Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fox in the Henhouse

It's clear from the comments on a recent post--"Getting to Know Me"--that saying you love Alan Rickman is a non-controversial thing to say on a book blog.

I mean, really--what's not to love? He was the best thing in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, stalking around looking like he'd as soon push you into the cooking fire as eat breakfast and sneering "cancel Christmas!" He could sing the low notes as the evil, masochistic Judge Turpin. He had a German accent as the villain in Die Hard. And, of course, he captured the collective heart of the world with his sensationally sneering Snape in the Harry Potter movies. But he also made hearts flutter as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, and he could make you feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for the befuddled husband in Love, Actually. He even played an action hero in Galaxy Quest. Those are just some of the highlights of his career, for me. Feel free to talk about what you, personally, love about Alan Rickman in the comments here.

What are some other non-controversial things to say on a book blog? Um, how about "the book is better than the movie." "An e-reader would be nice for travel because books are heavy." "Sometimes it's good to read a 'chunkster' book, because blogging can make you value speed of reading too much." "Twitter can help you strengthen your relationships with other book bloggers"* "Rereading a book can give you valuable insight into it"--oh no, wait, scratch that last one--it's actually (sadly) a controversial thing to say on a book blog!

Why do we go on saying non-controversial things to each other? Things that make us end up sounding like the "cream crackers" in Roddy Doyle's children's book The Giggler Treatment, who say boring and obvious things like: "toilet paper is usually white but not always. Isn't that interesting?" and "If you put your feet in water, they get wet. Isn't that interesting?"

Perhaps we say non-controversial things to each other because women are behind 99% of the book blogs out there (sorry Matt, Bart, and Clark--I think it's true), and women like the feeling of community that agreeing on something gives us.

Sometimes I get a really bad feeling about our tendency towards consensus. I think of what David Sedaris says in his essay "Chicken in the Henhouse" (included in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) about folks who call in to agree with each other on talk radio:
"It was, for talk radio, one of those easy topics, like tax hikes or mass murder. 'What do you think of full-grown men practicing sodomy on children?'
'Well, I'm against it!' This was always said as if it was somehow startling, a minority position no one had yet dared lay claim to.
I'd been traveling around the country for the past ten days, and everywhere I went I heard the same thing. The host would congratulate the caller on his or her moral fortitude, and wanting to feel that approval again, the person would rephrase the original statement, freshening it up with an adverb or qualifier. 'Call me old-fashioned, but I just hugely think it's wrong.'"

One of the jokes of "Chicken in the Henhouse," of course, is that the saying is "Fox in the Henhouse" and the caller gets it wrong. More and more often I wonder if we, as book bloggers, are getting it wrong, all chickens. Sometimes I want to leave comments on other peoples' posts detailing what I hate about the books they're reviewing. And occasionally I give into that urge, when I think it could be important. Mostly, though, I try not to ruffle anyone's feathers.

I think we need a fox in the henhouse--Fantastic Mr. Fox, who lost his tail to save his family in the story by Roald Dahl. Because one of the pleasures of talking about books should be disagreeing and learning to see books from another's perspective. Without the freedom to significantly disagree about someone else's point of view (e.g. not just writing in to say that you don't love Alan Rickman), then we're just all sitting around shaking hands with ourselves and looking silly, like the protagonist of Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero.

To tell you the truth, what I'm really thinking is that we need more than one fox in this henhouse. Care to join me? Together we can be more critical and seem more polite, and we won't have to go on feeling like so many of us evidently have, that "this blogging thing reminds me of high school." Let's graduate. As Colleen at Chasing Ray says, let's try to get to the point where "you grow up and your work speaks for itself." Let's pull together to do something good by occasionally having the courage to say something bad--to show, as My Friend Amy, the queen of book blogger community-building puts it, "the power of a community in extremely difficult times." These are difficult times to do anything but gush about what we love, and the value of declaring our love for a book is being undermined by our unwillingness to disagree about what makes a book worthy--or unworthy--of love.

