19 November 2007

Roundtable: Books and Blogging (Part 1)

Recently, I asked for interested readers to participate in a roundtable discussion about books and blogging. What follows is the first of three installments of that discussion. I hope that you will want to continue this discussion in the comments.

The Participants:

Imani, The Books of My Numberless Dreams: Imani is a 23 year old, newly minted grad student who haunts book stores, art galleries, indie cinemas, libraries and the park in her spare time. The Books of My Numberless Dreams is where she records her reading experiences and waves her moleskin, in a threatening manner, at insecure print reviewers.

Emily, Telecommuter Talk: I'm an editor, a recent resident of Lancaster County, PA where my husband has taken his first job as a new Presbyterian minister. I'm passionate about books, music, writing, cooking, and math education. I love a good debate. My blog's title doesn't at all reflect the contents of my blog, although it did in the beginning. I just find it much more fun to write about almost everything other than telecommuting, although occasionally, a post about telecommuting still manages to sneak its way onto the screen.

Litlove, Tales from the Reading Room: I’m a 38-year-old UK academic and my blog is about exploring the fiction and the theory that I love and that I want to share with others who love reading too.

The eponymous Smithereens: I’m a French professional who loves reading and writing as a side. Or maybe the other way round: A passionate reader, dabbling writer who happens to have a very serious job.

How would you define your blog?

Imani: My blog is a journal or notebook of sorts. I share my thoughts on the books I read, provide links I find interesting (not always book-related), and occasionally post a fun rant.

Emily: An attempt to be funny while dabbling in psychology and rhapsodizing about books and other life passions.

Litlove: It’s a blog about ideas, which I explore through the medium of books.

Smithereens: A private place where I can express myself about writing and reading, and also a jumping board to read and discover other blogs and to participate in ongoing discussions in the lit-blog world.

What objectives did you have when you first started blogging? Have these changed over time?

Imani: When I started I thought I might post more personal musings about my adjustment to Canadian life, but I passed that over to focus on book talk. In my quest about reading Jamaican novels, I've found another outlet for that. Other than that, I've done what I intended which was to write about books, reveal my literary insecurities, and find like-minded individuals to converse with, since I wasn't getting that kind of intercourse off-line.

Emily: My objective was to write every day, which is one of the reasons I started my blog. I did in the very beginning (for, maybe something like a week). Unfortunately, I didn't realize that starting a blog would mean I'd find all these other blogs I wanted to read, and it's very hard to write every day and to read and comment on all the other blogs I want to read every day as well, without making it all a full-time job.

Smithereens: Mainly keep track of what I loved in all the books I read – this has not changed. I also had the idea that “going public” about my writing (how well or bad it goes) would give me some confidence or motivation to write more… I’m not too sure this works. I don’t write posts of (my) writing that much, but I do try to write on how writers write.

Emily: Smithereens, I didn’t think about this much before I started my blog, but I’ve come to rely in the confidence it’s given me. I still don’t always believe those who comment on my writing, but I tend to believe them more than I do friends in real life, because I figure they don’t really know me and have nothing to lose by not telling me they like what I write. It’s very interesting to get feedback from strangers. Of course, most of my commenters I’ve now come to think of as friends (something else I didn’t expect would happen when I started blogging).

Litlove: I just wanted to experiment when I started with a different, more informal mode of writing, and to compile a kind of database of concepts and texts that I was keen to discuss. I also intended to talk a lot more about having ME, but that always sounded like whining to my own ears and it wasn’t long before I mostly abandoned that topic. Now I think of it as a practicing ground for a way of writing I’d like to spend a great deal more of my career producing.

Emily: Litlove: you NEVER whine.

Cam: Litlove, do you think that blogging has or will have in the future a legitimate place in academia?

Litlove: I don’t think it will, because academics is slow to embrace change and quite rigid about its preferred formats. What we do see a lot of now, however, is online journals. That market is going to grow and grow. I think, though, that academic blogs will become important for networking purposes, where those are necessary to the research field. I also fear they may become places of one-upmanship and competition, and places to carry on pedantic arguments. Mind you, academics will never be without those elements in one form or another!

Emily: Cam, I’m convinced blogging will in the future be a legitimate place for academia, especially as those who are, say, twelve now, become the academics of the future

Cam: Imani, regarding your comment about not finding the book discussions that you wanted off-line: Do you think that by its nature, online discussion is more focused as opposed to just more prevalent in real life? What I’m wondering about is that most people don’t talk about books often IRL, except in a few circumstances. But, if they did, would it be different than what you experience on line?

