Friday, August 27, 2010

Censorship, youth, and a few pretentious comments

I think I've mentioned before that I don't like banning books. I don't really thing anyone who claims to truly love the written word can. I don't like the idea of censorship in high schools, and I don't like the idea of hiding bad things. So I should really hate this story, right? (via Guys Lit Wire)
Apparently, a middle school librarian saw my name on the roster and decided my presence would somehow negatively affect her students. I’m not sure how that is possible. Maybe she thinks I sweat “edgy and dark.” (Are those things catching?) Anyway, she went to a couple of parents with her concerns. I’m guessing she knew the exact ones who would raise a stink, and they did. They went to the school board, and the superintendent, Guy Sconzo, decided to uninvite me. (He says I was never invited, but I was!)

Then Mr. Sconzo went on to say that there are so many authors they could never have them all at their Teen Lit Fests. Like I’m just another author. (Oh, except one that apparently gets under people’s skin.) I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.
A few things. First, Ellen Hopkins is an author I've never read. Not for lack of awareness - I have long seen her fat, indeed "edgy" looking books perched on library shelves - but simply because her style did not appeal to me and I'd heard that the books were a little in-your-face, not something I typically like. Even so, all I have to do is read Hopkins' post to realize the foolishness in this situation.

But I want to focus on something else entirely that bothered. Censorship is obviously problematic and complex, but this story rubbed off me the wrong way mostly because of something Hopkins wrote. To highlight the quote that set me off: "I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day."

Hold on a sec. Again, I've never read anything by Hopkins, but for an author to say something like this is taking popularity and annoyance at an injustice a little too far. Hopkins was essentially rejected by a middle school librarian, one who presumably turned to parents of middle school students, parents of children who really should not be reading Hopkins' books. Yes, the School Library Journal recommends Crank for 8th grade and up, but there's a clear distinction in what a 13-14 year old can read and what a 11-12 year old should have access to. The transition into 8th grade and a true teen mentality is surprising, even as these ages appear close to each other. Problematic, then, that 7th and 8th graders share a library. So yes, the librarian was absolutely wrong for proposing to uninvite Hopkins, but Hopkins is wrong to assume that her books are geared for that audience. And to dub yourself "the voice of a generation" is a little full of yourself.

For an interesting view on the actual matter (not my disappointment in one author's self-love), I hand the stage over to Pete Hautman, an author I quite like and admire. The matter of censorship in this case is complex and confusing, and while I don't always agree with what Hautman and Hopkins say on the matter, I think their takes are important.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guys and girls, part 1 (of many)

All posts relating to the book blogger survey can be found under this tag. A compiled list of results can be found here.

As some readers may remember, the very original question standing behind the book blogger survey was the question of "Male vs. Female", a question seemingly answered by the survey: the dry results found that 83% of respondents were female, and 17% were male. As I mentioned in that post, the numbers vaguely resembled (without matching) my estimations (60% female and 20% male, with the remaining 20% set aside for shared blogs and authors of unknown gender. The immediate question following the simple answer was, however, how does everything break down? Are some bloggers more prone to certain things than others? Are misconceptions (for instance, I have long held the idea that women book bloggers are more community oriented) simply grounded in stereotypes ? Time to find out. (note: some images may be small or unclear. Click on images to enlarge.)


Compared here are the age breakdowns by gender. The first noticeable distinction is the lack of significantly young men - 18 to 24 year olds account for 10% of respondents, while the majority find themselves in middle age, totaling to 54% between the ages of 30 and 49. Women, on the other hand, are a little more... predictable. The graph shows a simple bell curve, where the largest age group is 30-39 with 35% of respondents. Meanwhile, 16% of respondents are under 25. When looking at the percentages, one must keep in mind that the overall number of male respondents was significantly lower than that of female, and therefore all statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. It's hard to calculate accurate statistics with only 50 respondents that fall into this category, but we shall try anyways.

Literary background:
An interesting thing about men that has little to do with this particular subject - male respondents seemed to offer fewer decline to state answers. Of course this could be due to the fact that far fewer men responded. Carrying on... literary backgrounds. The statistics here are quite interesting, actually. Women follow the general trend fairly reliably - 40% with "literary" degrees, 40% having taken college courses, and 17% having only the basics. With men, meanwhile, just under half took college courses, while again 40% have "literary" degrees. Only 12% come with the minimum.

