(Many layers to that title. And warning: not heavily edited because I have homework to do. Expect typos.)

“It’s too feminist. Our audience is men, and men wouldn’t read that. I mean, speaking as a man, I wouldn’t read that.”

When Larbalestier's Liar, which features a black protagonist, was published with a white girl on the cover, the blogosphere raged. But where was the response from Publishers?

I heard it echo across the classroom, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. We were in Introduction to Publishing, analyzing fake query letters  that our classmates wrote for possible acquisition into the mock publishing houses our small groups were supposed to represent. The acquisitions process for a book isn’t common knowledge, so I’ll do my best to briefly explain. Normally, the author writes a query letter to a press, telling a little bit about the book, offering a sense of tone and an idea of the potential market for it. The press then decides whether they want to read more (a process skipped in this classroom exercise,) based on several things. An important two that many people don’t think about is that it’s important for the acquisitions editor/team to think whether a book fits their mission statement and the audience that reads their books. Sometimes a press has to decide that they just can’t do a book justice or that they specialize in other things (for example, maybe they just don’t publish YA or historical fiction.) and can’t take on the project even if they like it or would read it in another circumstance.

But back to the narrative. I don’t know why this classmate’s comment reached my ears in this particular circumstance when I had my own batch of query letters to evaluate and the din in the classroom was enormous. Perhaps I heard it because it seemed so angry and vehement, so contradictory to the typical tone of the class, which is usually a welcoming place full of inquisitive classmates who will be boons to the industry. But, there’s another reason, and I’m pretty sure you’ve thought of it:

Why couldn’t a man read something with a feminist bent? Why did they assume that only men would be buying their books, despite the fact that statistically women buy more books? Also, as this class happened to be 95% female, how could he expect that for this assignment that he would get work that ignored women as potential readers?

I feel bad using this event as a starting point because it might cast the school I’m at in a negative light, so I’m going to say here and now that it was the individual student, not the environment of the program, that caused this statement. But I am going to start here because it’s an excellent launching point to discuss what I’ve come to realize are major anxieties people have concerning publishing in general and big publishing in specific.

Entrenched as I am in publishing school and Ooligan Press projects, I’ve barely had time to think and reflect. Although I do read pretty constantly and have been peripherally aware of the process of preparing a book for market, publishing does feel like a world that keeps to itself, a strange bureaucracy turning and churning, and so now I’m flooded with new information. I’d forgotten to consider that what I was learning was not common knowledge; that my pre-publishing school self, naturally, was not the only one not privy to this information.

Today, as I started doing research for my final paper on publishing books involving minority groups, inspired by the controversy generated by Bloomsbury Book’s recent whitewashing of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which, unbelievably, was followed up last month with their release of Jaclyn Dolamar’s Magic Under Glass, I’ve realized pretty quickly that it’s going to be frustrating and pretty damned near impossible to get inside opinions on what’s gone wrong. I mean, this is nothing new, but why is it still happening? Why is the only commentary I can find Publisher’s Weekly’s rather weak, neutral article and Bloomsbury’s rather transparent plea that they’ve added a new layer of meaning to the book with their cover? Why do I have to go to the author’s blog to find this:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Why aren’t there hundreds of publishing blogs saying that this is an example of irresponsible publishing or that the tactic is a one-way ticket to irrelevancy-ville? If I have missed the din, then I apologize. If I have missed a lone blog, I apologize. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but their responses were surely drowned out.

How is it that she, an author with multiple books out, did not know just how common this was without talking to her friends who are publishing insiders? I’m not blaming her; I’m wondering at publishing’s secrecy.

The fact is, people don’t know how books are published. When reading another blog post on the controversy, I was surprised that a book review blogger had to preface her post by saying, “I’ve read/heard repeatedly that authors have little say in the final cover choice” (Reading in Color.) That is, I was surprised that this was not common knowledge. At a Wordstock panel last fall, an audience member asked Karen Cushman how she wrote the summary on the back of her book (I think it was Cushman. It may have been Fletcher.) She looked confused, and then surprised that people thought she wrote her own back cover copy. I know taking these things out of the author’s hands may sound sinister, but coming at this from both a publishing and a writer perspective, I can definitely say that authors sometimes don’t know how to best portray their story’s own strengths–are sometimes far too attached to their work to be able to distill it into an image or a blurb. I mean, I can’t do that for my own work. That is to say, publishers can use their powers over a book for good (though I do think okaying what you’re doing with the author is probably the responsible thing to do.)

