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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.
Two of my friends took Marvel Romance Redux out of the library a few weeks ago, and we’ve been having a blast going through them. MRR is a collection of romance comics from the 50’s and 60’s that have had the dialogue replaced with a completely new story. Hilarity ensues. Now, while my inner cultural critic really wishes that the volume included the original (I mean, how cool would that be for gender critiques; you could look at what we laugh at, old vs. new romance norms,) some of the new text does a pretty good job of raising these questions itself. Check out this pic from “Too Smart to Date:”
Most of the new dialogue in the book is fairly self-referential, mocking the comic that it’s in and how silly it is. There’s very much a tone of “look at these silly vintage comics!” throughout, which is all in good fun. What’s interesting to me about this particular one is that while I think, considering the context, it’s intending to mock the romance conventions of its day, the satire is still relevant. There are still women who feel that they have to worry about intimidating the men around them if they want romance. So while this picture makes me laugh every time I see it, I think it’s also important to let it make us think.
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.)
(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’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!
I can only conclude that a lot of media-producers are utterly confused. And why not? The market’s changing, and I’m not just talking the recession. Roadrunner Records seems to think that Amanda Palmer is impossible to market (see my post: Beyond Amanda Palmer’s Belly,) the TV show Firefly, which Fox so quickly canceled, has a giant internet cult following. The more that people claim that the world is becoming hands-off, the larger DIY communities like Etsy, Ravelry, and Craftster grow. Print media’s dying, but the zine scene in Portland is thriving. Feminism, according to most, doesn’t sell, but when Bitch Magazine needed $40,000 by the end of a month in order to survive, they surpassed their goal within three days, in the middle of a recession no less. I remember hearing a trend-spotter for Hallmark speak at my college back when I was a freshman. Her presentation overall was unremarkable, but one thing she said that really stuck with me was this: “For every trend there is a counter-trend.” Since you can’t much more mainstream than Hallmark, and I’m assuming this wasn’t super-secret information, I’m starting to wonder why publishers and producers don’t seem to be taking their own advice.
Indie and handmade: they’re not just for hipsters and hippies. They’re growing, and sometimes even breaking into the mainstream (I’m not always sure about making money, but it is surviving). Etsy is perhaps my favorite example. For those of you not in the know, Etsy is a website where crafters and sellers of vintage products can set up an online shop for their wares for really reasonable prices. Beyond this, Etsy fosters community through its blog, newsletter, and workshops around the world. It may be digital, but in many ways it’s the antithesis of everything the word conjures up: it’s a hands-on revolution, an online porthole for offline work; it combines both individual and community achievement; it encourages real-life communication through craft bazaars, meet-ups, and classes. In other words, it’s everything the mainstream markets tell us won’t sell anymore. And yet, Etsy’s everywhere: in Lucky Magazine, on Project Runway (last season’s winner, Leanne Marshall, had a thriving Etsy shop. Before going on the show, she was making something of a living sewing all her garments by hand, trying to keep up with the orders!).
I don’t want to sound overly optimistic. Wired magazine’s been claiming the “death of brands” and the rise of niche markets for the past five years, and the mainstream media still hasn’t quite taken the hint. I know that small presses struggle, that indie designers work hard just to pay their rent. I’m sure more people have been lost to the World of Warcraft than have gotten off their chairs and down to a printing workshop at Portland’s Independent Publisher’s Resource Center. More people read Elle than Bitch. That’s just how it goes. But don’t dismiss the handmade revolution: creative people are powerful. Creative people are flexible. And, with the internet connecting more people to more resources, creative people can find a market.
“Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy. She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.”
So begins Maureen Dowd’s recent article in Vanity Fair, “What Tina Wants” (accompanied by the blurb on the cover “A New American Sweetheart”). Reading this sentence, I can almost hear my eighth grade writing teacher announcing to the class in her rich Scottish accent, “Your intro paragraph always must begin with an attention grabber!” Clearly, Dowd intends it to be one–considering its usage, it could practically be in the dictionary under “attention grabber.” So this all just makes one wonder: why does it grab our attention? The fact itself isn’t completely shocking; I’m sure plenty of women have never dated bad boys (not to mention that if Fey admitted that she had let the boys she dated do “bad” things, she’d probably find herself on the other side of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but that’s another story). Right from the start, we’re confronted with Dowd trying to spin something not particularly odd into something completely unusual. I think part of it is that Fey successfully flouts her expectations. Unphased, throughout the article Dowd digs as hard as she can to find some way in which Fey’s personality echoes the image she has conjured of her.
During cocktails at her apartment, I ask Fey, What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
“Nothing,” she replies blithely. (page 2)
But there are no affairs to find, just the time when Fey’s husband “got in trouble” for joking that they should go to a strip club. There’s no scandalous tales gossiped from co-workers, just the assertion that Fey is a world-class observer, one of the secrets to any sort of good writing, comedic or otherwise. For that matter, she’s not anyone’s puppet (“’Tina is not clay’ says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career” [page 1].). And, unable to find these tropes to center her article, Dowd tries another tactic, one we’re probably all familiar with. My mom saw it in the 60’s, my friends and I saw it as teenagers in the 90’s. It’s the romantic comedy narrative standard of the just-remove-glasses and stir ugly ducking.
