Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Art of Hate-Reading.

As I wrote my review for Kiersten White’s latest YA novel “Mind Games”, I thought about what my review said about myself. Of all the things I’ve been accused of being since I started YA blogging (and that’s a very interesting list of names), the most common one levelled at me is that of a snarky figure who deliberately seeks out books I know I’ll hate to review for comedic purposes. This accusation is usually used as a way to discredit other things I say, so I’m used to it. The truth is I’m not 100% innocent on this front. When I began reviewing, I did seek out books for the Sparkle Project that I knew I probably wouldn’t like. The purpose of those reviews was to tackle the material from a specific point of view that was both informative and entertaining. While I haven’t done a so-called snarky review in a while (I think my “Fifty Shades of Grey”one was the most recent example), I do read books that I know I probably won’t like for the purposes of reviewing. Is this hate-reading?

I would argue that it isn't  I stick to certain rules when I pick up a book for review. The first rule, and the one that raises a few eyebrows, is that I will finish it whether I enjoy the experience or not. If you follow me on GoodReads or Twitter then you’ll have seen my complaints as I read certain books. I haven’t left a book unfinished in quite a while. For me, it’s a commitment and a crucial part of the reviewing process. I fully support a blogger’s right to review a book they didn’t finish. That’s a personal choice. For me, I prefer to have all the information at hand. Honestly, I want to see just how much worse it can get. There’s definitely an element of masochism involved in my process. As someone who’s also fascinated by pop culture and the evolution of trends, particularly in YA, I feel a desire to keep up-to-date with it all, even though I know these trends aren’t really my thing. That’s why I read all those embarrassingly insulting and terrible New Adult novels. I want to know what the big deal is.

Hate-reading (or the more commonly discussed hate-watching of movies and TV shows) has multiple definitions. There are the things that you watch for the train wreck glory, such as reality TV shows. Sometimes you watch something for glorious Schadenfreude. I’m a politics geek and I love to watch politicians I hate squirm when they’re caught out lying or in the midst of a display of what has come to be known as an omnishambles. Even though I seriously dislike these people, I enjoy their misery (I also dare someone to tell me they don’t watch “Question Time” for hate purposes. It’s impossible). I guess this is similar to things like “X Factor” and “Big Brother”. Other hate-reads for me are Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP website, Meghan McCain’s blogs for the Daily Beast, and anything ever written, said or passed off as art by James Franco. Their complete lack of self-awareness and stench of unacknowledged privilege both rile me up like crazy and make me laugh like a loon.

Then again, these aren’t experiences of hate for me, at least not in the traditional sense. There are some things that are so awful in terms of quality yet remain incredibly entertaining. Watching “The Room” in a room full of people screaming along at the terrible dialogue and throwing plastic spoons at the screen is un-ironically entertaining. The Merry Gentry novels by Laurell K Hamilton (at least the first three that I’ve actually read) are pretty awful but delightfully so. The later Anita Blake books are a hate-read pleasure for many because they’ve witnessed the series descend into parody and can’t stop looking.

I think we all enjoy things considered bad, but we also enjoy ragging on things that are considered bad. That Guy with the Glasses made their name in this field, and if I’m being honest, so did I (I did read three books in the Hush Hush series, after all). Quality is not an instant marker of a good hate-watch/read. There’s an undeniable satisfaction in seeing something you can’t stand be metaphorically torn apart in the most skilful and hilarious manner possible, particularly if said thing is extremely popular.

For YA purposes, I’m not really into hate-reading, per se. as I said above, I’m a literary masochist who must finish a book, no matter how bad it gets, because I wish to have all the information at hand for the purposes of my articles. Sometimes this does involve me hating the experience of reading that book, so I guess by default I am guilty of this. Then again, this isn’t often an enjoyable experience like it is when I read bad fan-fiction or Gwyneth Paltrow’s preaching of detoxes and $125 t-shirts.

While I don’t pick up a book with the explicit intent of hating it these days (believe it or not, I do try to give each book a fair chance), I definitely see the appeal, and I am guilty of doing it with other forms of media. It can be a delightfully cathartic experience, and one I often greatly enjoy. As long as you don’t let it consume you and become something more akin to self-loathing and cruelty, go for it. Life may be too short for things you don’t like but face it, sometimes you just can’t resist!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: "Mind Games"/"Sister Assassin" by Kiersten White.

