My thoughts on recent developments in the romance community. Warning: Very long post.
Many romance readers will still be reeling from the news that Jane Litte, one of the most — if not the most — prominent romance novel reviewers is also a successful author. There are a lot of issues to unpack, so fair warning: this post will be long.
My initial reaction to the news was…less surprised than I should have been, and more generous than one might have expected. Let me explain.
It doesn’t bother me that a reader-blogger is also an author. It’s a fairly common phenomenon, and a social-media-fied version of the ‘I love reading romance books, so I thought I’d try writing one myself.’ I was surprised that Jane managed to keep it secret for so long. The temptation to display one’s achievements is pretty strong. (At least, I think it is; it could just be me.)
But I know that not everyone is comfortable with the concept of separate personas. (I’d like to think I am, at least insofar as the communities in which I participate, both online and in real life.) I also know this would be very problematic for many people who consider Dear Author a vital part of the reading community. I’m therefore amazed that the conversations about the issues stemming from Jane’s decision to keep her author persona a secret are so measured.
The sound of silence
This issue has highlighted to me the fact that we do, in fact, have romance community…well, oligarchies, I suppose. That’s not really the right term, but they’re basically influential people around whom most readers congregate for news, discussion and commentary. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, except when those people are also all friends.
For example, Sarah Wendell, whom I would have expected in any other circumstance to have a post up on the same day commenting on this latest news, was conspicuously silent. I understand this: she and Jane are friends. There’s really no way for Sarah to comment without people questioning her ability to not be biased. But this leaves two of the biggest romance blogs unavailable to talk about exactly the kinds of issues that, ordinarily, would have us flocking to them for some brutally honest discussions. And I say this as someone who considers Sarah a friend (hopefully this is mutual and I’m not creepy Australian stalker fan to her — I’d like to think she eats my Tim Tams).
And before you ask, I have no idea if Sarah knew about Jen Frederick or not. That’s not the point.
(I wrote this last night, and since then Sarah has posted about this topic on Smart Bitches. I’m so glad she did, and I can see it was a really tough call for her to make on how to approach the subject, and I’m actually quite heartened by the post. Sarah also touches on the conflict of interest and disclosure issues she faced in the past.)
As a consequence, the discussion of something quite important to romance readers is fragmented because there are few blogs that can match the reach and influence of Dear Author and Smart Bitches. Wendy posted her thoughts, which has led to some interesting discussions in the comments. Ceilidhann posted a thoughtful reflection on the issues this has raised. But still — these are fairly restrained reactions.
Even on Twitter, the response is notably muted. I expected my Twitter stream to be filled with comments all day Wednesday, yet I had to actively search for any negative commentary on Jane’s actions. I don’t think Jane intended for this to happen, but it’s what happened.
It’s entirely possible — even probable — of course, that I just need more diversity in my Twitter feed. I’ll certainly be working on that. It’s also very likely that this was such a shock to Dear Author readers that it’s taking a few days to sink in and articulate our reactions (this certainly applies to me). Still, I can’t help but think about what it means that we’re taking so much time to reflect now, when perhaps we wouldn’t have done so in other circumstances.
The mythical spaces for authors and readers
If I were to guess the most troubling aspect, for readers and authors, of Jane’s dual roles, it’s probably the encroachment on author and reader spaces. This is something Dear Author has aggressively defended over the years — that authors are guests in reader spaces and thus ought not be seen as silencing reader voices.
Jane must have realised how problematic this would be for Dear Author’s readership when they eventually found out about Jen Frederick (whether now, two years ago, or ten years from now). Personally, based on what I’ve observed over the years, I’m pretty comfortable with my opinion that Jane is able to keep her blogger/reader hat separate from her author hat. But that’s my opinion, and it won’t be everyone’s opinion.
Even with the assurance that Jane the Blogger and Jen the Author can interact with readers in distinct ways, it’s not unreasonable for readers to expect that when an author interacts with them, they know that they’re in an author-reader conversation. As bloggers have pointed out many times in the past, there’s an inherent imbalance of power when authors interact with readers, and awareness of this imbalance partly frames any author/reader discussion. (I personally have argued against a black-and-white presentation of the power imbalance, because I think when we’re talking about readers with huge social platforms, like Dear Author, then the power differential isn’t always so clear-cut.) Many readers are understandably upset because they feel like they have been duped in these interactions.
I didn’t immediately think about author reactions to this news, because I guess I just assumed they would fall into two broad camps: those concerned with the ethics of disclosure — for example, Courtney Milan’s tweets:
— Courtney Milan (@courtneymilan) March 24, 2015
On the other hand, I think that failing to disclose that you've reviewed books for someone who PUBLISHES you is pretty serious.
— Courtney Milan (@courtneymilan) March 24, 2015
— and those who basically dislike Jane already and will use Jane/Jen as proof of whatever behaviour they want to accuse Jane of.
