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What Price, Your Critical Agency?

July 8, 2015

Last week, I happened to receive an email from a publicist claiming to act on behalf of a celebrated genre anthologist. Said email inquired whether I might be interested in reviewing said anthologist’s latest project despite the fact that a) the page containing my contact details specifically mentions my lack of interest in unsolicited review copies, b) I no longer regularly review genre books and c)past interactions with said anthologist directly contributed to my decision to stop reviewing genre books. Needless to say, I did not bother responding.

The interesting thing about this email was not the publicist’s evident desperation in trying to find someone willing to review yet another of the countless genre anthologies being dumped onto an already over-saturated marketplace but the paucity of what they had to offer in return for my time and attention. In return for agreeing to read and write about this anthology, I was being offered the exciting opportunity to download a digital ARC from a service called NetGalley.

Now… I can completely understand why the publishing biz might want to replace the old-fashioned mail-out with invitations to a central depository of e-ARCs. Back when I was still reviewing, I somehow wound up on the mailing list of an American genre imprint that would send me 2 or 3 unsolicited review copies every single week. Appalled by the waste and wracked with guilt at my inability to write about any of the ghastly books arriving at my door, I tried to get myself removed from the mailing list only to wind up having to talk to half a dozen people before the tide was finally stemmed. In my dreams, Kafka and Borges collaborated on a story in which an inhumanly perverse coterie of publishers conspires to fill a critic’s home with the middle volumes of impossibly long fantasy series. ‘So many hooded men… so little space’ the critic splutters as he sinks below the surface of his papery grave for the third and final time.

Clearly, any system that would allow such cataclysmic levels of waste is a system in need of vigorous reform and yet I cannot help but wonder what this transition will mean for the future of our cultural ecosystems.

 

Photograph by Shannon Tofts

 

These days, few cultural ecosystems operate independently of commercial interests. The ability to artificially engineer an interest bubble means that commercial interests will always have some control over the agenda of an enthusiast press. Reviewers will request DVD screeners and ARCs of books they have been encouraged to look forward to and editors will always be happy to slipstream a wave of hype by providing content that satisfies the readership’s artificially-engineered interest in a particular subject. Money and effort devoted to creating buzz translates into traffic and so anyone who is interested in getting more traffic will always go out of their way to chase the hype.

While traffic is a significant carrot to offer in return for collaborating with commercial interests, review copies are another great way of controlling the agenda. At an institutional level, it is difficult to run a reviews department without review copies you can pass on to your reviewers and so the output of a reviews department will always be dependent upon the nature of the screeners and ARCs provided. At an individual level, a commitment to operate any kind of reviews platform means an open-ended commitment to media consumption and while you may very well be willing to pay for the media you choose to consume, the volume of reviews required to build an audience realistically means deep pockets, a relationship with publicists, or a willingness to obtain review materials for free by either borrowing or stealing.

One of my favourite recent discoveries has been S.C. Flynn’s Scy-Fy, a blog that features no fewer than 100 different interviews with book bloggers, magazine editors, podcasters and something he somewhat alarmingly refers to as ‘booktubers’. One thing that struck me about these interviews is that despite many of them warning about the dangers of writing only about new books and how setting your own critical agenda is the best way to stay productive and stave off burnout, most of the interviewees operate platforms that lavish their attention on new releases. In other words, they know that allowing commercial forces to influence their critical output is dangerous and yet they continue to let it happen.

Another suggestion that keeps appearing in Flynn’s interviews is the importance of developing your own critical voice. I’ve written about the importance of voice a number of times myself but while a voice can reside in things like sentence structures and essay formats, it also resides in the decision to engage with some topics rather than others. Aside from being a vital component of a reviewer’s creative identity, critical agenda is also a serious cultural issue as reviewers who allow publicists to dictate the nature of their output run the risk of perpetuating any and all structural inequalities present in the output of the associated industry. To put it in simpler terms, it’s all very well talking about the need for more diversity in your chosen medium but if you review what the publicists send you then you will inevitably wind up devoting a disproportionate amount of space to Hollywood tent-poles and epic fantasy novels written by politically dubious white men.

To create a critical platform is to grant oneself critical agency. What we do with that critical agency is entirely down to us but while there are undoubted benefits in lending that agency to commercial interests, we should be aware of the prices we demand; a living wage is one thing, a physical copy of a book we were probably going to buy anyway is another but what of access to a suite of digital files that might not even survive the next technological iteration? Would you sell your critical agency for nothing more substantial than a DRM-encrusted pdf or limited access to a pre-release video stream?

Of course, I am being glib… reviewing nothing but the New Shiny is not just a matter of getting read and gaining access to culture, it is also about participating in a broader conversation and if everyone else is talking about the New Shiny then absolute control over one’s critical agenda will come with the added benefit of complete cultural isolation. I do nothing to promote my writing and write purely about the things that happen to be of interest to me and while this has allowed me to become more happy and productive than I have been in years, my complete indifference to the outside world means that the outside world is just as indifferent to me.

