Posts Tagged ‘Justine Larbalestier’

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

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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.

So, there’s been some talk on the internets today about the YA Mafia: specifically, about whether or not it exists, and what people think it could be (or is) regardless. Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier have both weighed in, and there’s also a hashtag discussion happening on Twitter. The term has been coined by book bloggers – a significant number of whom are aspirant writers – who fear that writing negative reviews will see them put on a publishing blacklist at the recommendation of disgruntled authors. Regardless of anything else, it does appear that some bloggers genuinely have had their careers threatened in this way, and while this is truly awful, both Black and Larbalestier are right when they point out how little influence authors really wield. No matter how successful we are, or how much smack an indignant few might talk, none of us hold so much sway with our publishers or agencies that we could get them to ignore a great submission on the basis of not liking the person who wrote it. Really!

That being said, the fact that such fear is groundless doesn’t mean it’s irrational. It makes sense to want to try and stay onside with the people whose community you want to join, and given how labyrinthine and impenetrable the publishing industry looks from the outside, the fear of being judged on the basis of anything other than your writing skills is an understandable one. Superstition has always thrived among sailors because the ocean is large, mercurial and remains, even for the most seasoned captain, beyond individual control: and this is just as true of writers and the publishing industry. Sending a book out into the world is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and even now that my first novel is on shelves, I still maintain the ritual of kissing each manuscript three times before posting it to the publisher. As for the social aspect of mafias everywhere, I’ve said before that, when you’re on the outside looking in, it really does feel like all the most awesome people know each other already, like they’re constantly having rad sleepovers and drinking schnapps and telling wicked jokes, and all you can do is sit there and feel paralysed by the injustice of not being allowed to join in just because your book hasn’t been published yet, but how can it ever get published when the awesome people don’t even know your name, and so on until you’re reduced to assuming the foetal position around a cask of Fruity Lexia while whimpering the lyrics to Beautiful.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point being, writing bad reviews will not get you blacklisted. But the question of when and how to write bad – or rather, critical – reviews is something I think about constantly, because while I’ve never been an official book blogger, I’ve always enjoyed reviewing books and films. Certainly, I’ve never shied away from making my views public, but ever since becoming a published author, I no longer write book reviews on my personal blog unless they’re amazingly positive – though as a glance at the archives will prove, I’m still more than happy to go to town on obnoxious Hollywood cinema. The thing is, while 99% of all authors understand that disliking a book is not the same thing as disliking them, these are still people I’d like to meet at some point, and should that day come, I don’t want them to think of me as That Chick Who Hated My Book. This wouldn’t be an issue if I refrained from writing book reviews altogether, or if I confined myself to writing only positive ones, or if I kept the negative ones off the internet. Lots of authors go down all these roads, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

But I don’t like the feeling of self-censorship which, for me, accompanies those options. My opinions haven’t changed. I’ve always posted reviews online. It’s not as if I criticise for the sake of it, or write snark for laughs. I review as a response to stories, as a way of helping put my thoughts in order to better understand them, and I like having those discussions where other people can join in, because that way, I learn even more. As a published author, I’m very aware of the fact that whatever I write is fair game for critics, and as a member of a writing group, I also know that I can be friends with other writers regardless of how harshly we might critique each other’s work. So why, then, do I hesitate to put negative reviews on my blog?

In the end, I suppose it comes down to professional courtesy: if another writer Googles me, this blog is the first thing they’ll find, and I’d rather it made a good impression. And so, by way of compromise, I now put all my reviews – both positive and negative – on Goodreads, which feels like a much more appropriate place for them. In fact, it’s given me the confidence to start reviewing more frequently than I did before, because I don’t have to worry about a piece being too short or poorly summarised before I get to the meat of things. That’s obviously not an option for someone working as a dedicated book blogger, but as an example, it hopefully highlights the legitimate balancing act of reviewing the output of a community to which you either aspire or belong.

And as for those authors whose threatening actions have sparked this conversation in the first place: grow up and get over it. Not everyone has to like your work, and it’s far more constructive to try and learn from criticism than flail about at the fact that it exists. No author in the history of ever has managed to avoid receiving negative reviews – so why should you be any different?

I’ve read some truly awesome books this year: new releases, recent discoveries and old favourites alike. So as December draws to a close, and before I generate that glorious blank slate which will become the list of books I read in 2011, here are my favourite 10 books of 2010, recorded in the order of their reading.

