On this week’s YA Lit bloodbath/brouhaha
For those of you in my tiny corner of the world, it’s been a harrowing week. Andrew Smith did an interview for VICE, and then some people commented on that interview. After that, the world blew up in a fiery ball of crazy. But I’m not going to rehash the mess here. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, you’ve probably already stopped reading this post, because there are other things happening in your corner of the world, right?)
As for me, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, and feeling sad and angry, as well as conflicted. I’ve vented on Facebook and twitter. I’ve even stopped a passing neighbor to rant out loud. (Thanks, Eric!) But tonight, something drove me off social media. I came over here, to write about it in a format that felt slightly more substantial.
Here’s the thing — we’re very very very LUCKY. For the most part, people in this country get to write/publish the books they have in them. Also, interviewers get to ask the questions they choose. And interviewees can respond as they like. (or not) This is a GOOD thing. We all generally accept this idea that those freedoms are good. (I think?)
The tougher question is: when people DO publish or speak, who has a right to criticize them? And in what format?
What happened last week was that almost all of us — in opting to use our voices — attempted to silence someone else. That was the irony of it. We were all shushing each other. (except Andrew, to be fair, he got on with his life)
But what does that achieve, all that shushing? Andrew should NOT have written his female characters and the interviewer should NOT have asked his questions and Andrew should NOT have answered as he did and The Rejectionist should NOT have posted her tweets and Andrew’s friends should NOT have taken to FB and Twitter to call her out, and then other folks should NOT have told them to stop, and so and so and so?
Where does that get us?
At the same time, we all have FEELINGS and THINGS TO SAY. Constantly. And so many places to say them! (like this, right here, on Medium, in the middle of the night!)
The more I mull, the more I think this moment is directing our attention to a huge question of how we, as a particular internet herd, are going to choose to function. As individuals, we might all see ourselves as clever critics, but en masse, we become something else (for better or/and for worse)
So… what IS the role of criticism? In an age that prizes speed and virality over clarity and precision? Should we engage at all, as critics, reviewers and shills? Or should we lock ourselves away? Remove the temptations, because we know, in the end, we can’t always be both honest AND kind.
Beyond that, how seriously should we ever take “public” statements in a world where every statement is public (and essentially automatic)? By the same token, how much right do we ever have to consider any online statement private again?
I believe in freedom of speech. I would fight hard for the right of an author I loathed to publish a book I hated. At the same time, I believe in critical work, in holding people accountable when we feel strongly that their statements are harmful, or even just lazy. Criticism is NOT shushing. Criticism is dialogue. Criticism engages, asks questions, ponders theory, offers a particular perspective, knows its place.
In truth, I want MORE real criticism done around children’s literature. I want for people to put time and thought into examining these books. Because these books deserve such attention! But if sympathy trumps critical thinking, there’s no place for criticism, because we are ALL connected now. We’re all too close.
And that’s a shame, because much of the world OUT THERE — all those people who stopped reading this when they saw this post was about a YA book — think we aren’t producing serious literature. They think we’re fluffy, easy. And criticism is a big part of how we might prove them wrong. Being strong enough to stomach real argument, conflicting opinions. Showing that our work holds up under such scrutiny. (Scrutiny that might, in the end, improve our work)
But so… how do we get from here to there?
Personally, I think the real issue is that we simply haven’t developed rules and codes yet, for our internet age. The technology has moved faster than the accompanying points of ethic and etiquette. What exactly does it mean to “bully” someone online? What counts as a real piece of criticism? Is there a difference between how you’re allowed to respond to a comment directed TO you, and a comment written ABOUT you? Should bloggers be verified, held to journalistic standards? SHould we establish “tiers” for how we evaluate online critics and influencers? Should authors ever be allowed/asked to review each other? Should there be rules against changing content after someone has responded to it? Should publishers be allowed to demand that authors participate online? I could go on forever…
Seriously, what are our guidelines? We can’t possibly know who broke the rules if we don’t first establish what the rules are.
Thinking about this makes me wonder what traffic was like when those first cars appeared, and people began to drive, but nobody had yet considered painting lines in the street. The invention of the car preceded those lines, you know? After that somebody had to decide fun things like alcohol limits, and driving age. But before all that, can you imagine the disasters, the fights?
Look, I’m not suggesting we police the web, but maybe we need to police ourselves a little better. All of us. Maybe we need to come to some very basic understandings. Because I’m not sure anybody actually won this fight, but maybe, if some good can come of it — a little more sanity, a little more understanding all around — maybe it won’t ONLY have been a mess. Maybe this will be, “that time we figured some things out.”
Battles are terrible. They are ALWAYS terrible. But they are most terrible when nothing is gained by them.