YA Mafia and Other Sour Grapes

March 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm (Industry) (, , )

There are a lot of places you can find mention of the YA Mafia right now. Follow a YA author on Twitter or blog chances are you’ll run across it at least as a passing reference. It’s a Really Big Thing.

And in my opinion, it’s kind of ridiculous.

I don’t say that to belittle any of the players involved- obviously it’s something about which people are very passionate. It touches on a number of sensitive topics that start when we’re in preschool and somehow just compound along the way to maturity adulthood.

What it boils down to, for anyone who’s missed the wildfire in the past two days or so, is that some people believe in the existence of a YA Mafia- an uber-clique of Young Adult authors who are all friends, blurb each other’s books, freak out over bad reviews, and somehow exercise the mysterious ability to either ruin people’s careers or even prevent them from ever getting started. This shadowy mob despises newcomers- seeing them as competition- and they’re out to destroy book bloggers who say anything negative about their published treasures.

If you switch around a couple of words, doesn’t it sound like the House Committee of Un-American Activities?

The thing is, like any Big Deal, this has some- SOME- foundation in fact.

Fact One: many YA authors are friends. Um…duh. These people are colleagues, they co-panel at conventions, share stops on tours, cheer each other on, and celebrate the victories. Like in any group of people that comes together with similar interests and personalities that fit together, friendships form. The thing is, they cheer on YA as a genre, as the embodiment of the fact that teenagers (and a large number of teenage minded adults) are reading. In this day and age, when there are so many other things vying for attention and time, that is always something to celebrate. They support each other in the way that friends do, and get excited for word counts and email answers and all sorts of things that don’t meant anything to the general public.

Fact Two: they blurb each other’s books. When a publisher is trying to attract people to a new series, or a new author, it’s smart business to ask for a blurb from an established author with a dedicated fan base. If it’s a YA novel, it makes the most sense to ask the favor of a YA author. So yes, they blurb for each other. And yes, as with any favor, blurbs are a matter of personal taste and preference. If an author doesn’t actually care for your book, why should they lie and say it was amazing? And if you’ve attacked them as an author, why should they even do you the favor of reading it in the first place? A blurb is a selling point, a way to catch someone’s attention and make them say “Hey, I really like this other author, maybe I’ll like this one too”. It’s like using someone as a reference on an application. If you have thoroughly pissed them off by attacking the work they do, are you really going to ask them for a positive reference?

Fact Three: book bloggers can feel pressured to only post positive things.

For me, this is one of the stickier parts, probably because it has more to do with common sense than anything else. No book is perfect. No book is so utterly amazing that there aren’t places it could have been improved. No sensible person expects there to be only gushing in a review. A review is a balanced critique of a book, a measured account of what- for you- worked or did not work, what the author did well or not well enough. There are good points and bad points and meh points that all factor into an overall opinion of the piece.

It’s not a rant.

We’ve all seen these kinds of reviews, full of venom and vitriol that shred not only the book but the author and the industry with the questionable taste to publish it. It does not take into account dissenting opinions and may even attack anyone with the temerity to question it. Heaven forbid you be foolish enough to actually attempt an argument or discussion. Even the most negative reviews focus on the book. In a rant, the book is only the starting point.

Another thing a review is not? A platform for bitterness and jealousy. On this one I speak not just as someone who enjoys reviewing books (and a bookseller who’s expected to do so on request), but as a writer not-so-patiently slogging through the mass of work on the way to the magical place of Getting An Agent/Editor/Shiny-Happy-Book-On-Shelf-Emotional-Breakdown-Day. As a writer, I kind of get this one. Kind of. We’ve all read awful books, books that make us cringe with every page and it’s a contest of wills (or maybe a point of principle) to force your way through to the end. The characters are flat stereotypes, the prose limps along like an afternoon drunk, and the story has about as much direction as the aforementioned drunk, and the entire time you’re battling reading this book, all you can think is “how does crap like this get published when my wonderful, amazing, LIFE-CHANGING novel lives neglected on my hard-drive?!”. We’ve all had the dark, nasty thoughts. But before you go running off to the blogosphere, there are a few things to think about.

