies primarily as a fan; with only author signings under her belt, without the review copy (except as a special treat); with the lack of explicit organization in my writing; and with my history as a member of media fandom, I'm dubious about the crumbling of this wall between fans and creators. I call this my Fourth Wall Complex; I am intensely uncomfortable in fan/creator interactions because I'm never sure where the conversations about the work will go. Will it cause a fandom pileup with creators and fans at odds, or worse, different groups of fans? Will it challenge fannish interpretation in negative ways? Because once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together. Years of fanwork debates, watching creators discover fandom, and horrible characterizations of fans have made me guarded against creators. I promise, industry/creators/publicists/editors: it's not you (okay, sometimes it's you; please stop comparing fanwork creators to thieves, okay?), it's me.

Over the last few years, we've been watching creators slip into our communities and our social circles; sometimes we invite them in and sometimes we don't, but as some book blogs, born from fannish beginnings and with fannish goals, become industry blogs, we'll continue to see incidents where creators step in and find themselves the target of severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility. The line between fan/professional has blurred, and I think we're in for even more breakdowns of the fannish and authorial fourth walls as fandom expands and spreads across more platforms, as fans continue finding ways to be fannish and support their fandoms at the same time, and as technology improves. For me, the takeaway is still, and probably will always be, that creators have canonical power and fans have interpretive power; bringing them both into a critical discussion is a recipe for fireworks.

 As I said above, while I can be sympathetic to an extent toward the desire for separate conversations regarding a text, I just do not accept the premise she lays out here.  Yes, there have been some disagreeable conflicts and yes some "fans" are viewed in a less-than-positive light (not that this is anything unique to writers/publishers).  But what Renay seems to be lamenting is the lack of clear lines between the self-identified "fan" and the labeled "professional."  I just do not share that concern.  Yes, there is an increased risk for too-cozy relationships, but the solution is not to wall off those interested parties who might have an informed opinion.  No, instead it probably would be better to be skeptical of what is presented, to kick its metaphorical tires and bite its presumed gold coins, and to question everything, including one's own preconceptions, in order to arrive at a synthesis that incorporates a wider body of viewpoints.  A good narrative should not only survive this lively debate and vivisection, but it should be strengthened as a result.  This is why, as an occasional lit critic, that I reject several of the premises behind Renay's article.  It is one thing to be a fan and to desire "fannish" things.  It is another, however, to extrapolate from that viewpoint and to include others who likely will not consider themselves part of the matter.  Sometimes critics do need fans to stop smearing their preconceptions of textual analysis all over our spaces.  Or rather, it's OK to do so as long as they can accept that those preconceptions might be questioned and shredded as need be.  The results might astound and enlighten all of us.


Bookgazing said...

'This view does not seem to take into account those who view themselves foremost as critics, those who want to tear into the text and to pry it apart, exploring its innards.'

If you look at Renay's work anywhere you'll see that this is exactly what she does while still calling herself a fan. I think the thing is that you and Renay may be use the word 'fan' differently. To you and to others in SFF - I've seen this view before) it seems to mean a person reacting uncritically and with love towards a piece of media. To others, myself included, 'fan' includes a range of people - from the fans who want to look at something and love it uncritically, to those who love creative media in general but also enjoy talking about it critically. And that's how the word is often used in some fan communities. There's no wrong or right way to define that word but it does make having these discussions a bit like talking at cross purposes sometimes.

'Instead, there should be, in those cases of potential disagreement, a lively debate about what was intended versus what was perceived or executed within the bounds of the narrative text. Sometimes this "liveliness" breaks down into pejorative commentaries replete with ad hominems, but often it does not' - and I agree sometimes (I'll say sometimes instead of often because of my own experiences) you can have a lively debate that doesn't descend into a writer telling a blogger that they're wrong. Sometimes that doesn't happen. And some fans (me again) would probably sacrafice that lively debate with an author for comfort because of our own personal social issues. I don't want to pretend an author 'died' or avoid thinking about author intention at all. What I would like is for them to keep out of my spaces in general, or at least to enter my spaces cautiously in a way which makes me feel secure in the knowledge that they will be starting a 'lively debate' not a correction class. I don't think that's so much to ask, if it allows me to keep putting my opinions out there and then having 'lively debates' with other regular commentators. Again, I know that's not how all fans feel but it is how some of us feel.

