Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents – large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.

Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice;  we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.

Anyway.

I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.

And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.

This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.

Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.

In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.

And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers;  how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.

It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.

We, all of us, need to get critical.

*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.

Comments
  1. Phoebe says:

    I wish there were more author/reviewers in YA. There are quite a few in SF, but I feel like peer evaluation would be a good, healthy thing.

    (Also, I get lonely sometimes!)

    • fozmeadows says:

      I did review, briefly, back when I still lived in Australia, but it was only a sporadic gig, and it happened before I was published.

  2. Thoraiya says:

    This is a nice good thoughtful and perceptive article.

    The end😉

  3. […] Foz Meadows has an excellent post on the SFF and YA genres’ obsession with niceness (I’d add romance in as well), how the perceived necessity to present a united front against “the mainstream” is at odds with the growing diversity inside the genre and how most of the recent debates and uproars inside the genre are related to the fact that speculative fiction is changing. Her point is similar to Jonathan McCalmont’s post that I linked to yesterday, but IMO argued much better. […]

  4. ‘how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers’

    Look, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying and you have said it extremely well! But this does seem a one-sided argument–and it’s on the side it should be, authors get critiqued as the price for publication.

    This particular line strikes a very weird note with me. I don’t feel it should be overlooked that female authors get criticised much, much more than male authors–that I see male authors getting worshipped as geniuses while readers put up pictures of female authors to sneer at their looks. That the heroines of books get more flak than the heroes, no matter how gross said heroes’ behaviour. This happens, and I think it’s worth discussing, and examining how it affects the discourse!

    Misogyny exists on alllllll the levels here, and I feel extremely dubious about you saying that pointing it out on any level is wrong.

    • fozmeadows says:

      That’s a very fair point and I agree that unfair criticism is definitely skewed against heroines – the TSTL designation frequently foisted on female protags, for instance, while not always undeserved, is nonetheless extremely troubling when taken literally. I’ve also phrased that line badly, because I’ve mentioned women specifically rather than just leaving it at relationships. In my head, that example is about YA romances that uncritically feature negative behaviours and sexuality, not about female characters; but even so, I’ve still conflated it with a legitimate other problem – namely, as you say, that women authors and characters cop way more flak than their male equivalents. So, my apologies for that: I tried to be pithy and ended up lazy. Bad Foz!

      • I am glad you see that it’s a more complicated issue than–reviewers utter truth, have it dismissed as misogyny by someone trying to debunk their argument! But all the other things you listed are actual problems: I don’t think I have ever seen any reviewer who was simply discussing problematic relationships unfairly called out for hating on girl authors or girl characters.

        If you have, I’m horrified! And I’m sure it could well have happened, and that’s why you’re bringing it up, in which case my apologies. But I haven’t, and I am fearful of a result where it’s taken as okay that ‘reviews can be misogynistic and nobody should point that out’… everything misogynistic should be called out.

        Which isn’t to say I haven’t seen reviewers treated badly for other reasons, because Lord I have, and it has been a complete shamer. Commenting on a review at all is, uh, not the best of ideas, and definitely commenting without respect is an unimaginably bad idea, and appallingly suppressive. I’m not saying reviewers haven’t been treated badly, because they totally have. But having someone say ‘that was sexist’ isn’t treating anyone badly.

        • fozmeadows says:

          I wouldn’t swear to it, but I feel fairly certain I’ve seen at least one or two mainstream media articles defending the (arguably) negative aspects of the romance/relationships in Twilight by saying that such criticisms were an example of women’s choices being denigrated. I certainly think it’s correct that Twilight became such a polarising debate topic because it involved female sexual agency, and that’s definitely a conversation that needs to be had; but at the same time, we also need to talk about how the Twilight model, with all its flaws, has gone on to become the archetype of many subsequent (and equally worrying) YA relationships.

          Also: and again, this is something I’d have to utilise my Google-fu to back up with links, but my impression is that at least as much of the YA reviewer wrath has been directed at the actions of creepy male heroes being lauded and romanticised as at the behaviour of their attendant heroines. But that could just be me filtering through the things that I find most troubling.

          Personally, I’m at a point where I’m deeply, supremely conscious of the behaviours and tropes I’ve been socially conditioned to find attractive in stories – hurt and comfort, men who grab women and kiss them, repression, brooding – to the point where it really disturbs and freaks me out. I’m having a massive crisis of conscience over a novel I’ve already written because the heroine is a broken bird, and I have ALL THE ISSUES with broken birds, only I didn’t quite realise that until afterwards, with the result that the whole story – which I love! – I also hate, and have practically abandoned. My brain is in turmoil! I want brooding heroes and heroines, but I don’t want to romanticise damage, which I’m convinced is what I’m doing; I want tension and passion and drama, but I don’t want emotional manipulation and, GAH, this is turning into a different point, but related in the sense that it makes me very confused and volatile on the subject of YA relationships.

