Posts Tagged ‘YA’

After encountering a slow but steady stream of positive reviews for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I decided to give it a read; and when I saw that the wonderful AnimeJune of review blog Gossamer Obsessions had the same idea, it only made sense to put our heads together and write a joint review. The result was a back and forth about the novel’s themes and merits, of which there are many – and here it is.

The Synopsis:
 

AnimeJune: The story takes place in the nation of Goredd – a place (modelled on medieval Europe), in which humans and dragons coexist. Thanks to a treaty drafted forty years ago by the human Queen Lavonda and the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, this coexistence has been peaceful, but only barely. Most humans continue to hate and fear dragons, thanks in large part to the dominant religion that depicts them as soulless animals at best, and an unholy scourge on the earth at worst.

Meanwhile, most dragons, despite their ability to take human form and study among humankind, remain baffled by human sentiment and interaction. Inherently logical and mathematical, dragons rigidly police their own emotions, and so often come across as tactless and awkward in their dealings with humans.

Into this conflicted world comes Seraphina. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Seraphina is a child of both worlds, born of a human father and a dragon mother. However, her father raised her to despise and hide her true parentage since both sides consider half-breeds to be anathema – or they would, if they weren’t convinced human-dragon interbreeding was impossible. Despite Seraphina’s fierce desire to avoid attention and fly under the radar, she has an equally fierce passion for music and, against her father’s wishes, she takes a position as assistant to Viridius, official musician to the Goreddi royal family.

When the Goreddi crown prince is murdered in a visibly draconian way two weeks before the Ardmagar is set to visit, Seraphina finds her anonymity threatened by bumbling dragons, bigoted humans, sinister politics, a disturbingly astute and investigative Prince, and her own uncanny talents.

Foz: Forty years ago, the human Queen Lavonda of Goredd forged a peace treaty with the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, effectively ending a war between the two races. Trust, however, has proved much harder to come by, thanks to both the Goreddi religion of Allsaints, which demonises dragons, and the mixture of contempt and confusion with which dragons, a highly logical species, view human emotions. Further complicating this state of affairs is the fact that dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into human form, in which guise – called a saarantras – they’re distinguishable by little more than their alien mannerisms, silver blood and, in the majority of cases, the enforced wearing of distinctive bells. This leads not only to human fears of dragon infiltration (to say nothing of prompting endless, lascivious jokes about the highly taboo prospect of cross-species sex), but to dragon fears of human contamination. The latter charge is a serious one: all saarantrai are monitored by the Censors – a powerful dragon agency with the power to physically excise the brains of emotionally compromised dragons – and must learn to partition their thoughts accordingly.

The story is told from the point of view of Seraphina, a teenage girl with a dangerous secret: her mother, Linn, was a saarantras, a fact she concealed from her human husband and which was only revealed with her death in childbirth. As a result of her mixed heritage, Seraphina not only possesses extraordinary musical talent, but has scales on her arm and stomach and unusual mental powers. Working to control her unique magic with the help of her dragon-uncle, Orma – a music scholar who doesn’t wear a bell, and is therefore widely assumed to be human – Seraphina wants only to excel in her new position as assistant music mistress at the Goreddi court. But when the crown prince Rufus is killed in the lead-up to the treaty celebrations – and worse, killed in a manner suggestive of a dragon attack – Seraphina finds herself drawn into the heart of human-dragon politics. Working with the bastard prince Lucian Kiggs to discover the truth behind his uncle’s death, Seraphina must confront not only her mother’s buried memories, but also the implications of her own abilities – and all while keeping her bloodline secret from those who would deem her a monster.

 

The Main Character
 

AnimeJune: When it comes to the heroine, Seraphina, I stand here overjoyed and relieved because she could have been exactly the type of YA heroine I dislike the most – the Mopey Sadsack who doesn’t understand how good she has it until someone else (usually a guy) convinces her how awesome she is. Instead, she’s a multifaceted, determined, and fiercely intelligent character.

She does harbour a fair amount of self-loathing – after all, both dragons and humans would consider her a monster if they knew what she was, and the dragon scales on her left arm and around her waist never let her forget. She’s also visited by visions of the dragon memories her mother bequeathed to her during childbirth, as well as visions of bizarre, often-deformed people with whom she shares a strange connection.

However, what I immediately like about Seraphina is that she could have hidden herself away as a recluse in her father’s house, but she didn’t. With all her freakish flaws, Seraphina also possesses a wondrous gift for music and she follows that passion to find a position in the royal court, very much in defiance of her father’s wishes. Seraphina still avoids social contact, thinks of herself as a freak, and assiduously guards her secret beneath layers of lies and ill-fitting clothing – but she still pursues the passion that makes her happy. She still believes herself worthy of independence, even though it comes at the high cost of loneliness. To me, that says so much about her. She’s not a cursed damsel waiting to be rescued or a martyr who believes herself unworthy of joy. She’s a little too aware of what makes her strange and frightening, but she’s also aware of what gives her power, and I loved that about her.

Foz: I very much agree with AnimeJune’s assessment. Though Seraphina does struggle with self-loathing, she’s also quick-witted, compassionate, practical and possessed of a sharp, sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and better still, she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Far too often, SFF stories narrated by troubled heroines with mysterious pasts and outcast baggage default to use of the Broken Bird trope, with only a smattering of black humour to leaven the pervasive mood of hardboiled despair and repression. By contrast, Seraphina is not only inquisitive and cheerful, but determined to succeed on her own merits – not ashamed of her heritage, but rather fearful of its implications.

This means that, despite her (very reasonable) worries about her own monstrousness, Seraphina reads as exquisitely human. As a heroine, she fully inhabits her actions: we always understand exactly why she’s said or done a particular thing, because her motives are always in keeping with her personality, rather than being impinged on by the needs of the plot, and in a novel as rich and satisfying as this, that’s no mean feat.