The nature of the capitalist system requires us to sell our energy and our time in order to stay alive but what of the energy and time that remains at the end of the working day? What of the labour we perform under the auspices of fun and relaxation? Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?

One possible answer is that we surrender our free time in return for a sense of community. Community creates a set of values and interests that imbue our lives with meaning but in order for that meaning to take, you need to buy into the community and the price of belonging is usually some degree of dependence. Humans have been performing this trade-off for as long as we have been sentient… it is one of the fundamental pillars of the human experience and yet many of the communities we choose to buy into are coming to resemble workplaces. All the way back in 2009, I wrote a piece about the alarming similarities between the workplace and fantasy RPGs used to escape it:

What does it say about us as a society that we choose to escape to virtual worlds that are depressingly similar to our own? What does it say about our collective imaginations that our fantasy worlds are filled with property speculation, peer-pressure, divisions of labour and the endless capitalist drives for greater profit and efficiency? Is it perhaps some manifestation of the failure of capitalism to ensure universal material success that makes us project the dream of a steady job and a second home into our fantasy realms?

The sociologist Max Weber compared life in an over-regimented society to living in an Iron Cage. I can think of no better evidence that we are the broken and beaten inmates of such a cage than the fact that the frenzied wings of our most cherished dreams carry us no higher than being an elf with a good salary and a decent chance of being made section head.

Anyone who has played Dragon Age: Inquisition will realise how little things have changed in the last six years: In 2009 we played a game that encouraged us to buy and do-up properties in a series of fantasy towns, now we engage in pointless, time-consuming tasks followed by management meetings and the hope of an office romance. Many people see the professionalization of the blogosphere as a sign of progress but I worry about the state of our collective imagination when the only community that makes sense to us is one that resembles our jobs.

As the torrent of physical review copies dwindles to a trickle, I do wonder about the future of the blogosphere and the non-professional enthusiast press that intersects it… As many a ‘thinkpiece’ will tell you, the age of the blog is supposedly over and many independent writers will by now have been approached by larger sites seeking to harness their critical agendas in exchange for either money or (more-or-less) imaginary kudos. The near-abandonment of RSS has forced many out onto the roads of social media where public spaces have been enclosed and reconstituted as marketplaces where they compete for the attention of an audience already subject to incessant and intrusive demands upon their dwindling attention spans. Read my post, link my tweet, share my anger, validate my fetish… is this really the best we can do?

47 Comments
  1. Rolnikov permalink
    July 8, 2015 11:28 am

    I’m a fan of NetGalley because it lets me pick and choose the books I’m interested in, rather than having, like you did, piles of random titles turning up through the letterbox. When I’m in the mood to review up-to-date titles I can, when I want to spend the year reading comics I do that instead.

    There are issues with it, though, for example some titles have DRM which, if it expires before the review is written, can be annoying. And after having said that reviews could be uploaded to publishers through the website as a tear-sheet, they then decided that they owned the copyright on those reviews and began to publish them online. I’m surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry about that.

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  2. July 8, 2015 11:54 am

    Reading this I found myself wishing that Borges and Kafka had got to write that story. (Perhaps it happened somewhere in the Garden of Forking Paths.)

    At any rate, I’ve traveled a similar path in my own blogging, ceasing to review New Stuff with any regularity a few years ago, so I certainly appreciate what you’re talking about here.

    As to the question of “Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?” I suspect the answer is that many of them are the same as their unpaid intern counterparts in any other industry–hoping that the unpaid work will become paid in some way or other.

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  3. July 8, 2015 12:23 pm

    Wait… why were people submitting their reviews to publishers anyway?

    I can see why you’d prefer dealing in e-ARCs to coping with the deluge of unwanted dead tree but I prefer receiving a physical copy of something I’m like to review :-)

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  4. July 8, 2015 12:41 pm

    Nader — I think you’re right that a number of people, certainly in genre space, have produced reviews as part of a broader plan to work their way into the publishing industry but I don’t think that that’s true of everyone. What depresses me is not that some people do think they can work their way into the industry by providing free PR work, it’s that people with no interest in following that path seem to naturally adopt not only their methods but also their way of seeing the world.

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  5. Rolnikov permalink
    July 8, 2015 3:44 pm

    If a publisher supplies you with a book for review, I think it’s just courtesy to let them know when and where a review appears. I like using NetGalley for that – it’s more impersonal than emailing a publisher with a pdf or a link to the blog. And there’s no need for them to reply, or acknowledge receipt, which was when things would sometimes get prickly.

    I prefer epub or pdf copies because I’m more likely to read them, and I’ve got room to keep them. One other benefit of NetGalley is that it lets me access a wider range of books, especially from the US – about a dozen of the books I’ve reviewed for Interzone came from NetGalley. I used to receive very few books by women as ARCs.

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  6. July 8, 2015 4:03 pm

    I get that-and certainly don’t dispute it.

