Reading and Writing Together Online: Exploring Wattpad

September 6, 2015

The internet has long offered opportunities to form communities around reading and writing, particularly in the form of fanfiction, which predates the internet but has flourished online. In the 1980s, Usenet groups and email lists were created that focused on fanfiction based on Star Trek and other popular entertainments. FanFiction.net was launched in 1998 and remains popular, with sections for different fandoms such as Harry Potter (the most populated fandom as of August 2015), Dr. Who, and many anime and manga works. It retains something of the look and feel of early web forums.

Wattpad looks very different. It was founded in 2006, a year before Amazon released its Kindle platform, reading device, and store, and the popularity of ebooks surged. From its start, Wattpad has been designed to be a social platform for composing, reading, and sharing responses to stories, all of which are available for free, on the web of through an app. The platform was very much designed with mobile in mind, even though mobile wasn’t as ubiquitous in 2006 as it is today. Though it took a few years to take off, it began to catch the attention of the press in 2012 and now has an astonishing 40 million members worldwide. No wonder it describes itself as “the world’s largest community of readers and writers.”

Based in Canada, it has members across the globe who read and publish stories in more than fifty languages. It’s particularly popular in the Philippines, where the mobile version is reportedly the top-ranked mobile app. At this point it is a privately held corporation supported mainly by venture capital, though some relatively new brand sponsorships (in which Wattpadders are commissioned to write stories about new films, music, or products) may also be part of its business model. The product’s assets, like most social media platforms, is its membership and information about their interests and the popularity of the content they share. Unlike Facebook, though, it doesn’t have a “real names” policy and does not seem to be tying those metrics to other data sources, though it encourages sharing stories through social media and has recently developed a function for turning quotations from stories into graphics to share on Twitter. It’s hard to say how exactly it will make money, since the sauce is secret and the company is in that peculiar phase that new tech platforms go through that some people call “pre-revenue audience building.” Another term might be “magical thinking,” but who’s going to argue with the site’s impressive metrics?

According to venture capital researcher Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report, as of May 2015 (see slide 63 of her presentation), Wattpad had 40 million unique visitors monthly, twice as many as last year, with 11 billion minutes spent on it per month (up 83 percent over last year), ninety percent of this busy activity via mobile phones. In each minute that passes, another 24 hours-worth of text to read is posted. But not all of the members are writers; a company official told Digital Book World last year that 90 percent of the members are readers, not authors.

Dubbed “a YouTube for stories” and likened to Instagram, it’s a youthful site in style and tone, but one of its most prominent promoters is Margaret Atwood, who sees it as democratizing of literacy. In a 2012 Guardian article, she wrote,

No one need know how old you are, what your social background is, or where you live. Your readers can be anywhere. And if you’re worried about adverse reactions from your teachers, your grandmother, or others who might not like you writing about slavering zombies or your relatives, you can use a pseudonym.

She does not see this kind of story-sharing as competition for traditional publishers, but rather a bridge to them. More importantly, she sees Wattpad as a path to literacy in an unequal world. You can’t always buy ebooks if you don’t have enough money – or, like many Wattpadders, aren’t old enough to have a credit card. Nor do all aspiring writers around the globe have access to writing tools and models to emulate.

Our generation in the west was lucky: we had readymade gateways. We had books, paper, teachers, schools and libraries. But many in the world lack these luxuries. How do you practice without such tryout venues? Without a piano, how do you learn to play the piano? How can you write without paper and read without books? . . . Wattpad opens the doors and enlarges the view in places where the doors are closed and the view is restricted. And somewhere out there in Wattpadland, a new generation is testing its wings.

Adventures in Convergence Culture

I joined Wattpad nine months ago and began to poke around. After exploring the social features and reading a few stories, I dusted off an old floppy disk with a young adult time-travel story I’d written in the early 1990s and posted it serially, as most Wattpad stories appear, one chapter at a time over the course of several weeks, to get to know both the platform and the nature of its interactions better. (I had to make a few changes, including a new opening from which the story could become a flashback. I have a feeling a huge proportion of Wattpad members weren’t born when I wrote that thing and wouldn’t recognize a floppy disk. Also, yes, it is deeply weird to read something you wrote so long ago envisioning a future with limited surveillance capabilities – hah, I wish! – but I digress.) I can’t say my experiment yielded much in terms of insight into the social life of Wattpad for writers. There is a lot of competition for attention and, as many members advise in various “how to do Wattpad” guidebooks, writers need to spend a lot of time engaging with others before they will be discovered, and I didn’t. But even with this limited engagement, I can make some observations.

First, the platform is great for writing. On a desktop, it’s a clean and intuitive interface that gives writers a distraction-free writing space. No, it doesn’t have all the features of Word, but most writers rarely need those fiddly bits. I found the clean, simple interface refreshing. The phone app can also be used as a writing space (if your thumbs are up to it), which is likely the most common writing method among younger members of the site who may not have access to a laptop or simply are used to composing on a phone. For me, the app enabled easy editing when I spotted a typo or missing word. The default setting for copyright is “all rights reserved” (which someone who uploaded Shakespeare plays carelessly left in place) but the platform also offers a variety of Creative Commons licenses.

Though the writing space is stripped-down simple, Wattpad offers ways to visually enhance a story. Writers can create and upload covers created DIY, by using a separate Wattpad app, or through a kind of barter system that I don’t thoroughly understand. Apparently some graphic arts-inclined members create covers for others and their work is acknowledged in dedications, which are frequently appended to chapters of stories to recognize other members. Writers can also add pictures or videos as chapter headers, and frequently do. Chapters are sometimes introduced or closed with a comment from the author encouraging suggestions, promising a timeline for the next installment, or begging readers to be patient because exams are looming and they won’t have time to post another chapter anytime soon.

The distance between readers and writers and between the story and the person who wrote it are deliberately blurred in this environment. There is a sense that works are in progress and readers and writers experience the unfolding of a story together. Writers also get a sense of affirmation when readers comment on their work or ask for more. Generally the comments are not the incisive analysis that writers would get from an editor or from comrades in a writing workshop. They tend to be short expressions of pleasure, responses to what’s happening in the story (“Whoa!!” “Nooooooo!”), or gestures of identification. (“That happened to me.” “That’s my birthday, too!” “My brother acts exactly like this guy.”) This seriality and intimate form of sharing owes much to fanfiction culture and is well depicted in Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel, Fangirl.

There are metrics on every chapter and on your profile, constant reminders of how many people follow you, how many have looked at your stories, and how many comments and votes you’ve received. All of these pings of attention are meant to be positive. As one of the founders, Allen Lau, explained to Publisher’s Weekly, novice writers crave affirmation and so all of the cues give positive reinforcement. There are no downvotes here. Scanning through stories that I added to my library, I found virtually no negative comments. Instead, these notes are generally short, flippant, and supportive. Comments that don’t conform to community standards can be flagged by anyone for deletion.

Though it’s an amazingly cheerful and positive place, it is also part of the attention economy. Those visible metrics are a display of status, which creates a certain undercurrent of anxiety about getting reads. Comments to community boards are sometimes desperate pleas for readers or requests for advice about how to get more followers and reads. Popular writers, whose status is reinforced by being featured on the discovery page, get tens of thousands of views, or in some cases millions, or even as many as a billion views, as Anna Todd did with a series that riffed on the boy band One Direction, the kind of fanfiction celebrity that led to the insanely popular and ultimately profitable 50 Shades trilogy, a fanfiction based on Twilight. (As an aside, all three blockbusters seem to revolve around abusive relationships. I wonder what that’s about?) Whether Todd’s book contract or film deal will pay off is unknown, the kind of blockbuster bet that big entertainment likes to place. These days, both self-publishing and sites like Wattpad have become crowd-sourced slushpiles for traditional publishers. As for Anna Todd, who kept her (pre-edited) books freely available on Wattpad, the affirmation that she gets from the social features of the platform are a necessary part of writing. As she told a reporter for The New York Times, “the only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone.”

Some member/writers have been chosen to be “ambassadors” – moderators with specific duties that keep the community harmonious, but who are presumably paid only in the feels. There are also community sections of the site. Clubs are where members can talk about improving their writing, graphic design, the publishing industry, genres, or anything at all in “The Café.” There are also areas for awards, contests, #justwriteit (a place where members can commit to writing and get inspiration, rather like National Novel Writing Month), and a recently-launched section for writers on how to use the site and get writing tips. There is also a page of information on a new program, “Wattpad Stars.” It’s not clear how writers become stars, but this program pairs Wattpadders with brands, mostly entertainment industry heavy-hitters, but including Unilever, which promoted a facial cleanser to teens in the Philippines by commissioning a story in Tagalog by a Wattpadder. Though paid product placement is rare in traditional publishing, this venture is an interesting way to blend fanfiction’s love of engaging with commercial culture and the use of Wattpad by its members as a bridge from free sharing to more commercial pursuits.

My second major impression from using the site is that it’s a great place for readers, particularly young readers who enjoy fanfiction, romance stories, or young adult fiction. There are loads of other genres, too, but these seem most popular. You can discover books the hard way, by browsing genre categories or searching the tags authors assign their works, or you can click on the books covers that appear whenever you open the app – some new, some popular, some selected by Wattpad staff, some that appear, after you’ve chosen some stories, to be algorithmically chosen to match your previous choices. Each time you choose a book, you also get “you may also like” choices. All of these books are free, and they stay on your phone even when you’re offline. They are also often quite compelling to read and composed with narrative sophistication. Of course, there are stories that are full of clichés and rehashing of tired tropes, but that’s true in all kinds of publishing. What astonished me was how polished so many of the stories are.

Like users of the Kindle (which came into the world after Wattpad but, with Amazon’s enormous reach, ramped up much more quickly), Wattpad readers can experience instant gratification, the reassurance that they have something to read with them all the time, and a seemingly bottomless pool of books to choose from. Unlike Kindle, these books are free, and the social apparatus in which they are nestled is youthful, supportive, and ubiquitous. Amazon, generally a nimble company, tried late in the game to get a foot in the fanfiction door with Kindle Worlds, a place where writers can create and sell fanfiction – but only for certain willing brands, and only if they follow stringent guidelines and are willing to license some uses to the product they are riffing on and if they give Amazon world publication rights for the duration of copyright (meaning until long after you’re dead). It does not seem to have taken off in a big way. I suspect there are two kinds of “free” missing, here – free to readers and free for writers to do what they like.

What’s interesting at Wattpad is that it’s infused with the free-wheeling remixing and community-building spirit of fanfiction while also including mild warnings about copyright. Wattpad has had to remove copyrighted material, and cautions writers not to use copyrighted works in the images or videos they choose for chapter headings, but that warning is blithely ignored by many Wattpadders who remix and repurpose as if they were born to it – as, in fact, many of them were.

