friday fakers

on

“Faking it” appeared to be Friday’s theme–on the blogosphere, that is.

First, I came across this blog post via following-links/blog rolls: “For Real?” at Joshua Graves: Exploring the Collision of Culture and Faith. Graves has come across an article on the NY Times blog freakonomics regarding “faking christianity.” The Freakonomics writers received a letter from a woman in Texas who claims to fake christianity for social reasons. Graves posts the letter. The woman claims that she and others fake-it to maintain social niceties and to avoid being ostracized (or worse!). To what positive end, we are not sure…

The Second find alludes to faking it for similar reasons. I came across Sarah McCarry’s article for the Huffington Post “Faking Nice in the Blogosphere: Women and Book Reviews “ via two blogs I follow (thus far). McCarry has many of these “nice” women riled…and apparently they can be sharp with the criticism; though, notably, few (to none) respond to their reading with any of the rigor McCarry is accusing them of lacking.

McCarry accuses the kidslit blogosphere, YA book blogosphere, of fostering non-critical reading and reviewing; and that its predominantly female membership are the worst perpetrators. She goes on to explain why, giving cultural explanations to her assertions.

Book bloggers and reviewers–female book bloggers and reviewers especially–often seem to subscribe to a kind of cultlike apologism, in which they feel the need to defend the author as a person even if they are temerarious enough to be displeased by her book. Negative reviews are met with a resounding chorus in the comments: the author is a wonderful person, the author worked hard, the author did her very best. The idea is, apparently, that women are so exhausted by the intellectual labor required to produce the text in question that we are unable to withstand any subsequent critique, and ought instead to fall back on some kind of rosy-cheeked sorority of lady writers, exchanging stain-removal tips and sob stories. It goes without saying that male writers are accorded no such coddling, and that entry into this misty realm of sisterly solidarity requires acquiescence to a strict set of codes of behavior. Nice lady writers don’t rock the boat, they don’t hurt people’s feelings, and they sure as hell don’t write about topics that make other lady writers uncomfortable.

By fostering a community of the brief synopsis and fairly meaningless remarks of books, the rigor of Criticism (which is not necessarily negative in result) is shut out; and at the very least, noticeably absent in blogospheres. And shut out with them, McCarry fears, are the culturally critical implications that literature brings to popular and intellectual discourse.

This cult of niceness is at its heart a pernicious kind of misogyny, one enforced almost exclusively by other women. […] By caving in to an unwritten code of conduct that promotes a false sense of community over honest discourse, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.

There is a fear that issues regarding sexism, racism, elitism, etc. are not being addressed on these ladies’ blogs, and in fact may be discouraged. I haven’t found this part of McCarry’s article to be wholly true. Several blogs who foster the lite “review” format will post remarks themselves, and/or link from other blogs and article postings of commentary on digressions in the publishing world. They spread word, rather quickly, of white-washing, or sexism, or injury to libraries/librarians.  Whether you find the observation first on their blog is quite another thing of course. McCarry is correct in noting the predominant trend of positive-only “reviews” of books; and admonishments to observe the niceties, I mean, people’s feelings (whether in post or in comment threads). This effort to be nice diminishes the will to approach potential “boat-rocking” themes.

The article also expresses the fear that women are looking bad; the reviewers for not respecting the author as capable intellectually/professionally, and the author herself. “The idea is […] that women [authors] are so exhausted by the intellectual labor required to produce the text in question [the book reviewed] that we [the author] are unable to withstand any subsequent critique.” Don’t you like McCarry’s inclusion of herself as author, and that dare to critique her properly to see how she can, in fact, withstand it intellectually?

The kidlit blogosphere is undermining the intellectual integrity of its favored female authors by undermining its own intellectual integrity. Though this may mean little for sales and marketing, it should mean something for those authors who would have their work taken seriously as an important piece of literature available for critical inquiry or as a valuable work of art to be enjoyed, yes, but perhaps also contemplated. McCarry as a woman and writer shows concern for a genre and sphere predominately female. Is there a lack of critical inquiry because the women bloggers are incapable; because women bloggers find critical inquiry useless or uninteresting; because it is uncomfortable, unprofitable, and/or “boat rocking?” Very possibly yes to the latter part of the question.

Or are McCarry’s concerns stemming from an error in her expectations of the kidlit blogosphere? (and thus her concerns dismissed…)

“Faking Nice in the Blogosphere” finds a springboard in a blog post by fellow Huffington Post writer Zetta Elliott and her quote:

…when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel?

