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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.
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.)
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’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!
One of the main reasons why I moved to Portland is because it is a book-loving city, a literate city. The library is beautiful. Powell’s is a major tourist attraction. And, beyond that, Wordstock exists. Two weekends ago marked the first of what will hopefully be many times that I attended this giant book convention/festival in Portland, frequented by authors, small presses, bookstores, editors, magazines, and book lovers from all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s an entire weekend of everything book and print-media related, which makes it a simultaneously overwhelming and glorious experience for an aspiring writer like myself.
But books and writing, like any other act or object, change with the times. With the flourishing of the net, blogs, and other writing technologies, I think it’s important to consider the role print and digital media play in our society. Going to Wordstock brought up so many questions about art, elitism, and literacy that it’s taken me an entire week to craft this, admittedly, rather wordy post. So here I am, striving, in five short-ish acts, to address some rather interesting questions about books in our culture.
I picked up this little graphic novel of horrors on a whim while browsing at the Hawthorne Powell’s. It was on sale for $8, and the cover had the look of an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series–not to mention I’m always on the lookout for new graphic novels to read. This particular one is a collection of short stories adapted from the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who is apparently well-known in certain circles. The collaboration sounded like an excellent idea, but even just as something atmospheric and spooky for fall, The Nightmare Factory feels somehow hollow and lacking.
Though he did not write the script adaptations, Ligotti himself introduces every story, an editorial choice that I’m still not sure was the best idea. While it is always fascinating to read an author comment on his/her own work, the first time I read a story, I like to experience it for myself. I like to hunt for details in the images and the text, let the story speak for itself. Placing a really authoritative introduction not at the beginning of the collection but at the beginning of each story makes it difficult to allow yourself that first, exploratory reading. As I read the stories in Nightmare, I had Ligotti’s voice in my head, telling me exactly what to look for, what he believed was important. It completely oversimplified the works and sometimes even entirely gave away the plot twists which are supposed to create the sense of horror in the first place. He introduces the opening tale, “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” by explaining how every element of the tale was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. This made it impossible to read the story as anything but a Lovecraft imitation and cheapened a story that otherwise could have stood on its own (it’s one thing to wear your influences on your sleeve and another just to imitate them.).
On the whole, I did not find his commentary insightful enough to merit it coloring my first reading of the stories. In his introduction to “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” he waxes poetic on his decision to write a story about insanity. The choice to write a horror story about an asylum is hardly new, and the justification that the “insane” are somehow closer to the supernatural because of their shoddy grip on reality just doesn’t feel like a fresh take on a horror standard. The story itself is creepy and well-told enough not to feel cliche, but the introduction lends it a heavy, dated feeling.
The artwork, on the other hand, is quite lovely and well-suited to the subject matter. In “Dream of a Mannikin,” Ben Templesmith creates collages of sketchy figures, lushly colored backgrounds, and text, evoking a dream-like world. It reminds me a little of Dave McKean’s Sandman work, which also works to capture a world in which the fine line between fantasy and reality has been blurred. Michael Gaydos’ rich watercolor figures in “Teatro Grottesco” are suitably ominous, and have a strange coldness about them.
I don’t know if I would have appreciated this volume more if I were more familiar with Ligotti’s work. The stories clearly had to be edited to fit their new format, and images, not properly used, can have a difficult time replicating language’s ability to be delightfully ambiguous. Here I found a group of stories that felt conclusive without actually concluding anything. In other words, I think they intended to be more open-ended than they felt. I wanted to feel creeped out, but with Ligotti’s poor analysis of his own work whispering in my ears as I read and the brevity of every story, I just felt underwhelmed. Furthermore, though Ligotti understands that he is working in a great tradition, the tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, etc., I’m not sure he’s doing anything interesting with this tradition. Maybe reading the stories in their original form would reveal an entirely new depth, but it simply didn’t come through in these versions of the stories. Everything felt like standard horror fare: the world as a stage with a cruel director, people being turned into dolls, Gnostic cults. I was left wondering what made Ligotti a cult figure; how is he different from his predecessors his fans so proudly cite?
I did enjoy the collection of stories overall, but it was ultimately pretty forgettable. The art was atmospheric, but not groundbreaking, and the stories felt watered-down and flat, as if the editors had completely gutted them. If the publisher’s intent was to draw new readers into Ligotti’s work, I’m not sure this collection was the best way to do it. But then, as a fan of Gaiman’s work, I love seeing his short stories in graphic novel form, so perhaps Ligotti’s fans are the same.