There’s something unique about reading a well-written novel, regardless of its category or genre. It’s a deeply personal experience. As you read, the words fade from your immediate consciousness and you’re in the moment, seeing and hearing and feeling what the character is experiencing. Unlike watching a movie or TV show, you’re inside the character’s head. You’ve become the character, emotionally. That’s why we become so attached to characters in novels, and why we feel their pain so intensely.
And yet, a novel is something that we can share with others. It is a personal experience that other people have experienced too, so discussing a novel with another person is a way of communicating deep feelings. We’re not alone. Someone else has been where we’ve been, and can understand how we feel. We can laugh at the same jokes, and cry at the same pain. We can smile at the same beauty and exclaim at the same shocks. We share. We’re together.
But what happens if we disagree?
Someone is now telling you that your deep feelings are invalid. The journey you went through while reading the novel isn’t quite the journey you should have taken. You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong in a deeply emotional, fundamental way. You read the same words, but you missed the real experience. The implication: you are flawed.
The more a novel means to its readers, the greater the potential for highly emotional debate. Young adult fiction series, in particular, is open to such emotionally charged disputes. At a time in life when change is constant and identity is still being defined, readership often finds solace in fiction.
In social media, conversation is one step removed from the natural inhibitions of personal socialization, particularly if participants don’t know each other in real life. Online interactions about novels can quickly lead to disagreements, and it’s not uncommon for a small sector to become strident and intense in denunciation of rivals.
The reasons are probably complex, but may be partially due to the deep emotional connection these readers feel with the characters, and the pain they endure when others disagree with their experience – the invalidation they suffer if someone implies they’re wrong. Anger is a common response to buried pain, particularly when a person is unaware of it. Defense mechanisms kick in, and they lash out. These strikes provoke pain in others, and a degenerating cycle begins.
That doesn’t excuse bad behaviour. People can be hurt and angry without taking it out on others. It may, however, help explain a small sector of readers who become angry and strident.
It can be difficult to deal with such behaviour, but hitting back is rarely constructive.
Moderators of forums may be able to be encourage acceptance of a variety of interpretations and block those who persist in abusive language, but public platforms aren’t able to be controlled. Perhaps the best we can do is to be determined not to engage in hostile interactions, remembering that some who perpetuate the aggression are dealing with their own problems.