Reviewer Interviews: Megan McLennan

 

Megan McLennan is in her third year of undergraduate studies at Western University, pursuing an Honors Specialization Degree in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature. McLennan is known for her Youtube channel called “The Teen Book Addict” that has over 980 subscribers, on which she regularly shares video critiques and reviews of novels.

 

It’s so frustrating to tell someone that . . . it sounds like your kid will like the book, but you’re refusing to buy it because you’re gendering the content.

Ms.McLennan, what drew you to studying literature and dedicating your post-secondary degree to the literary field?

In high-school, I had English classes, but I felt indifferent towards the books we were required to read, they were all focused on male authors-specifically, white male authors. I wanted to study English because I love reading and I wanted to get graded on talking about books from a more diverse spectrum. That’s partially why I started my YouTube Channel, the BookTube community of YouTube was a place where I could freely talk about books that interested me with other readers.

Let’s talk about your YouTube Channel, when did you make the transition from a consumer to producer?

I started my channel in late 2013. Originally, I would come across a book I wanted to read, and then would go and look at book reviews online to see if it was something I would like. This lead to me finding blogs of book reviewers which then lead me to their YouTube channels. I only had one friend in my immediate friend group who liked to read, but she wasn’t interested in the same books as me so I went looking for people who wanted to talk about what I wanted to. Even if I came across a book that had a two-star rating from a famous reviewer, I would look up what other, everyday readers thought of it before and after I read it, to see if we had the same opinions or were critiquing the same things.

As a consumer of the reviews on BookTube, did you notice any correlation regarding gender and genre? Were there more female authors being reviewed in genres typically seen as belonging to a woman’s sphere, such as romance?

Most of the books I was reading when I first started integrating myself into the book reviewer world were Young Adult, fantasy novels. Most of those were written by women, and it’s often female teenagers or young adults reading and reviewing them, so there was a drive for female authors. But I also saw many people looking down on those books because they were “Young Adult.” Many people suggested that because they were written and consumed by girls therefore weren’t “serious” books. However, as I got older and started reading the “Adult” novels, the majority of authors were males, which meant that all the books that were being reviewed were by men. I noticed quite a big shift once I branched out from “Young Adult” to “Adult,” that even if I stuck to Fantasy, male authors had suddenly become dominant across all genres.

You can’t have a white person write a book about what it’s like to be a Black child, you want someone from that community to represent and tell their own story.

With that understanding, when you became a producer of book reviewing content, did you make an effort to recognize the demographics of the authors you were reviewing?

I’ve been trying to do it more, trying to find the genuine voice and be more conscious about the voice and the authenticity of the perspective. I have a responsibility to be more aware of it, especially being an English student where the majority of the works we study are written by white men. I’m trying to stick to books that push for our “own voices,” you can’t have a white person write a book about what it’s like to be a Black child, you want someone from that community to represent and tell their own story. I think that’s something that’s important to think about when reading and reviewing books. On a more general note, there were some books I reviewed that I was genuinely interested in and wanted to read, but there were also a lot where I was like this is new, this is what everyone’s talking about. As a reader you don’t want to have FOMO – the fear of missing out – so because the majority of the BookTube community is reading it, I want to see what the hype is about and form my own opinion.

BookTube seems like a great platform for you to share those opinions on, did you ever interact with your consumers, did you notice any trends in their demographics, specifically with regard to gender?

Booktube is a community, and because it’s such a welcoming one I was definitely able to interact with my viewers and other YouTubers. Most of the people I interacted with were other self-identifying women because most of BookTube is predominantly women. Obviously, there are some male Youtubers, but often it is women and I think that’s something that BookTube in itself addresses, because a large portion of consumers are female, and thus a large portion of the creators are female. There were quite a few other YouTubers that started their channels around the same time as me, from there I would like and comment on their videos, and they would do the same for me. One time I did a “Buddy Read” and a live show, which really helped facilitate BookTube as a reading community rather than me just posting and waiting for people to watch my videos without any feedback or discussion.

Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the producer or the consumer, you’re still connected by this shared love of reading which in itself is personal. Reading is personal.