“Mind Games/Sister Assassin”
Author: Kiersten White
 Pages: 256
Publisher: HarperTeen
Summary (taken from Goodreads): Fia was born with flawless instincts. Her first impulse, her gut feeling, is always exactly right. Her sister, Annie, is blind to the world around her—except when her mind is gripped by strange visions of the future. 
Trapped in a school that uses girls with extraordinary powers as tools for corporate espionage, Annie and Fia are forced to choose over and over between using their abilities in twisted, unthinkable ways… or risking each other’s lives by refusing to obey.
In a stunning departure from her New York Times best-selling Paranormalcy trilogy, Kiersten White delivers a slick, edgy, heartstoppingly intense psychological thriller about two sisters determined to protect each other—no matter the cost.
The ratings system is inherently flawed in relation to book reviews. I tend to use the 1 star review solely for books that offended me, particularly in their romanticised depiction of rape culture, abusive relationships, women shaming, etc. I seldom, if ever, give a book 1 star because it was just awful as a piece of literature. I read somewhere that the author Kiersten White finished the first draft of this book in nine days. I don’t believe that. Nine days is far longer than my original prediction of a weekend. This book read like a NaNoWriMo novel written in the final two days because the author forgot about it. It’s been a long time since I read a book as painfully rushed, sloppy and lazy as “Mind Games” (known as “Sister Assassin” in UK).
The biggest failure of this book is the narration. Switching between the two sisters who are entirely matching in almost every way, White has chosen a stream-of-consciousness first person style to tell this story. Stream-of-consciousness was a particular favourite of the Modernist movement, and utilised to great effect by writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce (if you’ve actually finished “Ulysses” then you’re a better person than I am). It’s tough to read even when it’s executed perfectly. Here it’s practically unbearable. Not only are the sisters’ narrations impossible to differentiate from, the constant repetition of words and phrases, coupled with the lazy and juvenile nature of the prose made the experience of reading this book seem far longer than its slim page numbers would suggest. The non-linear narrative feels like such a slog, and does nothing but make the story entirely incoherent. Any possibility of the book livening up with some action is quickly ruined by this unreadable style.
None of this is helped by the fact that both sisters are motivated by pretty much the same things, make completely irrational decisions that don’t fit with what the other cut-out characters tell us about them, and are both extremely annoying. I didn't want to spend this book with them. Then again, it’s not as if the supporting cast offer up much either. Scooby Doo offered up stronger motivation and characterisation than this book does. However, I must briefly draw attention to one character called James (which I had to look up for this review because I have honestly forgotten everyone’s names except for the sisters), who plies an under-age girl with alcohol to get her to talk. Of course, James is the dark, sexy and dangerous one who we are supposed to root for the woman he plies with alcohol to get together with. He also delightfully manipulates a young woman who struggles with her ability to feel everyone else’s emotions into believing he cares for her because that makes her easier to deal with. Not that the alcohol plied sister Fia really cares about the well-being of this young woman. She doesn’t care about anyone besides herself, regardless of her constant whining over looking after her blind sister. I’d be angrier at this mess if I in any way cared about Fia or Annie as characters.
The powers that the sisters have could be interesting if executed well, but instead they’re just there. They serve bare plot purposes in the most serviceable manner possible and are barely explained or expanded upon. In the end, everything that went on felt entirely inconsequential because I just didn’t care about anything (although I did wonder why any stereotypical evil organisation would use a woman with perfect instincts to kill people instead of just having her make them billions and screw around with democracy).
The style of the book and the childish approach to storytelling and prose just dragged me out of the experience. I can live with an unoriginal plot structure, which this book has in spades, if the execution is interesting, or interesting questions are asked, or if the characters and dialogue bring it to life. This book has none of that. I spent much more time thinking about why White was in such a hurry to push this book out than I did thinking about the book itself. “Mind Games” is bafflingly bad. I cannot understand how a relatively well acclaimed New York Times best-selling author can fail so badly with this book, although some blame must also go to the editor and agent for rushing this out so quickly as if publishing it was a race against time. I see that this book is the first in a duology, which makes me shudder, in all honesty. “Mind Games” was a waste of my time, a waste of the publisher’s time, and just a mess in every conceivable way.
I received my ARC from “Mind Games” will be released by HarperTeen on February 29th

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"He Couldn't Help Himself": The Myth of Rape and Provocative Clothing

“He had sworn to remove the feminine evil of the cestus form the world so that all men, Scion and mortal alike, could finally control their lust."

Josephine Angelini, Starcrossed

One of the prevailing myths of rape is that women who are provocatively dressed entice men to lose self-control, thus blaming them for their own rape. The attitude that the way a woman dresses invites her to be sexually assaulted is damaging to our entire culture. What’s even more alarming is when this attitude is reflected in YA or “New Adult” novels in which the love interest hints or flat-out tells the female protagonist that her outfit will cause him to “lose control”, i.e. commit rape. He tells the woman he supposedly cares for that he’s telling her to change clothing for her own good, sometimes under the guise of protecting her from other men:

“Travis's mouth fell open. "Oh, hell no. Are you trying to get me killed? You've gotta change, Pidge."
"What?" I asked, looking down.
America grabbed her hips. "She looks cute, Trav, leave her alone!"
Travis took my hands and led me down the hall. "Get a t-shirt on... and some sneakers. Something comfortable."
"What? Why?"
"Because I'll be more worried about who's looking at your tits in that shirt instead of Hoffman," he said, stopping at his door.
"I thought you said you didn't give a damn what anyone else thought?"
"That's a different scenario, Pigeon." Travis looked down at my chest and then up at me. "You can't wear this to a fight, so please... just... please just change," he stuttered, shoving me into the room and shutting me in.”

― Jamie McGuire,
Beautiful Disaster

Not only does this perpetuate the myth that sexual assault can be blamed on provocative clothing, but it depicts men as having little to no control over their desires. They’re portrayed as ticking time bombs of raw sexuality, essentially positioning them as victims of the sexual prowess of women. Basic understanding of human decency, as well as any shred of free will, is eradicated in the presence of a hot chick baring her skin – even if it’s something she’s wearing to sleep in:

“I only have so much willpower, Helen," he whispered. "And since you apparently sleep in the most ridiculously transparent tank top I've ever seen, I'm going to have to ask you to get under the covers before I do something stupid.”― Josephine Angelini, Starcrossed

“Fine! I'll throw on some clothes. Turn around. I'm in my pj's."
"I'm a guy. That's like asking a kid not to glance at the candy counter."
― Becca Fitzpatrick, Silence

The argument of “boys will be boys” doesn’t apply here. Enough research on sexual assault shows that clothing does not influence rape, although the argument persists. Take a look at the details of a 1977 case in Wisconsin, in which Judge Archie Simonson flat out blamed the victim for her own rape:

“The judge called for women to ‘stop teasing’ and for a ‘restoration of modesty in dress.’ Additionally, the judge stated that ‘whether women like it or not, they are sex objects. Are we supposed to take an impressionable person 15 or 16 years of age and punish that person severely because they react to it normally?’”

Simonson was removed from the bench when the community (assisted by the National Organization for Women) fought back, but the argument persists. Clothing that shows off a woman’s figure is seen as consent to being treated as a sexual object. 

The University of Minnesota Duluth has a class on the sociology of rape and also has an online list of rape myths, an example of which being this one:

Myth:Rape is an impulsive, uncontrollable act of sexual gratification. Most rape are spontaneous acts of passion where the assailant cannot control him/herself.

FACT:Rape is a premeditated act of violence, not a spontaneous act of passion. 71% of rapes are planned in advance. 60% of convicted rapists were married or had regular sexual partners at the time of the assault. Men can control their sexual impulses. The vast majority of rapists are motivated by power, anger, and control, not sexual gratification.
These fictional depictions of “desirable” men (and boys) who can’t be trusted to stop themselves from committing assault if they’re tempted by sexy girls is perpetuating the myth that rape is a sexual act. Rape is in fact an act of violence and control. By giving these men pity and placing the blame on the women who dares to wear something she thinks is cute, it tells the reader that the hero is in fact the man, who is a helpless creature, and the woman and her sexuality is the villain. The blame is shifted to the woman. 

