I take issue · opinions

I Take Issue…With Bad Copycat Publishing

I understand. I really do. Publishers want to make money and, traditionally, the best way to do that is to keep producing something like a guaranteed winner. After The Da Vinci Code became a hit, the bookish world was treated to a flood of books about historical mysteries that would change everything we ever knew about the world. Publishers are still trying to find books like the Harry Potter series, Gone Girl, and others. I don’t have a problem with any of that.

Getting lightning to strike twice, as it were, is hard work. One has to learn about the exact conditions that caused the lightning and how to reproduce those conditions. What was it about Harry Potter that made readers fall in love? Why on earth was Twilight so popular? It’s like having to psychoanalyze without being able to actually talk to anyone. One can only make decisions based on impressions and it’s no wonder that publishers sometimes get it wrong and produce books based on incorrect deductions.

Alexei Harlamoff

So far, I’m good. What I do have a problem with, is when publishers try to copy the wrong parts of the books people liked and go too far, only to produce one note books that are just not what we wanted. For example: The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag. I don’t blame Natt och Dag for what that book ended up becoming. I blame whoever edited and published it. Reading it felt like someone told an author, people like really dark, awful things set in Scandinavia. Nothing about the society. Nothing about the detectives, really—just violence on top of violence. I can’t believe that almost the entire population of Stockholm circa 1793 were sadists.

Scandinavian noir has been big in the English language market since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo broke out in 2008. Since that book made it big, we’ve seen dozens of books set in the freezing north: the Inspector Erlendur novels, the Kurt Wallander books, the Harry Hole series, and so on. They tend to feature moody, troubled detectives uncovering awful secrets hidden behind the seemingly egalitarian and calm façades of Nordic life. The grumpy detectives are nothing new. We’ve had those since Sherlock Holmes. The setting is new and who doesn’t love lifting up rocks to see what’s hiding underneath? The best books in this sub genre are deeply appealing for their psychological depth. Unfortunately for me, The Wolf and the Watchman had none of the good things about Scandinoir.

Pity the poor readers who end up on the receiving end of terrible books like the Fifty Shades series (which began as fan fiction of Twilight) or all the books about teenagers required to kill each other after The Hunger Games came out. I might be more inclined to forgive if I hadn’t just finished a copycat book that got it wrong. What about you, gentle readers? Have you ever read a terrible book that seemed like to come straight from a focus group?


Reading Out of Time; Or, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off of Authorial Intent

Over a year ago, I read Shirley Jackson’s delightfully creepy The Haunting of Hill House. Being a reader in the year of the deity of your choice 2017, I interpreted Jackson’s references to a character’s roommate as hints that the character might be a lesbian with a partner—even though the book was originally published in 1959. Since I’m not a very big believer in analyzing literature solely in terms of what the author intended, this interpretation wasn’t really a problem for me. I haven’t been a follower of authorial intent for a long time. Not since I learned that Ray Bradbury declared that everyone was misinterpreting Fahrenheit 451.

Cover of the 1952 first edition

All that said, sometimes I will read something that makes me wonder if my circa 2019 eyes make me see things that don’t exist. Two days ago, as I worked my way through John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one of the episodes in the book made me sit up sharply and shout a short expletive. Was it possible that Steinbeck had written a transgender character in Chapter 23? Here I am, on page 277 of my edition*, and a young child asks their uncle, “Uncle Tom, how do you get to be a boy?” Then, they continue, “I don’t want to be a girl, Uncle Tom. I want to be a boy.” A little later in the chapter, this character’s story is closed with the brief line, “she never really trusted [Uncle Tom] until after she was glad she was a girl” (p. 297). This line would seem to put paid to my theory. My response is a) the other characters are very dismissive of this child, b) the narrator is too busy relating two massive family sagas to pay much attention to his sibling’s psychology, and c) this book is about whether nature or nurture is more important, so why not include a character who doesn’t feel right with their body?

But how could Steinbeck have written a transgender character in 1952? It’s only recently that the term transgender has become the preferred term for individuals who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Also, judging by the frequent, casual misogyny in East of Eden (so many women’ descriptions include the size of their breasts) and the repressive attitudes of the 1950s, I doubt that Steinbeck intended the scene with the young child and their uncle as anything other than a comic interlude.

