December 10, 2007 - Issue #286
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:
Freedom of Expression
"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
Freedom of speech, one of the most integral concepts in a democracy, is a right guaranteed under the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of expression, which is considered synonymous with freedom of speech - and is often preferred because it refers to "any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information of ideas, regardless of the medium used" - is one of the cornerstones of All About Romance. Granted, AAR is not a governmental entity, but if, as journalists, staff functions under the freedom our government allows, then that freedom surely extends to those who use our forums. I'd like you to keep that in mind as you read the remainder of this column, which is a serious one, and one that I think explains something vital about AAR and our conduct, both in the original content we write, and in the content our visitors share.
I recently heard from a reliable source that AAR's reputation is once again lousy among a significant number of authors. It's not for our original content; instead we are guilty by association because of some of the reader-generated threads on our forums. This has no doubt gotten worse in the past couple of years as blog sites have proliferated and become more popular, because some that are widely read write about goings-on at sites like AAR. Every time I read a blog posting about a dust-up on AAR's forums, I cringe. Not only does it prolong the original agony, but a larger readership is exposed to it, and often, the response is narrowly focused on the negative.
A couple of weeks ago I posted a special notice to the top of our forums to try and explain to readers - and authors - our policy on posting. I indicated that we believe in freedom of expression, and because that belief is so strong, those of us who monitor the forums do so on a very limited basis. We approve valid requests (to prevent spambots) for registration to use the forums, we step in on occasion to suggest people take a step back, to remind them that we're talking about books and not world peace, but unless a post violates our guidelines - and for the sake of this discussion the guidelines that matter are the ones dealing with libel or fraud - we cannot delete it.
Also included in my special notice was a reminder that authors, whose own work relies on the first amendment freedoms, should be first to understand our stance, and that it might be useful if readers, who don't encounter first amendment issues nearly so often, were reminded that part of our mission is to promote discussion - but never to control it. This even though my husband, the lawyer, says I can do whatever the hell I want since I pay the bills for the site, as well as a hefty bill each year for media liability insurance. "No," I explain, "I can't...not if AAR is to offer an open forum for lovers of romance novels."
I try to take our open forum policy as literally as possible when it comes to AAR as a whole. For instance, when, behind the scenes, I hear from an author threatening to go to her publisher and ask that they no longer send us books to review, I may share with staff that an author made a threat...or went through with it...but I never reveal the author's name. It's true that taking the high road gives me a sense of superiority over a classless act, but if we're to remain unbiased in our reviews, it's a necessity. Not long ago on my blog I wrote of an unpleasant incident with an author and spent probably fifteen minutes on one particular sentence so that I could be certain there weren't enough clues for anyone to guess which author I was writing about. After Blythe and Cheryl read my entry, both emailed me with guesses - and were wrong - I sighed with relief that I hadn't given too much away.
I can't tell you how often I'll be asked to lock a topic or delete it - or delete a post - because it was rude, mean-spirited...ridiculous. There are all sorts of forums on the Internet, and each operate by different guidelines. We tend to be conservative where freedom of expression is concerned. As much as I might want to delete a post or thread, unless the post is fraudulent - ie, the daughter of an author posts as an impartial reader refuting our review of her mother's book - perpetuates a rumor that we know is untrue, or libelous, we cannot. And will not. I may shake my head with dismay that a discussion has begun or turn in what I think is an absurd direction that can only make all those involved look petty or boorish, but that's about all I will do because of the very slippery slope one gets on otherwise. I've taken a stronger stance on this point over time. I don't always live up to my expectations on the matter, but I always try.
Cheryl Sneed, who is not only an AAR forum monitor, but also a monitor of the forums at Pemberley.com, will occasionally email me to suggest we delete a post/posts as we watch the posting equivalent of a train derailment. She will mention that at Pemberley.com, similar posts are routinely deleted. But, I am forced to remind her, Pemberley.com is a different sort of venue than AAR. It is a site composed almost entirely of message boards allowing Jane Austen readers to post about her books, and the movie adaptations that have been made from them. AAR, on the other hand, operates as an on-line magazine, using the same guidelines as a print magazine would. Quite often Newsweek includes negative letters to the editor, and Entertainment Weekly's forums are not censored; this means that "mean" or "rude" posts are not deleted because they might offend a reader or somebody in the entertainment industry. Those who use the forums are considered adult enough to monitor themselves, and if they don't, the others who read and post are considered adult enough to "let it go."
