Every so often there’s a wave that courses through the book blogging world. This time it was specific to the YA world and boiled down to fears of both authors, wanna-be authors, and bloggers/reviewers (some people belong to more than one category) that reviewing books may cause some backlash to your career if you give a bad review to an author in the fictional YA Mafia. That’s the initial fear (here debunked by Holly Black), at least, but it’s expanded to some other fears, including reviewers fearing authors who comment on negative reviews of their work, effectively admonishing the reviewer for not liking their book!
I actually experienced that recently, though strangely enough I thought the review was largely positive. Even stranger, the author commented on an unrelated post! For people who hate clicking, the book in question is A Girl Named Disaster and the author Nancy Farmer. I’m going to state the obvious here and say that it’s possible that the commenter is not actually Nancy Farmer, but I’m going to assume for the purposes of this post that she is.
It looks like Farmer was taking offense to two particular things in my review (I say mine, even though it was mine and Mia’s, because her remarks were directed at my own, not Mia’s): a) that I assumed the book was for white audiences and b) that I felt like the book had “a Western idea of a happy ending for this girl” (quote is from my review). Farmer seems to have taken that statement as me thinking that Nhamo would have been better off in her old village and even said, “Only middle-class white people think living in the bush is romantic.” I commented directly back to Farmer, but I’d like to take a moment to address her comment here, to my blog audience.
Now, as to my assuming that the book was for white audiences, that seems to be factually false and is my bad. Farmer told me that “A Girl Named Disaster was published in Zimbabwe for an African audience.” Certainly my white American privilege and bias got in my way there, but I am still confused. I read an interview with Farmer in 2003 where she said, “A Girl Named Disaster was not published [in Zimbabwe] because by that time the publisher was in financial trouble. It was always a cliff-hanger getting enough ink and paper.” It isn’t clear to me if Farmer is talking about when the book was initially published in the US (in 1996) or if that applied when the interview occurred in 2003. I spent quite a bit of time looking for this information online, but didn’t have any luck. Could anybody use their Google-fu to find out when GND was published in Zimbabwe? I’d appreciate it a lot!
As to Farmer’s second concern, that I thought that Nhamo should go back to her village and live a traditional life… Well, I have to wonder why she would jump to that conclusion! I was questioning her ending, to be sure, but Farmer had many more options for her than either Efifi or “the bush”. I spent a lot more time on this in my comment, so here’s another link if you want more of my rambling, but let me address one thing that I didn’t in my comment because it was to Farmer and I didn’t feel it would be productive. But really?! What the heck was that?! I totally felt slapped in the face when I read her words.
I felt silenced.
This isn’t even how my personal feelings were hurt (which they were). It’s about how I was trying to think critically about her work, trying to think beyond what happened in the book and to think about Farmer herself and the choices she made for Nhamo. When she commented on my blog, I felt as though she smacked me for daring to think critically. And she didn’t even do it by commenting on the issue I had questioned (which I do think is worth thinking about, if ultimately not very problematic), but by not-very-subtly insulting me! If I was younger, or less experienced, or had less of a support system, I could certainly see her comment directly affecting my desire to talk critically about the books I read, at least online.
I wonder what was going through her head. I wonder if she realized that she would be silencing me when she wrote that comment. (I wonder if she really is Nancy Farmer. :P) But isn’t that what power and privilege are all about? People in power, people with privilege, almost never realize they have it and even when they DO, they might forget when they have something to tell someone (mostly either “You’re wrong.” or “Do this!”). I don’t mean to equate the immense power of being white or male (among others) with the lesser power of being a YA author compared with a writer on one of the tiniest blogs around, but it really struck me as a classic example of a power relationship. Too often, issues of power and privilege are fuzzy enough that those in power can deny it. But, to me, this seems pretty obvious.
Do you agree or disagree? Am I completely off-base? Were my words more offensive than I realized? Did Farmer feel as those I insulted her when I questioned her choices? *Is* she the person in power here? I’m still pretty unsettled by this whole exchange, so these aren’t rhetorical questions.
P.S. Can I also take a moment here to say that when I question something, it isn’t necessarily a negative? It just means I’m THINKING. If I’m not allowed to think, why the frick would I do this at all?
P.P.S. Here are some more lovely posts on the subject mentioned in my first paragraph before I got caught up in the personal stuff, including a couple of authors who are making a point to say that they are fine with critical reviews (for a varying definition of “fine,” of course).