When the [Dog] Dies

Years and years ago, I read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. The experience still haunts me. When my nephew mentioned that he’d been assigned the book, I felt the need to warn him that the book would destroy him. I’d been so emotionally wrecked by the book that, at the time, I skipped most of the end of it, because I just couldn’t handle it. I’ve never been able to go back. And, now that I think about it, I’ve always had a hard time when an animal is killed in a story. There have been human deaths in books that have moved me—A Tale of Two Cities and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena come to mind—but ever in the same way that animal deaths do.

I’ve been thinking about this all week as I’ve worked my way through The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones. I picked it as a scary read for Halloween. (It absolutely delivered.) But I kept putting the book down because of what happens to an elk doe, her calf, and her herd. It’s an important plot point, necessary to the entire book, but there’s something about the callous brutality of how animals are treated in this book that made it hard for me to continue.

Where the Red Fern Grows statue at the Idaho Falls Public Library (Image via Wikipedia)

So what is it about animal deaths that seem to hurt in a more visceral way than human deaths? I can’t count how many murders of humans I’ve read. While I stay away from the goriest serial killer novels, I love reading a good puzzle book or riding along on a revenge quest, or even stepping into the trenches in a war book. The first is all about intellectual stimulation and the latter two reasons are a way to experience part of human life that I would never, ever want to see in person. I can handle it. I can handle fictional violence. (Usually.)

As I’m writing this, my cat Mogwai is loafing next to me. He’s kind of an obnoxious asshole when he wants attention, but I love him and every cat I’ve ever had. Maybe the experience of having pets has made it hard for me to read about even fictional cruelty. Maybe it’s that when animals are hurt or killed in fiction, it’s almost always to teach a character a lesson or to threaten them or to show us just how evil a character really is. It’s effective, for sure. My guts always clench or my heart aches or my mouth snarls like the author wants them to. But unlike so many other reading-induced emotions I’ve sought out in a story, these ones always leave a bad emotional residue behind because I often can’t help but look over at whichever of my cats is nearest and think about how awful it would be for something to happen to them. (My other cat, Ari.)

I’ve talked to other readers who’ve developed the same sort of aversion to seeing violence towards children. No matter that the stories are fiction, they (and I) can’t forget the very real representatives that live around us. And we can’t forget that our children and our animals are under our care; we are here to protect and nurture them—which brings me back around to Where the Red Fern Grows and my need to give my nephew a heads up about what would happen in the book. It took me some time to come around to the idea of trigger warnings. I realized that I had misunderstood what they were for. I believe that it’s important to challenge ourselves, but also that we don’t have to walk into that challenge without warning and without being able to prepare.

So, readers, I promise that I will always let you know when elements of a story might trigger you, because I want you to be able to make an informed decision about whether you want to start reading. I will always tell you if the dog (or elk or cat, etc.) dies.

Thoughts About Why People Want to Ban Books

Every September, when Banned Books Week comes around, I get an Oscar Wilde quote running on a loop in my head: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” Every year, when I see the most frequently challenged books that parents have asked be taken off the shelves in their public libraries and their children’s school, I see people who are afraid to engage in hard questions about racism, homophobia, sex, drug use, abuse, and so many other topics that our society desperately needs to talk about. I can understand that these are uncomfortable questions to have, especially with children and teens—but I believe that dodging the conversations does much more harm than good.

I often wonder why people do this. Why do people feel they have the right to control what others think about? Why do they think it’s a good moral thing to shelter children from diversity and difference? For a while, I thought it was because parents were going to great lengths to avoid awkward conversations with their children. I mean, who really wants to talk to their mom and dad about menstruation, let alone sex and cyberbullying and Black Lives Matter? My mom just left a packet of pads under the bathroom sink when I was around 13 and told me to not read The Clan of the Cave Bear until I was older.

