results from the Book Blogger’s Survey

September 22, 2014

Last month, I concocted a survey for crime fiction book bloggers (which is still open – if you blog about crime fiction and want to contribute your thoughts, feel free). Thanks to the twenty bloggers who took the time to reflect on their experiences. Note, this survey relied on a convenience sample drawn from my Twitter connections, the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at Friendfeed, and bloggers who I follow and contacted personally, inviting them to participate, so it is not a comprehensive analysis by any means.

By the numbers

First, the demographics: twelve of the respondents were women, eight were men. The largest number (11) were from Europe, followed by North America and Australia/New Zealand. As for their ages, none were younger than 25. Six were between 25 and 45, 11 were between 46 and 65, and three were over 65.

Nearly all had blogs focused primarily on crime fiction, with half mixing book reviews with other mystery-related materials and seven who focused on book reviews. All of the bloggers enabled comments, and just slightly over half moderated them. (Of those who didn’t, at least one mentioned removing comments that were obviously spam.) They all found blogging a positive experience, with half selecting “mostly positive” and half choosing “extremely positive.” (I suppose that’s hardly surprising, since if they didn’t enjoy it, they’d stop!)

I asked bloggers to choose the top three ways they obtained books. Getting review copies from publishers and purchasing books were the most commonly chosen options. The third most common source of books was the library, with review copies from authors following close behind. Though these were the bloggers’ most common sources, they weren’t necessarily equally distributed. One blogger added in a comment “I buy nearly all of my books (95%+).” While two in comments mentioned that getting free books from publishers was a plus, another pointed out that it could be a mixed blessing: “once your address is sent to one company, lots of other people seem to have access to it,” resulting in lots of unsolicited books.

I asked about venues in which bloggers frequently discuss crime fiction with other readers. Other blogs topped the list with 18 respondents checking that option, followed by friends, family, or coworkers (14) then (in descending order) online discussion forums or email lists focused on crime fiction (14), Twitter (12), Facebook (11), crime-fiction-focused face-to-face events (10), Friendfeed (9), a face-to-face book group (8), and Goodreads (7). All of the respondents reported participating in at least three of these venues.

Exploring their motivation

I asked bloggers why they maintain a book blog. Several themes emerged from their answers. The two most-often cited reasons were that they found it helpful to track what they read and it provided a sense of community. As one blogger put it, “It 4889471879_ce34dcbd0a_zstarted out as a place to keep track of what I was reading myself in a way that was a little more accountable than personal notes. But it’s turned into a way of being connected to other people with a similar interest. I only know a couple of people in my real world who share my reading interests and none of them want to talk about the books in any in-depth way.” Related to community was a sense of reciprocity. Bloggers were able to promote books and authors who they thought deserved greater notice; in turn, they discovered books that other bloggers recommended. Bloggers also mentioned that it coincided with a professional interest in books (as writers, booksellers, or librarians) and that writing about the books they’d read helped them gain a deeper understanding of them. Finally, many respondents said it was fun: “it brings me joy to discuss books and introduce readers to books and authors they might not have discovered.”

I asked bloggers whether they encouraged interaction with their blogs. One out of four respondents were not particularly interested one way or another in whether their posts were getting responses. Others invited involvement through issuing challenges or posing questions to readers, and many posted links to new blog posts on other social media. One respondent suggested that comment strings were preferable to Twitter interactions, with its 140 character limit leading to less in-depth discussion; another found that readers preferred to take conversation to email or to the blog’s Facebook page. Bloggers often were pleased with interactions they had. One reported that after a conversation online, a reader wrote, “Thank you! This is very, very helpful. I always feel like I can ask you questions. I normally feel like I should know the answer and don’t ask, but you are so understanding and interested in sharing what you know I don’t hesitate.”

