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(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.”
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.
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
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.
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 genre, 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—Queenpin, The 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.
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.)
Of all the things in the heavily gendered world of self-help and advice that make me cringe, few things set me off more than a man who sets to explain to heterosexual women how to change themselves to suit them, and vice-versa. The suggestions tend to rely on the kinds of stereotypes that people tend to claim we know aren’t true but are free to use in “satire” anyhow, are based on the idea that one size fits all, tend to offer advice like “be more self-confident” that one should do for one’s own benefit and not to get into a relationship, and are rather hetero and cis-centric. I admittedly cannot write from a queer perspective, but I’m pretty sure people are just confusing in general and, regardless of gender, have confusing wants and needs.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when Marie Claire (the women’s magazine) ran this blog post, I wanted to tear my hair out. This is about where my friend Rachel would ask me what else I would expect from them—and she’s right, you know, but I end up subjecting myself to these things anyhow. The article is called “8 Ways to Use Books to Flirt (Even if You Don’t Read Much).” The parentheses kill any hope that I may have had for the article; if you don’t like reading, why use it as a flirtation tactic? Alas, this could have been the green light for women who are too afraid to flirt with their intelligence. Instead, it underestimates both our emotional and our intellectual maturity.
The article consists of an interview with academic and author Jack Murnighan, author of Beowulf on the Beach, a book which attempts to bring sexy back to the Canon of western literature by teaching people what was fun and wonderful about these books in the first place–a noble goal. Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly decided that his spirit of librosexualty (my friend’s and my term for bibliophilic) gave him the credentials to teach women to pretend they’ve read more than they actual have to get men. I suppose as far as these things go, the article is by no means the worst offender: it at least encourages reading and concludes that a woman talking about something she’s passionate about is the most sexy thing of all, which of course is something I can really get behind. But it made me furiously angry—I think I may have said, “Bite me,” out loud, which is not something I usually say (though I do occasionally say random things aloud when I read something particularly, erm, stirring.)
What made me so angry about it is that for all of Murnighan’s attempts to make literature accessable and Maura Kelly’s fawning over him (“If you have a crush on Jack after reading this, I understand,” she writes,) the article, whether intentionally or not, operates under the assumption that women don’t read the more “difficult” classics of literature. In fact, the very premise assumes that women do not read as often as men. I don’t want to blame Murnighan entirely for the condescending message of this article; though he agreed to the interview and played along with the premise, Kelly’s questions underestimate either her own potential or, perhaps worse, the potential of other women to be intellectual (or, for that matter, assume that a knowledge of the Western Canon is the only way to be smart, intellectual, or well-read, which is rather ridiculous in its own right.). But the worst part about this article is that it does not actually encourage women to read these books because they’re sexy books, which seems to be one of Murnighan’s goals as a writer, but instead he encourages us to use the sexiness inherent in these books as a veneer. Or, as Woolf would have it: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man [or, in this case, “male literature,” whatever that means] at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s Own, II).
This became abundantly clear to me when Kelly asked the unforgivable question: “Are there books that are more likely than others to make a guy start talking to a woman in the coffee shop? ” Of course, Murnighan’s first suggestion is Lolita, which he considers to be the literary equivalent of a short skirt (his phrasing, not mine) because women only wear short skirts for the male gaze and not because it’s hot outside, or they just happened to like the skirt. I have to admit that I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable dating someone who was attracted to the fact that I was reading Lolita because he thought it was a suggestive, edgy book. It is, after all, about child rape. It’s written in some of the most incredible prose, yes, but, nevertheless, it’s about child rape.
Frankly, the whole notion of picking my reading material with the goal of attracting sexual attention is completely bizarre to me. I would never have considered it. It feels like an intrusion into a world where literature exists as a pleasure I can enjoy by myself, for the benefit of myself, and if it turns out that a friend, crush, or lover happens to enjoy it too, they may join me in my delight, but their entrance is natural and incidental. It is not a world set up for voyeurism, if that makes sense. So when Kelly and Murnighan add books to the list of things that I’m “supposed” to check for what signals they send to the male population, it feels like an unforgivable intrusion. It took long enough for me to train myself to dress for myself. But, alas, just as we are not supposed to drag men to chick flicks, expect them to drink cosmos, or watch “Sex in the City” (because ALL women do all of those things, and we do it because we don’t realize how torturous they are for men), we must monitor our taste in literature if we want to be intellectually sexy:
…if a woman is reading a book by an author who is considered a “guy’s writer”–like Cormac McCarthy–that’s likely to get her a lot more attention than if she were deep into Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, a woman reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the train would probably turn a few heads.
