Blogger Query – Renay

BloggerQueryOne of the bloggers I’ve only discovered in the past year or two who has had a huge influence on how I look at reading, writing, books, and fandom is Renay of Lady Business and the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast. Renay came into SFF fandom from the fanwork-side and as such has a very different and unique view of the SFF community than most. She also looks at culture through a feminist and intersectional lens, which is always interesting. She can also rant like a champ and is very funny! When I rebooted Blogger Query I really wanted to interview Renay, so I was stoked she agreed. I’m even more stoked with the fabulous and in-depth answers she returned. Best go make yourself a hot beverage of choice and sit down because this is a big interview! 

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Let’s start with the basics. Who is Renay?

I’m reader and writer who started in fanwork fandom. I’m super into fanwork, especially the fanfic/fanart/fanvid variety. I’ve never met a fake boyfriends fic or a baby fic I didn’t like. I’ve been writing fanfic and fannish commentary in some form since the early 1990s, before I ever knew what I was doing had a name! Most of my stuff is hanging around my AO3 account these days and I save a lot of my recs over at my pinboard.

I’m a little bit interested in a lot of stuff so I’m very likely to look like an over-excited fairy who’s been hitting the dust too hard. I get thrilled about things I love and obnoxious about things that annoy me. I’m a card carrying member of “The Author is Dead” school of criticism, I love a good binge of baby animals gifs, and my collections of Chris Evans or Lupita Nyong’o gifs, pictures, and quotes are great places to hang out if you like that sort of thing.

What got you into blogging?

Terrible 90s web design. I used to run manually updated blogs on free website services (Angelfire! Geocities! Envy.nu!) and talk about the things teenage girls in rural Southern American towns talk about, which for me was Sailor Moon and music videos and fanfic. I did this so I could decorate them with the 20th century style gifs, animated sparkly backgrounds, and mouse effects, complete with autoplay MIDIs which I thought were the height of technology at that point. It was a joyous time of big dreams and no taste. I’m so sorry, web accessibility gods.

I’ve been blogging in some form or another since 1995, if we define “blog” as “discrete digital entries of thoughts and opinions listed by date”. I remember when Blogger was launched and we were all entranced. What really made me stick to regular blogging, though, was transitioning to better tools with the fanfic communities I was a part of with more accessible community features that I didn’t have to maintain myself. When they shifted to Livejournal from mailing lists, I went with them (although it was a process, because I hate change). The Livejournal platform hooked me because it was so easy to stay connected with folks. So really my answer to what got me into it and kept me there was because I could connect with people who would then validate my long-winded essays. I was into a lot of proto-book reviewing blogs back then, too. Livejournal was my intro to book blogging. I’m an old.

Why Lady Business?

I wanted to hang out and do cool projects with Ana and Jodie. I figured doing it under the banner of a blog would seem more legit than me doing the virtual version of heavy breathing at them on Twitter while inviting them to do “projects”. I was so afraid of being a creep! I’m not! I just wanted to be friends!

I wish I had an elevator type pitch answer for the title, but it was a mixture of things. The Old Spice commercials, “Hello, ladies.” combined with the idea of creating an in-your-face project that proclaimed, “yes, we’re women and we have interests and they’re important to us” with feminism at its core. It’s a just a bonus that the title also refers to anatomy, honestly. That’s just my obviously excellent sense of humor coming out. I wanted to make a space for myself in SF fandom, which is really uncomfortable with feminism, intersectionality, and has a lot of internalized misogyny even today (if I never read someone say “I don’t notice gender when choosing books” again I can die happy and fulfilled). Clearly the answer was to pick an awkward but hilarious title, and I tried my best. After all, Pornokitsch was taken.

What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?

We do long form writing; our reviews tend to be longer and more like literary analysis. Our co-reviews definitely are long and intense and probably misnamed. We try not to concern ourselves so much with limiting our word count just to attract a wider audience. If they come, fine, if our tl;dr is too much, well, the ocean’s teeming with fish. We believe that if you don’t like the eel, you shouldn’t eat the eel (I guess in this metaphor we’re electric eels, instead of feminist ponies, and we’re asking people to eat us? Really. This is why I’m not a professional writer.).