Imani: I have one or two friends with whom I can discuss books and I enjoy it as much, if not more often than on-line. Simply having a person in front of you with whom you can react instantly is pleasurable, but the conversation is also more spontaneous. The chance that the other has different tastes is also higher in person, than on-line where you can narrow it down, and that can often lead to spirited arguments, which I enjoy.

Emily: Imani, I agree that it’s much easier to find like-minded individuals to converse with about books online than I was finding in real life, despite working in publishing. That’s another cool thing I meant to say about blogging, which is that, statistically, those of us who read are in a small minority, so having this outlet allows us to connect with others all over the world, people we’d never “meet” in real life. Cam, I think the discourse is different, too, because people take the time to really discuss a book, to think a lot about it and what they want to say, rather than just saying, “I loved this one; you’ve got to read it.”

Smithereens: It’s interesting that you mention this point. If I ever discuss books in real life, that would be with friends, in that case I try to adapt to the friend’s taste and not impose my opinion. Also, it’s rather awkward to mention among friends or colleagues that you read a 19C classics when they hardly ever read a novel.

Cam: Do you keep to a certain posting schedule? Writing some days, commenting on others?

Emily: For a while, I was posting one day, commenting the next, etc., but I’ve been out of that pattern for some time. I’d like to get back into it, though.

Do you have any self-imposed limitations on your blog -- things you would/would not post.

Imani: I do not write a lot of words on current events, or reveal much about my personal life. I prefer to keep things tidy. :)

Emily: My blog is pretty much like me in real life. I don't ever get too personal about bad things in my life except with very, very close friends and family members. I do the same with my blog. I'll take you up to a certain point, but won't cross that point. For instance, if I were to find out my husband was cheating on me or if I were to be fired from my job, I doubt I'd post about it while going through it. If it all turned out well in the end, I might then write about it, turning my experiences into something that others going through something similar might read to help them feel they're not alone, which makes me realize one of the things I think about blogs: they are a place for people to go where they kind find like-minded souls or those who are having similar experiences.

Litlove: I try to keep my personal life out of it, mostly, although sometimes I let it intrude. I try as well not to rant, although occasionally that goes out the window, too.

Smithereens: I try to stay focused on books and writing. I don’t want my blog to become a diary, so I try to limit the disclosure of too much personal information. Anything about my job and family life is clearly off limits, but sometimes I can allude to it sideways when reviewing a book that touches me in a particular way. I feel more free to slip personal stuff in my comments to other people’s “life” blogs

Do you write anonymously/pseudonymously? Why or why not?

Imani: I use my middle name on-line and there are pictures of me in archives as well as on a few book/social sites. So I don't put too many obvious bits of personal identification out there, but anyone who knows me would be able to pick up on the details easily enough. I'm instinctively a private person.

Emily: I sort of write pseudonymously, using my unmarried middle name as my last name, but if someone really wanted to find out who I am, they could. I think it's prudent for me, both for my career as an editor and for the fact that I'm a pastor's wife not to be extremely easy to find.

Litlove: I am mostly anonymous, if one can claim such a thing. There are people who know who I am, but on the whole I’ve retained anonymity because I would hate to upset the college I work at by any careless or critical remarks. However, recently I’ve joined Facebook, and for some reason I’m longing to publicise my blog on it, in order to keep in touch with former students of mine. That would completely ruin anonymity, though, so I’m restraining myself at the moment.

Smithereens: Yes, although I’m not sure if Smithereens is anonymous or pseudonymous… Anyway, I don’t want other parts of my life to get mixed with my blog (namely professional, social parts), I wouldn’t feel as free. Also, I don’t blog in my own language because I prefer the international community and I read most books in English.

Cam: Emily, you’ve written in your blog about your husband's career change, his job search, your fears about moving, and your new home. Do you think that as you and your husband become more settled in your new life that you will write more about it, or that, because of the nature of his job, you will need to filter out some of that? I think that there are few professions other than a church ministry – politics being another – where the actions of a spouse can have a direct influence on a person’s professional life. That said, I think that there are other professional reasons (and other professions) where anonymity may be preferable. In my case, my blogging is so distant from what I do professionally, that it is unlikely that anyone would happen upon my blog or care if they did. Still, I like that fact that I’m not Google-able. Working in high tech, it isn’t unheard of to use search engines while considering someone for a job. What do the others think?