Firstly, I’d just like to note that I once attracted male attention in a coffee shop for discussing Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Granted, I don’t think that book actually gets heavily gendered in terms of its marketing, but it’s got a unicorn in the title, so I’m counting it anyhow. Reading Murakami on the MAX has gotten me none. This is fine, actually, because, well, I’m reading.
But okay, in all seriousness, the comparison here is so off the mark I don’t know where to begin. Jane Austen is an artist of plots. Some people wonder what’s so literary about her because she doesn’t use dense, heavy symbolism, but it’s important to keep in mind that that’s not what she was trying to do. At a time when so many of the novels out there were clumsily constructed, Austen had her plots so perfected that in Emma, every single twist in the novel is hinted at on the first page, and yet they still surprise you. That takes skill, control and craft–she definitely deserves her spot in the Canon.
In the context of this article, what Austen does is so different from Joyce that it comes off as making a woman reading Pride and Prejudice seem shallow and laughable. A person reading Joyce probably has a reference book or at least a notebook to mark stuff down nearby because Joyce is intentionally trying to confuse you. He doesn’t want his readers to have an easy time. Austen’s insistence on clarity does not make her fluff. Also, P&P has gotten the chick flick treatment in our cultural imagination, from TV shows like “Lost in Austen,” to the book Me and Mr. Darcy, from the recent film starring Kiera Knightley, and, my personal “favorite,” a chick-lit. edition complete with a “Why you should read this book” introduction by Meg Cabot. As much as I feel Austen deserves more respect than that, choosing P&P (Not even Persuasion or Mansfield Park,) to represent “women’s literature” (a distinction I dislike anyhow) as opposed to something by Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende or George Eliot—to rattle a few examples off the top of my head—he’s making us look shallow, lost in our little Georgian world and waiting for our Mr. Darcys to come.
I’m just glad he didn’t include Hemingway. That would have been insufferably cliché.
The gross insult in this article is that he’s trying to invite women to the table of flirty, sexy intellectuals, to the fold of people who enjoy using the word “swyve” instead of “fuck,” who talk about Milton’s portrayal of angel sex, who would rather proclaim their love with Donne than use stock quotes from Romeo and Juliet (not that Shakespeare isn’t wonderful), but he’s ignoring that there are plenty of women already there. It’s a gendered invitation, not a call for more readers (of the Western Canon.) He’s encouraging us to read more “masculine” authors if we want to turn heads (Which I actually find bizarre because in his book he does give women authors their due.) instead of reading what we like, or (and this is a criticism I have of Beowulf on the Beach as well) encouraging people to go out and read what they like. Between Kelly and him, I’m not sure who is worse: Kelly insists we want and need lines to parrot, and instead of saying, “that’s really a bad idea,” he gives them to us like some kind of Professor Higgins of the Western Canon.
Oh yes, speaking of the Canon, in both this and his book, he’s also sticking to a very strict view of what the Canon is, which limits it to a distinctly white cross-section, and the he throws Márquez in as the sensual Latin American, which just bothers me, though I have to admit that 100 Years of Solitude is intentionally sensually written. Still.
The logic of the article reminds me me of that in articles written by men in the 1800’s who advocated for women’s education not because we’re human and deserve it but because it would make us more interesting for men. I’ll admit that this logic had its use back in the day because people were still unsure that women were human (and I guess you could say the same thing for now,) but it’s lost its edge. Completely.
And the worst thing about all of this is that I would love to get behind Murnighan’s message if he would just make it unisex (and be a little less condescending. Oh, and realize that “Time Passes” is one of the sexiest parts of To the Lighthouse, but I guess that’s not technically gospel fact as much as I like to pretend it is. Yes, I went to a bookstore today and looked up Beowulf on the Beach, why do you ask?). People teach classic literature as if it were boring, and that cheats everyone out of a lot of fun.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think books are sexy. I think reading is sexy. One of the best things I got out of being an English major—aside from the life-changing lessons of critical thinking, brain-expanding empathizing, and learning to analyze and deconstruct—was a sense of just how human, in a beautiful, dirty, imperfect sort of way, literature can be. Tradition may hold it up on a pedestal, trapped in a glass case and surrounded by a halo of purity, but great literature was written by great authors, who were and are, just like us, humans, writing to work things out or share what they think they’ve worked out. I love Paradise Lost, for example, because its author was a person who, having lost everything, was still trying to justify the ways of G-d to man. Though I find about a million things to love about Milton, I’ve always loved the sense that he writes not from a position of authority, but as an “essay”-ist, in the sense of the French essayer, which means to try. I can never see it as a stuffy, boring work because it’s so human in the most wonderful of ways. Yes, it’s literature’s humanity that makes it divine.
