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Friday, August 11, 2017

On The Black Witch, YA Lit And Related Issues

Earlier this week, I ran across an article at Vulture about young adult novel discussions on Twitter which focused on The Black Witch, a novel by Laurie Forest released earlier this year. To summarize, earlier this year, there was a review of The Black Witch that was highly critical of the novel (it may be found here) and followed by reactions ranging from tweets questioning the book to negative reactions to reviews that praised the book. A few months after the book was released, the Vulture article in question went up, which has sparked more debate, such as that tweets the author, Kat Rosenfield, linked to were on teens' accounts.

I won't go into too much detail about the novel itself, other than to say that I haven't read it but that there are some reviews on Goodreads that are worth considering (you can find the full thread of them here). But regardless of one's opinion about the book, there are several issues that need consideration when we talk about the world of YA publishing. As a YA writer, I have thought about a few of these issues from time to time, while others came up as I thought about the discussion surrounding The Black Witch.

The truth is, I have read from a lot of authors of all types about pushback they get against them for whatever reason, to the point that some wonder if it's even worth discussing their works with the public. We are in a society in which social media and the Internet are major parts of our lives and, while they have opened new doors and allowed for new opportunities that weren't available before, they come with a host of problems that we are struggling to address.

Meanwhile, having entered the YA field, I find myself struggling not only with how my writing takes shape in genera, but whether or not I am doing justice to the characters I write and to how to better represent people of all types. I imagine a lot of other YA authors feel the same way.

So here are some issues that need consideration regarding not just The Black Witch, but any novel that tries to tackle tough issues, and things we need to keep in mind regarding our discussions and debates about novels and literature.

The issues novels can tackle are often ugly. The Black Witch's main theme is prejudice, which takes a lot of forms, often forms that are not pretty. People tend to fear what they don't understand, especially if they have never grown up around particular individuals. Even our Internet age that allows us to connect with more people of different types hasn't solved this, especially because the Internet can just as easily allow the same types of people to gather in like-minded circles and sometimes keep bouncing the same views off one another.

And if we are honest, we are all prejudiced to some degree, regardless of race, sex, orientation, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, location, ethnicity -- the list goes on. True, for those of us living in the United States, white, Anglo-Saxon males have tended to dominate historically, but on a worldwide scale, it's more complex. And those prejudices have taken ugly forms at times, ranging from slurs and harsh stereotypes to slavery and genocide. Prejudice has long been a weak point of human beings in general and something we still struggle with to this day.

But while I understand that words can be harmful, authors need to be able to explore these tough issues in order to get people to consider their shortcomings and question their own views. It's not just regarding prejudice -- there are plenty of issues that can address tough, often ugly, issues ranging from portrayal of warfare to abusive relationships. Sometimes it leads to material that can be sensitive to some readers. I understand the need for authors to carefully research what they write and to get feedback on what can be sensitive topics, but we have to be careful we don't discourage authors from exploring these issues or even make them decide they don't want to write any more.

Open, honest discussion about what authors can do to better address such topics should be welcomed, but we have to remember that sometimes we can't avoid ugly truths if we want to get people who may not be as aware, to become more aware.

People, in real life, don't always change quickly. One of the complaints I've heard about The Black Witch is that it took until halfway through the book before the protagonist started to change. But when you consider the protagonist grew up in the same area for 17 years and had no contact with people outside her own, it's not surprising it would take her a while. Because that's closer to reality than people may realize.

It's easy to think that, with Internet, social media and other means of networking that people will experience a broad range of individuals, but as I mentioned earlier, these new forms of communications have also allowed like-minded individuals to congregate and seldom go outside their bounds. But even when we do go outside those bounds, the online connections are no substitute for face-to-face interactions.

It's those face-to-face interactions that do a lot more to break down the walls and get people to understand how those who are different from them are really like. So it would be a natural progression that, in a book's world in which people don't have face-to-face interactions with those who are different, that when said people do have more of those interactions, it may take longer for them to warm up.

That's not to say all such criticisms of The Black Witch are invalid -- only that we must remember that face-to-face interactions do more to get us to really understand others who out there and what they are really like.

Diversity in publishing is a legitimate issue that may take time to address. It's true the major publishers were dominated by white males at one point, and that it tends to be white females who are becoming more prominent at them now, while others appear lost in the shuffle, but this is a complex web that's not so easily untangled when you consider a number of factors.

First, it's difficult for any author to get in with a major publisher -- you need an agent to do that and, without an agent, a major publisher won't consider you. Even with an agent, that's no guarantee you'll sign with a major publisher. We know about how the authors who became famous received multiple rejections the first time they tried to break into the publishing world, so you can imagine what that obstacle can be like for authors who are under-represented in the publishing world.

