Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Warning: total spoilers for all four Scream movies. 

When I sat down this week to rewatch Scream, I did so as part of a horror-binge inspired by my first American Halloween experience. The first time I saw it, I was doubtless too young: I was ten at the time of its 1996 release, and while I was probably twelve or so before I actually watched it, I was never one of those kids with an appetite for horror. I found it gruesome and upsetting, and when I saw it again in my late teens, my reaction was much the same. Unsurprisingly, teenage-me had never seen the horror classics whose tropes and themes form the basis of Scream’s meta-narrative. This time around, however, I was fresh off watching Halloween, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (I also attempted A Nightmare on Elm Street, but tapped out after twenty minutes; it was too naff.)

All this being so, I expected I’d understand Scream a little better than I had in my teens, and that I’d maybe have a decent time watching it. I did not expect to stumble on what now feels like an eerily prescient glimpse into modern toxic geekdom: a weird strata of 90s cinema that moved me to watch Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in quick succession, not because I thought they’d be any good – indeed, each film is exponentially worse than the last – but to try and work out whether what I saw in Scream was accidental, incidental or both, and to what degree.

In its now-iconic opening sequence, Scream shows us a terrified young woman, Casey (Drew Barrymore), as she’s taunted on the phone by the as-yet unknown killer/s. With her boyfriend revealed to be tied up outside, the killer/s challenge Casey to answer horror movie trivia questions. If she answers correctly, her boyfriend will live; if not, he’ll die. Though Casey correctly answers the first question – the name of the killer in Halloween – she flubs the second, mistakenly naming Jason Vorhees as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film, instead of his mother, Mrs Vorhees. Her boyfriend is then gutted, with Casey herself killed gruesomely and left to hang in a tree for her parents to find.

Watching Scream in my teens was terrifying because of the violence and jump scares. Watching now, however, that opening scene hits home in a very different way. Back in 1996, mobile phones were still so recent and uncommon that a character in Scream is asked by police, “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”. That being so, it’s eerie  how the killer/s’ initial, escalating conversation with Casey reads exactly like the sort of hair-trigger, toxic misogyny that women so frequently encounter now in texts and online messages.

A man calls Casey out of the blue; she assumes it’s a wrong number and hangs up. He calls back, saying he wants to talk; she tells him there are 900 numbers for that. He calls again and asks why she doesn’t want to talk – and here, because this is a film written by a dude, Casey decides to humour him. They have an almost pleasant conversation, albeit an unrealistic one: it’s borderline flirtatious, the killer asking if she has a boyfriend, Casey lying and saying no, as though that’s in any way the usual response to an unknown, nameless creep who keeps pestering you for conversation. Eventually, though, the killer reveals that he’s looking at her; at which point, Casey understandably hangs up. He calls again; she tells him to call someone else. He calls again, and this time he’s angry: “Listen, you little bitch,” he hisses, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” 

Substitute hanging up the phone with ignoring a stranger’s increasingly aggressive texts, and a fictional conversation between a male serial killer and his female victim from twenty-two years ago is virtually identical to the kind of everyday encounters women have with men online in 2018. Throw in the killer/s need to prove their superiority over Casey by besting her in a game of pop culture trivia, and the parallel evokes the ongoing clusterfuck of toxic misogyny in SFF circles, not least because the killer/s are eventually revealed to be Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), the respective boyfriends of protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan): disaffected horror geeks whose initial, public reaction to “hearing” about the murders is laughter.

It’s so breathtakingly salient, you’d almost think that writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven were trying to craft a cautionary tale about what happens when angry, sexist geekboys go bad – and yet, despite how obvious that reading of the film now seems, I’d argue that those elements were largely unintentional. Though the self-professed meta of Scream is obsessed with naming horror tropes even as it enacts them, there’s never any explicit discussion of how those tropes are frequently impacted by the misogyny of the killers, misogyny in the narrative (whether conscious or subconscious) or a combination of both. Thus: it’s clear throughout Scream that Billy and Stu are sexist, not because Williamson and Craven are telling a story about sexism, but because sexism is such a fundamental part of the tropes they’re using that they’ve imported it wholesale. This means in turn that, while misogyny is a huge part of Billy’s motive in particular, the story doesn’t really comment upon it even when given the opportunity to do so; nor does it usefully comment upon the sexism it depicts elsewhere.