Rather different results. 56% of men never participate in memes, while only 18% of women never do memes. For women, the numbers are fairly evenly spaced with 30% doing 1-2 memes a week, 19% 1-2 a month, and 25% 1-2 a year. 5% participate in memes 3-7 times a week, as opposed to 0 male respondents. These numbers indicate rather clearly that memes are far more common among women book bloggers than men, though men are not entirely averse to it. Still, an interesting distinction.

Book tours:
Interesting to note: these graphs, when looked at in bar graph form, look very similar. 55% of female book bloggers participate in no book tours, as opposed to 88% of men. 4% of men for each of the other options - in this case, 1 respondent for each case. Women, meanwhile, are slightly more varied - 11% participate in 4 or more, 17% in 2-3, and 16% in 1 book tour. Taking into account the significantly smaller number of male respondents, though, the two graphs appear to be quite similar. A clear majority don't participate in book tours while the remaining split up fairly well regarding how many tours they do.

Due to the lengths of these posts, the remaining statistics will be published in further installments. I would also like to apologize for the delay in getting these statistics out - there were numerous glitches and delays in both the analysis process and the process of actually getting these graphs into a readable format. Most of the information is now ready and results should come out at a much quicker rate. Thank you for your patience!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Up and down

Some unrelated, stupid thoughts on North and South from the first couple of chapters:
  1. I don't remember the last time a book had a declaration of love quite so early on. And so randomly. And so not related to the actual plot of the book...? Still too early to tell.
  2. Margaret's dad is kind of despicable. I know I'm not supposed to dislike him, but it's rare for me to want to slap a character in a book. I want to slap Mr. Hale. Really, really hard.
  3. This book is kind of slow, but my interest is piqued. Let's hope it stays that way.
I'm having a weird reading experience with this one. I'm reading it quite sporadically and it feels just a little like reading used to feel, back a few years ago during my classics faze. It's nice, going back to 19th century England. It's been a while since I've visited here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Novels and short stories

One of the sub-genres I've recently discovered (knowing full well that this has existed for a while) is that of the "novel in stories". I have to admit that I love the idea. Short stories and I have a tentative relationship for the simple reason that I like watching characters develop. I like a long, in-depth introduction to a character, not a simple snapshot and then moving onto a whole new set. But I also love the wholeness in short stories, the way a really good short story can stand on its own and that's that.

So a novel in stories should be perfect for me. Some of them are. The White King, which I wrote about last year, was one such book - essentially a novel, watching the development of one central character, but written in such a way that it felt as though I was reading short stories. Enough characters stayed constant that these days I would define it as closer to a novel than a "novel in stories", but it still has that atmosphere. Olive Kitteridge, which I started and finished reading yesterday, is another such book. But my thoughts on it are far less positive. Despite the mountains of praise heaped upon the 2009 Pulitzer Winner (and I absolutely understand why this book won, but more on that later), there were things I learned about "novels in stories" from Olive Kitteridge. Things I will need to keep in mind for the future.

The first thing I realized about Olive Kitteridge was that whereas The White King was more of a novel, Elizabeth Strout's book is much more a short story collection, in the sense that it was at once broader - more characters, not just one story progression, and the wonderful quality of transitioning between worlds, rather than almost always knowing what kind of story you'll fall into - and at once suffering from many of the short story collection downfalls that I'm used to.

There is much to praise in Olive Kitteridge. The cleanness of the writing, the clarity of the characters' voices, the fluid way each story leads into the next while presenting completely different worlds - all these make Olive Kitteridge a nice book. That's the perfect word for it - nice. Not good, because that's too strong. Not fine, because that's too bland. Nice.

