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


Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus – a review

June 28, 2015

Like so many adult readers, I’m expanding my reading exploration into YA literature. Some titles I’ve enjoyed recently include The Doubt Factory by Paul Bacigalupi, Adaptation by Malinda Lo, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King, (which is aMAzing).

In a way, this is my third return to YA, the first being when I actually was Y myself and a wise librarian pushed a bunch of good books into my arms, the second during my undergraduate years when I discovered a branch library for the education department and decided to do an independent study on trends in young adult fiction just for fun (which it was). Now there’s a lot to catch up on as this turns out to still be one of the most intriguing segments of the book industry.

So when I was offered the chance to read one of the University of Minnesota Press’s YA titles, I jumped at it. Here’s my review.

Enchantment Lake
A Northwoods Mystery
by Margi Preus
University of Minnesota Press, March 2015

When 17-year-old Francie gets an emergency summons from her eccentric great aunts, she abandons an audition in New York to fly (and bus) home to Enchantment Lake, where many of the residents on the side of the lake that can only be reached by boat have died unexpectedly in bizarre accidents. Francie isn’t a detective, but she played one on TV, and many of the residents of Enchantment assume, despite her protests, that she is a skilled investigator. What else can she do but try to find out what’s really going on? Who is behind the effort to build a road to the side of the lake that is home to long-time residents living in modest cottages – and is that why residents are dropping dead?

Though billed as a YA book, it’s really for the young end of the age spectrum and reads like an old-school Nancy Drew adventure, including the conveniently absent parents and a teen who in a matter-of-fact way has nice things, like a New York apartment and an established if precarious career as an actor. There is a lot of investigating, introducing a cast of local characters (in every sense of the word), but also a healthy dose of action and a (very) light touch of romance.In this otherwise light-hearted mystery there are the moments when Francie wonders what happened to her mother, who disappeared before Francie had a chance to know her. Those passages are a bit like walking barefoot on a sun-warmed path and feeling a momentary chill as you pass through a patch of shadow – only to step into the sunlight again. Angsty this is not, but it benefits from those moments of depth. The sense of place is also evoked nicely with bits of description that will evoke a sense of nostalgia in anyone who has ever visited a lakeside cabin up north and wishes nothing would change, knowing it will.

As an example: “From here it seemed as if the forest stretched on forever. North and north into the great boreal forests of Canada. On days like this, when the wind blew from there, the smell of endless pines and lakes and granite filled the air. She felt herself snuffling the scent like a dog does, filling her lungs with it. It was a smell that called up some primal part of her, her wild, natural self. Her real self, she thought suddenly.”

To be honest, though, what delighted me most about this book was its design – it’s gorgeous. The cover is a Wanda-Gag-inspired patchwork of flora and fauna that includes visual hints of the mystery. Every chapter begins with a small, unique image and a page number framed by tiny loon silhouettes. It’s an old-fashioned children’s mystery with an old-school attention to design that is all too rare to find in book production today. And, for all that, the price for the hardcover is no higher than a typical trade paperback. Kudos to the University of Minnesota Press which kindly provided me with a review copy.


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.


my crime fiction top ten for 2014

January 2, 2015

topten

Thanks to my gang at 4MA (an online mystery discussion group) I have made a habit of sorting through my notes and choosing ten books that stick with me in some way. Here are the mysteries and thrillers I enjoyed most in 2014 – a hard choice, as there were others that could have made the list.

Lauren Beukes BROKEN MONSTERS
This book, coming off of a reading slump, totally blew my socks off. I had avoided it because it sounded formulaic (crazy serial killer, weirdly mutilated bodies, yawn) but it was a complete surprise. Beukes is a seriously fine novelsit and I agree with a the reviewer who finally got me to read it, that she has things in common with Richard Price – and, I would say, Tana French. Both novelists probe deeply into a place and the people who are shaped by it, and (like French) Beukes is willing to depart from the must-be-rationally-explainable rules of crime fiction to stretch our assumptions about reality. In this case,  Beukes (a South African writer who is unafraid of writing about race in America) weaves stories together that all touch at points and give a multifaceted portrait of a very messed-up Detroit. One of the characters is a cop; her daughter is another; a third is a failed journalist trying to make money with social media; a fourth is a man who works at a church and makes his way by selling off items from abandoned houses; a fifth is a psychotic artist (and perhaps a sixth is his illness, which becomes more and more powerful, an entity breaking free of the body it inhabits). It’s a stunningly good and daring book that combines elements of crime fiction, fantasy, horror, and sharp observations of contemporary life in a compelling narrative. The cover, alas, is a great example of the way marketing departments segregate women’s fiction – salmon pink and a pretty white girl with golden tresses paint on her face. Puhleez.

