Monday, December 28, 2020

The shifting goalposts of disappointment

Longtime readers of this blog will know that disappointment is not a rare feeling around these parts. I am frequently disappointed by popular books, am disappointed by certain publishers who fail to live up to their own hype, am disappointed by awards and narratives and stories about stories... and yet when I found myself contemplating my recent reads, I realized that disappointment meant something different for me this past year. Ultimately, almost all of the "disappointing" books I read weren't even all that bad. The goalposts had shifted.

As a child, the concept of DNFing ("Did Not Finish") a book seemed unthinkable. And maybe at the time it really was, because books were that much shorter and that much easier to finish off even if I didn't particularly like them. I read a lot of books that I managed to thoroughly loathe up through my teenage years, and I do mean loathe. Books that I really, really could not stand. For years, I was certain that I couldn't just set aside a book that I didn't like. For a long time, I didn't; I kept the books hanging around for years and years, certain that eventually I would return to read them. Sometimes I did. Increasingly, I don't.

My reading has changed drastically over the past decade. To begin with, my life is now a lot busier than it ever was; this is the decade in which I became an independent adult, studying and working and managing my own life. It's much harder to find time to read through dull books when there's so much less time for reading, especially when reading is something that I wholly do for fun. As I've mentioned many times in the past, I don't like my reading to feel like an obligation. This has, thankfully, gradually extended to include my actual reading choices and behavior. I am now perfectly happy to give up reading books that bore or anger me. 

But... interestingly enough, this practically didn't happen this year.

It's not that there weren't books that I started and then set aside, there were. I started César Aira's The Hare a few months back and just haven't managed to sink my teeth in it, but I don't feel like I'm really ready to abandon it wholly. There have been a few others along those lines. There have also been books that I realized I didn't want to read anymore. That's all fine. But I haven't had those sorts of books that truly feel like torture or anger me in their disappointment. Last year, I had one major DNF - Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a book that I just could not enjoy no matter whatever else I thought about its technical prowess. (To be clear: I don't think it's actually very good on a technical level, I think it's written in a style that is meant to be difficult and those are very different things and I will maybe elaborate on this more in a separate post someday.) I also had a few thoroughly disappointing titles, like The Belly of Paris which was easily my least favorite Zola so far (bah!) or the whitewashed Last Train to Istanbul or the cringe-ness of The Nakano Thrift Shop (yeah, I said it!). There were similar patterns in years past.

Not so this year. This year, my most disappointing titles were books that were... fine. Not bad or terrible or even painfully boring, just... mediocre. And in some cases, good!-just-not-great-or-amazing. The Eighth Life ended up being one of the most "disappointing" titles I read this past year not because it's a bad book (it is not!), but because I expected to TOTALLY LOVE IT and instead just thought it was good. So too did N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became end up "disappointing" me by virtue of not quite being what I wanted/needed, nor being as stupendously mind-blowingly good as The Broken Earth trilogy. Or maybe a book really wasn't amazing, but it was fine - some good parts, some bad parts - like Inger Christensen's The Condition of Secrecy, which like It before it, I probably would have loved had I not completely shaped my view of Christensen's writing based on the astonishing alphabet.

Which leads me to wonder: Does disappointment inherently follow hype? Almost all of the books that disappointed me this year are those that came with the highest expectations and hype or followed previously beloved books by the same author: The Eighth Life, The City We Became, Beyond Babylon, Accommodations, The Condition of Secrecy... None of these are bad books by any stretch of the imagination, some of them are even good books, and all of them come with pretty significant merits on which I could easily recommend them to many readers, yet they managed to specifically evade something I wanted from them. Were those expectations unfair? Am I moving the goalposts too far?