'Renay's dichotomous presentation of "fannish track" and "industry track" blogs distorts a rather more complex situation into simplified groups that it is hard for me to look at her points here and not conclude that she fails to present a wide swath of critics and readers who do not fall into her assigned categories.' - I'm kind of confused about this section of your post because the original article talks about a scale and these are just the two ends of the scale. But perhaps you don't feel like there's room for some people in the scale within these two positions? If so, that's really interesting. I'd love to hear more about what you think falls outside the bounds of the scale and think it would really broaden the discussion :)

'reviewers appearing to be corporate shills' - goodness, I don't think anyone would want to call 'industry' track bloggers this. The example used for the 'industry' end of the scale is The Booksmugglers and they're not shills. They just have (different but sometimes still intersecting) goals from the other end of the scale.

Bookgazing said...

...continued because I used too many words for the comment box -

'Nothing is "really terrible" unless there is no honesty of expression, no moment where one cannot at least learn that some texts (and their authors) are not infallible but only flawed, works of human hands.' - It seems we have had very different experiences here. I've been around a lot of fannish interactions that were truely terrible and went well beyond a distanced, useful learning experience. And it's useful to bear in mind that what might be to one person a learning experience about how falliable authors are might be for another a troubling experience that adds to a lot of other painful history that makes it more difficult for them to speak out. People are affected by things differently and not everyone can step away from a long, drag out with an author feeling like they've learnt something (I certainly can't and it's why I stay away from all kinds of author interactions).

Larry Nolen said...

Appreciate the thoughtful response. A few points:

1) I am thinking of "fan" in an older, almost pejorative sense of "fanatical." I am far from it; I read to think as much as anything else, so I discount "love" of form/author/genre when examining something. It's something I've discussed on this site before, but yes, there is no singular way of defining it.

2) Good point about personal social issues. In person, I'm initially reserved but far from an introvert; I have to have some sort of social interaction lest I feel ill after a while. But others would find the level of social stimulation that I prefer to be frightening or at least discomfiting and that is something that I and others should consider. But again, what works for one doesn't always work for another and I think hard-and-fast "rules" on such matters are detrimental to discussions. But that is my personal take.

3) I found her point about fannish/industry to be a false dichotomy because it isn't as much a matter of scale as it appears to be a matter of kind/focus. This blog, for example, doesn't fit well within either category, perhaps in part because I use it for several purposes, including discussions of translation. In addition to being a critic, being an occasional translator does shift that "creator" aspect a bit, as I am neither reviewing nor promoting a work. But that's only part of it. Some of it also has to do with freelance paid reviewing and commentary gigs in the past that aren't associated with just personal issues or with publishers. Lots of entanglements there.

4) I wasn't referring at all to Ana or Thea, but to a particular person who is often derided for his "7.5" reviews that don't match his commentaries. I am trying not to bring up past disagreements beyond a passing reference to things that annoy some readers.

5) As I said briefly, I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who was trained to be a historian. Lots of vociferous debate that could be troubling for those unaccustomed to it. Not saying it's right or wrong, only acknowledging a difference. What I aim to argue in this article is that there are other spaces that are being crowded upon by the preconceptions of others of what "should be proper" when it comes to literary discussions. What works for you just wouldn't for me and vice versa. Allowing that both are valid views but neither express a true totality is perhaps a better route to go.

Maria said...

Thanks especially for this part where you discuss shutting authors out, which to me, is the heart of the matter:

"Because what such opinions do is seek to shut down particular voices. In understanding a text, I do not believe that one should discount authorial intention in toto. Nor should readers accept what an author says about his/her work uncritically. Instead, there should be, in those cases of potential disagreement, a lively debate about what was intended versus what was perceived or executed within the bounds of the narrative text.

redhead said...

