July 22, 2008

Fighting Words

“...with a few exceptions, the critics of children’s books are remarkably lenient souls. They seem to regard books for children with the same tolerant tenderness with which nearly any adult regards a child. Most of us assume there is something good in every child; the critics go on from this to assume there is something good in every book written for a child. It is not a sound theory.”
- Katherine Angell White in a long ago New Yorker as quoted from last week's Lives and Letters, The Lion and the Mouse.

"I'm not sure it has lead [sic] to better reviewing: can we truly "all be in this together" at the same time some of us are judging the work of others? Authors active in the blogosphere get treated differently there from their out-of-the-loop compatriots: they get more and kinder attention. It's hard not to be nice to someone, author or editor, whose own site may appear on your blogroll, or who regularly drops by your place to comment."
- Roger Sutton, Horn Book Blog

Last April, the Horn Book Blog did its usual "pour trail of gunpowder, light match, stand back and look thoughtful" thing and made a statement about the "squishiness" in children's book reviewing. Mr. Horn Book essentially said that things mightn't be as above board and equal as people might think -- children's reviewers "make nice" while reviewing in order to have copy, receive free swag and talk up their friends, was the gist of the furor. And a furor it was -- a big "boom" followed by a fierce and quick paced conversation with which I didn't dare get involved, but I admit that I felt a little indicted. Was I being bought and manipulated, simply because I accepted free books and wrote reviews for The Edge of the Forest?

I revisited this topic recently, when reviewing a novel -- I pointed out a few things which were questionable to me, then immediately wanted to take them back. I was encouraged to stand by my opinion by another blogger, who admitted that their stomach often churns as well when they have questions or critical thoughts about certain aspects of a book. None of us wants to offend. None of us wants to come across as snobs or people who are vicious and mocking. None of us wants to turn off our brains when we read, either.

So where does this intensive self-scrutiny and periodic self-censorship leave blog reviews?

In tiny bits, crumbling. Unfortunately, over the past month, several people have discussed how conflicted they've been feeling, how much of a toll the hemorrhage of review copies is taking on their lives, and they're on the verge of quitting. They're reconsidering reviewing, backing out of blogging, and saying that none of this is fun anymore.

To a large degree, the angst is self-produced, because we are good people, and we are hard on ourselves, examining our motives and constantly worrying about doing the best job possible. We've waded in, unasked, and added our voices to a place where voices are diminishing, and we're not entirely convinced, perhaps, that it has made a positive difference. Some of us have been seen as merely tools for the market's free use, and we've gotten burnt out.

I'm partially frustrated, because I really do think this is the "fault" (if there is such) of people who have turned the massive magnifying glass of censure and criticism on people who were once just ordinary mortals who loved books and talked about them on their blogs. Where did that go? When did loving books and talking about that love be something that had to be weighed and measured and scrutinized for "worthiness" to do so? If there is fault, it can also be laid at the door of some major publishing organizations who have inundated their readers with free -- and unrequested -- books that are often not even in their genre preference. People have implied that bloggers "use" books to have copy, but I don't think anyone ever stopped to consider the obligation those boxes of free books have on conscientious people. Since blog reviewing is, of old, an unpaid position, it really is difficult for a person of good conscience to keep up with the tide, yet most of us will not not review what is sent. Boundaries have to be made, people. And maybe we have to find our voices and be honest -- about the potential for "squishiness," even. We have to rediscover our desire to connect readers with books, and leave it at that.

I'm happy to have only one publishing company sending me books at random intervals. The books I receive don't always bat a thousand with me, but the ones I like, I talk about. I also like going to the library and picking out books by cover art, books whose authors I've never seen or heard of, books completely out of my usual milieu, and discovering them, and talking about them. I like being a reader, and a writer, and I like to write about what I'm reading. What I don't like is the atmosphere of tension and frustration and the inference that bloggers are lacking some kind of professionalism, and are inherently less-than. I am offering no solutions here, unfortunately, merely remarking with sadness that some of the fun people seem to be leaving the room, and that is simply too bad.

Laurie Halse Anderson has a few "snarly, cranky, maybe a little over-the-top" things to say about the ignorant or idiotic who diss YA writers. How utterly ironic that the disrespect, condescension and patronizing attitudes young adults have to put up with from the culture are also given to many YA writers. Jules made a comment this morning that really struck me -- she mentioned that there is in fact a flaw in how our culture views childhood. I agree -- how is it culturally acceptable to worship youth, but hate actual kids? I think it's all just jealousy.

Wow. And people think YA writers need to grow up.

Yesterday, Colleen interviewed Margo Rabb, and reminded us about her middle grade girl detective novels, which create an unprecedented Rabb-level-of-coolness. MUST. READ. THOSE. Margo's chat with Mark Haddon made me a little sad -- he's not writing any more books for children or young adults. Until he changes his mind, and does, maybe. Still -- the advice "stick to what you know" -- for him will always be true: writing is what he knows, and cheers to getting more of his!


Colleen said...