From the perspective of examining online reading communities, Wattpad is fascinating. Some of the socializing is unabashedly promotional. Writers engage in hopes that readers will engage with them. But a lot of it is the kind of informal chatter and friendship-building that revolves around shared reading experiences. I didn’t see any in-depth criticism or analysis, but that isn’t the point.

The point is sharing emotional responses to the work and the act of reading it: Love love love. Intense! Actual tears. Whaaa… did that just happen? Update pls. Having those reactions serially, immediately, and in the company of others within a web of social relationships is a very contemporary version of the decades-old practice of talking about books online.

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Goodreads and the Commodification of the Reading Self

August 28, 2015

Goodreads is the Google of online reading communities, so huge it exerts a kind of gravity. It operates on the same business model of “free” – offering a service in exchange for user-generated and third-party content and massive amounts of monetizeable data. That data is also described as a member benefit. As of this writing, the site’s “about” page states “our recommendation engine analyzes 20 billion data points to give suggestions tailored to your literary tastes.” Wow, all that, just for me?

Well, no.

Currently Goodreads has over 40 million members who have attached over a billion books to their online identities.  At least I think so; it’s hard to know what exactly “1.1 billion books added” means when writers, readers, and publishers are all involved. One of the founders, Otis Chandler, has described how metrics can help publishers identify which books are going to be blockbusters through the influence of trusted readers and the viral nature of word-of-mouth recommendations on a massive scale. Recently, he unpacked how The Girl on the Train took off using Goodreads metrics, which in turn encouraged the publisher to spend even more money on promotion.

Colin Robinson has suggested that, as these vernacular  sites for book reviews replace professional book reviewers as taste-makers, midlist authors will lose out. The decline of the midlist is a long-running concern, with the Author’s Guild commissioning a report on the crisis back in 2001 (no longer available online, unfortunately). Since then, Chris Anderson’s influential theory of the Long Tail providing new business opportunities has been challenged by Anita Elberse, whose research suggests blockbusters are bigger than ever, with smart companies spending more to promote fewer works. A site like Goodreads mixes the Long Tail of books – more published today than ever in history – with the blockbuster effect, bolstered by big data metrics providing insight into readers’ behaviors that has never before been available to publishers.

Goodreads is not the first online book-oriented site designed for sharing reading experiences. LibraryThing, its geekier older cousin, launched in 2005; Goodreads went online in 2007. (I’ve compared the cultures of the two sites elsewhere.) It has a commercially appealing presence, a panoply of social features, a strong mobile app (which currently accounts for half of the traffic to the platform) and is welcoming to authors and publishers who use the site for both engagement and marketing. It has been so successful at attracting members who spend hours “shelving” books, writing reviews, sharing quotes, discussing books, and participating in contests, people’s-choice awards, and discussion groups that it threatened to eclipse Amazon customer reviews as a socially-mediated place to discover what to read next. A year after a 2012 dust-up with Amazon over restrictions on its API (with Goodreads member “librarians” scrambling to manually restore links to information that was getting lost in the transition), Amazon bought Goodreads. It had previously acquired a competitor, Shelfari, and acquired a minority interest in LibraryThing when it bought Abebooks and its holdings. That said, LibraryThing provides no information about members to third parties, including Amazon; Goodreads does and integrates members’ Amazon activity into members’ Goodread accounts as an opt-in feature. Though Goodreads lost some members when it was acquired by Amazon, it has gained far more, going from 16 million to 40 million members in the past two years.

Bullies and collective drama

Amazon has gone through public dramas over book reviews, from inadvertently exposing anonymous reviewers on their Canadian site, revealing authors praising their books and trashing other writers’ works, to deleting reviews by people who Amazon determines, though obscure and slightly creepy means, to be acquainted with the books’ authors. Goodreads reviews are widely perceived as being more trustworthy, but that hasn’t stopped drama erupting, sometimes with Vesuvian energy. A group of authors who felt they were being unfairly criticized banded together to fight “bullies,” with the author Anne Rice playing a high-profile role. In turn, readers have decried authors who they feel overreact to negative reviews, sometimes resorting to stalking and harassing readers who don’t give their books high marks.

At times, interventions made by Goodreads staff have created further strife, as when reviews and lists of books curated by members were abruptly  deleted to conform to a new policy banning ad hominem attacks on authors. As often happens on commercial social platforms, anger among users was partially due to the fact that they feel the content they created is theirs, when actually control over the content of the site remains with the corporation. Given that this site is in many ways a marketing platform for writers, including many self-published authors with few outlets for publicity, conflicts are inevitable if, at times, a bit ludicrous. Both readers and authors who I surveyed were sometimes wary about the potential for prickly author/reader interactions on the site, yet the site is unarguably successful for many readers who want to socialize with other book lovers.

Exploring Goodreads

Though I personally prefer LibraryThing because of its privacy policies and its reader-centered focus, I spent some time exploring Goodreads’ features, including joining a reading community devoted to mysteries, crime, and thrillers. (There are a lot of discussion groups formed on Goodreads. A group for moderators has nearly 1,500 members.) This group, apparently formed around 2009, has four busy moderators and over 12,700 members, with an increase of about a thousand in less than a year. Members propose and vote on two monthly discussion books and volunteer to lead discussions, rather like the practice of the 4_mystery_addicts group that I’ve previously described. Members also post items of interest, share reading challenges, discuss  and recommend books to one another, and organize “buddy reads.” Author self-promotion is confined to a small part of the group and is otherwise strongly discouraged.

Scanning through discussion threads, one sees the kind of relationship-building and affirmation that keeps an online community humming along peacefully. The group rules begin with “be kind and courteous to everyone and refrain from personal attacks.” They go on to ask members to hide spoilers with a Goodreads technical feature, stay on topic, and provide links to books and authors mentioned without relying on cover art, which may not be easily viewed on a mobile device. Several restrictions also apply to nominating books for discussion, including making sure the book is available to an international audience and that authors and their publicists may not nominate their own works or interfere with the voting process.

Goodreads offers groups functions for sharing photos, creating polls, and inviting friends to join. Members’ profiles are available, including information about whether a member is currently visiting the site and what book they are reading at the moment. It’s fascinating to see so many of the same practices used at this site as on the older Yahoo Groups formed for book discussions, but Goodreads is growing fast while traffic to Yahoo sites devoted to books seems to be falling precipitously.

The Double-sided bookshelf

Lisa Nakamura , a literary scholar and professor of American culture and film at the University of Michigan, has published a lot about race and gender in social media. Her insightful article about Goodreads published in PMLA in 2013, “Words With Friends: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads,” suggests that scholars should stop focusing so much on the differences between print and digital texts and instead examine discourse about reading books taking place online. Such sites use “bookshelves” to express identity in a public way, producing a public “reading self” just as displaying books on a living room bookcase does. She ties the identification of self with consumption to the history of the bookcase in American homes, drawing on Ted Striphas’s fascinating research that uncovered the marketing strategy that led Americans to use books as a marker of social status and taste in the early 20th century. (Both Striphas and Nakamura are compelling writers and critics, well worth reading.)

Nakamura points out how this consumptive display means that we, ourselves, are being collected.

Goodreads is an amazing tool, a utopia for readers. But by availing ourselves of its networked virtual bookshelves to collect and display our readerliness in a postprint age, we have become objects to be collected, by Goodreads and its myriad commercial partners. . . . Goodreads efficiently captures the value of our recommendations, social ties, affective networks, and collections of friends and books. Goodreads bookshelves are unlike real bookshelves not because the books are not real but because they are not really ours.

She goes on to contrast the joyful and seemingly democratic nature of these shared (but corporately-owed) bookshelves.

Goodreads uses algorithms to rank and evaluate books and organize them into egocentric networks. Seen in this light, it’s a folksonomic, vernacular platform for literary criticism and conversation—that most esteemed of discursive modes — that is open to all, solving the problem of locked- down content that pay-to-read academic publishing reproduces. On the other hand, open access to a for-profit site like Goodreads has always exacted a price—loss of privacy, friction-free broadcasting of our personal information, the placing of user content in the service of commerce, and the operationalization and commodiication of reading as an algocratic practice.

She urges literary scholars to pay attention to sites of social reading like this and the ways that commodification and vernacular criticism intersect. “Let us hope,” she concludes, “that reading’s digital future will include the kind of critique and unmasking of the technoimaginary’s hidden ideologies that readers and writers deserve.”

I couldn’t agree more.


Sharing Reading in 140 Characters

August 27, 2015

Twitter is kind of hard to explain to those who don’t use it regularly. Originally described as a “micro-blogging platform,” it’s often dismissed as a trivial pursuit. How can you possibly say anything meaningful in 140 characters? Why do I care what somebody ate for breakfast? How does this thing even work? What a useless time-suck!

In fact, the criticisms of Twitter are very similar to those made of blogging when it was new and, later, of Facebook in the days before it became as ubiquitous as it now is. In the most recent social media update published by the Pew Internet project, 71 percent of American adults who go online use Facebook; nearly 60 percent of all American adults use Facebook. Twitter has an outsized media profile because of its immediacy, but a much smaller user base, with only 23 percent of adult Americans who use the internet signing up. For more than three-quarters of the population, Twitter remains either irrelevant or a puzzle – or both.

Though  I created a Twitter account in 2008, I didn’t really get it. I learned how and why to use the platform while at a digital humanities THATCamp unconference in 2011. Attendees were encouraged to tweet about the concurrent sessions, and I quickly learned how to set up an application to watch several twitterstreams at once, including one from a university press conference happening at the same time. It was distracting and fast-paced, but amazingly fun and useful. Since then, most of the professional conferences I’ve attended have had a lively Twitter backchannel. At conferences, Twitter becomes my form of note-taking (at least if the wifi is able to handle the load; often it can’t.) At one conference I attended, a handful of us began to plan an unconference to address issues we wanted to explore further using Twitter, and that unconference actually happened as a result.

For me, Twitter is primarily as a serendipity engine, like browsing bookshelves or scanning an RSS feed. I follow around 500 people and organizations who share information that I find useful, often in the form of links. A majority of those I follow are librarians and academics, with a handful of journalists who cover things that interest me, as well as a smattering of people and groups who share my interest in crime fiction. Though I don’t even try to keep up with the flow, I check in daily and generally end up reading and saving links to news stories, scholarly papers, blog posts, or other resources that I may use later in research or teaching. Sometimes I engage in informal conversations, kicking an idea around with others. Sometimes I join scheduled chats about a topic of interest.

