Posts Tagged ‘YA’

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market - as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway - which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

Sometimes, I read a thing, and despite whatever mixture of rage, incredulity, consternation and general agogness it provokes in me, I nonetheless manage to sit down, muster my thoughts in an orderly fashion, and write out a calm and cogent rebuttal.

Other times, I read a thing, and my entire brain explodes in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor. When that happens, I still try to do the whole cogent rebuttal thing, but I don’t always succeed, and the end result usually involves swearing.

This would be one of those others times.

Behold this blog post by author Rod Rees, expressing his thoughts as to whether or not male authors can successfully write female characters. This is an important question, one that can and frequently does lead to interesting discussions about privilege, the male gaze, stereotypes and default narrative settings; that being said, my short answer is always going to be an unequivocal yes. Above and beyond the fact that many of my favourite fictional ladies are male creations, I strongly distrust gender essentialism in all its forms, and the idea that women are inherently different, unknowable creatures, such that we exist beyond the true comprehension of men, falls firmly into that category. So, from the outset, let me be clear: male authors are totally, 100% capable of writing a wide variety of awesome female characters, and many of them frequently do just that.

But Rod Rees, I suspect, is not among them.

The utter gobsmacking cluelessness of his approach to the matter can best be summed up in the following quote:

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’

OK. Look. As I’ve recently had occasion to say elsewhere, women are not a hivemind. No one woman speaks for all women. And obviously, men can have genuine insight into women as individuals that some women might not have. But part of that insight must necessarily come from listening to women, and especially on the topic of women themselves. So when Rees’s response to criticism on the topic of women, by a woman, is a straight-up desire to gainsay her – as though her lived experience of actually being a woman is automatically inferior to his observations of same? That, I’m prepared to say, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE of a healthy, helpful attitude.

As for admiring our breasts in the mirror, some women certainly do that. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say it’s something I’ve done myself. But if I’m agreeing with Rees, then what’s the issue? The answer is twofold: first, his reaction to the criticism as outlined above; and second, the text of the actual passage in question, which it just so happens I’ve read. Because there’s a big, honking difference between showing someone doing something normally, and showing someone doing something normal in an exaggerated, problematic fashion – such as, to pick just one example, the difference between the way women actually eat salad, and the way we’re depicted eating salad in a disturbingly large number of advertisements. Which, once again, isn’t to say that no woman in the entire history of human civilisation has ever sat at home, alone, laughing manically while delicately lofting a piece of cos in the direction of her epiglottis – it’s just that, by and large, this isn’t what happens.

This is how Rees describes Odette at the start of The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberte. That she stood tall and proud… and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting…

Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast – and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail – was unsheathed. ‘Tempting but Untouchable’ was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion. 

Which is to say, he spends near as dammit two whole paragraphs describing her boobs in that telltale way invariably used by people without boobs of their own who are nonetheless possessed of a great interest in the boobs of others, viz: by using the language and phraseology of a sexually interested outsider, as opposed to the language and phraseology of someone who, regardless of their levels of self and sexual confidence, is talking about their own body. Because – and I’m speaking from experience, here – the idea of a woman who thinks that “her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion” is about seven different shades of ludicrous, never mind the “full and plump” part. More to the point, though: these are descriptions that Rees has actively chosen to incorporate into his narrative. We don’t need to hear a lengthy paean to Odette’s breasts in order to picture her physically, and we certainly don’t need one in order for the story to make sense, but we have them, because Rees likes boobs and thinks that his readers might like them, too. And that’s fine! It is totally cool that Rod Rees likes boobs, and wants to share his boob-love with the world. But that doesn’t mean that Odette’s thoughts about her breasts are any way realistic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his decision to start the first paragraph of the first chapter with lots of gratuitous boobietalk isn’t going to look like a cheap, sensationalist ploy to grab the attention of male readers.

Returning, then, to Rees’s blog post, I find his apparent belief that male characters are typically the victims of more negative, pervasive stereotyping than female ones to be not only bizarre, but wildly inaccurate. He writes:

Female characters are, in my humble opinion… free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

Ignoring the gender essentialism of that last sentence – because benevolent sexism is still sexism, Mr Rees, however much you’d like to believe it’s a complimentary attitude – my reaction to this paragraph can best be summarised as follows: are you fucking KIDDING me? In what universe aren’t female characters subject to rampant stereotyping? In what universe are they stereotyped less than guys? I mean, where do I even begin debunking this bullshit? With the omnipresent damsel in distress trope? With the ubiquity of women in refrigerators? With an in-depth conversation about just how many stories don’t pass the Bechdel test, and why film schools actively teach screenwriters to fail it? I mean, Christ on a fucking BICYCLE – this is 101 stuff, and it is EVERYWHERE. And if Rees honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is a bigger goddamn problem than the stereotyping of women – by which I mean, if he honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is more common, more pernicious, and more deeply intertwined with fucked-up, sexist cultural notions about traditional gender roles than female stereotyping*? Then we have more and bigger problems than the boobie issue.

Such as, for instance, the fact that Rees thinks that learning exclusively about radical feminism is the same thing as being “pretty clued up” about the entirety of feminism:

What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

Firstly, if you’re going to describe feminism as a “quasi-religion” - as opposed to, you know, the crazy belief that women are people who deserve equal rights, and coincidentally, where the fuck is my MRA bingo card when I need it, oh wait, it’s right here, and lookie! “Feminism is a religion” IS ACTUALLY ON IT, please wait while I headdesk unto infinity - then you have officially forfeited the right to talk about feminism as though you understand it. Period. Secondly, if you are incapable of distinguishing between radical ANYTHING and the non-radical version, then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FAIL BASIC COMPREHENSION FOREVER. I mean, is it really THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT? He’s got the word radical IN there, and yet is evidently unaware of its role as a descriptive qualifier. Thirdly, why do I feel like the radical feminism Rees is referring to belongs to the same, outdated, Andrea Dworkin school of fringe theories that Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are so fond of conflating with the movement as a whole? What, did all these old, embittered white guys go to the same seminar on Why Feminism Is Insane back in 1973 and just take it as gospel forever and ever, amen? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?

And then, it gets even worse.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over… I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon.

Bear in mind, this comment is made in response to a female reader objecting to the fact that one of his female characters described herself  as “a lush thrush with a tight tush”.

Seriously.

Savour that phrase for a moment. It might well be worse than the bit about the jiggling, untethered breasts, but either way, it’s sort of like comparing guano to horseshit, if animal faeces were composed entirely of gross, sexually objectifying language. But, I digress, because Rees has once again missed the point by a margin so epic, it’s like watching a man trying to drive to Dover and ending up in Calais. The issue isn’t with what your female characters are doing – it’s how and why you portray them doing it, and whether or not you’ve stereotyped them horribly in the process. Which, given the fact that Rees is evidently oblivious to the issue of female stereotyping – he even goes on to lament his “troubling suspicion” that feminist critique is trying to “confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been” – sends up a red flag the size of Neptune about his total inability to recognise and avoid it. (As do his unthinking use of the Big Breast Pride and Omniscient Breasts tropes. For instance.)

