Sunday Salon: When Bloggers Disagree

sundaysalonWhen I hear stories about how vicious and nasty the Internet can be, I breathe a sigh of relief that the corner of the Internet that I’m part of is generally pretty calm and polite. We book bloggers do get upset from time to time (and often justifiably so), but it’s rare to see disputes turn personal and nasty. Here at Shelf Love, we’ve not had to deal with trolls or mud-slinging in our comments. I can only think of one time in more than four years when I was ready to start moderating comments because of attacking comments, and the brief argument ended as soon as I issued a warning. So we’ve been lucky here, and for that I’m grateful.

Still, I wonder if the genial tone within the book blogging world exists only because we remain silent in disagreement and only speak up when we can support and endorse the thoughts of other bloggers. And if that’s the case, is it a good thing?

I got to thinking about this a couple of months ago when I saw a comment on another blog that seemed to reference a review I wrote. The commenter was not exactly taking me to task, but she was making an impassioned case against some ideas in a book I had positively reviewed. It was a good comment, worthy of discussion—and I wished she had made the comment on my review so we could have discussed it. But she didn’t—and I didn’t join the conversation that I was reading either. The truth is, I just didn’t know if the blogger in question was open to disagreement. And that, I think, gets at part of the problem.

Every blogger has a different tolerance for disagreement, and that tolerance may vary according to the topic and the tone of the disagreement. So how can we know when and how to express our disagreements?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been discussing this question with Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays. (We were paired as blogging buddies in the Book Blogger Buddy System that Florinda put together this fall.) We’ve been talking about ways to show that we’re open to dissenting opinions and to promote discussions that might elicit different opinions.

For my part, I find it pretty easy to disagree if it’s just a matter of personal taste about a book. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I think most bloggers understand that not everyone will feel the same way about any book, although there are certainly books that are so entwined with our identities that it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t like it. But those disputes are often the least interesting. We’re just voting on whether we liked something—not much to dig into there.

I also find it’s easy to generate conversation involving diverse opinions around bookish topics. Stefanie’s post this week about offensive books is a good example of that. If you read the comments, you’ll see lots of different opinions and some that push back against points Stefanie made in her post. The tone never gets nasty, but the opinions run the gamut.

But it’s harder, I find, to get this sort of conversation going about books themselves. One thing Jeanne and I have been discussing is being more intentional about bringing up ideas that might be open to debate or discussion in our reviews. Not every book will elicit opportunities for debate, and I certainly don’t have time to manage contentious discussions on a routine basis (nor would I ever want to invite nastiness), but I could perhaps do more to raise questions and to make it clear that I welcome other opinions, that my opinion isn’t the final word on anything.

My review of Miss Buncle Married, for example, generated a great conversation about marriage and sex. But how many people saw it if they weren’t interested in the book? Could mentioning the topic in the header, along with the book title, have encouraged more people to read the post and join in?

Asking questions about issues raised in books is a pretty easy way to get a conversation going, but they still feel like discussions of issues, rather than of books. Those discussions can run together, as it did in Jeanne’s recent post about fat-bashing in The Casual Vacancy, which got into ways that authors develop characters. But how often do we have passionate conversations about authors’ use of language or pacing or voice? Is it even possible to have such discussions about books only a few people have read? (Maybe that’s one advantage of readalongs; it’s easier to generate discussion about the text itself.)

What about you? Do you ever hold back on speaking when you disagree with a fellow blogger? Are certain kinds of disagreement easier for you to deal with than others? And how do you know when a blogger is open to disagreement and discussion? How can we as a blogging community encourage open debate while avoiding the nastiness that plagues so much online discourse?

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53 Responses to Sunday Salon: When Bloggers Disagree

  1. “Could mentioning the topic in the header, along with the book title, have encouraged more people to read the post and join in?” Yes, I’ll be honest that 9 times out of 10, I skip over book reviews with just the title of the book. I think to myself “Eh, whatever, I haven’t read that book, never heard of it…movin’ right along.” That might not be fair, BUT it’s the truth.