Twitter as a reading community platform

Twitter is a site where online reading communities form. It has hosted book clubs, as described by Anatoliy Gruzd and DeNel Rehberg Sedo in their article, “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.” Early Word (a site that informs public librarians about forthcoming books) hosts a monthly “galley chat” where librarians share their responses to advanced reader copies of forthcoming books that they’ve read and recommend. A popular hashtag is #fridayreads, used to share what the Twitter members are reading. This practice was kicked off by Bethanne Patrick, whose Twitter handle is @TheBookMaven. Another popular hashtag appended to book-related tweets is #amreading.

BookVibe is a service that mines and analyzes books mentioned in the tweets of people you follow and sends a weekly update of their recommendations. In part, this seems an exercise by an entrepreneurial group of computer scientists to develop ways of extracting information from tweets, but it’s interesting that the tech company decided to focus on books. In their “about” page, the challenge of sorting books from chaff is described this way:

 . . . out of around 500 million tweets a day, traditional text matching search techniques would return around 10 million tweets a day that could be book titles, but the actual number of tweets about books is around 300,000 per day. Our technology handles these distinctions with very high precision.

The recommendations I get are a mixed bag, given the various interests of the people I follow, but they do tend to accurately identify books from the millions of short messages flowing constantly.

What does Twitter do for readers?

One of the things you can do on Twitter is create lists of Twitter accounts that you may not want to subscribe to, but will provide a site for serendipity when you want to see what a group is talking about right now. My Twitter account, for example, has been put on a number of lists other people have created, mostly library-related. I created a “bookfolks” list of fifty Twitter accounts that focus primarily on books and/or crime fiction. These range from tweets sent by Book Riot (a book-focused community website) and Shelf Awareness (a news service of sorts for independent booksellers and readers) to individual book bloggers or fans. Just to get a sense of whether my typical use of Twitter as a serendipity engine holds true for book-related tweets, I randomly chose a day to see what these fifty Twitter accounts send out within a twelve-hour period. It’s not scientific – I will leave such technicalities to computer scientists and digital wonks such as those at  BookVibe.

Scanning through the tweets of fifty accounts for a 12-hour span on August 26th, I found that the largest number of tweets were links that led to book-related news or entertainment. The next largest category were promotional tweets – one account in particular was primarily devoted to promoting self-published thrillers, linking to Amazon pages; another, less active account pointed out items on the market for book collectors. There were also quite a few unrelated tweets – ones focused on current events or politics rather than on books. Twitter users typically have more than one interest and their Twitter streams reflect that, just as other online book discussions include a certain amount of “OT” (off topic) chatter. A smaller number linked to blog posts or to book reviews, with a smattering of tweets about book-related events, humorous quips about books and reading, inspirational quotations, or information about crime film or television dramas. While this breakdown is unlikely to be entirely typical, it mirrors my personal experience with Twitter. It is, above all, a site for sharing links to items of interest to one’s followers, with an admixture of links or comments on unfolding events. (In this time span, a particularly grisly crime was dominating cable news and leaking into this Twitter stream.) Some of the tweets had attracted comments and started conversations. John Scalzi, a science fiction author who is also an active blogger and Tweeter, had half a dozen comments on one of his tweets. But most of the tweets in this small sample were either posts without comments or retweets of other people’s tweets.

I also experimented with twXplorer, a tool developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University, a non-profit organization that helps journalists use technology for reporting news stories. Using this tool, I was able to look at terms and hashtags used by accounts on my list and more broadly on Twitter, with terms and hashtags sorted for up to the most recent 500 tweets. twXplorer also finds links that turn up repeatedly, but my searches didn’t produce any common links. This is likely a more useful feature for journalists following breaking news stories.

list analysis

Analysis of Bookfolks list

#amreading

Analysis of #amreading

#mystery

Analysis of #mystery

#community

Twitter is a platform that encourages a new kind of online community, one based on affinity and interlocking interests (and, admittedly, for marketing), with a tendency to lead participants away from the platform to follow links to other sites. At times, it generates conversations that can involve multiple people and dozens of tweets, but following conversations can be tricky. It’s often used to host scheduled chats, with rapid-fire short messages posted to respond to prompts or simply conversing on a common topic for a designated hour. It is used by authors as a promotional platform, though (as in other media) the authors who engage in authentic engagement with readers are far more likely to gain a following than tweets that simply lead to an Amazon sales page. There are also informal but regular sharing of reading experiences using tags such as #fridayreads or #amreading. Readers, writers, libraries, bookstores, and publishers use Twitter for engagement.

The Ferguson (Missouri) Public Library, which gained an international audience of followers in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and the #BlackLivesMatter protests that followed, does a particularly fine job of engaging readers with prompts like “What is the best basketball book ever?” and “what fictional character is most like you? In what way?” All of the responses are retweeted, widening the circle of participants and creating a sense of community that expands well beyond the library’s service area. Scotty Bonner, the director of this small public library, is unusually proficient at using technology in innovative ways and gained an unusually large following in part because of being in the national eye, even participating in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” a signal achievement for tech-oriented people. This one small library provides an example of how individuals and book-related enterprises use Twitter in ways that create community around books, even within the platform’s 140-character limit.


Authors Interacting With Readers Online

August 20, 2015
Twitter connections mapped

Social Collider image courtesy of Channy Yun

Authors are often pressured to connect online to develop a reader base and promote their work. This puts them in the dicey situation of relating to people socially while also marketing their books. I was curious about how writers manage that balance and what they find rewarding or frustrating about interacting with readers online.

I created a short unscientific survey for crime fiction authors and distributed the link through a number of social sites where crime fiction authors participate: Dorothy-L, the Sisters in Crime Yahoo group, Twitter, and the crime fiction communities on Goodreads and Wattpad. Of the 33 writers who chose to participate, two were under 25 and eleven were over 65, with the largest number of respondents (16) between ages 45 and 65. One respondent preferred not to specify demographic details. Most respondents were women (27), with only five men participating. All but two or three of the respondents live in North America. (Two live in Europe; one chose not to specify a location.)  Fourteen of the respondents are traditionally published, 12 are both traditionally and self-published, four are self-published, and two chose “not yet published; I am evaluating options.”

Platforms of choice

I asked participants to tell me which social media they use from a list I provided. Of social media platforms, Facebook was the most commonly used, with 30 respondents saying they use it. This is not surprising. A recent Pew Internet report found that Facebook is far and away the most commonly used social media platform, though its membership growth is plateauing, while the less-popular sites Pinterest and Instagram have doubled their membership since 2012.

Blogs (including either writing posts or commenting on them) remain a major social tool for these writers, with 24 respondents involved in blogging, closely followed by Twitter (22). Email discussion lists focused on crime fiction were the next most popular medium, with 20 respondents participating in such groups. Slightly over half (17) used Goodreads, with far fewer using LibraryThing (3), not surprising given that Goodreads has a much larger membership and encourages authors to promote their work, whereas LibraryThing explicitly focuses on readers and their books. (There is an LT Author badge and regular author chats and book giveaways at LibraryThing, but the overall culture of Goodreads is more commercially oriented.) The four who used Wattpad were 45 or younger, including two respondents under 25. Only one respondent (over 65) reported using none of the social media options in the survey. There did not appear to be any particular patterns of use by age among these respondents except in the case of Wattpad.

When asked what makes particular platforms useful to respondents as writers, the most common response across the board was interaction or relationship-building. This was mentioned by eleven respondents as a plus for Facebook. Four praised email lists for this quality, and three felt blogs were useful for relationship-building. Some sites were valued as places where authors could express themselves, with Wattpad and blogs each having this quality mentioned by three respondents. Another reason respondents preferred various media was reach, where, again, Facebook (the largest of social platforms) was most frequently mentioned, with Twitter an also-ran. The sheer size of membership can be a factor. As one respondent put it, “I’ve found Facebook and Goodreads to be the most useful. They provide opportunity for a writer to get to know and interact with a large number of people from around the world, people who – once they get to know you – may purchase your books or at least recommend them to their own circles.” But several respondents mentioned that they found it hard to keep up with all the options and weren’t sure whether they were useful to their writing careers. As one respondent put it,

Despite the worldwide spread of the Internet, I feel I only reach a very few people through my social media efforts. Only a handful of people like or comments on my Facebook/blog posts. There’s so many blogs and so much “noise” on the Internet that it’s impossible to rise above the clutter.

Positives and negatives

I asked what authors liked most about interacting online with readers. When coding the results, the two most commonly-mentioned positives were socializing or meeting people (11) and getting affirmation (11). As one respondent put it, “this is a profession rife with rejection. I get validation from the interactions.” Two interrelated benefits were learning about writing and the publishing industry and finding out what readers like, both in one’s own writing and in crime fiction generally, with 12 respondents responding in one of these ways. Other qualities mentioned by at least two respondents were appreciating candor within a community, having fun, the immediacy of interacting online, low cost, and being able to belong to an affinity group.

My next question had to do with the downside: what is most frustrating about interacting with readers online? The two most-commonly mentioned problems were the time it took away from writing (7 mentions) and dealing with hostility or argumentative people (9). As one respondent put it, “The Internet can be a mean forum.” Most of the problems arose from disagreements over personal beliefs or political issues, but some irritation was caused by people criticizing a writer’s work or disparaging it because it included elements such as “bad” language or sexuality that they disapproved of. Five were bothered by the shallowness of many interactions. Five were troubled by lack of response to their comments or posts. Three mentioned that they were frustrated by not having any way to connect the time spent on social media with sales. As one put it,

there’s no measurable way of assessing impact/results . . . The lack of metrics dismays me because my time is not unlimited and my main job is writing.”

While social media platforms often include metrics (and even promote them), traditional publishers don’t provide up-to-date sales information, and even if self-published authors have current information, it’s difficult to correlate with time-consuming social interactions online. Another respondent wrote “I don’t blog anymore. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. 3000 words per month to a blog – 3000 words not directed to my next book.”

Additional thoughts

I closed the short survey with an open question: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences participating in social media? The conflict between the time spent on social media and writing the next book was felt by many respondents. As one put it,

Too much new technology to learn. Writing blogs can be time consuming for little results. Social media was leaving me too tired and with too little time left to actually WRITE! I put my energy now on my stories instead of social media.

Another said, “I spend far too much time on it. If you’re not careful, you can waste a good part of your day.”

The focus on getting attention promoted in many social media platforms was also a concern. As one respondent put it, “I’d rather be writing books than participating in online fashion shows.” But another respondent had mixed feelings.

Sometimes I feel like I’m simply adding to the social noise when I post anything, and maybe it would be better if we all unplugged. OTH, I live in a rural area with few opportunities for reader contact, and I do think the contact makes me a better writer.

For some, it was important to maintain a careful balance between being authentic and coming across as a heavy-handed marketer. (My previous reader survey bears this out – readers enjoy genuine interactions with writers, but are quickly turned off when they feel that the interaction is geared primarily toward sales). One offered advice about how to pull this balancing act off.