One of the sins of how many people teach literature is that they make it sound like it was all written by asexual geniuses from heaven instead of, as Wilde would have it, in the gutter looking at the stars. Some teachers of literature become the people Yeats describes in his poem, “The Scholars:”
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
(Yes, yes, this poem also reminds me of just how white and male the Canon is too, but that’s an issue for another post.). Much of literature does come from love (though of what varies,) and so I would agree that literature is tailor-made for intellectual courtship between two librosexuals. I’m not going to deny that one of the things that hooked me about Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels was that his love for Harriet Vane only grew when he realized she could quote from and understand as many works of literature in as many different languages as he could. I’m not denying that I find Busman’s Honeymoon incredibly sexy at parts because they’re quoting John Donne at each other. But Wimsey didn’t have to urge Harriet to join the joust of intellectual wordplay; sensing he was game, she drew out her… I don’t remember what she first quotes in Strong Poison, probably because, admittedly, I haven’t read it, and I think it’s fallen out of favor whatever it was. But it was a classic, and it was probably very sexy.
So I ask again: What good is knowing a random snippet of Boccaccio’s Decameron if you can’t follow through? Why joke about the Wyf of Bath’s (they spelled it with a “y” back in the day) foul mouth if you don’t have fond memories of when you first realized what she meant that she wanted a husband with both the finest purse and “nether purse,” or are able to use it to trigger a discussion of your favorite Canterbury Tale, be it one of the really filthy ones like “The Miller’s Tale,” or one of the tamer ones like the courtly “Knight’s Tale,” or the ever-popular “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which is often simplified into children’s literature? If this kind of banter and discussion doesn’t scream “date night” to you, or you just don’t like literature (which is fine too), or you feel affected talking about it, then why pretend to it? Or, for that matter, if you want to flirt using books, why does it have to be limited to the Canon anyhow?
What is sexy about anyone of any gender pretending to be interested in something they’re not? Or, if they are interested in learning more about Canonical literature but haven’t read much yet, what’s sexy about pretending they’ve read more than they have? Honesty is always good (or at least it should be.)
I apologize for the rather obnoxious name-dropping in this entry, but I’m doing it to mock the very idea that women inclined to this sort of flirting need lines to parrot. Yes, I will admit that this kind of flirting sounds like fun if I were doing it naturally and my flirtation partner has a similar interest in literature (otherwise I’d just feel like I was showing off, and that would be gross.). I’ll also admit that I do admire Murnighan’s desire to show people just how fun literature can be, and it scares me that I’d probably get along with him if he didn’t seem to be such a condescending git. Nevertheless, whether it was pressure from Kelly (“Girls, girls, what have we done to ourselves?” Okay, that one was Tori Amos at her most lucid.) or his subconscious longing to find his Harriot Vane (though I don’t know if he’s read Sayers), or a little of both, he has only succeeded in suggesting that female would-be-intellectuals (or, perhaps from both of their perspectives, women who would only read if it means a relationship) remake themselves in the image of male academia, and that, my friends, is no way to flirt.
In closing, I can only turn back to Woolf, as part of my not-so-secret goal in life to convince as many people as possible that Virginia Woolf is human, funny, and sexy:
Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. –from A Room of One’s Own, chapter II
(I apologize in advance for any incoherence this article may contain thanks to my throbbing sinuses.)
“So this is what a real writer looks like,” was, I’m embarrassed to say, my first thought as I approached the Writer’s Dojo, a Portland writer’s resource center tucked away in north of the city. The woman who had caught my eye was wore an overcoat and carried a large Queen Bee Creations bag. I smiled, thinking of the Queen Bee bag slung over my own shoulder and feeling that perhaps I wouldn’t look entirely out of place despite the fact that I had gotten caught in a rainstorm on the way to the Dojo.
