This Student Gives Me Hope

I don’t know who she is, only what she has done. And what she has done is this: become a banned book library. When her school decided upon a list of things the kids absolutely must not read, due to parental outrage and a belief kids can be kept from great literature and harsh truths, she tested their limits by bringing in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When it caught the eye of a fellow student, she lent it out. And then things snowballed, and she now runs a clandestine locker-library full of banned books, which kids who had no interest in good books until they were forbidden to read them are now thoroughly enjoying.

Firstly, we have a young woman who’s passionate about books. I already love her.

Secondly, we have a young woman who’s not prepared to be told what she can and cannot read. Love kicks up a notch.

Thirdly, we have a young woman who’s getting other young men and women reading intensely. Love shoots through the roof and becomes adoration.

I have news for parents and school authorities who believe they can shelter children from things they think are too awful for young minds: you’ll fail. You have failed. You’ve always failed. Unless this was a very clever reverse-psychology ploy to get kids interested in books, in which case you’ve succeeded brilliantly. Bravo. A cunning plan – quite evocative of the way the potato was introduced to Greece.

Too bad I doubt the administration was that smart.

We jaded adults may believe kids these days are incapable of deep thought and literacy and scholarship, and we are so very, very wrong if we believe that. Look at this student. Look at what she and her fellow students are doing. Look at how much books matter to them. Enough to take not-inconsequential risks for. And they are smart enough and confident enough to decide what they can and cannot read, all for themselves, to hell with the naysayers.

I love this to pieces. It tells me that, despite rumors to the contrary, we’re not raising a nation of apathetic know-nothings, although we’ve been trying very hard to do so. No, we’ve got a crop of brilliant, bold, and brave kids coming up, and the world will be better for them.

I just hope that once my books get published, they’re summarily banned. I’d like to have this kind of readership. I want kids like this at my signings. Unleashing that wise, unruly literary mob upon the unsuspecting citizens of this increasingly stifled country would make me twelve kinds of happy, and prouder than I’ll ever have words to express.

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Rant on Readers

George at Decrepit Old Fool, who is one of the most wonderful human beings I know, was kind enough to review a book for an old friend of his. Even though that friend is a devout Christian. Even though the title of the book is The Pilate Plot. Even though the blurb said this:

David Urbane has a grudge against Jesus Christ but never thought he would have to opportunity to do more about it than teach his own slanted version of history at the college level. President Robert Cooper harbors the good, old-fashioned aspiration to rule the world but needs the legacy of Christ out of his way. Nathaniel Stone unintentionally provides the means that involves them all in a plot spanning space and time that may change the world forever. Ruthless ambition, total dedication, and the advantages of modern knowledge and technology are all stacked up against the very foundation of Christianity. Who will prevail?

George’s review is an education in honest self-restraint. Well, mostly self-restraint.

And I’m not going to rip the book. Haven’t read it, for one thing. Don’t intend to, for another. My adventures in Christian reading began and ended with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (which is one of the better examples of Christian supernatural thriller. Compare to the rest of the genre and form your own conclusions). Well, that’s not quite fair – I got to sample a page or two from many titles at the bookstore I worked at, and put it like this: I have no intention of ever reading self-proclaimed Christian fiction ever again. If a book is segregated in the Christian Literature section, it’s a near-certainty it ended up there because it would’ve been mauled by the better books in General Fiction.

But I digress.

This isn’t about Christian time-travel books, or the general horrors of religious fiction in general (where the message bludgeons the story to death with incense burners, pastoral staffs, and hardwood crosses ripped directly from the pulpit). No, this is about writers asking non-writer friends to read and critique for them.

I have just one piece of advice for such writers: you’d better be damned certain your friend likes the kind of books you wrote.

Seriously.

While George is an intelligent, intellectually-gifted, even-handed man who can set aside personal preference to try to give a book a fair go, most people aren’t. So what you’re getting is the opinion of someone who wouldn’t have read your book even if it was the only thing in the bathroom after an incident with a betting pool and a 20 lb bag of bran mixed with wasabi (hint: they lost the bet). I have just one question:

What the fuck makes you think such a reader can give you a useful opinion?

You need opinions from people who read the genre. They’re the only ones qualified to judge the quality.

People who haven’t read in your genre don’t know the conventions. They’re bored out of their minds by the things that fascinate fans. They frequently don’t know what the hell’s going on, and will be confused by writing that’s crystal-clear to veterans. They won’t like the story because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t like the characters because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t be moved by your plot or theme. You might have just written the most brilliant novel ever to hit your genre, and the best opinion you’re likely to get from a non-fan is, “It was okay. I liked your pun on page 147. Um…”

That kind of thing can take the wind out of your sails in a hurry, and cause you to rip a perfectly good book apart looking for flaws that aren’t there.