Don’t force it. Be cool. Don’t be a jerk screaming “buy my book,” every eight seconds. Give content, answer questions, be funny (not forced), pleasant and available.

Though one respondent reported seeing a spike in sales whenever she had a blog tour, another wrote, “It’s actually pretty hard to find readers on social media. Most of the folks I’m finding are authors trying to find readers.”

While a majority of respondents in these open comments reflected on how much writing time could be wasted on social media, some respondents said that once they overcame a learning curve and established a routine, they could fold communicating with readers online into their workflow. Learning best practices from one another also helped. As one respondent explained it,

I started early and have kept up. I’m glad I did. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but because I got in early I found a few really great people from whom to watch and learn. And it cost me nothing but time.

Of course, the lack of time was a major issue among respondents.

While authors are frequently pushed to engage with readers online to promote their books, these writers were thoughtful about the nature and value of their use of social media. Like readers, they value authentic interactions (and, sometimes, the affirmation readers provided), and seemed largely realistic about the limitations such interactions have for boosting their careers. Some have deliberately reduced the time they spend online to focus on writing the next book. Others enjoy social media interactions but still question whether they have the value that publishers often put on them.

A quick search online will turn up thousands of articles explaining how authors should (or shouldn’t) use social media, often in the form of listicles: five essential sites, ten rules for engagement, 100 tips . . . Just reading through search results can be exhausting. The lack of metrics that tie sales to interactions online, the amount of time it can take away from writing in a genre where a book a year is a minimum expectation, and the sheer volume of writers seeking attention can be daunting. This is particularly true given that building a presence in an online community takes time and overt marketing is met with (often fierce) resistance. But there are benefits apart from the sales aspect, particularly in learning readers’ perspectives on books and gaining a sense of connection and affirmation.

Thanks to the authors who took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. For writers who feel they’ve been pressed to do too much connecting, there’s a satirical piece by Heather Havrilesky in the New Yorker, “How to Contact the Author,” that illustrates the fraught aspects of being expected to develop close relationships with readers when carried too far.


Discussing Crime Fiction Online: Getting Personal

August 1, 2015
self portrait with books

photo courtesy of glulladuepuntozero.

I have been fascinated by the critical, interpersonal, and social dynamics of discussing reading experiences online for as long as I have participated in online reading groups. Though it’s a relatively new topic of serious study, I’ve found books and articles by scholars in multiple disciplines who have analyzed reading communities, online and off, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I’ve collected these references in a public Zotero group. I’m going to say a few words about how some scholars have approached this topic and then delve into my personal experience as a member of a variety of reading communities.

I suspect that literary critic and historian Janice Radway laid the foundation for inquiries into popular reading practices by exploring gender, the economics of book publishing, and collective reading experiences in her influential book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In a sense, she gave us permission to turn critical attention away from texts to focus on readers and to their everyday reading experiences. Sociologist Elizabeth Long’s study, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (2003) comes at it from another discipline. She examined book clubs as an increasingly popular if gendered social phenomenon. It’s telling that her fellow sociologists found her subject matter too bourgeois and feminine (i.e. trivial) to be of scholarly interest.

Since then a variety of scholars in multiple disciplines, including Ted Striphas, who considers how Oprah’s Book Club functions in The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. I’ve dipped a toe into the voluminous research on fan culture online and the ways that digital interaction is changing culture and our legal framework for understanding cultural materials as intellectual property. Henry Jenkins’s book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) does a good job of unpacking these ideas and includes an interesting chapter on how young fans have appropriated and interacted with the Harry Potter series. DeNel Rehberg Sedo has studied both in-person and online reading groups, including Twitter as a book club discussion platform. With Danielle Fuller she has written the book on mass reading events in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Lisa Nakamura sees in Goodreads a new way of exploring books; she argues that the digital traces of shared reading experiences is a more fruitful site for scholarship than the more common focus on contrasting digital and print textual formats. Nancy M. Foasberg has examined reading challenges posed by bloggers as a feature of contemporary reader engagement that can tell us something about how and why we read collectively.

Finally, two essay collections are particularly valuable: From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (2012) edited by Anouk Lang and Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace (2011) edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo. They are brimming with fascinating insights.

Back in 2005, I added my two cents’ worth with a mixed-methods study of an online reading community that I participate in, arguing that these digital gathering places are valuable to librarians for their contributions to reader’s advisory, for the insights such groups provide into the reading practices of avid readers, and as a demonstration of the social nature of reading. It was fun to mix my personal passions with my scholarly life.

As I write this, I am exploring autoethnography with a group of far-flung colleagues to see how and if this methodology might be a useful tool for practicing librarians. Though I am still in the beginning stages of learning what autoethnography is and how to do it, it has inspired me to think about online reading communities in the first person, by analyzing my own experience in a variety of communities that have formed around discussions of crime fiction.

Self-representation

I was first motivated to seek out these communities not because I am an avid crime fiction reader (though I am) but because I had a contract for my first novel and got the impression (I cannot recall from whom – an editor? My agent? Something I had read?) that I should start building an audience by connecting with readers online. The only place I knew of to do this was Dorothy-L, the legendary Listserv-based email list founded in 1991. I joined (according to its archives, available to members) in the fall of 2001. It was surprising to revisit my posts from that time. I clearly wasn’t ready to out myself as an aspiring writer. My self-presentation was as a crime fiction fan and a librarian. My posts were mostly comments on books that I was reading and recommending or on my response to a book someone else had mentioned. I also commented with some frequency on what someone else had posted related to book culture (publishing, marketing, bookselling, whether reading was on the decline or not, and the like). At times, I tossed a question or challenge out to the group – what mysteries would you put on the reading list for a course on the geography of mystery? What overlooked writers deserve to be on the bestseller list? Sometimes an online community can seem a series of posts related only by a common interest, but the back-and-forth conversations collectively sharing knowledge of and fondness for the genre was the list’s greatest attraction for me.

Looking back, my posts seem both long-winded and a little goofy (intentionally). When I was responding to a topic that wasn’t about reading mysteries, I generally ended with an explicit attempt to redirect the discussion to be “on topic” – to sharing experiences of reading mysteries. I was apparently not only unready to present myself as an author, I tried to influence the community’s attention, directing it away from writing and publishing toward books and reading.  I’m not sure, at this distance, whether I was responding to group cues or if that focus was my personal preference – or both. There seemed a tension on the list about its purpose. While authors were encouraged to let members know about new books, I sensed some uneasiness that the list was becoming dominated by authors talking to one another while competing for readers’ attention.

One of the shortest messages I posted in 2002 was an invitation to a bookstore signing for my first book. Clearly, I was not at all comfortable with the identity “writer” and hesitated to call attention to that part of my life, even though I had joined ostensibly to make that identity known. Other members who were writers were not shy about reminding members of their status. In fact, the subject of how writers should present themselves was often under discussion. Members criticized “drive-by” authors who only posted when they had a new book to promote and praised those who participated as genuine people who were generous with their attention. Straddling the line between promotion and more authentic self-representation was often on my mind as I saw how members responded to negatively to promotional messages while warmly welcoming messages from favorite writer-members.

I posted fairly often throughout 2003 and into 2004. All this time, I was struggling to produce a second book in a three-book contract for an editor who didn’t like anything I wrote. (My original editor had left the house long before the first was published and my relationship with the editor who inherited my orphaned books was unhappy.) A message from March 2004, responding to a post about an article in Salon describing an anonymous midlist author’s misery, reveals something of my ambivalence.

I thought the article did one thing tellingly–reveal how personally everything about publishing can be taken if you’re not careful. I thought [the author’s] sense of frustration or jealousy that made it hard for her to enjoy reading or watching television because her own sense of failure was so in her face was something I’ve heard, though not so up front, from a lot of unhappy people.

I think an industry that involves people’s hearts and souls–and I think that goes for many editors and booksellers and readers, not just writers–is bound to get personal. You have to do it for the love of it and hope you can pay your bills. (Hey, if not, read some of those caper books and see if it gives you ideas!)

Meanwhile–why I’m posting from my desk at work–I’m reading this fascinating article in Behavioral and Brain Science–really!–about an experiment in which some researchers stripped names off published research and resubmitted them; a huge number were rejected. In the multiple responses to this article is one from a guy who did the same in trade publishing–submitted a Jerszy Kosinski novel that won an NBA to agents and publishers who said it was unpublishable trash. Which just goes to show you…. something. Maybe that we’re all human and we’d better not take the process too seriously. Or too personally. Or that one man’s trash is another man’s award winner.

Here I am acknowledging my identification with the painful aspects of being a writer who is struggling in a difficult business without explicitly confessing my own emotional state. Instead, I throw in a list-appropriate joke and turn to my academic librarian identity, drawing on a scholarly article to both bolster my point and deflect it from my own experience.

In the following month, I suspended my subscription to the list. It had actually become a source of pain for me. My writing career was not going well and the list seemed to me to have be taken over by irritating self-promoters with a grim desperation for attention. Dorothy-L had started as a forum for discussing mysteries, but from the start had allowed BSP – blatant self-promotion – because many members enjoyed forming relationships with writers in this informal space. When I first joined, I was pleased to see occasional posts by Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and Charlaine Harris before they were routinely on the New York Times bestseller list. In this sense, it was not unlike a fan convention, where fans and the objects of their enthusiasm mingle. But it also had become a place where authors sought attention and squabbled with each other over publishing issues. I didn’t want to be exposed to so much anxiety and yearning for publishing success when I was experiencing too much of that emotional turmoil myself.

Moderation

Besides, by then I had found a different community that was a more comfortable fit. I somehow got chatting with a Dorothy-L member offlist who recommended that I join 4_Mystery_Addicts (colloquially known as 4MA), a Yahoo group founded in 1999 that held regular formal group book discussions and sternly warned authors applying for membership that they were to be present only as readers, not as writers. BSP was strictly banned, as were links to self-promoting blog posts or surreptitious log-rolling among authors promoting each other. If somehow a promotional message slipped past the moderators, group members were quick to call it out. Contentious issues – politics and religion specifically – were also unwelcome unless they were intrinsic to a book under discussion. For me, this was a safe space where I could talk about mysteries without getting depressed about the process of publishing them. It was a place free of the frantic self-promotion that seemed to be making all the writers I knew miserable. Members had meaty, in-depth discussions of actual books, which was fun for me as a reader and informative as a writer.

I joined in June of 2003, and in the first two or three days felt lost. It was an incredibly busy group at that time; in that month alone, 3,713 messages were posted by some 600 members. There were inside jokes and abbreviations I didn’t understand. I was nonplussed when a dozen or more members personally welcomed me. I wasn’t sure what the protocol for responding was, and had an momentary sense of panic: how can I fit in here? How will I manage this avalanche of messages? Why are we talking about spandex shorts? (I can’t revisit that disorienting series of messages to confirm my memory. Unlike the Dorothy-L Listserv, Yahoo Groups had a storage limit at that time, and a moderator went through the archived messages and deleted any that didn’t relate to monthly reading reports from members  or book discussions to ensure we didn’t go over the limit.) But I stuck with it and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of things.