For instance: during an early phone conversation with the as-yet unknown killer/s, Sidney says that she dislikes horror movies because, “They’re all the same: some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl that can’t act, running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door – it’s insulting.” Put in Sidney’s mouth, this line is the closest the film ever comes to acknowledging sexist horror tropes at the level of both creation (actresses cast for looks over talent) and characterisation (damsels who make poor choices). Moments later, however, the observation is undermined when Sidney does exactly the thing she’s just decried, running upstairs to escape the killer/s instead of heading outside. This is what we in the business call lampshading: drawing attention to an egregious fault or obvious trope-use in lieu of actually fixing or addressing it in the narrative. As lampshading can often be used to comic effect, I’d argue that this moment in Scream is meant as a type of black comedy: Sidney is aware enough to know that women in horror films are constrained by sexism, but not aware enough to keep from being constrained herself.

As such, sexism is silently reinforced as an aspect of Scream which, while integral to the horror genre, is not one of the “rules” we’re meant to examine in order to predict what happens next. Indeed, if it was, Stu and Billy’s guilt would be obvious from the get-go: the first time we meet them, they’re not only joking callously about the murder of Casey and her boyfriend – Casey rejected Stu at one point; they laugh that this gives him motive to kill her – but are doing so in front of Sidney, whose mother was murdered and raped (by them, it turns out) the previous year. Notably, it’s this conversation which contains the only explicit reference to sexism in the whole film, courtesy of Tatum. When Stu asserts that “there’s no way a girl could’ve killed them,” she replies, “That is so sexist. The killer could easily be female, Basic Instinct.” But of course, Tatum is wrong, which Stu already knows because the killer is him and Billy. Sexism is here acknowledged, but as something we’re meant to ignore, not as a rule of genre, and while it’s possible to argue that this is a deliberate red herring, given the meta-nature of the film as a whole, it therefore becomes conspicuous that the gotcha isn’t expounded upon at the finale.

What is expounded upon during Stu and Billy’s big reveal, however, is an argument that reappears at crucial moments in both Scream 2 and Scream 3: the question of whether horror movies cause real-world violence. While still technically relevant in 2018, this particular question is currently less culturally urgent than the matter of toxic misogyny, which is why it’s so tempting to think that, surely, Craven and Williamson must have been calling out sexists deliberately. But in the eighties and nineties – and, indeed, the early 2000s – the opposite was true. At the time, there was massive cultural panic over the idea that that things like violent video games, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music and horror movies were actively causing teenagers to go bad. When Billy and Stu taunt their genre-savvy friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) about his status as a suspect on the basis of his interests, he agreed: “You’re absolutely right; I’m the first to admit it. If this was a scary movie, I would be the chief suspect.”  When Stu then asks what Randy’s motive would be, he chillingly replies, “It’s the millennium. Movies are incidental.”

And come the finale, it’s this line, not Tatum’s accusation of sexism, to which the film returns – or at least, it’s the one to which it returns overtly. With Stu and Billy revealed as the killers, not only of the current crop of victims, but of Sidney’s mother, the following exchange takes place:

Sidney: Why? WHY?

Billy: You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive?

Stu: No!

Billy: Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? I don’t think so! It’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid. We did your mother a favour. That woman was a slut-bag whore who flashed her shit all over town like she was Sharon Stone or something. Yeah, we put her out of her misery.

Stu: Let’s face it, Sid – your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?

Billy: Is that motive enough for you? How about this? Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mom moved out and abandoned me.

[Stu looks shocked]

Billy: How’s that for a motive? Maternal abandonment causes serious deviant behaviour. It certainly fucked you up – it caused you to have sex with a psychopath!