    (Perhaps I should have taken care to qualify my answer.)

    At any rate, I imagine a good many of the people you’re talking about don’t realize that this is in fact what they are doing–in some cases not for a very, very long time. And that even those who do figure it out sometimes continue at the game out of sheer inertia.

    In any case, great piece and thanks for bringing up the subject here.

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  7. July 8, 2015 6:24 pm

    I can understand letting them know when a review goes live but giving them the reviews and having them re-use them is… Weird.

    I’m glad it works for you but I am also quite glad that I don’t deal with any publishers directly :-)

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  8. July 8, 2015 6:24 pm

    Thanks Nader :-)

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  9. July 8, 2015 6:52 pm

    I don’t review as much in the genre space as I used to (and, to be fair, what ARCs I have received directly have rarely been from genre publishers), but I have been making an effort this year to narrow down my reading and blogging, in order to focus on the kind of books that I really respond to.

    I still accept review copies, and don’t necessarily mind if I end up biased towards the new – but my way of balancing that out is to try my best to make sure that it remains within my own agenda as a reader and blogger. These things are also relative – if I’m writing about (say) a brand new book in translation, it might be one of only a handful of mentions the book receives.

    In the broader world of book blogging, I think the default position is increasingly one of enthusing about the new rather than following your own nose come what may. As you say, it’s a way of belonging to a community, and I totally understand why that’s attractive (I value the chances I get to interact with literary communities, and I know how tempting it can be to read and write about the latest big thing just because everyone else is). But it seems to me that we then lose out on more substantial critical exchange. At Loncon 3, I recall a palpable sense of what great things could happen when people got together to discuss culture in that kind of critical forum – and how such forums seem to be lacking online, however easy it is to connect.

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  10. July 8, 2015 7:37 pm

    Hi David :-)

    You’re absolutely right that following your nose is what it’s all about and where your nose drags you will always be influenced by any number of factors including commercial interests, community discussion, life experience or simply being struck by something new and unexpected.

    You’re also right about that sense of potential that comes from spending time with people who are on a similar page and I have never seen it reproduced online either! Blogs are monologues and social media allows for interaction but it’s way too prone to status games, the spreading of malicious gossip and all of the high-school bullshit that seems to dominate genre culture’s online spaces.

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  11. July 9, 2015 8:58 pm

    I’ve been saying for a while now that the total displacement of RSS by piecemeal link-sharing on social media has accelerated a drift in reading patterns away from seeking consistent authorial perspectives and towards whatever is the hot-button trend du jour. (These were already present as competing philosophies in the mid-2000s zenith of personal blogging, of course, as were the signs of what would draw the bigger readership.) I certainly value the former a lot more, partly as it doesn’t get quite as lost in a vortex of recency bias and hype, but it runs into some serious obstacles with respect to discoverability, and one can see how the sense of futility creeps in for the writer when there isn’t a reward loop of readership, aggregation, or outside engagement. And the last of these can be misleading. A critic in your position, in electing to work with material that is provocative to the writer but probably unfamiliar to the reader (who lacks the pre-baked engagement that comes with an already popular conversation), runs the risk of lecturing to either an empty hall or a populated one that isn’t in a position to comment—and the problem with the blogosphere is that you can’t tell one from the other.

    “Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?” Well, I can’t speak for the literary business, but from what I’ve seen elsewhere, publicity is hiring directly out of an established pool of hungry, ambitious, high-volume content producers who have a record of shilling the company’s output without being asked. Yes, the savings of letting ‘virality’ bear the load of your PR office are considerable, but a skeleton crew is still a crew, and when a publisher hires a front-facing community manager they will go with the tried-and-true promo-blogger/YouTuber already plugging their wares every time. I would guess that no small proportion of the hobbyists you have in mind don’t have any ambition to be great critics but are deliberately gunning to Get in the Industry.

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  12. July 9, 2015 9:20 pm

    I agree with your analysis on all points…

    I’m lucky that I’ve reached a point where I am completely self-motivating but I imagine it must be incredibly difficult for bloggers to get noticed and a lot of bloggers seem to work on their promotional skills rather than their writing but that’s true of almost every area of human culture nowadays…

    And these are precisely the people who wind up drifting into PR jobs.

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  13. July 12, 2015 6:57 pm

    I realized early on that I could never be a professional reviewer because I could never give up all that time reviewing things I don’t want to read. Pros have to go through this endless series of books — almost exclusively new releases. Where does the pro have time for picking up random things or rediscovering lost gems or following an aesthetic pattern? My consumptions follows personal trends. For example, sometimes I want to read a lot of Weird fiction, so I’ll read a glut until another genre or subject catches my eye. Perhaps I want to watch a bunch of samurai films. Then follow that up with a bunch of 70s-era political thriller films. When does a professional reviewer have time to go down rabbitholes?