So much of the blogging culture these days is about snappy posts, quick reviews, clickbait, a focus on amount of posting and the quantity of content per week to attract and keep an audience. Leave people feeling like they always need to be catching up with you to keep them coming back, you know? I feel this keenly because so often we’re dismissed because we don’t post as often as most “normal” blogs do. But because we don’t limit ourselves at all and focus on developing longer posts, we have the chance to get a little more personal, to talk more about how and why media touched us or made us happy or angry. We have a chance to discuss why and what that means about the media we’re talking about and ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to really reach out to people and say, “hey, come tell me your feelings about this thing, we’re really interested in digging into it with you.” It’s so delightful when people visit and really connect with our feelings about media, even if we disagree. People are great! You can learn so much from them.

What are your goals for your blog?

It’s to have fun, keeping learning, and challenging ourselves to keep talking.

It’s a struggle sometimes, you know, to keep having fun? It can be really crippling, confidence wise, or we worry about the possibility of blowback if our opinions are signal boosted in the wrong crowd and the Internet falls on our head.

Plus, there are a lot of voices out there talking about the same things, and you can really get caught up in the whole idea of being “first” and being a tastemaker for your peers. You can wear yourself down when you’re not immediately successful, if you ever are. I know some of this drive for “success”, whatever it looks like for each person, can easily transform into an energy monster that sucks up all the pleasure and enjoyment that comes from loving media and talking about that media with your friends. Then you’re just an empty husk going to dust as everything moves on without you. We want to avoid that energy monster at all costs. No one likes that jerk.

Another goal, which I think is obvious but we don’t talk about it much explicitly anymore, because we’d rather act than sit around jawing about it, is to focus on women and non-binary folks. We want to give their stories a chance as often as possible. I wasn’t always like this myself. Pre-2007 was a dark time for me due to my university habits. There was a year where I read one book by a woman and 45 by men or something dire like that, and I’m sure sharing that little tidbit will come back to haunt me later. So we do self-critique and keep in mind that women and non-binary folks are important voices for us to seek out, and it’s even better if we can get intersectional about it. It’s an ongoing process. Jay Smooth actually summed this up succinctly in a recent video about the Oscars:

All of us as good people are still naturally prone to doing bad things. We all have natural tendencies toward implicit bias and prejudice and bad habits and one of those bad habits is that if you work in a field where the status quo is unjust for others but comfortable for you, you will tend to make decisions that preserve your comfort and thus preserve the unjust states quo if you don’t make a constant, conscious commitment to do otherwise. […] I can only really be just, I can only be good if I commit every day to learning the craft of being good, to practicing the craft of being good.

Also, we’ve accidentally drifted toward a goal of recommendations, but we decided we liked it there and we’re staying. We have a lot of features that are focused on recs, talking about things we think look cool, or inviting people to recommend work to us and our friends. I mean, we do reviews and analysis but we’re also big into telling people what to read or watch, too. That’s our jam! That practice will stick around until we shut the door on the project—recommend things we love and give people a platform to do the same.

One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

I rate things using animated gifs that can often be interpreted multiple ways when I can be bothered (which isn’t often), so probably it’s obvious how I feel. It’s a personal thing. If you like to rate things, rate away. LIVE YOUR DREAMS. Use cute graphics! I’m way more likely to pay attention to ratings if they have like, THREE DRAGON ICONS OUT OF FIVE, because OMG, that dragon icon is cute! And then since I’m there admiring the icon I might look at the book in question, too. But otherwise the only time I use them is when the book is already on my reading list, and it’s a friend who I trust and they rate and I just want to see what they think without risking spoilers. This is not a very large group at this point, because I am hella picky.