Years later—and in fact only a couple of years ago—I was talking to my sister-in-law about how hard it was for her to have a conversation with her own mother about politics. They were both on opposite sides of the liberal-conservative divide. Any time my sister-in-law would question or criticize Trump and the Republicans, things would get heated. When we talked, we wondered if her mother’s defense was a result of feeling that she might be a bad person for supporting their policies. Did supporting racist policies make her a racist? Did supporting Trump mean that she might be sexist?

No one likes to turn the mirror on themselves and see that they have problematic beliefs. Having a conversation with their child about a book about all those uncomfortable topics might reveal that they aren’t as progressive as they thought they were. Or perhaps the increasing prevalence of LGBT+ books or stories about racial violence challenges their ideas about how the world should be.

Which brings me back around to 2021. There seem to be a lot more challenges being issued and a lot more contention over those challenges. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s Banned Books Week time and the media likes to shine a light on libraries every now and then, or if this is yet another expression of America’s cultural wars? I don’t know. I also don’t know how to talk with people who want to take books off the shelf in a way that won’t lead to screaming and picketing. I really wish I did.

Of Typography and Mentally Ill Characters

Hamlet, by the Beggarstaff Brothers, 1894 (Image via Flickr)

One of the many remarkable things in the altogether incredible novel The King of Infinite Space, by Lindsay Faye, was the way that she harnessed typography (of all things) to share one of her protagonist’s attention-deficient, anxious, depressed, and paranoid mind. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I can’t recall ever seeing an author attempt anything like it before—which got me to thinking about how limited the options are for accurately depicting the interior life of someone with mental illness.

Up until now—with the exception of highly experimental novels like The House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski—most authors use italics to let us know that we’re listening in on a character’s internal monologue. The heavy use of italics keeps the thought-line separate from the action and direct speech. Not only are the boundaries very clear, but I’ve also often gotten the impression that authors try to stress the logic of their mentally ill characters’ thoughts. These characters very rarely seem to understand that their thought patterns interfere with their ability to function, to have healthy relationships, or even see the world as it is. A lot of the time—at least in the books I remember reading, which I know is far from a useful dataset—authors present characters who may be mentally ill as having privileged information. That is, they’re not crazy. Everyone else is because they’re missing important information. That said, I think most of the mentally ill characters I’ve met in fiction are usually viewed through another character’s eyes or from the perspective of a somewhat detached narrator.

In her retelling of Hamlet, Faye’s version of the melancholy Dane knows that the way he thinks is not normal (which I know is a vexed word and I’ve been trying to avoid it up until now). So, unlike the chapters narrated by the Horatio and Ophelia characters, Ben Dane’s narration is frequently marked with short lines that look like poetry. I felt myself speed up as I read those, since my eyes didn’t have to go all the way across the page. My eyes kept jumping to the next line. Other times, Ben’s inner thoughts intrude into his external dialogue with the other characters. I loved these moments because Ben’s real thoughts would show up as snarky bits of bolded text, embedded in the plain text dialog. At the same time, this also made me wonder if Ben suffered from intrusive thoughts, which are fairly common for people with anxiety and depression. In addition to the poem-like line breaks and interrupting bold text, the lack of italics for Ben’s reminisces about the past gave me the impression of a mind that couldn’t stop wandering away from the task at hand.

In the original Hamlet, Hamlet has his words to bring us into his inner thoughts. A great actor can make those words live and breathe but I think Faye’s brilliant characterization and clever use of typography has brought me the closest I’ve ever been to walking around in a character’s mental shoes. Because I was taking all of this into my mind and finishing the job of assembling them into meaning myself (as opposed to having an actor interpret them for me), I got the sensation of thoughts tripping over themselves and unspoken thoughts trying to shove their way through into the open. I am still marveling at what Faye was able to achieve. It also made me realize how hard it is to write such a unique pattern of thought. No wonder so many authors stick to italics.

