Dear Person Yelling Questions at Me from their Car while I am on My Bike Waiting for the Lights to Change,
My face is redder than red because I’ve just left a very intense hour of boxing training where my beloved trainer took me at my word that I wished to work very hard.1 The jacket I’m wearing is not, in fact, making me hot. It is a fine example of modern engineering with multiple vents letting in all the cool air while still keeping Australia’s vicious sun off my delicate, pasty skin. Also, and this may shock you, Yelly Driver Person, when one cycles at speed it can get quite cold what with the cool breeze. Furthermore, the jacket’s bright yellow colour allows cars to see me and thus they can avoid inadvertently clipping me, though sadly, it seems to have attracted your yelling attentions. Sadly, every plus has a minus.2
But why, Yelly Person in Your Car, are you screaming these questions at me? Why must you know if “I’m overheating in my giant coat”? Why would I assume, perched as I am on my bike, waiting for the lights to change that these inane questions are being shouted at me by a total stranger? And once I realise they are, in fact, being shouted at me why on Earth would you presume I would answer you? What business is it of yours what my body temperature is or what I choose to wear when cycling or anything at all really?
Don’t get me wrong, out on my bike, I do communicate with drivers in their cars. We nod at each other. Sometimes we smile. When a driver kindly lets me cross when they don’t have to I say, “thank you” or “ta” and they say “no worries.” Why just the other day a truck driver next to me as we waited for the lights to change asked me to do them the favour of adjusting the side mirror. I did so. Thumbs up were exchanged and the nice truck driver allowed me to go first when the lights changed. It was a beautiful thing. Cyclist and driver helping one another and not a single, shouted inane question. You see, Yelly Driver Person, it can be done.
But not today. You are all incivility and I, once I realise your inanities are addressed to me, am all ignoring you. Had I realised earlier I would have had the pleasure of delivering this speech in person and then seen you watch slack jawed as the wings unfurled from my yellow cycling jacket, yes, the one that so offended you, and I took off into the evening skies keeping pace with the flying foxes and directed them to relieve themselves on your car.
Instead please to enjoy this letter.
Cycling Girl of Extremely Well Regulated Temperature.
Of course, America doesn’t give a shit about actual facts: at last count, this pendejada had been shared over 40,000 times on Facebook and garnered nearly 600,000 page views. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Millennial, is why your generation is fucked.
Seriously? Poor research and shoddy journalism didn’t exist until the Millennials came along? Tell that to Mr Randolph Hearst and his tabloids of yesteryear that routinely made stuff up. I roll my eyes at you, sir.1
You may detect a hint of skepticism about generations. You’d be right. I do not believe in them. There is no way everyone born within a decade or so of each other have the same tastes and aspirations and experiences and shitty research skills.
For starters these generational labels don’t even apply to the vast majority of people born within their timespan. The way they are used in Australia and the USA, which is all I know about, they usually only include relatively affluent, able-bodied, white people. Because factoring in class and race and anything else is too complicated, isn’t it? Even amongst the anointed ones there are vast differences in politics and world view and how well off they are. It’s still absurd to think that all the affluent, able-bodied white people born within the same decade are all the same.
So what is the point of generational labels?
They’re mainly used: 1) to help advertisers figure out how to sell things to people, 2) to let previous generations bag on current generations.
When the Generation X tag first started being used many of us so-called Generation Xers would talk about how stupid it was. Actually, we do work really hard. We are, too, politically engaged. We are, too, feminists.2 Those of us still living with our parents did so because the rents were way higher than for previous generations and we couldn’t afford to move out. We are not a lazy generation. Nor are the Baby Boomers, nor are the Millennials.
Sigh. Do you know who was first called the Me Generation? The Baby Boomers. Then it was applied to, you guessed it, Generation X. And so on and so on.
That Time article begins like this:
I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.
And I roll my eyes at you, too, sir. They always have proof. Every single time.
Am I saying there have been no changes in people in Australia the USA over the period in which we’ve been talking about these generations? Of course not.
A century ago in Australia and the USA the vast majority of people were living in extended family households. Far fewer people, back then, were left alone to raise their children. They were helped by grandparents, siblings, aunts etc. etc. Far fewer people lived alone. Far fewer people were ever alone. We were vastly more socially connected back then than we are now. This basic shift in how most of us live has caused a great many changes. Some good, some not so good.
We still don’t understand the extent of those changes. But some researchers believe that the rise in depression and other mental illnesses, including, yes, narcissistic personality disorder, is closely connected to these changes in our basic family unit.3
Those changes to the family unit did not happen over night and those changes didn’t all of a sudden manifest themselves in one single generation. The very idea is absurd. And yet generation after so-called generation we keep repeating that absurd notion.
I keep seeing people say that teenagers are addicted to social media. Yet when I go out you know who it’s hardest to get to put their damn phone away? The adults right up into their forties. When I see teenagers out together their phones are mostly in their pockets. Anecdotal evidence I know.
But if you don’t believe my observations about an extremely small sample size—and why should you—then read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated she’s got proof! Her basic thesis is that teens are not addicted to social media, they’re addicted to each other, to socialising and often, because of the tight controls of their parents, social media is the only way they can socialise.
You know what my generation was/is mostly addicted to? Socialising with our peers. As was the previous Baby Boomer generation.4 We humans we are very social creatures.
TL;DR: There is no such thing as a coherent generation who are all the same. Historical change happens much more slowly than that. Stop leaving out class and race and other important ways in which identity is determined. Also: GET OFF MY LAWN!5
Though am very grateful to you for this particular corrective piece of journalism. One of the things I love best about the internet is that while, yes, false information spreads quickly; the corrections spread quickly too. And it’s much easier to find correct information than it was in the days before the internet. [↩]
I often think about how to make the world a better place. What would I do if I were world dictator? Other than ban coffee,1 I mean, and banish all the smokers to Bulgaria. Obviously, there are many, many, many things about this beautiful, broken world that need fixing. Clean water and food for everyone! Shelter and clothing! And like that.
My utopia would also highly prize education. Particularly Early Childhood Education.2 There would be well-trained, well-paid, early childhood teachers. And when I say well-paid early childhood teaching would be the highest paid job attracting the bestest and brightest.3 Some would be skilled at working with kids from a very early age, even newborns. They’d be available to all parents.
That’s right, no parents would be left alone to raise their kids without any support. So if you have kids and you live far from your family and closest friends, or if your family are the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children, there would always be someone to help you. Multiple someones. I’m convinced that each child needs a minimum of three adult carers (though five is better). Yes, I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. And two adults—especially when one of them is in full-time employment so the family can eat and keep a roof over their head—is insufficient.
Here in Australia there are almost 20,000 children in foster care. There aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them. And every year that equation gets worse as there are more kids taken into care and fewer carers.
In my state, New South Wales, the government has responded to the crisis by throwing money at the foster care end of things which, obviously, does need more money. However, it’s even more crucial that families are helped before things get so bad their kids are taken away.4
If all new parents, no matter how poor or how rich, were given support and training and access to people and places to help them with their kids I reckon their chances of government intervention would go way down.
I’d also like us to completely revamp our education system from top to bottom so that it worked more like this experimental class in Mexico. The headline of that article puts the emphasis on finding geniuses but what I thought was coolest was that every student improved and learned and that they all seemed to really enjoy going to school. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if school was like that for everyone?
In case you think there’s no way any country could turn its education system around to that extent have a little squiz at what’s been going on in Finland for the last decade or so. Pretty impressive, eh?
Tragically, I am not dictator of the world, I am a novelist, which means I am dictator of those worlds I create. I think I’ll be writing a novel where everything is built around that kind of education from cradle to grave and see how it could go horribly wrong . . . (The problem with a fully functioning utopia is that they’re not great for generating plot. Unhappy people make more plot than happy people.)
What’s your utopia?
Just kidding. I would never do that. Scott would die. So would my parents. [↩]
Sentence caps cause I am emphasising its importance. [↩]
I would reverse the way teachers are paid. In my world primary school teachers would be the next best paid after the early childhood educators. Then those who teach children 12 years and up to the end of high school. Then, lastly, university educators would be at the bottom of this extremely well-paid scale. In my world lawyers and advertising agents and CEOs would be paid way less than educators. [↩]
I’m not going to go into the total economic disparity in whose kids get taken away and whose don’t. Let’s just say rich folk no matter how vile their treatment of their offspring very rarely have their children taken away. And there are all too many cases of working class families have their kids taken away for no good reason. [↩]
I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4
V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.
VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.5
I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?
I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?
For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.
As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.
As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9
In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.
Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.
I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.
On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.
I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Goreadallthesearticles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.
I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:
I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.
There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.
I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.
Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.
Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.
The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.
If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.
V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?
See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.
I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.
So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.
Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.
VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.
What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.
This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject. [↩]
As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject. [↩]
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism. [↩]
Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about. [↩]
It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist. [↩]
Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere. [↩]
There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example. [↩]
women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.
I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”
As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):
To [Asimov's] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.
I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.
The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.
N K Jemisin also observes:
[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.
I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.
Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.
Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:
It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.
Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.
NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.
The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. [↩]
There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. [↩]
So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?
But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!
In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.
Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1
NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.
Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:
Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.
And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2
At the other end of the spectrum:
Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3
Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!
Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4
Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow
Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.
This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.
Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.
To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:
I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.
You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you
Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.
For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5
Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!
Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.
I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.
If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you
I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.
Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!
Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.
It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.
If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you
I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.
Tweet what you care about
Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.
It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.
I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.
It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?
Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6
IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS
This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.
They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:
#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?
#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.
Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.
Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.
Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.
I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack
Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.
Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. [↩]
What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. [↩]
And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. [↩]
I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. [↩]
Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! [↩]
Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. [↩]
One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:
[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3
Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?
Yes, it totally could.
But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.
Yes, you can!
Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.
Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:
The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.
The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.
The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.
Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.
I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6
The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.
Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.
You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.
Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.
You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.
So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.
But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8
Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.
At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.
Bad things happen to all of us.
I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.
My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.
I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.
Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?
But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.
Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.
That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.
That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.
Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!
To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.
Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best. [↩]
They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical. [↩]
It was in response to yet another casual dismissal of YA in the middle of a discussion about something else entirely. So often does this happen, particularly in regard to romance, that I scarcely even register it anymore.
I’m happy for people to hate whatever they want to hate. Go, for it. I mean, yes, I think it’s kind of silly to dismiss an entire genre. All genres have good and bad and mediocre examples. Yes, including, Ye Mighty Literachure. I could give you a long list of literary writers I think are awful and/or overrated. Living and dead.
I can give you the same list for every genre with which I am familiar. Yes, including YA and romance.
What bugs me is when the people doing the dismissing have no idea what they’re talking about. Such as this ancient op ed by Maureen Down where she dismisses chicklit on the basis of a handful of books and the only one she actually quotes from, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, isn’t even chicklit.
What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:
I only read good books. Because I am endowed (pun absolutely intended) with a superior mind, which those poor pea-brained readers and writers of chicklit/romance/YA/fantasy etc will never understand. I pity them. And must do so as publicly and often as I can. Or how will everyone know of my vast superiority?
And, yes, the go-to genres for dismissal to prove superiority are almost always ones tainted by girl germs.
Though science fiction also has a long history of being in this category. I would argue, however, it has started the journey towards respectability. That path upon which crime fiction is much further along. Yes, there are still people ignorantly dismissing both these genres but not as much as they used to.
Lots of people don’t read particular genres because they don’t like them. Well and good. I don’t like cosy mysteries at all. I’ve bounced off several highly recommended, gorgeously written ones. They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like their neatly wrapped endings. I don’t like, well, their coziness. I like my crime fiction gritty and disturbing.
I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler. If it’s published as a romance the two protags will get together by the end of the book. Whereas if they read a book that has a romance in it but within the context of another genre there’s the possibility that it will end miserably. Narrative tension!1
I know heaps of people who really only like realism and non-fiction. They don’t have the reading protocols for fantasy or science fiction. They can’t get past the whole zombies, dragons etc are real thing. I feel sad for them, but I get it. They don’t judge me for loving fantasy. They’re just kind of bewildered.
I have said more than once that I hate science fiction. Most recently on Twitter:
Yes, writing my PhD on science fiction and particularly focussing on excruciatingly bad examples of the genre turned me off the whole genre. Even though when I started Ursula LeGuin was one of my favourite writers. She still is. But the book of hers I wrote about for my PhD, Left Hand of Darkness, I haven’t read it since and it is one of the best books the genre has ever produced. One I used to reread regularly. I still highly recommend it. She’s a genius.
So even though Scott writes science fiction, as do many of my closest friends, and even though I myself have written a science fiction-ish novel. Yes, even though I love many sf books and films and tv shows, I react with dread and trembling to those two words together: Science + Fiction. GET IT AWAY FROM ME. The flashbacks! They burn!
No, it’s not rational at all. But at least I know what I’m talking about. Science fiction, oh I has read it. More to the point I do not think less of those who love sf best of all.
I wish people like Maureen Dowd would look at their motivations for dismissing a whole genre. That they would actually think before they open their mouths, ask themselves some pertinent questions:
Am I dismissing this genre of which I have read few examples, and those culled randomly from a bookshelf, without getting recommendations from people who know and love that genre, because I want to feel superior?
If the answer is yes then perhaps that says more about me than it does about the genre in question. Perhaps I am cooking the results before beginning the research? Perhaps I should shut my mouth on this subject in future?
I don’t care if they cling to their ignorance and prejudice. All I ask is that they stop blathering their nonsense in places where I can hear them or read them.
I would argue that good romance has loads of narrative tension but it’s generated by the “how” not by the “if”. [↩]
Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, gave a stirring, passionate and inspiring speech about misogyny and sexism in the Australian parliament and in particular the misogyny and sexism of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott: Continue reading →
Every time there’s a discussion of what to do about men harassing women someone jumps up to proclaim: “Women never call it harassment if a good-looking man cracks on to them. You’re only a creeper if the woman doesn’t find you attractive.” I have addressed the second half of this argument at length here.
However, I did not address what I think of as the Brad Pitt defence. I.e. “If I was Brad Pitt you wouldn’t call this harassment!”
This argument drives me nuts. Here’s why.
Newsflash: Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot.
I don’t. The idea that there’s a universally agreed standard of good looking is crap. Sure, many women seem to think George Clooney is gorgeous. But I have friends who think he looks like a smarmy creep. And shocking yet true: there are women who do not think Idris Elba is divine. I know, right?
Second newsflash: Thinking someone looks hot in the abstract does not mean you’ll find them attractive in real life.
A friend of mine had a huge crush for many years on a prominent cricketer. She was a journalist and one day she got to interview him IN REAL LIFE! Dream come true, right? Not so much. Within seconds he was hitting on her in a really creepy way. He made her skin crawl. He was awful!
