Monday, August 27, 2012

People use technology

This weekend, I happened to read a bad book (hereby referred to as Meh) . Among the many things that made it very disappointing, there was the small matter of the "contemporary" feel. Or rather, the lack thereof. This Israeli novel was published in 2010, and its late-teens characters stand in line to use a public phone (and not because their cell-phones have mysteriously died).

There were a lot of other factual problems with Meh that frustrated me even more, but this minor detail seemed particularly jarring. How can it be that these characters, who are supposed to be my contemporaries, do not have cell-phones? How can it be that these characters do not ever refer to the internet in their conversations? How is it possible that the author thought that readers would not feel this?

An interesting post over at The Book Lantern raises similar concerns:
It’s 2012. People hardly ever use regular mail anymore, and a great part of our daily interactions happens online. Whether we like it or not, the ways we communicate are changing and, more importantly, those interactions shape us as much as we shape them.
It's becoming a serious problem, especially in books about young adults. Meh is a great example, in which the characters' styles and interests and level of technological savviness seemed more in line with the author's generation than the one he appeared to be writing about (though to be fair, he never really specified...). So many young adult books fall into this category. Many books that feature teens only show them calling each other in the evenings... but that doesn't really happen anymore, does it? There's text messaging, there's online chat, there's Twitter, there's Facebook... And I'm not saying every single young adult uses all of these outlets all the time, but while you'll authors will give you a young adult watching TV or reading a book, nobody will ever mention if this same character went online.

I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that by naming a currently popular form of social media, the author is immediately and officially dating his/her book. Social media is an ever-changing spectrum. If I read a book that references MySpace, I chuckle. In five years, Facebook may be a mere blip on the social media timeline as well... what author wants to take the risk that their book too will become outdated well before its time?

I feel like maybe the other reason authors avoid inserting technology into their stories is a little more complicated (and speculative on my part). I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep up with online trends the older you get. I myself am still a young adult, and I can hardly keep track of the various sites and online outlets that have cropped up in recent years. It is, perhaps, a safer choice to avoid discussing technology at all, as an adult author trying to write an authentically young book. But I am not certain if it is wiser.

Not every book, not every character is the same. Some people spend their entire lives on the internet, others spend only the bare minimum. Some spend the entire day texting and utilizing their smartphones, others still use old flip-phones. There is no clear consensus. But authors have to begin integrating technology into their stories. The internet as a whole is here to stay, even if various social media sites, forums, and blogging platforms have gone the way of the dinosaur within a few short years. People use the internet for more than just the occasional Google search. The internet is a natural part of our modern society. People have laptops and cell-phones and tablets and game consuls - people use technology. Fictional characters should catch up quickly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sci-fi shorts

A couple years back, I spent a day scouring Gutenberg for all kinds of free goodies. Specifically, I wanted to see what public domain science fiction and fantasy there was. I soon realized that the copyrights of a lot of old sci-fi magazines had long expired, and that these stories were all freely available. I didn't download all the available stories, obviously, but I downloaded somewhere in the realm of one hundred, opting for those with the silliest and most dramatic titles ("Spies Die Hard!", "Martians Never Die", etc.). It was a fun way to pass an afternoon, but my attention span is exceedingly short and I mostly forgot about the stories and never actually got around to reading them.

I started to fix that recently when I decided to organize my (no-longer-newish) Reader Seshat (a fine heir to Artemis' noble legacy). Now I read a short story once every few nights, writing up a one-line assessment at the end for the sake of my own forgetfulness.

It's an interesting experience for a number of reasons. There's the obvious one: I'm reading old stories. And these are old, mostly pulp stories. This isn't literature at its finest. It's not even sci-fi at its finest. I think it's best described as sci-fi at its mediocre-ist. But the fact that these are typically sub-par stories makes the reading experience that much more interesting. I try to put myself in the shoes of whoever read these stories back in the 30s, or 40s. I see what type of writing style was popular at the time. I see which character cliches appear again and again. It's pretty amazing.

