You Should Never Be Embarrassed (or Shamed) for Reading Books

| Friday, August 30, 2013

I recently saw this Book Riot post on the ten books people are "most embarrassed" to admit they've read. At the end, the editor asked if there were "any surprises here."

Very sadly, I could honestly say no, there were no surprises. It was of no surprise to me that eight of these top ten "most embarrassing" reads were written by and about girls and women (assuming "romance novels" refers to the bulk of its readers and writers, which I'm sure it does). I remain unsurprised that readers are embarrassed to admit that they read, or even enjoy, "girl books."

Why am I not surprised? Because this is the same attitude we see displayed all too often. When men write a shitty book, it's just a shitty book. Oh well, on to the next one. It's not often viewed as an *embarrassment*.

I have my doubts about why Dan Brown made this list, and they're primarily rooted in the sheer popularity of that particular novel, as well as the controversy surrounding it, part of which ended up being plagiarism accusations and criticism of un-cited research. Notice people said they were embarrassed to read The Da Vinci Code, specifically, rather than Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series as a whole. However, 50 Shades/Twilight/Sookie Stackhouse/The Hunger Games/romance novels are lumped together. One could make that argument for the popularity of the other books on this list as well (they were mega-popular), but there's still a notable lack of other popular books written by men (like Patterson, perhaps, or maybe Sparks).

Oh no, I read a commercial bestseller. I must be flogged.

Before I really get going, I want to be clear that I'm not chastising Book Riot for publishing this, but rather being critical of the attitudes it illustrates.

There are a few things I'd like to explore here.

1.) Reading a "bad" book is embarrassing and you should be ashamed. I'm putting "bad" in scare quotes because it's subjective, but also because there's some intellectual/academic literary shame going on here. Pleasure reads aren't supposed to be ENJOYED, they're supposed to be sneered at. If you do read them and actually kind of like them, they're "guilty pleasures" instead of just "books you like." If you LIKE them, it means that you don't know what "good" literature is, which means you're a dumb dummy. LOGIC!

2.) Romance is stupid and you should feel stupid for reading it. It's not a coincidence that most of this list involves romance or erotica in some form. This is because we're told, and continue to be told, that love/relationship/sex books written by/for women are frivolous, silly, shameful little things. Sex and relationships written by men? Well, they understand the human condition. Women just like to feel *tingly* and swoon over their fake boyfriends. There's no value there! None at all!

3.) Books for young people are childish and simple and adults should be ashamed for reading them. Oh my gooooosh, Twilight wins by a huge landslide! No way! People think Twilight sucks? I HAD NO IDEA! But there's The Hunger Games, too, which is a little weird. But not that weird because it was written about a teenage girl and there's some kissing and everyone knows that's worthless. Also, V.C. Andrews! Like, ew!

4.) But seriously, let's talk about how this list is like 85% women. I'm not arguing that women don't write shitty books. Sure they do, as do their male counterparts. What I'm pointing out is that people are so much more likely to be EMBARRASSED for reading a bestselling book by a lady than one by a man. If you wasted your time reading a "bad" book by a woman, you should FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. You could have read a shitty male-authored book instead, you fool!

5.) Why are these books embarrassing, anyway? Is it because woman-centric romance and sex is shameful? Because books by women are useless wastes of time? Because they're not academically impressive enough? Because other people curl their lip at it for being drivel? Help me out here. I mean, I'd like to believe that participants are embarrassed by the blatant misogyny/racism/classism/etc. present in some of these books, but I doubt it. It's easier to be embarrassed because IT JUST SUX!!!!!

6.) Maybe we think people should be ashamed of succumbing to hype. Just throwing this out there. This list is mostly comprised of modern bestsellers, yeah? And people sure do hate to think they might be one of the masses. Because other people are sheep, right? YOU ARE A WOLF, NOT A SHEEP! But you still bought the book to see what it was all about, and now other people who managed to avoid it are giving you shit for being one of the "sheep." So you feel ashamed.

