I saw the following two tweets go by yesterday:
If a marginalized group criticizes a problematic book, you should be listening. You should believe them and actively work not to undermine.
If you aren’t a member of a marginalized group, you can’t decide what they find problematic. Period. When they say something is, listen.
The term “marginalized group” is the first problem. Can we please be careful? Yes, indeed, there are groups who are in many important ways stuck in the margins of U.S. society in general and fantasy fiction in particular, and this hurts both them and the field as a whole, which means it hurts me because I like reading good stuff. But when an unemployed black auto-worker in Flint, who is having his heating and electrical cut off while his kids are drinking poisoned water, is put into the same group as President Obama, who is arguably the most powerful individual in the world, then we may need to consider exactly how we’re grouping people, don’t you think?
Another issue is the supreme, colossal arrogance of saying, “If a marginalized group criticizes…” as if the entire group got together to attack a book. You’re saying, “As a member of this group, I am speaking for all members of this group.” Was there an election or something? I still remember how furious I was when, about 20 years ago, a certain now-deceased Jewish writer objected to a certain book, claiming it was antisemitic. As it happens, I thought the main character was, and the book was not, but that is a subject we could disagree about. I did not object to his opinion, but the way he expressed it made it sound as if he were speaking for all Jews, and it was insulting to have someone I disagreed with claiming to express my opinion. And, no, you don’t get to just assume that, “People in my group who differ with me are complicit in their own oppression.” You can make the case, but when you make the assumption you are being offensive, dismissive, and pompous.
But the big problem, and the reason for this rant, is the belief that somehow criticism that focuses on certain issues is subject to different and special rules: if some random person says of a book, “it was boring,” or, “it was predictable,” or, “I didn’t care about the characters,” most writers know enough, or should know enough, not to listen unless it comes from one of those she or he relies on for judgment: editors, beta readers, trusted friends, and so on. Being told, “I was bothered because there were no members of this group,” or, “I was bothered bothered by your depiction of this group,” is absolutely no different. Writers need to find those whose judgment they trust, listen to them, and ignore everyone else. Of course, these are valid subjects, and anyone reviewing the work or discussing it has a right and even a duty to mention anything he or she sees as a problem. But expecting—demanding—the writer pay special attention to this sort of criticism, or, as the tweet says, “you should be listening…when they say something, listen” is going to inhibit, stifle, and maybe even kill the work of the most insecure new writers. Unfortunately, there is no relationship that I’ve found between the power of a new writer’s voice, and the self-confidence of that writer. By filling social media with this sort of insistence, you are hurting new writers, you are hurting art. You are making our field less vibrant, less exciting, less creative. Stop it.