There is often little connection between who you find attractive in real life and who you think looks great in a photo or on the silver screen. For me sense of humour is key. If I met Mr. Elba and he had no sense of humour? That would be the end of that little crush.
Then there’s the hard-to-describe physicality: the way the person moves, the way they smile, their scent. All of which has not much to do with what they look like in a photograph.
In real life some of the most repulsive men I’ve had the misfortune to interact with have been conventionally good looking. These were men who assumed all they have to do to get any woman into their bed is to snap their fingers. Often guys like that are not used to hearing the word “no” and react very badly to hearing it.
So, yes, there are good-looking men who can and do harass. There are good-looking men who can and do rape.
Of course, what I find most ironic about the Brad Pitt defence is that study after study after study shows that it is men—straight and gay—who are far more concerned about good looks, not women. It’s men who are far more likely to date a woman (or man) purely because they’re hot, not women.
This is a big issue in the Urban Fantasy genre too. I’ve started more than one series where the MC, despite being thirty-something with a job and developed asskicking abilities, has zero friends and no previous relationships. (Teacher of asskicking? No, conveniently dead just like other parental figures? What about cowor- no there too? Not even other independent psychic investigators? Okay, then. Friends? Okay, okay. Just asking.)
Rachel put her finger on something that drives me nuts in many movies/tv shows/books etc. The mighty arse-kicking protag who is the master of many martial arts but no longer studies any of them. They’ve had their training montage and now their skills are perfected and they never need to study again.
Seriously? How does anyone buy that? I mean even a slight sports fan knows that all the top athletes have armies of coaches and trainers and work really hard to improve even when they’re ranked number one in the entire universe.
I have studied two different martial arts: fencing and boxing. My fencing instructors, while instructing beginner me, were themselves still studying both with top fencing instructors in Australia but they would also go to master classes in Italy and France.
My boxing trainer makes a special trip out to the USA once a year to work with her trainer. She’s won titles and has many students of her own and yet she’s still training and working with her guru. And he, in turn, who is a master of several martial arts, continues to learn other martial arts and to train with other masters, swapping techniques. Which he then incorporates into his own teaching.
Funny how often that doesn’t happen in fiction.
I do sometimes wonder if the way learning is represented in popular culture—you study hard for about ten minutes and then magically you are perfected!—is part of why so many people give up when learning something new because they aren’t perfect at it within the space of a training montage. Could it be why so many people think they can just sit down and write a perfect New York Times-bestselling novel without having written so much as a haiku previously?
Probably not. We people are often pretty lazy. But those popular culture tropes sure aren’t helping.
Pretty much everyone I know is having babies. Or has them. Or is about to have more. Anyways there are babies everywhere in my life right now and I am often buying presents for people with babies. This has turned out to be a problem.
I don’t know if you have noticed but the clothes available for babies and littlies are AWFUL. As one friend said, “If I see another onesie with yellow ducks or blue boats I will scream!” And they’re almost always pastel. I HATE PASTELS. Or white. Or grey. Grey? What are they? Little prisoners in a dystopia? (Maybe. Don’t answer that.) Then there’s the whole girl clothes are mostly pink and boy clothes mostly blue thing. SERIOUSLY? What century is this?
So I am begging you, my faithful readers, do you know of anywhere that sells bold coloured onesies/rompers/whatever you call those little suits for babies in your culture? Where do I find Goth baby clothes? Anarchist baby clothes? Surreal baby clothes? Fun baby clothes? Hip baby clothes? Cool baby clothes? NOT PASTEL baby clothes?
In yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.
The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1
Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.
Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.
These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.
No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.
Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!
There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.
The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:
Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”
Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”
Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”
As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2
Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.
I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.
The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.
But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3
Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?
Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.
I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.
Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.
I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.
Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.
Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.
This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.
The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.
But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.
Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.
They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.
Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering. Maybe the book turns out to be a critique of that stance. [↩]
I’m not against judging. I’m just against inaccurate judgeiness. [↩]
Gone With The Wind is appallingly racist but one thing it does well is skewer its woman-hating protag. Scarlett is so awful she doesn’t even notice until Melanie is dying that Melanie is the one who loves Scarlett best and never does her a single wrong. Why Melanie is so loyal to such a narcissistic psychopath is a whole other question. My theory is that owning slaves breaks everyone’s brains, not just their ethics and morality. [↩]
Other than gymnastics, dressage, netball and other girly sports. [↩]
All my favourite fiction, whether novels or television, features strong relationships. I’ve started to think that for me the hallmark of good writing is, in fact, the strength of the relationships. So many books/movies/tv fail for me because the protag either doesn’t have any relationships or because those relationships are constructed out of cardboard.
And, no, I’m not solely talking about the lerve and the shipping. I’m talking all relationships: with mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and most especially, friends.
One of the things that attracted me to YA as a genre is that so much of it is about friendship and family relationships. It’s why every time I read a YA book that doesn’t feature those strong relationships I’m deeply disappointed. To me, it’s like the author failed to understand the genre. But then I came to YA via authors like M. E. Kerr and Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. Yes, there’s romantic love in those books but there are also other very strong relationships, particularly with family members. Think of Sophy and her sisters in Howl’s Moving Castle and Laura with her brother and mother in The Changeover.
The core of the Uglies series is not Tally and whoever her love interest is either boring David or sexy Zane.1 It’s her friendship/hateship with Shay. In the Leviathan trilogy there are multiple wonderful relationships beside the central lerve one. My favourite is Derryn’s relationship with the boffin, Nora Barlow.
These other relationships are what make the central characters so rich. We know Sophy and Laura and Tally and Derryn through their relationships to other people. Our friendships are a large part of who we are as people.
Strong relationships keep me going watching a show even when the rest of it isn’t really working for me. I was very disappointed by Homeland which despite being touted as groundbreaking television I found predictable and mostly uninteresting. But I loved the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and her mentor boss played by Mandy Patikin and it kept me watching despite Homeland‘s average script and the way the show kept pulling its punches. Oh and the special and visual effects were so cheesy. Least convincing explosions I’ve seen in ages. I thought Showtime had money? Weird.
Another disappointing show was the BBC’s The Fades, which was visually stunning. OMG. That show is beautiful. It’s a pity about the incredibly boring central character—well, boring when he wasn’t being annoying—and the overloaded and out of control script. Too much stuff, people! Much of it wonderful—enough to keep several shows going but not all crammed together in the one show! Stakes WAY TOO HIGH. Pare it down, already. Also another chosen one story. *yawn* Can we retire “awkward weird guy hated by everyone—except for that one gorgeous girl with no personality—turns out to have awesome powers and be the only one who can save the world” right now, please? Thank you.
But I loved the main character’s best friend and his sister and their relationship with the really boring protag were the only times the protag was even vaguely interesting. Their relationship with each other was the best thing in the show. Those relationships kept me watching.
I often hear beginning writers complain that they’re not sure what happens with their protagonist next. That they’re stuck. Often part of the problem is that their book does not have enough relationships in it. They’ve left out the parents, made their protag an only child with no friends. The only other characters are the love interest and the villian. And none of the characters are coming to life because they’re only in the book for one reason: to be the Love Interest, to be the Villian, to be the Protagonist.
There has to be more. You get the more by complicating things. Let’s say the protag’s best friend is the villian’s sister. Already that gives both the protag and the villian another dimension: their relationship with their BFF/sister. Both characters suddenly became a lot more interesting.
I know it’s convenient—not to mention a longstanding trope—to get rid of the parents but parents add all sorts of fabulous complications and depth to your books. They can arbitrarily ground your character or be indifferent to their goings on. Or have a mysterious job. Or turn out to be the villian. Or be there full of love and advice and patching up or, all of the above. Ditch them at the peril of writing a less interesting book.
Also siblings. They complicate things too. Personally I adore them.2 The protag’s little sister in How To Ditch Your Fairy is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever created. I’d love to give her a book of her own some day.
In conclusion: Please don’t write novels with one character in a white walled room. Family and friends are good plot thickeners and givers of dimensions to other characters.
Uglies trivia: I came up with Zane’s name by the way. [↩]
And not just because my sister is the best which means I want everyone to have a fabulous sister. [↩]
Recently I argued that the best way to deal with a cranky author coming after you for writing a less-than-glowing review about their work was to delete the review but say why you had done so. My argument was that obscurity is the worst thing that can happen to an author. No reviews = no attention = no sales = no career. Bye, bye author.
Kat Kennedy (and others) responded in the comments (and on Twitter) to say that while she could understand responding that way she personally would not do it for three reasons: 1) She was proud of her reviews. 2) Some authors badgered reviewers into taking down their negative reviews. Why should they be given what they want? 3) Readers deserve to see the full range of reviews.
Today I woke up to the latest online storm around an author and their fans going after negative reviews which culminated in the reviewer receiving threatening calls. It is so petty and so stupid I just can’t even . . . Aaargh!
What is wrong with people that they can’t take in a simple very obvious fact: we all have different opinions.
Didn’t I just write about this the other day?1 You can’t control what people think of you or your books. I guess I should have also said and if you try you’ll look really, really, really bad. You’ll look like you’re abusing your powerful position as a bestselling, popular author. You’ll make people not want to buy your books far more than any one-star review ever could have.
I have a theory that there’s been a lot more of this kind of bullying from authors lately because there are far more authors who publish themselves without first going through the process of submitting to agents and editors and experiencing rejection. Authors whose work has not been workshopped or critiqued or, in some case, even edited before publication.2 They’ve only being read by people they aren’t related to or are friends with, Then they start being reviewed by strangers. Thus their first experience of criticism happens in public with unfortunate consequences.
My theory may well be true for a handful of those at the extreme end of self-publishing.
But it does not explain the established, published-by-big-houses, several-books-into-their-career, New-York-Times-bestselling authors also freaking out about negative reviews in public.
How on earth can they think a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads is going to have the slightest effect on their career? What exactly are they afraid of from less-than-stellar reviews? The more widely read your books are the bigger amount of bad reviews you’re going to get. Simply because more people are reading you. Bestsellers are pretty much always the most hated. How many haters of Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey are there? Surely there in their gazillions. As are the lovers of those books. It goes with the territory.
It’s the sheer quantity of reviews and responses and other indications of your being read that fuels further sales because they mean your book is being talked about. Many reviews means word of mouth is happening. Whether they’re negative or positive is neither here nor there.
Look, I get that there’s a lot of pressure on those bestsellers for their next book to outsell the last. For them to always be a bestseller. I know it’s very stressful.3 But seriously? Siccing your fans on an Amazon reviewer? Why?
So, yes, I’ve changed my mind. Too many of these cranky authors want negative reviews to not exist. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them bully you into taking down your reviews. Be strong. And make sure as many people as possible know that you’re being bullied. Authors have to stop doing this.
I think the other strategy is only effective for books that are already obscure. In the real world my plan of them having no reviews at all and disappearing into obscurity is not really going to happen.
You should do what works best for you. Being in the centre of an online shit storm is horrible. I’ve been there. For most of us life is too short.
The fact that any amount of an energy is being spent on this is so ridiculous. The fact that readers are nervous about sharing their honest opinions about books is also ridiculous.
You publish books, you get bad reviews. If you don’t want bad reviews don’t write books.
Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify.1 He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.
Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.
My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.
Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.
*cough* I digress.
Where was I?
Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned3 film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.
Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.
If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.
They tried really hard to get Elvis Presley rather than Kris Kristofferson. Can you imagine? Maybe he wouldn’t have died in 1977 if he’d starred in it. Or maybe he would have died sooner. We’ll never know. [↩]
I can too make words mean anything I want them to mean. [↩]
Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.
The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.
For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.
If you get a chance to see it DO SO.
The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.
It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.
Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.
The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.
The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.
This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.
The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!
I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?
I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.
A friend of mine, a librarian and blogger and reviewer, has had a handful of authors attack her because she wrote what they considered to be bad reviews of their books.1 She did not enjoy it.
This is not an isolated incident. Reviewers have had authors dummy spit2 at them, sic their fans on them, and generally make them wonder why they’re bothering to write reviews.
What can bloggers do when wrathful authors and their hordes descend up on them?
Here’s what my friend did. She took down those reviews. Good idea.
What these authors don’t realise is that their worst enemy is not critical reviews; it’s obscurity. No reviews is way, way, way worse than bad reviews.
Someone hates your book? That’s a good thing because it means they actually read it. (Even better you got a passionate response!) No one reading it. No responses? That’s the fast track to out of print and gone and forgotten.
That’s what I fear: not being able to sell my books because I have no audience. I do not fear people hating my books. Jane Austen is hated. Every writer I love is hated. It’s a feature, not a bug!3
So here’s my advice: if an author has a go at you for a less than gushing review of their book—take it down. And if it’s possible leave a polite note explaining why. Something like:
This space was occupied by a review of X by Cranky Author. Cranky Author was incensed by the review so I have removed it and will no longer review anything by Cranky Author.
See? Everyone’s happy. Cranky Author’s eyeballs are no longer assailed by your shocking blindness to their genius.4 You don’t have to deal with their crankiness.
And maybe if everyone does this, those authors—and fortunately they are small in number—will get the message and knock it off.
As a general rule, authors, do not respond to reviews.5 They’re not for you, they’re for readers. And especially do not attack the authors of those reviews! Leave reviewers alone!
Mostly, of course, these were not bad reviews but more like three-star, has-some-good-points-has-some-bad-points kind of reviews. [↩]
USians: look it up! You are online. You can find out the meaning of any unfamiliar word or phrase in heartbeat. Embrace this gorgeous future we live in. [↩]
Hell, I even have favourite bad reviews of my books. I have quite the collection for Liar. Wow, do the people who hate it REALLY hate it. It’s also, so far, my best-selling novel. Take from that what you will. [↩]
When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.
The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.
Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.
Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”
The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.
So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.
Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.
Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.
If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.
That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.
Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.
The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.
I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.
How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.
Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.
We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.
I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.
I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.
Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.
Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.
I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.
Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.
I’m not going to link to where I saw this particular bizarre notion. Mostly because it’s not something that’s found in one place. I’ve come across the same sentiment in various locations offline and on- over the last ten or so years. So it’s kind of irrelevant who said it most recently.
But here’s gist of the argument:
YA writers only do it for the money. They don’t care about the effect their [insert negative adjective] work has on children only about making money.
I’m fascinated that this argument gets made at all ever. I don’t know a single writer who became a writer to make money. Everyone I know is a writer because they can’t not be a writer. It’s a compulsion. A vocation. Something they do whether they’re paid for it or not. This is true across genres.
The idea of becoming a YA writer to make bank? Crazy.
