Social Reading, Up and Down

The Gaffney Project

When the news broke on Twitter that e-books of Patricia Gaffney’s renowned, controversial, and long out-of-print Wyckerley Trilogy were finally going to be released,  I wondered if they were going to be available to me. My US friends could see pricing, release dates (mid-June 2013), and a pre-order button on Amazon, but I couldn’t. That’s finally changed (yay!), but in the meantime, a Twitter friend generously offered to lend me her paper copies, along with her favorite Gaffney, Wild At Heart, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again. I am excited to read all of these much-talked-about books, now residing on a shelf in my closet; love them or hate them, they seem important to a romance reader’s “education.”

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to be embarking on a Gaffney Reading Project, a number of people said it would be great to have a group discussion of them, but could we wait until they were e-available so more readers could join? Yes! Watch this space in late summer or early fall if you’re interested.

This whole thing was a great example of what I love about my bookish social-media life. I love thinking and talking and arguing about books, getting book suggestions from other readers, sharing enthusiasm for good books, and the welcoming and generous Romance community. I’ve found a way of talking about books online–both fannish and intellectual, loving and critical–that doesn’t exist anywhere else in my life, and which has brought me so much pleasure. *wipes away maudlin tear*

But I’ve been thinking this week about a downside to bookish social media, too.

The Echo Chamber

I almost didn’t write about this. Some of you will probably read it and think “this post is about me.” And you’re probably right, but it’s also about me, and I want to make clear at the outset that I’m not criticizing anyone or describing something I think is wrong. I’m just pondering how and why it affects my reading experiences.

Lately, this has happened to me a few times: an author tweets about a book she’s working on; a couple of her critique partners/beta readers tweet about reading her manuscript and OMG we’re all going to love it when it comes out . . . sometime next year; some bloggers I follow tweet about how they just read the ARC and we will all see why it’s so great when they post their reviews . . . in six months when the book comes out; around the release date, the author tweets that the book is out, the bloggers tweet their five-star-reviews, readers tweet how much they’re loving it, the author re-tweets some of this praise. And over the months that this process has taken, I’ve gone from “wow, what a great premise, can’t wait to read it” to something closer to “Oh, FFS, not this book again.”

None of these people has done anything wrong. I don’t follow authors who over-promote themselves or their friends, and I expect some promo from them. I expect (and want!) other readers to enthuse over books they love, as I do myself. All this is part of how I discover good books. And since I mostly follow authors whose books I like, and who are friendly with other authors I like, and readers whose tastes overlap with mine, it’s no surprise that there are moments when it seems like I’m in an echo chamber where everyone is talking about the same book.

If there’s any blame here, it’s mine; if I had my Twitter habit under better control I’d see 10% of this chatter instead of 90%. Luckily, the solution is simple: I look away as much as possible, wait awhile to read the book, and often love it too. I wouldn’t have mentioned this phenomenon at all, except I wondered why a lot of people talking about how they love a book I want to read would make me want to read it less.

I’m not going to lie, there are probably some weird high-school hangover feelings at work here, as so often in life (everyone’s talking about that party I didn’t get invited to; well fine, I didn’t want to go anyway). And quite possibly some snobbish elitism (if everyone likes it, can it really be any good?). Let’s not dwell on my less-admirable traits.

There are other things going on, too. One of the joys of reading is discovery. Keats knew what he was talking about with that “realms of gold” stuff. Opening a new book, I feel something like the anticipation I felt as a child opening the back door onto a yard full of untouched snow: I get to go out into that wonderland and make my own paths! Too much talk beforehand is like when your sister beat you out the door and your dad already shoveled the walk. Some of the fun is gone if I know too much about what to expect.

There’s also something private about the pleasure of reading for me, much as I like to talk after the fact. My happiest reading memories from childhood are of curling up somewhere alone with a book, in my own secret kingdom. The voices of other readers in my head keep me from losing myself in a book and from experiencing my own private enjoyment. I don’t want to be thinking, “Oh, this is the scene that so-and-so liked.” Nor do I want to be constantly taking my readerly temperature: do I like this as much as everyone else? Do I agree with X or Y about that issue they debated?

I’ve no doubt tweeted things that caused these same feelings in other readers. But I’m not sure, having reflected on this, I’d do anything differently–what, exactly? And I certainly don’t think others should. The pleasures of social-media book chat far outweigh the drawbacks. So carry on talking, everyone, and if I get that dirty snow feeling, I’ll just look away until there are a couple of fresh inches and I can make my own snow-angels all over that book.

