Thursday, 6 August 2015

Criticism, Reviews and Diversity

First blog post for some time, and there's a fair chance this will get super-rambly. I basically have a LOT of thoughts about reviews, criticism, appropriate ways to express ourselves, and other things.

(Also, thanks to everyone who's provided feedback on this!)

Okay, this has been triggered off by a few things, most recently a tweet of mine sent after seeing someone tag an author in a three-star review using language like 'disappointed' about their book.

For me, drawing an author's attention to your negative thoughts about their book is rude, and I really wish people would stop doing it. (I appreciate most reviewers don't!) But one of the responses to a conversation that sprang from that tweet was "Oh, I don't know why people review books they don't like", and I really wanted to respond to that but didn't have the energy to do so at the time.

I think negative and critical reviews (as long as they're not just attacks, and as long as they keep personal comments about the author out of it) are a GOOD thing. Firstly, they make it a lot easier to find books I'll want to read, especially as the problems one person has with a book don't necessarily mean that I'll be put off. (For example, I've dived on books after seeing them getting criticised for 'not being very exciting' and 'too much time spent with people talking' as I LOVE great dialogue and some of my favourite books are mainly character-driven rather than plot-driven.)

But sometimes reviews point out something really problematic about the book. If that's the case, I still don't think you should be tagging the author in, but I think the reviews themselves are massively useful for readers to help them make up their own mind.
Uppermost in my mind when all this came up, because of a post on SCBWI magazine site Words & Pictures last week by Candy Gourlay, was the Kathleen Hale/Blythe Harris hatchet job over at the Guardian. In that post, Candy described Blythe as Hale's 'hater'. I contacted the person in charge of the Words & Pictures Twitter account after reading this, pointing them to Alex Hurst's excellent thoughts on the subject, and in fairness to them they tweeted about Alex's post - but the site still contains the line "Kathleen Hale describes becoming so obsessed with her hater to the point of confrontation."

For me, there's a MASSIVE issue in conflating 'someone who has an issue with your book' with 'hater' in the way Hale did, and in which people have continued to do since then. I lost a huge amount of respect for several authors who, when pointed to Alex's post, basically said "Oh well, I'm sure they were both at fault." The fact that it's still being mentioned getting on for a year later, and Hale's account is being linked to uncritically, makes me realise just how easy it is for an author with a big platform to label someone a 'hater'.

This is particularly upsetting me for two reasons. First, the Hale thing brought back really bad memories for me of two people who complained via e-mail about one of my reviews nearly two years ago. One of the ladies was the author of the book I'd reviewed, which I'd been quite critical of (but in a fair way, I believe - it certainly wasn't anywhere near as snarky as I'd been at other times, and I don't think I particularly crossed any lines even in my snarkiest other reviews!) The other was her sister-in-law. Both of these people were married to members of the House of Lords, and, therefore, were people I saw as quite powerful. Thankfully, they contented themselves with low-level sniping about the review. The owner of the site where I posted the review responded briefly, and I kept out of it in public, letting off steam to a few trusted confidantes in private. I have issues with anxiety which - due to events outside of the book world - were particularly bad at the time and it was one of the main things that led to me deciding to review only books I could say really positive things about. (This makes me even more sympathetic to authors who have to deal with negative reviews, etc, tweeted at them, by the way!)

Second, I was asked, alongside my friend Wei Ming Kam (who blogs at Rare Medium Well Done), to run a workshop about reviewing diversity in literature at YA Shot, the upcoming Uxbridge event being run by wonderful author Alexia Casale. I originally said yes but I'm starting to second-guess myself as to whether it's a good idea. We are including a "WARNING: controversy and uncomfortable truths ahead!" in the description of the workshop, but how truthful can we get? Both of us feel quite strongly about some books which are pretty beloved by many bloggers and authors. If we challenge what we feel are problematic representations of diversity, will we get called out?

I would like to think that people would give us the benefit of the doubt and believe that we're trying to stand up for what we believe in - but will we just get labelled 'haters' by the same ignorant people who fell hook, line, and sinker, for Kathleen Hale's article?

It's fairly common knowledge that I think the YA community is amazing - literally 95% of the friends I've made since moving to London 2 years ago are people I've met through bookish Twitter, and my social life completely revolves around book events and theatre trips/coffee/drinks with people I initially met at book events.

But given how much I love it, and adding in that as an adult white male I'm significantly less likely to face abuse that a person of colour, a woman, or a teen would (all my experiences on Twitter tell me this!), then it's not a great sign that I'm seriously struggling with whether to post this.

I'm going to have to, though. Partly because I've just rewatched Lucy the Reader's superb 'Be The Change You Want To See' video, in which she talks about a new direction for her Booktube channel, and it's excellent advice. I REALLY feel that we should be able to discuss issues and, if I'm letting myself be silenced by anxiety, I don't see how I can honestly advise others to do so.

