Posts Tagged ‘Goodreads’

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever – instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

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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.

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.

‘Duty Calls’, xkcd 386

Ever since I became a published author, I’ve been struggling with the necessary tensions of belonging to the community whose output I most want to critique. Internally, the questions I’ve been asking myself have ranged from Should I write paid reviews to supplement my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me? I’ve said before that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this point in my life. After all, I’m still new to the authoring game; old habits are hard to break, and if I’ve been writing stories for longer than I’ve been reviewing or thinking critically about them, then it’s not much longer. To phrase the scenario as crudely as possible, I comprehend the wisdom of not shitting where one eats, but at the same time, I feel deeply uneasy with the idea that being an author means I’m no longer allowed to be moved by books, to be angered or disgusted or made quizzical by books – or rather, that I can be all these things, but only on the proviso that I’m secretive about it, as though my native reactions to narrative have somehow become shameful.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Stories of authors reacting to criticism on the internet abound, and are seldom remembered in a positive light (though frankly, I think we’re all on Neil Gaiman’s side when it comes to the whole pencil-necked weasel thing). Then there’s the mafia issue – which, for all it exaggerates the power of individual authors to affect someone else’s career, is nonetheless a salient footnote on the etiquette of criticism, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Way back in the mists of time (2008) when I started this blog, my second ever post was on editorialising in the media: the creeping intrusion of personal opinion into factual content, such that the two are now almost irreversibly blurred. I said then, and maintain now, that a large portion of the blame for the current state of our news media can be fairly apportioned to a public thirst for sensationalism – or rather, to the perceived public thirst for sensationalism. I mention this because, while artistic opinions of any kind are always going to be subjective, certain regions of the internet have developed a taste for snarky, pejorative book reviews, which I’m coming to think of as being inimical to good criticism in the same way that editorialising is inimical to facts.

That’s not to say I don’t read snarky reviews. I’m not even claiming never to have enjoyed them, however guiltily. But I am saying that the general inability of readers, reviewers and writers to distinguish between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews  is becoming a genuine problem, particularly in a culture where blogging, social media outlets and review sites like Goodreads are all so deeply interconnected as to constitute a single hivemind. Anything you say in public is both easily attributable to you and, as such, open to yet more criticism. This can become something of a viscious circle, and while many disputes are tiny storms in tinier teacups, the blogosphere itself is a super-sized coffee mug as broad across as the internet is deep, its viscous contents routinely stirred by a combination of citykilling typhoons and the sorts of electrical disturbance usually found in Star Trek nebulae.

Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s InternetGodwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll, and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

So, for the purposes of attempting to enable a happier, safer, more constructive internet, here is a rough dissemination of the difference between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews, respectively:

1. Critical Reviews

Contrary to what you might think, critical reviews are not necessarily negative. Rather, they involve an awareness of literary conventions (pacing, writing style, structure, plotting), a demonstrable familiarity with the genre in question, and a knowledge of standard tropes and plot conventions. As much as possible, they endeavour to be written in the spirit of informative objectivity. By which I mean: no personal vendettas, no ad hominem attacks, no profanity (exceptions made in the case of positive usage, i.e: this book is fucking brilliant), and no snide remarks. Given the native imperfection of human beings, a cultural preference for humour and the fact that sometimes, in our honest opinion, a book just doesn’t work, your mileage may vary when it comes to enforcing these points; at the very least, our own views frequently lead us to be more lenient or strict with a particular review depending on the extent to which we agree (or disagree) with its conclusion. Note, too, that while I certainly think reviews of this kind are important, they can also be somewhat bloodless, especially when it comes to books we actually like. Thus, while critical reviews as characterised here can certainly be either positive or negative, I’ve chosen my guidelines with negativity in mind, if only because there’s a world of difference between laughing with and laughing at. Which leads us to:

