Friend or Faux

I remember in some sociology class in college the professor did this typically sociological thing when he used these Venn diagram circles to designate varying levels of intimacy. It was more of a target I think, not overlapping circles really. Anyway, at the center of the circle was the immediate family. The blood. Mother. Father. Siblings. The next circle was also bloody, but thinner. Cousins. In-laws. Then the friendship circle, people we meet and become friends with; then community people (co-workers, etc); then acquaintances; then radiating on out to strangers.

Because it was college—and the nature of friendship is unrealistic in the extreme when you have seventeen hours a day to smoke cigarettes and talk about that bootleg U2 cassette that you scored from the weird guy down the hall—the professor elaborated on the extended friendship circles. One example, which has always stuck with me, was the one about the movies. A close friend is someone you call and say, “Hey, want to go to the movies?” And if there isn’t a movie you can both agree on, you say, “No worries, let’s meet at the bar down on 2nd Avenue instead.” A friend further from the center would not trump that movie on that night, so maybe you’d say, “I’ll see you next week at the rodeo.” A not-close-friend who wasn’t able to make it wouldn’t warrant any future plan whatsoever, “Okay then.” All good.

But, let’s face it. Like the classification of animals, there is the occasional platypus. Is it a mammal? Is it a reptile? Poor monotremes…they just don’t quite fit. I have many platypi in my life. In fact, I am one. I have many varied and internally-conflicting interests. I used to fret about it. What if my super-WASP-y Republican friend with the 74 Lilly Pulitzer dresses met my activist Democrat friend who vacations in a yurt? But that’s the funny thing. They’re all friends with me, so the shared kook is already part of the equation. I am the common denominator. It was a relief. During those post-college years, I still thought of people in those idiotic circles. “Oh, she’s really sweet and was my roommate and owns a design store in Westchester.” “Oh, he’s really sarcastic and used to work with me at Boston Magazine.” But guess what? Now they are neighbors, no thanks to me. We’re all grown ups. So, I finally got the real-life crossover sorted. (Mostly.)

Then Social Media went and happened. Add a great big new wrinkle to the whole understanding-my-friendships, why don’t you, universe? So I dipped my toe into Facebook about five years ago. I “friended” all my friends: the childhood friends, the 98 first and second cousins, the usual. Then I became this freakishly avid reader of romance novels and I started friending the authors of those books. They were imaginary. I remember when Julia Quinn “accepted” my friend request and I was all aflutter. I knew she wasn’t ever coming over to dinner, but you know, we were “friends.” I guess the air-quotations say it all. *finger quotation* FRIENDS *finger quotation*

Here come the platypi. Is it live or is it Memorex? Fish or fowl? Friend or faux?

During my strange and wonderful travels in social media—particularly on Twitter which lends itself to totally inappropriate revelations of an intimate, sordid, personal nature—some of the air-quotation friends gradually became honest-to-goodness call-in-the-middle-of-the-night-because-I-am-freaking-out friends. As with all of the good friends I’ve made as an adult, these friends share a passion. On Twitter, that shared passion is usually books and a shared passion is powerful friend glue. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

There’s that inexplicable “thing” that allows me to trust another human being to be my friend. The sound of their voice. The look in their eye. For me personally, that is not something that can be entirely based on social media alone. Don’t get me wrong! I trust many people I’ve never met in person, but they are not my friends. How could they be? I haven’t sniffed them. (I’m only half-joking about that.) Needless to say, the meaning of the word friend in society at large has been muddied by the omnipresence of air-quotation-friends. Facebook friends.

Exhibit A: When I first read Miranda Neville’s Never Resist Temptation I held it up to my husband and said, “THIS! This is what I am talking about! Smart! Sexy as hell! Witty! Clever without being toplofty! THIS!” At that point in time, Miranda was an imaginary author, a remote personage. I sent her a gushy fan email. She replied. We started laughing about the same things on Twitter. She was becoming a person. Then, when I met Miranda at RWA in New York City, I was still all fan-girl quivery and crazy. (I’m pretty sure I still like that book way more than she does and it continues to unnerve her). Anyway, it was like *click* because the minute she opened her mouth with that lovely British accent and ordered a second glass of wine I was like this:

Image

(And Miranda was probably like Steve Carrell in the background.) I knew we were going to become friends. And then it happened with a few other people. I read Anne Calhoun’s Liberating Lacey and sent her a fan email and now she is my Friend. Capital F. Ditto Mira Lyn Kelly. The list goes on. These are people I’ve met in real life. We’ve hugged. We’ve looked into one another’s eyes and agreed that we have a shared something. (I’ve sniffed.) In any case.

Here’s where it gets tricky. This little platypus blog all got started because I was watching a conversation on Twitter between some people who were saying how it’s a little odd when a Goodreads review says something like, “By the way, I am friends with the author.” There’s no right answer here. If the person writing the review wants to feel like they are showing a modicum of public disclosure (“Hey, I know this person in Real Life and she’s a real dynamo, but my feelings about the book are such-and-such regardless of our friendship…”) I totally respect that. If the person writing the review sounds like a douche (“Nicholas Sparks and I were at his villa in Montserrat sharing a robust Barolo while he read passages aloud, and I loved this book…”) Then, well, I don’t. (That said, I would probably “like” that Sparks review because it would have made me laugh—which is always worth a thumbs-up—but “liking” is a whole different story.)