“Sharing a Passion”

Many respondents reported that making connections with other passionate readers, being able to influence other readers and being able to discover new authors to try were positive aspects of being a book blogger. There is a curatorial pleasure in finding and writing about what one blogger characterized as “hidden gems.” “Bloggers often discovered affinities with other readers who could help them discover worthwhile books. As one wrote, “I’ve found a group of other bloggers and crime fiction fans who comment whose recommendations I can rely on. That’s invaluable.” An Australian blogger was happy to “promote8314929977_28fd740070_z Australian crime fiction to the wider world – I’m proud of our local authors and it’s great to see them being reviewed/discussed elsewhere.” For another, “supreme satisfaction lies in receiving emails from readers who ecstatically tell me that they liked one of my reviews, got the book, read the book, fell in love, and immediately went out to purchase all that author’s books.” As another put it, satisfaction comes from the “chance to turn on a reader to a great book they might have missed and to introduce them to an author they haven’t read.” One mentioned “the contact it gives me with contemporary writers” was particularly satisfying, and another wrote “because of the blog, I’ve been able to set up several face-to-face interviews with authors who I would otherwise never have met. I use things like Bouchercon to set some of these up to meet several in person at one event. I also will interview via email questions, also interesting.” That said, fellow crime fiction readers seemed the dominant audience bloggers had in mind and community-building was primarily around sharing reading interests..

Occasional Aggravations

I asked if anything was aggravating, if anything, about blogging. Some bloggers reported no particular aggravations. Others mentioned that it was a significant time commitment, including meeting self-imposed expectations of frequency. One regretted that all available time went into writing posts, leaving too little to interact with other bloggers “which makes me feel a bit of an ingrate.” Commenting created some stresses. Getting few comments or posting comments on others’ blogs that met with no response was a disappointment to some respondents. Interestingly, one blogger who also reviews books professionally, found that there was much less negative commenting on her personal blog than on other media websites.

This points to an interesting tension between developing community through blogging and maintaining a certain amount of critical distance. Several respondents noted that some book blogs provide overenthusiastic promotion of new books rather than thoughtful, honest, informed criticism, noting a proliferation of blogs whose authors substituted enthusiasm for knowledge about the genre or even strong writing and analytical skills. That said, only one respondent mentioned facing a quandary about whether to review a book that wasn’t enjoyable or was simply not very good. There seemed to be an ethos of being scrupulously civil yet honest among the bloggers. A couple of respondents mentioned that authors who take issue with a review, expecting nothing but a five-star rave, and self-published authors pleading for reviews could be tiresome.

I thought I’d close this round-up of responses with a few quotes volunteered by participants:

  • I never went into blogging to make money or build an audience to enormous numbers. I continue to enjoy it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about books.
  • I just do it for fun and hope anyone who reads it enjoys and finds it interesting.
  • I do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the amount that here available to read.
  • Maxine Clarke’s early comments on my blog an invitation to FriendFeed played a crucial role in my blogging: she introduced me to lots of bloggers and lots of books I hadn’t read.

This last comment and a related one (“book blogging can be a sad experience”) resonated with me. As many people in the crime fiction community know, Maxine Clarke was both an expert at emerging social media platforms (something that benefitted the innovative online presence of the premier science journal, Nature, where she was a renowned editor) and a fine and prolific reviewer of crime fiction for Euro Crime and at her own blog, Petrona. She did a great deal to promote high quality book conversations online and almost single-handedly knitted together a vast network of crime fiction readers, so we felt her loss terribly. She is still missed, but a Scandinavian crime fiction prize is awarded in her name annually and many bloggers have contributed to Petrona Remembered to carry on her work discovering and sharing good mysteries.

I want to thank the participants in this survey and mention those who gave me permission to acknowledge them here.

photos courtesy of  Abhi Sharma  and Jain Basil Allyas


September Pick: Tana French’s The Secret Place

September 14, 2014

I’ve been writing reviews for Reviewing the Evidence for a few years; I’ve been a fan of the website for much longer and am happy to have the chance to contribute to it. In the latest issue, I wrote about a couple of good books, including Tana French’s latest, and am reposting that review here with RTE’s permission. It’s an interesting exploration of how much pressure girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality and has a really interesting narrative structure that manages to unfold the mystery twice over. I have found novels about the fraught relationships among adolescent girls really irritating (largely because I found it irritating in real life) but French’s focus on the pressure girls feel turned out to be quite interesting.

The Secret PlaceTHE SECRET PLACE
by Tana French
Viking, September 2014
464 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0670026328

Tana French has won praise for her loosely-linked Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with IN THE WOODS, which swept awards, including the Edgar. Each volume in the series has a different narrator and a different tone, though all of them feature passages that are gorgeously descriptive and protagonists who make acute observations of other characters (while sometimes failing to understand themselves).

