Wednesday, May 26, 2010

26. In which I am suddenly Ranting! and going on! about Rain, Reviews, Bullies, and Blankets

Rainy today.
Yesterday, after Charlie’s afternoon sleep, he just wanted to sit on the couch with me for a while, holding his threadbare yellow blanket. He told me he likes to put his fingers in the holes in his blanket, and I said, I wish I had a blanket because then I could put my fingers in the holes too. That pleased him, and we spent some time imagining that everybody had a blanket; we went through all the people we know, and imagined each one with yellow blankets. Then he said, imagine if everybody was a yellow blanket. And he said, imagine if everybody was a tv, and then, imagine if everybody was a light so we had to come in and switch them on! And then he said imagine if everyone was a kiss.

*

I finally read The Consolation of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, a few weeks back, and then I had a beautiful, lulling sense that I now understood philosophy. All of it.

It was like the time that I listened to that Beginners French CD, and believed that I was fluent in French.

They both – Alain de Botton, and the narrator of my French CD – they both had gentle, authoritative voices, voices that coax you along, murmuring, ‘You see?’—voices that hold out their hands so that butterflies of fact can gently rise and just as gently land inside your ears before slipping gracefully into your brain.

I came to my computer, wanting more of this wise and gentle man, this Alain de Botton, and googled him, wondering what else he could teach me in his thoughtful, soothing voice, and the first thing I found was that, recently, somebody had published a negative review of his work, and he had responded:

I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

*

Here’s something I think: that in many ways, young adults are brighter than adults, but adults often think the opposite.

It’s something that I notice in certain reviews of young adult fiction.

There are adult issues in this book so young people will not be interested/will not understand, reviewers say.
Are you mad! Do you think that young people don’t want to know about the world that they live in?! Do you think they are not affected every day by adult issues?! That they aren’t getting prepared to take them on?!

Or else: No young adult would ever say this/behave like this/ do this.
Actually, young adults will do and say and behave in as many ways as adults do. They’re just as various, only younger.

Once, someone wrote in a review of one of my books: No young person would be able to write as well as the characters in this book.

I just laughed at that. I kind of wished that it was true. But the fact is, young writers are often better than adult writers. I get e-mails from young people that can make me cry and laugh in a paragraph - that have imagination, imagery, and intelligence all sewn up. I’ve read the blogs of teenagers and thought: ‘Why? Why am I writing for young adults? They do it so much better themselves.'

The only reason they're not writing the books is that they're too bright, and they're moving too fast. They don't stop for long enough to finish novels.

My youngest sister was playing her DS brain game the other day, and she got depressed because the DS told her that her mental age was twelve years older than she actually is. So that made her my age. That meant she was stupid. On DS, the aim is to be younger. DS knows how to respect the young!

I felt kind of disrespected though.

*

I’m thinking of the writer I met the other day who mentioned a review: this book should be pulped, and so should the person who wrote it.

One of the many things I like about Justine Larbalestier’s blog is that she has a rule: no disrespecting living authors.
Sometimes I think reviewers are disrespectful because they’re insecure. When you review a book, you’re setting yourself up as a person in position to judge – that troubles some reviewers: maybe they suspect they’re not in that position. So they have to puff themselves up like bullfrogs — talk about how well-read they are, use esoteric language — or stomp all over the book’s head.

Or else, they might be disrespectful because they think it’s good writing — to mock, sneer and jeer is entertaining. It’s a cheap, easy way to entertain.
Actually, it’s bullying.

*

I’ve been thinking about bullying, too.
The kind that involves insults, I mean.
A while back, somebody commented on this blog and said that her high school headmistress had once said to her: ‘You will always be the plainest person in the room.’ (The commenter added, ‘It’s true, too, I am.’)

It’s been three weeks since the boys in the park called him ‘stupid’, and Charlie still says to me, now and then, ‘I’m not stupid, am I, Mummy?’

Personal insults! You often believe them. They can get right inside your head. And the same goes for the sneering, jeering voice that bullies often use.

So, I’ve been wondering how you’re supposed to deal with bullies. I found a website on the topic, that said, ‘Stand tall’ and ‘Eat more healthy snacks’ and ‘Have a shower before you go to school’. It also suggested you say in a loud voice, ‘No! Stop that!’ before walking or running away.

So, there’s that approach.

There’s also the school of thought that you see in movies, that says the answer is to fight back hard. Take secret lessons in karate! Practise boxing with your dad out the back! And then, the next time you see the bully, knock them unconscious.
They’ll look at you with fresh admiration (once they come to) and you might even end up as friends.
But what happens if you just make them madder? And what about when you get arrested?

Neither approach would help with a headmistress who tells you you’re not pretty — that kind of thing, you don’t even know that it is bullying at the time.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know how to deal with bullies. I’m thinking, the only solution is to ask them. What would make you stop? That’s what we have to do: ask the bullies.

*

I read somewhere that Alain de Botton apologised for his response to that review — or at least, for putting it online (he’d meant it just to go to the reviewer).
It was intended as a verbal punch, he said.
The reviewer had suggested that de Botton, personally, had been mean-spirited in his book, and he wanted to impress upon the reviewer how much that had hurt.
He must subscribe to that ‘fight back hard’ school of thought.

But writers are not supposed to fight back at all! They’re supposed to accept reviews with dignified silence.
It’s so entrenched, this rule, that when a writer does hit back, there’s an embarrassed kind of sympathy, or scorn, or disapproval.

