Thursday, April 29, 2010

Faking It

The book blogosphere (particularly the children's literature and young adult corner, but truthfully, "all" book bloggers) received some attention from the Huffington Post in Sarah McCarry's provocatively titled post, Faking Nice in the Blogosphere: Women and Book Reviews.

Why respond? Because you and I know how much is inaccurate. But most of the readers of Huffington Post? Of that article? Don't know it. They will read it. And when you are at a family gathering, or a job interview, or some other circumstance, and say you are a book blogger, that person across from you will hide their smile as they think "ah, yes. I read about you. You write fake nice things online because you're a woman."

Let's move on.

Some basics, first.

Perhaps the most basic.

What is a "book blog"? A blog is an easy way for a person with limited or no coding or other technology skills to create a website. Posts are created by the blogger and published on the blog, with the most recent post at the top of the blog.

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.

Yes, you know all this.

McCarry either does not know it or does not care. McCarry only wants to read critical approaches to books and, rather than looking for the journals, magazines, websites and blogs that do so, wants all blogs to write what she wants to read.

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.

Just so you understand: GalleySmith not liking Incarceron? Keeping it real. My including Incarceron in my favorite books read in 2010? Fake nice.

McCarry talks about "apologism," when those who dare criticize a book are attacked for being mean to the author. This, like every other line in her essay, is unsupported by links to posts. No, really. When I first began reading Faking Nice in the Blogosphere I had this image of a book blogger Deep Throat, giving McCarry evidence of scores of bloggers who had admitted to saying they liked books they did not. Would it be Direct Messages? Forwarded emails? What was the proof?

There is no proof. Just McCarry throwing out that any review that likes a book is suspect.

So, the people who are attacked for a critical (or, some say, "negative") review. I'll be honest; I'm not going to link, either, but I've seen comments where people disagree with book reviewers. And sometimes it gets testy. How can you not like a book I loved! How can you not like the characters I loved! And yes, I've seen "think of the author."*

Now, here is the twisty logic of McCarry: a book author should be able to withstand any critique of their book, while book bloggers cannot. In point of fact, book bloggers so fear the "don't be mean to an author" comments that they avoid any negative or critical writing, thus becoming part of an inauthentic "cult of niceness**And the reason behind this "cult of niceness," that will bully a blogger into telling lies about the books they read and review? Women.

No, really. Women bloggers, writing about women authors, for women readers (because, apparently, young adult books are all about the women), all demand "niceness." This, of course, is because of misogyny, resulting in women holding other women to a lesser standard.

McCarry believes this "fake nice women bloggers" is true of "book blogging in general." Not some blogs; no, it's all book blogs, all of us.

The problem with McCarry's arguments (other than that they are unsupported by any facts and force all bloggers into the role of critic, whether it's a role they want or not) is that not "all" book blogs are part of this "cult of niceness." And, even if such a cult exists -- there are reasons for it beyond a person's gender. It can be personal preference. It can be professional -- there are many reasons why an author may be careful about what they blog or may be sensitive about how criticism is done. It can be because some bloggers see their role as "promotional" for books and authors, so keep their language promotional (aka "nice.") It can be that life's too short to blog bad books. Wow, I've already listed four reasons for such a "cult" that have nothing to do with my reproductive organs.

So why bring gender into this? Bad enough that McCarry uses both sweeping language and offers unsupported statements; she then has to bring gender politics into the equation. And not just any type of gender politics -- the type that attempts to shame women into a particular action. Here, to get women to say "wow, I owe it to my sex to write negative reviews."

In other words, McCarry accuses women of being mean girls bullying bloggers to only write nice by being a mean girl and bullying bloggers into the role of critic.

It would have been easy to ignore McCarry; to not give attention to something that says from it's title "LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME." But the bullying? Cannot be ignored.

So, bloggers. Book bloggers. Continue to be true to yourself. Continue to be authentic. How you write about books may change over time -- you may be influenced by how others blog or don't blog. You may start reading more critics and want to change your style. You may want to take a more informal, conversational approach. All good, as long as they are your choice, not something someone else tells you is the One True Way To Blog.

