20 November 2007

Roundtable: Books and Blogging (Part II)

You can find Part I here.

Participants: Imani, Litlove, Emily, Smithereens

Writing, Audience and Blogs

Why did you start blogging?

Imani: I started because I wanted to take an active part in the online book conversation instead of remaining a passive lurker, as I had been for a few years. It looked like so much fun and, as I said before, I wasn't getting that online. I live with an English major now, and our tastes cross ever so often, but his forays into contemporary literature are fairly limited, in comparison to mine.

Cam: Since your interests are contemporary, do you find that the blogs that you read/comment on tend to be that as well? What about your readers (those you know) – do you think that they are similarly focused or are their blogs more varied as to types of literature?

Imani: My reading interests are actually rather diverse and the majority of the bloggers I read reflect the same variety. In fact that’s the advantage of readers who tend to blog online over those I meet off-line. The latter tend to have narrower interests, for eg. they only read classics, or non-fiction, and if they do read contemporary literature then it tends to be in specific genres (thrillers, fantasy/sci fi etc.). It’s rare for me to come across literary fiction readers.

Emily: I had a friend who was encouraging me to write every day who eventually began encouraging me to blog. I tried it, but wasn't thrilled, and gave up. Then I had another friend whose blog I loved to read who also encouraged me to blog. I read Julie Powell's Julia and Me and thought, well, if I had a theme, maybe blogging would be easier. I tried it again when I moved home to telecommute, deciding a blog about the ups and downs of telecommuting would be a good idea and a good way to interact with other telecommuters. I was wrong and didn't find anyone else blogging much about telecommuting. I soon found myself blogging about many other things and began to really enjoy it. Even though I don't write every day, it has definitely been a great outlet for my need to write, and I love getting feedback from others who can identify with the things I say.

Cam: Emily When I first started reading your blog, I thought the title was intended to be sarcastic. That is: that you were doing something while ‘on the clock’ that was unrelated to work – the fear of many managers when someone first starts to work remotely!

Emily: Cam, that’s so funny, because I never even thought of that (wish I had, as it would have been so clever). I’d managed three telecommuters myself before I moved home, so it never really crossed my mind. Almost all the editors at my company are telecommuters, and I’ve come to the conclusion that probably more people are doing things like blogging while in an onsite office than they are working from home, but I could be wrong about that.

Litlove: I was off work with chronic fatigue and missing students to talk at. And missing writing too.

Smithereens: Because I thought that commenting on other blogs wasn’t enough! And I wanted to talk about the books I read too. And have my own page to do my stuff.

What other types of writing do you do?

Imani: Things for class and journals now, I guess, since I'm a grad student. I did a review for the Fall 2007 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

Emily: I write ghost stories, and I'm often starting but never finishing novels. Currently, I'm working (sort of) on a children's book.

Litlove: I gave up fiction writing years ago and have never written poetry. All my writing is academic, which is hard work but familiar.

Smithereens: Offline I write short stories (and a lot of professional reports).

How does the nature of a blog affect what you write? Has the blogging world impacted/changed your writing (for good or ill)?

Imani: Ummm...not very much. I have always been a bad writer in the first drafts, which are what my blog posts basically are, and need to edit, and re-edit before it looks proper. I'm doing bioethics research too, so it's a completely different field.

Smithereens: I don’t really think so. Fiction and posts are really different kinds of writing.

Emily: My blog is more of an outlet for my sense of humor than the other things I write, probably because people I know in real life read me and tell me how funny my blog is, so it's just kind of become that. Maybe it's more me than other things I write, since people tend to tell me I'm funny period. On some levels, I think blogging may have hurt my other writing, because I spend more time blogging than I do working on other stuff. For instance, I used to get up and work on ghost stories every morning. Now I get up and post or read others' blogs and squeeze in ghost-story writing at other times. On the other hand, blogging has opened up a whole new world for me, one in which I can interact with writers and they can interact with me as a writer, no matter where we live, and that's been a wonderful thing.

Cam: Do you think you might start writing stories with more of a comedic nature than horror, based on feedback from readers?