As Clementine Ford states in her article "Clothes Don't Cause Rape - Rapists Do", “Rape is possibly the only criminal act in which the victims are expected to take partial responsibility for the choices of the perpetrator. Victims of muggings aren't asked why they were flaunting their wealth in 'bad neighbourhoods'. Banks aren't expected to hide the fact they have vaults of money because some people might be tempted to rob them.”

Ford hits the nail on the head. If clothing alone provokes an uncontrollable violent outburst, does that mean that if someone wears a Yankees hat in Boston, he or she deserves to get beaten or killed? What if, when I go to Wrestlemania in a few months, I buy and wear a CM Punk shirt – does that mean that a wrestling fan who hates CM Punk gets to assault me?

The answer, of course, is no.

If anyone doubts that outfit choices will endanger them to being raped, take a look at tips from RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) for avoiding dangerous situations :

·         Be aware of your surroundings. Knowing where you are and who is around you may help you to find a way to get out of a bad situation.

·         Try to avoid isolated areas. It is more difficult to get help if no one is around.

·         Walk with purpose. Even if you don’t know where you are going, act like you do.

·         Trust your instincts. If a situation or location feels unsafe or uncomfortable, it probably isn’t the best place to be.

·         Try not to load yourself down with packages or bags as this can make you appear more vulnerable.

·         Make sure your cell phone is with you and charged and that you have cab money.

·         Don't allow yourself to be isolated with someone you don’t trust or someone you don’t know.

·         Avoid putting music headphones in both ears so that you can be more aware of your surroundings, especially if you are walking alone.

Nowhere in there does it mention not to dress a certain way.  

The “clothes can provoke rape” argument is absurd, as it argues against free will, which is the basis for having laws (there is no point in making crimes such as murder, rape, and assault illegal if human beings are not able to make sound decisions and exert self-control), it’s insulting to everyone. It tells us that women are objects who are either too stupid to recognize their sexuality or who are aware of their sexuality and use it as a weapon. It also tells us that men are hapless slaves to their desires.  

What’s sad is that in the books quoted above (and many others like them), the male love interests are in fact STATING that they cannot control their urges. Even sadder, these love interests are being heralded by the fans of these books as their “fantasy man”. This is profoundly disturbing.

There’s a difference between a man saying something like “You looked so beautiful and sexy the other night, I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” and him saying something like “If you wear that again I can’t be held responsible.” Wrong. We are all responsible for our actions, and the law exists to protect us from those who choose not to control themselves. An important step towards putting an end to this kind of victim-blaming is to have these “romance” stories stop putting these types of men on a pedestal. Those fictional women and girls – and far more importantly, real women and girls everywhere – deserve much better than any male who can’t control himself.

Monday, January 21, 2013

On writing what you don't know

If you are a regular reader on the Lantern, you will probably know that one of our major pet peeves with YA is the lack of diversity. Or, rather, the fact that diverse books don’t get nearly as lauded as their whiter, thinner, able-bodied, cis-gendered and heterosexual counterparts. Most often, those counterparts are also rather well off.

You’ve heard us complain. You’ve listened to our arguments again and again. And, I imagine, Dear Reader, you’re pretty sick of them right now. If you’re a YA author or an aspiring YA author or, hell, even a casual writer (after all, not everyone who writes necessarily does it to earn money), these criticisms can also make you very frustrated. As in: “Yeah, I get it, YA is not diverse enough! But I’m fairly/mostly/most definitely priviledged in relation to (minority), how am I supposed to write these characters well?”
We understand your frustrations, and yes, those are legit concerns. After all, token characters can be just as annoying to the reader as a complete lack of representation. So here are some suggestions about writing who and what you don’t know.

Tip #1: Yes, it can be done!

Don’t assume that just because you’re privileged, you can’t write characters that are not. It can be done, and to a great effect. Books like “Hold Still” and “If You Find Me” offer different takes on mental illness without making it feel overwrought, “The Mortal Engines” and “The Book Thief” are prime examples of male writers writing compelling female characters, and Antony John actually wrote a whole book from the POV of a disabled person.

So yes, writers, you are not given a pass on making your books more diverse because you have not experienced a particular disadvantage first hand. I feel that this is an important realisation to come to, because nowadays people are conditioned to always do right, and this actually makes them really anxious about screwing up. And while some awareness of one’s privilege is important, holding out because you’re afraid of failure can be worse.

In fact, here's Laura Goode's interview in case you want to hear someone explain it.

That said, you don’t have to force yourself to experience it, like one of those personal trainers gaining a whole lot of weight and then going on papers and talk shows to milk the experience for all it is worth. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t try to emulate them, those guys are assholes.) Which brings me to:

Tip #2: Do you f****ng homework!

And by that I mean read. Read a lot. Read far and wide and don’t shrink back from things you wouldn’t normally pick up. Fiction and non-fiction, biographies, scientific studies (you can skim over the complicated terms and focus on the conclusions to the sections if you feel like falling asleep). It won’t all be interesting, and some of it won’t even be good, but distinguishing between good and bad in other people’s writing will help you weed out the stereotypes from your own works.

Here's my interview with Antony John, if you want to see what kind of research he conducted for "Five Flavors of Dumb".

Also, it might be a good idea to start consuming some media geared towards the people you’re writing about. If you wrote a gamer character, you’d at least try playing WoW, so why not watch a few lesbian movies to gain some better understanding of your character. (Those lesbian movies don’t have to be pornographic, by the way, but in case you’re wondering, porn isn’t made exclusively for straight guys. Telling the good and the bad apart is, like everything, a matter or practice.)

Most importantly, go read a blog or twenty. The Internet is an endless source of information about nearly everything, and people often use their blogs to openly discuss and analyse their everyday experiences. For places to start, Ana Mardoll needs no introduction, and also Shakesville, Racialicious and MS Magazine. Also, I want to give a shout out to Foz Meadows' blog, and to Feminist Frequency, because they're just awesome. Many articles you read online are linked to other articles on other blogs, so finding information, and varied information at that, will be easy enough.

