Apparently, I just can’t shut up this week. Which is odd. Because usually when I write long, link-strewn blogs about Important Politicky Stuff, it acts like a mental catharsis, allowing my opinions to recede to the hindbrain, there to simmer quietly. This week, however, everything has snowballed forwards, forcing me to keep blogging. I understand completely if you’re sick of this, in which case, I apologise. Possibly this whole outpouring is nothing more than the fevered byproduct of being stuck at home with a cold. But before my inevitable return to sloth, I have (at least) one more thing I want to discuss on the topic of feminism, criticism and YA reviews: the question of intentionality vs interpretation.

It’s long been an acknowledged that no story has only one correct interpretation. True, statements made by the author might be viewed as slightly more canonical – for lack of a better word – than those of other commenters, particularly when it comes to the semantics of worldbuilding, but by and large, we understand that it is entirely possibly for readers to come up with interpretations of the books they read that had never occurred to the authors, and which they certainly didn’t include on purpose. Where such discoveries are positive and/or thought-provoking, the vast majority of authors will accept them with gracious glee, happy to have a critical readership who approves of their storytelling. But when it comes to negative interpretations – no matter how thought-provoking – we authors have a tendency to play the intentionality card. We try to explain what we really meant, to insinuate either openly or subtly that the reviewer has simply missed something crucial in the narrative or brought their own, biased assumptions with them, and the thing is, we won’t always be wrong. There is, after all, a world of difference between critiquing a book on the basis that you found problems with it, and critiquing a book on the basis that you wish the author had written a different book entirely, or that you just don’t like the genre. But even allowing for such problems of mismatched readership, we are left with considerable room for readers to legitimately identify negative themes in the stories they read, even where those themes directly contradict the intentions of the author.

Recently, I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to the sentiment, does not magically prevent me from subconscious racism. I am not a perfect being. I make mistakes, and more importantly, I am a product of the culture in which I live – a culture which, sadly, is less than perfect when it comes to embracing  diversity. Knowing this, I try to identify my mistakes and then learn from them: I want to be a better person, and that takes constant work. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that there is only one non-white member of the cast of Solace & Grief, and while I didn’t consciously set out to engage in tokenism, any criticism of the novel along those lines would be entirely justified. I cannot unwrite what I’ve already written; I cannot unpublish what I’ve already published; and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the problem and try to do better next time. The fact that I made a mistake doesn’t make me a racist – but declaring myself not to be racist doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes, either.

Which brings me back to the question of feminism in YA novels, and the debate surrounding negative reviews. YA paranormal literature is currently dominated by female authors, a vast majority of whom would – I suspect – be offended by the suggestion that their novels could be seen as perpetuating anti-feminist sentiments. Certainly, some have taken public affront at criticism of their books for exactly that reason, as was the case when Jackson Pearce reacted to the assertion that Sisters Red encouraged a victim-blaming mentality by publicly explaining her own intentions on the blog in question.

A brief aside, before we go any further: my husband and I, like any normal couple, argue. Because he is a philosophical logician and I am a slightly crazy author, however, these everyday arguments frequently overlap with multiple pedantic meta-arguments about the differences between what was actually said and what we meant to say. And there is a difference, sometimes a very crucial one: it might not matter most of the time, but as soon as one of us phrases something such that the other person is offended, we both have to stop and separate out the intention from the effect. It’s no good just dismissing the other person’s outrage on the grounds that we meant something entirely different – the fact is that we’ve caused distress, and the most dickish thing you can do at that point is refuse to apologise or even discuss it simply because that wasn’t what you meant.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Despite the fact that I love YA, there’s still a large number of popular novels I haven’t yet read – or which, if I’m honest, I don’t intend to read, unless it’s to justify my engagement in conversations where they continue to crop up. I believe in making up your own mind about something firsthand, rather than just taking the popular word for it, but if twenty different reviews by intelligent, adult women all complain about the same problems of anti-feminist sentiment in the same subset of YA novels, then I’m not about to dismiss them out of hand. And if, as an author, you take offense at the idea that something uglier than what you intended is being talked about in connection with your novel: well, offense is your prerogative, but the fact that you wrote something doesn’t mean you get to play intentionality as a trump card in every subsequent debate. You can intend all you want, but when it comes to debates about sexism, racism, homophobia and eurocentrism in the wider SFF community – or when it comes to discussions of rape culture and alphaholes in the wider romance community, for that matter – the record is pretty clear on the fact that these negatives cultures do exist; that they are perpetuated subconsciously more than actively; and that we need to discuss them if they’re ever going to be fixed.

