Trust and Secrets in Romanceland

by Sunita

When I closed VM and started this blog I said I wouldn’t write about Romanceland anymore. And for the most part I haven’t wanted to. But Wendy’s post about the broken nature of the community struck a deep chord, one that writing a comment at her post can’t fully address. If you’re interested, read on. If you’re done with thinking about Romland, skip this and come back to read the next post.

When DA Jane told Romland that she was also author Jen, I was obviously at ground zero for the announcement. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the Jane/Jen revelation created a seismic shift. Not for everyone; some readers, mostly people who aren’t deeply invested in Romland relationships, will keep right on reading Dear Author and/or Jen Frederick’s books. They don’t care much about the connection. Other readers won’t. Authors and longtime members of Romland seemed to fall most frequently on the sense of betrayal side. Writing communities in this genre are a combination of professional development, friend circles, and expertise exchange, and the friend/bonding component appears to be stronger here than in many other professional settings with which I’m familiar. That, combined with DA’s loud and sustained emphasis on disclosure and reader-only spaces, led to a deep sense of resentment even among Romland people who didn’t personally encounter Jen Frederick.

I think that what the DA announcement did was put the final nail in the coffin of the idea and the reality of widely-followed, reader-run sites. if Dear Author is an author-run site (which it now turns out to be), then there are no water-cooler-type review and discussion sites in Romland which are are not author-directed zones (or industry-directed, in other cases). To a great extent I think this is a reflection of the way Romland has changed over the past decade. There is little incentive or ability for someone who is only a reader to own and operate a major review and reading blog, forum, or website. It takes an enormous amount of work and time, and you need to generate a lot of content to stay in the online public’s eye. At the same time, any site that does attract readers is also going to attract authors and industry professionals, partly for the conversation, but also because selling books is a difficult task and the word of mouth praise of readers is golden. So a reader-run site with a growing reach is going to face huge pressures to be coopted. Whether that’s by taking ARCs, featuring authors, running giveaways, or transitioning from reader-blogger to industry-blogger is going to depend on the individuals, but the incentives for cooptation are enormous.

Neither of the two major romance sites people in my circles talk about, DA and Smart Bitches, is run primarily by people who are just readers, and this has been the case for years. [AAR has contributors who are not authors, but for the majority of its existence it has also had strong personal and professional ties to authors, some disclosed, some not, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.] The reader-plus features of these big blogs are a fact and we have to accept it. Well before Jane created Jen, she edited a romance anthology, appeared at book conventions representing bloggers, and was regularly quoted in the media. Sarah Wendell has not been “just” a reader at least since Beyond Heaving Bosoms was published and probably before that. We lost big “reader” blogs in Romancelandia quite a while ago, we just haven’t wanted to admit it. That doesn’t mean the non-reader-driven blogs aren’t valuable and fun for a lot of people, but that part of the landscape didn’t change when Romland found out Jane was Jen. The DA announcement was the culmination of a long process, not a departure from it.

I agree with Wendy that the changes in Romland are due to a combination of factors, some of which aren’t about romance at all. I also agree that there is a real sense of threat felt by readers and writers which wasn’t there before. Stalking, harassment, and abuse are more prevalent than they used to be, and while most of us haven’t faced threats that rise to the level found in other communities, ours are bad enough. It completely undercuts the idea of Romland as a refuge from the rest of the world, or a place where we can pursue and share our common interests apart from the fraught issues we deal with in the rest of our lives. And the big problem is that these don’t feel like isolated events. The Hale episode would be easier to dismiss if we didn’t have other, less violent examples of romland people going after each other prior to and subsequent to it. There is little sense that we can speak freely in Romland space. Everything is public and every potential breach is screenshotted by someone. It’s worse than always speaking in public, really; it’s more like speaking in public with an endless, never-erased video running while you do it. No wonder blog posting and commenting are down and Romance Twitter is more anodyne. Who wants the grief that follows even a minor fuckup?

There is one other aspect of Romland, though, which Wendy didn’t mention and which I think is critical to the way we interact with each other. In Romland, more than any other community I can think of, people create not just pseudonyms but personas. When Jane disclosed she was also Jen, there were people who felt duped and humiliated, and I can understand that feeling.

But I was surprised that people didn’t talk more about the fact that such simultaneous personas are not at all unusual. I’m not talking pen names, I’m talking full-blown personas, with separate social media accounts and blogs and biographies. I can think of any number of people off the top of my head who have done this in the past or are doing it now. Some people make the connections between their personas known, but plenty do not. I have more than once talked about things with a Persona 1 not knowing that they were Persona 2, in cases where Persona 2’s activities were relevant to our discussions. And there have been other cases, ones where I’ve felt uncomfortable carrying the knowledge that someone is deploying multiple personas to review and contribute to discussions but unsure that it is my responsibility to reveal it. (To whom? And why?)

Sometimes the decision is easy, because I don’t reveal information given to me in confidence and I don’t reveal anything that comes through a privileged channel like DA. But sometimes I find out on my own, without any insider knowledge. What then? My default has been to channel Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes: I know nothing, nothing. I don’t know what other people do with their privileged information, but I doubt it’s much easier for them. Keeping secrets is exhausting, and knowing that your community operates with a culture of secrets means knowing that people are not necessarily what they seem. It may be true in a benign sense, or it may be a secret that would change the way you look at them. The point is that you don’t get to decide, and also, the playing field isn’t level, because some people operate as multiple personas and hide that info, some do it and are upfront, and others only have one persona.

We have a culture of pen names in Romanceland for good reasons, which is common knowledge. But we also have a culture of secrets around identity, and we are much less upfront about that. It’s hard to build community-wide trust when you’re not sure who you’re talking to, and that uncertainty has grown over the last decade. I’m not sure what can be done to make things better. Maybe something different will rise from the ashes, or maybe we’ll continue to fragment into ever-smaller and more private spaces, replacing generalized community trust with individually determined trust relationships.