I Bought a Book That Was Canceled

I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that one of my duties as a librarian at a university is buying and weeding materials from our literature and languages collection. (I love doing this!) This means that I regularly read reviews from all over: CHOICE, Publishers’ Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, other readers’ blogs. Unlike reviews for fiction and poetry, reviews of academic books rarely mention the author other than to say something about their credentials. These reviews are all about the content. I make my decision about buying a book if the review makes it sounds like the content fits a gap in our collection and if it sounds authoritative. I won’t say that I haven’t been fooled by reviews before. I’ve sometimes come across reviews published later that point out problems with a book. (These get weeded if the problems are bad enough.) It was only this spring semester that I found out that a book I tried to buy for the library was canceled by the publisher because of allegations that the author had committed sexual assaults and sexual harassment.

I’ve been bothered by the news ever since I read it. Although there was no way of knowing before the story broke that there were allegations against Blake Bailey, I feel a bit of contact shame because my decision sent some of my library’s money to Bailey. I’m not sure if we received a copy before the cancellation news came out or if a refund is in progress. I also don’t know how I feel about weeding a book because of allegations. (Bailey, as far as I know, has not been convicted of anything or admitted guilt.) All the reviews I read before I decided to order a copy claimed that it was a definitive biography of a major American writer.

Thinking about this has brought up all my old wonderings about supporting authors of apparently good books who have done or been accused of doing bad things. I haven’t bought anything—either with my money or the library’s—by Orson Scott Card. I’ve managed to dodge new books by Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz. But if a faculty member asked me to buy a new book by a “problematic” author, I would probably be obliged to get a copy. Our collection is supposed to support faculty and student research. I feel caught between my professional and personal ethics. If we do end up with a copy of Bailey’s biography of Roth, I am fairly sure that it would get used by faculty or students studying Roth and his work. Professionally, I succeeded. Personally, I feel squicky because my actions sent my library’s funds went into the pocket of someone I don’t think we want to support.

In addition, I don’t know that there’s a solution to this that wouldn’t be hugely invasive (and probably unconstitutional) for authors. The alleged actions of a few authors shouldn’t mean that all authors have to have their past put under a microscope. (Also, we’re talking about allegations. Regardless of my personal judgments, Bailey might be innocent until he admits guilt or a jury finds him guilty.) I don’t know how to avoid this misstep in the future except to wait a long time after a book is published to see if a scandal breaks, which is not always possible. I don’t want to fall into analysis paralysis. It upsets the whole acquisitions/cataloging/shelving process if I delay so long that I put off ordering until the end of the fiscal year.

In spite of all these muddled thoughts, I do think that as readers, librarians, and publishers, there needs to be more thought put into what gets published and put on the shelves. Some authors don’t necessarily need a platform. Authors of color, authors in translation, woman writers, writers with disabilities, neurodivergent authors, and many others should have more chances to have their voices heard and words read. The only conclusion I might be able to draw is that we all need to be a little more principled when it comes to spending our book dollars.

How Much Should Authors Make? Or; Bring Back the Federal Writers’ Project

Making a living as a writer is hard. Most of the authors I know have second jobs or rely on Patreon to keep the lights on as they spin stories. I recently wrote a post about where to buy books so that authors could have as big a slice of the profits as possible. So I was absolutely tickled to see this article from Sian Cain in The Guardian about a multi-million dollar payday for George R.R. Martin…for a minute. I’m happy for Martin’s success, but that success got me to thinking about all of the other writers who are scribbling as fast as they can to come up with a breakthrough book. Martin deserves every penny—I believe in paying artists what they’re worth—but what about those other authors out there creating amazing things?

By Adolf Hoffmeister (Image via Wikicommons)

There are grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and prizes like the MacArthur Fellowships and literary prizes, but these are rare. They’re also out of reach for many writers, especially in genre fiction. Also, because they’re limited, those funds will eventually run out. Because I am a greedy reader, I would like to propose the return of the Federal Writers’ Project. Created as part of the New Deal, this program hired writers to draft all sorts of projects about American history and life. (One of these projects was later published as The Food of a Younger Land, which I found utterly fascinating.) The pay from these projects paid living expenses, but didn’t take up so much time that the authors wouldn’t have time for their own projects. Zora Neale Hurston, Vardis Fisher, Richard Wright, Kenneth Rexwroth, Saul Bellow, and thousands of others were supported through the Depression and into World War II by the Federal Writers’ Project.