I don’t know if responding is the right thing to do. I doubt that angry threats are the solution. Even calm, reasoned responses are, mostly, a waste of the writer’s time: even though the writer is the expert — the one who knows the book better than anybody — nobody else believes that. The writer is too subjective, too caught up, and the book belongs to the public sphere.

More to the point, vicious or unkind reviews are just not seen as bullying.
They’re seen as critics doing their job: and critics should be free to say exactly what they want! That’s how criticism works! It’s how things get better! It’s robust and open discussion! Freedom of speech!

I think, actually, it’s not. Viciousness never made a writer improve. This book should be pulped, and so should its author. I doubt that that improved the writer’s writing.

The only solution that I can see here is a revolution.

I don’t mean critics should praise everything, or that we all have to get yellow security blankets, or that everyone has to be a kiss.

I just mean, if you criticise, do it with respect, and without sneering, and without getting personal. Have some freakin manners. That’s all I mean.

(And if you’re a schoolteacher, never tell someone that they’re plain. What a thing to say.)

7 Comments:

Blogger Elleira said...

I am so glad you are my favourite author.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant post. Starting with Charlie's imagination and ending with your eloquent opinions and advice, I love it.

I do wonder about the point of critics. I mean, what do they see as the point of their job, what do they think is the meaning behind it? Making writers better is not something that came to my mind. Like de Botton, I think critics are supposed to give a work's merits and demerits, talk about what's going on and that's about it. To absolutely destroy something seems to be petty, personal, and akin to breaking in to someone's business and stealing their goods. Did that reviewer just want to make sure no one bought de Botton's book? Does he think his review is that important everyone should listen to him and not buy it? I can't escape the thought that reviews like this - and the critics behind them - are just cruel, and not professional or helpful in any way.

Kisses,
Anna xo

12:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ranting too!

I don't know what the answer is either. Except that no one should be able to tell you what you can't do. I have just seen a plastic bag in my room that says "There is something i know about you that you may not even know yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, and more to give than you have ever given".
Much better than "you will always be the plainest person in the room" (NOT true). I don't know if you've ever seen You've Got Mail, but there's a bit in it about always thinking of really cutting responses to say to people who try and put you down... AFTER you've come up with something lame, or cried/gone red. But then when you finally give the response you've been hoping for, at the right time, it feels awful. And for me, that's true. There are enough people trying to score points at the expense of others than to add to them by saying something mean back, for a tiny moment of satisfaction, to them feel horrible!
Having said that... I don't think I would have behaved anywhere near as well as you when those boys called Charlie stupid!
Why do some people think it's OK to treat young people badly just because they are young? I've noticed this a lot in restaurants and hotels. However polite you are, it's like there's an expectation for young people to be rude or cause trouble, so that's how you're treated - just in case you actually do end up being rude. It's like insurance. And it's almost enough to make you rude!

Sorry, this is very long. But I love your posts, and books. Thank you so much.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Rose said...

t know you were "in" with the David Levithan and Justine Larbalestier crowd!
I love how writers are all friends!

2:47 PM  
Blogger Jaclyn Moriarty said...

Hey Anna, I agree with you. Have you seen John Updike's rules for literary criticism? I like them. And I should say that I think there are some excellent reviewers and critics out there - the thoughtful ones, who respect books and authors, and want to try to figure out what's working and what isn't in a book. And Anonymous, thank you for your 'rant' which was not too long at all! I wish I had a plastic bag that said that in my room. And I completely agree about the cutting, scathing remarks that we wish we'd said - it usually turns out to be better that we didn't say them. Which is comforting for people like me who can never think of them until days, or even years later. Jx

10:14 PM  
OpenID carton said...

I don't know much about book reviews, but I used to read a lot of theatre reviews. It was hard to pick shows by reading them.

First I googled the reviewers' names and ignored anyone older than I am, and that helped. Then I ignored all reviews not writen like a confession: "as I was watching the play, THIS happened to me."

Next I ignored anyone who said anything mean about an actor, because they're probably shy and don't have friends. Besides it's clumsy: if you want to annoy an actor, say nothing about her. It'll drive her nuts.

Finally I realized when evenings went wrong it wasn't the plays that were broken so much as the audience. I started writing my own reviews, but of audiences, not of the show itself:

"I hate that grunting sound you make whenever something happens that you think is profound, because most of the time it's not profound, but pretentious, contrived, and clearly put there for those who'd otherwise say 'nothing happened.' You're like a three-toed sloth chasing a laser pointer."

"You should not have stood up while you clapped. This is not your daughter's high school play. These people are serious. They see right through you, and you're making them sad. I could see them become sadder as more of you stood. Also you made me feel like a walrus, clap clap clap."

"Why do you laugh every time anyone on stage under 25 does anything? It makes me angry at you. I think you look at them like a bucket of puppies. Drop the date rapist attitude and be more open to them. You think of yourself when you laugh! ew."

They were meaner than any professional review I've read, pages of itemized hate. I erased them all and never showed anyone.

I don't know what all that means, but I find all shows with facebook now. do young adults read reviews? I think your books should be like a treehouse.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Jaclyn Moriarty said...

'do young adults read reviews?' it's a good point - I guess the trouble is that librarians, parents, teachers read the reviews, and they're often the ones with the money to buy the books. I like your line: 'meaner than any professional reviews, pages of itemized hate' - there's some funny stuff in there, though... Jx

10:47 PM  

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