YouTube is destroying the book Zenith

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Zenith, a new young adult sci-fi book by authors Lindsay Cummings and Sasha Alsberg, is getting destroyed by reviewers on YouTube. But these aren’t ordinary negative book reviews. These are videos where “BookTubers” (members of the bookish community on YouTube), some of whom are aspiring authors themselves, are panning the work of other popular BookTubers — and they’re not going light on the criticism. They’re attacking Zenith to the point of blatant mockery.

This kind of panning brings up a few questions. Is it right or even fair for creators to criticize the work of their colleagues? And what happens when the roles are reversed, and it’s their turn to be judged?

YouTubers vs. YouTubers

In his review of Zenith, YouTuber “InsaneReader” begins by sharing why he decided to pick up the book:

I am a writer, correct? I like to write books. My dream is to get my book published, and I’m a BookTuber. This person published a book, and they are a BookTuber. … I’m a BookTuber, so let’s say I’m getting my book published. What I would want to happen and what I would expect to happen and really, really hope to happen is to have members of my community embrace my book and support me. For me, buying this book, it almost feels like, well yeah, I would want somebody that watches my videos or somebody that supports me to buy my book, obviously.

So basically, it’s like transactional. I would like to buy somebody else’s book and support them so then someday other people might support me. And I’m not saying that in like the sense of, oh, if I don’t give these books good stars, nobody’s gonna like me. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I would expect someone to give my book a chance.

And he does give Zenith a chance. He vlogs his reading of the book … and quickly begins to hate on it for the next 30 minutes. He clearly enjoys making fun of it.

And you can’t blame him. The book sounds awful, from the characters to the plot to the cliche writing. But his book review isn’t so much as a book review as it is a total and unapologetic slamming.

When is criticism not ‘respectful’?

Any reviewer is obligated to be honest — and should be. That’s their job. It’s far too easy for someone to feel pressured to give a good review or soften their opinion when there’s a personal connection to the creator, whether it’s because they’re friends or fellow creators.

“I don’t have any ill feelings toward the author[s],” InsaneReader says at the end of the video. “I could even say I like the authors in some regard. I’m not attacking anybody. I just personally wasn’t a fan of this book. If you’re gonna be somebody who liked this book or maybe didn’t like this book, either way, keep it respectful.”

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And he’s right: He isn’t attacking the authors. He’s separating the creators from their creations; who they are as people does not equal the work they produce. “I think I tweeted this at one point,” he says, “but if you’re the type of person who sees that somebody doesn’t like a book that you like, and your first thought is to get mad or dislike a video or leave a mean comment, you are gonna have the hardest time existing as a human being on the earth.”

Just like he isn’t attacking the authors personally, he expects viewers not to attack him personally for his opinion … and likewise for the authors when they watch his video. There’s no need for hard feelings here.

But is InsaneReader “keeping it respectful”? There’s a fine line between offering a fair, honest review and going overboard into mockery for the sake of mockery. Granted, it’s easy to go overboard when there’s so much that’s awful to gush about. Books can be so bad that every page makes you roll your eyes and groan and want to complain to others about it. The bad parts of a book can pile up until everything appears bad and it becomes harder to distinguish whether you’re frustrated with something because it’s genuinely awful or if you’re nit-picking because everything else is so annoying.

And what happens when the roles are reversed? Say InsaneReader gets a book published one day. Would he be terrified that other BookTubers would tear apart his work the same way that he did someone else’s? Or would he hope that they would at least be “respectful” in their criticism? Where do we draw the line?

I’m using InsaneReader as an example here, but he’s not the only YouTuber who’s picked apart every little line of Zenith and ranted about how terrible it is. Others, like Jordan Harvey, have released similar lengthy videos — although I tend to think hers is a bit more analytical than indulgent, which makes it more useful as a look into amateur writing vs. quality writing and how you can learn from that. (She even has a video she recommends in her Zenith review about why Avatar: The Last Airbender does exposition so well, as opposed to Zenith, which doesn’t.)

What do you think? Is all the backlash against Zenith fair? Do people have a tendency to go too far in their hatred of something? Or should creators accept that exposing their work to the world can invite extreme levels of negativity, just like it can warrant huge fandom?

Be brave: a review of Divergent

Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. …

But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.

DivergentI didn’t enjoy Divergent as much as I thought I would. I don’t even like the main character, Beatrice, all that much. But I do like how author Veronica Roth plays around with themes such as bravery, cowardice, and honesty.

Divergent splits its world into factions and forces everyone, at a young age, to choose which one they want to spend the rest of their lives a part of. That sometimes means joining a completely different group of people and never seeing your family again because you’re supposed to obey the mantra “faction before blood.” It sucks.

Beatrice grew up in Abnegation (which means “self-denial”), a faction that teaches selflessness above all else. But the problem with the factions, which were created to prevent war and violence by adhering to a set of ideals, is that if you commit yourself to the qualities that you think would guard against those things, you end up leading an extremist lifestyle. Most of us find it OK to be selfish sometimes, or dishonest, or reckless, or smart, but no one in Divergent gets that luxury.

