Superstition, Reviews & The YA Mafia

Posted: March 3, 2011 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

So, there’s been some talk on the internets today about the YA Mafia: specifically, about whether or not it exists, and what people think it could be (or is) regardless. Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier have both weighed in, and there’s also a hashtag discussion happening on Twitter. The term has been coined by book bloggers – a significant number of whom are aspirant writers – who fear that writing negative reviews will see them put on a publishing blacklist at the recommendation of disgruntled authors. Regardless of anything else, it does appear that some bloggers genuinely have had their careers threatened in this way, and while this is truly awful, both Black and Larbalestier are right when they point out how little influence authors really wield. No matter how successful we are, or how much smack an indignant few might talk, none of us hold so much sway with our publishers or agencies that we could get them to ignore a great submission on the basis of not liking the person who wrote it. Really!

That being said, the fact that such fear is groundless doesn’t mean it’s irrational. It makes sense to want to try and stay onside with the people whose community you want to join, and given how labyrinthine and impenetrable the publishing industry looks from the outside, the fear of being judged on the basis of anything other than your writing skills is an understandable one. Superstition has always thrived among sailors because the ocean is large, mercurial and remains, even for the most seasoned captain, beyond individual control: and this is just as true of writers and the publishing industry. Sending a book out into the world is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and even now that my first novel is on shelves, I still maintain the ritual of kissing each manuscript three times before posting it to the publisher. As for the social aspect of mafias everywhere, I’ve said before that, when you’re on the outside looking in, it really does feel like all the most awesome people know each other already, like they’re constantly having rad sleepovers and drinking schnapps and telling wicked jokes, and all you can do is sit there and feel paralysed by the injustice of not being allowed to join in just because your book hasn’t been published yet, but how can it ever get published when the awesome people don’t even know your name, and so on until you’re reduced to assuming the foetal position around a cask of Fruity Lexia while whimpering the lyrics to Beautiful.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point being, writing bad reviews will not get you blacklisted. But the question of when and how to write bad – or rather, critical – reviews is something I think about constantly, because while I’ve never been an official book blogger, I’ve always enjoyed reviewing books and films. Certainly, I’ve never shied away from making my views public, but ever since becoming a published author, I no longer write book reviews on my personal blog unless they’re amazingly positive – though as a glance at the archives will prove, I’m still more than happy to go to town on obnoxious Hollywood cinema. The thing is, while 99% of all authors understand that disliking a book is not the same thing as disliking them, these are still people I’d like to meet at some point, and should that day come, I don’t want them to think of me as That Chick Who Hated My Book. This wouldn’t be an issue if I refrained from writing book reviews altogether, or if I confined myself to writing only positive ones, or if I kept the negative ones off the internet. Lots of authors go down all these roads, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

But I don’t like the feeling of self-censorship which, for me, accompanies those options. My opinions haven’t changed. I’ve always posted reviews online. It’s not as if I criticise for the sake of it, or write snark for laughs. I review as a response to stories, as a way of helping put my thoughts in order to better understand them, and I like having those discussions where other people can join in, because that way, I learn even more. As a published author, I’m very aware of the fact that whatever I write is fair game for critics, and as a member of a writing group, I also know that I can be friends with other writers regardless of how harshly we might critique each other’s work. So why, then, do I hesitate to put negative reviews on my blog?

In the end, I suppose it comes down to professional courtesy: if another writer Googles me, this blog is the first thing they’ll find, and I’d rather it made a good impression. And so, by way of compromise, I now put all my reviews – both positive and negative – on Goodreads, which feels like a much more appropriate place for them. In fact, it’s given me the confidence to start reviewing more frequently than I did before, because I don’t have to worry about a piece being too short or poorly summarised before I get to the meat of things. That’s obviously not an option for someone working as a dedicated book blogger, but as an example, it hopefully highlights the legitimate balancing act of reviewing the output of a community to which you either aspire or belong.

And as for those authors whose threatening actions have sparked this conversation in the first place: grow up and get over it. Not everyone has to like your work, and it’s far more constructive to try and learn from criticism than flail about at the fact that it exists. No author in the history of ever has managed to avoid receiving negative reviews – so why should you be any different?

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Comments
  1. Kate Elliott says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever posted a negative review of an sff book on my blog. It’s highly unlikely I ever would. I just would be too uncomfortable doing so.

    However, having said that, I think people who review should feel free to give their honest opinion. In fact, I think that the explosion of book blogging online is a really great thing because it connects readers to readers (that it connects readers to authors is good, too, but I think the reader to reader connection matters far more in this context).

    I don’t know anything about the issue of bloggers having their careers threatened, by which I mean I literally don’t know anything about it.

  2. fozmeadows says:

    Honestly, I can only think of one or two times I’ve ever been moved to write a negative review. Most of the time, what I mean by a critical review is “I liked it, but there were some problems, or things I thought could work better”. It’s more that I don’t want to feel like I can’t be critical at all for fear of offending someone.

    I’m new to the idea of the bloggers being threatened, too, but I’m willing to credit it on the basis of the little I’ve read. And I definitely think that the book blogging community is an awesome, brilliant thing.

  3. Jordyn says:

    TY so much for this post.

    • fozmeadows says:

      No problem! I’ve just looked at your blog, and I’m sorry you feel you have to stop reviewing in order to pursue a career as a writer, but I also understand completely. I’m sure that, whatever you blog in the future, it will be wonderful, and I wish you every success :)

  4. trudi says:

    I don’t review books because I’m not very good at it. I also don’t sing because I’m not very good at it. I wish sometimes that people who aren’t good reviewers wouldn’t review books, but I accept that is about as likely as everyone who can’t sing would stop singing. Hmm, next time I have that fantasy of telling a reviewer they’re wrong, I’ll imagine what a dick I’d look if I went up to a busker and told them, in front of onlookers, not to give up their day job.

  5. [...] my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me? I’ve said before that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this [...]

  6. [...] is intensely relevant to the problem at hand. While the argument itself has many facets – should aspiring writers post negative reviews, or strive to embrace a ‘be nice’ attitude? are authors, editors, agents and publishers [...]

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