The story begins when Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of a homicide squad detective, brings a message to Stephen Moran, an officer she met six years earlier when she was a child witness in a murder case. She’s found a card pinned to a bulletin board in the posh girls’ boarding school she attends with three close friends. The board is “the secret place,” a localized imitation of the Post Secret website, where the girls can say whatever is on their minds anonymously. The head of the school believes it gives the students an outlet for secrets they can’t otherwise share, though it also becomes a site where rumors and accusations are shared anonymously. Holly’s card bears the photo of a handsome young man who Moran recognizes. Chris Harper attended the adjoining boys’ school and had been found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of Holly’s school the previous year. Though the crime went unsolved, whoever pinned the note to the board glued cut-out letters to the card that read I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Though Moran has hopes that this lead will help him get a foot in the murder squad door and out of the professional backwater he’s in, he knows he runs a risk. The detective who handled the case, Antoinette Conway, has no patience with her male colleagues’ sexist banter and has consequently been ostracized and sabotaged. The fact that she didn’t chalk up a solve for this high-class, high-profile murder has left her in a precarious situation. If Moran aligns his fortunes with hers, he could take a tumble. As she reluctantly agrees to let him go with her to find out what they can, he begins to think she’s all too likely to kick him down the stairs herself.

The novel is told in two timeframes, skillfully intertwined. One is the 24-hour period within which Moran and Conway try to crack the case before it can be taken away from them, a ticking clock that lends to their narrative a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The other is a series of scenes in the school, counting down the months and days until the murder. Though we learn a great deal about Holly and her three close friends, about Joanne, the imperious leader of a terrorized yet devoted pack, and about the hothouse culture of an elite boarding school where the students speak in a weirdly American patios, we’re solving the case along with the detectives. We also learn a lot about the pressure the girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality. The bond between Holly and her three friends, forged out of the realization that they don’t have to conform, gives them a heady sense of power that spills over into other unusual skills that seem to have be conjured up out other girls’ accusation that they are witches. Though some readers may object to these small touches of the supernatural, they signify both the four girls’ shared power in choosing their own identities and the fragile magic of adolescent friendship among girls.

As usual, there’s some brilliant writing. As the girls leave the local shopping mall, where the teens negotiate their public roles, consuming and offering themselves for consumption, one of them observes “their faces on the way home afterwards look older and strained, smeared with the scraps of leftover expressions that were pressed on too hard and won’t lift away.” French conveys the feeling of being that age very well. One of the friends remembers being told as a child “don’t be scared,” a very different message than the commanding voice she hears now. “Be scared you’re fat, be scared your books are too big and be scared they’re too small. Be scared to walk on your own, especially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. . . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.” French is very good at conjuring up the emotional maelstroms of adolescence and sharp in her observations of the roles we impose on the young.

The only drawback to this feverishly evocative writing is that, as the murder approaches in the one narrative strand and the two detectives grow desperate to solve the crime in the other, the sheer length of the book weighs it down. Trimming it by 150 pages would have let the pace twist tighter and the writing burn brighter.

Apart from that quibble, it’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play.


activism ahead

August 29, 2014

On September 10th at midnight some of us who support network neutrality will have sporty widgets on our website that show what it would be like if big corporations could buy Internet access while the rest of us are stuck in the slow lane. Meanwhile, Fight for the Future has some comix-style images to dramatize the issue. 

You can read about why network neutrality matters from the ACLU or the American Library Association. Or listen to John Oliver, who pretty much nails it.


Sisters in Crime September Sinc-Up

August 29, 2014

Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:

  • Which authors have inspired you?
  • Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
  • If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
  • What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
  • Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
  • What books are on your nightstand right now?
  • If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to webmaven@sistersincrime.org, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.

I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.

The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”

Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?

I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.

Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.

Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)

I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.

lisa brackmannPart of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.


Calling Crime Fiction Book Bloggers

August 10, 2014

Some time ago, I posted about a sabbatical proposal I submitted – and now I’m actually enjoying that sabbatical! I am studying online reading communities and am hoping readers who blog about books might be willing to take this survey. I estimated that it might take 10-20 minutes, though honestly if you want to complete it in five or less, I am pretty sure you could – it all depends on whether you want to give short answers or write more in response to open questions. Though I’m primarily looking at online reading communities that focus on crime fiction, any book bloggers are welcome to participate, whether or not crime fiction is your preferred genre.