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Let me get this straight: according to Rees, female authors only succeed in writing YA fantasy novels because it’s easy, and that once they try to venture into the “more visceral world of adult fiction”, they “struggle” to move beyond the “stereotype” of non-passive, actively feminist characters – and this is “why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres”?

WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.

Here’s an alternate theory: adult SF and fantasy are chock-full of spectacular women writers despite the fact that troglodytic, sexist asshats like Rod Rees think that most of us are incapable of writing grown-up characters due to our Hindering Ladyfeelings. Plus and also? The idea that you graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA – or rather, that WOMEN can graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA, presumably because men who write about jiggling tits are sculpting literary masterpieces whatever the age of their intended audience – is fucking INSULTING.

And I just. I CANNOT with this fuckery, this I’m-so-enlightened-because-I-have-a-wife-and-daughters, therefore it’s COMPLETELY OK that I sexually objectify my female characters using the grossest language possible, ignore all female criticism of same because I know more about being a woman than women do, write off feminism as a radical religion while claiming to know all about it, and plead total and comprehensive ignorance of even the most basic forms of stereotyping that affect women in narrative, all while positing that the dearth of female writers in my field is due to female incompetence. YES. YOU ARE TRULY A PRINCE AMONG FEMINISTS.

AUGH.

I don't want to live on this planet any more

Angry dome

*Which isn’t to say that male stereotyping isn’t a problem: it is, and it’s rife with problematic gender essentialism, too, particularly around the perpetuation of culturally constructed, restrictive and ultimately toxic notions of masculinity. Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation afforded to men as opposed to women, and a much greater variety of male portrayals as opposed to female, which is why (for instance) you have Seth Rogan acknowledging the fact that Pineapple Express would never have been made if it were about two girls, and that he wouldn’t have a career if he were female.

30 June 2013, ETA: As of today, Jo Fletcher Books has taken down both Rees’s original post and a post published subsequently wherein Jo Fletcher explained why she’d allowed it to appear in the first place. (In a nutshell: Because Free Speech, I don’t censor my authors even though it’s not something I’d have written myself, which is fine, except that this isn’t what people were objecting to – or at least, not insofar as the decision to publish went – and therefore came across as missing the point. As was explained by several people in comments on that second post, the issue on that count was more to do with the fact that, if you publish something on your company blog, regardless of whether or not You, The Person agree with it, then people are, not unreasonably, going to assume that You, The Organisation does – or at the very least, that your company doesn’t *disagree* enough with the content not to have refrained from publishing it in the first place. Thus: if you publish a sexist piece on the company blog, then while Because Free Speech will certainly explain your personal decision to do so, this explanation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for an explanation about why you chose to associate your company with sexism – or, more pertinently in this case, with why you’d then be surprised that people were disappointed in you for having done so.)

Anyway. The original blog might be gone, but this being the internet, it lives on in cache and screencap, in which form it can still be found here.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.

After encountering a slow but steady stream of positive reviews for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I decided to give it a read; and when I saw that the wonderful AnimeJune of review blog Gossamer Obsessions had the same idea, it only made sense to put our heads together and write a joint review. The result was a back and forth about the novel’s themes and merits, of which there are many – and here it is.

The Synopsis:
 

AnimeJune: The story takes place in the nation of Goredd – a place (modelled on medieval Europe), in which humans and dragons coexist. Thanks to a treaty drafted forty years ago by the human Queen Lavonda and the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, this coexistence has been peaceful, but only barely. Most humans continue to hate and fear dragons, thanks in large part to the dominant religion that depicts them as soulless animals at best, and an unholy scourge on the earth at worst.

Meanwhile, most dragons, despite their ability to take human form and study among humankind, remain baffled by human sentiment and interaction. Inherently logical and mathematical, dragons rigidly police their own emotions, and so often come across as tactless and awkward in their dealings with humans.

Into this conflicted world comes Seraphina. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Seraphina is a child of both worlds, born of a human father and a dragon mother. However, her father raised her to despise and hide her true parentage since both sides consider half-breeds to be anathema – or they would, if they weren’t convinced human-dragon interbreeding was impossible. Despite Seraphina’s fierce desire to avoid attention and fly under the radar, she has an equally fierce passion for music and, against her father’s wishes, she takes a position as assistant to Viridius, official musician to the Goreddi royal family.

When the Goreddi crown prince is murdered in a visibly draconian way two weeks before the Ardmagar is set to visit, Seraphina finds her anonymity threatened by bumbling dragons, bigoted humans, sinister politics, a disturbingly astute and investigative Prince, and her own uncanny talents.

Foz: Forty years ago, the human Queen Lavonda of Goredd forged a peace treaty with the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, effectively ending a war between the two races. Trust, however, has proved much harder to come by, thanks to both the Goreddi religion of Allsaints, which demonises dragons, and the mixture of contempt and confusion with which dragons, a highly logical species, view human emotions. Further complicating this state of affairs is the fact that dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into human form, in which guise – called a saarantras – they’re distinguishable by little more than their alien mannerisms, silver blood and, in the majority of cases, the enforced wearing of distinctive bells. This leads not only to human fears of dragon infiltration (to say nothing of prompting endless, lascivious jokes about the highly taboo prospect of cross-species sex), but to dragon fears of human contamination. The latter charge is a serious one: all saarantrai are monitored by the Censors – a powerful dragon agency with the power to physically excise the brains of emotionally compromised dragons – and must learn to partition their thoughts accordingly.

The story is told from the point of view of Seraphina, a teenage girl with a dangerous secret: her mother, Linn, was a saarantras, a fact she concealed from her human husband and which was only revealed with her death in childbirth. As a result of her mixed heritage, Seraphina not only possesses extraordinary musical talent, but has scales on her arm and stomach and unusual mental powers. Working to control her unique magic with the help of her dragon-uncle, Orma – a music scholar who doesn’t wear a bell, and is therefore widely assumed to be human – Seraphina wants only to excel in her new position as assistant music mistress at the Goreddi court. But when the crown prince Rufus is killed in the lead-up to the treaty celebrations – and worse, killed in a manner suggestive of a dragon attack – Seraphina finds herself drawn into the heart of human-dragon politics. Working with the bastard prince Lucian Kiggs to discover the truth behind his uncle’s death, Seraphina must confront not only her mother’s buried memories, but also the implications of her own abilities – and all while keeping her bloodline secret from those who would deem her a monster.

 

The Main Character
 

AnimeJune: When it comes to the heroine, Seraphina, I stand here overjoyed and relieved because she could have been exactly the type of YA heroine I dislike the most – the Mopey Sadsack who doesn’t understand how good she has it until someone else (usually a guy) convinces her how awesome she is. Instead, she’s a multifaceted, determined, and fiercely intelligent character.

She does harbour a fair amount of self-loathing – after all, both dragons and humans would consider her a monster if they knew what she was, and the dragon scales on her left arm and around her waist never let her forget. She’s also visited by visions of the dragon memories her mother bequeathed to her during childbirth, as well as visions of bizarre, often-deformed people with whom she shares a strange connection.

