Posts Tagged ‘Reviewing’

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.

 

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.

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.