Most of the YA writers I know don’t make enough money from writing books to do it full-time. They have other jobs. Those writers I do know who earn enough to write full-time, like myself, are not exactly rolling in the big bucks. Gina Rinehart would not bend over to pick up what I make in a year. And, frankly, most of us full-time YA writers can’t believe our good fortune. We know way too many brilliant writers who aren’t making enough to do it full-time. We are very aware of how lucky we are.
I know only a handful of writers who are earning what I consider to be big money from writing YA novels. They are the tiny minority. And the odds of them continuing to make that kind of money in a decade’s or twenty year’s time is pretty low. Look at the bestselling books of 10, 15, 20 years ago. Very few of those books are still selling now. Making good money from writing books and continuing to do so for a lifetime? Very rare.
If someone really decided to become a YA novelist solely to make big money then they’re an idiot with incredibly poor research skills. Choosing to write novels—in any genre—as a path to riches is about as smart as buying lottery tickets to achieve the same.
But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that YA writers are all making vast bucketloads of cash.1 How does making lots of money for writing books automatically mean you will do it contemptously of your audience? Where does that idea come from?
I’m particularly bewildered because the vast majority of people who make this argument are from the USA. Isn’t making loads of money supposed to be a good thing in the USA? Something you should be proud of? Something that qualifies you to run for president?
It swiftly becomes apparent that it’s artists, not just writers, but any kind of artist, who shouldn’t earn money from their work. Apparently money taints art or something. I’ve never quite understood the logic of this argument. Personally, I’ve always thought that starvation puts the biggest crimp on creating art. You know, on account of how it leads to death. It is incredibly hard to create art while dead or while living in poverty. Art’s something that’s much easier to do when survival is not the biggest issue facing you every day.
The fact that there are people out there living in poverty who still manage to create art fills me with awe. People are amazing. But that does not make poverty a necessary condition for the creation of art. It’s a major obstacle that a few people are (rarely) able to overcome.
So, yes, I call bullshit on this particular claim. Only a fool would get into writing YA novels to become rich.
For the record here’s why I write YA: because that’s the publishing category the books I write fit into. I was writing YA before I even knew the genre existed. Making money from writing those novels and perverting the minds of innocent teenagers is just a happy accident.
And maybe when I wake up tomorrow it will be true! Think of all the ball gowns I’ll own. I’ll wear a different one EVERY SINGLE DAY. Um, I mean I will give loads of money to worthy charities and help eradicate malaria and all other eradicable diseases from the planet. WHILE WEARING AN AWESOME BALL GOWN. What? I like pretty frocks, okay? [↩]
But I would sell my soul for any one of my books to be turned into a Hollywood TV show.
US TV is in a golden age. How many shows are there on right now that I enjoy? Let me see: Legend of Korra, Scandal, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Revenge, Louis, Bunheads, Justified, Nurse Jackie, Community and I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of. Do I think they are all perfect? As diverse as I would like them to be? Not hardly. But they are a million times better than any recent Hollywood movie. Frankly, even formulaic TV like Drop Dead Diva1 is way smarter and more thoughtful and just plain better than 99% of the movies that come out of Hollywood.
Here’s the thing. Many of my friends have had their books optioned and have had meetings with Hollywood movie types and their overwhelming reaction walking away from those meetings is hysterical laughter and/or despair. “So they love my book—you know, the one that reworks the little mermaid—but they’re wondering if it wouldn’t be better if they were secretly robots controlled by a master villian on a secret island hideout. They worried there wasn’t enough conflict.” Or, “So they say they love my book but they’d prefer my teen black female protagonist was white and male and thirty-five. But he could have a teen daughter who’s best friend was black.” Etc.
Hollywood has their rule book of how movies should be. They will take your book and cram it into those set of rules and spew out their sausage movie product. They will raise the stakes until the fate of the world is at the movie’s centre. You know just like every other summer blockbuster. They will make almost everyone white. They will reduce complexity and make the ending unambiguously happy: the boy and the girl will kiss! Even if in the original book it was a girl and a girl.
It’s no surprise that the YA adaptations that have been the most successful are the ones that are most faithful to the books they’re based on. The ones that have been turned into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movie die on their arses. It amazes me that no one in Hollywood has noticed that. Yet they keep optioning hugely successful books, oops, I mean, “properties” and trying to turn them into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movies. Gah!
Meanwhile every year there are several wonderful new TV shows. Most of which aren’t like anything else that is on TV.
So, yes, given a choice between the two you betcha I’d prefer to have a TV show. At this point I should reveal my dread shame: only one of my books has ever been optioned and that was for the huge amount of ZERO dollars. I know it can seem like all YA books ever are instantly optioned but sadly this is not true. Also of all those books that are optioned the vast majority never makes it to the screen. I have a friend, well, husband really, who has had all of his books optioned multiple times. Nope they have never made it on to the big or small screens. Might happen. One day.
Though should Hollywood people offer me buckets of money to adapt a book of mine for the big screen I would not say no. Fabulous ballgowns don’t buy themselves, you know! Besides, as mentioned, the vast majority of optioned books never get made into movies. Especially right now when the DVD stream of revenue has completely dried up. So I could safely say yes with little fear of seeing my book desecrated on the big screen.
My secret vice or it would be if I kept it secret. What? I love Margaret Cho. Shut up. [↩]
This is a discussion that comes up every so often. Is it better to do what you can to make yourself a brand name author, i.e. write books that are very similar, say like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, or that are all set in the same world, like say, the Left Behind books, or have the same characters, like pretty much every popular crime series ever from Sherlock Holmes on. Or are you better off writing what you want to write from urban fantasy trilogies, to realist crime, to fantastical comedies, to historicals to whatever.
The argument is that you are much more likely to build an audience and keep them if your audience knows what they’re in for when they pick up one of your books and you deliver it. An author who is all over the shop in terms of genre and mood: fantasy one minute, realist the next; comedy, followed by tragically serious—a writer like that is only going to be able to build the kind of audience who doesn’t mind surprises, and will happily read across genres and moods. That is a much smaller audience.
I look around at my genre, YA, and I can tell you that argument is absolutely true. The brand names in my genre are writing books that are, mostly, recognisably like their other books. And when they write something that is very different from their regular books they don’t sell as well. They do much better with books that are, *cough*, core to their brand.1
But here’s what such discussions leave out: Most of the so-called brand name authors didn’t start out by sitting down and deciding what their “brand” would be and then writing accordingly.2 Most of them were not instant successes. Many wrote varied books before the book or series that became their brand took off. No one chooses to be a brand. It just happens.
If it were that easy than how do we explain all the series that did not succeed? I began my writing career with a trilogy. The first book, Magic or Madness, sold quite well. The two books that followed did not. Had I tried to persist in building my brand by writing more books in that series I suspect they would have sold even worse. No one was asking for more of those books, not my publisher, not my agent, no one.3
Most series do not take off. Unsurprising given that most books don’t take off either. The vast majority of us writers who have written more than one book set in the same world or telling the same story do not become brand names. Instead we watch with sinking hearts as each successive book sells in fewer numbers than the proceeding one. The sad fact is that more series get cancelled by their publishers than turn their writer into a brand name.
So if you have staked your career on writing this one kind of book over and over and no one wants that book you’re in a pretty bad place. Those writers who have lots of other books they want to write can move on from an unsuccessful series to something new and different.
Or to put it more succinctly: Very few writers become brand names. Building your career around the expectation that you will be one is kind of, um, not sensible.
So let’s scale back expectations. Let’s be realistic. When I look around me at the YA authors who I consider to be successful4 i.e. their agent is able to sell each book they write, which is to say there is a market for their books, even if it’s small compared to the big name brand writer, I see writers who have mostly written the books they want to write. Sure, for some of them that means writing all comedies, or all sf, or all fantasy, or all whatever. But that’s because that’s what they like writing and what they’re good at writing not because they are hellbent on becoming a brand.5
Most writers do not want to write books in every single genre in a wide variety of styles and modes. Most writers, like most readers, tend to stick to one or two genres. Now I know you’re all going to chime in and say, “Not me! I like all sorts of different books!” That’s awesome. I, too, am a varied reader. But we are the exceptions, not the rule. Trust me on this.
And those brand name writers? Most of them are also writing the books they want to write.
So, yeah, in the great becoming a brand-versus-writing-what-you-want-to-write debate I’m suggesting that those are not either or propositions. The first one, becoming a brand name, is an extremely unlikely hit-by-lightning thing that there’s nothing you can do to engineer. Might as well plan to win the lottery. But the second is something that you might build a career on.6
Because frankly why would you want a writing career that meant you were stuck writing novels you didn’t want to write year after year? This is such a tough business, it’s so hard to sustain a career, why would you make it any harder for yourself than it already is?
Update: Okay, I seem to have done a piss-poor job of making my point with this post. As I’m getting many responses from people saying, “Oh noes! I could never write the same book over and over again. I am doomed.” That is not what I was trying to say. So let me try again:
Most writers that we’ve heard of in all genres have had a fairly uniform body of works. Jane Austen’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, William Faulkner’s, Georgette Heyer’s, Dawn Powell’s, Sylvia Plath’s, Jackie Collins’, Stephen King’s etc. etc. Writers have particular styles and preoccupations which lead to writing particular kinds of work. They do not necessarily do this in order to build a brand but because that’s the kind of writers they are.
There also exist writers who write across genres and styles. Within my genre off the top of my head I’d name Libba Bray, M. T. Anderson, Robin Wasserman, myself. Although we’ve written mostly YA within that genre we’ve been all over the shop writing realist, fantastical, science fictional, historical.7 But we’re not delivering the same kind of book each time. We’re writing what we want to write and we’re making a living at it.
You do not have to stick to writing the same kind of books to have a successful writing career. You can write what you want to write. That’s what I do. I may never be a brand but for almost ten years now I’ve made my living as a writer.
Besides that is also what most of those authors who from the outside look like brands are doing: they are writing the books they want to write.
In other words whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.
Please forgive me for that phrase. Though I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive myself. [↩]
In principle I don’t believe any particular item of clothing is per se hideous. On the whole I don’t like one-sleeved dresses but there’s always a gorgeous example that makes me rethink that stance. I even saw a pair of formal shorts that did not make me want to gouge my eyes out. I have seen the occasional pregnant dress on a non-pregnant person that was not a complete sartorial disaster.
Bubble skirt from büdi resurrected. Some of their other dresses are lovely.
I admit that before Nalo asked I had not given the bubble skirt much thought. I wasn’t even entirely clear what it was. So my first step was to keep an open mind and goggle image the item in question.
Oh, my. Oh, no. OH, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP NOW. Aaaaaarrrrrggghhh!!!! Mine eyes! They burn! The eighties was a horrible time for fashion! DO NOT BRING ANY OF IT BACK!!!
So, um, I hate them all. How do you walk in them? What is the point of that excess of fabric? Are the wearers storing their phones and laptops and babies in the bubble? If so how do they access it? Seems awkward and uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it all start to weigh too much? Wouldn’t the fabric drag? If not fall off you completely? That would not go well.
Unless you’ve got tiny attack quokkas or squirrels or numbats or something stored under there. Ready for when the zombie apocalypse starts and you can raise your skirts and yell RELEASE THE ATTACK QUOKKAS/SQUIRRELS/NUMBATS/WHATEVERS!!! GO EAT BRAINS, MY PRETTIES!!!
That would be extremely cool.
But if they are not being used in that extremely useful way? Then, no. I condemn them. Get thee gone from this world, bubble skirts. And do it NOW.
Anyone else got any fashion queries? I am on my rest between first draft and second draft of sekrit project novel. I am ready, willing and able to weigh in on all your fashion dilemmas.
What are my qualifications, you ask? Click on the fashion category and you will see that I love clothes and am fascinated by the fashion industry. I have spent a lifetime staring at people and figuring out how to describe them and what they’re wearing. Plus I am really, really, really opinionated.
Last month I got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. Crusie thinks NOT AT ALL and I completely agree and said so, which led to a back and forth with a good editor friend of mine, Juliet Ulman, who said she rewrites her authors. I happen to know many authors who’ve been edited by Juliet and love her editorial style1 and it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about the same thing.
There were also many folks commenting on Jennifer Crusie’s blog and on twitter who were like NO ONE CAN TOUCH A WORD OF MY WRITING EVER. And I was pretty sure that we weren’t talking about the same thing either.
What I think was going on is that we all seem to mean something different by “rewriting”. So I’m going to write about what I mean by rewriting and about how I view the writer/editor relationship.
Let me start by saying: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever substance it is that you love most.
Every single one of my published books have been rigorously edited. They have been vastly improved by working with an editor. Without all those editorial interventions they would be much, much crappier.
Editors have improved my books by pointing out where the story bogged down, pointing out things that made no sense, suggesting I cut characters/scenes/story arcs. They’ve also argued passionately to see more of particular characters and story arcs. They’ve made me expand scenes, add scenes, add chapters, strengthen characters’ story arcs. They have made me rewrite the endings of several of my books many, many times until we were both happy with it.2
Editors have improved my books in ways that I’m not even thinking of now. But they have never done it by replacing my words with their words. That is what I mean by editors not rewriting my work. Every word in every novel I’ve published is there because I wanted it to be there, because I wrote it. Or because Sarah wrote it.3
Now this does not include micro edits of the “their” for “they’re” or “there” variety. I have a tendency towards misspelling my own characters’ names as Sarah Rees Brennan can attest. While working on Team Human I kept writing Frances, when I meant to write Francis. I have to be watched like a hawke!
Nor does it include editors deleting redundant words like “just” and “really” and “actually.”4 Or supplying missing words. Sometimes I type so fast words don’t make it onto the page. Or words come out as homonyms “no” for “know.” Or more bizarrely I’ll type one word but mean an entirely different word “flirt” for “razor,” “quokka” for “effulgent.”5
This kind of editing is done not only by the editor but also by the copyeditor and the proofreader. The goal is that the final book will have no such mistakes in it. Alas and alack a book with no mistakes in it is rarely if ever achieved. Best to think of those last few typos as the flaw in the Persian carpet.
I have had a few editors write their own words as a suggestion to try and get across what they want me to do with a particular passage in a book and I have had pretty much the same reaction Jennifer Crusie described. I really hate it. Get your hideous words off my book! The horror! The horror!
But most of the editors I work with don’t do that. They’re more likely to write something like: Do you really think they would be quite this passionate given that they’ve only just met? Seems a bit quick. Rather than Alfonso should say . . . Basically I want my editors to tell and not show. Those editors I’ve worked with that do show only do it rarely. Over the years I have learned to simply not see those words. My brain looks at the suggested wording and goes: Editor no like this bit. Me fix.