However, what I immediately like about Seraphina is that she could have hidden herself away as a recluse in her father’s house, but she didn’t. With all her freakish flaws, Seraphina also possesses a wondrous gift for music and she follows that passion to find a position in the royal court, very much in defiance of her father’s wishes. Seraphina still avoids social contact, thinks of herself as a freak, and assiduously guards her secret beneath layers of lies and ill-fitting clothing – but she still pursues the passion that makes her happy. She still believes herself worthy of independence, even though it comes at the high cost of loneliness. To me, that says so much about her. She’s not a cursed damsel waiting to be rescued or a martyr who believes herself unworthy of joy. She’s a little too aware of what makes her strange and frightening, but she’s also aware of what gives her power, and I loved that about her.

Foz: I very much agree with AnimeJune’s assessment. Though Seraphina does struggle with self-loathing, she’s also quick-witted, compassionate, practical and possessed of a sharp, sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and better still, she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Far too often, SFF stories narrated by troubled heroines with mysterious pasts and outcast baggage default to use of the Broken Bird trope, with only a smattering of black humour to leaven the pervasive mood of hardboiled despair and repression. By contrast, Seraphina is not only inquisitive and cheerful, but determined to succeed on her own merits – not ashamed of her heritage, but rather fearful of its implications.

This means that, despite her (very reasonable) worries about her own monstrousness, Seraphina reads as exquisitely human. As a heroine, she fully inhabits her actions: we always understand exactly why she’s said or done a particular thing, because her motives are always in keeping with her personality, rather than being impinged on by the needs of the plot, and in a novel as rich and satisfying as this, that’s no mean feat.

 

The Supporting Cast
 
Foz: When it comes to characterisation, Hartman is an incredibly skilled practitioner. In the hands of a lesser writer, certain of the recognisable archetypes underpinning her secondary characters would be cartoonish and stereotypical, or else inverted so clumsily as to achieve much the same effect. Instead, her touch is both deft and subtle, leaving us with a gorgeously varied and believable supporting cast. Her employer, the gouty music master Viridius, is a case in point: though pompous and demanding at times, he’s also possessed of unexpected depths, guiding Seraphina both politically and musically through her time at the Goreddi court. Princess Glisselda, too, is a lovely surprise: beautiful, blonde and Seraphina’s romantic rival, it would’ve been the work of a moment to render her antagonistic, stupid or both, instead of which her high spirits, flashes of arrogance and occasional naivety are counterbalanced by genuine intelligence, a desire to learn, the ability to listen, and a shrewd (if fledgling) political eye.
Far and away, though, my favourite secondary character was Orma, Seraphina’s dragon uncle. Though ostensibly cold, detached and logical, both his dry humour and respect for Seraphina completely won me over, and his development as the novel goes on is an absolute pleasure to watch. Though technically inhuman, he nonetheless felt completely believable – not just as a dragon, but as a scholar, uncle and friend.


AnimeJune: Yes! I loved Orma! The worldbuilding depicts dragons as a lot like Vulcans – while capable of emotion, they repress and police it extremely fiercely (especially when they’re more vulnerable to it in human form) because they cannot explain it in a logical, scientific manner. Orma demonstrates, in his own subtle, unconventional way, how much he cares for his niece, Seraphina, even as he risks having his mind excised of his memories of her by the dragon Censors. His character is all the more fascinating as he displays his emotions in an extremely atypical way that is, frankly, adorable.

I also quite enjoyed the minor character of the Ardmagar Comonot – the strict dragon leader who takes human form for the first time in forty years to celebrate the treaty and finds human emotion a little more than he can deal with.

That being said, my favourite supporting character is Lars – a foreign visitor invited to the Goreddi court by Viridius because of his ground-breaking (and ear-drum-breaking) musical invention, the megaharmonium (think of a giant organ). As musicians, it’s only natural that Lars and Seraphina should meet, and even more natural that they should both discover they share a secret connection. Lars’ reaction to this is one of my favourite scenes in the novel because despite the secrets he’s forced to keep (such as his heavily-implied homosexuality), he’s such an emotionally open, cheerful, friendly person. This takes Seraphina by surprise, since she’s spent her life convincing herself that closing herself off from other people is the only way to survive.

The Romance and Romantic Interest
 

AnimeJune: But enough about that! Let’s talk about the love interest. I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten a little tired of romance in YA lately. I’ve read too many YA stories in which the main plot is an action-adventure, or a science fiction parable – and this completely unnecessary romance is shoehorned in, greased with Insta-Love to make it fit without stretching the page count with, you know, actual romantic development between the characters.

So I’ve started seeing the YA Romantic Subplot as that annoying little sister the Real Plot has to babysit, something to tolerate and ignore while I hang out with the cool, funny Real Plot.

That was so not the case with Seraphina. First of all, there is no Insta-Love between Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the head of the guard charged with keeping the peace until the Ardmagar arrives. There’s no Insta-Hate, either – that tiresome rigamarole where the protagonists automatically hate and snipe at each other until they discover it’s Been True Love All Along.

Instead, they start out respecting each other. What a novel concept! Lucian is an extremely intelligent and scrupulously honest investigator who takes notice of Seraphina’s sharp observational skills and surprising knowledge of dragon culture and seeks out her assistance in finding out who murdered the crown prince. At first, Seraphina is terrified that it’ll only be a matter of time before Lucian puzzles out her own secrets, but as they spend more time together, they discover they share more in common than they thought.

Their relationship builds realistically – with increased proximity and intelligent interaction. Lucian’s attraction to Seraphina builds on his admiration of her talents (intellectual and musical) and her bravery.
Despite their relationship not being very physical (and it really can’t be – Seraphina has too much to hide and Lucian’s engaged to another), it’s extremely moving and powerful to read because it fits so completely with the development of their characters.

Foz: Once again, I’m in total agreement with Elizabeth. I cannot even begin to express how refreshing it is to read a first-person YA romance that is neither saccharine nor abusive, and which features more instances of emotional and intellectual compatibility than it does descriptions of the hero’s arms and eye colour. The attraction between Seraphina and Lucian is all the sweeter (and, at times, all the sexier) for dispensing with the traditional, cartoonish binaries of Fated Love and Impossible Obstacles, and instead focusing on how and why two such different-yet-similar characters come to love each other. Lucian treats Seraphina with kindness and respect, and she in turn esteems his skill and intelligence long before she ever admits her feelings for him.

It helps enormously that, in developing their relationship, Hartman avoids the cliched pitfalls of what I tend to think of as Sitcom Logic – that is, entendre-laden mishaps, implausibly elaborate lies, wacky coincidences and Idiot Plot devices – which so frequently seem to crop up in YA romance. Instead, their relationship develops organically: both characters are lonely, intelligent and, despite loving their respective careers, prevented from truly fulfilling them by the restrictions of duty (Lucian) and the necessity of secrets (Seraphina). Though their relationship is certainly not without mishaps, its development makes perfect sense: they really do fit together, and I can’t wait to see where Hartman leads them in the next volume.