I'm not sure I'll ever find an answer for this. I think there's something to be said for my goalposts changing once I'm filtering out a lot more books that I just don't like; I'm wasting a lot less time on authors or books that I don't expect will do it for me. Those books, inevitably, can't disappoint me. That leaves a lot more room to be disappointed by books that I still manage to like, possibly with greater space to also explore what disappointed me and why. That's a situation I can happily live with. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Just a reader

When I told the audience at the inaugural "Translating Women" conference in London last year that I am "just a reader", a chuckle went through the room and it became a bit of a joke. There was a sense that framing myself as a reader was a bit of self-dismissal or diminishing my status as WITMonth founder and WIT activist. It was nothing of the sort and in the year+ that's followed, I've found myself thinking a lot about this dissonance. I am just a reader, and I take a certain degree of pride in this. So where does the friction come from? Why does this come off as a joke?

I'm reminded of another incident, in 2015. I attended my first-ever literary conference in the form of ALTA, taking part in a panel discussion on the topic of "Women in Translation". I was honored to join that conversation and it was a remarkable experience for me, learning about a world that I had never before been a part of. In between one of the sessions, I found myself speaking with a group of translators. I honestly no longer remember who it was who said it, but someone turned to me and asked me what I had studied. I explained that I was finishing a degree in biophysics, that I actually wasn't coming from the field of literature at all. This translator snorted somewhat and said something along the lines of "Then why do you think you can come in and comment on translation?" It stung and the comment has lingered with me since.

It's true that I now have more confidence when it comes to the topic of women in translation. In 2015, the topic was still new and fresh; my own expertise was still new and fresh. Today, I will firmly and perhaps arrogantly count myself among the world experts in this field. I may be a biophysicist-now-biochemist, but I have spent seven years of my life devoted to understanding the imbalances women writers in translation face in English and other languages. I have - along with many, many others! - helped build a movement to promote works by women writers from around the world. I have sought to examine the topic from many different angles. I write reviews on occasion and I do promotional work on the side.

I am not an academic (in literature, at least). I am not in the publishing industry. I am not a translator. I am not uniquely trained or talented. I don't speak 17 different languages. I'm nothing more than a person sitting on her couch and looking up publicly available information off the internet, mostly through Wikipedia. I don't have access to research, studies, or perspectives that exist within the pages of literary academia and wouldn't know where to begin searching even if I did. I don't have any idea about the politics behind which books are chosen for translation by which publishers, beyond publicly shared information. I have no insights into how books are pitched by translators. I am, quite simply, a person who loves reading and is passionate about this project. I am just a reader.

But that phrase has a flip side to it too. I am just a reader as a sense of pride, but also occasional anger. Because let's be very clear about something: If I am able to do all of this work by myself with absolutely no background in the field or training, what could the publishing industry or academia be doing? How does it come to be that a PhD student in biochemistry from outside of the Anglosphere is a leading voice in the fight for women writers in translation? Why are more publishers not taking a stand in actually changing things? Why does the literary world continue to turn its back on this fight? Why do I - "just a reader" - "need" to be the one doing these things?

I don't mean for this to suggest that I don't want to continue my work, I do. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't care about it deeply. And frankly, I think that there's some value in coming from outside of the literary world, because I feel absolutely no shame in pointing out flaws at every level. I don't owe anyone anything. My life and career will continue just fine even if I do somehow anger everyone in the industry. I can come and point to publishers who are bad-faith supporters of WITMonth, I can come and point to editors with problematic views, I can come and point to breaks in a system on which so many others rely.

There is further power in readership. At the end of the day, my guiding principle when it comes to reading is not marketing or what books I receive from publicists (since I basically receive none... hooray to living in the international shipping dead zone?), but my own desire to read. This means that I'm able to visit books from across a wide range of genres and basically whenever/however I like. I read because reading gives me pleasure. I recommend books because it gives me pleasure. And I am also critical of books because it gives me... well, maybe not pleasure, but a certain degree of intellectual satisfaction. Being a reader has power in my freedom and my independence. For all my wish to belong in literary circles, to receive those same free books that everyone else gets, to have that sense of equal understanding and having read all the "right" books, I also like when I get to be the one randomly talking about some book that nobody's read, or going back twelve years into the archive to wade into a long-dormant debate.