Publishing is a funny business. On the one hand, it is a business, and wanting to make enough money to keep the business going and pay your workers a living wages (a near impossibility in an industry that famously, even in established publishing houses, makes a negative profit in the first few months of a book’s release and may never make that money back) is hardly such a bad aspiration. On the other hand, you’re dealing with art and culture, which is heavy stuff, and should be treated as heavy stuff. On a third level (to mix my metaphors,) you also want to entertain. Finding a balance between all this, or at least, making an honest effort to, is responsible publishing.

So now that I’ve had time to reflect, I realize that people assume that Publishing is dominated by that loud voice that I heard in the corner of the classroom. Though my small program, designed with a small to mid-size press focus to make best use of our fantastic Pacific Northwest Publishing hub, is certainly not an accurate microcosm of the publishing world, I have to wonder if perhaps if something similar hasn’t happened at places like Bloomsbury. A voice like that, that speaks so authoritatively and angrily always makes itself sound practical. It waves money around, not considering that there are Black YA readers, for example, that might enjoy seeing a Black woman on the cover or that maybe White YA readers don’t care that much or that there are YA readers who fit into neither of those categories and still might enjoy the book. That there are, in the case of my class’s project, women who read graphic novels who might enjoy reading something with a feminist slant (though I do not know what his definition of feminism is,) or men, or people who fit into neither of those categories. That being responsible and starving don’t always have to go hand in hand.

And yes, it goes without saying, that there’s a more important, higher-cause kind of getting out important bits of culture aspect to this too. I’m just not going into that here because I think most people have heard it, and the so-called voice of practicality doesn’t respond well to it. I just don’t see why we can’t find a way to do both, perhaps making lower profits, but does everything always have to be about making the MOST money?

I don’t know if this voice on the other side of the classroom swayed that group’s decisions or not—I actually suspect the answer is no for reasons that I have no place going into here. But I do think we, as publishers, need to learn to address this voice, which claims to be so worldly, so contrary to any idealistic, bookish, eyes on great Canon sort (which has diversity issues of its own, we often forget. Oh why, oh why is it always one or the other?) who might be left in the publishing industry.

And, finally, why don’t we talk more to readers and writers? Why keep the publishing process a mystery? I mean, not everyone does (in fact, that’s one of Ooligan’s missions. Yay Ooligan! I promise I’ll try not to become like a giant advertisement for my program,) but there needs to be more dialogue—or, I guess, polylogue (I think Bahktin had a term for this that I can’t remember)—between readers, writers, and publishers because we all have a common interest: books and stories.

Hello everyone! I’m still alive (mostly,) and typing. I’m sorry for the unannounced hiatus, but after focusing my efforts on publishing school, I’ve been working on figuring out what direction I wanted to take this site in. I’d already been heading in a gender and narrative media sort of direction, and I’d like to continue that, with a new focus on my experiences in publishing school.

Yes, for those of you out of the loop, which I’m assuming is most of you, last week I started a Master’s degree program in writing/publishing. And it’s oh so very exciting and exhausting.

It may take a couple of weeks for me to get back into the swing of things because, frankly, I’m a little tired at the moment, settling into a new routine and figuring out how to balance my work load with my life, but I hope to be writing in here again soon. Take care everyone, and I’ll be back before you know it!

Every year, Portland hosts Wordstock, a giant book convention celebrating writers, local small presses, and bibliophiles. Last year, going was something of an inspiration; I had an inkling that someday I wanted to be part of this group. I browsed the stalls with excitement, asked questions to the independent writer’s guild, and bought my first Chin Music Press book. I attended a panel on the future of book reviews feeling fired-up and ready to write.

This year was a little different. Having just applied to PSU’s really exciting publishing program (yes, exciting is an odd adjective, but, really, what else do you call a publishing school that lets you work at its press for credit,) I approached the stands with a little trepidation. The state of being in application limbo colored my mood; I wanted to be their peers, and though I don’t need a masters to do that, it feels like I do simply because I applied to the program. Somehow taking steps to accomplish my career goal made me feel more like I had something to prove, which was frustrating when I just wanted to enjoy myself. It probably didn’t help that there were less panels I was interested in/could make.