*(update) at the time I wrote this, most commenters were agreeing that no, twitter did not make you a better blogger but could help strengthen relationships. Since then, there's less agreement, as is usual on that particular blog (Farm Lane Books), which I love partly because of the consistently high level of intellectual engagement.


Ana S. said...

Sometimes I want to leave comments on other peoples' posts detailing what I hate about the books they're reviewing.

If this ever happens on my blog, then please, please do! I'm interested in why people react to books the way they do, so I'd love to hear from someone who thinks differently than I do. And I'm not just saying this - I mean it.

I'll be the first to admit I have trouble handling conflict, especially online, but I don't think disagreement necessarily HAS to be conflict. People can disagree and still be friendly. I'll admit I have to go ahead and take a deep breath before I say that, for example, I hated a book a blogging friend recommended to me, but then I go ahead and do it anyway because what would be the point of lying to myself and the people who read my blog? (ARCs and author reactions are a non-issue for me as I don't receive review copies.)

Thinking about the example above, about telling someone you hated a book they loved, I have no problem saying it if it's a blog on which I comment regularly. If I don't know the person, though, I can feel reluctant because I worry that they'll misunderstand my tone. It's very easy for this to happen online, where there's no tone of voice or facial expression to help us communicate.

Ultimately, though, more than an uniform community I want REAL relationships with people. And for that to be possible we definitely have to be honest.

Chrisbookarama said...

At the risk of being a chicken, I agree with Nymeth. You can respectfully disagree with someone.

I've seen lots of comments on blog posts where the blogger *gasp* dared to state they hate Twilight. The commenters call names and tell the blogger they are "stoopid". I don't think that's constructive. Saying the reader is an idiot is a lot different than saying the book is terrible.

It's not the end of the world if someone disagrees with me.

Paperback Reader said...

Great post! I came to it via Nymeth's re-tweet.

Oh how I love Alan Rickman, let me count the ways... definitely from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (the cutting his heart out with a spoon because it hurts more cracks me up every time) through to Snape.

I have no qualms telling people that I disliked a book that they are reviewing as long as I can articulate why I didn't like it. I also have no issue with people doing it in return; it is impossible for us all to love the same books.

I wrote something earlier in comments that could be considered controversial "Personally I'm not a fan of the Brontes."

Unknown said...

Thanks to Nymeth for tweeting the link to this post. I can't believe I hadn't come across this blog before but I'll be back regularly now!

Really enjoyed this post and I agree. I do think that there need to be (more) negative reviews of books out there. I definitely start to get suspicious when everybody loves a book--now in many cases, that's true! I'll freely admit I'm on the Hunger Games bandwagon :-)

I guess I've been fortunate to read a lot of books I like, and I suppose we all aim to find books we like, so that lessens the chance of finding books we despise. But on those rare occasions I do come across books that I don't care for, as long as I can finish the book I will definitely write a negative, but fair (I like to think) review.

Like Nymeth, I would also welcome different viewpoints on books I've reviewed. It can generate great discussion, as long as it is done in the right manner, of course. Unfortunately it can be hard to make yourself come across they way you intend to when just writing comments on posts.

Well, I think I've rambled enough--more than anything I wanted to tell you what a great blog you have and that I'm looking forward to being a regular reader!

Amanda said...

I've never been afraid to post my ideas popular or not. Right next to my loving Alan Rickman, I stated I had an aversion to all animals. I'm not afraid to write up negative reviews, and if I dislike a book someone's reviewing, I always leave comments to say why.

Of course, I don't attack people for feeling the way they do. That'd be rude. But I always speak my opinion. Speaking the honest truth, no matter how blunt, is one thing I wish people would do more in real life. I always have. And so I practice this myself. Sometimes it gets me in trouble (I can't tell you how many people have asked me to run away with them because I'm their soulmate, because they think my brutal honesty is related to my confidence level in them...), but it's who I am.

Keshalyi said...