There’s a bunch of other stuff I could address about the nature of friendship and its innumerable gray areas. Some seem obvious, like, you can’t pay someone to be your friend. But. Even that. My agent is my friend and she gets 15% of everything I earn. (I’d give her more, but that’s the going rate.) My husband is my friend and, in the end, he’ll get 100%. So, I don’t know much about anything, really, except if someone takes the time to read a book and slap a review up there, they’re braver than I am. 

PS Here is a review that factored into my thoughts on this essay:

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/577430301

My friend Janet wrote it about my novella, Bound to Be a Bride. Janet and I met and became friends in much the same way I became friends with Miranda Neville: over time. I think Janet is ever-mindful of the ramifications of sock-puppetry and felt the need to say “knows me” so she wouldn’t be accused of “hiding” that fact. Or something.

7 thoughts on “Friend or Faux

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read a review that made me think the reviewer was trying to do anything other than reveal a possible conflict of interest or perhaps do a little fan squee-ing. That is, I don’t think I’ve ever read the sort of namedropping review you suggest. Though perhaps my eyes just glaze over them. I’ve read a lot of opinions on the importance of full disclosure, which is why I try to do it.

  2. Oh yay! I feel very cool to have inspired a blog post. I’ve even gone to the trouble of hooking up the bluetooth keyboard to the ipad so I don’t litter with mad typos.

    I asked the question on twitter because after reading “I know the author” in Janet’s review I wondered if I was the one out of step. BTW, it’s something I’ve been mulling over for some time because both disclosed and undisclosed “friendships” and/or paid business relationships is an *issue* for me and I always want to factor in my perception of the author/reviewer connection in how much credibility I’m willing to grant to the review. Twitter is great fun and I love talking to authors but it sure has muddied the waters. Kudos to you and Janet for addressing the issue so forthrightly! “I know the author” in this case was unclear, but I’ve never been shy about asking for clarification. Still, I think if you feel the need to mention it, you should define it.

    Noodling around the Kindle store this morning I stumbled upon a book that has eleven really really really swoony reviews and in every single one a form of “haunting” appears. Now that’s some mighty fine sock puppetry! The real deal. 🙂

  3. Yes, the muddying of the waters has made me wish I’d never joined twitter, on occasion. Though I feel like I’m starting to get the right balance now.

    It’s interesting, because I never thought out a specific policy in my mind, but I now realize I have been unconsciously following one. I’ve disclosed “knowing” an author when we’re had an interaction outside the public eye, not specifically related to their books. And of course, if they gave me the book. If we follow each other on twitter and make some friendly remarks, I don’t consider it necessary to disclose it.

  4. Dear Megan. What a lovely blog post. Unnerved? I don’t know. I think it’s because I come from a culture that avoids enthusiasm. “I read your book; it was quite good” is high praise and the appropriate response is an embarrassed grunt. Please go on gushing and I will go on grunting.

    I love the romance community and value my interactions online but I agree that face time is needed for real friendship (waves to Anne Calhoun and Janet Webb.) I always feel a little weird reading reviews by people I know online. I don’t expect their opinion to be changed by our acquaintance and I don’t resent bad reviews. I click away from reviews (whether I know the reviewer or not) that look like they may be unfavorable because I cannot control a negative emotional response, even if logically I don’t mind.

  5. I’ve been thinking about the circular nature of social media. Authors use it to attract readers and drum up book sales. As a reader, I use it to find authors whose books I may want to read. Chances are that if I’m attracted to an author’s voice, personality, sense of humor on twitter I’m at least halfway there to liking her authorial voice. If an author responds to me on twitter she knows (if she’s smart) that she’s found a potential reader who is predisposed to like her work. This is IMO actually a very good thing and beats the snot out of browsing mall book stores looking for the hottest bare-chested duke in a cape.

    I’m glad I don’t have an official review gig anymore and can pretty much do what I want in terms of how I write up my book commentaries. Few of them would qualify as *real* reviews. I tend to take a hard line (DISCLOSE DISCLOSE DISCLOSE!) on reviews that are perceived as “professional.” By that I mean ad-supported blogs and websites, publisher websites. Megan did give me an ARC of A Royal Pain as a result of our twitter convos and I just checked to make sure I noted that in my mini-review. Whew! I’m clean. But I don’t believe that anyone needs to disclose a twitter relationship. At this point it’s almost a given in online Romanceland.

    I noticed that the twitter convo died after I JOKED that some authors had felt me up IRL. Kidding har har! Okay, well, maybe one. Or two.

  6. @willaful I don’t think I could have found the words for any coherent thoughts on how online acquaintance and reviews fit together but I am very much of the same mind as you. There are people I chat with regularly online but we don’t email or text. We don’t discuss our families or our concerns and joys. They are fun but they are acquaintances. But there are other people – the people I’ve hugged, whose secrets I hold – that I would feel compelled to reveal a connection to when writing any kind of a review.

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