Nevertheless, I had a great time. I finally got to meet Bruce and Josh from Chin Music Press, which was great because, as I’ve said in previous posts, I really admire their ability to create artful books that are as focused on the text as the object. (*waves* hi guys!)  I’m always floored by the sheer number of interesting publishing projects going on in the Pacific Northwest: Oni Press, which publishes Queen and Country (my current pleasure reading) is here in NE Portland, Fantagraphics in Seattle, Little Otsu, a clever graphic press out of San Francisco and Portland (and run by super nice people, btw,) a whole slew of literary journals, Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, and Bitch Magazine, just to name a few. I hope someday to truly call these creative people my peers: their creativity, talent, and attitude really prove that paper publishing can still be relevant in the midst of today’s digital age (or some other such cliché name for it.)

I’m afraid I don’t have as many analytical things to say as last year because the panel I got to see was not on a particularly controversial topic. I went to see Karen Cushman’s panel on creating worlds in historical and fantasy fiction. She invited some of her peers of the young adult writing world: Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howards, Jodi Sensel, and Mary Jane Beaufrand. Strangely enough, I think this was the only all-female panel at Wordstock, though it’s difficult to know if this is because Karen Cushman knew more women who were well-suited to the panel or whether women writers find that they get more respect in the realm of YA literature because they don’t get dismissed as chic lit or niche lit. (I also sometimes get a sense that a lot of really good plot-based fiction gets published as YA because it’s not dismissed there either.). I’d like to do an entire post on this, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it. Maybe someday.

Now if I don’t suddenly get the plague again, and don’t die of “waiting to hear back from grad school” anxiety, you’ll hopefully get some more posts coming your way. I’ve got some thoughts about the depiction (graphically and textually) of Tara Chase in Queen and Country, some musings about writing about people who are different from you (Aka- I’ve just started reading David Mack’s Kabuki because I’m on a graphic novel kick, and for something that so far seems to be about a woman and her relationship to her identity and her face, I’m surprised that he does not list a single woman author or artist on his list of works that inspired the series. I can’t really make a judgment on the series yet as I’ve only read a few chapters, and I’m certainly not saying that this automatically dooms the work, but it’ll be interesting to see just how convincing he’ll be.) and, who knows, maybe some other stuff. Maybe I’ll do a giant rant about “The Big Bang Theory.” Who knows? I have the luxury of not having to post here uninspired, but I’ve been taking advantage of that too much lately. I’m still here, thinking, but life and work, for better or worse, have to take precedence.

Hope you’re all enjoying fall–it’s my favorite season. So gorgeous here in Portland today.

I was going to do a summer reading snazz, but being half-way through October, I’m a little late. Still, I’ve been wanting to

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

highlight a few of the awesome books I’ve read/been reading over the past couple of months:

Oh! A Novel of the Mono No Aware by Todd Shimoda- This is a perfect book for traveling though I can’t explain why. I don’t usually enjoy reading heavier things when I travel–well, while I’m in transit to be more precise–because I find the experience disorienting. Airplanes are the worst offenders. But there’s something about Oh! that works perfectly for traveling; perhaps it’s the way Shimoda captures his protagonist, Zack Hara’s, own sense of being out of sync with the world.

In Oh!, Hara, a technical writer from LA who is plagued by emotional numbness, goes to the part of Japan where his grandfather grew up in order to rediscover his ability to feel. Along this journey, he kindles a strange friendship with a psychology professor and embarks on a side quest (well, several, really, but they all are part of one thing): to understand the concept of mono no aware (literally: stuff of emotion or the emotional essence of objects.) To add to the story, Todd’s wife, Linda, created a series of gorgeous brush paintings inspired by the work that are interspersed through the text.