    I suppose this is part and parcel with the endless blurring of labour and leisure in the logic of late capitalism. When I was younger and in school, many people I knew asked how I would monetize my field (how will you make money?) and I had no answers. In fact, I was confused; why would I seek to monetize and thus cheapen what I love? There’s a difference between doing what you love to live and doing what you love to conquer.

    I wouldn’t mind being a professional critic, but it would have to be on my own terms, and I’m not sure publications would publish my ramblings on this or that.

    Your final paragraph really hits home for me, Jonathan. I keep my blog running so that I can keep thinking, keep working, keep engaging, because I certainly don’t do it for the clicks — I’ve never gotten more than 100 or so pageviews on any post. I realized that if I wanted to signal boost my blog, I’d have to go on social media and start advertising for myself, managing my personal brand or whatever.

    I worked in a restaurant chain for awhile, and my disillusion increased as my co-workers and friends kept using their personal social media to signal boost the restaurant. This drove me nuts. Why would you advertise freely for them? You don’t profit. You won’t get a cut of their annual earnings based on your loyalty so why do it?

    When I think I could publish something, I consider all the indie genre authors that follow me on Twitter in the hope I’d follow back and buy their awful self-published sci fi book — or even worse, advertise for them! I can’t think of anything more exhausting than having to do that day in day out.

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  14. July 12, 2015 7:35 pm

    We’re teetering on the brink of a much larger issue here, namely the economics of criticism: 100 years ago, you could make a living as a critic or a poet and now the only way to survive by doing either of those things is to become an academic but even the realities of that profession have changed drastically. If you read the LRB, you can find people who obviously get to write about more-or-less anything they want but they are mostly authors and academics who write criticism as a sideline.

    One of the defining characteristics of neoliberalism is that, unlike classical liberalism, it has no conception of different spheres so OF COURSE healthcare and utilities should be run on a profit-making basis. What has changed (in our lifetime I think) is that we are no longer allowed the luxury of a non-professional public sphere. We aren’t allowed to do something to pay the rent and then do something that we really love… We are expected to monetise our passions or at least treat them in a ‘professional’ manner and so many people spend their days working and then come home and start an unpaid part-time job in the name of ‘fun’ and ‘relaxation’.

    I share your repulsion at the thought of using your social media to help promote your employer and my repulsion is increased when I think of those people and then of Irene Gallo who dared to express a private opinion on her Facebook feed only to wind up being publicly humiliated by her employer. Neoliberalism tolerates no boundaries, especially those we would use to protect ourselves from its depredations.

    I also share your horror at the idea of ever becoming a published author: I can imagine producing a book (I have half-written a couple myself) but taking to social media in order to promote myself? Endlessly forcing myself into the headspace of people with problems of their own? I can literally imagine nothing worse… I pity today’s authors.

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  15. July 13, 2015 1:15 pm

    A lot of the questions you raise in this piece, and that’ve been chewed over in the comments, have been on my mind for the last few years as well.

    The one that really grates is the slow collapse of RSS. I still use it extensively but I increasingly feel like a dinosaur for wanting to do something so old-fashioned as regularly read writers who I like, find interesting, trust, or disagree with in a thought-provoking way.

    To really propagate throughout social media and get noticed it feels as if the path to success is to chase the extremes, and I’ve no interest in either engaging in frantic masturbation to extol how brilliant I think something is, or pretending that my subject has enraged me to such an extent that I’ve levelled up and gained +1 to the Eloquent Frothing Rage stat. Such extremes almost always read like the death of critical thought.

    Anyway, aside from a brief stint trying to make it as a freelance writer and a few leftovers from that era I still maintain, my writing has been largely hobbyist. Thus to an extent writing for myself and the few people I know read my work is enough, but I’m starting to bounce harder off the same old frustrations: even where people might read your work online, you may not know they have, so it feels like shouting into a void, and relatedly, when there’s very little subsequent discussion, it’s more difficult to think about how you might improve as a writer (which for me is one of the long-term pleasures).

    I’m thinking about winding down my blogging activities long-term and just taking up new things as a creative outlet. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done it. It would be a huge shame, as I’ve met some interesting people doing it and have spent many years writing and maintaining various sites, but once the whole process stops feeling like a conversation, what’s the point?

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  16. July 13, 2015 4:18 pm

    I mourn RSS… it’s not just that people are setting up sites that don’t use it or that people limit their RSS feeds to post heading in an effort to get you to visit their sites, it’s the transition from blogs posting maybe 10 times a week to huge websites posting more than 10 times a day.

    One website I really liked was the Dissolve, a Pitchfork-backed attempt to build a smart, high-traffic film site that dealt with a broader range of films. The Dissolve had an RSS feed but the RSS feed would produce a post almost every hour and so I would wind up ignoring most of their output as I was invariably presented with 15 uninteresting posts rather than 1 I wanted to read. Those type of sites are simply not built for RSS!