I’d like to excuse myself for these silly thoughts with such generalizations as “no one is immune to shallowness,” but that would be ignoring the truth of the matter, which is that I still feel as if I’m intruding on the Portland writer’s world instead of being a part of it. I pay attention to the way I dress because I feel as if maybe I can make myself look the part people won’t realize that I’m still an amateur. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my own mental transition from academic to writer. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the mental energy these days to devote much time to fiction, which I would love to eventually have time to do (it just feels irresponsible to dream about the lives of others while I, myself, am mostly unemployed.) But I think the most likely reason of all is that I am not yet published (though this will change in a small capacity shortly. I’ve landed a small freelance gig, but I’ve hesitated to post about it here so that I don’t jinx anything.).
This muddle of thoughts is actually central to a lot of what I got out of attending the Writer’s Dojo panel discussion on publishing, community and social media. Featuring writers, small-press publishers, and the owners of literary social networking sites, the discussion panel answered questions and posed new ones about the future of publishing: What does it mean that with technologies such as Twitter and blogs, anyone can be their own publisher? Does blogging about your day smother the seeds of stories by forcing them out into the open air prematurely? Do people still read books? And what about the fact that a lot of people need solitude to write and don’t want to constantly be able to communicate?
Despite my nerves, the atmosphere was genial and open, becoming more of a giant conversation than a lecture, and I’m sorry to simplify what was an all-together fascinating panel into this small write-up, but this was what stuck with me. This is the second panel I’ve attended on this subject, and I’m more than a little surprised about the one commonality between this one and the one I attended at Wordstock: The panelists at both were very concerned about what “the kids” think about print media, and yet, “the kids,” for the most part, didn’t attend these discussions. I don’t know what to make of the latter point, but I’d like to speak a bit to the former. Being on the younger end of my twenties, I’m more or less on the upper edge of the age group in question and felt a little awkward hearing such joking comments as “Yeah, you want a 20-year-old to do your marketing!” It’s akin to hearing relatives discuss your life at a family function, referring to you in the third person while you stand right next to them, staring at your shoes.
As the conversation moved in fascinating directions such as the usefulness of paper media for annotation, and the fact that children still grow up with books (and children books are amongst the most beautiful printed), I often wanted to raise my hand and offer a recent college graduate’s perspective. (Unfortunately, I’m short, shy, and was sitting behind tall people, so by the time I got called on, the conversation had moved in such a direction that I mumbled something about the kinds of interactive fiction I’ve seen on Livejournal, primarily in fandom, where people are supposed to respond to journal entries as if the characters were real people, and came off as a not particularly serious sci-fi dork, but that sorry tale is neither here nor there). What I had wanted to say though, is that the person who brought up children’s books hit the nail on the head: I don’t know anyone my age who sees books as obsolete. I heard of a few people who hate reading, but not even my constantly plugged-in little brother is ready to give up books yet (granted, he doesn’t hate reading.).
This brings me back to the issue of publishing and the question of what makes a “real” writer: yes, anyone can be published these days through blogs or twitter. There are sites designed to help you archive web comics and sites which which you can use to print small runs of your work for family and friends. Before all this, zinesters were self-publishing their work armed only with a copier and a stapler. But even amongst people younger than me, I don’t know if anyone considers these self-publishing tools to be “real” yet. From what I can tell, and I admit that I’ve never truly been in an online writing scene (there’s more than one), writing on the net is still seen as a prelude to a book deal. Getting recognized by a publisher still has a kind of mystique. When a fanfic author such as Cassandra Clare, both infamous and famous in the Harry Potter fandom, gets a book deal, people see it as having moved on to the big leagues. At this point, I think it’s both the seal of quality publishers assure for readers and the affirmation they provide writers that keep self-publishing in this manner less mainstream. If these attitudes change, well, the sky’s the limit.
I write a lot of articles on this blog. People have commented both positively and negatively, and it’s a lot of fun. I feel like my voice is being heard. Nevertheless, I don’t think of it as publishing my thoughts. I don’t consider myself a journalist or a published writer at this point, which is why I still feel like I’m performing something I’m not when I go to events like this panel. I still list myself in the “aspiring” category, someone who’s still striving make her output match her ideas, and then, with a little luck, her output match her dreams of publication. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind. Maybe I’ll be published before I have to change my mind. Or maybe I’ll opt out of all of worry of when I can truly call myself a writer and join the publishing world (or try and make my way in both.) Until then, I’ll still worry that I’m out of place at writing events, checking out the aura of the authentic writers and wondering when I can walk among them with confidence. Even if our publishing media has democratized, I’m not sure our attitudes have. At least mine sure haven’t.
