Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Please Do Step Over the Gender Divide

You know the attitude: pink for girls, blue for boys. Cooking sets and cars are two very different toys for two very different groups. Same goes for books: There is no way a boy would be caught dead reading a book that has a girl on the cover (unless that book is Playboy magazine, in which case the boy should display his reading preferences for all to see, staring at it with his mates on a playground or on the street).

That’s the social opinion. But does this “crisis” mean women should stop writing YA because they are, in fact, only catering to 50% of the teenagers, and that 50% doesn’t really matter because we’ll end up barefoot and pregnant anyway?

You’re probably balking at the idea, and I don’t blame you – this is the 21st century, after all. We’re supposed to have outgrown our Victorian corsets (unless, of course, those corsets also feature in Playboy, in which case they are just right). But the thing about ideas is that they are never put so bluntly as I put it up there. No, they worm their ways into our hearts and minds, whether through religion or upbringing or even just social exposure.

So what is the problem? Obviously, that boys don’t read because all they find in the YA section is girly books for girly girls. Is that right?

*abstract muttering from the audience, several names are thrown out*

Yes, yes, there are male authors. But when I go into the YA section of my local Waterstones, I see covers featuring fainting girls in the arms of shirtless young man, or frail girls in prom dresses, or girls with long, windswept hair and artistically shining eyes. Would you see a boy taking such a book to the counter, even if he heard rave reviews of it? Would he even spend more than two seconds in the section, without being looked down on, or worse, called ‘gay’?

I don’t blame them.

Maybe they shouldn’t succumb to peer pressure and venture on into the section, and then yes, they would discover some wonderful, wonderful books. But the YA genre has a reputation. It’s Twilight, it’s Hush, Hush, it’s Fallen. Those few books that generate enough talk are often books that suck, and not just because of the horrible messages they send out. They just don’t have male character that boys can relate to (they're more like “women with man parts”, as a reviewer on Goodreads once said).

Even if the protagonist is female, it’s rare that she is the sort of character that is on par with the guys. And if she is, then the book isn’t in the YA section. Where are Mistborn and Daughter of Smoke and Bone and the Discworld books? To find them, I need a GPS and a map of the Fantasy and Sci Fi section.

And that, by the way, is where you also find the elusive male reader – among Azimov and Gaiman and Gibson, Pratchett and Sanderson, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula LeGuin and, as of late, Laini Taylor (I have no reason to believe that Waterstones shelves books differently in different stores). Because, apparently, that is where a book goes if it’s too good for the YA section.

Are you seething yet? Are you ready to tear me apart? Do you have examples lined up of how this is not true?

You are absolutely right.

You see, the reason why those ideas about the gender divide and boys not reading go down so easily is because they are washed down with a healthy draught of truth. Obviously not all boys read with a flashlight, just like not all boys look at lad's mags in the middle of the street. YA is diverse, but it is stereotyped as the girly genre for the creatively bankrupt, where you can succeed if you just follow an easy formula (Blank-slate heroine? Check. Chiseled hero? Check. Stalking? Cha-ching!)

So instead of yelling from our soapbox that ladies should stop writing these girly books, we should help those boys set foot in the section. Hide Silence in the deepest, darkest parts of the store and put David Levithan, Scott Westerfield, Laurie Halse Anderson, Laini Taylor, Patrick Ness, Moira Young and Philip Reeve on proud display. Highlight the quality stuff, and ignore the rotten apples, hoping that they would eventually disappear from the face of the Earth.

It’s not about boys and girls. It’s about social standards. And if you want the situation to change, start not by banning, but by changing attitudes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Student at Bath Festival of Children’s Literature

The city of Bath is known for several things: The Roman Baths, Jane Austen, and its universities. And while students make up the majority of the population, it’s the city’s cultural heritage, and its festivals, that attract people. This year, this blogger was lucky enough to secure some tickets for the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, a truly wonderful event which promoted some really stellar books. Now, since yours truly is a student on a budget, I was only able to go to three events, which I will recap here for your pleasure. So, without further ado:

Event #1: Philip Reeve and Moira Young

Before this event, I had never read either author. I’d gotten Fever Crumb from the library in preparation, but I never truly knew who Philip Reeve and Moira Young were until I heard them talking. And I was even more surprised to learn that Moira Young, whose debut novel “Blood Red Road” came out in June, lived in Bath! So as you might imagine, I was sadly unprepared for the event, which in retrospect was my favorite of the three I attended.

