Apparently, I just can’t shut up this week. Which is odd. Because usually when I write long, link-strewn blogs about Important Politicky Stuff, it acts like a mental catharsis, allowing my opinions to recede to the hindbrain, there to simmer quietly. This week, however, everything has snowballed forwards, forcing me to keep blogging. I understand completely if you’re sick of this, in which case, I apologise. Possibly this whole outpouring is nothing more than the fevered byproduct of being stuck at home with a cold. But before my inevitable return to sloth, I have (at least) one more thing I want to discuss on the topic of feminism, criticism and YA reviews: the question of intentionality vs interpretation.
It’s long been an acknowledged that no story has only one correct interpretation. True, statements made by the author might be viewed as slightly more canonical – for lack of a better word – than those of other commenters, particularly when it comes to the semantics of worldbuilding, but by and large, we understand that it is entirely possibly for readers to come up with interpretations of the books they read that had never occurred to the authors, and which they certainly didn’t include on purpose. Where such discoveries are positive and/or thought-provoking, the vast majority of authors will accept them with gracious glee, happy to have a critical readership who approves of their storytelling. But when it comes to negative interpretations – no matter how thought-provoking – we authors have a tendency to play the intentionality card. We try to explain what we really meant, to insinuate either openly or subtly that the reviewer has simply missed something crucial in the narrative or brought their own, biased assumptions with them, and the thing is, we won’t always be wrong. There is, after all, a world of difference between critiquing a book on the basis that you found problems with it, and critiquing a book on the basis that you wish the author had written a different book entirely, or that you just don’t like the genre. But even allowing for such problems of mismatched readership, we are left with considerable room for readers to legitimately identify negative themes in the stories they read, even where those themes directly contradict the intentions of the author.
Recently, I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to the sentiment, does not magically prevent me from subconscious racism. I am not a perfect being. I make mistakes, and more importantly, I am a product of the culture in which I live – a culture which, sadly, is less than perfect when it comes to embracing diversity. Knowing this, I try to identify my mistakes and then learn from them: I want to be a better person, and that takes constant work. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that there is only one non-white member of the cast of Solace & Grief, and while I didn’t consciously set out to engage in tokenism, any criticism of the novel along those lines would be entirely justified. I cannot unwrite what I’ve already written; I cannot unpublish what I’ve already published; and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the problem and try to do better next time. The fact that I made a mistake doesn’t make me a racist – but declaring myself not to be racist doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes, either.
Which brings me back to the question of feminism in YA novels, and the debate surrounding negative reviews. YA paranormal literature is currently dominated by female authors, a vast majority of whom would – I suspect – be offended by the suggestion that their novels could be seen as perpetuating anti-feminist sentiments. Certainly, some have taken public affront at criticism of their books for exactly that reason, as was the case when Jackson Pearce reacted to the assertion that Sisters Red encouraged a victim-blaming mentality by publicly explaining her own intentions on the blog in question.
A brief aside, before we go any further: my husband and I, like any normal couple, argue. Because he is a philosophical logician and I am a slightly crazy author, however, these everyday arguments frequently overlap with multiple pedantic meta-arguments about the differences between what was actually said and what we meant to say. And there is a difference, sometimes a very crucial one: it might not matter most of the time, but as soon as one of us phrases something such that the other person is offended, we both have to stop and separate out the intention from the effect. It’s no good just dismissing the other person’s outrage on the grounds that we meant something entirely different – the fact is that we’ve caused distress, and the most dickish thing you can do at that point is refuse to apologise or even discuss it simply because that wasn’t what you meant.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Despite the fact that I love YA, there’s still a large number of popular novels I haven’t yet read – or which, if I’m honest, I don’t intend to read, unless it’s to justify my engagement in conversations where they continue to crop up. I believe in making up your own mind about something firsthand, rather than just taking the popular word for it, but if twenty different reviews by intelligent, adult women all complain about the same problems of anti-feminist sentiment in the same subset of YA novels, then I’m not about to dismiss them out of hand. And if, as an author, you take offense at the idea that something uglier than what you intended is being talked about in connection with your novel: well, offense is your prerogative, but the fact that you wrote something doesn’t mean you get to play intentionality as a trump card in every subsequent debate. You can intend all you want, but when it comes to debates about sexism, racism, homophobia and eurocentrism in the wider SFF community – or when it comes to discussions of rape culture and alphaholes in the wider romance community, for that matter – the record is pretty clear on the fact that these negatives cultures do exist; that they are perpetuated subconsciously more than actively; and that we need to discuss them if they’re ever going to be fixed.
You, personally, are not being called an anti-feminist: certain aspects of your work are. And if you can’t appreciate that distinction – if you continue to try and prejudice intentionality over interpretation every time someone takes offence – then perhaps you shouldn’t be in the debate to begin with. But regardless of your participation, that debate will continue to be held. Because it matters. Because we care. And because perpetuating a culture of YA novels whose heroines are being sold short is not something we want to do.