7.) Or maybe people feel embarrassed because other people think they should. Fancy that.

8.) Basically the only person I think might deserve to be on this list is Ayn Rand, because UGH. However, I don't think people should be *embarrassed* because they read the book. Never be embarrassed because you READ A BOOK! I read Anthem and I'm not embarrassed about it. I didn't like it and didn't understand why people were into her, but it wasn't EMBARRASSING. If you bought into her gross philosophy, though? Yeah, you can be embarrassed about that.


There's another linked list there featuring the 25 Most Hated Books, and there's a definite upswing in books written by men. Twilight and 50 Shades still take two of the top three spots, though. People apparently hate Twilight infinitely more than books featuring epic levels of racism and misogyny. Not that Twilight was a bastion of intersectional equality by any means, but still. Think about that for a while.

Another interesting correlation on that list, for me, is that the most hated books seem split between classics, mostly written by men, and a handful of modern releases... mostly written by women. Hm. To me, the classics seem obviously skewed because these are all the books we're forced to read in school, and of course those books skew toward the old white dudes. The modern picks, though... there's Dan Brown again for Da Vinci Code, and apparently Yann Martel got some heat as well, but otherwise the modern selections are bestselling ladies, two of whom are right at the tippy-top of the hate pile. Hmmm.

I just want to make it clear that I am not arguing that women who write problematic or poorly-crafted novels shouldn't receive criticism. They should. But instances like this continue to illustrate that lady writers see a hugely disproportionate level of embarrassment and hate directed at their work, and it's not just linked to sales numbers. Twilight received 315 embarrassed votes, while Da Vinci Code received 34 -- nearly ten times fewer. Why aren't 315 people "embarrassed" to have read The Da Vinci Code, though it sold 80 million copies as a single title (200 million total for the Robert Langdon series, btw), as opposed to Twilight's 116 million copies as a four-book series (plus a novella)? It's food for thought.

TL;DR -- Don't ever be embarrassed because you read a book. You certainly don't have to like every book you read, but they shouldn't cause you shame. Especially not because some snobby butthead is trying to make you feel that way. Also, maybe think about why you can read another crappy crime novel and not bat an eye, but when you read a romance novel, you feel all embarrassed about it.

Bigoted Bad Guys Are a Little Too Easy

| Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We've all seen this before: there's this Bad Guy. And he's really bad. He doesn't have a pencil mustache, but if he did, he'd be twirling it. He relishes his badness. He sneers at the protagonist's fear and pain, eats kittens for kicks, and maybe breaks the arm of a fan favorite to twist the knife extra hard.

He's also extremely sexist, racist, classist, etc etc etc. Because he's bad, see.

Mmmmm yes, I am so rich and horrible.
Not that I would deny anyone Lucius Malfoy, because he is the sort of delightful asshole everyone loves to hate, and that has its place, too. To his credit, he has more than penciled-in characterization. But he is rather... obvious.

This sort of overblown, comic-booky villain creates a weird sort of duality. They're just so bad, so horrible, that the hero(ine) looks angelic by default. The villain embodies everything evil, and they do it because they just like being evil. Or they like money and power, which they maintain by being horrible bigots. But there's a problem with this representation, and not only because it feels two-dimensional.

When some people think of different forms of damaging oppression, their mind automatically goes to obvious examples -- the KKK, Westboro Baptist Church, Rush Limbaugh saying the worst thing to ever happen to this country was women winning the right to vote, etc. If a villain is a Really Bad Person, they reflect this sort of clearly wrong-minded way of thinking, right? It's an automatic marker of their Badness.
 
Here's the problem: it's easy. It's very easy to maintain this superficial view of some cackling creep who gleefully oppresses people because he thinks it's fun. Not only that, it's also damaging.

Wait. It's damaging to show that the villain, who is clearly a Bad Person, is a racist/sexist/ableist/etc.?