I am just a reader. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

End of the year lists, revisited

My frustration with "Best of Books of [x]" lists is not new. In fact, it's one of few topics from my early days of blogging that I still generally agree with. I still think that there's value in waiting to see how books actually impact readers (and the market!) before determining whether they're really the most influential or "best". I still think there's messiness in how individual readers might look back on reading years or decades (and goodness, I've been blogging long enough that I've seen two decade summaries go by, eep) especially in, say, a pandemic year, and I still very much feel that reading eras are typically separate from official years. And all of these fail to mention other observations I've made over the years: The power of individual publishers (whether large or simply very media-savvy indies) can make a huge impact in terms of the perceived "best" books simply because those are the ones the reviewers are offered and subsequently read, genre limitations and definitions often box out titles that don't quite fit in, and that at the end of the day these lists create a sort of driving force for marketing more than anything else.

I have a large-scale discomfort with these lists. Major media outlets almost always showcase the same books and cite the same reasons for highlighting these books, some of which seem understandable and some of which less. Diverse as the individual selections may be (and sometimes they are!), there is a homogeneity in terms of which books are even allowed this coveted spotlight. International literature (and literature in translation more specifically) is almost always absent from these sorts of lists, which reside in comfortably Anglo-centric worlds. Industry favorites dominate, with only the rare independently-published work getting due. Academic publishing is equally rare. Non-genre-specific lists will almost always be dominated by fiction works. The lists will usually end up mostly unsurprising to anyone who has followed literary news. Perhaps this is where I'm being unfair. Perhaps these lists aren't meant for me. But if they're meant for readers who are less in-tune with the literary landscape, these flaws are all the more damning. Readers deserve more, no?

But the truth is, I have grown exhausted with the idea that we constantly need to be reading new books. We don't.

If I were to compile a "Best Books of 2020" list, it would overwhelmingly be comprised of books not originally published in 2020. Many are from 2019, it's true, but that delay is important in terms of why I ultimately chose the read the books and when (or, in one case, how long it took me). Meanwhile, many of the others are just... older. Because I only discovered the book this year. Because it took a long time for the book to be translated into a language I read in. For whatever reason, there was a delay. And to be clear: I too am increasingly becoming more contemporary in my reading due in part to pervasive public pressure! I'm reading fewer and fewer of my backlog titles and not buying nearly as many when compared to shiny new books. But I feel like this makes me a poorer reader.

In general, I've never been one for pressure in reading. I don't read on a schedule and I'm notoriously terrible at reviewing books at the "expected" timeframe (which is one reason I avoid requesting books for review). Not having the space to process books matters, especially given how much we shape each other's impressions and guide each other's reading. That question of time feels so present in properly assessing my favorite/"best" reads of any given year or era. I often feel as though looking back on older lists showcases how many of them flared brightly at a given moment and then faded from the public view. Does that mean they're not worthy books? Hardly! But some have not stood the test of time. Others may be recontextualized by a changing culture. And some may have simply been good books that were the products of effective marketing, but not much more... Ultimately, I am not a professional reviewer whose job it is to promote newly released books. I'm a reader! I'm someone who's trying to find books that are new and interesting to me. There is a lot to learn from older texts, whether as classics or just books that I missed the first time around. And there's a lot to learn in reading books without external pressure to interpret them a certain way. Maybe this is why I'm constantly finding myself at odds with most reviewers?

2020 is almost over. It was (for many of us...) a remarkably difficult and painful year. I cannot claim it to have been especially conducive for reading, in large part because I frequently found myself outside the right headspace for certain works. Trying to summarize such a year feels like it would miss out on so much, so I'm not going to. And I hope to spend 2021 taking a step back from immediacy and away from all the "best of" or "most anticipated" lists. While there are quite a few new releases I'm looking forward to reading, I want to take the time to explore writers I've left on the wayside for too long and take that step back. Reading isn't a competition or a performance; I'd like to simply read

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On the value and faults of adaptations

While it may be an odd statement to make on a dedicated book blog and as a person whose personality is often associated with books, I have to admit: I like stories. I like movies, I like television, I like theater (particularly musical theater, let's be real), I like graphic novels, I like campfire tales. I love the human capacity for storytelling and imaginative interpretations of different stories. After all, how many times have we reworked and played with the Hero's Journey? How many times have we played out romances and tragedies and sports victories and so on? It's a wondrous thing.