2. Humorous Reviews

Ranging from gentle, tongue-in-cheek send-ups to gleeful mockery, humorous reviews are generally written with mirth in mind. This doesn’t prevent them from containing critical insights, however – they’re only couched differently. For me, the most successful humorous reviews are positive in tone. The best books infect us. Like viruses, they mutate our cells and turn us into replicators, instilling the urge to go forth and infect yet more people. Humour is an excellent means of transmitting this enthusiasm precisely because it overwhelms our objectivity with laughter and story-greed. When used in more negative reviews, it can serve the purpose of attracting readers, not to the book in question, but to the reviewer, displaying their personality and particular taste while still providing critical feedback on a novel’s pros and cons. Though sometimes verging into snarkish, schadenfreude territory (see above, re: your mileage may vary), a funny-yet-critical review will support its jibes with reasoned analysis and, where appropriate, balance the tone with lighthearted humour, ensuring that the end result doesn’t read wholly as a joke at the book’s expense. For all that I’m a fan of critical reviews, I tend to prefer them as one-off reads, or as tie-breaker votes when other, more subjective sources disagree. But when it comes to choosing a regular reviewer, humour is what wins out for me: not only because it affords a greater sense of who the reviewer actually is, but because even a negative review can still make me curious about a particular book – and if there’s one thing I don’t want a reviewer to do as a matter of course, it’s make me feel like a cretin for enjoying something they disliked. Which leads us to:

3. Pejorative Reviews

Often, pejorative reviews are based on adversarial reading by a hostile audience. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the author, or the genre, or the voice. Maybe they think the premise sounds ludicrous. Whatever the reason, unless they’re willing to be talked into a full face heel turn, there’s a good chance that the outcome will be just what they expected – and, finding this to be so, they’ll be even angrier at the end than they were at the outset. Alternatively, they’ve gone in as hopeful, willing readers, and had that trust betrayed: their berserk button is pressed, and the result is an irate, shouty review full of capslock and swearing. Note that this is not, of itself, an inappropriate reaction, nor does it automatically make for a bad review. Sometimes, issues are important enough to get angry about, particularly when we feel our perspective is otherwise being ignored. But while such pejorative might be objectively understandable, it can also undermine its own critical significance, simply because of the difficulties inherent in disentangling venom from facts. So often when something makes us angry, we don’t slow down to explain why that anger is justified – or at least, not in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who hasn’t already read the book. This can lead virgin readers to assume incompetence on behalf of the reviewer – and if we want our views to be taken seriously, this is clearly a disadvantage. A further consequence of adversarial reading is the snowball effect: past a certain point, being reasonably annoyed with several things in particular easily leads to being irrationally irked by many things in general. For instance: while I might be perfectly willing to overlook one or two small typos in a brilliant book, their presence in a lesser story suddenly becomes a noteworthy factor in my judging it as such. Combine this with attacks on the author and an openly disparaging attitude to anyone who disagrees, and even the most eloquent vitriol is still tarred with the brush of being, well, vitriol. We might seek it out when a book disappoints us, desperate to know that we weren’t the only ones to feel that way, but overall, pejorative reviews tend to be of the least help, both to readers and to the wider literary community.

So! It is now late, and I have done my blogging duty for another day. Internets, what do you think about reviewing?

Earlier today, I wrote a quickish post about the YA mafia, prompted almost entirely by the fact that:

a) two authors whose work I like and whose blogs I follow were discussing it this morning; and

b) because other authors were still discussing it on Twitter a few hours later, primarily in a jocular fashion.

On the basis of having read the above, my default position was: yeah, OK, I can see why people would be concerned about this, and clearly a couple of rogue authors have been acting like dicks about bad reviews, but it’s not really a problem, because none of us have that sort of power. And then, because I am a curious person, I decided to Google the term “YA mafia” in order to see what came up, because while Holly Black, who started the discussion, mentioned having seen the phrase crop up a few times recently, she didn’t actually link to anywhere specific, and even though I’d already posted my own opinions, it didn’t feel right to leave it at that until I’d poked at it a bit more thoroughly. Because despite the fact that my Google Reader is populated almost entirely by Pure Awesome, it is neither God nor Skynet, and therefore doesn’t know everything. Yet.