 

The Supporting Cast
 
Foz: When it comes to characterisation, Hartman is an incredibly skilled practitioner. In the hands of a lesser writer, certain of the recognisable archetypes underpinning her secondary characters would be cartoonish and stereotypical, or else inverted so clumsily as to achieve much the same effect. Instead, her touch is both deft and subtle, leaving us with a gorgeously varied and believable supporting cast. Her employer, the gouty music master Viridius, is a case in point: though pompous and demanding at times, he’s also possessed of unexpected depths, guiding Seraphina both politically and musically through her time at the Goreddi court. Princess Glisselda, too, is a lovely surprise: beautiful, blonde and Seraphina’s romantic rival, it would’ve been the work of a moment to render her antagonistic, stupid or both, instead of which her high spirits, flashes of arrogance and occasional naivety are counterbalanced by genuine intelligence, a desire to learn, the ability to listen, and a shrewd (if fledgling) political eye.
Far and away, though, my favourite secondary character was Orma, Seraphina’s dragon uncle. Though ostensibly cold, detached and logical, both his dry humour and respect for Seraphina completely won me over, and his development as the novel goes on is an absolute pleasure to watch. Though technically inhuman, he nonetheless felt completely believable – not just as a dragon, but as a scholar, uncle and friend.


AnimeJune: Yes! I loved Orma! The worldbuilding depicts dragons as a lot like Vulcans – while capable of emotion, they repress and police it extremely fiercely (especially when they’re more vulnerable to it in human form) because they cannot explain it in a logical, scientific manner. Orma demonstrates, in his own subtle, unconventional way, how much he cares for his niece, Seraphina, even as he risks having his mind excised of his memories of her by the dragon Censors. His character is all the more fascinating as he displays his emotions in an extremely atypical way that is, frankly, adorable.

I also quite enjoyed the minor character of the Ardmagar Comonot – the strict dragon leader who takes human form for the first time in forty years to celebrate the treaty and finds human emotion a little more than he can deal with.

That being said, my favourite supporting character is Lars – a foreign visitor invited to the Goreddi court by Viridius because of his ground-breaking (and ear-drum-breaking) musical invention, the megaharmonium (think of a giant organ). As musicians, it’s only natural that Lars and Seraphina should meet, and even more natural that they should both discover they share a secret connection. Lars’ reaction to this is one of my favourite scenes in the novel because despite the secrets he’s forced to keep (such as his heavily-implied homosexuality), he’s such an emotionally open, cheerful, friendly person. This takes Seraphina by surprise, since she’s spent her life convincing herself that closing herself off from other people is the only way to survive.

The Romance and Romantic Interest
 

AnimeJune: But enough about that! Let’s talk about the love interest. I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten a little tired of romance in YA lately. I’ve read too many YA stories in which the main plot is an action-adventure, or a science fiction parable – and this completely unnecessary romance is shoehorned in, greased with Insta-Love to make it fit without stretching the page count with, you know, actual romantic development between the characters.

So I’ve started seeing the YA Romantic Subplot as that annoying little sister the Real Plot has to babysit, something to tolerate and ignore while I hang out with the cool, funny Real Plot.

That was so not the case with Seraphina. First of all, there is no Insta-Love between Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the head of the guard charged with keeping the peace until the Ardmagar arrives. There’s no Insta-Hate, either – that tiresome rigamarole where the protagonists automatically hate and snipe at each other until they discover it’s Been True Love All Along.

Instead, they start out respecting each other. What a novel concept! Lucian is an extremely intelligent and scrupulously honest investigator who takes notice of Seraphina’s sharp observational skills and surprising knowledge of dragon culture and seeks out her assistance in finding out who murdered the crown prince. At first, Seraphina is terrified that it’ll only be a matter of time before Lucian puzzles out her own secrets, but as they spend more time together, they discover they share more in common than they thought.

Their relationship builds realistically – with increased proximity and intelligent interaction. Lucian’s attraction to Seraphina builds on his admiration of her talents (intellectual and musical) and her bravery.
Despite their relationship not being very physical (and it really can’t be – Seraphina has too much to hide and Lucian’s engaged to another), it’s extremely moving and powerful to read because it fits so completely with the development of their characters.

Foz: Once again, I’m in total agreement with Elizabeth. I cannot even begin to express how refreshing it is to read a first-person YA romance that is neither saccharine nor abusive, and which features more instances of emotional and intellectual compatibility than it does descriptions of the hero’s arms and eye colour. The attraction between Seraphina and Lucian is all the sweeter (and, at times, all the sexier) for dispensing with the traditional, cartoonish binaries of Fated Love and Impossible Obstacles, and instead focusing on how and why two such different-yet-similar characters come to love each other. Lucian treats Seraphina with kindness and respect, and she in turn esteems his skill and intelligence long before she ever admits her feelings for him.

It helps enormously that, in developing their relationship, Hartman avoids the cliched pitfalls of what I tend to think of as Sitcom Logic – that is, entendre-laden mishaps, implausibly elaborate lies, wacky coincidences and Idiot Plot devices – which so frequently seem to crop up in YA romance. Instead, their relationship develops organically: both characters are lonely, intelligent and, despite loving their respective careers, prevented from truly fulfilling them by the restrictions of duty (Lucian) and the necessity of secrets (Seraphina). Though their relationship is certainly not without mishaps, its development makes perfect sense: they really do fit together, and I can’t wait to see where Hartman leads them in the next volume.

 

Style and Worldbuilding


Foz: On a technical level, Seraphina is an exquisitely written novel. Hartman’s prose style is lyric and flowing without being purple, and though there’s no infodumping that I noticed, she nonetheless manages to convey the many complexities of an original world without either skimping on detail or bogging down the narrative. Which isn’t to say the worldbuilding is perfect; the fact that the dragons have electricity and advanced technology, for instance, while intriguing, didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the setting,  while I was never quite clear on how the Goreddi social mores could allow for a bastard prince like Lucian Kiggs to hold such a prominent court position without any apparent pushback or consequence from the other nobles. But the story is so compelling, the politics otherwise so thoughtful and the premise such a pleasing mix of the familiar and the unexpected that, by and large, I really wasn’t bothered by such minor slips or omissions: I just wanted to keep on reading.

