Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘literature’

Banned Books Week!

Hi everyone and Happy Banned Books Week! This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Today is the first day of October, and here in Texas it feels a little bit like fall. Miracles! This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, so we’re celebrating thirty years of the right to read. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are still under fire; people are still attempting to take these amazing, inspiring, wonderful books off bookshelves in schools and libraries. And it’s not just classics that are threatened–books like Speak and The Kite Runner are being challenged all over the country. Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to see some quotes from frequently challenged authors: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/bannedbooksweek

I hope everyone celebrates Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. What book will you read? I still find it incredible that some of the most wonderful books in the English/American literary canon suffer attempted censorship, so everyone should rejoice in our freedom to produce, write, publish, and read banned books. After all, a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.

Even if some books aren’t outright banned, some are hoping to impose ratings on books, especially books for Young Adults. I read an article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9558797/Fifty-Shades-of-YA-Should-teen-books-have-ratings.html) by a young adult author, CJ Daugherty, who discussed the possibility of imposing a ratings system on YA books in the UK, but the discussion isn’t limited to our friends across the pond (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/18/is-it-time-to-rate-young-adult-books-for-mature-content). When I first read these articles, I couldn’t express my outrage. I struggled to find the words to explain how indignant I felt. After all, movies have ratings systems–if you’re under seventeen, you can’t see an R-rated movie without an adult. However, I never snuck into an R-rated movie before my seventeenth birthday. When I did finally go to one after my seventeenth, the girl at the register didn’t even card me, but the thought of a young person hooked on reading having to show ID to buy a book rankled me.

I do agree that some YA adults aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children. If I had kids, I’d limit if they could read The Hunger Games series (a lot of violence) or the later books of the Harry Potter series (lots of adult themes and death), but I want to leave that choice up to individual parents rather than imposing an arbitrary system like the MPAA does on movies. CJ Daugherty is a fan of the system in the United States where publishers place a recommended age on the back covers of YA books, but some feel that this doesn’t go far enough.

Why should books be exempted from ratings while moviemakers are forced to edit down their movies to receive a lower rating than NC-17? An NC-17 rating effectively cancels a movie’s ability to turn a profit, so filmmakers cut out a lot of the juicier tidbits to avoid the ire of the MPAA, and I do not want to see books go the same way, where authors have to water down the content to avoid getting a bad rating. The ALA believes that a rating system that would require authors to edit out content is nothing short of censorship.

Plus, where would you draw the line for what is appropriate and inappropriate for which ages? Three curse words is inappropriate for twelve-year-olds, but five is acceptable for thirteen-year-olds? Making out is taboo for 5th graders, but second base is okay for 7th graders?

Sarah Coyne, a professor in Brigham Young University’s department of family life points out that many books, if adapted into movies, would quickly be rated R within just a few pages. She argues, “I don’t think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter orTwilight didn’t have a big influence on adolescents. When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” But books are different from movies. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, asserts that books provide a safe avenue for exploring more adult topics. “Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Plus, books with too much edited out don’t truthfully depict what it’s like to be a teen. I led a fairly vanilla young adolescence, but I had friends whose activities, if displayed onscreen, would get an R-rating in a second. I think books should accurately portray what teens experience–their trials and tribulations, their triumphs, their heartbreak, their mistakes. I learned a lot about what it’s like to grow up and how to survive the perilous word of teenagerdom from reading books like Speak and Go Ask Alice. Without those books, I would have been more lost than I already was in a complicated world of teenage drama and emotions.

I fully support a parent’s right to closely monitor what his or her children read and to prohibit his or her own children from reading inappropriate material, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not create an organization that limits teens from reading a whole range of books. It’s hard enough to get teens to read today in general, so why on earth are we narrowing the field of what they can read? I cannot bear to one day see a young, avid reader who can’t buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower because they aren’t old enough to read it, according to a third-party organization.

Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of a slippery slope logical fallacy, I don’t there are too many steps between limiting what children can read and banning books altogether. Books challenge people, force them out of their comfort zone. Books are a door into another world we might have never experienced otherwise. And it’s brain exercise. Brain waves while watching a TV show or a movie are pretty stagnant, but while reading a book, brain activity is alive and on fire. Books spark creativity and imagination; books teach us about ourselves, whether the setting is the suburbs or a fantasy world. Let’s promote creative innovation rather than stifling expression.

