Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for April, 2012

Learning to Experiment with the Form

I’ve been writing for well over a decade, and I’ve gone through various writing phases–angsty poetry, melodramatic memoir, dry essays, etc. I usually read a writer, admire their work, and try my own hand at their style. Sometimes the results are pleasing–I’ll post some of my new work based on a poem I read–and sometimes the results are downright embarrassing and just, well, awful. But it’s a good exercise to flex writing muscles I didn’t know I had. I like to venture into new, unknown writing territory every now and then and break out of my mundane habit of prose poetry and essay. I have a style, and I happen to like my style, but the inspiration of other writers gives me a chance to branch out, take a risk and try my hand at something new.

But some people think that’s the wrong approach. I read an article on NPR about “harmful” reads to aspiring writers (http://www.npr.org/2012/04/19/150973750/from-kerouac-to-rand-harmful-reads-for-writers). My reaction was indignant and incredulous. I have had some wonderful creative writing professors, and two who stick out most in my memory had us read writers whose styles we should try to emulate, just for one piece, not to adopt forever, just to do something outside our comfort zone. Our reading assignments provide different avenues for writing that we may not have been aware of. There’s a reason why art students go to art museums to sketch famous works, to learn about the curve of the artist’s brush. Art students mimic great artists not to copy but to understand new techniques to improve their own art. Emulating other artists is like adding tools to a tool box, or expanding the palette, if you will. For a writer, it’s add pens and ink to the desk, adding paper and pencils.

Crawford Killian states, that the ” readable styles [of some famous works]  look so easy that they might seduce a young writer into imitating them.” When an aspiring writer does imitate a difficult style, it will not take the writer to realize the masterwork of craft that went into developing that seemingly effortless style. For example, I once read Sloane Crosley for a creative nonfiction workshop. A lot of my class wanted to imitate her dry, witty, humorous style, but they soon found that hours of effort went into creating those jokes that come off the page as smart and funny rather than reaching and dry.

Most aspiring writers aren’t looking to publish right away, and Killian argues that when a writer imitates another’s style, he or she will produce something that the public does not need to see. Well, the public may not need to see it, but chances are the piece will never venture much further beyond a writer’s workshop or small publishing distribution. It’s not about copying the writer and trying to get published; it’s about learning a new style and challenging yourself beyond the mundanity and rut that writers often fall into. By all means, never plagiarize and find your own voice and unique style, but do not think for a second that it’s a waste of time to mimic great works as a way to practice new styles. Even if you fail, the risk was worth it.

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A White Flag for Bookstores?

Like many people who follow publishing news, I’ve been reading about the Department of Justice’s suing Apple and five of the Big Six for collusion and price fixing. But while I was trying for what seems like the tenth time to truly understand the agency model, I came across this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/business/economy/competition-needs-protection.html?pagewanted=all. I basically came away from this article wanting to argue with the author for insinuating that not much would be lost if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappeared. Apparently, books can  bounce back just like the music industry did when CDs died and iTunes took Virgin’s place. The article was essentially how books would survive the seemingly imminent collapse of the publishing industry as we know it (that might have been a little melodramatic, but according to some the publishing apocalypse is coming), but instead of worrying over the lack of middle men in self publishing, I became concerned that Mr. Porter thinks that we don’t need bookstores. Or books.

I’ve already waxed nostalgic over how much I will always value a book in my hands, even if I do own a Kindle and read for pleasure on it. And yes, I’ve gone on a bit of a defense of bookstores, but I have a new, impassioned defense for  the bookstore now that I have read this article. This article, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/31/nyregion/31barnes.html, mentions some of what we will lose if we abandon the bookstore and leave its shelves derelict for future generations. Browsing online is nothing, absolutely nothing, like browsing in person–walking between the shelves, looking through the alphabet to find the author, running your hands over the cover of the book, opening to the first pages. Yes, I know you can read the first few pages of most books on Amazon, but you can’t stumble across a book the same way you can at a bookstore. You type in a search term, and then toward the bottom of the page are similar titles, and if you have an account, Amazon will recommend books to you (Amazon, if you’re reading, get out of my inbox). But you can’t find a book that catches your eye, or find the staff recommendations, or browse through the buy 2, get 1 free section or the noteworthy paperbacks table. And like Ms. Bosman’s article suggests, it’s not just the books that attract people. The cafes and the magazines draw people in for an afternoon of sipping a drink and flipping through glossy pages. Where will author readings be if the bookstore disappeared? Where will we go for a quiet afternoon?

