Killer Forums

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.


31 thoughts on “Killer Forums

  1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ve done anything all that bad — especially where the blogging comment was concerned. I can empathise, though. You clearly set standards for yourself that really mean something and, yes, if there is one place that they are likely to slip, it’s in a forum. I had problems of this kind myself many moons ago. I became something of a forum “star” for a while, noted with a group of others, friends, I thought, as an acerbic wit… great fun until I sat back and realised that the people I considered friends were doing the very thing that I did to someone I really liked and, worst of all, I very nearly got drawn into the feeding frenzy. Thankfully, I stopped myself just in time and made a bit of a stand. I lost a few “friends”, but boy did I feel a whole lot better about myself.

  2. Gary – you are making me feel better on all levels – thank you! It is so easy, isn’t it, to get carried away with some compelling point and only afterwards see the complex reality of the people putting forward the argument. Good on you for making a stand – the integrity is always worth it.

  3. I saw your comment on Authonomy regarding blogging, and thought that you put your point across well.

    As for the other thread–the one full of paranoia about the publishing industry–I’ve not read it, and will try not to. That sort of nonsense drives me up the wall! It’s so ill-informed, and usually comes from people who don’t want to admit that their work is not good enough to be published, and who are desperate to find an excuse to let their lack of talent off the hook.

    I’ve been involved in all sorts of message-board nonsense over the years, because when I see misinformation being posted I have to wade in and correct it. I’m not sure it does any good, which is why I’ve now started my blog (and thanks, by the way, for linking to it–much appreciated). Sadly, there’s a certain sort of forum member who would rather believe in unfounded conspiracy theories dreamed up by the Great Unpublished than listen to someone with a couple of decades’ experience of the publishing industry, years of direct editing experience, and several published books behind them.


  4. It’s very easy, indeed. I must admit, I’m still inclined to debate quite forcefully, on occasion — and I’m fond of, shall we say, the more satirical approach (though I use it sparingly!) — but I always try to bear in mind something a friend once told me. “Remember,” he said, “those are real people out there.” Very simple advice, and yet extremely relevant.

    I’m enjoying your blog, incidentally. I’ve been lurking for some time — ever since Archie suggested I drop by. Keep up the good work, and try not to be too hard on yourself.

  5. I must admit to having involved myself heavily in the cut and thrust of Usenet misbehaviour. While there were some real people there, they could be identified easily and left alone. The remainder – the ones spoiling for a fight – were fair game and, to be honest, a lot of childish fun. I even collected some of the best “flames” I came across ( ). Forums are slightly more polite and blogging is damnably civilized. Although I am becoming embroiled in some of the Creationist/Atheist blogs and I can feel the old habits resurfacing 🙂

    I sometimes wish I could self-censor like you.

  6. Oh Litlove, you are funny! I can see you wading in there, correcting people. I have spent about four and a half minutes on the authonomy forum, which is long enough. What I did enjoy was the thread where people confessed to having blogs, so I went and read those. I found some interesting links on Jane’s blog (above).

    I think, like you, I’m going to go ahead and ignore the forum and spend my free time finishing my draft and not talking about writing with people who make me feel anxious.

  7. Jane – thank you! That’s very reassuring. I can only recommend that anyone interested in publishing does come and visit your site which is full of accurate and helpful information. That’s what writers need – there’s enough scare-mongering and fantasising going on in their heads as it is! And I feel the way you do, too, that no point seems to carry much weight in a forum and the good sense gets lost. Much better to blog and have time and space to explain. Gary – that is very good advice indeed. And putting a point across forcibly, even satirically, can still be done with politeness and good humour. My mother always said, whatever you have to say, you can say it politely, and that’s stood me in good stead too. I’m delighted to have you visiting here and I can see that you have a very interesting blog of your own too that I’ll be adding to the blogroll. Archie – Ah, I knew you would be in the thick of things, archie dear! That collection of flames is brilliant. Now if I could insult like that, I might not feel so bad about it!! And you’re quite right – there are certainly commenters out there who deserve all they have coming to them. I do rather admire the people who take them on with a bit of panache. Self-censoring comes from lacking panache and therefore having these things rebound on you… Charlotte – wading in there is delightful phrasing and perfectly accurate! The blog thread was rather a good one, and irresistible, but like you, I have promised myself nothing but minimal anxiety surrounding writing. It’s hard enough as it is!

  8. You’ve entirely convinced me that it’s best to stay away from forums! I can see that it’s SO hard to do any real communication on them. Even in my online class, which is going quite well, I can see the potential for hurt feelings — a student will sometimes write a response on the discussion board that probably seems perfectly polite to the writer, but might very well come across as aggressive to the reader and the next thing you know, a student is upset. I haven’t actually seen anyone get upset and I hope they don’t, but the potential for that kind of misunderstanding, even with perfectly good-willed people, is there.