          I just really, REALLY want to talk frankly with other authors about romance tropes – like, totally dug-in nitty-gritty – and I want to name names – as in, discuss the works of known, living authors in ways that pick apart what they’ve written – so I can get some sort of handle on why we’re writing what we write, and where to go with it, and why these tropes and those men and those romances, but I am literally too scared to do so, because Someone Will Notice and then I will be a pariah. I will be That Author Nobody Has Ever Heard Of Except In The Context Of Her Dissecting The Works Of Authors Who Are Far More Successful Than She Will Ever Be, and that thought kills me, it KILLS me and OK I am going to stop talking now, God, Foz, shut up.

  5. As for Twilight, can’t we talk about both? I think there’s empowering stuff there, and stuff that’s problematic–talking about either doesn’t cancel out the other. And there is certainly a conversation to be had about books modelled on Twilight, and the ways in which they deviate from Twilight–it’s not like in every reminiscent-of-Twilight love triangle one of the main characters is a PoC, or we’d have way more positively (if problematically) portrayed PoC characters in YA, and wouldn’t that be terrific?

    Okay, I feel there are are two totally separate issues going on here.

    a) ‘my impression is that at least as much of the YA reviewer wrath has been directed at the actions of creepy male heroes being lauded and romanticised as at the behaviour of their attendant heroines’

    I would strongly disagree: I would say that much more wrath has been directed at the girls, because we live in a sexist society and that’s always the way, sadly. But yes, wrath has also been directed at boys for being creepy, and it should be. It’s just that even with (much less) wrath being also directed at boys, I do find a lot of observations about books and female characters and female authors that I see online (and offline) very troubling. I do think more wrath is directed at the girls.

    So, yes. I absolutely don’t see anyone going all ‘The Boy Who Cried Misogyny’ as a silencing tactic: I see people discussing misogyny, which I don’t think there should be any less of in the world. (Discussion of misogyny, that is: if there could be less misogyny in the world that would be great.)

    b) I don’t think writing a problematic relationship is an endorsing of that relationship. Relationships are often messed up, and so are the people in them: relationships can start out messed up and form into something good, just as they can start out good and get messed up. Being aware of tropes is great–I love a trope! I sit about thinking of subverting them and cackling with glee. (I mean, I would if I wasn’t such a quiet, thoughtful adult.)

    A lot of relationships in books are messed up, because a lot of situations in books are messed up–books are about bad/complicated stuff happening to people. The problem for me comes in if those relationships are presented totally uncritically–I don’t believe writing anything is inherently bad. Write anything, say I–but thoughtfully.

    The reviews that get the most attention are vitriolic and not thoughtful at all: I think you can write thoughtful critical reviews if you want, and people would be fine about it. (Except for gross people. Unfortunately there is no accounting for gross people.) I do think that you would be fine, but I don’t know if you’d get what you want… those authors to come talk to you about these issues.

    Most authors (for good reason, as we see above) are pretty dedicated to not replying to reviews! I don’t know if in the all-seeing eye of the internet is where the best discussions can be had–everyone aware that a TON of people are looking at them. If the author says something wrong, people will JUMP on them, and it’s pretty hard not to get defensive. But I do have those kinds of conversations with writers and with other people, all the time! I think those conversations are hugely valuable, and definitely make me feel less tangled up about these issues. I think it makes for a great panel or roundtable or private discussion. But yeah–I can see why writers wouldn’t comment on reviews of their work, even thoughtful ones.😉 I would talk about romance tropes all the livelong–but I wouldn’t respond to a review analysing mine, because I pretty obviously wouldn’t be unbiased about it.😉

    In summary–Strongly Disagree, Bothered By Dismissal of Misogyny, and Write What You Want Both In Regard To Books & Reviews But Other People Will Write (Or Not) What They Want Also.

  6. Karen Healey says:

    “how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers”

    To me, this is the unfortunate conflation of two related but distinct problems:

    1) “How anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic is really just a shrill feminist overanalysing silly kids/fun guilty pleasure books” (which is the actual response I most often see)

    and 2) “How it’s okay to hate on female authors, readers, and characters far in excess of their male counterparts.” (Which is common as dirt, and utterly repulsive)

    Sometimes someone protesting about one will rely on or refer to the other, which is problematic as hell.

    • fozmeadows says:

      OK so: clearly in my haste I have included a deeply problematic example in my list of examples, one whose ramifications are deserving of a wholly more involved and nuanced discussion than could possibly be encapsulated in a single sentence. Insofar as intentionality washes for anything – which is very little when one has fucked up like this, which I admit I have; nonetheless – what I meant by this poorly-worded remark was:

      Undeniably, there are problematic relationships depicted in YA. By problematic, I do not mean merely complicated or troubled; as Sarah points out, dysfunction is well worth discussing, troubled relationships make for interesting stories, and writing about bad relationships is not the same as thinking they’re a great idea. I am not referring to these sorts of romances. Rather, I am referring to instances where, both narratively and in the context of the narrative – that is, the perception of the characters – toxic relationships are sanctioned uncritically: where the whole problem is that both the characters (and by extension, the author) seem unaware, or at least unwilling to comment on, the fact that the romance is unhealthy, the portrayal of sexuality negative, with the upshot then being that we, the readers, are meant to romantically sympathise with a situation that, in real life, would have us calling the cops or referring our friends to counselling, and all because it has been narratively justified as a case of True Love Conquers All.