Thing One: that piece of crap in your hands? That author thought the exact same things about his/her novel that you think about yours. Some agent saw it and was willing to put his/her reputation behind this book; an editor saw it and was willing to put money into this book to produce and publicize it; a bookstore buyer saw it and was willing to put money into it to get it in stores and on shelves. And- here’s the kicker- you saw that book and thought there was something interesting about it, or you wouldn’t have started reading it in the first place. People were willing to stake money and reputation on this book not being crap.

Thing Two: this is your opinion. This is not a commandment from God. I have friends who worship at the altar of Faulkner. They think As I Lay Dying is the most genius thing ever written, can quote half the book, and expound- at length- on exactly what was so stellar about it. I hated it. I cringe when people ask me for that book at work. There are hours- days, even- of my life that I will never recover and the only reason I pushed through to the (very) bitter end was because I was a grade riding on it. I loathed that book. So who’s right? Well…none of us. It’s an opinion- it’s not really right or wrong. It can be unfounded, unreasonable, uneducated, maybe even hard to swallow, but it’s an opinion, and everyone is entitled to one.

Thing Three: if you’re reviewing in the blogosphere, it’s not because you want a private notebook to reference when you need to find a new book. You’re reviewing in the blogosphere because you want people to see it. What do you want them to see? The unrestrained, rabidly frothing rantings of a juvenile mind? Or a well-constructed critique that’s honest without being a) timid, b) tactless, or c) totally useless? You don’t have to dance aorund or lie about your feelings for a book. If I’m coaching an employee, I’m not going to start the conversation with “Okay, this is why you suck”. Um…no. I’m going to approach it as “this is what you’re trying to do, this is why it isn’t working, here’s some ways we can fix this”. A review should be approached in the same way.

Thing Four: if you can get established as a reliable reviewer in the blogosphere, people will want to send you free books. Free. Books. Just to keep doing what you were already doing anyway. Do you really want to jeopardize that for a temper tantrum you can scream at your wall instead of posting?

Thing Five: why aren’t you published if such-and-such can manage it? Well…are you trying? Are you crafting a novel, writing it, finishing it, polishing it, giving it to others to rip to shreds so you can put it back together better, polishing it, researching agents who represent what you write, crafting a query (package), getting query critiqued, polishing query, sending queries, sending queries, sending queries, dealing with rejection, sending queries, oh my God an agent wants me now the real work begins! and all that jazz? Or are you sitting on your blog waiting for them to discover you?

Hate to tell you this, kids, but Cinderella was only one girl at the ball. Bet you anything, most of the other girls saw the prince falling all over himself at the cute new girl in the shiny shoes, marked him off their lists, and went right on to the next good chance. This is called working for what you want. As a society, we’re so entranced by the Cinderella stories that we forget that they’re NOT NORMAL. We hear about them because they’re rare. Everyone else does this thing called legwork. So, if you’re not published, do you race to your blog to rant about those who are, or do you sit down and really try to figure out why you’re not?

Writing is a hobby.

Publishing is a business.

In a business, there are certain professional standards to be maintained. It doesn’t mean you claim to love books you loathed, it doesn’t mean you don’t point out the parts that don’t work. I once read a professional review where the book was described as having “prose so purple it’s nearly incandescent”. Um..OW. But the reviewer never attacked the author, and each negative point was supported by examples. And you know? That book has been on the bestseller list.

I almost wish the YA Mafia did exist. It would be so much easier to blame a shadowy cabal than to knuckle down and do (HARD) work. But- and here’s the REALLY BIG THING- the ONLY person with that much control over your career is you. You are the one who can put in all the (HARD) work and patience and frustration and passion and- finally- accomplish something amazing. You’re also the one who can screw yourself by treating it like high school instead of a business.

Until next time~


1 Comment

  1. Jessica said,

    I love this – because you are so right. Too many people think that “someone” is stopping them, when it’s because they aren’t getting it out there. Sigh. And others (ahem – YOU) are rocking their own socks off to get there. I can’t wait to buy your books.

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