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My new layout is teal and so is my deer!
Okay, let's talk about this.

I've kept meaning to address the internet reviewer/bloggers vs. industry writers/agents/editors business for a while now. (I can't brain this morning so I can't remember who was talking about this, but one of the key discussions I remember happening on Stacia Kane's blog.) But now it's kind of come to a head under allegations of a "YA Mafia." That is to say, accusations that the publishing industry is full of cliques, because apparently it isn't subject to human nature like anything else, or something.

Here's the thing: I haven't even published YA and I can tell you that there's no ~*YA Mafia.*~ Yeah, half the YA writers (and sci-fi writers, and fantasy writers, and...) know each other and hang out. They're coworkers. They all go to the same conventions and industry events. They're going to meet each other. And it's true, a lot of them are friends--I follow enough writers on Twitter that I see them talking to each other all the time. But you have to think of the publishing industry as being a kind of huge office where they all work. Of course they're going to gather around the water cooler. I'm e-friendlyish with a ton of writers and bloggers on Twitter because we are all there. My agent has met a lot of people because she meets them in person at said conventions. And she and I both are pretty much industry nobodies (sorry, bb). It's something that happens.

And then... my name came up. It was said that a really lovely book reviewer ended up closing shop because an agent said she would never represent a book blogger. And then, "And this woman wasn’t Cleolinda-style snarkbaiting, I promise. She wrote great, thoughtful, and generally kind reviews."

(ETA: The commenter got in touch with me and clarified what she meant by "snarkbaiting"--"more of an invitation to snark." It's cool, like I said.)

And I was sort of... startled. And I mentioned it on Twitter. My problem in grasping what was going on here is that "baiting" has more than one meaning. Part of this ongoing discussion has been about authors ill-advisedly replying to reviews, either making fools of themselves and/or harassing reviewers. I at first read that offhand comment as "snarking with an intent to bait/tempt someone into responding." And I was like... but that has never, ever happened. And also, that would be a really cruel, tacky thing to do--to just outright taunt someone into responding, probably to their own detriment. Trolling, basically. And since that has never happened--certainly, if I were trying to lure angry authors over here, I have never succeeded--I thought, surely I must be misunderstanding the word "baiting." Well, it also means to persecute or exasperate with unjust, malicious, or persistent attacks; tease; to harass (as a chained animal) with dogs usually for sport; to attack by biting and tearing (as in "bearbaiting"). Well, okay; if you think I've been pretty harsh on Stephenie Meyer (or, possibly, M. Night Shyamalan and The Happening; I can't really think of anything else that would fit), I can see that. That's at least something you could say happened--snark-attacking--as opposed to "baiting people to come over here," which didn't. So I'm okay with that evaluation. I don't know if I'm generally unkind; I'd like to think that my endless blathering about literary psychology is "thoughtful," but no one reads everything on someone's journal, and no one has to agree with my own self-evaluation/aspiration, either. So that's cool. And that's why I'm saying this here--since I already made the mistake of bringing it up on Twitter, I feel like people need to know that this does not have to turn into A Thing.

In that spirit: One of my pet phrases is "intellectually (dis)honest," because I believe that you can lie to whomever else you want--not that you should, but that it's your call, if  you so choose--but you have to be honest with yourself. I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I haven't roasted Twilight at length, or that I am completely innocent of all charges (whether that charge is, "You're really harsh!" or "You do enjoy it!"). In fact, I had people tell me that, in retrospect, "New Moon in Fifteen Minutes" was a lot more, uh... trenchant?... than the Eclipse piece. But I think it also has to be admitted that I've written at length on "I understand why people connect with it," "I think this part was surprisingly effective," "I think X and Y are good characters who deserve a better storyline," and "Here is installment #76 in the lives of my Twilight action figures. No, the other ones."

@cleolinda: By me, no less. RT @alliancesjr: It's like what was said on the [most recent] Harry Potter episode: "I like making fun of it" still involves the words "I, like, it".

@AnnLarimer: I can't imagine anyone spending days merrily dissecting Van Helsing because they couldn't stand it.

@cleolinda: I'm suddenly imagining Hipster Anna Valerious macros now.

@AnnLarimer: ...doesn't Tonner make little black glasses for Tyler?

@cleolinda: omg need

Here's the thing--the points I really wanted to get into when this discussion first started happening:

1) Reviews are not for authors.