Second, while self-publishing is providing a means of allowing under-represented authors to get their works out there, it requires they do a lot of the work themselves -- in particular, promoting themselves. And some writers struggle with finding ways to market their books (I know I'm still learning that stuff). For those that do know how to market themselves, they must still navigate a world in which millions of books are out there. Figuring out how to stand out from the crowd is not easy.

Third, even with publishers wanting to promote diversity, their methods of promoting it may not be the best methods. It seems to me that there's more interest in making sure we have every type represented as characters in the novels, rather than trying to find more authors of every type and get their works represented. But even if you get those authors, the publishers may only show interest in books with themes that appeal to a mass audience. Finding a way to address such challenges is not an easy thing.

There are other challenges ranging from which groups are showing the most interest in reading (which plays a part in how many of those types of people will want to pursue novel writing) to the interest in paper-bound books versus ebooks (an area that the publishing industry is still figuring out and in which it may be fair to ask if demographics play a part) to the tendency of publishers to fall back on proven authors over those trying to get their first novel published.

Getting more diversity in publishing is fine, but the challenges that presents are many and it will take time to sort everything out and get it where it may need to be.

Outrage culture is dominating society too much. Regardless of where one stands on political, social, economic or any other issue, there is a tendency to vent our frustrations and outrage more than wanting to engage in discussion. And that leads to the tendency of some to follow that outrage because they become enamored with the drama that comes along with it.

It's often encouraged by the ability of people to like or favorite social media posts, reviews, forum posts and other forms of online communication. For some people, they are less interested in how a discussion is taking shape and more concerned with getting gratification and reward for having a post everybody loves -- that is, until somebody comes in with a counter point (sometimes regardless of how it's worded) and the arguments start.

Outrage culture often leads to whoever is leading the charge becoming less interested in promoting change or raising awareness and more interested with promoting themselves and raising their status. It can also lead to people who are unwilling to consider a single word of somebody's counterpoint and try to shout them down. In short, outrage culture does nothing to advance discussion and lead to meaningful change and, in the long run, can do more harm than good to whatever issue people are trying to raise.

And that brings me to this...

Twitter is problematic for open, honest discussion. I use Twitter and have found it useful in some ways. There are people who use it who have found ways to engage in honest discussion or raise valid points. It can serve as a means to promote your work or link to articles and blog post. And I have found it's the best way for me to post updates about sports events I cover for my full-time job at a newspaper.

But Twitter comes with plenty of drawbacks, which has led to the point that some want nothing to do with this form of social media. Let's go over some of the problems.

* The 140 character limit tends to boil things down to the simplest of terms and reinforces the mindset that Twitter is not about having a meaningful discussion, but about throwing out talking points, sound bites, memes and one liners, with gifs thrown in for good measure.

* It's extremely difficult to keep tweets private. Case in point is the Vulture article that linked to tweets off several people's accounts, many who were teens. But Twitter is set up so that somebody can link to any tweet that isn't protected -- and even that protection isn't foolproof, as a follower can share it and risk that it goes into the public realm.

* Twitter offers the least amount of information on a profile so people can know who they are conversing with. For people who may want to keep that information private, it works in their favor. But the flipside is how can one possibly know how old somebody is or exactly who they are dealing with if they have so little information to go by? For those who link to random tweets, some people may not even realize who is the person behind the tweet.

* Twitter offers one the least control over who can talk to them and who can follow them. Users can mute or block others, but it doesn't always prevent their tweets or replies from getting responded to by whoever wants to respond. Compare that to Facebook, in which users have more control over who can see what -- again, not foolproof, but more measures in place than what is on Twitter.

* Policing Twitter behavior has been a difficult exercise. People who run Facebook pages and groups can control posting and monitor inappropriate behavior, but Twitter doesn't operate like that. Additionally, the founders of Twitter haven't always been responsive to cutting down on inappropriate behavior, given how the platform works.

Those issues make Twitter problematic and are among the reasons why some people just don't bother with it any longer. And while some of the issues are the responsibility of those who founded and run Twitter, others fall into the hands of users who may find it too tempting to throw something out there just to get attention.

If we are going to address concerns about YA literature or literature in general, it's going to require more open, honest discussion about these and other issues, but it will also require everyone to keep an open mind and not be so defensive regarding how we approach our concerns. We may have good intentions regarding the issues we want to raise, but a flawed approach does nothing to address those issues and may, in fact, make the situation worse.

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