Apologies to those reading along with us but alas, travel, deadlines, and sundry other things have crashed down upon Kate Elliott and I and we will not be doing the book club for the next few months. We hope to resume next year.
Today the Sydney Morning Herald is running my entry in their long-running Books That Changed Me series. I struggled mightily to get it down to four. Especially as they initially told me I could name five. There are too many books that have changed me! Too many books that I love with every fibre of my being!
The four that made the cut:
Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux (1939) is a novel that reads like history. Like geography. Almost geology. It’s slow, there’s no plot to speak of, it’s everything I don’t like about literary novels. I love it. Tennant lays bare Surry Hills from before the first world war up to the first hints of the next war. She swims in her joy at the Aussie vernacular. It’s bloody bosker.
Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979) because, well, fairy tales. When I was little I made up my own, and the ghostly echo of “Once upon a time” shapes all the fiction I’ve ever written. But it wasn’t until I read this explosion of a collection that I realised how much could be done to fairy fales, and how much they could do to me. Carter taught me the anatomy of the fairy tale and how to make use of the viscera.
I give people Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (1998) when they demand proof that novels for teens (YA) can be as good as the best novels for adults. In a scant 200 pages Woodson delves deep into New York City’s geographical, class, and racial fissures, and then she breaks your heart.
About Writing (2006) by Samuel R. Delany is the smartest book about writing I’ve ever read. In a series of letters and lectures Delany leaps from the intricacies of punctuating dialogue, to those of creating character, to existential questions about what it is that a writer can make a reader know. Delany with both his fiction and his non-fiction changed the way I write and how I think about writing.
These are the ones I couldn’t include:
I don’t know how old I was when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813). Very young. I’ve read it so many times that I could probably read it from memory. Yet every time I read it I find something new. On the last reread I focussed on the world of the servants. The time before that on her extraordinary world building with her razor focus on economics. It’s true that Persuasion (1818) is now my favourite of her novels but it was not the one that changed me when I first read it as a pre-teen.
I’ve always read True Crime as well as fictional crime. Always veering towards the dark: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosley, Denise Mina. At their core are these questions: What is evil? Why do people do evil things? Why are we fascinated? I picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) when I was very young and didn’t know who Charles Manson was and hadn’t thought much about the question of evil. This book meant I never forgot.1
I didn’t know which Octavia Butler book to pick. They’re all amazing. Even Survivor (1978), an early novel that she never wanted to see in print again. I read it in the bowels of the Rare Books section of the University of Sydney. It’s not her best but it’s still better than most every other novel by anyone else. Her stories in Bloodchild & Other Stories are a revelation. Each one perfect in a different way from the last. Read everything she wrote!
Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romances. She’s brilliant at torpedoing the constraints of the genre while working within it. Take Unclaimed (2011) in which a courtesan has to seduce a Victorian rockstar professional virgin who’s written the book on how to be celibate. She neatly upends the heroine as virgin; hero as rake paradigm of most historical romances and she does it with wit. Her latest, The Suffragette Scandal (2014) is her best book yet.
Each of these fiction writers showed me what was can be achieved with writing. They taught me to push past the constraints of genre and to think about the impact of every single word. They changed me as a writer and as a person. I recommend them all. In fact, I kind of feel like rereading them all right now. For the millionth time.
This is the one book on the list that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. But I think it’s important to note that some books that change you aren’t particularly good. [↩]
Due to a terrible combination of deadlines, travelling, illness and other assorted calamaties Kate Elliott and myself will not be doing the book club this month. We’re bummed about it too. But life she threw too much at us this month.
We will be back in September to discuss Han Suyin’sA Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is the first out of print book that we’ll be reading. I haven’t been able to find an ebook edition either. It’s truly out of print. Start putting it on hold at your library now.
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. [↩]
Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. [↩]
First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. [↩]
Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. [↩]
Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.
This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.
Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.
Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.
If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.
And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:
JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.
KE: I’m about a third through.
I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?
I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.
JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.
The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.
The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.
I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.
Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.
I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.
KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.
The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.
JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.
I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.
Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.
KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.
But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.
JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.
Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.
Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.
I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.
One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.
KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.
JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.
KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.
Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.
(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)
JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.
KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.
JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.
I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.
I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.
However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.
KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.
In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.
JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.
KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.
JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.
KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”
I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).
JL: Yes to all of that.
KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.
JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.
KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.
JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.
KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.
KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.
JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*
KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.
JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.
KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.
JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.
But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.
One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.
KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.
JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.
I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.
KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.
JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.
KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.
I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).
JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light.
KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.
There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.
JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.
KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.
JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.
Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:
Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.
It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.
KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.
JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?
So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
Nothing too complex.
Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
Young adults are unintelligent.
Young adults have no adults in their lives.
Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.
If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:
KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.
JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.
Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.
KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.
JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*
Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.
KE: Also a classic text on classism.
What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).
