March 4th, 2011


Hang Up the Fedora: Reviewers and the YA Mafia

So a couple days ago Holly Black made a post assuring the world there was no group of writers out to get people, since some bloggers were concerned based on conversations about book bloggers and the effect of bad reviews. I thought it was a very valuable post to make, since I don't want book reviewers to be scared, and I don't think there's any reason that they should be.

Then the conversation, as conversations do, got bigger and more convoluted, and many things were brought up, and I ended up with so many thing to say I thought I'd make a post. About all of them. So without further ado...

Writers Are Coming For You!

It is a myth that writers can do anything to you at all. Most writers are frantically trying to make a living with the made-up people in their head. They really don't have the time, energy, power or desire to do something to you.

If reviewers are feeling intimidated, they absolutely shouldn't be. We couldn't do anything to them if we wanted to.

And I don't want to. I have read reviews that made me mad, made me despair at the world and its inherent grossness, made me wonder what cruel practical joker had slipped an entirely different book into my book cover. But I still think people talking about books in any way is awesome. Because I think engaging with and caring about books is awesome.

Here is a promise: no matter what you say about my books on the internet, I will never do anything to harm you in any way. No matter what you say about me on the internet, I will never do anything to harm you in any way.

Because I am bone idle and incapable of arranging to get wet in a rainstorm. Because if I tried to do so, everyone would be like 'Man, the Irish, they really are drunk all the time, aren't they?' and nothing else would happen. (John Scalzi describes several imaginary conversations along these lines.) And because I believe it to be morally wrong.

Naturally all you need is my word, as I am the soul of honour! But also, I could not possibly do it. None of us could.

Something I've heard brought up is that this is a feminist issue.

Won't Somebody Think of the Ladies?

Okay. Books should be reviewed with close attention to serious issues like feminism, sexism, racism, and classism. Because these issues are important. Absolutely. Nobody agrees more than me: if I did not agree I'd be a huge hypocrite, since I have written crazy scads on fictional ladies and everyone's approach to them, to a point where people have said 'Lord, enough with the endless yapping about ladies' to me. To which I have said: Lo, this is my journal, and I will endlessly yap about what I please.

Feminism is a huge deal for me, and I talk about it all the time. I do not, however, single out specific writers and say they are huge anti-feminists. Just because I think a book is anti-feminist does not necessarily mean the writer is. Also, it would not be an effective way to make my points about feminism in books.

Let's take, for instance, an office workplace. Say there is a real problem with laziness in the filing at the office. Say I work in this office. I do not get me a microphone and walk through the office yelling 'CAROLINE! Your filing is an affront to the eyes of God! CAROLINE! Every day and night I think of your filing and how terrible it is! CAROLINE, CAROLINE! Your filing makes me sure that in your domestic life you are a slattern, which is bound to result in your husband leaving you! Also, CAROLINE, I bet nobody in the office really likes you - how could they with filing like yours? - so please CAROLINE, just own up to the fact you're a bad person.'

This is a bad idea for several reasons. For one thing Sally, Bob and Jeff will all go 'Heh heh heh, it's all on Caroline' and they will keep messing up the filing. For another, everyone in the office will think I am just bullying Caroline and will not pay attention to this speech or other things that I say. For another, Caroline will think 'What a jerk! My filing is totally fine!' Basically, if I were to go around slagging off my colleagues by name, I would literally accomplish nothing but making myself look bad. I will not make people think about the issue I've raised, and that's a shame, because that is my goal.

So: nobody is saying 'don't discuss feminism on the internet.' I am here to say 'please, please discuss feminism on the internet, because it's important and because I want to talk about it.' But I am also saying getting a microphone and saying 'CAROLINE - or someone else specific - is disgusting' while you can totally do it, won't be a productive thing to say.

The Problem Of Being A Person On The Internet

Justine Larbalestier brings up the issue of online disinhibition effect (otherwise known as people are mean on the internet).

I have said stuff on the internet that I wouldn't have said in person (and regretted it). I have had stuff said to me on the internet that I truly believe people would never have said to my face in a million, trillion years.

The fact that book reviews are casual and are on the internet means bad stuff gets said not only about books (which again - I am glad bad book reviews exist. I am glad my bad book reviews exist. I think bad book reviews can be very valuable) but about authors.

When has someone called me a plagiarist to my face? Never.
When has a professional review called me a plagiarist? Never.
When has a blog called me a plagiarist? Several times, notably once this week.

Sucks to read, and I don't think it's right to write (unless it was true, in which case someone should take out a full-page ad). But it happens. It'd be nice if people didn't say bad stuff about other people on the internet! But people do and probably always will say bad stuff about other people on the internet, and we all have to learn to deal or stay off the internet.

The Problem of Being A Writer And Also Being A Person (Curse You, Alien Overlord Writers)

Ilona Andrews made a great post here about how people views writers as non-people. It is a thing.

So another point raised about writers is that, well, some writers know each other, as you do get to know your colleagues. Think of the office environment again: some you are very good friends with, some you're friendly acquaintances with, some you secretly hate, some you can't remember their name for the life of you and it's so awkward! Some you are carrying on hot affairs with! (Sometimes. I hear. Not me, and I don't know how that rumour got started.)

A blogger called Cleolinda discussed this using the office environment analogy and Ally Carter discussed this saying 'Well... but I really value my writer friends, as anyone values their friends.'

So writers are sometimes friends. But here's the thing: that's okay, because though writers can help each other with their actual writing, and can help each other stay sane, writers cannot really help each others' careers. An agent or an editor might give you a look because your friend is edited or agented by them, and they trust their judgement. They won't take you on if they think your book sucks, because they want to make money. Publishing's a business: money trumps most every concern.

I have writer friends who are very successful. I have writer friends who are not very successful at all. None of them have been able to affect each other's careers even slightly.

Sometimes the thought that someone could 'make or break' my career, or that a good book would guarantee success, sounds like an alluring one as compared to the terrifying reality that everything is kind of a crapshoot. But the reality is what it is.

Writers can blurb books, you might say! ('I would rock that sickly blond sociopath hero like a neurasthenic hurricane - Sarah Rees Brennan') Well, blurbs are great to have, but sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I have some great blurbs, all of which I was thrilled to get, but they don't appear to have helped my sales. Stephenie Meyer has blurbed books that didn't sell. Blurbs matter about one thousandth as much as covers, and no writer has any control over your cover. Or indeed their own. That's all down to the cruel cover gods.

Also, almost every writer I have ever met cares deeply about books. They will not recommend books they don't like, because they don't want to have people think poorly of their judgement. Sometimes, you will think poorly of their judgement anyway, because they like a book you don't like. But this happens with everyone. My best friend and I don't agree on all books. Another friend of mine and I had an argument about books that led to me kicking a hole in a wall in frustration. (All hail Queen Sarah of OverInvestedInBooksLandia!)

That's why there should be loads of different reviews for books around: because there are always going to be loads of different opinions about books.

Basically, as I already said in Holly Black's post, the only conclusion that can be reached is that authors and reviewers are people, and dealing with people will always be complicated. Some authors are going to behave badly and some reviewers are going to behave badly - but them's the breaks, and at least nobody's career can be destroyed.

Really. If you take away nothing else from these debates, take away that. Everybody's going to be okay.