Anyone who frequents writers' online forums know that the way they work varies widely, from relaxed gossip, rigorous critiquing, swapping information, answering cries for help on 12th century journey times and 21st century divorce laws, celebrating success and supporting disappointments, to sophisticated arguments about voice, structure, narrative technique, characterisation or the possibilities of second-person narrative.
One member - let's call her Calliope - of a big site which encompasses all these elements, received a private mail from the resident nasty piece of work - let's call him Caliban - bemoaning the fact that the site was no longer sufficiently 'serious', as witness a thread I'd started in the forum specifically dedicated to things not to do with writing. Calliope wasn't a good person to try this particular divisive effort on, as she's one of the most serious members, with a contract for a book critiqued on the site under her belt, an excellent agent and a bright-looking future. And since a really big booktrade prize win had been recently announced, and at least three members were in the process of being taken on by big agents, it would have been hard to persuade anyone that the site was descending into trivia. Nor was I exactly the best target for an accusation of lack of seriousness, perhaps. There wasn't so much as a ripple on the site: I think Caliban is losing his touch. Once upon a time he was much better at picking a correspondent who would be flattered at the confidence, a subject with some truth in it, and a target more likely to be upset.
But since I know of forums on other more volatile sites which have been nearly brought down by such tactics, it's made me realise that the writerly world would be much the poorer without the good ones. Yes, they get cliquey, yes, some are sadly lacking in discrimination and others in compassion. No, they won't get you a book deal, and no, they won't make you into a good or successful - let alone great - writer if you aren't built to be one anyway. But writing seriously - especially before you are published - not only demands isolation, but is in itself very isolating. Such sites are everything from a sanity-saver to a writing tutor to an agent-attractor. I remember someone starting a thread on WriteWords which asked members who in their normal lives understood their writing. The number of members who said 'no one' was frightening. From the friends who said you must hate them because you were finishing revisions instead of going down the pub, to the parents who told you you were wasting your time, so many members had stories not just of lack of understanding but of downright (if hidden) hostility. I know serious writing is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which not everyone suffers from, but the only reason I can see for some such reactions is that many social groups find it deeply threatening when one of their number chooses do something - passionately, committedly - beyond their own narrow horizons. Perhaps Caliban, too, feels threatened by others' commitment and success.
There were touching stories too: partners who never read your fiction or anyone else's, but willingly supported you financially so you could write, and someone whose published book was the first book of any kind her father had read in twenty years. But there are some things - many things - that only writers want to talk about. Like what do you do if the only agent who wants to sign you after dozens of rejections thinks your book is chick lit when you though you were writing a searing indictment of modern urban society (or the other way round). Or whether the third round of revisions to your novel has made all the difference. Or the fact that true-born short fiction writers aren't just practising for the novel and won't be publishing 'a real book' any time soon. The publishing trade, which takes little account of how writers reach the point where their work is publishable, let alone published, scarcely knows most of these sites exist either. But they do. And they're very necessary: without them, there'd be less good writing to publish.