My husband and some colleagues of ours have a graphic narrative blog, and recently he remarked to me that unlike my blog, theirs gets almost no comments (and mine is nothing, of course, compared to some romance blogs). Comics people, he said, didn’t seem to have a culture of commenting on each other’s stuff, while romance people seemed to have a sense of “community,” commenting on each other’s blogs, carrying on linked conversations between blogs and on Twitter.
I’m not sure whether this difference is real, because I don’t read a lot of comics blogs. And it’s easy to leap to some stereotypical assumptions of why it might be true, if it is: “comics people” are guys, “romance people” are women (though in fact one of my husband’s fellow-bloggers is female). Comics people are lonely, socially inept geeks, romance people are lonely cat-owners . . . no, the logic is breaking down already. Maybe people who’ve been around one or both of these communities longer than I have can comment.
This conversation got me thinking about the most recent Romancelandia kerfuffle. If you’re a “romance person,” you already know about this, if you’re not, you can rubber-neck here (but be warned, the thread is a good example of the weirder/nastier side of the internet). I don’t wish to stir the dead embers of the kerfuffle or to comment on the substance (on that, I basically agree with VacuousMinx). But I’m interested in the rhetoric of community in Sarah Wendell’s post and some of the responses and in the questions it raises about just what kind of community “we” are.
To be clear, I’m interested in Wendell’s post as a piece of writing. And I’m referring to her as “Wendell” because that’s how I’d refer to any author whose work I was discussing. I am not commenting on her as a person or her motivations in writing it, which I do not assume I can know from reading it. In my limited experience of Sarah the person (full disclosure here), she struck me as sincere and straightforward, but at the moment I’m just interested in the imagery of the piece and what it tells us about how “romance people” think about Romancelandia.
Wendell’s post is illustrated with a picture of a front porch featuring a couple of rocking chairs, just the sort of place you could relax with a good book or sip iced tea and talk about romance novels with a friend. In the post, Wendell explains that her involvement in Simple Progress grew out of breakfast meetings with a neighbor. She asks why other bloggers who drew attention to her involvement in the company didn’t ask her about it first, adding that one of them “is my neighbor, too. She has been invited into my home and met my family. She could have rung my doorbell.” In the following paragraph, Wendell comments that “the online community is a pretty close and intermixed neighborhood.”
“Neighbor,” then, is used both fairly literally (someone who lives nearby) and figuratively (Romancelandia is an online neighborhood) in the post. Like Wendell’s post, many of the comments focus on personal relationships and feelings. There are people who defend Wendell because they like and trust her–whether they’ve met her in person or know her through her blog and Twitter. There are commenters who feel somewhat betrayed by the discovery that Wendell has a business relationship with some authors, because they thought of her as a friend with whom they were chatting about books, not a professional. There are other people who replace the friend/neighbor imagery and its focus on personal relationships with a discussion of conflict of interest and a focus on structural/business relationships.
And a number of people comment on the “blurring” of roles: some blogs have grown so big and well know that they may strike their readers as professional sites rather than amateur readers’ sites; some bloggers give presentations at conferences and write or edit books; some bloggers are published or aspiring authors; bloggers who review accept advertising or free ARCs/copies of books from publishers and readers. Who, as the lawyer asked Jesus, is my neighbor? Or if you don’t care for a Biblical allusion, there’s Sesame Street’s Ernie’s “Who are the people in your neighborhood?”
In some ways, “neighborhood” is a good image for Romancelandia, but I don’t see it in quite the way Wendell’s front-porch picture suggests. Neighbors have something in common, and the parable of the good Samaritan suggests they may have some responsibilities to each other, but they aren’t necessarily friends. Thinking of them that way means we can be taken by surprise when they imagine our relationship in other ways: bloggers who think of themselves as amateurs (including in the root sense of lovers of the genre) are non-plussed when readers or the FTC expect “professionalism” or “disclosure” from them; readers forget that authors are on Twitter partly to market their books, and are annoyed by a spurt of promo for a new release. There’s also a tendency (which Jane from Dear Author alluded to in the comments on Wendell’s post) to assume that any visible relationship in Romancelandia is a friendship, so that a reviewer who interacts with an author on Twitter must be biased because they are “friends.”
Despite the occasional noisy party, I like living in a diverse neighborhood, and the same goes for Romancelandia. The conversations about books and the genre there are enriched by having readers, authors, editors and scholars all participating. Since I don’t have many people in “real life” to talk to about romance fiction (or a real front porch), I value the chance to pull up a virtual rocker and engage in blog and Twitter conversations. But we’re not a homogenous mass, so it’s probably wise for all of us to be transparent about our various roles and relationships, just as my neighbors have learned to go around warning people that they’re going to have a party and promising to take it inside at a reasonable hour. It just might prevent people from calling the cops and starting a kerfuffle. Or not, because every neighborhood has its troublemakers.