Secret Cabals Are Overrated

So Holly has a great post about the supposed YA Mafia and the Ruination of Careers. Snippet:

But even if a bunch of writers got together and actually managed to fit scheming into their day, they still couldn’t ruin your career because no one can ruin anyone else’s career. Just like sometimes there is a really great book that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves or a book that you hate that everyone else loves, a lot of being a professional writer is luck. You find the agent that’s looking for the book like yours. Or you don’t. You find the editor who loves what you love. Or you don’t. You get a great cover. Or not. Your book is picked up by people who love it, who then tell their friends. Or it’s remaindered in piles.

There have been a few posts around the internet recently that talk about the value of being positive — and I do not in any way disagree. Of course someone isn’t going to blurb you if they know you hate their book. Of course an agent is not going to be thrilled if you negatively reviewed a book they represent. But that isn’t the ruination of anyone’s career.

Wholeheartedly agree with this, and the whole post, which you should definitely read (along with the comments). I’ve actually gotten a couple of emails lately from people who were curious if reviewing could ruin their careers. (Not even negative reviewing, just reviewing.) Many, MANY authors also write reviews. So, no*.

I was perhaps coming at it from the other direction, but that’s where no. 4 on my friday five last week was aimed:

Keep working. Behave with integrity. Be a professional, which means taking your work and your actions seriously. (Even before others do.) Something you do or say at some point will prickle someone’s skin the wrong way, but if you’re being thoughtful, professional, and acting with integrity, that’s all you can do. Help other people when you can. Do what feels right and meaningful. Keep learning. The rest will sort itself out. I promise.

Justine also has a great response to Holly’s post.

I think it can be really hard for people at the beginning of their careers (or just starting to interact with the community) to know what's true and what isn't. If they hear 'you'll never publish fiction if you write reviews' and etcetera*, they may take that as gospel. Which is where I think a lot of this YA mafia idea comes from. Hopefully, these posts and the resulting conversations will serve as a general corrective.

Just be generous to a fault. It’s better.

p.s. My mafia name is the Deadly Southern Belle. Belle for short.

*Solid, honest reviewers are good for books. We need them. And I endorse Emily St. John Mandel's views about dealing with bad reviews (the link). Reviewing can also make you a better writer. Doing a billion synopses for my bibliography in grad school was a tremendously helpful exercise in thinking about story shape in a condensed way. See also: John Green on reviewing for Booklist.

**Give advice, sure, but a lot of advice seems to be delivered like the One Truth these days. Everybody's career looks different. We all have to find our own way.

ETA: Another good post at JJ's: "Nobody can ruin your career but you, and the best way to go about it is to stew in bitterness. I mean stew–steeped in a concentrated brew of it’s-not-fair and nobody-understands-my-work and it’s-their-fault-I’m-not-published. I’m not saying you shouldn’t voice your opinions or your feelings because honesty is important; I’m saying you shouldn’t let your feelings cloud your rational mind–for too long anyway. It’s okay to have a blow-up, but try to minimize the fallout. In private, offline, with your friends is best."

16 thoughts on “Secret Cabals Are Overrated”

  1. Wow, there keep being wars and stuff, and I miss them. But, you know who I blame? Maureen Johnson. Remember, she said all YA authors like in the YA Mansion… hello, Cosa Notra?? The YA peeps are tying the enemies to old typewriters and throwing them into puddles… (and those IBM Selectrics could hold a person down, yo.)

  2. I remain completely baffled by this – I didn’t have a clue it was going on at all. I have gotten an email or two from a disgruntled author over the years but I ignored them. There was one post for a collection of essays (not YA) that I had to shut down comments on because her friends were bombarding me with “you’re totally mean and wrong” responses but I never took it personally – they were her friends and didn’t like what I had to say. (She wrote an essay about getting a bikini wax to please her husband. This was somehow supposed to be feminist and honest and sweet. I could not get past the bizarreness of that subject.)
    Anyway, I will chime in on what John Green has written. I have been reviewing for Booklist for years plus writing my column and the blog and it hasn’t hampered my writing career in the slightest. I think as long as you write your reviews well – nothing hateful or insulting – then you’re fine. And if you are worried then it’s an easy fix: don’t review books online. There are plenty of other things you can write about.