I tend to go to Powell’s when I need a mental pick-up. The one on Hawthorne is a long, but comfortable walk from my apartment, and the walk through residential neighborhoods decked with twisting, moss-covered trees clears my head. And then there are the books themselves–I don’t know what it is about books that makes them such a fetish object for so many others and me, but they are. There’s the Book Lust book series (and the related Book Crush), various accessories scattered all through Etsy, and, well, the whole concept of the sexy librarian.
I’m particularly guilty of this conflation of reading and sex. My flatmate (another former English major) and I used to joke back in college that we were librosexual. We had jokes about phone sex with Spenser (who probably wouldn’t have appreciated them and would have banished us to the Bower of Bliss, which is actually fairly disease-ful, despite its name) and our own imaginary harem of poets. Once we made a makeshift fort in one of the library study rooms, placing a blanket over a table, to create just the right atmosphere for reading Middle English poetry–we soon realized that the odd looks we got when we emerged for a water fountain break were because people thought we were having sex. I think part of it comes from the same place that inspires math majors to crack “show me your derivatives” jokes: we all want to prove that what we’re passionate about is interesting–so interesting, in fact, that it’s sexy. But with literature it’s only partially the discipline–it’s the books themselves that are supposed turn us on.
“Sex sells” is perhaps the most oft-quoted advertising truism. It motivates the homogenization of female musicians to a specific standard of beauty; people used it as an excuse for Sarah Palin’s appeal. People smugly quote it to dismiss complaints about degrading ad campaigns. But it’s not just mainstream publishers, massive chain bookstores, or even county-run public libraries (though I feel terribly guilty for including them in with massive money-making marketing machines) who are perpetuating librosexuality; it’s diy folks on Etsy and indie presses. It’s my friends who made their own copy of the “First I get naked. Then I read banned books.” button. So this makes me wonder: Is the sexualization of books just a means for book marketers to deal with an increasingly digital world? Has it always been around? Just why do books make me want to stroke their spines?
And no, it’s not because the kids these days have to associate everything with sex. The kids these days did not invent sex, though we like to pretend we did.
I think a lot of us forget that books have always been valued for their physical form. I’ve summarized in an earlier post the development of books as an object, but here’s a brief repeat. In the Western World (I’m not as familiar with trends in literacy in other parts of the world. The book history/binding course I took was rather Euro-centric), codices (books with bound spines, as we think of them today. They replaced scrolls around the 5th century CE, according to this site, which I checked to refresh my memory. I have a terrible head for dates.) were either sacred or luxury items, valued both for their beauty and the knowledge they contained. The invention of the printing press and the rise of literacy led to books falling into merchant-class hands, and, eventually, even farther. Zap forward to the 19th century, and you’ll find William Morris, disgusted with the mass production of books (and industrialization in general), writing entire treatises on the most aesthetically pleasing margins for laying out text, and publishing artistic printings of such classics as The Canterbury Tales through the Kelmscott Press.
In the later half of the 20th century, books became even cheaper. My copy of 1oo Years of Solitude was my dad’s back in college- he bought it for 75 cents. It’s falling appart already, and its heavily acidic paper is brittle and discolored. But elegance is coming back, even in mainstream presses–aside from genre fiction, which often gets the cheap paperback treatment, I’ve noticed books with bi color printing, uneven edges meant to lend a handmade vibe, blurbs justifying the choice of font, and better paper. Many of my fellow English majors couldn’t bring themselves to buy used copies of their course books because highlighting and pen marks made them cringe. Illustrated editions of everything from the classic writing reference The Elements of Style by Strunk and White to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have hit the shelves. We’re bringing “sexy,” or, at least, aesthetics back to items printed for the upper-middle and middle class (and those who can’t afford to buy a copy can theoretically imitate the thrill of a beautiful edition by taking it out from their local library, assuming their local library is well-funded. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.). We can easily make the conclusion that books are just like any other consumer product. The spine of a book, the curve of a car, the sensuality of chocolate: it’s all part and partial of sex in consumer culture. Sex sells, after all.