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36 Responses to Social Reading, Up and Down

  1. Diana says:

    Damn, Liz, I really like you. You’ve said things I’ve wanted to – only better. Carry on.

    Looking forward to talking about the Gaffney books .

  2. Janet W says:

    I think your “wait awhile to read the book” is a solution I use a lot too. Everyone (well that’s how it seems to me) is reading Charlotte Stein at the moment … and I bet I will love her voice myself. But I just don’t feel like doing a readalong so I’ll wait. And then she will, I’m guessing, feel fresh and wonderful. Of course I’m just contrary enough to occasionally love reading what everyone else is reading at the same time. Since I know so many reviewers — and occasionally review myself — it happens to me more than once in a while that I’ll love the sounds of a book, go to work on my one-click buying skills, and find out it’s not available. I’m not sure why that drives me bonkers …

    Count me in for the Gaffney discussion …

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Janet, I’m like you. Sometimes I enjoy the buzz and read-along feeling (doing a book club was so much fun!) and sometimes I find it a turn-off. I can’t even say for sure what the difference is. Maybe just my mood. There’s no identifiable tipping point in number of tweets/reviews that is too many for me or anything.

  3. Erin Satie says:

    You’re reminding me of why, in my reviewer guise, I’ve been stepping away from ARCs. Personally, I’d begun to feel like I was running on someone else’s guided track, or put blinkers on — seeing only those books that were upcoming and coveted, ignoring books that were already out or got less of a push. I love finding other authors/readers with similar taste, I know the proportion of good to bad books I’ve read has improved since I engaged in this kind of public dialogue, but I don’t want to just be dragging my net along the surface of the whole great ocean of books and filling my brain with whatever happens to be floating there at the time.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a great image! And it’s part of why I decided not to sign up for NetGalley or accept review copies from authors. I just want to read what I feel like. I am grateful to bloggers and others who review older and less-known books (genre or not) because I’ve found some wonderful books that way.

    • Natalie L. says:

      I read pretty much nothing but ARCs for almost 8 years–it gets really tiresome after a while to always be the person who is reading three months in the future and therefore no one else I know has read that book that’s so awesome. I’ve accepted exactly three ARCs since I started blogging on my own and my own informal policy now is that I’m not going to blog or talk about them more than a week before they’re available to the public.

      Twitter has become one of my favorite places for book-discovery and, like Liz, I love the fannish and critical discussions that happen there.

  4. SuperWendy says:

    Excellent post! I don’t know, maybe it’s me – but I’ve always felt that beta readers gushing over a book was a little hinky. I am NOT a beta reader for anybody – but if I were I would almost want to treat it like a “secret.” I mean, the book isn’t out yet, and it probably isn’t going to be out for months and months. Presumably the author may have more work to do – parts of the book may get added or dumped, and really the gushing thing when you’re beta reading something? That smacks of a circle-jerk IMHO. (Eloquence they name is Wendy).

    I find I do my best book-gushing in person. I can ramble. I can get all effusive. There may even be some wild hand gestures involved. I had lunch recently with a friend and she downloaded Aftershock by Jill Sorenson in the restaurant because quote “I haven’t seen you this excited about a book in a while….”

    In the online world I throw the gush up the air, leave it alone, and let the dust settle. The reality of the situation is that no matter how much I gush, there are some folks who will NEVER want to read the book/author (maybe they loathe category romance? maybe they don’t like erotica? maybe they think I have abysmal taste?). And that’s fine. At the end of the day, everyone makes their own decision. I’m online talking about books (whether it be gushing or ranting) because I’m a dork and like to talk about books. Goody for me that there are other dorks like me out there 🙂

    But man, I hear you. I am guilty of adding to the Charlotte Stein gushing, but if I see anything more written about Kristen Ashley’s books I might have to put my head through my desk. Also…..Sarah Mayberry. Who I am sure is a lovely person and writes category romance (a format I LOVE). BUT EVERYBODY IS READING HER. Hype, gushing, it has a way of shutting my brain down. Even though – yeah, I’m totally guilty of feeding into it (see: Charlotte Stein). Does any of this make sense? No, it doesn’t. Maybe I should read in a vacuum more? Yeah, but how much fun would that be? Not very. Because like you stated – the online romance community = awesome.

    • I’m so guilty of the Mayberry Love Parade! I’m sorry, Wendy. At least I’m not into KA…

      • SuperWendy says:

        You should never apologize for finding a book or author you love. With Mayberry I know it’s my own obsintance holding me back. I’m sure once I stop being an idiot and read her books, I’ll end up really liking them…..

