In Defense of Pollyanna
I imagine quite a few of you have seen this:
In which the writer suggests that the woman-dominated area of the blogosphere given over to reading and discussing YA fiction is suffering from a pathological excess of niceness. PW* tweeted it, and I follow PW. I promptly retweeted, since that’s what you do on Twitter**.
I don’t get around enough of the blogosphere to be in a position to guess, let alone judge, whether there’s too much niceness gumming up the works anywhere or not. But I have a fairly complicated reaction to the piece generally, substantially summarised by what I tweeted about it:
Agree half (Huff essay). My blog Pollyanna is also a cop out true but I personally feel negative energy 2 easily deployed 4 wrong reasons
Pollyanna a bit like my preference 4 writing heroines not heroes: we still nd more active women in books & we nd more positive energy period
Emoontx*** tweeted: Also think reviewers & critics need to be competent readers–so many reviews (+ or –, any genre) show they aren’t.
I answered: AGREE. My central pt. Hv bn saying 4 yrs, readers nd 2 learn diff btwn ‘this bk sucks dead bears’ & ‘this bk didn’t work 4 me’
Reviewer difficulty 3fold: 1) acknowledge SUBJECTIVITY, 2) Engage w book on BOOK’s terms, 3) USE BRAIN in composing response.
And from there I don’t even know where to start. EMoon also pointed out that McCarry appears to confuse readers and critics, and near the beginning of her piece McCarry quotes the piece that inspired her: “ . . . when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. . . . And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel?” Lack of rigor? How you feel? All my alarm bells go off at once with a loud unmusical clangor. This is two different things, I think and feel. Rigor is about cold hard intellectual thought, cogitation and cerebration. It’s also work. Feeling is . . . feeling. You get to the end of a story or a book, you have feelings about it, even if they’re mixed. You don’t have to work at having feelings. If you want to support your feelings as more generally valid rather than just your private reaction to a book or an author, then you need to get your brain involved. Rigorously. See above: a reviewer needs to know the difference between ‘this book didn’t work for me’ and ‘this book sucks dead bears’. Reviewers must ACKNOWLEDGE SUBJECTIVITY. You are not omnipotent and not even a little bit godlike. Your reaction is only your reaction. ENGAGE WITH THE BOOK ON THE BOOK’S TERMS. A book about vampires is not a bad book about werewolves, it’s a book about vampires. AND APPLY BRAIN RIGOROUSLY IN COMPOSING RESPONSE. Need I add ‘arrrgh’?
I’ve been wondering if I wanted to tackle any of this at any greater length. † And there is one point I want to linger over: Pollyanna. To some extent, yes, my decision to make Pollyanna empress of the Robin McKinley Blogiverse is a cop out. The nice [sic] way of putting it is that I’m applying the Golden Rule: I don’t like being trashed, so I’m going to refrain from trashing anyone else.†† But . . . I realise more and more as the months and years of blogging mount up and I discover by doing what I’m willing to hang out here flapping in the public breeze and what I’m not, that it’s actually less about fear of repercussion and more about what I want this blog to be and to, uh, feel. I tweeted this too, but I want to say it outright without the knottedness that Twitter’s 140 character limit enforces: there’s enough negative energy out there already†††. I don’t want to add to it. I don’t want to add to it, and I don’t want to attract it to this blog. This has very little to do with my native cowardice and dislike of confrontation. It has everything to do with mood and morale and an increasing feeling, as I get older, that the creepy New Age thing about ‘raising the light level’ is actually true, whatever shape you want to squeeze it into and whatever title you want to hang on its office door.‡
And I’m bringing this up today rather than yesterday or tomorrow because I have been having another lousy ME‡‡ day and have therefore spent most of the afternoon reading . . . a really BLOODY AWFUL BOOK. Jeeeeeeeezum what a bad book. Ow. Blerg. Ak. And yeah, it would be mildly amusing for the first few minutes to trash the crap out of it here. But only for the first few minutes. And then I’d start feeling crummy—not because I’m trashing a book that I genuinely think is crap, but because I don’t like the feel of that energy. It’s sticky and dull and achy. And this is one of the places where the difference between being a reader and a critic is crucial: a reader can just not like something and keep moving. A critic needs to say, okay, this is why this book is crap, and forge the sticky-dull-achy into something shiny and clean and solid. Criticism is hard. Criticism takes time. Some of us would rather read and keep going. Life is short and full of choices.
I’ve now read several other good and interesting blogs about the original McCarry piece, and it’s late at night, and, as I say, I haven’t been having a good day myself, so I’m not going to track down who said what where. But while I’ve seen glancing references to this I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say it bluntly: 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.
* * *
* Publishers Weekly, the American trade mag
** I’m old and technologically clueless, but I’m not stupid
*** Elizabeth Moon, who burst on the publishing scene with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter in 1988^, and anyone who doesn’t know her stuff, start there, and keep going
^ I think. Wiki seems to think so anyway. And I remember SD and going, “wow.” Hard women SF! Wow!
† Fortunately, while I’ve been dithering, other people have plunged into the fray. Here’s a good place to start, also tweeted by PW: http://yzocaet.blogspot.com/2010/04/faking-it.html , from LizB at A Chair, A Fire, and a Tea Cozy
†† If they trash me anyway, I can take refuge in feeling morally superior.
††† And there are enough trolls and enough really stupid flame wars that if some of us want to err on the side of niceness then I think we’re performing a community service^.
^ This is a book-length rant for someone else to write, but it makes me kind of nuts that some people want to argue that the web isn’t a community, or a series of communities. They’re different kinds of communities than the face to face kind, but they’re still communities. It’s what humans do: we band together, one way or another.+ We create societies. We can’t help it; we’re hardwired for it. And for those of us who live several thousand miles from our best friends, we’re kind of used to virtual anyway.
+ Even solitary crabby writers may do things like learn method bell ringing. In a tower. With other people. And bells, of course.
‡ This is also not to say that argument and controversy are wrong. We need people out there wielding discourse like a magic sword. This just doesn’t happen to be in my skill set. I can do Evil Cow. I can’t do St George or St Joan. There are also some extremely funny sites dedicated to hunting down bad books and nailing their trophy heads to virtual walls. Which is also fine. The web’s a big place. There’s room for most^ of the ways humans like to enjoy themselves. But I can’t do Oscar Wilde or Alexander Pope either and I’m not going to try.
^ That’s only most
‡‡ Myalgic encephalomyelitis, so not my friend
‡‡‡ Maybe 100,000. Maybe more. Maybe less, but not a lot less.
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.