(Warning: from memory, all linked reviews contain spoilers.)

Thirteenth Child – Patricia C. Wrede

This book blew me away with its original mix of magic, family troubles, cultural upheaval and expansion in an alternate American west where steam dragons roam the wild, and where Eff, as a thirteenth child and natural magician, must struggle against superstition and ignorance in order to control her powers. I reviewed it here, and cannot wait for the next volume.

Liar – Justine Larbalestier

It’s actually impossible to review this book without spoiling it, which is what you get when the premise of an unreliable narrator is taken to its most skillful extreme. Trust me: however you try to categorise this book, you’ll be wrong. Just read it and find out why.

Guardian of the Dead – Karen Healey

A fast-paced, original novel that systematically addresses all the worst, most cliched tropes of the YA urban fantasy genre by replacing them with AWESOME. Magic based on the mythology of different cultures! A realistic heroine who is the exact polar opposite of Too Stupid To Live! Murder! Mystery! Shakespeare!

The Demon’s Lexicon – Sarah Rees Brennan

You know how in a lot of YA love triangle stories, it’s blatantly obvious who the third wheel is from the outset, and how the bad boys aren’t actually bad so much as wearing leather jackets and brooding on how best to express their love? Well, Sarah Rees Brennan sort of kicks all that bullshit hard in the dates while simultaneously writing a story that is sexy, fierce and gripping.

Poison Study – Maria V. Snyder

A fantastic exploration of why no culture is perfect, written around a unique premise and narrated by a singularly strong, compelling female lead. This is the book that rekindled my dormant love of epic, as opposed to urban, fantasy, and for that I am truly grateful. My review is here.

Cold Magic – Kate Elliott

A truly amazing novel, based on the most interesting alternate history premise I’ve ever encountered and fleshed out by the enviable worldbuilding skills of Kate Elliott. Great characters, a compelling plot, and an all-round antidote to the claim that steampunk is only ever about rich, white aristocrats in Victorian times. My long review is here.

Skinned – Robin Wasserman

An electric, confronting exploration of a classic cyberpunk scenario: what if a human mind were downloaded into a man-made body? Following in the footsteps of Motoko Kusanagi, Wasserman’s heroine Lia Khan lends an incredible narrative voice to a story that grips from the first page and never lets go.

White Cat – Holly Black

This book is so skilfully written, it’s only when trying to write a condensed summary that you realise just how much is packed into it. From the perils of living with a family of confidence tricksters and criminals to a unique alternate, modern-day Earth where illegal magic is wielded through the bare touch of skin on skin, White Cat is an extraordinary novel.

Shadow Queen/Shadow Bound – Deborah Kalin

I’m sort of cheating here, because these are two books, but events flow so smoothly between them that they read as a single offering. Deborah Kalin has managed the excruciatingly difficult task of writing a story which, despite the flawedness and bastardy of its characters, nonetheless remains grounded, human and deeply sympathetic. My review is here

Fire – Kristin Cashore

A breathtaking exploration of romance, power, feminism and the morality of control set in a lush world of politics, betrayal and monsters. The sequel to Graceling, Fire cements Kristin Cashore’s place as a master writer of terrific characters, nuanced plots and the angelic devilry of ordinary people.

And now, bring on the awesome books of 2011!

Yesterday’s launch at Kinokuniya was, to put it simply, awesome.

There are a number of reasons for this.

1. I woke up, hopped online, and was confronted by two very shiny emails: a lovely missive from someone who’s read the book saying the kind of nice things which, did I have feathers, would cause me to preen them; and a note from my publisher alerting me very favourable review in the Sunday Age, which can hopefully be seen here. It says Solace & Grief is “a well-plotted novel…a little Scooby-Doo, a little bit Buffy, and a lot of fun for readers 15 and up.” Whee!

2. My parents went above and beyond in providing food, nibblies and service, and with the help of Helene, our Kinokuniya contact person, and her organisational magic, everything was laid out perfectly. A big thanks to the staff, who were friendly, interesting and wonderful. There’s a reason why Kinokuniya is such a fantastic store!