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Wendy! I think you strike a good balance of gushing, because you’ve introduced me to some great books I might not have found otherwise. In person is different, isn’t it? I try to recommend books to particular people I think would like them rather than tweeting generalized squee.

      I read someone’s manuscript and liked it a lot, and I have bitten my tongue a couple of times to keep from telling someone “Oh, I think you’ll like this … when it comes out.” Because really, that kind of comes off as bragging.

      • When the book comes out is a big factor in how much I’ll gush publicly or how much I want to hear about someone else’s adored book. Is it coming out in a couple of weeks? I want to know all about it. Six months? Not so much.

  5. I bought a used copy of Wild at Heart after Janine recommended it to me, so maybe I’ll join the discussion. Gaffney is one of those authors I feel I should read just so I don’t get my romance card revoked, but for some reason I’ve never felt compelled to do so.

    I try not to tweet or recommend books that aren’t already available, and when I see that a book is getting a lot of buzz I try not to talk about it, because it can get annoying. Sometimes it’s hard, though. Last week I had to make a conscious decision to stop talking about one of Ruthie Knox’s upcoming books, because I felt like I was over-promoting her and didn’t want to put people off reading the book. I hate when bloggers post early reviews, or when they get ARCs and keep posting those Goodreads updates or live-tweet while they read, so my rule is not to talk about books people can’t get. I break it from time to time, especially when the book is unique and I feel like no one is talking about, or when I really like a book and the release date is close.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Those are all great rules! Yes, even though I have deliberately chosen not to read advanced copies, I can feel somehow like I must be a loser if other people are talking about them.

      When a lot of people have reviewed a book, I aim for a post that reflects on a particular aspect of it, because who needs yet another positive review? That was my approach with the Sarah Mayberry book, for instance, where I talked mostly about the symbolism of the fence. (Sorry Wendy, I too am a Mayberry fan).

  6. Ruthie says:

    When I was ten, I went to the college bookstore in the town where I lived. It sold lots of non-college books, including children’s books shelved on the exterior of a wooden castle that you could also climb up inside and sit on top of, staring down at the patrons. I found a book on the shelf with a very plain, unofficial-looking cover — all green, with just a small pen-and-ink drawing for a cover illustration. It was, inexplicably, only ninety-nine cents. I bought it, as well as some candy and other junk, and began it that afternoon. The heroine’s name was Ellen, which is my middle name. The book was delightful — magical but also very dark and weird, with children dealing with things way beyond their ken, and inexplicably evil adults, and triumph and imprisonment and love. In the first scene, Ellen wakes up on her birthday to find a silver crown under her pillow, and she knows it belongs to her. I always felt like that book belonged to me in just the same way. I found it. It was magical, and it was mine and nobody else’s.

    (Many years later, I figured out that the book — The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien — must have been widely read. But I never knew another person who’d read it.)

    In a less-obviously-metaphorical sense, all of my childhood and adolescent reading was this way. It was something I discovered by myself, or with minimal guidance. I didn’t talk about it. It was private, transformative, MINE.

    I find, as an adult and now, somewhat improbably, a novelist, that I cling to the way of reading I developed as a girl. I don’t want to read reviews of books that aren’t out. I don’t want to see someone else’s highlighting in my ebook. (DEAR GOD NO.) I want the experience to belong only to me. If I’m going to engage with reviews, it’s only afterward, when my solitary experience has ended, that I’m willing to hook it to the experiences others have had.

    And yet, of course, there is this other thing. The way that social media helps me find books, now, and I don’t have to wander lost through Amazon, searching for something that is hopefully not crap. The incredible conversation. The more-frequent discovery of amazing stories via recommendation. As you say, that part is lovely.

    And then, as an author, there is this OTHER other thing, where I’m the one doing the pushing of books I’ve written that aren’t out yet, or of manuscripts I’ve read that aren’t available yet (at least 50 percent of what I read is other writers’ manuscripts), and I am seeing myself in your post and nodding my head because yes, I can see why that would be irritating or unpleasant or crazy-making, even as I engage in it.

    But by the same token, there are other people who seem to thrive on this social reading culture — to love the very aspects of this kind of reading that I do not. These are people who want to read the latest thing, to glom all the books, to share the highlights and the quotes and the Goodreads status updates. They are excited, and I am glad, and I have to talk to them, too, of course. And sometimes I wonder, did they not read as I did when they were girls? Are they part of a whole different culture of reading? Or are these simply individual differences, along the lines of introvert vs. extrovert?

    I don’t know. But it’s all pretty interesting to ponder.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yeah, the other reason I would never say this is “wrong” is that I know there are other readers who really enjoy precisely the kinds of conversation that sometimes drive me nuts. And I am not here to dictate to them how to enjoy and talk about books.