The talk had a distinctly dystopian theme, highlighted by the opening: “End of the World as We Know It”. It started off with both authors reading excerpts from their books. Philip Reeve was presenting Scrivener’s Moon, the third of his Mortal Engines prequels, a story set just as the first mobile city was made, a story that promised a lot of heart-pounding action, intrigue, and whimsy (Samovar Caps! Who knew?) Moira Young read from Blood Red Road, and what struck me immediately was the force of the language (or was it the author’s narration?) – it was very distinct, transporting me straight to Silverlake, and introducing me to Saba without even the slightest effort. I can already tell I’m going to love these books.

The Q&A part of the talk was equally wonderful, featuring such fabulous questions such as:

What would you hope to disappear (in the future)?

The X Factor. (Moira Young)

The current producer of Dr. Who? Yes. (Philip Reeve)

There was also that moment, when asked about the main influences of their books, Young said “The Wizard of Oz” and this immediately brought up the question of the minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. The audience seemed to like the proposed title for the sequel: “Saba and the Flying Monkeys”.

Of course, you can’t have a literary talk without the question of world building and what makes a good story. Both authors seemed to like the idea of making up their own worlds and research (in relation to the Samovar Caps, Reeve said, quite correctly, that people do sillier things for religion… or fashion). They also seemed to agree that a good book needs a good story, characters you care about, high stakes and big consequences after failure.

One of the more interesting questions, asked by a member of the audience, was about the influence of opera in Young’s writing. The answer was surprising: It wasn’t exactly opera, as it was the music and rhythm. The writing needed beats and phrases. It was a very good point, because, in stories, like in music, it’s necessary that there is a pattern to the plot (Readers, some homework: Think of a book where the pacing was so off you had to put it away.)

All in all, it was a fabulous event. The authors were very keen on answering the questions from the audience (and may I please say Thank you, God, for all these children interested in books. Brings tears to my eyes, I swear it!) and it all created a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for the event to unfold. I only wish I could have stayed to get a book signed, but… time slows for no-one, even the most fabulous of us. Maybe next year.

Event #2: Writing for Children and Teenagers Workshop

…which really should have been called “The MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University is Awesome!” workshop. Featuring Marcus Sedgwick, Gill Lewis, Karen Saunders and Sam Gayton, who read to us from their latest books, the event seemed like it was less about the advice for aspiring authors and more like a way to get an audience for the presenting of the “Most Promising Writer for Young People” award. Although that could have been attributed to the timeframe of the event – between the book readings and the award presentation, there was just not enough time for some real Q&A about writing.

The questions that were raised and discussed, though, were very much to the point. Gill Lewis brought up a good point when discussing her novel “Skyhawk”, in that while you may have a good idea, you still need someone to edit it and make it presentable for publishing. Sam Gayton was also very spot-on when he said that sometimes you need to write 100,000 bad words to get 1,000 good ones. They also touched on the topic of the writing process, that basically an idea needs time to develop before it’s even put on paper, and that a book can change with time.

However, very little was said on the actual writing for children. Nobody raised the question about writing diversity, the politics of white writers writing non-white characters, or selling a novel with a gay protagonist. The closest the talk got to the topic of writing for a specific age group was a question on whether the authors used any children to gather feedback (the answer was no, by the way. Marcus Sedgwick, in particular, said that it would be presumptuous to say that he knew a 14 year old who was just like his protagonist. Which I think was a pretty good point.)

So yeah, it wasn’t as good as it should have been. For the other two events, I bought tickets in blind faith, since I hadn’t read the authors, and it is a bit sad that the event I was actually looking forward to turned out to be the one disappointing me. It did, however, get me excited to read ‘Midwinterblood’, which is many stories centered around a painting Sedgwick saw in Sweden. All I have to say is: Vampire Vikings.

Event #3: Angel with L.A. Weatherly

The story of how Angel was written is a very interesting one, spanning back to ten years and featuring characters that have waited a long time to be written. Weatherly talked about a story she wrote that just wasn’t going right, and how in order to make it better, she had to cut out a lot, even things she liked very much. Thirty books later, it was finally time to give a story to those characters, a story that turned into Angel.

What I love most about book events is hearing authors talk about their books, to see how passionate they are on the subject and how invested they are in their characters. It’s always a treat to see people who actually, literally love their jobs, and L.A. Weatherly was no exception. You could tell these were special characters to her.

One particularly interesting highlight of the talk was when an audience member asked about the next big thing. Dystopia, apparently, became the bad world of publishing this year, and it seems like they were stacking up on “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” type novels, but Weatherly advised to write stories that you want to write, instead of following a trend, because publishers probably have lots of novels lined up. Which, by the way, was an excellent point – what most people don’t realize about writing is that between putting that final dot on your manuscript and seeing your book in stores, there is a time period of one and a half-two years, and in that time, the trend would have easily exhausted itself.

Other features of the talk (because they were many, I’m just going to mention them), were angels, guns, favorite books, Twilight and the drive behind becoming an author. All in all, it was a wonderful event, especially because Weatherly made it so that the audience felt at home.