There were regular prompts to share reading experiences and recommendations. There were three formal book discussions every month, and a process for nominating and voting for books to be discussed. There were lively discussions about life as an avid reader, including whether an oven could be used for book storage and how to deal with people who ask silly questions like “have you read all those books?” There were hilarious accounts of adventures on the 62 bus in Glasgow posted by a Scottish member, Donna Moore. Members often attended fan conventions and, whenever possible, organized meetups. Frequently photos of those gatherings were shared at the group’s site.

In February 2006, the moderators invited me to join them when one of the original moderators retired. It was an honor to be asked, but also a chance to see behind the curtain at all the work that went into keeping the group harmoniously humming along. All new members had to be approved. Members who were new or prone to posting problematic messages had to have their posts approved, one by one. If a conflict threatened to boil up, combative members were placed on moderation temporarily. Nominations for discussion books had to invited and collated, with a runoff poll created for the five top-ranking books. Discussion leaders (called Question Maestros) had to be recruited and polls created to collect readers’ responses to a book, with results posted to a database of books discussed that dates back to the beginning of the group. January was “moderator’s choice” month, so we had to decide which books to discuss and come up with discussion questions. Once a year, the moderators went through a byzantine process to select series reads that would offer members a variety of series to discuss. Each moderator has a distinct set of housekeeping duties and jointly discussed problems that come up from time to time – should this person be put on moderation? is there some way to liven up moribund discussions? Is this off-topic conversation going on too long? From time to time the Yahoo platform went through changes, with a particularly extreme transition in 2014 to the “neo” platform, which was rolled out piecemeal and with major functions broken – all of which required moderator intervention.

Apart from the mostly hidden work performed by moderators, I’ve been fascinated by the ways group members interact to affirm one another, maintain long-running jokes, celebrate happy moments, and comfort one another when there’s an illness or a loss.

Edited to add: Jessamyn West, who worked as a moderator at Metafilter for many years, has written a great analysis of what goes into moderating a site well at Medium. Another excellent discussion of moderation styles can be found in a paper by James Grimmelmann, “The Virtues of Moderation.”

Collective individualism

For a time, I belonged to a USENET group, rec.arts.mystery, established in the early 1990s. It was self-moderating in a fascinating way. USENET, which launched at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, embraced the free-wheeling free speech ethos of the early days of the internet and was decentralized by design. Though the focus of rec.arts.mystery was crime fiction, politics and religion were not off-limits. Political messages routinely led to flaming hot arguments, but somehow the community of regulars used humor and a common interest in genre fiction to surround the combatants and keep the flames from burning the place down. In a sense, the members who were most active in sustaining the community and its anarchic values played a moderator role without having the technical levers most platforms provide. Unlike 4MA, there were no scheduled book discussions or prompts to share reading experiences. Rather, a core group of regulars kept up an ongoing loosely-joined conversation about books and everything else.

As USENET grew less easily available to the casual user, more devoted to sharing files than messages, members dropped off to seek another platform. Some carry on at Google Groups, a neglected corner of a very large company that has not been successful at developing social media platforms. Much of the diaspora settled on Facebook, where private or public groups can be created but the most powerful levers are trade secrets controlled by the ghost in the machine.

If these three online communities were likened to a fan convention, one might say Dorothy-L would be most like the interactions between authors and readers at the convention hotel bar, 4MA would be the fan-organized program, and rec.arts.mystery would be the free-wheeling conversations in the hallways among friends. In reality, these online communities intersect with the in-real-life fan communities at events such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Crimefest, and other volunteer-led crime fiction-focused gatherings. For members who couldn’t attend Bouchercon, the largest of these annual fan events, members of Dorothy-L routinely held a virtual party for those left behind.

Linked together

Another online reading community has formed around crime-fiction-focused book blogs. While many blogs belong to writers or groups of writers, readers also share their reading experiences through individual or group blogs. Comment threads often gather together readers who visit multiple blogs and form a loose-knit community. One of the most active weavers of these threads was Maxine Clarke, an editor for Nature who reviewed mysteries on her own blog and made a point of encouraging other bloggers by visiting and commenting prolifically. She invited me to a new platform for online communities, FriendFeed, where she had set up a crime and mystery fiction room.

FriendFeed was a social RSS feed reader. Individuals could synchronize multiple feeds and follow those curated by others, sharing and commenting on links of common interest, with the most recent material rising to the top of the page. In addition to allowing backchannel DMs (direct messages), members could set up rooms where groups could pool feeds and hold conversations. Once I got the hang of the platform, I visited daily or more often to see what was new. This community, unlike the others I belonged to, was not dominated by American members. The most active members were from the U.K. and Australia and my knowledge of the genre expanded as a result. Because of its immediacy, this room on FriendFeed gave me a sense of being always on top of the latest news about the genre as well as up-to-speed on the blogs that I formerly had followed more intermittently. Though the most extensive comments remained on individual blogs, the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed Room promoted a warm sense of comradery.

That community spirit was tested when (to my complete shock and dismay) a member posted the news that Maxine had died after a long illness. While she was generous with her time and attention, she wasn’t one to make personal things public. I had no idea she was in the last stages of cancer. I remember reading that brief message and trying to understand it. How could that be? I had already started planning to research online reading communities for my sabbatical and assumed Maxine would be there to share her instinctive and thorough knowledge of how these communities worked. Apart from that, I felt she was a true and close friend, and it was not only a heartfelt loss, but a reminder that there was so much that I didn’t know about people who I felt so close to. It’s perhaps a measure of the community that Maxine pulled together and nurtured that a remembrance blog was put together to commemorate her passion for the genre and an annual prize was established in her name. This prize, for the best Scandinavian work of crime fiction of the year, has a sterling line-up of judges (who meet, fittingly, at an annual fan convention to deliberate) and has gained so much respect from publishers that winners note the award proudly on their dust jackets.

Dénouement

Dorothy-L trundles along even as new social platforms draw attention away from pre-web community platforms. My impression, on rejoining the list in 2015, is that readers have continued to chat about mysteries while the most self-absorbed writers have gone elsewhere to promote their books. It could be, of course, that I’m simply less sensitive to writers and their discontents, having greater distance myself from my first unhappy publishing experience. (I have published three mysteries altogether, the last coming out five years ago from the smallest of the Big Five publishers. I still feel uncomfortable identifying myself as a writer, but I don’t feel a pressing need to perform that role.)

4MA has grown in membership but activity has declined. The draw of other platforms has probably had an effect, but the disastrous rollout of the new “neo” platform is my prime suspect; participation in Yahoo groups, which number in the tens of thousands, appears to have tumbled across the board in recent months. The moderators decided to drop the mid-month series read this year due to lack of interest, and though the group still holds two formal discussions monthly, fewer members participate. A member survey suggested that people still value the list, so we’ll muddle along, but it’s not the dizzyingly busy list it once was.

I haven’t remained as well connected to my favorite bloggers since FriendFeed was shut down. I had grown dependent on having a single point of contact and haven’t restored a habit of visiting blogs routinely. Though the group reestablished itself on Facebook (which bought FriendFeed years ago and apparently remembered just long enough to shut it down), I haven’t kept up with it because I object to Facebook’s business model. For the same reason, I have never been a regular member of Goodreads (owned by Amazon, now, and built on the big-data-collection model that Facebook uses to sustain itself). Yahoo is a similar offender, gathering far too much personal information from its members, but it appears to be so much less competent at it that I’m  lulled into acceptance. Of the two non-profit platforms I have used for sharing reading experiences, USENET has ceased to be a place where people gather to talk things over and is no longer supported by many internet service providers; the Listserv platform used by Dorothy-L continues to be widely used in academia, though that may be changing. The academic librarian lists I have belonged to for years are slowing down now that there are so many other ways to share news and discuss ideas.

Where will readers gather in future to discuss their experiences with books? I have no idea, but I’m convinced having spent a decade and a half chatting online about crime fiction on a daily basis, that they will, one way or another.

self-portrait in bookstore

photo courtesy of Cristina Souza


Readers Respond to Online Reading Communities

August 1, 2015

after a book talk

Because I wanted to get the perspective of crime fiction readers who use a variety of social media, from email-based groups to newer platforms, I posted an anonymous survey to Twitter, the 4_Mystery_Addicts Yahoo group, Dorothy-L, and to crime-fiction-oriented forums on LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Wattpad. (Since I invited people to pass it along, it may have also traveled elsewhere.) The survey was open between April and the end of July, 2015 and collected 197 responses. It’s not at all scientific – purely a convenience sample that skews toward communities in which I’ve participated the most. While these aren’t results from which generalizations can be drawn, they provide some insight into the experiences of a self-selecting group of individuals.

Those who responded were largely avid readers of the genre, with well over half reporting that they read fifty or more books in the past year. Over three quarters reported that half or more of those books were in the crime fiction genre. This isn’t surprising since the only site where I posted the link that wasn’t focused on crime fiction was Twitter. The vast majority of respondents read books in print (93 percent), with a majority also reading ebooks (69 percent). As quarter also reported reading audio books. The vast majority of respondents (83%) live in North America, with additional responses from Europe, Australia or New Zealand, and Africa. Seventy-five percent of respondents were women; half were aged between 46 and 65, a third over 65, and the remainder younger than 45 or abstained from answering the question. This does not necessarily reflect who talks about books online; the Wattpad community, which is particularly popular with teens, has over 40 million members worldwide.I suspect that i was more likely to get the attention of members of two lists that have been in existence since the 1990s and have some very loyal long-term members; I am quite new to Wattpad, and as one of the survey respondents points out, it takes time to get the acceptance and attention of a community.

Discovering books

I asked respondents how they discover the crime fiction they read, asking them to choose the top three methods from a number of choices. Discussion lists were the most common choice, with 57 percent including them in their top three. (Since many respondents encountered the survey on one of two large and long-running lists, this is both unsurprising and no doubt skewed.) Around 35 percent of respondents chose reading online reviews at website or blogs, participating on book-focused social media sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing, or getting recommendations from friends or coworkers as among their top three discovery methods. Thirty percent of respondents included reading book reviews in newspapers and magazines as one of their top three, and browsing in bookstores or in libraries were among the choices of around 22 percent of respondents. Least often chosen were all-purpose social media such as Facebook or Twitter and “other.”