I try to do this sometimes - I like to put up comments that disagree, because I don't always agree, and if someone si smart, I like to hear them defend a viewpoint I don't understand. But, then, maybe it's just me, but reading back, in the middle of all the 'thanks, good post!' comments, I kind of feel like I come off as self-important and rude (it doesn't help knowing I *AM* a rare male in the group...). That's the thing: people don't LIKE foxes very much.

Keshalyi said...

That's not to say that I disagree with your point that it's good for a community, mind you...

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I agree!! I want to know when and why someone does not like a particular book. We may not agree, but I like when people tell it like it is.

FreshHell said...

Hm, I think controversy is overrated. I think we say obvious things because we are seeking out people who agree? Maybe?

I have some un-nice thoughts about the book I'm reading (A Short History of Women) but I doubt they are unique or controversial.

marineko said...

I tend to not finish reading books I don't like, though, and therefore I don't review them. (A lot of times I don't even review books I DO like, actually) So I very rarely write negative reviews, but I do like to read other bloggers' reviews of books I like, and finding out what they didn't like about it. I also enjoy finding out if we like the same things.

Andrew Santella said...

Why do we go on saying non-controversial things to each other? Because sometimes the non-controversial statement is a necessary step in working out a position on an issue (or on a book or on Alan Rickman). I too like writers who have the courage to disagree or make an unpopular argument, but I like it even better when they first take the time to acknowledge some ambivalence or even the possibility that they might be wrong. Maybe that acknowledgment takes the form of a noncontroversial statement. But at least it lets me know they're thinking and not just reacting. Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...

I'm well aware that some of the books I love are not everyone's cup of tea (my favourite example is Robin McKinley's Sunshine, which seems to polarize people - I adore it, lots don't, and there have been some excellent conversations around that.)

While I have no problem writing or reading negative reviews, I'm always cautious about snark, which can sometimes, despite being funny, have the unfortunate side-effect of making someone feel stupid for liking a snarked book. I don't think that making others feel stupid is community-building, whereas having an intelligent, respectful disagreement over a book can definitely build community.

One of the things I have learned very quickly working in a library is that recommending something because I love it doesn't work, unless I can be sure that the people I'm recommending to have similar tastes. The book blogosphere is full of people with wonderfully divergent tastes and I think we should all be open to saying "You know, that book you love didn't do it for me, here's why."

BUT I do think that "here's why" is important - I don't have much time for people who say "That sucked and I hated it" -- it's hard to have a good conversation with that as a starting point.

I know there are unfortunately people in the world who don't brook any disagreement about books they loved, but those frankly aren't the blogs I read or find interesting.

lemming said...

I hate John Grisham. he's boring.

There's, I've said it. Perhaps that would make a good blog post.

Unknown said...

If you say something that disagrees with the consensus, while that's good for "society" it's generally not going to win you friends unless you couch it in ever so self-effacing terms. Which is frankly bullcrap as far as I'm concerned. If I'm going to disagree with someone I'm not going to preface it with "you're opinion is just as good as mine" if I think my opinion is correct. If i thought I was wrong, why would I have that opinion? Lotsa people disagree with me lotsa times without being "nice about it" and it doesn't make them bad people.

Anyway, here's to more incivility! I'd rather see more passion than bland agreement.

Joe said...

OK, since you asked, I didn't want to leave this comment on your 9/11 post, but I'll leave it here.

What am I missing about Barbara Kingsolver's nonfiction? Admittedly, my exposure is one or two essays and _Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_, but as near as I can tell, for every insight or humorous anecdote, she's got at least one passage where she's unbearably preachy or twee. She strikes me as another "chicken in the henhouse" - somebody I don't learn much from, but she does express what I'm already thinking.

(And seriously... her little moppets are just so darn precocious that I assume the movie version of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will star Maccauley Culkin and Joe Pesci.)

Unknown said...

