Weaponized Criticism by S Andrew Swann
Writing is a performance.
The act of writing implies communication to an audience. Writers, especially in the fiction trade, pour our hearts and souls onto the page in hopes that we can engage others to feel some of the emotion we’ve felt. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it; there is little that can compare to the emotional reward of hearing that you effectively achieved that goal. There is no finer compliment that a reader can pay you, than saying that something you wrote inspired the intended emotions; fear, or excitement, or joy, or passion, or sadness.
Of course there’s a risk.
You don’t get to choose your audience, unless you’re just handing out manuscripts to your immediate family and friends. And no one gets to choose the audience’s reactions. It doesn’t matter how much effort you spent on making a story perfect, it doesn’t matter how emotionally raw you felt bleeding those words on the page, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first novel or your hundredth, it will find its way into the hands of someone who absolutely loathes it. If you spent five years carefully crafting your prose, someone will mock you for clumsy language. If you’ve lived months in your protagonist’s’ head, to the point you were responding to your significant other in the wrong voice, someone will bitch about your flat characterization. Some people will find your epic space battle boring. Some people will find your sex scene hilarious. Some people will interpret the villains as heroes and the heroes as villains. Some people just won’t get it.
And that’s fine.
No one reasonably expects everyone to sing the praises of every book. People have different tastes and different points of view. Normally a bad reaction isn’t a strike against the reader or the author, just a sign that this is the wrong person for that particular book.
But that’s not how it typically feels to the author, especially new authors. New authors hang on every kernel of feedback. Their freshly minted book is a part of themselves, their baby, and at the start it is the whole of their literary career. So, of course any negative feedback is painful, and incredibly hard not to take personally. Even a writer who knows, intellectually, that it’s only one person’s opinion, might still have to fight back tears and feelings of inadequacy after any one-star Amazon or GoodReads review.
This insecurity is the natural state of the author, and it usually takes years of experience and hard-won wisdom to temper it. Authors, especially new ones, have a hard time separating themselves from their work. They’ve put so much of themselves into the story; it feels like part of them. An attack on the work feels like an attack on them.
And it pisses me off to no end when I see asshats on-line deliberately trying to exploit that insecurity.
By now you probably all know the story of Amélie Wen Zhao and her book Blood Heir. She was a new rising star in YA publishing, about to debut a three-book trilogy with Delacorte to the tune of something like $500,000. She was justifiably stoked to land such a deal. And, aside from the money, she had the excitement that every single professional author can identify with; her first book was going to see print. I think any novelist will tell you, there is precious little that compares with that feeling. Her own words on Twitter: “I am THRILLED to announce that I AM GOING TO BE PUBLISHED.” Most fellow writers can recognize and feel her excitement with just that sentence. She expressed that excitement on her own site:
“I don’t think it’s sunk in until this very moment, when I sat down to write this post — that I am going to be a published author.
I AM GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!”
Then came the toxic fandom.
In the maelstrom of the intersectional apocalypse known as YA Twitter, people started expressing opinions about Blood Heir, a book that has not been scheduled to see release until this June. While there are review copies floating out there, it would be way too generous to say everyone opining about the book had even seen a copy, much less read one. One major point of fury was part of the book’s promo materials, suggesting a world where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Cue the cries of RACIST! (After all, we all know that everywhere, at all points in history, oppression is inevitably tied to skin color. Such as in Cambodia, Rwanda, and in the Holodomor.) Another RACIST scene happens when a black character (with “tawny” or “bronze” skin and blue eyes) dies in the protagonist’s arms. And apparently there is a slave auction, which is obviously only a feature of the 19th Century African slave trade in the United States. (Quick, no one tell ISIS.)
The absolutely vile thing about this Twitter pile-on, wasn’t these idiots condemning a book they haven’t read, based on fourth-hand interpretations of someone’s possibly intentional misreading of an eARC and the promo text. What is vile is the idea that these pronouncements, made in insufferable high dudgeon, are all posed as moral judgements not only of the work, but of the author. The pathetic twits in this tweetstorm had the received wisdom that the book is problematic, so of course the author is problematic. The book is bad, therefore Amélie Wen Zhao is bad.
