with Nathan Whitlock
The HLR presents a topical exchange between two individuals connected to the Canadian writing, reading, and publishing scene.
Dispatches from the Flame Wars
Every week or so, the more bookish end of Facebook and Twitter lights up with another flame war, with writers, readers, legit commenters, and trolls furiously flinging rhetorical bombs in all directions. Do these online bun fights offer anything other than cheap entertainment? Are serious points ever made amid all the noise? Here, writer-critics Steven W. Beattie and Stacey May Fowles, both veterans of many such brawls, discuss the merits of battling it out online.
Steven W. Beattie: Flame wars are ubiquitous. You can’t be online and not encounter them. But I do my best to absent myself from comment. Sometimes I trip up, usually to the detriment of everyone involved. To be frank, I’m not nearly so interested in leaping into the literary mosh pit these days, since a) it’s more of a younger person’s game, and b) I don’t feel that conversations consisting of nothing more than heightened vitriol actually accomplish anything, other than giving a lot of people indigestion.
What I found interesting about the recent online back-and-forth over Jonathan Franzen is how little of it had to do with his work, and how much of it had to do with his personality, if not his very existence. He continues to get coverage in major media, his new book is garnering accolades, which makes all sorts of people furious, because they don’t like what he’s said about our modern culture, or because he’s a white dude. So they yell about him on Twitter, which he ignores (he’s not on Twitter), and that only serves to make his detractors even angrier and more vociferous. None of it is about the literary work, and none of it seems to have any effect on Franzen himself, or to put a dent in his reputation. I’m not sure what cause is served, other than allowing some folks the opportunity to vent their spleen in real-time online.
Stacey May Fowles: I feel like whether or not I follow a particular flame war is honestly a direct result of how healthy I’m currently being. If they’re invalid, they’re better ignored, but I won’t deny a terribly toxic voyeuristic streak that occasionally sends me down that rabbit hole.
But I do think that there’s an overlooked component to the notion of “ranting on Twitter” that we rarely talk about. There are all sorts of elements of literary culture that are undeniably toxic, and all sorts of systems in place that are exclusionary and make certain people voiceless. Twitter can act as a valve release for people who feel like they aren’t heard, a way of sharing opinions that aren’t mainstream, or to talk about injustices that aren’t addressed. It’s easy to dismiss all of it as outrage for the sake of it (and I would agree that some of it is indeed that) but I think online arguments stem from the fact that more “acceptable” forms of communication aren’t inclusive.
SWB: Sure, but even the conversations that putatively “give voice to the voiceless” have a tendency to get dragged into the mud, so that they end up as little more than people on both sides hurling insults at each other. The medium is to blame as much as anything else. Twitter especially allows an instant, unfiltered mechanism to react to things that get someone’s dander up. People speak/write from the gut, often without thinking, which results in the volume getting turned way up and the tenor of the discourse getting turned way down.
I’ve been guilty of this myself: I regret a lot of things I say in the moment, or that appear
unconsidered or out of context. Social media recycles itself so quickly that there is pressure to respond to something before you’ve even had time to process it for yourself, resulting in a lot of backtracking, attempts at contextualization, and misunderstanding.
SMF: I totally agree, but I suppose it’s a baby/bathwater, bad apples/bunch kind of situation. I’ve seen literary rage call out valid injustices, and I’ve also seen people relentlessly bully each other for what seems like fun. That has more to do with human impulses than “online argument is default bad.”
SWB: Sure, no argument. I’ve also seen women online call out legitimate injustices and receive threats of death or rape in response. As you have noted elsewhere, Stacey, the online environment is often not a safe one if you’re a woman with an opinion.
SMF: I don’t think the anger about Franzen, for example, stems so much from him as a person as much as it’s about what he represents in contemporary literary coverage, and how he’s often blindly lauded without critique. It’s not about Franzen listening, but rather it’s about the culture listening. The amount of real estate that man gets in terms of celebratory coverage is frankly ridiculous when you look at how often deserving writers are ignored. I don’t see a lot of people venting in the hopes that Franzen will suddenly stop being who he is, but more that the status quo will stop buying it wholesale.
SWB: Well, I notice people saying that, but then stopping short of suggesting names who are being sidelined in favour of Franzen. Whatever you might think of him and the blanket coverage that he gets, he writes substantial books. Instead of complaining that he’s hogging the spotlight (which is much of what the Twitter dialogue focuses on), why are more people not offering alternatives?
SMF: Because that’s always a trick question. Whenever I say there aren’t enough women represented, some man always requires a list of suggestions.
SWB: How is it a trick question, though? I get that there are some people who would just be waiting to pounce: A-ha! You think X is comparable to Franzen, but X is obviously inferior, so you are easily written off. But again, as an editor and a blogger, if I suspect that there is something being overlooked, my preference is to write something that attempts to draw attention to that overlooked work rather than to slag someone who is perceived as hogging the spotlight. Everyone else is covering the same half-dozen books, anyway, why not devote the space I have, and whatever platform I’ve been lucky enough to attain, trying to redress some imbalances. I can’t counter the tsunami of press for the big “buzz books” on my own, but offering some alternative suggestions for worthwhile material people might have missed seems more productive than screaming about how awful the status quo is. (So says the white dude, I know it, I know it.)
SMF: You would be an example of “not all men,” Steven. Your intentions are genuine, but for every one of you there are ten people who just want a gotcha moment - those people are the exact ones who love a good online fight.
Steven W. Beattie is review editor of Quill & Quire. He maintains the literary site That Shakespearean Rag.
Stacey May Fowles is an essayist and novelist. She is the author of the novels Be Good (Tightrope, 2007), Fear of Fighting (Invisible, 2008), and Infidelity (ECW, 2013.) Her bylines include The Walrus, the National Post, and Toronto Life, and she regularly writes about books and television for The Globe and Mail.