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How to Disagree with a Book Blogger Without Becoming Disagreeable

December 9, 2012

In his November 30 review of Henderson’s Rotten Reviews Redux, for the Los Angeles Review of Books, William Giraldi took on book bloggers in a blatant attempt to stir up controversy in a too-often-stirred pot, and managed to generate little discussion (but a great new blog called Graffiti Reviews) from book bloggers who almost uniformly declined to link to his self-aggrandizing pronouncements, such as:  “Literature to these online cabals is a social event and not an artistic endeavor; they congregate to swap recipes of cuisine no discerning person would ever care to eat. The idea that a novel can be garbage, and that a critic has the imperative to call it such, is anathema to their aspartame outlook….”

The problem with such a pronouncement, of course, is that critics like Giraldi take it for granted that other people need them to bless some books and curse others, because we’re just not bright enough to do it ourselves.

I think that the point of a review should be to provide further insight into the book.

As Book Blogger Buddies, Teresa from Shelf Love and I have been talking about ways to generate more disagreement in the comment section of our own book blogs.  If we can take it for granted that book blogs are not about preening ourselves on how well we can judge “artistic endeavor” but are indeed a kind of social event for a group of people interested in generating more insight into the books we’re reading, then how can we liven up this party?  How can we get past the shy stage of “I hardly know you so I don’t want to risk offending you” into the stage where we have revealed enough of our own perspective on a book (or poem) to seem open to other perspectives?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2012 3:51 pm

    That is a very interesting question, and I wonder if you have come up with suggestions?

    Personally, I feel that it is very difficult to find a good balance in disagreeing comments. There are a few bloggers who do it extremely well, and leave comments that feel more like suggestions than criticism, which makes me feel that the road is open to learning together instead of being solely put to right or taught. Unfortunately, the latter occurs more frequently, and I have to admit that when that happens I am more inclined to become angry/disappointed and turn away from comments than to engage. I know that this is in part my own failing, something that I am still learning to deal with. I know, for example, that at times I read real life experiences into comments on my blog. I think the point still is that online communication can be tricky, without having the facial expressions and bodily gestures, comments can seem harsher. I am trying to learn from the bloggers who leave those comments on my blog that I feel lead to conversation more than harsh debates. Perhaps I am the kind of person who rather avoids harsh confrontation in my “safe haven”, even if at the same time I agree, sometimes the most interesting discussions can come from seeking more open conversation (but I would love that to be on equal ground, and so often it is not, so often it is about asserting authority).

    Okay, sorry that this is not helpful at all. But thank you for this post, it definitely made me think.

    • December 9, 2012 8:01 pm

      Learning together, yes, that’s the kind of feeling both Teresa and I are interested in fostering in the comments. There are some good suggestions over at her blog (the link on Shelf Love is to her post about this issue). One is about indicating an issue, in addition to a book title, in the post title.

  2. December 9, 2012 3:54 pm

    This is something I think about as well, but I haven’t come up with any particularly useful strategies. I wonder, though, if maybe people would do it more if they saw it happen more often? Perhaps we’re all reluctant to express disagreement or to start a debate because it’s so rare in this particular corner of the Internet, but if some of us lead by example we could perhaps normalise it bit by bit.

    • December 9, 2012 4:23 pm

      Yes! One of the things Jeanne and I have talked about is modeling the behavior we want to see.

      Several of the commenters on my post have mentioned the value of specifically saying when we’re open to other views. It’s not something I’d want to do on every post, but I do think it’s worth stating when there is some debatable point that I don’t mind debating.

      • December 9, 2012 8:05 pm

        To be debatable, a point has to be specific. So if we’re going to model this behavior, perhaps we need to start small; it’s not much fun tossing around generalities.

  3. John permalink
    December 9, 2012 5:01 pm

    Let me turn the question around, Jeanne: if you want to see disagreement, then why are you complaining about generating pages hits for this fool? Call him out: he’s condescending and ill-informed about his topic, for instance (both of which are true). He’s part of a fortunately-dying breed of arbiters of taste who have little or nothing to contribute to the debate on books, the kind of people who foisted fifty years of “literature” designed to be studied but not enjoyed on American culture.