I remember feeling more amused than anything else when I first learned about Patreon. It’s such a medieval idea! But if a medieval idea like Patreon can help keep N.K. Jemisin and other writers at their keyboards, why not bring back a decades-old idea like the FWP? I would be thrilled if some of my tax dollars went to pay for an author to collect urban legends, record oral histories, and generate more stories for me to read.

Loaded Phrases; Or, Writer v. Writer

I recently came across a phrase in literary criticism that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. In this essay on LitHub, Jonathan Lethem described Shirley Jackson as a “reader’s writer.” Merely seeing those words got me to thinking about all of the times I’ve seen writers described as “writer’s writers.” The phrase “reader’s writer” makes a lot more sense to me than the other. To me, a reader’s writer is a writer who spins stories for the delight of an audience, to reel them in and keep them entertained until the very last word.

Writer’s writers are a little harder to define. Whenever I’ve seen that phrase before, it’s being used to label a writer who likes to experiment in ways that don’t always translate into book sales. It’s a phrase full of praise for a writer who pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with words. Although Lethem was writing in praise of Jackson, it’s hard not to think of the terms as opposed (if not opposite). In critical circles—and I’m thinking of professional book reviewers for The New York Review of Books, critics, and authors of literary fiction—writing for readers is not given as much value as writing to thrill critics and other writers. I’ve seen examples of each camp sneering at each other in book review pages and blog posts. The fans of writer’s writers champion the pursuit of pure art. The fans of readers’ writers champion the joy of story.

My reaction to the phrase writer’s writer—the above—encapsulates, I think, just how loaded the term is. That I am instantly put in mind of the wordy conflict between advocates of these two kinds of writers just by the sight of a phrase that flips “writer’s writer” around. But the more that I think about this, the more I wish critics and reviewers would retire the phrase. It’s a useful shortcut. Unfortunately, the term is overused and divisive. Instead, I would like to see reviewers and critics be more explicit in their discussions of authors and their work.

My own tastes put me in both groups. I love creative, challenging writers…as long as they give me a story with good characters, strong plots, and interesting settings. To my way of thinking, a book isn’t complete until a reader opens it and their imagination brings it to vivid life in their minds. And it isn’t hard to think of writers who can do both: N.K. Jemisin and Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead and Neil Gaiman, Emma Donoghue and Catheryne Valente. Get you a writer who can do both.

Going Against the Grain; Or, When You Disagree with the Critics

I think every reader has had this problem. You buy a book that critics are raving about but then, when you read it, you end up not liking the book. You might even hate the book that everyone seems to love. And then, you start to search your bookish soul about what you missed. This is certainly what happens to me when I read a critical darling that ends up not agreeing with me. I still feel like I’m on the wrong side of things when it comes to The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, classic books that I loathe. Curiously, I don’t feel the same sort of bewilderment when I love a book that doesn’t wow the critics. On second thought, it’s probably easier to espouse a guilty pleasure read than to admit that you’re not sharp enough to see what everyone else sees.

(Image via Pinterest)

One thing that comforts me when I’m feeling particularly confused about buzzy books I didn’t like is something I learned in library school: S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. The second law is “Every reader his or her book.” The third is “Every book its reader.” Taken together, these two laws mean that all readers are free to read what they like and that every book has a potential audience. These laws are a mantra to remind me that not everyone has to have the same taste in books; there are books enough for all of us to love.