Which is how I found this post on the matter, written on a feminist YA review blog called The Sparkle Project. Being a conscientious Foz, I went back into my original post and linked to it retrospectively, even though I was, at the time, still reading through all the associated links it contained. I did some more Googling after that, and then went about the rest of my day, churning things over. And then I came back to the computer tonight, and found that someone had commented on my post, thanking me for writing it. Almost – almost – I left it at that. But being as how getting actual comments on this blog from actual people I haven’t personally met is still something of a novelty, I clicked through to their website and found this: that the commenter was a book blogger who, due to advice and criticism she’d recently received from both published authors and active literary agents, had decided to completely abandon her book blog, set her Goodreads profile to private and generally keep her head down. So I did some more reading, and then I decided to write this post, because, dude: the whole idea of a YA mafia might seem like a massive overreaction, due largely to the fact that talking about mafia anything is sort of like talking about pirate anything and therefore innately hilarious at the level of nomenclature, but regardless of what you want to call it or even whether it extends purely to the YA genre, some worrisome shit is going down when it comes to critical reviews and the freedom of bloggers to write them.

So, look: as Justine Larbalestier rightly points out, the online disinhibition effect – or, as it is more widely known in internet/gaming subculture, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory – is a genuine problem. People get on the internet and spew rage like students on a three-day fury binge, letting fly in a way they wouldn’t – couldn’t – approach in their everyday lives. Specifically as relates to YA and literary culture, there are a number of reviewers out there who sit down with a deliberate eye to writing snarky, humorous reviews – or at least, whose critical reviews inevitably take the form of snark, and whose glowing recommendations are just as equally written with comedic effect in mind – or who, if we are being honest, are not particularly tactful in the first place. Such reviewers are by no means the majority. More to the point, however, all of us are from time to time irked by a particular plot device, character, setting or, let’s face it, story to such an extent that our usual inhibitions go out the window. For whatever reason of red mist, we are rendered furious by a particular thing, and all concerns about the anonymity of the internet leading people to act like dickheads aside, sometimes it’s healthy to vent in a setting that won’t send your family comatose or cause the ears of your friends and colleagues to blister. Sometimes, ranting is necessary.

Also! An absolute tsunami of adult, predominantly female readers with a ravenous appetite for YA novels is swamping the shores of Bookdonia at present, the sort of deluge one hopes will never end: women who are not necessarily the intended audience of many of the novels they pick up, at least insofar as age is concerned, but who nonetheless crave it like the kind of chocolate that simultaneously causes weight-loss and orgasm. Now, I have never held with the idea that writing YA constitutes a form of writing down, or that it somehow contains less critical merit than books that are written for adults, or that teenagers are less critical readers than adults: I want that to be particular clear. I am, after all, a YA author, and very much an advocate of teenage intelligence. But possibly it is fair to suggest that, as adults are not the intended, primary audience of many YA novels – even where the authors are aware that other adults will read their work – they will, as readers, bring a different set of values, desires and assumptions to their reading than many teenagers will, with the result that their reactions might also be different, too.

So when I said recently that I’d become a little obsessed with reading negative reviews on Goodreads, the thing I didn’t admit to was the fact that most of the bad reviews I read were of YA books aimed at female audiences, and that the grounds for their being criticised by adult, female readers was, 99% of the time, to do with a perceived failure of feminism. It might have been J.K. Rowling who made the adult world sit up and take notice of YA novels, but it was Stephenie Meyer whose work provoked the greater degree of feminist scrutiny. And here’s where things really start to get controversial, because as far as I can see, the issue at the heart of the YA mafia sentiment – the logic which underpins so many critical, bad or outright scathing reviews, and which is therefore in no small part responsible for the stances of those  authors, publishers and agents who object to them – is twofold: firstly, the objections of adult, feminist readers to a perceived lack of feminist values in a number of books aimed primarily at teenage girls, and secondly, the open admission of particular authors and agents that yes, it really is best not to ruffle any feathers.