    Like somebody above said: model the behavior you want to see. Consider the possibility that means being disagreeable.

    • December 9, 2012 7:55 pm

      Yes, good point–reacting to him and his ilk is part of why I started this blog. I don’t think it would do any good to engage with him, though. He is preaching, in the sense that he has a message and he thinks everyone else’s job is to listen.
      My job, as I see it, is to say what I believe about what I read without it being a message every time. At least some of the time, it would be nice if reading what I believe generates a different point of view.
      Being disagreeable is usually personal, as in Giraldi is a jerk and who cares what he thinks. Disagreeing can be a sign of respect, the willingness to engage with someone on an intellectual level.

      • December 9, 2012 8:53 pm

        A discussion implies some degree of mutual respect. How can you have any kind of reasoned debate with someone who has already dismissed everyone who disagrees with him as 1) Cavemen and 2) Women who are bad cooks?

  4. freshhell permalink
    December 9, 2012 7:48 pm

    I agree with John. I haven’t read the blog and the criticism referred to but I’ve run across that attitude before. And frankly, books to me are personal. I don’t expect to like things even my dearest friends like – not all the time, nor do I need people to love the books I love – all the time. It’s great when it happens, though. I’m always interested in why people like or don’t like a book. And it’s more than “artistic merit”, good vs bad writing. Certain genres appeal to people for different reasons. After all is said and done, it’s personal. You know I don’t like sci-fi as a rule but occasionally I’ll find a book I like that just happens to be sci-fi. But I certainly don’t go looking for them. So, my comment about a book in that genre would usually be either negative (“I probably won’t seek this out”) or silence because I don’t want to offend and don’t have enough information to speak about it. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say if I haven’t read the book discussed. I have no opinion apart from a gut reaction from the review or book jacket blurb. But the condescending pronouncements are just pointless. That critic probably doesn’t like people very much, or “the average reader” who is clearly a boob, in his mind. But why he must protest so much, says a lot about him. I have a valid opinion as a reader, a former English major, and a writer about any book I read. And I may or may not share it.

    • December 9, 2012 8:21 pm

      Opinion is something we can’t argue about (it gets silly: “I like Book X.” “No, you don’t.”)
      Preaching is when a blogger says “you should read Book X.”
      Proselytizing is when a blogger says “everybody should read Book X because I like it and you trust my opinion.”
      Giving a point of view, though, requires a person to get into the details–not of why I like SF, or why I like this particular book, but why the ideas in this book (or better, just one idea) interests me and seeing if it interests you from your particular perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

      • freshhell permalink
        December 9, 2012 8:56 pm

        Yes, and that’s something I’m not able to do well. So, I’ll always be more of a commenter than a book reviewer. 🙂

        • December 9, 2012 9:11 pm

          Sort of like how I’ll always be a critic and not a writer.

        • December 10, 2012 6:26 am

          Freshhell sums up where I am nicely. I’ll always be a commenter and even that’s only when I have something other than “yuck” to share.

  5. December 9, 2012 8:33 pm

    One problem I have, and I’ve assumed others share, is time. I enjoy reading various blogs, but sometimes reading the reviews slides into “guilty pleasure” and I run out of the allotted time for replies.

    The other is that, although I sometimes read reviews of books I’ve read, one reason I read blog reviews is to find books I haven’t read but might enjoy. There isn’t much room for debate there. Sometimes I go back and comment, but a lot of the time, I read the book quite a lot later than I read about it.

  6. December 9, 2012 9:09 pm

    Yes–my reading list stretches back years from when I first read about a book and got interested in it, and I’m one of the worst about not remembering who got me interested in reading something by the time I sit down to say what I thought about it. So that conversational aspect is lost.
    And I agree that there’s rarely time to do the kind of thinking required to engage intellectually with very many other bloggers.
    Does that kind of bring us to the image of the book blogger tilting at windmills? Is it like I tell the students who work for me, that you can’t always measure the success of an enterprise by the immediate feedback?

  7. December 11, 2012 6:50 am

    I have taken to heading straight to your blog when someone mentions a book they found interesting – not necessarily loved, but found thought provoking or disturbing, or even disliked, because I know that you will not have hesitated to say so if you felt that way, controversial or no.