Discussing books

Most survey respondents discuss books both online and off. A majority (79 percent) say they talk about crime fiction with friends or co-workers. Though half discuss books on discussion lists, only 20 percent do so in face-to-face reading groups. Another 29 percent discuss books at Goodreads, with 22 percent writing or commenting on blogs. LibraryThing was a site for crime fiction readers for 17 percent of respondents. That said, about a third of respondents read discussion threads in online reading communities but rarely or never post. A bit over a third contribute sometimes. Only 20 percent say they contribute frequently.

Since this is not a representative sample of these groups’ members, these percentages are not particularly meaningful except to say that a significant number of people who are in online reading groups find them worth joining even if they don’t feel like adding to the conversation themselves.

Tell me more

I asked four open questions. The first one was pure nosiness on my part. I’m always curious about why people read crime fiction. I coded the responses, looking for patterns, and found that these were the things respondents said were most satisfying about reading crime fiction, with many responses including more than one factor:

  • The puzzle (or plot, or solving the mystery) was mentioned by 91 respondents.
  • Characters (55); another 15 said they particularly enjoy series because they are able to see characters develop from one story to the next.
  • Justice is served, the good guys win, or restoring order (37); another 14 mentioned that they like the fact mysteries have endings, that the ending itself offers satisfaction. Others noted that justice is not so easily come by in real life. As one respondent put it “I know the world is not like this, but I want it to be.”
  • Pace or engagement in a gripping story (27)
  • Setting or sense of place and/or historical period (24)
  • Entertainment, relaxation, or escape (24) As one respondent put it, “sometimes I just let myself float along, and enjoy the ride like any one else benignly looking over the shoulder of someone’s very worst day.”
  • The capacity of mysteries to explore psychological aspects of crime or human nature generally (21)
  • Learning new things (10)
  • Enjoying good writing (9) Some respondents noted that they prefer crime fiction to literary fiction because of its focus on telling a story. As one respondent put it, “[I] enjoy the absence of the self-conscious ‘writerly’ elements that detract from some lit-fic. Crime fiction writers (most of them0 seem to concentrate on the story and the characters rather than on themselves.”

One respondent offered a detailed analysis of the pleasures of the genre:

Although it’s true of all fiction, there’s a special quality of distillation to the atmosphere and characters in crime fiction, likely because there is so much that has to be woven into a very logical trail offering puzzle and resolution, regardless of the narrative voice. I enjoy that quality of focus, assuming it’s done with an understanding of real human nature. That all holds true no matter how far from actual reality or seriousness the tale may be placed. If it’s consistent within itself, it works for me. And, oh yes, the challenge/ and the resolution. Not just of working out what went down, for its own sake, but I also feel an enjoyable ‘contest’ with the author. Which is very likely part of how favorites develop. Someone can be a ‘good’ writer, but if I don’t feel that interaction, I don’t go back. Must be something about ‘being on the same page,’ so to speak.

I also asked what respondents liked most about an online community and what they found most frustrating. Coding the responses, these were the benefits of being in an online community. The number of responses are in parentheses.

  • Learning about new books and authors (95); many respondents mentioned the value of finding people with similar “reading DNA” whose recommendations were reliably a good match for their tastes.
  • Reading a variety of opinions about a book (55); many respondents found that encountering different responses was particularly worthwhile.
  • The social relationships that develop in a community (23)
  • Holding book discussions (13)
  • Being among fellow crime fiction fans (12)
  • Sharing their own reading experiences and recommending books to others (11)

Frustrations included

  • Competitiveness, aggressiveness, hostility, or elitism (24)
  • Messages that were primarily book or blog marketing (16)
  • Off-topic digressions (13)
  • Lack of participation or lack of response to postings (12)
  • Not enough time to keep up (10)
  • People who post too often or at great length – “list hogs” (8)
  • Lack of sophisticated commentary on books (8)
  • Feeling that online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face relationships (3)
  • Finding that the group has different tastes than one’s own (3)
  • People who give spoilers in their posts (3)
  • Learning about tempting books that are inaccessible to them (2)
  • Sense of being rejected by a clique (2)

Note that 23 people said nothing frustrated them, with several mentioning that it was easy to skip over messages that didn’t interest them.

Finally, I invited respondents to add further thoughts about sharing their reading experiences online. Some comments related to what makes a group work – or not.

To really feel a member, it seems you have to participate a lot.

Having a platform where you can comment without being bullied or ridiculed for your views is paramount.

I don’t share my experiences often because I am shy online . . . I did have an early experience with a group that doesn’t exist anymore in which someone was very rude to me for no reason other than that she didn’t like the author that I did.

SO funny – when it’s great, it’s fascinating and revealing and enlightening and reassuring. When it’s terrible – it’s like high school. The cool kids stick together and the new kids are sneered at.

Others spoke about what they see as personal benefits of being in an online reading community.

I think it’s a great avenue to share information and thoughts with a diverse, though anonymous, group.

Since joining LibraryThing 8 years ago, my ‘to read’ is ridiculously amazing . . . I just love having a place where like-minded readers frequent, I visit it nearly every day and the social side is just as much fun as the book information.

I particularly enjoy it when authors participate in the discussion and update us on new work.

The discipline of posting comments regularly has sharpened my reading and writing skills. Reading the comments of other expands my awareness and guides me to other works of possible interest.

I find that sharing and reading about reading experiences online is a time-consuming, enjoyable meta-activity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read more ‘about’ books than I read books themselves. Perhaps it’s a way to stay connected with the genre during periods when I lack the serenity to enter fictional worlds

I love it. There isn’t always a real-life chance to get into the weeds with your personal criticism and experiences when talking with your friends or spouse . . . [at Goodreads] I’ve got a thorough database of my reading and can see not just the memories, but have discovered some unsuspected personal patterns!

I appreciate that the group I belong to is international so that the participants bring various backgrounds and culture to the table.

I have met so many friends through the mystery community and some that I have met IRL [in real life] that upon meeting you feel you already know them. Have also had the opportunity to travel to mystery conventions that I would probably have done w/o the enthusiasm expressed online.

In general, regardless of the platform, readers who responded to the survey seem to enjoy learning about books from one another and seeing a variety of responses to books as well as the social interaction among fellow crime fiction enthusiasts. The positives, at least in this self-selecting group, appear to outweigh the negatives. I am grateful to all who took the time to respond to my survey and provided such intriguing insights.

header photo ca. 1920 courtesy of the New York Public Library Archives


Surveys!

July 14, 2015

I’ve been circulating these links around the crime fiction neighborhoods of the web. As part of my study of online reading communities, I have a crime fiction author survey and a crime fiction reader survey. I’d love your responses!

I’ll be reporting the results here … eventually.

photo courtesy of David Hanrath


Dorothy-L: An Interview with Diane Kovacs

May 16, 2015

Readers have used pretty much every internet-enabled pathway to talk about mysteries since the early days of the internet. Some of those paths have closed or migrated from platforms that are no longer available to new ones, but some of the most durable conversations are hosted on a server but delivered to subscribers via email. One of those platforms is the LISTSERV software, developed in 1986 by an engineering student in Paris. It quickly became a commonly used discussion platform for email lists maintained at universities. Dorothy-L was born on that platform in 1991 and continues to host its conversations among over 2,500 members from its host server at Kent State University.

I reached out to Diane Kovacs, a fellow academic librarian who, with other Kent State University librarians, created an incredibly useful subject directory of discussion lists back in the day, as well as more than one library-related discussion lists. Currently she is (in her own words) a “Librarian at Large and Web Teacher” who teaches library science courses, has a book forthcoming on online teaching from ALA Editions, and is the recipient of a prestigious Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the Design 4 Learning project. (Full disclosure, she also co-edited a book that I was involved with.)

But most mystery lovers know her as the founder of Dorothy-L. She kindly answered some questions about the origins of the mystery-focused mailing list that holds the record for longevity and membership. It has been a significant site for online conversation for readers and writers for a quarter of a century.

I know the idea for the list came up at an Association of Research Libraries conference. LISTSERV was still pretty new. (Say, weren’t you one of the people who maintained a subject directory of lists? Flashback moment! That was huge.) Why mysteries? Why not some other genre or fiction more generally?  Did you have any idea how popular it would become?

Yes, in fact the Directory of Scholarly Electronic Journals and Academic Discussion Lists 2000 edition is under my monitor keeping it at a good height.  It is three inches thick.  I loved working on that.

The reason that we have Dorothy-L is because of Ann Okerson’s ideas. She was one of my early mentors and I wanted to do something for her in turn. She proposed creating a discussion list on golden age mystery literature – specifically Dorothy L. Sayers – OR on chocolate. Because Dorothy L  was euphonious, I chose that topic. Back then you had to put an L at the end. I’m not sure if that was required by the software or just a convention. Besides, I also had to justify to Kent State University that this was a scholarly topic. My English Faculty were thrilled at the idea and I had two full professor faculty sponsors (long since retired).

What was the list like in the early days? How did people find out about it and join it?

In the early days it was all word of mouth  and email. While my English faculty felt the project was scholarly enough, my boss in the Library wasn’t so convinced. I started Libref-L [an active discussion list for reference librarians] and it is still going strong after all these years also.

How has Dorothy-L changed over the years?

We were very much a group of academic types in the first five years. The Internet didn’t go public until 1994 and initially I think almost everyone was either a librarian or an English professor. Kara – aka Dangermouse – kept everything going.

What do you think made it a thriving community? What were the challenges?

Moderation and rules. We didn’t let anyone intimidate us into letting them post politics, hate speech, or flames in the name of “freedom of speech”. At one point we had some assistance from the University Counsel. He was thrilled to be in on the issues of early technology. But he verified we were on firm legal ground to create a “defined public forum” online. We could define and maintain the topic – our topic – because people who didn’t like our topic could go start their own listserv discussions and so they did.

I believe we have created a safe space where people can post their reviews and ideas and market their books a bit without being attacked and belittled and shouted down. I’ve watched other forums crumble under the domination of the bullies. I’ve put up with a lot of personal flaming over the years. Simply informing one particular person that he could not post about his politics or political actions caused him to go off and start his own forum. It is long gone. Another person accused Kara of interfering with his right to free speech when she stopped him from posting semi-pornographic attacks on some authors. We also lost some of my very favorite people because of the flame wars that erupted over self-publishing and formulaic writing, which is why those topics were banned – or rather why we let them go a bit and then rein them in when they start to get personal.

There are so many other social platforms like Goodreads and LibraryThing devoted to books, plus Twitter and Facebook and other opportunities to share reading experiences. Do you have any thoughts about how social media are changing the way we form communities? 