That’s a big claim, right there. So before we go any further, here’s a summary of some of the things that lead me to this conclusion:

1.  The Sparkle Project post, wherein cliqueyness among authors is discussed, and the argument is put forward that the most controversial review the blogger ever wrote – which itself contributed hugely to her concerns about the whole YA mafia thing – was an (admittedly harsh, lengthy and pejorative) dissection of Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush, on the grounds that Patch, the love interest, was an emotionally abusive stalker. To quote:

“Authors become good friends with bloggers and reviewers… giving interviews and freebies to give away, organising competitions and web-chats, and then they have these glowing reviews pop up everywhere. We have writers defending each other online from criticism because they’re friends with each other… We have authors giving each other glowing reviews and cover quotes often as big as the book author’s name without any sort of disclaimer that the writers are good friends. We have books that aren’t very good being trumpeted as the hot new thing because of combinations of all the above. If you’ll forgive my admittedly sketchy word choice, it’s all begun to feel a little incestuous.”

2. The Hush, Hush review mentioned above, in conjunction with a later post which quotes and responds to a dissenting author’s comments.

3. This post on Becca Fitzpatrick’s blog, wherein she advocates a ‘be nice’ policy with regard to other authors and publishers, citing an incident where, having read a scathing review of Hush, Hush by a particular reviewer who later had their novel accepted for publication, she later refused to blurb said novel on the grounds of their review. And yes: that’s an entirely reasonable thing, to be cranky at someone who slammed your book when they later come asking for favours. I get that. What I’m less comfortable with is this statement:

“The reason I decided not to read the manuscript was because I wondered what would happen if I did read it…and loved it. What if I sent the editor a handful of glowing words, and she decided to stick them on the front cover of her author’s book? Would the author love having my praise splashed on her cover? Probably not… Interestingly enough, this once-aspiring author didn’t limit her somewhat rantish reviews to HUSH, HUSH. She’d made quite a habit of belittling authors’ books along the way, and I suppose it comes to no surprise that, as far as I know, she was never able to find an author to blurb her book. This isn’t to say an aspiring author can’t be honest when writing reviews, but if your goal is to be published, it might serve you well to drop the books you don’t love, and talk up the ones you do. You don’t have to love every book, every time. But I think a bit of courtesy in saying, “This wasn’t for me, and here’s why,” says volumes about you as a reviewer and a person. No one wants to start their career surrounded by nothing but a lot of burned bridges.”

4. This post by Lilith Saintcrow, which Fitzpatrick quotes in the above blog. The relevant lines are these:

“Publishing is really a small business. You never know when the person you’re rude to on a convention panel or in an elevator at a trade show may hold the power of life or death over your wee manuscript in the future. It’s best to be tactful and interested in other people at cons and shows, not to mention writer’s group meetings.”

5. This post on rape culture in YA – which, yes, makes particular mention of Hush, Hush. Full disclosure: this is not a book I’ve ever read, nor have I ever met the author. But no matter how lovely Becca herself may be – and by every account I’ve ever heard, she is lovely – the fact remains that Hush, Hush is a novel I consistently see cited by adult readers as being anti-feminist; or rather, of having a male love interest who comes across as abusive. Perhaps I should shut up until such time as I’ve read the book myself, but until then, I can’t help noticing a pattern in the commentary.

6. This post by an aspiring author and former book blogger, who closed her review blog when told by authors and literary agents that maintaining it would hurt her chances of being published. The context for that post can be found here, wherien she explains her hiatus from blogging, and links to the remarks which eventually prompted her decision.