Emily: Cam, maybe. I used to do that but was never really satisfied with it. Blogging has definitely given me more confidence, so I’ve been considering going back to it. However, the fact that I worry the art of ghost-story writing is fast disappearing keeps me wanting to write them more than anything else.

Litlove: Actually the blog has had a drastic impact on what I write by making me less keen on writing it. Now I’m trying to do something far more sensible and take the lessons I’ve learned blogging in order to incorporate them into my academic writing. We’ll see how that goes. It’s also made a big difference to my life, as recently I submitted a proposal and chapters to some agents for a more commercial book. It’s a route I’m very keen to go down now, but I need to find the right vehicle for it, and that may take some time and effort.

Cam: Are you saying that your blog writing has made your writing more accessible or commercial? Or has it just pushed you to consider other writing options and now you are heading in that direction? Is this more an issue with style than with content? Are you seeing any general trends with your academic area that suggests that others might be similarly influenced in their academic writings by blogging?

Litlove: I think I’ve found a more accessible voice (although it still needs work). It’s about the presentation of content, making ideas available to a wider public and explaining them so that anyone can understand (which ought to be possible no matter what the concept). I’ve also enjoyed this kind of writing so much that I want to spend more time doing it. As for other academics, well, I guess we all have very much our own styles, and I have always been on the popularizing end of the scale. I do think lots of academics recognize that there is a mass market out there for their research, if they can find entertaining and painlessly informative ways of packaging it.

Do you feel that you can define your blog's audience? Have you cultivated or intentionally attracted a certain type of audience? If so, how?

Imani: No, I don't think I can. I am constantly surprised by some of the blogs that link to me and, going by feed counts, the majority of my readers don't comment.

Cam: I’m often surprised when someone who doesn’t frequently comment does. I find I can’t predict who will/will not comment. Do you feel that responding to comments generates more of a dialog? On many blogs, not just my own, it seems to be unidirectional. Despite all of the talk about interactivity of the internet, it seems lacking to me in terms of ongoing discussion. I’m not sure how we can change that. Perhaps, in part, it is a timing issue. That discussion feature – and interacting to what others say – is one of the reasons I thought about doing this roundtable exercise, though I’m not sure how it will turn out.

Imani: The discussion feature is precisely what I think off-line has over on-line: the person is right there so you have to respond. :P Blogging seems to be more conducive to the trackback linking rather than comment section activity. I respond to comments because I think it makes people feel more welcome, but it takes a particular kind of post and commenter to really generate discussion.

I don’t know if that can (or should) be changed. Books as a subject are resistant to bite-size commentary; and if your site is primarily focused on reviews then chances are that most of your readership hasn’t even read the book. It takes a certain kind of talent to write about literature that is specific to the book but expansive and accessible enough to draw a lot of comments.

Emily: Imani, I’m surprised, too, sometimes to discover who’s reading me, and it seems the majority of my readers don’t comment, either. Cam, I think you’re doing a good job of trying to get dialogue going with things like this roundtable.

Smithereens: I find it very difficult to answer to comments, if it means going beyond: thanks for the comment/compliment/discussion. Maybe I’m not really good at starting discussions, and I often wonder if people go back to the post they commented to read the answer to their own comment.

Emily: I think my audience consists mainly of bookish/somewhat nerdy people like me. I didn't intentionally start out to attract this audience(remember, I was looking to connect with other telecommuters), but I think I've cultivated it once I discovered it was out there by linking to others and taking up challenges others have created. And then, of course, there are memes, of which I'm apparently the Queen. The memes I've chosen and created have mostly been bookish ones.

Cam: Do you wear that crown happily? (I thought it was a self-appointed appellation.) What is it about memes and reading challenges that you think people find interesting?