But then I read this post on The Passive Voice (via willaful’s comment on Wendy’s post), and I was a little horrified, to be honest. Again, let me preface this by saying I don’t even think Jane was trying to be malicious. I’m willing to assume that Jane/Jen was in author loops to learn about the craft and business side of writing and self-publishing. I also acknowledge that TPV hasn’t always been a neutral commentator with respect to Dear Author, and that the quote below is an anonymous one. Still, I think authors have reason to be upset (emphases mine):
Firstly, reviews are sacrosanct. Reviewers are sacrosanct. We are told on a daily basis, as authors, that we are not allowed to respond to reviews publicly…
I make sure that, if I vent at all about anything industry or book related, I vent to trusted friends and colleagues and in loops with other authors. In those private loops (and yes, I’m aware nothing online is ever truly private) likeminded authors speak more freely. Because you have to understand, we don’t have an after work softball team, or a water cooler, or a birthday cake for Sally on Tuesday where we get to bitch about old Mr. Jennings and how he’s really busting our hump at work that day.
We just have each other and those loops. Most of us never see another author face to face more than once or twice in a given year, if that.
Imagine my surprise, then, to realize that Jane is on more than one of these loops with me as Jen Frederick. I find myself…not okay with that. Not because I’m ashamed by anything I’ve said, but because I even have to sit here and worry about it. And I’m feeling even sicker for the authors who thought they were in a place that was safe to share certain things and did so who would NOT have done so had they known Jane was present. Do I believe Jane would or has intentionally retaliated against these authors if they said something negatively about her site, her books, her writing partner, or the EC case or any myriad of things? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like a violation.
This, above all the other issues, bothers me the most. I think we’re all aware that many (most?) authors can’t separate themselves from their work. So most bloggers who are willing to criticise books do so with the knowledge (I think? I hope? I assume!) that some authors will probably dislike us intensely because of it. As a blogger, the corollary of this is that I need to allow authors to not engage with me.
The incestuous relationships in literary culture
I want to step back a little and talk about the fact that we in romance, at least in the community that Dear Author helped build, hold our reviewers and authors to a higher standard than many other blogs and even, I would argue, than people who actually move in literary circles. Perhaps it’s because the literary scene in Australia is so small, but the kinds of conflicts of interest raised by Jane/Jen’s lack of disclosure — reviewing a book by Berkeley, reporting on Amazon news, not excluding her books from Dear Author lists — seems quite minor compared with what actually goes on in the business of books. I mean, I think that’s the reality of it.
And I love that in romance we try to set a higher standard. I love that we can love what Dear Author has done, and what Jane has achieved, and still be critical of this particular thing. But the ethical questions being raised here are questions that remain murky in the literary world, and especially in a literary world where the relationship between reader and author is increasingly disintermediated.
I feel this every time I go to an event where I interact socially with authors. It’s really difficult to say hello to authors and have to do a quick mental recap of every review I’ve ever done and figure out if maybe the author would actually prefer that I just go away. Eventually, I had to stop doing it. My current strategy is try never to bring up reviewing unless the author introduces the topic, and even then, it’s almost always super awkward. Twitter has actually been great, because I can introduce myself via my Twitter handle, and sidestep the issue of reviewing altogether. (Even though I know we’re both probably thinking about it.)
Paradoxically, perhaps, I think this incestuousness, this blurring of relationships, is why it’s so vitally important that we encourage author reviewers. It’s also why I’m not a huge fan of the no-exceptions approach to reader/author spaces. At the end of the day, it’s just really impractical. And for me, the solution is to make critical reviews so commonplace, so well accepted in romance, that no one bats an eye at snarky Goodreads shelves, or 1-star ratings.
Interestingly, we went through a similar but opposite dilemma just over a year ago in Australia. The Saturday Paper decided that all its book reviews would be pseudonymous. Reviewers would be identified by initials (not reflective of their names or author pseudonyms). This caused a furore in the literary community, to a degree that surprised me, because I come from an online tradition that starts with anonymity, which develops into pseudonymity…and then maybe sheds it along the way (or not).
If you’re interested in these perspectives, you can find some thoughtful pieces here:
- Interview with The Saturday Paper editor (audio) – ‘It’s not the bad reviews I’m worried about. It’s the good reviews that shouldn’t be good reviews.’
- No Baggage or False Freedoms? On Anonymous Book Reviews
- Anonymous book reviews don’t foster our literary culture
- Who wrote this crap?
Some random thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else
Look, honestly? I think Jane tried to do the best she could when faced with difficult choices. I’m comfortable with my assumption that Jane is capable of segregating her blogger, author and entrepreneur selves at Dear Author. I’m also comfortable with my assumption that Jane never set out to be in author spaces for the purposes of eavesdropping on conversations, or to somehow use information from those spaces for her blog posts. I give Jane every benefit of doubt, frankly. That’s how much trust she has earned from me over the years.
I find some of the more OTT accusations pretty silly, but then I often feel that way about romance brouhahas, which is why I’m rarely moved to comment on them in detail. Do I think reviewing a book for Berkeley was affected by the film option? Absolutely not. Listen, it didn’t even occur to me to disclose my affiliation with Penguin (for the Heart to Heart podcast) when I was reviewing their books until I had to review one by an author I had interviewed on the podcast. Then the lightbulb went on. I don’t think it affected my review. And if I felt it would affect my review, I almost always end up just not writing the review at all. I wear a different hat when I’m working on the podcast.