Emily: Cam, I’m still trying to figure out that one. I, obviously, can’t write about our parishioners, no matter how much I may want to do so, because that would be a breech of confidence, and my conscience wouldn’t let me do it. However, I do feel I can probably blog about some things in a broad sense that I might want to get off my chest. I actually toyed with the idea of doing a new blog for clergy spouses called “The Pastor’s Spouse Speaks,” because I’m finding that all of us need support, but I just can’t see doing another blog at this point. I don’t know about others’ jobs, but the parent company of the company for which I work has all kinds of rules for blogging (both personal as well as work blogs. Who says corporate America isn’t a kingdom in which nobody is truly free, especially since many of us are owned by foreign corporations in the countries from which our forebears all escaped in order to get away from that kind of government?) I think I’m pretty safe, because I’ve never mentioned the name of the company for which I work, and blogging about my job is not something I’m very interested in doing. After all, I have colleagues for those types of discussions.

Smithereens: I too like not being Google-able, I’m kind of paranoid for my job. Also, it probably has to do with the bookish/nerdy reputation you get when people know you like to read books.

Cam: Litlove: Do you think that if there was a careless or critical remark made towards the college – intentional or not – that it could jeopardize your position? Do you think that it would open you up to more criticism (probably not of the constructive kind) from disappointed students. It may be a US thing, but I’m thinking about sites like ‘Rate your Professor’ where students don’t tend to give legitimate feedback, but rather appear to be rather complaining.

Litlove: Oh yes, my university is completely paranoid about adverse publicity, and if I said anything that was detrimental in an attention-grabbing way (if I said admissions interviews were unfair or something – and I hasten to add that they are not) and that got into the press (and they are always looking to cause trouble on sensitive issues) I would be in hot water. There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ however, and I’m pretty sure my blog is not going to be read by mainstream journalists! On the question of the students, I do talk about my private life a bit, and I wouldn’t want them to read that. Teachers should be mysterious, it adds to our allure. Ratings-wise, the students have lots of opportunity for giving anonymous feedback within the university and in my experience they have only ever used it to say nice things. The consumer culture is beginning to make itself felt here, but it’s not a big deal – yet!

Cam: Smithereens: Maybe pseudonymous is when your cover is blown, but you continue to write under that name anyway? I’m not sure that there is a difference, although if you read the ‘about’ page on Hobgoblin’s blog, he seems to think that there is. Quoting from his site: “I am making an important distinction between pseudonymity and anonymity. The latter is, I think, completely hiding yourself, while the former is more akin to wearing a mask.”

I think that when I first started blogging I didn’t want myself to be known, but the longer I blog, the more I realize that I couldn’t extricate myself from my blog – it’s very much me even if there weren’t any details about my daily life. Agree or not?

Smithereens: It is very much me, but not all of me. I think sometimes I may come out differently than the way I usually am IRL: maybe less shy, more argumentative, more positive. (I do censor the grumbling part of me!)

Emily: If those are the distinctions, then I’m definitely blogging pseudonymously rather than anonymously. And, yes, I also found it was very difficult to extricate myself from my blog. This was verified when my brother told me, “Your blog is SO you, Emily.”

Imani: I would definitely agree with that. The book blog is as “me”, it’s simply amplified a specific part of my character.

Tomorrow: Part II. Writing, Audience and Blogs.

Wednesday: Part III: Blogging about books.


Courtney said...

Oh my gosh this is FASCINATING - Cam, what a very brilliant idea. I utterly enjoyed reading this (and hey, litlove, I'm on facebook, too :-)) - so interesting to find out everybody's take on this subject matter. it makes me want to answer all of these on my blog, which is ridiculous because, you know, like emily, today is my blog reading day, not my posting day...I may tackle some of these on my blog one day, though! So interesting.

Emily Barton said...

One thing I didn't realize until re-reading this is how lucky I've been with my career paths. I'm now seeing that those of you who work in more conventional "corporate" environments probably have experiences that are similar to those I had in high school: hanging out all day with people who don't read for pleasure. I've been either in a library or a publishing company since I was 23 and can't imagine returning to that world of being surrounded by people who don't read for pleasure.

Bardiac said...

What an interesting discussion :)

Dewey said...

This is such a great idea! I took a survey that popped up when I came to your blog (via Imani's) and it said to let you know if we'd like to participate in this in the future. And I would, if you ever need another participant!

Becky said...