Also, as no two human beings are alike, you will soon discover that the people you perceived as a monolithic “minority” are just as diverse as the folks in the “majority”. Gay men can be misogynistic and feminists can be racist, and if that revelation doesn’t blow your mind, I’d like to give you another one.

Instead of a tip #3:

Knowledge => Understanding => Sympathy => Far lesser chances of you writing a sociological cliche

As you read those blogs and deconstructions, you will start to notice a strange thing: those “other” people? That minority group? They’re just like you. In fact, they are you. They have hopes and dreams and aspirations, they fuck up and make bad decisions, they are sweet and gentle and mean and unpleasant. They’re not aliens, and they’re not impossible to understand, and had it not been for the societal factor, accepting them and writing about them wouldn’t seem like such a monumental task for you.

It would be a stretch to say that ignorance is the only reason why discrimination exists, but it is definitely up there in the top three. It blows up a simple difference (whether a cultural, physiological or mental one) into a complete and total dehumanisation, which in turn makes it easier for hatred to exist. We are conditioned to split the world into camps, us versus them, and so when we hit a more grey area, we don’t know how to deal with this.

Imagine, if you will, a friend or a close family member saying something completely unfair and out of line. Say, you’re at the supermarket and they fat-shame some woman, while you yourself are a total advocate for respecting people’s decisions about what to do with their bodies. You’ve probably participated in hundreds of online discussions and argued against fat shaming, but you always saw your opponents as unenlightened jerks, not as people you would actually hang out with on a regular basis. Are you conflicted yet? Because let me tell you, it’s a pretty conflicting situation.

Humans are complicated, and we make things even more complicated by adding layer upon layer of cultural and sociological factors. That’s why writing disadvantaged characters like you would write a privileged one, but in a different body, is not enough - you need to understand the environment they operate in, and the different limits they face, both from the inside and the outside.

And then… well, it won’t magically turn you into an amazing author, but it will make things easier. Just a little bit.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch


A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen-year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey's younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency. Until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and the girls are found by their father, a stranger, and taken to re-enter the "normal" life of school, clothes and boys.

Now, Carey must come to terms with the truth of why their mother spirited them away ten years ago, while haunted by a past that won't let her go ... a dark past that hides many a secret, including the reason Jenessa hasn't spoken a word in over a year. Carey knows she must keep her sister close, and her secrets even closer, or risk watching her new life come crashing down.

I think I need to reconsider one of my pet peeves.

After you read around in a genre, you start to develop your tastes. You learn to decipher tricky synopsises and read the codes to find the stories you would like, and you also learn about your own pet peeves. One of mine, as it turned out, is cutesy child characters. Namely, cutesy child characters that serve little purpose outside of motivation for the protagonist and a magnet for our sympathy. I despise poorly done characters as a rule, but it’s even worse when you throw little kids in the mix. Nine times out of ten, they’re not even given a proper character.

This book… changes things somewhat.

I don’t know why, exactly. Carey and Janessa’s relationship is very much like that of Katniss and Prim from “The Hunger Games” - sisters forced to grow up, one who managed to turn into a surrogate parent and one that couldn’t take the transformation. Theirs is a relationship build in isolation, one that is rooted much deeper than most sibling bonds, both sweet and a tiny bit dysfunctional.

In the wrong hands, such a set-up could have turned disastrously, but Emily Murdoch balances things out with a heavy dose of real world truth in her narrative. She explores the dynamics of this kind of relationship by juxtaposing them with the outside world and what a relatively normal family looks like, and by doing so, she gives her characters an opportunity to evolve past their basic type.

Basically, if you’re looking for a way to write sibling relationship, this would be a good place to start.

Also, I don’t usually mention the writing, but here, it was particularly striking. Lyrical, occasionally haunting, but never romanticising or downplaying an important moment. It suits Carey’s voice, conveying the atmosphere of the book - a state between dream and reality, where one isn’t sure where they’re awake or still sleeping.

I wonder, in the darkest puzzle piece of my heart, if he’d say those words if he knew, really knew, about the white star night.
Janessa would never tell. It had sucked the words right out of her.
- Emily Murdoch, “If You Find Me”, e-galley, page 104

In case you’re wondering, this book isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. But it handles its subject matter (all of its subject matter) with care and respect, which makes it possible for the reader to immerse themselves in the story.

Actually, if there’s one false note in the whole of this, it would probably be the romantic subplot with Ryan. Though I understand the importance of it, I feel it stretched a little too far, and added just a little too much to the overall story. There’s a lot of love in this book, many different kinds of it, and I don’t think it would have hurt to leave Ryan and Carey’s relationship on a more ambiguous note.

Still, that’s just a minor nit-pick. I do believe this is a wonderful book, though, so if you can, definitely give it a read.

Releases March 26th from St. Martin’s Press.

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

Note: Image and synopsis via Goodreads.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Let's Talk Fan-fiction.

Today, Katya & I are trying something a little different. Since fan-fiction is such a huge part of fandom, and has increasingly become a surprise addition to the professional publishing sector, we felt it deserved its own post.

KatyaI've been writing fan-fiction since I was 16 (which would make it... five years this November. Yelp!) I won't link my profile because it will be kinda embarrassing to have people read the shit I wrote (although it is kinda impressive when you compare where I started out and how my writing has improved... privately). I wrote stuff for many fandoms, including Twilight, and am guilty of writing a fic so ridiculous and misogynistic (yes) that even the Twifans were disgusted by it (go figure). Said fic no longer exists, because I know better.

Ceilidh: For me, I think I was about 15 when I discovered fan-fiction, thanks to the Harry Potter section of the IMDb message boards. I didn't really write anything in fan-fiction until a couple of years later (and no, not linking to that either, because it's terrible). It was a handy outlet for some of my creative juices, and very helpful for allowing me to grow as a writer. I haven't written fic in a while now, mainly because I haven't written anything fiction in such a long time, but I still read it regularly for a number of fandoms. I think it's an important part of fandom creativity. It's one of the foundations of fandom. Of course, nowadays things are a bit different. I don't think any of us ever thought we'd be seeing fan-fiction become a new milestone in the modern publishing industry. 

I'm adamantly against pulling fan-fiction and rejigging it for "original" publishing purposes. What about you?