Goodreads has turned into a nasty flamewar and they do not give authors any protection. It is almost as bad as Amazon. I’m avoiding it. Librarything doesn’t seem very community-like to me. I’ve not had the patience to sit and input my reading. It just seems a chore. I’d like to see Dorothy-L move more into Facebook and even Google Plus because I like the Facebook format and communications possibilities. I incorporate them into my courses as well. Email is increasingly difficult to keep free of spam. I suspect that many of our continuing subscribers are folks who are just very comfortable in email communications and not really interested in changing.

I’ve expected the Dorothy-L listserv to wither away for the past five years. But it keeps trundling along. I’m glad I started it.  Most of the really awesome things that we did were initiated by the subscribers and not by us moderators.

Many thanks to Diane for answering my questions, which she did far more quickly than I composed this blog post. 


Goodbye, FriendFeed

March 13, 2015

It has been a long time coming. Still, I’m gutted. Friendfeed is pulling the plug on a platform that has been a big part of my online social life.

Chances are you’ve never heard of FriendFeed. It was a bit under the radar, but those who used it were avid. It had a simple, uncluttered, and intuitive interface where you could form groups, have RSS feeds stream to the group, and have fflogodiscussions – with any active discussion popped to the top of the page. It allowed anonymity (which can be extraordinarily useful) and private messages, which is where surprise parties were planned. Facebook aquired FriendFeed in 2009, but somehow it kept going. Every time it went down for a few hours there were panicked backup plans made, but it always bobbed back up – until the final offical announcement was made.

This is awkward. I’m writing this in the past tense as if it’s an obituary but we still have a few weeks to run.

Maxine Clarke, who I’ve written about before, intoduced me to FriendFeed by inviting me to join the Crime and Mystery Fiction group.Knowing that Maxine was not only a trustworthy guide to crime fiction but also extremely informed about technology (helping make Nature one of the most lively interactive and trend-setting web presences for science), I dipped my toe in. I found a lot of bloggers who I’d already discovered and met far more. It was easy to go to one place and get a stream of new reviews, interesting links, and companionship. Though the room functioned primarily as a place where we could share RSS feeds and occasionally comment, real friendships bloomed. I intend to stay in touch with those who I met there, but it won’t be as easy. A Facebook group has been set up where refugees can go, but I’m not a friend of Facebook, so will have to update my Feedly links and try to make the rounds of blogs to keep up the interaction there, which is where a lot of the more extended conversations happened, anyway. I sensed a kind of unspoken preference for taking comments to the original blog whenever possible so as not to dilute their impact.

It will be trickier to replicate the community found among librarians in the LSW FriendFeed group. After getting to know my way around the Crime and Mystery Fiction group, I poked around and stumbled across what has been my go-to professional (and just-for-fun) group ever since. FriendFeed has been the Library Society of the World’s most active hangout for some time. Previously Meebo was an LSW space. It was acquired by Google and killed in 2012 in hopes we’d all flock to Google+. These ceremonial sacrifices don’t always pan out, do they?

Rather than use the platform as a shared RSS feed, it was a conversational space. It wasn’t unusual for the threads to run to dozens of comments. Members would raise problems (is this database acting weird for you, too? can someone check this reference for me?), professional issues (open access, privacy, the behavior of publishers or funding agencies, how to do cool things for our communities), and a lot of giddy fun and companionship. Because there are a number of technically adept members, we’ll probably have another meeting place of some kind rigged up by the time the plug is pulled. We’ll pass the hat to pay the costs. There isn’t really a commercial substitue for what we have ensjoyed until now, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

It’s hard to know what makes a social media platform work for a group of people who come together in a community. It’s clearly not the infratructure itelf. The two FriendFeed rooms I participated in regularly used the affordances of the platform very differently. It really is the people and the way they develop a common identity through individual practices (choosing what to post and how to respond), a means of welcoming new members and celebrating membership, and the indirect development of group norms. How those norms evolved in this space is truly mysterious.to me. There were no posted rules. There was some kind of administrative status some members took on – was a very light hand on the rudder (mostly refreshing feeds if they stopped working). Every now and then there would be drama in either of these groups, but even at its most heated it never seemed to fundamentally alter the nature of the community. Perhaps the relative obscurity of FriendFeed made it unattractive to trolls and spammers. In any case, these were remarkably civil, balanced, and inviting spaces.

One other thing true of both groups: they may be tight, but they are diverse. FriendfFeed earned users around the globe. I was intrigued when the news broke to see Tweets about it in Turkish, French, Spanish, and (above all) Italian. In fact, some Itaian programmers have knocked out a replacement. For the LSW, the mix was in library types (academic, public, and special) and geography (U.S., Canadian and British librarians as well as a Singaporean member and others). The Crime and Mystery Fiction group was smaller in membership but more widely distributed geographically, with members from the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, Spain,Denmark, and probably other places I’m forgetting at the moment. These international reading communities create an interesting situation – the buzz around books doesn’t respect the regional boundaries around rights. Books are released at different times (or not at all) in different regions with different covers and, often, titles. It will be interesting to see whether online commerce and these international reading communities might break down some of those borders or whether the separate sale of rights by region will continue to feature in the publishing world or perhaps even be artificially reinforced, as it was with DVDs splitting the world into regions and continues with streaming of videos tied to location – the sort of control of audiences that seems so self-defeating.

Finally, one thing that is lost as the plug is pulled – the record of those conversations. FriendFeed has an excellent search feature which I often used to find a link or retrace a debate that I needed for one reason or another. That won’t be possible. As we entrust more and more of our lives to companies that come and go, the words we wrote, the things we think of as ours, are not under our control. As we lose our community gathering places, we also lose our histories. Something to think about as we live with our heads in the cloud.


the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction

October 25, 2014

I gave this talk at the Iowa Library Association annual conference a couple of days ago. Not sure people were ready for quite this much jibber-jabber at the end of a long day, but I promised to put it online and decided to put it up both as a PDF and here with some of my slides.

title

It’s great to be able to be here today to talk with you all about something I love. I won’t call it a guilty pleasure because I refuse to feel guilty about it. I just love to read crime fiction. I love it so much I’ve written a few mysteries myself. Tonight, I’m going to try to explain why this genre appeals so much to me  and to countless others and make some claims for its value as well as explore what it tells us about ourselves. Though I am an academic librarian, one of my interests is the ways that popular fiction can contribute to this thing all academic librarians want to believe we are doing: that when we help students learn, it will contributes to our students’ capacity for lifelong learning.  Our students like to read for pleasure but don’t do much of it during the academic year because they have so much assigned reading and busy social lives, but we do what we can to encourage reading for pleasure and to help them develop their own personal reading tastes.

lifelong reading

I learned a long time ago that you could learn a lot from mysteries. My mother was a walking encyclopedia. She knew everything. If we needed to know when a battle was fought or what a Latin phrase meant or what exactly happened to Charles the second, anyway, she knew the answer (though as part of her own educational mission she often told us to look it up in the encyclopedia). She had a terrific general education that was largely through reading. She was a child of the depression and had to leave school when she was sixteen to go to work. She never finished high school but was educated through books – and mysteries were her genre of choice.

This impression I formed early on, that we must absorb a great deal of knowledge through pleasure reading, was borne out by the research Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her graduate students did on the lived experience of avid readers. After interviewing over 200 readers, they found that reading popular fiction could be affirming (“there are other people in the world like me”), a way of learning about the world that’s inaccessible in real life, and that it contributed to their capacity for creativity and problem-solving. This led Ross to urge librarians to explore not just information seeking behavior, but the importance of information encountering, which I think is a profoundly important insight.

Psychologists have also had interesting things to say about the effects of reading for pleasure. Victor Nell studied the trance-like state of mind when lost in a book. His neurological studies suggest that the brain is extremely busy when we appear to be passively consuming a story. Our brains are busy constructing with the author a fictional world.  Keith Oatley and others have conducted experiments that found that those who read narrative stories score better on tests for empathy than those who don’t He hypothesizes that fiction exercises empathy by serving as a simulator for experiences, which develops our capacity for understanding. All of this is a good reminder to pay attention to diversity in our collections and make sure we have books that reflect the experiences of people of color and different gender identities and social statuses. As someone recently reminded me on Twitter, this is not just so that white readers’ horizons will be expanded, though that’s all good, but also so that non-white readers aren’t always simulating the experiences of people whose lives are not theirs – practicing empathy for those who have privilege. We need both empathy with others and the ability to find ourselves in our reading experiences.

brain

Another psychologist of reading, Richard Gerrig, found that readers’ brains don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction. What we encounter in fiction becomes part of our knowledgebase unless we know better. That is, a biblical scholar might enjoy The Da Vinci Code, but it won’t alter her understanding of church history. A less informed reader is more likely to take it as fact. Now, this is slightly alarming to me. This all supports the claim that fiction matters, that it forms an important part of our knowledgebase – but it also puts a burden on writers to get things right:  emotionally, factually, and socially.

That brings us to crime fiction,  a broad category that embraces mysteries from cozy to hardboiled, thrillers, crime capers, and noir – any stories involving crime. It’s an enduringly popular choice for readers. Though steamy potboilers about the lives of the rich and famous were more likely to be on the bestseller list until the 1990s, when crime fiction took over, we’ve enjoyed crime since the days when Elizabethan pamphlets about notorious crimes were sold on the street.

elizabethan pamphlets

Though steamy is definitely back on the bestseller list, mysteries and thrillers continue to be popular. Why are stories about crime still so fascinating when our violent rate has been halved since the 1990s? Why do so many mysteries focus on young white women as victims of violence when in reality the murder rate for young black women is four times that of young white women and 78 percent of homicide victims are male?

pulps

Of course the women-in-danger theme is hardly new. It was popular in the pulps of the 1930s.) But since the 1990s In fiction we’ve seen an epidemic of serial homicide  and stranger abductions, but in reality both crimes are rare. Why are we entertained by fear that is exaggerated? Why do we focus on threats that are so unlikely?

It’s probably in part the same impulse that puts grotesque crimes on the front page of the newspaper: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories that are unsettling are also compelling so long as the threat itself is more imaginary than real, when we can identify with the victim, yet feel the violence they experience is an aberration that won’t likely happen to us. In narrative form, crime can be contained. It poses problems that we trust will be solved, and that fictional resolution reassures us about anxiety that is otherwise uncomfortable. Readers frequently say that they like mysteries because it conveys the sense that justice is restored. According to critic Catherine Nickerson, the genre is both stimulating and soothing. It deals with explosive materials within a safe space where there are formulas to follow, where we know what to expect (including a certain measure of surprise).  It’s a genre that allows us “to draw close to the flame of our culture’s evils without actually getting burned.”

draw close without burned

One of the reasons why this genre is so popular is that it offers such a wide range of choices. There’s a spectrum  from very light to gruesomely dark; there’s also a lot to choose from in terms of focus, from the sociological (taking a Dickensian wide-angle view of violence), to the psychological (seeking explanations for deviance within people’s inner lives) to the mythological (framing the story as a Manichean battle between the forces of good and evil). I myself am wary of the latter, particularly in its willingness to attribute crime to monstrous others. This framing too often makes crime a matter of personal moral choice or some kind of genetic aberration that lets us off the hook because we then feel no responsibility for situations that in real life contribute to crime and violence. People don’t kill people, monsters do.

