the problematic nature of niceness.

| Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Today's Tune: Dammit (cover)

First: one of my flash fiction pieces should be posted over at Glass Cases today! Yay! You should check it out. If you've been following me for a while, you've probably seen it before (it's the one with the hot Italian boy and the kissing), but maybe it's worth another read amiright. You should also follow that blog because it's run by wonderful literary agent Sarah LaPolla and is full of great advice and fun snippets from up-and-coming authors.

Next: let's talk about niceness and the YA community. FUN.

The kidlit community as a whole is one of the warmest, kindest, most helpful and welcoming groups of people that I've ever come across in my life. There's a genuine desire to support each other and be one another's sounding boards. We want to lift each other up and plug each other's books and talk about how awesome so-and-so is. And it's a wonderful thing.

It's also occasionally a little naive and possibly damaging to our credibility and/or ability to take legitimate criticism.

DO NOT GET ME WRONG, I'm definitely not saying the kindness and warmth of the YA community is a bad thing. Not at all. I'd much rather rub elbows with cool, sweet people than wanky jerks who belittle my work so theirs can pull ahead. However, there's no doubt that YA writers as a whole tend to be a little, er, soft on each other. It's intended as encouragement and support, but sometimes it comes off as treating someone with the "kid gloves."

I've often wondered if this is one of the core reasons why there always seems to be a minor explosion every time a YA author gets blasted in reviews. Granted this occasionally happens with general fiction as well, but it seems particularly pervasive in the YA community. A lot of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" and "she worked SO HARD on this, how DARE you criticize her" and "you really can't talk until YOU'VE written and published a book" seems to get bandied about, both from fellow writers and from the audience (teens) themselves. Is this a factor of the supportive/nice environment? Is it because YA authors generally tend to be a little more internet savvy and thus have larger internet followings? Or is it because the teenage audience is quicker to bristle at perceived slights on books they enjoyed?

Maybe it's all of the above. Perhaps more than in many other genres, YA authors consider themselves friends rather than colleagues. We want to stick up for our friends and protect them from the bad things that might make them cry. That's what friends do.

But sometimes I worry that this attitude is a little damaging to our genre. If we can't take the slightest bit of criticism, no matter how legitimate, without our friends rushing to our defense, does that make us look less credible in the eyes of other authors? Kidlit already gets kind of a bum rap from literary authors -- the ones who are supposedly writing the classics of our age. It's taken less seriously, treated as something simplistic that's meant to fill children's heads with candy fluff until they're old enough to read "real" books. So how does it look when we cringe away and yell, "Why can't you just be nice? Why do you have to tell everyone why you didn't like my book?"

Yes, criticism can hurt. Bigtime. Especially when it's snarky or completely unfair (I mean, really, the person who drops a star off their rating because you used like two adverbs in the entire book and they're anti-adverb? Weak.). But we can learn to roll with the punches. We write legitimate fiction, right? Our work has a place beside any other novel, right? Then we can take our licks. We can become better, stronger.

Another worry I have is that the inability to take criticism often stems from not getting serious criticism before publication. Maybe we need to find more people who DON'T lavish us with praise and tell us how cool we are. Maybe we need to find that person who will look at our manuscript and go, "Dude, no, you can't do this. You will get snarked at so badly. Your main character is being a whiny brat. Fix her."

Hopefully we can all find someone like my amazing critique partner Kim, who is both my cheerleader and the person who's willing to say, "I have no idea what you mean here" or "WTF is going on" or "this character would totally not act this way."

The YA community is amazing, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's so hard to find kind, helpful people. We can continue getting stronger and better so long as we don't mistake "niceness" for "saying what you need to hear to make you feel better." Sometimes we need the tough love, too.

Who better to give tough love than the people who'll give you a hug afterward, right?


{ thebloodfiend } at: May 18, 2011 at 6:42 AM said...

Thank you. Seriously. Thank you.

I was going to write about this on my blog, but you've saved me the time and said it much better(read: nicer) than I ever could.