I never wrote with the intention of Stephenie Meyer (or Suzanne Collins, or Ally Condie, or whoever) reading what I wrote. (This is why "snarkbaiting" confused me.) I wrote it with the understanding that anything you post on the internet can be seen--by anyone. Which is one of the reasons I have asked commenters here not to bag on a writer's looks, personal life, religion, etc. Because we are here to discuss the writing, and I think that's fair. But I never wrote to these authors. I was talking to you. Do you see the difference? A review is one reader speaking to another, regarding a book they have read and the other might want to. That's why "omg you can't critique me if you're not published, you don't understaaaand" is such horseshit. You don't have to run a farm to know if the milk's gone bad. 

What (some) writers keep failing to understand is that a review is not meant to help the writer improve or succeed or feel good. It's one thing if someone's leaving you concrit on your fanfic work-in-progress, particularly if you have asked people for it; there's something you can do with that. But a published book? There's no going back. There's no fixing anything. The criticism at that point is not for your sake. If you're smart, you can learn from it, but the criticism is not addressed to you, and a book reviewer does not owe it to you to be "nice" or even "constructive." It's not for you.

The Movies in Fifteen Minutes book got a few reviews; all the blog-based reviews (that I am aware of) were positive, and the professional newspaper/magazine reviews were something like 1:3 positive to negative. All the negative reviews had similar criticisms. One was that my tone sounded like it was "internet-based" or "for students" (possibly they meant "college" humor). I had been writing for the internet, and I was a grad student. This was all completely true; older reviewers didn't like it, they were within their rights not to like it, and that didn't bother me. I had, however, already moved away from some of the more ephemeral internet slang and in-jokes in the process of writing the book, so it was obviously a valid consideration I was aware of. I just chose to accept that what remained was still my personal voice, and it was okay if someone didn't like it.

The other primary criticism was that the book was too long. I was so worried that internet readers who had been getting the "Movies in Fifteen Minutes" material for free would resent now having to pay for it that I purposely went on a bit for the book (it's a little over 400 pages). I think, in retrospect, that was the wrong call. I took that criticism to heart, since a number of reviews clearly had it in common, and I've tried to write much tighter pieces in the years since. Now I have some internet readers saying they wish I'd go back to the longer, more leisurely style. Mostly, I think writing more tightly creates a better end result for me, but sometimes, I do skip too much. I have two different, opposing criticisms in mind now, and I have to choose, at any given time, which is the criticism I need to learn the most from. As a writer, you make choices--which criticisms to listen to, and when.

Pro tip: Showing up on someone's blog and frothing, "OMG HDU YOU ARE SO MEEN I WILL HAVE YOU SHUNNNNNNED" is never the right choice.

2) As a reviewer, you also make choices.

At the same time, I think bloggers and reviewers need to decide what they're willing to say and stick by it. If you as a book blogger are purely a reviewer, the publishing industry can't do anything to you. Maybe deny you advance reader copies, but they can't stop you from ever reading the book. But if you're a reviewer/aspiring author, yes, you might find yourself in a bit of a quandary, given the previous discussion of how an agent might not want to represent you if you trash her other clients. Honestly? Why should she? The two of you are at cross-purposes. She's trying to promote an author and you're trying to demote that author (as it were). I'd like to think that a fair-minded agent would say, "Well, if the review was negative but thoughtful and well-written, let's just all be professional and Deal With It." But let's say the review wasn't thoughtful or analytical ("I just really felt like the storyline was weakly developed and, in the end, disappointing"); it was vicious and emotional ("THIS BOOK IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD"). And let's say that the agent is, after all, human, and that human nature applies. She is not going to want to represent you. Would you want to represent her, if the places were switched? (Again: be honest with yourself.) Agents often have very close relationships with their clients, after all; mine is one of my best friends. I've said a lot of things about Stephenie Meyer's writing; I also don't expect her agent to want to have anything to do with me. I consider that fair.

