Bad behaviour: Authors versus teen reviewers

We’re all subject to criticism, and the larger our profiles, the louder, more distributed, and more intense the criticism tends to be. Authors certainly endure their share of bad reviews, and have a variety of ways of dealing with them, from refusing to read discussions of their work to thoughtfully reading and digesting critique. Some, unfortunately, like Kathleen Hale, think it’s an excellent idea to lash out at their critics, sometimes actively stalking them, trying to sabotage their reputations, and using their considerable platforms to threaten, intimidate, and bully them. For professional reviewers, this sort of thing is irritating and unkind, but they at least have some clout to fight back. The growing number of amateur reviewers, however, don’t have this power.

That goes double for teens, who are in vulnerable positions in many ways. The number of teens reading and talking about books is on the rise, which is fantastic — I love teen book bloggers and their enthusiasm when it comes to critical reading, writing, and discussion. Whether they’re talking about young adult or other genres, teens engage with books in a deep, authentic way and they should be taken seriously as reviewers just like everyone else. But, with a handful of exceptions, many teen reviewers don’t have very much social power — their age is a barrier because of ageism, but also, few major publications take on young reviewers, many work on their own blogs, and they don’t have years of experience behind them. At the same time that I respect and adore teen reviewers, I also see myself among those who have a duty of care to them, to avoid infantalising them while also ensuring that they are protected from danger. That includes a number of contexts, from conferences to book events, and interactions with authors in a review setting are among those contexts.

Sometimes, teens say unkind things about books, justified or not. They can be savage reviewers, and they aren’t afraid to speak their opinions — as should be the case with reviewers of any age. Readers of reviews need assurances that the people they’re reading don’t pull punches and will push all the way through with their commentary. While I personally don’t focus on negative reviews, I like reading them and they give me a broad sense of publishing trends. And reviewers have a right to write them, whether they’re cruel for the sake of being vicious, or painfully accurate, or anything between. Some adult writers, however, seem to believe that the most appropriate way to respond to bad reviews is to go after the reviewer, rather than simply noting the existence of the review and moving on. And some are particularly abusive when it comes to youth.

Thus, teen reviewers can find themselves subject to an onslaught of abuse, sometimes actually physical, as in the case of Richard Brittain, who took painstaking time to track down a girl who reviewed his book poorly and smashed her over the head with a bottle. He pled guilty, and the case attracted considerable attention, as well it should have. His response to a bad review was actual physical violence, rather than a walk around the block to cool down. You don’t have to like bad reviews, and sometimes they can feel unjust, and it can seem as though a reader deliberately misread you or wants to cherrypick and advance a personal agenda, but whether they are fair or not, reviewers don’t deserve physical or verbal abuse.

I’ve seen scores of cases in which adult authors come down like a ton of bricks on teen reviewers and readers, which is particularly bizarre in YA, where one would think that authors want to support readers and build up their audience. Authors send people after reviewers they don’t like, sneer and gibe at teens, bully them, and sometimes browbeat reviewers into locking their social media accounts or leaving the internet altogether. This kind of response to bad reviews is completely inappropriate in any setting, no matter who is doing the reviewing, but it carries a particular sting with teens.

Teens aren’t fragile, delicate flowers to be treated as though they can’t handle the real world. They’re smart, sensitive, alert, strong, wonderful people who deserve respect like everyone else. By the same token, though, they’re encountering a lot of experiences for the first time, and they’re also very much at the mercy of the adults around them. They’re not allowed to make legally binding decisions. Their parents literally control their bodies. They’re still in school, they’re still trying to feel out who they are, they’re still deciding who they want to be. Since teens are in a position of inherent power disparity, adults need to behave carefully with respect to teens, acknowledging that disparity and working to avoid exploiting it.

When I see full-grown adults who like to claim they’re so much more mature and better than the audiences they’re writing for, I cringe, because it’s ageist, irritating, and disgusting. When I see those same alleged adults turning around to bash on teens, figuratively or literally, it makes me boil with rage. People who want to claim that they’re taking the high road should be able to set a notable example, illustrating that they are in fact decent human beings and they’re aware that other humans should be treated with respect and dignity. Teen reviewers deserve respect just like everyone else, and that includes admitting that teens are vulnerable to things adults are not, and adjusting habits accordingly.

No one should be afraid to criticise a book, fearing that the author might go after her and make her life a painful living hell.

Image: Reading Again, Melanie Holtsman, Flickr