7. The remarks themselves: this post on book reviewing, wherein literary agent Jill Corcoran speaks against it (or rather, is reported to have done so, as the conversation took place during a query session on Twitter), and these remarks by Stacia Kane, who also took part in the discussion. Specifically:

“I mentioned that I personally would be rather hurt if my agent signed someone who’d trashed me/my work, or even just said negative things about me/my work online. My friend… said she wouldn’t help that person out, either, like with a blurb or whatever. Which I agree with, as well… Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and to express that opinion wherever and whenever. But…the purpose of a review, the whole reason reviews came about and exist, is to tell people whether or not they should read that book/buy that TV/use that hair gel/wear those shoes. That’s what a review is, and what it does. You may do a lot of other stuff along with your reviews, and use them to start long involved discussions, but the fact is, people read reviews first and foremost to see if the product–in this case a book–is worth buying. In other words, you’re querying an agent whose client’s book you’ve publicly told people not to buy. If you ask that author for a blurb, or promo help, or a guest blog, you’re asking for help from someone whose book you publicly told people not to buy.”

8. Any one of a million reviews of YA novels on Goodreads which complain about anti-feminist sentiment. I’m not going to link these, partly because I’ve already done enough singling out and feel bad about it, but mostly because anyone can go and find them. What I will link to, however, is something I’ve already (again) blogged about recently, viz: the Bitch Magazine controversy over their list of feminist YA titles, the fact that some of those titles were pulled, and the ensuing debate about whether or not Bitch was behaving reasonably (general consensus in short form: no). Nonetheless, it is relevant, not because this is a debate about censorship, but because the whole shemozzle goes a long way towards demonstrating that readers, authors and reviewers all care deeply about the role of feminism in YA novels, and are willing to dig in and defend those views in public.

SO. That about does it for links, though if you want to read more, the internet will oblige. What I’m trying to get at here is that while there might not be an actual YA mafia per se, the issue of whether or not book bloggers who also happen to be aspirant authors are free to write critical reviews without potential risk to their future careers is not as open and shut as it might have initially seemed. Specifically as concerns book blogger authors submitting to the agents of authors whose work they’ve given a negative review: Stacia Kane and Becca Fitzpatrick both make very intelligent, important points that I am in no way trying to dismiss or diminish. Namely: if you are an aspirant author submitting to a particular agency, you should know ahead of time who that agent represents in order to gauge how likely they are to respond favourably to your own work. If, for whatever reason, you choose to lie to that agent and compare your own work to a best-selling book on their lists that you not only can’t stand, but have publicly trashed, then do not be surprised if the author in questions takes offence when asked to help promote your own opus. The fact that you hated their book does not mean they will hate yours – in fact, they might find it to be brilliant. In a totally fair universe, such authors would always ignore your review and try your work anyway; but human beings are human beings, and will not always do the fair thing. Also, and just in case I haven’t made this clear already: I am not condoning purely pejorative reviews. It is perfectly possible to critique a book – critique it harshly, even – without doing so in a way that is sarcastic, snarky and/or ad hominem, and it should go without saying that doing so will not win you any friends.

But that, I fear, is exactly the point: friendship. I have thus far been lucky enough to make friends with other authors on the basis of having loved their work, or vice versa – what I’ve not yet had to do beyond the confines of a writers’ group meeting is tell a friend that I think their work sucks, or that I don’t like the moralism of it, or that it just isn’t for me, or that, because of all or any of these reasons, I don’t feel comfortable publicising it. Hopefully, I’ll never have to. But if I did, I honestly can’t predict whether, to paraphrase The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’d be able to escape without completely compromising my honour and artistic judgement. Maybe that makes me a terrible elitist, or a terrible friend, or both. But what I hope, should that day come, is that I have the strength of character and the eloquence to be honest – or, at the very least, to keep silent. There are times when I suspect friends have had to do the same for me, and that’s fine: disliking my work is not the same as disliking me, and so long as they don’t mention it and I don’t push, everything’s peachy. On the converse, there are other friends I have who always critique up front – no punches pulled – but even though they might rip my work to shreds, that doesn’t mean we can’t still go for a drink afterwards.