  9. Litlove,
    You have not done anything on the Authonomy site that is out of line at all. I got scared off the forums for a while at YWO by a couple of stray comments when I stuck my head above the parapet with a suggestion. In the real world, people would have heard the tremulous nature of my suggestion, and know that I sometimes say things before I’ve thought carefully about them. The trouble with forums is that there is none of the surrounding body language which we use to help communicate in the real world, or the small adjustments people often make to accommodate each other as they engage in dialogue. However, once I accepted this, I have realised that forums, like blogs and their comments, simply serve to shrink time and space so that you can communicate with people who a) might be tempted to read your work in the real world, and b) have opinions slightly different, or very different, from your own, which can teach you about the way people think and communicate, which to a writer can only be helpful. You do have to think about what you post – particularly like me, if you type almost as fast as you talk – and accept they will be there more permanently than a spoken conversation would. But this also helps, because you can reflect and stand back for a while before commenting. The same is true, surely, of blogs and comments on these.
    The forums at Authonomy are very new, people are just beginning to find their way around, and getting to know each other – like the beginning of a party. Like any party, if you stick around you’ll know whether it turns into a memorable one or one you’d rather forget! But if you leave early you’ll never know…I, for one, hope you’ll stick around. Your calm, measured voice is an important contribution to such a site, and you can blaze a trail for non fiction!

  10. Oh, my. I’ve just discovered the post on Authonomy about publishing, that I’d not read last time I posted.

    I posted there.


    I dealt with just a couple of points but really: the level of misinformation in a couple of posts is staggering, truly staggering. And now someone’s mentioned YWO: well. It’s even worse over there (and I can’t get over a site that’s meant to help writers yet offers a vanity publishing operation–just how wrong is that?).

    The best forum for writers that I’ve found is it’s not free of problems but the moderation is pretty fair, and it’s host to many successful writers who quickly point out what’s wrong with bad advice. It’s American, so not perfect for UK writers, but it’s very good. The level of intelligence seems reasonably high there, too, which I like.

    I’m off to have a look at Archie’s site (the name is especially poignant for me as I discovered one of my MA tutors, Archie Markham, died recently and I miss him terribly), and hope to have a bit of fun with what’s there. Some light relief will be very welcome!


  11. This did make me laugh. I’m sure that whilst, relative to Litlove, Dark Litlove may represent a different face of our heroine, in the spectrum of human behaviour, she is still a force for good!

  12. Dorothy – it can be a really funny medium, this. I often think that email always sounds cold unless you make an effort to warm it up a bit. At least the online class has you there as arbitrator – you will be able to step in quickly if anyone makes a loose comment and sort it out immediately. If only all forums had such a calming presence! Tricia, what a sweetheart you are. I always think your comments represent you so well; they are always generous and positive and encouraging. I like the way you describe the forums very much and it’s for people like you that I do stay around authonomy! Jane – naturally I rushed over to authonomy when I read your comment and I thought what you had to say was excellent. I only hope now that lots of people read it and have a better idea of what publishing is really like. I will certainly check out the site you mention and the one thing you will certainly have at Archie’s site is a laugh. I am so sorry to hear about your tutor – how very sad. But if anyone can provide some light relief at such a moment, I’d put my money on it being archie. Lokesh – you are a darling! what a sweet comment. That’s one I’ll revisit if the dark side threatens me again 🙂

  13. I have found that forums don’t really work for me- at least the ones that I’ve participated in. Topics tends to recycle a bit much and I find the social dynamics get tiresome. I get bored of cliques, tired in-jokes, status games and social maneuvering reminiscent of high school and the ever present trolls who enjoy stirring up conflict and of course, all the people who are just plain wrong (ie. the people that I disagree with!)

    Blogs are slightly better but even then I can’t read most political blogs because they make me want to explain at length how wrong people are about everything. A lot of parenting blogs annoy me too and I’ve recently realised that I can’t read most feminist blogs either. Oh yes, I’ve also decided that I have to stop reading mainstream media because I am sick of reading about the coming environmental/economic/avian flu apocalyptic end times- in fact, it’s probably fair to say that 90% of everything annoys me- I’ve even managed to be annoyed by craft blogs -so Litlove, if it’s any consolation, you are almost certainly tolerant restraint personified compared to me

  14. You are not alone!!!! I am truly the dark demon of forums (fora??? But really who cares??!) and am already on a detox programme that will enable me to discover my true, good-works-doing, lovable and fluffy self. Hmm, may take some time then ….

    Hugs & love!


