Thursday, March 16, 2006

Here we go again

Once upon a time in a not-so-distant past, I operated a successful website focused on fiction for women which obviously centered primarily on romance novels. Also obviously, the main audience was women but there were a handful of intrepid men who weren’t afraid to publicly admit they read romance novels.

This website had a bulletin board which invited readers to come and share their thoughts on the books that they were reading and to make recommendations to other readers. Inevitably, as authors discovered the internet as a great way of connecting with and growing their readership, they joined in the discussion with the unintended -- or in some cases, intended -- effect of stifling negative comments about their books by readers who weren’t comfortable in calling a lousy book a lousy book in front of the author. Also inevitably, when a reader wouldn’t be shy about criticizing a book, the “fangirls” would bombard the board with indignant and sometime downright personally hostile responses. As someone who tried to foster open dialogue about reading material, this was entirely frustrating. No personal attacks of authors were allowed; comments had to be confined to the books themselves. Even still, the fangirls couldn’t see the difference between critiquing a creative work and a personal attack. Certain authors made it worse by taking the position that each and every book was their baby and it is “so hard to see [their] babies trashed”.

(Remind me sometime to tell you about the author who masqueraded as a reader for the sole purpose of promoting her books.)

The website also offered book reviews. As with the bulletin board, 100% of the people couldn’t be pleased 100% of the time. You had the high dudgeon critics who thought all the reviews were too positive. You had the fangirls who wanted nothing but glowing positivity about their cherished author’s books. Authors jumped in if there was any tiny thing that could be perceived as a slight to their creation. I even had one instance where readers were saying that a certain review was unrealistically positive and the author complaining that it was a cruel attack. Go figure.

Now, I think that everything about a book is fair game. Cover art, editing, plotting, characters, research; if it’s in the book, prepare for criticism. If I pay good money to read a book, I also bought the privilege of having an opinion regarding all aspects of that book. However, beyond saying that author so-and-so’s writing isn’t to my taste, I draw the line at making personal comments about the authors.

The website is no longer in operation due to personal circumstances in the not-so-distant past but I must be honest in admitting that I don’t miss the juvenile behavior that would flare up amongst grown women who ought to know better. I got tired of having to babysit people’s behavior on the board.

So now I find it eminently interesting to have discovered a similar dynamic in a different group with similar demographics. The knitting world is comprised mostly of women with some brave men who aren’t shy about admitting they like to knit. This is great! One small change is the decentralized commentary to weblogs instead of congregating at a bulletin board.

What isn’t so great is to see similar downsides. I shouldn’t have been so naïve but I’m fairly new to serious hobby knitting and even newer to the knitblog world. I had no idea that designers were getting feisty if a knitter dared to negatively critique their work (or in the case I have in mind, two knitters). I had no notion of the She Who Shall Not Be Named controversy. The whole s**** and b**** copyright infringement thing is beyond the limit. Or how a designer gets her knickers in a twist if anyone dare use the same adjectives she chose to name her newsletter. Then there are the inter-blog flame wars. Cripes.

I can take the heat. After all, back in the not-so-distant past, not only was I targeted by a competitor who felt threatened by my success, but I actually inspired an entire bulletin board for the sole purpose of trashing me personally. I try to practice what I preach by taking the high road during these occurrences.

But I surely didn’t think that I would encounter the same dynamic and I’m not sure how I feel about it. What I do know is that my viewpoint hasn’t changed. Designers: if you can’t take the heat, either don’t design or stay away from the knitblogs. Please let the knitters express their thoughts. Knitters: Keep it confined to the design and don’t make it personal. Please respect the creative process. And a special note for those designers and publishers who have gotten too big for their britches: get over yourself.

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