For me, the only sour note in the whole book was Seraphina’s – and, by extension, Hartman’s – tendency to repeatedly iterate the skin-colour of POC characters, as though she were worried the audience might forget that Goreddis are white and Porphyrians brown. It really stood out to me as an instance of White Is The Default writing, as no other race or subset of characters received the same treatment; I also flinched at the inclusion of exotic Porphyrian dancing (disparagingly called bum-waggling by at least one character) as a plot point, especially as it coincides with the appearance of a Porphyrian man who, to all intents and purposes, speaks in broken English. Given the sophistication of the rest of the novel, I was disappointed to find such stereotypes included in the story; and though it certainly helps that otherwise, the POC characters were treated respectfully, it’s the one aspect where I feel Hartman could stand to improve.
On a more positive note, I absolutely loved the the inclusion of Seraphina’s mother’s memories. Each one was perfectly timed in terms of narrative placement, helping to enrich our understanding of dragon culture while simultaneously comprising some of the most beautifully written sections in the whole novel. In a story where both the heroine’s and the hero’s lives are significantly informed by the actions of their disobedient, unconventional – and, as a consequence, dead – mothers (a dual fridging conceit that could have gone badly wrong, and yet somehow works), it goes a long way towards ameliorating the Absent Female Parent factor that Linn, by dint of her first-person memories, ends up feeling much more like a living character in her own right than a distant specter. I’d very much like to see more of her, and am confident that, come Book 2, we will.

AnimeJune: I’ll have to disagree on the depiction of the Porphyrians. I see where you’re getting at now that you point it out, but as I was reading Seraphina, I thought the racist and ignorant thoughts directed towards them were intended as a parallel to the bigotry the dragons endured. Many of the Goreddi feel their bigotry towards dragons is justified because dragons are simply “soulless animals,” and they believe the Queen should put human concerns first and foremost – but then these same Goreddi turn around and make fun of the Porphyrians. To me, it underscores how their bigotry will simply target anything that is significantly different from them – regardless of species.

What nettled me about the worldbuilding with Seraphina was how, forty years after the truce, the human population was still almost entirely opposed to dragons. If all but a very, very few humans are still violently opposed to dragons, how come the Queen’s dragon treaty managed to last four decades without any major incidents? How come there were no uprisings or revolutions until now? It didn’t seem realistic that a whole generation of humans would just sit on their hands for this long if their hate was that powerful.

Moreover, human lives and memories are significantly shorter than those of dragons. While there are dozens of dragons depicted as willing to overlook the atrocities the humans committed against their kind (atrocities these dragons still remember thanks to their ability to pass memories down generations), there are almost no human characters willing to see dragons in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong – the rampant bigotry is a realistic and understandable obstacle in the novel, but I did expect there to be more humans (at least those of the younger generation born after the treaty) willing to work with dragons.

For me, however, that was a minor quibble. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz – the general worldbuilding strikes the perfect balance in terms of detail – not enough to be a slog, but not so little of it that it feels like a wallpaper fantasy.

All in all, I just plain enjoyed this book. It was a meaty, emotional story with sympathetic and well-drawn characters, a truly swoon-worthy romance, and some fantastic magic and worldbuilding to explore.

Foz: Agreed. Seraphina is a truly excellent novel, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

AnimeJune: Thank you so much, Foz, for having such a great discussion with me about such a great book!

Foz: My pleasure!

Warning: spoilers for both books.

Without question, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre, not just because it’s heart-stoppingly original, exquisitely written, gorgeously characterised, perfectly structured and amazingly worldbuilt, but because it defies easy categorisation – at least on the surface. On first perusal, it reads as YA urban fantasy right up until you realise it’s somehow transmuted into adult epic fantasy, and when the hell did that happen? Which is less confusing than it is brilliant, Taylor’s skill at successive big reveals being consummate; the point being, though, that it’s really both and neither. What Daughter is – what the series is, as Days of Blood and Starlight makes clear – is an epic portal fantasy, and once you come to that realisation, the whole starts to become… well, not clear, because the story was never unclear, but better contextualised.

Because whether we mean to or not, we all as readers – as audiences – rely on narrative signposting to tell us what kind of story we’re in. If we misread those signs, then it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the story itself is somehow at fault for failing to meet our expectations, when more often than not, the fault is ours for assuming they were valid to begin with. And I say this now because, in reading other reviews of Starlight – many of which are mixed – the single common thread seems to be a species of bewilderment, or complaint, or uncertainty, or surprise at the very least, that the book wasn’t what the reviewer thought it should be. And prior to having read it, that worried me a little, because Daughter was so incredible that obviously – obviously! – it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, which is so often true of impressive first installments. But now, it seems that, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t with the book, but with the expectations of the audience: or, more specifically, the expectation that a story which has as its starting point the genocide of the heroine’s people by her former lover would be anything other than a war story.

Days of Blood and Starlight is a dark, heartbreaking exploration of the consequences of terrorism, empire, slavery, dehumanisation, power and sacrifice, and the myriad ugly ways in which violence and retribution are self-perpetuating. It is also – quite naturally, given the scope of the worldbuilding, but perhaps jarringly to anyone who took the urban fantasy elements at the start of Daughter to be thematically integral to the series rather than a skillfully executed smokescreen – epic. Literally: the bulk of the story takes place in the world of Eretz, which is at war, and so employs multiple POV characters – many new, and some of them one-shots – to give us an all-over view of the conflict. As any habitual, critical reader of epic works will tell you, this is an easy gambit to get wrong: too many new characters can bog the narrative, drive it off track, or otherwise detract from the central, pivotal struggle. But in the case of Starlight, Taylor has managed this potentially hazardous structure with a rare graceful economy – in large part, I suspect, because her native writing style is so uniquely beautiful. In all respects, Taylor’s prose is like the musculature of a hunting cat: glossy, gorgeous, evocative and a form of poetry in its own right, but perfectly balanced, powerful and with not an ounce of flesh wasted. All of which – Taylor’s literary skill and Starlight’s martial themes both – can be summed up in a single, encompassing sentence:

“What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?”