And disappointments as well. I had hoped and expected a novel in stories to take the best of both worlds. Long term character development, but small, complete stories. None of the messiness found in constructing complex novels, none of the padding to make a novel "novel sized". Much in the way that Strout's writing is clean, I had hoped the stories would be like this as well. This is not the case. The book is uneven. Not more than the typical short story collection, but still. Some stories are whole on their own and are really good stories. Others are absolutely pointless. Others still are so closely tied to what seems like a larger novel that with the random stories thrown in, they actually seem out of place even if this is precisely where they should be. It makes sense that these problems should arise. On the copyright information page, part of the history of Olive Kitteridge is revealed. Some of the stories were published almost two decades ago, others more recently. It is hard to fault an author for developing with time, but in a collection, it's hard not to notice the different styles and qualities.

As for the matter of the overall story itself, I find myself confused. The book is titled Olive Kitteridge - the book would appear, therefore, to be about her. It is, frankly, not (this is not a spoiler...). Olive stars in 7 out of 13 of the stories, sometimes in more of a supporting role but more often than not as the lead. In the remaining 6, she is a character mentioned casually or a side character - either way, not really worthy of recognition. But that we know her already makes it a strange cameo - not quite a random name drop of an unknown person, but reference to someone we're slowly getting to know.

Maybe it's just that I didn't like this style. I'm not certain, but ultimately I didn't enjoy the way characters couldn't grow, or the way that I liked Olive's character (despite being expected, I suspect, to find her somewhat frustratingly endearing, which was not at all the case - I sincerely liked her) but didn't care about her. 270 pages and I really didn't care about a single character mentioned. That should not be the case.

Again: Olive Kitteridge is nice. That word keeps coming to mind, as well as the description clean, which fits the writing and the clarity of the book perfectly. It's enjoyable to read writing of this kind, and the book does an excellent job of presenting a very different aspect of American life than is typically presented (there lies the absolutely perfect justification for the Pulitzer). I suppose Olive Kitteridge has made me realize that "novels in stories" can be tricky - much in the way that they can take my favorite aspects from novels and my favorite aspects from short stories, they can take good and bad as well. I don't regret reading it and know that many will go on enjoying it despite my relative apathy (relative, I say), but I would have to think carefully about who I recommend it to.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I just searched for "A Pigeon and a Boy" on Amazon (great book, by the way - more on that another time) and discovered that the Kindle version is more expensive than the paperback by almost $2.

Seriously, consumers? You're actually okay with this?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Publishing - an exercise in disappointment

After finding and reading Nico Vreeland's great post over at Chamber Four about publishing (at a bit of a delay, perhaps...), I had to add a few words and a couple of personal numbers. Vreeland writes about the "real" death of publishing - not eBooks, not consumers demanding lower prices... not us, but them.
[Publishing is] not a victim, period. Publishing is slowly strangling itself by myopically hard-selling each and every title it cranks out, instead of nurturing the readers who sustain it. [...] It seems, in short, like publishers aren’t culling bad novels like they should be, and then readers have to do it, which means sifting through dozens or hundreds of published novels to find just the few worth reading. And that gets old.
I recommend reading the entire piece. Vreeland raises a lot of really good points, ones I could only hope to verbalize. But I'll take a stab anyways.

My main problem with this issue is what Vreeland looks at as well - the amount of crap that comes out every year. Publishers are meant to be kind of a buffer zone between readers and books. Sure, I can access tons of free writing online written by amateurs, but I'll most likely find amateur-level writing. Every once in a while, a self-published book can be good, and then what happens? It gets picked up by publishers. Why? For publicity, for sales. To make money. Okay, legit. Those are meant to be rare cases. And for the most part they are, so I'd like to set this matter aside. But publishing seems to forget it's other task, that of keeping the junk away from us. Theoretically, books rejected by publishers are supposed to be the bad ones (more on this in a moment). This means that books publishers do spend money on should be pretty effing good. So why aren't they?

First is the fact that some of the books rejected by publishers actually are good. So why are they rejected? Sales. Publishing, the giant business that it is, aims to sell and make money. A good business model, yes, but ultimately bad for readers. Readers who ultimately drive the book market. So it's a little stupid by this point.

Not every book is always going to be to everyone's tastes. This isn't new. I'm pretty known for disliking a lot of the books everyone else seems to love - whether they're classics that history has deemed worthy, or just plain ol' books-of-the-moment award winners (I'm thinking of "Catcher in the Rye", "Let the Great World Spin" and some others here). That's understandable, that's expected. But to publish books that are almost unquestioningly bad because they'll make you a couple bucks... there's something off to that.