Katya: Honestly, I'm a little conflicted about it. On the one hand, I know how much time and effort goes into the making of a good fan-fic, and there are some that are drastically different from the source material. But that could be the inner fan in me speaking - I was really sad when "The Lost Boys" got taken down, so I was really looking forward to the re-release, because I loved the story so much. (Note: I have read the re-release, and it has several large differences from the original. So... not all of the P2Ps are given a cosmetic makeover.)
Still... yeah, I do think that the way everything's done right now is not cool. It would be one thing if authors re-edited the story and queried it the traditional way, but instead, publishers are now actively seeking popular fics with an established fanbase. I get it that they want to make a profit but... yeah, not cool.
Since we're covering the basics, I also want to point out that fan-fiction in itself is a pretty awesome thing, since it encourages fans to interact and explore their fandom beyond what the writer did. Didn't get enough world-building in "Under the Never Sky"? How about a history of the Aether, with a love story thrown in? Or you didn't like the ending to "Breaking Dawn"? Let's give it the bloodbath it deserved! One of my favourite fics is basically a Twilight re-hash, but it replaces vampirism with serious lust, going back to the original myth that vampirism was just a metaphor for sex. There is just so much in theme and character that can be done, and the fans do some amazing things with it. As a phenomenon, it's fascinating. 
What about you? Do you think fan-fiction has literary merit?

Ceilidh: Definitely. I'm always amazed when people say genre fiction has no literary merit because it's really bloody hard to write good genre fiction, be it sci-fi, romance, crime, etc. I think it's the same concept in regards to fan-fiction. Not only do you limit yourself to an extent by working with a set universe or characters or tropes, but you're working with something that many people are greatly attached to. I particularly enjoy reading fan-fiction based on a piece of work that wasn't particularly well received critically. I think the writer has more freedom in that aspect to really do as they wish with the world because the creator missed so many opportunities with their own work. 

Besides, fan-fiction is part of literary history. Many of Shakespeare's plays were based on Greek tragedies or historical events. Jean Rhys took the mad woman in the attic trope from Jane Eyre and turned it into a feminist revisionary masterpiece. Gus Van Sant turned Shakespeare's Henry IV into a non-linear gay romance. Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, they've all been re-imagined time and time again. One of my all-time favourite films, Quills, is a dramatic re-imagining of the life of the Marquis de Sade. Technically, fan-fiction has won Oscars & Pulitzer Prizes, sold millions of copies and changed the face of entertainment. We have fandoms fighting over which fan-fic is better, notably in the recent case of Sherlock versus Elementary (team Lucy Liu!). So when people claim it has no literary merit, I simply ask them to examine history.

Of course there's a difference between Wide Sargasso Sea and Fifty Shades of Grey.

If fan-fiction continues to be openly sought out by publishers for "original fiction" purposes, what is the future of fan-fiction as a fandom-centric element?

Katya: I honestly don't know. I haven't really been an active member of any fandom, so I don't really have a perception of what the reactions are towards publishers openly seeking fan-fics for publication.

That said, I imagine that it might add a layer of competitiveness that wasn't there before. Even before "50 Shades" became a phenomenon, or even got pulled, fics got remade and pubbed, either through Amazon or through Omnific, but I didn't think much of it. Perhaps because self-publishing wasn't nearly as big back then, but I didn't think you could make much out of publishing your fics. I thought it was all about the stories and the fans.

That, obviously, is no longer the case. I'm as curious as you are as to what the effects on the fandom would be, but with stories being sold for seven figures, it's obviously not all about the art and the fandom anymore. With the possibility to become the Next Best Thing, wouldn't that just add a whole lot of pressure on people? It's like the old "I write better than XYZ, so why are publishers NOT hounding my fic?" on steroids. I'm actually a little worried this might take away some of the fun people used to have with fan-fiction.

On the other hand, the fandom might just give a big, mightly shrug, clink our glasses together and go back to writing Jesmett slashfics, or Bella/Edward/Jasper menage-a-trois. And who knows? Maybe the fandom will insert some much needed diversity in traditional publishing. What genre is more accepting, more inclusive than a fandom? Homosexual, bisexual, polyamorous, interracial relationships - they have them all!
What do you think? If publishers really did go indiscriminately after the most popular fics out there, what kind of positive change do you wish for fan-fiction to bring to the traditional publishing table? 

Ceilidh: If that does indeed happen, it could have a positive impact, particularly in relation to YA (so far, self-published P2P works have been limited to Twilight based adult romances/eroticas, but it's still early days). For all our talk of diversity in the genre, it's still mostly cis white monogamous romance that dominates the field by quite a margin. Slash fiction is hugely popular with readers of all ages and makes up a big chunk of many of the most popular fandoms. Even Twilight fandom is diverse (who doesn't prefer Edward/Jacob over Edward/Bella?). Another great positive aspect of fan-fiction is that it opens up the original text beyond its default mode and allows for a more progressive and diverse representation where it couldn't have been before. Twilight, for example, is hardly the most modern of texts in regards to its portrayal of 21st century relationships. 

However, there's no guarantee that publishers will take the risk with non-het fan-fiction. Take the recent case of S&S buying a 16 year old writer's One Direction fan-fiction (I'm pro real person fic, but wow, I find the purchase of this story problematic). One Direction has a huge, somewhat infamous fandom with a large slash dedicated element. The most read 1D fics on AO3 are by and large slash, and have way more hits than the one S&S purchased. Yet the status quo remains. Het fic is the way to go. I think this is primarily because of the self-insert element that comes with something like boyband stories, and I'm sure publishers will claim that it's about demographics and such, but it does leave me pretty fed up to see huge sums of money being thrown at the same old vanilla stories over and over. And that's one big issue for me that I can't avoid with the recent P2P band-wagon - all these stories are cut from the same cloth. Boy meets girl, typical vaguely snarky but highly predictable relationship unfolds, conflict ensues briefly, happy ever after comes without much work. And sex. Lots and lots of sex.

P2P is primarily focused on erotic romances right now, thanks to a certain series. Do you think this over-emphasises the role of sexuality and sexual content in fandom, and on that note, what role do you think fandom can play in discussions of sex amongst young people?