Though stories of people trying to find themselves in foreign countries or reconnect with their roots are everywhere, Shimoda really delivers something special in Oh!. I really enjoyed how so much in the novel was, well, displaced: emotions onto objects, one man’s search for his daughter onto another man’s search for himself. At first I found Zack’s inability to deal with the root of his problem, his depression (take that word however you wish,) frustrating. As I read on, it became fascinating, and I became impressed by Shimoda’s ability to blend literary aesthetic with human emotion and have it still feel authentic and real. That is, despite all the displacement going on in the novel, mono no aware never becomes an excuse or stand-in for the emotional core of the novel. The characters still feel real and not merely the means of enacting a metaphor or concept.

To top it off, Chin Music Press, which, as you all know, I greatly admire, published this book so it is, as you would expect: meticulously designed. What I really love about CMP is that when they publish a book you know the whole package has been thought out to the last detail: the design will never overshadow the content because they love what they publish, but it will work to enhance it. The only thing better than a good book is reading a book that has been designed in such a way that the text’s best elements have been enhanced to create a fantastic reading experience. Their work with Oh! is no exception.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- A Holocaust book narrated by Death? That description alone probably intrigues some of you, and some of you ready to skip to the next book on my list. Seriously, I find that Holocaust literature really divides people. I, for one, have a difficult time reading it because it depresses  me (and I typically can enjoy depressing literature.) Still, The Book Thief is one of the very best things I’ve read recently. Death is actually quite an engaging narrator, giving away just enough to heighten tension and delivering appropriate bits of wisdom. The book itself tells the story of a girl named Liesl who discovers for her own the power of words to change people, as all around her in Nazi Germany, words are destroying life for many German citizens.

In addition to having engaging characters and lovely prose, the novel’s strongest point is that it really drove home that it was German citizens (well, if they weren’t Polish or French or…) dying in death camps. That they were also Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, etc. was just another facet of this. I know many of you probably think that we don’t need another book explaining that we are all human and killing each other is bad, but, considering that people don’t listen, I guess we have to keep writing them. And if books this heart-wrenching, charming, and well-written come out of it, then by all means, continue writing.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan- Though technically a picture book–in fact, a wordless picture book–Shaun Tan’s little gem really takes the old “immigrant story” to a new level. With gorgeous, detailed illustrations, Tan has created “new world” full of technology, creatures, and foods as mysterious to us as it is to the man whose journey we follow. Despite the lack of words, the story is simple to follow. Tan’s artwork stands on its own, really, but what I do appreciate about his work here and in Tales from Outer Suburbia is the way he really makes issues surrounding multiculturalism, immigration, and empathy come alive so that they at once can make sense to children, and yet still feel fresh and relevant enough for an adult audience.

The Rabbi’s Cat (1 and 2) by Joann Sfar- A graphic novel about the life of a rabbi in 1930’s Algiers, as seen through the eyes of his subversive, opinionated cat. I checked out the first volume of this from the library on a whim, expecting it to be cute, but what I got instead was 100 times better. As a narrator, the cat is something between a snarky philosopher and a quintessential cat, by turns loyal and critical. His views on the world around him, from the sometimes shaky relations between the Algerian Jews and Muslims, to the difficulties of dealing with French rule are dealt with in a way that feels real while still mixed with a touch of humor.

One thing that this book really captures is the contradictions inherent in living every day. The rabbi at once is happy to see his daughter married, and yet saddened by what it means for his life: he is getting older; his daughter will no longer live with him. All of the Jewish characters struggle with their beliefs, the apparent realities of their situations, and their desires. The cat lies but sometimes understands the truth better than any of the other characters. The result is a fascinating glimpse at a group of people living a life that’s less dogmatic and more discovery.

Oh yes, and Volume 2 is worth reading for the Tintin cameo mockery alone. Because while I know those comics have their good points, Tintin is really kind of the quintessential Eurocentric character, and it’s funny to call our nostalgia out on that, even if it was a product of its time. Or, at least, I’m amused.

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson- I find Winterson’s books difficult to do write-ups on, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps its just the plethora of imagery and myth she manages to interweave into one story. Maybe it’s the way her prose is so amazingly quote-able. Who knows? In any case, though not quite Lighthousekeeping, Sexing the Cherry is a beautiful book. As hinted, Winterson’s prose is gorgeous and lyrical in the best sense.

