Banned Books Week Has Rolled Around Again

Because the people who want to control what the rest of us read just don’t ever stop.

(Confession time here.  I’m a First Amendment purist, of the stripe which, if we were talking the Second Amendment instead of the First, would undoubtedly get me labeled a “free speech nut” and have the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms searching my house.  And I regard with a cold and fishy eye the sort of statement that begins, “Of course I’m in favor of free speech, but….”)

Judging by the American Library Association’s Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016 list, children’s and young adult books tend to get hit the hardest — unsurprising, since everybody agrees that Protecting the Children is important, as is Molding Young Minds.

This year’s top ten list is mostly full of books that were challenged by people who wanted to protect the children from LBGTQ characters and issues.  Presumably, they’re afraid that reading about such things will cause their offspring to “turn gay”, which is unlikely (as Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York observed about a censorship issue of an earlier day, “I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book”) — or maybe they’re just afraid that said offspring will find validation in those books for something about themselves that they already know.

Support your local library, people.  They’re fighting the good fight to keep books on the shelves for the readers who need them.

Photographic Evidence

Or, Robert Frost gets it right again.

Falling Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….

Tree roots and the freeze-thaw cycle, to be specific.

The freeze-thaw cycle is also responsible for frost heaves, which can give the roads up here a corrugated appearance in late winter and early spring, and likewise for the epic potholes that show up a little later.

First Impressions and Timing Issues

It matters a lot, sometimes, what age you are when you first read a particular book.  Most of the time, though, the bit that matters isn’t whether or not you’re old enough for it.  Those of us who are members of the siblinghood of compulsive readers spend a lot of our early years reading books that are, according to the gatekeepers, “too old” for us, and most of us benefit from the mental stretching exercises involved.

I do think, though, that it’s possible to come to some books too late.  Once you’ve acquired the taste for deconstruction, for examining the underpinnings of a work – teasing out its buried contradictions and unexamined assumptions, and speculating on the untold stories and the differing viewpoints of secondary and minor characters – it’s hard to look at a book with the open and receptive eye of a new reader.  Texts instead become things to be approached with suspicion, lest they pull the wool over our eyes or trip us up when we’re not looking, and a suspicious approach is no way to make friends.

The books that are destined to become our lifelong friends, I believe, are the ones we encounter when we’re old enough as readers to understand what’s going on in the text, but before we’ve had the chance to become cynical about it.  Consider, for example, The Count of Monte Cristo.  On second or third reading, even a young reader can see that Edmond Dantès is, frankly, kind of a dick†, that there’s something more than a little bit skeevy about his relationship with Haidee, and that his first love Mercédès gets handed a raw deal by fate, Edmond, and the writer, all three.‡  But if the reader’s had a chance to first take the story straight  – the escape from the Chateau d’If! the mysterious stranger! (and the other mysterious stranger, and the other mysterious stranger – really, the plot is absolutely infested with mysterious strangers!) the villains, so villainous, and so aptly punished by their own base natures and continuing villainy! – then subsequent, more critical, readings lose much of their power to tarnish the effect of the work.


He’d have to be, to spend so much time and money on getting even when he could have taken the treasure of Monte Cristo and spent the rest of his life having a good time anywhere he wanted. I’m just saying.

Really – what was she supposed to do when her betrothed got hauled off and thrown into prison as a Bonapartist conspirator on her wedding day?  Starve to death genteelly while pining for his return? Take up a career as a streetwalker?  Nobody told her that the fallback boyfriend she ended up settling for had actually masterminded the whole frame-up.

Bad Moon on the Rise

If everything in this article at blogcritics is true (and that does appear to be the case) then there is some very bad stuff going down at All Romance E-Books.

Hard to tell, from the available info, whether the root cause is malice or stupidity, but for the authors caught up in the ongoing mess, it doesn’t make a difference.

(This is also why, when I purchase an e-book, I prefer to take what measures are necessary to make certain I have it stored on my own hardware, and not on somebody else’s.)

Lo! A Review!

Speaking as an editor and instructor of writers, one should never obsess over reviews, because that way madness lies.