  15. You’ll be going on my blogrolled, too, Litlove! I’ve already had you on my feed reader for quite a while.

    I think being polite can also at times prove a remarkable weapon!

  16. Oh, Dark Litlove, I want you on my side when it comes to blows delivered via words!

    For the last month or two my guilty pleasure has been a litblog with a lot of really mean anonymous commenters. It’s very easy to get drawn into this — even as a witness. I wish I knew why. What I do know is that I’m just going to stop going there because it’s starting to take up too much time.

    xo, L

  17. In every goup there is a person who …. (fill in your choice of words). I’m sure forums must be a magnet for them. Can imagine lots of them turning up in fiction from now on.

  18. Ah, a gathering of the bland masses with their guilty middle class secrets and their smug assertions. Don’t you just love it? Group hug, everyone? Kisses.

  19. I think Tricia’s right that it’s the lack of all the non-printed-verbal signs that make forum rows flare up so quickly. Though the Melanie Klein take on it makes sense too, because in some ways you don’t have to take responsibility for what you say: you can always just wander off, ignoring the flames you set off warming your back, and it may even be anonymous.

    I’ve only got involved with a few forums, and stuck with them first because so much nonsense about the book trade was being bandied about, and I knew enough to explain some things (goodness knows not all). I found the barneys that were intelligent and articulate, however vigorous and obscenity-laden, were great. What’s deeply tedious is when it descends into obscenities without intelligence, or one of those, ‘I said but you said but you haven’t but I didn’t but…’ rows. Is it smug and middle class to think it’s only worth bothering with if it’s something to do with writing, and to think that discussion helps more than swearing? Maybe. I can live with that.

    They can suck up time horribly if you let them – or if you’re in Procrastination Hell for one reason or another. But it is a way to find fellow writers, and there are some things you want to talk about which only other writers will understand. I was much struck by a thread on one forum (a serious one with published and unpublished writers and industry professionals as members), when someone asked who had anyone in their other life who understood their writing, their drive to write, what it made them do/give up/ignore. A frightening number said, ‘No one.’ Who else REALLY understands what rejection feels like, why it matters if you double-space, why you might be frightened of your agent, what you do when your editor really, really hates the title you most love, what it feels like to know you’re not going to get off the shortlist and win the prize, or what makes for Second Novel Syndrome, and how to cope with it…

  20. Believe me, there are writers’ blogs in the blog world as uncivilized as any forum. A blog reflects the blogger’s personality, the types of limits a blogger will tolerate in terms of inter-commenter-abuse. Yours is a civilized blog because you are. But it is fascinating how even a “civilized” blogger in an “uncivilized” environment, can descend to the norm because it triggers primitive emotions, rage and a sense of inferiority being the worst. Blog-bashing is very easy and common among anonymous commenters with no blogs of their own, even worse when they cite your blog and mock it on the forum. Yes, it’s happened to me. On a blog, yet.

  21. Ms Make Tea – you crack me up! That was just such a funny, funny comment, particularly about the craft blog! You give me hope that a person can stand up for what they think, get irritated and annoyed and still be an absolute darling. Anne – Lol! But not true – you are your usual sunny, delightful self wherever you appear, I find! But if you find a detox programme that works in the way you describe, do let me know about it!! Gary – yay! thank you! And I do agree – politeness is one weapon I would happily deploy, set to stun. Dear BL – promise me you will not give me the name of that litblog, even when I am on my knees begging? I can see how addictive that would be, particularly as a witness. Bookboxed – several novels have been written as a series of emails, but I don’t know of a novel (and please say if you do) that focuses exclusively on the virtual internet world. What an opportunity for an upcoming writer! Mark – alas I feel you will have to label the entire internet middle class as its entry requirements include computer equipment and good keyboard skills. I’m not entirely sure you can tame either the masses or the forums with that description either, still, okay. But I wouldn’t suggest a group hug in authonomy just yet. Emma – I think you make an excellent point, which is that when they are used well, these virtual communities can be of tremendous support to individuals who have to work in isolation. I know that blogging has been wonderful for me in this respect. I wholly agree that it’s impossible to explain to people beyond the profession why proof-reading, a blank screen and someone saying ‘we-el, yes, I quite liked it’ are all so awful. Most meetings in reality are chaired by someone who is there to keep order – perhaps something like that will have to happen in the virtual world too. Although I think many people must enjoy an argument more than I do! By the way, I’m delighted to have you visit – by coincidence I ordered a copy of The Mathematics of Love yesterday evening and I’m very much looking forward to it. Writer Reading – I’ve always thought that ‘anonymous’ option to be the first resort of the cowardly. If you have something unpleasant to say, you should at least own it, in my opinion. But you’re very right about those primitive emotions. At the basic level, if someone attacks you, you want to fight back, and I guess it doesn’t matter what the location of the argument might be. As an academic I guess it’s easier to play by the rule that whilst it is fair to disagree with an idea or an opinion, you never attack the person who holds it. Going around these forums, it horrifies me how personal everything becomes, how people are offended by remarks that have been made generally, and how easy it is for someone to abuse another simply because they don’t think the same way. In my sober moments I can’t help but think that that tendency lies at the bottom of every single war in history. And I never saw the incident but I do remember that you changed blogs because of an unpleasant event – I’m really sorry that had to happen to you. Stefanie – LOL! You and I really do have the exact same sense of humour!

