Monday, June 6, 2011

An Autopsy of Criticism, or Why It’s Not All Sparkly and White.

by: Ceilidh

As I’m sure most of you know, there was a ruckus in the YA community after the Wall Street Journal published an article that amounted to a bunch of pearl clutching over the supposed darkness of YA and how dangerous it was to normalise issues such as self harm and gay hate crimes. The article was terrible in almost every way you can think of and in reply, a large group of YA authors and readers fought back, using a #YASaves hash-tag on Twitter to tell their stories and express how important YA is, and it is.

It’s not just YA that saves, it’s words that save. Knowledge is power and that terrifies people that try to storm into libraries and remove books from shelves. Words are some of the most powerful weapons we have and they leave a much bigger impact than anything sharp or pointy. I’m glad people stood up to terrible journalism and book banner mentality and I’m glad they did it in droves. However, Debbie Downer that I am, I couldn’t help but think of YA’s general attitude to criticism and the issue of fighting back against that which is within the YA sphere.

We’ve talked about the issue of criticism within YA before, and it got... interesting, but the question still remains of why we see so little criticism of the problematic elements of YA from people within the industry itself. It’s not just criticism that we see so little of, it’s negativity full stop. Not every YA book will get a review from WSJ or NYTimes (they’re not exactly the key demographic anyway) and the vast majority of publicity, reviews and discussion of YA is happening online and involving the readers of YA. When responses to criticism of all kinds has led to “Be Nice” and accusations of “bully bloggers”, it poses the question as to what sort of criticism is considered valid in YA. Of course, it’s completely unfair to shove all YA authors under this banner – just like the content in YA, you shouldn’t let a few bad eggs spoil it for everyone – but when people become weary of reviewing negatively and it takes a hash-tag revolution for people to speak up, that’s not good.

Like I said, words are power. YA has a lot of power but with that comes great responsibility to appropriately handle certain issues within the genre. The reaction to the WSJ article was justified because YA deserves to be held up to the highest standard by its readers and writers, so of course we should keep this standard up when it comes to tackling the problems within, yet we rarely see it. I completely understand professionalism and the publishing industry’s need to survive in these days of self publishing, e-books and market competition, but I still don’t think blind defence or ignorance of the genuinely problematic content within YA is simply being professional. Where are the hash-tags fighting back against rape culture or sexism within YA? Allowing these issues to go by unnoticed reasserts it as something ‘normal’ when it has no right to be, and to have such things be not only normal but acceptable portrayals of life in literature for an impressionable age group sets dangerous standards.

But it’s not as simple as authors speaking out, it seldom is. It’s easy for us readers and bloggers to have the blame solely lie with the author when it comes to their content, but the industry isn’t just made up of authors. I can imagine an author writing a book and not realising that what they have written is morally questionable – we’ve all been raised in different circumstances with different politics in our lives and I understand that I, as a reviewer, am coming from a position of privilege in being educated and born in the era I was – and I can even conceive of said author’s book being accepted by an agent who misses these problematic issues as well.

However, I find it very hard to believe that it can get past the countless people in editing, publishing and marketing with nobody pointing out what’s inside. But, as fun as it is to imagine, publishers are not the creators of madness and deep seated misogyny within media, and I doubt they’re heavily publicising the worst of these books for shits and giggles. Books are heavily publicised for a reason – supply and demand. There’s a whole bunch of stuff involving trying to set trends and fads as well but in the infamous instance of the paranormal craze, those books were heavily promoted because there was a demand for more Twilight-style books. A book with extreme anti-feminist attitudes became wildly popular so of course publishers wanted more. There was a demand for all consuming teenage romances built upon archaic and deep seated misogyny, and that’s worrying.

