Waving

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?

15 thoughts on “Waving

  1. YAY! (my second blog comment of the day – I am on a roll).
    NICE POST, MARK! (hee – couldn’t resist).
    and, in all seriousness, it is a nice post. My feelings are, why should any blogger have to fit into any wave or follow any protocol when it comes to allowing comments or not.
    I LURVE the conversational feature ability of blogs. But I by no means feel like everyone who blogs should be in it for the conversation/feedback/and/or community.
    To each their own.
    Yes? Yes.

  2. While I’m tempted to start making wave/particle duality comparisons to litblogs/bookblogs, ultimately my comments – which are by no means absolute, and any names named were really more for keeping a running timeline of when I happened to notice certain things – were borne out of puzzlement that there had been an explosion of blogs devoted to books, and that they were part of the larger conversation, but that I didn’t know about them, didn’t read them, and vice appeared to be versa.

    Which, ultimately, suggests the bookblogging world is a healthy one because there’s room for all sorts of propagating branches for any number of individual concerns. I self-identify as a “first-waver”, but that has a lot to do with timing, which blogs I read before and after, which voices I trusted, where I got my news from, etc. But Confessions was borne just as much, if not more, from the community of mystery readers I know and love. They read, they comment, they discuss and argue, and there are all sorts of concentric circles within that community that house any number of blogs, many focusing on even more specific topics in the mystery world.

    As for the commenting thing – my own rule of thumb is that it’s the posts one least expects to get comments that do, and the posts you work the hardest on that drop like pebbles into the pond. Not to mention that comments don’t necessarily correlate with traffic, because a lot of the commentary is happening offsite – other blogs, Facebook, Twitter, message boards and *especially* by email. So then does it become paramount to force the conversation back on your turf? I don’t think so.

    1. Sarah, I’ve had the same experience as you regarding comments—what catches people’s attention often feels random, and I’ve sometimes been grumpy that posts I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing are met with the sound of crickets chirping. But I also realize that my posts are often written from a posture of “Here’s what I think about…” while a lot of bookbloggers write from a posture of “I’d love to hear what you think about….” Both are valid, though I’d feel like this blog would be a failure if I actively solicited comments and wound up receiving as few as I do. You’re right that the conversation often happens in places besides the comment thread, and I’ve sometimes found it hard to let go of my old-fashioned notions that comments have to circle back to the post itself. (Because that was a better, more overt proof of “success” than receiving a few e-mails.) Even for relative hobbyists for me, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how much “community cultivation” I shold be doing, and what are the best ways to do it.

  3. To illustrate Sarah’s point — I started to post a tweet about how I had read this and would be mulling it over, then realized I should come read the comments and put my thoughts here instead of Twitter.

    This gets a bit tangential to Mark’s original post, but —

    Conversation happens as a natural byproduct of interesting things, and it’s difficult (I would say futile) to try to corral it in any one place. Take the Tournament of Books. They turned on comments this year and that added a whole terrific level to the experience of it. But at the same time as the discussion was taking place in their comments, a whole separate, ongoing, discussion was taking place in Readerville (as it had in years past), with John Warner and others from TMN in the mix. And I’m sure the same was true of countless other venues. (Other blogs and forums, Facebook, obviously Twitter, etc.) Likewise, I would often link to a post of Sarah’s, for instance, either in the forum or on the blog or both, and it would get discussed in the forum rather than in her comments. (Same with posts by you, Mark, and by Kat, and so on.) So “the conversation” is always diffuse, no matter anyone’s initial intentions or motivation.

    I think it was about a year ago that I started to be aware of this whole world of bookbloggers, who all seemed to know each other and be engaged in cross-blog contests and memes and so on. I find it intriguing but have never had any time to really take a close look at it. But that strikes me as a more meaningful distinction between the two types of blogs. There seems to be a very lively and intentional intermingling going on, that’s different than the litbloggers making reference to each other’s posts in their own.

  4. I’m interested in the intersection between blogging about books and journalism because I am lucky enough to do both, at the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy.