Emily: Actually, I was crowned the Queen o’ Memes by The Hobgoblin. I think memes are a way of getting to know others. I compose them and answer them, but I’m always far more interested in reading what others have to say. When I answer them, quite often it’s because it’s easier to do a meme that day than to write a post of my own, but sometimes it’s just because the topic is one that’s really fun to explore (like the Halloween meme that went around last year). Maybe it’s still part of that wanting to find like-minded souls. Challenges are, for me at least, a great way to explore reading books and discovering authors I wouldn’t otherwise, as well as finally to read books/authors I’ve been meaning to read for years and never have. They’re like book discussion groups in which ultimately, I’m the one making the choices as to what I read and get to hear what others think of different books to make decisions about whether or not to read them. If I end up reading something I hate (which hasn’t happened so far), I have only myself to blame.

Litlove: This one is tricky: I feel I don’t really know who my audience is. I’ve always kept my own travels around the blogosphere limited to book blogs as it’s all I’m interested in. I’m not sure how I could cultivate an audience. I hope people turn up who want to go that bit further with their reading and are not quite sure how to. I think I attract more women than men to my site (don’t know why) and I don’t get the big literary types commenting. I’m too popularist for that.

Emily: Litlove, interesting observation about getting more women readers than men. I never thought of that, but I think I get more women readers, too. I’m tempted to say it has something to do with being a book blogger, but I don’t consider myself a book blogger (maybe I’m just in denial about that, though?).

Smithereens: This is a difficult one ! I think most people who leave a comment on my blog are fellow lit-bloggers, the sort of small world of people in my blogroll and slightly beyond, but from the blog stats, I see that many students reach my blog looking for ideas on classics, probably they have to write an essay about some book I reviewed.

Cam: I get these kinds of hits too. Do you know if any of these are repeat visitors? I also get several hits on a couple of books – one I posted about almost 2 yrs ago when I first started blogging – that I think must be people who are looking for ideas because they are reading this for a book club. I doubt that they read this sort of thing as assigned reading in high school, but maybe I’m wrong. I hope they read better things.

Imani: I get the high school student hits too I’m sure. In the last year I’ve read a few school type literature like Paradise Lost, Brother Man by Roger Mais (for Caribbean students), and Saint Joan. I also think that feminist literary courses probably assign a lot of A.S. Byatt. So it’s not that surprising. I have no idea if they are repeat visitors or not. I’m hoping they’re just looking for character listings or something.

Smithereens: I think they come as a result of a Google search, so I doubt they’re repeat visitors. And I got a lot of hits on the posts for the classic short stories that we discussed in the blog A Curious Singularity.

Emily: Smithereens, that’s interesting that you’ve found many students accessing your blog. Cam, unfortunately, I’m afraid they ARE reading these things as assigned reading in high school. (Although, sometimes, I’m not sure how I feel about that, as I’ve thought for a long time that “irrelevant” – being so to them at that point in their lives, and most of them don’t have the sorts of really good teachers who know how to make them relevant -- classics are forced on fifteen-year-olds that they can’t possibly understand and that it turns them off reading. When I was in high school, I was bored to tears by Herman Melville and the like, my assigned reading, but was reading things like John Irving and Lawrence Durrell on my own and probably would have been far more engaged in class if I could have been discussing these books. Luckily, it didn’t turn me off reading, but I was a reader from the moment I could do so). If teens are out there reading litblogs, like Smithereens’s blog, I think that’s absolutely fantastic, as it might help make the classic works more relevant and more interesting to them.
Imani: That’s one of the problems I have with literature as it is taught in schools. The philosophy behind it seems to be about cramming as many “great” Western classics as possible into the student’s heads because they will probably never pick up a fiction book again. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because such a method more or less guarantees it. I’d think it would be better to be less fixated on reaching a quota and more focused on trying to build life-long readers. (And I should add I don’t think this can best be done by removing Shakespeare and replacing it with any random prize winning YA author.)

Is this audience who you thought it would be? Do you think you have adapted to your audience? To other norms of the blogging world?

Imani: I didn't think I'd ever have much of an audience, to be honest, and I don't in comparison to even a mid-size blog. I'm small potatoes. As for adapting...I don't know the audience so I can't. Even if I did I would write what I like, when I like, because that was what made them start reading in the first place. For norms of the blogging world? I don't really understand what you mean by that. I keep a blogroll and dutifully hyperlink the name of any blogger or site I mention, if he doesn't bore me, and I reply to comments. Basic etiquette, I guess, which I've done since I started.