All of which is to say that I've long been a fan of the concept of adaptations. I find great value in the way that stories can be reworked in new contexts or using new mediums. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that film inherently elevates a text, but I think that any adaptation has the potential to add to the original, by casting it in a new light. And so a novelization of a movie might elevate that by having the space to fill in details or background that would have felt clunky in film. A film version of a comic book might manage to change the stakes and scope of the text by physically expanding them. And of course adaptations can also happen within the same medium - modernizations of classics are a particular favorite of mine, where the adaptation plays around with the actual story details to set them in a wholly different setting. Similarly, it can be argued that Shakespearean theater (and any theater that takes some liberties in direction and styling) is another form of endless reinterpretation and adaptation. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, whether in 16th century garb or in modern clothing and style (which is, perhaps, why Shakespeare remains so continually enjoyable to modern viewers!).

Yet for all my love of adaptations as a concept, I often struggle with the execution. I don't think these are unrelated, though, and in fact it was through my disappointment in various adaptations in recent months* that I've realized so much of what it is that makes a good adaptation good. 

It began with Wolf Hall, which I read (and loved) several years back. When a BBC adaptation of that work was announced, I was excited. How could I not be, with an adaptation in the works of some of my favorite books? So when the time came, I watched the first episode with excitement... and stopped. While meticulously crafted and staged, the show felt... dim. Lifeless. I forgot about it for several years, only coming back to it when I read The Mirror and the Light earlier this year. And so I watched the next two episodes (all that time later), and was again struck by a sort of blankness to the adaptation. Coming off of Mantel's writing, it felt even more apparent. Where were the film equivalents of Mantel's writerly quirks ("he, Cromwell")? Where was the depth and weight of Mantel's raw focus? "Wolf Hall" the miniseries was praised for being a faithful adaptation, but it seems to primarily adapt the story, not the work itself. Henry VIII's story is not unfamiliar, nor is Cromwell's by association. The value that Wolf Hall brought in "adapting" Cromwell's life was in how Mantel carried out her work, how she delved into Cromwell's character, and how she built the historical record into and around it. It's the life she introduced into an established historical story. In failing to capture some of Mantel's literary quirks and snarky eye, the "Wolf Hall" miniseries ends up feeling like a neat set-piece historical drama, not a particularly good adaptation.

A similar feeling has continued with the recent BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, another of my all-time favorite series. While generally more enjoyable and admirable in its attempts to flesh out the politics of Lyra's world (which are largely left vague in The Golden Compass, somewhat expanded upon in later books) and some bold (and welcome!) storytelling decisions in the overall series pacing, there is still something somewhat missing from the adaptation. Fantasy and sci-fi works are often difficult to translate to the screen, lest something of the actual imagination gets lost. "His Dark Materials" tries to play to its strengths (excellent acting), but it can't quite capture the magic of Pullman's world, mostly failing to really convey the otherness-yet-normalcy of daemons. Season 2 is improving on this a bit, but there's still the feeling that "His Dark Materials" just doesn't quite manage to build on the original. Its an adaptation that is enjoyable (and, again, improving in its expanded world-building, which is great), but not yet all there.

