Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.
Your suggestions clarified two things for us:
1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.
2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.
We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.
Update: We’ve both decided we won’t be looking at historicals.
Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).
Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce. [↩]
Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.
We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.
But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.
At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.
I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1
If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.
TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.
Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. [↩]
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. [↩]
This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life for the year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2013. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)
Last year was not a happy year for me so you’ll be pleased to hear that 2012 was lovely. There was some huge personal changes and they were all very very good indeed. What I’m really saying is this post contains no whingeing. Phew, eh?
Books Out This Year
This is the first since 2009 that I had a new novel out. Woot! Mine and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Team Human. The response has been truly wonderful. Starred reviews! Acclaim! Rose petals! Best of the year lists! My favourite review is this one by Thy because of the wonderful fanfic Twitter conversation between Team Human‘s main characters Mel, Cathy and Francis. It’s seriously funny.
Books Out in the Future (The Distant Future)
Note that I didn’t call this section Books out Next Year. That would be because I have nothing scheduled to be published in 2013. Sorry about that. I remember the days when I thought having only one book published a year was embarrassingly slow and was aiming to ramp it up to two a year. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!
So, yeah, I only had one book out this year, and even though it was co-written, it still counts as the first novel by me since 2009. I know, I know, SO SLOW. It’s like I’ve turned into a writer of literary novels for adults. Those lazy, lazy types who think it’s fast to publish a novel every five years. My romance writer friends are deeply ashamed of me. I am deeply ashamed.
But I have been writing. This year I finished a complete draft of a new novel. It’s my first book set in Sydney since the Magic or Madness trilogy and involved oodles of research. Fun! And even though it’s at least two drafts away from being sent out to publishing houses I’m feeling good about it.
But I’m taking a break from it for the moment while I turn to another novel. The Sydney novel is intense and more complicated than I had intended. It takes place over one day. I figured that would be easy. I WAS WRONG. SO VERY WRONG.1 It was supposed to be a relaxing, easy break from the 1930s New York novel! Stupid tricksy books acting like they’re all easy and then being super insanely complicated! Grrr.
So now I need a break from the novel that was supposed to be a relaxing break from the overcomplicated and intense New York novel. If the novel I turn to winds up being more complicated than I thought and I have to start another novel to take a break from it and then that novel winds up being too tricky and I have to take a break and work on yet another novel . . . then, um, actually I have no idea what will happen. Either the world will blow up or I’ll never finish any novels ever again and starve.
Funnily enough the book I’m turning to now was also started while taking a break from the New York novel.2 It’s a middle grade I started in 2009, which involves a chaotically neutral fairy sort-of-but-not-really godmother and is set in Bologna and is wryly funny.3 (I hope.) I had a lot of fun writing it and only stopped because I had to work on Zombies versus Unicorns and then Team Human.
As for the 1930s New York novel I do keep working on it. On and off. In between all these break novels. It grows ever longer—I suspect it’s more than one novel—but it remains a long way from a finished draft, which is why I keep turning to other novels. Or something. What? Not all of us are super focussed types. And I’m not listening to your suggestion that maybe the NYC novel isn’t finished yet because I keep turning to other books. That’s just silly.
Since I started the NYC novel in 2007 I’ve begun work on five other novels, one of which is now published, Team Human, and another of which is close to finished, the Sydney novel. Not to mention writing the bulk of Liar and putting together Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black.
In conclusion: I am writing. A LOT! There will be new novels from me. In the future.
I’m doing a lot better. Not only am I now a total pro at managing my pain but I found a therapy that seems to be making my arms better and not merely managing it: active release. (Here’s the wikipedia article, which points out that very few studies have been carried out. So it’s mostly anecdotal evidence thus far.) The therapy is only good for soft tissue damage. It’s early days so who knows if the improvements will keep happening but right now my arms are in the least pain they’ve been in for ages. But I’m not going to be stupid and push it. (Been there done that.)
The plan it to slowly push to writing five hours a day. So I may start blogging again more frequently. Yes, I have missed blogging. SO MUCH. Twitter is fun and easy. But it’s not the same.
The last paragraph was written more than two months ago since then I’ve been on the road for six weeks and home for two and have had the longest break from writing in a very very long time. And let me tell you: my arms feel great! So really the best things for them is for me not to write.
But that’s not going to happen.
In conclusion: I’m doing much better but I am not going to push things.
The garden is still totally wonderful. The passionfruit are flowering but not fruiting I am about to commence Operation Hand Pollination. Will let you know how it goes.
Most of the year I spent happily ensconced in Sydney. And it was good. Then there was a brief trip to NYC last month where I voted in my first US election and, lo, it went how I wanted it to. Woo hoo! Well, the results did. The voting process was chaotic and insane and wow does the USA need the Australian Electoral Authority to take over and fix stuff for them, like, NOW.
Then we went to Sao Paolo and Rio in Brazil and Santiago in Chile. My love for South America grows. It’s warm when it’s supposed to be warm. None of this insane cold Christmas rubbish. The Southern Hemisphere rules, yo!
Truly Brasil, in particular, was AMAZING. I shall blog about it more in the new year. But in short our publisher, Editora Record, spoiled me and Scott rotten. Ana Lima, the executive editor, was so helpful and kind and fun to be with and we learned so much about Brazilian publishing—Editora Record has their own printing press (!)—and about Brasil. If you’re an author and you’re ever invited to Brasil. Just say yes. The fans are smart and funny and so enthusiastic. They are both legal and very fofa. See? I learnt a wee bit of Portuguese! I can’t wait to go back. Oh, and the food. How I miss the food and the caipirinhas and the cachaca. We just ran out of the bottle we brought back. Waaaah!
I hope your 2012 was as productive and fun as mine. And that your 2013 is awash with fabulosity.
Make sure you all get hold of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new book The Summer Prince. Best YA book of 2013. Oh, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which is most definitely the best adult book4 of 2013, probably of the century. You heard it here first. Both books are pure genius.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!
I may blog about what exactly is so hard about having the action confined to one day. [↩]
How To Ditch Your Fairy was also a break novel. What can I say? I’m easily distratced. [↩]
So did I use the D&D term correctly? You know what don’t tell me if I didn’t. [↩]
No, not Fifty Shades of Grey adult. Get your mind out of the gutter, people! [↩]
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. [↩]
So yesterday I came across this tumblr, Underground New York Public Library. And, fellow readers, it is marvellous! Glory in the gazillions of photos of people reading books on the subway. Complete with the names of the books. It is a truly glorious portrait of New York City. Of what I love about that city.
I am sure if you read this blog you are like me: when you are on public transport you cannot stop yourself from trying to figure out what people are reading.
I have been known to accidentally on purpose drop things so I can bend down to pick them up and thus read the title of the book that’s being held too low for me to read otherwise. Yes, I am one of those dreadful people who reads over people’s shoulders on public transport. I’m just curious is all. Not creepy. Honest!
I love to know what people are reading. Then along comes this tumblr to satisfy my curiosity. And, wow, what a wide range of books. Almost every genre under the sun. Though not that many romances. I figure those are mostly on ereaders. It’s a shame that means they don’t represent in the vast numbers they are being read.
Don’t get me wrong I love being able to read books electronically.1 But it does make it that much harder to figure out what people are reading. And has massively increased my already obnoxious habit of reading over people’s shoulders.
On the other hand it means I will never again have some arsehole being all judgey because I dare to read in public a romance or YA or some other genre certain people like to sneer at. Yes, I have had people say rude stuff to me because I was reading a book they did not deem to be good. Get over yourself, judgey poo heads! I bet you read Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski. I am sorry you are so insecure in your masculinity you have to read misogynist dross like that to make you feel better. Um, *cough* judging people for what they read is wrong.2
I was particularly filled with joy by this picture of two men reading books by women. See? There are men who are brave enough to do that! In public!
This tumblr made my heart almost explode with joy. And, um, lose several hours pouring over every photos and reading every comment. What? I’m on a break between first and second draft of novel. So it’s not even procrastination.
Happy reading, everyone! What’s the best book you’re read recently? And why did you love it?
Mine’s Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful He Might Hear You which I adored because it has sharply written dialogue and so evocatively brings 1930s Sydney to life. Also it is heartbreaking. Everyone should read it if only for a masterclass in how to write great dialogue.
In my case I read them on my phone and don’t have an ereader, but, you know, same thing. [↩]
Do not get me started on those who read Ayn Rand in a non-campy way. [↩]
To which I can only respond, well, yes, obviously. One of the great pleasures, for me anyway, of being an adult is finally realising I am under no moral compulsion to finish every book I start. I can put boring books down! I can walk away from bad books without being sullied by reading the whole thing! Oh happy day!
On the other hand—and I know this is not just me—sometimes I really enjoy reading a bad book. It has to be a particular kind of bad. Boring bad, for instance, need not apply. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand remains one of my favourite books because it is so campily ridiculous. You cannot read the dialogue out loud without dying laughing. No one in the history of the universe has ever talked like that. But the idea that somewhere, somehow, people are talking like that makes me laugh my arse off.
I am also very enamoured of Flowers in the Attic, which I adored when I was a kid, and genuinely thought was the best book ever. As an adult I deeply enjoy its insanely over the top plot, its risible dialogue and its jaw-droppingly improbable descriptions of pretty much everything. These traits hold true for all the V. C. Andrews books. Well, it does for the ones she actually wrote herself. She was a bad writing genius. Reading those books is really fun. It’s even more fun to read them out loud.
I have previously detailed a wonderful train ride with such YA luminaries as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld in which we took turns reading aloud an excruciatingly bad book. That’s how I know I’m not alone in this sick enjoyment of badness.
It is, of course, more than their campy dreadfulness that makes bad books useful. Without bad books we would not be able to appreciate good books.
You need context to be able to see when something is really well done and when it is a disaster. Part of learning to read is learning to be a discerning reader. Like I said, as a kid I had no idea that Flowers in the Attic was bad. I loved it. I thought it was genius. This is pretty typical of many beginning readers. We love a lot of what we read. We often think what we’re reading is the Best Book We’ve Ever Read. And, you know what, when you’ve only read a few dozen books, that could well be true.
We writers can learn a lot about writing from reading bad writing. When a book is not working for you it is revealing a lot about its construction. It’s much harder to figure out what makes a good book tick because you get so lost in it every time you read it that you stop seeing how the words are chosen and put together. With bad writing all of that is up front and centre there’s no gorgeous phrasing to distract you. Just before you put the next bad book down in disgust ask yourself why. What was it that made the book unreadable? This is a really excellent way to figure out what not to do in your own writing.
I am, of course, talking as if we all agree about what’s good or bad in a book. Would that it were so.
Nah, not really. Where would the fun be in that? Spirited arguments about the goodness or not of Moby Dick are part of the spice of life.1
Are there any other uses of bad writing that I missed?
“Spice of life”?! Cliche alert! Yes, I know, one of many. It’s a blog post! I don’t have to get all fancy. [↩]
Following on from my post about bad reviews there’s been a spot of conversation about how to exorcise the horrific experience of reading a truly bad piece of excrement masquerading as a book. Some of us write eviscerating reviews and some of us imagine or actually practice violence upon the offending item: I mentioned my desire to stab them. N. K. Jemisin says she throws them across the room.
I have a group of friends who compete to find the very worst books and then read them out loud in order to point and laugh and marvel at how truly bad they are. It is incredibly entertaining. We end up weeping we laugh so hard. It’s also educational. Nothing like reading out loud to truly expose the badness. It’s an extremely entertaining lesson in how not to write. I highly recommend it.
The two men left standing by the open French window that led into the hotel ballroom looked at each other and smiled.
“Some peroration,” said one with a marked American accent. “That’s the way scandal’s made, I guess.”
“Scandal be hanged! There’s never been a breath of scandal attached to Diana Mayo’s name. I’ve known the child since she was a baby. Rum little cuss she was, too. Confound that old woman! She would wreck the reputation of the Archangel Gabriel if he came down to earth, let alone that of a mere human girl.”
“Not a very human girl,” laughed the American. “She was sure meant for a boy and changed at the last moment. She looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy–and a damned haughty one,” he added, chuckling. “I overheard her this morning, in the garden, making mincemeat of a French officer.”
Lots of wonderful bad writing tics: flat, unevocative, stage-direction like description; laugh transformed into a verb of utterance; unnecessary repetition “laughed the American” “he added, chuckling,” and un-dialogue like dialogue.
This passage is from early on in proceedings. It gets much much MUCH worse-er after Diana is kidnapped by the Shiek. The dialogue in the book starts over the top but ratchets up from there. Until basically you’re reading a novel where everyone is SPEAKING IN ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS AT EVERY TURN!!!!!
Reading it out loud and laughing is the only way to cope.
So, dear readers, how do you cope with the truly bad books you’ve had the misfortune to run your scared orbs across? Do you have any handy bad book exorcisms to share?
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. [↩]
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. [↩]
Okay, I totally shouldn’t be writing this. But Janni Lee Simner issued a call for authors to say that it’s okay to give us bad reviews. I want to add my voice to those saying, “Go forth and shred our books into tiny pieces.”1
You do not have to be nice about a book you hate.
However, I also want to say that it’s not our place to say so. Reviews are not for authors. They’re not even about authors. You do not need our permission to write about our books. Because once they’re published they cease to be ours.
Reviews are for other readers. A review is about a particular reader’s relationship with a particular book. And if you happen to trust that particular reviewer’s taste they’re a great way to find books you want to read or books you should avoid.
It’s ridiculously pleasing to come across a review shredding a book you loathed. It’s an OMG someone else hated it too moment. Yay! And they’re mocking it in the most hilarious way. Double yay!