Several things are telling here: chief among them, the incorrect claim that Norman Bates, the killer in Psycho, had no motive. In actuality, Bates was warped by maternal abuse, conditioned to a misogyny that saw part of his fractured psyche view all women as whores. If anything was going to convince me that Scream is intended as a commentary on sexism, it would be this line: for a meta film that places a high value on classic horror trivia, it’s difficult to believe that such a falsehood would be included by accident and not as an analytic Easter egg for knowledgeable fans. And yet I still doubt that sexism, explicitly labelled as such, is what Craven and Williamson are intending here. Contextually, it seems clear that the reference to Bates is meant to underscore the significance of neglectful mothers, not the misogyny of their sons, for all that the two are fundamentally linked – a pivotal difference in emphasis and interpretation.

By his own admission (and to Stu’s surprise), like Norman Bates, Billy has been “fucked up” by his mother – but while this explains some of his anger, it does not excuse his misogyny; the ease with which he reverts to violent, sexist language when women don’t do as he wants. (“Listen, you little bitch!”) Looking at the film in 2018, at a time when we’ve come to recognise violence against women as a consistent, key commonality to mass shooters, the fact that Billy and Stu’s first victim is Sidney’s mother takes on a powerful new significance. For a film released three years before the Columbine massacre, it’s frighteningly easily to view Scream as an unintentional oracle. Swap the two angry boys with knives and ghostface masks for two angry boys with guns – swap the taunting, escalating phonecalls with taunting, escalating posts online – and what differentiates Scream from other slasher movies isn’t the meta-commentary about horror tropes, but how accidentally real its killers are.

Because the other side of that motive scene – the aspect which, back in 1996, made the whole thing seem so meta, so unreal and yet so frightening – was the nihilism of it: the idea, as Randy had it, that motive, like sexism, is incidental compared to the act of killing. Just a little later in the finale, when Sidney screams that Billy and Stu have watched too many horror movies, Billy replies, “Sid, don’t blame the movies. The movies don’t create psychos; movies just make psychos more creative.” This, more than anything else, is the thesis of Scream – and, indeed, its sequels. This is what justifies the “ghostface killer” being brought back by three different copycat pairs in the subsequent movies. “Everybody dies but us,” Stu screams. “We get to carry on and plan the sequel – ‘cos let’s face it, baby, these days you’ve gotta have a sequel!”

Which is where the sequels become relevant to analysing the original: all four movies are directed by Craven, while Williamson wrote the first, second and fourth (Ehren Kruger wrote the third), which allows us to see which themes the creators thought most integral to both Scream and its success. While it’s subjective of me to claim that the subsequent three films are clearly worse than the original, it’s much less subjective to state that the themes of male entitlement, sexism and frustration that underlie the first are absent from the sequels. Instead, the themes that carry over are an evolving meta-narrative about horror movie structure, and the question of whether narrative violence influences real violence, and in what ways.

In Scream 2 (1997), a self-indulgent, overlong meta wankfest, the killers are revealed to be Billy’s mother, now posing as reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), and her flunkey Mickey (Timothy Olyphant). Like a reverse Mrs Vorhees, Debbie wants revenge for Billy’s death, and has convinced Mickey, a budding psychopath she recruited online, that he’ll be able to plead that the Stab movies – the in-film adaptations of the events of the first Scream – provoked him to commit murder. As he monologues as Sidney:

Mickey: Billy was a sick fuck who wanted to get away. Mickey is a sick fuck who wants to get caught!  You see, Sid, I have it all planned out. I have my whole defence planned out! I’m gonna blame the movies. It’s pretty cool, huh? It’s never been done before. And wait ’till the trial, cause these days, it’s all about the trial! Can’t you see it, Sid? The effects of cinema violence on Americans. I’ll get Cochran or Dershovitz to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. We’ll hold a Christian coalition. It’s airtight, Sid!

Sidney: You’re a psychotic!

Mickey: Yeah, well, shhh! That’ll be our little secret. That’s one thing that Billy got right  – it’s all about execution.

