Friday, July 29, 2011

Fan Mentality and Rose Tinted Glasses

I'm going to assume that 60% of you are writers. As a writer, one of the most important things I've had to learn is how to accept criticism. It's difficult to realize that you are not your work, that your work is not a baby, a smaller version of you, or a reflection of your soul. It is a book that you produced and while it would be absurd to suggest that you should not feel any emotional attachment to it, said book is not you.

Now that we've established that, I think it's fair to apply this to every book and every author. JK Rowling is not the Harry Potter series. Stephen King is not Carrie or Misery or The Stand. Stephenie Meyer is not Twilight.

And, to stretch this analogy further, a fan is not the book either.

Eight months ago, I was probably the biggest anti-twilight fan you'd ever meet. If you were a Twilight fan, I assumed that your intelligence was less than mine. I've ceased that thought process as I've come to understand the mentality of the fan. Because you like a work, that doesn't mean that you are the work. If a book is sexist, homophobic, or racist, that doesn't mean that you're sexist, homophobic, and racist. But, to a fan, who wears the rosiest rose tinted glasses, when you point out the flaws in their beloved series, they take offense, as if you've personality insulted them.

I have first hand experience with this. While I wasn't old enough to be part of the Harry Potter fandom, and since I didn't care for Twilight fandom, I was a member of the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom. For those of you who aren't familiar, it was created by Michael DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, who I will collectively refer to as Bryke for the duration of this post.

There are many flaws with AtLA, but when I was in full blown fan mode, I actively excused them and attributed it to Bryke's genius. They purposefully portrayed this in that way because they were superhuman writers, incapable of doing any wrong. Thankfully, I was able to reverse that sort thought.

But now, as we approach the end of the Harry Potter franchise, I'm left with lingering doubts. To a certain extent, I've always been aware of its flaws. I abhorred the treatment that James showed Snape, the way that James was portrayed as rich, handsome, and privileged (not unlike Tom Riddle), but, because he was in Gryffindor, he could do no wrong. I disliked the way Cho Chang, Dean Thomas, Viktor Krum, and the Patel twins were used as "beginning" dates for the various white members of the cast, only to be tossed aside and forgotten. But, I was willing to forgive these flaws, and, in fact, attribute them to JKR's genius. After all, she was creating a realistic world. She did this on purpose to highlight the flaws in our society. But how did I know this? Was I personally acquainted with JKR?

I made up excuses for why certain things were portrayed in certain ways. While my parents were actively supportive of my "Potter" craze, they weren't shy to point out things that bothered them, such as the lack of PoC who had main roles, or roles of importance. And, as I ventured into the archives of the HP fandom, I discovered essays that unveiled the suspicions I'd had about the role of women and house elves in the HP world. At fifteen, I didn't want to think I was racist or sexist.

A few weeks ago, Hannah Moskowitz wrote a review for Thirteen Reasons Why, one of my favorite contemporary YA novels. While I gave it four stars, she gave it one and gave some pretty good reasons to explain her rating. Reasons that made me feel somewhat guilty for liking the book to the extent that I did. But, I came to a realization. Just because I liked the book, that didn't mean I couldn't acknowledge its flaws. A younger me would have attributed that to author genius.

As a writer, I can tell you it's probably not true. I've had beta readers pick up all sorts of unintentional things in my stories, or blow things completely out of proportion. I am not a genius. Perhaps I was a child prodigy of sorts, but definitely not a genius.

Writers are not amazing, special people. Well, some of us are, but the majority are not. We're regular people who're often placed on pedestals and seen as unable to commit a single wrong in their work. And if we do, it was intentional and meant to point out a flaw in the real world. How many of you would love for that to be true about your own work?

As I discovered the internet, I was astounded to discover that people could dislike Harry Potter. Twilight was one thing, but Harry Potter, the beacon of my childhood?

Two days ago, Katya wrote a review on the fourth Harry Potter book and announced that she wasn't a fan because she disliked the way Hermione Granger was treated. I'd never taken much issue with sexism in the HP world. As a minority, I'd always focused on the not so subtle racism. For me, Twilight was sexist, but HP? No way.

I asked Katya to post it because I found myself agreeing with her throughout much of the review. Then I decided to see if others felt the same way. Type Harry Potter + Sexism into Google and a wide range of articles will appear. To my less educated self, a shrill feminazi could spot sexism in anything. They were thinking too hard. But that train of thought only enables sexism and racism to continue.