I even enjoy bad reviews of books I like. Shaking my fist in outrage at them and rebutting every point is fun. It’s also fascinating to see how differently people read. Dia Reeves’ marvellous Bleeding Violet is a call to arms to take down the state? How did I miss that?
More seriously the effort to critique misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia and so forth in YA—in all art—is essential. We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic world. We can and do unwittingly replicate racist tropes, sexist cliches and homophobic stereotypes in our work. It is a very good thing to be called on it. Our intentions count for nothing if they aren’t visible on the page to people who aren’t us.
Thinking about these issues can be painful and confronting, especiallly for those of us who have had the privilege to not have to think about them, but, trust me, doing so makes us better writers and readers.2
Will we always agree with such critiques? I think the recent Bitch media stoush answers that question. Feminism can, indeed, be in the eye of the beholder. Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels has been critiqued for “validating (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance”. I think that’s—at best—a sloppy reading of TM and that the book is profoundly feminist, but I also think that such a debate is extremely important.
When your work is published and out there people get to critique it however they want. The only way to avoid such critiques is not to publish your work.
It’s very hard for authors to believe that reviews are not about them. To not take them personally. It’s hard for anyone to read or hear people hating on something they worked very hard to produce. But you get over it.3 Or you learn to stop reading your reviews.
I was not so cavalier about all of this when my first book came out. Back then every bad review, hell, every non-ecstatic review, broke my little writer heart. How could people be so mean to me!? But then I’d read a book and hate it and pray that the writer never publish again4 and think well, okay, that’s how.
Sometimes you discover that your bad reviews can be hilarious. Here’s my favourite:
Magic or Madness is like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.
It was one of my very first punter reviews—on Barnes & Noble, I think—is it not a gem of its kind? I treasure it.
So, yeah, as I’ve written heremany times, I think it’s inappropriate for an author to go to someone’s blog and argue over a review, especially when the author brings hordes of their friends and fans with them. The best response to bad reviews is to ignore them, not to attack or threaten the reviewer. Get over yourself already. Your book is not your child. You are not the boss of the internets.5
I am not, however, calling for author silence. I mean, seriously, have you read any other posts on this blog? I am so not a silent author.6 I don’t see any problem with an author rebutting claims about their politics or world view on their own blog. It can lead to very interesting conversations. Because of her brilliant and wonderful novel, Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan has been accused of not only sanctioning rape as revenge but also of purveying filth to children, and she has ably combatted those claims on her blog and in interviews and elsewhere. Good on you, Margo.
Mostly though I think authors should be thankful that their books are being discussed at all. Passionate opinions and debates about your work are a truly excellent thing. Plenty of books disappear without a ripple.
The biggest enemy of our careers is not bad reviews, but obscurity.
Let me repeat that: the biggest enemy of an author’s career is not bad reviews—it’s obscurity.
And on that chilling note I’m back to saving my typing hands7 for writing more of them books in the faint hopes of postponing total obscurity just a little bit longer.
If you hate them that is. Feel free to praise should you want to. Feel free to meh them also. Whatever you want! [↩]
Though not getting cranky about bad reviews of Scott’s books is still a work in progress for me. [↩]
Yes, I mean you, Henry Miller. Yes, I know you’re dead. This is a warning to any possible reincarnations of you. I will kill you with my mind. [↩]
That would be me! Or it used to be me—I retired hurt. [↩]
Except when injured. But seriously offline I’m ranting away same as ever. If you see me ask me about Wikileaks or the minnows being expelled from the World Cup or Australia’s immigration policy or pretty much anything else and prepare to have your ears bleed. I gots opinions, yes, I do. [↩]
Thanks so much everyone for letting me know you miss the blog. I miss it too and youse lot as well. Heaps! [↩]
As some of you may have noticed I’ve not been around much online. Sorry! Thank you so much for all the concerned supportive emails. They are much appreciated. (You made me all teary.)
Here’s where things stand with me:
The good news: The original injury that caused me to cut back on blogging is completely healed. Yay!
The bad news: The RSI in my hands and forearms got worse.
I took four weeks off from the computer entirely. I have reorganised my computer setup. I’ve been doing a vast amount of physical therapy. I’m improving. Slowly and frustratingly but surely.
However, my time at keyboard remains limited and my top priority is my novel. All else—blogging, tweeting, emailing—is on hiatus until I can get through a day’s1 work without pain.
I see that all sounds depressing. But honestly I’m doing great. While I miss being in close contact with all my fabby online friends.2 I’ve been spending more time with friends in the real world. I’ve been reading more than I have in years. Watching lots of crazy good anime. Who recommended Moribito? I LOVE YOU.3 I’ve been cooking up a storm. And immersing myself in the WNBA, NBA, French Open, various cricket series and am ecstatic about the coming World Cup and Wimbledon and the Tour de France.
Life is very good.
So this is farewell for now. Thanks for all the support. It means heaps.4
A question for you, dear readers: what are your favourite long-running series?
Mine is probably Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. Because it got better and better with each book. The characters and the world grew. It never felt like Mosley was churning them out for a buck. They more than stand up to rereading.
To define my terms: I consider a series long-running if it has six or more books in it. A series can tell one continuous story like Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books or have same character(s) but different stories in each book.
Last night Scott read to me Mark Twain’s essay on Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper. I’m sure most of you are familiar with it but I was not. Dear readers, I laughed. A lot.
Mr Twain, it seems, was unfond of Cooper’s writing. In one of the bits that made me laugh the hardest, Twain sets out the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction,” and exactly how Cooper violated them. The fifth of these rules requires that
when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it
Excuse me. I am rolling about laughing all over again. As it happens, I have attempted to read Copper (The Last of the Mohicans) and was completely unable to finish it and the insanely ridiculous dialogue was a big part of that. Also I just finished reading a book that violated this rule just as outrageously as Cooper did.
Bless you, Mr Twain. This almost makes up for your insane blindness on the subject of Jane Austen. Almost.
Of course, I do hope Mr Cooper was dead when the article was published. I’d feel awful if he ever read that essay. I mean, yes, I know, criticism is part of this business but still. Vicious. (Even if completely true.)
I do find this kind of savage (but accurate) criticism a pleasure to read. (When done well.) But on the other hand I always feel dreadful for the writer and/or book it’s aimed at. Because it really is mean. And yet . . .
I have a similar discomfort with Go Fug Yourself. I love that site. I adore laughing at dreadful clothes. I figure as they only take aim at celebrities it’s okay. Laughing at people with more social status is very different from the other way around.
But I also can’t help thinking that celebrities, no matter how annoying, are people too, and wondering how I’d feel having my favourite outfit so mercilessly mocked. Then I feel less good for laughing at their lime green formal pants teamed with black fishnet stockings, tan spike-heeled pumps, a pastel pink Bonds singlet and a white fedora worn backwards. But seriously, how could anyone not mock such a combination?
In the meantime, the Twain essay on Cooper is still making me laugh.
One of the results of my recent injury, which has meant that I spend no more than four hours at my computer each day, is that I’ve been reading a tonne more. Here are some jetlagged thoughts, without any spoilers, on stuff (of all genres, not just YA) what I have read and loved recently:1
Battle Royale Koushun Takami: Do not read this book if high school students murdering each other in graphic detail appalls you. And let’s be frank, it should appall you. I’m appalled that I was not appalled. But then I kind of like boxing too so clearly I have no moral compass at all. Um, yes, I loved this book. I could not put it down and kind of loved all the characters. It’s the kind of wonderfully well done crackalong pulptastic experience that I think Taratino frequently goes for (but in my opinion largely fails at). Actually, I thought I’d already read this book but it turned out I’d just seen the movie, which is not anywhere near as good. A few people are accusing Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series of being a rip off Battle Royale, which is silly. It’s an old, old plot and her version is very different. I hope that clears things up and people will stop with the dumbarse plagiarism charges. Aside from anything else even if she had deliberately set out to do a YA version of Battle Royale it would still not be plagiarism. Borrowing a plot is not plagiarism. I’m not just saying that cause I had planned to write a YA Battle Royale.2
Bride of the Water God Yun Mi-kyung: I wrote about this manhwa series after I’d finished vol. 2. I said at the time that it has some of the most gorgeous art I’ve ever seen. After five volumes I stand by that. If anything it’s been getting even more beautiful. I also said I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on. I stand by that too. I love this series. I enjoy it in a clueless haze.
Bury Me Deep Megan Abbott: This crime novel is set in the 1930s thus it was research. W00t! Awesome novel by a writer who’s new to me. I’ll be reading more of her stuff. Lyrical, intense, with gripping plot. Just my cup of tea. If only it had been set in NYC and not LA, it would have been perfect. (For research purposes, I mean.)
Dreaming of Amelia Jaclyn Moriarty: I’m a huge Moriarty fan and this latest addition to her series which began with Feeling Sorry for Celia about a bunch of high school students at two high schools in Sydney, one posh, one not. The beauty of this series is that you can read them out of order without any ill effect but if you read them in order there even better. My faves are this one and Bindy McKenzie. All the books in the series are told from multiple points of view via letters, notes on the fridge, legal depositions, etc etc. They’re technically stunning. It is very hard to tell a gripping, moving story that way. Yet Moriarty not only does it but does it so seamlessly you stop noticing that these are not conventional novels. I love these books.
Enchanted Glass Diana Wynne Jones: I love pretty much everything Wynne Jones has ever written. She is a genius and this is one of my fave books of hers in ages. She’s funny and moving and, well, I just worship her. My only quibble was that the ending was a tad abrupt. But who cares. It was Diana Wynne Jones. More, please!
Pluto Naoki Urasawa: I cannot decide which of the three Urasawa manga series that I’ve read I like best. I love Monster. It’s a bad seed story, what’s not to love? But on the other hand 20th Century Boys is pretty amazing too. And now Pluto is blowing me away. Maybe I’ll have to wait until I’ve finished all of these series to decide.
Piper’s Son Melina Marchetta: Melina’s first adult novel. A kind of sequel to Saving Francesca. This is my favourite book of hers to date. I love love love love loved it. Read it in one sitting and balled my eyes out.3 Walk, don’t run!
The Right Mistake Walter Mosley: I’m yet to dislike a single Walter Mosley book. This was no exception. Though I’ll admit I was nervous. I’m not a big short story person and am quite suspicious of long narratives told in a series of short stories. They’re incredibly hard to pull off. Mosley does it.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II Douglas A. Blackmon. Another research book. This one non-fiction. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Jim Crow and the colour line for my 1930s book. Right now I would like to make everyone with even the slightest interest in the history of the USA read this book. It absolutely debunks any notion that slavery ended in 1865, try 1945. It makes me even angrier at the waves of Southern propoganda about the Civil War and Reconstruction embodied by books and movies like Gone with the Wind. This book made me want to go back in time and do something to persuade the North not to abandon the South, for Reconstruction to have lasted, say, fifty, or even a hundred years, rather than a mere twelve. Or maybe all that was needed was to put different people on the Supreme Court, who wouldn’t have gutted the Civil Rights amendments in 1883 or ruled wrong on Plessy v Ferguson. For me this was an eye-opening book and has forever changed how I think about US history.
Wench Dolen Perkins-Valdez: This has been getting a lot of buzz online. All of it is deserved. Set in the 1840s and 1850s in the USA about four slave women who are taken to an Ohio resort by their masters. This was another one-sitting read. It’s gorgeously written, incredibly moving, and had me in tears more than once. This book was made even more poignant for me because I read it immediately after Slavery by Another Name and couldn’t help but worry about what was going to happen to these women after Reconstruction.
I loved all of these books and highly recommend them. Be very interested to hear from others who’ve read ‘em. What did you think?
My apologies for how bad that sentence is. And for the bad ones which follow. [↩]
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. [↩]
The wonderful Kathleen T. Horning sent me a link to this discussion of Twilight on NPR in which much mock is made of the writing style of Twlight. Judging from the comments if you love Twilight then the NPR people are being condescending meanies and if you hated Twilight1 then their comments are hilarious and spot on.
Now, I do not want a discussion of the merits or otherwise of Twilight here. In fact, I will delete any comment trashing Twilight. We do not diss living authors on this blog. What I’m interested in is a broader discussion of adults’ attitudes to YA literature.
My question is this: 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?
Here’s what the folks at NPR had to say in response to that claim:
Linda: One thing we haven’t talked about much, except in the comments, is the fact that for a lot of people, both the quality of the writing and the content of the story, as far as its nonsensical aspects, are really irrelevant if the book is intended for or appropriate for teenagers.
This is an argument I would find a lot easier to swallow were it not for the facts that (1) I don’t think Meyer necessarily meant it as YA fiction and I think she’s said that; and (2) it is read by many, many adults who take it quite seriously. It seems to me that it has been embraced as fiction by enough adults that it’s legitimate to look at it that way. And that’s true EVEN IF you accept that it’s okay for things to be bad if they’re for teenagers, which I … don’t.
Marc: Of course. It’s wildly insulting to teenagers to insist that it’s acceptable to foist inferior product on them because . . . why, exactly? “This is a terrible book. Give it to your daughter.” How is that not a terrible abuse of kids’ minds?
In the comments on their Twilight posts there were many claiming that it was wrong to criticise Twilight at all because it’s popular and has gotten teens reading. I’m curious to hear your responses to that claim as well. Are such claims made about equally-criticised-for-bad-writing books by the likes of Dan Brown?
NOTE: Remember I want this to be a broad discussion of attitudes to YA literature. I’m not kidding about deleting any Twilight bashing.