      Also, OMG, I found The Silver Crown at the library around the same age and I remembered it for *years* because the beginning was so spooky and weird but I could not for the life of me think of the title. And finally Google came along and I found it again, although I still haven’t tried to get a copy to reread. Certain books all my friends read and we did talk about, and some I shared with my sister, but a lot of the time I was just in my own delightful universe.

      My daughter is 10 and she loves Erin Hunter’s Warriors books. There is a whole online fan culture (she makes videos and posts them on YouTube) and I am struck sometimes by how utterly different from mine her childhood reading experience is.

  7. Shelley says:

    Interesting. I can see how an author’s explosion can be unsettling to readers; Twitter really can turn into an echo chamber, certainly.

    But I’m not sure that reading, for me at least, was ever really solitary. I’m an extrovert anyway, and my best friends and I read together, swapping books and chattering about them all night during my girlhood. We even wrote stories together during sleepovers, and read sections out loud to each other. I also came across books through solitary exploration, but a lot of my reading choices were made within a social setting, either by talking to my friends or to librarians or teachers about what I liked.

    Similarly, I’m a children’s librarian by day, and that job is *all* social reading. I’m there to get kids to trust me, learn about them and their tastes, and find the right book for the right kid at the right time. For pre-readers, ALL reading is social reading, and the atmosphere of trust and exploration together that I create either one-on-one or in group settings shapes how kids feel about reading for the rest of their lives.

    Maybe the big difference is in availability. Readers who have greater access than others talking about what they get to read, for instance–ARCs or beta readers or whatever, when the rest of us know we have to wait, seems more self-serving than it does reader-serving, although I know from my own experience that impulse may just come from genuine excitement over someone’s work.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      “Maybe the big difference is in availability. Readers who have greater access than others talking about what they get to read, for instance–ARCs or beta readers or whatever, when the rest of us know we have to wait, seems more self-serving than it does reader-serving, although I know from my own experience that impulse may just come from genuine excitement over someone’s work.”

      I think this is part of it–though like you, I feel most comments like this I see are genuine excitement, not promo-hype, and it is often how I first hear about something that sounds good. And of course I am of two (or more) minds about all of this. I mean, if I like an author’s work, it’s not like I want her to remain my own special secret! I want her to have the success I think she deserves and keep writing awesome books forever. I want other readers to enjoy her books as I did. So all the buzz is a great thing. At the same time, it can make me feel . . . burned out on a book I haven’t read yet. I do find waiting for the buzz to die down does the trick. It’s not like I’m turned off forever! Two books made me feel this way recently, and I bought both of them already.

      Knowing that some authors might read this made me extra hesitant about posting it. Because they can NEVER please everyone. Most of the buzz, or tweet, I see isn’t even direct from the author! And that’s why I say none of this is meant as criticism but as a reflection on my own weird response to buzz.

      • Shelley says:

        It’s the problem of being TOO connected, right? Because if you only had one foot, or one toe, in the book-reading-blogging-loving world, you’d only hear a teeny portion of the buzz. But since your ear is right on the ground (wow this metaphor is MIXED like cement), you hear all of it. That I can understand, and you’re right; writers have no control over it. The best the rest of us can do–and it’s so hard when you’re excited about someone’s work!–is to try and take note when the chamber is starting to echo and find something else to share with our reading pals.

  8. I overhauled my twitter feed in part because I wanted to cut down the promo and the circle of RTing. As you say, when you’re in a community you see the same thing repeated a lot. I felt bad because I know that some publishers pressure their authors about keeping a strong social media presence and twitter follower lists are a measure of that. But I’m a reader, first and foremost.

    Yes, a lot of the squeeing and RTing we see is genuine excitement. But there are also things like Triberr, and street teams, and author loops whose members agree formally or informally to RT each other’s announcements. It becomes difficult to separate the organized promotion of authors from the spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm of readers (whether the latter are pure readers or authors in reader mode).

    I have loved finding a community of readers to talk romance with, especially since I spent most of my romance reading life without one. But the explosion of social media as both a community and a business model component has made for a difficult balance for everyone, I think. We’re all still trying to figure out the best way to proceed.

  9. My reading acquisition habits keep me from paying too much attention to the echo chamber. I am predominately a library book reader and through my years of working in a public library I couldn’t bring myself to borrow any book that was popular enough to require reservations. I thoroughly dislike reading to a schedule so I rarely bothered with “buzz books”. I read and swapped reads with friends a lot when I was younger but once again, rarely were they new releases. If the library didn’t hold it then I just had to wait. However, the exception to this was my category romance books. I love category romance books but I have to buy them as so few libraries know how to purchase them (if they purchase them at all).