That boundaries thing really does need to happen. I am trying to get off some review copy lists (Harper Collins can you hear me????) just for environmental concerns - all the packaging and the books do not appeal to me. I much prefer to request what I want for my column and elsewhere - that way it is only the books I know I will review and not all these hundreds of wasted extras.

Jen Robinson said...

I won't be leaving the room, TadMack, but I have considered on more than one occasion just no longer accepting any review copies. Or, I like your approach, actually, sticking to one publisher.

What keeps me from doing it (besides the coolness of being able to read books early) is the fact that I have received through the publishers books that I loved, that I wouldn't necessarily have found on my own. I think that the review copies broaden my perspective as a reviewer (or a book discusser, or whatever you would like to call my usually pretty positive reviews).

Collen, you have been the voice of reason in this for a long time, and your words on this subject before actually have helped me to thicken my skin a bit, and close my ears to the calls of books that I didn't even request anyway.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Wow, powerful stuff. You write: "To a large degree, the angst is self-produced, because we are good people, and we are hard on ourselves, examining our motives and constantly worrying about doing the best job possible."

This is how I see my recent blog identity crisis. I have zero zilch animosity toward publishers, who I truly believe might perhaps be baffled by us bloggers getting slightly jaded and trying to re-discover our original reasons for blogging (maybe even some authors are feeling that way, too??), but instead this scaling back I decided to do is ALL ALL about my extremely overactive work ethic and my tendency to be pathologically conscientious about every project I take on, whether it pays or not. And about the feeling of obligation -- it might be confusing to pubs, but I see it this way: I think it'd be worse to get books for free and not write about them (and continue to KEEP getting books for free) -- all blithely ungrateful for a burgeoning library -- instead of backing off and saying, I'm feeling terribly obligated to cover this free thing I got, whether I liked it or not, and the stacks are piling up too high. Call me Too Nice, but that's how it was going for me.

And all of it spawned by an increased workload. That's the very bottom line: My job pays. Blogging doesn't.

But then there's also what you speak of -- the serendipity of finding a book in the library that no other blogger told you to read, books with terribly intriguing covers by authors you've never heard of, etc. O! Joy! and O! Rapture! I missed that, too. I even simply missed library trips where I came home with 25 books.

Also, ironically, I think I was missing out on a LOT of new titles. I'd get stacks and stacks of new titles at my door and think that I was so on top of things when, really, my view was limited by just those pubs (even though we got books from many pubs, there are still worlds and worlds of books out there, and the huge stacks made me think I didn't need to look any harder. And looking harder was overwhelming, too, as I felt obligated to cover what I had in my home. I'd avert my eyes in the library. That was a wake-up call.)

I'm not being half as articulate as I'd like. I shouldn't be commenting after hours of work and children being loud around me, but I came, saw, had to read, and just HAD to comment.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Jules: Ditto, ditto, and ditto. Enough said. :)

Jules at 7-Imp said...

P.S. For the record, 7-Imp's not leaving the room either. :)

Colleen said...

I understand what you are saying about unexpected books, Jen - sometimes I do get books I didn't request that I love and certainly do review. One thing that I've seen with some adult imprints that I appreciate is quarterly lists of upcoming books with brief descriptions that are emailed out to reviewers. It gives us a nice look at books we might not be aware of and if we want to read and review one, then all we do is request it.

It seems like a sensible approach all the publishers should be doing - there is no paper, no waste of postage and it gives us a chance to hear about books that otherwise we would have missed.

This is one the things I'm asking PR reps I work with - to please send me what I request and if they see other titles they think I might like then just send an email first. If they got enough bloggers on the email lists then it would be worth their while to go that route rather than just mass mailing (and clearly it works for the adult imprints I'm already receiving email lists from).

Jen Robinson said...

I do see that approach with some publishers, Colleen, and I like it, too (especially not getting printed catalogs). But others ... not so much. Sometimes I'll get the most random books, like the third title in a fantasy series for which I haven't read the first two, for instance. And that's just not helpful for anyone. But I do think that you're right - the system can probably be improved.

Colleen said...

I get second and third books in series ALOT. I would love to know why anyone thinks it is a good idea to send these out without asking first. 99% of the time it is a complete waste.

Tor does this often (and ignores my requests!), as does Penguin (all imprints).

And Harper Collins. But everyone knows what I think of the HC marketing department.

Kelly said...

I've LOVED reading these comments. I am going to change the FOREST as soon as I get home in the hopes of bringing the kidlitosphere together more.

Re: review copies. I am also going to stop receiving them en masse. What I like now are the individually targeted e-mails--from publicists or authors--where I can say yay or nay to one particular book. I'm tired of drowning in books and feeling bad about it (to the authors, to the environment, to publishing houses, to readers, etc.)

Anyway, this is the most interesting discussion and I can't wait to jump in when I get home. I also won't be leaving the discussion, but like Jules and Jen, 1000s of books a year is no longer sustainable for me.

David T. Macknet said...