3. Once things got underway, Scott Westerfeld launched the book by saying a series of extremely flattering things about Solace and her friends, such that the sides of my mouth started to twitch from grinning too much. It was twelve kinds of awesome to meet Scott, not to mention Justine Larbalestier, and even though my base instinct was to lose all communictive skills in their presence, abandon myself to the squealing fangirl within and go all I’m Not Worthy a la Wayne’s World, I think I managed to actually act like a sensible adult and hold a conversation. I know, kids. I’m scared, too.

4. The people. Everyone who showed up was lovely – thank you all for coming, making yourselves known, and being generally shiny! Special mentions go to Kat from Book Thingo, who I now know in the flesh as well as via IM, and to the Capsicum Girls, who made me a gift of a yellow capsicum with a heart drawn on the stem to remember them by. (They also gave Scott a watermelon.) It took me a while to pin down why I was so wildly excited to receive a brightly coloured vegetable, but apart from the fact that all the Girls were cool and friendly and liked my Pwnies shirt, it struck me later that Ms Catalysta’s blog entry about giving Idina Menzel a pumpkin might have something to do with it. Yay for random produce!

5. After lots of signing, book-selling, photo-taking and talking with peeps both new and old, a few friends, Toby and I retired to the Edinburgh Castle pub for drinks. These went on for a while, and eventually culminated in a pizza dinner with friends-of-a-new-friend in Newtown that was both tasty and full of cool conversation. And then we walked back up King Street to  Elizabeth’s, where we bought the first Anita Blake novel and the volume one trade paperback of Angel: After The Fall, before stopping in at one of the two King Street bookshops to possess an ambient cat called Shakespeare, whom we patted, and then we caught a cab home and fell into well-earned, exhausted slumber.

So, that was Sunday. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who made it work! By way of reward, here is another happy-making review, courtesy of Sue Bursztynski. It made me smile: I hope it has the same effect on you.

Yesterday kicked off with a trip to the hairdresser’s. My last cut was at least six months ago, with the result that my hair was starting to look like the business end of a witch’s broom. So there was shaping and trimming and layering, and also the addition of a purple streak, which I’ve been wanting for a while, but always forget to ask about, because while I enjoy having someone else massage and shampoo my head, being in any sort of fashionable establishment tends to fluster me into an unnatrual state of awkward, mumbling pseudo-silence. I’ve never had a streak before; I thought it would take maybe ten minutes of salon time, half an hour tops. Instead, it was an extra hour and change. Totally worth it – the purple looks awesome – but seeing as I hadn’t mentioned this part of the plan to anyone else, there was some degree of speculation as to why I was taking to long just to get my hair cut, with the main theories being that I’d either died in the chair, or was getting a perm. (Which of these seems the worse fate, I’ll leave up to you.)

The launch started at 2, but we showed up at Carlton Library an hour early, “we” being myself, Toby and his parents, who (massive thanks!) helped out with the catering. Our alotted section of the library housed the YA and picture book sections. We plonked our stuff down on one of the tables to wait, then said a temporary goodbye as Toby’s parents went to get a pre-launch drink down the road. Toby found a children’s book on 70s rock music to read. I sat and tried to be calm.

After about five minutes of this, a small boy came running in, his father and younger sister following behind. The boy was called Harry, we soon overheard. He was bright, inquisitive and very, very confident – enough so that he made talking to Toby and I his first order of buisness. We had three main conversations. They went like this:

Conversation the First

Harry: Is this the old library?

Me: I don’t know. I’ve never been here before today.

Harry: Yes, you have.

Me: Have I? When?

Harry: Two days ago.

Me: Oh, OK. Well, maybe I was here, but I just don’t remember it.

Harry: Yes, you do. Do you mind if I run around in here?

Me: You probably shouldn’t. I don’t think the librarians would like it.

Harry: Alright. [pauses, walks away, thinks, comes back] Do you know where the old library is?

Me: I don’t know.

Harry: Yes, you do.

Me: Well, maybe it’s here, but we just can’t see it.

Harry: Yes. I think the real library must be hiding in the books.

Me: Actually, that’s probably very true.

Harry: Or it could be behind that broom closet door. Or under your chair. You’ll have to jump up, though, so I can look.

(I obliged, of course, and he inspected. But if he found anything important, he kept it to himself.)

Conversation the Second

Harry: I’ve just turned four, you know.

Me: Really? That’s great. It’s my birthday tomorrow, too.