So that was my festival experience this fall. Coming up (hopefully soon): My review of Angel by L.A. Weatherly. In the meantime, Lantern followers of the UK, answer me this question: Are you tired of being discriminated against in book giveaways? How would you feel about one here?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Worth the Hype: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Linh Cinder is a cyborg - part girl, part machine. Her unique make-up, combined with her adoptive father's inventions in cybernetics, allowed her to become the best mechanic in New Beijing at the tender age of sixteen. Her talents become so widely known that one day the crown prince himself brings an android for her to fix, and while he tries to make light of the subject, it's apparent that it's a very serious matter.

Unfortunately, Cinder's life is not all roses and sunshine - a deadly plague ravages the Earth, and cyborgs are drafted all over as experimental subjects. When Cinder's younger sister Peony falls victim to the plague, her stepmother immediately signs her up as a volunteer for the study, even though nobody has survived it. And when the scientists start working on her, it becomes apparent that she is a lot more than you ever expected.

I've wanted to read this book for ages!

No, it's not the hype. Even before. When I started off at livejournal a couple of years back (mostly to write Kaleido Star fanfiction), a friend of mine pointed me towards Marissa Meyer's blog, and I have been hooked ever since. I read about Cinder and was half in love with it before it was even queried, so is it that much of a surprise that reading the actual book made my head explode?

Well, it did.

How can I even articulate my love for this book? Let's just say that between this and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I may never read YA the same way again. I mean... wow, just wow!

First of: the characters. So well-crafted, so real! Cinder is an absolute joy to read - she's smart, she's strong-willed, she's realistic sometimes to a fault, and also a little bit romantic. She's painfully aware of how bad the situation gets, and unlike any other heroine I have ever read, keeps her focus throughout the book. Not once does she let her feelings for Kai overshadow her judgement (or common sense), and while she does acknowledge them, she really does have her priorities straight.

And Kai! I could buy this guy a drink and then listen to him spill his troubles to me all night long. I'm that pathetically in love with him. I mean, he's just... he's just like you'd imagine a fairytale prince to be. Totally swoon-worthy, no wonder every girl in the Commonwealth is in love with him. It's like... he's a prince, but that's not his defining feature. Instead, he's a man, who happens to be a prince, and who tries to deal with the difficulties thrown in his path the best way he can. He's not a fool - he knows exactly what responsibility rest on his shoulders, but instead of angsting about it like any other male lead in YA, he just deals with it, because there is no-one else who can do it.

Speaking of love, this book gets even more brownie points for having the romance develop at a believable pace. There is no insta-love (although there is attraction) - Cinder and Kai interact many times throughout the book, and each time they discover different facets of their personalities. Their interactions are very genuine, very down-to-earth. It's amazing.

And it's not just these two characters - from Peony and Pearl, the stepsisters, to Dr. Erland's assistant Fateen are well-developed, three-dimensional characters. A very poignant scene in the beginning of the book is Fateen confronting Erland for only testing on young girls, and giving males placebos. It's a small scene, and yet it makes me go back to it, again and again. Strong female characters are all around the table, and Cinder shines bright amongst them.

But enough about characters, what about the plot, you say? It's a futuristic retelling of Cinderella, but oddly enough the things it has in common with the Perreaut story are: the poor girl, the step family, and the ball. This book is part fairy tale, part political intrigue, part sci-fi adventure, and let me tell you, it all works fantabulously. There are so many subplots, intricate details and whimsy that make your head spin, in a good way.

So what else is there to say but: read this book. Or preorder it. I promise, it's worth it.

And if you find it's not... well... I'll review "Silence".

See if I don't.

Coming up next: Katya recounts her experience at this years Bath's Festival for Children's Books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Objectivity of the Critic.

Like almost every book blogger I know, I use GoodReads. In fact, it's the place where I met my fellow Torch Bearers, bonding over our love and frequent criticisms of YA. It's arguably become the most popular book review related website but with that fame has come a noticeable degree of infamy with many. Criticisms of the critic are nothing new. We're certainly no strangers to that here! However, I've noticed several instances over the past few months where authors are warning other authors or reviewers of what they see as major problems with the website. I've discussed my feelings on the author-reviewer relationship many times and maintain that GoodReads is a necessary and vital addition to the sphere of readers but it's certainly not perfect. Indeed, there are many very negative reviews. I myself have written some of them, as have my co-bloggers. But the criticisms I've seen directed towards these reviews is that they are unnecessarily cruel and biased. The former is an issue for another post, but I will briefly say that while snarky humour is subjective – one person's hilarious beatdown is another's personal vendetta – I must support the right for these reviews to exist because to condone their removal is censorship. I have a lot of faith in my co-reviewers to call out the unnecessary cruelty and attacks since GoodReads is a site for consumers. There will always be the perceived bad eggs on every site you check. It's the circle of blogging. However, the latter issue, that of objectivity, is a trickier subject.

