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 every.single.day.  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