Cam: You caught me! I knew all of you would pick up on the ambiguity of ‘norms’, but I wondered if you all would comment. I read something recently (sorry, don’t remember who/where/when to attribute properly) about the ‘standard conventions of blogs’. I didn’t have a clue what they meant, although I think, at least in part, the writer was referring to the tone of blogs – the general polarization of some blogs, the snarkiness of comments. I can’t say that I’m always positive on my blog, but I try to avoid contemptuous sounding remarks. That wasn’t always the case, but personally, I find that degrading, depressing, and sometimes outright mean. I don’t want to be bothered reading that sort of thing. Do you think that there are standard conventions of blogging that should be adhered to? Is biting sarcasm one of them?

Smithereens: The blogs I read are often very positive on books, even when the blogger didn’t like the book, s/he usually says something to save it, like “perhaps it’s just me” or “there are still good points”. Perhaps bloggers even refrain from posting on the books they don’t like. I’d like to know if the other panelists do that??

As I took as a rule to post on each of the book I finish, I don’t really like being angelic about (what I consider) bad books; when I have been disappointed, I tend to use sarcasm, but I try to do it constructively, to see what is the main weakness (I’d like to apply the reverse engineering method, but I’m not sure I’m successful at it). IMO a lot of blogs want posts and comments to be lively and funny and sassy, because it makes people read it, come back and comment, but when it’s not well done, it often veers towards snarkiness.

Imani: I always think that these “blogging norms” as you described them are based on the political/techy blog world: the polarization and contemptuous remarks, the juicy scandals and upheavals. (Well, the romance blogs do have their occasional drama, as far as litblogs go.) Snarkiness might be a fair description for some sites but I don’t mind that, and sometimes enjoy it, because writing in a snarky tone does not mean one has to be vicious and hurtful. I can’t help but be withering and sarcastic when the Guardian Books blog posts another humdinger (although it’s been pretty decent for a while) or another paid critic raises her fountain pen in defense of “literary culture”.

I don’t think there is or should be any standard blogging style. As for “conventions”, hyperlinking to other persons when you mention them is only nice and works to your benefit. Blogrolls is a part of that. Besides that, I say make your site what you want it to be.

Emily: Nope. I didn't even know all these wonderful people with terrific senses of humor out there blogging about books even existed when I first logged onto I definitely think I've adapted to my audience. I've basically changed the whole theme of my blog to focus much more on the things that matter to me in life, of which telecommuting isn't really one. I probably shouldn't say "matter," because my job matters to me very much and telecommuting is a big part of it. "The things that most interest me" would be a better way to put it. I've adapted to other norms of the blogging world in as much as my limited abilities with technology allow. I still feel like I'm faking it half the time, because I can't do things like design my own blog. Also, it's interesting to think about what the "norms" of the blogging world are, or even blogging etiquette. For instance, I feel like I ought to personally respond to every single person who makes the effort to comment on my blog, and it seems others do, too. However, many don't. What's the norm then? Or is that just my compulsive nature raising its ugly head, and no one else even thinks about such things?

Litlove: I’ve been delighted to find so many like-minded folk out there in the world and have made a whole host of wonderful blog friends, which is a benefit I never expected, somehow. I love taking requests on my site and writing posts about authors or theorists that commenters have expressed an interest in.

Cam: Have any of you had experiences like Litlove’s – that commenters have made requests that you have responded to in your blog writing?

Emily: Cam, when I posted on finding stories I’d written when I was a child, I got a couple of requests to post them, so I did. That’s the only time I can remember getting such a request.

Imani: Other than the generic “Can’t wait for you to post about that book” I got my first request recently: to do a close reading of a Lorna Goodison poem. I acknowledged it and was receptive but I made no promises because my blog is where I allow myself to be more relaxed in contrast to school where I have so many reading and writing requirements to fulfill.