    Rather than get into the whole first v second wave discussion — which I’d love to have with Sarah and Mark over summery vodka drinks — I want to go back to the impetus for this post, the closure of Readerville. It was a site I didn’t know well, but I respected its writing and its taste, and the best I could do was whip up a eulogy from a distant acquaintance.

    But then Tim, the founder of LibraryThing, left a very interesting comment about the community’s efforts to sustain Readerville, which has sparked a few heated responses.

    As you say, Mark, you never know where the comments are going to come from, but I’m always heartened by real conversations that emerge (rather than FIRST!). If you want to learn more about Readerville, you might want to check out http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/06/on-the-death-of-literary-website-readerville.html

  5. Timely conversation for me, obviously. And while I do appreciate the distinction between the two, it automatically pushes me to wonder about a third wave, some organic interface between lit- and bookbloggers, news and conversation. The forum format accomplished that to a certain extent, but it’s also so unwieldy… I don’t know what the answer would be, either, just interested enough to posit the question.

    The common thread between the two, in my eyes, being a distinctive voice that attracts a following. Even those of us not young enough (note: not “too old,” thank you) to have cut our milkteeth on social networking still grew up with first-person and gonzo and rock’n’roll Almost-Famous journalism — even the most sedate Christian mommyblogger among us is still the bastard offspring of Hunter S. Thompson. And I think tapping into that resource of personality and loyalty is what works on either side of the divide — and what will gestate the next thing, whatever that is.

  6. I took Sarah’s initial classfication to be largely historical: there was an initial “wave” of bloggers discussing books and other literary matters that helped to make that kind of blogging viable in the first place. Now there have been other waves–probably several–that have taken advantage of that opening up of blogspace for the discusion of books. (I also agree that some later blogs, like your own, have taken up blogging more in the spirit of the the first wave and still can be called “litblogs.”) I can’t really say it bothers me very much that the subsequent waves of book bloggers don’t seem that aware of the first wave, but it perhaps could do them some good, as Kassia Krozser has pointed out, to familiarize themselves with the history of the first wave, which might provide them with some useful roadmarks.

    I do think that Trish of HLWR reaches a conclusion about comment threads that doesn’t really match up to the history of litblogging. Some of the first wave blogs may have now disabled or otherwise de-emphasized comments–but by no means all of them–and anyone who revisits first wave blog posts from the “classic” phase, say ’04 and ’05, will find lots of vigorous commenting. It is true that these blogs didn’t necessarily invite comments explicitly, but extended comment threads were definitely a feature of blog posts from those earlier years.

    The second-wave bloggers might also want to consider that because first-wave litbloggers were being deliberately provocative (I don’t know that “journalistic” is really the right word for this), many of these comment threads could get pretty cantakerous. This may not be exactly the kind of “comment” the second wave bloggers are looking for.

  7. I’ve often had the experience of reading a book blog of some sort, getting excited about a post, thinking I had something to say, and, at the end of the reading, feeling a bit disappointed that there was no comments link by which I could do so.

    Then again, if I was reaading a newspaper or a book on a similar topic, I’d have no outlet for responding – and no disappointment that the author hadn’t created a way for me to do so.

    I can definitely respect that managing a community via comments can be a tough job – in some cases more demanding than the blog itself, and therefore, possibly taking away from the content.

    I think there’s something to be gained from both approaches.

  8. >But Readerville’s closure didn’t spawn any grim handwringing over where we might all go to talk about books now

    Au contraire, amigo, I’m not only grim but desolate. Agreed, that’s not the same as general handwringing about the state of book chat but Readerville was a blessed place in a special time and I who nattered there am … bereft. But, maybe it was time.

    What I see is — there’s a widening gyre of internet comment and activity — unconfined to any particular site or blog or forum. Everybody can and does get into the act … for now. That will shakeout though, eventually the wheat and the chaff will part company and a new internet hierachy will emerge. I can’t say what that will look like but it will be that which most of us haven’t imagined.

  9. >But then Tim, the founder of LibraryThing, left a very interesting comment about the community’s efforts to sustain Readerville, which has sparked a few heated responses.

    Boy howdy. Tim must have been on the off side of one vicious hangover.