I agree that there is a big difference between disagreement and conflict. Conflict isn't good for anyone, but discussion is very beneficial to the world. You will notice that there is a difference of opinion on the post of mine you highlight, but we all discuss it in a rational manner, without falling out and getting upset.

Do you like it when people fight? Would you prefer me to say things like:

"I don't like being highlighted as someone who says only safe things"

I love it when people give a rational arguement as to why they disagree with something I say, but I hate much of the bitching you have highlighted as a good thing.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

Well, I've been called a strait laced prude on my blog before. So I definitely know that people don't always agree w/ my opinion of books. Most of the time, comments that are adamantly against what I have to say are random people coming off of google search engine and never stick around for the conversation.

Florinda said...

I think you're raising some interesting questions here - and based on the comments, they're getting some good, at least somewhat controversial discussion.

Personally, I like to see dissenting opinions, as long as they're well-articulated and not just being mean. And sometimes I'll be the dissenter. (But when I am, I'll always hope to find someone who agrees with me, because I also like validation.)

One thing about the book-blogger community is that it's so varied that almost any position is going to find some supporters somewhere.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, yes, people can disagree and still be friendly. In fact, I think saying you disagree shows more respect towards someone than not saying it--as you point out, we have to be honest to have real friends, whether in our actual lives or or virtual ones!

Chris, yes, there's a difference between what I'm arguing for--intellectual engagement--and name-calling. For us writing teachers, name-calling is a logical fallacy.

Paperback Reader, yes--the why is what I'm interested in. As some book bloggers have said recently, me saying why I hate a book can make them want to read it! You saying why you don't care for books by Brontes could pique someone else's interest...

Melissa, I am talking both about reviews detailing why the writer likes a book and comments explaining why the commenter doesn't like that book. Probably I should have split the issue into two parts. But since I didn't, let me just say that I don't know that I'm arguing for more negative reviews, but for more evidence in the positive ones. Evidence engages readers. There have been some posts in the past six months about why reviews get fewer comments than other kinds of posts, and speculation on whether it's because not enough people have read the book being reviewed. It could be, at least some of the time, that the review doesn't give enough evidence for commenters to be able to discuss it very much.

Amanda, I personally love it when you're blunt, but of course there are ways to be less confrontational, especially when you don't know someone well or don't want to give them a wrong impression.

Jason, good point about coming off as self-important and rude. This can happen even when one is polite. And you're right, no one likes a fox much. I could have used the more Socratic "gadfly."

I guess part of what I'm saying is that sometimes I want to engage with other bloggers on a more intellectual level, where arguing is part of the fun. So if it's good for the community and people can see that you're arguing a position (rather than some deeply-held personal conviction that will never change), it shouldn't have to entail alienating all your bookish acquaintances. Should it?

Diane, because what repels me may attract you, and vice versa. My 19-year-old students are often shocked to discover this, but I'm assuming that these conversations will be happening on blogs that don't review YA fiction exclusively.

FreshHell, I think women do tend to seek out people who agree. But there are those of us who will maintain a provocative idea way past the point it's tenable just to see how others will react. Because it's fun to take an idea to logical absurdity with someone else as audience. It's less fun when the audience is full of "yes men." Or women.

Marineko, one of the bloggers I respect a lot (J. Kaye) feels the same way you do. So hey, it's her blog, and she's put her personal stamp on it. One of the things I'm arguing for here is more individuality.

Jeanne said...

Andrew, you make an excellent point about letting someone know you're listening. I think this is why bloggers are hesitant to disagree in the comments if they aren't habitual commenters already.

Kiirsten, I'd classify snark pretty close to insults. There's no response to it that doesn't make one look overly earnest and flat-footed. And you're so right about how awful it is to make people feel stupid. That's the last thing I ever want to do. I like the distinction you make between opinion, which no one can argue with, and point of view, which implies a perspective. (And evidence to let the other person see from yours, of course.)

Lemming, I love John Grisham sometimes. Want me to count the ways? As you say, there's at least one post in that. I might say one post for each of his books! That might be more time than I want to spend on him.

