Threading the Conversations Between Social Media and YA Lit Crit

In 2008, a pre-publication book leaked onto the internet, three weeks before its release date. This book earned intense and polarized reactions from fans and critics alike following the leak, with many readers figuratively plugging fingers in their ears to ignore the cacophony. Even after the book was released, responses on social media–still a strange new concept–continued to grow around it unchecked and unsupervised by the people who had created the book in the first place.

That book was Breaking Dawn, the final installment of the much-maligned Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Depending on who you ask, its treatment on social media was either the reason for its success or the death knell of the series’ initial popularity. While there had been discussion around Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, and their interesting life choices, 2008 was a turning point for many book fans, in which readers weren’t just talking about books on their LiveJournals or listing them on MySpace, but speaking back to the text on social media.

In the nine years since Breaking Dawn, spoilers spread fast and furious through message boards and LJ communities, and social media has become the de-facto home for discussions of young adult (YA) fiction. Twitter, Goodreads, Tumblr: these are now the new camps for readers, authors, and the publishing industry to build…well, everything. Authors are “highly” encouraged to have a social media presence, the better to interact with fans and potential readers. Booksellers promote events and author visits via Twitter. Readers tag authors in posts, positive and negative.

Social media might be opening up avenues for YA authors, publishing industry members, and readers to connect in ways that are still expanding every day, but it is also bringing up questions around criticism and how critics function, specifically: can criticism of YA fiction be effective on social media, and what kind of effect does criticism have on the genre? It would be easy to dismiss the aforementioned social media spaces at first glance, but the last two years alone have propelled them to a necessary forum for anyone who has even a passing interest in the development of YA as a genre.

Historically, YA literature has been defined by certain characteristics more than an umbrella explanation. Usually protagonists are teenagers (between 13-19 years old), and plots revolve around the protagonist’s inner and external conflicts, but they are not guaranteed a “happy ending.” More often than not, these conflicts involve the trials of growing up, and what that looks like for a particular character in their particular situation. Not all of the characteristics cited above may be included in YA fiction titles today, and marketing strategies may choose to utilize the YA label for some middle-grade and adult titles.

The first YA novel to be termed such was Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, published in 1942. Unlike YA authors today, Daly was never faced with the questions social media poses–her work was clearly separated from her personal life and views, and readers interacted only with the text, purchased from the bookstore or borrowed from the library. Today, writers converse with their readers sometimes a full year before their novel or short story is published, a feat made possible by the existence of Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads, and yes even that trusty staple of the internet, email. Mutually beneficial relationships are built with each other: authors (especially those debuting) build a fandom who will be excited for and read their work, and readers have the pleasure of direct conversations with their favourite writers. Some writers choose not to create a social media presence, but in the world of star ratings and tweets, sometimes that doesn’t matter.

While Stephenie Meyer has never created a Twitter account, discussion of her series still abounds on social media, used as a standard for YA fiction, a throwaway insult, sometimes both at the same time. Intense academic criticism of the series text can appear next to an all-caps dismissal of Edward’s romantic foibles on Twitter sometimes simultaneously, inviting interaction from other readers and strangers looking for a conversation. Sometimes the analyses come from fellow authors as well. Criticism is a living thing, especially on social media, and for many, the format has muddled the lines between formalized literary criticism and crowdsourced opinion, to varying results.

Literary critical theory is defined as such by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“…not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean…[it] is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature.”

Purdue OWL provides a listing of some of the movements within literary criticism, including psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, and post-colonial criticism. These three movements have played a particular role in the development of literary theory for young adult fiction, influencing conversations that were previously conducted by masteral and doctoral students.

YA literary theory has existed since at least the 1970s, and developed through academic circles. With the rise of Twitter and Goodreads in the late 2000s, the concept of literary criticism began to move out of the realm of classrooms and theses, and into unmoderated online spheres. These online spheres don’t just see academic critics as participants in the conversation, but the very creators and consumers of YA literature as well. It hasn’t always been an easy or smooth transition, as few things are when it comes to the complexities of social interactions.

Social media opens literary criticism to readers, but the format limits formal access, at least in a the “academic” sense, to a collection of critical theory. 140 characters, threaded tweets, star ratings with comments–all of these encourage interaction that is peer-based but unreviewed in a lot of cases. YA’s growth as a genre depends increasingly on critics moving through social outlets, where they come into conflict with the community’s foundation of “kindness” and support. This opens dialogue up to direct and indirect tone policing of the loudest voices, in many cases in defense of white male authors.

