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Faking Nice in the Blogosphere: Women and Book Reviews

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writer and Huffington Post blogger Zetta Elliott recently wrote a thoughtful and deeply insightful post for Australian YA writer Justine Larbalestier's blog. Though Elliott's focus is largely on race and authority, something she said spoke deeply to something I've been thinking about for a long time in the context of book blogging in general:

...when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn't mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel?

This focus on "niceness" in critical approaches to young adult fiction--a genre almost overwhelmingly produced and consumed by women--is not accidental. Insisting that these books be subjected to a different kind of scrutiny, one which focuses only on the positive and is careful not to hurt anyone's feelings, is doing women a huge disservice.

There is certainly something to be said for making a concerted effort to promote good books, rather than focus on books which fall short of one's critical standards. And, as Elliott astutely notes, thoughtlessly negative reviews can have especially devastating consequences for writers of color, who have a hard enough time breaking into publishing as it is. Likewise, many writers, both male and female, feel empowered and rewarded by a positive and supportive community, whether virtual or physical.

But the role of the critic is not to make people feel good, to distribute hugs and goodwill all around; it is to contextualize and examine the role of a particular book, to evaluate its success as a work of art, to demand of both author and reader a certain accountability, and to hopefully open up a conversation.

Bypassing women altogether in that process is nothing new, but it's nothing to applaud. Book bloggers and reviewers--female book bloggers and reviewers especially--often seem to subscribe to a kind of cultlike apologism, in which they feel the need to defend the author as a person even if they are temerarious enough to be displeased by her book. Negative reviews are met with a resounding chorus in the comments: the author is a wonderful person, the author worked hard, the author did her very best. The idea is, apparently, that women are so exhausted by the intellectual labor required to produce the text in question that we are unable to withstand any subsequent critique, and ought instead to fall back on some kind of rosy-cheeked sorority of lady writers, exchanging stain-removal tips and sob stories. It goes without saying that male writers are accorded no such coddling, and that entry into this misty realm of sisterly solidarity requires acquiescence to a strict set of codes of behavior. Nice lady writers don't rock the boat, they don't hurt people's feelings, and they sure as hell don't write about topics that make other lady writers uncomfortable. But instead of promoting community, this obsession with niceness wields a potent silencing force. If nice ladies don't say critical things about other ladies' books, they also don't talk about racism and sexism within the publishing industry, the enormous barriers facing writers of color and women whose work doesn't fall into tidy and palatable genre categories, and the refusal of mainstream critics to acknowledge young adult fiction in particular as anything other than the realm of hack (read: female) writers incapable of producing "real" literature.

This cult of niceness is at its heart a pernicious kind of misogyny, one enforced almost exclusively by other women. As the incomparable New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted: "I am an equal opportunity critic. I will pan women as hard as men. I've had testy people imply that I should go easier on women's movies. I find that incredibly insulting. Are you kidding me? I don't want to be graded on a curve. None of us want to be a good woman writer." By caving in to an unwritten code of conduct that promotes a false sense of community over honest discourse, we're not doing ourselves any favors.