I wish we could go back to the days(not literally) of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. They were friends and colleagues. And they weren't afraid to critique each other.

Also, when I was lurking a few days ago, I read your flash fiction story and I liked it. Then I read your short story, Chasing Shadows, and I liked that. Great blog, and you're a pretty good writer.

{ Old Kitty } at: May 18, 2011 at 9:13 AM said...

Your flash story isn't there yet! I can't wait to read it though!!

Take care

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 18, 2011 at 9:29 AM said...

@thebloodfiend - Thank you very much, I greatly appreciate the compliment. Especially since I know you guys over there at The Book Lantern tend to be a little more critical ;)

@Kitty - Sorry! It should be posted sometime today!

{ aspiring_x } at: May 18, 2011 at 9:47 AM said...

and i'd add, that if you are being TRULY nice, you'll be honest with your crit, because if you are nice, you aren't going to let your friend jump out there and make a fool of themselves! :)

{ Magan } at: May 18, 2011 at 10:20 AM said...

First off, YEAH for being posted over at Glass Cases. Second, I'm glad that you wrote about this. Sometimes I'm afraid to give a bad review for being flamed!

{ Margo Lerwill } at: May 18, 2011 at 10:24 AM said...

Ohhh, this is sooo not confined to YA lit. Fantasy is also currently a refuge for the too-sensitive-to-be-criticized crowd. The problem is that the attitude comes packaged with an unwillingness to dig in and learn anything about writing. It's all supposed to be stream of consciousness, muse-driven, high art that's too precious for rules and standards. I hate hate hate to say this, as a female. The worst offenders I know are all female. I wish I could tell them to put their big girl panties on, but it would just make them upset and paint me as a meanie. Nothing good could come out of that scenario.

{ Jonathan Auxier } at: May 18, 2011 at 10:39 AM said...

I find it ironic that the first commenter -- while praising you for wanting less blanket-supportism -- wrote such an unabashedly supportive comment. (Also, his profile picture scares me!)

A friend of mine recently observed that for those unwilling to use emoticons, the only way to communicate in email without sounding angry/sarcastic is to end every other sentence with an exclamation mark. This problem is even worse on Twitter, where every comment is also incredibly public. I know you're talking about something slightly different as it relates to YA reviews, but I think the two trends are closely related.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 18, 2011 at 12:07 PM said...

@aspiring - I like that outlook! Good friends tell you when there's something in your teeth ;)

@Magan - Thanks! I think that's a pretty common fear, unfortunately.

@Margo - Ha, good to know. I think I only see it because I'm predominantly involved in the YA community, but it makes sense that it happens in other genre fiction. I hear you on the big girl panties, but apparently even if you say it with the best intentions, people don't typically respond well. Sigh.

@Jonathan - I noticed that, too XD But hey, support and criticism don't have to be mutually exclusive, right? :) That's an interesting observation! About the exclamation points! You'd think that would make typed text sound MORE sarcastic sometimes, wouldn't you?

{ Margo Lerwill } at: May 18, 2011 at 12:41 PM said...

Hey, I just got the chance to read "Language Barriers". I know zip about flash fiction, but there was more story there than I thought there would be in flash fiction. So many snippets of really nice imagery. And some nice characterization work for Allison! I shall have to look into this thing called flash fiction.

(Sorry I couldn't be more critical. Write something bad next time, and I'll try again.) ;P

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 18, 2011 at 2:03 PM said...

LOL. Thanks, Margo. I'll work on writing something crappy for next time so you can tear it apart :D

{ Whirlochre } at: May 18, 2011 at 10:02 PM said...

Well done for entertaining Ms La Polla. I'll head over...

{ Stina Lindenblatt } at: May 19, 2011 at 4:40 AM said...

Wow, I've obviously missed something. I knew it's a supportive community, but I didn't know this was going on. I guess some people consider it to be like friends sticky up to the class bully. ;)

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