Slice of Life #11- Criticism is Key

After school today I came home to discover that Andrew Smith, a writer I admire a great deal, had deleted his Twitter and Facebook accounts.  A little digging led me to a controversy surrounding a recent interview he did and I was disappointed, to say the least.

Most of the controversy on social media seemed to be centered around this portion of the article:

On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.

Personally, this card-carrying, women’s college graduate, loud mouth feminist didn’t take umbrage with Smith’s answer (The question, on the other hand, is offensive because it assumes that girls don’t want/have any reason to read Smith’s books ).

I interpreted Smith’s answer as “I didn’t have a lot of experience with women until I got married and had a daughter.  My wife and daughter have opened my eyes to what life is like for women and girls.  I’m trying to learn more”.  I respect Smith for admitting something like this.  I’m pretty sure he isn’t saying he never interacted with females until he got married, despite what some people on Tumblr seem to think.  But he recently shared that his parents were abusive and his childhood was not typical.  This, coupled with the adolescent tendency towards selfish focus on oneself, means it isn’t hard to believe he managed to avoid any deep and meaningful interactions with the female sex until meeting his wife.

You know what?  I teach teenagers all day long and I can only begin to scratch the surface when it comes to writing from a teen male perspective.  You know why?  Because even though I am human and they are human I am not in the brain of an adolescent male.  Our lives and experiences, while both human, are very different.  That doesn’t mean I leave adolescent males out of my stories.  No, of course not!  I am just aware of my lack of experience and I work to do a better job.  It seems to me that Smith is saying the same thing.

I often say that ____________ are aliens to me.  Feel free to fill in the blank with teenagers, men, people who own hairless cats, people who don’t eat chocolate.  There are experiences out there that I can not go through because I am not fourteen in 2015, a man, an admirer of hairless cats, a hater of chocolate.  I can understand that others might have a different experience and I acknowledge that this might be one of my shortcomings.  But it’s also not my job to become a teenager, a man, a hairless cat owner, or a chocolate disliker.  I can understand someone else’s perspective without making it my own.

However, I do recognize that others have a right to be offended by the message they take away from this snippet of conversation.  And we need to have conversations about gender and sex in literature.  We need diverse books.  I do think some of Smith’s female characters are flat and I admire him for acknowledging this as a personal shortcoming.  I’m even more impressed that he admits to trying to do better.  But when we attack people for admitting things like this all we do is shut down the conversation. And that benefits no one at all.

The people on social media who personally attacked Andrew Smith, those who made comments about his minor daughter, those who made this about his wife and his children, are doing us all a disservice.  You can’t have a conversation when you don’t ask questions and listen and instead you attack and demean.

Now Andrew Smith has deactivated his social media accounts.  That’s his prerogative and I respect his decision to protect his family from further verbal attacks.  But it’s a huge loss for his teen readers, who are often dormant readers.  Right now all of my Andrew Smith books are circulating through my freshman class.  And yes, both boys and girls are reading the books (the percentage is split about 50/50).  Those readers reach out to Smith on social media and he always, always responds.  That’s a priceless interaction for kids who don’t usually read many books.

So yes, please share your criticisms.  But when you start the conversation you have a responsibility to help guide the conversation and that means calling people out for taking it too far or becoming threatening.  And we need to acknowledge media creators who are doing good, even if it’s not perfect.  Andrew Smith writes books that take an honest look at sexuality, adolescence, class, and much more.  His books are diverse in a plethora of ways.  So if you are unhappy with his portrayal of female characters you should share your criticism.  But personal attacks only undermine the message.

And finally, Andrew Smith is in the trenches.  This man is in a classroom  He doesn’t just write teens- he knows them. He knows them a lot better and a lot deeper than most gatekeepers.   His portrayal of teen boys is so spot-on that it’s actually scary.  Does he write every adolescent male experience?  Of course not.  But the perspective he does write is frighteningly accurate according to my teens.   We need to embrace authors like this and provide constructive criticism, not cruel comments and personal attacks.  There can never be enough good books and we need all the allies we can get.  Andrew Smith was one of those allies and it’s my hope that he continues to write and create for the readers who need him.

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Andrew Smith and I at NCTE 2014

17 Responses

  1. Good for you! I couldn’t agree more. We’re gonna end up with a lot of crappy, generic YA fiction if we end up trying to kowtow to every person’s opinion of what’s important to them and that they think a writer should be including. Though I don’t think the original criticism of Andrew Smith’s writing came from a mean place as much as an uninformed one.

  2. Write on. Very healthy words.

  3. Thank you for this. I was blown away by the attacks. I did not find what he said offensive. I’m so sorry he and his family have to go through this. I hope he knows, with posts such as yours, how many of us are standing with him.

  4. I started a new job this week so I have been off twitter and knew nothing of this until I read your post. I am so saddened that Andrew’s voice is silenced as I love reading his tweets and seeing his interactions with fans.

  5. Sarah – this is eloquently stated. I don’t have trouble with differences in opinions, but the tone of the attacks felt very mean-spirited. I love hearing from a high school teacher the impact Andrew Smith has made on her students. I hope he comes back to social media at some point, but I can’t truly fault him for leaving.
    We spend so much time teaching our students the responsibility of digital citizenship; it seems ironic that skill really seemed to have gotten lost in all of this.

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful, well-reasoned post. Like you, I did not find Smith’s comments in the article particularly disturbing. I took them to mean he had a rather male-centric childhood. As the mother of four sons who also teaches writing to teens, I also agree that Smith’s depiction of teen boys is astonishingly good. I think we’re looking at a frightening example of the increasingly common phenomenon of virtual rushing-to-judgment and/or near hysterical enthusiasm for tacking comments onto a @, #, cause of indignation. A sorry situation.

  7. Sarah, I’ve been thinking about this post all day. When it comes to authors, w/ few exceptions, author’s have earned our respect and admiration. They do so much more for teachers and kids than anyone else. Those who don’t like any given book can just close it and move on to something else. Girls love Andrew Smith’s books. Maybe they see what the critic doesn’t. Maybe girls appreciate honest depictions of boys, too. Thanks so much for writing this. I don’t spend enough time on Twitter to know what’s going on. I’ll miss Andrew on Facebook. I really enjoyed his posts and his responses to my students. When I told him about “Winger” making a student sob and shed crocodile tears, he sent her a hug, which I delivered. It made her day.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I hope Andrew Smith sees this post and knows how much you and many others are glad that he is writing for our teens. I have loved seeing teens reach out to him and revel in the personal responses he gives them. It’s too bad some adults are standing in the way of that.

  9. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. As an educator, one of my first thoughts was how hard it would be for me to be sexist, homophobic or racist and be good at what I do. I’m so sorry Andrew Smith has had to endure this because it was needless and what I’ve learned about him as a result makes me believe it couldn’t be more undeserving.

  10. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  11. This is good. VERY good. I wasn’t offended in the least by his comments. And as a mother to three girls… I think I understand women far better than I do men. Thank you for sharing your heart on this subject!

  12. This is one of the best responses. Thank you.

  13. Well said. I took his comment that he doesn’t have as much experience with females therefore he will write more about what he knows. It’s unfortunate that people cannot disagree or comment on his honest words diplomatically and without intent to harm.

  14. Thank you for sharing this. I was unaware of the issue around Andrew. I will have t read this book now.

  15. […] the Internet aftermath (and links via Chuck Wendig to the original interview). I appreciated what The Reading Zone has to say about the ways we need to be critical, though I do find myself agreeing more with the […]

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