This is so interesting, I can't wait to read the next part.
Re discussing books online, I find there is so much more variety being read and depth of response being posted by the bloggers that I read, that the discussion is more wide-ranging, challenging and informative than I have ever found in real life (and that's working in publishing). It makes me work harder at my reading and pushes me, and I do feel part of a community that values reading in the same way that I do, if not more so.

Emily - your blog is SO you!

mandarine said...

It's fabulous. It's like listening to a conversation between friends, but friends who have enough time to prepare their answers, not being pressed on by a rude TV host.

This is invaluable. Can't wait for the next episode.

litlove said...

Courtney - you know my real name, don't you? Come and find me! (or tell me your surname and I will come and find you.)

Cam said...

Courtney,Bardiac, Mandarine - I'm glad that you have found this interesting.

Emily, interesting comment about work environment. I worked for a scientific publisher a few years ago (I'm guessing here based on geography, but I think the "other" big one that you do NOT work for). Only one of my collegues read books. I couldn't believe it. When I taught English I didn't have too many co-workers who read either. So disappointing.

Becky, Thanks for your comment. I hadn't thought previously of blogging pushing me in my reading habits but I would agree that it has.

Dewey, Thanks for stopping by. Welcome.

Charlotte said...

What a great exercise! I'm loving it and looking forward to the next episodes.

LK said...

This is wonderful. You picked some great bloggers, too.

I look forward to the next episodes as well.

Cam said...

I agree that the participants are great bloggers, but I didn't choose them -- they all graciously volunteered without any prompting, pleading, or coercion of any kind. I was very lucky that they each agreed to do this!

Dorothy W. said...

I'm on Facebook too -- but under my real name. And most of my family is on facebook, so if I connect my blog to it, they will discover it, and I really don't want that! Even more than work colleagues, it's my family I don't want discovering my blog (parents and siblings) -- I would feel too self-conscious if they read it. Oh, wait -- I did tell one sister about it. This is all very complicated, isn't it? Who to tell and who not to?

Anyway -- thank you so much for doing this Cam! And thanks to the participants!

stefanie said...

What a wonderful discussion. I enjoyed reading it very much and look forward to the next installments!

Cam said...

Dorothy, I feel similarly about my family knowing about my blog. As time passes, I begin to forget about my original reasons (one of them being, if they know about it, you can't write about them), even if they are no longer pertinent. Still, I don't want them to know. I also wouldn't ever consider telling any of my co-workers, yet some of the more bookish types of my husband's co-workers -- who are also my peers -- do know, though I don't know if any of them are readers. (DM -- are you out there lurking?) Having a co-worker read this, even though I don't blog about work, is crossing a boundary between my professional and personal life that I don't want crossed.

hobgoblin said...

What a great, fascinating project! Conversations like this are, I think, very important as we continue to try to figure out what blogging is and what it means in terms of our culture, careers, and communities. The question about academic blogging puzzles me; I'm not sure if I see blogs being accepted by academia someday or not.

Cam said...

Hi Hobgoblin, Thanks for your comment. Hope you don't mind that you showed up twice in this conversation (see part II). I think the academic blog question could have been an entire conversation. Dan Green had a post on this topic today. I'm not an academic, but I ocassionally read blogs of academics. I find it fascinating that people who deal with literary and cultural criticism seem to have a concern about not being known in their professional circles for blogging about the very thing that they research. (Is that too far off the mark? I don't read that many 'academic' blogs.) Granted, it is a different type of writing, but is it so anathema that one must be anonymous or risk being taken as less serious than a scholar should be?

That said, I recently considered starting a blog pertaining to women in my profession (I still might, but probably won't write about it here). One of my considerations is whether to make it a requirement that people use their real names. I thought about a requirement that everybody --and their employers -- be anonymous. That could free people to discuss problems and resolutions without embarrassing their collegues or employers or fear for their continued employment. There are pros and cons to both options. If focusing on successes, real names are okay, though one risks too much spin or PR. If using real names, it could be traced to employer and therefore discussing (not whining about) problems and failures would tend to be more guarded.

If I were writing an article for one of the journals related to my profession, I would not hesitate to use my real name -- it would be a requirement. But that is an entirely different situation.

Maybe it isn't so different after all.

Dorothy W. said...

I have told a couple work people about my blog, but they aren't people I work with directly -- not people in my department. Since I'm in an English department, I sometimes wish people could read my blog, because it would probably mean some good discussions about books would come out of it. But mostly I don't want them to know because then I'd be thinking about them as my audience and would feel self-conscious about what I write (I might worry about impressing them).