However, though I really enjoyed both Jordan and the Dog Woman as characters (particularly the Dog Woman,) what really stands out about this book to me is the strange cast of characters who populate their journeys. There is a city where words pollute the air, and cleaners must fly up in balloons to clean it. The 12 Dancing Princesses of fairy tale fame all live together in one house after escaping their husbands in various dark or amusing ways. I found myself not so concerned with where the books was going and simply enjoyed the ride.

That being said, I’m still not sure how I feel about where the book ended up, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll leave that discussion to anyone who wishes to have it with me.

Of course, these are only a few of the books I’ve read recently, but these felt the most relevant to the blog. Plus, they’re all excellent and deserve your attention.

Two of my friends took Marvel Romance Redux out of the library a few weeks ago, and we’ve been having a blast going through them. MRR is a collection of romance comics from the 50’s and 60’s that have had the dialogue replaced with a completely new story. Hilarity ensues. Now, while my inner cultural critic really wishes that the volume included the original (I mean, how cool would that be for gender critiques; you could look at what we laugh at, old vs. new romance norms,) some of the new text does a pretty good job of raising these questions itself. Check out this pic from “Too Smart to Date:”

Ignorance is Bliss

Most of the new dialogue in the book is fairly self-referential, mocking the comic that it’s in and how silly it is. There’s very much a tone of “look at these silly vintage comics!” throughout, which is all in good fun. What’s interesting to me about this particular one is that while I think, considering the context, it’s intending to mock the romance conventions of its day, the satire is still relevant. There are still women who feel that they have to worry about intimidating the men around them if they want romance. So while this picture makes me laugh every time I see it, I think it’s also important to let it make us think.

Thoughts?

Hello everyone, I’m sorry for the long silence.  A combination of applying to publishing school, a surge of freelance jobs, and some family issues has been keeping my attention elsewhere. Hopefully I’ll be able to fall back into a regular updating pattern again pretty soon. I hope everyone enjoyed their summers (I’m planning to do a giant summer-reading post pretty soon!). In the mean time, enjoy the short piece below on fiction and history and what happens when fiction makes history less, instead of more, real.

Also, I’m thinking of futzing with the layout when I have a moment.

I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I read about it in a book; it must have happened a long time ago...

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and fiction lately, or, I guess, how we combine the two. I mean, we seem to be obsessed with historical fiction whether we’re using it as the basis of science fiction, to imagine dystopias, or to escape into eras with frillier clothing (for both genders) and even more rules. But, oddly enough, I think our obsession with history sometimes makes us forget that it’s real–and I’m using present tense there for a reason. The whole thing reminds me of when people get so enmeshed in a debate over something like gay marriage that while they quote their policies, precedents, and other abstractions, they forget that they are essentially talking about real people who live real lives. Sometimes we start thinking about it too abstractly. Other times we forget that it actually happened.

I guess part of what brought this to the forefront was a fanfic I found when I was looking through a livejournal community called “badfic quotes” (don’t laugh–I like silly things too, okay?). Someone had written a fanfic for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, and so I’m going to refrain from judging it or even commenting on it. Nevertheless, I have to comment on this fanfic. As anyone who has dipped so much as a toe into the world of fandom knows that if an attractive actor appears in a big summer blockbuster, someone will write a fanfic with an original character, usually (loosely) based off the author, who enters a relationship with that character. It doesn’t matter if that character is sulky Snape or sadistic Rorschach; the original character will bring out his sensitive side. So I guess you could say I wasn’t surprised that a fanfic existed that centered around giving one of the Nazi characters a love interest.

Here’s what did surprise me: as a pretext for the relationship between the original character, Ada, and the Nazi, the author felt the need to make use of another common fanfic trope (in fact, my least favorite): the old “kidnap, rape, and torture the woman so that the man can comfort and heal her.” The surprise is that the torturers, in this case, were a group of Jews who somehow happened to survive, committing organized acts of violence, in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France. I’m going to pause here and let this entire concept sink in because I understand completely if it takes a moment.