 

Style and Worldbuilding


Foz: On a technical level, Seraphina is an exquisitely written novel. Hartman’s prose style is lyric and flowing without being purple, and though there’s no infodumping that I noticed, she nonetheless manages to convey the many complexities of an original world without either skimping on detail or bogging down the narrative. Which isn’t to say the worldbuilding is perfect; the fact that the dragons have electricity and advanced technology, for instance, while intriguing, didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the setting,  while I was never quite clear on how the Goreddi social mores could allow for a bastard prince like Lucian Kiggs to hold such a prominent court position without any apparent pushback or consequence from the other nobles. But the story is so compelling, the politics otherwise so thoughtful and the premise such a pleasing mix of the familiar and the unexpected that, by and large, I really wasn’t bothered by such minor slips or omissions: I just wanted to keep on reading.

For me, the only sour note in the whole book was Seraphina’s – and, by extension, Hartman’s – tendency to repeatedly iterate the skin-colour of POC characters, as though she were worried the audience might forget that Goreddis are white and Porphyrians brown. It really stood out to me as an instance of White Is The Default writing, as no other race or subset of characters received the same treatment; I also flinched at the inclusion of exotic Porphyrian dancing (disparagingly called bum-waggling by at least one character) as a plot point, especially as it coincides with the appearance of a Porphyrian man who, to all intents and purposes, speaks in broken English. Given the sophistication of the rest of the novel, I was disappointed to find such stereotypes included in the story; and though it certainly helps that otherwise, the POC characters were treated respectfully, it’s the one aspect where I feel Hartman could stand to improve.
On a more positive note, I absolutely loved the the inclusion of Seraphina’s mother’s memories. Each one was perfectly timed in terms of narrative placement, helping to enrich our understanding of dragon culture while simultaneously comprising some of the most beautifully written sections in the whole novel. In a story where both the heroine’s and the hero’s lives are significantly informed by the actions of their disobedient, unconventional – and, as a consequence, dead – mothers (a dual fridging conceit that could have gone badly wrong, and yet somehow works), it goes a long way towards ameliorating the Absent Female Parent factor that Linn, by dint of her first-person memories, ends up feeling much more like a living character in her own right than a distant specter. I’d very much like to see more of her, and am confident that, come Book 2, we will.

AnimeJune: I’ll have to disagree on the depiction of the Porphyrians. I see where you’re getting at now that you point it out, but as I was reading Seraphina, I thought the racist and ignorant thoughts directed towards them were intended as a parallel to the bigotry the dragons endured. Many of the Goreddi feel their bigotry towards dragons is justified because dragons are simply “soulless animals,” and they believe the Queen should put human concerns first and foremost – but then these same Goreddi turn around and make fun of the Porphyrians. To me, it underscores how their bigotry will simply target anything that is significantly different from them – regardless of species.

What nettled me about the worldbuilding with Seraphina was how, forty years after the truce, the human population was still almost entirely opposed to dragons. If all but a very, very few humans are still violently opposed to dragons, how come the Queen’s dragon treaty managed to last four decades without any major incidents? How come there were no uprisings or revolutions until now? It didn’t seem realistic that a whole generation of humans would just sit on their hands for this long if their hate was that powerful.

Moreover, human lives and memories are significantly shorter than those of dragons. While there are dozens of dragons depicted as willing to overlook the atrocities the humans committed against their kind (atrocities these dragons still remember thanks to their ability to pass memories down generations), there are almost no human characters willing to see dragons in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong – the rampant bigotry is a realistic and understandable obstacle in the novel, but I did expect there to be more humans (at least those of the younger generation born after the treaty) willing to work with dragons.

For me, however, that was a minor quibble. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz – the general worldbuilding strikes the perfect balance in terms of detail – not enough to be a slog, but not so little of it that it feels like a wallpaper fantasy.

All in all, I just plain enjoyed this book. It was a meaty, emotional story with sympathetic and well-drawn characters, a truly swoon-worthy romance, and some fantastic magic and worldbuilding to explore.

Foz: Agreed. Seraphina is a truly excellent novel, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

AnimeJune: Thank you so much, Foz, for having such a great discussion with me about such a great book!

Foz: My pleasure!

Warning: spoilers for both books.

Without question, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre, not just because it’s heart-stoppingly original, exquisitely written, gorgeously characterised, perfectly structured and amazingly worldbuilt, but because it defies easy categorisation – at least on the surface. On first perusal, it reads as YA urban fantasy right up until you realise it’s somehow transmuted into adult epic fantasy, and when the hell did that happen? Which is less confusing than it is brilliant, Taylor’s skill at successive big reveals being consummate; the point being, though, that it’s really both and neither. What Daughter is – what the series is, as Days of Blood and Starlight makes clear – is an epic portal fantasy, and once you come to that realisation, the whole starts to become… well, not clear, because the story was never unclear, but better contextualised.

Because whether we mean to or not, we all as readers – as audiences – rely on narrative signposting to tell us what kind of story we’re in. If we misread those signs, then it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the story itself is somehow at fault for failing to meet our expectations, when more often than not, the fault is ours for assuming they were valid to begin with. And I say this now because, in reading other reviews of Starlight – many of which are mixed – the single common thread seems to be a species of bewilderment, or complaint, or uncertainty, or surprise at the very least, that the book wasn’t what the reviewer thought it should be. And prior to having read it, that worried me a little, because Daughter was so incredible that obviously – obviously! – it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, which is so often true of impressive first installments. But now, it seems that, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t with the book, but with the expectations of the audience: or, more specifically, the expectation that a story which has as its starting point the genocide of the heroine’s people by her former lover would be anything other than a war story.

Days of Blood and Starlight is a dark, heartbreaking exploration of the consequences of terrorism, empire, slavery, dehumanisation, power and sacrifice, and the myriad ugly ways in which violence and retribution are self-perpetuating. It is also – quite naturally, given the scope of the worldbuilding, but perhaps jarringly to anyone who took the urban fantasy elements at the start of Daughter to be thematically integral to the series rather than a skillfully executed smokescreen – epic. Literally: the bulk of the story takes place in the world of Eretz, which is at war, and so employs multiple POV characters – many new, and some of them one-shots – to give us an all-over view of the conflict. As any habitual, critical reader of epic works will tell you, this is an easy gambit to get wrong: too many new characters can bog the narrative, drive it off track, or otherwise detract from the central, pivotal struggle. But in the case of Starlight, Taylor has managed this potentially hazardous structure with a rare graceful economy – in large part, I suspect, because her native writing style is so uniquely beautiful. In all respects, Taylor’s prose is like the musculature of a hunting cat: glossy, gorgeous, evocative and a form of poetry in its own right, but perfectly balanced, powerful and with not an ounce of flesh wasted. All of which – Taylor’s literary skill and Starlight’s martial themes both – can be summed up in a single, encompassing sentence:

“What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?”