I once went on a first date in a Barnes and Noble (my hometown is pretty generic and lacking in bookstore imagination). It was a great first date, and although the guy and I have long since parted ways, I fondly think back to that October afternoon and how we showed each other our favorite titles, discovered our shared deep love of history and shared fear of the Christian inspiration section, and realized just how much we liked each other. I’ll probably find other places to go on dates in the future, and my boyfriend doesn’t lack imagination, but just the fact that bookstore provided a place for a romance to blossom shows that bookstores are more than online showrooms or repositories.

Consider a used bookstore, where treasures lay hidden in haphazard, pell-mell shelving situations, where great finds are a fraction of the cost, where you don’t know what you’ll find on any given day. It’s a bit like a grab bag bookstore, where you’re depending on what people are happening to sell that bookstore and what hasn’t walked out the door that day. They don’t keep stuff in stock; stock finds them and stays there for a little while before disappearing and maybe one day again returning. No such adventure is to be found searching online. No, the surprise and joy of the bookstore comes from the discovery, the waiting for the unknown to grab you and pull you into a new world.

The Gender Issue

I’m a feminist but by no means a hardcore, bra-burning, no-leg-shaving man-hater with an ax to grind about gender inequality. Yes, I believe in equal work, equal pay and gender equity at home and battling sexist stereotypes, but I’m not a women’s studies major who gets up in arms at every turn. Usually I only get this way when talking about photoshopping models and unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in the media. My point being that I’m not the type of person to go off on men at every opportunity about women’s oppression in the workplace, at home, etc. But today I’m going to argue against sexism and for women in books.

Fun fact: J.K. Rowling used her initials when publishing Harry Potter because her publisher told her that boys would not buy a book by a female author. Yup, that’s right, one of the most successful, most popular authors in modern times (perhaps ever, up there with Agatha Christie) had to mask the fact that she’s a woman on the cover of her books. Harry Potter appeals to all ages, both genders, and many demographics, both ethnic and socioeconomic, the perfect example of a crossover. So why dd her publisher fret over whether or not boys would know her gender? Because boys don’t read books by or about women.

I read an article (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=5713&utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=138a83439c-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email) about this phenomenon. I recently decided to indulge in some literary candy and read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s a fabulous book–great storytelling, gripping, keeps you on the edge of your seat the kind of book you just can’t put down until you’ve reached the last page. It’s a bestseller; the first movie has just come out to rave reviews and blockbuster opening weekend. But the book wouldn’t have sold nearly as well if instead of a gold medallion on a black background on the cover, the female protagonist would have graced the jacket. Boys simply would not have been interested by a cover with a girl on it. Yes, I find this attitude to be a huge problem.

For one thing, girls make up half (slightly over half, I think) of the human race. Women are half of the human experience. To ignore their stories and their perspective is to shut out the views of humanity. Boys’ refusal to read books about girls is a sad story on how we market to boys, how we shun the feminine for boys in favor of cultivating the masculine. I understand boys’ reluctance to read Gossip Girl and the Twilight series and the like, but a publisher shouldn’t have to worry that a boy won’t buy a book because it’s about a girl. Think about the great female protagonists in young adult/crossover literature: The House on Mango Street, the books of Cynthia DeFelice such as The Ghost of Fossil GlenGathering Blue by Lois Lowry (author of The Giver), Scout in To Kill a MockingbirdMeg from a Wrinkle in TimeHermione from Harry Potter (even if she isn’t the main protagonist, she plays a vital role in the series), the young women in Sharon Creech’s works of Ruby Holler and Chasing Redbird. The list goes on: Secret Life of BeesMemoirs of a GeishaIsland of the Blue DolphinsCharlotte’s WebMatildaLittle House on the PrairieLittle Women, etc.