      And in that specific context, I am then referring to the fact that, when these problems have been pointed out, some fans of those stories have responded by saying that one form of feminist criticism – namely, Failure To Identify Toxic Relationships And Subsequently Encouraging Them Is Bad – is actually unfeminist, on the grounds that, by criticizing books written by women and for women about women’s relationships, such detractors are letting the sisterhood down.

      Which, frankly, does my head in. Because this latter criticism has wide-ranging and deeply valid applications, rooted in the fact that women characters and authors – not to mention female-centric genres – cop WAY more flak, much of it sexist, unnecessarily vehement and undeserved than do their male counterparts. This is not a good thing! And yet, within the confines of this (very specific, and admittedly less representative than I thought it was when I lazily elected to toss it off as a one-liner) example, we have a scenario which is essentially an intra-feminist spat, or at least a mainly female spat: women readers, reviewers and authors all arguing about what sorts of relationships are unhealthy, and how we should express critique of them without dogpiling on an already complicated situation vis-a-vis the unfair critiquing of women for being women; and all the rest of it. Which has left me with a deep-seated uncertainty about how to express myself on the matter.

      Hopefully that makes sense?

      • It all makes sense, and I do agree with a lot of what you’re saying. And I am super pleased that we are not in total disagreement so you’re like ‘Now SRB is a jerk on my blog.’

        ‘some fans of those stories have responded by saying that one form of feminist criticism – namely, Failure To Identify Toxic Relationships And Subsequently Encouraging Them Is Bad – is actually unfeminist, on the grounds that, by criticizing books written by women and for women about women’s relationships’

        I hate to ask people to google or otherwise internet-fu, and it’s not that I disbelieve you, I’d just like to see an example so I can… get an idea of what people are saying, and why, so I may DISSECT it? Where are these fans crying feminism?

        Because I have literally never seen this. I’ve seen problematic reviews called problematic, and I’ve seen problematic books called problematic, and I like to see both those things! (I’ve also seen gross books embraced and gross reviews embraced, and I dislike both those things.) But this I have not seen, and I do still worry about you raising it as a problem, because criticism of books written by and for women about women… is so hugely and unfairly widespread that I think we must constantly say ‘let us be critical of this oddly universal criticism.’

        And I maintain my belief lady characters as well as lady authors get it way more than dude characters, no matter how bad the dudes.😉 (e.g. Bella is dumb for being with Edward because he invades her privacy–hey-o, classic victim blaming.)

        Uh. And look, we’re having one of those writery feminist discussions right now!

    • Phoebe says:

      and 2) “How it’s okay to hate on female authors, readers, and characters far in excess of their male counterparts.” (Which is common as dirt, and utterly repulsive)

      So, question, and I mean this in all genuineness: do we actually have proof that this occurs in excess of the “hate” against male authors, readers, or characters?

      Survey after survey of both lit fic and genre review venues have shown that the critical discourse is actually disproportionately focused on male writers. While I don’t deny that there are problematic aspects of the social justice review community (I found this post on the requires hate blog to be a very self-aware and fascinating reflection on that), I feel reluctant to accept this blanket assertion uncritically. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I’ve heard as many casual reviewers ranting about sexism in Game of Thrones or Doctor Who, that I’ve seen plenty of YA goodreads discussions focused on, say, why Edward is a creep.

      I do think that for those of us in YA, or analyzing YA, it can appear skewed–but it’s also a genre almost entirely written and consumed by women, and so it feels like a natural consequence that much of the criticism made by (again, often female critics) would skew this way. Does the Nostalgia Critic get finger-wagged for “dog-piling” the artifacts of his male-centered childhood? No, of course not. And yet I’ve definitely seen the Nostalgia Chick called out for girl-on-girl haterade. Doesn’t seem quite right to me.

      • Wow. Okay, I am baffled here–am I meant to prove we live in a sexist society, and that influences a lot of what we all say and what we all think?

        I mean… I can, because we do… but I hope we can all agree on it.

        I think that part of the problem here is that the language we’re using is confusing. Criticism can mean a) just saying bad stuff, in a professional or amateur capacity and b) reviews which can contain both bad stuff and acclaim, hence ‘critical acclaim.’ Women get more of b) and men get more of a).

        Plus we are all thinking of both pro reviews and reviews that aren’t: I would absolutely agree that for the most part, women get ignored by pro reviews. When the deafening silence is broken, the women are more likely to get slated.

        I believe two things:

        a) Men get more critical acclaim and attention than women.

        b) When there is criticism to be handed out (not acclaim)–women get it more than men.

        I do not think the two things are contradictory.