I hope that’s made what I mean by “rewriting” a bit clearer. But if not please demand further explication in the comments.
However, I do not believe that every word, every phrase, every sentence I write is a precious, precious thing that cannot be fixed. I think everything can be improved. SHOULD be improved. And that working with a good editor is absolutely vital in that process. However, the editor’s role is to suggest, my job is to do.
Which is why every published novel of mine has gone through multiple drafts.
In the course of the twitter discussion Peter Mattessi requested that I “mention things like whether editors should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” Peter comes from the television side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing.
The process of editing one of my novels kind of goes like this:
Editor reads sends writer editorial letter which usually focus on the big picture stuff: stuff that doesn’t make sense, pacing, character likeability etc—>
I read and make changes (where I agree with them) based on editorial letter + stuff I’ve noticed that I want to fix—>editor reads this version—>
Editor writes next ed letter which is usually pushing me further with changes I’ve already made: be less subtle. As well as finer detail and more small picture stuff: this character use the word effulgent too much, why is everyone grimacing—>
I read ed. letter and make changes I agree with + other stuff I want to embettermerate6 —>
Editor reads this version and asks for further changes or passes it along to the copy editor.
It would be lovely if Peter and/or Sarah Dollard, who is also a TV writer, could write in the comments about how that’s different from what happens to produce finished TV scripts.7
To answer Peter’s questions. Yes, I actually do think editors should be credited. But they mostly are. It’s a very rare author who doesn’t thank their editor in the acknowledgements. It helps other writers figure out who they want to work with.
What am I thoughts on the relationship of Raymond Carver to his editor, Gordon Lish? I’m not really the right person to ask because I’m not a huge fan of that kind of minimalist writing. By which I mean I have never finished a Carver story. I find them unemotional, flat and unengaging. Yeah, I know, blasphemy. However, I’ve never compared the edited-by-Lish version with the pure Carver version. So I don’t know if he improved them or not.
Personally, I would loathe working with an editor like Lish. My gut reaction is that someone having their ego that tied up with someone else’s writing is more than a bit off. From the little I have read about the relationship, basically this New Yorker article, they seemed to have a pretty dysfunctional relationship. But many, many, many people love those Carvers stories so who am I to say?
It sure is an interesting relationship.8 And there are examples, though for some reason I’m failing to think of a single one, where a male writer’s work was supposedly largely written by his wife. Or at least edited by her in a Gordon Lish kind of way. Should they have gotten credit? I would think so. Lish should probably have been credited. It’s inarguable that he had a HUGE impact on those Carver stories to the level of being a near collaborator. But, on the other hand, those stories would never have existed without Carver. None of the stories Gordon Lish wrote on his own have had any where near the impact of the Carver stories.
So, um, actually I have no idea.
In conclusion: Good editors, I love them. But don’t ever agree to changes you don’t want. They are your words, own them.
I had my editor submit my one adult novel to Juliet because I’d heard such good things. It didn’t work out but I mention this because I want to make it clear how much I esteem Juliet’s editorial acumen. [↩]
Further to what I said above: any editor worth their salt would tell me to delete this sentence because it adds nothing. They would be correct but I’m leaving it there to make this point. My blog posts are not edited, except by me, which is seriously not enough, and that’s why they’re not as well written as my books. This post is full of redundancies. There aren’t enough commas and etc. [↩]
Recently on Twitter I mentioned having read the first chapter of A Very Bad Book. As usual people asked that I name it. As usual I did not.
I don’t name books I hate, or authors I think are talentless,1 for lots of reasons. The main one I give is that as an author it’s hard to do so without looking jealous if your target is more successful than you are, or like a bitch if you’re shredding a less successful book.2
Now loads of authors I know write critical reviews of other people’s books and I support their right to do so. More than that I think they’re doing the community a service. I don’t think they’re jealous or mean. Critically taking apart other people’s work is a fantastic way to improve our own writing.
Every time I read a book I hate I spend a vast amount of time trying to figure out why. What when wrong? How can I avoid that? When someone writes a thoughtful critique of a book they deem unsuccessful—even if we don’t agree with them—they’re helping all of us. Thinking critically about words and language, about art, and why we do or don’t like it, is wonderfully useful to the entire community of writers and readers.
Beyond that, we authors are allowed to not like things. Particularly books. Because if there’s one thing we know a truckload about, and care deeply about, it’s books. That’s why we’re writers. It’s absolutely fine for us to express those opinions.
Frankly, I LOVE a well-written critical review. I also love well-written vicious snark.3 I am absolutely not of the “be nice” school. I even enjoy vicious reviews of my own books.4 So why am I letting others’ perceptions keep me from sharing my views?
Because I can’t write a well-reasoned critique. When I don’t like a book I want to tear it to pieces and jump on it. I want it NEVER TO HAVE EXISTED. I find it nigh on impossible to be dispassionate. So when I’m figuring out where a book went wrong? I’m doing it in a nasty vicious way that would absolutely make the author and their fans weep and/or go after me with an axe. I feel this way because I’m offended that such a piece of crap was published in the first place. How did people not notice how COMPLETELY RUBBISH it is? Have they collectively lost all critical judgement? Aaarrrrgghhh!!!
Rational me knows that there is no one universally shared standard of excellence. And, yet, confronted with a book I deem truly awful I cannot keep that in mind. I just have to stab it.
If I was capable of calmly and dispassionately discussing the faults and shortcomings then I would write critical reviews. But I just can’t do it. It is a character flaw, I know. But there it is.
In conclusion: My not writing critical reviews or speaking ill of living writers in no way means that I think no one else should do that. Or that I think doing so is a terrible thing. We writers are grown ups, we can take it. To be honest I’m much more concerned by the “be nice” culture than I am by snarky reviews. Historically the women who have been told to “be nice” and keep their mouths shut are the ones saying the most interesting things.5
Unless they’re dead. YOU SUCK HENRY MILLER! Every single thing you ever wrote was the crappiest, most self-indulgent, most misogynist filth ever written. Moby Dick is the most boring pile of poo ever published! Though I am fond of Melville’s short stories. If only he had stuck to that length. [↩]
And, yes, I use the word “bitch” advisedly. I do think the perceptions are very gendered. [↩]
And I should admit that sometimes I am incredibly amused by sub-literate snark as well. But in more of a point and laugh way. Yes, I’m a bad person. [↩]
So, it turns out I really don’t have a lot to say about Australian slang. Or rather I don’t have anything to say that wouldn’t bore you. I did start writing this post and it rapidly turned into an old person cranky rant about how US slang is overtaking Australian slang. For example:
Why do Oz teenagers not know that “rooting for your team” is not something Aussies do because typically it’s not an activity that helps other people. I mean not unless they’re taking part, which, well, let’s not go there. Aussies “barrack” for their team. Except that I keep hearing Aussies under twenty-five using “root” in the US meaning of the word. AND IT FILLS MY HEART WITH DESPAIR. Why take on the language of the Yankee infidels? Why abandon your own rich and glorious venacular?! What is wrong with you?!
Which was only going to end with me waving my cane around and screaming at kids to get off my non-existent lawn. Not to mention fill me with shame because tedious adults were ranting about the exact same thing when I was a kid. And according to older friends of mine, not to mention my parents, they where hearing rants about insidious US English taking over the Australian vernacular from the 1940s onwards.
I so do not want to be that person. *shudder* I rejoice in the vibrant living, changing thing that is language.
Not to mention that some of our words are spreading out beyond our shores. “Bogan” for instance is now in the OED:
An unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, esp. regarded as being of low social status
And apparently not only has “bogan” spread from Victoria to the rest of the country but it’s made the leap over the Tasman to New Zealand. Hey, Kiwis, are there old cranky people waving their canes and yelling at you lot not to start using Aussie slang? Or do they just rant against US slang too?
Though I would argue with that definition of “bogan.” While there’s definitely a class component to it. I don’t think it neatly fits with whether the person labelled thus is poor or not. I.e. of “low social status”. There are many people who would get called “bogan” who are very well off indeed. Though I guess the modification of “cashed up” takes care of that.
What are your favourite examples of Australian slang? Living or dead examples. I admit to loving “smoodge,” “drongo,” “as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike,” “zambuck,” “daggy,” “date,” and “bosker”. Some of which are so obsolete you probably won’t be able to google them and others of which I say on a daily basis. And, no, not giving you definitions. Research! It’s good for you.
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:
[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.
What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.
The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER!3
But I digress the most annoying part of the “you wrote about it therefore you must approve of it” argument is that it shuts down discussion. If to write about rape or war is to approve of it than there’s nothing else to be said. The actual debate should be about how such fraught parts of human existence are written about.
Which is to agree again with Cassie. Context is everything. Arguing that merely depicting something means condoning it strips away all context, strips away the why and how of the depiction. It says that a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved is exactly the same as any of John Norman’s Gor books. After all there’s rape and slavery in both of them.
Complaint letters about Liar make up the bulk of the specific complaints I get. [↩]
True fact, I goofed. And since there wasn’t a second edition it’s never been fixed. [↩]
Mostly though teenagers don’t write to complain, which is why I write for them. Just kidding. Sort of. [↩]
To my friends, acquaintances & family: you do not have to read my books! Truly. My being a writer is not meant to oppress you in any way! Read what you want or don’t want. Forget I write books at all! Be free!
Okay, scratch that, family, you do have to! But everyone else is in the clear.
Reading an entire book is a big time commitment. And the older you get the more painfully aware you become that you are not going to be able to read all the books you want to before you die. It’s a very long time since I finished a book I wasn’t enjoying. If it’s not grabbing me within a page or two then we are done.1
It’s also a long time since I’ve picked up a book in a genre that doesn’t interest me. I have loads of friends with zero interest in YA. That’s cool. I’ve known people who write genres I have zero interest in—cosy mysteries—and I don’t read them. I would never in a million years expect any of you2 to read one of my books because you felt you had to on account out of our friendship/acquaintanceship3. Trust me, I wouldn’t read a book of yours unless I thought I’d like it. Feel free to treat mine likewise.
When I first started meeting writers I would always make an effort to read their books. If I liked them, I mean. But, well, here’s the awkward thing. A few of those writers,4 who I adored?
I hated their books.
And then there’s this whole awkwardness as you try to reconcile their awesomeness with the dreadfulness of their book and you can’t and you think about them differently than you did and it would never have happened if you hadn’t been so stupid as to read their book in the first place.
On the other hand, if you read them and they’re a total genius you find yourself staring at said writer as they tell a deeply stupid fart joke5 and wondering if they really did write those books. Reconciling the genius with the regular everyday person is also odd. Why do they not have a genius radiance to them?
Just because I am a writer does not mean you have to read my writing. I have friends who are lawyers who I do not hire, editors and agents who neither edit nor agent for me. I have friends in all sorts of different sectors with whom I rarely have conversations about their working lives and vice versa.
Yes, writing’s a big part of my life. But it’s not the only part and it’s not all I am. You don’t need to read my books to hold a conversation with me. I can talk about cooking, gardening, a multitude of sports, I’m well-versed in politics in at least two countries and have a decent grasp of many other topics—especially fashion and what you should and should not be wearing. Honestly, there are very few things I don’t have an opinion on. I even enjoy talking about the weather.6
And, honestly, talking about my books is just about the last thing in the world I want to do. I mean, I’m thrilled that there are people who have stuff to say about books I wrote. That’s incredible.7 But by the time my books are published I’ve already talked about them a billion times with Scott and Jill (my agent) and with their editor and I’ve done interviews about them and told school kids and book store owners and librarians about them. Even though all of that can be incredibly enjoyable I do wind up being completely over my own books. I’d much rather talk about someone else’s books. Like Courtney Milan’s say. I love talking about the subversive things she does with romance.
Many of my non-writer friends feel the same way. When they’re socialising they don’t want to relive their work day. They don’t want to talk about accounting or waiting tables or banking or gardening or whatever else it is they do to make money. They want to forget about it, speak of other things, gossip, and relax.
On top of that there’s the whole homework thing. “I bought your book!” Someone will tell me and then every time I see them after that they’ll say, “Still haven’t read it yet. But I’ll get to it. Sorry! I really hoped to get to it before now.” I keep expecting them to say: “I’m so sorry but my dog ate your book. Otherwise I would have totally read it by now!”
Gah! You don’t have to read it. No one’s going to test you on it. Certainly not me. If you really feel you must read something of mine: there’s this here blog. Some of the entries are way short. Or how about my twitter feed? Even shorter.
In conclusion: don’t even think about wearing this outfit.
Okay, often I don’t get past the first paragraph. I know. I’m terrible. Oh, I should be totally honest many times I can’t get past the cover. [↩]
Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful transformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!
I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.
I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?
I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.
But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:
1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.
Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.
Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”
The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2
2. Flow is incredibly important.
Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.
Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every clause appears I wind up with sentences like this:
Warm artichoke had an is at orange night light raining when come lit.
When Angel was able to emerge into the orange night Liam’s reign was complete.
Which is a terrible sentence but I can see what I was going for and I’ll be able to fix it. But that first sentence? Leave it for a few minutes and I’ll have no clue what I was trying to say.
However, checking what the VRS has produced after Every Single Clause slows me down and ruins the flow.
3. It’s too slow.
I am medium fast typist. I’ve been typing since I was fourteen. I can get words down way faster and more accurately than VRS.3 Its slowness is very, very frustrating and is yet another factor that messes with my flow when writing.
Obviously, none of this is a huge problem for e-mail. I do persevere with it for blogging too despite the fact that means I am at most blogging once a month. Using VRS for those kinds of writings does save my arms. I’m grateful.
But for my novel writing? It’s a deal breaker. I can’t do it.
VRS is going to have to take giant strides to get to a point where it allows me to write fiction without grief and frustration and the hurling of head sets across the room.
Again, I’m really glad that it has helped so many of you. I have been hearing lots of wonderful stories about the ways VRS has changed lives since I started writing cranky posts about it. That’s all fabulous.
But for me? No, not yet.
Update: I should have also noted that every time I write one of these posts I get lots of people trying to help. That is very sweet of you and I totally get why. I have the same impulse. We all want to make things better.4
But, yes, it is also kind of annoying and overly helpy. This has been going on for years now. You can safely assume that unless you are suggesting a very recent breakthrough or a very left-field obscure idea—WEAR A ROTTEN WOMBAT ON YOUR HEAD—I have heard it all before and tried it all.5
So if you were wondering—everything suggested in the comments?—been there, done that.
Update the Second
Am getting many folks telling me that the error rate in the orange night example above is crazy high. You got me. I deliberately chose a super bad example because it’s funnier. My bad. Next time I rant about this I promise to choose a less crazy and amusing one, okay?