McCarry’s article finds its greatest flaw in couching argument and observation on the premise that bloggers are purposefully or willingly undertaking critical approaches to the literature they are reading. McCarry writes:

“But the role of the critic is not to make people feel good, to distribute hugs and goodwill all around; it is to contextualize and examine the role of a particular book, to evaluate its success as a work of art, to demand of both author and reader a sense of accountability, and to hopefully open up a conversation.”

McCarry is getting blasted for this error. And really, how could she mistake the word “review” in such a way as to assume a critique is actually taking place; though Elliott appears to have made the same mistake, “to critique a book…”

I admit to this same mistake when I started following blogs and blog rolls around the kidlit blogosphere looking for reviews of books and their subsequent discussions (still perusing). I was quickly frustrated by finding only a synopsis of the book and a few remarks on a majority of the blogs. Sure, I can read into the summary of the book to gauge what the blogger reads/takes from the book. And I can find the quotable remarks clever and stylish. What I couldn’t find from the “reviews” was any conversational stimulation beyond “Oh, yes, I liked that book, too. Have you read this?” I didn’t assume incapability on the part of the blogger. I just noticed, too, “a curious lack of rigor.” I figured it stemmed from time constraints, disinterest, and/or the desire to promote favored books. I figured out that book blogs did not mean what I thought they had meant. What McCarry’s article assumes they should be, “But the role of the critic…”

Elizabeth Burns (Liz B.) of the blog A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy would remind the kidlit blogosphere and McCarry in her posting “Faking It” that

A “book blog” is a blog about books. “About books” can include anything that is about books — discussions, reviews, critical responses, personal reactions, interviews, contests, press releases, publishing news, etc. Some blogs are not “exclusive”; a book blogger may also blog about family, recipes, crafts, movies, camping trips.

The Retro Librarian writes in her comment to “Faking It:”  ‘Although a blog may be personal there is a professional component in book blogging for many of us. Personally, I think a review that is professional is one that is fair and is neither flowery nor an attempt to rip the author a new one. So I guess I’d call it the “cult of being professional.”

Sheila Ruth says in her comments on the same blog post, “It’s important to remember that for most bloggers this is a labor of love, not a job.” This followed by Lydia who says, “I hate writing critical reviews. It sucks, but is part of the ‘job.'” Lydia goes on to ponder aloud on the “mum[ness] on books of a  lower caliber.”

I realize that writing a critical review can be job-like but…is there no one who loves penning a critical essay or short piece? Anyone?

**

The defined role of a book blogger is up for grabs, and in turn a lovely breeding ground for a discussion on semantics.

Loretta Nyhan (Get Back, Loretta), in response to McCarry’s article, writes in her blog post “The Professionals,” “Yes, [McCarry critic’s role quote] is exactly the job of the critic, but is it the job of the blogger?”

Nyhan agrees that “serious criticism of YA lit will only further elevate the category, and legitimatize some very worthy writers in the eyes of the literary establishment.” However, she goes on to clarify the blogger “job” can possibly be unconcerned with the literary establishment.

“Bloggers, though, are not bound to the same rules as critics. We can cheerlead; we can promote; we can gush. What we can’t do, however, is call this criticism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with copying and pasting a novel’s jacket copy and then writing a line or two stating how much you liked the book. This is not review, however, it is a recommendation, and should be labeled as such. […] Serious criticism has never been the goal (which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be wonderful if more objective, experienced critics started blogging with this sole purpose).”

I agree that bloggers are not bound by the same rules. And I appreciate Nyhan distinguishing the difference between “review” and “recommendation,” and her advisement that recommendations should be labeled as such. They should be labeled as such, but are they really? The inference is that what many bloggers are doing is “reviewing.” They are “reviewing” and plenty offer enjoyable posts, but there is a lack of Critical rigor. And as Roger Sutton writes in the “Faking It” post’s comments “when you call what you do “reviewing,” then you can expect to be appraised accordingly.” Nyhan is onto something with this labeling admonishment. Perhaps some clarification may be in order. And McCarry’s article sparking some interest in clarity and blog-education may not be the worst thing. I believe Roger Sutton is absolutely correct. And I think that McCarry and other’s expectations may not be as off-base as they are getting criticized for.