    Oh, and definitely certain kinds of disagreement are easier for me to deal with than others, namely political. I defriended a “friend” on Facebook this week because I got sick of his political rants. I didn’t get into a disagreement with him, but I felt like I wanted to…and it wasn’t going to be pretty.

    • Teresa says:

      With very few exceptions, I, too, skip posts when I know I’m not interested in a book, which is why I thought mentioning the topic could be useful. Miss Buncle is not a particularly well-known book, so lots of people would understandably skip it, but I imagine those same people would have thoughts about the view of marriage the main character expresses.

  2. Simon T says:

    What an interesting topic! Like you, I am very grateful that we inhabit a corner of the internet where almost everyone is well-behaved. When I started, there was one anonymous person who kept leaving the same hurtful sort of comments (obviously not just spam, but someone being unkind) but eventually they stopped when I pointed out how hurtful I was finding it, even though, for the internet, it was pretty tame.

    I always steer clear of any topics which might prove controversial (except my faith, I suppose, but even that I only really mention in passing) – I’m happy to disagree with other bloggers about whether or not I like a book, and why, but I don’t ever address any other point of disagreement. Because I fear confrontation above anything else!

    • Teresa says:

      I was really nervous when I started posting about the Christian books that I read because I know not all our readers are Christian and because I know some of our Christian readers would disagree with my thoughts. And I’ve been really pleased that there hasn’t been trolling or nastiness on those posts.

      I’m with you, too, on fearing confrontation. I’m better at it in writing than in person, but I think there are ways to disagree without being confrontational.

      • Samantha says:

        I too worry that posting about Christian books might turn some people away. On the other hand, I follow a few blogs whose authors are specifically practicing a different religion, and I yet I still love reading their thoughts. Perhaps one line to avoid crossing is stating (or implying) that followers of a different religion are wrong – this way we can all get along, accepting our differences and finding a common ground in our joyful love of reading?

      • Simon T says:

        My problem is that I almost never read Christian books, even though I know I should! Next year I’m planning on reading some J.I. Packer, and maybe I’ll blog about those.

      • Teresa says:

        The thing that I find helpful is to consider how people with different faiths or no faith would feel about my post (assuming that they’re someone willing to listen to a Christian point of view at all).

        Simon, most of the Christian books I read these days are for my church’s book group. And I do still like to dabble in theological studies since I quit seminary. I read Knowing God by Packer years ago, and from what I remember I found it useful at the time. I think now I’d find him too conservative, particularly on gender issues, but that doesn’t mean there’d be nothing of value in his work. I’d definitely be interested if you did post about his books!

      • Simon T says:

        Good point, about feminist basics. But also that there are so many different ways of being a feminist – of course, I am one too, but there are some ‘brands’ of feminism which would exclude me for being a man or being a Christian etc. Whereas that sort of pick-a-variety doesn’t really exist with books. (Although I’d definitely kick up a war about e-readers, given half a chance! ;) )

  3. cbjames says:

    I wonder if it’s something about people who read books. Book bloggers are not just readers, but readers who care enough about books to keep a blog about them. Are we readers people who avoid confrontation with people by nature? Does the fact that we spend so much time alone, reading is almost always done alone even in a crowd, have something to do with this?

    I used to be very careful to hold back in my comments. Now I’m just careful. I do sometimes wonder how people will react to me when I disagree with them. I don’t revisits posts I’ve commented on, though which I probably should do. I would love to get more discussion going about various books in particular, about larger topics in literature in general, too. I think the nature of blogs makes for slow conversation, in spite of the internet’s speed. I find that I read a review about a certain book, ‘Delusions of Gender’ for example. Things are mentioned that I find questionable so I say something in my comment. A few months later I read teh book and publish my own review. People then leave their comments on my post. We’ve had a ‘discussion’ about the book at that point though it’s taken almost a year to happen.