Harry: How old will you be?

Me: Twenty-four.

Harry: No, you’re not.

Me: No? How old do you think I’ll be?

Harry: I think you’re turning twenty-eight hundred thousand million years old. And then you’ll die.

Me: I look good for my age, then.

Harry: [eyeing me critically] You’re really old.

Conversation the Third

Harry: I really like Star Wars legos.

Toby: Oh? I like Star Wars legos too. They’re pretty cool. Do you have droids?

Harry: I think so. I have lots of different ones.

Toby: Do you have the Millenium Falcon?

Harry: I’m not sure. I don’t know what that is.

Toby: It’s a ship. Does yours fly?

Harry: No, it doesn’t fly. You have to pretend that it does.

All of which was, I thought, a rather wonderful start to the day.

So: we set things up, both sets of parents arrived – as did the amazing Ford Street team – and I started to feel this strange sort of disconnect between the words coming out of my mouth and the rest of my body, which intensified as more and more people appeared. It was great to see everyone, though when Paul finally called a start to the proceedings, I’ll admit to having been just a weensy bit terrified. In a good way.

The fantastic Kirstyn McDermott gave me a warm and lovely welcome. I bumbled into the spotlight, grinned a lot and hopefully wasn’t too incoherent as I tried to explain about my brain being on a different planet, and what Harry had said about the real library being in the books, and how great it was to be there with Solace & Grief and my friends and my family, in a sort of garbled rush that hopefully made more sense to the audience that it did to me as I was saying it. And then it was time for the prologue; I calmed down a bit, and although I spoke too fast at times, as soon as I started to read aloud, I felt confident. My voice changed in my own ears. Everyone writes in a cadence unique to them, and as I narrated, every pause and emphasis felt natural, right. And then it was done, and nobody seemed to mind that I took a bit more than five minutes, and we drank champagne, and I signed books like a Real Author, and posed for photos, and tried not to be ambushed by the Leopard of Falling Over At Inappropriate Moments. Which I wasn’t. Which was good.

The pub followed; we went to the Kent, which was conveniently situated over the road, and had merry drinks with friends – although I am ashamed to say that, in my baffled, joy-oblivious state, I failed to notice that four SuperNovarians were sitting at a different table to everyone else, and so ended up not speaking to them until they came over to say they were heading off, about two hours later. Which I felt guilty about, and which makes me a Bad Foz, but hopefully in an understandable way. (Sorry, guys!)

Eventually, there were just four of us left: Toby and I, plus two philosopher friends, with whom we grabbed an Italian meal. Afterwards, we all trooped back to their place and watched The Lady Vanishes, which was just as much fun as ever, while eating fruit salad and ice cream; we weren’t able to pick up any more wine on the way over, but Borders was still open, and as I’d been given a birthday voucher by some other friends at the pub, I made used it to grab a copy of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. And then we came home, and that was the Day of the Melbourne Launch. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who gave encouragement, support and helped it to be so great. Which is all of you.

Today – Sunday – was my 24th birthday. My parents, who are visiting from Sydney, shouted us all to a civilised midmorning brunch at a local cafe/restaraunt – I had eggs benedict with salmon on the side, and it was delicious. While other people did other things, mum and I wandered around the city – where I finally found a pair of shorts to call my own, and which, amusingly enough, cost lest than the four pairs of socks my mother bought at David Jones – and then met up with Toby to watch Shutter Island at the Melbourne Central cinemas. It wasn’t a great film: the acting was solid on behalf of DiCaprio and Williams, there were some amazing shots, and the music was beautifully atmospheric, but over all, it left the three of us feeling a bit hollow. Not to be all spoilery, but when you start a Hollywood film with the premise of an outsider investigating the goings-on at an asylum, the ending is almost guaranteed to go one of two ways, and while the whole set-up served to reinforce this fact, I think we’d been all hoping that a Scorsese film would employ some shaper, more deviously satisfying climax than the “oh, of course” fizzle on offer. Still, it wasn’t a complete waste of time – my mother rediscovered the Choc Top.

Finally, the day finished up with drinks and nibbles left over from the launch at my sister-in-law’s place – just the family, which was a nice wrap to the weekend. 2010 is well underway, and though there’s much more still to come, I’ll face it with the successful launch of Solace & Grief and my belt, and the confidence which comes from being another year older.