This question, ultimately, cuts to the heart of the novel. Akiva’s actions in bringing about the fall of Loramendi – and, as a direct consequence, the effective genocide and enslavement of the chimaera – are unforgivable. Akiva knows this, Karou knows this, the narrative knows this; and yet, because this is a hard, dark story, both the reader and Akiva are still forced to confront the reality of what comes next – or rather, the fact that something does come next. The world doesn’t stop nor the clock turn back: Akiva isn’t trying for redemption, but still he has to move forwards, all the while dragging the weight of what he’s done, because there isn’t any alternative. A new world still needs to be fought for, even by people like him. But Akiva isn’t alone in having blood on his hands: as Thiago’s new resurrectionist, Karou effectively enables his campaign of terrorism – the slaughter of innocent civilians, mothers and children – by building him a new and brutal army. Akiva’s betrayal has broken her; she is grieving, pained both physically and mentally by the strains of her task, and tortured by shame and guilt at the thought of her role in what happened at Loramendi. And yet, this doesn’t excuse her ignorance, the length of time it takes her to understand the use to which her gifts are being put – the bleak and utter darkness of Thiago’s revenge. Just as Akiva is culpable for the massacre of chimaera, so is Karou made culpable for the slaughter of angels.

Blinded by rage and pain and grief, both characters have lent themselves to the execution of terrible deeds and the support of monsters. Akiva’s might be the greater crime, but in either case, there’s no coming back from what they’ve done. What happens next isn’t a question of balancing the scales – there can be no balance – but finding a way to live in what remains of their world, and somehow, maybe, to remake it. And as both find themselves serving under commanders without mercy – Joram and Jael for Akiva, with their dreams of conquest; Thiago for Karou, with his bloody revenge against innocents – both, as Starlight progresses, find the strength for mercy where mercy means treason, building their rebellious hopes in secret. And there is hope: in Sveva, the Dama girl freed from captivity by the rebels; in the true love shared by Zuzana and Mik. Though seemingly incongruous at times, the latter’s inclusion is vital: a bodily reminder – to Karou, to the reader, to the chimaera – of what, in all this blood and catastrophe, the fighting is actually *for*. A simple thing, perhaps; but without the presence of Mik and Zuzana to counterbalance the horror and remind Karou of her human self, Starlight would be an altogether bleaker, more desolate novel.

Even so, the finale is harrowing. This being a war story, Taylor hasn’t spared us the threat of sexual violence against women; or rather, has acknowledged its existence in Liraz’s fears, not of the enemy, but the appetites of her own commander, and her fury at the whole awful system of soldier-bastards fathered on unwilling concubines that underpins Joram’s reign. “These are our mothers,” she fumes at one point – and just like that, we realise her loyalty to the empire is broken (if, indeed, it ever really existed). But at the end, it’s Karou who finds herself facing Thiago’s appetites – the same angry, violent, possessive lust which, when thwarted originally, lead him to torture Akiva and behead Madrigal. Starlight is not an easy read, but in a book brimming with ugliness and torture, the final few chapters are the hardest to read of all.

And yet somehow, despite all the horror, Taylor still manages to end on a note of courage, with just enough stray threads left purposefully dangling to ensure that, whatever the next book brings, it’s bound to be nuanced and complex. Days of Blood and Starlight is a powerful, purposeful novel that subverts our expectations even as it builds them, forcing its characters through darkness only so that they might relearn hope. A truly worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

In the past few weeks, mass critical discussion of a YA novel by Victoria Foyt – titled Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls – has sprung up online after various people noticed that the book was, shall we say, extremely problematic vis-a-vis racism. And by ‘extremely problematic’, I mean the white female protagonist wears blackface (complete with extra-red lips), black people are called ‘coals’, the black male love interest is literally described as animalistic and bestial, the dystopian elements come in large part from black people being in charge while whites are a demonised minority, Aztec characters speak Spanish for no readily discernable reason, and the title literally translates to ‘save the white people’ – ‘pearls’ being an (apparently) derogatory term for whites, though as various other commenters have pointed out, the coals/pearls contrast is itself offensive: after all, coal is dirty and cheap, whereas pearls are beautiful and valuable.

Things might have died down had Foyt herself not waded in, angrily denying all assertions that either the book or her attitudes were racist while simultaneously speculating that African-American readers might not even exist as a category. It was at this point that an awful possibility occurred to me: what if the Stop the GR Bullies site were to start defending Foyt on the grounds that calling her racist constituted bullying? It was a cynical thought, and one I was prepared to categorise as uncharitable even as I tweeted about the possibility on Wednesday; surely, even STGRB could recognise that in this instance, the accusations of racism were both legitimate and extremely relevant to any discussion of the novel, given Foyt’s claim that the story was meant to “turn racism on its head” – after all, how can you assess whether a book has succeeded at its stated goals without analysing the author’s efforts at achieving them? How can you discuss the presence of blatant racism in a novel without asking why the author included it, and whether they even realised it was there, let alone offensive?

But as it turns out, my cynical predictions proved accurate: this morning, STGRB has come out in defence of Foyt, asserting that:

“…calling the author racist (when she has clearly stated that she is not) or calling her ignorant, disgusting, terrible, sexist, etc., or saying that she and her agent, editor, and publisher should be sued – that is bullying.”

Which is, apart from anything else, monumentally hypocritical given that the site’s entire purpose is to label as bullies people who actively state that they aren’t. If Foyt can be deemed definitely non-racist simply by virtue of asserting that she isn’t, then how can STGRB accuse anyone of bullying who doesn’t openly identify as a bully without contradicting their own logic? Regardless of whether you agree with their judgements or practices, the primary assertion of STGRB is that sometimes it’s necessary to bestow negative labels on people who deny their applicability – but in this respect as in so many others, the site is determined to enforce a double-standard: one for them, and one for anyone who disagrees. Site manager Athena’s assertion that “someone’s intentions do define them” is fundamentally flawed: she assumes that someone with good intentions can’t cause actual harm, or 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, the fact that they didn’t mean to is immaterial. The pedestrian is still injured, the driver is still negligent, and if, despite these facts, the driver continues to assert that they’re actually very good behind the wheel of a car, we are right to question them. If it really was an accident, a genuinely responsible driver will nonetheless acknowledge their error and take every precaution to ensure they never replicate it; but if it turns out that the driver has been drastically overconfident in their assessment of their abilities, their entire approach to driving needs to change.

Victoria Foyt is being called a racist because the number and severity of the problems present in Revealing Eden are such that the novel ultimately serves to reinforce the very same toxic behaviour it sets out to debunk. The assertion isn’t that Foyt is being consciously racist, in the sense of actively believing black people to be inferior, but rather that, despite her apparently good intentions, she has nonetheless subconsciously absorbed and then actively replicated certain impressions and stereotypes about black people without realising that they’re offensive – and when the extent of her cognitive dissonance was pointed out to her by myriad readers, both white and POC, she responded by asserting that their accusations were “exactly what creates racism”. She has well and truly hit the pedestrian, and has responded by declaring herself to be an excellent driver.