        As regards online stuff…

        I think women get more attention online partly because the internet isn’t controlled by a dude hierarchy the way critical set-ups like the NYT are (something that makes the internet great!) and partly because the internet likes its mocking and judging (something that makes the internet… not so great), and women get judged and mocked more than men.

        But both online and offline, women get less praise and more censure. Anecdotally, I’ve never seen any male author mocked for his appearance or seen threats of violence made against male authors, and I’ve very seldom seen a review criticising Edward that didn’t also slam Bella, often harder.

        ‘Does the Nostalgia Critic get finger-wagged for “dog-piling” the artifacts of his male-centered childhood?’

        This is an enormously false analogy. Sexism against dudes isn’t a problem in at all the same way? I hesitate to make this analogy, because racism and sexism are super different things (which intersect), but saying ‘so and so doesn’t get criticised for sexism against dudes’ makes me uneasy in the same way I would be hearing ‘so and so doesn’t get criticised for being racist to white people.’

        I agree that post you linked to is an excellent one, and one of the excellent things it says is this: ‘Men are called out too. That is a fact. Women are called out a lot more.’

        … I agree with that…?

      • Also, concerning YA as a genre largely written by women–there are more women, sure. But this week on the NYT children’s list, 9 out of the 10 writers were dudes. Plenty of dudes around, and I have heard very few bad things about anyone on that list… but all the women I can think of who’re prominent enough to have listed have certainly received enormous amounts of flak.

      • Phoebe says:

        Anecdotally, I’ve never seen any male author mocked for his appearance

        Really? George R. R. Martin and Alan Moore are two that I can think of, off the top of my head.

        But that’s the problem with anecdotal argument, isn’t it? It’s easy to answer anecdote with anecdote but I’m not really sure that’s the same as evidence, on either side.

        a) Men get more critical acclaim and attention than women.

        b) When there is criticism to be handed out (not acclaim)–women get it more than men.

        I agree with the first. I’m not sure I’d reflexively agree with the second. That is to say, I wouldn’t deny that women are criticized, often harshly and in a sometimes misogynist ways. However, I’m not sure that I’d agree that this happens disproportionately to the criticism that men receive, and my perceptions of the proportionality vary heartily depending on what fandom/corner of lit crit I’m paying attention to. The SF world–Strange Horizons is a good example; Lois Tilton another–seems equally willing to dish out critical reviews to men as they are to women (sometimes getting flack for it, as Liz Bourke did), for example. There’s plenty of criticism of men’s work and art in the online comic book critical community. In short, I really just think this argument is too broad. I get the feeling that we’re actually talking in a round about way about a handful of specific articles, blog posts, and incidents, honestly.

        ‘Does the Nostalgia Critic get finger-wagged for “dog-piling” the artifacts of his male-centered childhood?’
        This is an enormously false analogy. Sexism against dudes isn’t a problem in at all the same way?

        This actually wasn’t what I was arguing at all. I don’t feel that the Nostalgia Critic or the Nostalgia Chick are either particularly sexist in their focus. However, the Nostalgia Chick frequently gets criticized simply for focusing her critical lens on media consumed and created by women, whereas the Nostalgia Critic is safe from that criticism despite focusing his critical lens on men. I’m saying that female critics are frequently piled-on (so to speak) and accused of anti-feminism or internalized misogyny for even discussing these things.

        (I realize this might make me sound like a woobie, and perhaps shoots a big hole in my argument but I want to tell you that I am enjoying this debate and these thoughts and all you smart ladies. Respect, in other words. <3)

      • Phoebe says:

        I guess my real argument, which I should have stated more obliquely is this: there’s a third argument conflated with those two that Karen didn’t touch on, which is that (usually female) critics who criticize the artifacts of women’s culture are doing so largely out of a place of either internalized misogyny or hatred toward other women. As a female critic who sometimes criticizes the artifacts of women’s culture, I actually find these conversations very derailing–because we’re not focusing on the work but rather the motivation of the reviewer.

  7. And of course I must instantly and shamefacedly add ‘Women get more of b) and men get more of a).’ is written out completely wrong–what I meant was ‘women get more of a) and men get more of b).’ Using two different a) and b) examples clearly entirely foxed me.

  8. Karen Healey says:

    “Survey after survey of both lit fic and genre review venues have shown that the critical discourse is actually disproportionately focused on male writers.”

    Critical discourse as in… reviews and discussion about the books, and also awards? Because yes, I agree that that is indeed disproportionately focused on male writers, which is not good. Or hate, as in “[male writer X] is the worst person and should die”?

    • Phoebe says:

      I meant reviews as a whole–Foz wasn’t talking about YA narrowly but rather both speculative and YA reviewing, not YA narrowly. The gender balances in spec fic reviews are pretty damning, and it’s not as if the works reviewed by men in these venues get happy, huggy coverage. The Bourke review of Michael J. Sullivan’s work is a pretty searing evisceration: “As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy.”

      I mean, that’s hate, any way you slice it.