    As someone who reads Arcadian Rhythms and your personal blog, I am very grateful for your restrained and humane tone. I can’t stand most gaming sites for precisely that reason and I am now firmly of the opinion that frothing on the internet is a serious social problem as those types of angry call-outs a) don’t fucking work and b) make things much much worse for people who are already marginalised and vulnerable. I’ve been the subject of some pretty mean-spirited posts of late and I don’t give a shit but I’m not trying to build an audience or establish a good reputation.

    I can understand you thinking about giving up on blogging as there’s really not much in the way of conversation going on these days. The internet seems to make it easy for us to be at each other’s throats but useful discussions are invariably ill-suited to whichever platform you happen to be using at the time. I don’t know what the answer is and I’m not sure if there is one… I’ve been sort of looking around for another scene to write about without great success but for the moment I am happy to be, even if I am shouting into a void.

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  17. July 17, 2015 10:44 am

    Oh my, yes. Trying to keep up with even one large site via RSS is a difficult experience. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been more of an effort to improve RSS reader usability in such contexts, actually – for example, emphasising popular articles and de-emphasising others (effectively replicating social media signal boosting), allowing users to flag keywords for article emphasis or even deploying some form of basic user tracking to ‘teach’ the RSS reader the user’s preferences. But then, who is going to invest in RSS?

    It’s sadly not much more practical to have a whole bunch of sites you like bookmarked and check in on them manually. It’s just a different form of information overload, to me at least.

    To be honest knowing that you and a few other people who (regularly or semi-regularly) read my work are out there is one of the main reasons I’m still going and trying to push myself. :)

    Somewhat naively, I spent a few years thinking that if the writing on AR was fun enough, an audience would naturally grow. We did see some growth and enthusiasm in the first year or two, but after that it began to slowly deflate. I would point the finger at our lack of interest in and skill at playing the social media promotional game. Well, mostly that…

    I have no idea what answers might be out there or ahead, either. What I do know is that I’ll always be doing *something* I find interesting, and that for as long as you’re writing I’ll be reading, no matter what scene you decide to cover.

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  18. July 17, 2015 1:31 pm

    Shaun —

    I’m glad you’re not giving up quite yet, it’s always a pleasure to read your stuff!

    I’m not massively surprised that AR didn’t grow beyond the first couple of years. No reflection on the site or its content but rather on the increasing importance of selling yourself online via social media. Nobody seems to be talking about that shit!

    There was a nice interview with one of the rising stars of the genre blogosphere and he points out that aggressive self-promotion is now central to what it means to be a blogger:

    http://scflynn.com/2015/05/16/interview-with-nerds-of-a-feather/

    I remember when Twitter was becoming a thing, the debate around it was whether it was either too negative or too positive but the thing about social media is that it has appropriated existing cultural spaces and transformed them into marketplaces. It’s not just that everyone sells themselves via social media, it’s also the emerging etiquette of not stepping on someone else’s attempts to either promote themselves or enable their promotion through networking. A lot of the how-to-use-social-media style posts stress the importance of refraining from negativity lest you be seen as a downer… because downers harsh the squee, depress the mood, make it harder to sell stuff and why the hell should you expect emotional support from the people you think of as friends?

    I think in 10 years time, we’ll be thinking of social media as THE technology that brought the values of neoliberalism into the home and made it impossible to opt out of the 24 hour hustle for money and status without risking serious social and cultural isolation.

    AR’s a great site and I love the way you all approach games with your own quirks and your own agendas but it’s clear that you’re not playing the game… and why should you even have to?

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Shaun :-) I appreciate it…

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  19. July 19, 2015 11:34 am

    “I think in 10 years time, we’ll be thinking of social media as THE technology that brought the values of neoliberalism into the home and made it impossible to opt out of the 24 hour hustle for money and status without risking serious social and cultural isolation.”

    This truly invokes despair. But I don’t feel you’re wrong. We can’t crush this fast enough.

    On the blogging subject, it does feel like group blogging is a way to work together as autonomous individuals to boost the profile of a shared platform via online activity without engaging in marketing and salesmanship. But our group was never big enough, never active enough, and not varied enough in terms of friends, affinity groups etc.

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  20. July 19, 2015 4:25 pm

    Group blogging definitely helps to spread the burdens of self-promotion and it allows a nice dynamic whereby people go off and write about the stuff that interests them and then return to work on more collaborative pieces where the different sensibilities play off each other.

    AR is a really interesting case as I think the group’s shared sensibilities come across quite clearly. The podcast makes it clear that you are a group of friends with a history and there is a sense that you play off each other when you write. I found the site quite easy to get into because I have been reading your stuff for a while and that gave me an ‘in’ but I’m not sure how I would have encountered the site without ‘knowing’ you if you see what I mean…

    I suspect the blueprint for this type of site is that a group of friends go off and build their own audiences and then set up a site together and combine followings but that’s always going to be difficult when you’re not dealing with a group of established writers :-)

    I think AR has a really interesting dynamic and you do produce some really interesting things but short of everyone being a social media darling, you were always going to struggle in the social media marketplace. That’s just the nature of the attention economy really.