As a black person, I will notice racism against myself far more than the average white person. I still get "may I touch your hair" on the bus, but the average white person will not think they are insensitive in their request. A few weeks ago, I had a Native American character who owned a casino. After a little research, I discovered that many Natives took offense. I re-wrote the character because, honestly, that was laziness on my part and I could do much better. It wasn't a "realistic" commentary on social inequality. It was me not doing my research.

I didn't know that "retard" was offensive until last month. I threw the word around quite a bit, albeit, not online. Sometimes, I still find myself saying it. But, like "nigger" and various other slurs that I'd rather not include in my work unless they must be there, I've decided not to use it as an insult. Sure, people use "fag" and "slut" as insults, but, unless I'm trying to make a point, I won't use them in my books. I honestly don't think JKR is sexist or racist, and, since I doubt that she's a genius, she unintentionally put racism and sexism into her books. It's easy to say someone is a feminazi or that they're crying foul like Jesse Jackson, but it's much harder to analyze yourself and come to the conclusion that you might have unconsciously glazed over a flaw. I've seen this happen to Glee fans all the time.

It's taken a while for me to able to accept the flaws in my favorite books. Some fans never will. They'll say "you're ruining it for everyone" and sometimes, much worse. There are certain parts of the Twilight series that I enjoy, though none of them are related to Bella Swan. Even I glazed over certain, questionable parts. I was, and still am, a Jacob Black fan. But I constantly made excuses for his behavior in Breaking Dawn and Eclipse. After all, he wasn't as bad as Edward. I was no Twihard. Eventually, I accepted the fact that Jacob Black did indeed "mouth rape" Bella. I stopped blaming the victim, as much as I hated her. Was I a bad person because I sided with Jacob over Bella? I hope not.

Two of my friends on GoodReads love the Mortal Instruments series. I can't stand it. Does that make me better than them? No. They're able to acknowledge that the series isn't perfect, but they still like it and sometimes, they joke about it. I used to like Eragon. I still like parts of Eragon. But the writing is shit and it's a complete rip-off of Lord of the Rings, which is also full of racism and sexism. I still like them. Honestly, if anyone has a perfect book, give it to me. Until then, I'd appreciate it if we stopped telling people that they're thinking too hard or that the author is a masterminded genius who intended for their work to be seen that way. More often than not, it just isn't true.

Note: You don't have to agree with me and, more importantly, I don't expect you to agree with me. I'm not attacking you for liking Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, or any popular series. I'm only asking you to stop and examine the criticisms that are brought up against them. Not all criticism are valid, but if you have that gut feeling, it might have some merit. And, even if you can't bring yourself to say that this is sexist or this is racist, I only ask that you acknowledge the reasons why someone might feel that way. And, on the other side, don't demean someone for liking a book that you don't like. My sister likes Death Note and I used to like Death Note. It is a manga filled with sexism. Just because she likes it, that doesn't give me an excuse to debase her opinion on matters of sexism or taste. Everyone is different and if we all liked the same things, the world would be a boring place. Though, at least we'd never have shipping wars.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where Is the Love... for Hermione Granger?

Before we begin, some warnings: Since it is my general belief that everyone and their hamster has seen/read Harry Potter, the following post will contain spoilers for books 3 and 4. Also, this review, cross-posted from my GR account, will contain critisism of the Harry Potter books, as well as copious amounts of cursing, for which I apologize beforehand. If you are averse to any or all of these things, please do not to read this post.

~*~

Greetings, loved ones, and let us talk of a young witch named Hermione Granger.

It is no secret to my friends (and the occasional stranger) that I'm not fond the Harry Potter books. I went from fantatic to hater just about overnight, and this book was largely to blame for it. When I was young and gullible, I hated how Cedric got killed off and how bloody the series got afterwards. I hated "The Goblet of Fire" enough to renounce the franchize. Now that I am older and slightly wiser, though I decided to come back to the books and see if my ire was remotely justified.

It is. I still hate it, but for all different reasons. Cedric, on second reading, is as dull as unbuttered toast (so I guess the movie casting must have been really spot-on). Harry has finally started to shed his unnatural maturity, and has turned just as obnoxious as most boys at 13. Ron is a wanker. So it's beyond me why Hermione hasn't stolen the spotlight here, as she is easily the most relatable character of them all.

Hermione is, and always has been, a delight to read. Not necessarily because she's a girl, but because she is the only character amongst that Fabulous Trio who actually has a good head on her shoulders. Let's look at her character - she is from a muggle family, but through hard work she has become the best student in the school. She studies hard, follows the rules, but makes exceptions when the circumstances are right. She comes off as stuck-up at first, but looks after her friends. She keeps her promises, even though she barely has time to take care of herself. And yet Ron is Harry's best friend, not her.

