When 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?