Funny thing, though, even the best VRS error rate I’ve ever managed is incredibly annoying and slows me down.
Update the Third
Thanks so much for all the lovely letters & comments of sympathy, support, me toos, and commiseration. Means the world to me.
Very few humans are one hundred per cent accurate at the task. Even court reporters make occasional mistakes. [↩]
Actually I’m now thinking of all sorts of ways in which it would work for fiction but you get my point, people. [↩]
And, wow, am I not the world’s most accurate typist. [↩]
Unless we have an evil streak a mile wide. Ha! VRS rendered “a mile wide” as “a mild way.” Bless. [↩]
Well, not the wombat thing. But only because I can’t get past the smell of roadkill. And the fear of putrescence dripping down my face. [↩]
Before I typed a lot faster. This thing slows me down and drives me crazy.
This software does not learn. Instead it tries to school me. I have had to change the way I speak so it can understand me. Slower, with more precise diction, like I am impersonating a robot. I do not feel like myself when I use it.
I never intended to use it for novel writing only for e-mail and blogging and twitter and the like. But even there this software destroys my natural voice. Who spells e-mail with a hyphen! It does not recognise any of the slang, abbreviations, or made up words that I use and, of course, homonyms are a mighty pain. When I use it I am forced to avoid my habitual language. I don’t sound like me.
It claims that you can teach it. I have spent many hours training it to recognise words I use all the time that are not in its dictionary. I complete the annoying and overly long task and begin dictating. Only for it not to recognise a single word I just taught it.
Here is a list of them. See if you can figure out what I was actually saying:
just team/just Dean
It does not recognise the names of any of the characters in the books I am working on. Thus when I attempt to discuss said books with anyone else via IM or e-mail I spend most of my time having to spell those names out or just going with whatever word this software has decided I’m saying or turning it off and typing, which means unnecessary keystrokes and shortening the amount of time I can spend doing novel writing.
You also have to forget about editing, getting the cursor to go where I want it to go with voice commands has proved impossible. I am able to use it only for 1st drafts of non-fiction writing, for e-mails and chats and only with a great deal of frustration.
Even if there were none of these problems, I am a writer. I have been writing since I was little, typing since I was fourteen. My sentences do not come as fluently when I speak. I have never been as good at telling a story as I am at writing it.
On top of that I suspect that the software I’m using is somewhat buggy. Their are often long delays.1 I cannot get the command mode to work except to inadvertently delete great swaths of text. So using it for anything other than dictation is a waste of time. Forget doing research online with this thing. Given that my reason for using this software is to reduce keystrokes it’s more than a little maddening.
I know many people for whom voice recognition software is a revelation. I’m thrilled that it’s helping so many people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to write at all. I also understand that creating software that can deal with different accents and idiolects is really really hard. It really is incredible that it recognises anything I say. But at the same time I can’t help feeling that I have been sold a bill of goods. So many of the people I know who use it rave about it, say it is the best software they’ve ever used. Which meant I was expecting it to be like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner: ‘Enhance. Enhance.’ I expected it to be nigh on perfect. No such magic.
To be fair I have noticed that the latest upgrade is already performing far better than the version I loaded on my computer lo those many months ago. So those who have been using it for a long time really have seen remarkable improvements.
And yet I still hate it. In fact, I get angrier with it then with any other software I have ever used before. And I speak as a card-carrying Microsoft Word hater. Word has never caused me to throw headphones across the room. Word has never set me off on multiple 20 min uninterrupted2 vitriolic raging rants.
I have thought of myself as a writer for a very long time. Writing has been central to my sense of myself since I was a small child. Being forced to spend much less time writing has been extremely difficult. I suspect that part of my fury with this voice recognition software is not merely that it is so much slower and less accurate and less me then when I type but that it has come to symbolise the injuries that prevent me from writing with my hands on keyboards as much as I need to.
So, no, I cannot add my voice to the others praising this software. I suspect that would be true even if the software lived up to my expectations. My stories are written with my hands, not my voice.
I am very curious to hear if anyone else feels this way. I have only been using the software for 6 months. Does it get better? Does it ever come to feel like your voice?
My wireless keyboard is not talking to my computer. It is a beautiful keyboard. I love it more than any other I have ever owned. (A Logitech diNovo Edge if you is curious.) Before I left it was in perfect harmony with my laptop. Upon my return, despite being fully charged, despite multipe restarts, despite being placed so close to the computer they are as one, my laptop will not have a bar of it. This is unhappymaking.
I have had many wireless mouses and keyboards over the years. None of them has been functional for more than a few months at a time. But my diNovo Edge worked for six months straight. But now after a few months of being idle it is without function.
So this is me declaring that I am finished. No more wireless devices. Most of them are battery chewers, anyways. From now on I will be plugging my laptops and mices into the USB port.
I suspect it’s like the fountain pen. Wireless devices will work perfectly in some far distant future when they’re largely redundant.
I have been asked for my take on last week’s question about teenagers and reading. To be honest, it’s difficult to know where to start because there are so many assumptions embedded in those questions. I’ll start by unpacking them.
1. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all teenagers are the same.
2. There’s also an assumption in all these discussions about YA that it is primarily read by teenagers.
3. Another assumption is that a) only reading fiction counts and b) reading is better for you than any other pastime.
4. Then there’s the assumption that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing and we all agree on what those are.
Let me take numbers one & two first and point out the bleeding obvious. Not all teenagers read fiction. Of those that do read fiction, many are not reading YA at all. A sizeable proportion of those reading YA are 12 or younger or 20 and older. The age range of YA readership is every bit as broad as any other genre. Yet almost every discussion of the genre acts like it’s read only by teenagers.
So when there’s a discussion of the pernicious effects of a particular book on those young easily disturbed teenagers I have a range of conflicting responses. One of them goes very much like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ response: I read Flowers in the Attic and Angelique and many other even worse books as a sub-teen and teen and am now a fully functioning member of society. Those trashy books did not corrupt my delicate brain, thanks very much.
How much damage can reading a book do to you? If books can damage you, are you truly only vulnerable when nineteen or younger?
I have friends who are disturbed by almost every book they read, every movie they watch, everything that happens to them. I suspect they have been that way all their lives. Some people are simply way more sensitive than other people.
I used to be the neighbourhood babysitter. There were some kids I could tell the Grimm version of fairy tales too, who were gleeful about the blood on the snow, and some kids who couldn’t handle them at all. I tailored my storytelling to the kids.
I still do this with book recs to my adult friends. There are several friends I’m actively warning not to read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale because I know these books would gut them. I have friends who are allergic to a particular kind of bad writing. I don’t recommend my favourite bad book reads to them.
I don’t think there is any difference between teenagers and adults in this regard. There are only differences in particular individual sensitivity. When we talk as if teenagers are more delicate or sensitive we do them an enormous disservice. They are not identical robot people who suddenly become individuals at the age of 20. Indeed, until very recently, “teenagers” did not exist, they were adults.
What is so important about reading fiction? How is it superior to reading non-fiction? To reading newspapers, magazines, airplane manuals, the back of cereal boxes? Why is reading for pleasure so routinely exalted? Why is there so much panic about those who don’t read for pleasure?
Look, don’t get me wrong, I love reading fiction. Even more than I love writing it. But I also love Elvis Presley and Missy Elliott and I don’t think it’s a sign of moral failure that others don’t love them. Why is not reading for pleasure a cause for panic?
This is particularly invidious because I keep coming across teens, who read voraciously, who have teachers and librarians and parents freaking out that they’re not reading. Why? Because they’re not reading novels. They’re reading manga, or graphic novels, or books about cricket, or baseball, or jet engines, or World War II, or something else those well-meaning adults have decided doesn’t count. Sometimes teens have told me of well-meaning adults encouraging them to stop reading YA and start reading “real” adult books. You can imagine how I feel about that.
Illiteracy is definitely something to get wound up about. People who can’t read or write are at a horrible disadvantage. I am all for literacy. But that is not the same thing as reading fiction for pleasure. Many people who don’t read for pleasure are extremely literate and go far. I’ve met fabulous, smart, wonderful teens who don’t read fiction. I am not worried about their future.
I would love it if more people read fiction for pleasure—in particular I’d love it if they read more YA—because that’s how I earn my livelihood. I have a vested economic interest in people reading YA, but I don’t confuse that with thinking it’s morally good for them. Frankly, I’d be horrified if anyone thought reading my books would improve their moral fibre. Ugh.
(The ironc thing about all of this is that there have been many past moral panics about the perniciousness of reading novels.)
Is it really better for a kid to stay inside reading a book than it is for them to go outside and play cricket? How do we compare such activities? They’re both wonderful. I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities. Sadly, few of us have the time or energy for that. More’s the pity.
Good Books v Bad Books
There is no consensus on what makes a good or bad book. I think Patrick White is a shockingly overrated purple prose producing misogynist, misanthropist hack. He is studied at almost every Australian university and widely admired. I think his autobiography Flaws in the Glass is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It is incomprehensible to me, likewise, that there is any place for the works of Henry Miller in any canon ever. Unless it is a canon of badly written misogynist crap. In which case he’s in with a bullet. (Any defences of White or Miller in the comments will be deleted because it will give me great pleasure to do so.)
So I say potatoe and you say potatoh. Whatever.
Fashions in good writing ebb and flow. What was consider great in one decade may not last into the next. Some of the most admired writers of a century ago are no longer read. And so it goes.
But even if we could reach a consensus on good writing—so what if a teen is only reading books you consider appalling? Plenty of adults are doing ditto. The pleasures of bad books are many. The pleasures of reading a book your parents don’t want you to read are even greater.
I’ve seen a lot of concern about girls in particular reading books where the female characters have little agency and spend the whole book mooning about some bloke. This could describe pretty much every Hollywood film of the last few decades. I mean, if they actually have any female characters in them at all. So, sure, limited depictions of women worry me. However, YA is much much much much more diverse than Hollywood. There are gazillions of bestselling YA books with complex female characters, who have female friends, and concerns beyond their love life.
Also I read heaps of appalling sexist crap growing up and it was, if anything, a spur to my feminist politics. Thank you, crappy books of my youth.1
So my response to the question
What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?
is to say: does not compute.
That’s a special shout out to you, Enid Blyton. [↩]
Why do so many people read any statement, no matter how innocuous, as being about them? For example, I have mentioned my dislike of chocolate and people have gotten cranky. As if my chocolate hatred will somehow deprive them of it. Huh?
Every time I talk about my love of fashion someone says, “I just want comfortable clothes! Give me jeans and t-shirts!” Which always strikes me as deeply bizarre because a) no one has said a word against jeans and t-shirts, b) t-shirts and jeans are items of fashion, c) having a desire for a ballgown does not mean that person doesn’t also wear jeans and t-shirts. (For the record I am wearing jeans and a New York Liberty t-shirt as I type this. Though I wish I were in my even-more-comfortable pjs, but guests are arriving shortly.)
Colour me puzzled.
I thought everyone understood that people are not all the same. We have different tastes and interests and desires. And hallelujah for that—if we were all the same the world would be a truly boring place.
Why do people keep being affronted by other people caring about something they don’t care about? If it doesn’t interest you, don’t engage. Why the need to tell the world that you hate and/or are bored by it? Why do people read a long post in which someone sets forth their love of antelopes as saying that everyone must like antelopes. You are free to hate antelopes! Go forth and hate antelopes!1 But, you know, don’t bore the person who just spent time and energy waxing eloquent about their love of antelopes. You can take it as read that their interest in your antelope hatred is zero.
I love a good ballgown. I would never make anyone else wear a ballgown.2 I truly loathe chocolate. I have given chocolate as a present to many people. I have even made chocolate cake for a friend. I don’t get why they like it since it tastes like death to me but, you know, it seems to make them happy so good for them.
I suspect that what I’m really asking is why do so many people think everything is about them? I know the ego is a powerful thing. Hey, I’ve got one too. And yet . . .
Let me put this in terms of writing: if you’re unable to empathise or understand people who are not like you, who have different tastes and aspirations, it’s going to be really hard for you to write about anyone but yourself. Only writing about yourself is going to limit the appeal of your writing considerably.3
Thus endeth the rant.
I’d be really interested to hear your theories on this perplexing matter.4
There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2
Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?
Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.
So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.
Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.
That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.
I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.
I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and brand new YA authors and from those on the verge of being published.
Before you yell at me for this statement you should know that I spent twenty years trying to break into mainstream publishing. I know how it feels. Also very few of those unpublished writers are bitter about it and decide that the big publishers are evil. Most suck it up and keep trying. [↩]
No, the way to break into YA is not to publish short stories first. That may apply to science fiction (though not nearly as much as it used to) but there is no YA short story market except for anthologies that you don’t get invited to submit to you unless you’re already published. I got my first anthology invitation after having three novels published. [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Melina Marchetta is probably Australia’s most popular YA writer and with good reason her books are deeply awesome. I just finished her latest, The Piper’s Son and I think it’s her best book to date. I was up reading it till 3AM and then I couldn’t sleep for another hour because I was weeping too hard. LOVED IT.
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Melina Marchetta is a Sydney writer. She has just released her fifth novel, The Piper’s Son, a sequel to her 2003 novel Saving Francesca which will be published in the US next March. Her website is www.melinamarchetta.com.au.
Please note that this is not a piece about books I don’t like, but about personal taste and what we look for in the novels we choose to read.
When you don’t like a book that everyone is raving about, you feel guilty. You don’t want to be that person who lets hype affect their reading because I hate that person. I want to say to that person, ‘Grow up. You can still be individual and love the same book or film as everyone else.’
I’m only admitting this publicly because he’s dead and I won’t be offending him, but I’m in the minority and didn’t care for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Despite being told that I wasn’t going to be able to put down Dragon Tattoo after page 200, I spent the next 356 pages dying to do just that. But I’d like to think that deep down, me not liking it had nothing to do with the hype or with Stieg Larsson’s writing and had everything to do with personal taste.
It wasn’t until I recently read another crime fiction novel, Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, that it became clear to me that when it comes to that particular genre, I need a tortured hero, lack of exposition and killer dialogue. As booklovers we choose novels because they have the secret ingredient we need to nourish our personal reading appetite. We reject others because they have the ‘turn off’ ingredient that is made up mostly by our personal idiosyncrasies or context.
Someone close to me is turned off by YA literature, for example. I forgive them because they have pretty good reasoning. Being a teenager was bad enough when they were young and they can’t bear the idea of re-living it again through angst-ridden characters like most of mine.