My first reaction to reading this was anger–I could barely even make it through the review, which mocked the fanfic. The author’s “disclaimer” certainly didn’t help either: “If you are offended or angry, then I’ve done my job by provoking something.” I suppose she did provoke complete bewilderment. In any case, the anger soon stopped because I realized something about this fanfic author: the Holocaust was not real to her. I’m not saying that she’s a denier–I doubt that she’s even Anti-Semitic (her story though…). I think she wrote this fanfic as if she were writing about the 100 Years War or the Revolutionary War or even the Peloponnesian War. We all know that these wars happened, but we don’t think about what that means. We know people died during them, but it happened so long ago that the deaths mean nothing to us. Now, the allegory doesn’t quite work because the Holocaust was not a war between the Germans and the Jews (who were German. And French, and Polish, and…); it was an ethnic cleansing. But then, this writer doesn’t seem to be conscious of that either. (For the record, it is entirely possible to write a story from the perspective of the Nazis or Germans during WWII, but one of the major challenges in writing it is to keep it feeling real.)

This was a really jarring realization for me; the Holocaust may have been 70 years ago, but it’s still very real to most of the Jews I know (and many of the non-Jews I know.) I remember the moment when I first learned about it; I remember my dad being worried about whether reading Number the Stars would give me too many nightmares. It’s one thing if you’re reading about people who want to kill other people and another thing to realize that if your great-grandparents didn’t have the means to move when they did, you might not be sitting here, typing on a keyboard. I’m sure there were other moments in history when this could have happened, but 70 years is still too soon, too scary, and, actually, younger than my grandparents.

Apparently, seeing Inglorious Basterds apparently made the Holocaust even more fictional for this fanfic author, and that scares me. It pushed history farther into myth, into the past. Am I saying that it’s a terrible movie or evil because of this? No. I haven’t seen the movie, and I cannot judge it. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone is viewing the movie in the same way; my dad loved it because he saw it as a kind of revenge fantasy, a way of coping with history (and perhaps present fears of antisemitism, which considering the resent shooting at the Holocaust museum, is not paranoia.). At the same time, I do think that mythologizing certain parts of history or even, to invent a term, “historicizing” history, pretending that it no longer affects the way we live, does no one any favors. I’m not sure whether if we can assign blame in this case, but I know the effect is not good.

What I do know is this: writing historical fiction doesn’t have to turn history into myth. Toni Morrison wrote in her afterward to The Bluest Eye that she didn’t simply want to “touch people,” but she wanted to make sure that “they were moved.” I’m not sure if the wording is correct–I don’t have my copy with me, but this standard that Morrison strives for in all of her fiction has stayed with me whenever I think about political and historical fiction. What does it mean to touch someone and how is it different from moving them? For me, the answer . When you hear a touching story, the meaning stays within a story. You might feel sad for the characters and the situation they’re in, but it doesn’t change your understanding of the real world.

And a moving story?

In my senior seminar on Toni Morrison, during a discussion on Song of Solomon, we started discussing The Seven Days. In the novel, The Seven Days were a group of black men in the who killed a random white person for every senseless random act of violence committed against black people. The group was entirely fictional, but it launched quite a conversation. By the end of class, many of us were on the verge of tears, and the discussion had strayed into Morrison’s other novels, the Civil Rights Movement, and the then-current issue of the Jenna Six. We actually had a real, honest discussion about race. Amazing. It was not comfortable, but I think that’s a given considering that it was a good discussion about race relations. Song of Solomon is a story that moves.

This is one of the amazing thing to me about Toni Morrison: In her novels, the past is alive and well, still changing how we live, love, and treat others. She forces us to own it. Imagine how it would profoundly change US culture if we saw slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement as events that still actively influenced how Americans live.

Before I stop, I want to stick on one more example of this mythologizing phenomenon, a case in which a tv show historicized a current event. There’s a show my brother loves called “Deadliest Warrior.” For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a combination of a Street Fighter video game, the History Channel, and “Mythbusters.” The show takes two famous warriors from “history” and pits them against each other based on imputing data on the weapons they would have used into a computer: Viking vs. Samurai, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu, Pirate vs. Knight, etc. In these cases the contenders existed so far in the past that they have already become myth. However, the show’s season finale featured a showdown between the IRA and the Taliban. Yes, the IRA and the Taliban. I needed a moment to let this sink in, and so I’m giving you one too.