Why?

Harry and Ron are much closer than Harry and Hermione. In the previous book, Hermione was at odds with the boys not one, but twice, and that put a serious hinge on their friendship. They don't speak to her for ages, and the only reference they make to her is in relation to her towering homework. Even so, that doesn't nearly come close to the drama that follows Harry and Ron's falling out in book 4. And then, when they do make up, Hermione is once again pushed back as a tercery best friend, even though she sacrificed her efforts and sleep in order to help Harry learn a spell that would save his skinny ass.

But is that really so surprising? Throughout the books, Hermione is defined by her intelligence. It falls squarely on her shoulders to help the guys when they're in a pickle - whenever they discover that rushing at an obstackle headfirst isn't going to cut it, they turn to her for advice. She's also acutely aware of issues of inequality - in book 3, she was the only one who kept her promise to help Hagrid save his hippogriff. I'm not sure how much Harry and Ron's involvement wasn't motivated by Malfoy.

But Hermione's fighting for equality and fairness really shines in "The Goblet of Fire. In this book, she actually starts an organisation to help house elves! Moreover, she doesn't give up even when they tell her they don't want salaries. She's not motivated by the Good White Person guilt, but because she actually cares for these things. She stands up for Hagrid when Rita Skeeter takes a sling at him, and she kept Lupin's secret for months in book 3 simply because she believed he was a good guy! And where do her efforts to promote equality lead to? They're used for comedic relief.

Har-dee-har-har.

There is no reason for this. Harry has lived with his relatives as an upper middle class brat (a much abused middle class brat), but Hermione's parents are dentists and yet she has a better awareness of social issues than he does! Is Rowling trying to suggest that young activism is only for women, because only women seem aware of these issues?

It's equally disgusting how little the boys seem to appreciate her. Not only do they refuse to take her seriously, they literally take her for granted. On the Yule Ball, Harry and Ron take take forever to realize Hermione is a girl, and thus, qualified to be a dance partner (apparently, they can't go with each other, altough it would be most logical, what with all the sparks flying among them. What, it wouldn't sell well?)

Hermione, though, refuses to be taken for granted. She knows she deserves better than to be a go-to girl, and she does - she gets to be Viktor Krum's date, and she damn well got someone who appreciates her! But are her friends happy for her? No, they're shocked, and in Ron's case, offended, that she dared *gasp* make plans without them! Ron goes as far as to make a scene - in which he (not for the first time in the series) makes Hermione cry. This was supposed to establish some beginnings of the love between Hermione and Ron, but, quite frankly, it just makes Ron look like a wanker.

This also starts a subplot about female adversary in the book. First, there are the other girls at Hogwarts who seem mystified that Hermione is actually attractive AND smart. And then there's th Rita Skeeter article. After its publication, Hermione becomes the target for bullying which, in some cases, blurs the borders between assault and battary. Grown-up witches send her hate mail packed with all sorts of deadly stuff, one of which makes the skin of her hands fall off. Ron's commentary? She should have seen it coming, messing around with the paparazzi like that. I bet the bumrag was happy she got punished for liking Krum. But that's not even what's most disturbing about this thing - it's that witches who have never even met Hermione are willing to take Skeeter's word for it, even if the woman's as trustworthy as a snake. Even Mrs. Weasley, whose own husband got blackened twice in "The Daily Prophet", believes the slander! Nice message for female solidarity, Ms Rowling, real subtle.

Again, I ask, why can't Hermione be the hero of these series? I don't think I'm alone in thinking it could be so much better.

I haven't read books five through seven, so I cannot say if Hermione gets more spotlight, or if the the issue of Ron's rather disturbing attitude towards her is adressed. I may be a hater without reason, so I will read the rest of the series. But the Harry Potter books are one of the most loved children's series, and some of the best known. "The Goblet of Fire" won a Hugo award for best novel in 2001, and the Mythoepic Fantasy Award for Adolescen Literature in 2008, along with many, many others. So why is a book so loved, so popular, mocking young activism and abuses an intelligent female character so much? Hermione comes up on top, in the end, and I thank J. K. Rowling for that, because Hermione isn't just a literary character. She's all of us women who put hard work, integrity and friendship before anything else.

What's your take? What do you think of Hermione in "The Goblet of Fire"?

For some more reading: The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger, the follow-up piece to the one I linked above.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Let's Talk Endings...