On the other hand, there’s nothing like a good review to brighten a writer’s day.  If you’re friends with a writer, and spot a good review of their work, it’s an act of kindness to let them know about it.  If you spot a bad review, don’t bother – even if it’s one of those completely off-the-wall, did-the-reader-even-read-the-story bad reviews – because for one thing, they’ve probably already heard about it from those other friends who make a habit of kindly supplying people with all the bad news they might ever need, and for another thing, it will only depress them.  See madness, above.

All that being said, there’s a nice review of the Altered States of the Union anthology over here at the Legendarium, in which the reviewer calls our story “Gertrude of Wyoming” a “shrewd and intelligent thriller.”  Considering that those were exactly the qualities we were aiming for, I for one am pleased.

One of the Pleasures of This Job

It’s always good when a student, or a client, does well.  Debra Jess was one of the workshoppers at Viable Paradise XVI, where I was one of the instructors, and after that, she was one of my editorial clients.  And I’m pleased as punch to say that her novel, Blood Surfer, has won the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award (NERFA) in the Paranormal and Futuristic category.  Blood Surfer was also a finalist in the Best First Novel category.

Needless to say, I am tickled pink on her behalf.

One Reason I’m Glad I Don’t Write Children’s Books

Or don’t write them any more, to be specific . . . My co-author and I started out in middle grades and YA, but moved on to writing for grownups (and for any kids tall enough to reach the bookshelves on their own, which was how we ourselves were raised – any book we could get off the shelf was acknowledged to be fair game*) a few years before the explosive growth of social media made being pecked to death by chickens inundated by critical commentary a fact of life.

It can’t be helped, I suppose. Nowhere else in publishing are there as many gatekeepers and barrier-builders between the writer and the intended audience as there are in children’s literature – and because by and large the gatekeepers, and not the intended audience, are the ones spending the money, nowhere else do the gatekeepers get listened to so intently. And the gatekeepers want a lot of sometimes mutually-exclusive things. They want the books children read to be relevant – relevant to exactly what, can change whenever the wind blows. They want the books to have diversity and inclusiveness and representation – but not necessarily too much of it, or of the wrong people. They want the books to put forth good moral values – all sorts of moral values, defined in all sorts of ways by all sorts of groups who frequently can’t stand each other. And they want books to be challenging, as if being a kid weren’t hard enough by itself without having your recreational reading turned into some kind of spiritual or mental calisthenics.

And these days, every gatekeeper – every social activist, every moral missionary, every concerned parent – has a Facebook page or a Twitter account and is primed to post. Given that saying anything – anything at all, including nothing – is capable of whipping up at least one portion of that vast crowd into a froth of wrath, it’s amazing how many writers for young people nevertheless keep on trying to get their stories into the hands of their actual intended readers.

God knows, if I had reason to feel that no matter what I wrote, somebody would want to drop the internet on my head, I wouldn’t be nearly so well-behaved and gracious as most children’s and YA writers have to be nowadays.

*It’s also the way we raised our own children, on the grounds that – in our opinion, anyhow – we turned out all right.

Not How It Used to Be

This weekend, this year’s Worldcon in Kansas City announced the winners of the Hugo Awards – and the results were reported as news in a variety of non-fannish outlets, from the Guardian to Slate.

‘Twas not always thus.  Within the living memory of fandom,* the science-fiction community could carry out its debates and fanfeuds without anyone else caring or even noticing, because in terms of literary respectability, sf was a pariah genre, ranking well below mystery fiction or even westerns.  (Only romance fiction ranked lower on the respectability scale, possibly because it suffered from the added stigma of girliness.)  Newspaper and television reporting on sf conventions was heavy on the “look at these people in their funny costumes” factor and light on “listen to these people talking about everything from literature to politics.”

These days, we can’t count on that comfortable obscurity any more.  Science fiction and fantasy have become dominant storytelling modes in both film and television; mainstream authors are working with science-fictional and fantastic tropes more and more often, and doing a better job of it than they used to – sometimes, they don’t even try to pretend that what they’re writing isn’t sf or fantasy, which is another big change; the President of the USA is a Spider-Man fan who’s been known to engage in lightsaber battles on the White House lawn and to flash the Vulcan salute.