One thing that made this survey different from others I’ve created in the past is that bloggers are writers (even if their main identity while blogging is as a reader), so I have tried to be explicit about rights issues and let you choose whether or not to have your words attributed to you. The default position is anonymity, but if you’d like credit for your commentary, you may attach your name to any response. Here’s the fine print you’ll encounter on the survey:

You retain the copyright to your answers and you may do whatever you like with them, but by participating in this survey you grant me the nonexclusive right to draw on your responses for the purposes of this research project only. I will make every effort to handle survey results confidentially and represent your thoughts accurately and ethically. If you write something in a response to a particular question for which you would like to be credited by name, please inlcude the name you wish to use in your response and an email address for verification.  (It will not be used for any other purpose). Otherwise, responses will be treated anonymously.

I will be creating a couple more surveys – one for authors and another more general survey for readers of crime fiction – but I thought I’d start with bloggers who write about books primarily from the perspective of being a reader.

surveypoint

photo (CC-NC) by Farrukh


review of The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath

August 3, 2014

The most recent issue of Reviewing the Evidence has a review in it I thought I’d share here (thanks to the editor’s generous policy – do visit the site, as it has a search feature for its over 10,000 mystery reviews, all provided through that mysterious process that Yochai Benkler calls commons-based peer production. You know, that part of the Internet that works as it should rather than being a vacuum for monetizable personal information and platform for showing off. It also has a “sixty seconds with” feature with this author, who manages to find some funny and informative things to say in under a minute.

THE BONE SEEKER
by M.J. McGrath
Viking, July 2014
328 pages
$27.95 in it
ISBN: 0670785806

One of the pleasures of a hot summer day is cooling down with a book about Edie Kiglatuk, a smart and principled guide to the culture and climate of the far north. But it’s much more than a refreshing beach read.

Edie’s people are the Canadian Inuit who over generations developed ingenious ways to survive the rigors of life beside Hudson Bay. Unfortunately for them, the government decided during the cold war to forcibly relocate many of them to a more northern and remote terrain, Ellesmere Island, to discourage world powers from considering it an uninhabited and available. (This historical injustice is described in McGrath’s 2006 nonfiction work, THE LONG EXILE.) While McGrath, in her fiction, introduces readers to the ingenuity of people who have adapted to life in the high arctic, she’s unsparing in counting the costs to individuals and their society.

That’s not to say the book rubs readers’ noses in misery and hopelessness. Edie Kiglatuk has fought her way out of alcoholism and despair by caring fiercely for her neighbors. As this third volume in the series opens, she has taken a position teaching summer school. When one of her students disappears, she’s not willing to chalk it up to teenaged flightiness. She badgers the local law enforcement official, Derek Palliser (known to locals as the Lemming Police, thanks to his off-duty fascination with lemming colonies) into launching a search, and the girl’s body is found in the shallow waters of a lake. It’s a significant location. The locals avoid it, considering it an evil place.

When Palliser can’t get adequate help for the investigation, he buys out Edie’s school contract to put her on the case with him. She can help, both as a scout who understands the landscape but also as a liaison to the community. But as soon as they start to look into the possibility that the girl’s killer is one of the soldiers at a nearby military installation, they run into interference from the Department of Defence, which is already well acquainted with the girl’s family. Her father has spent years fighting the federal government over land claims and has pushed to have the area where his daughter’s body was discovered, the site of an old radar station, decontaminated. It seems likely that the murder will be more than a family tragedy; uncovering a killer might just reveal uncomfortable state secrets.

This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Edie Kiglatuk is a tough, resourceful, and tender-hearted sleuth with a foot in two cultures. Apart from a disappointing moment when she puts herself in unnecessary jeopardy to advance the plot, the story unfolds in a well-paced puzzle that does a beautiful job of balancing setting, character, and story. Though the investigation uncovers something bigger than Edie and Palliser anticipated, the loss of a girl’s life is never overshadowed. All in all, M. J. McGrath proves that it’s possible to honor the conventions of the genre and provide good entertainment in a story that provides even more.


Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation

July 1, 2014

[Cross-posted from the Digital Reading Network blog, where I was invited to share some ideas - they have lots of interesting stuff over there, and tend to be far more scholarly and rigorous than me. I'm realizing I'm more of a dabbler and paddler than a deep diver.]