I love that i can't just be a book blogger, that I have to be compartmentalized and categorized to be worth anything.

and I find the phrase "may do the above as well as some, all, or more than the following" completely useless. So if I do one of those things, or something that isn't even on that list, I fall into that group?

uugg. sometimes the internet just pisses me off in it's attempt to get me to care about what a complete stranger things of my website. And especially since it is Lady Business, this makes me want to read books by only one gender, so I can be either eviscerated or praised when they do their yearly poll of "are people equally reading from the genders?"

Bookgazing said...

Thanks so much for providing interesting, civil replies (I know that's probably a weird thing to say but the reason I never get involved in these kind of debates now is because I've met with other kinds of replies - so just thought I'd say thanks for being nice and thoughtful, even though you probably always are). Lots of food for thought.

One thing I'd just say in response to part of your point 5 where you say:

'As I said briefly, I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who was trained to be a historian. Lots of vociferous debate that could be troubling for those unaccustomed to it.'

is that I came up in history (although didn't go as far as you probably did - got a BA) so I think I understand a bit of the kind of debate you're talking about. I was really talking more about people having had a history of internet abuse and then meeting with a 'falliable' author. That's when what for someone could be a hard-core but ultimately enriching debate, or a learning experience about how authors are falliable, could become too much to take for others.

Also, on a bit of a tangent - coming at this as a woman on the internet, I do value being able to say 'Please respect that this is my space and it is hard for you to have me here' without having people call me on that (not saying that's what you're doing, but it's been a thread of the debate - why should authors get out of your space?? Um, because I asked them to and it is polite and non-threatening of them to do so, especially when they do have more authority in the eyes of other readers than I do, and we are all people here - please don't make me have to go crawl under the covers?). Women, as I'm sure you know, hear a lot of rubbish on the internet when they have opinions. And, so I hugely value having places where I don't have to deal with authors jumping in to 'correct' my interpretation (factual mistakes - go right ahead, interpretations based on factual mistakes again get on with it, interpretations based on textual evidence not so much). I can talk out loud to friends and not just to myself inside my head - it's great. And, I'd like to be able to keep doing that without having to assert loudly that authors aren't really welcome in my space when I'm talking about their books because... that draws all kinds of agro in itself.

Bookgazing said...

Another point I might like to advance a view on is this:

'What I aim to argue in this article is that there are other spaces that are being crowded upon by the preconceptions of others of what "should be proper" when it comes to literary discussions. What works for you just wouldn't for me and vice versa. Allowing that both are valid views but neither express a true totality is perhaps a better route to go.' - I would say from my experience this is a really difficult line for a woman to walk. See, there's can be the tendancy to self-correct, to insert the 'in my opinion' kind of statements that make it clear that the way you're outlining an issue may not be the way it works for everyone. That tendancy is born out of gender-training and it's detrimental to the way women are perceived and the way they get on in life. I'm sure, if you look through my words in these comments you'll see plenty of examples of me mitigating my words because this in an unfamiliar space to me (and to be fair I have my own social stuff which makes me over-cautious). Anyway, seeing how detrimental this can be to their work/how annoyed it makes them because men don't generally have to do this kind of stuff women might try to cut out that kind of language - things like 'but we acknowledge this isn't going to work for everyone' from their writing in order to feel like they're presenting more firmly, and to cut off accussations that we're not committing ourselves or that we're sitting on the fence or (dear God) that we're writing 'weakly'. And then we can be told we're presenting too much of a one-sided view... It's a complicated line to walk. I'm not Renay, and I'm not saying this kind of thing informs her work, but I'd say it's something you might want to think about when putting forward that kind of (totally reasonable) argument about saying there are no one size fit all solutions. It's a problem I've been trying to find a good solution to for a long while now and if you had any suggestions about that I'd be so open to hearing them.

Larry Nolen said...


You're welcome!


Categories are things to break and not confine yourself within, no? :D


The issue of (internet) abuse is a touchy one, one that I understand more through observation than experience. In writing both my post and my original response, I purposely did not directly address the issue of gender-related abuses that often do occur, not because I want to be blind to them, but because in speaking of how experiences vary so much, I thought it would be better to leave that (mostly) unsaid and hope that one could infer that I understand the very real and disturbing abuses that women in particular receive but that I did not feel comfortable addressing it directly due to my personal background of being a somewhat physically-imposing male.