Ratings don’t offend me by existing, but they also don’t tell me anything useful if I don’t know the reviewer—I need the text for that, or time. But some people like them for their own records and I am 100% in favor of people doing stuff that helps make things more manageable for themselves. My motto continues to be, do it if it brings you joy and boot it when it stops. But often people reading reviews say they’re useful, so I trust those people find them useful.

I do use ratings on Goodreads to give me a basic idea of my overall thoughts. But for example, I recently went back and redid my ratings on a bunch of books I read late last year because my reaction had changed after giving the books time to percolate. My personal GoodReads ratings: probably not that useful in the long run.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

I’m conflicted on this question because the obvious answer is: yes, of course negative reviews. The fact this debate goes around a lot amuses me. “Is negative reviewing THE WORST?” people ask in yet another blog think piece on the subject. “Do negative reviews make us TERRIBLE MONSTERS?” This keeps happening like we’re ever going to come to any sort of agreement, but these things are cyclical as the community adds and sheds members. I remember the first time I saw this debate in 2003 on some Livejournal community which spawned a few hundred comments and outright fights, and then someone called someone else a literature Nazi and it devolved from there. There really isn’t that much new under the sun, but it’s fun to watch the way the debate changes depending on available tools. The debaters of 2003 never saw Twitter coming, that’s for sure.

But I’ve also faced some pretty awful behavior from authors who did not like my criticism and acted like I had set a beloved grandparent on fire. Stuff like sending me creepy emails or trying to figure out my personal details or sending their friends over to do the Internet version of mouth breathe. Every time I hear about author meltdowns over negative reviews happening to other people I am like, oh my god, this is so embarrassing. I will have a cringe response if I even hear about it. If I see it going down I get a raging case of second-hand embarrassment and turn into a sweat monster with anxiety shakes and have to leave the Internet entirely until it stops sometimes. It’s fun for other people to point and laugh at this behavior, but it’s the exact opposite for me because I over empathize. Stop humiliating yourself, authors. You’re a hot steamy mess when you do this. Get it together.

Negative reviews are extremely important, but the merging of book blogging with publishing in some spheres, and especially with authors who now have to do more of the heavy lifting of their own publicity, has largely neutered us. Because now they feel like friends since they might talk to us on Twitter. I recently struggled with this because I wrote a critical review of a book whose author followed us. I did it and it sucked and I was miserable imagining that I had hurt this author and person who I really admired, especially when their friends started linking to me to talk about how wrong I was, like there’s ever one way to read a book. It could’ve been worse, though—at least it was only the friends.

I’m guilty of choosing not to bother reviewing books I may not like, but want to share with people who actually might like them a lot of the time because of this sort of nonsense. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s the worst, so why risk it? Jonathan wrote a great essay about this last year, which I think is really valuable and reflected a lot of what I’ve experienced myself.

Plus, the more I like a book the more likely I’ll have a criticism of it, or sometimes I’ll dislike it but it had a few things that intrigued me I enjoyed so I keep thinking about it even after the “negative” review. Weeks will go by and suddenly I’ll discover, ugh, I like it now. Books are living things for me and my reaction to a book will change as I process the story. It’s why I’m such a slow reviewer, too. I have to have a super strong reaction in order to write a quality response really quickly after finishing a book. And this debate sort of leaves me stranded, because “negative review” is so black and white. What if your positive reviews contain criticism? Does that automatically make it a negative review even if I liked it? Nuance is hard.

Everyone should write what they want as long as they’re not doing slanderous or libelous harm to another individual, or dehumanizing them on any axis of their identity. Critique the books, but also self-critique to make sure the criticism isn’t just another way of being a jerk. Don’t forget to be awesome.

But then again, once you reach the Kool-Aid Point as a woman or person of color writing online, all bets are off. If you do keep going with the negative reviews and have wide-reaching influence, just go ahead and start a police file on your computer for the creeps who will come out of the virtual swamp to be gross and abusive at you unless you walk the party line (results may vary by genre and medium).