This question, ultimately, cuts to the heart of the novel. Akiva’s actions in bringing about the fall of Loramendi – and, as a direct consequence, the effective genocide and enslavement of the chimaera – are unforgivable. Akiva knows this, Karou knows this, the narrative knows this; and yet, because this is a hard, dark story, both the reader and Akiva are still forced to confront the reality of what comes next – or rather, the fact that something does come next. The world doesn’t stop nor the clock turn back: Akiva isn’t trying for redemption, but still he has to move forwards, all the while dragging the weight of what he’s done, because there isn’t any alternative. A new world still needs to be fought for, even by people like him. But Akiva isn’t alone in having blood on his hands: as Thiago’s new resurrectionist, Karou effectively enables his campaign of terrorism – the slaughter of innocent civilians, mothers and children – by building him a new and brutal army. Akiva’s betrayal has broken her; she is grieving, pained both physically and mentally by the strains of her task, and tortured by shame and guilt at the thought of her role in what happened at Loramendi. And yet, this doesn’t excuse her ignorance, the length of time it takes her to understand the use to which her gifts are being put – the bleak and utter darkness of Thiago’s revenge. Just as Akiva is culpable for the massacre of chimaera, so is Karou made culpable for the slaughter of angels.

Blinded by rage and pain and grief, both characters have lent themselves to the execution of terrible deeds and the support of monsters. Akiva’s might be the greater crime, but in either case, there’s no coming back from what they’ve done. What happens next isn’t a question of balancing the scales – there can be no balance – but finding a way to live in what remains of their world, and somehow, maybe, to remake it. And as both find themselves serving under commanders without mercy – Joram and Jael for Akiva, with their dreams of conquest; Thiago for Karou, with his bloody revenge against innocents – both, as Starlight progresses, find the strength for mercy where mercy means treason, building their rebellious hopes in secret. And there is hope: in Sveva, the Dama girl freed from captivity by the rebels; in the true love shared by Zuzana and Mik. Though seemingly incongruous at times, the latter’s inclusion is vital: a bodily reminder – to Karou, to the reader, to the chimaera – of what, in all this blood and catastrophe, the fighting is actually *for*. A simple thing, perhaps; but without the presence of Mik and Zuzana to counterbalance the horror and remind Karou of her human self, Starlight would be an altogether bleaker, more desolate novel.

Even so, the finale is harrowing. This being a war story, Taylor hasn’t spared us the threat of sexual violence against women; or rather, has acknowledged its existence in Liraz’s fears, not of the enemy, but the appetites of her own commander, and her fury at the whole awful system of soldier-bastards fathered on unwilling concubines that underpins Joram’s reign. “These are our mothers,” she fumes at one point – and just like that, we realise her loyalty to the empire is broken (if, indeed, it ever really existed). But at the end, it’s Karou who finds herself facing Thiago’s appetites – the same angry, violent, possessive lust which, when thwarted originally, lead him to torture Akiva and behead Madrigal. Starlight is not an easy read, but in a book brimming with ugliness and torture, the final few chapters are the hardest to read of all.

And yet somehow, despite all the horror, Taylor still manages to end on a note of courage, with just enough stray threads left purposefully dangling to ensure that, whatever the next book brings, it’s bound to be nuanced and complex. Days of Blood and Starlight is a powerful, purposeful novel that subverts our expectations even as it builds them, forcing its characters through darkness only so that they might relearn hope. A truly worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

In the past few weeks, mass critical discussion of a YA novel by Victoria Foyt – titled Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls – has sprung up online after various people noticed that the book was, shall we say, extremely problematic vis-a-vis racism. And by ‘extremely problematic’, I mean the white female protagonist wears blackface (complete with extra-red lips), black people are called ‘coals’, the black male love interest is literally described as animalistic and bestial, the dystopian elements come in large part from black people being in charge while whites are a demonised minority, Aztec characters speak Spanish for no readily discernable reason, and the title literally translates to ‘save the white people’ – ‘pearls’ being an (apparently) derogatory term for whites, though as various other commenters have pointed out, the coals/pearls contrast is itself offensive: after all, coal is dirty and cheap, whereas pearls are beautiful and valuable.

Things might have died down had Foyt herself not waded in, angrily denying all assertions that either the book or her attitudes were racist while simultaneously speculating that African-American readers might not even exist as a category. It was at this point that an awful possibility occurred to me: what if the Stop the GR Bullies site were to start defending Foyt on the grounds that calling her racist constituted bullying? It was a cynical thought, and one I was prepared to categorise as uncharitable even as I tweeted about the possibility on Wednesday; surely, even STGRB could recognise that in this instance, the accusations of racism were both legitimate and extremely relevant to any discussion of the novel, given Foyt’s claim that the story was meant to “turn racism on its head” – after all, how can you assess whether a book has succeeded at its stated goals without analysing the author’s efforts at achieving them? How can you discuss the presence of blatant racism in a novel without asking why the author included it, and whether they even realised it was there, let alone offensive?

But as it turns out, my cynical predictions proved accurate: this morning, STGRB has come out in defence of Foyt, asserting that:

“…calling the author racist (when she has clearly stated that she is not) or calling her ignorant, disgusting, terrible, sexist, etc., or saying that she and her agent, editor, and publisher should be sued – that is bullying.”

Which is, apart from anything else, monumentally hypocritical given that the site’s entire purpose is to label as bullies people who actively state that they aren’t. If Foyt can be deemed definitely non-racist simply by virtue of asserting that she isn’t, then how can STGRB accuse anyone of bullying who doesn’t openly identify as a bully without contradicting their own logic? Regardless of whether you agree with their judgements or practices, the primary assertion of STGRB is that sometimes it’s necessary to bestow negative labels on people who deny their applicability – but in this respect as in so many others, the site is determined to enforce a double-standard: one for them, and one for anyone who disagrees. Site manager Athena’s assertion that “someone’s intentions do define them” is fundamentally flawed: she assumes that someone with good intentions can’t cause actual harm, or that if they do, they shouldn’t be held responsible for it. I’ve written before about intentionality versus interpretation in YA, but what it all metaphorically boils down to is this: if a driver accidentally hits a pedestrian, the fact that they didn’t mean to is immaterial. The pedestrian is still injured, the driver is still negligent, and if, despite these facts, the driver continues to assert that they’re actually very good behind the wheel of a car, we are right to question them. If it really was an accident, a genuinely responsible driver will nonetheless acknowledge their error and take every precaution to ensure they never replicate it; but if it turns out that the driver has been drastically overconfident in their assessment of their abilities, their entire approach to driving needs to change.