      • Karen Healey says:

        But Foz was indeed talking about YA in the point I find most problematic and so divided (and to which you consequently added the third possible argument):

        “how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers; ”

        So, that’s what I’m talking about.

      • Phoebe says:

        Fair enough! Personally, I have seen quite a bit of the third formulation of that argument when I’ve been in reviewer communities–the idea, for example, that those who criticize Breaking Dawn are actually criticizing a woman’s right to choose engage in rough sex (and are therefore being bad feminists, or are not feminists), and, additionally have perhaps internalized misogyny as a motivation in their focus on Meyer’s work at all. In my experience in talking to these critics, I think there are many things at work here–the fact that women more often review from a feminist standpoint, and often want to review media that they themselves have enjoyed; the different models of feminism (I frequently see clashes on these issues that seem to bubble up in part because debaters are essentially arguing second wave vs. third wave models of feminism–see also, the still-contentious place of porn); the prevalence of female writers in YA; the differences between discourse in the often female-dominated social justice communities versus more academic critical circles, which sometimes seems less inherently hateradey; the fact that many of the feminists raising these concerns are young, and may have pretty big blindspots, particularly in regards to their own behavior. I agree that some of the discourse is problematic–some of the criticism anti-feminist and originating from problematic places. However, having personally engaged in Dumb Internet Arguments about whether or not I’m wrong in criticizing Amy Pond as a character, for example, because to do so might mean that I don’t think women should choose to get married (when hi, married lady here!), all I can say is . . . these conversations to which Foz refers are out there. And they can be frustrating when you’re engaged in them.

        (That was rambling. Sorry!)

      • Karen Healey says:

        “these conversations to which Foz refers are out there. And they can be frustrating when you’re engaged in them.”

        Oh, I know. I’ve seen them. I think using the language of social justice to shut down conversation ON social justice is gross (and I’ve done it myself so… extra gross, self). What I’m arguing is that, even as they are overlooked by critical discourse (academia, “official” review points), women in YA come in for disproportionate hate, as both critics and writers (and characters).

        But you were right to say (I paraphrase) “Got any proof of that?”. So I spent the day futzing around with 31 issues of the NYT list over the last twelve months to grab the bestselling male and female author names, and then did some hectic google searching for the phrase “I hate [Author X]”, and then did some semantic sampling and sorting of the results.

        Want to see?

  9. ‘Really? George R. R. Martin and Alan Moore are two that I can think of, off the top of my head.’

    I thought we were talking about YA authors.

    But okay, off the top of my head and only thinking of female YA authors whose appearance I specifically have seen mocked: me, Christine Johnson, Jackson Pearce, Aprilynne Pike, Cassie Clare, Holly Black, Kami Garcia, Margi Stohl, Melissa de la Cruz, Melissa Marr, Teri Hall, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Becca Fitzpatrick, Lauren Kate, Diana Wynne Jones, Michelle Harrison, Sarah Webb, Claire Hennessey, Kimberly Derting, Carrie Ryan, Beth Revis, Laini Taylor, Michelle Hodkin, Clare Dunkle. I am prepared to bet almost every female author we have had got it. I know of a female author who was sent to boot camp because her publisher wanted her to appear a certain way.

    John Green does a video series in which he quite often gets admired for his charm–when Maureen Johnson filled in for him for a few days, it was debated whether one should rape her and drown her. Oddly that’s never come up with John over the many years he’s vlogged.

    I am on a listserve of authors who debuted in 2009 and when one woman brought up the fact she felt constantly awful about her appearance and discussions of it online. All the other women agreed. The men were astounded. Jon Skovron (another YA boy…) especially, classy gent, said he’d never realised how terrible things are for girls, because he just hadn’t thought of being a writer as a visual medium at all.

    I think it is disingenuous to pretend that female authors don’t get a huge amount more criticism of their appearance, even if George R.R. Martin and Alan Moore get criticised too.

    ‘I get the feeling that we’re actually talking in a round about way about a handful of specific articles, blog posts, and incidents, honestly.’

    Uh… which ones? I mean, certainly specifics come to mind, but really, I feel like there’s a million miles of stuff piling up in my head from everywhere I can think of–for female characters I’m sorting through literally hundreds of articles and online posts about TV shows and wondering which is most relevant. I don’t know though, Foz was the one who made the original post, I’m just commenting, so I bow to her if she had specifics in mind!

    As for comics, honestly, I am leaving that up to Karen Healey who knows more than me on the subject if she feels like it, but there’s a huge amount MORE of men’s art around to BE criticised. Men make up 99% of mainstream comics art and work. (DC, for ex, recently had 1 female writer out of 52 on their main titles.) Who else is going to BE criticised?

    Which doesn’t mean Gail Simone doesn’t get it more than her male peers. She does.

    ‘However, the Nostalgia Chick frequently gets criticized simply for focusing her critical lens on media consumed and created by women, whereas the Nostalgia Critic is safe from that criticism despite focusing his critical lens on men.’