Students need exposure to the experiences of  both sexes from all races, classes, and backgrounds. If not, we are ignoring the experience of the human race. The issue of ignoring other demographics in high school English classrooms is for another post, but female protagonists illustrate the experiences of women that cannot be ignored or pushed aside. Children of both genders can benefit and learn from the writing of both female authors and female protagonists.

The Book as Social Media?

I recently read an article I found on my PW Daily e-mail about if books will become more social over time like the newspaper and other media (for the full article: http://gigaom.com/2012/04/02/is-making-books-social-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/). Apparently technophile Clive Thompson believes that the book, which has stubbornly resisted the trend to become social, as a solitary activity will disappear, replaced by the social book. I have severe reservations about this claim. Thompson thinks that books online and on e-readers will feature more commentary and conversation embedded within the book as you read. I am not sure that this feature will appeal to readers. I’m usually already annoyed when my e-book on the Kindle shows how many other people have highlighted a particular section, like they’re imposing on me what I should find important or poignant just because everybody else did. Add on inserted conversations embedded in the text, and I will begin a literary uprising. Bibliophiles read because they like the solitary nature of reading a book: curling up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a book is a relaxing past time for many people who enjoy taking time out of their day to be alone and in their heads while reading a book. Books allow our imagination to roam freely precisely because we are the only ones projecting the mental image in our heads, the only ones adding interpretation as we go along. We don’t want influence from others unless we discuss it (either forcibly for class or willingly for a book club).

Speaking of which, we already treat books in a social light. We go to book readings and signings; we join book clubs; we participate in online forums about book; we loan our books to our friends. This system seems to work–we seek out the social capacity of books when it suits us, and when reading alone strikes our fancy, we don’t have the internet blogosphere and twitterverse chattering in the background. The joy of reading, at least in my opinion, is the love of doing something on your own, that for that time is your own, your own experience. There is a reason that book lovers have a stereotype for being shy and introverted: many of them are, which is precisely why they like to be alone, in their own heads, reading a book.

Here’s a quote from Thompson about how much books will enormously benefit from a social aspect: “Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.” Like I said above, we already do this. It’s called the book club. If I want to talk about a book, I’ll seek out other people who have similar literary tastes, and we’ll eat pastries and drink frothy, foamy drinks in little cups and discuss man’s inhumanity to man in the book. We already post reviews of books on Amazon or comment on others’ reviews through the various websites that post commentary on books for potential readers. I am not sure how Thompson proposes we integrate the conversation further into books, and if he’s proposing adding in comment features onto e-readers automatically, there better be an option to turn that stuff off. I’d say, “Get your comments out of my reading experience and your annotations off my e-pages. Get that highlighting off my electronic ink.”

Apparently, young people don’t like e-readers because they aren’t social. If this is the case, I’m deeply worried about our youth who appear unable to spend time alone, so desperate for artificial connection that they spend hours on facebook and twitter without ever picking up the phone. Through social media, are we training kids to rely on constant external stimulation and validation? Are we giving them the tools to never be disconnected and fear that disconnection, fear of being alone? Being alone is important, for solitude allows us to recuperate, to repair, to relax, and if we are afraid of being alone, ever, then we are afraid of being human. Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her Ted Talk, alone together, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLVCpZIiNs

Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why newspapers, books, movies, etc, must become social activities. Perhaps this impulse to constantly share and connect is a negative rather than a positive. Maybe it’s time we find time to be alone and live, just for a little while, within the pages of a book.

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