At the RT booksigning on Saturday, someone came up to meet me. I absolutely love putting faces to names that I read online. When this very kind and interesting person left, she said, “Thank you for being honest.”
I loved that. I so appreciate when people let me know that they enjoy the site, and I love how she put it: “Being honest.” There’s no implication of acceptance or even of agreement with what I say. But there is acknowledgment of honesty, and its value.
At the panel Jane and I gave Thursday about blogging, I said that any person who participates online has to understand that internet marketing is not a zero-sum game. There isn’t a winner/loser relationship in marketing online. Using some buzzwords, online public relationships are horizontal in nature, and so is the marketing. You can’t beat someone else because there’s no time limit or goal to be reached in online community establishment. Horizontal marketing creates a collaborative community of group success.
Jaye Wells put it better when she hand-sold a copy of my book to someone who had stopped to meet her (Thank you Jaye): “Any book that sells is good for all of us.” Amen to that.
When you’re talking about blogs, though, you’re not talking about selling a product. Blogs like mine or Dear Author or Romancing the Blog or Ramblings About Romance or any of us are about the community and about the experience of interacting with that community. Kassia Krozser called us online blog reviewers “Curators” recently, and I have to say, even with the pretentious museum undertones, I really like that word. But even within our own sites, we’re part of the larger network of romance blogs. We’re not trying to sell you anything except the opportunity for conversation, which, except for the cost of your internet connection, is free. If you buy a book we recommend, great! If you didn’t like it and want to explain why? EVEN BETTER!
Moreover, since hard sell techniques don’t work online, authenticity and generosity are our currency. Consistency, in content and in boundaries, is part of what builds the community. Hard-sell tactics and competition do not work.
Take Jane and Dear Author and our working relationship. Dear Author is probably our biggest competitor, and our audiences overlap a great deal. We do similar things, but not the same things, and our voices and our content are definitely distinct. But I can’t go to Jane’s site and say to her readers, “You shouldn’t read her! You should read us!” I can’t steal readers from Dear Author any more than they could swipe readers from me. We can’t beat one another in some online competition, because, frankly, there isn’t one.
If we disagree, we disagree. It’s not like lines are drawn in the sand and in order to be a true and recognized member of their community you have to swear not to read Smart Bitches, or vice versa.
But if we work together every now and again, we increase both our audiences. We strengthen what each of our sites can accomplish. We definitely do not always agree, but we can work together, simply because “I disagree with you” does not automatically mean, “I don’t like you.”
The thing is, I thought this was obvious. Anyone who conducts themselves online has to have seen the collaborative success concept in action, and even unknowingly practiced horizontal marketing. I figured that in the fractious but largely functional online romance community, even those of us who disagree most frequently would be able to work together for the simple point that in essence, we’re all doing the same thing with the same goal: creating community based on common love of romance novels.
Which is why Michelle Buonfiglio’s comments at the close of the Princeton University “Love as the Practice of Freedom?” conference were so confusing, asinine, and terribly, insultingly wrong.
The foundation of the conference was one of inclusion: academic institutions should steadfastly welcome scholarship on romance novels and view the analysis and critical attention as equal to the professional projects in any other field when it comes to tenure, promotion and professional advancement.
Basically, the conference existed in part to give an appropriate platform to those scholars so as to help legitimize the scholarship they’ve conducted already. And given the amazing things I heard, the sooner they are recognized for their contributions, both to academic study and to the romance genre, the better for everyone.
Increased collaboration from every direction can only yield greater improvement for the collaborating bodies. The more people on the platform, the greater the strength of the platform itself.
(Are you smelling a theme, here?)
Seeing Buonfiglio’s use of that collaborative platform for self-promotion by way of denigrating other bloggers, and I felt myself unmistakably included in her tirade, was utterly inappropriate. She herself perpetrated exactly what the conference itself was against: an insistence there should be selective attention paid only to those who are defined as acceptable using inconsistent and defective standards, leaving anyone deemed inadmissible and nonconforming outside of the accepted boundaries:
When those who gather romance communities nurture heat, they invite and instigate their viewers to reactionary, inflammatory commentary that doesn’t just ‘feel bad’ to a lot of people, it literally reduces the commentary’s relevance….
Translation: if you’re not saying something nice, you’re not and should not be relevant. In essence, she argued against the freedom the conference was celebrating. I was not feeling the love.
I did ask Buonfiglio personally via email why she attacked me, and in her reply she said that she did not, that her comments were not about me. When I asked for clarity as to which community she was talking about in her presentation, I received none. When I asked permission to post a portion of her reply here, she said no. Even with that partial reassurance, I remain unconvinced that her comments were not meant to address me or the community at Smart Bitches, and because her diatribe is not specific and therefore includes all the communities online, I find no other option than to reply in this venue. Buonfiglio’s decision to label and dismiss communities as a whole without specific identification requires a response.
I’m irritated to be writing this in the first place, because the flaws of her statement seem so obvious, and because it detracts from the amazing work and absolutely stellar job that Professors Gleason and Selinger did in assembling the sessions and collecting this group of individuals to address one another. The most telling indication that something amazing was happening was that as students from Princeton joined the group, none of them left. In one case, they left, came back and brought more people with them. It was, to use a cliched term, electric.
Originally, I hadn’t planned on saying much about Buonfiglio’s rage against the undefined meangirls, even though the experience of sitting next to a diatribe against a community I’m proud of from a person I’ve never had a negative conversation with was not one I wish to repeat. Her behavior, and her decision to post the whole of her speech on her site, speaks for itself. More than one person noticed the possibility that the remarks were addressed to me, or to Dear Author, even as she was speaking.
Ironically, her ranting against tempests creates one, one that detracts from the real illumination of that conference: the scholarship of incredibly dedicated and holy crapping damn smart people focused on the genre that we love.
What I can’t quite comprehend is the idea that only some communities are valid, and that others, for reasons of behavior or topics discussed, are not worthy of study. And that the researchers in the room should be careful of what they look at lest they look at the wrong thing. Isn’t that what department chairs and tenure review committees say when someone appears before them with a lengthy list of scholarly articles and conference presentations that examine romance novels? That those scholars wasted their time on the wrong subject?
I personally don’t give a flying crap what is said about me. Really, if you don’t like me because of the website or because of something I’ve said, I’d like to hear your opinion and welcome the dialogue with you. But I absolutely will not stand for any slur or dismissal or calls for marginalization of the community of readers who come to Smart Bitches or any other romance site. Our site isn’t about me or Candy; it’s about our community, and the people who frequent our discussions as commenters or as lurkers are the most valuable element of our site.
The truth is, if anyone is to be marginalized, I don’t think it will be any of the communities of readers that exist online. And it absolutely shouldn’t be the people who spoke before she did. The argument Buonfiglio introduced is tired and outdated and rests on antiquated stereotypes that are still too prevalent in the romance community. The pressure to conform and to deliver palliative reassurance without criticism, or even justifiable anger, is not progress. And it sure as hell isn’t freedom.
Ms. Buonfiglio, I think you are incorrect in your assessment of online communities, and your behavior was embarrassing for me and for all of us who spend our time engaging with romance readers online. Moreover, your conduct was all the more deplorable for the setting in which you chose to introduce your opinion. However, I thank you for being honest.
Now, then. Let’s look at the good stuff.