Spaces are valuable yes and I certainly am not saying that it isn't valid to have a personal desire for such a thing. But it's just so tricky when a multitude of PoVs come into play. Yes, there are abusive cretins that seek to dominate others (and all too often, women receive much worse abuse than men making similar statements). In my professional life, I currently am having to walk a very difficult line in that I'm an inclusion teacher in a middle school English classroom and the young 1st year teacher has had to endure a lot more misbehavior from her students precisely because she is a woman. It's hard to allow some of it to happen, but I am no shining knight sallying forth: I assist her, not speak for her or take over (unless it is to model an approach that she can use later and that's mostly in the case of pedagogy and not discipline).

Having worked mostly in women-dominated professions for the past 14 years since I finished school and went into teaching, what you say about measuring words fits all too well with what I've seen from my female colleagues. I wish I had good suggestions for how to balance those elements that you mention, but I really don't, other than the weak notion of figuring how how to maneuver through the minefield. It just sucks knowing that the playing field is not level and all I can do is try to keep that in mind. That being said, I hope you do feel comfortable responding here, as I have tried to make this a civil forum for any and all interested parties (well, minus the usual -ist crowd).

Nick H. said...

"This view does not seem to take into account those who view themselves foremost as critics, those who want to tear into the text and to pry it apart, exploring its innards. For these readers, authorial involvement does not necessarily lead to a sense of being threatened..."

I'm not sure if threatened is quite the right word, but speaking for myself, when I critically engage with a book then the one thing I absolutely *don't* want is the author stepping into the discussion to provide the 'answers' (so to speak). I'm exploring what the book means to *me*, and what interpretations *I'm* drawing out of it from *my* own reading.

If when I'm doing that the author steps in and gives a 'definitive' answer, then, that's it. The waveform collapses. What's the point of exploring further when the author's there saying "Nope, that's wrong. And that's wrong too. Ah, no, you're reading that part wrong, this is what I meant. Boy, I'm glad I'm here to clear all that up!"

This isn't to say I reject all dialogue with authors. If I'm curious as to what the authorial intent was, I'll seek out reviews or posts on their own blog or the like, and it may inform my critical engagement )or equally, I may decide to disregard it).

The thing is, there's a difference between seeking out what the author has to say in their own spaces (and similar), and the author inserting themselves into your own space.

It's academic at current, but while I'd be unhappy with an author directly commenting and saying "You've got this that and the other wrong, this is what I meant", I wouldn't have a problem if they said something more along the lines of "Thank you for your thoughtful review, you make some points I'd like to discuss if that's OK with you" or "I've responded to some of the points you've made in a blog post at my own site, if you're interested". With the former, I'm given me the option of engaging or not; with the latter, their blog is their own space and if they want to rebut me there that's just fine - it's not impinging on my space, so I can respond if I want but ignore it if I don't.

I hope my perspective has been of some use to you, even if you ultimately disagree with it.

In short; I'm all for vociferous debate, but find author involvement can end debate abruptly by closing all other avenues.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm (re)learning a lot from reading comments here and elsewhere regarding this issue. For starters, I guess I place a very low value on a writer's textual authority when it comes to interpretation (after all, texts outlast their authors in most cases and shifts occur; The Iliad is one such example which I might blog about in the near future) that I perhaps too quickly dismiss those who are, umm...would "intimidated" be a better description than "threatened?"...more apt to see the author(s) as being not just an authoritative source but instead a definitive one.

But sometimes interpretative schema developed over years by readers overpower authorial statements. Take for example the reaction to Ray Bradbury's assertion a few years ago that Fahrenheit 451 was at least as much about reading/self-censorship as it was about totalitarian control of information. So it can happen that the Text can (as it should) stand separate from the Author; the Reader, if s/he chooses, can create interpretations based on textual evidence that may reveal aspects hidden even to the author(s).

There are, alas, other issues related to the topic I discuss that I'll have to address elsewhere. Those are much more distasteful than the cordial discussion/disagreement that's taken place here.

