2011 is over, 2012 has begun, and Smugglivus is nearly complete! Which means that we must also undergo another very important ritual…
The Airing of Grievances
(in which we air out any dirty laundry from 2011. Warning: plenty of swearing, engaged CAPS LOCK OF FURY, and spoilers ahoy, baby!)
In no particular order, these are the things that really pissed us off this year.
1. Genre Trends That Really Annoy Us
We are genre fiction readers, and as such we are familiar with – and often lovers of! – certain genre tropes. However, there are some particular genre tropes that have reared their ugly heads just a little too frequently in 2011 and we HAVE to comment.
First, there’s the trend of the false YA “dystopia” (as Trebek would say, note the quotation marks around dystopia). We love YA dystopias. Really. It’s one of Thea’s favorite subsets of SF. However, we have noticed an alarming 2011 trend of creating YA “dystopias” that are patently ridiculous. These are “dystopias” in which the entire premise or rules governing the society are flimsy – for example, in Delirium the unquantifiable emotion of love is eradicated (because that’s more constructive than outlawing hate or aggression, obviously) or Shatter Me with its maniacal, totalitarian teenage overlord. There are the dystopia/fantasy hybrids, in which worldbuilding is dismissed with some handwaving, because the protagonist doesn’t understand or care for how things are accomplished or otherwise (Inside Out/Outside In & The Unwanteds, we’re looking at you).
Do you know what really irritates us about the rash of YA “dystopias”? The lack of any sort of bite or actual danger facing our inevitably beautiful, (supposedly) intelligent, often uber-powerful protagonists. There’s no real fear that our protagonists’ rebellions against the EEEEVIL OVERLORDS (because of course The Powers That Be are ALWAYS single-mindedly EEEEVIL, no shades of gray) will ever go awry. There’s no fear that their unshakably noble missions for peace and freedom and emotion will ever be thwarted by pragmatism. Did we mention these protagonists are always naturally beautiful (no matter what trauma or hardships they’ve been through, they are almost uniformly gorgeous), and manage not only to save society, but ALSO land the super hot boy/girl of their dreams at the same time? As we’ve complained before, these so-called “dystopias” are nice and pretty and sanitized. They are blissfully formulaic and lacking any character, bite or depth. They don’t prod at or provoke a deeper examination of society; they don’t linger or incite critical thought. While there are a number of strong YA dystopians that actually do provoke thought, are fully-conceived, and use the dystopian framework to challenge views of society, there are a proliferation of weaksauce “dystopias” that relish in riding the trend bandwagon and using some sloppily conceived totalitarian evil government as the backdrop for a tepid teenage romance. We are not impressed.
Along the same vein, there are the YA “science fiction” novels that somehow disregard science altogether. We’re looking at you, Across the Universe. In the words of the Intergalactic Academy in their Smugglivus guest post, “Just because a book is set in space doesn’t mean you need to ignore laws of physics that most teens learn in middle school.” Yes. THAT.
We’ve been working together for the past 4 years but it was not until very recently that we voiced to each other how much we hate certain types of writing shortcuts. The way we see it, such shortcuts are those familiar cliche phrases that tend to be used in order to hastily convey emotions or certain messages. These phrases tend to be used over and over again across genres, by many different authors. On the one hand, these phrases are so widespread and recognisable that it is easy to understand why they are used – they are indeed shortcuts because of that familiarity. On the other hand, they are trite, predictable and so reductive, and it makes for very undistinguishable writing (not to mention annoyed reading).
Our two biggest pet peeve cliched shortcuts are:
He smelled clean, spicy, unmistakably MALE. Unmistakably [insert name of man here, in.]
OH KILL US NOW. Every time we read this ubiquitous sentence, we fear our eyes will get stuck in the back of our heads from the excessive rolling.
And number two:
Adrenaline spiked through her/his veins
REALLY? Is this the best way to express excitement? Is that even really REALISTIC? Who goes “OMG THE ADRENALINE IN MY VEINS” when they are in MORTAL PERIL? What is next? Eyes widening in surprise? Cheeks flushing with embarrassment?! Oh…wait a minute.
3. Downton Abbey – Season 2
(This is a very, very long Ana-rant and it contains ALL THE SPOILERS for season 2. You have been warned).
Downton Abbey was my favourite new TV Show of 2010 – a Downstairs/Upstairs period drama which was full of amazing and complex characters and with some incredible acting. The first season was a superb, nearly flawless series, and I was dying for season 2 to start. WOE IS ME. Friends, season 2 was so craptastic, I hardly believed it was even the same show. I don’t even know if I have the right words to express the magnitude of the wtfuckery that was season 2.