* There are two times a blogger should "think of the author" when reviewing books. First, write about the book, not the author. "The author sucks" is hardly the critical discourse McCarry hopes to achieve. Second, when you meet the author in person, it is never cool to say "your books suck." That is just manners.

**I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of discussion and disagreement, but we readers, whether as bloggers or in person, should be able to have intellegent and passionate discussion about books without getting personal. Disagree with another reviewer; but don't shut them down. And if someone disagrees with you? Not everyone will agree with everything you write. Don't write to have cheerleaders say "ZOMG I totally agree," whether your post is positive, negative, or critical.

Edited to Add: Get Back, Loretta has a terrific take on the Fake Nice article, especially about the role of bloggers.

Angela's take. Obviously, I disagree with what she says about women. But I agree with what she says about authors and reviews.

If there are other responses to add, let me know & I'll keep editing this and adding.

And: Faking Nice and the Allure of the Mean Friend at Wendy on the Web

And Robin McKinley defends Pollyanna reviewing. My comment: if you have actually read the book Pollyanna, you realize Pollyanna isn't a bad, naive, or ignorant state of mind. As a lover of the book, I find the term often misused. Anyway, I agree with McKinley that "For those of us who are just readers, who are not trying to be critics: let’s not give bad books the space for a trashing. Let’s not waste the space. There are lots and lots and lots of books out there—thousands upon thousands published new every year‡‡‡. This seems to me quite a powerful argument for niceness: I only want to spend time talking about books that I want to see survive." Agree or disagree with McKinley, but note that this is a valid argument for "niceness" in the blogosphere which says "nice" isnt' a four letter word and which offers a reason for it other than sisterhood. And the reason I am squeeing like a fangirl is not because McKinley, a woman, linked to me but because McKinley, an author I love, linked to me. And because much of my own philosophy of what I do on this blog, that has evolved over time and continues to change and grow, is what McKinley explains in her post.

Becky at Becky's Book Reviews also posts about the article and I love her "Bloggers Against Blanket Statements Club."

Melissa at Book Nut has a different take, about personal opinions and how to discuss things when we disagree. I've said before that law school taught me how to be a public speaker; I'll add it also taught me how to discuss and disagree and remain friends by not making it personal.

And more blogs post about this:

Mel's Books and Info. What is "too nice"

Sarah Darer Littman with an author's point of view

deCompose applies the post to Christian fiction and the the Christian book blogosphere and reviewers and discusses the assertion that "The lens of gender “taints” our writing, reading, and reviewing, and may even lead to subtle forms of discrimination".

librarified applies the post to the public library field

renay takes on the YA Cult of Nice. and eek, quotes my Twitter. It's kind of like hearing your own voice: that's how I sound? Renay agrees with much of the Huff Po post and links to reviews. Please note -- I believe the Internets is a diverse place with good, bad, and ugly. Having started online in fandom, I've also seen how the quasi-anonymous, not in person nature of an online group can bring out the nasty. And I firmly, one hundred percent believe we can disagree without being personal (ie "you like/don't like that book? well then you're stoopid and ugly cause it and its author sux/ is made of awesomesauce" or does nothing but make the person saying that comment feel good.) And, frankly, if any blogger only wants "ZOMG I totally agree" responses, it will be boring -- but it means that, absent true trolls, the blogger has to be as thick skinned as an author and put up with their own posts being critiqued/ reacted to negatively.

What I disagree with for the HuffPo post is her blanket assertions and concluding it's all because bloggers are women. I mean, has McCarry seen what goes on in other parts of the blogosphere? In my humble opinion, if there is going to be a discussion about what Renay talks about, it cannot begin and end with "...and you do it because you're a girl" because a, I don't agree, and b, it shuts down discussion because there isn't much I can do about being a girl other than thinking "now I have to be more like a man to do it right."

And for what it's worth, I use the term "rants" when I shouldn't always, including for my own posts. I'm slowly shifting away from it.

If I've missed a post, let me know & I'll link.

Well, that happened. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, damned whatever you do. See Friday Fakers.

and wait, there's more!