Not long after this declaration, Billy’s mother kills her would-be accomplice – she only ever wanted him as a patsy. Laughing, she explains herself: “Talk about being rational! For Mickey, I don’t blame the movies, my god. I’m very sane, my motive isn’t as 90s as Mickey’s – mine is just plain old revenge. You killed my son! And now I kill you, and I can’t think of anything more rational.”

Skipping ahead to Scream 4 (2011), the bloated meta-story conceit is in full effect from the outset: the film opens on a scene that turns out to be from the meta-film Stab 6, which cuts to a scene that turns out to be from Stab 7, only the Stab 6 scene was actually somehow the meta-meta intro to Stab 7, which the actual characters of Scream 4 are watching, and all of these scenes feature commentary on horror as a genre. In this moment, the Scream franchise sews itself into an inhuman centipede, crawling up its own asshole to devour its contents over and over, a Frankenstein oroborous. Smartphones exist by 2011, of course, but the film has only a partial understanding of what this means, conveniently forgetting about caller ID and GPS tracking as plot devices even as characters livestream on the internet. The killers, when they’re revealed, are a terrible pastiche of the previous films: Sidney’s cousin and supposed victim Jill (Emma Roberts), working hand-in-hand with nerdy co-conspirator Charlie (Rory Culkin) are teens who want their fifteen minutes of fame – though of course, Jill murders Rory just like Billy’s mother did Mickey, tricking him into thinking they would only wound each other like Stu and Billy.

Though part of me thinks it unfair to judge Scream for the crimes of its youngest, least capable sibling, given that both films are written by Kevin Williamson, I can’t shake the bone-deep suspicion that Scream 4 is, again by accident, the key to understanding what Scream was meant to be. By which I mean: with Scream 2 set at university and Scream 3 in Hollywood, Scream 4 is where, however badly, the series returns to its origins: as a story about nihilistic teenage killers trying to control their own horror movie narrative. In 1996, Stu and Billy want to be survivors so they can plan a sequel; in 2011, Jill and Charlie want to be survivors so they can be famous. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” Jill shouts at Sid, who can’t understand why she murdered the people closest to her. “Sick is the new sane!” she says, like a chirpy catchphrase. And then, an indictment of Sid’s career as a self-help writer that simultaneously explains her own plans for victim-stardom: “You don’t have to achieve anything – you just have to have fucked-up shit happen to you.”

In 2011, Jill is a strawman millennial, so hyper-obsessed with fame and internet glory that she’s willing to murder everyone she knows to get it. She kills her mother, her best friends, her ex-boyfriend, her co-conspirator – an act of total psychopathy that seemingly comes from a person without any history of violence or cruelty. The Jill we see on screen is a total fake: not only does she lie to us the entire film, but psychologically, she’s utterly implausible on the basis of the evidence provided. Like Randy said in the original, her motive – her real millennial motive – is incidental, in that it doesn’t really exist. She’s a bogeyman conjured up to represent the worst of what we’re meant to fear about ourselves in the present moment.

In other words, she’s exactly what Billy and Stu were meant to be in 1996.

But while Jill will be just as much a straw character in 2021 as she was in 2011, time and bitter experience has proven Billy and Stu to be much more real than they were ever meant to be. In 2018, we know those boys: those angry, entitled, sexist men who demand attention and scream threats of violence if they don’t get it; men who act first against a woman they know, progressing only later to mass carnage. Billy and Stu were meant to be strawmen, exaggerated for the screen – but in aping the casually sexist language of the time, the inherently sexist tropes of the genre, and mixing them together with a motive that encompassed aggressive misogyny, Williamson and Craven created, not the monster under the bed, but the one who sleeps in it.