That’s why people change factions — a chance at freedom, at identity. But those words don’t mean much when you’re simply trading one rigid way of life for another. It’s a flawed system that leads to a lot of political problems that boil over later in the book.

So Beatrice leaves her faction of total strictness and charity (people call the Abnegation “Stiffs”) and chooses its very opposite: the Dauntless. They’re everything the Abnegation are not supposed to be. But before initiation, even before you choose, you take a test that’s meant to guide you. Beatrice’s results, which are supposed to reveal the faction where she best belongs, are inconclusive. They are wrong. Divergent.

For most of the novel, Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she chooses to be called — has no idea what that means. She just tries her best to survive initiation, which with the Dauntless means jumping onto moving trains and onto rooftops, climbing to ridiculous heights, getting tattoos, showing skin, shooting guns, and fighting. It’s supposed to teach her to be brave, but not everyone has the same idea of what that is. She has to figure that out for herself, and that’s what I loved most about Divergent. The concept of bravery (or any of the other faction ideals) becomes confusing when you’re trying to define it — when you apply it to different situations the same way or try to live by its compass alone. A lot of what bravery means to Tris depends on how she connects to whatever she’s feeling. Brave one moments means a gun in her hand and the next, stepping away, being vulnerable.

That also makes her unlikable in a lot of ways. Tris can be completely selfless when she follows old habits or protects her friends, but inside, she can be petty. She can be angry. Selfish. And it’s hard to admire someone who listens to a fellow initiate sob during the night and ignores him because it disgusts her.

None of us is perfect, though, and maybe Tris’s character is just an honest one. Heroes don’t always have to be good. I’m not sure Tris is. She’s smart and moral, and she feels guilt or pain when others are wronged, but she’s not above committing cruel deeds herself.

Maybe that’s why Divergent gets more interesting later on because for the first half or so, the pace is kind of slow. I wasn’t even sure I cared about any of the characters. It took awhile for me to warm up to or feel convinced by them. And a lot of that had to do with betrayal, friendship, and romance — and most importantly, the thing that makes Tris an outcast from the world: not that she’s Dauntless but that she’s Divergent.

She’s stubborn and a little crazy. When others call her weak or small or a “Stiff,” she fights back. She tries harder. And as much as I don’t know that she’s the best model for anyone to look up to, I do think that’s worth something. We can be anything we want to be in a world where we’re supposed to think and act like everyone else. We can be Divergent; we can be nameless.

Grade: C

Nightmares in the jungle: a review of Catching Fire

I can only form one clear thought.

This is no place for a girl on fire.

Catching Fire cover smallI’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!), the middle novel of The Hunger Games, which came to movie theaters this winter.

I always expect second books in trilogies to be the weakest. In Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins turns the story in a predictable direction: a budding rebellion against the Capitol. The plot lacks as much substance as the first book, but Collins manages to surprise me by throwing main character Katniss Everdeen back in the Hunger Games with a bunch of old people and young, lethal victors from the past annual “celebrations.”

Katniss will always have a place in the Games now, but I didn’t expect to see her back in costume so soon. It’s a good twist, but not everyone will approve: The Games segment of the book is short and too similar to events we’ve already seen, and the first half to two-thirds are plodding. The romance, fake or otherwise, between Katniss and Peeta — the boy with the bread and her star-crossed “lover” — and Katniss and Gale — her childhood friend and fellow hunter — is more prominent in this novel (that’s good or bad, depending on what you were hoping for) although Collins thankfully grounds it in the grim reality of their situation. In the Games or in District 12, every move Katniss makes still puts her life and the lives of others in jeopardy.

So Catching Fire is lighter on content than the first book. There are some beautiful or dramatic moments involving a wedding gown, Katniss’s lead stylist (Cinna), and her competitors — and supposed allies — in the Games. I found the story absorbing though maybe that was because the romance was so juicy, but I also liked Katniss’s opponents more this time around. They’re a lot more striking: Johanna, who strips and trains naked (the actress for her in the movie, Jena Malone, is perfect); Finnick, charming and arrogant and deadly in the water and on land, who becomes one of my favorite new characters; and the intelligent and weird “Nuts” and “Volts,” to name a few. I also liked all the environmental traps in the arena even if they felt contrived (monkeys, blood rain, etc.), like Collins was just dropping obstacles in there to pad out the Games (not that the wall of fire from book one was ever particularly clever or original). The characters’ interactions are what make the battle royale interesting, not anything the Gamemakers throw at them — although I did think the jungle and clock theme were fun.

I spent a good amount of time during my read-through thinking about Peeta and Gale and whom, if either, Katniss is better off with. I don’t think it’s fair that she should be forced into a romance when marriage and kids and love are the last things on her mind. But for her, these relationships are still happening — unwillingly and as much out of necessity as natural desire. Her survival in the Games depends on how well she and Peeta can put on a “show” for the audience, but they’re also thrust together privately through their mutual situation. They comfort each other when they’re tormented by nightmares; their trust in each other is strong because of the Games — and that bond, formed through the preservation of their own mortality, is much more intense than that between her and Gale. Those two only tasted a small measure of danger in the woods outside District 12. Their reading of each other’s body language is much more intimate as hunters, and perhaps their world view is more similar, but Katniss never expressed a love for Gale whereas with Peeta, she feels gratitude and admiration — for the eloquence of his words, for his optimism. For saving her life time and again. For understanding what it’s like to survive the Games because he was there with her.