Katya: Actually, I think that the focus on sexual content was already there to begin with. Again, this is my bias showing, but the majority of stories I read as a teen were of T and M rating ( People want to read about sex, and this is especially true about Twilight, where the original work was mostly abstinence porn (and, after three books of building up to it, people wanted to see something more than a fade-to-black payoff). There was even an outcry a few years back when some stories got pulled (MotU included) for their graphic sexual content, which was apparently not allowed by the ToS. Looking back at it, I don't know if it's true or not, but it certainly got people talking.
On the other hand, this curiosity about sex is pretty important. Too often you see publishers freeze out what they consider questionable content like sex and homosexuality in books for young adults, saying it's not marketable and that it would only bring controversy. Young people want to talk about sex. They want to read about sex. They're endlessly curious about sex, and hell, they may be even more creative when it comes to sex than most adult writers. The fandom shows that teenagers are not a bunch of squeamish older children whose ears should be covered whenever anyone utters the word "fuck", they are interested and eager to learn about their bodies and their sexuality.
Just sayin'
So, with all those good things about fan-fiction, what do you think the publishers are doing wrong now? Why are P2P fics decried instead of celebrated?

Ceilidh: For me, it simply comes down to an issue of copyright and authorial intent. Fan-fiction isn't supposed to be written for profit. Pretty much every general fan-fic disclaimer comes with a notice of how the writer is not profiting from this story, how they don't own the characters and that everything is the property of the respective author. For myself, whenever I see a P2P book on Goodreads or being lauded on another website, I immediately recoil. I've discussed these issues before (as has our lovely new co-blogger Christina) but it's always worth repeating. Fan-fiction comes with a built-in foundation for writers - the characters are already established, and readers will bring their preconceptions and love of those characters to the table when they read the fic. The work is already partly done for the author. I'm sure that there are many talented fan-fiction writers out there who could turn their fic into something unique, but for me it's a question of when a story stops being fan-fic and starts becoming "original". This isn't really helped in instances like "50 Shades of Grey" or "Gabriel's Inferno" which were nothing but search-and-replace exercises in laziness. To me, that's worth criticism. People are worried about copyright and justifiably so. 

With one P2P fic hyped to the high heavens this year (the decidedly underwhelming "Beautiful Bastard") and editors and agents freely looking for the next big thing in P2P, what do you think makes a good candidate for P2P? Any fics out there that we should keep an eye on? 

Katya: Hmmm.... I haven't seen the adaptation of "Clipped Wings and Inked Armor" yet, which is actually one I'd like to re-visit someday. Also, "The Red Line" was a pretty cool fic, even if I only read a little of it.

We're interested in your views on this issues. Favourite fan-fics? Thoughts on P2P? Any recommendations? Share your own work, if you're up to it! 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: Another 365 Days by K. E. Payne

Life’s sweet when you’re seventeen and in love, right? Clemmie Atkins certainly thinks so! She’s still madly in love with her girlfriend, the hot and super-confident EMO, Hannah Harrison, and her irritating sister, HRBH, will soon be leaving home to go to university.

But just when it seems that life is finally pretty darn cool, a new distraction at school threatens to upset everything, and the return of the enigmatic and sexy J with a startling confession confuses things further...

Clemmie has another 365 days to try to get her life back on track...but will it be enough?

YA books with LGBTQ characters have been on the rise recently. They’re definitely not enough as far as I’m concerned, but at the same time, they get published more and more and I’m very optimistic about their breakthrough potential. I’m always up for a good contemporary YA with gay/lesbian characters, which was why I was totally stoked to read “Another 365 Days”.

Hence why it was such a disappointment for me when I gave my e-galley up halfway through.

How do I explain myself? How do I justify this book’s DNF status, when it neither offended me on a particular level or did anything particular to irritate me, when I’ve soldiered till the end of books like “Halo” and “Of Poseidon”?
Maybe it was the fact that this is a sequel. Perhaps it would have made more sense if I’d read the first book.

Maybe it was the writing. Granted, it read like something someone might write in their diary, and it was true to life. But… here’s the thing… true-to-life diary format is not an easy thing to pull off in a novel. There are certain things you need to pull off to make it interesting, and for the most part, this novel didn’t do them. In fact, at parts it got a little annoying and… self-centred. There just wasn’t enough material there to make a compelling read.

I think what really did it for me, though, were the characters. Aside from Clemmie and Hannah and maybe Alice, we get to spend very little time with the other characters. They only show up briefly to fill out their part in the story and then disappear without development. I realise part of this is due to the format, but there are ways to pull this off without making the cast feel underdeveloped.

Ultimately, I think the problem was that I just didn’t care enough for the story and characters to see it through till the end. Not now, at least. New fans of contemporary YA stories might enjoy this, people looking for LGBTQ YA might enjoy this, but for everyone else, I would like to recommend Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling books or Laura Goode’s “Sister Mischief”.

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.
Note: Image and synopsis via Goodreads.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Erekos by A.M. Tuomala

Her sister swore that she would never let her die; now the entire world may pay the price.In a land where gods walk beside men and witches defy death, war changes everything. Scholar and warrior, witch and king, priestess and corpse-all must come together to save their world from the ravages of the coming tempest.

This is a very… different book.

I’m not even sure how to classify it.

While it’s fantasy, it’s not quite like any other fantasy I’ve read (yes, even the China Mieville brand. It’s weirder than that.) It’s most certainly not a character-driven piece - in fact, it’s as far from a character driven piece as I can think of. The voice is definitely unusual, with a higher authorial presence than I’m used to.

Really, I didn’t know what to think of this, until I realised this reminded me most of Madeline Claire Franklin’s “The Poppet and the Lune” - a story that went all the way back to its original storytelling roots, and it all clicked together.

“Erekos” was like reading a book of myth and legend, and it was a wonderful experience. The book goes back to storytelling at its darkest roots - it’s a story about Gods walking the earth and humans fighting the consequences of their arrogance, about sadness and war and hope and love. There is no fairytale ending in “Erekos”. There isn’t really an ending, per se - just life going on, moving from one arc to another.

It was a surprisingly refreshing story, considering how I prefer characters over plot any day of the week. That is not to say the characters aren’t complex - they are, but there are many of them, and it does feel like we don’t spend enough time with them to really get their development. “Erekos” starts at a point where most of the characters’ arcs are halfway done, and it’s by converging that they bring forward the story.