Arne Dahl TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
Dahl (Jan Arnold) continues exploring Sweden in a globalized Europe through the cases of the A Team, and ensemble cast of detectives remeniscent of Maj Sjowäl and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series (and with its dry sense of sad amusement). A simple bar fight turns out to be far more complicated. A pornography investigation unexpectedly offers a glimpse into unrelated crimes. Things that seem trivial hold layers within layers, and it’s only the intuition and the stubborn curiosity of the reassembled A Team that can tease out the meaning behind run-of-the-mill violence. Just as you think you’ve come to last layer of the onion, you discover something even more deeply hidden.Full review.

Sinead Crowley CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
Though not perfect, I really enjoyed this debut novel by an Irish journalist that explores the potential for creepy surveillance that comes with seeking community online. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective. he title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum. Full review.

MJ McGrath THE BONE SEEKER
Third in the Edie Kiglatuk series set in the arctic among an Inuit community relocated from Hudson’s Bay to Ellesmere Island for political reasons, the roots of which contribute to this mystery. This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Full review.

Margie Orford WATER MUSIC
Another South African woman writer in this list – this one, author of a series that explores the social roots of crime in post-Apartheid SA and confronts sexism through the perspective of a journalist and researcher who heads a unit of the Capetown police department that focuses on violence against women. A young musician goes missing from a conservatory, a small, half-starved child is found nearly frozen, tied to a tree in a wooded area outside Cape Town, and Claire Hart finds that both cases are rooted in a society that looks the other way as women are sexually exploited. The climax uses the local geography to cinematic effect. In many ways, Clare inherits the driven competence and compassion of the 1990s feminist detectives in contemporary and very interesting setting. I’m glad this series is finally being published in the U.S.

Alan Glynn GRAVELAND
An exceptionally good novel about a journalist uncovering the story behind the assassinations of men working on Wall Street, a father ruined by the crash who is trying to find ouw why his daughter is missing, and the devious history of a secretive financial baron. I’m not sure why irish writers are so good at this stuff, but Glynn is among the best.

Timothy Hallinan FOR THE DEAD
Books in this series set in Thailand are regulars on my top ten lists. Poke Rafferty has created a family in Bangkok with Rose, who runs a cleaning business, hiring women who, like her, are refugees from the sex trade and Miaow, who spent her early years as one of the many street children in the beautiful and terrible city. When Miaow helps her nerdy boyfriend, who is terrified of his strict father, replace a lost iPhone by buying one on the black market, they discover some photos have not been thoroughly deleted. Soon the pair realize someone wants them and anyone who knows about the photos deleted permanently. That’s when the buried memories she has of the alleys and hidden passageways of Bangkok and the survival instincts she left behind resurface, along with the visceral knowledge of what it’s like to be hungry, frightened, and alone. Full review.

Dan Fesperman UNMANNED
Dan Fesperman burst on the crime fiction scene with riveting stories from the front lines and underground tunnels of Sarajevo. His latest book tackles a new kind of war – remote precision killing conducted by drone pilots who see their targets close up from thousands of miles away. A burned-out drone pilot, haunted by an image of children who weren’t supposed to be at a target as the bomb he placed falls on their house, pairs up with a trio of journalists tracking the coverup of a botched raid and the contractor who is trying to cover it up. Timely and unnerving. Full review.

Tana French THE SECRET PLACE
Another repeat visitor to my top ten list. This (overlong yet exhileratingly written) novel brings two detectives to a posh boarding school for girls when a boy at a neighboring school is found murdered on the grounds. The narrative is in layers, with the 24-hour period of the invesitgation ticking away in one strand and in the other, everything that led up to the murder. It’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play. Full review.

Non-fiction tops
Raymond Bonner, ANATOMY OF INJUSTICE
I avoid true crime, which makes me feel like a ghoulish voyeur, but this book was mentioned on a radio program (probably On the Media, my favorite) and I was intrigued. This is a compelling and thorough investigation of a case in which a man was falsely convicted of murder – three times! – before a committed advocat took on the case. It’s so well written that you are anxious by the end to know whether she finally succeeded in getting the man justice. It’s also a good dissection of how racism influences the criminal justice system and seems particularly relevant in the year of #Ferguson and the national debate about race and police practices.

image courtesy of Daniel Go


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