Fizzwhizzing Flushbunker. Yes, that is really a blog name! FF lists reasons other than gender for online blog culture, as well as looking at gender as it relates to blogging, just not doing it in a "girls do it wrong" type of way. Tho she's a former legislative advocate, so, like me, believes in discussion. As I do. Given how she writes, I'd add, even tho she doesn't say so, believes in passionately discussing things that one cares about without getting personal. Which I call having a great discussion, but, sadly, others call "being nice" as if nice were a four letter word. Oh well!

And Youth Services addresses the question of Gender In YA.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Unknown said...

Great response, Liz. I really appreciate the message about being true to yourself. You're right, and it's important to remember that for most bloggers, this is a labor of love, not a job.

NovelEscapes said...

I hate writing critical reviews. It sucks, but is part of the 'job'. I've only written a few, and feel for the authors, especially being an aspiring one myself. I wonder sometimes if bloggers who want to write novels write kinder reviews? I think I read that somewhere and often wonder if my reviews will come back to bite me some day! I see lovely reviews by authors for great books, but they're mum on books of a lower caliber. Better to be honest I feel. Thanks for this great post!

testinge said...

One of the reasons I didn't get so worked up about this article is because of the source. The Huffington Post, in my opinion, has a tendency to adopt marginalizing language in many of its posts. I would suspect it is a way of trying to make its content go viral. What I found remarkable about McCarry's position is that she seems oblivious that many book bloggers have an investment in books, either by working as librarians or in publishing. 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."

lisa and laura said...

Great response, Liz. I also liked Loretta Nyhan's take on the article.

Unknown said...

I didn't interpret the "faking nice" as people lying about whether they liked a book, but more in the fact that most bloggers seem to only post positive reviews. At least among the bloggers I've seen, they appear extremely reluctant to give a book a negative review, which in my opinion does lead to a lack of rigor overall in the blogosphere.

I know not all of us set ourselves out there to be critics and I'm totally okay with that on an individual basis, but when our whole genre of blogging seems averse to posting negative reviews, I think it is suspect.

I wrote a longer response to the original essay over at my blog yesterday, which also gets into the gender bit.

Liz B said...

Sheila, that's a good point that sometimes seems overlooked.

Lydia, I think author/bloggers have a difficult line to tread.

Retro, I love "cult of being professional."

Lisa & Laura, I love Loretta's post! but then i have obsessed over whether or not to call things reviews or discussions.

Angela, I understand what you're saying and to a point agree. Here is my problem with the "only positive" being less rigourous take. Using me as an example -- you'd be hard pressed to find a review here for something I didn't like. I have a few reasons: one, I read what I want so if I don't like a book I rarely finish it. Two, while I love a handful of books, I enjoy/ like many others, and there is only a handful of books I hate. Three, I write to connect books to readers and part of that is by writing reviews to connect to a reader. So, yeah, I get a little defensive when I'm told "oops, you're doing it wrong by not finishing that book, you're doing it wrong by liking too many books." That said, I defend anyone's writing critical reviews. Bloggers vary. And now I'm off to read your post & link it up.

Colleen said...

Liz -totally agree with you on all this and must chime in on your response to Angela as that was a key part of what bothered me so much on this as well. Beyond the fact that generally I only finish books I like, I need to add that I do not request or start books I know I won't like (for example vamp titles) so I usually find myself reviewing books I enjoy. This is not how it is done most of the time in print media - (such as for Booklist where I also review). Plus some sites/blogs are designed solely with recommendation in mind (like Guys Lit Wire) so again, we start from a positive place from the beginning for a reason.

Beyond all that, I also wanted to note that this whole Huff Post thing is yet another example of someone who has nothing to do with the lit blogosphere but feels compelled to poke their toe in and pass judgment. It's like the Terre Haute basement junk from a few years ago and bloggers are crazy cat people and all the garbage that came from the NBCC. It's infuriating.

And the woman are too nice bit? Now we're just back to mean girls vs good girls all over again and frankly, I left high school behind years ago.

tanita✿davis said...