But books have always had a a forbidden fruit aspect to them–Eve’s apple didn’t just shine; it was sweet to the taste. As long as books have been made, they have been vessels for subversive, dangerous knowledge. I’m not just talking about pornography either. From Galileo’s blasphemous astronomy to Blake’s unorthodox mythologies, we can count on any revolutionary work to bring censorship upon its head. It’s little surprise that perhaps the most famous censorship trial in the US centered around the sexually explicit content of Joyce’s Ulysses. The banning of books has inspired entire movements, weeks of celebration, and other novels. In Western culture, at least, we tend to fetishize danger–I’m pretty sure Freud did some writing on this, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head, so I could be lying to you there. Though not the whole story, I certainly think part of the drive behind sexy book marketing is the sense of rebelliousness and subversion.
While we’re doing some digging around in our culture’s psychoses, I can’t resist bringing up a related explanation, even though all my sources for it are either buried at home with my college books or have long since been recycled (I can’t save all my handouts). Certain branches of literary criticism, particularly those with a psychoanalytic bent, have seen books and text as being like a female body for men to dissect and interpret. Books are mysterious (and sometimes, as I mentioned about 50 times in the previous paragraph, subversive,) which early feminist thinkers would label as culturally feminine. And boom: sex. This goes along quite nicely with the whole forbidden fruit theory (perhaps a little too nicely. I’m sure there’s a complication in there somewhere). Am I seriously saying that we subconsciously view books as feminine? I’m not sure. Still, it again points to the many ways our culture intertwines women, the forbidden, and sex.
And there’s yet another way to look at it (yes! another!). Aside from the Etsy men’s tote bag, most of the lusty book products I’ve seen have been marketed either towards women or with women (using pinup girls with books, for example). Now, on the one hand, women have long been targeted by marketers as the ultimate consumer group. But I think the indie producers of the stereotype are working with a different cultural current entirely. Ever heard of the smart/sexy dichotomy (as in you’re either one or the other)? We’ve been fighting back. As the media constantly bombards us with images of the sexy bimbo on TV, is it any wonder that we want to respond with witty quips, images of reading pinup girls, and the classic Portland glasses-clad “Reading is Sexy” girl? Our book fetish is an Emma Peel Kung-Fu kick to anti-intellectualism.
So are books becoming sexier as they return to being objects for the privileged? Or is it their promise of knowledge (with its ties to both sex and power?) that makes us hot? I’m going with both: not even our beloved books can escape consumer culture, but reading has never been an asexual act (I’m sure Victorian children’s authors would be horrified.). So next time you feel coy curling up in bed with a book, remember that, historically, you’re not alone.
I’ve been holding off posting this week just because it feels weird to post non-inauguration-related things on or around inauguration day. If you really want to know my thoughts, well, I’m really excited to see what Obama’s going to do. I’ve got no illusions of perfection, but it’s a relief to have a president who values intelligence, cares about women’s issues, and is not afraid of science. But, for Cracked Mirror purposes, I figure the more news-centric blogs have all the election stuff covered. Instead, I’m going to talk about media.
For those of you wondering how an unemployed feminist blogger spends her suddenly free time (aside from desperately searching for jobs), the answer is: we volunteer for our local feminist magazine! (Or, at least, that’s what I’m doing.) I had a fantastic time this morning at Bitch‘s funky Portland office (It’s a wonderland of posters, awesome books, and puppies, let me tell you. I can’t wait to go back.) and doing research on feminist organizations (bookstores, community organizations, publishers, sex toy shops) they could contact for mutual advertising purposes. This was an oddly satisfying endevor, and not just because I was helping out one of my favorite magazines. As I dutifully searched, clicked links, sighed in frustration at finding stores that had closed (feminism isn’t necessarily a great money-maker), I discovered something odd: I barely needed to use Google.
Yes, I’m afraid that when it comes to looking for feminist places, Google only was of limited help despite my pretty decent google-fu. What actually was a huge help were the feminist bookstores themselves. Those with websites tended to link to fantastic organizations, stores, festivals, etc. in their community, providing me with endless links to savor, both for Bitch’s and my own purposes. Just through links provided feminist bookstores alone, I found enough feminist media/community/culture outlets to fuel a fantastic feminist-centered roadtrip, and that doesn’t even include the bookstores (and, believe me, I’d visit those too)! I’d love to listen to the spoken word artists of Fierce Words Tender in San Jose, CA, check out the programming put on by Charis in Atlanta, GA, and then have a great vegetarian meal at Bloodroot in Bridgeport, CT. Maybe I’d talk to some people at the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press in DC or visit Ladyslipper Music in Durham, NC. On the way I’d probably hit up a concert put on by Indie Grrl.