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  21. Rolnikov permalink
    July 19, 2015 5:51 pm

    “I can understand letting them know when a review goes live but giving them the reviews and having them re-use them is… Weird.”

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough there, it’s NetGalley who began to publish the reviews online, not the publishers.

    A fair few writers have done it, though, which always makes me wonder if they’d be happy for me to republish their novels on my site.

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  22. July 19, 2015 10:25 pm

    Good post: I didn’t blog for all that long and ended up stopping for a few reasons. Some purely practical (I struggle to put in the thinking time this sort of thing requires nowadays). Beyond that, I recognise some of what you’re talking about here.

    I was never involved in fandom until I discovered Twitter and, even then, the kind of people with whom I tend to interact are really not representative of fandom in general. But, yannow, it is a community, so you want to be involved in the conversation. So, although I wanted to read and write about whatever interested me, I did sometimes find myself reading things which, though quite often OK, I might not have chosen to read. Peer pressure isn’t necessarily bad, of course. I did make more of an effort to read books by people who aren’t dead white men and that is something I still try to consider, so not all a loss.

    But… as much as we’d like to pretend we aren’t, we’re all driven by some level of egotism. I would be lucky if twenty people read one of my posts. I’d like to think the quality of my writing wasn’t so poor that people were uninterested. And here’s the problem for me and I wonder if it isn’t the same for a lot of other folk. Where I wrote about things which were shiny and new, not enough people cared because I’m not popular. Where I wrote about stuff less widely talked about… nobody cared. [That said, I think the post which continues to get the steadiest level of hits is my one on Swastika Night and that’s probably because googling for reviews of it brings it up as one of the first blog reviews.]

    Everything being centred on the shiny and new is terrible for conversation as everyone is talking about the same shite. Worse, it’s not a conversation; it’s people standing in a room expressing exactly the same fucking opinions about the same novel then meeting the next day and doing the same thing about something different. Think back over the past few years about novels which were hyped to hell and think how many of them are fondly remembered? Very few; I’m struggling thinking about it. We were all concerned about getting content out there, regardless of the quality or the point of it.

    Thing is, for reading (or the consumption of any media*) I genuinely don’t think one has to be up to the minute. Time is limited and these things are supposed to be pleasurable hobbies. If I pop up wanting to talk about book x three years after it was released, does that matter? It’s no less new to me and it would certainly help to avoid the stultifying inanity of some review blogs or the truly shallow level of engagement genre fandom has in general.

    I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this now. I actually miss writing a wee bit and it’s something I’d like to start again, regardless of the fact probably nobody will bother to read me now, but it will at least allow me to bring some thoughts together. It would have to be slower and more considered though. Slow-blogging and alla that.

    *I was going to change this phrase, but I think it fits well with some of your points about neoliberalism and fuck that shit.

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  23. July 21, 2015 7:28 pm

    Shaun, I think it is possible to tread the line between selling your soul to social media and utilizing the discovery aspects of connection, but I think it comes down to like-minded alliances. Building a macro-community via loosely-connected sites? In your case I think of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and the way they have several go-to sources which match their agenda and style. You won’t often find them referencing, say, Kotaku or RPG Codex or Giant Bomb, but they are connected with Eurogamer or sometimes KillScreen &etc. I think it helps define their niche. And I think It’s possible to find those similar venues and reach out to them, without becoming a social media whore. Going back to building REAL relations!

    Like

  24. July 21, 2015 7:48 pm

    GC — I think this is a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other: You talk of building a macro-community based on shared interests and affinities, but how are these macro-communities to be assembled if not by courting the influential, currying favour, not rocking the boat and any number of other things that I would personally class under the ugly rubric of whoring oneself out over social media.

    It’s not the methods themselves that are unworkable, it is trying to implement those methods when you aren’t temperamentally suited to it :-)

    I’m not culturally isolated because I hate people, it’s because I lack the ambition and the desire to actively pursue group membership. I suspect that this is a function of my lived experience… I have never had much time for family and so I invariably see groups as things that are more trouble than they are ever worth. Other people with better family backgrounds may see belonging to a group as natural and desirable and so not think twice about paying the price if admission.

    I won’,t speak for Shaun but when I say I like something someone else has done, I am genuine. I don’t say it because I want them to like me or because I hope to form some kind of cultural alliance. To be honest, the relations you are talking about are the opposite of real relations… They are shadows born of ambition and convenience.

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  25. July 21, 2015 8:45 pm

    Jonathan, you make a good point, and I do understand. I personally cannot bear to look at Facebook, much less use it. But I think for someone with the drive to produce content, there is an attendant need to share. The tricky bit is to maintain one’s ‘integrity’ when it comes to what one looks to accomplish. Perhaps when I say affiliate, I mean more curating (lord, I hate the bastardization of that word!) one’s own sources and networks to the point of not engaging in whoring for whore’s sake. But it’s something I haven’t really considered very deeply. But I don’t think I made it clear that I’m not proposing organizing these macro-communities; it’s more an organic outgrowth of one’s integrity? It is something which eventually happens.