Just a wee comment on going to the library: the librarians are trying to build a balanced collection, so the things you find there tend to vary quite a bit. They wouldn't buy from just one publisher, or even from half a dozen publishers. So ... if your reading is dominated by the never-ending stream of review copies, you're not getting any sort of a picture of the YA world.

To throw another wrinkle in the whole thing: what does everyone do with ARC's?

Jules at 7-Imp said...

DaviMack, YES! That's exactly what I meant (part of all my babbling, rather!).

To answer your question, if I don't keep an ARC, I give it to Eisha (my blog partner-in-crime) or another friend. If it's a friend who doesn't know much about, well, publishing, I guess, then I remind them it's uncorrected and absolutely cannot be donated to a library or sold blah blah blah.

If I can't find someone who wants it or I don't wanna keep it, I recycle it.

Kelly, Eisha and I said in our blog identity crisis post that we are open to receiving SOME review copies. We'll see how that works out. I fear we may have confused pubs and maybe authors?? Maybe I'm just paranoid. At this point, I can't lose sleep over it, though. We said what we had to say as clearly as we could, and I don't want to feel beholden to all those books anymore anyway.

But I do hope they understand, since I truly am grateful for all they've sent over the years, even if it's just not for me right now.

Jen Robinson said...

I do pretty much the same thing with the ARCs that Jules does (well, I don't send them to Eisha, but I would if she wanted them). I have a niece who I often give them to, and a couple of friends and their kids, and I keep a shelf that anyone who visits can pick from. I don't give the ARCs to the library because they'll end up sold. I do give regular (non-ARC) copies to the library, and often those end up in the collection. I'll also give the regular ones to charities, but not the ARCs. I have occasionally recycled ARCs, if I don't want them, and can't think of anyone who would like them.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Jen, yes, I give review copies to our library, too, and it's SO NICE to see them added to the collection, to know I contributed. I feel like the library is one of the best places to donate -- so many people will have access to them.

But never ARCS -- only corrected, ready-for-publication stuff.

tanita✿davis said...

I didn't mean to imply that YOU, Jules/7-Imp or Jen were leaving the room -- your posts were very clear that you were doing SOMETHING different, but not that you'd be utterly vanishing. I just routinely read people struggling not to just chuck the whole blogging thing altogether, and it seems like there should be a happier medium than 120% or nothing.

Vis-a-vis the ARC's: I love libraries. I want to support them because they give kids free books. Selling the books I donate to them doesn't contribute to that, so I am finding other ways to get books into kids' hands for free. Often libraries CAN'T shelve the books, because they're not library bound -- or so I've been told -- but I still would love to help build some small town's stash with my ARC's. That would be SO COOL.

Colleen said...

My review copies go all over the place. I review from picture books to adult so it depends on the book. Some to my 2 year old niece, some to teen nieces, some to my brother, mother, step dad, and some to the local thrift shop run by the Episcopalian church. (I might have spelled that wrong.)

The library is a very wealthy library - I think I do better going to the thrift shop as they have a busy clientel and love the books over there.

I also keep some of course - especially if they work for my son.

My problem is there are so many. But you guys know about that as I just posted about it!

David T. Macknet said...

One thing which has gone unmentioned in all of this discussion is that there really are different types of review, and that there are places for them.

Thinking back to our undergraduate studies (British and American Literature), we did book reviews ... lots and lots of book reviews. They were to examine certain things thoroughly, and were fairly structured. They served a purpose: to bring out the good, bad, ugly of a particular work, so that we'd be able to recall it, years later, when we referred to that review (we were supposed to have kept them - sorry Dr. Glaim).

We also do reviews "as an editor would," for fellow writers. These point out certain problems, certain areas which need attention, and largely focus on the negative, although they ought, certainly, to point out the wonderful as well.

Then there are the "commercial reviews" and the "blog reviews." I think that there are quite different flavors of both, and that there should probably be a bit of categorizing done, so that everybody's clear when we use the word - whether about a blog, or about a magazine. Certainly, Roger's reviews are different than Kirkus, and serve quite a different audience. Would he be held to the same standard?

Anonymous said...

I think something to remember is that none of the stuff you're describing, as a blogger who reviews books, is all that different from the experience of the people who review books in print venues, either. I reviewed books for the SF/fantasy magazine Interzone for several years, using the free copies that the magazine sent me to read, and every time I had to write a bad review, I cringed because I am also a fiction writer and I know how much bad reviews hurt. Also, the SF/F world is small enough that I (and all the other reviewers, whether fiction writers or not) have either already known or later met in person most of the people whose books I've reviewed, just as book bloggers may have interacted with authors online...and certainly the big book reviewers at The Guardian have met an awful lot of the authors they review at London literary parties. So there are just as many issues of bias and discomfort in print-reviewing as in blogger-reviewing.

tanita✿davis said...

Stephanie, thanks for chiming in from the print world, from when Colleen also comes. Simply by virtue of the fact that they have the structure of a magazine around them to sort of "guard" them, I've felt print reviewers haven't had as many worries, but it's disconcerting to realize that some of the issues there are the same. Hm. What's going wrong with the reviewing world!?