I love my friends, and I love their work, too. But when I tell other people about X new book or Y new series, I want that to mean something objective, insofar as objectivity is ever really possible. Becoming a published author should not be synonymous with an abdication of critical judgement in public. Book bloggers should not be made to feel that they can’t have real opinions for fear of damaging their careers. The quality of such reviews is a different question altogether: despite having touched on tone, the issue is whether reviewers are free to criticise at all, and even in instances above where authors have cited scathing reviews, the general verdict is still to err on the side of caution.

A while ago, I read a truly fascinating article about the dangers of praising children for their intelligence rather than their skills – or rather, the danger of praising too much, and never criticising. One particular quote stands out:

” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.”

In the context of reviewing, the above finding strikes me to have another application: the idea that, if all we ever hear from a particular reviewer is praise, we begin to discount their critical faculties. As it is highly unlikely that every reviewer will like every book they read – but as reviewing is a process innately predicated on critical analysis – the act of publishing only positive reviews, even where this is achieved by the simple expedient of withholding the negative ones rather than never writing them, will inevitably cause many readers to doubt the reviewer’s sincerity. Knowing what a reviewer likes is much less helpful if you cannot simultaneously identify what they don’t like, and if the message currently being sent to the book blogger community is along the lines of if you can’t say sumthin’ nice, then don’t say nuthin’ at all, then the upshot, however unintentional, is an erosion of meaningful criticism.

And that, if we return to the feminist argument, is a real problem. Because feminism is – I am not ashamed to say it – worth getting angry about. It is worth being passionate, perhaps even tactless and ranty and full of snark, if the problems one is endeavouring to address are about repeated patterns in stories that serve to render heroines as passive, stupid, unimaginative and useless, constantly in love with men whose behaviour would be deemed reprehensible in any other circumstance and are only justified narratively by the presence of True Love. This is not an argument about censoring books: it is about writing better ones, and discussing the undeniable impact out culture has on the stories we produce. By way of evidence as to this latter, I submit the following film clip from 1956: tell me that type of happy ending wasn’t socially sanctioned, and then try telling me that our own cultural biases have nothing to do with our writing. Something I love about the SFF community is the extent to which we’re willing to discuss problems in our field – the dearth of non-white characters and authors, the absence of gay protagonists, questions of cultural dominance and subversion – and yet, if this debate is anything to go by, certain parts of the YA world are shrinking from doing just that. Perhaps I’m drawing a long bow, or making mountains out of molehills, but from where I sit, it seems a fairly incontrovertible thing to say that a large portion of criticism currently directed at YA novels has to do with adult female readers being concerned at the presence of anti-feminist or unempowered characters and potentially abusive romantic scenarios. But if this is what’s leading to more vehement reviews in the blogosphere than usual – if this is the one subject about which people are losing their cool and behaving unprofessionally more than any other – then I think it’s an important enough concern that, rather than trying to get those bloggers to shut up by making them feel insecure about their own future careers, we ought to be throwing the debate wider.

And now, having just committed a form of suicide by internet, I’ll sit back and deal with the consequences.

Internets, I have a confession to make: I have become deeply addicted to Goodreads.

At first, it was just little things, like compulsively updating my reading progress, checking to see how Solace & Grief was doing and compiling a vast, improbable list of novels I haven’t yet read, but want to. Then I started adding people as friends – complete strangers, most of them, and yet there was a vicarious thrill every time I perused their reading choices, reviews and ratings. Still, I had managed to keep on the safe side of the boundary between interested and obsessed, until I started checking the site for updates with roughly the same frequency as I check my email, lingering on the homepage even when there was nothing new to see and trying to think of which books, which authors I might look up and read about. Now in the final, debilitating stages of true addiction, my main use of the site has expanded into what can only be described as a combination of schadenfreude and masochism: an active search for negative reviews of books I actually like.