    I do think leaving something other than the book title in the headline would help. I often do the same as Unfinished Person above. I’ve thought about changing my headlines for some time now. I should go ahead and start, I guess.

    • Teresa says:

      Good question about whether our very bookishness is what holds us back. I wonder that too.

      I like your point about the discussion happening but taking a long time. I think because I keep such a long TBR list that I often end up not reading a book until years after I first saw a post about it, and by then the initial discussion is long-forgotten, even by me. I’ve been wanting to read by whim a little more in the new year, and you give me a good reason to do that. Readalongs and group reads are good for accelerating the conversation too. I used to participate in those more, and I remember a few really great discussions that came from doing that.

    • Nat says:

      A tiny bit off-topic: is there a way of keeping track of the comments you leave at someone else’s blog? I don’t comment much (because most of the time I agree with the post and have nothing to add, and if I don’t… well, I try to avoid confrontation, too :P), but every time I go on a comment spree it’s reaaally difficult to keep track of every comment. And I think that’s part of the reason why creating a discussion might be difficult in the book corner of the blog world.

      • Teresa says:

        That’s a good question, Nat! Some blogs (like ours) offer an option to get follow-up comments by e-mail. (There’s a box to check right under the comment box here.) But with a lively conversation the e-mails can build up.

        If there’s a conversation I’m really interested in following and no option to subscribe to comments by e-mail, I’ll usually bookmark the post or add it to my favorites bar and check in again as I have time. Once the conversation has died down or I’ve lost interest, I remove the bookmark.

  4. Samantha says:

    This is such a great topic of discussion! Thank you for beginning this conversation. I find that the format of the internet often lends itself to argument. It’s so difficult to read tone in an internet comment. I once made what I thought was a very polite inquiry on a non-book blog because I was genuinely curious, but it was interpreted as an attack and I was met with (what I then interpreted as) a very scathing reply – and all this because it’s so hard to hear what, if any, emotion is behind the content. Perhaps the best way to facilitate discussions that don’t devolve into arguments is to be very forthright in saying exactly what you mean and what emotion or tone you are trying to convey, and to encourage others to do the same. I would definitely agree that a disclaimer that you don’t believe your opinions to be the final word and that you would welcome opposing ideas could assist in the creation of thoughtful dialogue.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve seen that same kind of think happen, with people misreading tone and taking a genuine inquiry as an attack. I try whenever possible to assume good intentions, even when a commenter says something I find offensive.

      And explicitly welcoming opposing views seems like a helpful approach too.

      PS. Nice to see you blogging again!

      • Samantha says:

        Thanks! It’s so nice to be back. I’m not quite done yet – I’m studying for my theology final on Wednesday – but all of my papers are in and I have time to call my own again. Your blog was one of my favorite distractions during the semester, so thanks for blogging even though I didn’t participate in any of the great discussions. :-)

  5. Cass says:

    When I started reading blogs, I mostly read feminist blogs, where commenters are always disagreeing with the poster, sometimes in not-very-nice terms. I was shocked by how nice book bloggers were–to the point where people would apologize just for disagreeing mildly! I always feel like a jerky sourpuss when I want to disagree with a book blogger’s post, so the only time I actually leave a “negative” comment is if I know the blogger well enough that s/he will know it’s not personal. The culture of book blogging doesn’t really seem to allow for disagreement.

    • Teresa says:

      I started out reading religion blogs and observed the same kind of behavior. And really I’m glad people don’t get nasty or jump on minor points and dismiss whole posts for one iffy statement. That seems to shut down dialogue just as quickly as a culture of constant agreement does! With book blogs, I too pretty much only disagree with bloggers I know and who I know won’t take it personally. And even then I’m sometimes reluctant.