You, personally, are not being called an anti-feminist: certain aspects of your work are. And if you can’t appreciate that distinction – if you continue to try and prejudice intentionality over interpretation every time someone takes offence – then perhaps you shouldn’t be in the debate to begin with. But regardless of your participation, that debate will continue to be held. Because it matters. Because we care. And because perpetuating a culture of YA novels whose heroines are being sold short is not something we want to do.

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Comments
  1. Alex Fayle says:

    It’s always difficult to separate story from ego. We get offended when we put our egos in front of the story. I like how you say that it’s not the author being called anti-feminist, just the work.

    I used to take critiques very hard because the things that needed improvement in the story, I saw as faults in myself.

    I then became a freelance writer for a while and learned to separate myself from my writing. I was writing for a client and I couldn’t let ego get in my way of producing good work for my clients.

    Part of the problem is that we each have our own language. We might all be speaking English, but for each person the words mean different things. You say tomato and picture a big fire engine red slightly flattened heritage tomato and I picture a plum tomato so juicy and meaty that it’s about to explode.

    And that’s the joy and the pain of writing. The story I tell isn’t the story you read.

    • fozmeadows says:

      “And that’s the joy and the pain of writing. The story I tell isn’t the story you read.”

      Yes. This.

  2. Matthew Brown says:

    Nothing I can add. Excellent article.

  3. I absolutely agree with you that feminism in YA needs to be discussed, and discourse on it shouldn’t be suppressed, but I’m not sure how this point ties in with the current dust-up – I haven’t seen anyone being angry about having aspects of their work criticised. The issue of feminism only seems to have been brought up in justifying calling writers (not me, so I have no dog in this fight) names because their work is perceived to be anti-feminist. And that’s not the same issue at all: calling anyone names on the internet is kind of an exercise in futility, and also takes attention off the feminist discourse, so I am against it.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I completely agree re the name-calling: some of the reviews out there are truly vitriolic, and that’s never fun or defensible. Certainly, I don’t think perceiving anti-feminist sentiments in a novel is an excuse to start attacking the author. But there are certainly negative reviews out there which only critique the novel, not the writer, and where such critiques are made on the basis of anti-feminist sentiment, then strongly worded criticism – provided it doesn’t stray into ad hominem territory – is justified.

      Also, by way of sidenote: I love your books! :)

  4. But there are certainly negative reviews out there which only critique the novel, not the writer, and where such critiques are made on the basis of anti-feminist sentiment, then strongly worded criticism – provided it doesn’t stray into ad hominem territory – is justified.

    Absolutely, and that is important to say! But I admit that I was confused because this seemed connected to the whole imaginary YA mafia thing, and the only thing I’ve seen cited as a feminist issue in that context were arguments saying it was okay to attack writers (the quotes I read in Holly Black’s comments were calling writers hacks, saying they should apologise to states (?!), and saying they didn’t understand the meaning of being feminist, and yeeeeesh) for writing anti-feminist books. And I vehemently disagree with that.

    And, *blushes* thanks.

  5. rachel says:

    Drifting by, very late to the party, but I just wanted to thank you for this. I had an epiphany about a decade ago where I recognized a knee-jerk racist reaction in myself — and was APPALLED, because that’s not who I thought I was or wanted to be. The key is exactly like you say: not to deny that it happened, but to recognize the potential in ourselves and strive to act consciously and do better in future.

    I have to wonder whether the “Wicked Pretty Things” debacle hasn’t been a related situation, whether that editor had a homophobic knee-jerk reaction, and whether it could have salvaged things if she’d been honestly appalled at herself instead of defensive. I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped at all. I have to admit, however, that amongst all the finger-pointing I keep thinking to myself, “She could be ANY of us, resorting to our cultural defaults without thinking.” I bet she’ll think harder about it next time. I hope there IS a next time for her.

    • fozmeadows says:

      The Wicked Pretty Things issue is more than a little unsettling. I’d very much like to think that something positive could be salvaged from it in terms of Telep learning her lesson, or at least learning to think about her own assumptions, but given how much Running Press has been trying to distance her actions from the issue and making it out to seem like irrationality on Verday’s part, I just can’t see that she has any reason to try and change her behaviour next time. That being said, it seems like most of the authors have jumped ship from the anthology in protest, so maybe that’s punishment enough? I don’t know. But, yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out come the publication date.

  6. [...] that if they do, they shouldn’t be held responsible for it. I’ve written before about intentionality versus interpretation in YA, but what it all metaphorically boils down to is this: if a driver accidentally hits a pedestrian, [...]

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