    Okay then! I agree. Focusing the lens on women should not get you criticised, though not being a follower of either, there may be ramifications and particulars I don’t know.

    ‘I’m saying that female critics are frequently piled-on (so to speak) and accused of anti-feminism or internalized misogyny for even discussing these things.’

    I’m saying I disagree. I’ve seen female critics write absolutely great stuff about sexism in novels, and I’ve absolutely agreed with them, and I’ve seen fans of said stuff going ‘You do not understand’ but I haven’t seen fans going ‘That’s sexist.’

    I’ve also seen female critics write sexist stuff about female characters and female writers, and I’ve seen people say ‘That’s sexist.’ To which I agree that yes it was.

    I haven’t seen an accusation of sexism leveled at something I thought wasn’t sexist.

    I’m not saying it hasn’t happened. You say it’s happened to the Nostalgia Chick, and okay I believe you! Again, I don’t know her work, so I can’t say if I think the specifics of what she’s saying are sexist. Maybe they are! In which case it should be discussed! But she shouldn’t be called sexist just for focusing on women–that’s not sexist.

    I am saying I don’t think it’s anything like the widespread problem you and Foz presented it as–‘talking about whether stuff is sexist’ is not a brilliant silencing tactic, as you can clearly see from this discussion!

    And I remain super uncomfortable with the idea that people SHOULD NOT say stuff is sexist. I think they should. Anyone can say a book is sexist, and they should. Anyone can say a review is sexist, and they should. I think these things *need to be discussed.*

    • Phoebe says:

      This is probably pretty scattered, but here goes:

      Men make up 99% of mainstream comics art and work. (DC, for ex, recently had 1 female writer out of 52 on their main titles.) Who else is going to BE criticised?

      Well, and I was arguing something similar about YA. I don’t deny that men are out there, that they sell well or are critically acclaimed–and why 9/10 of the writers currently on the children’s NYT list are men is probably something worth discussing. But the majority of people writing for the YA audience are women (in the 2013 debut group we’ve got something like a split of 43 women to 3 men), and I still suspect that impacts the proportionality of the discussion.

      I thought we were talking about YA authors.

      This is a post about criticism in SFF and YA, no?

      I’m not denying that women receive unfairly disproportionate vitriol about their appearances. I also don’t think it’s literally correct, though, to say that it never happens to men.

      I’m saying I disagree. I’ve seen female critics write absolutely great stuff about sexism in novels, and I’ve absolutely agreed with them, and I’ve seen fans of said stuff going ‘You do not understand’ but I haven’t seen fans going ‘That’s sexist.’

      I’ll be honest: I felt that Holly Black’s rebuttal to Linda Holmes’ Twilight review seemed to imply that she felt Holmes’ was using dated, sexist rhetoric, which, to me, did not feel present in the initial review itself. While I found Holly’s alternative reading of Twilight to be an interesting one, I didn’t feel like the framing–which seemed to imply that the major feminist thrust of discourse both in Holmes’ piece specifically and about Twilight generally needed to be approached with “less of an agenda”–was one that genuinely engendered broader or more nuanced conversations about either sexuality or feminism in YA, despite espousing that argument at first glance. I can’t help but suspect that this at least one of the conversations we’re dancing around, both in Foz’s original quote and much of the ensuing discussion.

      I haven’t seen an accusation of sexism leveled at something I thought wasn’t sexist.

      You’re lucky, then, I suppose! Either we’ve participated in far different conversations or just suffer from one of those pesky differences of opinion that make the internet so lively.😉

      I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think they might unconsciously–hey, the charts show their intentions are good–be harsher on the women they do review

      Having written one of my most negative reviews ever there for a dude, I’m not so sure (my experiences proofreading for them for 2 years suggest not, too. And I read a fair proportion of their reviews during that time). They’re equal opportunity critical.

      However, most importantly: you should watch the Nostalgia Chick. She is wonderful and makes me happy.

      • So–you’re saying that Strange Horizons, while unconsciously not including enough women (and so influenced by unconscious misogyny) are somehow totally not influenced by it when writing about women’s books? They’re not equal opportunity in one area, but boy they definitely are in another…? How?

        I’m not slamming Strange Horizons. I’m just saying that’s weird and unconvincing. People don’t work that way. Orchestras had to have blind auditions to judge people’s music because their brains decided the instruments weren’t played as well by women, because women.

        ‘I thought we were talking about YA authors.

        This is a post about criticism in SFF and YA, no?’

        Sure, fine! I can also list Laurell K Hamilton, Cherie Priest, Tanith Lee, Robin Hobb, Kim Harrison… many more than two SFF adult authors off the top of my head who get flak about their looks.

        ‘I’m not denying that women receive unfairly disproportionate vitriol about their appearances. I also don’t think it’s literally correct, though, to say that it never happens to men.’

        I honestly feel you are going ‘Aha, this can’t be true because *I* write negative reviews of dudes in Strange Horizons, or because somebody doesn’t like Alan Moore’s face.’