  3. I thought of you all day, and Betsy Bird, and … well, TONS of bloggers/reviewers/writers. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone from the early litblogger days (Maud, Lizzie, Ron, Carrie, Carolyn, Ed, Sarah, etc.) who hasn’t done at least a pinch of pretty high-profile reviewing, and most all of them are also fiction writers.
    And true, on your last point, but I would *hate* for people who have interesting, thoughtful things to say about books not to post about them out of misplaced anxiety. God knows if you want to be in this business, there are plenty of actual things to be anxious about instead.

  4. I wanted to chime in on the subject of more established authors being long-time friends.
    It happens organically. Many of us “grew up” in the business together, perhaps even from our pre-publication days. It’s lovely to be with folks who’ve been with you along the journey, and you often have common career concerns/insights.
    For example, of late I talked to an author concerned about handling child care when she was on tour. She was excited about the tour, she was appreciative of her publisher’s support, but this is a real-life wrinkle for her.
    If she shared this concern with an another, newer author or not-yet-published writer, she might risk sounding like (to paraphrase the line from “Friends,”) she was complaining that her diamond shoes were too tight. I don’t have kids, but I understood where she was coming from, and she felt comfortable talking it over with me.
    That doesn’t mean that we’re not both going to be thrilled to mentor new voices or welcome debut authors into the fold. Compared to my experiences in law and journalism, I think the youth writing community excels at both.
    It just means that we understand where each other is coming from and can let our hair down a bit.

  5. Absolutely. Like you, I’m lucky enough to have lots of author friends, at various stages in their career. And actually when I was still in college/during my early 20s was lucky enough to be surrounded by tons of artists and authors and to have a very, very successful author as a mentor (which is how I met so many people so early). I don’t think knowing a lot of people and being friends with them is at all unusual–it’s our field. Of course, we have things in common! And so much to teach each other. Plus, book people are the best people. (It’s a fact!)
    I think I’ve never had a problem relating to my friends who are already well into their careers and very successful, because I got that early insight and it’s easy for me to relate to it, even though it’s not where I am personally. But I can see how that would vary.

  6. What I find amusing is that everyone seems to agree that negative reviews are fine, but not something “hateful and insulting.” Only . . . the people who write things that are hateful and insulting, never see themselves that way.
    R: My reviews are serious, thoughtful and critical.
    A: I wouldn’t call them that.
    R: You just think that no one should post a negative review.
    A: You called someone a misogynistic hack.
    R: She deserved it!
    And the kinder, gentler souls . . .
    R2: OMG, I posted a negative review of Maureen Johnson’s book.
    A: You pointed out a typo on page 47.
    R2: Now I’ll NEVER get published.
    A: But you said you liked the book.
    R2: She’s probably assigning a death squad RIGHT NOW.

  7. So true!
    Honestly, people who do routinely do drive-bys and mean-spirited reviews are not worried about all this stuff. One of the reasons I think it’s important so many people have spoken up for the rights of bloggers–and blogging aspiring authors–to review and be honest and not worry overly much about retaliation down the road is that the people who are going to obsess and worry are likely the serious, thoughtful voices that we need most.
    I’m also very suspicious about calls for niceness, because I really do think it makes us look like a genre that is afraid to be taken seriously. I want YA to be taken seriously, and that means a healthy critical environment.
    (Justine has another great post today, btw, about bad reviews, with which I wholeheartedly agree.)

  8. Well, what I’ve seen is what I would call a judgmental and insulting reviewer suddenly saying that she feels threatened when authors complain that her reviews are –judgmental and insulting.
    I say, if you are going to be judgmental and insulting, go for it, and damn the consequences!
    More seriously. I think everyone talks at the same time online. That can make it seem that already reasonable reviewers are being warned to be nicer. That really can stifle the healthy, critical environment you were talking about. On the whole I think it might be better err on the side of more unpleasant people, rather than the side of too much niceness.

  9. Gwenda, thank you so much for this. As one of those blogging aspiring authors who actually gave up my blogging a month ago only to realize just HOW MUCH I missed blogging and reviewing… thank you.

  10. So, so glad to hear it and thanks for stopping by. Never let people make you stop doing something you enjoy. Glad to see you’ve got a new blog! (*adds to google reader*)

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