If there is one thing I’d like to highlight in this book, it would be the interactions between Jeiger and Erlen. Erlen, a scholar, goes to study the borderlands both for his Great Work (PhD in real-world terms) and to escape military service, which otherwise wouldn’t have spared any young man. Once in the wilderness, he becomes friends with hunter Jeiger, and the two build a rapport that develops into camaraderie and later - romance.

In the hands of a lesser author, this kind of relationship would have turned into “Pocahontas”, or worse, “Avatar”, but thankfully, A.M. Tuomala’s having none of that, and I’m ever thankful for it. The book handles its characters at a distance and only allows the reader the barest glimpses inside their minds. It’s this subtlety that makes this interesting, and it’s quite refreshing to have the reader slowly come to understand these two characters.

If you’re looking for something completely different from your usual fantasy fare, I would heartily recommend “Erekos”.

Note: A copy of the book was provided by the publishers via Netgalley.

Note: Synopsis and image via Goodreads.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is Mascara Evil?

       I watched her as she lifted her face to the light rain with her eyes closed, a slight smile on her lips. What is she thinking? Something about the action seemed off, and I quickly realized why the posture looked unfamiliar to me. Normal human girls wouldn’t raise their faces to the drizzle that way; normal human girls usually wore make-up, even in this wet place.
Bella never wore make-up, nor should she. The cosmetics industry made billions of dollars every year from women who were trying to attain skin like hers.

-Meyer, S. “Midnight Sun”, 2008, page 132

I love those paragraphs. Even with the Twilight saga being a veritable deconstruction goldmine, there is so much in these two alone I could spend ages picking them apart.

So let’s talk about beauty… again. More specifically, natural beauty vs the more artificial kind.

There is an underlying assumption in popular culture that true beauty comes from the heart, but also that beauty equals goodness. You see that early in fairy tales - the princesses are always said to be beautiful, the villains are always ugly - and then you see even more of that in books and movies. YA, especially the paranormal kind, has a variation of that - that true beauty comes from the heart, and that this true beauty manifests itself through actual physical beauty.

What does actual physical beauty translate to? Well, according to Twilight and all the stories that went on that bandwagon, it’s: slim, white, clear-skinned and possibly with amazing hair. Later trends like the dystopian craze following “The Hunger Games” focused less on the physical looks of the protagonists, but still, our girls Katniss, Tris, Cassia and June are at the very least conventionally attractive, if not downright beautiful. Some of those ladies are owning their beauty, while others are oblivious to it, but very few are those that have actual reasons for having low self-esteem. I personally can’t remember anyone other than Hester Shaw from the “Mortal Engines”… which was published ten years ago.


Here’s an interesting thing about the beauties in YA - they’re all achieved without artificial means. Their skin is naturally clean (so much so that Laurel Seawell’s first pimple was the inciting incident to “Wings”), they’re skinny without seemingly putting much effort into it (obvious exceptions: Bella, whose eating is implicitly distorted, Laurel, whose eating is explicitly distorted, and Katniss who just doesn’t have much to eat) and they don’t need make-up to be attractive.

Here’s the thing about make-up: If you don’t want to use it, that’s okay. Though the beauty industry has began to give out more positive messages to women and girls, it still makes a profit off women’s low self-esteem, and it’s pretty vicious about selling the One Perfect Vision of a skinny lady with clear skin and shiny hair. In this context, one way to defend oneself from the clusterfuck is to outright refuse to play the game.
So far, so good. YA novels have done a good job at renouncing the beauty industry and its complicated messages. However, the problem comes when the books go the extra mile and outright trash the women who don’t go the same route.

Let’s look at the above passage. Yes, Edward is paying Bella a compliment. However, the description can easily be read in another way - Bella is already different from any other human Edward has met, her beauty is just another nail on her speshul snowflake coffin. Is it possible that Bella is beautiful because she’s so good? More importantly, what’s the implication? That all other human girls are ugly because they’re so shallow? Or maybe that the other human girls are shallow because they are too concerned with their looks (as evidenced by their copious use of make-up?)

Does spending time on your looks mean you don’t have your priorities straight?

Let’s think about all the times a naturally beautiful protagonist is pitted against a villainous girl with a painted face. In “Hush, Hush”, our first description of antagonist Marcie Miller references the fact that you could no longer see her freckles from all the foundation she slathers on. Later in the book, love interest and Crown Creep of the YA court Patch will discourage protagonist Nora from wearing lip gloss, because it doesn’t suit her. Or how about “Halo”, where naturally gorgeous angel Bethany criticises her friend Molly for spending too much time on make-up? “Siren” by Tricia Rayburn is basically about an Oblivious Pretty fighting all the Evil Sluts to save the men in the community from certain death.
(Interesting facet of the story, too, but I’ll talk about it next time.)

That’s not to say all YA decries make-up. In “Supernaturally”, the heroine is a girl who enjoys teen flics, the colour pink and make-up and is still an awesome badass. “The Ghost and the Goth” features a cheerleader who is incredibly vain, but also intelligent and insightful. “Nevermore” had goth girls with lots of eyeliner, but its protagonist (another cheerleader) also wore it, so there’s that.

Here’s another interesting thing about the “Midnight Sun” passage - it acknowledges that beauty (at least, beauty by the Western standard) is not easy to come by. Skin like Bella’s is something most women attain through a lot of time, effort and money. In addition to buying all kinds of cleansers, toners, scrubs, bases, foundations, powders, and concealers, there are plenty of considerations connected to lifestyle, diet, stress levels and genetics that come into play. Not all women can be effortlessly and objectively pretty.

However, women are still expected to be beautiful, and they can’t escape that standard.
Think really hard about the last ten YA books you read. How many of them feature a protagonist that is not conventionally attractive, and whose character arc doesn’t somehow revolve around them achieving beauty and/or inner peace? How many Paranormal/Dystopian/Fantasy/Sci-fi YAs feature a fat protagonist, or one with a disability? When’s the last time you saw someone objectively ugly get a happy ending without first becoming beautiful or making some kind of sacrifice? Not too many, I imagine. Hell, even Hester Shaw, who is a badass among badasses, still has a big inferiority complex that motivates her throughout the Hungry City Chronicles.
For all our talk that beauty comes from the heart, a lot of importance is placed on a woman’s appearance. So why do books, directly or indirectly, condemn those girls and women who don’t have the natural/financial advantage in that game?
I think I’ll leave that one to you.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why Pulled-to-Publish Fanfiction Does Not Work

There’s a new get-rich-quick scheme at play, and it’s called pulled to publish fanfiction. Writing fanfiction used to be scoffed at, but with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which was conceived as Twilight fanfiction, it’s become the next trend in publishing.