I don’t know how the trilogy will end, but I’m hoping Katniss gets to be with Peeta. What started as distrust and confusion and a sickly sweet performance has morphed into genuine affection, friendship, and more. They sleep soundly next to one another. She notices his hands as they work on a painting or drawing, like a lover would. And that’s all because of the nightmare they went through in their first Hunger Games. Sometimes, life is funny that way.

Grade: B

Broken hearts and virtual glass: a review of Idoru

“If we could ever once stop talking about the music, and the industry, and all the politics of that, I think I’d probably tell you that it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.”

IdoruWilliam Gibson, one of the early movers of cyberpunk, wrote a novel in 1996 about cyberspace love. Idoru, which I didn’t even realize was the second book in a trilogy called Bridge when I bought it (and that doesn’t matter), is about virtual avatars and worlds that have become so real that they cross dimensions and enter into existence.

As a gamer, that’s not an unthinkable concept to me. That future is all but here, with virtual reality and technology like Google Glass. Even with our many phones and computers and televisions, we’re constantly plugged in. Our lives are as much online as they are physical.

In Idoru, those realities intersect. The lead member of the popular band Lo/Rez plans to marry a synthetic personality called Rei Toei, the titular idoru — only their love and such a union is impossible. She’s not real, merely a conscious hologram projected by a machine, and everyone around Rez is wondering what’s going on in his head.

Enter Laney, who’s good at figuring out that sort of thing. So good that when he worked at SlitScan, a company obsessed with the ratings roller coaster of making and breaking celebrities, exposing and destroying their lives for entertainment, he predicted that a wannabe-famous young woman would kill herself. Nobody believed him, but he’s good at reading the signs — discerning the “nodal points,” like seeing faces in the clouds. Too good.

Those are skills that could be put to better use — use with Lo/Rez, or at least the people who protect them. Laney’s hired to get inside Rez’s head, so to speak. That’s the idea, anyway. The data isn’t there in the way it should be, and the mysterious idoru plays her own part in it, as does an innocent girl named Chia who travels to Japan to learn if there’s truth to the rumor about Rez’s proposal on behalf of the Lo/Rez fan club she’s part of. Only, she becomes involved in a dangerous sort of business, all accidental, that changes her perception of life, with its many planes, and of her own idol, Rez.

It’s a bizarre plot for sure, but Gibson’s writing has captivated and stuck with me since Neuromancer, and it’s just as absorbing here. Gibson shifts verb tenses and sentence constructions as easily as the characters do realities. His writing is plain, stark on the page, yet totally imaginative in the way that brings you to this whole other state of being, this completely new future. Tokyo. The Walled City. A love hotel. Beautiful and ugly have a way of mixing up together.

Idoru seems to search for a sense of its own meaning toward the later chapters, all switching between Chia’s and Laney’s perspectives even when they inevitably intertwine, but the message to me is one we’re more familiar with each day: the union of technology and nature that’s so pure, so invisible as to be untraceable — to be as one. “Porting” — logging on — is a commonplace phenomenon, no different than walking down the street. The idoru and Rez’s love is real even though she exists only as embodied information. And some people, like the shut-in otaku Masahiko, live more in data spaces like the Walled City than in the real world.

This is a future where anyone’s identity can be fabricated, can be replicated or falsified, as avatars or doppelgangers on video — your face on someone else’s body, incriminating. Or how you want to be seen. The new real you.

Gibson is clever to pair this exploration of a new nature with the widespread, cult-like indulgence in the celebrity. Like the real to the virtual, the digital version to the truth, the images don’t quite match up. They’re slightly off, almost imperceptibly. Rez and the idoru can’t be accepted. Their relationship is too controversial. But they will be. We’re getting there — one reality infiltrating another.

Grade: B

The Canterbury Tales of space: a review of Hyperion

There was no thunderclap, no sudden smell of brimstone, not even a scientifically sound inrush of air. One second the thing was there, surrounding me with its beautiful certainty of sharp-edged death, and the next instant it was gone.

hyperionWhatever I was expecting when I picked up Dan Simmons’ 1989 sci-fi novel Hyperion, it wasn’t a version of The Canterbury Tales set in space.

Think about it: A bunch of strangers embark on a pilgrimage together and make a game out of telling stories. A couple small parts even mirror Chaucer’s Middle English prose. The characters follow a randomly determined sequence to decide who speaks when, and each narrative differs not only in theme but also in structure. The contents of these tales are supposed to better prepare them for the hardship ahead and reveal which of them is a spy.

General unease about their journey, which may not come to fruition, and the deadly creature known as the Shrike pervades their recollections. Each pilgrim has joined because of a specific spiritual calling — an obligation to the future of humanity, which is under threat from several sides.

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