That’s a whole other can of worms we need to examine, and not just in YA. What’s the intrinsic appeal of such archaic sexist attitudes and why do we continue to support them? Why are there so few female film-makers in Hollywood and why is it so hard for a film to pass the Bechdel test these days? How often do you see outrage over a scantily clad female singer yet never the same level directed at an equally sexualised male singer? Why are there so few people of colour in leading roles in movies, TV and literature, and why are they automatically considered ‘issues stories’ when they are there? All this, and so much more, are the result of countless generations of deep seated views that can’t be changed in the space of a few years.

The publishing industry is fighting for survival so of course it’s going to stick to the money makers over deep psychological analysis and social justice. It’s easy to understand why YA writers don’t want to be vocal about issues within the industry. Very few writers make J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer money, and when you’re a mid-grade selling author, as most are, pissing off your bosses has bad repercussions, as it does for any business you’re in. Why fight against the status quo when the status quo is what’s making you money and keeping the industry you love afloat?

Is there a deep seated fear of the industry stopping people from speaking up? I don’t know – this issue’s much deeper and complex than I gave it credit for when I started blogging a year ago as a sweet, naive 20 year old. In a couple of weeks time I’ll be a wise, Yoda-esque 21 year old, and I’ve learned a lot about this mess I’ve thrown myself into. So what can we do to gain the civil, complex and progressive discourse that we and the industry deserve? I think we need to keep our criticisms strong, well thought out and rational. Bloggers need to play a hand in this as much as author and the industry – we’re the consumers, if we want more books with LGBTQ content or feminist friendly relationships then we need to support the books that actually have such content. What we buy influences what publishers release, and we need to make sure that it’s done right, because badly handled representation is incredibly damaging, more so than no representation at all.

We need to demand the highest standards for our readers and for our writers, and we need to support writers brave enough to go against the grain. There is already some progress being made on this front, notably within the “Diversity in YA” tour of Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, but even then there’s only so much they can do on their own (the Pon cover controversy is an important example of this, but the issue of cover representation and the issues surrounding that is a much more complex topic for a whole other blog post topic). The issues of reader-writer interaction have been spotty in recent years but if we want true change I think we need to open up the discussion to all, and we need to do it properly. That means it needs to be civil with no knee-jerk reactions from either side, we need to be able to listen.

The external factors will always remain, and I don’t think every YA author out there is keeping mum about the obvious problems within the genre because they agree with them. Let’s work to create a democratic ground for us to have these discussions and give power to the authors as well as the readers. Criticism should not be the enemy and authors and readers shouldn’t be at odds with each other. If we’re sick of something being hyped when we don’t think it deserves to be, fight to support what you do think deserves it. Equally, I think we should continue to fight against that which is problematic and damaging in YA, because you have to start somewhere to fight such a widespread issue. You make the biggest changes by speaking out, we all do. Words save, knowledge is power, and we have the right to demand the highest possible standard. Maybe one day we’ll have our own anti-sexist hash-tag revolution and we’ll start to make real changes to the industry, but it’s going to take more than one blog post to do that.

1 comment:

  1. You know I'm 100% behind the idea of YA insiders to be able to give and accept legitimate criticism of their work. It's a big deal, and I think it's necessary if we want to be legitimized as a literary subset.

    Coming from the position of an unagented, unpublished, but still deeply ingrained YA writer, it is a little unnerving to raise your voice against the crowd. There are murmurings of agents who aren't going to want to represent you if you trash one of their client's books (which is completely understandable), but would they feel the same way if you had legitimate criticisms about the portrayal of privilege/race/sexuality/ableism/etc. in a client's book? Does opening your mouth about the way you really feel about the current direction of the industry brand you as difficult to work with? I don't know.

    I would hope that just being honest and sharing my legitimate feelings in a respectful way wouldn't negatively impact me, but this can be a highly subjective and emotionally charged industry. So yeah, it's scary. Maybe it's one of those situations where, once you gain a big enough following and make enough money and are "well-protected" enough, you can honestly share your mind. Or maybe there's another way we can come to a middle ground.