In the end, you have to accept that actions cause reactions. I have read books or seen movies that I hated so much that it seemed neither worth my time nor worth the risk to rant about it. The internets get smaller every day, in the sense that I end up coming in contact with all kinds of people on Twitter every day, particularly writers. If anyone mentions me by username ("@cleolinda"), I'm going to see that statement whether they expect me to or not. Hell, some writers just search for mentions of their actual names. If my take on a book would be a teeth-gnashingly rageful THIS IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD, I risk offending an author who could easily find that review. I don't assume that an author will see a review, but I assume that they could. Because I want to be prepared to say, if confronted, "Yes, this is, in fact, how I feel. I tried to be as fair as I could, and I mentioned things that I did honestly enjoy about your work. But this is how I feel." And if something were so incredibly awful that it deserved a semi-incoherent rant and I did post it, I would do so understanding what the consequences might be. I mean--that's exactly what happened here. I said what I thought, and I ran the risk of someone saying what they thought about me. And someone who said what she thought about me ran the risk of me seeing that statement (I was also accused of being "a cinematic vampire" several years ago, which I really enjoyed). So on and so forth ad infinitum, and then someone divides by zero and the universe collapses in on itself. That's why I'm okay with it. Well, maybe not with the implosion of the universe, but you see where I'm going with this.

This is, somewhat unfairly, why I can look back at Melville's Pierre and go, "What the shit was that." Yeah: that may prove that I'm pulling punches. He's not around, so I don't have to watch what I say. But that's the reality of both professional publishing and human nature. If you weigh all the risks and say, "Whatever, I'm gonna say what I want, come and get me, damn the torpedoes, HATERS TO THE LEFT," good for you! I hope that you can also say, "And I know that I may upset authors and agents and editors, should they find my blog, particularly if I ask them to have professional relationships with me, but my complete, unvarnished honesty is worth more to me." Because I think that's great. Just be honest with yourself and know that this is going to happen. Acknowledge that you have to make choices.

And you know, a lot of times I get wishy-washy and lard everything up with "I think," "this is just my opinion," so on and so forth. But I am telling you cold, hard truth right now: this is not my opinion. This is how it works. You have to make choices. Lots of choices; different choices at different times. But if you want to be both a blogger and an author--as in so many things, you can have it different ways, but you can't always have it both ways.

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I wish I could "like" this. It's insightful and something we can all learn from. (I have a small book review column at my college paper.)

That is maybe the one Facebook-related feature I actually would like LJ to add.

Your reviews have enabled me to enjoy things I would have shunned outright, and given me the ability to politely converse with fans, and bring up the points I disagree in a calm manner if the situation is appropriate.

Plus, you bring laughter into the world of a girl with crippling mental illnesses.

There is a reason that I middle-named Mommas cat after you.

Edited at 2011-03-03 05:59 pm (UTC)

^this, so much. Save for the crippling mental illnesses and the cat. :)

I find the "this is so baaad and everyone who likes it is so duuuumb" style of reviewing really unappealing, and I've always thought you neatly avoided that. Your approach has always struck me as quite gentle and empathetic, really. It seems weird that that one writer apparently uses your name as a shorthand for vicious mockery. Strange.

This exactly. Cleolinda's reviews made it okay to read the books, go WTF at the books and still be able to enjoy what was salvageable, and have a good laugh along the way.

I don't think calling people who like a particular set of books dumb is productive to anything and it certainly won't provoke any sort of discussion other then trolling and "OMG YOU'RE SO COOL" responses, so yeah, I don't much get those sort of reviews either.

Speaking as a book reviewer, this is absolutely gold. Agree with you 100%

I have followed you since way before the M15M book was published and I've always thought you were hilarious without denigrating the work of the authors you review or their fans. I especially love your Twilight reviews which are, IMHO, a lot kinder than some of the others out there.

I don't think being a blogger should preclude you from being a writer and getting namedropped in that review, to me, seemed out of context for what you do. Keep doing what you're doing and I, at least, will keep following.

I have followed you since way before the M15M book was published and I've always thought you were hilarious without denigrating the work of the authors you review or their fans.

This, exactly.

Well, yes. In fact, hell yes.

So on and so forth ad infinitum, and then someone divides by zero and the universe collapses in on itself.

I LOL'd. Shared on FB; hope that's okay.

This Mafia thing has got to stop. It is absurd. I got my name dragged into at one point because of hubby and my editorial street cred.

Yes, I do know a lot of authors and editors but that happens when you work in the publishing industry.

Some people see ghosts in every corner. Others tell themselves that the reason they can't get published is because of the ___________ Mafia is keep them out rather than looking at their work with a more critical eye.