This is why feminist media and feminist media outlets can stay alive, even in difficult times; I think, on a whole, we’ve (I say we, but I’m not really a feminist media outlet… yet) recognized the value of community. We’ve recognized that even if you want to call us a niche market, we’re a strong powerful niche if we support each other and get the word out to each other. I think what saved Bitch and In Other Words when it looked like closure was imminent was their intigration into the community (both Portland and Feminist community): We care about each other. How cool is that? I just wish there were even more link databases that were even easier to find on Google. The one slightly depressing part of the whole experience was noticing that the databases I found (not so much the link pages off of feminist bookstores/orgs./publishers) were often either way out-of-date, neglected, or really poorly organized. It’s a shame because the internet is a great way to create a community of feminists who will support feminist media (outlets)/orgs/etc. Let’s use it!
Being a tad under the weather in unusual Portland weather (the “snowpocalypse” is here), I’ve been more-or-less housebound for a few days. Idle hands led to searching for ways to keep my brain occupied, and the most logical way to do so (apparently) was the mostly-unproductive pastime of watching the old cartoons based off of Dr. Seuss books. The good ones. You know, the ones that he actually wrote the teleplays for, and so they actually are true to the spirit of the books. It’s really nice to see something from my childhood that I still think is really cleverly made. For one thing, the artists/art directors did a
fantastic job making Seuss’ winsome illustrations move (the machines in The Sneetches are particularly great, as are the Grinch’s myriad ways of stealing holiday ornaments in his famous robbery of Christmas). The lyrics to the songs, usually written by Seuss himself, are fun. And the stories, well, we know they’re good.
But really, I’m here to talk about our good friend, the Lorax. I’m assuming you grew up with the tale too, and if you didn’t, get ye to a children’s bookstore. Watching the movie again reminded me just why I’ve always loved The Lorax so much. It may seem like a simplistic environmental cautionary tale (not that there’s anything wrong with simplistic environmental cautionary tales), but it’s got so much going for it in terms of social commentary that even extends beyond the now-popular reading of Truffula trees as fossil fuel. Really, The Lorax teaches us the danger of single-mindedness, of thinking with one variable. Our culture suffered from this when Seuss first wrote the book in 1971, and we suffer from it now. And, to use the Lorax’s favorite word, unless we broaden our brains and get creative, we’re in trouble.
“But, Steph,” you may protest, “The Lorax is explicitly an environmental story!” And you’d be right: Seuss has said that he wrote the book out of frustration with the increasing development of the San Diego Coastline. He claimed that The Lorax was “one of the few things [he] ever set out to do that was straight propaganda” (in Judith Morgan, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel pg. 209) (I’m actually very puzzled by this quote of his. He published Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches before it; how are those not propaganda of some sort?).
Still, even with an explaination from Mr. Geisel himself, I think it does a disservice to the book to simply say that the central message here is “Don’t chop down trees!” So many gray areas surround the idea of “progress” in American culture; Seuss knew this and recognized it. Despite being the “bad guy” the Once-ler is actually fairly sympathetic; he’s more tragic and misguided than evil. This becomes even clearer in his screenplay: the Once-ler speaks like one of the great capitalists of yore, a Henry Ford or a Rockefeller. In a scene not in the book, fans of the Once-ler surround him, singing of how he had risen above his humble origins through his industry and good fortune. He’s lived the American Dream, but at what cost?
Indeed, in The Lorax, why does the American Dream fail so terribly? Why does everything slip through the Once-ler’s fingers? Is it just because he chopped down a bunch of trees? Yes and no. It’s because he single-mindedly focused on “biggering.” All other aspects of his business plan–the resources, the environment, the product itself–get lost in the biggering.
Our way of doing things tends to focus on a single variable: money. How can we do this most efficiently? How can we save labor costs? But if you look at any situation through the tiny lens of a single variable you get terribly skewed results, results we cannot sustain. For example, from a monetary perspective, it makes perfect sense to feed cows and sheep discarded parts of their dead comrades; it’s an efficient way of dealing with the waste. You don’t have to pay to get rid of it, and you don’t have to pay for extra feed. The problem is, of course, that if you do that you’re ignoring the health of the cow (if you don’t care about the health of the cow, then please consider the health of the people who eat the cow.). Cows are herbivores, first and foremost, and also science has taught us that feeding something the tissue of another member of its species produces corrupt proteins known as prions. Viola! Mad Cow Disease! You cannot predict Mad Cow by merely considering monetary growth. From a monetary growth perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, but in reality you have to deal with environmental issues, issues of sustainability. Mad Cow disease was a reality check, a dangerous wake-up call from nature saying, “You can’t keep this up! You can’t cheat reality just to make a buck! It’s going to catch up with you!” Like the Once-ler, we seem to feel that our reality check, if it’s coming, has such a delayed arrival that it shouldn’t bother us.