Now, I’m assuming the show specifies which incarnation of the IRA it’s talking about, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m actually more interested in the inclusion of the Taliban at all. Looking at warriors using fighting styles no longer practiced for war, and admiring their weapons is one thing. Now whether we should glorify war or violence at all is a very complicated question that I cannot answer and cannot even begin to address in a way that comes even close to being interesting in this post. But there seems to be something fundamentally different in looking at a gladiator or samurai, types of warriors who no longer practice, and looking people who right now are committing human rights atrocities. Abstracting a member of the Taliban and glorifying their fighting style historicizes them, places them in the past.

I’m not saying that the makers of the show think the Taliban are no longer a threat. I would argue, though, that to come up with this idea, on some level what the members of the Taliban do are not real to them. They know logically that the Taliban commit atrocities, but the reality of what that means hasn’t hit home to them. I’m not saying this makes them bad people; there are plenty of atrocious things in this world that are not 100% real to me, at least all the time. If I constantly thought about the reality of every single tragedy, murder, or human rights violation, I would not be able to get out of bed. This does not mean that it’s okay to examine these atrocities in the same way we might look at Spartan troops, the likes of which no longer exist.

Other than that particular episode of “The Deadliest Warrior,” I’m afraid I don’t have a strong moral pronouncement on any of this. When does it become okay for history to become myth? When it stops effecting us? How do we decide that? These are complicated questions. I’m not even saying that creating works of historical fiction that are not as life-changing as Toni Morrison’s novels is necessarily dangerous. As I noted before, sticking a dose of fiction into a horrible reality can be a coping mechanism. Also, if we taught history better, maybe seeing Inglorious Basterds would not have contributed to the mythologizing of the Holocaust or slavery would not just be “that thing that happened to the blacks a long time ago, but then they had exciting escape adventures, and Martin Luther King happened, and now Obama’s president–Post-Racial America Yayz!”

At the same time, we cannot do ourselves the disservice of pretending that an event’s consequences end when it does. That’s like saying that American culture in the 1960’s promptly changed on January 1st, 1970 at 12:00 AM. It’s like saying that we already know how Bush’s presidency will change our country or that 9/11 no longer affects us. History has a long half-life, it decays slowly, seeping into the landscape of culture. It’s too powerful and too dangerous to treat any other way.

Also, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but that’s another story.

(This post is dedicated to my flatmate, Taylor, because it was inspired by a conversation we had. Also, he brought up the example from our Toni Morrison seminar in conjunction with this issue.)

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either Hell_Of_A_Womangenre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.

The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villans who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.

To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:

“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of screwed-up relationships with women contributed to this genre, and social mores contributed to this and other genres. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?

Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s Queenpin and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.

At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—QueenpinThe Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?

The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety.  Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.

These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s Queenpin. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.

“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke.  I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)

Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilage problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.

I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.

NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.

(Cross posted to Feministe.)

[Ginny Maziarka] cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

Some citizens of West Bend, WI, would like to make distributing this book a hate crime.

I’ve always thought of the public library as being a safe place. Part of it is just the way I’ve always romanticized books in my head, but there’s also always been the liberating feeling that I am free from all judgment as to what I read and check out. I know this might not be everyone’s experience with the libraries in their area, but in my mind, the ideal public library would make media available, not tell people which media is culturally appropriate. Particularly with the price of books and database subscriptions being so high, it seems incredibly important to have a place where reading and information are free. If some materials do not meet people’s standards, well, even terrible trash can spawn valuable discussion. And sometimes I think all of us, regardless of our views, would benefit from at least reading the other side of the story (agreeing is a different matter.)

So when my friend, who’s working toward her MA in library science, sent me this article, it gave me a lot to think about. Here’s the long and short of it: After the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin included Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop (link goes to Powell’s) in a library display, several groups of locals were outraged, and the book found itself the target of blistering hate. City residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka demanded that the library segregate “sexually-explicit.” Another local filed a suit with the Christian Civil Liberties Union, asking for $120,000 in damages (seeing the book apparently damaged them emotionally,) and the resignation of the West Bend Mayor.

From a certain standpoint, this is nothing new–I mean, it’s old for reasons aside from the fact that the ALA article came out in June. Of course, books, particularly books for children and adolescents, face antagonism all the time. From Harry Potter to In the Night Kitchen (yes, the Sendak one,) people can come up with infinite reasons as to why a book is obscene. Nevertheless, the hatred this book in particular has aroused terrifies me:

…[T]he complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

[T]he plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.”

