A Book Blogger’s Manifesto

There’s been a couple of manifestos floating about in the wake of Joanne Harris’ Writer’s Manifesto. It got me thinking about what I promise as a blogger and reviewer, what I think is important. So I thought I’d do a quick manifesto myself.

  1. I promise to give you my real opinion. Even if I’m friends with the author or the publicist or someone’s feelings might get hurt.
  2. I promise to remember that everyone has feelings. I’m not going to attack someone, tweet a critical review directly at the author, etc. Everyone has feelings, and it’s just courtesy to do your best to avoid hurting them.
  3. I promise to reply to comments and return your visits. You put in effort to engage with me, and I’ll make the same effort to engage with you.
  4. But, when I’m stressed out and things are hard, I reserve the right to take time off. Even if my scheduled posts are still going ahead. Even if I post something that generates a lot of discussion. I’m a human being, and I need time off too.
  5. I promise to let you know of my bias. When a book is by a friend or I’m doing something as a favour, then I will let you know. If I’m not aware of my bias, then I can’t tell you, but…
  6. I promise to be open to criticism. It’s not easy, but I know I’m as fallible as any other creature. I may react badly, but I promise I will think about what you say.
  7. I promise to be open to new things. I’m sure there’s things I’m neglecting and things I haven’t tried yet, many of which I may love. I’ll be open to them when they come my way.
  8. I promise to review books that I’m given for that purpose. Whether I like them or not.

I’m sure once this goes live I’ll think of something else, so I might add to this. Feel free to borrow the idea, the wording, link to this, whatever you like, if it speaks to you.


Perhaps YOU should…

This isn’t so much book-related, but hey, this blog is the platform I’ve got, so I’ll use it. And it can be related to books, since it comes up when people advocate for buying more books by authors of any minority identity, or for more books of a certain topic. It’s that argument I’m sure you’ve seen around…

“If you want [x], then YOU should do it.”

Which makes two assumptions: one, that when somebody wants something, it’s their responsibility to go and get it for themselves — even if they’re in a difficult position for that, even if what they want is fairness and equality, even if other people are in a position to help them. And two, that the person advocating for this thing is a hypocrite and is not campaigning in their own life for these things.

If you believe that fairness is not your responsibility, or the responsibility of anyone else, that’s fine, but I’m gonna sit here and judge you for it all I want.

But the second assumption — look, even if I was a hypocrite, all that says is that I’m a hypocrite, not that what I’m arguing for is wrong. And you better be damn sure while you’re at it that I am actually a hypocrite, or you look really fucking silly.

Kids and Reading

The twitter conversation that caught my eye this weekend was started by Joanne Harris, talking about ways to get kids to read, and one of the important things she said is that you mustn’t denigrate a kid’s choices — even if they’re too young or too old for them, even if you don’t think it’s appropriate. You shouldn’t take the book away, even if an eleven year old is picking up Fifty Shades of Grey. And, well, I agree.

See, the thing is, if you forbid something, it becomes even more intriguing. And if they then seek it out for themselves, you’ve put a barrier between yourself and them — they can’t come to you with any questions or problems related to it, because you forbade them to do it and they’re worried about getting in trouble. So say your eleven year old does read E.L. James’ work; wouldn’t you rather they be able to ask questions about what they read, discuss problems with it with you, and not needlessly have them enshrining it as the epitome of adulthood and sexiness and romance?

I don’t recall my parents ever saying I shouldn’t read something. Sometimes my mum thought a book was a bit too ‘old’ for me and it’d spoil it if I tried to read it too young (The Lord of the Rings, for instance), but I only recall that happening once or twice. I had the run of her bookshelves from a very young age, and she got books out of the adult section of the library for me when our librarians wouldn’t even let me into that part of the library. I don’t recall her ever vetting ahead of time the books I was reading, and I don’t recall either of my parents ever talking trash about a book I was reading.

The first time I remember anything of the kind was a school librarian scolding me for reading Enid Blyton — and so I went home and asked my mother why I’d been scolded, and we talked about the racism and sexism of the books, and why people didn’t think much of them. And I’m pretty sure Mum told me that it was okay to read them as long as I understood that, and that of course the books were fun, they were meant to be, and there was nothing wrong with enjoying them. (I’m also fairly sure that was about the same time as I realised that there were much better books out there, as I was meeting wizards and robots; Tolkien, Le Guin and Asimov.)