Smithereens: I don’t make any special effort for any audience (although I’m flattered when a post is read a lot). I laugh at the idea of students copying parts of my posts into their essays, because I don’t take them seriously and I don’t think they can get good grades out of them!

Cam: Do you have a post that you are particularly fond of – whether it received a wide readership or not? I hadn’t thought about asking this before, but your response made me think of it, so I’ll ask the other participants as well. I’m interested in what each of you think is your best or most favourite post. What made it so? Personally, one of my posts that I liked the most (about symbols, the Iraq war, stereotypes, and Rowan Williams’ book about 9/11) received few hits and almost nobody commented.

Imani: My posts on Roger Mais’ fiction (here and here) are probably among my favourites, but all together they probably garnered two comments total, and mostly get hits from high school students (poor things). I am pretty proud of the two posts I did comparing Louise Gluck’s poetry to a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and that got a fair response, but more often than not I can’t predict how it will go.

Emily: This is a really tough question, but I think my favorite post was probably the one I did on eavesdropping on cell phone conversations while traveling.

Litlove: Yes, some of my favourite posts are the least visited. I like doing straight book reviews best, and they regularly get smaller audiences than the general thought pieces. I liked my posts on The Great Gatsby, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Richard Russo’s Straight Man. They’re probably my favourites.

Smithereens: Not one post in mind in particular. I’m kind of disappointed to see that my posts about European or Asian books don’t receive as many comments and hits as American recent publications, but it’s fair enough (all the more as they are not readily accessible/translated)

What type of interactions do you get on your blog?

Litlove: Delightful, insightful, entertaining discussions of books and ideas. I love my comments and am always so pleased with the points other commenters make. People have been consistently polite and open to each other, too.

Smithereens: Comments to agree/disagree, suggestions of books

Imani: Great comments by faithful regulars, with the very occasional newcomer. Sometimes I get encouraging feedback in e-mails. Lately I've gotten ARC offers, and one author who generously offered herself as an interviewee.

Emily: All wonderfully positive and very empathetic (of course, half of them are from my family members. We prefer to do our arguing in private). And I've had the great joy of occasionally corresponding with some of my readers through email.

Cam: Like Imani, you have indicated that you correspond with readers through email. Can you generalize about why people take things ‘off line’ rather than continue through the comments? Do any of these discussions ever make it back to your blog in another post?

Emily: I haven’t noticed any specific patterns as to why discussions get taken off-line, and it doesn’t happen very often, except maybe when wonderful people like Mandarine try to help me with my overall “Luddite-ness.” And none of them has ever made it back as another post (well, if you don’t count the fact that if someone has taught me how to do something on my blog, THAT skill makes it back to the blog).

Imani: The e-mails I get tend to be just positive thumbs ups that only require a thank you and a visit to the other person’s site. I did have one on-going discussion but it was about matters outside of books so I did not incorporate it into any posts.

Do you have any rules about posting comments? Under what circumstances, if any, would you/have you blocked commenters?

Imani: No trolls or spambots allowed. That's it.

Smithereens: No (I’d block anything personal and nasty)

Emily: I block spam. I have yet to have anyone say anything very rude on my blog, so I'm not really sure how I'd respond. The all-high-and-mighty Emily wants to say I'd always allow any comments. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. But I know perfectly well that if someone came along and said something really, really insulting, I'd probably delete it. After all, I'm the person who still can't get over all the things I should have said to the nasty neighbor who accused me of being a bad neighbor, because I was letting my dog pee on his lawn (which she wasn't doing, although I wish she had. She was just sniffing around his mailbox) six years (yes, SIX years) ago.

Litlove: I would not allow aggressively critical or argumentative comments on my site, nor bad language. But I fully encourage people to hold alternative points of view to mine. I love it when they agree, but I do love to know how others think differently as well.

Cam: If one is looking for discussion, then one has to allow for alternate POV. Sometimes I think one of the conventions of the blogosphere – at the other end of the snarky continuum – is that you don’t disagree too much. Just keep quiet if you don’t agree. If that is the case, how does one effectively foster the ‘I disagree’ type comments?