I’ve said before that STGRB is not a subtle site, and now more than ever, I stand by that. In many instances – perhaps even a majority of instances – reviewing the author rather than the book is a bad thing to do; but it would be both impossible and irresponsible to try and fully separate a writer from their words, particularly in instances where they’ve chosen to openly discuss their inspiration or intentions. Foyt is being critiqued as much for the tenor and content of her blogged responses to criticism as for the book itself, and however strongly you might object to references to her as a person cropping up in reviews of the latter, attempting to outlaw commentary on the former is utterly unreasonable. Authors exist in the world, not a vacuum; we are influenced by everything around us, and when that influence transfers itself to our work – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it isn’t unreasonable for critics to take notice, and to comment accordingly.

But let’s take a moment to consider what racism actually means, as both the STGRB crew and several of their commenters appear to be confused about the issue. Contrary to the stated opinions of the STGRB site owners, racism isn’t exclusively an active, conscious phenomenon – by which I mean, the terminology doesn’t only apply to people in KKK hoods who openly assert that black people are inferior. In a cultural context where discrimination is still a daily fact of life for an overwhelming number of people, but where openly stating disdain for POC is socially frowned upon, racism has become primarily a subconscious affair. But this by no means blunts its effect; in fact, it makes it even more insidious, because it breeds in people a problematic belief that hating racism is identical to not actually being racist.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, a grass roots smear campaign sprang up to defend his killer and paint the unarmed, teenage Martin as a thug; some people even started selling shooting targets printed with his face. One newscaster blamed Martin’s death on the fact that he was wearing a hoodie, saying that “black and Latino youngsters particularly” shouldn’t wear them to avoid looking suspicious. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, defended himself using Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: his exoneration was instantly contrasted with the prominent case of a black woman, Marissa Alexander, who’d fired a gun while being physically assaulted by a violent partner. Alexander was told that Stand Your Ground didn’t apply in her case; subsequent journalistic investigation found that “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black”which prompted an investigation into racism’s influence on the law by federal and state officials. By contrast, the extrajudicial killing of black people by law enforcement in America was recently recorded to have reached the rate of one every forty hours, while just last Friday, a member of the GOP stated that members of the Republican party in Florida had actively sought to suppress black votes.

Outside the courtroom, men and women of colour still earn significantly less than their white counterparts. A white Baptist church recently refused to marry a black couple, despite both parties being regular attendees. A poll conducted in March this year showed that 29% of Republicans in Missisippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal, while a recent study of college students showed that“white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes” – a result which showed a strong correlation between colour-blind attitudes and a tacit acceptance/non-recognition of racism. Similarly, implicit association tests (IATs) have frequently shown that the cultural effects of racial bias are widespread, while the shaming of and self-loathing among black girls who’ve been culturally conditioned to view their own natural hair and skin as disgusting is utterly heartbreaking. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea: racism is everywhere, it is frequently subtle or subconscious, and its effects can be utterly devastating.

So when, to return to the case of STGRB and Victoria Foyt, I see site manager Athena responding to the suggestion that “Accusations of racism are no different than 17th. C. accusations of witchcraft” by praising the commenter’s “understanding and intelligence,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that Foyt isn’t the only party to lack a meaningful understanding of racism. I cannot overstate this enough: calling someone out for racism is not worse than actually being racist. If you care more about being called racist than about the possibility that you actually might be racist, then you have a serious problem, because what you’ve just done, right there? Is concluded that it’s more important to appear to support equality than to actually support equality.

Distressingly, this isn’t the first time that race has become a prominent factor in discussions of YA novels. Negative fan reactions to the casting of POC actors in the respective film adaptations of two successful YA series – first to Amandla Stenberg as Rue in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and now to Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments – serve to highlight how toxic the assumption of ‘whiteness as normative’ can be. Even in instances where characters are explicitly stated to be POC, as was the case in both Clare’s and Collins’s work, many readers assume otherwise – not necessarily due to conscious racism, but because they unconsciously edit out information that contradicts the culturally learned assumption that whiteness is the default setting.

Intentions are meaningless if contradicted by our actions, and doubly so if we refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of dissonance between them. Victoria Foyt is not being bullied; she is being called out for having written a horrendously racist book in the first instance and then for completely dismissing her critics in the second. Trying to turn the existing conversation about the negative themes of Revealing Eden, the reactions of POC readers, Foyt’s behaviour and the general problem of race in YA into a discussion about the appropriateness of various reviewing techniques is, ultimately, a form of derailing: however important the issue might be otherwise, it’s a separate topic to the one at hand, and the STGRB site managers have done themselves even less credit than usual by so hamfistedly conflating the two. Subconscious racism is a real problem – but so is the refusal of would-be allies to acknowledge that, despite all their active efforts and intentions, it can still affect them, too.

OK, so a deeply problematic thing just happened on Twitter.

Here’s the basic jist:

Evidently riled up by information on the Stop the GR Bullies website (which I’ve blogged about here), author James Austen took to Twitter to call blogger Kat Kennedy a loser and a retard. Not unsurprisingly, Kat and several other Twitter users, myself included, confronted Austen about his ableist language, throughout which exchange he repeatedly stated that not only had Kat called him a headcase on Goodreads, but had attacked him on a blog post where he’d revealed his own childhood sexual abuse. Kat, meanwhile, was baffled, having no idea at all who Austen was.

When asked to show evidence of the incidents in question, Austen linked first to the Stop the GR Bullies main page, and then to this Goodreads thread - neither of which show any connection whatever between himself and Kat Kennedy. It then became apparent that Austen had confused Kat with two other Goodreads users, Ridley and The Holy Terror – an extremely bizarre mistake to make, not only because even the STGRB website states clearly that these are three completely different women, but because Austen has actually been in Twitter contact with Ridley before. By this point, he’d called Kat a retard or retarded eight times by my count, including a comment where, even AFTER his error had been pointed out, he claimed to be applying the term with “laser-like precision”.

Austen then made some motions towards apology (though not for his ableist language), but also added that Kat “could win good pr now by playing this right” – meaning, presumably, that it was in her best interests not to tell people about his mistake. Now, even though we’d established that Kat wasn’t at fault, I was still concerned about Austen’s claim that someone – whoever they were – had attacked him on Goodreads for talking about his own childhood sexual abuse, because, dude, that is NOT COOL, and if someone has actually done that, they deserve to be called to account. With this in mind, I asked if he could link to that incident; he told me it had happened on one of three Goodreads blogs.

Now: possibly, this attack did take place, and for whatever reason, evidence of it has been removed from the site. But having checked the comments for every single one of Austen’s Goodreads blogposts – and further checked the comment threads attached to all the reviews/discussions about his novels – I can’t find anything which even vaguely resembles such an attack. What I can see is that in January this year, Austen blogged about his abuse, and in March, Ridley left a status update (the one linked above) mentioning that Austen had sent her an abusive private message, and that the two were arguing on Twitter. Whatever occurred in the body of that argument, I can’t find any record of it, but at this point, it does seem fairly clear that, at the very least, nobody – least of all Kat Kennedy – has attacked Austen in the comments section of his GR blogs.