    Having now read a few of the interviews on SCy-Fy, I too can see how social media concerns have taken the lion’s share of attention from genuinely creating a voice. It’s a bit sad. Not as horrifying as trying to review from a digital copy of an ARC though. I shudder to think!

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  26. July 21, 2015 9:37 pm

    GC — In principle, yes… What you are describing is what humans do quite organically: They build communities. I’ve seen people do it without thinking, the y draw people to them and encourage them to be more than they are alone without ever taking too much or demanding things that make people uncomfortable. I have also seen people construct temples to their own vanity, fountains of venom and selfishness that flow downhill and drown those who lack the privilege of higher ground.

    I feel the urge to produce and this blog suggests that I also feel the instinct to share as well but I would rather not spend my time trying to convince and cajole people into reading what I write. You are right that participating in one of these poolings of energy makes it easy to be noticed but the ugly pools grossly outnumber the pretty ones and neoliberalism is the biggest and ugliest pool there is.

    Some people find that process easy and I envy them but my experience with these types of groups is unswervingly negative. Negative enough that I am instinctively distrustful of all of them.

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  27. July 22, 2015 4:44 am

    Jonathan, I’d say it then becomes the age-old question of audience, then. AN audience is good; the RIGHT audience is better, and an ENGAGED audience is best. Perhaps the problem arises when a scattershot, any-eyes-are-good-eyes approach is taken? Unfortunately, this is often the default mode of social media, which for all its ‘social’ trappings are anything but refined. Too many shouting chambers, too many stumps to stand upon, and far too many horrible people propping one another up. I can hardly mention the Gallo situation, or the various Puppies or -Gates without my bile rising… but to be fair, I cannot quite see the linkage you make with neoliberalism? But then, there are quite a number of threads here to unpack.

    I honestly mourn the decline of intelligent blogs, bloggers with genuine voices, and the broader discussion which resulted. I wonder if another facet of it is to do with intellectual burn-out? We talk about reader attention being affected by the social media landscape, but what about the creative side? I’m not a blogger or freelancer or social media darling, so I couldn’t say, but I can’t imagine it being easy to produce for such a climate.

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  28. July 22, 2015 6:53 am

    GC — The difference between classic al liberalism and neoliberalism is thought to be that neoliberalism recognises no spheres of human undertaking that are not subject to market forces. So while your Victorian liberals would argue that industry should be governed by the market rather than a planned economy, they would never have thought to apply the logic of the market to one’s social life or leisure activities and that is what we are talking about here. You even talk about reaching people in terms similar to that of a business plan.

    I think genre culture and the genre blogosphere has seen a complete erosion of trust over the past few years. Trust is important as you can’t really have a conversation without trusting that your words will be understood and taken in good faith. Individual blogs may continue to exist but they don’t talk to each other in public anymore because people are terrified that they’ll say something only to have it taken out of context and used against them in anger by someone looking to drum up some attention in themselves.

    Trust seeped away quietly… It wasn’t just direct call-outs but the way those call-outs would split groups by encouraging people to come down on one side or another. Worldcon sets itself alight over Jonathan Ross? The house will divide! Self-promotion is turning all social spaces into advertising hoardings? The house will divide! Resquireshate thinks that she should be able to walk away from a history of messed up shit by creating a new persona? The house will divide! Puppies vs. SJWs? The house will divide!

    It’s not just that I might not want to engage with you because you call me a racist on dubious grounds or that you don’t want to engage with me because you think that I am a racist, it’s that someone who shares my opinions thinks ‘blimey… Better keep my mouth shut lest I be called a racist’ and that I see that person months later talking to you and knowing that they watched you roll over me and not only said nothing but continued to be your friend.

    I don’t think intellectual burnout has much to do with it… This is affective burn-out and the realisation that genre culture is not a place where you can express your opinions in public and it is not a place where your emotional investments in other people are likely to prove wise.

    I maintain my Future Interrupted column because I enjoy writing it and the editor seems happy with what I produce but I won’t write genre criticism again or produce any more fan-writing about the stuff that interests the community. It is not worth the hassle and the unpleasantness.

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  29. July 22, 2015 7:51 am

    Ahhhh! Well I only have tangential knowledge of the genre spheres, but even I can see the rot taking hold. It is a rather pointed turn-off, to be honest. While I like genre, I have zero interest in engaging such a poisoned community. Perhaps people ought to consider how barriers are being thrown up against people like me. And enact some changes. Alas, that will never happen.

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  30. July 22, 2015 7:55 am

    Yeah… There was a website serving as a clearing house for all of the careerist posturing and narcissistic grandstanding as and I once got linked within a post the bloke happened to quote… I got like 40 or 50 visitors from that passing mention. Now why would anyone want to stop playing to the gallery when there’s that much traffic to be had? I agree with you, the whole thing made me completely sick.