Racking my brains, those are the only instances I can even think of where I was discouraged from reading anything as a kid. And, well, look at me now…

But seriously, if you want your kid to read, don’t try and drag the “wrong” books out of their hands. Just try and make sure that they know you’re open to them coming and asking questions, and perhaps you could even let them know if you think a book is better put off (it worked with me and The Lord of the Rings, at least). Even if they’re reading comics, books below their reading level, books you don’t like — it’s a door into the world of literature, and if you slam that door, it might put them off finding another. I was older than my peers when I finally started reading, and was still reading books with rhymes and pictures and lots of colour. A year after I finally unlocked that door and learnt to read, I’d leapt ahead of everyone else, while my peers were still bouncing off the school reading books.

(The first door I went through into literature was the door to Cat and Mouse’s house. After that, it was small and round and painted green, with certain marks scratched onto it with a staff: “Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.” I don’t know how many times I read and reread The Hobbit; again, my parents didn’t try to stop me. Well, there was a creaky floorboard and a loud bedside light designed to let them know if I was reading late into the night, but that was just to make sure I slept.)

Oh, and if your child gets most of their vocabulary from books, don’t mock them when they inevitably pronounce things wrong, please. My mother has had much jollity at my expense because I couldn’t pronounce even simple words, and it didn’t exactly encourage me to use my vocabulary and express myself. Puts a bit of a halt in the conversation when I have to stop and spell out a word because I don’t want to be laughed at if I say it wrong.

Should I ever have children, they’re getting their own library cards and as soon as they’re old enough to express any preference, I’m gonna let them choose whatever they like. Even if I’m sick of reading it. Even if it’s more pictures than words. Even if it’s too difficult for them and it’ll take a long time to get through it, or they’ll get bored of it. I’m going to let them choose, let them know they can talk to me about any and all of it, and make sure that they always, always have access to books — new and old. If they have favourites that they want to revisit, I’ll buy them so that enchantment is waiting ready to hand whenever they want it.

And if they don’t want books, well, I won’t despair. My sister didn’t read much from the age of ten to sixteen or so, and then I put a copy of Century Rain (Alistair Reynolds) in her hands, and she’s been devouring books ever since. Sometimes it just takes the right book at the right time.

What Should Diversity Mean?

Last weekend, I was following posts and tweets about Maggie Stiefvater (a white writer) being on a panel called “Writing the Other”. You can get some background here, but it’s not necessary for my post. The gist of many of the posts was that Stiefvater, a white writer, had no place on such a panel. There is a certain argument for that — that whatever else she is, Stiefvater still has a certain amount of privilege that means her voice doesn’t need promoting as much. And her definition of “Other” was fairly loose and included “writing about places you haven’t visited” and examples like that, which is not usually what we mean when we’re talking about “the Other”.

To pause and briefly define terms, when we’re talking about “Otherness”, it’s usually (in my understanding) about other identities, rather than other experiences. So gay people, people of colour, people with disabilities, Jewish people — groups of people who are “Othered”, who are treated as a distinct group with common traits.

But I did like something Stiefvater said in her original post, which I’ll quote here:

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write [sic] about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

To me, this definitely has a place on a diversity panel. I can tell you that as someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve definitely been Othered. Even just as a Welsh person, I’ve had experiences that sometimes echo those of people of colour — for instance, when I read Catrin Collier’s introduction to Margiad Evans’ book, Country Dance:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

Sound at all familiar? It did to me — both from the experiences of post-colonial people (which arguably, includes the Welsh) and from my own experiences. I didn’t know there was any Welsh literature. Raised in England, I was vaguely under the impression that writing was not a thing Welsh people did, that we didn’t have a written culture. Or not one worth exploring, at any rate.

Imagine my surprise at university, at the age of 21, when I signed up for a ‘Welsh Fiction in English’ class, and discovered a whole world of Welsh writing!

So what should diversity mean? The assumption seemed to be that Maggie Stiefvater could not be Other, could not represent diversity, because she’s visibly white.

Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too. The very fact that people immediately assumed that Stiefvater couldn’t be Other is a little worrying — there are invisible illnesses and disabilities, there are people who aren’t out, there are people whose racial/cultural background isn’t obvious. Diversity panels obviously shouldn’t be made up solely of white people, but let’s make an effort to think about the non-obvious forms of diversity, too. Just because you can look at someone and see white skin, a majority culture and a boyfriend, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about diversity.

I haven’t read any of Stiefvater’s work yet, nor do I know anything about her mental health; the fact that she wanted to talk about it, though — and that the person who criticised her involvement in a panel didn’t even seem to consider that angle — struck a chord. If Stiefvater has things to say about OCD and suicide from personal experience, then we need to make space for that. If not in a panel about ‘Writing the Other’, then where? What is more Other than a group of people who’ve been literally demonised throughout history?

Now, if there’s a panel made up entirely of white people, we should definitely criticise it. And we should criticise any sign of homogeneity in such panels, if we end up at a point where a panel is all white gay men, or all white women with mental illnesses. But perhaps not by targeting an individual and saying, essentially, ‘you have no right to talk about being Other‘. Maybe, instead, we could ask, ‘Why do you feel you’re qualified to talk about being Other? What do you bring to the table?’ Let’s make a space for people to say, “I have an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to talk about how ‘crazy’ people are represented in fiction.” Or, “Well, I’m a woman dating a guy, but I’m actually bisexual and I’d like to talk about bi-erasure and problems specific to bisexual people.”

And if the answer is, “Well, actually, I’m not from a minority group at all, but I have thoughts about how they should be portrayed in fiction,” then we can say, “Maybe you should step down from the panel in favour of people who’ve lived those experiences.”

Mind you, I don’t know if that’ll work, because some people will always think they have something worthwhile to say, whether they do or not. Some people will always privilege their voices above others. But I’d like it if people would just stop to think about what diversity really looks like — whether it looks like anything at all, or whether we need to hold back on some of our assumptions.

Maybe it does need to look diverse. I just read Justina Ireland‘s post about diversity panels, and the fact that her experiences show that having a person of colour on the panel — just one! — already means a lot to other people of colour. Maybe we need to make sure that the people we have to speak on diversity panels are not just diverse, but intersectionally so. Black and mentally ill. Gay and Jewish. Genderqueer and Islamic.

For damn sure, diversity panels right now are sending a message, and it’s not the right one.

Guilty Pleasures

I’m sure I’ve said before that I’m reading something as a ‘guilty pleasure’ read. For a long time, I felt that way about Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, any urban fantasy I read, sometimes YA or rereads. And I’ve had a good think about it recently, and I’ve decided that for me, with reading, there will no longer be any such thing.

I mean, really. It’s often shorthand for “I’m ashamed of reading this, i.e. I think it is not literary enough, i.e. it is not proper reading”. It’s judgemental. If, say, reading romance is my guilty pleasure, that would imply that people who read romance regularly should also feel guilty — that it’s somehow beneath my usual standards and I’m lowering myself to read it. The intent is probably usually somewhere between that and “I don’t want people to think this is all I read”. It may be that you don’t mean anything mean/derogatory by it, but I’ve seen/heard it that way so many times, I think it’s worth unpacking and thinking about why you want to make sure people know this is a ‘guilty pleasure’.

Why should you feel guilty for enjoying something? Reading is, for most of us, primarily entertainment. For some of us, it’s our mental health; you can literally correlate my reading habits and my mood, the ups and downs of my anxiety and depression. And entertainment isn’t actually trivial. Especially when it comes to books, which offer us whole new worlds, and make us do the work to realise them. It’s important that we have these pocket universes to indulge ourselves in, and it’s important that those worlds meet our needs: escapism, comfort, exploration, imagination. Maybe what you need is a book you read as a kid, something which you know is racist and sexist, but which spoke to you as a baby queer. Maybe this particular book is terrible about homosexuality but it has an amazing portrayal of your culture. Maybe it’s just terrible, but it speaks to you right now. That’s okay.