  22. This made me laugh and reminded me of the classical music forum hosted by an extremely well-known British institution which had to be closed down, so vitriolic had the comments become. Is nothing sacred?

  23. A relative sanity does seem to have descended on the Authonomy forum for now, thanks to Litlove’s calming influence (I’ll not take any credit for it, having posted when I promised not to, although I did at least refuse to play the flame-game). So thank you, Litlove (what is your real name?) for this middle-class (!) little oasis where I felt that I was not, after all, alone.

  24. I sort of love the image of you turning into a forum flame warrior. 🙂

    But yes, I know what you mean. It’s hard to resist responding, even (especially) intemperately. Sometimes you can reply in a way that genuinely moves the conversation forward, but often you just get sucked into bitching at people who aren’t going to listen anyway. I refer you to the all-knowing XKCD:

    I usually escape the temptation to unleash my wrath by emailing what I *would* have said to my partner (during the day) or saying it aloud to him (in the evenings). Which means he gets quite a bit of earache, poor dear, although he seems to find the spectacle of NicRage quite amusing, luckily…

  25. Ann – LOL! I really did! That’s most entertaining. Jane – well bless you for saying that, but after having chided myself for being impolite by my standards, I could hardly let that particular comment go by. I thought that you replied brilliantly. I mean, honestly, ‘I’ve got a PhD, what have you got?’ I have a PhD and had no idea it qualified me to act like a total… well, to not act very well at all. My real name is Victoria – I used to be wholly anonymous here but those days are long gone. Nic – lol! Forumrage here I come! I don’t know why it is so much more tempting to snap back at someone than say something conciliatory and soothing. I suppose because they have just behaved badly, so why should you show restraint? But put like that it does sound very childish. I do like your strategy for censoring email wrath and will definitely try it out myself. But my husband is easily alarmed by any hint of aggression in women, so I will find a friend in need of a good laugh. That’s got to work well!

  26. Litlove, yes, you’re right that so many people can’t (or choose not to) tell the difference between attacking the work/opinion/evidence, and attacking the person propounding them. What’s really frustrating is when within a thread there are still a few small voices – I’m usually one – who are trying to keep the interesting discussion going, while the boring battle roars so loudly that people don’t hear those voices. I also think it’s a shame when it means the thinner-skinned just decamp all together, for dislike of the loudmouths.

    Do let me know what you think of The Mathematics of Love. It must be synchronicity: I’ve been grappling with the new one, A Secret Alchemy, and have only just been able to shake free and get back into the habit of dropping by some of my favourite blogs again.

  27. Emma – I’m agreeing vigorously with your comment here – so true about the quiet voices doggedly trying to pursue the sensible route whilst others snipe and firebomb around them. And the thin-skinned are often the ones with something valuable to say but who don’t like to for fear of being attacked. And congratulations on A Secret Alchemy, which I will also be ordering, I don’t doubt!

  28. Aw, thanks! A propos forums, I’ve just come across a great line in a how-to book about writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. It’s actually about critting work in a writing workshop, but I think it’s much more widely applicable than that:

    The sword of truth needn’t only be used to chop, it can also be used to point.

  29. I read through the forums yesterday for the first time. I was impressed with you above all others, for your ability to convey annoyance yet remain polite, considerate and intelligent. Let me briefly thank you for reading my excerpt there, and say that I hope I get to yours before you remove it. I appreciated your comments and thoughts. I seldom get involved in forums anymore. Just doesn’t work for me and I guess I don’t have time. And in the past, before I learned, I allowed some of the frustration I feel about things other than writing to come out, to my regret. It’s just safer to keep my mouth shut. I can’t believe you, of all those who were commenting on the various topics I read through yesterday, is feeling like you went in the wrong direction! Ha!

  30. Reb – oh thank you so much – that is so kind of you to say so and it makes me feel miles better. I’m used to having bickering students to deal with and being the calm voice of reason, so it’s alarming to suddenly feel like I’m sliding into the territory of the students! But thank you – I’ll treasure that reassurance.

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