        Granted, tiny amounts of the bad stuff that happens in HUGE amounts to women happens to men. I STILL DON’T SEE why anyone should say ‘Don’t say sexist stuff’ when talking about criticism.

        If women get ‘disproportionate vitriol’ which you and I both agree they do… mightn’t they get it in other areas? Isn’t sexism an overwhelming problem that infiltrates everyone’s lives and brains? If Holly was wrong to say ‘I found this criticism sexist’ (I don’t think she was)–but if she believed it, why not say ‘Was this sexist? I think so. Let’s have a discussion about it.’

        Why not have more discussions about sexism? What’s wrong with that?

        As it happens, I was not thinking about debates long gone by but chiefly thinking that just yesterday I criticised a critic talking about misogyny for being misogynistic–was I wrong to do that? (http://sarahreesbrennan.tumblr.com/post/17380655024/clio-i-am-sick-of-people-arbitrarily-bashing#notes) I don’t think I was. Apparently, you do. I have not seen people unfairly accused of being sexist, but even if I had, I would think it was better to argue against the unfair accusations than to stop calling out sexism.

        • Phoebe says:

          So–you’re saying that Strange Horizons, while unconsciously not including enough women (and so influenced by unconscious misogyny) are somehow totally not influenced by it when writing about women’s books? They’re not equal opportunity in one area, but boy they definitely are in another…? How?

          I’m not entirely sure what you’re arguing. Strange Horizons, though it reviews more men than women, does not review those women more harshly than men. In fact, the harshest of their reviews that I’ve seen (and again, I’ve read more than your average reader, as I proofread for them for two years) were of work by men.

          I honestly feel you are going ‘Aha, this can’t be true because *I* write negative reviews of dudes in Strange Horizons, or because somebody doesn’t like Alan Moore’s face.’

          That is honestly not what I’m saying. I acknowledged the complexity of the argument, and that women do, in fact, face disproportionate and misogynistic criticism of appearance. Please accept my arguments at face value.

          I STILL DON’T SEE why anyone should say ‘Don’t say sexist stuff’ when talking about criticism.

          Foz was talking about the reasons why people are reluctant to review within YA (and SF). This is one of the reasons–I’ve spoken to enough people who interact with YA in a critical capacity to know that they actively fear accusations of hating other women, whether those accusations come from a traditional patriarchal standpoint (“feminists just hate other women”) or from other feminists (“it’s misogynistic to evaluate works by other women”). I’ve seen the behavior of other feminist critics (Ceilidh, behind the Sparkle Project), cataloged as an attempt to prove that she’s not a feminist–and we’re not talking about instances of sexist behavior but actually trying to prove that she herself cannot be a feminist because of things she’s said before, as if feminism were a club that you can be kicked out of, or something. I spoke to Jodie from ladybusiness about her own past reluctance to review because of arguments such as these. I’ve felt the frustration of it myself, personally.

          If Holly was wrong to say ‘I found this criticism sexist’ (I don’t think she was)–but if she believed it, why not say ‘Was this sexist? I think so. Let’s have a discussion about it.’

          I don’t think she was wrong in having the discussion. I think her wording was unintentionally silencing and (again, likely unintentionally) the wording unfortunately redolent of traditional patriarchal arguments against feminists–that their values are Victorian or prudish, that they’ve entered the conversation with an agenda. The part where she discusses an alternate reading of Twilight? Great! The part where people felt shamed and embarrassed for entering the conversation while having other readings? Maybe not great?

          Apparently, you do. I have not seen people unfairly accused of being sexist, but even if I had, I would think it was better to argue against the unfair accusations than to stop calling out sexism.

          The post you linked looks fine to me. In all of these discussions, I think it’s best to evaluate these conversations on a case-by-case basis rather than making blanket generalizations. But I’m also personally reluctant to do too much of this stuff, honestly. Because eventually it starts to feel like behavioral policing of the Discourse of Women, and because much of these arguments are contingent upon feminism being a monolith, with only one mode of accepted interpretation of any single work or text. It becomes, as the requireshate lady said, a “vicious cycle of ‘you called out internalized misogyny so you will find IT IS YOU WHO IS MISOGYNY and I’m calling you out for this so I’m internalizing misogyny too!'” I also don’t want to alienate other feminists who are, perhaps, less sex-positive than I am or just starting out in their criticism or have other interpretations of a text from entering the conversation at all.

          And for me, the feminism not being monolithic is pretty much the crux of it. In its specifics, my feminism is not your feminism is not another critic’s feminism is not some woman on LJ’s feminism. I don’t necessarily think every model is valid (because I like mine!), but I do want to see many models welcome.

          Karen: it seems we’re agreeing way more than agreeing and my apologies for perhaps derailing it into a semantic argument. Part of me would love to see the data (because, oh, data, om nom nom!) but since I have stupid writing stuff to do, perhaps it’s better I just take your word for it.🙂

  10. ‘(usually female) critics who criticize the artifacts of women’s culture are doing so largely out of a place of either internalized misogyny or hatred toward other women.’