Even if you haven’t read it—how do you hate a book you haven’t read? [↩]
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.
Meg Reid is another one of my pen pals.1 We started corresponding to each other when Meg was sixteen and my father, who is friends with her parents and was staying with them in the US, gave her a copy of Magic or Madness and ordered her to write me about it. Dads! Could they be more embarrassing? On this occasion though he did good and we’ve been writing to each other ever since. Oh, and now Meg’s in graduate school.2
Lately, I’ve been a little paranoid about being a bad reader. It’s kind of embarrassing, because it’s something I’ve always thought I was good at—I learned how when I was three, because I told my mom I wanted to, and allegedly I was a very strong willed child.3
Honestly, my main rationale for coming to graduate school in English, rather than Art History or Theatre like I’d spent most of my undergrad career planning to do, was that I realized that I was way better at reading than I was at acting or directing, and I didn’t really want to be a curator. Plus, it was something I liked. “How awesome would it be,” I thought, “to have my whole life for two years be going to school and learning about books, and then coming home and reading books, and then hanging out with clever grad-school people who like to talk about books, TOO?!?” It sounded ideal.4
And then I got introduced to theory. And postmodernism. And 500 pages of required reading a night. None of which was bad, exactly, but my dream scenario involved more time for napping and doing my laundry more often.5 And romance novels. Definitely more romance novels. I am very good at those.
That isn’t the reason I’m paranoid, though. Imagine my surprise when I found out a couple weeks ago that all this time, I might have been doing it ALL WRONG for eighteen years.
I read like most people do, I think, except for some little quirks, which I will now share publicly, even though they’re kind of embarrassing:
When I get really into books I tend to forget to breathe, and then make embarrassing dying goldfish-ish gasping noises every few minutes.
In my head, every protagonist has brown or red hair. I don’t know why, but they do. And it’s probably problematic, but that is a story for another post.
I don’t read last pages first.
Which is why, after finding out inadvertently halfway through House of Mirth what happened to poor Lily, and poor Selden, and poor Gerty (oh, GOD…), I went home and wept. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for an hour. I had been reading it for class, and the next day, was soundly mocked by my friends. Evidently, they thought I should have gotten over the tragedy a little bit sooner and spent more time researching the distinctions between realism and naturalism. (Fair enough).
Obviously, I’m pretty firm on that last reading quirk. Not to suck up, but I’ll quote Justine to bolster my argument, because she said it very well, and loves House of Mirth, too:
There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the *****6 of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow.
YES. YES. YES. YES.
The trauma7 got me thinking, though—maybe I could have avoided my hour-long crying jag if I’d broken my commitment to reading quirk #3. I’ve never thought there was a right or wrong way to read. Some might be more effective for certain purposes (like skimming that aforementioned 500 pages of reading a night), but are some ways of reading objectively better than others? And if I’m a bad reader, how do I change it?
I know, deep down, that I’m not really a horrible reader, but I’m curious about it now. One of my clever grad-school friends (those, unlike laundry and naps are not myths) attempted to explain literacy studies to me, but even that branch of theory doesn’t quite answer my questions.
I’ve gotten seriously fascinated by how people read. I’ve started asking people questions about their reading quirks.8 It’s totally weird, and awesome, and funny. One of my friends reads lying down, so her arms don’t get tired. My mom only reads with socks on. Some people hear characters’ voices in their heads, some have specific narrators (with accents!). A guy I know told me he gets nervous when he doesn’t know how books end beforehand. A girl I studied abroad with sees colors in poetry. One of my neighbors has been known to pair books with wines—Emma goes very well with pinot gris, for example.
Clearly, there’s an upside to having my ending ruined,9 and to all this musing about right and wrong reading paranoia. And, since Justine was lovely enough to ask me to blog, I get to extend my new favorite question to all of you (since it’s finals week, I‘ll pretend it’s Very Serious Research): what are your reading quirks?
As some of you know I’ve been dealing with an injury that means I spend way less time at my computer. I thought I’d say a little bit more about what that means as I’ve had a few people frustrated at my not responding to them.
When I’m at my computer for my scant four hours my top priority is my novel. After that I deal with the most important email (from agent, publishers etc) after that I tackle this blog. So far that’s pretty much all I get to. Which means I am not reading anything on Twitter and I have not read any blogs in a donkey’s age.
Thus I do not know what you’ve been saying about me. I’m not ignoring you, honest. I just haven’t read it. I do not know the latest kidlit gossip (unless Scott remembers to tell me). I have not answered your lovely email to me. But I have read it and been thrilled by it. Thank you.
To summarise: if you wish me to know something email me. But know that it will take me a long time to answer. My apologies in advance.
Which leads me to answering the questions I’ve been emailed lately:
Q: How is your injury going?
A: I’m doing much better. Thank you.
Q: Does that mean you’ll be online more?
A: For the time being no. Until I’m completely healed I’m going to continue the current no-more-than-four-hours daily-on-computer-five-days-a-week regime. Aside from anything else I’m getting a lot more writing done this way.
And when I’m not at the computer I’m getting a tonne of reading done. Most of it is research for my novel but I also recently read and loved Melina Marchetta’s Piper’s Son and Jaclyn Moriarty’s Dreaming of Amelia. I have also read two awesomely great novels by Sarah Cross. (Neither published yet. Sorry. But, trust me, you’re gunna love them.) I’ve been reading the serialised version of the third book in Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, which I am also adoring. (Though I am very impatient for the next installment. Aren’t I lucky to know so many great writers who let me read their books early?) I’m also buried deep in Pluto by Naoki Urasawa. (I also love his Monster and am about to get started on 20th Century Boys.)
Q: What is this novel that’s eating all your computer time?
A: It is the 1930s novel that I have been mentioning for some time. That’s right I finally settled down and picked just one novel to work on. It’s big and sprawling and set in NYC in the early 1930s and is written in a mixture of omniscient point of view and letters.1 I haven’t had this much fun writing in ages.
Q: When will your new book be published?
A: I have no idea. I am writing the 1930s book without a contract. I’ll sell it—or, rather, my agent Jill Grinberg will—when I’ve finished the book. So your guess is as good as mine as to when that will be.
Well, okay, my guess is a lot better than yours. The book just passed the 40k mark and I haven’t even gotten up to the events in the proposal (which I wrote when we were going to sell it before I finished it). I think I’ve written about a quarter or less of the novel. I also think it may be more than one novel. But I have decided to write the entire story in one go no matter how long it is. Then and only then will it be sold. The soonest I can imagine this book being finished would be the end of this year. But that’s probably way too optimistic. Then Jill would have to sell it, then the publisher would have to find a place for it in their publishing schedule, which would be 2012 at the earliest. Again that’s a very optimistic guestimate. In short: do not hold your breath for my next novel to appear in bookshops any time soon.
Q: How has Liar been selling?
A: My Australian and USian publishers tell me Liar is selling better than any of my other books. But that’s all I know. (It hasn’t been published anywhere but Australia/NZ and USA/Canada yet. Though it has sold in a number of other countries.)
A: Wonderfully well. Thank you for asking. All the plants are in! We’ve even used some of them in cooking. (Mint, bay leaves, dill, chillis.) Being surrounded by gorgeous plants has made us both happier and we spend much time doting on them (and then eating some of them). Here is a photo for your delectation:
This is what it used to look like (Well, actually, this is what it looked like after we got the deck sanded prior to garden going in. Click here for the pre-sanded version.):
Thanks again for the lovely letters. The ones in praise of Liar are becoming more and more frequent and never fail to make my day. I’m so pleased that book has meant so much to so many readers.
That’s right, Justine goes for the most commercial angles yet again. [↩]
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).
My good friend John Scalzi believes that we authors should all own our one-star reviews. I am with him. It is good and wise to toughen up and learn to, if not love them, at least enjoy them. To this day one of my fave punter reviews ever is from the Barnes & Noble site and declares that Magic or Madness is like a bad Australian episode of Charmed. Never fails to make me giggle.
Like others, I really did want to like this book. I tried and tried to read it, but it was all nonsensical jibber-jabber. I may try again, but doubt it. It’s torture!”
“Nonsensical jibber-jabber” is now my favourite phrase of all time.
Me no could read that book good. It too slow. Me like better book. Me like Tales from the Crypt. I no think any one should read. I would not read again. If you like torture read book. If you smart spend money on beacon soda.
I’m pretty sure this one is on-purpose funny. I salute it! I too enjoy Tales from the Crypt.
It appears that the odds are against me since most people love this…I don’t even know what to call it. And that is perfectly fine we are not all a like and have a right to our own views and opinions. Nevertheless, I must speak out and let my opinon be heard even though most of you who can’t say enough about this book wouldn’t want to hear.
I am forced to read this book for my lit class and I find this book repulsive. I have never read such a novel that is completly incompetant, complete nonsence, the smallest talks of all the small talks in the world, it is about nothingness, and how several nothings trying and wanting to get married to other nothings for all the wrong reasons in the world. It is about people pretending to be inteligent and pretending to be civilized. It is a book where they compliment women as being handsome and men as being well…also handsome. It is quite contageous I might add because I find myself helplessly imatitating the language that it was written in. I am offended by every paragraph that I read. I have never felt such contemt for any work that I read. I pasionately despise this novel and I could write an entire paper on why. The 17th century English aristocracy and the way the people cary and behave themselves and think so highly of themselves and so low of anybody who is different, is offensive and without merit. You may think “that I simply don’t understand this work” well I don’t and I am not going pretend that I understand this “classic” Perhaps I am incapable of comprehending this novel. I do know however that there are a lot finer book writen in the 17th centuries and earlier and after, which are better, more meaningful then this book and are also classic but some of them are notoverated enough as much as this book is.
Tee. I can’t fault them for getting their centuries wrong. I myself am quite inumerate and am constantly reversing numbers. 17th century, 19th century. What’s the diff? Also I am a pretty poor speller myself. It would be hypocrisy of the first order were I to mock the spelling. And yet . . .
I tried to read it, but I couldn’t. I put it down at about page 100. From a fan of IMMANUEL KANT, this was too boring. Honestly, after I put it down, I had to study the Diamond Sutra and the Book of Job to get the vapid feeling out of my head. Someone on here wrote something to the effect of “as Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, so did Austen see the world in a drawing room”. To this, I’d say that there is a vast difference in seeing the world in a drawing room, and thinking that the world IS a drawing room.
*cough* I will say nothing . . .
I HATED THIS BOOK. I READ IT IN HIGH SCHOOL, ABOUT 9 YEARS AGO AND I STILL REMEMBER HOW MUCH I HATE THE PUFFY PATHETIC NARRATIVE OF WHINY WOMEN IN WANT OF HUSBANDS. It is with deep anguish that I note that there are books on how to teach this book in classes, thereby continuing the legacy of pain to innocent students of this day and age.
I FEEL YOUR PAIN. THEY MADE ME READ THE GREAT GATSBY IN HIGH SCHOOL. I STILL REMEMBER HOW MUCH I HATED THE PUFFY PATHETIC NARRATIVE ABOUT A BUNCH OF WHINY MEN IN WANT OF MONEY.1
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, is a book about the life of a girl, Elizabeth Bennet. She has five sisters and lives with her mother and father in 18th century England. The story tells of her sisters’ loves and marriages. Elizabeth’s youngest sister gets married to a man of questionable character, who happens to be the friend of the man that Elizabeth herself loves, Mr. Darcy. Of course Elizabeth’s love isn’t that simple, since she first has to hate Mr. Darcy and then blames him for everything that her sister is going through. Jane, Elizabeth’s oldest sister, falls in love with another of Darcy’s friends. All the trouble that any of Elizabeth’s not-quite-normal family has is blamed on Mr. Darcy.
Basically, the whole book is about an 18th century girl whining about her upper middle class life. Of course, at the end, she gets exactly what she wants and everyone lives happily ever after. There is credit to be given to Jane Austen, since she wrote the book in an American household in the early 1800s, with no support from any of her family. She had to hide her writing under knitting or sewing whenever someone approached. She then had a friend publish the books she wrote, without telling her husband. Considering all that, the story really isn’t that bad, but in general, if you were looking for a book by Jane Austen, Emma would be a better read. If you want a predictable love story, “Pride and Prejudice” is a good book for you.”
Bless! How foolish we all were thinking that Jane Austen was English and unmarried and her books were set and published in the 19th century.2 Amazon reviews are educational. Yes, that last review does have a most amusing comment correction thread in response.
The point being that there is no book or author that is universally loved. We all of us have our foibles and preferences, blind spots and, well, prejudices and it is through them that we perceive the world and the books in it.3
All of which makes the world a rich and interesting place. There’s room for Jane Austen haters and lovers. There’s even room for the Jane Austen indifferents.
Actually, I quite like The Great Gatsby and am a bit of an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, but it’s fun to see John Green and English teachers freak out when I say I hate it. [↩]
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.
Malinda Lo debuted in 2009 with Ash, which has made an enormous splash, getting shorlisted for gazillions of prizes and being loved by readers all over. I have heard wonderful things about it.1 I invited Malinda to be a guest blogger because I have become a big fan of her blog and I’d like to encourage more of you to read it. *hint* *hint* Also Aussie & Kiwi readers take note: Ash will be published here next week!
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Malinda Lo is the author of Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist. Published last fall in the U.S. and Canada, Ash comes out in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand on 4 March. Ash was a finalist for the ALA’s 2010 William C. Morris Award and a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2009. Her next novel, Huntress, a companion to Ash, will be published in spring 2011. She lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. Her website is www.malindalo.com.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about race and representation in young adult books. Justine’s blog has become one of the centers for that discussion, and because of that, when she asked me to guest blog I jumped at the chance to share one of my experiences of encountering race in the pages of a book.