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  31. July 22, 2015 8:41 am

    Seems a very tiny pond, to be tainting with so much piss and vinegar.

    Going back to your original post, I’ll admit in my darkest hours that society seems to have outgrown the very existence of criticism of any meaningful sort. Not that it has been more than a niche interest for decades! Yet stepping back to observe from afar, I’d say there are alarming trends in effect which have reduced criticism to a mere footnote within modern culture.

    There’s something to be said for the waning attention of consumers, even including the penchant for terming them consumers! Music, film, books, art…in every field, the new holds the spotlight, with little regard for what came before. And while there will always be ‘geeks’ who will discuss the influence of, say, Townes Van Zandt on the Avett Brothers, most people are content with ignorance.

    But in the current cultural climate, we have content aggregators and people slapping together lists and calling themselves curators. We have so-called book bloggers who paste press releases and post book covers and call it meaningful. We have Tumblr memes and more cats than ANY sane person can handle.

    And very little is meaningful.

    Culture has turned cheap. But still, I do love it as much as the next person. I just aim for a bit deeper engagement with the culture I love.

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  32. July 23, 2015 8:54 pm

    Thanks for mentioning my blog and interview series, Jonathan; I am very pleased. I only just noticed your post because I have had only limitied access to the internet while moving house – moving countries, actually!

    Once I have sorted out my new life, I will be posting some thoughts and analysis of the interview series, to try and assess what all that raw material has to tell us. You have already done that very well in this article, but 102 interviews with genre people must have even more to say…

    Like

  33. July 23, 2015 8:56 pm

    It’s a fantastic resource SC :-) Thanks for maintaining it.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. July 23, 2015 9:07 pm

    Reblogged this on SCy-Fy: the blog of S. C. Flynn and commented:
    Critic Jonathan McCalmont refers to my series of interviews with genre people in this piece that takes a serious look at reviewing and social media.

    Like

  35. July 28, 2015 5:54 pm

    “It wasn’t just direct call-outs but the way those call-outs would split groups by encouraging people to come down on one side or another.”

    It is not just this, I think. There seems to be a very broad trend of people giving up trying to talk with those whose opinions differ on some hot-button subject or another, and instead try to cut that person out of their life entirely. I’m reminded of this piece from late last year which sums up how frustrating and unhelpful such an attitude can be:

    http://www.spectraspeaks.com/2014/11/dear-white-allies-stop-unfriending-white-people-ferguson/

    It’s another facet of the increasingly absolutist, line-drawing, take-a-stand posturing we see with social media, but it’s striking when you see it on social media that is much more about actual friendships. A few months back I saw a lot of Facebook friends extolling the act of unfriending UKIPpers or Tories as if they’d just taken a brave, principled stand, for example. And I appreciate that people might not want to constantly feel exhausted by arguing over their political opinions, but I also don’t see how ‘unfriending’ someone is supposed to make them take a long, hard look at their beliefs and opinions and reconsider them. Rather, it’s a childish or defeated disengagement from debate, a simple washing of hands.

    “I found the site quite easy to get into because I have been reading your stuff for a while and that gave me an ‘in’ but I’m not sure how I would have encountered the site without ‘knowing’ you if you see what I mean…”

    That is a good point. Certainly none of us set out to seem cliquey in any way, but we are idiosyncratic individuals and we have very much come to riff off one another.

    @GC – I’ve not really much to add to your discussion re. affinity & group blogs as it’s already pretty much played out, but I would add that RPS has always been a commercial endeavour, backed by a huge existing readership thanks to its four founding writers’ background. Quite different from the little site I run!

    It’s a little like comparing a local band selling a record digitally on Bandcamp with Radiohead releasing an album for £donations and extolling their subsequent success evidence for the future of digital. ;) There are differences of scale, existing audience and as Jonathan has ably pointed out, intent. :)

    Like

  36. July 28, 2015 8:55 pm

    I think the fact that we can so easily carve people out if our lives suggests that these relationships were never all that profound or rewarding to start with. Communities are places where the disappearance of individuals are noticed, commented upon and regretted. I’m reminded of that line from that old DK song: “when someone falls are there any friends?”

    Like

  37. PhilRM permalink
    July 28, 2015 9:42 pm

    Jonathan, I just want to say that I’ve been enjoying your Future Interrupted column immensely and I hope you continue with it.

    Like

  38. July 28, 2015 9:44 pm

    Hi Phil :-) Thanks very much! I don’t think I’ve been sacked yet and I am still enjoying writing them so no plans to stop anytime soon.

    Like

  39. Shaun CG permalink
    July 29, 2015 5:27 pm

    I see where you’re coming from Jonathan, absolutely. I don’t think I wholly agree but it occurs to me that I’m drifting off on quite a tangent from the original subject area, so I think I’ll drop it. ;)

    Like

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