Wednesday, May 26, 2010

26. In which I am suddenly Ranting! and going on! about Rain, Reviews, Bullies, and Blankets

Rainy today.
Yesterday, after Charlie’s afternoon sleep, he just wanted to sit on the couch with me for a while, holding his threadbare yellow blanket. He told me he likes to put his fingers in the holes in his blanket, and I said, I wish I had a blanket because then I could put my fingers in the holes too. That pleased him, and we spent some time imagining that everybody had a blanket; we went through all the people we know, and imagined each one with yellow blankets. Then he said, imagine if everybody was a yellow blanket. And he said, imagine if everybody was a tv, and then, imagine if everybody was a light so we had to come in and switch them on! And then he said imagine if everyone was a kiss.


I finally read The Consolation of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, a few weeks back, and then I had a beautiful, lulling sense that I now understood philosophy. All of it.

It was like the time that I listened to that Beginners French CD, and believed that I was fluent in French.

They both – Alain de Botton, and the narrator of my French CD – they both had gentle, authoritative voices, voices that coax you along, murmuring, ‘You see?’—voices that hold out their hands so that butterflies of fact can gently rise and just as gently land inside your ears before slipping gracefully into your brain.

I came to my computer, wanting more of this wise and gentle man, this Alain de Botton, and googled him, wondering what else he could teach me in his thoughtful, soothing voice, and the first thing I found was that, recently, somebody had published a negative review of his work, and he had responded:

I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.


Here’s something I think: that in many ways, young adults are brighter than adults, but adults often think the opposite.

It’s something that I notice in certain reviews of young adult fiction.

There are adult issues in this book so young people will not be interested/will not understand, reviewers say.
Are you mad! Do you think that young people don’t want to know about the world that they live in?! Do you think they are not affected every day by adult issues?! That they aren’t getting prepared to take them on?!

Or else: No young adult would ever say this/behave like this/ do this.
Actually, young adults will do and say and behave in as many ways as adults do. They’re just as various, only younger.

Once, someone wrote in a review of one of my books: No young person would be able to write as well as the characters in this book.

I just laughed at that. I kind of wished that it was true. But the fact is, young writers are often better than adult writers. I get e-mails from young people that can make me cry and laugh in a paragraph - that have imagination, imagery, and intelligence all sewn up. I’ve read the blogs of teenagers and thought: ‘Why? Why am I writing for young adults? They do it so much better themselves.'

The only reason they're not writing the books is that they're too bright, and they're moving too fast. They don't stop for long enough to finish novels.

My youngest sister was playing her DS brain game the other day, and she got depressed because the DS told her that her mental age was twelve years older than she actually is. So that made her my age. That meant she was stupid. On DS, the aim is to be younger. DS knows how to respect the young!

I felt kind of disrespected though.


I’m thinking of the writer I met the other day who mentioned a review: this book should be pulped, and so should the person who wrote it.

One of the many things I like about Justine Larbalestier’s blog is that she has a rule: no disrespecting living authors.
Sometimes I think reviewers are disrespectful because they’re insecure. When you review a book, you’re setting yourself up as a person in position to judge – that troubles some reviewers: maybe they suspect they’re not in that position. So they have to puff themselves up like bullfrogs — talk about how well-read they are, use esoteric language — or stomp all over the book’s head.

Or else, they might be disrespectful because they think it’s good writing — to mock, sneer and jeer is entertaining. It’s a cheap, easy way to entertain.
Actually, it’s bullying.


I’ve been thinking about bullying, too.
The kind that involves insults, I mean.
A while back, somebody commented on this blog and said that her high school headmistress had once said to her: ‘You will always be the plainest person in the room.’ (The commenter added, ‘It’s true, too, I am.’)

It’s been three weeks since the boys in the park called him ‘stupid’, and Charlie still says to me, now and then, ‘I’m not stupid, am I, Mummy?’

Personal insults! You often believe them. They can get right inside your head. And the same goes for the sneering, jeering voice that bullies often use.

So, I’ve been wondering how you’re supposed to deal with bullies. I found a website on the topic, that said, ‘Stand tall’ and ‘Eat more healthy snacks’ and ‘Have a shower before you go to school’. It also suggested you say in a loud voice, ‘No! Stop that!’ before walking or running away.

So, there’s that approach.

There’s also the school of thought that you see in movies, that says the answer is to fight back hard. Take secret lessons in karate! Practise boxing with your dad out the back! And then, the next time you see the bully, knock them unconscious.
They’ll look at you with fresh admiration (once they come to) and you might even end up as friends.
But what happens if you just make them madder? And what about when you get arrested?

Neither approach would help with a headmistress who tells you you’re not pretty — that kind of thing, you don’t even know that it is bullying at the time.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know how to deal with bullies. I’m thinking, the only solution is to ask them. What would make you stop? That’s what we have to do: ask the bullies.


I read somewhere that Alain de Botton apologised for his response to that review — or at least, for putting it online (he’d meant it just to go to the reviewer).
It was intended as a verbal punch, he said.
The reviewer had suggested that de Botton, personally, had been mean-spirited in his book, and he wanted to impress upon the reviewer how much that had hurt.
He must subscribe to that ‘fight back hard’ school of thought.

But writers are not supposed to fight back at all! They’re supposed to accept reviews with dignified silence.
It’s so entrenched, this rule, that when a writer does hit back, there’s an embarrassed kind of sympathy, or scorn, or disapproval.

I don’t know if responding is the right thing to do. I doubt that angry threats are the solution. Even calm, reasoned responses are, mostly, a waste of the writer’s time: even though the writer is the expert — the one who knows the book better than anybody — nobody else believes that. The writer is too subjective, too caught up, and the book belongs to the public sphere.

More to the point, vicious or unkind reviews are just not seen as bullying.
They’re seen as critics doing their job: and critics should be free to say exactly what they want! That’s how criticism works! It’s how things get better! It’s robust and open discussion! Freedom of speech!

I think, actually, it’s not. Viciousness never made a writer improve. This book should be pulped, and so should its author. I doubt that that improved the writer’s writing.

The only solution that I can see here is a revolution.

I don’t mean critics should praise everything, or that we all have to get yellow security blankets, or that everyone has to be a kiss.

I just mean, if you criticise, do it with respect, and without sneering, and without getting personal. Have some freakin manners. That’s all I mean.

(And if you’re a schoolteacher, never tell someone that they’re plain. What a thing to say.)