Many of the posts about this subject have focused on the importance of publishing books about people of color so that people of color can see themselves represented in print. Reading these posts made me remember my junior year in high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me a book to read because she thought I might identify with it. I am Chinese American; the book was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, an autobiography subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts.”
She meant well, but the book made me feel like a total foreigner. I hated it.
It made me wonder: Was this the way white Americans saw my family? Did they really think that I came from a family that believed in ghosts and treated their daughters like property?
I remember being distinctly disturbed by the book, and when I decided to write this post, I went back and re-read the first chapter. In retrospect, I’m stunned that my teacher gave it to me, because that chapter alone includes sex, rape, misogyny, and suicide.
I was probably 16 years old when I read it, and while I’d like to think that my teacher thought I might be mature enough to handle the content, I wonder if it was simply the only book she knew of that involved a female Chinese American main character. I have to give her points for attempting to find me a book that mirrored my life, but the fact is, The Woman Warrior made me cringe.
It’s not that the book is poorly written. Reading through it again, I find much to enjoy in Kingston’s prose. It’s that the book seemed to have nothing to do with me or my background, and the idea that my teacher thought it did shocked me. I thought: Was this what being Chinese American was supposed to be like?
(Notably, the book has been criticized as much as it has been praised, with some Asian American writers arguing that Kingston uses Orientalist stereotypes to present an exoticized vision of Chinese America for white readers. Kingston herself has asked why she should be required to represent anyone but herself.)
I was born in China, but I moved to the U.S. with my family in 1978 when I was 3 years old. I come from a long line of intellectuals, and some of my family were persecuted for their political backgrounds by the Communist Party. In addition, my paternal grandmother was white. She was one of the few Westerners to actually live in China during the Cultural Revolution, and when she returned to the U.S., she wrote a memoir about it (In the Eye of the Typhoon by Ruth Earnshaw Lo).
Because of all this, I grew up thinking my family was special. I’m pretty sure it made me (as a teen) a bit self-important and defensive about all things related to China.
On the other hand, I also grew up as one of only four Asian American kids in my high school class. The four of us knew each other and we had overlapping friends, but we did not group together out of any shared “Asian American” identity. There were too few of us. Instead, I think we all tried to blend in as much as possible. We didn’t advertise our different cultural traditions; we didn’t speak foreign languages at school even if we did at home; we did our best to be normal—to be white.
But Woman Warrior—and the fact that my teacher gave it to me specifically—forced me to acknowledge that I was not like everyone else, and it was an awful feeling.
In high school, we have a lot of chains on our feet. The way you dress; the street you live on; the group you belong to. I didn’t want another one. I was happier ignoring the fact that other people perceived me as different.
It took many years for me to accept that other people will see me through their own preconceptions, regardless of my wishes.
I joined (and left) Asian American student groups at college. I majored in Chinese Studies, then got a master’s in East Asian Studies. I went back to China. I dated Asian Americans. I attempted to become part of the Asian American community. But I never felt like I really fit in. The ghost of Woman Warrior, I admit, has been difficult to dodge.
And then there’s the fact that I’m a lesbian. Being queer and Asian can be problematic, because many Asian American families are quite homophobic. There wasn’t much room for queerness in the Asian American community when I was coming out, and I felt as though I had to choose between identities.
Sometimes, it’s still a struggle, especially when meeting new people who only know what they see on my face. They see Asianness, but they don’t see my white ancestors. They see a feminine woman; they don’t understand how I could be gay. As recently as last fall, I’ve gotten the comment, “You speak English so well.”
For those of us who occupy the spaces between identities—because of our personalities or because we have a foot in more than one subgroup—finding representation anywhere, in any form of media, can be extremely rare. It can be tempting to hand a person a book and say, “This is where you fit in,” but in many, many cases, that won’t be true. It may end up alienating the person more than making them feel welcome.
I want to make sure to state that I wholeheartedly believe that it’s important to publish books that incorporate diverse characters and stories. In my experience, every book, TV show or film that includes difference makes a difference—even if I personally disliked it. Woman Warrior did not mirror my life, but it gave me something to reject, and that played a valuable role in the continuing evolution of my own identity.
I have always identified much more with Jo March or Anne Shirley than any of the people in Woman Warrior. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate — eventually — my teacher’s suggestion that I read the book.
After all, twenty years later, I’m still thinking about it.
Yup, Ash is on my to be read list. My reading for my 1930s book means it’s taking me a long time to get to more recent books. [↩]
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 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, Doselle Young, is not only one of my favourite people on the planet, he’s also every bit as opinionated as me. (Though frequently wrong, like his love of Madmen and Henry Miller. Ewww.) I enjoy Do holding forth on any subject at all. He’s also a talented writer of comic books, stories, movies—anything he turns his hand to. Enjoy! And do argue with him. Do loves that. Maybe it will convince him to blog more often? I’d love to hear about the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr. Fingers crossed.
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Doselle Young is a writer who hates the whole cliché about how writers ‘lie for a living.’ He thinks it’s boring, pretentious, and only meant to promote the author’s self-image as some kind of beast stalking the edges of the literary establishment. Whatever. Get over yourselves, people! Please! We’ve all gotten exceptionally lucky and you know it! When the meds are working, Doselle writes film treatments for Hollywood directors, comics like THE MONARCHY: BULLETS OVER BABYLON, the upcoming PERILOUS, and short crime stories like ‘Housework’ in the anthology The Darker Mask available from Tor Books. Read it. It’s not bad. And, after all, how often do you get to see a black woman with a ray gun? If, on the other hand, the meds aren’t working he’s probably outside your house right now planting Easter Eggs in your garden. Bad rabbit. You can follow him on twitter. He’d rather be following you, though. It’s lots more fun that way.
Before we begin, I feel there’s something I must make clear: while I write a lot, one thing I am not is a blogger.
Not that I have no respect for bloggers. Hell, some of my best friends are bloggers (and I mean that with a sincerity that borders on relentless). It’s for that reason I’ve lurked here on Justine blog pretty much since the day I met her.
This is a good place, this here blog o’ hers. A smart place and a place with personality, wit, snark, truth, and, when appropriate, outrage.
Kind of like a good local pub without the hooligans, the gut expanding calories and that obnoxious bloke at the end of the bar who smells just like the sticky stuff on the floor just outside the men’s toilet; although, there may be analogues to all those things here. It’s not my place to judge.
What I’ve noticed when trolling though the blogs of authors I know is that, as far as I can, what people fall in love with aren’t so much the personality of the authors but the personality of the blogs, themselves; the gestalt created in that grey space between the author and the audience. An extension of what happens when you read an author’s book, maybe.
And so, as I’m currently sitting here beside a roaring fire in lodge somewhere in South Lake Tahoe and bumpin’ De La Soul though a pair of oversized headphones I paid waaay too much money for, I feel a responsibility to engage with the personality that is Justine Larbalestier’s blog; which is not Justine, but of Justine, if that makes any sense.
I don’t know a lick about the sport of Cricket. Justine loves it (almost as much as she loves Scott, I suspect) so there must be something of high value in the poetry of the bat and the ball, the test match, the teams and the history; some inspiration and beauty to be found there.
The sport that makes my blood race, however, is boxing.
Yeah, that’s right, I said it: brutal and beautiful boxing. Corrupt, questionable, brain damaging, violent boxing.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing but growing up black and male in the 1970s here in the U.S. of A. meant that Muhummad Ali was practically a super hero. Hell, there was even a comic book where Ali fought freakin’ Superman and won (and, yes, I still got my copy, best believe.) Like most everyone, I loved Ali’s bravado, his braggadocio, and his genius with extemporaneous word play. All that, and Ali’s unmistakable style, in his prime it seemed that Ali’s neurons fired to the best of jazz rhythm and when he got older, jazz slowed down to the Louisiana blues tempo—a little sad and melancholy, sure, but nonetheless beautiful.
If you’re reading this, I prolly read it before you did, so, nah-nah nah-nah and half-a-bazillion raspberries to you and you and you over there in the corner with that absolutely awful Doctor Who t-shirt.
I loved Liar when I read it and loved it even more when I re-read it. I loved every question and every turn. I loved Micah and her nappy hair and would love to see her again and again. If LIAR were a woman in a bar, I would approach her slick and slow, and be proud be as hell when she took me out to the alley behind the bar and stabbed me through the heart.
In short, LIAR is a killer book and that’s all I have to say about that. Nuff said.
There is no monoculture among people of color or people, in general. Sure, there are tribes, cliques, groups, social organizations, concerns, movements, etc. and I can speak for absolutely none of them.
I can only speak personally. Will only speak personally. Could never speak anything but personally on something so emotionally charged as race and identity.
Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, “I was born a poor black child.”
For the first eleven years of my life, my favorite TV shows were super hero cartoons, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, All in The Family, M.A.S.H. Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. Even if you’re not Usian (as Justine likes to say), the U.S. exports every piece of television we have so I’m sure most of you will be aware of some of those shows, if not all of them.
I listened to Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Louis Jordan’s Jump Blues, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
Most of my friends growing up were Jewish and the most horrible acts of racism I personally experienced growing up were perpetrated by other people of color.1
All of which should be considered prologue to finding myself at last year’s World Con in Montreal sitting on yet another panel about race (as an African American author I somehow find myself on race panels even when I haven’t requested them on the programming).
I’m sitting there, halfway through a sentence, when I have an epiphany, of sorts: one of those moments where everything comes into a different kind of focus.
The truth is: I don’t have anything to say about race that I can put in a short blog post. I don’t have anything to say about my experience with race and the perception of race that I can tweet. I don’t have anything to say about race on a sixty-minute panel at a science-fiction convention.
My personal thoughts on race and identity (ethnic or otherwise) are just that: personal, and as complicated, convoluted and tweaked as the catalog of experiences that shaped them.
How about yours?
On a related note, when I requested to NOT be put on the race panel at World Fantasy 2009, I ended up on the queer panel and had a blast.
Life’s funny that way.
On the subject of Buffy The Vampire Slayer:
The show’s over, homey! You really need to move on!
On the subject of writing:
Have a life that feeds you. Lead a life that challenges you. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Research. Steal. Invent. Be brave. Be honest about what terrifies you. Be honest about your regrets. It also helps if you can spell.
On the subject of God:
Sorry. I still can’t get that jerk to answer the phone.
I’m reading Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN. The back of the paperback dubs Abbot “The Queen of Noir” and, honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Her books are violent explorations into the ruthless worlds of film noir and crime fiction, delving into the cold hearts of the grifter gals and femme fatales who, until now, have only existed at the grey edges of the genre.
If you like books like LIAR, I think you’ll like Abbott’s stuff, as well. Pick up QUEENPIN or BURY ME DEEP. You won’t be disappointed.
Another book I’m reading now is a biography: THE STRANGEST MAN – THE HIDDEN LIFE OF PAUL DIRAC, MYSTIC OF THE ATOM.
If you don’t know, Dirac was a theoretical physicist, one of Einstein’s most admired colleagues and, at the time, the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Dirac made numerous contributions to early work in quantum mechanics and was the first to predict the existence of anti-matter (the same stuff that makes The Enterprise’s engines go ‘Vroom.’) Dirac was, as you might expect, also a bit of an eccentric and a very private man who shared his tears with very few if any of the people closest to him. Written by Graham Farmelo, ‘The Strangest Man’ a meticulously researched piece that, nevertheless, maintains its focus on the often-enigmatic heart of its subject, Dirac. If you’re a science fiction fan, take a peep. After all, if a couple of social misfits hadn’t put chalk to chalkboard, we never have split that atom. Boom.
The last book on my nightstand, for the moment, is John Scalzi’s THE GOD ENGINES, published by Subterranean Press. Before I go any further, I should disclose that this book is dedicated to me but I didn’t know that until after I got a copy of the book. So, with that in mind, attend.
THE GOD ENGINES is a dramatic departure from both his Heinlein-inspired military SF and his more tongue-in-cheek material. While using SFnal tropes, the story is, at heart, a dark fantasy; one set in a world where an oppressive theocracy uses enslaved gods as the power source to drive their massive starships. Brutal, fierce and tightly laced with threads of Lovecraftian horror, this is Scalzi’s best book by leaps and bounds. I hope to see more of this kind of work from him—even if I have to beat it out of him, myself. I’m calling you out, John Scalzi. Remember, I’ve still got the whip!
Well, I guess that’s more than enough for now. Nine subjects. One post.
Guess that means the caffeine’s working.
As I said: I’m not a blogger. I have no idea how this stuff is supposed to work. I’m sure this post is way too long. I mean, I didn’t even get to address why the show Madmen doesn’t suck just cause Justine says it does; why Henry Miller looks cool standing beside a bicycle on Santa Monica Beach; The Terrible Jay-Z Problem or the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr.
Oh, well, maybe next time.
In the interim, let’s be careful out there and remember: just because its offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
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 we have one of my favourite YA lit bloggers, Ah Yuan, whose blog, GAL Novelty, should be on your blogroll if it isn’t already. I love how no-holds-barred her reviews are. Thoughtful, smart and conversation provoking. If you want to know a bit more about Ah Yuan before you read this moving post check out this interview on Reading in Color.
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Ah Yuan, also known as wingstodust, is your average Asian-Canadian female blogger tolling away as a liberal arts undergrad. When not being bogged down by school or work, she spends her spare time thinking, breathing and talking about fictional stories: anything from novels to manga to to movies to tv shows. The only thing she finds more enjoyable than a good yarn is to be able to talk about stories with others. She can be found on her book blog called GAL Novelty, her general/fandom blog on dreamwidth, and her twitter feed.