    As for sqeeeeeing over ARC – I did this once. Last week 🙂 And did I think about the fact that it isn’t out yet? Yes but as it is being released in a few days I didn’t fuss too much. I too appreciate the online romance reader community as it is the only place I have been able to discuss aspects of my reading choices with like-minded people. I’ve become adept at spotting the authors who follow my twitter feed just to promote their book to a librarian yet never interact (their twitter bios give it away), to the authors and publishers who are genuinely interested in the greater conversation.

  10. It’s funny–I go through various moods where I want to hoard my reading all to myself (and make a note to delete my Goodreads account or at least stop using it), and other times where I want to rabidly dissect and discuss what I’m reading, what I’m interested in reading, or other books/characters, etc. The only time I have a knee-jerk reaction to the squeeing is when I have no interest in reading a book or books, and I’m half-annoyed by my lack of interest and half-annoyed that I can’t escape the buzz!

    Regarding ARCs: I read them with my author hat on and don’t run all over the place talking about the book months ahead of the release date because what’s the point of telling people about a great book that won’t be in bookstores for another 6-10 months? By that time, they’ll have piled a bunch of other books onto their TBB/TBR pile and pushed that book further down the list! However, since my semi-book blogging deals with a particular niche (early 20th century historical fiction/romance), it’s easier to maintain my part in the publicity machine since I’m known for the setting and I don’t have to do much to garner attention.

  11. Las says:

    This is most likely because I don’t follow many authors so I haven’t seen it enough, but I’m not bothered by author self-promotion as much as I am by everyone else promoting an upcoming book. I’ve never been one for fanclubs and the like, so unless it’s a book I’m already looking forward to because I’m a fan of the author’s work, all the breathless excitement has the opposite of the intended affect on me. What I like most about the bloggers/reviewers I read is the ability to love a book and still be critical, and seeing tweet upon tweet and post upon post of squeeing over a book that’s not even out yet reminds me of people who never write negative reviews because they want to “promote good books.” It’s just too puppies and rainbows for my tastes.

    Also–and I know this has been discussed to death in the past–it goes back to issue of reviewer and author interactions and online friendships. When so many reader-reviewers are getting ARCs and are actively promoting books months before they’re released, I feel like I might as well just follow authors’ and publishers’ blogs, since clearly the readers I follow aren’t just readers anymore. That doesn’t mean I think reviewers are being dishonest, just that it changes the “tone” of the discussions.

  12. I love everything you say here. Among other things, I think you’ve just articulated the reaction I’ve been having to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I have not watched).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wonder if that’s why I haven’t watched yet. I’m sure I’d love it. Also was laughing this morning about a stream filled with Pride and Prejudice tweets/RTs. Isn’t 200 years of squee enough for that Austen woman?!

  13. GAFFNEY WOO!!! I have only read To Have and To Hold, and have been *heh* holding on to the rest of them for quite a while. Wild at Heart is also excellent.

  14. This doesn’t bother me so much about romance, maybe because it’s only online. I get really turned off by non-romance hype (see Wendy’s post When the book is online, on the television, on the radio, and every other patron who comes through the door is asking me, “Did you read The Help/Cold Mountain/The Kite Runner/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” I strike it from my TBR list forever. If I don’t catch a jumbo-bestseller book on it’s upswing, I won’t bother to chase it.

    Thanks for the Gaffney news!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, some hype is truly inescapable! That is usually a permanent, not temporary turnoff for me. I wonder if I would have read Harry Potter had I not found the first book before I saw any hype? I would have been sorry to miss that.

      I thought Wendy’s comments about how hype might be a problem for casual readers were really smart. But she always says things worth listening to!

      • I do wonder what wonderful books I’ve missed by being turned off by hype (I’m glad I caught Harry Potter on the upswing!), but there are so many wonderful books out there that get overlooked by hype, I feel it evens the playing field a little.

  15. jillsorenson says:

    I read quite a few books that no one else is familiar with, so I enjoy those rare moments when everyone is buzzing about a book I’ve actually & 2. liked. It’s sort of depressing to be all alone in your book preferences. I find discussions about books I’ve read (whether I enjoyed them or not) more interesting. The idea of having a special book all to myself doesn’t appeal to me. Finding a special book *before* anyone else and sharing it does.

  16. Minor correction: Wild at Heart is my second favorite Gaffney. My favorite is the controversial To Have and to Hold.

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