Last week, I discovered yet another way to share reading experiences online: Call Me Ishmael. It’s a somewhat self-consciously retro website launched in the US in early June that invites readers to call Ishmael and leave a voice message about “a book you love and a story you’ve lived.” Selected stories are published on the site’s main page, along with links to find the book in a library or buy it from a bookstore and a synopsis. The site says nothing about who created it, and its domain has a proxy registration so is equally mysterious. It is, at least, transparent about sales supporting the site, though the prominent inclusion of a library search link suggests it’s not primarily commercial in nature. For each story selected, a video is introduced with a key phrase:

Maybe I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore . . .

Shortly after getting an autism diagnosis, I was so focused on trying to fix the situation, and on how to get my son back, that I was missing the point entirely.

I know it’s about love & ‘blah’ but …

(I’m on a plane and) all of a sudden I hit a stretch of narrative that just totally wrecks me, and I start sobbing, and I mean like complete, shameless, snot-flowing-down-my-face kind of sobbing.

Each audio recording is accompanied by a transcription that appears as if from a manual typewriter using a battered Courier typeface. A video introducing the project includes the image of the phrase “sometimes books give meaning to our lives.” The letters then rearrange themselves: “Sometimes our lives give meaning to books.”

Unlike many social sites devoted to sharing reading experiences, this one invites the performance of reading experiences, but is unusually anonymous. We don’t know who Ishmael is. We don’t know who the people leaving messages are; they share intimate stories with the world from the safety of anonymity. In the past week, a new part of the site has launched where visitors can listen to galley calls, referring to galleys as pre-publication copies of books and as the part of a ship where food is prepared. They then can vote for whether the message should be transcribed or not, with ratings chosen from a list and confidential. There is also a call for volunteers to help transcribe messages for the site.

This site bears less similarity to book-focused social platforms such as Goodreads or LibraryThing than to PostSecret, an “ongoing community art project” which invites anonymous contributors to submit artwork on a postcard. These have been collected into books and exhibited in museums by its founder, Frank Warren. Like the PostSecret site, Call Me Ishmael offers a curious mix of archness, cultural aspiration with a populist flavor, emotional connection, and anonymous exhibitionism. Its premise deliberately shifts the act of reading from the kind of literary analysis learned in the classroom into personal self-actualization. Books are a therapeutic mirror; after we gaze into them, the stories they tell us are turned into stories about us that we can share.

This is the kind of reading that Oprah and Richard and Judy encouraged. When books are hard work, it’s because they contain secrets about our lives that have to be coaxed out and interpreted. Some literary scholars think this affective and personal response to reading can tell us valuable things about the reading experience (as Janice Radway famously explored with romance readers) or because it might be a useful bridge for students toward more nuanced critical reading. Rita Felski argues that enchantment as a quality of the reading experience is distrusted by her fellow literary scholars because it is associated with women readers and their supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare while also being a crass kind of manipulation performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. She writes,

 While much modern thought regulates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. (76)

What interests me at the moment is not just what the act of sharing reading experiences tells us about readers and the role that books play in their lives, but how the technical platforms we use to share these experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 2ist century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.

Trevor Owens has studied twenty years-worth of manuals to explore the ways coders’ and community managers’ changing assumptions about how and why people interact in online communities has influenced their platforms which, in turn, has influenced users. He points out that “online communities are governed by a logic of ownership, control, and limited permission (161) and he urges researchers to bear that in mind when using the record of these communities in research.

It’s important to ask whose voice is heard here? How do I know this is what it purports to be? What parts of this set of records are missing? Who constituted this collection of records, and for what purpose? Lastly, where might I look in this data for perspectives and points of view that differ from those who had the power to decide what is and isn’t kept? (169).

If we fail to consider the ways the platform shapes participation and expression, we are likely to read into people’s reading a kind of agency and freedom of expression that is constrained by the platform’s architecture and design.

As Lisa Nakamura puts it in a study of Goodreads,

Now more than ever, literary scholars must bring their skills to bear on digitally networked reading. Researchers who are versed in reading’s many cultures, economies, and conditions of reception know that it is never possible for a reading platform to be a “passive conduit.” For reading has always been social, and reading’s economies, cultures of sharing, and circuits of travel have never been passive.

image from Machines, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889, Paris, France by Detroit Publishing (LOC), courtesy of Pingnews


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