The Importance of Diversity
There’s been recent talk about race in fiction, and the predominance of a white-as-default cast in English-language novels. All in all, I’m pretty happy that we’re having this discussion because diversity in the stories I consume is very important to me. There’s the basic reason, because I believe stories that show worlds with diverse characters is just more honest, and then there’s the other reason, long-winded and messy and personal, which I tried to put into words for y’all today.
Growing up in a predominantly English-speaking part of Canada, I tried my best to seek out Asian representation in my novels. I would look for covers with East or South East Asian faces, squint at last names shown on the spine and trying to guess whether or not that this time, I’ll get lucky and find a story with a protagonist that had a physical resemblance to myself. Sometimes these methods would work, but more often than not I would turn up with absolutely nothing. The years went by and I mostly stopped trying to look for these novels. For a moment in my high school life, I ended up trying to replace my desire for East Asian faces in novels with East Asian movies and dramas, anime and manga. And I loved these shows, these comics—always will. But somewhere down the line this stopped being enough for me. I wanted more—but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, nor how am I to get what I couldn’t name.
You may find it bemusing then, wherein I hereby confess that I fail to buy into an argument I hear about ‘relate-ability’. The white audience won’t buy POC covers! White people are reluctant to read about a Protagonist of Colour because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to ‘relate’! In fact, if I must be perfectly honest, I find it quite laughable.
Because—no one would ever make the vice versa argument. No Person of Colour is ever going to go “Gee, I’m afraid I can’t read this novel because I don’t think I can relate with a white protagonist!” Relating to a white protagonist is expected, not just out for the white audience that the English-language publishers dominantly cater to, but to the rest of us POCs in the audience as well. POC are expected to relate to a white protagonist, but we can’t expect the same the other way around? Really?
At the same time, I do to a certain degree understand the whole ‘relating’ thing. As I’ve mentioned earlier on, I constantly searched and searched for a story that I can ‘relate’ to. Note that even while doing so, I was never averse to reading about characters who didn’t share my physical resemblance (If I was, the amount of novels I would have read would be an abysmally low count). Stories with non-Asian protagonists probably made up more than ¾ of what I read, even with my younger self’s dedication for Asian representation. What’s available on the library shelves influence and/or limited what I could read, after all, and I remember my elementary school shelves being predominantly whitewashed.
Then you may go, why aren’t you satisfied with your East Asian stories then? Look—Asian faces! You got what you wanted! Why are you still not happy?
See, those stories too, they don’t have room for someone like me either. My hyphenated background is as follows: Malaysian-Chinese Canadian. Tell me, can anyone think of a story with such a background for a protagonist? I’ve searched high and low and to this day I still only know one singular title (and I didn’t even enjoy that story. Representation doesn’t always equal reading enjoyment). In China my ancestors were too poor and low-class to make even a footnote in its history. In Malaysia my family is segregated by law for being ethnically Chinese. In Canada I am invisible. There is no voice for me, for my experiences.
The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese shows I love so much, they still mean something to me. They showed me that you don’t need Awesomely Coloured Eyes and have Blond or Red Hair to be beautiful. They showed me that Asians can have adventures too and be awesome, the hero of the day. But they also showed me that I don’t quite fit with this picture. Being an ethnic Chinese is different from being Japanese or Korean, and in China there is no voice for the Diaspora population. Getting Malaysian media in general is extremely challenging for me and even when I do find ones that feature Chinese-Malaysians, they may come sans subtitles and I would only half-understand the story with my garbled, faint understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin, never mind other Chinese dialects or Malay itself. The day Canada uses a POC protagonists, never mind even just Chinese-Canadian protagonists, in their narratives, is the day hell freezes over and the dead decides to come back to the living. And even with stories that do have the hyphenate identity of being a Chinese-American doesn’t quite hold. A Chinese-American is similar but NOT the same as a Chinese-Canadian, and a Chinese immigrant who came from the Mainland is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Hong Kong is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnan . . .
I’ve stopped holding my breath for characters that will be representative of my heritage. In my entire lifetime I do not expect to come across any more such protagonists and/or stories than what I can count on one hand.
There is no voice for someone like me, but I thought and thought about it, and a few years back I realized that all I really wanted was a story that said it was okay to have a diverse population. That everyone around you didn’t have to come from the same monolith culture in order to have a story to tell. Stories in English language novels that have a white default, stories in Japanese/Korean/Chinese shows that show a monolith culture, all these stories don’t have room for me in them. But a story that features and even stars a character that isn’t part of the dominant race default, wherein minorities of the country have a voice, that’s a kind of world wherein I have a possibility of existing. I am not saying that I read diverse books in order to find a Malaysian-Chinese Canadian within it, because I’ve long since stopped believing in such a story. What I am saying is that in stories that show a world wherein marginal voices are given centre stage and deemed worthy of a story, I as a jumble of hyphenates, a marginal group in every country my family have ever been part of, can have room to dream. I, in this world, can only carve out a space for myself as myself in a world that acknowledges the existence of people that don’t fit in the dominant fold. A diverse population is the only place wherein I as a marginal voice can exist, and that is why stories that reflect such diversity is important to me.
And I guess, this is the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it means to ‘relate’ to a world that is reflective of my own.
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 YA lit bloggers.
First up we have a fellow Australian, Tansy Rayner Roberts, who’s not only a fine fiction writer, but her reviews and blogging skills are second to none. After reading this post I was overcome with the urge to curl up with a good book.
Tansy is the author of the Creature Court trilogy (HarperCollins Voyager, beginning June 2010) and Siren Beat (Twelfth Planet Press). She can be found on Twitter as @tansyrr and blogs on her own website as well as the Last Short Story project and Ripping Ozzie Reads. Tansy lives in Tasmania with her partner and two young daughters, and has a doctorate in Classics.
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Reading as a Luxury
I haven’t been reading enough lately. (I read all the time, emails, blogs, gchat, ymail, webzines, short stories for review, facebook, twitter, even my daughter prefers an ipod app to a bedtime story some nights.) I can tell I haven’t been reading enough actual books, though, because the to-read shelf is starting to call out to me in a mournful voice.
Poor dear, how it suffers.
A chapter here and there is not satisfying me or the shelf. I need to swamp myself in a papery thing, possibly several papery things back to back, to immerse myself in medicinal literature by the kilo. (I need. To put. The damn. Laptop down. Though not before current writing deadlines are met, obviously]
Talking to Girlie Jones (aka Twelfth Planet Press publisher Alisa Krasnostein) recently about A Book of Endings, I realised that while I had read all the new stories Deb Biancotti wrote for the collection, I had done so in pdf form (I read over 650 short stories for review in e-format last year) and I’d never actually sat down to read the collection properly, beginning to end, the reprint stories mixed in with the new. (The book, in fact, is still wrapped in bubble wrap from when GJ posted it to me) I knew the new stories all blended nicely together, but I wasn’t even sure I had read them in the right order. I wanted the real, genuine experience of sitting down and reading them all properly. I knew how much work Deb and her editors had put into it, and I wanted the full effect.
Only my head went directly from ‘I must read that book’ to this place: ooh, some time Very Soon I will lie on the couch with a box of chocolates, possibly wearing a floaty 1940′s sort of sun dress, and I will consume the delicious and ever so pretty book slowly and voraciously, as nature intended prose to be consumed.
I do love my imagination, it is cruel but creative.
(To unpack the above: my five year old would eat the chocolates or beg more than half of them off me so I’d never buy them in the first place to eat in front of her, and besides the whole chocolate-eating-while-reading thing doesn’t work for me, I can manage a maximum of four before the sugar hits and I start craving something savoury like a vegemite sandwich or gravy, and that’s just not as poetic. Also, I don’t own that dress, or anything like it, well maybe one but it’s pushing it stylewise and there are moth holes in it. Also, every single time in the last three months I have lain on the couch to read a book, I have ended up napping rather than reading, because sleep is another one of those old necessities that now counts as a luxury, did I mention I had a six month old baby?)
Reading is many things to me. It’s a professional necessity, it’s a tool, it’s being part of a community. It’s a sanity-inducing moment of relief from my life of juggling demanding children and an at-times-more-demanding laptop. It’s an escape from technology, and being plugged in. It’s recreation. It’s a distraction. It’s a project, or a task to be completed.
Somewhere along the way, though, it has become a luxury. Something I promise myself, if I just – finish – those – fifteen – tasks – first. On the rare occasions during the week that I do get to read something other than Gossip Girl novels (which are lightweight enough in all senses of the word to be consumed while breastfeeding my baby and thus hardly count as reading at all) I have somehow lost the ability to say ‘yes this is something I need to do’ and so I barely get in a guilty twenty minutes or so to read a chapter before going to do something else.
Books I really really want to read, books I was so excited about that I pre-ordered them to get them early, are lying around unread, or partially read, stacking up against the walls and the chairs. Luxury, my brain tells me. Not now, my brain tells me.
I’m beginning to suspect that my brain and I are not on the same page.
Reading Going Bovine in January, a chapter or two from the end and deathly afraid for the protagonist (as well as my own nerve) I found myself caught between needing to finish a book right now and, you know, getting my five year old off to bed on time, reading her a story, tagging my honey (or vice versa) to do the same.
The book won. For the first time in a very long time. And it felt awesome.
I admit the practicality of the e-book future that is hurtling towards us, and I even welcome it in theory, but I also rail against it. My hardwired memory of books is not just about the words and ideas, it’s about the whole product. The grey cloth cover of Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, so beautiful that I could not leave it in the bookshop, not for one second longer. My beaten up old orange penguin copy of A Room with a View, and my brand new leather bound edition of the same. Purchasing battered, matching antique green hardbacks of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a nine-year-old child, long before I knew that I would love one and hate the other. Every cover on every David Eddings novel I ever bought with my own money as a teenager (possibly I was supposed to buy clothes). Leaving Terry Pratchett hardcover sleeves randomly around the house like fallen apple peelings. The flop. The spines. The end papers. The mysterious blank pages at the end of all my Famous Five novels as a child, which I treated as spare paper, drawing tiny graphic novels to myself. Mysterious inscriptions in second hand books. (To Buster, from Rupert. Is it really from Rupert? Rupert Bear? Why was Rupert Bear giving a book to Buster? Was Rupert temping for Santa that year?)
My reading time is already at such a premium. I compromise my preferred book principles in dozens of tiny guilt-ridden ways, purchasing mostly online (though no longer Amazon) because it’s hard to leave the house, picking up books from Places Which Are Not Cool Indie Bookshops because they’re there, or they’re cheap or, you know, they’re books. However awesome it might be to have an electronic device with several hundred marvellous books packed and ready for next time I go on holiday or have time to read for a whole year with no interruptions (hahahaha that would be twenty-never) it’s just another to read shelf, really. A bigger one, that might make it easier to hide extravagant literary purchases from my honey. And no good could come of that.
(“Honestly, that 100 volume set of 1920′s murder mysteries was on special!”)
First a confession: I love Sir Kingsley Amis. That’s why the heading of this post says “Kingsley & I” rather than “Kingsley & me” (which is my preference cause I reckon it sounds better) but not old Kingsley, he was a sucker for good grammar.1 I does not wish to offend him.2
I love Kingsley Amis for so many reasons. Because he’s dead funny, because he wrote in pretty much every genre, and because his main writing concerns were story and characterisation. Thus one of my favourite anecdotes about him goes like this:
Kingsley Amis is listening to a radio interview with his son Martin Amis, in which Amis Junior says of his latest novel that it really must be read twice in order to be fully appreciated. At which point Amis Senior says, “Well, then he’s buggered it up, hasn’t he?”
Too right. In case you’re worried about animosity between father and son, by all accounts they got on well, and there was much affection between them. They just had very different outlooks on writing. It happens.
I first came across Sir Kingsley when I was researching my PhD thesis on science fiction. His New Maps of Hell from 1960 was by far the wittiest, smartest, and most enjoyable book on science fiction I came across.3 That it was written by an established non-genre writer was astounding. It’s hard in these oh-so-much-more-tolerant days to convey just how much contempt was felt by the literati for us lowly genre writers. Why, back then even crime fiction (which Amis also loved) carried a stigma. But Kingsley Amis cared not a jot and wrote whatever he pleased: mysteries, science fiction, books about James Bond. I would love him for this alone.
Like me, he had an opinion on pretty much everything.4 (Though, um, his would only rarely, if ever, line up with mine.) In fact, I think he would have made a fabulous blogger. His non-fiction writing, espcially in newspapers, is chatty, unpretentious and instantly disarming:
Only one reader by her own account a hotelier and Tory [conservative] activist who’s also been a probation officer, took serious issue with me. “Your writing,” she stated, “is getting more and more biased and entrenched in reactionary fuddy-duddyism.” An excellent summing-up, I thought, of my contribution to the eighties’ cultural scene.
The quote comes from his writing on booze. Sir Kingsley was a boozer. He wrote three books on the subject, which are now handily collected in the one volume, Everyday Drinking, The Distilled Kingsley Amis. It’s wonderful and I say this as someone who pretty much disagrees with every word.
Sir Kingsley Amis’ drinks of choice were spirits and beer. He also had an inordinate fondness for cocktails and the book includes many recipes, including one for a Lucky Jim.5 I am a wine drinker,6 with little taste for cocktails, spirits or beer. Kingsley loved gin. I loathe it. Kingsley considered the Piña Colada a “disgusting concoction” and an “atrocity.” I love a properly made piña with fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut milk and cream, and a dash of dark rum. Though really I just love coconut and pineapple—I’d happily skip the rum. He also considered combining beer and limes to be an “exit application from the human race” whereas I consider lime to be the only thing that makes most beer even vaguely palatable.