How important are blogs to your reading choices?

Way less important than they were three years ago. Some of this is because I’ve made publisher connections (Hi, Ellen!) and been taught how to find books myself via the available tools. I don’t have to rely on blogs so much for new work that sounds cool or old stuff I haven’t discovered anymore. I do value niche blogs more than I used to. Well, niche blogs that cover something other than epic fantasy by white men, to be clear. Urban fantasy, SF romance, YA SF, work by minority folks, etc.. Blogs with a narrow focus influence me way more these days because they have the time and resources to really drill down and bring up things I would’ve never heard of otherwise. Most of the time the blogs I trust for general recs are people I consider friends, so it’s less about their blog and more about their specific taste. They’ll talk about the book via Twitter or email. So I’ll know what I should be reading/skipping before they ever put their fingers on their keyboard to create the review.

How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?

Awkwardly.

That’s not a good answer. But we’re often tools of corporations and/or businesspeople that want us to market their products, often for free or at the expense of our time and energy. I’m really careful with review copy because review copy is nice, but I also think if I do too much free writing for that for that review copy I run the risk of devaluing myself as a writer. It is for free, too, because I know my writing is worth more than even a final book, so I’m aware it’s a trade off and a tough balancing act. I’m lucky that I work with professionals who treat me like a person and not a review machine, too, who understand my limitations and also my imposter syndrome.

I’m such a downer, sorry! I have some great relationships with authors and publicists who are excited about stories like I am and I really admire and respect them. It’s the massive whole of it when taken together that leads me to this line of thinking.

But I also come from transformative fandom where the whole point is to create content for each other as fans—we’re a gift economy over there—but the trend the last few years here has been creating content for authors and publishers rather than each other. The conversations have died out a little or take place on Twitter in a very restricted way. At least it feels like that for me. We’re often turning ourselves into rating and reviewing machines so authors can have social media review numbers on Amazon or Goodreads rather than fans who are excited to hand sell books to our friends, because we loved them, without also thinking of the business side of the whole endeavor. Like, “I better leave a review on Amazon to help their numbers!”. We’ve been trained. We churn out multiple book reviews per week or month to stay relevant and on top of the book economy. It feels like we don’t get to really linger much anymore before we’re rushed on to the next big thing.

Maybe this is a positive change and in the long run it will just be another shift in the community that won’t matter much, but to me it feels like we’ve become cogs. If we get tired of reviewing, well, there’s always another book blogger waiting to receive that review copy we’ve just decided to start refusing. We’re all replaceable in the machine and it makes me sad.

It’s a complicated question; I have no good answers.

Has reading a lot for the Speculative Fiction 2014 anthology changed your view of the blogging landscape any?

Well, it’s made me realize that the SF book blogging community is tiny and not as important as we think we are. The community is so huge and expansive and growing all the time that the project really let me see how insular we are. Compared to other fandom communities I’m in, we’re a very small tidepool that’s slowly starting to overlap with others. I also started to see where political lines were drawn over the past two years. It was really startling, but I think the more we open ourselves up and the more our tidepool merges with others, the more of that we’re going to see as some corners entrench. That’s a natural sort of thing that happens, though. Don’t ask me how long I clung to the LJ codebase when it was clear my other fandom was shifting to tumblr.

It also made me straight up creeped out by certain sections of fandom that will legit sit around in comments and go “those people aren’t real fans”. I know that I see this debate sometimes in fanwork fandom when we get into little scuffles about the “right way” to be fannish using third party tools or when we’re writing about complicated topics like specific kinks. But in those cases it’s not so strictly about “you’re not a real fan” it’s more often about “you’re a fan doing fandom in a way I don’t care for.” People who take a hard line on “doing it this way means you’re not a fan” are pretty quickly told to sit down. But while reading for SpecFic14, I saw over and over again in this weird “you’re not a fan because you don’t do things like me and that’s not right” way, and it would often never get challenged. I would watch people agreeing. This is super gross to me and I’m glad I’m done being locked into reading all that nonsense. Editing the Speculative Fiction series: discover the seedy underbelly of SF fandom!