But the problem with me and those who have rules about what they do and don’t include in their reading material is that we miss out on some great stories and genres. I love it when someone stumbles on my work by pure accident. I love it when I stumble into a genre that I’ve kept away from. Science Fiction is a classic example. I always felt it was a bit over my head and then I read Cordelia’s Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold. I picked it up because I thought it was a romance. I ended up having a mini obsession for every Miles Vorkosigan novel. It was a good introduction to the genre.
But despite that, I still have my list below of what turns me away from reading a novel. Any suggestions to change my mind will be appreciated.
Love triangles. I haven’t been in one since fourth grade so it’s probably love-triangle envy that I’m feeling.
Novels where middle aged men end up with much younger women.
Novels where there are no women or vague references to them. I forgive Melville and Conrad for Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness because one has a killer opening line and the other nourishes my obsession with rivers, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
Poor female representation. This can be anything from insipid female characters to one dimensional kick-arse heroines. Of course there are some fantastic kick-arse heroines out there, but the ones I don’t care for are those who display a plethora of male traits and nothing else and are considered the new feminists.
Novels where the character describes themselves as feisty, witty and quirky on the first page. These are characteristics that can’t be self-diagnosed and have to been shown not told.
Novels where the hero/heroine die at the end. I’m that person standing beside you in the bookstore reading the last page first. If there’s death on the last page the book goes back on the shelf. I know I’m missing out on some really fantastic novels by this exclusion. Before I die, for example, will be the first novel I read if I let go of my not-reading-novels-where-the-heroine-dies-in-the-end rule because I hear it’s absolutely fantastic and I’m going to go with the hype. If you’ve read any of my novels, all the deaths happen early on, usually on the first page and a couple of hundred in between, but rarely at the end. The idea of mortality keeps me awake at night so having to agonise over my death as well as another character’s is trauma I try to avoid.
Note: The no-death rule also applies to films. I refuse to watch any more productions of Romeo and Juliet or anything to do with the life of Jesus Christ because we all know what happens at the end. They die.
Does anyone else have any turn-off ingredient? (please don’t mention book titles unless the author is dead).
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s guest blogger is Baby Power Dyke whose blog I discovered last year and instantly fell in love with. She’s rude, smart and funny. We have shared crushes on Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. So, clearly, she has excellent tase. She is my kind of a gal.
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Baby Power Dyke is a smartass. She’s an actor in New York City who is terrible about auditions. She lives in Brooklyn with the love of her life, who is also an actor and is muchMUCH better about auditions. Nonprofitting supports her blogging and acting habits. She loves cheese. She was born on April Fool’s Day and thinks that because of that, she receives the best birthday presents ever. She’s terrible about mail. Her personal theme songs are “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Barbra Streisand.
It is Black History Month and boy am I feeling the love.
Just yesterday Rush Limbaugh (or as I like to think of him, the Phantom Menace) derisively referred to the health care reform bill which is swimming its way upstream through Congress as a “civil rights bill” and “reparations.” To be clear, what he means by using “civil rights bill” and “reparations” as a pejorative is “this health care bill is another attempt by the lowly, lazy, complaining Black folk to take bread from the mouths of hard-working honest White Americans. First they took February, what’s next? March?.”
Last week the fine gentlemen of Pi Kappa Alpha decided to throw a party to “honor” Black History Month which included a very helpful how-to for the ladies so that they might properly comport themselves as “Ghetto chicks.”
Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes—they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as “constipulated”, or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as “hmmg!”, or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises,grunts, and faces.
But it was John Mayer (singer, songwriter, Poor Man’s Stevie Ray Vaughn) that got the month started off right with an interview that he did for Playboy where he proved that he doesn’t have the good sense (or graces) that God gave Kanye West.
MAYER: Star magazine at one point said I was writing a tell-all book for $10 million. On Star’s cover it said what a rat! My entire life I’ve tried to be a nice guy.
PLAYBOY: Do black women throw themselves at you?
MAYER: I don’t think I open myself to it. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.
PLAYBOY: Let’s put some names out there. Let’s get specific.
MAYER: I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”
That’s an official Nice Guy FAIL.
These harbingers of Black History Month can get a girl a little down.
But not me. I am thankful that I have a partner who loves and cherishes me for the supreme delight that I am.
I am also thankful for the amazing strong black women (SBW) that I have in my life as role-models. Without my mother, Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand, my confidence in my smokingness (both intellectual and physical) might have been dimmed by that young-man whose mother must be really ashamed of him right now and who is actually making me sympathize with that Jennifer Aniston person.
But lately I realize that I’ve been leaving out one deserving woman in my SBW list of might: RuPaul.
Nownownow, I know what you’re saying, “But BPD, RuPaul’s been around since forever how come it’s taken you so long?” Really, I have no excuse.
From the revelatory, Super Model, with its clarion cry that got me through many a grueling show choir rehearsal (damn you mirrored gym) to the present RuPaul’s Drag Race—which is not about cars1 —RuPaul has given me the balls to get through the tough times. RuPaul has made me the man I am today. And by man, I mean small black lesbian gay-dandy.2
When I’m about to do something that seems super important, I think, “You better work, bitch!” I chant, “It’s time to lip-synch for your life!” when it’s time for me to move mountains.
RuPaul is about knowing who you are and owning your fabulousness. RuPaul is about ripping people’s faces off with your fierceness and leaping in your stilettos over the shit. Most importantly RuPaul is not about some trifling mess of a boy that even Ghandi would slap.
With Ru and the other SBW in my life, I know my worth. I’m not even going to sweat it. Because I know, that despite how hurtful and how hateful what John Mayer said was, it’s not about me. It’s not about any other woman of color (or woman, frankly) in the world. It’s about him and the dick-shrivel that he is. I’m not waiting for the world to change. I am the change that I seek in the world. I am the light that I want to see. I am fabulous. I am fierce. I am magnificent.
Come for me, bitches.
But just . . . can we all agree that if RuPaul hosted a muscle car show with, say, Joan Rivers or Tina Turner—that pair would be a mother-fucking wig-off—that show would be ridiculously awesome. [↩]
2010 is the year of the bow-tie. Look out people! [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Doret Canton loves sport as much as I do. In fact, I interviewed her about that very subject right here on this blog and she said many smart and sensible things. (Except about American Football not being boring.) The reviews on her blog are amongst my favourite online reviews. Do check them out.
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Doret Canton is a bookseller who likes many of her customers. The others she runs and hides from. After working at a bookstore for so long, she has turned avoiding would be problem customers into an art form. She updates her blog TheHappyNappyBookseller regularly.
If This Book Was A Television Show
I loved Dia Reeves’ debut YA novel Bleeding Violet. It was beautifully strange. Check out this great review by The Book Smugglers. Seventeen year old Hanna heads to her mom’s hometown of Portero, Texas after knocking her aunt out cold. Portero, like Hanna, is far from normal. Before arriving in Portero Hanna only speaks to her dead father, now she can see him as well. Everything that happened in Portero was so out there I loved it. Halfway through Bleeding Violet, I couldn’t help but think—if this was a television show it would get cancelled. It would go something like this:
Week 1: Watched by a few people with nothing better to do. Week 2: Only half return. Week 3: Some convince a few friends to check out the weirdness that happens in Portero. More people tune in Week 4-8: Word is spreading about this strange show. Friends are getting together to watch. Week 9: A made for TV movie airs. Week 10: The show is bumped again. Some fans begin to worry Week 11: – A rerun. Many aren’t exicted about this but at least its back. Week 12: Another rerun. Week 13: Another reun. By now the smart fans are catching on. They know the network is merely screwing with them by showing reruns. Six Months Later: The incomplete complete box set (with never seen before episodes) is available.
So many great, not-the-same-as-everything-else shows get cancelled. I still miss Arrested Development, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me
Thankfully Bleeding Violet is a book and not a television show. Though once this idea was in my head I started thinking about how other novels would fair. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful YA novel A Wish After Midnight would be passed over by all networks, large and small. They would totally miss its great miniseries potential. Many of my co-workers read YA. Like me, one enjoys Maureen Johnson’s novels. I asked her, If Suite Scarlett and its follow up, Scarlett Fever, (which was so worth the wait) were a television show how would it do? If the show stuck to the book, my co-worker gave it two seasons. Sadly, that sounded about right. That’s why we have TV on DVD, and, better yet, books.
Since this guest post might be read by people in Oz I shall end with a question. I loved Melina Marchetta’s newest novel Finnikin of the Rock. The year is young but I already know it’s a top read of 2010. If Finnikin of the Rock was an Aussie TV show how would it do?
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have Sarah Rees Brennan, who is quite mad, which is often quite an advantage for the writing of fine fiction, as you will discover if you read any of SRB’s books. She was last here for an interview where she revealed the insanity of her writing technique.
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Sarah Rees Brennan is from Ireland, but she likes to roam the world causing havoc, and on one such mission encountered Justine Larbalestier in New York City and the rest is history (and spells your doom). She can be found saying stuff like this all the time on her own blog and she is the author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, first instalment out, second instalment out this May, about which more here. Her own demonic possession is an unfounded rumour that has little to no basis in fact.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the audience sitting in your chairs, happily anticipating another blog post filled with the usual thoughtfulness and wit by your favourite author, Dr. Justine Larbalestier.
I am sorry to disappoint you: said Dr. Larbalestier is currently unavailable.
JUSTINE: Oh Sarah. I fear my blog readers will pine.
SARAH: I have no doubt they will. They seem loyal and devoted sorts: they will pine like Christmas trees. (This is the kind of ‘wit’ you guys are in for. You lucky, lucky guys.)
JUSTINE: Would you write a guest blog for me?
SARAH: Oh, sure! I will try to be wise like you! Fill the void in their souls!
TEN MINUTES LATER
SARAH: Well, it was a nice idea.
So instead of Justine Larbalestier, you have me, and I am going to be talking about movies and sex! (Cue that scene when people are at a petting zoo, approaching a sweet kitty, and then . . . ‘IT’S A LION HARVEY, JESUS CHRIST, IT’S A LION, GET IN THE CAR.’)
There is a thing you need to understand about me. Sometimes, I like truly terrible things. I have watched all three High School Musical movies.
Nevertheless, I would not have of my own free will chosen to watch a movie starring Matthew McConaughey. (Apologies to all fans of this fine thespian in the audience. You may want to look away now.) But I was on a plane and had finished my book, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past started playing, I made an error in judgement.
Said movie’s plot: Matthew McConaughey is a heartless playboy about to be taught the error of his ways by apparitions from his dating life! Jennifer Garner is the One Who Got Away, who needs to be recaptured once Matthew has learned his touching and totally unexpected lesson about true love being all that really matters!
Matters were proceeding exactly as anticipated right until the point where we have the flashback to Matthew and Jennifer’s past romance, in which they banter, she softens towards him, his heart grows three sizes, and they come together in one glorious night with all the torrid passion of a box of cornflakes left out in the rain. Matthew McConaughey, sneaky playboy that he is, flees his own feelings and tries to sneak out on her as she sleeps. She wakes up.
JENNIFER GARNER: Matthew McConaughey, you beast, I trusted you!
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: . . . Why? You had a clear view of my smirky, smarmy face at all times!
JENNIFER GARNER: Because we’re on the movie poster together! I mean that’s not important now! What’s important is that there are some women you sneak out on in the middle of the night, and there are some women you stay and snuggle with, and I am one of the women you stay and snuggle with.
At this point, I turned to the lady in the seat beside me.
SARAH: I cannot believe I just saw that! Can you believe you just saw that? Can you believe we literally, actually just saw a scene in which the heroine who we’re clearly meant to agree with explicitly says that, pretty much, some women are whores and deserve to be treated like trash! While obviously Matthew McConaughey has made a mistake dealing with these trashy wenches, he is not a trashy wench himself. He’s a dude, so it’s all good, as long as he treats a nice lady right when he’s got one. Because we’re all still divided into ladies and fallen women! Argh!
MY NEIGHBOUR ABOARD THE PLANE: Je ne comprends pas.
SARAH: Oh. Oh right. COOL. Excusez-moi. J’avais . . . a fit of feminist rage. Um. Excusez-moi.
The nice French plane lady patted my hand. Clearly, she thought I was insane. Obviously, she was right, but that is not the point at this time.
I have no excuse for watching Wild Child, which is a terrible teen comedy, except that I truly and deeply in my soul love terrible teen comedies, and I went to see 17 Again in the cinema. (‘Justine, Justine’ you all moan faintly. ‘Why hast thou forsaken us, Justine?’)
Wild Child is about a spoiled American teen who is sent to English boarding school, a place which is awfully stodgy, and where many people wear tweed, and some hunt! Obviously she learns valuable life lessons, and it all culminates in an epic lacrosse battle.
But there is a specific part of the movie I wish to focus on, and it is this: at one point, our heroine’s jolly dormitory mates ask if she has ‘done it’ yet, and she says with a toss of her mane that she has! A ton! And that seemed to be that, she got on with playing merry japes and romancing the prim headmistress’s son, and I thought to myself ‘You know. I think that’s pretty great.’
Oh, that was a rash thought of mine. For at the school dance, our heroine having bonded sufficiently with her dormitory mates, she tells them that no, actually, she never has! Just like them! She’s really been good all along.
Now, the heroine of Wild Child is meant to be sixteen or seventeen. I’m not saying ‘People, we need more teenage bangin’!’ Except maybe I kind of am. (Far away in New York City, my editor just had a tiny, tiny stroke. Sorry about that, Karen!) I trust I do not need to tell you guys that the decision not to bang is a totally okay and often wise decision on the part of people of both genders, at all ages.
But really. Really, in this day and age, do we so entirely equate a woman’s moral character with her sexual behaviour? Of course, we (and by we I mean, you know, Society) do. We have a whole lot of insults for ladies who like to have sex, and we don’t draw the same line in the sand for dudes. Having our books and movies reflect that attitude so very clearly just made me think—wow, how patterns go on and on repeating. We must sit down. And take a look. And say to ourselves, ‘Oh, wow, that is pretty gross.’ (Not that I’m encouraging people to go watch Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. MY LORD NO. I’ve taken that bullet for you all. Only too happy to have been of service. SAVE YOURSELVES. I can still hear the lambs on the plane screaming about feminism.)
Another thing that I’ve been doing lately, in between watching teen comedies, is reading romance novels. Because a) I was trying to overcome prejudice against certain types of books, as said prejudice is dumb and b) turns out a lot of romance novels are pretty great, so I wanted to read more.
Quite recently I read The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase, in which our heroine Delilah makes out with a rake! And she likes it. And I was delighted. Not because I wanted her to end up with the rake: I loved the bookworm hero, and Delilah and the bookworm had already made out, and it had been most excellent. But because that’s something I’d noted in a lot of (not just romance, and not just historical) novels—that heroines were given a pass on desire, as long as they desired the heroes alone. The implication of that? Women, with sexy feelings not associated with True Love! They would be no more than common trollops!