I also adore the French white wines he hates the most:
But the dry ones are mostly too dry to suit me, whether with food or solo. That’s if dry is the right word. I mean more than the absence of sweetness—I mean the quality that makes the saliva spurt into my mouth as soon as the wine arrives there. Perhaps I mean what wine experts call crispness or fintiness or even acidity, which for some mysterious reason they think is a good thing in wine. But whatever you call it, I don’t want it. Chablis, the average white Mâcon, Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé—not today, thank you.
That’s fine, Kingsley. I’ll drink them!7 Well, not the average ones. Only the best, please!
He has scathing things to say about the Irish. Doesn’t think they could possibly have invented the process of making whiskey.8 Boo, Kingsley! Some of my best friends are Irish. Snobby, pommy bastard, you!9
So what was I doing reading a book I kept yelling “boo” at? Have I mentioned how funny Kingsley is? Here he is discussing the essentials for a good home bar kit:
1. A refrigerator. All to yourself, I mean. There is really no way around this. Wives and such are constantly filling any refigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubblish like food.
8. A really very sharp knife. (If you want to finish the evening with your usual number of fingers, do any cutting-up, peel-slicing and the like before you have more than a couple of drinks, perferably before your first.)
Oh, Kingsley! How did you cope with those pesky wives and such?10 And food, irrelevant? My heart is so sad for you. I will go eat a nectarine. *gobbles* Ah, better.
Then once he’s given you his list of ten essentials he tells you what he ommitted:
Half the point of the above list is what it leaves out. The most important and controversial of your non-needs is a cocktail shaker. With all respect to James Bond, a martini should be stirred, not shaken. The case is a little different with drinks that include the heavier fruit-juices and liqueurs, but I have always found that an extra minute’s stirring does the trick well enough. The only mixture that does genuinely need shaking is one containing eggs, and if that is your sort of thing, then clear off and buy youself a shaker any time you fancy. The trouble with the things is that they are messy pourers and, much more important, they are far too small, holding half a dozen drinks at the outside. A shaker about the size of a hatbox might be worth pondering, but I have never seen or heard of such.
I am now trying to imagine operating a hatbox-sized cocktail shaker. Maybe if Yao Ming was the bartender? Which, oddly enough, is something I would like to see.
I also greatly enjoyed his instructions for making sugar syrup (simple syrup):
A bottle of sugar syrup, a preperation continually called for in mixed-drink books. To have a supply of it will save you a lot of time. . . Concoct it yourself by the following simple method:
Down a stiff drink and keep another by you to see you through the ordeal. . . [instructions] Your bottleful will last for months, and you will have been constantly patting yourself on the back for your wisdom and far-sightedness.
Reading Kingsley on booze is like reading novels from the 1930s-1950s. The adults are drinking all the time. With breakfast, lunch, before dinner, during dinner, after dinner, before bed (night cap!). Was anyone ever sober? It is a miracle that anything at all was achieved in those decades in the US, UK or Australia.11
Sir Kingsley sadly discusses the growing ubiquitousness of wine. But I can’t help thinking that the largely lower alcoholic content of wine (lower than spirits and cocktails anyways) combined with the prevelance of it being drunk with food, is a good thing. Wine cultures tend not to have as much alcoholism as, say, vodka cultures. Compare and contrast France with Russia.
Kingsley explains his own lack of wine appreciation12 thus:
Now we reach the point at which my credentials become slightly less than impeccable. With all those drinks I have got through, what I have not done is drink first-rate table wines at their place of origin, work my way through classic vintages and develop an educated palate. To do that, what you really need, shorn of the talk, is a rich father, and I missed it.
I missed that one, too, Sir Kingsley. But I’ve muddled along okay without. I may not know much about the very best Bourdeaux but I does know which wines I like, you know, like a good Pouilly-Fume. Or “pooey fumes” as me and my classy friends call it.
Anyways, bless you, Sir Kingsley Amis, for poking fun at yourself, at wine and booze, and almost everything else. For your classy deployment of sarcasm, irony, and out-and-out wit. Tonight I will raise a glass of the wine you hated most in your honour.13
He would be appalled by my grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills. Or lack thereof. Sorry, Kingsley. [↩]
Though I do feel free to use his first name. I guess I’ve been reading him for so long I feel that we are now mates. A very safe feeling what with him being dead and all. [↩]
I disagreed with much of it, but that’s neither here nor there. [↩]
Toilet paper goes over the roll, people, not under! [↩]
Many people believe that Amis’ Lucky Jim was one of the funniest British novels of the 20th century. I’d definitely put it up there with Cold Comfort Farm. [↩]
I mean if I were a drinker that’s what I would drink. Though obviously as as writer of YA I don’t drink. So clearly everything in this post is on the hypothetical side. [↩]
Er, in my mind, I will. Not in real life. YA writer. [↩]
There’s a wonderful project out in the blogosphere to sing the praises of YA that has flown below the radar and not gotten the attention of, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Books, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, or my own Scott’s Uglies books. I think it’s a wonderful idea. All hail Kelly for coming up with it.
I was unfamiliar with about half of the books recommended on these unsung lists, which to me means the lists are doing their job.1 Many of the book descriptions sound irresistable. So my list of books to read just expanded. Again. To which I can only say, excellent!
Some of the comments about these lists, however, got me thinking on the differences between how authors and readers think about success. Some folks wondered if such & such a book counted as unsung because it had won an award or because the author’s other books are so popular. We authors tend to measure our books’ popularity in terms of sales. We know what our sales are because once every six months (typically) we get royalty statements. Thus we know all too well how little impact most awards have on sales. This makes us painfully aware of which of our books has sold the least. So, yes, we think books can be unsung even if they’ve won awards, been critically acclaimed, and all our other books are the bestsellingest books in the universe.2
Those outside the industry don’t have access to sales figures, so they’re mostly judging popularity by how often they hear about a book, by how big the piles of it are in a bookshop, and in this case by how many people have it on LibraryThing. Before I became part of this crazy industry, I paid zero attention to bestseller lists. The only way I knew if a book was bestselling was if that fact was trumpeted on the front of the book. I guess I would have assumed that Stephen King and Colleen McCullough were bestsellers, but I didn’t really know for sure.
It’s amazing how different my relationship to books is now that I’m an author. These days I keep an eye on the big bestseller lists, which is why I was suprised to see Lisa McMann’s Wake listed as unsung. It’s a NYT bestseller. But I suspect the only people who consciously track whether a book is a bestseller or not are the authors and the people in publishing.
The other thing I noticed were comments about how hyped a book was. One book I’ve seen talked about as overhyped I happen to know has been selling poorly. The correlation between being talked about online and sales is not one to one. Not even close. Some bestsellers seem to barely get a mention online, some poor sellers are talked about all over the internets. I’ve seen Liar described as a bestseller because of all the online talk. It’s not. Trust me, if Liar were a bestseller or even close to being one, I would know.
We authors have a very different relationship to our books than readers do. Which is why some of us have had odd reactions to being called unsung or sung. For example, when I saw that How To Ditch Your Fairy was on an unsung YA list my first reaction went pretty much like this: “Unsung! HTDYF‘s my bestselling book so far!3 It sold more in six months than Magic or Madness sold in hardcover in almost five years!” I know that compared to actual bestselling books HTDYF‘s sales are as a grain of sand, but for me they’re large and happy making.
My second reaction was to be dead pleased that the blogger in question had such lovely things to say about HTDYF, which, while it has sold better than my other books has had the least positive critical attention.4 Poor lamb. *pets How to Ditch Your Fairy* Though, truly she’d rather have the sales than good reviews.5 You can’t eat good reviews.6
What are sales after all but a reflection of how many readers a book has? The more sales, the more readers. Every author wants to be read as widely as possible. And every reader wants the same for their favourite books so they have more people to talk about them with. (I speak as both author and reader.) Isn’t the whole point of the unsung books meme to get more people reading and talking about these books?
But even my least-read books have their fans. I treasure the letters written to me about those books every bit as much as I do the letters about HTDYF. I treasure the letters from readers for whom my books have had a real impact even more. The ones who tell me that my book showed them they weren’t alone, that there’s hope, that my book got them through a family crisis, the loss of someone they loved. Because that is what so many books have done for me over the years. That is the real point of being a published author, even if my books have that impact on just a handful of people. It’s so worth it.
Quite a few of the ones I’d heard of I hadn’t read so the lists will probably kick me into actually reading them. [↩]
Not that I know for sure on that last one seeing as how I’ve never had a bestseller. One day . . . [↩]
This does not include Liar. The earliest I’ll know how it’s doing will be my second royalty statement of this year. Due in October. [↩]
Which has kind of led me to wonder if there’s an inverse correlation between the two. [↩]
Gloating is wrong, I know, but I can’t help myself. I have the new Megan Whalen Turner book to read and you don’t! Mwahahahahaha.
I shall read it immediately. But I won’t tell you a thing because the book isn’t out until the end of March and I know you all hate spoilers as much as I do. So, yes, I will kill anyone who spoils it in the comments.
My romance reading project continues and I realise that I haven’t explained what the project is. Very remiss of me! A few of the many books I’m writing at the moment are romances. I’m using that term very broadly to mean not just the publishing genre, but pretty much any book in which the romance between two or more characters is a big part of the overall story. To put it in fandom terms, I guess I’m talking about the kinds of stories that lend themselves to shipping.
For a long while now I’ve been aware that writing romance is not my strong point. While I love many of them as a reader, somehow I’m not quite able to write that magic myself. So I decided to school myself in the ways of good romance writing. Which involves me reading and thinking about my favourite romances, like those by Jane Austen. And now I am on to the marvellous Margaret Mahy, who, along with Diana Wynne Jones, is my favourite YA writer. They’re two of my faves across any genre. Unusual, awkward but beautiful romances are Mahy’s specialty. I heart them.
Now I can assume that most people have read all of Jane Austen’s novels or at least seen the movies and so know the plots.1 But I can’t make such an assumption with Margaret Mahy’s oeuvre. Although she is one of the most influential YA writers of all time, there are still an astonishing number of mad keen YA readers and writers who don’t know her work. Seriously, people, you need to fix that. If you have not read Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynne Jones than there’s a ginormous hole in your understanding of the genre.
Okay, I’m off the soap box now. But if you have not read The Changeover (1984) you need to go away now. I am about to spoil you something rotten.
Every time I re-read one of Mahy’s books I’m struck all over again by what a gorgeous writer she is and I decide that whichever book I’m re-reading is my fave. But The Changeover really is my favourite. The family life is so vivid and real. The Chant family reminds me of many families I’ve known even a little bit of my own. All of Mahy’s characters are vivid and real. The relationship between Laura Chant and her single working mum, Kate, is perfectly drawn as is the relationship between Laura and her wee brother, Jacko, whose magically induced illness is at the heart of the book. And it’s funny. Mahy’s wit is sly and clever and warm. Oh, and scary and chilling. The moment when the evil Carmody Braque stamps poor Jacko is creepy as hell.
But I’m here to talk about Laura Chant and Sorenson (Sorry) Carlisle. I mentioned in my comments on Persuasion that one of the things I love so much about Anne & Wentworth is that they are equals. What about Laura & Sorry. For starters Sorry is 18 and Laura 14. He’s a knowledgeable witch from a family of them. Laura’s only just discovering her powers. Her decision to become a witch is one of the changeovers referred to by the title. So he’s older, more knowledgeable, and possibly wiser. (Though only in some areas). He’s also broken and Laura is not. One of the more moving changeovers is Sorry’s gradual transformation into someone who can feel again.
I also love that The Changeover is all getting-to-know-you romantic tension. You see them falling for each other, but Laura and Sorry do not get together at the end of the book. At the end Sorry goes off to work with wildlife and Laura continues on at school. Which, well, good. She’s fourteen! She can settle down later, say in ten or twenty years time. Most of us do not meet our one true love when we are fourteen.2
Together forever or not, Laura & Sorry are one of my favourite YA couples. Up there with Sophie & Howl.
So what do I take away from this re-read? Nothing particularly new. Just more confirmation that for this reader a romance only truly works if the characters are warmly and convincingly written. I need to know and care about them to care about them in order to care about their love life. I also need to see and believe that they would fall for each other and that it’s more than physical desire. (Northanger Abbey did not work for me on that front.)
What’s your take on Laura & Sorry?
Though, people, seeing any of the movies—even the good ones without Gwyneth Paltrow in them—is NOT the same as reading the books. [↩]
Actually, most of us never meet them. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true. [↩]
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.
All writers fear they are a bit crazy. Some of them are. Obviously, I am at the hardly-crazy-at-all end of the crazy-writer scale, most other writers are much loopier than me. While that is clearly a fact, I confess that I have my moments of doubt. I have found just the cure for those moments of doubt: Patricia Highsmith.
I am reading the new bio, The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar. Oh my. Oh wow. Oh Elvis. Highsmith redefines the crazy end of the crazy-writer scale. I have a million different responses to this book, but one is relief. Cause no matter how crazy I might (rarely) fear I am, Miss Highsmith will always be much much much much worse. Because she’s not just crazy, she’s mean crazy. She’s curse-out-everyone-at-your-favourite-restaurant crazy. Throw-a-dead-rat-in-your-room crazy. You know, not even slightly charmingly eccentric.
*Heh hem* I must get back to it. Best bio I’ve read in ages. So glad I never ever met Highsmith.