Zetta comment in “Faking It” says, “We shouldn’t be all lumped together, but I don’t think it’s unfair to critique the resulting uneven-ness of reviews.” There is uneven-ness, and expectations do not know how to take hold. So they take hold as it will.  McCarry may not be the observer intended for many of these blogs, or this blogosphere in general (whatever that may mean), but it doesn’t matter. She observed and found a cause for concern; a concern, no matter how “misinformed,”* brings valuable questions of semantics and expectations (and an article read by many on the outside). It creates interesting problems like the one Ms. Book Sniper poses in her comments to Nyhans “The Professionals,” “How does one establish themselves apart from recommendation to insightful critique? When does that change take place?” I will add, how does one elevate their recommendation to one being taken seriously enough to elevate the YA category, or their own blog, or the blogosphere’s appearance in general?

* “Misinformed” does not necessarily mean her findings and conclusions are off-base.

I believe there could be some education, which is well in hand. And a clarification of intentions, well at work at present. And maybe some more negative reviews…and if critically approached are not all that harmfully negative. If you didn’t finish a book because you didn’t care for it, post it with ‘reasons why’ listed. Shrug and say it is probably just you and let a commenter encourage you and others to its finer (more positive) points, etc.

**

There is always the “should I “review” it if it can’t recommend it” question. Several blogs adopt the answer no. I, personally, feel this effects the blogger’s credibility. Show me you occasionally read a book that is unbearably flawed via some theoretical approach; or even by not finishing the book and stating why. And what if two other blogs said it was good? Please spare me the mistake of believing them when you might have the more knowledgeable eye.

Sure, I get lazy. And really, it takes a day or two contemplation and some editing (however unnoticeable) when I am writing a critical piece on a book. Blogs survive on daily or every-other day posting.

Then there are those that peddle promote books sent to them from publishers and friends; though I would like the dilemma of being sent a free book to read and make (potentially negative) comment on. So I guess it isn’t only these “women bloggers” who perpetuate the “niceness,” but the industry that sends (rewards) niceness with free books, privileged early reads, etc.

By “promoting a false sense community over honest discourse, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.” YA may be selling when other categories are not, this does not mean they garner any respect. The consequence of faking nice (thinking you are being nice but in the end aren’t really) is the loss of reputation. Though whose thoughts are more value-able in the end: industry sales/marketing success, or academics and some awards committees? Industry or Establishment? Industry and…?

Suzie writes in her comments to “Faking It,” “As a pre-loved bookseller I was hesitant at first to write a bad review but felt it was my duty to be unbiased. A bad review means you’re unlikely to sell the book but I decided it was way more important to be unbiased and have a good reputation for this than to write something I didn’t mean.”

The reputation of a blogger is important. It is key to longevity, and one’s valuable presence on everyone’s blog roll and links (not to mention ad-support). Everyone reads a popular blogger (thus their popularity) and said blogger holds a lot of sway, and garners fans through regular readers who link said blogger.

Read the comments on these blog posts responding to McCarry’s articles  “The Professionals”, “Faking It“, “My Role as a Reviewer”; here is the community loyalty of which McCarry was referring. That loyalty extends to being supportive and being sensitive as to how one agrees or disagrees in comments. Read a couple of the blogs showing their support of another blogger: Wendy on the Web, Suz’s Space Blog, or at least presenting a link : Read Roger.

McCarry’s article is slowly and surely being subdued, and many honest and valuable critiques with it.

If you contribute as someone or enable someone who doesn’t reflect a reputation that the critics on the outside would take seriously, you should consider McCarry’s concerns over a critics perception of the YA category, its reviewers, and its authors. The blogosphere’s bloggers aren’t being Nice. If they were genuinely Nice (implying caring) they would be more authentic, they would “be honest about how [they] feel” to the inclusion of rigorous critiques (however occasional) whether positive or negative. It is the absence of rigor, whether preferred or not, intended at conception or not, that is hurting YA’s reputation and, whether rightfully or not, its blog reviewers and book authors. You don’t have to like it to accept that the observed “uneven-ness” is having a negative backlash. And not just because Sarah McCarry wrote an article on the Huffington Post that is pointing it out to ignorant outsiders.