This author obviously missed all of the recent furor over cover whitewashing. All of those women were faking nice by saying how much they disliked the publishers for doing that? None of those women wrote anything negative?


Zetta said...

I had a very different take on this article, and in no way felt it was a sweeping indictment of ALL women book bloggers...I felt the author took a look at the YA blogosphere, saw a pattern, and decided to critique it. Given the horrific instances of verbal, psychological, and physical violence in our schools, I think it's a little extreme to call the writer a "bully" or "mean girl." We're adults, and maturity is part of what makes this conversation possible--and useful! This type of dissent is perhaps what the article was asking for recent web controversies, there was no unified response from women bloggers that I could see---many were outraged and spoke out against whitewashing, but many were indignant when asked to condemn the practice on their blog. We do blog for various reasons---some of us are authors, some of us are bibliophiles, and some of us are fans. We shouldn't all be lumped together, but I don't think it's unfair to critique the resulting uneven-ness of reviews.

Loretta Nyhan said...

Exactly! This is such a logical response to McCarry's blanket statements.

(And thanks for the link!)

SiS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SiS said...

I agree that there are many different reasons one might not post negative/critical reviews.

I'm not a "book blogger" but do have a view point on writing negative reviews. I recently started a blog as a place for my young sons and I to "discuss" the books we read. (It is more for process rather than product, which is why I don't think of us as book bloggers... plus we only post around once a month.) I have been trying to decide recently if I want to write about the books that I read and *don't* like... and decided against it. Mostly because I almost always read a book first to myself before reading it with my boys... and so far we're only writing about the books they read or the ones we read together. I just read FABLEHAVEN by Brandon Mull and didn't think it was good enough to qualify as a read aloud. That doesn't mean it won't be available to my children if in the future they want to try it, but I'm not going to *recommend* it on our blog when I don't think it is worth reading to my own children. There are too many great books out there and only so much read aloud time. (And also? If I'm going to be truthful, negative reviews are hard to write because you really have to be judicious and thoughtful in doing it or it isn't fair... and I'm too lazy.)

Suzie said...

I've scribbled a few words on my blog about this. Mostly in your support but also to reassure my readers they will get unbiased reviews. I don't normally respond to articles of this nature, but I admit I saw red (or read as that's what my fingers typed originally) and felt I had to say something. 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 unlikly 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.

You can take out my link if you don't think it adds anything to the argument.

Melissa said...

Honestly, my first reaction to the Huffington Post piece was to roll my eyes. Obviously, she's making broad generalizations. Obviously, she has no idea what she's talking about. Obviously, she's just trying to get us all worked up. That said, your response is spot-on. Thanks for being willing to tackle the injustices.

Roger Sutton said...

I mostly agree with you, Liz, but want to point out one thing. While it's true that bloggers went after the whitewashing vigorously, it seemed like every post on the topic had to reassure us that the complaint "was not about Justine," etc. So in that instance, anyway, the bonds of sisterhood remained intact and even strengthened. Obviously, people can and should do what they like with their blogs, but when you call what you do "reviewing," then you can expect to be appraised accordingly. And I don't think it's wrong to characterize the predominate tone of YA book-blogging as encouraging.

Okay, I guess that was TWO points.

Gwenda said...

Good response, Liz.

As I've said elsewhere my HUGE problem with this piece is the leap from "hey, people post a lot of positive reviews" (paraphrasing) to "I'm going to say it's because they are women and must be nice at all times" (a paraphrase, and problematic in and of itself) to "This cult of niceness is at its heart a pernicious kind of misogyny" (NOT a paraphrase). Merriam-Webster defines misogyny as "a hatred of women."

So, um, really? No. A sloppy, poorly thought-out piece of critical writing.

Colleen said...

To the recent cover controversy, because I got blasted a bit in that one, I will note that one thing many folks wanted to point was that the author had no choice in the cover selection. So yeah, we did say it wasn't about the author for that reason but not from fear of being mean.

Lori L said...