The juxtapositions are whiplashing.
OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG
JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.
Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .
It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.
Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”
KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.
JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.
KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.
JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.
KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.
JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.
KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.
JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.
It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)
KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.
JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.
KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.
JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?
Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.
It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.
There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.
KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.
JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?
KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.
JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.
This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.
KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”
JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.
The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.
KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.
JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.
KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.
JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.
The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.
KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”
So I can see why the novel was a sensation.
JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!
That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.
KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.
In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”
The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.
I call bullshit on several different fronts:
Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.
They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.
The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feel so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.
Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?
I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.
Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?
I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2
Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.
Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?
Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.
In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4
Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.
I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.
Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.
Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.
TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.
And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy. [↩]
We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable. [↩]
Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is. [↩]
Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing! [↩]
I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird. [↩]
Kate Elliott and I have started a Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club together. Our criteria is that each book be a bestseller, classified as women’s fiction, be published between the end of World War One and twenty years ago. So no books from before 1918 or after 1994. We also decided not to look at any books by living authors. That way if we hate a book we can truly let rip. So far we’ve discussed Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dollshere on my blog and Ron Jaffe’s The Best of Everythingover on Kate’s.
So that more of you can join in here’s what we’ve got planned for the rest of the year. All of these books are in print and available as ebooks except for A Many-Splendored Thingand Imitation of Life. Turns out Imitation is still in print in the US. We’ve scheduled it for September so you’ll have plenty of time to inter-library loan or find it second-hand:
March: Jacqueline Sussan The Valley of the Dolls (1966). Here’s our discussion.
April: Rona Jaffe The Best of Everything (1958). Here’s our discussion.
May: Grace MetaliousPeyton Place (1956). This book was a huge blockbuster in its day and was made into an equally popular movie. I read and loved it as a kid but have memories of finding everyone’s behaviour very odd. This one was suggested by many different people. Here’s our discussion.
June: Ann PetryThe Street (1946). I confess I’d never heard of this one until Kate suggested it. Ann Petry was the first African-American woman to have a book sell more than one million copies. Set in Harlem in the 1940s. I cannot wait to read this one. Here’s our discussion.
July: Patricia Highsmith Price of Salt aka Carol (1952). This was the first mainstream lesbian novel to not end miserably. Highsmith wrote it under a pseudonym. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Highsmith is one of my favourites but this book is nothing like her other books as it doesn’t make you despair of the human condition. It’s almost cheerful. Here’s our discussion.
September: Han SuyinA Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is set in Hong Kong and China. Suyin’s The Mountain is Young is one of my favourite books but I’d never read her most popular book Splendored. Partly because it was made into a crappy movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with an unspeakably awful song of the same title in 1955. I hate that song so much that it put me off reading the book. What can I say? Every time I read the title the song pops into my head. Like, right now. Aaaarrrgh! Here’s our discussion.
Then in October we’ll be doing something slightly different. We’ll be reading two books together. They’re both about a black girl who passes as white. One was written by a black woman, Nella Larsen, and was not a bestseller. The other by a white woman, Fannie Hurst, was a huge success and made into two big Hollywood movies. (I wrote a comparison of the movies here.) Interestingly it’s much easier now to get hold of Larsen’s work than it is Hurst’s. Even though in her day Hurst had multiple bestsellers and was crazy popular. When you read the books you’ll discover why. If you wind up skimming the Hurst we won’t judge. At all.
October: Nella LarsenPassing (1929) and Fannie HurstImitation of Life (1933). I’ve read both of these. The Larsen is far superior on pretty much every count. But they’re both fascinating documents of their time. (Passing is available as part of the collected fiction of Nella Larsen: An Intimation of Things Distant.) Here’s our discussion.
November: V. C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (1979). This one is mostly for Kate who for some strange reason has never read it. Me, I have read it multiple times. When I was twelve I thought it was the best book ever written. *cough* Why I have even blogged about Flowers. V. C. Andrews was my Robert Heinlein. Only much better, obviously. Here’s our discussion.
Thanks so much for all your suggestions. They were most helpful. Keep ’em coming. Maybe we’ll keep doing this next year. I hope so. We’d especially love if you can recommend books by women of colour that fit our bill. Even if they’re not bestsellers, like Passing, we can read them against what was selling at the time.
And, of course, do please join in. We’d love to hear what you think of these books in the coming months.
That’s right me and Kate Elliott are continuing our Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub. This month Kate will be hosting.
We’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1959). If you are a publishing geek you’ll love this book because it’s set in the world of New York publishing at the start of the paperback boom. Isn’t it fascinating how many women’s fiction bestsellers are about women at work?
When: Monday 28 April at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 29 April at noon on the east coast of Australia.
The primary focus of the discussion will be over on Kate’s blog, where you can check in at any time, but we’ll also be chatting on Twitter as well with the hashtag #BWFBC
THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time
We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Best of Everything.
