Negative capability March 4, 2011Posted by dolorosa12 in books, internet.
Tags: books, internet, online literary community, reviewing, writing, ya literature
Typically, it was the whole YA Mafia kerfuffle that tempted me out of my hermit hole. I’ve been kind of absent from most of my online haunts recently, and wondering if I would ever get back into blogging. And then this happened. For the best summary of events thus far, you should probably check out this roundup on YA Highway. As you can imagine, I have Opinions about the stuff that’s bouncing around.
Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first. I’m obviously a book blogger. I maintain this blog, a fanblog for Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, and a Livejournal. I’m also on Twitter and participate in the discussion on various authors’ and publishers’ blogs. I am also an ‘old media’ reviewer. I’ve written reviews for an Australian newspaper (mainly on YA literature) for the past nine years. Although there’s very little overlap between my online and newspaper work (and it’s not exactly a secret in either sphere that I’m reviewing in the other), my online reviews tend to be more about books I like, although I may write from time to time about a ‘phenomenon’ in literary trends with which I’m uneasy or displeased. My newspaper reviews range more widely in tone, since by definition, I have less control over what books I review there, and so I’m likely to come into contact with books I dislike.
My reviewing both online and for the paper has occasionally brought me into contact with authors. There are several with whom I have some sort of relationship (which mainly consists of discussing books and ideas either online or in real life). In both spheres, however, I’m small enough fry that, to be honest, nothing I say is going to have a huge amount of impact or be noticed by that many people.
I am a reader of The Sparkle Project, and I agree with its general point that there is an unsettling trend of misogyny, if not downright romanticising of domestic violence and abuse in some popular YA literature today.*
This is where I’m standing, then, and what follows is the perspective of a person ‘quietly observing standing in my space’, so to speak.
There is a bit of fail on both sides of this debate, but as far as I’m concerned, the biggest fail by far is the problems both sides seem to be having in understanding one another’s grievances. However, most of the failure in this regard is emanating from the authors’ and publishers’ corner, although I accept that Ceilidh_ann on the Sparkle Project was probably not strong enough in shutting down some rather nasty comments on her blog.
Ceilidh_ann herself puts it better than I can in relation to authors Just Not Getting It.
The Mafia thing wasn’t just about that; it was about watching authors tell reviewers and future authors to “be nice” or else they’d risk bad karma and people like Becca Fitzpatrick would take any opportunity to mock you about it and having her author friends congratulate her for supposedly taking the high road (the original entry has since been Flocked on LJ but is available to read on GoodReads.) It was about watching author friends give each other cover quotes when to me it felt like “doing your friends a favour” instead of judging the work based on its merits (hell, I can’t even review the book of an author who I’m friends with on LJ and twitter, it just feels too close for me.) It was about seeing authors brag about their good connections and how they helped them get publishing deals, as was the case with Aprilynne Pike and her friend Stephenie Meyer, who passed her book onto her agent Jodi Reamer. It was about hearing from other bloggers who has also been on the receiving end of bad author behaviour (said people do not want to be named so I hope you respect that, even if you don’t believe me). It was about watching bloggers be accused of something akin to censorship for discussing what they saw as extremely problematic, then twisting their words around to fit their argument better (The Book Smugglers’ review of “Sisters Red” being the prime example here, especially in the wake of the Bitch media mess). It was about watching author after author fawn over a mediocre writer with a documented history of fandom plagiarism solely because she sold well.
In other words, we, as book reviewers, are saying one thing, and authors are hearing another. And what we are saying, over and over again, is, ‘If you in the YA publishing world are not going to be negative about any other YA book (which is totally okay) then we are going to be negative if we think there are grounds for negativity‘. Earth-shattering, I know.
What on earth are book-reviewers for if not to inform the world at large – and potential readers in particular – of their opinions of a particular book? We are not here to provide blurbs so that authors can sell more books (although if we do so – and some of my quotes have been used as blurbs on authors’ books – well, yay for us). We are here to tell people what we thought of a particular book, and why. We are here to help people decide if a particular book is something they’ll enjoy, or something they should flee to the hills in order to avoid. Sometimes, unfortunately, this requires us to be critical. An experienced reviewer is able to be critical without being cruel, to be honest without being rude and to explain his or her problems with a book clearly in a way that makes it obvious that such problems may not be problems for every person.** And if authors ask us to ‘be nice’ (with just a hint of a threat), as Becca Fitzpatrick has done, it is preventing us from doing our job.
As a reviewer, I feel very strongly that if I’m not able to express my dislike of a book, I have failed in my duty to readers.*** I have seen what happens when reviewers fail to express an opinion. The reviews become bland, neutral plot summaries. On the surface, that may appear to be sensible, since it ostensibly allows readers to make up their own minds based on plot alone, but in fact it’s a bit intellectually dishonest. Book reviews need to set the book in a broader context of trends in the field, thematic concerns, why particular elements of the plot failed, how it compares to the author’s other work – and that’s only the bare minimum. Think of the plot of a book you read and dislike, and imagine reading just that bare outline. Would that inform you whether or not you’d enjoy the book? I think not.
Being a reviewer is a balancing act. Rather than affecting neutrality and pretending that your own tastes and preferences are non-existent, embrace them. Think about them, categorise them, work out your own quirky likes and dislikes. Let them shine through in your reviews while at the same time owning and acknowledging them, and recognising that other people’s tastes might be different. All of this needs to come across in a review. And this means that sometimes, you are going to have to be negative.
A bad review is not going to make or break an author’s career. Neither is a single good review going to make an author a success. With all due respect, the single greatest thing that will aid an author’s success is that author writing an absolutely fantastic book.
*’It was about never seeing authors or people in the YA industry discuss some of the anti-feminist attitudes prevailing in an increasingly popular trend, where a character is simply a sexy bad boy for holding a girl down on a bed against her will and saying he wants to kill her. I understand being professional, I really do, but I didn’t think then, and I still don’t, that professionalism included putting your fingers in your ears and ignoring the obvious.’
** I, like all readers, have various idiosyncratic preferences and turn-offs, and sometimes a book will trigger these. If I’m doing my job properly, I’m able to communicate that while such and such a thing doesn’t appeal to me personally, other readers may enjoy it.
*** This is sometimes heartbreaking, especially when it requires me to be critical of an author whose works I adored as a child. But I still do it.