When you reflect on the joy she had announcing her publication, and on how brand new authors tend to feel about their debut work and criticism thereof, this event graduates from disturbing to absolutely horrifying. For all the claims to moral high ground, these are evil people going about evil business. And in Zhao’s case, they had an evil result, when she apologized to the mob and withdrew her book. (I didn’t even know you could do that, she must have quite a generous contract.) She no longer is even defending the book. She’s defending HERSELF from accusations of racism.
And that is what makes this whole thing so wrong. When someone turns a critique of the book into an attack on the author, they’re weaponizing their criticism in a manner that is particularly suited to hurting new writers, who haven’t learned that most criticism— especially on-line criticism— doesn’t mean anything in the long run.
I do not think it is an accident that these YA mobs target new writers. The people doing this are predators who sense vulnerability. They are driven by a desire to punish, and the accusation of racism just happens to be the most convenient bludgeon at the moment. A debut author— especially one who seems to be having a measure of success, something these deeply unhappy people cannot stand— makes an inviting target.
There is good news though. It didn’t have to end the way it did with Amélie Wen Zhao. Anyone finding themselves mobbed by these twitter ghouls just needs to remember two bits of hard-won wisdom, common to most authors who have more than a couple of books under their belt. First, on-line attacks on your work don’t matter in the long run, especially those produced in that abscess of the internet, Twitter. Second, those attacks have no bearing on your worth as a person, despite any claims they make to the contrary.
Compare the current eruption of woke Twitter with the one surrounding Laurie Forest’s book The Black Witch two years ago. Her debut book was attacked in exactly the same way, on just as flimsy premises. The attacks were led by a single 9000(!) word review that dismissed the book as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and … written with no marginalized people in mind,” and called it “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read.” (Aren’t we sheltered?) That review was enough to spur the ghouls on to attack the book and Forest as something just short of an apologia for Jim Crow, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws.
Unlike Zhao, Forest didn’t cave to the mob. I’m sure she felt the same devastation, the same pain, and probably the same doubts and second thoughts. The difference, I think, is that someone with some wisdom was there to tell her that in the long run, these so-called critiques weren’t going to matter. They didn’t reflect on her, and in the end, wouldn’t reflect on the audience of her book.
Now two years later, she has a trilogy in print to a fair amount of acclaim. The books have found their audience and seem to be doing well. And there is little to no cries of racism in the Amazon or GoodReads reviews of the books. Because she refused to become emotionally tangled with the hate mob, this event became less than a footnote in her career.
Unfortunately for Amélie Wen Zhao, it seems she’s allowed the hate mob to define her career. We’ll see where she is in two years, but I’ll be surprised if she’s doing half as well as Laurie Forest, and that’s a shame.
After writing the above, there was yet another case of a YA book being pulled. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the latest casualty of weaponized criticism, Kosoko Jackson. His case may prompt some schadenfreude, since he was part of the mob that hounded Amélie Wen Zhao. But he was part of the same pattern, a debut author who would probably be extra sensitive to any airing of his intersectional sins.
These attacks come from a set of people acting as a pack of wolves. They’re looking for the weakest prey to stumble from the herd. Jackson’s case is illustrative of the fact that, whatever social justice pieties these Twitter mobs preach, the true goal is not to elevate fiction or any marginalized individuals, it is simply to exercise power. Thus they aim their attacks wherever the most damage can be done. Since Jackson had been part of the mob itself, such critiques are made that much more damaging, and therefore irresistible, whatever his privileged demographics might be.
- Andrew Swann has been writing professionally for a quarter century. His latest book, Marked, has just been released by DAW. It’s written for fans of urban fantasy, time travel, zombies, airships, steampunk and Dodge Chargers.
“Marked is a fast-pasted, suspenseful urban fantasy-mystery. . . highly recommended.”—Midwest Book Review
“A great book. I’ve never read any stories with the premise…. A mix between Doctor Who and the Invisible Library series, with a dash of that old tv show Sliders mixed in as well.” —Slapdash + Sundry
“Marked, by author S. Andrew Swann, is a genre-bending action and adventure free-for-all.” —Gizmo’s Reviews