Then there's the entertainment factor. Because a lot of these stories are ridiculous, and I don't think they were necessarily intended to be so silly. But their outdated styles and exaggerated character portrayals make them a lot more laugh-out-loud funny. When taken in small doses, it's actually a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


If not for fear of sounding too subjective, I would describe A Monster Calls as a perfect book. Maybe there's the technical issue as well, that would define "perfect" as something very far from this short, somewhat simplistic book. But there is something here that touches the reader. This reader in particular.

There is a certain level on which I have to justify my reaction to A Monster Calls. As I neared the halfway mark of the book, I began to see clear parallels between main character Conor's situation and that of a good friend of mine. The moment this happened - the moment I went from simply empathizing with the characters and instead seeing them as real people I know in my real world - there was nothing left to do. A Monster Calls horrified me. It latched itself onto me. It dug a hole straight into my emotional core and left me shuddering. At the book's end, I found myself completely emotionally compromised.

Someone who saw me in this state - literally shaking with grief - commented half-joking that this is why he doesn't read books. But this is exactly why I read books. A Monster Calls may have deeply disturbed me, but it did so in an absolutely astonishing way. With simple language and a simple setting, Patrick Ness created a story that enraptured me for three straight hours. I could not set the book aside. I literally ached from reading it. It is literature at its finest - perfect.

And here's what I think sets A Monster Calls apart from the vast majority of sad kids books. Most sad stories are "heart-wrenching" because they're constructed to be that way. The author sets the stage to make you feel for the tragic heroes. A Monster Calls is something different. It's about more than death. It's about more than grief. It's about so, so much more that I am scared to divulge for fear of ruining the book's power. It's just something special.

Recommending a book as painful as A Monster Calls is not easy. How can I wish this upon anyone else? How can I tell any other reader to experience such sorrow?

I recommend it because it's essential. A Monster Calls is a perfect book. The writing style may be simple and childish, but this is powerful stuff. This a book that I've revisited every night since first reading it, trying to go back and pinpoint where I fell completely under its spell. Each time I reach the end, I am drained. The story does not lose its power upon reread. And I suspect that it never will.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who's your audience? | Second Person Singular

Though I have my issues with Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular (chief among which is a disturbingly spoiler filled back-cover blurb that includes a quote from literally the last ten pages of this 300-paged book...), it struck me as a very intelligent, well-written novel. The message seemed clear, the implications obvious. Yet when I started to read various foreign appraisals of the novel, it seemed that many readers did not understand the book as I did.

Here's what I think: Kashua writes for an Israeli audience. Predominantly a Jewish-Israeli audience. Just like his columns in the Ha'aretz Weekend Supplement are geared towards Israelis, Second Person Singular is written in a tone that indicates its audience rather comfortably. Too comfortably, at times.

Second Person Singular is all about the characters' external image, not so much their internal identity. The fact is that this is a novel about two Palestinian men, yet neither places much importance on their personal identity. One character builds his entire world view in order to appear a certain way; the other character sheds his identity with hardly a backward glance. It's all about how they appear to the outside world: one of the characters comments (somewhat dispassionately) on the fact that when using a Jewish (Ashkenazi) name, he is taken for an Ashkenazi Jew without anyone asking questions.

It's this use of external image that hammers home Kashua's cultural and social points. Not only does Kashua highlight the differences between Israeli and Palestinian society, he gently points out a lot of standard Israeli racism. An Arab looking for work will be assigned as a dishwasher in the kitchen. The exact same man - using a Jewish name - will find a job as a waiter. Kashua stresses this point without exaggerating it, such that the Israeli reader will feel the necessary shame without being overwhelmed. Kashua's use of young, liberal Israelis later in the novel also creates this weird incongruity that sat oddly with me.

Second Person Singular is written with that strange feeling in mind. Kashua aims to tap Israeli readers in that place where culture clashes. It's mostly effective, but it's geared towards a fairly well-defined group. Presented as it is now to the greater world, I can easily imagine how many readers would find it to be a distinctly odd, offset read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Not for resale" - ARCs and the publisher-reviewer contract

I only just read this post about ARCs being sold en masse on eBay over at Staffer's Book Review, and I'm seriously annoyed. The whole post is very important, but I think this paragraph is perhaps the most relevant:
Every ARC I've ever received has a few words clearly printed on the back cover, "Uncorrected proofs. Not for sale." When a publisher sends me a title for review, they're entrusting me not to distribute it, not to sell it, and not to spoil it. They're hoping I review, so it's not to say their action is a favor to me, but the unspoken contract between publisher and reviewer does not include the reviewer making a "profit" off the novel itself, only the words the reviewer writes about it. To break that contract (to profit off the book itself), calls into question all other layers of trust between the two parties. Just as I would argue the publisher requiring a review or influencing the content of the review does the same.
I'm really bothered by this.