      • Simon T says:

        I really hate the culture of some of the feminist blogs I’ve read – really my-way-or-the-high-way – which is each bloggers’ prerogative, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like a good way to have a discussion. Obviously that’s not all feminist bloggers, but just the ones I ended up reading! I much prefer the non-strident blogs, even if it means that discussion isn’t quite as varied as it might be. Nobody gets upset.

      • Teresa says:

        There are some feminist blogs I like a lot (Ladybusiness, for example, is great), and most of the major ones have posts that I enjoy from time to time, although I never comment. One thing I’ve noticed about the commenting culture on some feminist blogs is that the regulars get annoyed at having to explain and defend feminism basics, which is understandable, although I can see how it would be frustrating to someone who hasn’t been steeped in feminist discourse but is genuinely interested in the issues. One reason I don’t comment on feminist blogs, despite being a feminist, is that I worry I’ll inadvertently wrong-foot it, and people will jump all over me for an honest mistake. That’s how a not-so-genial culture can shut down discourse. (And I’ve seen the same thing on religion blogs, many many times. I also don’t comment on those.)

  6. I often find that the best discussions on my blog happen when I dislike the book in question. People are happy to disagree with me and put across wonderful arguments in favour of a book, but never seem to do the opposite when I love a book. It is a shame as I do love to hear things from another perspective. I often find my opinions change as the result of a good, well reasoned discussion. I don’t take things personally, but I know a lot of people are more sensitive than me so it is often easier to say nothing than risk starting a disagreement.

    • Teresa says:

      I think our most commented on book review was a negative review Jenny wrote on a beloved book, so there’s definitely something in what you’re saying, Jackie! But as I remember people didn’t disagree so much as they availed themselves of a “safe space” to express their annoyance with the book :) I really enjoy when people put forth reasoned arguments that are different from my own. Even if they don’t change my overall opinion, they’ll often help me see things in a new way, and that’s valuable.

  7. Lisa says:

    I belong to several on-line book discussion groups, which have pretty lively discussions and frequent disagreements (which can easily flare up into ugliness). Thinking about it, I feel freer to disagree there, though I try to make my points about the discussion not the person, because that’s the culture of the listserv – a group discussion. (I think the Jane Austen group has the most vicious spats, by the way.) Blogs feel more personal, so I’m more hesitant to disagree and certainly to challenge – though I don’t usually have a problem saying a certain book didn’t work for me. It’s partly because even after a year & a half, I still feel like I’m getting to know even the people whose blogs I follow regularly, let alone the new ones I find – and as has been mentioned above, there is that uncertainty about how someone will react. I do like to check back and follow comments & responses, though I’m also hesitant to comment on others’ comments, again from not knowing the blog owner’s take on that (you and Jenny of course are an exception, since you encourage it).

    • Teresa says:

      You make a good point, Lisa, about the difference between discussion groups and blogs. Disagreeing on a blog is a little like arguing with someone in her own house, whereas a discussion group belongs to everyone. And you just don’t know how your host will feel about that, which makes me think that it is pretty important to make a point of signaling openness to disagreement and debate.

  8. Kristen M. says:

    I have to admit that when I’ve posted about a book I love and someone comments and simply says “oh, I hated this one” and gives no reason at all, it hurts my feelings much more than if they had taken a moment to say why they didn’t connect with the book. I think that a discussion about the different ways a book could be received would be useful in reminding us that all readers are not created equal.
    And as for specific points of discussion brought up in a book, I definitely think commenters are more conservative because one usually don’t know what the blogger’s own perspective is. I find that most “discussion starters” are actually just a set of questions thrown out at the end of a regular blog post (not saying that you do that, just that it’s what I see commonly and I’ve certainly been guilty of doing it). I think discussion would start in a more organic way if the blogger wrote an opinion and then ended that with a specific question or two. And yes, they probably would have to state that they were open to hearing opposing viewpoints. Many of us have become friends through this community but it’s hard to know through the internet what sensitivities others have.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that a fly-by “I hated this” comment would bother me, but I’m not a lover of fly-by comments in general. Just a sentence or two of explanation helps, perhaps more if you’re expressing a strong disagreement.