    Sure, and female writers of books are told that the artifacts they’re creating are the way they are largely out of a place of either internalized misogyny or hatred toward other women.

    ‘As a female critic who sometimes criticizes the artifacts of women’s culture, I actually find these conversations very derailing–because we’re not focusing on the work but rather the motivation of the reviewer.’

    If I see misogyny or hatred toward other women (Character the Girl Sucks, I’m Going To Talk About How She Sucks Way More Than About How the Boy Sucks, Lady Author Should Be Ashamed) I’m going to wonder about the motivation–or the unconscious bias, because as we all know, this stuff isn’t always intentional–of the reviewer. Why shouldn’t I? Just like if I see women being punished or hated in a book, I’m going to think about the motivation or unconscious bias of the writer.

    Again, I don’t see how this is a problem. We’ve all got to own our words.

  11. I pause in my packing to add, Phoebe, as you specifically mentioned Strange Horizons–even they admit ‘The proportion of reviews of books that are of books by women is higher at Strange Horizons than at any other venue, but still fails to match the raw publication numbers.’

    http://www.strangehorizons.com/blog/2011/03/the_sf_count.shtml

    Given that evidence of bias, admitted by themselves… I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think they might unconsciously–hey, the charts show their intentions are good–be harsher on the women they do review, too. Bias is everywhere and we must talk about it.

  12. fozmeadows says:

    OK! So, there’s been a lot of discussion, and I need to sit and think some more about All The Stuff, but as an example of the specific thing I was talking about – namely, feminists disagreeing about feminist interpretations of relationships in YA/SFF novels – I’ll start with Sadie Doyle’s piece from Tiger Beatdown about sexism and racism in A Game of Thrones, and the many reactions other feminists had to it. While this isn’t about YA, it’s nonetheless a very powerful example of feminist disagreement within fandom. I’ve always loved Martin’s books, and all the problems with the HBO adaptation aside, I’m not the only feminist whose enjoyment of the series comes in no small part from the female characters. Sadie Doyle does not agree. Many of the issues she had with the books are ones I hadn’t considered before she brought them up. Some I agree with; others, not so much. But the point is, she came out very, very strongly against the series and unequivocally did so from a feminist perspective. Other feminists, who were also fans, reacted very strongly – and frequently negatively – to her statements, and the discussion became, in many respects, an argument about whose interpretation was the most feminist, or actually feminist, and whose was stupid/unreasonable/misogynistic/rape-apologist.

    The first post is here: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/08/26/enter-ye-myne-mystic-world-of-gayng-raype-what-the-r-stands-for-in-george-r-r-martin/

    And the second post, which discusses the reaction to the first, is here: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/08/29/chronicles-of-mansplaining-professor-feminism-and-the-deleted-comments-of-doom/

    In a similar vein, I’d also reference the great Bitch Magazine List Of YA Feminist Novels Controversy of 2011. This is closer to the YA/relationships point I was making: Bitch made the list, several feminist commenters objected to the inclusion of books which they considered to be unfeminist, Bitch edited the list accordingly, and all hell broke loose. Like many other people, I blogged about what happened at the time: most of the discussion was, rightly, about Bitch’s lack of integrity in supporting their original list and the manner in which they dealt with the fallout, but it also served to illustrate how a deeply passionate group of YA-loving feminists nonetheless came to blows (i.e. Disagreement On The Internets) about what constituted feminism in YA and how it ought to be recognised and discussed.

    It’s also worth contrasting this piece about setting aside feminist criticisms of Twilight in favour of using it to better understand teenage girls – http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/instead-of-mocking-teen-twihards-try-talking-to-them-20111201-1o8i7.html – with this piece about YA (and teenage) author Alexandra Adornetto’s defense of Twilight (http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/why-teenage-boys-suck-more-than-vampires-20100710-104ub.html).

    So! That’s a few things to add in to the discussion.🙂

    • Phoebe says:

      Foz, Sady Doyle is someone I kept thinking of in these arguments, too. Reactions to her criticism are often focused on her rather than her arguments. Likewise, Liz Bourke. Likewise, the Nostalgia Chick. I suspect this is really a matter of conversations of the fruits of women’s intellect (be they creative or critical) being focused on either that woman personally (her appearance) or her “right” to do that work, with arguments about that right being approached from a variety of frameworks. I think this is a way in which feminist critics actually have quite a bit in common with other female writers in this. And I wonder if we all need a dose of Jay Smooth–to work on criticizing the words without labeling or judging the writer behind it. I suspect it would be a more productive, less circular conversation, at least.

      Anyway, thank you for providing space for this discussion.

  13. […] Shattersnipe, fozmeadows discusses the defensiveness of YA and SF/F toward criticism. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of […]

  14. […] at all times, especially when navigating women’s culture. I refer again to the comments here: Which, frankly, does my head in. Because this latter criticism has wide-ranging and deeply valid […]

  15. […] 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 […]

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