    • December 11, 2012 7:30 am

      It’s true that I don’t hesitate! It’s also true that timing is part of this issue, in terms of when I talk about a book and when other people read it. The Casual Vacancy, for instance–once you’ve read it, will you go back to the two posts I wrote about it and comment? I think that would be great, but it’s not really blog convention to go back, even that far.

  8. December 11, 2012 11:38 am

    “I think that the point of a review should be to provide further insight into the book.”

    Yes! I know I’m not able to do that in every review, but it’s usually my goal. I love doing read-alongs because I feel like others notice so many things I miss and their observations add so much to my appreciation of the book. I have no problem with a good discussion in comments, but I hate it when people are just trying to start fights. I think there’s a very big difference between the two things.

    • December 11, 2012 12:40 pm

      I guess I’ve been lucky (or obtuse?) that no one has tried to start a fight here. There was one time with a poet who didn’t like the way we were playing with his poem, but that’s different.
      The fact that others notice things a blogger misses seems to me a salient point. Almost every blogger I know is posting first draft writing.

  9. December 13, 2012 7:34 pm

    I think you can respectfully disagree with an opinion without being argumentative or stirring up controversey. I think if you TRY to pick a fight, you will. That being said, I think that bloggers provides one insight into a book and the way to get to know if a book is for you is to read many reviews and get lots of different takes on the same book. If only we would all read the same book at the same time! HAHA!

  10. December 14, 2012 8:14 am

    Between the Scylla and Charybdis of assuming there is only one correct interpretation of a book and assuming that everyone’s interpretation is equally valid, I’d like to sail a little closer to the “one interpretation” side. Not necessarily because I believe that I know best, but because it’s less wishy-washy.

  11. December 18, 2012 7:11 am

    I think it’s very difficult on blogs unless you have a designated group of people commenting who have agreed to discuss a book together – a readalong or some such. Blogs are so dominated by personal opinion, which is all well and good, but it’s not open to debate. I don’t think anyone changes their opinion about a book, unless you can manage to create a lit class type atmosphere where people arrive with an open-ish mind and are in the mood to learn more, think more deeply, have their initial feelings challenged or developed. Not many people really show up on blogs for that – they are more likely to seek out similar opinions to their own.

    But I think where there can be debate (and often is) is on the broad, general topics, the Sunday Salon type topics. You’ll still get a range of personal opinions, but it’s still easier to discuss a general idea than an individual book. It’s less personal somehow.

    Plus of course, typing can always sound a bit cranky even when it isn’t. I think you have to warm up words without a voice attached or they always sound grumpy! And that can lead discussions astray. I’ve been there! What I fondly think of as my cool debating tone comes over sharpish, I think, if I’m disagreeing!

    • December 18, 2012 7:57 am

      Yes, I’ve been there too, with the sharpish tone that I didn’t mean to take. Over at Shelf Love, Tom the Amateur Reader (from Wuthering Expectations) suggests that bloggers who like debate put a sign on the blog that says something like “have at me.” While that’s appealing in some ways, it’s not going to work all the time, as you point out.
      I wish it were easier to find older posts and comment after reading a book that someone talked about a year or so ago. Why should comments have an expiration date? We talk about books in the present tense.

  12. January 5, 2013 5:28 pm

    Coming late and commenting late on older post, I just want to say that I don’t mind at all if someone comments on an old post, and I’ve also done it myself before now (without knowing that it wasn’t the “done thing”). I think it’s easier to have an actual discussion about a book in a planned readalong or a Twitter chat than on a blog, because you’ve rounded up a potential group ahead of time. Otherwise, everybody’s reading different books at different times, as you say.

    • January 5, 2013 8:37 pm

      I think it’s a “done thing.” At least, I’m perfectly delighted when people reply to old posts. “They’re still alive! Someone’s reading them! Yay!”

  13. January 5, 2013 10:09 pm

    I would like to see commenting on posts become more of a thing we do. Because then, when we’ve read a book, we could comment on older posts about that book. Too much of book blogging is re-inventing the wheel, if you ask me.

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