No one can deny how successful Fifty Shades has become. It’s become a part of the normal lexicon, and is raking in cash from a ludicrous amount of merchandising deals. Then there’s the fact that there are countless spin offs and parodies, with familiar-looking covers and plays off “fifty shades” of (insert noun here).

Full disclosure: I tried reading Fifty Shades, but couldn’t get past page seventeen. I was able to push myself through Hush, Hush, Crescendo, Fallen, and City of Bones, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading Fifty Shades. It wasn’t just the terrible writing, though. It was the fact that the book throws us into a setting that is barely explained, and with characters that are hardly developed. It felt like I walked into a movie that started an hour before I arrived.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in fanfiction, which is, by definition, the use of established characters and settings for purposes of a (somewhat) original story. Recently, however, people have been profiting off their fanfiction, and this has led to a strange new trend in publishing.

Much has been said about publishing fanfiction as original work, but there are people who don’t see a problem with it. If you change the names of the characters and some of the plot points, what’s the harm?

Plenty, actually. Here’s a breakdown.

1.) The hard work is already done for you. Fanfiction is working with characters that have an established background and setting. We know what they look like, what they sound like, and what they want in life. We know their strengths and weaknesses. In fanfiction, you are taking what’s done and introducing them in new situations, or describing a scene that took place off-camera. You don’t need to worry about introducing the main characters in a fandom that already knows them inside and out.

This is true even for stories that are AU (alternate universe), in which the characters are only recognizable by physical description. In those cases, the reader is still familiar with the person being described. Being able to picture a character is essential, as it allows the reader to connect to the story. In fanfiction, it can be a used to influence the reader to root for or against a character. In original fiction, it can be a subtle but powerful tool for the same purpose.

The same can be said for romantic stories, or "shipper fiction". It's playing to an audience that is already a fan of the couple. If you love the idea of Bella being with Edward, it doesn't take a strong leap of imagination to assume that you would enjoy the pairing regardless of setting.

2.)  The characters are recognizable. In the essay “Why I Was Bachman”, Stephen King explains his use of a pseudonym and mentions how Paul McCartney used to fantasize about The Beatles playing small clubs as an unknown band, but was stunned when he realized that the audience would recognize their voices and their overall musical sound.

The same goes for fiction; if I wrote a story that involved two brothers that hunted ghosts and monsters, you’d think of Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural. Even if I took them out of that show’s setting, you would still be able to recognize their descriptions and their voices. Even those who aren’t well-versed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer will think of her if you portray a slayer who likes puns and has a soft spot for sexy monsters.

If they are not recognizable, that means that the fanfiction hasn’t bothered to establish any sort of personality for the characters. This is passable in fanfiction, but not in an original story. I’ve read “The Office”, the fanfiction that will be published under the name “Beautiful Bastard”. It dives into a sex scene in the first few pages with little set up. It’s quite possible that the finished work will have more of a set up before delving straight into sex, but that certainly wasn’t the case with Wallbanger, another P2P fanfiction. You could certainly argue that erotica doesn’t necessarily need a well-crafted plot in order to be effective, but I disagree. It’s far more impactful for a reader to understand WHY there’s such a magnetic pull between two characters, whether it’s sexual or platonic. There shouldn’t be excuses for shortcuts and general laziness in characterization.

3.)  You’ve already got an audience. It wasn’t long ago that Fifty Shades was downplayed as fanfiction, but after it leaked out on the internet, publishers took note. Fifty Shades has made a lot of people a lot of money, and not surprisingly, this led to publishers looking to find the next E.L. James. The latest P2P work is "Beautiful Bastard", which originated as Twilight fanfiction. This time around, the fact that the story started as fanfiction isn’t being hidden. In fact, it’s celebrated.

Fanfiction can create its own fandom. There are plenty of fanfiction stories out there that are well-regarded in their respective fandoms. We’re told how popular the fanfiction was before it was taken down. That is, before it was taken down so that if you wanted to read it, you had to pay for it. Cassandra Clare may have taken down her fanfiction before she was published, but she chose a pen name that was quite similar to the pen name she used to write her wildly popular fanfiction. Her name was already recognizable, and she obviously decided to capitalize on it.

4.)  These characters don’t belong to you. This should be obvious, but it bears repeating.In short, fanfiction is basically borrowing someone else’s creation. Stephenie Meyer lamented fanfiction authors not being able to use their fiction as the stories they crafted were not truly theirs, which would lead to one assuming that she’d be displeased with E.L. James profiting so much from Twilight fanfiction, but apparently she's okay with it.

Meyer’s blasé attitude aside, there are a tremendous amount of legal issues with fanfiction . It used to be that fanfiction could be read for free online, but now it seems apparent that if a publisher things s/he can make money of the fanfiction, it will be pulled offline, given adjustments, and sold.

To be blunt, I wouldn't be surprised if the people behind Beautiful Bastard were knowingly highlighting the fact that the story originated as fanfiction so that they can blatantly exploit fans of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. I personally think of profiting from fanfiction as theft, as do many others, but it seems the line of morality is blurred when enough money can be made.

So let’s say you have a great fanfiction story, one that’s well-regarded in the fandom. You’d love to publish it, maybe get some money from it, so you change it so that it’s virtually unrecognizable as fanfiction. Guess what? It still won’t work.

The truth is, the internet never forgets. Someone is going to remember your fanfiction. If you merely search and replace character names and do some plot tweaking, it’s still that fanfiction. Plus now you’ll need to firmly establish your characters and their backgrounds.

I actually think it might be possible to take a fanfiction and successfully turn it into an original piece. The trick is that once you take away all aspects that make it a fanfiction, your own story needs to shine through, with well-crafted characters and a solid setting. If you don’t have that, the story isn’t yours, and it needs to stay within the fandom as fanfiction.