The Lorax may claim to simply be speaking for the trees, but he’s actually got a better grasp on the big picture than the Once-ler. Contrary to popular belief, the Lorax is not single-minded. While the Once-ler sees dollar signs, the Lorax sees how the truffula trees fuel the ecosystem of the area. They sustain the birds, the bar-ba-loots, the fish. They make it a pleasant place to live. Furthermore, he sees Though the Once-ler’s crafty marketing claims that everyone needs a thneed, a thneed, we soon realize, is useless without a high standard of living to enjoy it in. A thneed is not a basic need, but truffula trees are, if only in the sense that they served as an anchor to the area.
One of my favorite additions to tv-version of The Lorax is the Once-ler’s clever marketing ploy to sell his first thneed. He places a sign by the roadside which declares, “Last Chance to buy a thneed for 100 miles.” At this point, no one really knows what a thneed is, but the shrewd wording entices the passersby. After all, a thneed must be important if you have to worry about not being able to buy one for 100 miles! The Once-ler has created an instant market niche for his product; he seems to be a crafty entrepreneur. The praise lavished on him throughout the film-let reminds me of how we tend to allow “but it’s profitable” as a reasonable excuse for most anything in our culture. It’s okay to have degrading advertising if it works (no need to think about what this advertising says about our culture); it’s okay to use non-sustainable agriculture because we need to make a profit off of food. And, really, I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing people for wanting to make money–that’s fair. But don’t just make money–think about the big picture. When we get single-minded about money, we forget that we only have one earth that is fragile and bound by biological pathways. We forget that people are human beings with lives, families, health, and basic needs. In other words, we forget all the variables which make our businesses ethical and sustainable.
This is why the name “Once-ler” has so much power. Not only does he think with the number “one,” look out for number “one,” and only use materials that can be used “once,” but also he ultimately finds himself reduced to living in “once upon a time.” His glory days have passed and will stay in the past. As the Once-ler learns, what good is his money when his unsustainable business practices lead to a world which is so dirty, polluted, and lonely that he cannot enjoy it? I’m reminded of Phoney Bone in Jeff Smith’s charming comic/graphic novel series Bone, who is dismayed to learn that his hard-earned currency, the money that he was willing to get himself kicked out of his own home-town to get, is worth nothing in a village where people barter goods. Once the richest man in town, he is now a pauper, forced to wash dishes to pay for his meals. I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s worth remembering that money is only helpful if you can use it. To me, this makes it a rather suspicious variable to focus on at the cost of all others.
I love The Lorax because we live in a culture that spends way too much time once-lering. Our medical supplies are crafted in China, shipped to Mexico, and are assembled there before arriving at their final destination in the US (air travel pollution, aside, what are we going to do if we get cut off from the rest of the world for whatever reason?) because the cost of labor is cheaper. We tire out the soil using huge monoculture plots and feed livestock growth hormones (why is it a good idea to throw about willy-nilly the chemical regulators that control everything from the way we digest food, to our development, to our sex drive?). I’m tempted to take the metaphor out of the environmental and into the artistic (after all, a lot of times record companies and book publisher will only publish which record or text they think will make them an easy buck instead of looking at quality), but for simplicity’s, and my poor, sick brain’s sake, I’ll leave it at that.
If Seuss were alive today, he’d be amazed. When he wrote The Lorax, the environmental movement was just beginning to materialize beyond twinkles in activist eyes. The book was actually banned in a school district in California, and dismissed by many as being unnecessarily preachy. Now, green is in, as anyone will tell you. You can even buy green movement tote bags at Target. But being green is not simple. Being green is not “don’t cut down trees.” Being green is being sustainable, and being sustainable is thinking about what you’re doing. Being sustainable is accepting that what you’re doing may only start to pay off in the long-term. But UNLESS we start thinking of the long term, we’re as good as “once.”
So go out and plant a truffula, mes amis!
*I apologize in advance for any extra-rambliness this post may contain. My brain is, as I mentioned at the beginning, currently full of snot.