“…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!