Women populate the online YA community, both as creators and consumers, though men do make up 40% of the executive level of the publishing industry. It would almost be laughable how quickly the word “drama” has been attached to the community as a result of this, how easily legitimate criticism has been drowned out by cries to #KeepYAKind and more serious threats directed towards “exposing” critics as “bullies” to their agents and editors. More often than not, the “bullies” are simply writers themselves–many women of colour–academics, and sometimes teens themselves who come to understand the systems that are visible in the YA books that are published and promoted. Their involvement in criticism is not done out of hatred for the genre, but the complete opposite: they want YA to succeed, and to succeed constructively.

Dr. Debbie Reese has written about the representation of American Indians in hundreds of children’s books, and her reviews are some of the most highly respected in the YA community. Reese is enrolled in the Nambé Pueblo tribe, and holds a Ph.D. in education and a Master’s degree in library and information science, but her interaction with children’s literature includes interacting on social media. She is active on Twitter, often having nuanced conversations about diversity and Native stories daily, and providing an open dialogue for those who want to learn. I first found Reese’s work during the Twilight era of my reading life, as she has written extensively about the series’ portrayal of Native characters like Jacob Black.

Her presence hasn’t received all sunny support, however–there have been authors who took issue with Reese’s evaluation of their work, and readers who aren’t swayed by the points Reese makes or influenced by their perception of her tone on social media. Reese’s position is academic, but it runs parallel to fan activism, a concept described by Melissa Brough and Sangita Shresthova as something “most often [associated] with active fans lobbying for a content-related outcome, such as a program staying on the air, the representation of racial or sexual minorities, or the promotion of social themes in program content.” Interestingly enough, authors and readers are working together more and more to bring attention to critical discussions around YA literature.

A particularly loud recent outcry came from the promotion of a Harlequin Teen 2017 title, The Continent by Keira Drake. Several authors noticed worrying aspects, and Justina Ireland’s criticism of the text’s Native American and Japanese stereotypes quickly went viral on Twitter in November 2016, leading to a hastily cobbled apology from Drake. Fellow author Zoraida Cordova wrote a piece examining Drake’s apology and bringing up salient points regarding her world-building foundations. Ireland’s Twitter thread was followed by a blog post in which she discusses The Continent and Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth, and their perpetuating use of the “dark-skinned aggressor” trope.

In Debbie Reese’s case, her criticism and advocacy for fair and non-stereotypical Native representation in children’s literature is shored up by her decades of academic experience and credentials, and her message is shared through social channels, bringing the conversation to readers themselves. Fan activists likewise intersect with criticism via social media and public forums, where their voices are most loudly heard. While Justina Ireland and Zoraida Cordova might not be fan activists in the definition of the phrase, the critical work they do is buoyed by their presence and participation within social media. The conversation around The Continent would bring the title to Dr. Reese’s attention, and her in-depth critical analysis of the text supports the points that had been brought up on Twitter.

None of these very valid criticisms came from the hallowed halls of universities. They were built via tweet threads, through conversations with fellow authors, bloggers, and casual readers, on a forum that has also seen the harassment of people who choose to engage in constructive criticism. Their questions were amplified by social media, to a point where the publisher could not ignore it. HarlequinTEEN’s choice to delay the book’s publication was a polarizing one, but it would be hard to dispute the vital role played by these social media conversations in their decision. If nothing else, the discussion around The Continent proves three things: Constructive, critical work is happening on social media; this work does not go unnoticed by publishers; and it is effective in pushing for change in the industry, from readers to the highest executive.

The work continues: Veronica Roth’s highly anticipated Carve the Mark was criticized for some of the same tropes seen in The Continent, and Roth’s response to the criticisms is in itself indicative of the need for further conversations. It’s worth noting that Roth chose to respond on her Tumblr, to a question posed by an anonymous reader, instead of engaging with the authors/critics/bloggers that brought up the questions–worth noting not because it was a bad decision, but because it highlights the channels of interaction that are now available to even the most casual reader. Ask a question, and your favourite author might just answer it, tweet at you, reblog your query, respond to a review on your blog.

But as we move towards an arena where these critical lines are less clear, and the questions therein, it’s also worth considering how YA’s target audience–teens–fit into the picture, and what kind of online and offline space is provided to them, as consumers and budding critics of the genre. As we saw with the response to Breaking Dawn, teens are ready and willing to engage with their favourite books in the channels available to them, and just as able to make their own spaces through book blogs and other online media. Critics and creators need to match their growth and engagement to ensure YA’s continued development and innovation–who best to do that than the teens who consume YA fiction so enthusiastically?

This is the first of a two-part series on YA literary criticism and social media.

Photo: From the collection of Christchurch Public Library (Twitter)

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