 

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Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

Beach books and summer indulgences

For four years, my beach books were not so much fun literary treats as vitamins assigned by my teachers. In order to study Pre-AP or AP English, students had to do a summer reading assignment along with a project or essay as an attempt to weed out students who weren’t willing to do extra work. I did my own reading on the side of course, but my summers were dominated by books like Pride and Prejudice and The Merchant of Venice. (Disturbingly, The Merchant of Venice inspired some vehement anti-Semitic rants among my classmates during class discussion. Then again, I went to school in a conservative Southern town, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.) Not all the titles were bad: The House on Mango Street made me fall in love with Sandra Cisneros and How to Read Literature Like a Professor  introduced me to the idea of intertextuality. All in all, these assignments were burdensome and often boring, such as slogging through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Go into any major bookstore during summertime, and you will find a table labeled “Summer Reading” laden with classic titles that teachers have assigned to their students. If you find the table labeled “Summer Favorites,” you’ll get a dose of those titles publishers roll out just in time for beach season. Although I understood the reasoning for giving summer assignments (separating the wheat from the chaff, getting a head start on assignments since there’s so little time to cram everything in, etc.), I disagreed with this approach because it turned reading into a chore. It made students even more resentful toward reading and literature, because they saw the assignments as an infringement on their summer vacation. We don’t need to give high school students any more excuses than they already have for disliking reading literature.

But fortunately I finished high school, and when summer arrived after my high school graduation, I was free to read whatever I liked–a liberty that felt surprisingly strong and exciting. Rather than having to annotate Sophie’s World hanging over my head for two and a half months, I could read as many murder mysteries as I liked and as much pop culture fiction as I wanted. Granted, I had one small assignment for summer reading for TCU, but it was a tiny booklet with writings on the second amendment that required an accompanying 1,000-word or so essay. And without sounding vain, that was child’s play to me.

The beach book is a big market for those of us not laboring under summer reading assignments. Publishers lay out dozens of summer titles, and magazines and talk shows highlight their favorite choices for summer–fluffy books that require little mental strain while delivering maximum entertainment. These titles are opposed to James Joyce–you can find some other challenging titles at Publisher’s Weekly “The Top 10 Most Difficult Books,” none of which I have read or attempted to read (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/53409-the-top-10-most-difficult-books.html). Pick up this book, head to the beach, and relax listening to the waves while reading. But as Amanda Katz points out in her article “You Call That A Beach Book? Really?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/08/158220698/you-call-that-a-beach-book-really?), more and more we see less books that are literary candy in the hands of readers on beach towels. Why?

Part of me feels a pressure to read more serious books. When a friend and I were waiting in line to be announced as new Phi Beta Kappa members, I told him sheepishly that I had read The Hunger Games over spring break. He gave me a withering look. Since then, among my English and writing peers and professors, I only admit to reading things like The Fate of the Romanovs and poetry by obscure Polish writers. But that hasn’t diminished my desire to read books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’m sure has been ostracized from the high literature pantheon since being handpicked by Oprah, or Tana French’s Broken Harbor, even though Tana French should get some merit for having one the Edgar Allan Poe award for her outstanding first novel, In The Woods.

But enough of me and my secret guilty pleasures of mass market fiction. Maybe we should admire these people who eschew the overwhelming beach book trend and actually read those one or two books they’ve been saving all year. Much as I hate to admit it, I often put aside reading when I want to read because I’m just so busy and overwhelmed. Because my work involves reading and critiquing student writing, and my major is all about reading at least a book a week and writing at least 8-10 pages a week, when I have free time, my brain can’t seem to find reading a pleasurable pastime or escape. So when summer comes, people with normally hectic lives take some time off to finally get around to that pile of books that’s steadily grown over the year or start ticking off some titles on that to-read list that’s only gotten longer. Yes, we all merge on the bestseller list, but there’s nothing wrong with reading those niche books that get shunted to the side for not being in the lowest common denominator. For example, once I get my hands on it, I’ll be reading Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe then moving on to Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel.

Unfortunately, before that I’ll have to read some books (13) for my honors thesis such as A Concise History of the French Revolution by Sylvia Neely, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and The Language of Genes by Steve Jones. There’s a good chance I won’t get to Sharpe or Botton until I graduate in December. Who says I have to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy? I think we’re all just fine reading what we enjoy. Our lives are filled with reading reports for work and squeezing in that extra hour to catch up on e-mail. When we finally take time to ourselves, we should read those books that interest us and engage us, no matter what books are put before us. Good reading is determined by the individual, not the masses. Reading taste as individualized and varied as musical taste; we should feel free to read what we enjoy, not what’s in vogue.

 

 

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