Conversely, they won’t catch the flaws that are there. I’ve seen plenty of stories that tested well to a non-genre audience, but got shot down by editors because the subject matter has been delved down to the last quark by other writers. There you are, pumped because your genre-naive friend actually loved your story, which caused you to believe it was fresh, original, and the greatest thing ever written in the whole history of that genre, and it turns out the only reason your friend liked it was because he hadn’t seen the exact same plot 4,862,987 times before. And you’ve just missed an opportunity to give an old plot a new twist, one which could’ve been suggested by a veteran.

If you’re going to foist your magnum opus upon unsuspecting friends, and you’re new to this, make damned sure you’re placing it in hands that might well have picked it up on their own at their local book store. Even if you’re an old hand, it’s best to draw the majority of your test readers from the fan base. Outside opinions are nice, but not when you don’t know how to sort the valid criticism from the biased, and definitely not when the biased is all you’ve got.

And remember to keep the salt handy when foisting your baby upon experienced writers who don’t read in your genre. Even they are peering at your beauty through spectacles of the wrong hue, although they’re trying hard to only look over the rims. They’ll do you right in critiquing the nuts-and-bolts. The more genre-specific stuff, not so much.

Finally, keep one thing in mind when reeling from an overly-harsh critique from a non-fan: There are people in this world who do not worship Neil Gaiman. Shocking, I know. Now imagine Neil taking all of his advice on the quality of his books from people who can’t even appreciate a master of the genre.

Yeah.

Give your stories a fighting chance. Get them in the hands of people who can assess them accurately.

Look, You Snide Son of a Bitch…

…I’m sorry if the only comics your mommy let you read were Richie Rich and Archie, but before you go hating on comic book fans, you might want to get to know a few. You know, like your fucking president.

What a dumbfuck:

The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, in his review of “Watchmen,” casually dismisses comic-book fans as “leering nineteen-year-olds” who fear “meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation.” Adam Serwer offers a welcome response.

[snip]

I’m not going to argue with Lane over the quality of a film I haven’t seen, but I really find it hard to understand why comic book fans are the subject of such persistent abuse. You’d think we clubbed baby seals for a living or perhaps sold sub-prime mortgages. The unbridled contempt for people who like comic books reaches something close to the feelings people have for parking cops and tax collectors.

Comic book nerds can count Barack Obama, Rachel Maddow and Patrick Leahy among us…. Whatever Lane’s opinions of Watchmen’s source material, comic books are the closest thing Americans have to folktales, and their content is about as close as a reflection of American cultural identity, for good or for ill, as we have. You’d think that for that reason alone, the material and its consumers would be worth at least a minimum of respect.

[snip]

As it happens, right around the time Adam was posting his defense of comic-book readers everywhere, Matt Yglesias (comic-book reader) referenced a remark by Ana Marie Cox (another comic-book reader) about Watchmen and contemporary politics, which Matt then expanded on to make a point about Cold War policy towards Russia.

It’s almost as if comic books have something compelling to offer to those who aren’t socially-awkward teenagers.

Which you would’ve known if you’d ever bothered to read one, you lackwit.

Observe what Watchmen has to teach us. In a post entitled “What Obama Could Learn from Watchmen,” Yglesias relays the following:

Ana Marie Cox does a webchat for The Washington Post:

Singapore: Obama likes comics; can he learn anything from Watchmen?

Ana Marie Cox: We can all learn something from the Watchmen. Personally, I hope he repeals the law against costumed vigilantes soon.

More seriously (tho not totally so), I think Cheney and Bush modeled their presidency on Ozymandias.

Watchmen was written during the Thatcher and Reagan years, when it seemed the whole world was going batshit insane (subsequent myths notwithstanding). Nonfiction books on politics don’t achieve the level of discourse this comic does. It’s one of those things that shows us how our world really works by holding a mirror up to it and watching while we recoil in horror, and then edge closer in fascination. We’re in 1984 territory here. And yes, if you’ve never read it and you’re wondering, Ozymandias is an excellent analogue for Bush. Both of them did horrific things with a relentless sense that they were right and good. Both of them seemed incapable of introspection. And both of them suckered people in by appearing heroic at the outset – although in Bush’s case, it took a nation too shell-shocked by 9/11 to think so.

Social commentary? Relevance? Meta-themes? Oh, it’s got it, in spades.

So look, you pissant little wretch of a reviewer, before you uncap your pen again and make an absolute ass of yourself by hating on those who have better reading comprehension skills than you, try actually reading some comics. Hang out in the comic store on New Comic Wednesday. Chat up the people who’re coming in for their fix… shit, no, on second thought, don’t. It’s always sad when someone who thinks they’re all that and a box of pet rocks gets taken off at the knees by those with superior intellect. Wise yourself up first. Read Watchmen, read these, and then maybe you’ll understand that the Comics Code Authority stopped castrating comics a long fucking time ago.