YouTubers are often criticized for being too capitalistic, would you say BookTube as a community is as well? You mentioned the FOMO of not reviewing the most popular books, do you think then, that the presence of capitalism affects what books are being reviewed?

I think for the most part with more popular YouTubers no matter what it can be capitalistic. If you can make money doing something you love wouldn’t you capitalize on it? But, to be honest, the BookTube community seems to just be about people having someone to talk to about the books they want to talk about. Most people, including myself, don’t have people in their immediate life where they can directly talk about the books they want to as in-depth as they want to. BookTube felt very genuine, no matter what, YouTube videos will have a capitalistic shadow but on BookTube, it feels like people are there more for the books and their love of reading. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the producer or the consumer, you’re still connected by this shared love of reading which in itself is personal. Reading is personal, reviewing is personal.

Aside from your YouTube Channel, you’ve also worked at a Bookstore for years recommending books to the public. Can you tell me about any notable demographic assessments on the consumers you interacted with?

Yes! I’ve been working at a popular bookstore for four years now, interchanging between two branches. With consumer demographics, usually the consistent customers are women, there were some customers who I knew by name and some who would come in weekly and purchase books. This proves that women are huge consumers of literature but from what I’ve noticed only certain stereotypical books are targeted towards them. My friends that are interested in reading are predominantly women, the customers that come in are predominantly women, and they’re all interested in such a diverse spectrum of genres! It’s so odd to me that publishers are not looking at what women are reading because the majority of women come in looking for mysteries and thrillers but all the marketing is done to point them to romance and fantasy. This is a problem.

At Bookstores, parents are often buying books for their children, have you ever come across cases where gender division exists both explicitly and implicitly with regard to youth?

There is so much gender division, with parents and sometimes even with young readers. Often, I’ll talk to a parent who is looking for a recommendation to try to get a sense of what the child is interested in, then I’ll suggest a book and they’ll right away ask “is it a boy book, or is it a girl book?” If my answer isn’t what they want to hear, often they won’t buy it. It’s so frustrating to tell someone, that from what it sounds like your kid will like the book, but you’re refusing to buy it because you’re gendering the content. The author most likely didn’t write this book for one specific demographic, they just want to reach as many readers as they can. To be honest, this rarely happens when parents are looking for books for their daughters, it’s usually when someone is coming in and looking for a book for their sons. It’s honestly this fragile masculinity, “if I give them this book, what does it mean?” Even if the book just has a picture of the girl on the cover people will dismiss it and consider it as a “girl book.” Not all parents are like this though, but the majority are.

Is there a difference in the books that are being marketed as gendered? Are the books that are being suggested to young girls the same as those that are being suggested to young boys with regard to structure and content?

Something I have noticed is that the books that are marketed for girls are heavy on character development, often including a romance and are emotionally driven and lack a substantial plot. Whereas, the books that are marketed for boys are often heavily plot-driven with cardboard characters. There are people that prefer heavy character development and there are people that prefer heavy plot construction, so why does it need to be gendered because a preference for plot or character is just a preference it has nothing to do with gender, by marketing it as gendered you are socializing that content to be gendered. It’s especially saddening when you see this happening to young children. There are some books – the ones that aren’t marketed as gendered that do extremely well, for example, Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series. Both series have well-developed characters and strong plots, however, they are the minority as the majority of other books falls into gendered demographics.

We’ve talked about quite a few issues in the literary world that need addressing, but in your opinion what do you think is the largest and most immediate problem, specifically with regard to reviewing?

Right now, I think the biggest problem is regarding the difficulty that people of colour, especially women of colour have with being published and being recognized as getting published and having their work reviewed. Their work is just as good, and often even better than the books that are being published. Like we talked about earlier, there is and needs to be a push for “own voices” so that people from minority communities can take control and share their own stories and perspectives. Hopefully, a push for this will create less whiteness in authorship and more diversity in the literary world. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see these people who are profiting off of your experience to make capital, and when you try and tell your story just to tell it, you’re turned down. I can’t imagine how awful that must be. I think there’s starting to be a turnaround, there’s been a contemporary novel called “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas that has been on the New York Times Bestselling list for weeks and has been doing so incredibly well it’s being made into a movie. So I think we’re starting to see a shift because now the demand is being noticed, but there’s still a long way to go for representation, especially at the higher end of who chooses who gets to be published and what books are being reviewed.