For starters, the plotting. One of the things I was most looking forward to seeing on Downton Abbey was Britain during World War I: SO much potential for drama, for heartbreak, for political, emotional and economical unrest. Unfortunately, one of the biggest, most horrendous moments in History was reduced to mere backdrop and never truly integrated to the story. I was so disappointed about how they never really explored the harsh reality of the War in depth (beyond having secondary character William killed and Matthew fake-disabled – more on that later). It just went by too fast and too superficially.
Instead it felt like the entire series was devoted to petty storylines – the whole thing with Bates’ wife was pathetic and then, all of a sudden, there was an epidemic of BLACKMAILING when a lot of characters were involved with or being blackmailed by someone. Seriously. It was like a poorly conceived soap opera – at one point there was even a character that came back from the dead, having survived the sinking of Titanic and who had been suffering from Amnesia in the aftermath of that accident. THEN he had another accident during the War and recovered his memory! Unfortunately for him he also had his face disfigured so no one could recognise him.
This happened throughout ONE episode and then he disappeared altogether!
THEN we have the whole William and Matthew thing. They both went to War and then William DIED sacrificing himself to save Matthew’s life because OMG, of course he would do that, then Matthew comes back in a wheelchair and apparently I am a heartless bitch but I was HOPING he would remain in his wheelchair for life because truly that would have been believable. But nooooooooo, of course not. William, the downstairs guy is REALLY dead but Matthew the Lord, is granted a miraculous, magical cure because…because Hot Heroes Must Walk? Or something like that?
It just seems that the writers of the show PREFER to insist on this beautiful, idealised relationship between upstairs x downstairs. FINE, ok, awesome that this dynamics is portrayed as a complex relationship but come on – this season they basically shut down any discordant voice: anyone from downstairs who dares to believe in more or wants more for their lives end up being evil for no reason (like Thomas) or fired or given a mind-blowing horrible storyline.
This is particularly true about a character called Ethel – she was ambitious, she voiced her opinion about the inequality between Downstairs/Upstairs, she dared to want to have sex with someone outside marriage because well, she likes sex and then what happens? She is punished for all of that by being fired, getting pregnant and then abandoned. She was brought to so low as to almost have to beg for food. Is this within the realm of historical accuracy? Yes, quite possibly. WHY is this one the arc the authors chose to follow though? The problem is how this fits with the overall theme of being awful to the majority of female characters and it exemplifies really well the treatment that female characters got this season. They tried to shove down our throats the “love story” between the PREVIOUSLY AWESOME Lady Sibyl and the chauffeur, and it was grating, and I never once bought into it, don’t think she loves him and WHY CAN’T SHE DO SOMETHING ELSE OTHER THAN GET MARRIED with her life? Matthew gets engaged to a lovely young lady and then she conveniently DIES but not before being a martyr and breaking things off with Matthew because she could only think of his happiness as SHE WAS ON HER DEATH BED.
Finally there is the whole thing with His Lordship having a thing with a maid. The motivation for this is two-fold as we have come to learn. We are expected to feel sorry for His Lordship this season because he can’t go to the War. Should I repeat it? We are expected to feel SORRY for the white, privileged, rich, able-bodied, handsome, happily married, Lord. So, he is sort of depressed, I guess. Then throughout the season, we see his wife Cora snapping at him, being distant because she was involved with the running of a hospital for recovering soldiers. The implication is that he had a reason for going after the maid and the blame lies entirely on his wife because she was doing other unimportant stuff like TAKING CARE OF HER DAUGHTERS or RUNNING A HOSPITAL instead of paying attention to the poor widdle lord. OH PLEASE, my head nearly exploded when in the end, SHE apologises to HIM.
It wasn’t a complete failure and there were things that I liked though: a valet who had PSTD but I so wished he had stayed longer. I LOVED that Daisy never gave in to pressure about having feelings for William. I loved how O’Brien was much more humanized this season. As usual Carson, Bates and Anna and Mr Mosley were adorable. The acting is still top notch of course and I will be back for season 3 because I am still invested enough for that. Plus, Matthew is still really hot.
4. The Relationship Between Bloggers and Publishers
Another issue that preoccupied our thoughts in 2011 is the relationship between bloggers and publishers. Back in June we posted a Smugglers’ Ponderings essay examining this phenomenon, in which we examined the assumption that bloggers are somehow indebted to publishers for the “free” ARCs they receive from publishers. There is a strange prevalent notion across the interwebs that somehow bloggers are subservient to publishers: i.e. bloggers should count themselves lucky that they get to attend trade shows like BEA, or interview authors, or get to receive “free” books for feature on their piddling sites. This bizarre power hierarchy became even more evident to us at BookExpo America, Book Blogger Con, and especially recently when many bloggers received the now infamous policy letter from William Morrow (an imprint from Harper Collins) about a new way of distributing ARCs:
Under the new system, you will no longer receive titles piece-meal. Instead, you’ll receive 1-3 emails during the month with all of our upcoming titles available for your review, one month ahead of the on-sale date. You’ll be directed to a Google form where you can request up to three of your choices. Of course, we’ll still happily pay the shipping. Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site. Ideally, we’d like for reviews to appear online within two weeks to a month after the on-sale date, so you might keep this in mind when selecting books.