Les Edgerton wrote the book on beginnings, and there are quite a few manuals out there that discuss the topic of writing, not to mention selling, a book. We on the Lantern have discussed the Power of Hype, the pros and cons of trilogies/quartets/sagas and stand alones, the Quality vs. Quantity debate, and while I want to say that Art is The Most Important Thing and that we should make all the sacrifices it demands, it is also true that whether you’ll be making your livelihood as an author depends on whether or not your book sells.

So naturally, while the idea should be fresh and awesome, it should also be adapted in a way to appeal to the reader (catchy hook, beautiful cover, nice script). Hence, the emphasis that is placed on beginnings. But how many times, when reading a review on Goodreads or Shelfari or Internet blogs you come across this phrase, or a variation thereof?

“The book was great, but the ending really bugs me.”

It’s a loaded statement, and it proves what I came to suspect a while ago: Endings are just as important, if not more, as beginnings. In fact, I am going out on a limb here by saying: A good beginning might sell a book to the reader, but a good ending might win you (or at least the series you’re writing) a devout fan. Someone who will come back and read whatever you put out, whether it’s books, blog posts, or even your old fanfiction dot net account (I’ve done it, and I suspect many new fans of Brennan and Clare have also done it, and thanked the brave ones who saved PDF copies of their fics). A good ending makes the readers come back.

Just a clarification: By a good ending I don’t necessarily mean a happy ending. To illustrate my point, let’s look at A Clockwork Orange. This book originally had three parts, each 7 chapters, but the American publishers initially got Burgess to remove chapter 21, presumably because the audiences wouldn’t be sold on it. The hipster in me immediately goes: “Dude, the original is the only True version,” but the reader in me pauses to reflect.

The protagonist or A Clockwork Orange, Alex, starts off as a young man of 15 who is fond of drugs, B&E, arson, battering, Beethoven, ultraviolence and the ol’ in-out in-out. The book follows his journey through adolescence in prison, where he is used as a guinea pig for a new reform method very similar to aversion therapy. After he gets out, he finds he’s unable to defend himself in a world where his only pleasures are taken away and where his old victims are very much keen on revenge. He raises some stink, and the authorities backpedal. Chapter 20 shows him cured from his cure and able to go back to his ways. Chapter 21, however, is him growing bored and weary of them, accepting that they were wrong, and thinking about starting life as a good citizen.

In a way, it’s not bad. Burgess used 21 chapters to symbolize the age of maturity, and how Alex comes to realize that the things he believed as a teenager were wrong. But as far as an ending to this particular book, it’s pretty lackluster. A Clockwork Orange deals mostly with human nature and the questions on whether it is ethical, or even right, to enforce a behavior on an individual by breaking down his own free will, even if the said individual is a monster. Alex is unapologetic about what he does, and that’s the thing that didn’t sell me on chapter 21 – I just couldn’t believe that someone who enjoys rape, violence, and misery, could simply say “Hey, you know what, I’m tired of being a sadist, and it’s wrong. I want a wife and son and regularity!”

That sets what I think is important to endings: It has to be consistent with the feel of the book. Whatever you may choose to do to your protagonist – 2.5 kids and a picket fence, or a swan dive off a roof – has to ring true to the rest of your book.

That said, let’s look quickly at the different types of ending there are.

#1 “And they lived happily ever after,” is probably the most common of endings (or, at least, the one expected most often). It leaves no plot threads hanging, everyone’s got what they deserved and wanted and things just can’t be better. General consensus: Sweet, but unrealistic.

#2 Happy for now is a variation of the HEA which is more favored nowadays simply because people know that life isn’t peaches and roses and that the heroes meet hardship. It’s an ending which provides sufficient closure without a wedding, engagement, white picket fence and a credit card that’s got no limit. It usually has some questions left hanging, but not too many to invite a sequel. The Discworld books have happy for now endings. Isabel Allende’s books have happy for now endings. General consensus: It’s a realistic way to end a book.

#3 Cliffhangers. They can be good and they can be bad. The ending for Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Crescendo” has become infamous as bad cliffhanger, as well as the ending of “City of Fallen Angels”. But it can’t be denied that cliffhangers can be used for good, especially in series – it wraps up the existing storyline but offers a glimpse of the conflict in the next book. The ending of “White Cat” by Holly Black is a good example – the conflict of the book is resolved, but another one is created, one that has to be dealt with. A million thanks to Lucy for reminding me of the Harry Potter books, which also do a fantastic job at using cliffhangers as a way to hook the readers without frustrating them. General consensus: Proceed with caution.