Wherever there is a free marketplace of ideas, differences of opinion bound to occur...and so is bad behavior. We request that those using our forums use good Netiquette, but we are not our readers' mommies. Sometimes we will intervene beyond asking readers to take a step back; we will, in addition, suggest the topic move in a different direction if it appears "stuck" for any length of time, or might even ask that posters A and B take their discussion private. But it's simply not in the interest of freedom of expression for us to be the forum police.
Years ago when I tried to make a similar plea to readers and authors, some writers expressed that "AAR's tone encourages negativity from its posters." I didn't believe them then, and I don't think similar arguments are still being made today. On the other hand, some people continue to stay away from AAR because they heard about it years ago and heard that it was a "bashing" site. What discussions would you have missed had you done the same?
But it never fails to shock me when we post a fabulous review of a book, only to read elsewhere that "AAR trashed this book" when the reality was that a reader or readers disagreed with our review and trashed the book. Some years ago, for instance, an author earned DIK status for a European Historical. One reader, though, disagreed with the review because she had a problem with an historical error. The author responded, initially in a carefree sort of way, but as the debate went on, her attitude struck many as dismissive. So much so that another reader eventually rehashed what had happened with the author's previous release, when another historical "issue" had been discussed. Eventually I emailed the author to suggest that she was hurting herself by continuing to post, that her book's earning DIK status was being eclipsed by what readers felt was bad author behavior. IIRC, she took my advice.
In another example, earlier this year one of the authors we contacted to participate in our weekly trivia contests declined. She was quite polite but emphatically declared that she would never do anything associated with AAR. This, btw, is an author with more than one DIK to her credit who has never earned a review below the grade of B-. But because she tends to be one of those "flash-point" authors whose books cause strong reactions among some readers whenever those good grades appear at AAR, and also because of an incident that occurred on one of our forums between her and somebody else involved in publishing - which was written about elsewhere - she refused to be a part of a program that does nothing but build goodwill between authors and readers and could frankly have helped re-establish her reputation among that small group of readers who believe she's behaved badly.
I believe in informed discussion, and generally when a topic swerves into a direction I wish it hadn't, one or more readers, thankfully, will try and straighten its course. Even so, I've learned that so much as suggesting that readers not decide on a controversial book before it's even been released leads to cries of censorship. Here's the perfect example. Before Anne Stuart's Cold as Ice was released, I was able to "tease" readers by sharing that the book's spy hero had dispassionately trained his mind and body to be able to perform sexually with men as well as women if the job called for it. Suddenly I was reading - and at places in addition to AAR - that the hero from Anne Stuart's upcoming book was bisexual. Soon the posts were not about whether or not the hero was bi, but that a Reader A, B, and C would never read a book with a bisexual hero. To be fair, some readers indicated that they would buy the book simply to read about a bisexual hero. Whether they would or would not, both sets of readers would be losing out.
It's only fair to mention that more recently I was responsible for swerving a feminism discussion off-topic by bringing political party affiliation into it. As a result of my error in judgment, I locked the topic and started a new one with the caveat that it not delve into party politics. This one was a very tough call; had somebody else gone off topic I am not sure if I would have locked it. But I should know better, gave myself a cyber slap, and put an end to that particular discussion. Looking back over the years, I've made other errors, but try to learn from my mistakes and get better at protecting all of your speech freedoms.
The longer readers participate online - and read, either at AAR going as far back as a decade ago, or elsewhere today - about an author's online behavior, the more likely those readers will be influenced by that behavior. I know that for years I totally separated behavior from writing, and then decided that if an author trashed AAR, I would no longer read them. A lot of the trashing comes privately to me, and again, I never share names with staff of those authors whose pens are poisoned against AAR, which means we continue to review - and often positively - some of those authors. It personally bugs the hell out of me, but again, there's that freedom of expression thing.