Which brings us, in a dark and sideways fashion, to Scream 3, and the sexist meta-irony of the series as a whole – because, for all that I enjoyed the original Scream, I couldn’t shake my annoyance at the needless death of Tatum, played by Rose McGowan. Contextually, it’s the only death that doesn’t make sense: she’s Stu’s girlfriend, and given that Stu and Billy plan to live, there’s nothing in the narrative to explain why she has to die, nor does it make sense that Sidney never asks Billy and Stu about her best friend’s death. Of equal aggravation as the films progress is the relationship between reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Officer Dewey (David Arquette) – not just because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, given their personalities, but because each film in the franchise forgets that Tatum was Dewey’s sister. Whenever it’s brought up that Dewey lived through the events of Scream, we never see any sign from him that he lost his little sister; another character mentions it once at a point where he might be expected to, and Dewey never reacts. Instead, his emotional investment is tied to Gale and Sidney: Tatum is almost completely erased.

Not being written by Williamson, Scream 3 is the odd film out: it takes place in Hollywood, where a new ghostface killer is striking at people related to the filming of meta-movie Stab 3. Though not as terrible as Scream 4, it’s largely unremarkable – until, midway through, we’re given the big reveal about Sidney’s mother, murdered before the start of the first movie. Years before Sid was born, we’re told, her mother went to Hollywood to act for two years, using the stage name Rina. In that time, something terrible happened to her. The producer of Stab 3, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) explains:

Milton: It was the 70s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.

Gale: Are you saying she was –

Milton: I’m saying things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her! Maybe the sad truth is, this is not the city for innocence. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, Rina Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood, you gotta play the game or go home.

Watching this scene – plot relevant because Rina had a son as a result of her rape, who turns out to be the director of Stab 3, and also the killer, yada yada yada – I suddenly recalled a particular name I’d noticed in the credits for Scream and Scream 2, and made a mental note to look for it in the credits to Scream 3. And there, sure enough, I found it: Harvey Weinstein, executive producer for all four films in the franchise.

Harvey Weinstein, who raped Rose McGowan a year after she appeared in Scream as Tatum.

I mention this not to assert any script-meddling by Weinstein in terms of Tatum’s portrayal; it doesn’t fit the timeline, and in any case, it would be the absolute least of his now well-documented crimes, so small by comparison as to be meaningless. Rather, it strikes me as a vicious, parallel irony that Tatum, arguably the best character in the original Scream, was erased from the narrative as pointlessly and violently as Rose McGowan was removed from Hollywood. It makes me wonder: did Ehren Kruger know, when he wrote Milton’s lines and Rina’s backstory, what had happened to McGowan? Was that scene a barb at Weinstein, or is the narrative of actresses being exploited and abused by Hollywood producers one so ingrained, so historically ubiquitous, that it was considered little more than a cliche, like the multiple adjacent “jokes” about the actress-characters in Stab 3 sleeping with their bosses for terrible jobs?

Scream 3 is not a good scary movie; and yet that one scene raises more chilling questions in 2018 than it ever did in 2000, just as Billy and Stu are more frightening now than they were in 1996. Which just goes to show you: horror is never just violence and jump scares. It’s history, knowledge and context – and, far too frequently, both in stories and real life, entitled men with a grudge against women.

 

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We, all of us, need to get critical.

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

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

Apparently, I just can’t shut up this week. Which is odd. Because usually when I write long, link-strewn blogs about Important Politicky Stuff, it acts like a mental catharsis, allowing my opinions to recede to the hindbrain, there to simmer quietly. This week, however, everything has snowballed forwards, forcing me to keep blogging. I understand completely if you’re sick of this, in which case, I apologise. Possibly this whole outpouring is nothing more than the fevered byproduct of being stuck at home with a cold. But before my inevitable return to sloth, I have (at least) one more thing I want to discuss on the topic of feminism, criticism and YA reviews: the question of intentionality vs interpretation.