Yes, in a way, it is. It implies that "real" -isms are blatantly obvious and that only truly evil people buy into them. Following that logic, that means anyone who isn't an obviously bad person can't possibly contribute to an -ist power structure, right? Or that "real" -isms are cartoonishly easy to spot?

Wrong. In our society, -isms are insidious. They infect everything. Everyday people, even people who do good things, buy into them. They're small, seemingly inconsequential, and we participate in them all the time until they snowball enough to reinforce the structure. It actually takes a dedicated deprogramming effort (for lack of a better term) to recognize and combat them.

I recently read an example regarding Harry Potter. In that series, there are some pretty obvious villains -- Voldemort, the Malfoys, the Blacks, most Death Eaters -- who display various classist and racist attitudes. They're clearly in the wrong. However, we also have our "good" characters who reflect these attitudes, such as Ron and his engrained attitudes in regard to other magical races (giants, house elves, werewolves). And other characters call him on it.

This is the problem with relegating depictions of racism, sexist attitudes, and the like only to characters who are obviously in the wrong while completely ignoring similar, albeit less blatant, examples from the "good" characters. It sets up the precedent that these attitudes are only worth fighting when they reach X level of nastiness, while other examples are okay because they're coming from someone who's actually a good guy, really.

Not only that, but it makes the villains very paper-thin. Remember, a well-drawn villain is one who's the hero(ine) of their own story. They think they're doing the right thing, rather than gleefully enjoying chaos.

I'm not saying that the overblown villains don't have their place. Every once in a while, that absurd, over-the-top cackling jerkbag can be a lot of fun. I'm just not a huge fan of using "what a SEXIST DOUCHE" as the sole character-defining aspect of the story's villain. Let them be more nuanced than that.

And more, when your non-evil characters screw up, call them on it. Don't finger wag at your evil dictator's obvious racism while ignoring that one of your good guys is making snide ableist comments, too. If you're going to make the gesture of fighting oppression, then fight it in all its forms.

Authenticity in Literature is Not One-Size-Fits-All

| Thursday, August 22, 2013

I am twenty-one years old, sitting in creative writing class. The professor is a slight woman with huge hair and fluttering hands. She stands at the front of the room talking about Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, quoting us passages that make me feel pulled inside out. Things like "Be willing to be split open" and "If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you." All those inspirational little things that tell you to be unafraid.

When I consider those words later in my off campus apartment while waiting for my boyfriend to call, it makes me try exploring my own heart. Poking through the chambers and finding all the things that make me full of love and fear and anger. Cutting through cages of sinew and bleeding black to get to the frightened birds hiding inside. Letting them fly, tears rolling down my face, and knowing what it's like to feel free. They might turn into faeries, or moths, or screams, or starlight. Whatever form they take, they are born of me.

Other members of my class, however, hear these words much differently. They hear those phrases and think it means bare realism, raw gore, and inciting easy and extreme reactions in readers -- horror, offense, disgust. To exploit fear and pain. To do that, they think, is to be a REAL WRITER.

And to each their own, you know? There's nothing wrong with intentional darkness or horror or gross-out fiction, if that's what you love to write. It can be cathartic. It can be valuable.

However. However. They sit and listen to others reading their work and they smirk. They condescend. They say it's too twee, too pedestrian. Their tales of rugged men fucking nubile co-eds and squeezing blood and shit between their fingers are real. They're substantial. They're literature, true literature.

And that's absurd.

Not too long ago, I came across a post from someone wondering why more YA authors don't write "true" teen experiences, with swearing and sex and vulgarity and violence and slurs and all of the rawness that comes with teenagerdom, in plain language. My response to it was mostly 1) of course there are YA books that deal with this? and 2) of course there are many that don't. Because not every youthful experience involves or needs several dozen "fuck yous" and a graphic sex scene to feel authentic.

Back when I was sitting through those classes, there was always that guy. I say "guy" because, in my experience, it was always a guy. Other friends I've spoken to have, by and large, also had that guy. He's the guy who loves to write dark, gritty, dismal pieces full of suffering and sex. He'll lovingly describe the way oil rainbows reflect on fetid water puddles, and then criticize the class fantasy writer about not taking enough risks or being literary enough.