Ana and Thea are going to come to my house and strangle me now. It was nice knowing you.

What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?

I’m currently reading One Piece, which is less like a “current read” and more like something that’s always on in the background? One Piece has 76 published volumes right now and I’m getting back into it as I incept Ana into the pirate adventure of my heart. Technically this will be my current read for the next five months. For a more standalone answer as to my current reading adventures, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is my go-to right now, which kamo reviewed last year and put on my radar. It’s written in a fascinating patois and it’s post-apocalyptic with a mysterious disease that kills all adults, so it’s 100% up my alley. Ice Cream, the narrator, is great, and I hope more people give it a shot.

Do you know how many books I’m looking forward to, though? If you could see my spreadsheet with its 65 2015 novels on it you would realize this question is torture. It’s actual torture, Mieneke! Picture the pained face I’m making, or me crying silent, hot tears over my physical reading pile of library books, all new, that are due in two weeks. I HOPE THIS MADE YOU SAD like this sad pile of books, pining for a reader with actual free time.

As for a book I’m waiting for, I’m going to take the easy route and say Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. I’m super excited about the premise and well, it’s Kate Elliott, who is one of my favorite writers, period. It’s practically a guarantee of an awesome time.

Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?

I’m really into fan history. I recently started (slowly) reading The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier, and I spend a lot of time browsing Fanlore. I’m also getting more into film and television, and learning how to critique visual media. Also, I love podcasts! I have a lot of favorites: Slate Culture Gabfest, slashreport, Girl on Guy, Galactic Suburbia, Writer and the Critic, and Rocket Talk to name only a few.

Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?

I have four bookshelves in my house and none of them are organized at all. A book, when I finish, will fall where it may unless it belongs to the library. Then two months later when I’m looking for it so I can reference it, I’ll have to trawl through four bookshelves (three for them are those shelves with cubby squares, which makes it an excellent adventure). I still won’t find it until two days later when I shift a random pile of books simply lying around and discover it at the bottom.

Abandon all hope all books that enter my house, you will never see the light of the Dewey Decimal system again.

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Thank you, Renay! You can find Renay online at Ladybusiness, Fangirl Happy Hour, on Twitter, and on Tumblr.

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  • Love it. Renay knows I adore her. And the interview reads exactly like one of her review pieces; long rambling but always interesting.

    • this is going on my tombstone.

  • Jodie

    ‘the trend the last few years here has been creating content for authors and publishers rather than each other.’ This is a pretty great point. I also think this shift has been influenced by book bloggers dropping out of blogging & our online friendship circles contracting. When friends aren’t around, bloggers try to reach out to new more permanent circles (authors and publishers with long term careers) for feedback and conversation.

    And we’re all getting more aware of how little authors make and how much burnout there is in that field so we all get sucked into a variation of ethical consumer/volunteer behaviour where we want to help people stay afloat and so we offer up free labor. That’s a really complicated knot to untangle.

    • That’s a good point. On the one hand, we want to be honest and share our opinions and ‘spread the love’ (or hate) in the same way that humans have been sharing opinions with their friends for forever. On the other hand, saturating the world with freely done work can devalue that work and make it not worth paying attention to.

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  • Wow. This is a GREAT interview.

    I love this discussion of the ways different fandoms react to ways of being a fan, as well as the ways that ‘traditional’ fandom outlets overlap with book blogging stuff. It is really lame that you had to go through that ‘seedy underbelly’ of the SFF fandoms during your anthology editing days.

    I, too, came of age in the days of Angelfire and BBSes and listservs and the like. But for some reason I’ve never given much thought to the way that my current blogging is necessarily influenced by those experiences. I mean, Baby Louise’s First Fandom was centered around a series of books, so I don’t know I why I didn’t make this connection before.

    This is such a thought-provoking post! I hope you continue this series. :)