The lovely and incredibly brave Christine Jorgensen (Image via Wikicommons)

Even though my knowledge of the time and of Steinbeck argues against this reading, I can’t help but read the scene as a brief and very unexpected appearance of a child who may be transgender. Social attitudes notwithstanding, there were transgender people in the 1950s. Christine Jorgensen began her gender confirmation surgeries in 1951. Common sense argues that there have always been transgender people, whether they were out or not.

It’s also absolutely possible for an author to put something in a book that is interpreted differently by readers than they planned. Ask Ray Bradbury. To use Fahrenheit 451 as a case in point, it’s entirely possible for readers to come up with an interpretation that is more useful and feels more “correct” than what the author intended. I much prefer to give this young character the dignity of listening to their question, instead of brushing it aside and making a joke as their relatives do in the scene. I prefer to think of this character as another example of how change can be a matter of will, that we are not stuck with how we are born if we feel the need to change.

Readers, what do you think about chucking out authorial intent? Have you run across “anachronisms” like this in your reading?

Paperback centennial edition from Penguin Books.


A hoard of thoughts about KonMari

Since it’s currently impossible to avoid reading about—and therefore thinking about—Marie Kondo and readers’ reactions to getting rid of books, I’m weighing in. But I’m going to do it in unranked bullet points because my thoughts about this are definitely not tidy.

  • Noooo! My books!
  • Only 30 books! Are you serious?!?
  • …Everyone’s number is clearly different. People who don’t read that often don’t need that many books in their home.
  • …Also, there are libraries. You can totally get away with not buying books.
  • But authors definitely need to be paid more.
  • Also, don’t just dump your KonMari’ed books off at the library. We probably can’t use them either. There are other options.
  • Getting rid of books is curiously hard. I’m not sure what it is. It might be our cultural aversion to book burning and we don’t want to be seen as destroying books by discarding them. Who knows, but a lot of us share a deep dislike of throwing away a book.
  • Book hoarding is totally a thing, though. If you have piles of books around the house and can only make your way around your house via goat trails, it’s a hoard.
  • But I plan going to read all of those!
  • …but there are some I probably won’t read because my reading tastes have changed. There are days when I review my to-read list and ask myself what the hell I was thinking when I put some book on it. Looking at a list of books I ambitiously decided to read does occasionally spark guilt or weariness rather than excitement or joy.
  • At least my books are on shelves and in alphabetical order. It doesn’t look like a hoard. Also I weed.
  • I accidentally rebought a book I already owned, so maybe I’m not as tidy as I thought. Oops.
  • My books! I curate my collection. It’s full of books that mean a lot to me. Even the “trashy books.”
  • A lot of readers get antsy when we don’t have enough reading material around us. In desperation we (okay, I) will read shampoo labels.
  • People need to stop giving Marie Kondo a hard time. All of the criticism I’ve seen of her is based on either misinterpreting her recommendations or over attachment to things.
  • People who advocate ignoring recommendations to declutter and get rid of books that we’re not going to read/use/etc. are also off target. Like I mentioned above, reading tastes change.
  • Why hang on to a books we aren’t going to read or didn’t like when it’s taking up the place of another books we might love?

What thoughts do you have about Marie Kondo and your books?


To Hell with FOMO; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Best of the Year Book Lists

It wasn’t so long ago that I received the flurry of best of the year book lists that appeared every December with a sense of panic. List after list would leave me wondering if I had wasted the previous year reading weird books no one else wanted to read. (This also happens when someone wins a book award and I’ve never heard of them before.) But, after a few years of being a librarian and seeing just how many hundreds (thousands) of books are published ever year, I realized that something had to give.

Alexander Mann

I still think there’s value in having common reading experiences. And I definitely believe that we need to challenge ourselves to read widely and deeply. But any reader has to learn that it’s just not possible to read everything that everyone else is reading. There’s too much and we have jobs, families, significant others, exercise regimes, pets, friends, that pesky need to get our heads on a pillow regularly, etc., etc. At times, a best of year list can seem like an assigned reading list. Pushing ourselves to read books we don’t like (no matter how many critics adore them) or just have no interested in (oh my god, enough with the pseudo-science alternative medicine already!).