And this is the disconnect and the pressure on writers, including kidlit writers. This is part of the insidious culture that says writing for young people is meaningless, simplistic fluff created by people who just can't handle writing "real" literature. It's this idea that true literature, honest literature, is written with this vein of darkness running through it like a cancer, and that cancer makes it special, and realistic, and next-level. It's the same attitude that says happy endings are an easy way out. That if you don't write dialogue that is exactly as people truly speak, slurs and profanity and all, you're too afraid to face reality.

It's the idea that genre novels are child's play, stepping stones, candy fluff to appease the masses. They're not authentic enough.

This is a concept that I just don't buy into. I can't. Authenticity implies something that's true to your life, that matters to you and speaks to you. There is not one kind of authenticity. A depiction of hetero-male lust and revenge for a bruised ego does not speak to me or for me. Yet we insist this is reality, this is high-brow. Confused teenage girls? They're pop-culture nonsense.

To me, authenticity doesn't come at the expense of making your readers squirm uncomfortably. It comes from within. What are people really afraid of? When you have everything in the world in your favor, maybe it makes sense that your fears involve rejection, and dismemberment, and loss of youth and vigor. When you live your whole life being told you aren't good enough, you're not real enough, you're not smart enough... maybe it makes sense to build a world where those themes are explored in a fantastic setting where you can overcome them and move forward.

When you have little to lose, maybe it's deep and meaningful to explore loss and discomfort. When you feel like every day is a losing battle, perhaps it's more meaningful to build a world where you come out on top once in a while.

Happy endings are twee? They're dishonest? Maybe they're the only flame we have to follow. Remember that your reality isn't the only reality.

Query Doctor: THE STORY OF THE STORY OF THE EGG

| Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's been a really long time since I've done a query critique, but Mr. Kurt Hartwig is planning on querying soon and asked if I could look over his letter. So the Query Doctor has returned! Let's do this.

First, here's the original query:

Like most young stories his age, all Fin wants to be when he grows up is an Epic. Epics are cool – they’re famous, they have the best houses of anyone, plus they’re all about heroes. What’s not to like? That dream ends the day he and his older sister Torus are accosted by Monkey King, the only Trickster Epic in existence. He says that Fin is a “paradox,” and a paradox is what Monkey King wants. He’ll be coming for Fin.

That threat is only the beginning of Fin's troubles. Being a “paradox” gets worse during puberty, the thirteen-year old story learns. Great. Torus starts sneaking away and stops hanging out with him. Worst of all, his little sister refuses to hatch from her egg and Fin has to carry her around when he babysits. Mortifying!

Then the earthquakes begin and someone egg-naps the baby. Turns out Fin's not the only special story in his family. His little sister is a palimpsest, a one in a billion child, the kind of story that can be written and then re-written and re-written again. If they’re lucky, she’ll only forget her whole family. If not, she’ll be dead.

Monkey King’s devious plot to get at Fin runs right through the Egg. Fin has to figure out what it is – and where he stands in it – in order to get the Egg back home safe and sound. And the only thing he knows about being a paradox is everything is more complicated than it should be.

The Story of the Story of the Egg is a 51,000-word upper middle grade novel that takes place in the Stacks and the Walled Garden of Story City, where all stories come from and where they meet their authors. I’ve aspired for a mix of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m not claiming equality with either, but a guy’s gotta reach for the stars.

In addition to prose, I sometimes write plays, one of which won an award at the 2009 Prague Fringe Festival. Without question, writing fiction is the best thing I have done with the skills I learned getting my degree in Folklore (which yes, you can still get.)

 ***

Healthy Bits: The general plot is on point! I see inciting incident and stakes. Important characters are introduced. The prose is, overall, fairly strong, and all the important query elements are there. Sounds like an intriguing concept!