It’s long been an acknowledged that no story has only one correct interpretation. True, statements made by the author might be viewed as slightly more canonical – for lack of a better word – than those of other commenters, particularly when it comes to the semantics of worldbuilding, but by and large, we understand that it is entirely possibly for readers to come up with interpretations of the books they read that had never occurred to the authors, and which they certainly didn’t include on purpose. Where such discoveries are positive and/or thought-provoking, the vast majority of authors will accept them with gracious glee, happy to have a critical readership who approves of their storytelling. But when it comes to negative interpretations – no matter how thought-provoking – we authors have a tendency to play the intentionality card. We try to explain what we really meant, to insinuate either openly or subtly that the reviewer has simply missed something crucial in the narrative or brought their own, biased assumptions with them, and the thing is, we won’t always be wrong. There is, after all, a world of difference between critiquing a book on the basis that you found problems with it, and critiquing a book on the basis that you wish the author had written a different book entirely, or that you just don’t like the genre. But even allowing for such problems of mismatched readership, we are left with considerable room for readers to legitimately identify negative themes in the stories they read, even where those themes directly contradict the intentions of the author.

Recently, I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to the sentiment, does not magically prevent me from subconscious racism. I am not a perfect being. I make mistakes, and more importantly, I am a product of the culture in which I live – a culture which, sadly, is less than perfect when it comes to embracing  diversity. Knowing this, I try to identify my mistakes and then learn from them: I want to be a better person, and that takes constant work. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that there is only one non-white member of the cast of Solace & Grief, and while I didn’t consciously set out to engage in tokenism, any criticism of the novel along those lines would be entirely justified. I cannot unwrite what I’ve already written; I cannot unpublish what I’ve already published; and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the problem and try to do better next time. The fact that I made a mistake doesn’t make me a racist – but declaring myself not to be racist doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes, either.

Which brings me back to the question of feminism in YA novels, and the debate surrounding negative reviews. YA paranormal literature is currently dominated by female authors, a vast majority of whom would – I suspect – be offended by the suggestion that their novels could be seen as perpetuating anti-feminist sentiments. Certainly, some have taken public affront at criticism of their books for exactly that reason, as was the case when Jackson Pearce reacted to the assertion that Sisters Red encouraged a victim-blaming mentality by publicly explaining her own intentions on the blog in question.

A brief aside, before we go any further: my husband and I, like any normal couple, argue. Because he is a philosophical logician and I am a slightly crazy author, however, these everyday arguments frequently overlap with multiple pedantic meta-arguments about the differences between what was actually said and what we meant to say. And there is a difference, sometimes a very crucial one: it might not matter most of the time, but as soon as one of us phrases something such that the other person is offended, we both have to stop and separate out the intention from the effect. It’s no good just dismissing the other person’s outrage on the grounds that we meant something entirely different – the fact is that we’ve caused distress, and the most dickish thing you can do at that point is refuse to apologise or even discuss it simply because that wasn’t what you meant.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Despite the fact that I love YA, there’s still a large number of popular novels I haven’t yet read – or which, if I’m honest, I don’t intend to read, unless it’s to justify my engagement in conversations where they continue to crop up. I believe in making up your own mind about something firsthand, rather than just taking the popular word for it, but if twenty different reviews by intelligent, adult women all complain about the same problems of anti-feminist sentiment in the same subset of YA novels, then I’m not about to dismiss them out of hand. And if, as an author, you take offense at the idea that something uglier than what you intended is being talked about in connection with your novel: well, offense is your prerogative, but the fact that you wrote something doesn’t mean you get to play intentionality as a trump card in every subsequent debate. You can intend all you want, but when it comes to debates about sexism, racism, homophobia and eurocentrism in the wider SFF community – or when it comes to discussions of rape culture and alphaholes in the wider romance community, for that matter – the record is pretty clear on the fact that these negatives cultures do exist; that they are perpetuated subconsciously more than actively; and that we need to discuss them if they’re ever going to be fixed.

You, personally, are not being called an anti-feminist: certain aspects of your work are. And if you can’t appreciate that distinction – if you continue to try and prejudice intentionality over interpretation every time someone takes offence – then perhaps you shouldn’t be in the debate to begin with. But regardless of your participation, that debate will continue to be held. Because it matters. Because we care. And because perpetuating a culture of YA novels whose heroines are being sold short is not something we want to do.

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?

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

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

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

But gradually, I’m starting to understand why.

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

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

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

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

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

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