Also, many of the American authors I'm following have been hurt and shocked by the success - in terms of positive reviews and award nominations - of a World War II romance which sees a Jewish woman fall in love with a Nazi concentration camp commandant, before converting to Christianity. Without having read the book, I can't see how this CAN be unproblematic, and if the success of a book like that doesn't SCREAM that we need critical reviews, I don't know what does. (Also, to bring us back full circle to the start, although I know at least one person has written privately to the author of that book about it, I've seen barely anyone try to involve her in the discussion on Twitter - because HOWEVER problematic a book is, it's STILL rude to do so.)

(For more about said book, I'll direct you to Katherine Locke and Sarah Wendell as both are significantly more coherent on it than I could be, and signal-boosting seems like the way to go here.)

What do others think? Is there a place for criticism? Can we have discussions about it? Do we feel that it's okay to talk about why some representations are bad/hurtful? I would love to think that we ARE able to talk about problems - I really hope that we can.   


  1. I think that not talking about what could be problematic would be the equivalent to putting our heads in the sand. A genuine critical review is about getting both the reader and the author to grow through the reading/writing experience and should be welcome. I really hope you get to do your workshop. Great post by the way.

  2. Great post, Jim. Very calm and considered. And I think that calm and considered negative reviews are really important, when they explain exactly what the reviewer doesn't like about the book. And yes, tagging authors on Twitter with negative comments is a) rude and b) says a lot more about the tagger than anything else, in my opinion! I also get very anxious about controversy and confrontation and I agree with what you said about that. Keep up the good work!

  3. Good post, thought provoking stuff. We had to opt for just not posting reviews of stuff we know we'd be negatively critical of, purely because we've had instances where a negative review had been quite heavily laid into by artists / authors of the work. Again it's the difference between interpreting negative criticism as some personal dig, or actually reading what's been said and absorbing that critique to try and understand the person's point of view. In both cases, the emailer seemed to genuinely believe that having a sodding long rant at us over email would somehow magically change our opinion, have us edit our review, and add a retraction - which of course would be utterly and completely pointless.

    So we opt out - thankfully in the children's book sector it's very rare to come across anything that warrants a truly negative review (sometimes we pick on bits and bobs of a book that jar or don't work for us but that's about it really).

  4. Great, honest stuff as always. I love the positivity of the UKYA blogging community too, and agree that bringing a negative review to an author's attention is just plain unnecessary - but a reviewing culture where people are afraid to express their genuine opinion doesn't benefit readers or authors. I think this is *especially* vital when it comes to diverse books; if we continue to be extra-kind, extra-generous and forgiving in our readings of well-intentioned but problematic work, we're treating those books as special cases. That's not helping, that's othering. I'm so looking forward to the YAShot panel with you and Ming, and I hope neither of you feel curtailed in what you can say. These conversations matter.

  5. I'm still reeling from shock about the Nazi/Jew romance and conversion to christianity book being a success...but agree with you Jim. I wouldn't tag the author with a vitriolic comment as it would be rude and unnecessary. But a critical review is different. If someone doesn't like a book and posts a negative review, I believe in their right to that without snappy author come back - especially if any criticism concerns issues the reviewer feels strongly about. And please don't feel intimidated by possible reaction to your discussion about issues with some representations of diversity in YA fiction at YAshot - your opinion is worth hearing.

  6. Agree with everything you say. What I was thinking when I saw you tweet about not copying authors in on bad reviews is that I don't really have the time or energy to carry on reading a book I don't enjoy and then review it. I'd rather just review the books I love. But a fair review of a book that someone didn't enjoy is obviously fine, and there is absolutely a place for criticism. For me it would equate to watching several episodes of a TV series that I didn't like - just a personal choice. That's quite hard to explain in 140 characters, thank goodness for longer comments!

  7. A really thoughtful and considered post Jim, I think there is a place for criticism in reviews, but it should be considered - saying what the reviewer didn't like about the book. Like you say it helps to inform readers and you never know what someone dislikes about a book could be the very thing someone else loves about it.

    I also agree that if it's a negative / critical review it would be rude to raise the author's awareness of it (personally I tend to be a lot quieter about reviews that are even slightly negative).

  8. Great post. Agree that tagging authors into negative reviews is tactless and inconsiderate, as many writers consciously avoid reviews of their books, as they find it can knock their confidence and destabilise their writing. But it's hard to ignore something that's been actively flagged for your attention.

    As for contacting people who aren't positive about your book, that's borderline harassment, imo. I've only ever done it once, and that was to ask for an enormous spoiler to be removed from the title line. Otherwise people are entitled to express their opinion without fear that they'll find themselves in an argument with the author.

  9. Super post Jim. I would love to be able to write more critical reviews, but I worry dreadfully that authors and publishers will see it as personal attacks (when I hope I would never do that). I would love to have more actual conversation and debate, but (especially online) this can be difficult to do so without people feeling affronted.

  10. Hi! I was trying to comment earlier but twice failed on Chrome. Trying again. Just wanted to say that I take your point about the word 'hater' and have added a note to my piece, linking to this article.The Troll Hell event only briefly touched on the Hale story focusing on Hale's out of proportion response and how we as authors should avoid becoming the trolls. Your point about diversity is so interesting - at our event about internet trolls the discussion returned time and again to diversity.