I’ve come to the rather uncomfortable realisation that I am the kind of person best kept away from forums, those online debating arenas where everyone gets to add their opinion to the hottest thread of the day. I thought that the only place I ever became even faintly aggressive was behind the wheel of a car (and the desire not to endanger myself or anyone else on the road provides merciful boundaries to that tendency). But alas, over the past week or so it has been forcibly borne in on me that the Litlove you know as a moderate, polite and restrained force in the blogosphere only has to have a whiff of a forum to turn over to the dark side. It’s most distressing.
As ever the trouble lies with the authonomy site, the UK-publisher run site that invites would-be writers to post their work online for peer review. I said ages ago I wasn’t that keen on the site and wanted to take my work off of it, but I’d left it there so that my agent could see the comments. And what with my agent being busy and then on holiday and then just absent in agent Shangri-la, it’s languished there for months now. But just recently the addition of forums was announced and I found myself thinking, oh goody, a bit of action. Initially they were quite fascinating in an anthropological sort of way. I’ve come to the conclusion that writers form a group of people who really, really should not hang out together. It’s the equivalent of a masochists’ convention, in that the element that would really make the party go with a swing is notable for its absence. Writers need to hang out with people who want to read books or publish books or sell books. They ought to spend time with people who are talented at criticism or generous with genuine and disinterested praise. Writers together are less than the sum of their parts; there is bragging, and cynicism and shameless self-publicity and all sorts of unpleasant antler-bashing. There are plenty of nice people there, too, only they seem outweighed by the disreputable element. It’s an inevitable problem of a solitary, creative occupation that has become dogged with competitiveness but has no objective judging system to fall back on.
What I’m most ashamed to admit is that I’ve been right in there on the side of the godzillas. It began with a thread suggesting that reviews should be accompanied by numerical scores. Well, like that’s going to help anyone. I got fed up reading about points for plot and character development and could not resist saying that this would not work for non-fiction which was already marginalized enough at the site. So okay, that one wasn’t too awful, but I was just warming up. Then some bloke made the grave misjudgement in a thread on blogging of coming over all superior. He followed Miss Snark’s advice, he declared, that writers shouldn’t take up blogs, but should revise more instead. Still, he took a break and read a blog from time to time because, and I quote, ‘where else can one write for the world, but remain unread, and undisturbed by grammar, bad punctuation, schoolboy howlers, or rewrites?’ Bad move. With the disembodied force of the possessed, my fingers were typing a reply that told this person it was lazy to take a swipe at blogs when there were so many high quality ones out there. I listed some. For good measure I added that his line was a tired old cliché that was tedious to those of us who knew what good writing was available online. Oh I know it was a sense of humour failure on my part, but it’s not funny when I have many blogging friends whose work I respect and who provide a far humbler, far more helpful community than authonomy does. But really, to think that I called a man I have never even met ‘lazy’. To what depths was I beginning to stoop?
So, as soft drugs lead to hard drugs, the crunch came when I read a thread that questioned how, and indeed whether, the ‘best’ work would be identified in the avalanche of authonomy text. I doubt this myself, but inevitably the discussion was peppered with paranoia that the publishing industry was wholly corrupt, and in the grip of celebrities, and unless you knew people you could never break into it. This is a line that also irritates me beyond reason; the publishing industry has lost a significant part of its integrity due to the onslaught of capitalism, like every other industry in the Western world, but it is not a closed shop. Well, the demon was within now, and if I could claim momentary black-out I would, but alas, fully conscious, I wrote that I knew no one in the commercial publishing industry but had nevertheless found an agent by the usual route of sending work around. Now this is bad, this is below the standards of behaviour I set for myself because, given the context, it amounts to covert boasting and I’ve not been impressed by other people mentioning their agent this, their agent that in order to make themselves look important. In my experience such statements lead to being hoist by one’s own petard or, in other words, swift karmic retribution. I expect to be ditched by my agent any day now. And even worse than that, I’ll have brought it on myself by becoming one of those self-serving narky types I most dislike.
‘Well,’ said my husband. ‘If this is what it does to you, who self-censors so much and have all kinds of strict standards, you can see why most forum sites descend into endless flame throwing.’ Oh indeed I can. It makes me think of the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein who had a particular interest in the irrevocably dark areas of the soul. Klein’s theories suggested that whilst as adults we all end up with reasonable, rationalising sides, this in no way diminishes the childish negativity that romps within. So, for instance, if you meet a friend in the street who starts to tell you all about the wonderful party he threw the previous evening, one half of you will be saying, oh okay, so I didn’t get invited but never mind, I haven’t invited him to anything much recently and perhaps he had a particular group of people he wanted to get together. But another voice will simultaneously be saying, why? Why? Am I not good enough for him anymore? Doesn’t he like me? How dare he throw a party and not invite me, one of his oldest and dearest friends? And I wonder whether the forum, in its invitation to a swift, ill-considered response, cloaked in semi-anonymity risks drawing out the Kleinian in us all. All I know is that if I see another forum looming on the virtual horizon, I’ll be navigating away from it towards the calmer, more civilised waters of the blog world, where I have thankfully yet to leave a comment that made me blush in recollection.