But, yeah, if you’re feeling loopy, read this bio. You’ll feel much much better.
Some of the people who enjoyed Liar have started telling me that they want to read something else like it. I’m not sure what to tell them. I can’t recommend one of my other novels because they bear no resemblance to Liar and readers would just be disappointed.
Here are three novels that people have compared to Liar:
Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly. This is hugely flattering. Softly is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I think Liar has some of the emotional intensity of Softly and it shares an NYC setting—with Central Park playing a key role in both novels. If Liar evokes New York City even half as well, then I’ve done a bang up job, haven’t I? This book will not satisfy the urge to battle with an unreliable narrator, however. Though it will gut you.
Roger Cormier’s I am the Cheese. If I have read this it was so very long ago that I don’t remember it. Maybe someone will say what the points of similarity are in the comments? NO SPOILERS.
John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. Again I haven’t read it. All I know is that it features not one, but two, unreliable narrators. I can tell you, though, that the Marsden books I have read I’ve liked a lot.
Anyone got any other suggestions for Liar read alikes? Thank you!
I recently tweeted a really interesting review of Leviathan by Tansy Rayner Roberts. It’s my favourite review so far partly because she puts into words something Scott and I have been noticing:
I find it interesting that so many people are talking about this as the latest Scott Westerfeld novel without really acknowledging that this is such a departure from his more recent work. I would not be surprised if some of the audience for the Uglies and Midnighters and Peeps books (at least the teenagers) were less interested in this new series, even as Leviathan draws in an entirely new generation of readers. It’s always interesting to see an author whose work you admire move on to pastures new.
Note: she’s NOT saying that teens aren’t reading Leviathan, she’s just saying that some of the teen fans of Scott’s other YA books will be less interested in the new series. But that a whole new audience will be.
This is exactly what we’ve been finding. Especially amongst the hardcore Uglies fans. Many of whom won’t read any of Scott’s books other than the Uglies books. Here’s a conversation Scott had at almost every stop on his recent tour:
Fan: OMG! I love the Uglies books SO MUCH. You are my favourite writer in the entire world! *hands Scott multiple editions of every Uglies book to be signed plus extra copies to be signed for friends*
Scott: Thank you! So many Uglies books. Amazing!
Fan: When will you be writing a new book? I can’t wait for the next one!
Scott: Well, I’m on tour for a new book. *points to giant stack of Leviathan*
Fan: *looks at Scott blankly*
Scott: Leviathan is my new book.
Fan: Um, when will there be a new Uglies book?
Now, Scott has plenty of fans who read every single book he writes. There are even a few who’ve tracked down his very first publications: kids books about Watergate and the Berlin Airlift. And a few more who are proud owners of Scott’s choose-your-own-adventure Powerpuff Girl books. However, there are a substantial group who are not Westerfans per se, but fans of only one of his series.1 Especially when it comes to the Uglies books.
Now, this is not at all uncommon. There are plenty of Dorothy Dunnett fanatics who only read her Lymond books and have zero interest in the others, Scalzi fans who only like the Old Mans War books, McCaffrey fans who ditto the Pern books and so on. I myself am a Georgette Heyer fan who only likes her regency romances. I won’t touch her straight historicals or detective fiction with a barge pole. So I totally get it.
It is, in fact, a small percentage of readers who will follow a prolific and diverse writer throughout their career and read all their books. This is true even for writers like Stephen King. Plenty of his readers read only the novels and ignore the short stories and non-fiction.
I frequently describe myself as a huge Margeret Mahy and Diana Wynne Jones fan. Yet I have not read all their books. Most, but not all. There are fans and then there are fans.
What’s been so interesting about Leviathan is that it seems like the same percentage of Uglies fans that didn’t pick up Midnighters or the three New York books2 are also not picking up Leviathan. The difference is that a whole bunch of folks who never really heard of Scott before are picking it up in their place. Leviathan really does seem to have brought Scott a whole new audience.
Broadly, we’re noticing way more boy readers than before and a much wider age spread: from eight year olds up through eighty year olds. Scott toured with Sarah Rees Brennnan, Robin Wasserman, Holly Black and Cassie Clare. At pretty much every event, boyfriends of these other authors’ fans, who had come along in a suffering kind of way, saw Scott’s presentation and wound up buying Leviathan, stunned that something could possibly interest them at such an event. Leviathan has also drawn in two specific groups who’ve had little interest in Scott’s books previously:
Obviously there’s a big overlap between those two groups. But it’s been fascinating to watch the audience of his tour events change. Scott’s always had people coming along dressed up like Tally or Shay or other characters from his books, but this tour he had people showing up in full on steampunk garb. Fabulous. So far pretty much all the steampunkers are dressing in a generic steampunk way. I’m hoping that will change for his 2010 tour. I can’t wait to see the first person showing up dressed like Derryn or Alek.
Now before any of you jump into the comments and say “I’m a bloke! I love military history and steampunk and I’ve ALWAYS read Scott’s books!” I’m not saying you don’t exist, I’m just saying that before Leviathan you were only a teeny tiny slice of Scott’s audience. Now, you’ve got lots more company. Enjoy! We sure are.
There are adult readers who’ve only read The Risen Empire and have no intention of ever touching that smelly YA stuff. [↩]
So Yesterday, Peeps & The Last Days. All three books are set in the same world, by the way. It’s just that Hunter (of So Yesterday) is totally unaware of all the vampires running around. See how the world of products and advertising distracts you from what’s really important? Let that be a lesson for you. [↩]
I started to respond to comments on the last post and realised it was turning into it’s own post. So, um, here it is.
Reading all your responses has crystallised something for me that I’ve been thinking for a long time: That there’s a gap between my expectations as a reader and what I do as a writer. The reader me desperately wanted a good ending1 for Lily Bart in House of Mirth and was furious with Edith Wharton for all the misery. Why, Wharton, why?!
The writer me though is unmoved by such readerly desires. I write the books the way they have to be writ. They have their own logic and I cannot force them to go where they don’t want to go. Trust me, I tried to force Magic’s Child to go in the direction I had planned for it. Wound up having to rewrite that ending a kajillion times until finally it was somewhere near where it was supposed to be. Yes, some readers are unhappy with it. Whatcha gunna do?
It fascinates me that, on the one hand, I can be angry with a writer for breaking my heart while, on the other hand, I’m more than happy to break readers’ hearts with some of my own stories and novels.
As a reader I would like to go back in time and force Edith Wharton to make it better for Lily Bart. Kind of a la Stephen King’s Misery. But, you know, without kidnapping or breaking ankles. But were I her I would tell me where to go. It’s not her fault I was under the misapprehension that she was the USA’s Jane Austen. Wharton wrote the best book she could with the ending that made sense given the world and characters she had created. My desire for the ending to be Pollyanna’d is my problem, not hers.
As a writer, nothing will convince me that we owe our readers anything other than the very best books we can write. And, we’ll be the judges of that, thank you very much.
As a reader, who just read a book she was not in the right space for, I think all you smelly writers can go rot in hell.
Yeah, sometimes it’s confusing to be me.
Thanks, so much for the wonderful comments on happy endings. It was lovely to see such a diversity of views.
That good ending does not include Lily winding up with that spineless loser Selden, by the way. [↩]
I recently read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and I was gutted. Unlike, most USians, who’ve at least some inkling of what to expect from a Wharton book I had zero expectations or, rather, zero correct expectations. Wharton is not nearly so well known here as she is in her native country. Those Aussies who do know Wharton tend to know her from the Hollywood adaptations of her novels. I have managed to see none of them. So, I went in to the House of Mirth blind, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let me tell you: There was NO mirth.
I also went in kind of expecting her to be the USA’s Jane Austen. I have no idea why. It was a wrong expectation. For starters there was no happy ending. It was the bleakest most horrible ending imaginable. And the awfulness started about half way through the book, which is when I first started weeping. But it kept getting worse. And worse and even worse. Until it had the worst ending of all time and I was crying so hard snot was pouring out of my nose.
Thanks a bunch, Edith Wharton! If you weren’t already dead . . .
Have I mentioned that it’s a wonderful book? That Wharton is a brilliant writer? That Lily Bart’s dilemma is what ties her to Jane Austen? For there is a connection even across an ocean and nearly a century: their books are about the same matter: what are the options for women of a certain class? Women who are expected to marry “well”?
Marriage, or dependence on relatives, or ruin, or attempting to work at crappy jobs despite never being trained to be anything but ornamental. It’s grim. And Wharton shows just how grim.
I will definitely be reading more Wharton but I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Miserable endings are difficult. And I say that as someone whose has many favourite books that do not end at all well1 I have to steel myself to read them or I have to be in the mood for a good cry.
There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the death of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow. Even though it’s not real. Movies, theatre and television never affect me so badly.2 But there’s something about the intimacy and privacy of reading that increases the emotional impact of a story.
Which is why I understand those readers who won’t read books with unhappy endings. I am in total sympathy with the need for reading that doesn’t take you to a scary, uncomfortable, or painful place. I was not quite in the right place for House of Mirth. I imagine it will be some time before I am brave enough to read it again.
How about youse lot? How many of you need a happy ending? Do any of you read the end first to see if it’s safe?
To be expected when two of your favourite writers are Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys. [↩]
Though they all make me cry on occasion. I am a massive sook. [↩]
Well, that was pure unalloyed pleasure. Though I wish I’d written this post immediately after finishing Persuasion, rather than now, when I’m still in post traumatic stress from having just read House of Mirth for the first time.1
Heh hem. Persuasion. Love it. Remains my favourite Jane Austen. With Pride & Prejudice only slightly behind. As I’m doing all this (re)reading in order to think about romance and heroines let’s start there.
The Romance: This books seethes. It’s full of glances, almost everything between Anne & Wentworth is unspoken. Until they get to Bath that is, which doesn’t happen until at least two thirds into the book. The scene where Wentworth writes his passionate letter remains one of my favourites in any book ever. I first read Anne’s speech as a littlie but I still hug it to my chest. Here’s a fave bit:
“If you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
I love that Wentworth is not of noble birth. I love that Anne learns that who you are is much more important than what you were born. Though it does seem she never cared about birth or status because she was more than happy to marry Wentworth at 19. It was smelly Lady Russell who talked her out of it. I like to think that Russell learns at the end of the book that you can be born a prince and still be a vulgar moron, like Anne Elliot’s father, but I find myself not entirely believing it. She’s just a bit too smug and satisfied by her own opinions for my liking. Yet unlike Sir Walter or Anne’s sisters she’s smart so there’s less excuse for it.
One thing I was struck by in this read was Jane Austen’s critique of the artificial means by which romances keep their lovers apart. At the time I’m not sure it was the staple of romance that is now.2 But I can’t tell you how many Romances I’ve read or romcoms I’ve watched where the stupid misunderstanding/transparent lie by “best friend”/missdelivered letter/whatever that has kept the lovers apart is tissue thin and unbelievable. In Persuasion I believe it. Yet here is Wentworth realising they could have been together sooner:
“But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”
“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.
I can’t help reading that as a swipe at all the dumb misunderstandings that are used over and over that could be so simply resolved. But, of course, in Persuasion Wentworth’s reasons for not trying to reconcile sooner are perfectly clear: He thinks his chances are zero. The Elliots and Lady Russell were perfectly vile. They persuaded the love of his life to dump his arse. And BEING DUMPED? It takes a while to recover. Only the Mr Collineses of the world keep on trying and that’s only because they don’t get they’ve been dumped. As soon as they do they’re off with the nearest Charlotte.
I love Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. I love that it’s agony to them when they are not able to speak and when they are at last, the words come gushing out. There is so much to share, so much to tell that only the other would understand. I love Anne’s restraint and well, manliness. And Wentworth’s womanly passion. It’s he that’s always trembling with emotion, not Anne. LOVE THAT.
I’d also forgotten how funny Persuasion is, you know, in between the seething passion. This bit where Sir Elliot is unhappy with the women and men of Bath cracks me up. Tell me you haven’t known someone like this:
“He hoped she might make some amends for the many very plain faces he was continually passing in the streets. The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of. But still, there certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced. He had never walked anywhere arm-in-arm with Colonel Wallis (who was a fine military figure, though sandy-haired) without observing that every woman’s eye was upon him; every woman’s eye was sure to be upon Colonel Wallis.” Modest Sir Walter! He was not allowed to escape, however. His daughter and Mrs Clay united in hinting that Colonel Wallis’s companion might have as good a figure as Colonel Wallis, and certainly was not sandy-haired.
I know that’s a long quote but I could not resist. Modest Sir Walter, indeed.
In conclusion: Persuasion rocks out loud. And if I ever write a romantic heroine as strong and principled and honourable yet not boring or annoying as Anne Elliot then I will die a very happy writer. Persuasion is an incredible contrast with House of Mirth. Both Anne and Lily Bart’s existence are constrained by expectations of their class and sex. Anne cannot sail off to sea to make her fortune without forfeiting everything. And Lily can be disgraced as a whore, while still a virgin. I ached for both of them. My compassion for Charlotte and her dreadful marriage in Pride and Prejudice embiggened once again. I’m so glad I was born when I was and not when they were.
Note: This is not the place to declare your hatred of Jane Austen. We’re here to discuss our love. I’m sure there’s a Jane Austen haters forum you can find somewhere to share your hate. Yes, your hate will be deleted. Yes, I had to delete quite a number of JA haters from the Northanger Abbey discussion.