      I used to make more of a point of asking questions at the end of my reviews, but they did sometimes start to feel tacked on, so I stopped. But there probably are times when some questions would organically arise out of my review, and I could be more deliberate in thinking about that.

      And it’s true that we don’t always know each others’ sensitivities. I really would be bothered if someone made anti-Christian comments on posts about some of my more spiritual reading. But I wouldn’t mind someone who isn’t Christian asking questions or making observations and sharing impressions about spiritual matters on those same posts. In fact, that could make for great discussion!

  9. Jeanne says:

    The question of whether a book blogger is more interested in an idea she has written about or more invested in expressing her personal opinion does seem to be key. This is one reason I try to bring the personal in to every review I write–if I say where I stand, then perhaps people will feel free to say where they stand. Expressing a different point of view in the comments doesn’t have to mean disagreement, exactly–it can mean a different perspective.
    It sounds like it would be valuable to put issues in our post titles. I started out (on blogger) giving my posts titles, and then gave it up in favor of using the title of the book or poem as the title of the post, because it was the convention. Maybe it’s time for a few of us to start a new convention.

    • Jeanne says:

      Also, I got so excited, reading this, that I wrote a short post about it, too, and called it “How to Disagree With a Book Blogger Without Becoming Disagreeable.”

    • Teresa says:

      Just saw your post :)

      It may be helpful to think of this less in terms of expressing disagreement and more as offering a different perspective. Sometimes that perspective is in tension with others, but it doesn’t mean both views can’t be valid.

  10. priscilla says:

    Like Kristen M. above, it’s the “fly-by” comments that bother me. The one I dislike the most is of the “Oh, you liked this book? Well…hm” variety that seems to be a subtle put-down with no further explanation. It’s the subtext of “you must be an idiot” that bugs me. If someone has reviewed a book I didn’t like, I am always curious to see why (or if) they liked it, and I usually refrain from commenting unless they’ve said something that makes me think differently about the book. I have been convinced by thoughtful posts to revisit books or authors I didn’t “get” the first time. If I still disagree after reading the review, really what’s the point in saying so? It’s like listing reasons you don’t like a friend’s significant other.

    I’ve tended more towards positive posts lately (not that I post all that often). I enjoy writing about books I like. As a blog reader, what I tend to dislike is when a blogger seems to be actively looking to provoke, either by putting down a book a lot of people like (the “I’m sooooo much smarter than all you lemmings” attitude”) or by picking on an author for what seems to be, really, a personal preference/problem on the part of the reader (for example, someone who’s grieving over the death of a loved one, and therefore hates the way someone in a work of fiction is grieving, or someone with a political/social agenda who hates that a character isn’t written a specific way). I bring this up because I think those types of reviews close down discussion. When I come across them, I rarely comment because I feel like someone is just spoiling for a fight.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m almost always more interested in why someone liked or disliked something than in whether they did, even when we agree. Whether I comment when I do disagree depends on my relationship with the blogger.

      I don’t mind when people’s feelings about a book is related to something personal, because we all have personal experiences that bias us. One of the things I think is interesting about blogging, as opposed to more professional types of reviewing, is that we’re able to unpack and own our biases. But in doing so, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that other views are also valid. I think that’s what a lot of good discussion comes down to–acknowledging other views as valid.

  11. Deb says:

    I try to consider my comments (positive or negative) before I post them. I don’t mind a spirited discussion about books with reasoned, thoughtful arguments and an “agree to disagree” attitude–but for that reason I rarely comment on political blogs; there’s so little civility and I find the level of discourse very discouraging.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel the same about political blogs. I just can’t deal with how quick people are to attack others, instead of trying to understand. That desire to understand is something I think book bloggers generally excel at.