Over and over, I ask myself why I’m doing this. What can I possibly gain? What is the attraction in hearing about the bad things complete strangers have to say about some of my favourite stories? Many times, I’ve told myself to stop. As an author myself, I should find no joy in seeing a good book ripped to pieces; certainly, seeing my own work criticised is far from fun. As will always be the case when enough pepople weigh in, some of the reviews I find are pure pejorative, absolutely devoid of critical merit and so deeply subjective as to be useless. Others are written sarcastically with entertainment value as their main purpose, in keeping with the principle that mockery is both easier and more enjoyable than explaining why something is good. I might laugh at some of these, especially if they’re well written, but I don’t particularly like myself for it. I do look for positive reviews, too, particularly of books on my TBR list, but overall, my fixation is on the negative.

But gradually, I’m starting to understand why.

For a while now, I’ve been a member of the (very excellent) SuperNOVA writers’ group in Melbourne. With the exception of a handful of creative writing workshops when I was still in school, it’s been my first real experience with constructive literary criticism, both as a recipient and a critic. The learning process has fascinated me, not only in terms of upping my own game, but with regard to how different people percieve different stories. Reading first in a critical vacuum as a child and then, as a teenager, in a context where recommendations were generally restricted to “read this because it’s awesome” – all within the one genre – it became easy to assume that I was, somehow, reading the right books, with the implication that there were also wrong books out there, and I was avoiding them. This didn’t mean I always loved the books my friends suggested, but as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, it did encourage a weird conservatism in my outlook: that somehow, I had been lucky enough to stumble on the works of a finite number of authors whose books were worth reading, and that beyond their pages lay chaos.

Obviously, this was a stupid attitude and one which I’ve subsequently abandoned. But one of the consequences of all that endless, prejudicial rereading was a type of critical stagnation. By drawing everything I read from such a small pool and sharply restricting the influx of new blood, I was inbreeding my intellect. I knew what I liked – I had, after all, taken great pains to surround myself with it – but I didn’t really know why, because my basis for comparison was so small.

As a fledgeling writer, the one thing I’d always prided myself on was an ability to edit my own work. The hardest lesson I ever learned about writing, but one which I learned early, was that just because I’d written something – that it had taken time and effort – didn’t mean it was good, or unable to be improved upon. I abandoned hundreds of thousands of words in the name of self-improvement, whole drafts set aside because I knew I could do better. So when I realised how narrow my understanding of literary criticism really was, it completely upended everything I thought I’d known about my own style.

Which brings us back to my current obsession with Goodreads, and its oh-so-many negative reviews.

Because when a stranger lays out their problems with a favourite book,  I have to ask myself: can I understand their criticism? If so, does that negate my enjoyment of the book, or can I acknowledge that I liked the story despite its flaws? There is a sensation I often have when reading, like rowing across a rippling lake: the thought that, if I were seeking to be a more critical reader – if I wished to peer beneath the surface, rather than simply be carried – certain lines or plot points would bother me more. They’re the kind of thing I think about after the fact, because I don’t enjoy adversarial reading. The idea of pitting myself against a book, daring it to offend me, constantly on the lookout for problems, doesn’t appeal. Which isn’t to say that I’m never jerked out of a story, or that I’ve never persevered with a book through spite. We all have our own bugbears, particular things which, no matter our desire to cross the lake smoothly, will rear up and rock the boat. But I still like to think about the why of stories, and in this regard, the criticism of strangers can be invaluable, particularly when they involve a more detailed, thoughtful catalogue of things I chose to ignore, but nonetheless notice.

The other side of the coin is when I simply don’t agree; when the criticism offered fails to make sense. But even then, I still have to think about why I choose to disregard that opinion. Possibly there’s still a bit of schadenfreude in the equation, or masochism, or whatever. I’m only human. But with all the reading, reviewing and review-reading I’ve done this year, I feel as though I’ve come a long way towards a better understanding and apprecation of writing – not just with regard to the works of other people, but also of my own.