King Rat, you've hit on the right term--more passion IS what I'm pleading for! If we use our shared passion for reading as a starting point, there will be no need to say "your opinion is as good as mine" every time. That should be a given.

Michelle said...

In principle, I agree with you: discussion on differing opinions is always more valuable than "great post" comments. But in practice...

I heard an interesting quote recently that's caused me to pause before tearing books (or other things) apart.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

This was a zinger for me--I'm excellent at looking for flaws. "Constructive criticism" doesn't always come so easily; sometimes it's easier--maybe even better--to default to silence when differences of opinion arise.

J.T. Oldfield said...

fantastic post! Personally, I write crazy negative reviews and say that the movie was better than the book on my blog, but I am probably less inclined to do so on comments. Though on comments sometimes I do leave links to my negative reviews.

Maybe we're just all overly excited when it comes to books?

you told me I had said something in a comment over at Devourer of Books' blog a while back. What was it?

Jeanne said...

Joe, you are my go-to guy for intellectual engagement! I do wish you would take me to task more often.

I did say in my interview that I didn't think I'd like B.K. in person, that she's overly earnest. And I think I've said--maybe it wasn't here--that she can be preachy. I react to that especially in her fiction, as a matter of fact. Preachiness doesn't bother me so much in non-fiction; must be the years of satire-reading.

Mostly what I like about her non-fiction is what you say--she expresses things I'm already thinking. Could it be a woman thing?

Yes, her moppets are precocious. But so is yours, and mine obviously are; that's why I talk about them so much.

I don't know--could it just be tone? I find her amusing, and you don't.

My favorite part of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the part about slaughtering her turkeys. If I had the courage (and the free time, ah tenure!) to see something like that through, I think I'd react much as she does. Do you find this too silly for words? Are you a braver carnivore? Can you still respect me if I admit I'm silly in some of the sheltered academic ways B.K. is?

SFP said...

Last week I heard about a book blogger who was convinced by the author of the book she was reviewing to take out a controversial sentence or two so that his sales wouldn't be adversely effected. I hope she grows a spine or finds another hobby.

Jeanne said...

Farmlanebooks, at the point I had read through the comments on your post and wrote this post yesterday, I didn't see a lot of disagreement--everyone was agreeing that no, using Twitter does not make you a better blogger. Certainly I don't mean to characterize your blog as a place where there's never a difference of opinion--that's one of the things I like about it, and the level of civility is almost always very high over there. I'm terribly sorry if using yesterday's post as an example of folks chiming in gives anyone a wrong impression. You have some of the most intellectually engaged readers anywhere. I can put an update saying that.

I'm not saying that "bitching" is a good thing, but that intellectual engagement requires not being able to please all the commenters all the time.

Jeanne said...

Natasha, at your blog we play by your rules. It's rude not to! You make a good point about some folks not sticking around for the conversation--also rude. I'd also count not reading the other comments before you comment as rude, also.

Florinda, yes we are varied, and I think we should feel free to show that more. The problem you points out might be that if one doesn't articulate one's meaning well, then dissent can come out sounding mean.

Michelle, engaging someone on an intellectual level should not mean looking for flaws. I'd classify that with meanness. Good critics usually have a goal in mind--an idea worth arguing for. If you just nay-say the opposition, that's contradiction (as a Monty Python skit points out).

J.T., the comment I was thinking of was on a post by Devourer of Books about The Blue Notebook. I was the first commenter and didn't articulate my meaning well, so when I said I hated the book, it came out as mean. You commented that it was good of her not to delete my comment. That really made me stop and think about expectations for "yes men" (and women) in blog comments.

Jeanne said...

SFP, pressure from authors is something I'm really not addressing here, mostly because (like Nymeth), I review mostly books that I own or have borrowed.

I can see my spine weakening if some author I hero-worship tries to twist my arm...but not after the review is already written!

Jeanne said...