Even with this mantra in mind, I sometimes return to the critics looking for that thing I missed, especially when books that I really didn’t like end up nominated for awards. That second look frequently reminds me that the critics who write book reviews have very different tastes than mine. Or the reviews remind me that these critics always have different expectations of what they read than I do. (Having the wrong expectations can ruin a reading experience, which is why a lot of readers I know refuse to read books reviews so that things don’t get overhyped.)

And, sometimes, I find a review that confirms my opinions. Finding some else who also goes against the grain is a fantastic confirmation that it’s not that I missed something, but that it’s all just a matter of taste after all.

Writing Around Reality; Or, Why there are 10,000 Dukes in England

I read Jess Romeo’s “Why Are So Many Romances Set in the Regency Period?” on Daily JSTOR early this year, right around the time I started reading romance novels on the sly. (Is there anything as comforting as a happily-ever-after with a wealthy peer who can make all your problems disappear when the world is all topsy-turvy?) I’ve been bothered by it ever since. I don’t disagree with the scholars Romeo summarizes in the blog post. I agree, to a certain extent, that Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer are ground zero for regency and historical romance novels. But I think there is something the scholars overlooked: it’s hard to have an all-consuming romance when you have a day job.

Hugh Thomson’s frontispiece for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Image via Jane Austen’s World)

Romance novels have a lot of tropes. The predictability of the genre is part of its appeal. But when you read across different authors and different series, certain things start to jump out at you. If I were to do a census of the characters, I would find a statistically improbable number of dukes, earls, and high-ranking aristocrats—more than the ordinary population could support, certainly. I laughed at this when I started to notice just how many of the male protagonists didn’t have anything like a 9-to-5 job. It was easier to understand why so many of the female protagonists were free to go on long walks any time of day, make months-long visits to country houses, and attend any number of gatherings during the London Season. Social expectations of women of a certain class were that they absolutely would not perform paid labor.

Once I got over the absurdity of my imaginary census, I started to really think about why so many writers of historical romances have aristocratic or otherwise very wealthy male protagonists. One of the major demands of the genre is that the characters have to meet, fall in love, and get married in short order. We readers are supposed to experience the whirlwind, too. But a day job would be a huge damper on that love-fueled rush. I, like many people today, work 40 or more hours during the week, barring holidays. When on earth would an employed person like myself have time for long arm-in-arm walks across moors? (Not that there are any moors where I live.) When would I have time to spend weeks at someone’s house in the country? (Most of my family and friends are introverts, so I’m pretty sure that they would kick me out after a long weekend.) It would be hard to squeeze a passionate romance into the weekends and evenings for a lot of us.

Another reason for all the dukes, etc., is the old filthy lucre. Several tropes of the genre involve makeovers, in which impoverished women get new wardrobes or have to find something eye-catchingly beautiful to wear during all those Season events. Those country houses cost a lot of money. The servants who do so much of the invisible labor that has to be happening in the background have their wages. Patricia Marisol worked out how much the net worth of Mr. Darcy and other Austen characters would be in today’s money. According to Marisol, Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year works out to be in the high six figures. Darcy’s not even titled, so I can only imagine how much all those romance genre peers are raking in per annum.

In retrospect, all this sounds very prosaic—even cold-blooded. But you have to admit, promoting your protagonist up the aristocratic ranks makes things so much easier for the author. Money and time make it easier for everyone to get swept away with love and passion, because they don’t have to worry about who has to do the dishes or bring home the metaphorical bacon.

My Ideal Romance (Literature)

One of my favorite books when I was younger was Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. It’s still one of my favorite books, but I’ve gotten a little leery of it over the years. I realize now that a lot of the subtext of the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester flew right past me. Since I read Jane Eyre, I’ve also read other classic romances like Wuthering Heights and Anna Karenina. I’ve also talked with readers who loved these books; they rhapsodize about the towering love stories, the tempestuous emotion, the breaking of social conventions. These love stories (with the exception of Jane Eyre, which has a coda) always leave me wondering if the happily ever will last beyond the honeymoon phase.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that my ideas of romance are very different than what I found in those pages. I don’t want to be swept away with uncontrollable emotions. I want to find a soulmate I can settle down with into a cozy life. In novels, these days, I want love stories where characters find wholeness with their other halves, like some of the couples in Pride and Prejudice (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book and watched the BBC series).

So, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I present books that have the kind of love stories I like. These novels have love, comfort, a sense of belonging, and sometimes tragedy (but not too much). I hope you enjoy this list, presented in no particular order:

  • The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune: A bureaucratic drone finds love and a family at a school for very unusual students.
  • These is My Words, by Nancy Turner: One of my all-time favorite books, about a strong woman who finds a man who can bring a dash of romance into her hardscrabble life.
  • The Glamourist Histories, by Mary Robinette Kowal: Five absolutely wonderful novels of love and magic with two characters who thought they would never find love.
  • A Little Folly, by Jude Morgan: This is a wonderful Austenian story with characters and language I adored. It’s hard to find novels that can capture the ethos and aesthetic of Austen that don’t borrow from her novels; A Little Folly is an original.
  • Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons: Unlike most other novels, where the plot keeps throwing challenges at the characters, the protagonist of this novel sorts everything out, including her own love life. This book is also one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

Faust Should’ve Taken a Humanities Course

I’m going to publish a review for Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife tomorrow—but first, I want to talk about how some of the best lessons in ethics and science I’ve ever gotten came from literature. The Echo Wife is just the latest version of a very old story: the story of Faust.

Beniamino Prior as Faust, 1975 (Image via Wikicommons)

When I was in junior high, I fell so in love with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park that I read at least one copy to death and had to replace it. I read Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Then, in college, I read Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Reading that last text cemented in my mind the connections between all of these stories as tales of how the relentless pursuit of science must also be accompanied by constant questioning about the ethical and long-term implications of that pursuit. Sure, Jurassic Park would’ve been a lot less exciting if the scientists that paused to ask, “Yeah, but what if our fail-safes fail?” Frankenstein would’ve had a lot less pathos if the eponymous doctor had stopped to think about his responsibility to a creation he abandoned when the consequences reached up to slap him in the face.

The Echo Wife brought all of these ideas roaring back to me. As a story about scientific achievement without even a dollop of thoughts about the ethical ramifications of what the scientists were doing, The Echo Wife shines a strong light on all of the things that the scientists should’ve thought of before they ever started work on clones. This and the other books I’ve mentioned make me lament the division between the sciences and the humanities. How much we can learn from each other! Knowledge of science makes mystery, science fiction, and thrillers better. (Cory Doctorow, for example, does amazing things in his cyber thrillers with the terrifying capabilities of surveillance and data-mining technology.) I’m fairly clueless about chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and so on, but authors like Michael Crichton, Patricia Cornwell, N.K. Jemisin, and others have taught me a lot about those subjects that I wouldn’t’ve been able to understand in a conventional classroom. (Pretty sure the bits about time travel are impossible, though.)

Conversely, I believe in the power of literature to teach ethics, empathy, complexity, and more—all lessons everyone needs, not just STEM students. I took several philosophy courses in college, but nothing really got those lessons across the way that a story could for me. The most powerful tool literature has of conveying its lessons is putting readers inside the heads of characters, forcing us to see things through their eyes and thinking about events from their perspectives. Frankenstein is a fantastic example of this. We spend a lot of time in that book listening to the creature tell his story of loneliness, regret, anger, and revenge—more time than we spend with the doctor himself as he works out the science. Because of our vantage point, we are pushed to think very carefully about consequences rather than the glories of cheating death with science. I certainly wasn’t thinking about scientific possibilities at the end of Frankenstein. I was thinking about how the creature felt after being abandoned by a father figure, the man who gave him life.

One last thing. Reading Faustian stories—especially science fiction—is a lot of fun. The philosophers might be brilliant, but their prose doesn’t exactly have me turning the pages.