#4 Bittersweet. This is closer to the HEA or the HFN endings, but not quite. It’s an ending where resolution comes with the death of something – sometimes the protagonist, sometimes just a symbol, or a period of their lives. The easiest example I can think of is a coming-of-age story that involves the death of childhood. Think of “The Book Thief” or “The Hero of Ages”. Mind you, they can also be tear-jerkers, but not necessarily. It’s a nice symbolic way to show how your heroes’ goals have changed over the course of the book. General consensus: My favorite kind.

#5 Whiplash is the kind of ending that really makes your head snap around. It’s that little twist that you never saw coming, that thing that leaves you gaping at the book and screaming when you turn the page and realize you’re looking at the acknowledgements (actually, that’s a marker of any good book, not just good whiplash endings). Such an example is “The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks, “Genesis” by Bernard Beckett and, to a lesser extent, “Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller. It’s a hard one to pull off, because by the end, the readers would have guessed/learned all there is about your character, and you need to be really sneaky with the clues in the text so that it doesn’t come off as ham-handed. General consensus: Pretty high piloting.

Those are the type of endings I can think of for now, but there are so many out there, and different for everyone. So I’d like to ask you now – what are your favorite kinds of endings? Is there a particular book you think can be a category on its own? Would an ending sell you on an author, or do you need more than one book to decide if you’re a fan?

Comment away.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The C Word – On P.C. Cast, Incendiary Language and the Responsibility of Free Speech

by Ceilidh 

Few topics make the book blogging masses rise to defense quite like that of censorship, especially in YA, which is heavily targeted by those who challenge libraries and schools for their literary content. We at the Book Lantern are very anti-censorship – it’s a lazy way to avoid tough topics and it only serves to make us all stupider and more willfully ignorant – and we will continue to stand up against threats of banning in libraries, schools, bookshops, etc, because knowledge is power and it should be used to all its power.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, and this is where today’s topic lies. A comment left on the blog of author P.C. Cast,  co-writer of the bestselling House of Night series, from a commenter named Melissa expressed concern over a particular word choice Cast made:

“My daughter was really interested in starting your HON series. I try to read most of the books before I let her have a go at them. I was offended and a little surprised at the use of "retard" in your book Marked. Needless to say my daughter isn't going to be reading them and I am working on getting the series removed from the District library. As adults really, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Try checking out http://r-word.org.”

P.C. Cast responded thusly:

“Melissa - try checking out www.usconstitution.net. You have the right to decide for your family what they can and can't read. You do not have the right to decide for anyone else. But while you're busily trying to nullify a whole bunch of people's First Amendment rights because you don't like a word in a book you didn't even bother to finish reading, why don't you also petition your district to yank copies of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Nigger is a way more offensive word than retard, and it's all over that book. Speaking of, you should also insist Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FIN be banned because there's definitely an offensive word used in there by children. Stick Shakespeare under your moral magnifying glass as well. I taught ROMEO AND JULIET to ninth graders for years, and I promise you there are seriously offensive words in that thing. Wow, that reminds me, Euripides' tragedy, MEDEA (which I also taught), doesn't just have offensive words in it - kids are actually killed - by their mommy! Better ban that.

My point, Melissa, is that once one person or a group of like-minded people decide that they have the right to choose for others what they read, think, say, write – it has no end.

It's a shame you didn't finish reading my series (or even that one book). My characters consistently deal with people who make snap judgments, and through situations that arise because of those faulty judgments they learn to look deeper and use better sense. That's a good lesson for many people to learn.”

Now let me clear this up – I do not agree with Melissa’s desire to remove the book from her district library. She does have the right to monitor her child’s reading choices (something I wish more parents did – come on book banners, try talking to your kids and taking some responsibility instead of blaming the evil books!) but not to decide for the general public. However, I think Cast completely missed the point as to why Melissa was angry.

The ‘r’ word is a disgusting word that degrades and offends those with disabilities, even if it’s not used directly towards the disabled. To appropriate such a word in place of calling one stupid or a similar insult creates all sorts of problems. To allow such offensive language to go unchallenged allows it to become a normal part of our life to the point where we forget how offensive it is. The same applies to using ‘gay’ as an insult, as well as other degrading insults to LGBTQs (e.g. the ‘f’ word, ‘tranny’), people of colour (which I won’t repeat here because Cast already has), women (bitches, whores, other slut-shaming terms), etc.