Victoria Foyt is being called a racist because the number and severity of the problems present in Revealing Eden are such that the novel ultimately serves to reinforce the very same toxic behaviour it sets out to debunk. The assertion isn’t that Foyt is being consciously racist, in the sense of actively believing black people to be inferior, but rather that, despite her apparently good intentions, she has nonetheless subconsciously absorbed and then actively replicated certain impressions and stereotypes about black people without realising that they’re offensive – and when the extent of her cognitive dissonance was pointed out to her by myriad readers, both white and POC, she responded by asserting that their accusations were “exactly what creates racism”. She has well and truly hit the pedestrian, and has responded by declaring herself to be an excellent driver.

I’ve said before that STGRB is not a subtle site, and now more than ever, I stand by that. In many instances – perhaps even a majority of instances – reviewing the author rather than the book is a bad thing to do; but it would be both impossible and irresponsible to try and fully separate a writer from their words, particularly in instances where they’ve chosen to openly discuss their inspiration or intentions. Foyt is being critiqued as much for the tenor and content of her blogged responses to criticism as for the book itself, and however strongly you might object to references to her as a person cropping up in reviews of the latter, attempting to outlaw commentary on the former is utterly unreasonable. Authors exist in the world, not a vacuum; we are influenced by everything around us, and when that influence transfers itself to our work – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it isn’t unreasonable for critics to take notice, and to comment accordingly.

But let’s take a moment to consider what racism actually means, as both the STGRB crew and several of their commenters appear to be confused about the issue. Contrary to the stated opinions of the STGRB site owners, racism isn’t exclusively an active, conscious phenomenon – by which I mean, the terminology doesn’t only apply to people in KKK hoods who openly assert that black people are inferior. In a cultural context where discrimination is still a daily fact of life for an overwhelming number of people, but where openly stating disdain for POC is socially frowned upon, racism has become primarily a subconscious affair. But this by no means blunts its effect; in fact, it makes it even more insidious, because it breeds in people a problematic belief that hating racism is identical to not actually being racist.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, a grass roots smear campaign sprang up to defend his killer and paint the unarmed, teenage Martin as a thug; some people even started selling shooting targets printed with his face. One newscaster blamed Martin’s death on the fact that he was wearing a hoodie, saying that “black and Latino youngsters particularly” shouldn’t wear them to avoid looking suspicious. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, defended himself using Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: his exoneration was instantly contrasted with the prominent case of a black woman, Marissa Alexander, who’d fired a gun while being physically assaulted by a violent partner. Alexander was told that Stand Your Ground didn’t apply in her case; subsequent journalistic investigation found that “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black”which prompted an investigation into racism’s influence on the law by federal and state officials. By contrast, the extrajudicial killing of black people by law enforcement in America was recently recorded to have reached the rate of one every forty hours, while just last Friday, a member of the GOP stated that members of the Republican party in Florida had actively sought to suppress black votes.

Outside the courtroom, men and women of colour still earn significantly less than their white counterparts. A white Baptist church recently refused to marry a black couple, despite both parties being regular attendees. A poll conducted in March this year showed that 29% of Republicans in Missisippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal, while a recent study of college students showed that“white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes” – a result which showed a strong correlation between colour-blind attitudes and a tacit acceptance/non-recognition of racism. Similarly, implicit association tests (IATs) have frequently shown that the cultural effects of racial bias are widespread, while the shaming of and self-loathing among black girls who’ve been culturally conditioned to view their own natural hair and skin as disgusting is utterly heartbreaking. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea: racism is everywhere, it is frequently subtle or subconscious, and its effects can be utterly devastating.

So when, to return to the case of STGRB and Victoria Foyt, I see site manager Athena responding to the suggestion that “Accusations of racism are no different than 17th. C. accusations of witchcraft” by praising the commenter’s “understanding and intelligence,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that Foyt isn’t the only party to lack a meaningful understanding of racism. I cannot overstate this enough: calling someone out for racism is not worse than actually being racist. If you care more about being called racist than about the possibility that you actually might be racist, then you have a serious problem, because what you’ve just done, right there? Is concluded that it’s more important to appear to support equality than to actually support equality.

Distressingly, this isn’t the first time that race has become a prominent factor in discussions of YA novels. Negative fan reactions to the casting of POC actors in the respective film adaptations of two successful YA series – first to Amandla Stenberg as Rue in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and now to Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments – serve to highlight how toxic the assumption of ‘whiteness as normative’ can be. Even in instances where characters are explicitly stated to be POC, as was the case in both Clare’s and Collins’s work, many readers assume otherwise – not necessarily due to conscious racism, but because they unconsciously edit out information that contradicts the culturally learned assumption that whiteness is the default setting.

Intentions are meaningless if contradicted by our actions, and doubly so if we refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of dissonance between them. Victoria Foyt is not being bullied; she is being called out for having written a horrendously racist book in the first instance and then for completely dismissing her critics in the second. Trying to turn the existing conversation about the negative themes of Revealing Eden, the reactions of POC readers, Foyt’s behaviour and the general problem of race in YA into a discussion about the appropriateness of various reviewing techniques is, ultimately, a form of derailing: however important the issue might be otherwise, it’s a separate topic to the one at hand, and the STGRB site managers have done themselves even less credit than usual by so hamfistedly conflating the two. Subconscious racism is a real problem – but so is the refusal of would-be allies to acknowledge that, despite all their active efforts and intentions, it can still affect them, too.

OK, so a deeply problematic thing just happened on Twitter.

Here’s the basic jist:

Evidently riled up by information on the Stop the GR Bullies website (which I’ve blogged about here), author James Austen took to Twitter to call blogger Kat Kennedy a loser and a retard. Not unsurprisingly, Kat and several other Twitter users, myself included, confronted Austen about his ableist language, throughout which exchange he repeatedly stated that not only had Kat called him a headcase on Goodreads, but had attacked him on a blog post where he’d revealed his own childhood sexual abuse. Kat, meanwhile, was baffled, having no idea at all who Austen was.

