on May 1st 2018
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Before we go any further, I want to make sure you understand this: I am not a good person. If that’s important to you, to only read things by good people and about good people, where all their conflicts are unfair things that happened to them despite their pluck and kindness, then you should stop reading right now. I am not the girl for you.
^Heed this warning. Seriously. If you are someone who needs to like your protagonist, this book – and Sales’s books in general – are not for you. If you need books where bad actions are justly punished and all the right moral lessons are learned, this book isn’t for you. This book made me angry, made me pause, think, and question; it is not an easy book to read.
Winter is a privileged white, Jewish girl, National Spelling Bee Champion, and on track to go to a great college. Until one night she posts a racially-offensive joke online – suggesting that it is surprising for a black person to win the Spelling Bee – and it goes viral. In the immediate aftermath, Winter’s life is, quite literally, ruined by her actions. She receives death and rape threats, loses friends and (avoiding spoilers) way more than she could believe possible.
Here’s the thing, though: Winter is both the villain and the victim of this book, but she is definitely not a perfect version of either. She’s kinda an asshole, and one who takes a long time to own up to her own bigotry. She is selfish and deeply flawed. Sales asks if we as the reader can find sympathy for people who fuck-up big time, who are not particularly likeable AND are guilty of that most villainous of all crimes – being privileged.
It’s difficult for me, honestly. Yes, I am white, but I’m also from a poor, working class background. My grandparents grew up in poverty. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I funded my entire course with a student loan. I struggle to sympathize with wealthy, over-educated characters. But I do like that Sales never takes the easy black-and-white road. I can also very easily see why other readers will not.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is undoubtedly a very timely book. I don’t know that it was the best choice for a white author to write this particular story and have the central incident be racial because that is going to turn the discussion to race and not what this book is actually about, which is how good intentions can hurt just as much as bad ones, and how the only worthy apology is one that takes responsibility and stops making excuses. This could be about anything – racism, sexism, homophobia, a rape joke, whatever – the main message remains the same.
“I am repentant, though. I feel repentant.”
“You feel guilty,” Kevin told me. “It’s not the same.”
Many characters – both white characters and POC – repeatedly challenge Winter’s worldview. Though I never thought she deserved rape threats and to lose what she did, it is still extremely hard to find sympathy for Winter for a lot of the book. There’s even a certain sense of satisfaction to be had in her finding out that actions have consequences and you should think before you tweet. She refuses to accept that she did anything wrong, blames others for what happened to her, and offers terrible fake apologies that are all about herself and what she intended. She is called out on her privilege, her prejudices, and her ignorance until she finally learns to acknowledge what she did and the hurt she caused.
It’s a book about learning that you don’t get to explain what you meant online because that doesn’t matter to the people you hurt. Winter just has to say “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” with no “buts” or explanations after that.
However, this is still mostly about the dark side of call-out culture and internet-shaming. Sales opens a discussion through Winter about what someone who makes a dumb comment online really deserves. At what point does call-out culture become bullying? Is it when thousands of people harass a teenage girl on twitter? Is it when she gets rape threats? What, exactly, is a just punishment for someone like Winter who says something offensive online?
Of course, this book does not offer answers as such. If it did, it would have solved a major issue of our time. It is more an exploration and a discussion than a message.
The book points out that there is no police force regulating online harassment. Anyone can say anything and get away with it. Even outright lies. It exposes the Internet in all its wonderful terrible glory – everything about it that makes it a place to foster discussion, to share ideas and different ways of thinking, also makes it a place where it is easy to bully and harass. The internet is an anarchic society – where freedom and lawlessness rule side by side and vigilante justice is the only kind.
Rating this book is where it gets tricky. The author gives us a lot of food for thought and explores the many grey areas of this timely issue. There is also a lot of diversity with many people of colour, gay characters, and the love interest uses a wheelchair. The MC is nauseatingly unlikable at times but the author makes it clear from the start that she is meant to be – she is not being sold to us as a likable character. BUT I have to say that I absolutely despised the last chapter. Winter’s last action of the novel suggests she is sympathizing with someone who View Spoiler »forcibly outs gay men. Or, at least, equating her posting of a dumb, insensitive joke with deliberately lying, manipulating and exposing someone’s sexuality against their will. They are not the same thing at all « Hide Spoiler. I don’t think that was the right way to end this story and it weakened some of the important steps the book had taken.
So I’m going with 3 1/2. But please take it with a pinch of salt– it’s not a perfect representation of my thoughts on this book, though I rarely feel like ratings are.
TW: racism; homophobia; rape threats; animal abuse.