Cast says that what she does is perfectly in line with free speech and the constitution, and that’s all well and good. While it’s true that fiction isn’t all sunshine and roses, Cast writes an extremely popular YA series with a massive reader-base predominantly made up of teenage girls. I’ve frequently discussed the responsibility that comes with writing for an impressionable audience and the need to not rose-tint and romanticise, be it anti-feminism, abusive relationships, slut-shaming, or any of the myriad of issues I’ve written about before.

For the literary examples Cast used to defend her word choice, the same situations do not apply to her. Huckleberry Finn’s frequent use of the ‘n’ word serves to show the deep seated racism of the time period and how such a harmful word became so normal for a child to use. Shakespearean and the Greek tragedies were not intended for a predominantly teenage audience, and the dramatic tropes were prevalent throughout all such theatre of their time periods. Cast writes a paranormal romance YA series set in the 21st century. While I have only read the first book in full, the one which Melissa takes issue with, I can confirm that the use of the ‘r’ word is not to make a point or to demonstrate the harmful power of such words, it’s a childish attempt to insult someone. Nobody is reprimanded for using the word, it’s just casually tossed into the narration to describe two characters. It was offensive (as was Cast’s rampant stereotyping of the token gay character, the slut-shaming of the female antagonist and the general quality of the writing, but I’ve already reviewed that book at length.)

Would the comments section in Cast’s blog have been so supportive of her had she used the free speech card to defend a racist comment she had made? I highly doubt it. Sadly, there are still some terms that are considered acceptable to use, no matter how offensive they are, and it seems that the ‘r’ word is one of them. This is demonstrated not only by Cast’s use of the word (if I remember correctly, the term is used more than once but I don’t have a copy of the book at hand to check) but by her editors and publishers allowing the word to remain. In the realm of YA, social responsibility has become more prevalent in recent times. There’s still a long way to go and it doesn’t start or stop with YA; this is a much wider issue that runs deep through our media, culture and history. It can’t be fixed with a snap of one’s fingers, but change can start in small places. I think YA is one of the places that can make that change, especially since it reaches a more impressionable audience. P.C. Cast has an inherent responsibility as an author to young adults, whether she likes to admit it or not. YA is just one of the areas of entertainment that shapes our public attitudes and reasserts stereotypes and harmful assumptions, intentional or not.

Censorship is not the answer. We have to have the proper discussions about language and words, as well as the powerful roles they play. I heartily recommend this clip of Professor Melissa Harris-Perry discussing the issue of the censoring of Huck Finn a few months ago for some proper context on that issue. The commenter Melissa should not have the book removed from her district library because censorship is never the answer. We don’t need to let ignorance reign superior over our world any more than it already does, and banning books just because they present a different world view one small group of people has an issue with creates more problems than it solves. However, I do support the fight against using incendiary and hurtful language in all media, especially YA. Speaking out against problematic content is not condoning censorship; it’s a desire for change. This also raises the issue of what is and isn’t appropriate for YA but that’s a hot button topic blog post for another day! I hope Cast takes time to read that website and understand that free speech can have its repercussions and that we can use that power for positive change.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Interview with Laura Goode


by Ceilidh and Katya

Today on The Book Lantern we are happy to welcome Laura Goode, whose debut YA novel "Sister Mischief" was featured earlier on the blog, and which comes out July 12th (a release we're all pretty hyped up about, especially those of us who have already read it!)

There’s a debate on whether authors should write what they know, or branch out and attempt to write diverse characters and settings, even at the risk of not getting it right. What’s your take on the matter?

I think it's pretty inarguable that great writers should be able to do both. Great writers take what they know and make it universal, which is the opposite of solipsism. I don't think I'll ever consider myself a great writer, but in writing Sister Mischief, I did feel that there was an equilibrium that had to be struck in combining the texture of my own experience with a proportional amount of imagination of others' experiences. There's always the risk of not getting it right, but I'd rather fail at taking that risk than stagnate in a false safety that ignores diversity.

Both Tessa and Mary Ashley are Christian, but different in expressing their belief. What role does Christianity play in your book?

It may be easy to mistake Sister Mischief for an anti-Christian novel, but I don't see it that way at all. What Tess calls "thinking Christianity" is a faith I've seen observed by some of the people I admire most, and it's a system of Christian values used to advance tolerance, understanding, and social justice. Tess's Christianity is founded on unconditional compassion and acceptance and love, and it provides her room to respect and seek to understand the Hinduism and Judaism of her closest friends, too. I think spiritual inquiry is a huge part of the adolescent experience--it certainly was a big part of my own--and so it felt important to me to include it along with the other intellectual, artistic, and sexual inquiries that the book charts.