Although we've written about authors and their behavior online for years and frankly thought it was pretty passe, some incidents - generally involving "flash-point" authors, that group of authors who seem to rub some readers the wrong way - have a great deal of traction. Whenever we post a review for certain authors, or there is a spontaneous discussion about one of them, it's going to eventually take a turn for the worse on our forums. And when that happens, I know I'll be reading about it not only on AAR, but elsewhere online. Before AAR's changed its forum system earlier this year, negative comments would be archived onto my hard drive and deleted from the Internet within weeks. But now they remain for far longer...and because there are so many venues online that discuss occurrences at other sites, those negative comments proliferate and take on a life of their own.
And it's not only readers who I suspect are influenced by author behavior. I'm reminded of another Anne Stuart story. After I posted an interview with her last year, a blog site picked up on one her answers, one which I thought was very honest and brave. I tracked the spread of the blog discussion, which slapped Stuart's hand for being impolitic, for longer than two weeks before giving up in disgust. It's extremely difficult to do a great interview via email, partly because of the time in-between emails, but also because the author has the chance to make sure everything she says is "just so". In the end, most author interviews end up being about an author trying to make herself likable to readers or attempting to sell her next book rather than illuminating the inner person and writer. Very few interviews that I've conducted - or read elsewhere - feature the sort of sparkle that only occasionally happens when an interview subject lets down her guard, something I'm sure isn't helped in that the mainstream media continues to treat romance authors like producers of pablum...or women's porn. But I wonder how many writers who read about Anne Stuart on Blog A, B, C, D, and E will even more guarded than they were before that incident?
If these last few paragraphs read as though I wish those discussions wouldn't move off of AAR and take on a life of their own, well, yes - that's my personal preference. But if you're for freedom of expression, you're for it whole-heartedly. You can't be for just a little freedom of expression, or for freedom of expression "except when..." So while I might personally prefer not to read elsewhere about content discussed negatively that arose on AAR, that doesn't mean that the content shouldn't be written. If somebody has their facts right, they are entitled to write about whatever floats their boat. Just as we can't and won't control what our readers say on our forums, I have no control over what content other sites might write about that originated at AAR (which is why all of us associated with the site try to stay away from commenting on other sites, even if we don't always succeed). But it's more than a little frustrating when our reputation suffers as a result of it.
Speaking of sites in more general terms now, every site and blog has its own sensibility. The forum at an author's site - or a site for a group of authors - is most often visited by fans, and postings are positive about the author[s], and her/their books. Some of these forums have written rules against "trashing" books; some that are created and moderated by fans can be pretty ruthless if a poster writes something negative about the author[s] they love. AAR on the other hand, is a site by readers for readers; we want honest and open discussion, whether it be positive or negative, or both. Authors who are used to their own forums or fan forums need to understand that there is a difference. As should readers; anyone posting to a forum should have the lay of the land, so to speak, before participating.
AAR does not exist to please authors, so an obvious question is: Who cares if other sites/blogs post negatively about occurrences on AAR's forums? Well, while we are not in the business of pleasing authors, we have worked for a decade to build a reputation for intelligent, honest, entertaining, and open-minded content. I've been working on a project for 2008 and it's as a result of that effort that I discovered quite recently that authors who have always understood why we're here, appreciate the site, visit it often, and contribute to it when asked, can no longer necessarily be counted on to have their names associated with AAR.
I know that there are a great many people in the romance community who believe I'm full of myself and have an overly inflated view of AAR. In a sense, I do have a superior attitude about AAR; if I didn't, I don't think we would still be around after ten years. If I didn't, I most likely would have given up at several critical points in the past. To be honest, my work on this 2008 project, which will debut on January 1st, was the most recent "do I really need this?" moment for me. But once I got over my disappointment, I told my husband I was going to make lemonade out of lemons. So what if these authors will no longer publicly "support" AAR? What about those authors instead?
Because of my particular background, I think about things like "mission" and adherence to rules of behavior differently than other people may. I have a different vision for AAR than I think other founders have for their own sites/blogs, and while we don't always live up to my lofty goals, I think we do most of the time. I've often said that there's room on the Internet for all types of sites, and I continue to believe that wholeheartedly. Site X and Blog Y may not be my cuppa, but good for you if you love 'em, because it's all about freedom, freedom of expression.
I've not composed any particular questions this time around...so feel free to have at it. See you on the ATBF Forum!
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books
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