Under The Weather: My diagnosis is that this query is suffering from a bit of info-stuffing and meanderitis. It needs some tightening up, cutting of unnecessary details, and more clarity. The extra info and structure leave this doctor feeling a little lost.

 ***

Line By Line

Like most young stories his age, all Fin wants to be when he grows up is an Epic.

This opening caught me off guard. It’s difficult for me to visualize a personified “story.” Is Fin a boy? Is he… an anthropomorphic book? I feel like you could go with a better opening, but I’m having trouble thinking of one when I’m not completely sure who/what I’m dealing with. It definitely caught my attention, (young story?), but I’m not sure it’s in the right way. It’s a little more confusing than intriguing for me.

Epics are cool – they’re famous, they have the best houses of anyone, plus they’re all about heroes. What’s not to like?

Again, feeling like I’m not quite getting it. Epics are entities that can own homes, but they can also figuratively be “about heroes.” Are we dealing with people? If they’re people, how does this work, exactly?

That dream ends the day he and his older sister Torus are accosted by Monkey King, the only Trickster Epic in existence.

I feel like this is probably a really cool concept, but this query letter is making it difficult for me to wrap my brain around. There can be subsections of “Epics?” I thought Epic was its own classification, since Fin wants to be one? Is a Trickster something you can be separately from an Epic, or are they only Epics? If so, they have a special name even though there’s only one?

I’m also a little thrown by the name “Monkey King.” Fin and Torus seem to have typical names, but Monkey King implies that he’s… well, a king of monkeys. But he’s a “story?” Is that actually the title of his “story?” (I may be thinking about this way too hard!)

He says that Fin is a “paradox,” and a paradox is what Monkey King wants. He’ll be coming for Fin.

Interesting, though it doesn’t give me much context. Why is being a “paradox” a big deal? Is it rare?

That threat is only the beginning of Fin's troubles. Being a “paradox” gets worse during puberty, the thirteen-year-old story learns. Great.

Stories can go through puberty? I like the little bit of voice from “Great,” though it’s sort of standard “sarcastic teen.” Lastly, the time jump surprised me. Saying the Monkey King was coming for Fin built a sense of urgency, but then he… went away until Fin hit puberty? Why? Or has Fin always been thirteen and we’re just finding out now? The way this is phrased sounds like he hits puberty later in the story. I’m still not sure what being a “paradox” means and why it’s important.

Torus starts sneaking away and stops hanging out with him. Worst of all, his little sister refuses to hatch from her egg and Fin has to carry her around when he babysits. Mortifying!

A little more voice here, which is good. Still feeling confused about what exactly we’re dealing with. Stories hatch from eggs? And they can choose when to hatch?

Then the earthquakes begin and someone egg-naps the baby. Turns out Fin's not the only special story in his family. His little sister is a “palimpsest,” a one-in-a-billion child, the kind of story that can be written and then re-written and re-written again. If they’re lucky, she’ll only forget her whole family. If not, she’ll be dead.

… so, what about Fin being a “paradox?” Is that still relevant? I like that you explained what a “palimpsest” is, though I’m not sure I understand why someone wanted to egg-nap her. Who is doing this? Monkey King? Why?

Monkey King’s devious plot to get at Fin runs right through the Egg. Fin has to figure out what it is – and where he stands in it – in order to get the Egg back home safe and sound. And the only thing he knows about being a paradox is everything is more complicated than it should be.

It’s okay if Fin doesn’t know what a paradox is yet, but your query should explain. I think it’d go a long way toward clearing up the confusion.

The Story of the Story of the Egg is a 51,000-word upper middle grade novel that takes place in the Stacks and the Walled Garden of Story City, where all stories come from and where they meet their authors.

This information should come WAY earlier in your query. Not the bit about title/word length/genre, that’s fine, but the info about Story City. I feel like this might have helped my confusion a little bit if I’d read it earlier, and keep in mind agents and editors are only reading the first few lines before they decide they’re hooked or not. Important story info always goes toward the beginning.