A lot of the change making has to do with the ground level. It’s the support of readers; readers continuing to support authors who are part of these marginalized communities by promoting their books and talking about their books.

If the problem then is the lack of women and minority women that are being published, how do we go about getting the attention of publications so that we can make this change?

A lot of the change making has to do with the ground level. It’s the support of readers; readers continuing to support authors who are part of these marginalized communities by promoting their books and talking about their books because if it’s being talked about it forces the publishers to have to hear it. Read books by women, and review them, include them in the conversation. There’s this excuse that “the stories of marginalized people don’t sell” that gets tossed around a lot as an excuse for publishers and reviewers to ignore the work of minority groups. They don’t want to take a chance on it but they’ll take a chance on a white author who is writing about the same thing, or something of lesser quality. By having these books on the New York Times Bestselling list, reviewing them and making them into movies, it forces publishers and other reviewers to see it. For them, I’m sure it’s about capital and money. It’s all systematic, the racism, the sexism and homophobia-it’s all institutionalized. The value of the book has to be shown through money, it’s as if  “Oh, it sold a lot maybe we should make more books like this”. It’s the responsibility of readers to drive the push and also the responsibility of those at the higher publication levels to listen and work with these women and be willing to edit and help them on their stories in order to start making the change.

To keep up to date with Megan and her reviews, check out her social media platforms:

YouTube: [https://www.youtube.com/user/TheTeenBookAddict/featured]

Twitter: [https://twitter.com/TeenBookAddict]

 

Just Review, a student led project on gender bias in book reviewing

For years, women have been aware that their books are less likely to get reviewed in the popular press and they are also less likely to serve as reviewers of books. Projects like VIDA and CWILA were started to combat this kind of exclusion. Over time they have managed to make some change happen in the industry. Although nowhere near parity, more women are being reviewed in major outlets than they were five or ten years ago.

Just Review was started in response to the belief that things were getting better. Just because you have more female authors being reviewed doesn’t mean those authors aren’t being pigeon-holed or stereotyped into writing about traditionally feminine topics. “Representation” is more than just numbers. It’s also about the topics, themes, and language that circulates around particular identities. In an initial study run out of our lab, we found there was a depressing association between certain kinds of words and the book author’s gender (even when controlling for the reviewer’s gender). Women were strongly associated with all the usual tropes of domesticity and sentimentality, while men were associated with public facing terms related to science, politics and competition. It seemed like we had made little progress from a largely Victorian framework.

To address this, we created an internship in “computational cultural advocacy” in my lab focused on “women in the public sphere.” We recruited five amazing students from a variety of different disciplines and basically said, “Go.”

The team of Just Review set about understanding the problem in greater detail, working together to identify their focus more clearly (including developing the project title Just Review) and reaching out to stakeholders to learn more about the process. By the end, they created a website, advocacy tools to help editors self-assess, recommendations for further reading, and a computational tool that identifies a book’s theme based on labels from Goodreads.com. If you know the author’s gender and the book’s ISBN (or even title), you can create a table that lists the themes of the books reviewed by a website. When we did this for over 10,000 book reviews in the New York Times, we found that there are strong thematic biases at work, even in an outlet prized for its gender equality.

Topics are identified from Goodreads. Topics that show no bias are omitted.

Beyond the important findings that they have uncovered, the really salient point about this project is the way it has been student-led from the beginning. It shows that with mentoring and commitment young women can become cultural advocates. They can take their academic interests and apply them to existing problems in the world and effect change. There has been a meme for awhile in the digital humanities that it is a field alienating to women and feminists. I hope this project shows just how integral a role data and computation can play to promote ideals of gender equality.

We will be creating a second iteration in the fall that will focus on getting the word out and tracking review sites more closely with our new tools. Congratulations to this year’s team who have made a major step in putting this issue on the public’s radar.

 

.txtLAB Internships 2016: Computational Cultural Advocacy

.txtLAB is pleased to offer four undergraduate internships for the coming academic year. This year’s theme is “Cultural Advocacy: Women in the Public Sphere.”