A writer’s education: Yay or Nay?

That's a complicated question; I don't think I can answer it in a binary up-or-down. Every writer has an education. That education can take any number of forms--wanderlust, horror, school, prison, family, banality, the wrong profession, a love affair gone right or terribly wrong, wasted time, unwasted time. It's not up to me to determine what the best way is for anyone else to spend their time, encounter the world, or transmute either time or world into language. Talent and drive are fired in many cauldrons. I was unbelievably lucky--and privileged--to receive an undergraduate and graduate degree in English and writing. For me, it was a good and valuable way to spend some time. I was also 22 and had no fucking clue what else to do, because I knew I didn't want to do anything but write as much as humanly possible, so at the end of the day I'm just a writer and thus the credibility of my life choices is pretty limited. But above all, I believe that nothing but the act of writing makes you a writer. Writing itself is the only real education.

Rap and hip-hop culture plays a major role in the novel. What was the intrinsic appeal of this for you and were there any worries over issues of cultural appropriation?

I really think the language of hip-hop is one of the most important dispersions of poetic language in the last 50 years, and that's why I wanted to write about it. That and it provided a good forum to entertain my clandestine fantasies about being a gangly white girl rapper. I had, still have, huge anxiety that the way I depicted Rowie and her relationship with Esme, as well as hip-hop's role in the story, would be interpreted as culturally appropriating. It was probably my biggest worry about the book. But I think that the argument the book ultimately makes--and it's gratifying to see people largely accept this in the book's reception--is that so much of identity is performance. And also, what is adolescence if not appropriation? At that precipice we want nothing more than to live inside each others' skins. You meet someone wonderful and you try them on. It's messy and inappropriate and you have to go too far to learn where boundaries are, and to grow.

With YA being an industry known for its trends and fads, from paranormal to dystopian, what does "Sister Mischief" bring to the genre that's unique and appealing to its key demographic?

To me, YA has two purposes: to indulge fantasies and to tell the truth. Sometimes it happens simultaneously, but I think most works do one or the other. In my "No Vampires" article that you reference below, part of my argument is that too much of YA indulges, and not enough tells the truth. I wanted to portray teenagers in a truthful way, and to me, that meant allowing them to have potty mouths, and make messy mistakes, and experiment with things people tell them not to explore, and push away the people they love the most in order to see where "you" ends and "I" begins. We all feel like outsiders in high school. We all think we're the only ones suffering the way we are. The salient fact of adolescence is salving the feeling of feeling alone, and realizing that that solitude both isolates us from others and makes us unique and separate. So I guess in answer to your question, i'd say that Sister Mischief follows a long and valued tradition of truth-telling in YA--of letting young people, in all their anguish of becoming someone older, know that someone understands how hard it is to grow up.

In the aftermath of the Wall Street Journal's YA article regarding 'dark content', and the subsequent backlash, the topic of 'serious issues' and their portrayal in YA has really come to the forefront. As a debut YA author, and as one with a novel featuring LGBTQ content as well as sex and drug use, how did you approach writing these issues for a predominantly teen audience?

I like to think I approached writing them with great care. It's a huge responsibility to write something intended for young minds. As in any genre, there's a fine line between shockingly truthful and just shocking. I agreed with much of the WSJ article, though I found it stodgy: of course I think it's important for parents to be involved in what their children are reading, and of course I want young people's literature to be nourishing and not destructive. I actually don't consider Sister Mischief a particularly dark novel; my priority was much more strongly with making it a funny one. Esme knows she's gay and doesn't hate herself for it. That said, I also think gritty content is often truthful in a way that's absolutely necessary, and that includes content about issues like sexuality, self-mutilation, and drug use. Dark matter comprises a large part of the teenage years for many of us, and parents who find themselves concerned about seeing that dark matter in the books their children consume, I think, have the perfect opportunity to initiate dialogue about it with them.

As to the LGBTQ point, with the hugely public suicide of Tyler Clementi last fall, I think the country finally began to acknowledge that our queer youth are in a state of crisis, and that the responsibility of compassionate adults to reach out to them is quite literally a matter of life and death. It was my intention with the novel to establish myself as an unflinching ally of queer young people. In the end, like Brokeback Mountain and Hedwig And The Angry Inch and many other powerful works of contemporary queer art, Sister Mischief is a love story. And I think right now what queer young people need more than anything else is a rallying cry for the love they feel, an affirmation that nothing about them is wrong or disgusting, and literary heroes and heroines in whom they can see themselves reflected. If the Wall Street Journal or anyone else has a problem with that, they can kiss me.