  10. I think everyone ends up defining things differently. I’m not any “wave” blogger. I don’t fit into the community of book-reviews and tours, giveaways, awards and memes. On the other hand, I’m not a professional, I don’t know all that much about literature and I’m just writing as I go along.

    As for comments, I think it really depends on what you expect to get. I personally like seeing people comment, because it’s confirmation that someone out there is reading what I’m writing. These aren’t communal comments, they don’t spark brilliant discussions. They’re usually someone’s interpretation of something I wrote or an addition actual “comment”. If I state an opinion, they’ll add their own opinion, unsolicited. It’s not something I actively seek but it’s comforting knowing that people have something to say when they read what I write. Some sites, like Trish’s own, get scores of comments on each post. But comments there are often variations of “I’ll add this book to my to-be-read list” or simply adding positive quips about the post in the manner of “great review”. And not much more beyond that. The comments serve more as a comfort zone and add to that sense of community. But not all bloggers are part of this community and not all are into book-clubs and social reading. For someone who isn’t this wave or that, comments serve a very different purpose and the type of comments I get usually reflect that. That is, when people comment.

    For professional publications, your explanation for why they might not seek comments makes a lot of sense. This type of feedback is a special internet trait – it makes sense that those coming from print journalism might not appreciate it. You can still present information and still start a conversation, even if it takes a bit more subtlety to do it. Comments like mine may not spark a giant, ten-thread conversation. But we’ve exchanged ideas and thoughts and it was interesting.

  11. Too bad about Readerville, a place I liked to visit. While we’re on the subject of books coverage on the web, I just thought I would shamelessly plug my own site, The Second Pass (link below). Readerville’s fate shows how difficult it is to maintain even a long-running popular site, but I’m going to keep trying to build up the audience and hang around as long as I can. (Comments on the blog portion of the site should be enabled before too long, if that means anything to you.)

    http://thesecondpass.com/

  12. I am disappointed in this post. Google Blog Search led me here because I am looking for someone to sell me a futon, and this doesn’t help me at all.

    But I would like to say that I think the shuttering of Readerville must be due to that centuries-old conspiracy of the Knights Templer.

    I learned that in some book.

  13. I think the thing that bothers me the most about the first wave and second wave business is being categorized at all. Especially because I think I’m somewhere in between everything.

    My blog is relatively new, but I’ve been reading “professional” reviews and book/lit blogs for years. I am in the industry (freelance since before some 2nd-wavers could read), and I’d like to think my reviews are more than just a book club opinion. I take my reviewing seriously.

    On the other hand, I **love** the community, and I love getting comments. Without the social aspect of book (2nd-wave) blogging, I’d never do it. My blog contains some fluff posts, I give away books, I post photographs. I love to talk about libraries, the backlist, and audiobooks.

    The book club aspect of book blogging is the primary motivator for me. But does being social and liking feedback necessarily mean my reviews are somehow worse? That I am somehow less intelligent or less thoughtful?

    I have no delusions: My little blog isn’t going to change the world. I’m bullish on the book industry, and if I get a few people to buy books and keep reading great. If I can help move the publishers into the twenty-first century, even better.

  14. I want to say thank you for such a reasoned post. I experienced a not-so-nice lit blogger (though the fact that this person is a lit blogger is incidental) spewing vitriol, so I’m refreshed by someone who knows how to discuss things. :)

    In response to Bibliobio’s comment, “Some sites, like Trish’s own, get scores of comments on each post. But comments there are often variations of “I’ll add this book to my to-be-read list” or simply adding positive quips about the post in the manner of “great review”. And not much more beyond that.” I want to say that comments on book reviews are often going to be “great review” and not much more beyond that; it’s not on book reviews that I pride myself on the commenting that happens on my blog. I get a lot of comments when I post opinion pieces, and those comments are more substantial. However, I can’t write opinion pieces all the time because I don’t have time.

    Having said that, I don’t think lots of comments is indicative of a healthy blog necessarily. It *may* indicate a healthy blog, but there’s plenty of great blogs that don’t get many comments.

    Anyway, thank you for a great discussion, Mark. I didn’t really have a rebuttal to your argument about my “unsustainable” comment because you were well-reasoned and I think you may be right and I may be wrong. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s