Thursday, March 12, 2015

Twitter Turf Wars and Blocking of Criticism

ETA: There is a more general post that doesn't address the current controversy, but the just the basic problem I was trying to get at here at Bookshelves of Doom. Worth checking out. 

I didn't really want to write a whole post on the Andrew Smith drama playing out on Twitter and various other media outlets right now. I'm one tiny little voice on one tiny little blog with absolutely no power, but this kept me awake most of the night. Because what went down yesterday is indicative of a massive problem within the wider children's and young adult literature community just as Smith's comments are indicative of a bigger problem than one statement in one interview.

For those of you who might not be aware of the situation, Andrew Smith, author of Grasshopper Jungle, The Marbury Lens, and several other critically acclaimed books, did an interview with Vice in which he was asked about his his books in relation to females.

The question and response:

On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn't much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? 

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though,

Several people found this to be problematic. I was one of them. Because this isn't about one comment. This comment has the weight of Smith's collective work behind it. (A rather large highly praised collection. It isn't like he's new to this writing thing.) I have read exactly one half of a Smith novel. It was Winger. I put it aside because I found his female characters in that particular book to be deeply problematic. I also felt they did a disservice to the male characters too, turning them into the worst sort of stereotype of a teen boy. I have chosen not to read anything else Smith has written, not out of some angry pent up vengeance, but because there is so little time and too many books. And his just don't appeal to me.

I don't think Smith has a hidden woman-hater agenda. I don't think he intended his comment to come across as dismissive as it did to some of us. He's probably a nice guy. What he said is still deeply problematic because it is representative of a deep systemic problem, and no one has explained why better than Phoebe North did in her short Tumblr post

What followed in my Twitter feed was a lot of discussion on the portrayal of female characters in YA written by men, why it is important to get it right, to call it out when it's not, and how we need to speak out if something bothers us. (I would argue the flip of this is also true, but it seems to come up less. Again, I direct you to Phoebe North's post above.) Some of this discussion was snarky, some of it a little condescending for my personal taste, but most of it was excellent intelligent commentary on a subject people felt strongly about sparked by outrage over how debate about gender portrayal occurs in literary circles of all stripes. I saw no one directly @ Andrew Smith. He directly came up in very few of the comments I saw.

So to say I was surprised yesterday when the other half of my timeline erupted in outrage over the vilification and bullying of Smith would be a massive understatement. Many people even used his books as avatars like he died and we were having a memorial. I was mystified. But I probably shouldn't have been.

It is entirely possible I missed something. I only have my one small corner of Twitter to judge from. I attempted to find out exactly how things "went too far", where and how personal attacks were made. I couldn't, and when I asked directly I wasn't answered. (Not faulting the person I asked. No one is obligated to respond to another person on social media, and I have absolutely no cred with the person I asked so I get it.) ETA: I have seen further reports about how there were comments made about Smith's wife and daughter and his relationship with them. Still haven't seen links, but I'm going to believe this took place. That is WAY out of line. One man shouldn't have been made the face of the entire problem and his family certainly shouldn't be dragged into it.

Suddenly there were battle lines drawn and you were either on Team Stand Up for Andrew or Team You Dared to Criticize a Nice Guy. There were no shades of gray. Such is the nature of Twitter I guess. What bothered me and kept me awake all night was the nature of the anti-criticism rhetoric. Every single person who dared to speak out was lumped into the same category their words referred to as "nonsense" and their anger as "fauxrage" of the two minute variety. (People seem oblivious to the fact that several women in the YA lit world have been discussing the problematic female characterization in Smith's books for MONTHS, mostly being shouted down by people who think it's no big deal because his male characters are so well done. But that could be its whole own post.) The rhetoric was highly condescending. Our concerns immediately deemed invalid because Smith is a nice guy. Our anger given a value and deemed not worthy. 

Everyone was basically told to shut-up and play nice. And THIS is my problem. There is a large and growing corner of the children's and YA literary world that wants all online interaction to run like Cloud Cuckoo Land. 

This is particularly true if you want to criticize a book by a hugely popular author and that has received awards. If the person writing it is likeable enough, then all criticism is squelched, whether it is constructive or not. This attitude has shut me up and made me afraid to speak out more than once. Let's just say I learned my lesson when Wonder came out. I never bothered to mention I bounced so hard of Smith's work because of it. I had enough courage to write Goodreads reviews of All the Bright Places and I Was Here, but fervently hoped no one noticed.

And frankly I'm sick of it. Yes, we need to be as compassionate as possible, but that does not mean we can't point out things that are problematic in books. In fact, it is dangerous if we don't.


  1. Fantastic post! Thank you for writing it. I'm very troubled by the idea that any criticism=bullying. I know the world of YA is very insular, but we also need to call out things that are really issues.

    1. Yes. And I'm convinced some actual bullying did occur. But it was certainly not what the majority of the discussion was about. The people doing that should have been called out. The entire discussion didn't need to shut down as a result.

      But I'm firmly convinced that a segment of the people who are crying foul don't wan the discussion to take place at all.

  2. This, so much.


  3. Excellent post, Brandy. Thanks for speaking up.

    1. Thanks, Leila. I really appreciated your post as well.