  12. Between my tendency to read nothing published recently and my lax approach to reviews, I am a bit out of the stream of things these days, so the only people who seem to comment are those who agree with me. When it comes to commenting on other people’s reviews I couldn’t disagree with you more. Just kidding. I couldn’t resist. I will disagree with someone but I really monitor my tone to keep it pleasant. Sometimes being snarky is so easy, and somehow feels clever when one first thinks of the snarky reply. But the latter is just an illusion. It is much more clever to agreeably disagree.

    • Teresa says:

      Leave it to you to bring the snark, Thomas ;)

      I agree that agreeable disagreement shows more cleverness that the off-the-cuff snark. There’s a time and place for snark, but considered commenting, that really tries to get at another person’s point of view, is a real sign of character and intelligence.

  13. I wish that more bloggers were inspired to state their viewpoints when they have a different opinion. I welcome that! It’s not difficult at all to say what you think about a book or character or author, without vehemently disagreeing to the point of being obnoxious.

    I believe that most bloggers are too careful in the effort to be polite. And we all learn less as a result. I would welcome bloggers sharing different viewpoints than mine!!! It’s so easy to share a different viewpoint and do so in a pleasant manner without cutting down the hosting blogger.

    Be brave! I hope that in 2013 more bloggers will feel free to say how they feel about a work of literature.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Teresa says:

      Judith, you’re so right that disagreement is often how we learn. I really wouldn’t want us as a blogging community to stop being polite, but one can be polite and state a different viewpoint.

  14. aartichapati says:

    I’ve often considered the post title thing when writing about books that people may not be as familiar with or may not be as interested in. For example, someone commented on another blog I follow saying that she only ever reads reviews of books that she has already read – I was really blown away by this because it seems to me to be a little strange, but then I realized that when *I* open a full Google Reader, I often scroll through post titles that don’t appeal to me and maybe I should change my titles to be more interesting. But I don’t know if that would generate more discussion – I feel that people often only scan reviews and then comment, not really reading the entire post but just wanting to get through to the next one.

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, my thinking on mentioning the topic is that might get people to stop and read and post that they wouldn’t bother even to skim. Maybe reading the post would move them to comment, but the post would have to offer something to comment on. It’s not something I’d do for every post.

  15. Nat says:

    I was raised in internet forums and later on in livejournal communities, both places that incentive long discussions, so the thing that puzzles me about book blogs is how one-on-one is the approach to comments. It’s like there’s an implicit rule stating that a commenter must leave only one comment and said comment, in turn, can only be replied by the owner of the blog. And, unless both parties are close, that’s the end of the discussion (and, as a professional lurker, I must manifest how much I regret this scenario.)

    That said, book bloggers, in general, are painfully aware of things like personal bias and diversity of tastes, which I suppose prevents them from starting arguments in other people’s blogs… and also prevents them from writing rants or thoughtless entries in their own blogs. Huh. Rather restrictive, this courtesy thing :P

    I’m curious, by the way. This implicit rule, is actually there or I’m imagining things? Is one supposed to take their arguments to their own book blog instead of keep nagging the reviewer with comments at their place?

    (about the comments: yeah, wordpress keeps track of your own comments in other wordpress blogs, but blogger doesn’t and it bothers me. I’ll try bookmarking them. Oh! Or maybe add them to delicious with a “keep checking this!” tag or something…)

    • Teresa says:

      Nat, I think that implicit rule does exist on some blogs, but not all. Jenny and I made a point a few months ago of specifically adding the request that readers’ respond to others’ comments. And from what I remember at the time, there were other bloggers who wanted to see more back-and-forth among their commenters. I like to reply to each commenter at least once, so no one feels ignored, but if a conversation continues without me, that’s fine. I don’t need to get the last word.

      I’d probably only get annoyed at repeat commenters if they took over the discussion entirely, sort of like someone coming to my dinner party and trying to set the tone and run everything. But other bloggers might feel differently about where to draw the line, so it gets tricky.