From an objective writerly perspective, I’m unsure of what Dowd is trying to accomplish in this article–it meanders in circles. As I said before, I almost get the sense that she approached it with a certain set of expectations, didn’t have them met, and was reduced to trying to fit what she did find out into some semblance of structure. But stranger still, and more interesting, is Fey’s relative silence throughout the article. Dowd has elected to tell the trajectory of Fey’s career almost entirely from the perspective of the men in her life. Feminist objections aside, there’s just something jarring about not hearing from someone who’s known for her comedy, her writing, her voice in a piece about her life. I can only conclude that Dowd, in her desire to fit Tina Fey into the “glamor-puss” role she (or Vanity Fair) created, had to tone down Fey’s “activeness.” She attempts to shove a kind of “American Dream” tale (woman who does hard work gets rewarded) into a Cinderella makeover story, resulting in a textual and subtextual mess.
Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, ‘When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will. (page 1)
As I mentioned before, the rhetoric here is half American Dream, half Stacy and Clinton’s “What Not to Wear” celebrity super special edition (I don’t know if that actually exists). Perhaps fitting into the New York image allowed Fey to appear on TV, but it was her comedic sensibility that got her that far in the first place. If we want to reduce people’s lives to narratives, why does Dowd have to explicitly use Cinderella (and, for that matter, Sex and the City): ” She got her own slipper, writing and willing herself into the role, and the shoe wasn’t glass. It was a silver Manolo Blahnik.”? Is a makeover really the female equivalent of the American Dream?
The slipper just doesn’t fit, even as Dowd slices the story. Her tone doesn’t match the details. I think my favorite example of this is Dowd’s apparent shock that back when Fey was doing Second City gigs in Chicago “She used to wear crazy boots…knee-length frumpy dresses with thrift-store sweaters.” In other words, she dressed like a college student. As I myself, was, up until very recently, a college student, I just don’t have it in me to drudge up the shock. Living in the Pacific Northwest probably doesn’t help either, but I guess that’s not the point. I know that if you want to get into the entertainment industry, especially in a place like New York, you have to look the part. You have to be a sophisticate. Despite Dowd’s attempt to shroud it in mystique, when I read Fey’s story I see not a cosmetic miracle, but the story of a woman who realized that she had to dress the part to be taken seriously. She was already writing for SNL; they just wouldn’t let her on TV. She had the talent, the drive; all that was missing was the image. Call it a feminist defeat; call it just the way things are–I don’t care. Right or wrong, it was just another step along the difficult road of becoming a self-made woman in a world where women need both brains and beauty to get noticed. Seinfeld didn’t need to be a hunk and could dress down grungy, but Tina Fey’s gotta wear those pumps. It’s sick that the world works like that, yes, and it’s even more sick that Dowd chose to center her tale of Fey’s career around what was perhaps the smallest aspect of her success.
The quotes from the article chosen to accompany the lovely Annie Leibovitz photography are even more puzzling. Next to an image of Fey dancing
around, smiling and carefree is the blurb, “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” While I find the actualand image counteracts how free Fey looks while dancing. It feels like a textual punishment: you can’t really be this joyful because you have a butt. I have yet to truly understand what exactly made this such an important quotation as to be excerpted from the article. As it is, it adds yet another contradictory message to the tangled subtext: She’s a brain. No, she’s a brain-turned-glamour puss-who-somehow-retained-the-brain. But, don’t worry, other women: she’s still a butt despite it all.
Regardless of how pretty Tina Fey may be I’ve never actually met anyone who would talk about her looks before her comedy. But Dowd’s article–though it does veers into the Palin sketches (“Did she ever use the Sarah Palin voice to entice her own First Dude?” Dowd asks [pg. 2].) and 30 Rock (“30 Rock features many shots of Liz Lemon’s younger life, when she looks like a nerd in goofy clothes and frizzy hair. ‘I really wasn’t heavy in high school,’ Fey recalls over lunch one afternoon at Café Luxembourg, where she dutifully switches her order from a B.L.T. to a salad” [pg. 2].)–has body on the brain.
Whether she did it just to sell magazines or if she’s acting on her own prejudices, Dowd has done everything in her power to tease out the body and bawdy from this career, but no matter if you want to package her as America’s Sweetheart or as just a very talented comedic writer/producer who worked her butt off, in the end, Fey just comes across as smart and driven. Plain and simple. I, for one, like that; I’m not sure why Dowd doesn’t.
(You can read the full article here or in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, starting on page 66.)
*Apologies to the writers of Frost/Nixon for stealing their title. The movie, while fairly unrelated to anything having to do with this article, is actually fantastic.