You know, I understand the paranoia in general, when you either haven't been able to get published or you're afraid you won't, and you see that all these people are friends, and you start to feel anxious or insecure. I mean, I feel that way sometimes, too. But I'm also aware that that's my fear and not actual fact, that there are not people saying, "Well, Publisher, I know you think this is a great manuscript and will make money, but this writer was MEAN TO ME ON THE INTERNET." "Oh, well then, SHUNNNNN!"

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I think I might have seen that one (or another like it, sadly). Again--reviews are readers speaking to readers. You don't have to be a professional to know whether you liked a book or not.

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Reviews are not for authors.

YES. OMG. YES. I have actually found it fairly dispiriting how many creators-of-works don't grasp this. Thank you for stating it so perfectly and succinctly. I've never been all that interested in hearing a creator defend/deconstruct their own work after the fact (other than in the internet-trainwreck-hilarity way, which I'm sure makes me mean but whatever), and that is not what reviews are for. I just want to know what it's about and whether I might enjoy it. That's what reviews are for.


This is brilliantly written and incredibly apt, and not just for the YA community, either--I'm part of the slam poetry community (I know, I know, don't say fucking def jam to me or I'll e-smack you) and this carries over there as well in interesting ways.)

I think we had a quick Twitter-chat about this as well, Cleo, and I agreed with you then and I agree with you now. It's very, very hard for artists to NOT take reviews of their art seriously, because art is so personal, and writing especially so, but the answer is never, ever to go crazy and lash out and retaliate.

More importantly--and I say this as a person who spent a LOT of time in shitty college writing workshops--you can ignore critique. You can take it into consideration, or you can ignore it. There was this girl who I ended up having two workshops with and she and I were completely different in our writing, and neither of us really liked the other, and eventually I realized that we were just interested in different things and never going to really help each other creatively, and that was okay. "I don't like it" doesn't mean "it's bad" or "it's not art," it just means "I didn't like it."

Yeah--so as you saw, I'd been meaning to write this up for a while. "YA Mafia" was just the point where I couldn't put it off anymore.

Honestly, I didn't learn to write better in writing workshops so much as learn how to give critique. I learned to write better from... discussing, reviewing, and recapping books here.

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"A cinematic vampire"? Hey, break out the teeth!

More seriously -- good post.

a) Yes, writers and editors as co-workers. Good way of conceptualizing it. That'll still make some people on the outside bitter, but they'll be bitter no matter what.

b) You're snarky, but you're not vicious. (The "baiting" part, I think is just poor word choice.)

c) There are occasional discussions of "Should book reviews only be positive?" in various parts of the internets. I don't think only-positive reviews are /ever/ very useful, but it's much easier with reviewing gigs that are anonymous (or at least theoretically so).

As someone who (used to) blog about books a little bit, and who has various authors on her flist, I did think about what I was saying and how I wanted to say it. It's not a crime, it's just a fact.

And yeah, a choice.

Edit: And d) as I meant to say originally, yes indeed, reviews (be they formal ones or not) are not meant for the author. It's a response to what the author put out there. It can be a conversation with the author, potentially, /at a remove/, but the review itself is not a forum for that.

Edited at 2011-03-03 06:33 pm (UTC)

I really don't understand the "Book reviews SHOULD only be positive" stance, unless it's coming from writers (who would obviously benefit from it). That's like... well, guess we can't review half (or more) of all the books in the world, then. There's a line between "Don't post it if it isn't positive" and "You have to post the review (because that's what your site does) AND it has to be positive" that's too thin for me. What next, just have the authors ghostwrite the reviews?

I actually enjoy the films you wrote about in your book MORE because of the humour you brought to them. That doesn't seem like "baiting" to me. I feel like what you do actually makes a good complement to the film, because I may or may not have enjoyed the film on first seeing it, but I enjoy your writing, and then I bring that back with me when I'm re-watching the film.

"Baiting" seems much more provocative and reductive to me. It's not my experience of reading your book.

You are an amazingly insightful, brilliantly hilarious writer and that person clearly didn't get you.

Well put. Everything you've said here makes perfect sense, and it points to a larger trend regarding the interwebs. Basically, people go online and common sense flies out the window and then Miss Cleo facepalms. My motto in life is "just because you can doesn't mean you should" and I think about it every time I'm about to post anything on the internet, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LJ, etc...