In the past three years, I've read 91 Anglo-centricly published novels published from 2005 and on. Like Vreeland, I decided to run some numbers. Turns out I needed a different scale than the simple "bad okay good great" scale. Mine was "terrible bad mediocre nice good great amazing". 6 books were amazing, 11 great, 11 good, 17 nice, 27 mediocre, 14 bad, and 5 terrible. That's somewhere around 50% books not worth reading, 30% books that were pleasant and had merit, but didn't really blow me away, and 20% worth keeping on the shelves, worth recommending, worth gushing about, worth reading.

Call me selfish, but I want 100% of books I read to be amazing.

No, that's wrong. Life would be so boring without the guilty pleasure books that fell into the bad category. And a terrible ride is wonderful every once in a while. So essentially I want somewhere around 80% of books to be awesome, 15% to be enjoyably bad (or not my style), and a small 5% to be "I'm gonna punch the author in the face for even writing this, and the publishers for making me spend money/time on this". And you know what? I'm sick of it.

I'm sick of being told by publishers that I'm asking for unreasonably low prices for things that are worth less (eBooks!!!). I'm sick of feeling bad for writing bad reviews online when books are bad and don't deserve to be read (and then getting surprised reactions of "how could you not love this? You must be stupid" or things to that extent). I'm sick of suggestions that libraries are bad for publishing or bookselling. I'm sick of feeling like I have to search for good books, that I'm on some crazy holy-grail-esque quest for a novel that doesn't suck. And I'm sick of books that do suck. And guess what? Most of them do. 50% of the contemporary books I read in the last three years were disappointing and not worth my time. What kind of statistic is that?

This week I intend to read good books, like I decide every week. Chances are that won't be the case. More than anything else, that disappoints.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


This is interesting. Over at Survival of the Book, Christopher raises the idea of instating subscription fees for local libraries.
For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won't be supported by the municipalities in which they are located.
Christopher's right that libraries are facing serious budget setbacks and issues. There's also a point to the idea that volunteering to pay off fines (raised earlier in the post) will help libraries immensely. But I wanted to add a few thoughts to this idea, ones that may seem in favor and also vehemently against.

Two or three years ago, a library I tend to frequent (not in the U.S.) revoked its subscription fee (which I had been paying). For many years (indeed, as long as this library had existed), subscription fees were part of the package. Children got cheaper deals, while adults were forced to dole out quite a bit of money in exchange for books and resources. Then a law passed to end this practice. Residents have free access to any library in their city. Meanwhile, if you want access to a bigger, better library one town over... no problem. Pay up.

The fact of the matter is that having subscription fees did not really keep most people from using library resources. Checking books out may have been impossible without a card, but people still used the libraries. On the other hand, they had no other choice and the policies were unfair towards those with fewer means. Ultimately, I don't know if libraries have seen significant changes in patronage or funds since the policy was revoked. It's probably too soon to tell. And, keep in mind, this was all abroad.

Still, to imagine now that the opposite would happen in the U.S. disturbs me. I am lucky to have had many library cards throughout my youth - I have seen good libraries, better libraries, and libraries that were... shall we say... bad. For the most part, though, the libraries I encountered all had one thing in common. They all always had lots of people. Lots of kids checking out books. Lots of teens working in study rooms. Lots of unemployed or retired adults looking for various forms of entertainment (or jobs). These people come in, check books, music, movies, knowledge out and then they return it. That's what a library is - the government funding free access to knowledge for its people. Is there anything more democratic than that? Sure, it may not have started as that originally, but that's what libraries are today.

It always makes me a little sad to see things that seem like regression. While there may be a lot of cold logic behind the idea of charging for libraries, as someone who has stood on the other end of it I have to say that it's not recommended. Paying for libraries feels like someone is keeping knowledge from me. And in today's economy, libraries are more important than ever before: keeping kids well educated and entertained after school, allowing adults to learn, and making sure that knowledge is provided equally to everyone. This is not the time to cut back on library budgets. It's also not the time to start charging people for subscriptions.