Wow, Liz, this hits home... I just posted about an infamous negative review I wrote that still attracts attention, negative attention. This week brought another author who linked to it, "winces" at my opinion, and then proceeded to tell me why I was wrong - but her comments were all based on her own issues and perceptions, not what I wrote. I think we all have the right to say how we feel about a book without the "be nice" police coming after us.

Liz B said...

Sigh. Wrote a long response and it got eaten by the internets and now company is coming.

I was so clever! And insightful! Witty! Said something meaningful to each and every one of you.

So instead blanket statement:

I think there can be intelligent conversation about what is going on in the blogosphere. McCarry did not deliver that. She made blanket statements, was sloppy, and most of all, tried to push women into saying "I'll stop blogging like a woman!" It also creates the lie that men -- they're doing it right. Let's all be like them!!

It's people, period. Let's discuss the blogosphere, certainly. But without blanket statements. And with being open to a variety of motivations: promotion, ARCs, fandom, author crushes, the purpose of the blog, the experience of the writer (what is wrong with getting ones writing legs thru blog writing?), etc. None of which have to do with gender.

I have a busy weekend and will hopefully check in later if I have the time. Now I'm going to sulk over the lost comment.

CLM said...

Well articulated, Liz. Also, I am glad to have have got the essence of the article without increasing their traffic by reading it!

I rarely have the time or energy to review books but was recently startled to hear from an author after I commented on weak plotting (although overall I had liked her books enough to read every one!). I felt bad but it would not stop me from making the comment again - I would just be sure to provide more bases for my assessment.

Michelle said...

Man, I didn't realize I was keeping it real! Or heck, that you were faking it! I just thought we were both being honest. Jeepers....

Sarcasm aside, I'll chime in and add to that accolades. It never ceases to amaze me that people who don't have experience with a particular culture feel the need to pidgeon hole it. Base on fact not assumption -- basing comments on research isn't out of the question me thinks!

Lara said...

Liz, you should totally submit this to HuffPo.

But I do want to chime in and say that authors who blog really ARE criticized/ostracized when they publicly diss a book. It's seen as sour grapes on our part, even though writers can also be some of the most discriminating readers I know. Somehow once you publish, you lose the right to have an opinion on what other people are publishing. In this case, gender doesn't matter, although I do think the boys get more passes than the girls because ... well, because boys just do.

The only real exception to that rule is if you trounce a book that's already been trounced by a zillion people (*cough* Twilight *cough*). For some reason, that's acceptable.

Grier Jewell said...

I love this discussion. While I don't like generalizations, especially when they're gender-related, I do agree that kids lit reviews tend to be *lite* (not all, of course).

I appreciate reviews of great books and expect critical insights into what makes a book work; however, part of that includes elements that may be off or undeveloped. It doesn't diminish great writing to put it under the microscope. On the contrary, it shows respect and elevates the craft. I think we definitely need more of this than currently exists.

I agree with you that reviewing books that aren't worth the trees they killed is a waste of a reviewer's time, but I'd love to see (from time to time) critical reviews of extremely popular books that have no literary merit--if only to say, wtf? This is the sort of reality check that exposes group think. Even if no one else agrees, it creates needed discussion.

Unfortunately, I think that there is an uncomfortable fawning over male writers by some bloggers who wilt over the sighting of these rock stars at book events and drool over an upcoming release before it's even read. I never seem to read similar reactions to women rock star writers.

Ach--good or bad, it's all good as long as we're free to discuss without being attacked personally.

Sondy at Sonderbooks said...

Your response is excellent, Liz -- thanks for speaking up for us female book bloggers. I have a stated policy on my website that I don't review books I don't like.

My thinking is like Robin McKinley's (That's a fun statement to make!), I don't want to spend time being negative. I try to be insightful in the positive reviews I write. But I'm only giving space to books I want to promote.

However, I did switch my system from 5-stars to only giving a star to books I find particularly outstanding, because I was tired of explaining that a book I gave 3 stars to was still an excellent book, and I liked and enjoyed the books I gave one star to (or I wouldn't have reviewed them). Does that make my reviewing fake? No, I think it makes my communication more clear.