So now I have a great love for books with heroines who make out with people who aren’t heroes, and like it, and go with the hero because said hero is a better match. (As an example, if Jane Austen had written make-out scenes, which she did not, I feel Elizabeth Bennet is obviously attracted to Wickham, and could’ve had a great time snogging him, though of course it would still have been followed with the Austen equivalent of ‘Whoops, you are a tool, MY MISTAKE.’)
And—well, I just think it would be great if we could have heroines, even teenage heroines—sure, some of whom have decided to wait or haven’t decided to wait but just haven’t decided not to, but some of whom didn’t wait, had a disastrous experience and came through it just fine. Some of whom didn’t wait, had a great time, parted ways, repeated same five or a hundred times, and were also just fine. (Obviously, the reverse should happen as well, and actually, I think it’s kind of cool that one of the Most Beloved Fictional Characters of Our Time, Edward Cullen, is a self-confessed and unashamed virgin hero of a century plus. So, you know, take a bow, Twilight! If I had to pick between you and Matthew McConaughey, Mr Cullen, you would most assuredly be my sparkly date to the school dance.)
And next time you see a heroine tell people she’s Pure as the Driven Incidentally, or Not Like the Other Girls (those trashy wenches)—well, frown at the screen or the page, and think ‘Oh wow, that is pretty gross.’
Ahem. Thank you for your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen! (*surveys the audience, some of whom seem to be weeping softly and saying things like ‘Get thee behind me, Satan . . . Oh Justine, Justine . . .’*) Please feel free to tell me to get thee behind you, or tell me about kind of gross or kind of excellent portrayals of sexuality in fiction, in the comments.
My previous post on conducting interviews was largely addressed to inexperienced interviewers. Some of the comments on that post have me wondering what the point of conducting an interview is. For those who simply want to interview their favourite author and find out everything they always wanted to know then that’s your point right there. But I get the impression from quite a few of these interviews that they exist because the blogger feels that that’s what you should do on a blog about books. As you can imagine that does not usually make for a good interview.
I also wonder if people run interviews on their blog because they think it will increase traffic.1 Especially if the author includes a link to the interview on their own site. However, if the interview is not very interesting, i.e. includes those generic questions I was talking about in the previous post, that traffic will be fleeting. Hardcore fans of the author won’t be interested.
Also I’m not convinced that people are particularly interested in interviews. Looking at my site stats, I can tell you that my interview page is probably the least trafficked page on the site. I suspect that many people, even those who love books and have many favourite authors, are uninterested in reading interviews. Unless those interviews are amazing. I know that’s how I feel. I have zero interest, unless the interview is on a topic that I care about, or is with someone I’m interested in who is rarely interviewed.
The book blogs I like best are full of excellent discussion of books. Opinions about the business, trends, books, authors and readers. One of my favourite recent posts was Miss Attitude’s passionate call for a greater variety of YA African-American historicals—ones not about slavery or the civil rights movement. That post generated a great deal of discussion and, I hope, some authors taking up her challenge.
What I’m trying to say is that interviews may seem like an easy way to create content and generate traffic, but they’re not either. A good interview is very hard to do and even then is unlikely to generate much traffic. I’ve conducted two interviews on this blog: one with Doret Canton about YA & girls playing sport and one with John Green about lying. Neither generated much traffic. Fortunately, I didn’t do them for the traffic, but for the fun of talking to two very smart people about two very interesting topics.
I would love to see bloggers doing as Ari and all my other favourite book bloggers do—writing about what they feel passionate about and conducting interviews not because they feel they must, but because they want to add to the conversation on their blog.
I’m sure there is varying mileage out there, feel free to share.
Part of why I suspect this is the blogger whose interview request also asked if I would link to the completed interview. [↩]
As mentioned in my previous post, I just finished Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith. I loved it so I was curious to take a squizz at what reviewers had made of it and came across this one by Jonathan Lethem. Oh. Dear.
It is exactly the kind of review that annoys me the most. The I-don’t-like-this-kind-of-book-but-I’m-reviewing-it-anyway review. Editors seem to think it dreadfully clever to get the reviewer who hates feminism to review the feminist tome, the hater of romance to review Jennifer Crusie’s latest, and those who are full of contempt for teenagers and books to review YA. It will generate conflict and controversy! Goodie!
No, it will generate annoyance and boredom. I know what people who hate YA think of YA. I want to know if this is a good example of YA. I don’t want to read some boring tosser explaining why the genre sucks. Heard it all before.
Lethem is not a fan of literary biographies so he barely engages with Schankar’s biography. The first three quarters of the review is taken up with his view of the Highsmith revival and which books of hers he thinks best. When he finally mentions the bio, he complains that Schenkar goes into too much detail:
No impression, however, could have possibly prepared Schenkar for the catalogue of torments her scrupulous and excruciating research uncovered. She is compelled by that research to tell us more than we could possibly wish to know. Much as Highsmith rates full treatment, I can’t help wishing Schenkar had spared herself (and me) and written a personal recollection instead (think of Shirley Hazzard’s short memoir of Graham Greene, “Greene On Capri”).
Trouble is Schenkar never met Highsmith, so such a memoir would have to be fiction. That Lethem came away with the impression that Joan Schenkar knew Patricia Highsmith is very odd indeed. No where in it does she so much as imply such a meeting took place, let alone an acquaintance long enough to supply material for a memoir. Which leads me to think that Lethem did not read the whole book or skimmed it.
He concludes by saying:
The best thing Schenkar accomplished, for me, was to drive me back to the work. If Highsmith’s antidote to the poison of living was the writing of her novels, we can follow suit and read them. The antidote to literary biography is literature. [My emphasis.]
That last line is key. Me thinks Mr Lethem does not like literary biography if he feels it requires an antidote, which makes me wonder why he bothered to review one. I can certainly understand his reasons for not liking the whole genre. He’s a much more famous writer than I am so the odds of there one day being bios of him are relatively high. I worry about it and—other than J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer—there’s not exactly a huge number of YA writer bios. But then I squirm every time I read a profile or interview of me.
As a writer reading a bio of another writer I find myself wondering just how particular episodes in my past would be portrayed. It makes for much discomfort and a strong desire to destroy all my journals. And I’m a model of good behaviour compared to Highsmith.
I admit I may be projecting my own feelings onto Lethem. Maybe he dislikes literary bios because he doesn’t want to know the warts and failings of his literary heroes? Or maybe one fell on him in his cradle?
I also disagree with the implication that biography is not literature. As it happens Schenkar is an excellent and witty writer. Lethem quotes one of the many passages I’ve read out loud to Scott:
Luckily, their African trip never came off. Jane Bowles had phobias about trains, tunnels, bridges, elevators, and making decisions, while Pat’s phobias included, but were not confined to, noise, space, cleanliness, and food, as well as making decisions. A journey to the Dark Continent by Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles in each other’s unmediated company doesn’t bear thinking about.
Some of my favourite writers are biographers. I’m sure they’d be astonished to discover they have not been writing literature. But surely he didn’t mean that last line to be read in an exclusionary way. I have heard Lethem at science fiction conventions making strong arguments for the inclusion of science fiction in the category of literature. Which makes it even more peculiar to see him employing such exclusionary tactics himself.
What I loved so much about Schenkar’s bio was that it created such a three-dimensional portrait of Highsmith. The book is fascinating. I had to stop and read sections out loud to Scott multiple times. Over the past few days of reading it I’ve been talking about it to everyone I know.1 It’s an incredibly intimate portrait of a writer. Of their life and their craft and their process.
It’s also a fascinating portrait of the development of a misogynist, bigoted, racist, anti-semite. Highsmith is awful. A genuinely bad person. But I now have a much clearer idea of how she got that way.
My main complaint about the book is that there was not enough detail. I was very frustrated that there was not a separate section on Highsmith’s publishing career and how, when, and where her current literary reputation emerged. We’re told in passing that her 1950s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (later retitled Carol) sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but we’re not told over what period of time, and that Found in the Street only sold 3,000 copies on its first US publication. But those are pretty much the only sales figures in the book. The story of her finding her first agent and selling her first book, Strangers on a Train is not told directly. There are references to these events in other sections of the book but I itched for the whole story. Nor was the sale of the film rights to Hitchcock dwelt on—it’s a mere summation in the “Just the Facts” section at the back of the book. Much is made of her deal with the Swiss publisher Diogenes to handle world rights to her book but the specific details of the deal were not revealed.2 For this publishing geek, it was very frustrating.
Lethem’s right about one thing though3 reading the bio has led me back to the books. To thinking about what made her such a good writer when she had so little understanding of, or compassion for, anyone but herself. Not that her lack of empathy doesn’t come through in the books. There’s a reason I can’t read more than three Highsmiths in a row without sinking into a deep depression. Bleak is too mild a word for the outlook.
Except for The Price of Salt which is the outlier Highsmith book and one of my favourites. Think I’ll be re-reading it first.
Sarah Rees Brennan pointed me to this article about Gone with the Wind by Elizabeth Meryment. It annoyed me. So prepare yourself for a rant. Basically Meryment argues that all criticism of Gone with the Wind (book and film) over the last few decades has been dreadfully unfair, especially from feminists, and why can’t we all just enjoy such a women-centric book with its array of fabulous strong female characters. Now, I happen to agree that Gone with the Wind features many wonderful strong women. However, that being true does not contradict any of the criticisms made of both book and film.
Why do people find it so hard to love something and accept that it’s flawed?
Gone with the Wind is at once a tale of strong women and appallingly racist. Just as there were women who campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Being a feminist does not mean you can’t be racist. Alas.
When I was wee I read the book multiple times and saw the movie almost as often. To this day I can quote the novel’s opening lines: “Scarlett OHara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (No, I didn’t have to google that.) Until my discovery of Flowers in the Attic1 there was no book I loved more than Gone with the Wind. I haven’t re-read it in more than a decade but I still know it better than any book other than Pride and Prejudice. I’m in a good position to unpick Meryment’s claims:
Scarlett O’Hara [is] a woman of substance. No cowering southern belle, here is a woman who is resourceful and resilient and does what she must to survive.
Yet critics and academics, in the seven decades since the film’s release, have been almost unanimous, and disapproving: Scarlett is no feminist but a damsel in distress who relies on feminine charms to get her way. She steals other women’s men, has an insatiable lust for Melanie’s dreary husband Ashley Wilkes and suffers from a chronic flirting problem. Worst of all, she allows Rhett to ravish her during a night of passion that she finds rather enjoyable.
Here’s the thing, all the above is true. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of substance but throughout the course of the book she also relies on her feminine charms to get her way and has flirts with pretty much everyone who’s male and white. She is a multiple stealer of other women’s men—including her own sister’s—she does have an insatiable lust (which she confuses with true love) for the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, and she does get ravished by Rhett in an extremely scary scene which (in the movie) cuts to her smiling and happy in the morning.2
As Meryment points out Scarlett O’Hara’s story begins when she’s sixteen and ends when she’s twenty-eight. During that time she lives through a war, sees many people she cares about die, loses two husbands, has three children, and goes from being a simpering southern belle to a shrewd business woman.
“Scarlett is a survivor,” says Toni Johnson-Woods, a professor of popular culture at the University of Queensland. “She’s the sort of person who would cut up the curtains to make a dress. She gets dirty. She works. She doesn’t actually do anything bad. She’s manipulative, but what person isn’t when they have to be?”
Johnson-Woods seems not to have read the same book I did. [Scarlett] doesn’t actually do anything bad. What now? Let’s leave aside all the lying and those two stolen husbands. I mean India Wilkes and Scarlett’s own sister, Suellen, clearly had it coming. Wanna keep your man? Then hold on to him tighter. Let’s put aside Scarlett’s multiple attempts to commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes.3 And let’s forget that Scarlett saw nothing wrong with slavery. She was sixteen when the war started and brought up to believe in such an evil system. But how about her using slave labour after the war is over in the form of convicts to work her saw mill and allowing her manager to beat them half to death? How’s that for an actually bad thing?
Now I happen to think that Scarlett O’Hara’s ethical impairment and selfishness is part of what makes her such a dynamic and believable literary creation. She lies, she cheats, she does pretty much whatever it takes to survive and save herself, her family and her land. But you don’t have to pretend that she never does anything bad to find her complex and three-dimensional. Many of my favourite literary creations—Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Highsmith’s Ripley, pretty much any character ever written by Jim Thompson—do many bad bad things. I don’t need to pretend that they’re good in order to enjoy reading about them.
Scarlett has many good qualities but she has plenty of bad ones too. Frankly I would not want her for a friend because she’s one of those women who only notices men. She doesn’t even realise what an amazing friend Melanie has been to her until Melanie’s on her death bed. Scarlett is not BFF material. And she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t care whether women get to vote or not, she doesn’t care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. She has no political consciousness at all.
Film critics also have been circumspect about Scarlett’s place as a feminist symbol, as well as horrified, in more enlightened times, by the glorification of the slave life on the southern plantations. As The Australian’s film critic Evan Williams noted in a 1981 review, published at the time of a re-release: “The film’s attitude to blacks (referred to constantly as ‘darkies’), to say nothing of its attitude to women, would scarcely find favour today. Slavery was glossed over; male authority taken for granted.”
Yet, for all its perceived flaws, the film and the novel are deeply loved, and remain the top-selling novel of all time (more than 30 million sales worldwide) and the highest grossing movie ($1,450,680,400 in box-office takings, adjusted for inflation). Now, in the US, where hardcore feminism has been decried for more than a decade, new perspectives about the film are emerging.
Evan Williams is spot on. Pointing out the film’s popularity does not change that. Lots of racist and sexist novels and films are deeply loved and do incredibly well. Success does not render a book or movie free of flaws.
Meryment writes “perceived flaws” as if to imply that Williams and other people who have criticised Gone with the Wind‘s racism are just imagining it. We’re not. None of the black characters in the book are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters. None of them have lives or dreams or aspirations outside of O’Hara and her family. They live in order to serve their masters. Before and after the Civil War. The book and the film are caught up in a poisonously romantic view of slavery wherein the slaves were happy to be slaves, were miserable when the South lost the war, and just wished their masters would keep looking after them. It’s only the bad negroes who make trouble. (The book and film’s language, not mine.)
In Gone with the Wind the Klu Klux Klan are the good guys.
Yeah, right, we’re imagining the racism.