Other bloggers have talked about the sudden outrage over this book, but many of them hadn’t read it.  I had: I discovered it back in Jr. High, and read it over and over. I remember lying on the couch in the living room, sick with some sort of bug, re-reading it all in one sitting (Admittedly, this was not a huge feat—it’s only about 100 pages.). Over the years, I had forgotten about it; I had left it behind with most of my other Jr. High favorites, but it never left me.

So when I heard about the hubbub, my first reaction was: “Why now? [the book came out in 1995.] And why that one and not every other book Block has written?” (Of the books of hers that I’ve read, the majority I can think of at least contain gay or bisexual characters.) The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it. So I did. Re-reading it, I discovered two secrets: 1. Why the homosexuality was considered so much worse in that than any of her others and 2. Why it had been so important to me as an adolescent.

Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s the library’s place to judge or pry.  When it comes to the issue of book banning, particularly where libraries are concerned, I find content irrelevant. Still, in this case, Baby Be-Bop is such an interesting work that I feel it’s worth assessing what about it could cause such anger, and why I feel it needs our protection. I should note that follows will, eventually, contain what are technically spoilers. I do not believe that they actually spoil the book because it’s more about emotions than plot; the beauty is in the details.

Set in the early ‘90s, Baby Be-Bop is the story of a young man named Dirk McDonald, who lives in a beautiful cottage outside of Los Angeles, CA, with his grandmother Fifi. He has always known that he was gay and wishes he didn’t feel he had to hide it. He wants to be strong and unafraid. When he is attacked at a punk club (ostensibly for insulting a man’s swastika tattoo, but it soon turns into a gay bashing,) he almost gives up hope until he is visited by the spirits of his great grandmother and his father, both of whom had passed on before he was born. They tell him their stories about how they grew up and fell in love. Although they both were heterosexual, they assert that they see no difference between their loves and Dirk’s. As his great-grandmother says without pause or hesitation, “Any love that is love is right” (66).

I also think it’s important to understanding the outrage that this book inspires to keep in mind that by love, Block means sex as well. In Block’s fairy tale, masturbation, fantasy, and sex are just as natural and beautiful as “spiritual love.”

I wish I felt like there was more to analyze here, but I’m afraid that this is the whole dark secret of the book. There is violence, but it is never glorified. There is hate speech, but only from the mouths of despicable individuals. Some of the characters smoke, but I don’t think that’s what’s triggering people. On the whole, it is a book that says, “It’s okay to love how you love,” and I think that scares people.

Far from being damaging, Baby Be-Bop is a healing, empowering story. It encourages teens to speak up and tell their stories where they have felt silenced. It encourages teens not to be afraid of their sexual sides. I think that’s why I read it as a teen. Though my parents were as encouraging as Block, my school was run by a rather conservative religious group (despite the school being a secular school,) and their messages sometimes leaked past the positive ones I got. Although I was pretty sure that I was heterosexual, it just felt so good to hear someone else say that my body wasn’t dirty. I don’t want to pretend that this book single-handedly saved me, but I consider it part of the remedy. I like to think it’s helped other teens of all sexualities and genders in that way too.

Of course, the book has its problematic moments; in particular, I’ve never been comfortable with Block’s tendency to use LA’s minority populations to help exoticize the city and enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of her stories. There’s a lot to talk about in that aspect of Block’s work in general; Said would have a field day with her bohemian love of “the East.” Sadly, I do not think these were the racial problems the plaintiffs in this case were concerned about (not that I would advocate banning the book over them.).

Nevertheless, on the whole, if sharing Baby Be-Bop is obscene, then I will gladly be obscene. If encouraging love is damaging, then I will damage. And I will do all I can to support libraries so that any teen who has been taught that ze is dirty and wrong will check out this book and others like it and begin to feel clean.

(Cross-posted to Feministe.)

As I mentioned before, I’ll be guest blogging on Feministe this week (This fact is still so surreal to me that I’m probably going to say it a lot, just to make it sink in.). Wish me luck! I’m going to cross-post all my posts, so be prepared for some major updating. Joy!

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