J.T., and yes, I think a lot of us are overly excited when it comes to books. Much too often I exclaim first and think second.

Unknown said...

Don't worry - I wasn't offended by your comments and there was no need for your update, but thanks anyway!

I realise that not every post I write contains disagreement, but I do enjoy discussing books, even if people have a difference of opinion.

If you are looking for a a difference of opinion on my blog then my Wolf Hall review is a good place to start: http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk/?p=2249

followed by my post on the importance of honest reviews, in which I have a very similar opinion to yours.


I do wish that more people would have the confindence to start a book discussion and look forward to reading your discussion points on many blogs!

Jeanne said...

Farmlanebooks, I was remembering the Wolf Hall furor when I wrote this. If it had been me, I'd have been tempted to read more of the book just so I could give more examples of how bad I found it! But your place, your rules, and the guy who didn't like it could have shut up after a comment or two and gone elsewhere. It's a free internet. We don't have to bully each other.

March Books said...

I like this post. As an author/publisher, I hate to see bland, passionless reviews. I don't want to see 'I liked your book'. Give me 'I loved it' or 'I hated it' any day. That lets me know that I have touched an emotion in that reader.

I have been present in critique sessions where people have been facing off about loving/hating a specific character in http://www.amazon.com/Little-Insanity-Janus-Kane/dp/1935367293/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253718492&sr=8-2. Fortunately, it never came to blows, but what a rush to be able to evoke such passion in a reader.

If all you have for me is white bread, keep it for yourself. Don't play it safe unless a book really did not touch you at all. If that is the case, pass on your condolensces to the author - he or she will need them.


Luanne said...

Jeanne - as always you entertain me and make me think. Now, I'm not too foxy, but don't think I've ever said something I don't mean. I could be guilty of ommission though - saying nothing ( if you can't say anything nice in my grandmother's voice just popped up in my mind....)

Jeanne said...

Luanne, I agree--I do more reading than commenting. It's only a sin of omission if by not speaking up you implicitly condone something you see as wrong.

Mel u said...

"Perhaps we say non-controversial things to each other because women are behind 99% of the book blogs out there (sorry Matt, Bart, and Clark--I think it's true), and women like the feeling of community that agreeing on something gives us"

when I began my blog 2.5 months ago I noticed that there were not many boo blogs by other men. I wondered why. Is it mainly that women book bloggers are in academic and teaching professions and other jobs that provide them te time or because many are SAHMs or are there deeper reasons?

Jeanne said...

March Books, I think a lot of book bloggers feel passion about what they've read, but some aren't sure how to articulate all of it. Writing is hard. One thing I'd suggest is to use quotations as evidence in the paragraphs. Don't separate them out.

Mel, I didn't mention every male book blogger I know, sorry! I'm not sure what it is about women and blogging. I think it's something deeper than just that some women--many because of raising young children--stay home for a while. (I never had a spare moment when mine were preschoolers.) And while an academic job doesn't require you to punch a time clock, it actually takes more of what office workers use as leisure time--all that paper grading.

Mel u said...

Jeanne- there must be a deeper reason why book blogging has so many more women involved than men-when I took a quick look at those on the management and helper teams for BBAW they appeared to all be women-in part it may be a time issue-I know that before I retired I would not have time to be a part of the book blog community. I do not mean to suggest by this that a SAHM has infinite leisure!!

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

You've said what you disliked about a book on my blog before and, although it shocked some (one) of my other commenters, I wholeheartedly welcome you back to do it again. I enjoyed the, albeit brief, discussion that resulted.

Saying that rereading can be good is controversial? Seriously?

Jeanne said...

Jen, that one comment was such a wake-up for me, like my own personal Lady Bracknell intoning "that sort of thing is just not done!" I liked the ensuing discussion too, especially since it opened up my mind about one aspect of the book.

I keep seeing book bloggers saying they don't reread books. If there are people out there blogging their rereading of books, I haven't found many of them. It's on my list of things to do with my own blog when I can make time.

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