I’ve aspired for a mix of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m not claiming equality with either, but a guy’s gotta reach for the stars.

I like your spunk and personality here, but it’s typically better to leave this portion more on the safe/professional side. Avoid statements like “I’ve aspired for…” and be declarative, but not cocky. Say, “This novel will appeal to fans of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.” Leave it at that and let the agent decide if you captured that tone appropriately. It’s okay to be confident and not undersell yourself! Just don’t, y’know, act like you think you’re the next coming :) Let your voice shine through in the story meat of the query.

In addition to prose, I sometimes write plays, one of which won an award at the 2009 Prague Fringe Festival. Without question, writing fiction is the best thing I have done with the skills I learned getting my degree in Folklore (which yes, you can still get.)

I like this and think the voice here works. It ends on a little bit of personality and pertains to your actual relevant skills, so the flip comment reads more naturally and less like you’re trying to sound impressive but not full of yourself, which the other bit did.

Closing Thoughts

As you can tell, this query raised A LOT of questions for me and left me feeling confused. This is one of those situations where I feel like a lot of information has been crammed in, but bits were distracting and made me feel even more lost. For instance, why is Torus mentioned? She doesn’t seem to play much of a key role in this query.

I genuinely love the idea of a quirky, weird, fantastical story along the lines of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I just can’t visualize the world you’ve built at all from this query, and that’s an issue. Fin is this kind of nebulous blob in my head, since I don’t even know if he looks human.

The inciting incident and stakes are there, but I didn’t feel much about why this is Fin’s story. Why does it have to be him?

For comparison, let’s actually look at the blurb for The Phantom Tollbooth.

For Milo, everything's a bore - until he drives through a mysterious tollbooth in his room. He visits the island of Conclusions by jumping, learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and embarks on a rescue of Rhyme and Reason. Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes life is exciting beyond his wildest dreams.

It’s concise, shows the fantastical nature of the story, has some stakes (rescue mission!), and still manages to show Milo’s character growth (he goes from a bored kid to realizing life’s actually pretty amazing). It even illustrates the quirkiness and humor of the novel (you get to the island of Conclusions by jumping… ha ha ha!).

Personally, I would start from scratch. First: where does Fin start? Where does he end? What sparks that journey? What propels him at the midpoint? Why is he special? You touched on all of these elements, but got lost in the details. Set up your world as briefly as possible, as early as possible. Remind the reader every step of the way why this is HIS story and why it needs to be told.

Just as an example, I’m going to make up something off the cuff. This obviously probably isn’t going to match up to your actual story AT ALL, but hopefully it helps give you some ideas!

In Story City, everybody gets their story told, and thirteen-year-old Fin really hopes his is Epic. Epic stories get fame, fortune, and heroics. Unfortunately, he’s about to find out that his story is actually a Paradox, and Paradoxes bring trouble. Big trouble.

While he’s waiting to meet his Author, he’s stuck with babysitting duty. His kid sister just won’t hatch, and it’s getting embarrassing. One day, he’s too busy daydreaming about adventure to catch tricky Monkey King before he egg-naps little sis. Turns out her story is a Palimpsest, the rarest of all, and Monkey King won’t stop until he’s rewritten her for good.

Now it’s up to Fin to write his own story. Monkey King knows the true power of a Paradox and has grand plans for Fin. Looks like the Egg is the least of Fin’s problems. He’s got to find the flaw in this tale’s weave before his sister loses herself forever.

My goal here is to maintain the feel of your world and story without the confusing details. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention that Fin is a “story” at all, I just left it implied. The little fantastical bits are there (his sister being an egg), but I aimed to keep it in the flow of the story so it didn’t sound quite so out of place. I’m showing Fin’s character growth: he starts out daydreaming of greatness while he waits for his Author, but ends up realizing he has to be in control of his own story. The great concept is there, it just needs polish!

I hope this gives you some good food for thought and is helpful!
 

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