You mentioned in this article after mentioning the "Twilight series" that writing "Sister Mischief" was really an instance of "putting my money where my mouth was: giving young people access to candid, high-quality literature..." What would you like to see more of in YA?

See above.

Provided it’s not top secret, what’s your next project?

Totally not top secret! I'm primarily working on two projects right now. One is my second novel, The Second Self, a decidedly adult noir mystery surrounding the murder of a New York City writer/bartender and the detectives who investigate it, one of whom is a man leading a top-secret double life as a Tina Turner and Diana Ross celebrity tribute artist. The other is my first feature film, Farah Goes Bang, which I'm writing in collaboration with my dear friend Meera Menon and producing independently through our new company, Prospect Place Productions. FGB follows three recent college graduates in 2004 as they go on the road to campaign for John Kerry and for one of them to lose her virginity. Stay tuned on all this and more at www.lauragoode.com.

Thank you, Laura. We wish you the best and we'll be waiting eagerly for "The Second Self" and "Farah Goes Bang". Sister Mischief comes out July 12, so, everyone, line up at your local bookstore or pre-order through Amazon. It's worth it, and then some!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Of Popularity, Money, and Uncertainty

Every time I turn my head, someone famous seems to be writing a novel. Last year, Hillary Duff's name was tied to a novel, Elixir, that became a New York Times Bestseller. Chris Colfer of Glee fame recently signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. Now 50 Cent is writing a YA novel entitled Playground.

When did novel writing suddenly become en vogue? What happened to create such an interest in this area of the novel market that for so long had been called merely “children's books” as if that label was an insult of some kind?

Young adult literature happened. From a combined success of popular properties over the past decade – Harry Potter and Twilight being the largest among them – the area of children's books widened and expanded beyond the small subset it had once held. Bookstores that had once had only one or two bookcases with unrecognizable titles and bland covers suddenly sported seven to ten bookcases filled with flashy cover art and a plethora of ideas, worlds, characters, and stories. Something changed in those years. What happened? Children's books suddenly seemed profitable.

It's no secret that money-making offers a certain respect to various areas of our society. You see it in business all the time: no matter how innovative a product is, most business people will not take the risks of investments unless there is a proven market for said product. If there is a proven market (usually seen by consumer interest or, if the product was the result of a small business or entrepreneural endeavor, by above-average sales and revenue), then there is at least a bit of evidence that there is demand enough to warrant a potentially large supply.

What did the boom of Twilight do to the YA market? It led to oversaturation in which everyone – writers, agents, editors, publishers – began to chase whatever trends they could in the hope that another boom would occur and mean more money for everyone involved. It's still going on today. Why else did everyone seem to jump on the dystopian bandwagon post-The Hunger Games? Why else do we readers sometimes snark amongst ourselves, Okay, what's next? Leprechauns? Clones? Centaurs? It's almost become a game to see what the “next big thing” will be – and that in and of itself should make anyone give pause and perhaps even question the integrity of this market.

As a writer myself, I can't say it's not disheartening to have to look at books as just another market where numbers matter the most above everything else. Some days I have to wonder what truly matters in the world of young adult books. Story? Or the potential profit of the story? Characters? Or the potential casting of said characters in a profitable movie deal? Craft? Or just any old words to fill the pages because longer books may mean larger deals? I don't know, and not knowing scares the hell out of me. I want to trust this market which I hope to enter one day – but when the market itself is sending me and everyone else mixed signals of what truly matters we then start to question even ourselves as both readers and writers.

I want the young adult market to continue to flourish in the years to come, but at the rate it's going it may just fizzle out before its time. Momentum doesn't last forever; profitability is a fickle friend; and respect is something that's hard-earned, not cheaply bought. Without those things, what will the young adult market have? Will it cave under that kind of pressure? Or will it manage to survive and come out better than it ever was? I hope that it will be the latter – for the sakes of all YA readers and writers out there.

Friday, July 1, 2011

So... About Boys and YA Novels

I've spent the past two days on Absolute Write discussing why boys don't read YA with a few fabulous people and a few less than fabulous people. You can find the discussion here.  I assume that this was started by the #yalitchat. I don't use twitter and my YA Lit Chat account is dormant so I was out of the loop until I found that thread.

Now, I'm not one to let internet debates rile me up. But, I was prepared to write a rant. Instead, a wonderful person over here did it for me. Read this. You'll thank me later. And don't forget to check out the comments section.  

More on this here and here.