    • Jeanne says:

      Often it does seem that a commenter with enough to say takes the argument to his/her own book blog. There is an implicit assumption that if you’re going to get on a soapbox, you should do it where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came, or something like that.

  16. My suggestion was digital stickers to be placed at the top of the blog. My sticker says “Have at me!” Other people may want different stickers.

    That post, by the way, got an unusual number of really good comments, including some by our host Teresa. It’s a good topic, I guess!

    Since I am one of the few people who ignores the etiquette and argues with commenters on other people’s blogs, I will do it here.

    Judith says: “It’s not difficult at all to say what you think about a book or character or author” and she is right. But I rarely want to do that – I mean, who cares what I think? What I often want to do that is in fact quite difficult is not to “share a different viewpoint” but to criticize your viewpoint. I want to argue with a post’s argument, with its logic or evidence or standards. What is interesting about a good blog post is not the opinion of the blog’s author but the quality of the argument, which can always be improved through discussion and debate.

    But again, for all of the reasons Teresa and others discuss this is actually difficult and I rarely do it.

    • Jeanne says:

      Another thing that Tom often points out is that a given discussion can have a history on the internets, and there’s no need to keep reinventing that particular wheel. Still, it’s hard for the casual reader/ commenter to keep track.

    • Teresa says:

      I had forgotten all about that discussion, Tom. The idea of being “safely antagonistic” is useful. And questioning, always questioning, out of genuine interest and a desire to learn, not out of a desire to shame the blogger or commenter. The trouble is that unless you’re known by the person you’re arguing with, you can never be sure they’ll take your questions in the right way.

  17. Thank you for raising this issue. It’s a difficult issue, but an important one.
    In general, book bloggers do tend to be polite. I used to lurk in a site where they discussed recordings of classical music (I lurked rather than contributed, as I was merely enthusiastic rather than knowledgeable). There were some excellent people there – both knowledgeable and courteous; but there were also some very nasty posters, and their bile eventually drove most of the good ones out. And this is in the area of classical music – an area where one might have expected civilised discourse!
    I have been blogging for merely three years now, but I used to contribute for many years (and still do) to general discussion boards; and while, once again, most people tend to be courteous (I’ve made some excellent friends through these boards), there have also been, from time to time, temper tantrums, name-calling, and other nastiness. This sort of thing tends not to happen in blogs: I think this is because someone’s blog is seen as, effectively, their “home ground” as it were, and people are less inclined to be confrontational with someone in their own home.
    Often, conflict arises not through anyone being especially rude as such, but, rather, through people being too thin-skinned. People often regard their favourite books and writers on so personal a level that any attack on those books or writers is seen as an attack on themselves as people. This is unfortunate: there is little point in going on to discussion books if one is not prepared to discuss, and one cannot discuss unless, from time to time at least, one criticises, or one’s favourites are criticised.
    I personally think there is a very clear dividing line between attacking a book and attacking the reader, and that this line should on no account be crossed. So, “This is a shoddily-written book” is acceptable (as long as whoever says this can provide an argument to back it up); but “This is book is written for semi-literates and people with generally low intelligence” most certainly *isn’t* acceptable. Or, alternatively, “This book is difficult merely for the sake of being so” is perfectly acceptable, as long as – once again – whoever says this can present arguments in support; but “This book is only read by middle-class posers so they can boast about it at dinner parties” most certainly “isn’t” acceptable.
    Providing argument is important. If one is expressing an opinion on a discussion board, then failure to provide an argument is, essentially, a failure even to begin a discussion. Problems arise when people think that mere exchange of opinion constitutes discussion, and that a challenge to one’s opinion is a personal affront. I have frequently questioned peoples’ opinions (politely, I trust) only to be told “It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it”. I now know to back off when I come across that: otherwise, accusations of “intellectual bullying” invariably follow.
    I think one must also allow for passion. Many of us come to the net to discuss literature because we are passionate about it, and, that being so, there is no reason why we should not express ourselves passionately. And of course, if one passionately loves some books, it is inevitable that there are other books that one hates equally passionately. As long as one observes the principle of attacking the book and not the reader; and as long as one is prepared to provide supporting argument for one’s opinions, and be prepared to have one’s opinions challenged; then – theoretically at least – there should be no problem. But that’s only in theory: in practice … Well, in practice, the best skill to learn is possibly the skill to understand when to back off. Even when someone tells you that a book that means the world to you is only read by middle class posers so they can boast about it at dinner parties!