When asked to show evidence of the incidents in question, Austen linked first to the Stop the GR Bullies main page, and then to this Goodreads thread – neither of which show any connection whatever between himself and Kat Kennedy. It then became apparent that Austen had confused Kat with two other Goodreads users, Ridley and The Holy Terror – an extremely bizarre mistake to make, not only because even the STGRB website states clearly that these are three completely different women, but because Austen has actually been in Twitter contact with Ridley before. By this point, he’d called Kat a retard or retarded eight times by my count, including a comment where, even AFTER his error had been pointed out, he claimed to be applying the term with “laser-like precision”.

Austen then made some motions towards apology (though not for his ableist language), but also added that Kat “could win good pr now by playing this right” – meaning, presumably, that it was in her best interests not to tell people about his mistake. Now, even though we’d established that Kat wasn’t at fault, I was still concerned about Austen’s claim that someone – whoever they were – had attacked him on Goodreads for talking about his own childhood sexual abuse, because, dude, that is NOT COOL, and if someone has actually done that, they deserve to be called to account. With this in mind, I asked if he could link to that incident; he told me it had happened on one of three Goodreads blogs.

Now: possibly, this attack did take place, and for whatever reason, evidence of it has been removed from the site. But having checked the comments for every single one of Austen’s Goodreads blogposts – and further checked the comment threads attached to all the reviews/discussions about his novels – I can’t find anything which even vaguely resembles such an attack. What I can see is that in January this year, Austen blogged about his abuse, and in March, Ridley left a status update (the one linked above) mentioning that Austen had sent her an abusive private message, and that the two were arguing on Twitter. Whatever occurred in the body of that argument, I can’t find any record of it, but at this point, it does seem fairly clear that, at the very least, nobody – least of all Kat Kennedy – has attacked Austen in the comments section of his GR blogs.

As soon as this was pointed out, Austen not only quit the conversation, but locked his Twitter account. The progression of the argument as detailed below is as correct as I could manage by reconstructed it from screengrabs, though doubtless some tweets and responses are out of immediate chronological order (it being extremely difficult to follow the exact chronology of a multi-branching Twitter conversation, even after the fact). Given the length of the conversation, I’ve tried to include only relevant tweets, but for those who are interested in seeing a wider range of responses, they can be found by looking at the individual steams of the other participants, including mine. I’m aware that one tweet of Austen’s appears twice, which is unfortunate, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily remove it, and so it’s still there as a duplicate: any other errors are my fault, but hopefully don’t detract from the overall coherence (such as it is).

I’m posting this for three reasons:

  1. To establish on record that Kat Kennedy didn’t start the exchange with Austen, and has in fact never spoken to him before today;
  2. To point out that information posted on Stop the GR Bullies has directly contributed to a public instance of vile and abusive behaviour; and
  3. To stand as an example of exactly how fucked up ableism is, and why using the word retard as a pejorative is never, ever acceptable.

As for Austen: I’d ask of readers to please refrain from contacting him on Goodreads, messaging him on Twitter, or otherwise sending him negative, aggressive or abusive messages that detail his mistakes. Yes, he’s behaved appallingly, and that should definitely be noted, but further aggro isn’t going to help anyone – and if another Goodreads user really did attack him for sharing his own experiences of sexual abuse, then that needs to be brought to light and dealt with separately. Otherwise, let’s just acknowledge and learn from the fail, and move on with our lives.

Little more than a week ago, a website aimed at naming and shaming so-called Goodreads ‘bullies’ suddenly appeared online – called, appropriately enough, Stop the GR Bullies. Run by four concerned ‘readers and bloggers’ writing anonymously under the handles Athena, Peter Pan, Johnny Be Good and Stitch, the site thus far seems bent on punishing the creators of snide, snarky and negative book reviews by posting their handles, real names, locations and photos in one place, together with a warning about their supposed ‘level of toxicity’ and some (ironically) snide, snarky and negative commentary about them as people. There’s a lot here to unpack, but before I get started on why this is a horrifically bad idea, let’s start with some basic context.

As a website, Goodreads itself is something of a chimaera, being in roughly equal parts an online literary database, a social networking platform, a book review site, a promotional tool for bloggers, a promotional tool for authors, and a social forum for readers. This complexity is both its primary attraction and the single biggest source of contention among users, as the crowdsourced nature of much of the information available, in conjunction with the fact that the site itself has no in-house moderators – meaning that the majority of alleged violations of the terms of service must be manually referred to and assessed by Goodreads before they can possibly be removed – means that, to all intents and purposes, the site can and does frequently function like any large, unmoderated forum, viz: wildly. As the TOS is at pains to point out, Goodreads considers itself a third party where user content is concerned. To quote:

We are only acting as a passive conduit for your online distribution and publication of your User Content.

Of particular relevance in this case is the specific type of user content deemed inappropriate by the TOS. To quote again:

You agree not to post User Content that… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.

However, it’s also relevant to note the following caveats (emphasis mine) – namely, that:

Goodreads reserves the right, but is not obligated, to reject and/or remove any User Content that Goodreads believes, in its sole discretion, violates these provisions… 

You understand and acknowledge that you may be exposed to User Content that is inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or objectionable, and you agree that Goodreads shall not be liable for any damages you allege to incur as a result of such User Content. Goodreads may provide tools for you to remove some User Content, but does not guarantee that all or any User Content will be removable.

In other words: even if you can argue compellingly that another member has violated the TOS with regards to user content, Goodreads is under no obligation to agree, to listen, or in fact do anything at all: their commitment is to passive third party provision of a useful service, not to the active moderation of user content, and while that’s certainly their legal right, in practical terms, it means that the onus for modding conversational threads, forums, reviews and everything else rests squarely with the user in question. To quote again:

You are solely responsible for your interactions with other Goodreads Users. We reserve the right, but have no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other Users. Goodreads shall have no liability for your interactions with other Users, or for any User’s action or inaction.

In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy. Not being a regular participant in Goodreads threads or forums – though I am an active user of the site as an author, reviewer and reader – I’m not in a position to comment on how often Goodreads actually steps in to ban abusive members, remove problematic comments or otherwise moderate user content either on demand or of their own volition: all I can note is that legally, they have no obligation to take any action at all. Clearly, though, a number of users feel that the lack of in-house moderation has lead to the creation of a negative, if not actively toxic, environment in some quarters, with the result that some members have now taken it upon themselves to lead a public campaign against those they deem to be the worst offenders.