As soon as this was pointed out, Austen not only quit the conversation, but locked his Twitter account. The progression of the argument as detailed below is as correct as I could manage by reconstructed it from screengrabs, though doubtless some tweets and responses are out of immediate chronological order (it being extremely difficult to follow the exact chronology of a multi-branching Twitter conversation, even after the fact). Given the length of the conversation, I’ve tried to include only relevant tweets, but for those who are interested in seeing a wider range of responses, they can be found by looking at the individual steams of the other participants, including mine. I’m aware that one tweet of Austen’s appears twice, which is unfortunate, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily remove it, and so it’s still there as a duplicate: any other errors are my fault, but hopefully don’t detract from the overall coherence (such as it is).

I’m posting this for three reasons:

  1. To establish on record that Kat Kennedy didn’t start the exchange with Austen, and has in fact never spoken to him before today;
  2. To point out that information posted on Stop the GR Bullies has directly contributed to a public instance of vile and abusive behaviour; and
  3. To stand as an example of exactly how fucked up ableism is, and why using the word retard as a pejorative is never, ever acceptable.

As for Austen: I’d ask of readers to please refrain from contacting him on Goodreads, messaging him on Twitter, or otherwise sending him negative, aggressive or abusive messages that detail his mistakes. Yes, he’s behaved appallingly, and that should definitely be noted, but further aggro isn’t going to help anyone – and if another Goodreads user really did attack him for sharing his own experiences of sexual abuse, then that needs to be brought to light and dealt with separately. Otherwise, let’s just acknowledge and learn from the fail, and move on with our lives.

Little more than a week ago, a website aimed at naming and shaming so-called Goodreads ‘bullies’ suddenly appeared online – called, appropriately enough, Stop the GR Bullies. Run by four concerned ‘readers and bloggers’ writing anonymously under the handles Athena, Peter Pan, Johnny Be Good and Stitch, the site thus far seems bent on punishing the creators of snide, snarky and negative book reviews by posting their handles, real names, locations and photos in one place, together with a warning about their supposed ‘level of toxicity’ and some (ironically) snide, snarky and negative commentary about them as people. There’s a lot here to unpack, but before I get started on why this is a horrifically bad idea, let’s start with some basic context.

As a website, Goodreads itself is something of a chimaera, being in roughly equal parts an online literary database, a social networking platform, a book review site, a promotional tool for bloggers, a promotional tool for authors, and a social forum for readers. This complexity is both its primary attraction and the single biggest source of contention among users, as the crowdsourced nature of much of the information available, in conjunction with the fact that the site itself has no in-house moderators – meaning that the majority of alleged violations of the terms of service must be manually referred to and assessed by Goodreads before they can possibly be removed – means that, to all intents and purposes, the site can and does frequently function like any large, unmoderated forum, viz: wildly. As the TOS is at pains to point out, Goodreads considers itself a third party where user content is concerned. To quote:

We are only acting as a passive conduit for your online distribution and publication of your User Content.

Of particular relevance in this case is the specific type of user content deemed inappropriate by the TOS. To quote again:

You agree not to post User Content that… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.

However, it’s also relevant to note the following caveats (emphasis mine) – namely, that:

Goodreads reserves the right, but is not obligated, to reject and/or remove any User Content that Goodreads believes, in its sole discretion, violates these provisions… 

You understand and acknowledge that you may be exposed to User Content that is inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or objectionable, and you agree that Goodreads shall not be liable for any damages you allege to incur as a result of such User Content. Goodreads may provide tools for you to remove some User Content, but does not guarantee that all or any User Content will be removable.

In other words: even if you can argue compellingly that another member has violated the TOS with regards to user content, Goodreads is under no obligation to agree, to listen, or in fact do anything at all: their commitment is to passive third party provision of a useful service, not to the active moderation of user content, and while that’s certainly their legal right, in practical terms, it means that the onus for modding conversational threads, forums, reviews and everything else rests squarely with the user in question. To quote again:

You are solely responsible for your interactions with other Goodreads Users. We reserve the right, but have no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other Users. Goodreads shall have no liability for your interactions with other Users, or for any User’s action or inaction.

In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy. Not being a regular participant in Goodreads threads or forums – though I am an active user of the site as an author, reviewer and reader – I’m not in a position to comment on how often Goodreads actually steps in to ban abusive members, remove problematic comments or otherwise moderate user content either on demand or of their own volition: all I can note is that legally, they have no obligation to take any action at all. Clearly, though, a number of users feel that the lack of in-house moderation has lead to the creation of a negative, if not actively toxic, environment in some quarters, with the result that some members have now taken it upon themselves to lead a public campaign against those they deem to be the worst offenders.

One more piece of context, before we continue: both within Goodreads itself and throughout the wider book blogging community, the ongoing debate about niceness vs. snark in reviews 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 within their grounds to reject aspiring writers who’ve written negative reviews of authors they work with or know, or is this a form of discriminatory nepotism? is the primary purpose of book blogging to act as ‘cheerleaders’ for authors, or to give good consumer advice to readers? – what it frequently boils down to is a dispute over judgements of taste. Or, more specifically: at what volume or intensity does the presence of comedic snark in a book review see it go from being a professional opinion to unprofessional abuse?

It’s very much a your mileage may vary question, which is, I suspect, why Goodreads has the policy of passive non-interference that it does. By definition, not everyone is going to agree with a book review, and given that the utility of their service is predicated on people who love (or hate) books being free to discuss them, they’re naturally going to be loathe to police the tone of such conversations too heavily for fear of undermining their own purpose. However, it’s also important to note that, due to the Goodreads site layout, the usual handy metaphors for personal vs public pages – an intensely relevant distinction when it comes to questions of harassment, as it has the effect of dictating which party is the guest/invader, and which the host/native – don’t precisely apply. For instance: on a traditional internet forum, threads are analogous to public spaces, with the default authority resting either exclusively with the in-house moderators or creator/s, or jointly between the two. Abuse is, as elsewhere, defined as either vituperative ad hominem attacks or generic -ism-based slander; however, due to the clear distinction between attacking someone in a public thread and attacking them outside the context of the discussion – which is to say, on their user page, via email or, in instances where it’s not in direct response to something they’ve posted there, on their personal site – we don’t generally upgrade the abuse to bullying or harassment unless it makes that transition. To be clear: this doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour. Nonetheless, there is a relevant and meaningful distinction between saying, ‘I think Author X is a shit writer’ on a public thread, and going to their personal page to say, ‘I think you’re a shit writer’. On Goodreads, however, this distinction is blurred, because while reviews and their attendant conversational threads fall under the governance of the user-reviewer, they’re also attached to the relevant book and its author-governed page; meaning, in essence, that there’s an overlap between the author’s personal space (assuming the author in question is a member of the site) and the reviewer’s.

And, not surprisingly, this can cause major friction, not just between authors and negative reviewers, but between fans of authors and negative reviewers. In some instances, it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate – or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans – and, sometimes, friends – of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results, and sometimes using language that’s on par with anything they’re actually objecting to.