    • Teresa says:

      One of the things Jeanne and I have been discussing is how you need to provide an argument or evidence of some kind to give readers something to respond to. The thing with posts that are nothing but reactions–I liked it, it made me laugh, it frustrated me–with no specifics about why it made the reader feel that way really don’t leave room for much discussion. And it’s too bad that asking questions and making counterarguments can get construed as a personal attack. I understand the reasons for it, but it seems to me that the challenges are good for refining our opinions. When I have a different opinion about a book from someone else, I don’t necessarily think the other opinion is wrong, just different from mine, and I’m interested in understanding that viewpoint better, not in changing anyone’s mind.

  18. Thus, Himadri, the bloggers who do not even express opinions, but merely describe their “reaction” to a book. Argument is rendered impossible. What is there to discuss – I should have had a different reaction? Well, I had the reaction I had and that is that.

    Smiley faces do some of this work to. I just made a strong statement but please do not argue with it :)

  19. Stefanie says:

    What a wonderful conversation you started here Teresa! I remember Tom’s post about the topic. I’m not sure I want people to “have at me” like Tom does, but I do welcome disagreement and debate, it helps me think better and very often helps me see where I could have expressed my thoughts more clearly in my post of how I really might be off the mark. I am surprised by how many comments I got on my offensive books post! I love all the thoughtful responses but the trouble with getting such good comments and discussion is keeping up with it! I want to be thoughtful in commenting back and I am so behind on it with those comments.

    Book bloggers are generally such nice people I think we worry about offending anyone. I will disagree with people but try to do it in a respectful way. Still, it is hard to know how it will be received unless the blogger has stated it like Tom has. The more I think about it, the more I like his button idea. I think it might be harder to generate discussion around a book because it requires having read it in order to agree or disagree. Pulling a particular issue from a book and using it as a discussion starter might work as long as it is obvious that it isn’t the book you are specifically talking about. I hope that makes sense! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think I’d want a “Have at Me!” button either, Stefanie, but I don’t mind disagreement. I liked the “Let’s Talk” proposal, but that seems to suggest a need for agreement. Something in between is what I’d want. Or a different button for different posts, depending on how much time I feel I have to monitor and participate in a discussion. You’re right that getting great comments means spending more time responding to them!

  20. Jenny says:

    I really like it when people leave substantive, thoughtful comments, even if they are taking issue with what I’ve said in my post. Sometimes it causes me to rethink something I’ve said in haste and not given enough thought to, which is great. When I disagree with a blogger, if they seem open to thoughtful debate (I hope I do! I try to come off that way!), and if I have something sensible to say about our points of disagreement, I’ll leave a disagreeing comment. I think I’m much more likely to do this with blogs I know well, and bloggers I feel comfortable with, compared to blogs where I don’t know the blogger. It feels a little trolly in the latter case, whereas in the former case I know that someone like you, or Jeanne, whom I’ve known for ages, will assume my good faith when you read my comments.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right, Jenny, that it’s easier to disagree with bloggers you already know pretty well, otherwise it can seem like trolling. It helps to have a history of agreement and taking each others’ thoughts seriously.

  21. Pingback: Happy holidays to all! (plus, some links to stuff I enjoyed!) « Jenny's Books

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