Similarly, I edit the Romance Buzz for Booktopia. Every month, I mull over my obligation to Booktopia, to Book Thingo, and to authors and readers. It really is murky in real life. Disclosure helps, yes. But in each space, I have a different function. At Book Thingo, I try to be as candid and as passionate as possible about the books I do or don’t love. At Booktopia, that’s not my role. My role is to find the books that I think the newsletter’s subscribers will love. Literally, it’s not about me. Does that mean my reviews in the Romance Buzz are less legitimate? I don’t think so. But I also think that this difference is fairly clear to readers here and readers there.
I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but in Australia — at least among romance publishers — all the interactions I have ever had with publishers, editors, publicists, agents, and booksellers have been nothing but professional. Every single one. These folks have worked with far more difficult and critical reviewers than I will ever be. And they’re pretty generous, considering most Australian blogs are relatively tiny.
As for featuring on Daily Deals lists and KatiD’s Best Of list, I honestly don’t care as long as no one was coerced or cajoled to include the titles. I also don’t know that KatiD even knew about Jane/Jen. Based on what I’ve heard, and this post by willaful, it doesn’t sound like all the Dear Author bloggers knew about it until just before Jane made the information public.
I also don’t have any issue with my donation to Jane’s legal defence fund. You know the stuff we see on Courtney and Deirdre’s blogs? That’s the stuff that made it to court. I can’t even begin to guess the shenanigans happening off the record. People who think Jane is profiting from that fund likely have never had to face litigation. And I also still do believe that this case has wider implications for bloggers, and that hasn’t changed just because Jane turns out to also be an author.
Again, I’m personally not fussed about Jen Frederick ads on Dear Author, or sponsoring a DABWAHA prize under her name. I don’t read any malice or harm in either of those actions. Did Jen’s ads prevent some other advertiser being on Dear Author? Doubtful. That would have been ad revenue lost to Dear Author. And even if it did, is it a big deal? Not to me.
And finally, I don’t believe Jane posted about killing the historical in order to promote her new adult book. There’s probably some merit to the argument that immersing herself in the new adult world (because she was writing it) meant that Jane had a bias for the genre. But again, I don’t really find this problematic. I don’t actually think she can kill the historical, and the net positive of promoting new adult benefited other authors, too. You can’t point a finger at that post and tell me it made a significant contribution into making Jen Frederick’s book such a success.
And yes, this is my opinion. YMMV.
Fundamentally, bloggers — and particularly those who review products — amass social capital through reader trust. Jane has done a lot over the years to gain our trust, but in concealing her identity as an author and casting doubt on which role she was playing in which spaces — regardless of intention, and again I stress that I personally don’t feel she intended harm or malice — I feel she eroded not only some of the trust she has earned, but also some of the goodwill that readers extend to blogger-reviewers in general, especially those of us who weave in and out of those spaces ourselves.
I don’t take Jane’s actions personally. I’m even awed by her success. But that’s me as an individual, reacting to her accomplishments as an individual. The part of me that recognises that the romance community is an essential part of why I enjoy blogging and tweeting is well aware that things are Not Okay. I’m saddened that this thing has caused anguish among fellow readers.
I’m disturbed to hear of readers who have a relationship with Jane feeling it would be counterproductive to defend her actions. I’m disturbed that authors upset because they may have inadvertently said something that they feel could affect how readers view them might fear that speaking out will get them tagged as Authors Behaving Badly. (Whether or not this is true isn’t the issue — it’s that these authors feel vulnerable even though they did these things in author spaces.) Olivia Waite summed it up well, I think:
I’m not angry that Jane Litte is Jen Frederick. I’m not angry that her books are doing well. I AM angry that I’m expected to be uncritically happy about this news, though, if I want to be seen as nice.
All this speaks to a silencing of certain voices in our community. At the very least it speaks to people feeling unable to express their concerns. I don’t believe this is something Jane intended to do, but it’s what is happening. And it’s not something that makes our community better.
A no doubt incomplete round-up of blogger and author reactions, ranging from the supportive to the cynical:
- Ceilidhann at Bibliodaze — Much more succinct than me
- Azteclady at Her Hands, My Hands — Breaks down all the issues, with links (she is much more diligent than I am)
- Wendy at The Misadventures of Super Librarian — On why this thing looks squirky
- Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books — On Sarah’s own dilemmas arising from Jane/Jen, and some really robust discussions in the (very lengthy) comments
- Meoskop at Genre Baby — Reflections on subtle changes at Dear Author
- Deirdre Saoirse Moen (author) — A good reflection on possible issues related to the Ellora’s Cave lawsuit and Jane’s legal defence fund
- Olivia Waite (author) — Articulates the underlying issue after Jane/Jen’s disclosure: ‘Where do readers go now?’
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