But I’m not holding out much hope for you. Someone who apparently didn’t both to watch Watchmen before reviewing it is probably far beyond rescue.

J.K. Rowling Saves the World

I think J.K. Rowling must be a literary superhero. Check out these moves.

THE HARRY POTTER EFFECT….Via Dan Drezner, the NEA has released its latest survey of reading habits, and the news is good. Fiction reading among young adults is way up, and overall reading is up too. More than 50% of adults read a piece of literature last year. Huzzah!


Check out the angle on that slope! She almost got us back up to the reading level we enjoyed before cable, video games, and the intertoobz all became awesome wicked cool.

But that’s not all she’s done. She’s badass at fighting terrorism, too:

In fact, the interrogator who successfully brought down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — and who has written and spoken publicly about how torture doesn’t work — told Laura Ingraham last month he broke one insurgent after he gave him a copy of Harry Potter.

That’s right, bitches. She’s all that.

Alas, Further Reading Only Reinforces My Initial Cynicism

Despite severe misgivings, I took a few hours away from the political and religious fuckery and returned to The Dreaded Year’s Best Collection. This time, I attempted random sampling.

The situation has not improved.

Now, you may recall from my missive on SF over at The Coffee-Stained Writer that SF is a broad, generous genre that allows for just about anything as long as there’s a speculative element hiding in there somewhere. However, that’s an overarching category, and when you break it down into sub-genres, certain things are expected of a story. Fantasy should have fantasy, science fiction science, and so forth. There are conventions. There are expectations. There are, very nearly, rules – and if you break the rules, you’d better be brilliant.

That said, I must herewith state my firm belief that the editors of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 were on the hard drugs when they made their selections.

I read four stories. Two of them, I think, were supposed to be horror. I’ve not revisited the current conventions of the horror genre, but I don’t think it’s been redefined quite this drastically, i.e., that no horror is required aside from people being assholes.

Look, when I read horror, I expect to feel horror. And fear, and sweat, and a creeping feeling of doom. Panic, sometimes, as well. Not, “yep, people sure can be bastards.” Not, “Was that supposed to be creepy?” And definitely not, “What the fuck is that doing in this collection? It’s just regular fiction!”

The only fear I felt was in turning the page to discover that, yet again, the editors had chosen a story that had nothing to do with either fantasy or horror, and probably couldn’t even sneak its way in past a sharp SF editor’s eye.

The other two fared rather better, and so I shall embarrass them with names. “Going the Jerusalem Mile” managed to announce itself as dark fantasy in the first few paragraphs, which is a hell of a lot more than the other two did in their entirety. The middle turned into something you could find in any literary magazine, the kind that loves navel-gazing tales of domestic angst, but it didn’t bog too badly. The end – eh. Lacked a certain je ne sais quois, but at least managed to remain a decent, dark fantasy verging on horror.

“A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility” isn’t quite as long as its title. It’s one of the most fucked-up things I’ve ever read, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s more pure SF than urban fantasy – you’re never quite sure if it ’twas drugs or really real fairytale – but it deserved some love. The snark, the clever turns-of-phrase, the sheer bizarreness of it made me feel like my brain had been chucked in the clothes dryer and set to tumble. I didn’t spend a single instant of that story wondering how the fuck it had ended up in the collection, except to wonder how the fuck it ended up in the collection when it was actually good.

So, out of six, we have one (1, uno) story that actually belongs, one nearly-there, and four you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me’s. A quick skim through the remainder informs me that the rest of the collection is not likely to improve upon that ratio.

Please forgive me if, in the near future, my self-control breaks down, and I end up subjecting many of the current practitioners of my beloved genre to the Smack-o-Matic. Oh, yes. What you’ve seen thus far is merely love-taps. If The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2007 ends up being this stupifyingly insipid, I’m going to get upset. And then I’m going to get sarcastic. And then I’m going to – well, anticipation’s half the fun, and I’ll let you enjoy it.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy the anticipation far more than I’ve enjoyed this bloody collection thus far.

The Current Impossibility of Satire

I adore skilled satirists. Voltaire and Mark Twain enjoy a special place in my personal pantheon of literary and philosophical heroes for their immense talent in the art. Every time I read them, I wish I could be even a fraction as good. Sarcasm I can do. Mockery comes easy. Snark seems an inborn trait. But satire? That’s hard work, and takes far more brains than I possess. I’d have to work at it.