Why just look at the character of Mammy, says Meryment, she’s a strong character! That proves the book isn’t racist:
Of all the strong females, perhaps Mammy is the most galling for ardent critics of the film. Black, enslaved and conforming to 1930s stereotype of the loyal, usually overweight, woman who offered cheerful servitude to her owners, McDaniel’s Mammy is nevertheless a complex and confronting creation. Indomitable and opinionated, she largely does as she likes, whether her masters like it or not. (“I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is,” she tells Scarlett at one point.)
Mammy is every bit the stereotype. With no life other than to look after Scarlett, which the quote above proves. The reason she’s disobeying Scarlett is in order to look after her. Not to do something for herself like find her own kin. The only reason so many argue that Mammy breaks with the stereotype is because Hattie McDaniel was a wonderful actor, who transcended the extremely limited and belittling role. There’s no such respite from the stereotype in the book. (Don’t get me started on the character of Prissy.)
To echo Meryment’s language, it is galling that a book first published in 1936, when the civil rights movement in the USA was already underway, and turned into a movie in 1939—the year that Billie Holiday first performed and recorded “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South—could be so astonishingly blind to the evil that is slavery. That it could spend a gazillion pages and hours glorifying a system that was built on the kidnapping and enforced labour of hundreds of thousands of people appalls me. The glorious south that Margaret Mitchell is so nostalgic for was built out of exploitation, murder, and rape. But it’s even more galling that here in 2009 there are still people trying to pretend that Gone with the Wind isn’t profoundly racist so they can enjoy all its other aspects.
Yes, Gone with the Wind is an amazing book and film.4 Yes, it’s the tale of two extraordinarily strong women, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes, and their enduring friendship5. For many years I loved it. Feel free to continue loving it, but please don’t pretend that us critics are being unfair, or in some way misreading Gone with the Wind when we call it on its nostalgic longing for an era in which the white upper classes lived decadent useless lives dependent on the blood of black people.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Roman Polanski case. I’ve read everything I can about it over the last few weeks including the original trial transcripts, which left me feeling sick to the stomach. But many people have already said what I feel about the case, including the most excellent Lauren McLaughlin and Jay Smooth.
What I’m really wondering is how all those Hollywood luminaries could have signed that petition. Do they really want the world at large to think they have no problem with the rape of a thirteen year old girl?
Did they sign because all their mates did and not know what they were signing? Perhaps, they thought, it’s another save the whales or end global warming petition. This is my most charitable option. Better they be stupid or careless than consider rape to be nothing.
Do they believe that because they know and like Polanski that he must be capable of no wrong? What a valueless friendship that is. I value my friends precisely because they call me on my wrong doing and mistakes. Stand by your friends absolutely, but own it when they do wrong and pressure them to make amends.
Do they believe that artists can do no wrong? That the talented can steal and rape and murder with impunity? I hate to break it to them but genius is not a moral quality. No amount of great art excuses rape.
Far too often powerful, privileged people forget that rules apply to them too. They do this because far too often people like them, like Polanski, get away with rape. They begin to think that this is their right. It’s our job to remind them that no one has that right. No matter how famous or how rich or how high up they are in government.
Update: In the comments below Sarah points out that many of the people who signed that petition are not, in fact, part of Hollywood. Many are part of the European film industry. Woody Allen and others don’t make Hollywood films. Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster are writers.
There are many, many people who work in Hollywood who are appalled by the petition. The people who signed the petition are not representative.
Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.
I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux
There were some wonderfulresponses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?
I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:
I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).
Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:
Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).
Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:
So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.
So does Mayra Lazara Dole:
On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?
So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.
That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”
What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?
First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3
Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.
What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.
There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.
And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. [↩]
Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. [↩]
The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. [↩]
Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.
Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.
To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”
What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!
Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.
That’s the risk you take when you write a book.
If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.
If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.
What should you do when you are criticised?
Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.
Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.
Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.
Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?
What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.
Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.
Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.
Why do so many people have an obsession with how old people are when they make art?
Hmmm. I think that sentence demands a bit more context. I keep seeing comments like, “OMG, Buffy is amazing and Joss Whedon was only in his early 30s when he first created it.” Or Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most influential French poets ever and he quit writing when he was 19!”
There must be something wrong with me cause I think, “So what?”
Either the art is good or it isn’t. Who cares how old the person was who created it? Doesn’t make it any better.
Not to mention that there’s an argument that the only reason people are still talking about Arthur Rimbaud is because he wrote all his poetry before he was nineteen. According to this argument his work was amazing for a teenager and that’s the only reason we remember him today. Well, that, and his truly crazy life, which makes for astonishingly entertaining biographies.1 And the fact that his lover, Paul Verlaine, was a one-man publicity campaign, who would not shut up about Rimbaud’s supposed genius.
*Heh hem* I digress. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer amazing because Joss Whedon was only in his early thirties2 when he started working on it or is it amazing because it’s amazing?3 I say it’s simply amazing and Whedon’s age is irrelevant.4
If a book or a poem or a movie or a computer game or a painting or whatever blows you away why does it matter how old the person was when they made it?5 If they were 62 does it stop being amazing? How about 72? If they were only 20 does that make it more amazing? Why? Explain to me cause I don’t get it.
Some people write their best work when they’re young. Some when they’re old. Some when they’re middle aged. Some are pretty consistent throughout their career. Some, like Georgette Heyer, have mixed careers, dotted with marvellous and indifferent work throughout. No matter how old you are you can only do the best you can at that moment in time. Not to mention that no matter how old you are, what you think is your best work, others may think is your worst.6
I think what bothers me about this constant, “OMG this book is amazing! And the author was only 12!” is that it undercuts the idea that those of us who make a living writing (or creating other art) work really hard at and strive to improve. It feed into the myth of genius, of someone just producing great work full blown out of no where, without an apprenticeship, without any hard yakka, or learning, or improving. I happen not to believe in genius. I don’t believe art comes out of nowhere.
I do, however, understand the feeling of panic when you realise that, say, Georgette Heyer’s first novel was published when she was a teenager. By the time she was fifty years old she’d published close to 40 novels. Many of my favourite writers have prodigious and enviable outputs. Patricia Highsmith for one. I still haven’t read all her novels and short stories. Diana Wynne Jones has also published an astonishing number of wonderful books and they keep coming. Yay! On the other hand, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter have a relatively small volume of work. All of which I treasure and clutch to my chest. My favourite Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published when she was in her seventies. If I can write half so well when I’m in my seventies, well, I’ll be very happy indeed.
I do envy writers like Wynne Jones and Heyer. I’ve published five novels, but my odds of writing another thirty-five before I turn fifty are, well, forget about it. Or even before I’m seventy. I’m not a super fast writer. I was able to keep up the one-novel-a-year pace for five years and in those years I was trying to write two a year. But next year there’ll be no new novel from me. I doubt I’ll ever write as fast as one a year again. But I have just as many ideas as I ever did. Sometimes I freak out realising that I may not live to write them all.7
But never for very long. Because, honestly, there are other things I’m more worried about not doing before I die. Like spending enough time with the people I love. Doing as much good as I can. Watching my friends’ children grow up. Eating more mangosteens. Stuff like that.
I recommend the Edmund Wilson one. No, I haven’t read it. But, hey, Edmund Wilson. [↩]
And when did accomplishing something in your early thirties make you a prodigy? Please. [↩]
Except for those of who don’t think it was amazing. [↩]
Except for all of season seven, and too much of seasons four, five and six, which are the opposite of amazing. [↩]
For the purposes of this rant, I’m ignoring the fact that many works of art are not created by a single person—Whedon did not make Buffy alone—especially not movies or television or computer games. [↩]
I think the best novel I’ve written is the first novel I wrote. It’s unpublished. [↩]
You know when I’m not freaking out about this world I live in melting into the sea. [↩]
Maybe I’m being unfair, but Dwight Garner’s New York TImes review of LeBron James’ & Buzz Bissinger’s Shooting Stars gave off the distinct reek of Eau de Condescension (via Mitali Perkins):
“Shooting Stars,” a new collaboration between LeBron James, probably the greatest basketball player alive, and Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights,” is a different kind of book. It avoids speaking about James’s professional career with the Cleveland Cavaliers (he was the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player last season) almost entirely. And since James skipped college, well, ixnay on that too.
“Shooting Stars” reads like a better-than-average young-adult novel, “Stand by Me” with breakaway dunks and long, arching three-pointers. I suspect it will find its best and most eager audience among the teenagers and preteenagers for whom James is a deserving role model.
Let’s set aside the fact that Stand By Me is a movie not a YA novel1 and have a look at “better-than-average young-adult novel.” Given the lukewarmness of the whole review it’s pretty clear that Garner does not think much of YA. Though if he thinks Stand By Me is a YA novel then it’s more likely he hasn’t read much YA average or otherwise. The whole thing reminds me of Maureen Dowd dissing adult chicklit based on her reading of a satirical YA novel. The New York Times seems pretty hazy on what YA is.
Eric Luper suggests that we need to run a remedial seminar for them and make them read some better-than-average YA. What do youse lot think? And what should we put on the reading list? I suggest five or so books but they all have to be completely different from each other. Here’s my off the top of my head list. I made a point of not including any books by my friends:2
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (historical) Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis (contemporary realism/comedy) Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey (fantasy) All American Girl by Meg Cabot (chicklit) Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (science fiction) If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (contemporary realism/romance)
What would your reading list to school The New York Times book people about YA look like? Remember each book has to be really different.
Update: Scott says I should point out that this review really made me want to read Shooting Stars. So, yes, it’s condescending but now I really want to read the book. But, come on, I’m a basketball fanatic I was going to read it anyway.
Based on a short story by Stephen King which is also not a YA novel. [↩]
I’ve met Cabot and Duey and they are both delightful but I don’t know them well enough that I feel biased recommending their work. [↩]
Because I have been talking about my love of Avatar quite a bit lately people have been asking me if I’m excited about the forthcoming live action version.
I am not.
One of the many things I adore about Avatar is how incredibly rich and complex the world of Avatar is. This is largely because it was based on various Asian cultures. None of the characters in Avatar are white.
We came up for the concept for “Avatar” 3 years ago. Nickelodeon wanted to make a “legends & lore” type of show with a kid hero. That’s a genre we are very interested in, but we wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture. Although “Avatar” isn’t based on a specific Asian myth, we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. We were also inspired by Anime in general. We wanted to create a story that inspired people’s imaginations and that had elements of comedy, drama, and action.
2. You guys are not Asian so how did you come up with such an Asian cartoon?
We read a lot about Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese history. We also have several consultants who work for the show—a cultural consultant that reviews all the scripts; a Kung Fu consultant who helps choreograph all the bending moves so that they are accurate to the style on which they are based; and a Chinese calligrapher who does all the signs and posters in the show. We don’t use any written English words in the show.
Avatar has been hugely popular among kids of all races. There was no backlash against an all-Asian show. Much as those who watch anime don’t freak out at the paucity of white characters. Yet, somehow the Hollywood producers think the live action version has to be white washed. Except for the villians, of course, it’s okay for them to be brown. I think they’re wrong.
I’m not the only one who’s upset at the absurd casting choices of the movie version. There are severalcommunities that have been protesting it.
Sadly, though there seem to be just as many fans who don’t care that the movie version has white actors playing Aang, Katara and Sokka. Glockgal offers a possible explanation:
For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements—EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them . . . a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IN REAL LIFE.
I will not be going to see the movie version. I’m sick of white washing. I’m sick of Hollywood taking the things I love and transforming them into generic pap. I want them to make more films that reflect the diversity of the world I live in. I don’t understand why that’s such a huge ask.
Yesterday Maureen Johnson posted most excellently on the topic of judging yourself by numbers. She paraphrased a graduation speech by Bill Murray:
“Look, people thought I was going to be a huge failure, but then I got kind of lucky and made it. And I had and have lots of amazing friends, and we’ve seen each other’s careers go up and down. Take my advice: don’t go comparing yourself to other people. You will go insane. It’s pointless. Your fortunes may rise and fall, depending on all kinds of things you have no control over. Keep your friends. Never compare all the outward markers of success. Do what you love, because that’s all you really get and that’s all that matters and that’s all that will ever really work. And don’t be an as$h&^e.”
It’s doesn’t matter what game you’re in, judging yourself solely by external measures will do your head in. You are not a good writer because you get good reviews or because you’re a bestseller or a prize winner.
You can continue to work hard and write your best and yet stop getting good reviews1 and prizes and spots on bestseller lists. If you depend on those measures to determine your worth you are in for a world of pain.
As Mr Murray and Maureen say you have no control over that external stuff.2 Forget about it. You are not a better person cause you sell more than your friends. You are not a worse person because you’re never short listed for prizes. Concentrate on doing the absolute best you can in whatever field you’re in. Because if your eyes are only on the prize, all the joy and pleasure in writing (or whatever) will disappear.
If you do get lucky and your work is recognised, make sure you thank the people who gave you the time and space and support in order to do your absolute best: your family, your friends, your colleagues etc. etc.
The outbreak of insanity both here in the US and over in Ingerland about the dread horrors of novels for teenagers like Maureen Johnson’s completely innocent Bermudez Triangle and Margo Lanagan’s disturbing, yet not-graphic-at-all, Tender Morsels has convinced me once again of two things:
Some people just love to be outraged
Many journalists don’t do even basic research
Both Johnson and Lanagan’s books are for teenagers. Bermudez is billed as being for 12 year olds and up and Tender Morsels as for 14 and up. Yet those being oh-so-very-shocked! insist on referring to them as books for children. They’re not. Those articles are flat out wrong or, worse, lying.
At least the rant in the Daily Mail is by someone who read at least some of the book. Even though their reading of Tender Morsels has zero in common with the Tender Morsels I read. In the Fox piece (I can’t call it reporting) it was clear that the reporter had not read Bermudez and that the outraged ones had at best skimmed the book looking for the word “sex”. Because they failed to notice that no sex takes place in Bermudez. There is nothing anyone could get offended by unless they’re homophobes who freak out at two girls falling in love.
Why do the outraged have so little interest in finding out who these books are aimed at? Or in so many cases don’t even read them?1The Daily Mail mocks the publisher of Tender Morsels for pointing out it’s aimed at older teens. Which is utterly surreal because the publisher is telling the truth. The outraged have no interest in learning about YA or understanding the difference between it and children’s literature. They don’t want to understand the context for the book. They don’t want to know that there’s a very simple solution if you’re concerned a book is too mature for your child: read the book first. All they care about is being outraged. They don’t want the fact that Tender Morsels is not marketed to ten year olds to get in the way of that delicious outrage.
Well, I am outraged by their outrage. Or I would be if I could be bothered and didn’t have a novel to finish.
Yes, there have been campaigns to ban books because of the book’s title. [↩]