Nick H. said...

(Oops, wrote two much, this reply will be in two parts):

I'm not sure "intimidated" is much better. It's still quite strong. Perhaps "made to feel uncomfortable" better encapsulates it. I'm anxiously not to state it too strongly, as words like "threatened" and "intimidated" are a bit too loaded and put the fan at one end of the scale and the author at the other, when in reality it's more like they're roughly on the same part of the scale but they're not quite meeting, if that makes sense?

(I'll admit that what I say above is partially informed by watching Twitter, where people take the initial point, extrapolate it to the end of the scale they perceive it to be coming from, and then respond to that straw man instead of the original point. So "writers should think before commenting when directly talking about their work" becomes "writers should never comment on fan blogs at all, ever". I'm trying very hard not to do the same thing here, and possibly overthinking it while I'm at it, but I digress.)

As I say above, I don't reject all dialogue with authors. I've taken part in conversations where authors are involved before, often talking about the work of others, sometimes their own.

What I think is, and what I think most people have been saying, is that authors should take a little care when first entering discussions, if they want to. Test the ground first, if you will. In my case, if I'm still trying to work out what I think of a work, I may not yet feel ready to discuss it with an author. What the best way for an author to attempt to engage in such a situation is, I'm not sure.

One thing I am sure is, starting with something like "Thank you for your comments" isn't far wrong. Not for any complicated reasons, but simply because it's polite, and acknowledges that the reader's comments are valid no matter what the author might say. Where they go from there is probably up to context to judge, but I think first thing is, if explicit cues are absent, to ask somehow if it's OK to reply in detail. Email is probably better than commenting directly in that case. If it goes well, such dialogue could lead to new blog posts - I've seen at least two examples of blogs/articles resulting from an author emailing a critic. If it doesn't? At least no-one has publicly lost face, and things have remained civil.

I think perhaps the most important thing is that if someone says, on their own blog, "This conversation is making me uncomfortable", then the author should back off, no questions asked (indeed, this applies to any social interaction, not just those involving authors). Acknowledge, apologise, leave. Don't try and explain, never try and explain. Firstly, because you can't tell someone else how to feel. Secondly, because... ah, no. That's it, really. If you try and explain how they shouldn't feel harassed or upset because actually you meant something totally different, then you're just digging a bigger hole for yourself no matter how 'right' you are.

Nick H. said...

This is especially important when 'hot button' topics are being discussed. If someone says "I found these parts of the books problematic in terms of sexism/racism/etc", arguing that they weren't intended as such doesn't help. It may be 'wrong', but it's still a valid reading - in all aspects of life people can intend no harm but still inadvertently manage to cause harm.

As part of the discussion elsewhere, I learned about the case of "September Girls". This was a book many readers found problematic in its treatment of sexism. The author, instead of replying in comments to each reviewer to tell them they were wrong, took part in a blog interview in which he put across his intentions behind the work and why he believed he'd written a feminist work, not a sexist work (not his exact words, I'm broadly paraphrasing).

To me this was a good example of an author responding to criticism, because it allowed him to respond to various points raised across several reviews in one place, without making any reviewers or bloggers feel he was targeting them directly, and showed he was open to dialogue if people wanted it. It also showed that (to a degree) he was confident enough to let his work stand on its own, whatever people thought of it.

If that makes sense. I've written far more than I intended, I'm flagging slightly and worrying I'm not being as entirely clear as I mean to be.

I'll conclude by saying that I'm all for cordial discussion and disagreement. I like learning from people who have different viewpoints to mine; I'll listen to them, try and understand where they're coming from and their point of view, and if I disagree, I'll try to do so as respectfully as possible.

Hell, you may be surprised to hear that when I read the original post at Strange Horizons, I largely disagreed with a lot of what it said. But what I took away from it was "This is how other people view things", and I considered myself to have learnt something by listening (as it were) to someone else put forward their view, even if I didn't agree with all of it, and I respected the position the writer was coming from.

Anyway, I think I'd best end it here; thanks for putting up with my long and rambling comments :)

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