First of all, Justin is absolutely right in that first sentence: any galley edition or ARC will always come with the words "Not for sale" on them. It's difficult to miss. This means that anyone selling a galley copy is knowingly making money off something that was given to them for free and for a specific purpose. That in itself is blatantly unethical.

I struggled at first to understand why, but I think I've figured it out. It's not just the publisher-reviewer contract. It's also an unfair way to profit off the author's loss. True, I can resell all of my physical books, but those books were paid for originally, one way or another. Even if I won the book from a giveaway or got it as a gift, someone paid for that book. It could have been another buyer, it could have been the publisher willing writing off a small loss in order to increase buzz. But the author got money for it. When someone sells an ARC, they are cheating the author. This is a copy that was never meant to be profitable (therefore did not contribute to the author's income), yet now this lucky seller - who received the book through a publisher's (typically) honest hope for a review - is making money off that. It stinks.

I won't deny that there are many problems with ARCs, ethical and practical. How to get rid of them is high on that list. A standard galley edition or pre-publication draft is in no condition to be donated to a library, nor should it be resold*, nor does it necessarily deserve to be recycled**. So what can be done? I've seen many blogs host giveaways for exactly this purpose. Rather than profiting off the ARC, reviewers will pass the book along to further reviewers. Though this too could be seen as a prevention of further purchases of legitimately paid-for books, it is well accepted that reviewers may receive free books. This is the best approach, in my opinion (aside from holding onto the book yourself, of course).

I wanted to share this story because I think we should be more aware of it. The vast, vast, vast majority of reviewers and bloggers and magazines and publishing-involved-people are honest and treat their ARCs with integrity. The vast, vast majority get rid of their ARCs and galleys in perfectly legal and ethical ways. But the fact that there is this one tiny sliver of the population that does not understand why this is wrong is extremely frustrating. I only wish I knew what could be done to stop it.

* In this regard I differ from Justin, who suggests that selling an ARC after the book's publication date should be fine.
** Unsurprisingly, the notion of recycling a book - galley or otherwise - thoroughly disturbs me...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Hebrew changed my reading habits

Readers of this blog will know that I'm a bilingual reader. I frequently post about Israeli novels, publishing and news, and will occasionally also post about translated fiction I read in Hebrew that has yet to be published in English. Hebrew has become as natural a part of my reading life as English ever was.


It wasn't always like this. Just until four years ago, the number of books I read in Hebrew per year was two, as opposed to some seventy-eighty books in English. English was, and remains, my dominant language for reading and writing. Yet as the years go by, the gap has narrowed. If in 2008 I read only two Hebrew-language books, in 2009 I read ten, in 2010 thirteen, and in 2011 seventeen. So far in 2012, I'm on my twelfth Hebrew book. This remains mindblowing to me.

I read much slower in Hebrew than in English. I read more precisely and perhaps in a more discriminatory manner. I abandon books more easily. Reading in Hebrew remains a minor difficulty, if only because I cannot rip through the book at the pace I am used to English. It shakes things up. But something has happened since I started reading more books in Hebrew: I've started to slow down my English reading pace as well. I've started to apply many of the same rules I use in Hebrew for books I read in English.

Reading in Hebrew has changed my habits. It couldn't have been any other way. The fact that I spent more time on certain books than others meant that I was appreciating stylistic choices more in Hebrew-language books than English. I realized that a lot of this enjoyment had to do with the more deliberate reading approach, as well as the laid-back pace. Reading in Hebrew has made me appreciate language and an author's writing style a lot more. It's helped me understand what makes certain books better than others. And that is a gift as wonderful as the books themselves.