The aim of the internship is to address how women are both mis-represented and under-represented in the public discourse of book reviewing. Book reviews represent a significant cultural outlet that bestow authority, and yet recent research by our lab and others has shown a variety of ways that women are still being framed as belonging to a nineteenth-century set of values, if they are represented at all.

A team of 4 interns will be responsible for crafting a year-long advocacy plan to address how book reviews represent women, using a combination of computational approaches and social advocacy by engaging with key stakeholders. We are looking for motivated, self-directed students who want to make a positive change in the world. 2 interns will be drawn from the Faculty of Arts and 2 from the School of Computer Science. The internship award is worth $1,000.

For inquiries regarding the internship program, please contact the .txtLAB Project Manager: tracy.valcourt@mcgill.ca.

txtLAB_Internship_2016

Why do book reviews still treat women like it’s the 19th Century?

I have a new piece out with my collaborator Richard Jean So at The New Republic that explores gender bias in book reviews. Looking at a sample of 10,000 book reviews published in The New York Times since 2000, we found a disappointing story about how reviews of women’s books overwhelmingly skew towards family and emotion-centered language.

Although recent work counting bylines has shown that women are gradually becoming better represented within review organs, our work shows that how we talk about women as writers has largely remained unchanged. As we argue in our piece, the real take-away is that quantitative representation isn’t enough. We need to change assumptions about what men and women can be experts on. That starts with publishing decisions but extends through a book’s reception in the media. Things aren’t getting better and need to change.

Goodreads v. Amazon

What difference does book-selling make for book reviews? This is the topic of our new paper accepted at the International Conference on Web and Social Media 2015 (ICWSM) that I have co-authored with Stefan Dimitrov and Derek Ruths of the Network Dynamics Lab here at McGill. Looking at 2.5 million reviews from the two platforms, we are interested in learning more about how a particular platform impacts users’ behaviour when it comes to writing about books.

Some of the salient findings:

  • Goodreads users tend to write more reviews per person.
  • Goodreads tends to have more reviews per book than Amazon.
  • Amazon reviews tend to be longer than Goodreads’ reviews; this appears to be related to the more informal nature of Goodreads’ reviews.
  •  Amazon ratings tend to be more extreme (more 5-star and 1-star ratings) than Goodreads.
  • A comparison of the distinctive words for each platform suggests their differing orientations, the commercial aspect of Amazon and the informal aspect of Goodreads:
    • Amazon: buy, bought, will, purchased, reader, gift, pur- chase, ordered, highly, reviewers, price
    • Goodreads: goodreads, shit, interesting, pretty, memoir, bit, listened, funny, definitvely, didn’t, parts

You can read the full paper here.

This is an initial study aimed at getting some preliminary understanding of whether and how the platforms differ in the ways readers talk about books. We chose to focus on a single genre of “biography,” both to constrain our problem (it still yielded 21,394 books and 2.5 million reviews) and also because biography is a very coherent genre. The issue of genre labelling is one of our next steps — how do users label books and how much coherence is there between reviews and “genres”?

We’re also hoping in the next iterations to get a fuller understanding of the stylistic and discursive ways these platforms differ. Yes, one is clearly more overtly about purchasing while the other isn’t, but how else does commercialization impact reviewing? We suspect that Amazon reviews may in fact carry more information about books, while Goodreads reflects community perspectives, though this is something we are still working on. So far we don’t see much difference in the sentiment expressed on either platform. Neither one seems to express more sentimental strength than the other and neither platform seems to use particular parts of speech that go with such expressive features (like adjectives and adverbs) in significantly higher amounts.

While the results are still coming in, my initial reaction is one of surprise. I think I had a bias that the community platform would be this book-talk utopia and the commercial one would be, well, too mercantilist. I’m not sure that’s an adequate reflection of the two sites broadly speaking. It may just be that the commercial platform supports as much “in-depth” discussion as the community-driven one, if not more so. For those wanting to connect with other users, Goodreads is a better service, but for those wanting to learn about a book, the e-commerce site might be the better bet.