One more piece of context, before we continue: both within Goodreads itself and throughout the wider book blogging community, the ongoing debate about niceness vs. snark in reviews is intensely relevant to the problem at hand. While the argument itself has many facets – should aspiring writers post negative reviews, or strive to embrace a ‘be nice’ attitude? are authors, editors, agents and publishers within their grounds to reject aspiring writers who’ve written negative reviews of authors they work with or know, or is this a form of discriminatory nepotism? is the primary purpose of book blogging to act as ‘cheerleaders’ for authors, or to give good consumer advice to readers? – what it frequently boils down to is a dispute over judgements of taste. Or, more specifically: at what volume or intensity does the presence of comedic snark in a book review see it go from being a professional opinion to unprofessional abuse?

It’s very much a your mileage may vary question, which is, I suspect, why Goodreads has the policy of passive non-interference that it does. By definition, not everyone is going to agree with a book review, and given that the utility of their service is predicated on people who love (or hate) books being free to discuss them, they’re naturally going to be loathe to police the tone of such conversations too heavily for fear of undermining their own purpose. However, it’s also important to note that, due to the Goodreads site layout, the usual handy metaphors for personal vs public pages – an intensely relevant distinction when it comes to questions of harassment, as it has the effect of dictating which party is the guest/invader, and which the host/native – don’t precisely apply. For instance: on a traditional internet forum, threads are analogous to public spaces, with the default authority resting either exclusively with the in-house moderators or creator/s, or jointly between the two. Abuse is, as elsewhere, defined as either vituperative ad hominem attacks or generic -ism-based slander; however, due to the clear distinction between attacking someone in a public thread and attacking them outside the context of the discussion – which is to say, on their user page, via email or, in instances where it’s not in direct response to something they’ve posted there, on their personal site – we don’t generally upgrade the abuse to bullying or harassment unless it makes that transition. To be clear: this doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour. Nonetheless, there is a relevant and meaningful distinction between saying, ‘I think Author X is a shit writer’ on a public thread, and going to their personal page to say, ‘I think you’re a shit writer’. On Goodreads, however, this distinction is blurred, because while reviews and their attendant conversational threads fall under the governance of the user-reviewer, they’re also attached to the relevant book and its author-governed page; meaning, in essence, that there’s an overlap between the author’s personal space (assuming the author in question is a member of the site) and the reviewer’s.

And, not surprisingly, this can cause major friction, not just between authors and negative reviewers, but between fans of authors and negative reviewers. In some instances, it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate – or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans – and, sometimes, friends – of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results, and sometimes using language that’s on par with anything they’re actually objecting to.

But here’s the thing: any public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal. At times, your personal and public lives will blur, or else specific criticism will invite others to consider the relationship between your output and your private beliefs – and this will sometimes be relevant to discussions of your work and its themes, as per the fact that Stephanie Meyers’s Mormonism is relevant to the morality used in Twilight (for instance). Sometimes you’ll even be called names or find yourself on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, where people say you’re a stupid, talentless hack as part of their review, and call into question both your morality and your convictions. And depending on the relevance of those accusations to your work and the problems the reviewer has with it, that can achieve anything from laying bare a deep-seated flaw in your worldview to highlighting nothing so much as the reviewer’s petty, vindictive ignorance.

But it isn’t bullying.

Because bullying is not a synonym for argument, disagreement or pejorative reactions. Bullying is not a synonym for disliking someone, or for thinking their work is rubbish. Bullying is not even a synonym for saying so, publicly and repeatedly, in a place where that person can hear it – although that’s certainly unpleasant. Bullying is when someone with a greater position of power and/or possessed of greater strength repeatedly and purposefully attacks, harasses, belittles and/or otherwise undermines someone in a position of lesser power and/or possessed of lesser strength. In the vast majority of circumstances, bullying trickles down; it does not travel up, and in instances where the author in question is a super-successful megastar, to say they’re being bullied by reviewers is to ignore the fundamental power-dynamics of bullying. Even on the Goodreads system, where authors can see exactly what readers and reviewers think of them, expressing a negative opinion is not the same as bullying, because although the conversation is visible, it’s not directed at the author; they are under no obligation to respond, or even to read it at all. Feeling sad and overwhelmed because people don’t like your book and have said so publicly might constitute a bad day, but it’s not the same as being bullied.

Cyberbullying among teenagers is a real and serious problem characterised by the sending of abusive messages by either single or multiple parties, the spreading of hurtful lies and rumours, the public display of information or images that were intended as private, and the confluence of systematic abuse both in the real world and online. Such attacks are vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses; many have lead to suicide. What recently happened to Anita Sarkeesian was bullying of exactly this kind, where a number of individuals unknown to her engaged in an active attempt to publicly frighten, abuse and slander her – a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book. Similarly, when people leave vile, sexist comments on my blog, that’s not bullying: it’s offensive and abusive, yes, but all the power in the situation belongs to me, because I can delete the comments, ban the commenters, and publicly mock them for their opinions – and just as importantly, my posts are there because I want people to read and react to them. The fact that I’ve invited comment doesn’t mean abusive responses are justified, but it does mean I’m not being attacked or contacted in a vacuum: I have said a thing, and people are responding to it. That is not bullying. Obviously, it’s not impossible for authors to be bullied. An indie or self-published author without the support of an agency/publisher and their attendant legal teams, for instance – or, just as importantly, without hundreds of thousands of supportive fans – could easily be bullied by any sufficiently cruel individual who took it upon themselves to send regular hateful email, spam their site with negative criticism, leave abusive remarks on their personal profiles, and otherwise behave like a grade-A douche. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because as far as I can make out, everything the Stop the GR Bullies crew objects to has happened either in a review, as part of a public comment thread, in response to a blog post, or in the course of personal conversations on Twitter.