As part of my Edinburgh Book Festival duties, I attended the event of Radio 5's resident film critic, Mark Kermode, a man as famed for his eviscerations of films he dislikes as he is for the praise he gives. He admitted that he has certain biases but he tries not to let this effect the review since it is his job to be as fair as possible. While I do agree with giving every book I review the fairest chance possible, I must also acknowledge my own biases. I can't stand the instant attraction trope, I'm hyper aware of over-used romantic and storytelling tropes in YA and I'm also extremely critical of the depiction of romances, arguably more so than the average reviewer. A lot of the time, it's impossible for me to put these biases aside when I pick up a new book or go to see a film, especially if it's part of a particular genre such as paranormal romance YA. I don't think this lessens my impact or integrity as a reviewer but I can see why some people would consider me less than objective in my reviews, as I have been accused of numerous times.

The price we put on objectivity in our reviews is a topic that fascinates me. Indeed, I wonder if objectivity is as valued today in our world of internet reviewers, bloggers and extremely close author-reviewer relationships as it was. I received many more comments on my snarkier Sparkle Project than I ever have on my more recent work, and many authors have expressed their chagrin at the funny reviews that they see as being written solely for the purposes of popularity. Indeed, they are very popular, and this trend isn't limited to GoodReads. Professional critics are famed for their subjectivity and the often hilarious results it produces – Roger Ebert displayed particular vitriol towards the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones because of personal biases regarding religion, Pauline Kael was notoriously lax towards film-makers she was fond of, and Mark Kermode's most popular reviews are those of films he rips apart, such as the Sex & the City movies. We are entertained by anger, especially the geeky kind, which is one of the reasons the reviewers of That Guy With The Glasses have become so popular. How much power these reviews have is a different story. These reviews, as well as many of my own, are more likely looked upon as a form of entertainment in themselves rather than a true form of criticism to be analysed by the potential consumer before they make their final choice. That's not to say they don't possess some power, but the value placed upon them is of a different manner (an interesting exception to this is the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, whose hilariously scathing reviews can destroy a Broadway show.)

There are certain instances where my biases are too much and I feel I cannot properly review a work due to such conflicts of interest. There are several authors with whom I am very friendly and chat to frequently. I will not review their work because that feels like a crossed line to me. I would not be able to separate myself from that association. I know some reviewers who can do this and am fine with it, but I would prefer it if they offered some sort of disclaimer addressing this possible conflict just to put their possible biases forward for the reader to judge. This also extends to professional authors offering cover quotes for me. It's part of the business, I understand that completely, I know it's a close business and I know many authors give glowing reviews to their friends. It's part of the game and I know it would be stupid for each cover quote to come with a small font disclaimer on the back or something like that, but many readers put a lot of trust in their favourite authors and I find it somewhat disingenuous for that relationship to be spoiled by unacknowledged nepotism.

There are also some authors, directors, musicians, etc, for whom their personal lives or associations have become too much of a distraction for me to look at their work in as objective a manner as possible. Orson Scott Card's rampant bigotry and donation of money to homophobic groups will always be the first thing I think of when I see his name, not his work. I refuse to watch Roman Polanski's movies because it feels too much like rewarding a rapist paedophile. Chris Brown is not a musician to me, he's a violent thug. As such, I would rather not waste my and the readers' time by paying attention to such works, even for the purposes of snark. It's too much effort and nobody would gain anything from it.

For me, reviews are a crucial part of my life as a reader and consumer. I have a circle of friends and co-bloggers with whom I share similar tastes and opinions and find I generally agree with. Even when we don't agree, I appreciate their opinions and honesty. They, like me, have certain biases and I am aware of them, although I understand not everyone will be, but I trust the average reviewer to draw those conclusion themselves. As long as a review is substantial and gives me well thought out reasons as to whether a book is good or bad, I will find it satisfying. This is a similar reason as to why I tend to distrust reviewers that offer nothing but glowingly positive reviews or extremely negative ones. Both often seem insubstantial of real content or analysis to me. I need to know more reasons why you loved a book beyond the hero being sexy!

GoodReads is not the enemy. No reviewer is the enemy. Bloggers read and write because they love it. Objectivity is strange because I don't know if it really exists. We all have our biases, acknowledged or otherwise. Some will review for laughs, others for serious debate, although these things are not mutually exclusive. All I can really hope for from my reviews is that people find some level of satisfaction in them. I think that's all anyone can really hope for.

We'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this subject. What do you look for in a review? How highly do you hold objectivity and how much do your own biases play a part in your criticisms?