And it’s hard, sometimes, to let go of the habits and defensive reflexes from days gone by, before the geeks and nerds took over the earth.  But we’re fans.  We can adapt.

*Taking, as one does, oneself for a yardstick – I can remember being told by the writer-in-residence instructor of a creative writing class, back in my undergrad days, that I was “wasting my talent” writing science fiction.  (Everybody else in the class was writing “coming of age in the South” stories.  My position on that was that having come of age in the South and survived the experience, I ought to be exempt from having to write – or, for that matter, to read – about it afterward.)

What This Election Year Needs is a Good Anthology

Altered-States-promo-art-640_thumb.jpgAnd hoo-boy, have we got one for you: Altered States of the Union, edited by Glenn Hauman for Crazy 8 Press.  (Full disclosure: Jim Macdonald and I have a story in it.)

Altered States is a collection of original alternate-history stories in which the states of the USA are  . . . not as we know them.  It’s being crowdfunded through Indiegogo, and you can reach its web page here.

Rewards being offered for supporters range from a copy of the e-book version of the anthology (at the $5 level, or $3 for the first 20 early-bird pledges) to tuckerization* in one of the stories (at the $200 level; six chances are being offered.)  The official publication date is scheduled for the Shore Leave science fiction convention being held July 15-17, 2016, in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

So here’s your chance to be a patron of the arts and enable the publication of some good new stories.  (Lorenzo di Medici would totally have kicked in a florin or two.  You know he would have.)

*For those unfamiliar with the lingo of the sf tribe, “tuckerization” is the naming of a character in a story after a friend or fellow-fan.  The name derives from the early science fiction writer Wilson Tucker, who made a practice of giving his minor characters names in this fashion.  These days, opportunities to be tuckerized are often offered by writers for fundraising or charitable purposes.

Sir Walter Scott’s Aunt Meets the Suck Fairy

Once upon a time there was a Scottish lawyer (and poet and novelist and, eventually, a baronet) who had an elderly aunt.  She was an avid reader, and had been for all her life, and as happens with avid readers, one day she took it in mind to revisit a remembered favorite author of her youth.  Because she was having trouble finding copies of the lady’s work, she wrote to her nephew requesting that he procure for her some of the writings of Aphra Behn.

Her nephew was somewhat take aback by the request, since Behn’s literary star had undergone considerable eclipse since the days of the Restoration, and her personal reputation along with it.  (She wrote for money.  She wrote about sex.  She had no visible husband, and possibly never did have one.  She had Catholic sympathies.  She worked as a spy for Charles II, who never did pay her for it – which is where the writing for money comes in.  Which was all to the good – except for the “not getting paid” part, of course – during the rock-and-roll years of the Stuart Restoration, but didn’t play quite as well under the House of Hanover.)

But young Walter Scott (for it was he) was a good nephew, and sent his aunt the books she had been looking for.  Not long after, she sent them back to him with a note requesting that he get rid of them:

 But is it not, she said, a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, feel myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London!

What she hadn’t known was that in the intervening years, the works of her old favorite author had been visited by the Suck Fairy, that malevolent sprite who sneaks into the pages of fondly remembered texts and sprinkles them with (these days) racism and sexism and other problematic isms (or, for Sir Walter Scott’s elderly aunt, rude language and sexual content.)

The good news about the Suck Fairy, though, is that she doesn’t necessarily stick around forever.  It’s too late now for Sir Walter’s aunt to recover her fondness for the works of Aphra Behn, but present-day literary scholarship has recovered somewhat of Behn’s reputation, and no less a writer than Virginia Woolf said of her, in A Room of One’s Own:

All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.

As for what writers of our own time will have their works visited by the Suck Fairy in twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred, and what writers whose works are now regarded as irrecoverably visited by suck will be rehabilitated by readers and scholars of a future age—

All I can say is, like so much about this business, it’s a crap shoot.