For any reader who sees the best of year lists and panics, I say: step back, take a breath, and think about the books you enjoyed during the previous twelve months. If there’s overlap, cheer yourself on for having great taste! If not, cheer yourself on anyway because you are blazing new trails and reading books that need a wider audience. Most importantly, if you’re not reading what everyone else is reading and you’re having fun with what you’re reading, remember that you are doing this reading thing right. Reading is supposed to be something we enjoy, not a chore.

And if anyone asks if you’ve read this year’s books and you haven’t, well, just say: “No, but I did read X and I loved it!” Instead of falling prey to FOMO, give yourself the gift of swapping recommendations with another reader.


Putting Words in People’s Mouths; Or, Thoughts about Dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, since I dinged The Hangman’s Secret for putting anachronistic and American-flavored English into its British characters’ mouths. Dialogue is such a critical part of a work of fiction that it really can ruin a story if the author gets it wrong. But if the author gets it right, well, great dialogue can make a book a joy to read. In text, a wrong word or two isn’t such a big deal; it tends to get drowned out by the rest of the text unless it’s a real howler. In dialogue, however, every word has to be the perfect word. It’s almost like poetry. Dialogue has to convey meaning, express character, keep things moving in the book, and support the overall plausibility of the book. See how much can go wrong?

Marguerite Gérard

Here are some of the danger zones I’ve thought of, reflecting on the books I’ve read:

  • Dialect. Obviously, this one is first on the list for me. I know that authors agonize over dialect. Should they recreate dialect phonetically? What if it sounds racist, as can happen when authors don’t use African-American Vernacular English with sensitivity? This is part of the reason why a lot of authors these days hire sensitivity readers. 
  • Too much explication. When a knowledgeable character launches into a history of something another character (and the reader) needs to understand, I tense up. Am I going to get a lecture? Am I going to get an undigestible helping of jargon? Is this long speech going to go on so long I forget what’s going on with the plot? 
  • Class. Related to dialect, if an author doesn’t nail how people of various classes speak, then characters can end up sounding either completely bland or as caricatures. How often have we run across criminals who sound like Prison Mike?
  • Too much banter. It pains me a bit to write this because I love banter. Most of my own dialogue in real life is an attempt at banter, to my boss’s occasional annoyance. But if the characters fall to bantering for too long, it can derail a plot almost as badly as having a character launch into a lecture. Also, too much and too funny banter starts to sound stage-y. Only people in Oscar Wilde’s plays are that witty all the time.
  • Too much meandering.  Meandering dialogue has subtext, sometimes so much that it sinks the dialogue under its own weight. I think of this type of dialogue when I see long conversations, usually in literary novels, when two characters just blether on about the weather or something seemingly innocuous. If you’re clued in to the subtext, all is well. If not, it’s like hanging out with a relative you don’t know very well at a family reunion and there’s no escape in sight. 
  • Unnatural dialogue. All of us readers have come across dialogue that makes us think, “No one actually talks like that!” It might be because of something I’ve already mentioned. It might also be because the dialogue is too concise, too erudite, too full of curse words, too something. I’m sure authors agonize over this, because they have to make characters sound natural for their age, gender, class, background, and so many other things that I’m surprised any of them managed to write a word at all, considering how easy it would be to fall into research rabbit holes. 

What about you out there, bookish internet people? Are there other things that annoy you in dialogue? Things that can go wrong that I didn’t mention here? 

opinions · reading life

Uncollected Thoughts on Eleven Years of the Kindle

It’s not a special anniversary, but LitHub recently posted in one of their daily news round ups that the kindle had launched in 2007. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In my life, I don’t know that anything else has caused as much hysteria about reading and the state of readership as the kindle has, at least in my lifetime. 