More on that in another post. Complete with a detailed description of just how hard I wish to shake Selden and Lily Bart. Aaargh! [↩]
At the time there was no Romance with a capital R . . . [↩]
As you, my faithful readers, know lately I’ve been thinking about heroines and reader responses to them more than somewhat. This led me to re-reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey because I’ve never had much of an opinion about Catherine and was curious to see where she fell on the blank page spectrum. I adore Lizzy Bennet and Anne Elliot. I don’t like Emma or Fanny Price. Elinor bores me and Marianne gets on my nerves but they both have their moments. But Catherine? I couldn’t even remember much about her other than she’s a bit wet. Cue re-read.
So what did I find? That Catherine and Henry’s pairing is unequal. It’s like the anti-Lizzy & Darcy. Catherine has nothing to teach Henry. He’s older, smarter and wiser. And I simply don’t see what he sees in Catherine. He must school her. Often. He is amused by her not because she’s witty but because she’s an idiot child. It verges on being what Diana Peterfreund describes as “the wiser/more cynical/world-weary/advisor dude who totally has the hots (or vice versa, or mutual) for our naive heroine.”
Except that Henry isn’t really into Catherine, not at first, not for some time:
[F]or, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.
In other words, he came to like her because she was so besotted with him. Which, to be sure, happens all the time. But in this case when he’s so much smarter than her I just don’t believe it as the beginning of a wonderful marriage. In future years I fear they’ll wind up a bit like Mr & Mrs Bennet.
I don’t think Jane Austen believed it either. Northanger Abbey is, after all, a spoof on the novels popular at the time such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and very amusing it is too. But as a romance? For this reader the book is an utter failure. I need equality between my leads. I need for one of them to not be continually patronising the other. Don’t know about you but being patronised is not my idea of sexy.
Okay, now I must re-read Persuasion to see Jane Austen’s writing at its sexy best.
Well, that was a long break, wasn’t it? I return refreshed and ready to resume blogging activities.
First boring admin: I have yet to tackle my mail, given all the totally urgent work on my plate, I won’t get to it until the new year. Resend if urgent. I do try to answer all mail so if I still don’t answer in January could be my spam filters ate it.
It’s a very interesting discussion of covers. I’ve been working on a big fat post about covers for a while now. One of the things I talk about the divide between the way people who’ve read a book see the cover as opposed to those who have not. People forget that most covers designs are aimed at the people who haven’t read the book and haven’t heard of the author. Cassandra Mortmain’s1 discussion of the rejacketing of the Ruby Oliver books perfectly illustrates that divide. She’s unhappy with the new jackets but also hopes that it will bring in new readers. Her and me both.
I’ve thought for ages that the Ruby Oliver books were being overlooked. Just because they’re fluffy and light does not mean that they don’t also have a lot to say about sex and gender in high school. It bugs me how often light books that tackle serious subjects just don’t register with many critics and award committees. For my money every one of the Ruby books should be garlanded with every award going. Cassandra Mortmain agrees with me. Most pleasing.
If you haven’t read the Ruby Oliver books. I strongly recommend that you do so. Rather than me explaining them, let Ruby tell you about the first book, The Boyfriend List:
WHAT HAPPENED, YOU WANT TO KNOW?
In the same ten days I —
lost my boyfriend (boy #13)
lost my best friend
lost all my other friends
learned gory details about my now-ex boyfriend’s sexual adventures
did something shockingly advanced with boy #15
did something suspicious with boy #10
had an argument with boy #14
drank my first beer
got caught by my mom
lost a lacrosse game
failed a math test
hurt Meghan’s feelings
became a leper
and became a famous slut.
Enough to give anyone panic attacks, right?
I was so overwhelmed by the horror of the whole debacle that I had to skip school for a day to read mystery novels, cry, and eat spearmint jelly candies.
The Ruby Oliver book in order are: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, Real Live Boyfriends (out next year). Read them!
That is all.
This is a pen name. For those of you who don’t know Cassandra Mortmain is the protag of the marvellous I Capture the Castle. Yes, my feet are in the sink as I write this. [↩]
Or getting in a plane again. This time to Istanbul, which is a city I’ve never been before. Am I excited? Yes, I am. But it does mean that blogging may not be as every single day as I like it to be. Might be a couple of weeks before normal service resumes. On the other hand, there may be kickarse wireless in the hotel and I’ll blog like a demon. Just to keep you on your toes.
Have fun in my absence—I know it will be hard—and patient with my slow response to emails and questions etc. If you do have any quessies for me the best way to get a response is to go to the FAQs and ask there. I check them regularly. Whereas questions asked on regular posts often go unanswered. Sorry bout that.
I have a question for youse lot though: What do you feel about novels written in collaboration? I’ve heard some readers won’t touch them, which I find really odd. But I’m curious to know if it’s a widespread feeling. You don’t see that many bestselling collaborations, though there are a few. (I’m excluding ghostwritten books.) I’ve always wanted to do one but the opportunity has never arisen.
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.
Recently, the brilliant Sarah Rees Brennan talked about her love of romance and reviewed a few in her inimitable style.1 She mentioned in passing her least favourite kind of heroine:
I truly hate the Blank Page Heroine. She is in a lot of books—I don’t mean to pick on romance, because sadly I have seen her in every genre, including my own—and sometimes she seems to be there as a match for the hero who won’t bother him with things like ‘hobbies’ and ‘opinions.’ Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page. As I don’t identify with blank pages, I find the whole business disturbing.
I had always thought of this as The Girlfriend. She is in many many many Hollywood movies and is absolutely interchangeable in them. Because it’s the male characters who are important in movies like . . . Nah. I won’t name them so the comments don’t become an argument about how I am wrong and So & So movie is not like that and blah blah blah. The girl, if she’s there at all, is merely decoration and a reward for the hero. She is entirely without personality. And thus completely without interest for me, which is why I do not like such movies.
I was quite shocked to find the same character in books written by women. I’d become convinced that she was a straight male fantasy. Surely women know that we women have opinions and hobbies and an internal life? Why would they write a female character without dimensions? It’s still a mystery. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan’s name for them: Blank Page Heroine. That’s exactly it. There’s no there there. Just a blankness. A very sad making blankness. Bad enough that we women are all too often told to shut up and not take up space in real life, but for it to happen in our escapist literature too? Aaargh!
And what kind of a lesson does Blank Page Heroine Love teach? If the love between two people involves one of them giving up everything for the other one including their personality, their own likes and desires and needs, then that love is not going to last long or end well. Trust me, I have seen it happen. If you have to suppress who you are in order for your relationship to last2 then that relationship does not deserve to last. It’s not good for you or the person you love.
But thankfully, as SRB points out, there have been many wonderful romances of late.3 Heroines who exist for many reasons other than to find the love of that one true hero.4 My favourite recent romance writer is Sherry Thomas, who not only writes wonderfully believable men and women but some of them are even older than 25! Bless! Go check out SRB’s post for more romance recommendations.
This year I’ve been getting more and more people asking about ebook editions of my novels. This is my general response to that query.
First of all: you’re asking the wrong person. My publishers are in charge of the electronic rights to my novels. If you’re curious John Scalzi has more to say on this question. If you’re desperate for ebooks of my stuff bug my publishers, not me. That will be much more effective.
But here’s what I know: Penguin has made electronic editions of Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child available. But for some reason not the first book in that trilogy, Magic or Madness. Apparently they’re working on it. That’s all I know.
Bloomsbury, who publish How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, are also working on making them available as ebooks. Possibly it will happen by the end of this year. Again that’s all I know.
I suspect one of the big reasons that my books are not available is that very few teens are reading ebooks and they are the biggest part of my audience. (Bless you all!)
There’s also the fact that those who have converted to ebooks are still a very small part of the market. Tiny even. So there’s no great urgency for my publishers to make my books available. It’s a very new thing for them. Many of the big publishers are still figuring out their approach to ebooks, especially YA and children’s publishers. I’m sure in the next few years, as the ebook market expands, all of my books, and everyone else’s, will be available as a matter of course. But we are just at the beginning of the ebook revolution.
Today Louisville’s Courier-Journal has a most excellent article about adults reading YA by Erin Keane. I don’t just say that because I was interviewed for it, but because the article is smart and non-sensationalist, and includes some actual facts:
Young adult fiction’s appeal has grown way beyond the school library. What was once considered entertainment for kids has become big business for adults, who are increasingly turning to the children’s section for their own reading pleasure, according to publishing experts.
Nielsen’s BookScan predicted U.S. book sales will remain flat this year, but amid this industry slump, sales of young-adult titles are expected to continue to rise. It’s not only teenagers who are browsing the shelves
There’s no hint of panic about this anywhere in the article. In fact, you get the impression that adults reading the amazingly wonderful YA books out there is a good thing.
First I must make a confession: I was very nervous about reading Zetta Elliott‘s A Wish After Midnight despite all the good reviews it’s had. I was nervous because it’s self-published and I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published books. Midnight does show a few (minor) signs of not coming from an established publisher such as the margins and line spacing too tight. However, within a couple of pages I stopped being bothered by them, and a few pages after that I stopped seeing them at all because I was lost in the story.
I feel like A Wish After Midnight was designed with me in mind. Because it does so many things I love as well as working as an homage to one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler. It’s a time travel story set in New York City between now(ish) and the Civil War. Both time periods are vividly realised. You can smell and taste and feel the very different NYC (mostly Brooklyn) landscapes between then and now. I adore historical novels that are clearly well-researched and yet all that research is not obvious. It permeates every scene, every sentence of the book, but it never feels like the author was showing off. Story came first. I love social realism that is also genre. Wish covers multiple genres seamlessly.
Then there’s the protagonist. I absolutely adored Gemma Colon. She’s smart, strong, resourceful, but also very young. She’s an outsider at school and doesn’t get on with her two oldest siblings. Her mother is fighting hard to keep the family afloat but that involves working around the clock. Funny how economic stability and emotional stability sometimes work out to be incompatible. If you’re a single parent working two jobs you don’t get to spend enough time with your children. Gemma is in a lot of pain but she channels it all into working as hard as she can at school and at home. She maintains a huge capacity for joy and hope. Can you tell I adored her?
A Wish After Midnight is influenced by one of my favourite books of all time, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. You could almost say that it’s a YA reworking of Butler’s brilliant book. Butler has had an enormous influence on my writing. So when I say that Wish evokes Kindred without ever being overwhelmed by it, that’s a huge compliment. In fact, I was left wanting to re-read Kindred and Wish back to back.
My biggest question about Wish is why it had to be self-published. This is great story telling, it’s totally commercial—i.e. I could not put it down—it’s also an ethically compelling book about race, class and gender. It’s not like other books in the marketplace. I don’t understand why a big house has not picked it up.
As you can tell my streak of reading extremely good books continues. I’d love to hear what you all thought of A Wish After Midnight espeically those of you have also read Kindred.
If you haven’t already read My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson I’m really going to have to insist that you do so. As usual I won’t be revealing too much about the plot mostly because I think any plot summary makes Rhombus sound like a problem novel,1 which it really isn’t. It’s a character study of a wonderful, smart, engaging, confused teenager, who’s a total maths geek and wants to go to Georgia Tech to become an engineer.2 It’s a quiet story about surviving high school, working hard, about friendship, love, and family relations that touches on all sorts of big stuff—class, privilege, power—without ever being preachy or obvious.
I adore how not preachy Rhombus is. It’s a gentle book that is never for a second boring. (I made the mistake of starting it when I went to bed. Didn’t put it down till I finished—just shy of 5AM.) I love books where there really aren’t any villains. There are people who behave badly in Rhombus, but you understand why and where they’re coming from even. I felt almost nourished by this book. I hug it to my chest.
Another thing I loved about My Life as a Rhombus: the tables and mathematical formulas and postulates throughout the book. They were funny and wry and even innumerate me was able to understand them.
You want this book! You want to read it! Immediately!
My reading only good novels streak remains unbroken. W00t!
If you’ve read Rhombus I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments. So I guess that’s a warning that the comments might be spoilery.
I have a huge prejudice against problem novels which I may have to reconsider since the last few books I read that could be considered problem novels were all fabulous. [↩]
I kind of wish I’d gone to school with Rhonda. We could’ve obsessed about basketball together. I could introduce Rhonda to the WNBA, which she seems not to know about. [↩]
Several months ago, the agent Kristin Nelson got in contact with me via my agent to ask if I would take a look at the debut novel of one of her clients with a view to blurbing it. I agreed to do so, mostly because I love Nelson’s blog, but warned that I rarely blurb cause I only do so when I’m excited about a book. I am picky.
But the book—Megan Crewe’s Give Up the Ghost—hit all my sweet spots. For starters it was a ghost story. I adore a good ghost story. Secondly, it wasn’t the same old, same old ghost story. It surprised me. It was fresh, original and sweet and I cried when it ended. So, yeah, I blurbed it.
Yesterday, was the release day for Give Up the Ghost so in order to let people know that a really beautiful and moving ghost story is now available for them to read, I tweeted it. Unfortunately, I had not had a good night’s sleep. In my first tweet I got Megan’s name and the name of her book wrong. In my second corrective tweet I got only the name of her book wrong. Aarrgh.
I would like to hereby formally apologise to Megan Crewe, who I’ve never met, but might be wondering how someone as hopeless as me can even manage to tie up her own shoe laces. (Hey, I wonder that too.) I am so sorry, Megan! Your book is wonderful and did not deserve me mangling both your name and its name.
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. [↩]
I have never ever wanted to learn to fly, yet Sheri L. Smith‘s Flygirl almost had me calling up flight schools.1 Ida Mae Jones lives to fly. So much so that she passes as a white woman in order to become a WASP during World War II. The book is about race, class, gender, about friendship, obsession (for flying), love, and family.