Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.
On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents - large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.
Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice; we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.‘ Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.
I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.
And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.
This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.
Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.
In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.
And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers; how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.
It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.
We, all of us, need to get critical.
*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.