Sadly, had I pursued that goal and honed my satirical skills, the effort would have been wasted. This was brought home to me a few nights ago, as I was reading the chapter on Voltaire in The Western Intellectual Tradition:

Further, satire is intimately connected with urbanity and cosmopolitanism, and assumes a civilized opponent who is sufficiently sensitive to feel the barbs of wit leveled against him. To hold something up to ridicule presupposes a certain respect for reason, on both sides, to which one can appeal. An Age of Reason, in which everyone accepts the notion that conduct must be reasonable, is therefore a general prerequisite for satire.

Oh.

Bugger.

Well, I should have known, shouldn’t I? In an age where Poe’s Law reigns, satire is dead. How can you satirize your opponents when their outrageous stupidity taxes even the most active imagination? I’ve seen it happen often enough – the neo-theo-cons fall hook, line and sinker for a perfect parody. Satirize them, and they think they’ve been complimented. I could come up with a scathing diatribe worthy of Voltaire, which everyone but the clinically dead should recognize as completely ridiculing their world view, and they’d believe I’ve come over to their side. And I can’t even write satire for folks like you lot – how many times have you had to thoroughly research a piece, including tracing the history of its creator throughout their career, just to be absolutely sure it’s not some utter fuckwit spouting some extraordinary new bullshit that they really truly believe?

You can’t satirize a group of pig-ignorant, batshit insane, self-righteous fucktards who constantly satirize themselves. Voltaire himself would be defeated by these people.

Sarcasm, mockery, and snark it is, then.

The Best of the Best, Eh? Riiight.

I’ve been reading mostly novels and non-fiction lately. One o’ these days, I’ll even get around to some reviews. But right now, I just want to bitch.

The other night, after finishing Crooked Little Vein and getting my mind thoroughly fucked, I surveyed my shelf of unread books and decided that I’d better start in on the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror collections that have been gathering dust. I haven’t read short-form fiction in many moons. Gotta catch up on the state-of-the-art, figure out how the short story is done these days, seeing as how my current fiction projects are short stories.

My darlings, if these collections are any indication, I should either stop worrying about how my stories measure up, or I should just shoot myself.

I’m two stories in. I’m wondering simultaneously a) how this shit got published and b) if it’s the best, how much worse could the mediocre be?

The stories were okay. They had a few unique turns-of-phrase, some good imagery, and a spirited attempt at beginnings, middles, and ends (sometimes even within the same story). But for fuck’s sake, could we just please maybe be a little less fucking predictable?

Story One: a house mysteriously appears overnight. Could it be – gasp – magic? Oh, wow, imagine that – witches.

Story Two: an evil dutchess controls her daughter-in-law with mushrooms. Gee, I wonder if the daughter-in-law is going to figure out and turn the tables. Quelle surprise.

Throw me a bone here, people. Either make the prose or the characters so compelling that I don’t give a rat’s arse that I can tell exactly where this is going, or shock me. Knock the conventions of the genre completely askew.

I know I haven’t lost my patience for fantasy due to my immersion in science and reason. I know this because I’ve read several books lately that left me gasping for air. The mythology is so rich, the characters so compelling, and the elements of the plot so twisty that it doesn’t matter it’s total woo. The fantastic works in these books because the author is masterful at making it work. It seems utterly real, and it reveals the humanity of the characters in a way that reality-based fiction never could.

Not so Story One, in which the appearance of a house overnight leads the suburban neighbors to shrug and pretend it’s not happening, because hey, these things just don’t. The author was trying to make a point that we ignore things that are too out of the ordinary for us to cope with. Not when they suddenly appear in plain sight right in front of our fucking faces, we don’t. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief – I was too busy disbelieving that anything would happen the way the author said it would. And then, to throw in a character who’s working on artificial intelligence and then explain away the sudden appearance of the house by saying it’s witchcraft – that was just so fucking lame. Leave the AI out of it if you’re going to reach for something so pedestrian as witchcraft, people, please.

I’m so fucking afraid to peruse the rest of the stories in that book. I’m terrified I’m going to end up stabbing my eyes out with one of my beloved Uni-Ball Signos, and the only question is whether I would do this before or after lobotomizing myself with a mechanical pencil.

I should be happy. The bar seems awfully low: I could probably hop it with my toes tied together. But I don’t want it to be that way. I want to struggle to measure up. I want the water-mark to be so high I don’t have much hope of reaching it. That way, if I fail, I can be proud of failure – look who I was up against! The literary equivalent of Newton, Einstein and Hawking – even coming within shouting distance of them is a triumph! Whereas right now, failure would give me a sensation akin to that you experience after having been beaten out for a promotion by a stinking, festering, half-brained, syphillitic schizo with a family history of inbreeding that stretches back to the Roman empire.

All right, so the stories aren’t quite that bad, but still. I demand more, damn it.

Guess I’d best get to delivering it, then.