So if what you need to read is a saccharine romance where the heroine swoons into her lover’s arms, don’t feel guilty. Please don’t! It is almost definitely worth examining why you have to minimise the fact that you’re reading it — is it problematic? Are you trying to duck a stereotype (like woman on her period = chocolate and chick flicks)? Is it about you, or about how you want people to see you?

But it’s not worth feeling guilty about taking some time out and having fun. Fuck that noise. Examine it, sure — when you have the time and energy.

Liking Problematic Things (And People)

It happens all the time in fandom. You’ve been watching something awesome, reading something, whatever, and it turns out that the creator said something racist or there’s an episode which really sucks in the way it treats women, or… And suddenly, everyone’s talking about it, being critical about it, and telling you that you should stop liking it. Sometimes it even feels like they’re attacking you when they attack this thing that you love, because it questions your taste, your discernment, your personal views.

Stop a moment.

There will be people who are saying ‘Supernatural fans are all scum because [xyz]’, or ‘how can you support a man who says gay people should be shot?’ or ‘how dare you like this thing which appropriates my culture?’ You can’t win an argument with them: they’ve weighed in on the liking-problematic-things issue and decided that once a thing crosses a certain line, they can’t/won’t like it, they can’t/won’t support it, etc. That’s their decision and if they won’t leave you alone about it, I suggest blocking/muting, because arguing with them isn’t going to go anywhere.

But is it okay to like problematic things?

Yes. Yes, it is. Look: no one is perfect, everybody has some prejudice or pet peeve or even a trauma in their past which makes them act in a certain way. Everyone. As long as you acknowledge that, as long as you’re okay with criticism of the things you love, and you don’t just want to close your eyes and pretend it’s not there, then go right ahead. I like the MCU, but I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t bother me that we’re low on female Avengers and somehow it’s more important to introduce Spider-man for the gazillionth time than it is to give us Carol Danvers just once. I like Jeremy Renner’s acting work, but I don’t appreciate his comments on Black Widow. I like Jacqueline Carey’s work, but I’m also aware that the exoticisation of various cultures is a problem.

And then there’s the fact that people change. There are still feuds going on in science fiction fandom from Racefail ’09. People who won’t speak to each other, who’ve blacklisted each other, and yet stand on the same side of current debates about the Hugos. It’s difficult to know how to navigate that as a reader: is it okay to like Elizabeth Bear? Sarah Monette? They’re saying the right things now, but there are clearly still grudges in fandom, feelings that some people should have apologised or apologised better or perhaps even that no apology will be enough. Is it okay to like Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work after the discovery of her identity as Requires Hate/Winterfox?

I was worrying about this for a while, once I realised that Katherine Addison was Sarah Monette, and I knew the name because of Racefail ’09. When I realised that the first time I’d heard of some Tor editors was during that whole debacle and that maybe I wasn’t entirely happy that things had changed there. When I realised that X was friends with Y and Y had said some seriously problematic stuff at some point.

Here’s my decision: we’re all people, and we’re none of us perfect. We miss things, we prioritise different issues, we like things despite issues. And that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, each individual has to make those decisions for themselves. Let’s have no illusions: we’re all going to like things which are in some way offensive, awkward, biased, unapologetic. We’re going to disagree on what those things are and where lines are drawn. We’re not going to be able to come to some consensus about what it is okay to like. Even people you love will say some seriously stupid shit.

If someone likes Orson Scott Card’s work, it’s not a sign that they’re automatically my enemy — their priorities are just different, and that’s fine. If they deny that what he says is offensive, then maybe we can’t be friends because we disagree at a fairly fundamental level, but if they say ‘yeah, he’s a jerk, but I love Ender’s Game anyway’… okay. I think there’s room for that.

So yeah. You’ll see me reading and reviewing stuff by people who have said really stupid things, sometimes. Really offensive things, probably. Maybe even books which have racist elements or which are rife with colonialism. Reading and even liking those things is not an endorsement of the stupid/offensive things. The only thing which is an endorsement of bad behaviour, prejudice, etc, is… endorsement!

If there’s something problematic I haven’t acknowledged about a book, by all means, let’s talk about it. I’m as full of prejudice as anyone, as fallible, and as often out of the loop. But I’m not going to hate something on demand. Deal?