Because – and I cannot stress this enough – simply disliking a book, no matter how publicly or how snarkily, is not the same as bullying. To say that getting a handful of mean reviews is even in the same ballpark as dealing with an ongoing campaign of personal abuse is insulting to everyone involved. If Athena and the Stop the GR Bullies mob had chosen any other word to describe the problem – if they’d stopped at calling it toxic and objected to it on those grounds – then I might be more sympathetic; after all, as stated above, Goodreads is a largely unmoderated site, and that doesn’t always lead to hugs and puppies. But conflating criticism with bullying is a serious problem – not just in this context, but as regards wider issues of social justice. Increasingly, ‘bullying’ is being bastardised into a go-to term to describe the actions of anyone who actively disagrees with you, to the point where some conservative politicians are now describing leftwingers who call them out on sexism and racism as bullies, or else have decided that ‘bully’ is just a meaningless epithet like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’, which is arguably worse for suggesting that all three concepts are somehow mythical.

Which is why, in short, the Stop the GR Bullies website is an appalling idea on just about every level. Not only does it appropriate some actual bullying tactics – such as attempting to disseminate the real names and locations of its targets to strangers, then implicitly encouraging said strangers to engage in further harassment – while serving to further water down and confuse the actual, meaningful definition of bulling, but as a protest against the perceived abuse of the Goodreads TOS, it’s completely and utterly meaningless, because the whole site constitutes an active violation. Yes, you did read that right – because to quote again from the TOS (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities… (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

And does Stop the GR Bullies use harassment as a tool? Oh, worse than that: some of what they say is actually libelous. Here’s a screengrab of their description of Kat Kennedy, a GR member and book blogger for Cuddlebuggery:

The inability of the poster, Athena, to distinguish between a reviewer speaking negatively about books in a professional capacity and the outright public slander of a private citizen by another private citizen is breathtaking, to say nothing of the fact that making a hate page is pretty much 101-grade material for how to be an internet bully. The rest of the site is in much the same vein, and where at least the original posters, whatever you think of them, have the excuse of (a) being in personal conversation with friends or (b) acting as reviewers, the site does not: its sole effect, despite its intended purpose, is to be vituperative in terms of language and downright sinister in its commitment to Googlestalking its targets, attempting to put up not only their names and photos, but details of their places of employment and personal circumstances.

I’m never gladdened to hear that some author or other has decided to quit Goodreads because of negative comments, reviews or any other reason. But Goodreads itself is an optional part of the author ecosystem – as, for that matter, is blogging, Tweeting, and every other type of social media. While Goodreads, as far as I know, lacks privacy controls (which is likely another contributing factor to the problem at hand: authors can’t opt out of seeing negative reviews or comments, while reviewers lack the ability to make the comment threads attached to their reviews private, both of which, if introduced as options, might go a long way towards easing the current tensions) other forms of social media do not. A blogger, for instance, has total control over whether or not to allow commenting on particular posts, while Twitter uses can lock their accounts so that only approved individuals can follow them. Anyone fearful of negative comments has the power to screen them out – and if, on the other hand, a reviewer or author blogs publicly with the intention of receiving responses, that doesn’t preclude them from encountering legitimately negative reactions. If someone writes a blog post and asks for comment, it’s not bullying to respond with strong disagreement: in the scientific world, that’s simply known as having an opinion. Similarly, if a comment makes you uncomfortable on your own blog, mod or ban away! It’s why the option exists. But don’t call it bullying when people show up and disagree with you – even if they’ve disagreed with you before – because that’s not what bullying means.

And as for the people who’ve created the website in question: you might want to stop and think about what you’re doing. As much as anyone you’ve taken issue with, you’re in violation of the Goodreads TOS, and hiding behind anonymity while attempting to strip it from others is a hypocrisy that seldom plays well on the internet. If you really want to change the culture at Goodreads, you’d be better off lobbying for the promotion of in-house or site-approved moderators, closed comment threads and a greater delineation of author and reviewer pages rather than engaging in essentially the same behaviour that’s got you so worked up in the first place. This whole situation may well get uglier before it gets better, and under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to want to play nice.

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the aforementioned rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male  aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze.  And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of  what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so,  and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.

Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’  Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.

Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.

I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.

As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.

Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.

The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.

Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?

The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.

I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.

And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.

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(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)

Cards on the table: I had never heard of Joel Stein until five minutes ago. Nonetheless, having just read his oh-so-condescending op-ed for the NY Times on why, in his estimation, adults shouldn’t read YA, I feel qualified to make the above assertion.

Why a sexist ass, you ask, instead of just the regular kind? Because certainly, his regular assishness isn’t in doubt. After all, any adult who’ll personally vouch for the suckiness of an activity he refuses to try on the grounds of having intuited said suckiness from afar – much like a toddler declaring his undying hatred for unfamiliar vegetables – is clearly deserving of intellectual mockery. But where in that is the sexism?

By way of answer, allow me to compare Joel’s opening paragraph –

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

with his last:

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.

The bolding is mine; take note of it! Because rather than a critique of the content of YA novels, what this piece actually represents is the following assertion: that it’s fundamentally embarrassing for grown men to share any interests whatever with teenage girls. In fact, according to Joel, it is actually more embarrassing for a man to identify with a teen girl via the medium of literature than if he were publicly demeaning and sexualising her via the medium of pornography!

In five paragraphs, the only gender pronouns he uses are in those paragraphs: male to describe the adults who shouldn’t read YA, and female to describe the intended readership of the books to which he’s specifically objecting. Five paragraphs does not a lengthy article make. Certainly, it’s not long enough to enter into a nuanced discussion of why adults read YA (what then, I wonder, does Joel make of the adults who write it? or does he imagine that YA books spring full-fledged from the legs of hipsters, like Athena sprang from Zeus?), the changing face of the genre, or anything approaching an intelligent, reasoned argument.

It is, however, more than long enough to demonstrate his sexist credentials, and the nature of his real fear, which is that men might voluntarily be enjoying stuff written for girls. Oh noes! The horror! What could be worse than adult men identifying with the demographic they’ve historically most oppressed! GENDER EMPATHY IS SCARY AND TERRIBLE AND UNMASCULINE AND PLANES WILL FALL FROM THE SKY.

Those damn tween girls with their Bieber and their Twilights. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting the vote and refusing to act in pornography. The HUSSIES.

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.