I figure the beauty of having my own blog is that I don't have to review books I don't like. If I were hired by a review journal, that would be a different story. But I'm writing my blog for fun, and I think it's fun to tell people about good books I've read, hopefully giving them enough taste of the book to know if they will like it, too.

Donna Gambale said...

I'm just now catching up on five days' worth of blog reading, sorry for the delay, but... wow. Thanks for bringing this craziness to my attention, and the excellent links.

I walk the aspiring author/blogger line, and it's a tough one. My (group) blog isn't a book blog, and reviews are occasional, so I only review books I love and recommend, and don't highlight the flaws -- but I never lie, and I make the "gushing" aspect of the review clear to readers in the post's intro. Seems fair to me!

writer girl said...

wow!! thanks so much for answering to that post and also for posting all these links. I coulsn't agree more with you. It's like a library in here, I love it! I linked this post on my blog, where I posted my opinion, too. thanks again.

Liz B said...

A general response: words evolve. Why cannot a "blog review" be its own definition, one that means more recommendation and discussion? Tho disclaimer: when I speak in front of nonblogger groups, I explain that blogs contain discussions more than reviews.

Also, why should what happens on blogs replicate what happens in magazines/journals/periodicals? I (& other bloggers) do not say "we're going to put mainstream media out of business," yet here are outside commentors asking why our (free, individual) content isn't the same as mainstream media. Want the critical type of writing found in ALAN, the Horn Book, the Lion & Unicorn? BUY THOSE JOURNALS. Don't expect a bunch of solo daily operations, with one person wearing all hats, to be the same as the edited, peer reviewed, multiple staffed magazines. And since WE don't say we're doing that type of writing, stop slamming us for not delivering it.

CLM, authors behaving badly (ie the right/wrong way to react to reviews & blogs) is a whole nother topic.

Lara, I think authors are in a tough spot & too much to go into in this short space. I do think that those authors who review on traditional media, so have editors, etc., have more freedom to review critically.

Grier, I understand what you're saying and agree. Truth to be told, I just haven't read such a book myself recently enough to post here. That bloggers are solo operators cannot be overemphasized. The Horn Book has a staff; its their job to produce monthly content. I have me, plus a full time job, to produce my daily content. (I pick on the Horn Book cause I love it and its the one I pay my own money to read).

I think the issue of "rock star fawning" is another issue; and truthfully there are only a few authors who get such treatment. That said, see how women are damned! If I write positively about a woman, I'm supporting the sisterhood; about a man, I'm a fawning fangirl. While men are the rational beasts who aren't questioned on their positive writing.

Sondy, I don't do stars but I do have my "favorites" which is on the sidebar. I use favorites to show its my subjective opinion; it's my five star books.

donna & alexandra, thanks!

and again thanks all for adding to the convo. I'm sorry blogger hasn'tn been as helpful as it should be re comments.

Sondy said...

On reflection, I find it a little odd that Roger Sutton, of all people, would question calling writing encouraging, positive things about books reviewing. Now, I'm another huge Horn Book fan and pay my own money to read it. One thing I like is that every book they review is recommended. Their very selectivity is a recommendation in itself. Sure, they don't shrink from talking about a book's drawbacks, but the overall tone is one of celebrating good books. Yes, they review everything in The Horn Book Guide, which must have plenty of negative reviews. But what I'm trying to achieve with my own blog is more the spirit of The Horn Book, where people know that if I give time and space to talking about a book, I enjoyed it, so any negative points do not outweigh that.

But I think I can still call what I write "reviews." Choosing to celebrate good books does not lessen the value of what I have to say, any more than it does with The Horn Book.

Melissa @ Mel's Books and Info said...


Great response! And thanks for including my post in your list. I agree with what many other bloggers have said, I don't receive any form of compensation for my reviews. I do this because I enjoy it, and I am not going to sacrifice reading for pleasure just so I can give a book a poor review to seem more balanced. I review honestly, but if I don't like it, chances are I won't waste my time one it--either to finish it or review it. Thank you so much for your post. That article has really gotten us to think about what we do and say as bloggers.