Oszkár Glatz
  1. I wish people would stop giving readers crap for reading anything other than a printed book. I can understand the attractions of a print book, but I am bothered by the way print-only readers fetishize the codex. Perhaps it’s because being a librarian has desensitized me—I see far too many old, worn out, distinctly not rare books for that—but I have long felt that the content is more important than the container. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about beautifully bound books or books with a special provenance.) And, for pity’s sake, leave the audiobook readers alone. 
  2. Although the kindle has made it easier for me personally to get my hands on books that I can’t get from my local libraries or bookstores immediately, I really wish it was easier for libraries and library patrons to easily access ebooks. There are too many hurdles—so many that I steer students at my library away from them because it’s a pain in the ass.
  3. The kindle and other ereaders don’t make it easy enough (for me at least) to do deep reading of texts. I see so many students in literature classes squinting at their phones in an effort to find passages they needed to reference, even though their professor and I have told them that it’s better to use print for this kind of reading. 
  4. I don’t blame the convenience of the kindle for no. 3. We educators just need to make a better effort at teaching students how to do different kinds of reading. The kindle is great for reading for fun. For literary criticism and textual explication? Not so much.
  5. When it comes to my reading, I really like reading on a kindle. I read so much faster with an ebook than with a print book. I joked that I was wasting a lot of time turning the pages, but maybe those seconds really do add up. Not only that, but I really like being able to instantly look things up by touching the words. This more than anything has slightly ruined me for print books. I have to look things up the old-fashioned way when I read print books. ::dramatic sigh::
  6. I’m not sure if it’s the kindle or ebooks in general or something else, but I’ve noticed a lot more typos in books in the last couple of years. At least with a print book, I’d be able to have the satisfaction of writing in a correction.
  7. I worry that I won’t be able to access my kindle library if I take my iPad to anther country and I’m not eager to test this. If I ever do travel abroad, I plan to take a nice thick print book for back up. Perhaps being stranded in a foreign country without reading material might be enough to prompt me to finish War and Peace.

Is there anything that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about the kindle and ereading in general.


Sins of Omission; Or, I Have a Very Controversial Opinion

Years and years ago, when I was very young, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. The book destroyed me. Anyone who’s read it will understand why. To this day, whenever someone tells me that they’re going to read it, I warn them. I remember when I read it that there were pages towards the end that I couldn’t read because I just couldn’t handle the sadness of it anymore. Since that time, I’ve always been pretty good completely reading books I decide to finish; DNF titles don’t count. But two reading experiences since Where the Red Fern Grows make me wonder if it might be okay to tell readers that there are parts of a book they can safely skip so that they can enjoy an otherwise great read.

Albert Moore

Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

When I was a young English major, my American Literature professor ambitiously included Moby-Dick at the end of an already full syllabus. The closer we got to the end of the novel, the more the professor reduced what we had to read of the leviathan. We still had to read some of the whaling essay chapters. (I’ve heard of some readers who claim to enjoy these). We ended up reading more of the plot chapters and, my dear bookish types, I loved those. Captain Ahab is a fantastically frightening character, who elevates an already ripping yarn into the legendary. The whaling essays killed all the wonderful tension created by the plot chapters—something that is very important to me as a reader. I know full well that the novel as a whole is an attempt to capture whalers’ experiences as a whole, but I just wanted a story about an obsessive man and a wily whale. This experience is probably what set me to thinking that, in some cases, it’s okay to skip bits.

Exhibit B: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I liked this book a lot, but I hated the epilogue. Without revealing too much, I think that the major event contained in that chapter ruins the poignancy of the penultimate chapter. I might have been able to grudgingly accept the epilogue if I thought the characters had behaved consistently. Instead, I had to think about what happened for a long time before I could kind-of-sort-of think of a plausible explanation. I really wish the novel had ended with that next-to-last chapter. I don’t know if I would have followed advice and skipped it if someone had mentioned it, but I do know that I would have liked the book better over all if I had.

I realize that what I’m attempting to argue is controversial. Authors put a lot of thought and effort into creating stories for us. There are reasons for what they chose to put in the story. But I’ve long thought that, once a book gets into my hands, it’s my story to finish. My imagination does the rest of the work. I know full well that some books I read will go in directions that I wouldn’t have guessed or are interested in. Very rarely, as in the evidence cited above, does a book ruin itself by including too much material that kills any joy in reading the story and/or has something that just doesn’t fit and/or just undercuts the entire book and/or is just so emotionally harrowing that it will mess readers up for years (or decades, in the case of Where the Red Fern Grows). In these rare circumstances, I think it’s entirely fair to give readers a heads up so that they’re not disappointed in a book the way I was. After all, if they can have a better reading experience and like 95% of a book, that’s better than having two people who hate a book because of that last 5%. Right?

Have any of you out there read a book that you liked for the most part but hated because of something that could easily have been left out?