It is unfortunate that gender politics have been pulled in, but as McCarry compares the “incomparable” Critic Manohla Dargis to kidlit reviewers she alludes to the (double) standards that exist in the Critic’s world. That the kidlit blogosphere and YA authors are predominantly women is notable. It is not fair, but when have many things been fair. Dargis, a woman and critic, is as she says, “an equal opportunity critic. I will pan women as hard as men.” Dargis looks at the film, the text, and “contextualizes, examines, evaluates, demands accountability”, etc, to the edification of the art of cinema and those involved in its creation. She does so aware of how women critics are expected to be, “I’ve had testy people imply that I should go easier on women’s movies. […] None of us want to be a good woman writer.” Dargis doesn’t have to like it, but she is conscious of it, and she is mindful not to feed into the smugness that would “bypass women altogether in that process.”

**

Zetta in her own comments on Burns blog post defends McCarry “I felt the author took a look at the YA blogosphere, saw a pattern, and decided to critique it.” Though McCarry critiques without some of the rigor she demands of bloggers; lack of evidence, specificity, absence of links to examples, references to specific blogs, or other such inclusions to support her arguments and observations. Generalizations abounding, McCarry still strikes a nerve. And her question and concern over that “curious lack of rigor” is a valid one. One that I fear is getting distracted by gender politics and the move to close ranks (just as McCarry anticipates) and thus likely close down the possibility of some change; change that could be managed without losing the blogger’s “self” and their aesthetic rights to ornament their blog as they will. Can we Promote the books, match up reader and author, and still move to elevate the category? Or is the elevation not really all that effected by the kidlit blogosphere; it’s just a place it gets brought up is all…?

The blogosphere in which Nyhan abides might state that “serious criticism has never been the goal,” but can they say they never meant to make an authority of themselves on the subject of YA lit?

I write YA lit so therefore I am most familiar with the category, the industry, its readers, and my fellow authors. I have read countless volumes of Juvenile and YA lit. I am a librarian, therefore I know how to read a book, purchase one, and promote them to appropriate readerships. Of all the books to navigate, a librarian can steer you in good directions. I have read countless volumes of Juvenile and YA lit. I am a mother and avid reader, guided through YA with a passion for the subject. I have a child who finds the genre relevant/connective at the moment…oh, and I have taken numerous classes in Criticism and critical response reading, etc. I have read countless volumes of Juvenile and YA lit. ~my abounding generalizations.

So, Is the blogosphere faking it?! Elizabeth Burns and others believe McCarry is calling their approach to book reviewing/blogging as “fake.”  Burns writes: “But it’s not enough that a blogger doesn’t take the approach she, McCarry, wants you to! If you don’t take this approach you are not only doing it wrong—you’re being “fake.” And we all know what fake is—not real. Not authentic.”

I read the article differently. I read McCarry as saying the bloggers were not faking their roles as credible reviewers by not showing rigor in said reviews, but that bloggers were faking being nice. They are “faking nice.” Nice isn’t hurting your friend the author; that niceness is inauthentic. The kidlit blogosphere’s niceness by showing only positive reviews and maintaining pleasantries in comment threads subvert their intentions of maintaining an encouraging and lovely blogosphere.. The blogosphere becomes that impeccable antebellum parlor with all its southern gothic shadows lurking about the edges. There is an edge beneath the charming goings-on and it is in the absence of negative reviews, the absence of rigor, and the shunning of that broom willing to stir up corners and throw back the curtains a bit wider.

***

L started this response on Friday,

but with linking, and weekend life,

and hoping for coherence

it is now Monday.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sean says:

    I was thinking about encouraging you to delve into criticism and write something beyond the reviews you have been; today you beat me to the punch with this piece.

    Thank you for taking such a well documented walk through this discussion and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Kate Coombs says:

    This is a really thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis, thanks!

    I find myself wondering if anyone has surveyed the kidlit blogs being written by men to see if more of their reviews are negative or tough compared to those written by women. Saying that the community of YA or children’s book bloggers is overly positive is different from saying that it’s BECAUSE the bloggers are women. (False cause?)

    I’m one of those who doesn’t want to take the time to review books I hate, but I do write a lot of mixed reviews–with some literary analysis. I feel like I could really shred a lot of the books I read, but I’m not sure how useful that is since I feel that I’m extra picky–I only truly admire 6-8 books a year. But pulling your punches a bit doesn’t mean lying through your teeth. My goal as a “reviewer” is to achieve a sensible balance between talking about a book’s strengths and its weaknesses.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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