The suspense in the crime genre draws on things that frighten us as a society, which is interesting, because anxiety is a potent factor in the formation of social issues. Our fears are often manipulated by various groups to amplify their cause. For example, the media, which needs exciting stories to recruit and retain their audience. But we often fail to focus on what’s really important. Last year, two trials concluded in the same week. In one, a woman in Arizona was found guilty of killing a man. In the other, a man in Guatemala was found guilty of killing 200,000 people.

trials

Only one of these trials got significant news media attention in the US even though the Rios Montt trial for genocide was live-streamed, available to anyone who wanted to listen in. Why didn’t we cover it? It was messy. Our government had been involved in the coup that led to the genocide, and that would be hard to explain. It involved too many victims, mostly indigenous people, so the story would be both upsetting and hard to wrap our heads around. And it wouldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. A higher court overturned the conviction ten days later. Though Rios Montt still faces charges, he won’t be back in a courtroom until next year. While one narrative was dramatic, the other was simply complex, upsetting, and presumably less likely to recruit and retain the attention of American audience and generate ad revenue.

The state also uses anxiety to gain support for the regulation of behavior. We can take the serial killer threat as an example. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Department of Justice wanted to repair the reputation of law enforcement, frayed after Watergate and the Church Committee investigation into decades of illegal surveillance of dissidents. The FBI made a startling announcement: the rate of serial homicides had jumped alarmingly to 25 percent of all murders. Later they retracted the statement. They had accidentally classified all homicides for which the victim-perpetrator relationship was unknown as the work of serial killers. Oops! But the highly-inflated figures and the sense of growing threat helped restore trust and budgets. It also aligned with the kinds of stimulating yet soothing narratives people craved at the time, which made Hannibal Lector such a hit and enabled James Patterson to mass produce serial killers to such popular effect. (Philip Jenkins, Using Murder.) Now, of course, we have to sustain an endless war on terror, which requires being afraid. Very afraid.

All three of my mysteries have been about the way fear is manipulated to produce a common social response to threat.   In On Edge, residents of a small town, once coaxed into a frenzy of accusation over satanic abuse charges, are being whipped up again when three children are murdered. In the Wind plays off the parallels between the civil liberties abuses of the Vietnam War era and the Bush era, fear of Communism converted to fear of Muslim extremists nurtured to excuse unconstitutional practices. Though the Cracks deals with a fear that strikes closer to home, the fear every woman is raised to feel in her bones, a fear that constricts our freedom and blames us for our sexuality. Fear of sexual assault.

The idea for Through the Cracks first came to me years ago when I read an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune on the shocking number of exonerations of Illinois death row prisoners. Many of them involved confessions obtained by detectives working under a Chicago police commander who valued convictions more than truth. I was, of course, appalled that innocent men had been falsely imprisoned, but I was mostly outraged for the victims of those crimes. Grabbing some guy off the street at random to make a conviction instead of pursuing the case with integrity seemed the ultimate way of saying to the African American community of Chicago “you don’t matter.” I also wondered what it was like for victims to learn the men they thought responsible were possibly innocent, and the person who had knocked their life off-kilter wasn’t locked up after all.

As I started working on the story, I faced a challenge. Threats to women – the threats that constrict our lives on a daily basis – are frequently the subject of crime fiction, used to provide that pleasurable thrill that we all crave. But I didn’t want to sexualize violence against women. I wanted to treat it as it really is: violence in the service of oppression.

Thousands of books use scores of women as throwaway props for a clever killer who is engaged in a duel of wits with a heroic detective. We are often promised a glimpse of pure evil as we are invited to step into the mind of serial killer. This is an entertaining way to reassure ourselves that we are not monsters, that when bad things happen to good people, we know who to blame, and it’s not us.

I don’t mind reading or writing about violence, but I want it to be honest. To me, the reality-free serial killer story is less honest that the fluffiest of cozies. Real crime involves real causes: inequality, poverty, racism, hopelessness, greed, jealousy, the indifference of a culture that devours news stories of stranger abductions but is bored by the fact that one in five of our children live in poverty, that enjoys stories about the serial slaughter of young women but is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of rape culture. Admittedly, real life is relatively dull and big problems are harder than dramatic ones. Like others, I read crime fiction for fun, not to be educated or to hear earnest lectures. But I’m bothered by the way women are trivialized by fantasy crimes, and for that reason I’m thrilled that so many people have taken Lisbeth Salander to heart. Who would have thought that a book that, in the original, had the title Men Who Hate Women and starts chapters with social statistics about misogyny could possibly be a bestseller in this country?  Not to mention generate perhaps my favorite title in our lit crit section.

salander

Stieg Larsson won readers over by giving them the sense that justice is possible through the actions of heroic characters who refuse to put up with injustice. Rather than be a traumatized victim who lives in fear, Salander stands up for herself when society won’t, and it’s that stance, not the threats against her, that is exhilarating. The Millennium Trilogy distinguishes itself, too, in situating violence in social systems that tolerate inequality and are easily manipulated by powerful men. Larsson remixes a variety of genre conventions to expose social structures in which evil isn’t a monstrous Other, but the actions of powerful individuals who routinely make self-serving choices, capturing our sympathy with a compelling heroine whose task is to expose and confront our assumptions.

Larsson chose to make a political argument fun by remixing every kind of crime fiction narrative: the nutty serial killer with a Nazi past, the locked room mystery, the dysfunctional family saga, the spy thriller, the financial thriller, the police procedural, the political thriller, and the courtroom drama, creating a remix of popular culture motifs that becomes an imaginative landscape within which he can work through the issues of inequality and racism that he dealt with in his journalism.

But that boundary between engaging serious issues and entertainment can be a fraught place. South African journalist and novelist Margie Orford has written about why she turned to writing crime fiction. She writes:

The nature of crime and its effects seemed to elude me in many articles I wrote on the subject. I could list the shocking facts, but in the limited space of a one- or two-thousand word piece, I felt that I could never get to the truth about crime, about social dislocation, modernity and violence, and what this says about South Africa and those of us who live here. It is only in fiction that I could begin to find the voices of the brutalised and the dead . . . The crime novel, if done well, is a way of interpreting the society upon which it focuses its lens.

That said, Orford is troubled by the fact that there is a lot of misogyny in the genre and it’s difficult to avoid the erotic charge of the damaged female body given how woven into the genre it is. She also found herself troubled by the risk of oversimplifying the silencing power of violence:

I am at a loss as to how to engage fictionally, in an ethical manner, with the incomprehensible complexity of violence of South Africa. I may have erred profoundly in imagining that fiction might be a means of finding a way back, after the obliterating effects of violence, to some semblance of a language: a different language, an empathic language, a language that speaks of resilience and survival.

I actually think she’s done rather a good job of helping readers like me think about violence in her country and all of the complexity that has gone into it, but I sympathize with the challenge this kind of fictional honesty poses. The restoration of justice that we crave in our fiction is sometimes too easy an out. I think she’s put her finger on a defining ethical issue for both writers and readers of the genre.

Finally, what I’d like to talk about briefly is the subject of my current research: how reading is both deeply solitary and at the same time social.  Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built, described reading as a child as a form of separation from the world. “As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away . . . there was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” For him, reading books was a very personal journey and an escape. Students who have taken a course I have taught on books and culture have said similar things about the way their personal identities are entwined with the books they read.  As one put it, “My bookshelf is not just a bookshelf. It’s a time warp.“ Each book returned her to a particular time in her past. Yet as Elizabeth Long pointed out in her 2003 study of book groups, reading is also a social practice. That social connection often begins with childhood reading experiences.  As another student put it, “It was an ordinary place in our house growing up, but it became magical every night when my mom would sink into the soft cushions with a book in her hands. My younger sister and I would sit on either side of her resting our heads against her arms, peering at the illustrations that transformed our living room. My mom’s voice would decode the squiggles on the page into words, into a story. My first memory of books comes from this spot in our living room.”

social

Today, that social life of books and readers is inscribing social media with an almost limitless conversation about books.  Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. They formed early in the history of the Internet – Dorothy-L was founded in 1990. Rec.alt.mysteries (also known as RAM) was a Usenet group that was founded in the early 90s. Compuserve had active mystery discussion groups. Yahoo Groups has hosted thousands of book-related groups over the years. I studied one of those reading communities back in 2005 and found that the combination of sharing a love of the mystery genre and having a sense of community with like-minded readers scattered across the globe was highly valued by its members. Since then, sites like Goodreads (with 30 million members), LibraryThing (1.8 million members) as well as book discussions held on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblrs and blogs have all flourished.

I always find it puzzling when pundits say “nobody reads these days” or “reading is on the decline” given the evidence that millions of readers thrive on sharing their experiences with reading for pleasure. It’s also clear from observing these social interactions that they feel their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, that readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries and other differences, and that these informal critical communities play a critical role in the the formation of popular literary tastes which, in turn, are shaped by and shape our understanding of the world we live in. Wattpad is an interesting place where storytelling and sharing come together. On this site, people serially share stories for free, collecting reading communities that comment on the stories as they evolve. If you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, you probably have a sense of why 35 million people participate. Last week a 25-year-old member sold film rights to a series of romances she posted there which, over the course of time, have collected a billion views. This is an perhaps an extreme version of reading and writing as a social act, but is an illustration that storytelling and reading are popular when shared.

sociallibrary

Libraries, of course, may be the original place where reading was seen as a social act. Libraries contribute enormously to this communal sense that reading is not simply a solitary pleasure (one characterized as a guilty one indulged in by indolent women in the early 20th century when it was called “the fiction problem”). Nor is it an act of individual consumerism indulged in for free. It’s a communal experience, one that libraries encourage and support, an ongoing conversation with readers that enables what Wayne Wiegand has described as democracies of culture (“The Politics of Cultural Authority.” American Libraries (1998): 80-82). These are spaces where we let our communities decide what matters and experience the identification and the expanded world view that reading imaginative literature enables. The only gates we keep are open ones. We defend the commons, and in supporting the common reader whose tastes likely run to crime fiction, we are helping our communities experience the mystery of it all.

image credits

Background texture – Glassholic
Reader with a train – Mo Reza
Burning books – Patrick Correla
Brain –  Saad Faruque
Elizabethan pamphlets – Early English Books  Online (subscription required)
Spicy detective – Will Hart
Private detective – Will Hart
Speed detective – Will Hart
Dime mystery  – Rene Walter
Biblioburro by Diana Arias