Imani: I can only put my ideas out there and hope that if anyone disagrees they will pipe up in comments. I’m forthright but not oppressively so. I like it when people make meaty counterarguments that I can sink my teeth into, and it’s happened once or twice. I am certainly not shy about saying my piece on other sites.

Litlove: I tend to encourage anyone who wants to make a point. But I could easily disagree if I wanted to just by suggesting an alternative POV myself. Teachers do it all the time in class to foster discussions without discouraging any participants.

Emily: Cam, I think you need to be like Litlove and let others know you welcome disagreement.

Smithereens: I recently disagreed with Danielle’s enthusiasm on the Mysteries of Udolpho, but rather than putting it into her comments, I preferred posting a whole post in my blog with a link, to which Danielle answered through my comments. Somehow I feel that one of the untold rule is to keep comments shorts, so when I disagree I prefer to give detailed reasons.

Tomorrow: Part III - Blogging About Books.


Dorothy W. said...

Fascinating discussion! I find that often the posts I work hardest on don't get a whole lot of attention, just as some of you described. Or perhaps it's that they don't get as many comments but they still have readers. I think it's easier to comment on posts that aren't as in-depth, or aren't as focused on one particular book, espcially if it's one people aren't familiar with. This is perhaps a downside of blogging about books -- that a blogger might begin to think the effort put into a long post isn't worth it. I'm not sure, though. Some of the best discussions I've had are about reading practices, and not so much particular books.

Imani said...

The satisfaction of knowing that I did a good post is often enough for me. I wrote it just to get it out there rather than in any specific hope that I'd get 20 comments. (And I see the traffic. I'm probably more disappointed if it doesn't get any hits at all. That's when I pout. :))

Charlotte said...

I think what I love about all the bloggers participating here, and what keeps me going back to their blogs, is that they're being themselves and representing their interests. No-one's writing about Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse in order to drive up their hits, no-one's being explicit or salacious in order to gather attention - it's good quality blogging, and always a pleasure to read.

About commenting, I go through phases. I have periods of being a good and regular commenter and then phases of just reading. I'm sure we are all the same.

Looking forward to the third edition of this conversation.

stefanie said...

Really enjoying this. I'm glad you all spoke about how your favorite posts don't seem to be the ones that get the most comments. I have noticed that with my blog too and sometimes it makes me wonder if maybe the post wasn't as good as I thought. But then I just shrug my shoulders and get on with it.

And Emily, about those ghost stories, weren't you going to send me one? :)

Dewey said...

Love these! I've had a couple rude comments, one from someone who loved book I only liked and one from someone who was a fan of that Dakota girl I said I didn't think was right for the part of Coraline. But although I have comment moderation on my blog, the only real (non-spam) comment I've not approved was one that made me feel embarrassed for the girl leaving it. I had said in a review of a kid's book that it was unrealistic for the child narrator to keep referring to cheesy moments as "Norman Rockwell scenes" because I don't think kids that age know who NR is. The girl commented angrily that of course kids know who NR is because their parents listen to old music like his.

Cam said...

Dewey, that comment -- out of context -- about NR is hysterical. I wouldn't dare laugh about it though if it were a comment on my blog.

Stefanie, I'm glad that you've enjoyed reading this.

Charlotte, I think you have described good quality blogging perfectly -- a writer's voice that is authentic and not pandering to some hit counter.

Dorothy -- I didn't think about the differences between European and American bloggers either. Although there are some blogs that are obviously culture-bound, or there are hallmarks, such as Brit vs. Amer spelling, I usually think about a blogger's location. But I bet that my American status is evident to others. I do think that it is an American thing to not be aware of this.

Imani -- since you live in North America, but are not American -- what do you think?

Imani said...

I think your question was meant to be on the Part 111 post but I'll answer here anyway. To be honest I rarely know the difference because most of the litblogs I read are Americans. The Lit Saloon has an international perspective but is run by an American. I read maybe a few Brits and that's it. The differences I see are put down to personality rather than nationality.