But here’s the thing: any public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal. At times, your personal and public lives will blur, or else specific criticism will invite others to consider the relationship between your output and your private beliefs – and this will sometimes be relevant to discussions of your work and its themes, as per the fact that Stephanie Meyers’s Mormonism is relevant to the morality used in Twilight (for instance). Sometimes you’ll even be called names or find yourself on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, where people say you’re a stupid, talentless hack as part of their review, and call into question both your morality and your convictions. And depending on the relevance of those accusations to your work and the problems the reviewer has with it, that can achieve anything from laying bare a deep-seated flaw in your worldview to highlighting nothing so much as the reviewer’s petty, vindictive ignorance.

But it isn’t bullying.

Because bullying is not a synonym for argument, disagreement or pejorative reactions. Bullying is not a synonym for disliking someone, or for thinking their work is rubbish. Bullying is not even a synonym for saying so, publicly and repeatedly, in a place where that person can hear it – although that’s certainly unpleasant. Bullying is when someone with a greater position of power and/or possessed of greater strength repeatedly and purposefully attacks, harasses, belittles and/or otherwise undermines someone in a position of lesser power and/or possessed of lesser strength. In the vast majority of circumstances, bullying trickles down; it does not travel up, and in instances where the author in question is a super-successful megastar, to say they’re being bullied by reviewers is to ignore the fundamental power-dynamics of bullying. Even on the Goodreads system, where authors can see exactly what readers and reviewers think of them, expressing a negative opinion is not the same as bullying, because although the conversation is visible, it’s not directed at the author; they are under no obligation to respond, or even to read it at all. Feeling sad and overwhelmed because people don’t like your book and have said so publicly might constitute a bad day, but it’s not the same as being bullied.

Cyberbullying among teenagers is a real and serious problem characterised by the sending of abusive messages by either single or multiple parties, the spreading of hurtful lies and rumours, the public display of information or images that were intended as private, and the confluence of systematic abuse both in the real world and online. Such attacks are vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses; many have lead to suicide. What recently happened to Anita Sarkeesian was bullying of exactly this kind, where a number of individuals unknown to her engaged in an active attempt to publicly frighten, abuse and slander her – a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book. Similarly, when people leave vile, sexist comments on my blog, that’s not bullying: it’s offensive and abusive, yes, but all the power in the situation belongs to me, because I can delete the comments, ban the commenters, and publicly mock them for their opinions – and just as importantly, my posts are there because I want people to read and react to them. The fact that I’ve invited comment doesn’t mean abusive responses are justified, but it does mean I’m not being attacked or contacted in a vacuum: I have said a thing, and people are responding to it. That is not bullying. Obviously, it’s not impossible for authors to be bullied. An indie or self-published author without the support of an agency/publisher and their attendant legal teams, for instance – or, just as importantly, without hundreds of thousands of supportive fans – could easily be bullied by any sufficiently cruel individual who took it upon themselves to send regular hateful email, spam their site with negative criticism, leave abusive remarks on their personal profiles, and otherwise behave like a grade-A douche. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because as far as I can make out, everything the Stop the GR Bullies crew objects to has happened either in a review, as part of a public comment thread, in response to a blog post, or in the course of personal conversations on Twitter.

Because – and I cannot stress this enough – simply disliking a book, no matter how publicly or how snarkily, is not the same as bullying. To say that getting a handful of mean reviews is even in the same ballpark as dealing with an ongoing campaign of personal abuse is insulting to everyone involved. If Athena and the Stop the GR Bullies mob had chosen any other word to describe the problem – if they’d stopped at calling it toxic and objected to it on those grounds – then I might be more sympathetic; after all, as stated above, Goodreads is a largely unmoderated site, and that doesn’t always lead to hugs and puppies. But conflating criticism with bullying is a serious problem – not just in this context, but as regards wider issues of social justice. Increasingly, ‘bullying’ is being bastardised into a go-to term to describe the actions of anyone who actively disagrees with you, to the point where some conservative politicians are now describing leftwingers who call them out on sexism and racism as bullies, or else have decided that ‘bully’ is just a meaningless epithet like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’, which is arguably worse for suggesting that all three concepts are somehow mythical.

Which is why, in short, the Stop the GR Bullies website is an appalling idea on just about every level. Not only does it appropriate some actual bullying tactics – such as attempting to disseminate the real names and locations of its targets to strangers, then implicitly encouraging said strangers to engage in further harassment – while serving to further water down and confuse the actual, meaningful definition of bulling, but as a protest against the perceived abuse of the Goodreads TOS, it’s completely and utterly meaningless, because the whole site constitutes an active violation. Yes, you did read that right – because to quote again from the TOS (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities… (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

And does Stop the GR Bullies use harassment as a tool? Oh, worse than that: some of what they say is actually libelous. Here’s a screengrab of their description of Kat Kennedy, a GR member and book blogger for Cuddlebuggery:

The inability of the poster, Athena, to distinguish between a reviewer speaking negatively about books in a professional capacity and the outright public slander of a private citizen by another private citizen is breathtaking, to say nothing of the fact that making a hate page is pretty much 101-grade material for how to be an internet bully. The rest of the site is in much the same vein, and where at least the original posters, whatever you think of them, have the excuse of (a) being in personal conversation with friends or (b) acting as reviewers, the site does not: its sole effect, despite its intended purpose, is to be vituperative in terms of language and downright sinister in its commitment to Googlestalking its targets, attempting to put up not only their names and photos, but details of their places of employment and personal circumstances.

I’m never gladdened to hear that some author or other has decided to quit Goodreads because of negative comments, reviews or any other reason. But Goodreads itself is an optional part of the author ecosystem – as, for that matter, is blogging, Tweeting, and every other type of social media. While Goodreads, as far as I know, lacks privacy controls (which is likely another contributing factor to the problem at hand: authors can’t opt out of seeing negative reviews or comments, while reviewers lack the ability to make the comment threads attached to their reviews private, both of which, if introduced as options, might go a long way towards easing the current tensions) other forms of social media do not. A blogger, for instance, has total control over whether or not to allow commenting on particular posts, while Twitter uses can lock their accounts so that only approved individuals can follow them. Anyone fearful of negative comments has the power to screen them out – and if, on the other hand, a reviewer or author blogs publicly with the intention of receiving responses, that doesn’t preclude them from encountering legitimately negative reactions. If someone writes a blog post and asks for comment, it’s not bullying to respond with strong disagreement: in the scientific world, that’s simply known as having an opinion. Similarly, if a comment makes you uncomfortable on your own blog, mod or ban away! It’s why the option exists. But don’t call it bullying when people show up and disagree with you – even if they’ve disagreed with you before – because that’s not what bullying means.

And as for the people who’ve created the website in question: you might want to stop and think about what you’re doing. As much as anyone you’ve taken issue with, you’re in violation of the Goodreads TOS, and hiding behind anonymity while attempting to strip it from others is a hypocrisy that seldom plays well on the internet. If you really want to change the culture at Goodreads, you’d be better off lobbying for the promotion of in-house or site-approved moderators, closed comment threads and a greater delineation of author and reviewer pages rather than engaging in essentially the same behaviour that’s got you so worked up in the first place. This whole situation may well get uglier before it gets better, and under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to want to play nice.

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the aforementioned rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male  aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze.  And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950′s sense of  what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.