I used to hate spoilers. I didn’t care what it was—a book, an ad, a shopping list—I didn’t want to know what happened until it happened. I wouldn’t read the back of books or movie posters or reviews. I wanted to know as little as possible before going in. I thrived on surprise.
Now this would sometimes backfire. If I’d known a bit about Taken (2008) I would never have watched it on the plane. I just saw that Liam Neeson was in it. I used to like Liam Neeson. He was dead good in Rob Roy.1 But Taken? Worst. Most Appallingly Immoral. Movie. Of. All. Time. If I could unwatch it I would.2
Taken and a few too many hideous final seasons of TV shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars3 have made me more inclined to be spoiled so I know which shows to stop watching. I still wish I’d known not to watch the final season of The Wire. Such a let down after four brilliant seasons. Especially that fourth season. Wow!
I also don’t enjoy books that deal with people dying of diseases. Especially cancer. I’ve lost too many people I love to that disease and I just can’t deal. The few times I’ve accidentally read such a book I have been deeply unhappy about it. And, no, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Me no want to read about it.
Gradually, I have become considerably less hardcore about spoiler avoidance than I used to be. Partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because in this world of Twitter, and friends who can’t keep their bloody mouths shut,4 it’s getting harder and harder to avoid them.
My spoiler stance has also shifted because the last few times I was spoiled—on both occasions it was a TV show—it made my viewing experience more pleasurable, not less.5 Which was quite a surprise let me tell you.
Rest assured I will stick to my policy of not spoiling here. I was once 100% in the no-spoilers camp. I understand!
Besides there are plenty of books/TV shows/movies that if you know what’s going to happen next you might not bother. Because what-happens-next is the main thing they have going for them. Don’t get me wrong those books/TV shows/movies can still be fun but they don’t make me want to read/watch them more than once.6
I’ve been enjoying HBO’s Game of Thrones largely because I’ve read the books. I like seeing how it translates to screen. Knowing that the red wedding was imminent made watching it more tense not less and I got the added pleasure of seeing other people’s reactions. On the couch next to me and on Twitter.
I think another shift in my opinion of spoilerfication was writing Liar: a book written specifically to have more than one way of reading it. I made a big song and dance of getting folks not to spoil it because I felt that knowing ahead of time what the big secret was would shift how a person read the book. Particularly as there’s no guarantee that the big secret in the book is true. So if you went in knowing what that big secret was you read the book with that in mind and likely with the expectation that the big secret was true. I wanted readers of Liar to be open to figuring out how they felt about the big secret as they read, not to go in with their minds already made up.
It was a pain. I was chastised several times by people who said my call for readers not to spoil was me being a hypersensitive author trying to control my readers. That once my book was published it was no business of mine whether people spoiled it or not. And they’re right. But I was requesting, not ordering. It’s not like I have the power to stop anyone from spoiling if they want to. There are no spoiler police I can call.
Don’t get me wrong if I was to publish a book like Liar in the future I’d still want people not to spoil it. To this day I am made uncomfortable when people describe Liar as a [redacted] book because for many readers Liar is not a [redacted] book. Those readers think the big secret is a big ole lie. And there’s loads of textual evidence to support them. I deliberately wrote it that way.
But the whole thing was needlessly stressful and made me want to write books where spoiling makes no difference. Like romances. Knowing ahead of time that the hero and heroine get together? Well, der, it’s a romance! It’s not about that, it’s about the how, and you can’t really spoil the how. Because the how is about the texture of the writing not about particular events.
I’ve also come across readers who were told that Liar was a [redacted] book who read it and decided that it was definitely not a [redacted] book and that being spoiled really didn’t affect how they read it.
I was unspoiled reading E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and I’m glad because I had no idea where it was going. It was a very pleasurable and [redacted] surprise. I’m looking forward to rereading to see what kind of book it is when I know what happens. Double the pleasure!
And, Emily, you have all my sympathy for trying to get people not to spoil it. They will. Which is a shame cause it’s a hell of a surprise. But the book’s so excellent I think in the long run it won’t matter. Besides I know for a fact that there are plenty of readers who are going to enjoy it more knowing the big secret before they start reading.
TL;DR: I’m chiller about spoilers than I was but I won’t spoil you.
Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.
If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:
Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.
The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.
I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.
I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).
JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!
You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.
I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.
God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.
I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.
KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.
I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.
Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”
JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.
I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone.
KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.
There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.
JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.
It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.
All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.
Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.
Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.
It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?
I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.
Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.
The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.
KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:
1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).
I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.
Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.
JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!
1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.
Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.
I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.
Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.
The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.
I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)
KE: I have a few other comments.
We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.
There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.
Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:
“I love you, Jen—really.”
Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”
Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.
What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.
JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.
That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.
It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.
Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.
I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:
“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”
This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”
She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.
“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.
“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”
Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.
So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?
Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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. [↩]