When you’ve reviewed a book you’ve chosen and sent us an email with a link to the posted review, you will be eligible for a free giveaway copy. Just let us know in the email that you’d like to host a giveaway. We’ll pay for the shipping to the winner within the US and Canada. Additionally, you’ll no longer receive books that you didn’t order….
If it isn’t already clear, WE LOVE THAT YOU LOVE OUR BOOKS! And to allow us to continue to offer free copies and free shipping to you committed book reviewers, we will be tracking how many reviews we receive from you. If we notice that you request books but aren’t posting your comments or sending us the link, we may suspend your ability to receive review offers from us. We know you’re busy bloggers -– if you don’t think you’ll be able to post a review within a month, please pass on that offer so we can continue to offer you free books in the future!
In all honesty, we were both incredibly pissed off and perversely amused by the letter. Although William Morrow’s attempt to organize the way they send ARCs is an effort we fully support (like many bloggers, we do get many more unsolicited books than we can handle), the condescending tone of the letter and the underlying assumption that bloggers are part of a publisher’s marketing agenda, primarily concerned with book promotion (as opposed to critical reviews) and insinuation that bloggers work for publishers frustrates us immensely. Unsurprisingly, many bloggers (ourselves included) were up in arms, tweeting and blogging about this exceptionally poorly-phrased and short-sighted letter. Our favorite reply perhaps was Mother Reader’s:
Perhaps writers of blogs and authors of books don’t need a lesson on how much words matter. We all have spent time carefully crafting a post, a page, a phrase for exactly the right impact. So when a publisher talks about continuing to offer “free books” instead of review copies, those words matter. If they refer to “free shipping” as a bonus feature, it matters. When they say “your job is simply to review the book,” then I wonder either when I became an employee or how — after referring to the dictionary — this became a duty or assignment. And “simply” is not how I would categorize the reading, reviewing, posting, and perhaps running a giveaway while scheduling in the one-month timeline that they are seeming to require. All of that matters.
Spot on. It also needs to be said that as bloggers, our reviews are written for fellow readers – not for authors, and certainly not for publishers to create their marketing and publicity materials.
With this in mind, what surprised us most of all were some of the reactions we observed on Twitter and across the blogosphere – in which some bloggers threw their support for the content of the publisher letter, decrying other bloggers’ criticisms as stemming from a bloated sense of entitlement. There seems to be a belief amongst bloggers themselves that we owe publishers something for the perks of “free books” and “free shipping” – that we are indeed beholden to publishers because they deign to send us materials to promote their upcoming books.
It is this mentality that is so incredibly frustrating for us as passionate readers, reviewers, and above all, as bloggers. This mindset completely overlooks the essential, fundamental truth of book bloggers. We aren’t publisher employees. As awesome as free books are (with Free Shipping! as the William Morrow letter seems to relish), they aren’t really that amazing of an incentive. We bloggers do what we do because we love reading. We still buy bucketloads of books because we love books, we love reviewing, we love fostering a discussion about books we’ve loved and hated.
As book bloggers, our allegiance is first and foremost to our readers. We are passionate people that have worked long and hard to build our readerships, and because of this, we bloggers occupy a unique position in an increasingly digital world. We are the forums for the customers that don’t know where to go for the next exciting book. We are the destinations people love to visit for recommendations either because they agree with our opinions, or they hate our opinions, or are trying to form their own opinions.
The book business is an industry in which publishers have not traditionally had to deal directly with customers, historically relying on bookstores and traditional review and media outlets as intermediaries for promotion. As those bookstores and traditional media outlets shrink or turn away from books in an increasingly digital age, publishers find themselves in an awkward brave new world. The truth is, publishers don’t have the connections that we bloggers do. We aren’t publisher subordinates – we are the direct-to-consumer channel that publishers desperately want to (and need to) use. We should be treated as partners in a symbiotic relationship and not as lower-echelon minions that owe a publisher something in exchange for a “free” copy of a book.
As we’ve said before, the thing about relationships and partnerships are that they are a two-way street. Publishers and other industry professionals will only truly take us seriously when we take ourselves and our position, as a vital part of the digital publishing ecosystem, seriously.
And that’s it! Our 2011 grievances are aired, and our 2012 slates are clean. Are there any gripes y’all have had for the past year that you want to get off your chest?