It's partly disappointing because I do think there are plenty of book-to-TV examples that manage to do a good job as adaptations and as stories in their own right, which I'm realizing is part of what I find so important (and engaging) with adaptations. The Babysitter's Club was never really high-quality literature, but its transition to the small screen is not only delightful as a tween-friendly series, it also manages to capture exactly what made the original Babysitter's Club books so successful - its leads and the sense of familiarity in the stories. Modernizing these 90s classics gives space to updating the tropes that each character represents, whether in portraying a character with a chronic illness in a wholly human way, integrating history into characters' backstories with a heavy dose of modern morality, or simply giving voice to underrepresented characters or character types. And it's obviously not alone. From Lord of the Rings to The Princess Bride to Clueless, I think that there are many cases of films exceeding the source material across many different metrics, ultimately carving out their own space as stories (not merely as adaptations) and also remaining true to the spirit of the original in at least some form.

Stories have value, and I am increasingly convinced that adaptations have value of their own and in their own right. An adaptation that merely follows the letter of the text can often come off as stilted and bland, as can those that fail to understand textual innovations (like with Wolf Hall). Sometimes this is only felt by those who have engaged with the original, but sometimes it bleeds into a general sense of a story that has nothing new to say. But it can also be about how you relate to a work, wrapped in how you value that medium. I, for instance, like sparseness in film much more than I do in books. This is how I ended up loving the film adaptation of Brooklyn (a book I otherwise did not particularly enjoy), finding myself enamored with its pacing and visual storytelling. (This is also part of why I loved the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, despite any other flaws it might have. I seriously loved the use of coloring as a frame device.) Meanwhile, I'm probably not going to be very interested in a horror-themed adaptation of a beloved story (sorry Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!). Like with all art, that doesn't mean that there isn't value in the work of art itself, nor does it mean that different people won't find value in different aspects. After all, "Wolf Hall" earned high praise as a miniseries, despite my own disappointment so far; I suppose I will always be contrary.

In short, I remain a fan of adaptations as a concept, and frequently also in execution. Adaptations don't need to supplant an original story, rather to add to it. And as a fan of stories and over-analyzing stories, it's hard not to love the extra depth the mere act of adaptation introduces.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Classics versus YA" is a false debate

Over the past two days, numerous Twitter accounts, authors, academics, and educators have joined a fairly wide-reaching debate as to the merits of the so-called literary canon (which I will simplify as "classics"). To call this a "debate" is already a bit of a stretch - having read many different perspectives from all sorts of sides, it often feels as though there are two completely different conversations happening, with extraordinary animosity from different directions (even when some of the anger is fairly understandable). Troubling, however, is the prevalence of an especially vicious dismissiveness of young adult (YA) authors, particularly YA authors of color. Twitter being Twitter, it's increasingly difficult to track all of the different conversations happening in parallel, but one thing is sufficiently clear: There are pervasive, frankly snobbish views entrenched in the literary world, and there are pervasive problems with how these translate into pedagogy and there are pervasive problems with how people then turn these into opportunities to yell. I won't get into the individual arguments because a) I don't think I'm necessarily the best person to talk about it (being pretty far removed...), and b) I've mostly found myself thinking about that core misunderstanding and false debate over classics versus YA.

I started blogging in December of 2008, at the shy age of 17. I had been writing reviews for a few years by that point, and blogging was meant to be an opportunity to stretch my (likely falsely perceived) intellectual wings a little. I was just settling into a new reading era for myself, after having blitzed through a classics period at ages 13-15, followed by a YA renaissance at 15-16. Though I didn't know it at the time, at 17 I would begin to shift my focus to international literature on a far greater scale, and this would eventually lead me to the women in translation project. Classics were my first foray into reading like a "grown-up", and there was a time when I thought this meant that I needed to cut back my reading of YA. Once I started blogging, I also discovered that a lot of bloggers I interpreted as more "mature" (that is - not YA- or kidlit-specific) held deeply dismissive views of young adult literature as a concept, and that often spilled over into a dismissal of young adult readers. Suffice to say, I felt out of place from all directions, as a young reader who wanted to also have space to grow into the world of "adult" literature, but also still loved being able to read and engage with stories that seemed to be much more at "eye-level" for me. 

Why am I writing this? Because as this latest round of "classics versus YA" sprung up again, I felt as though I was rewatching something I've seen dozens of times over the past few years. There's not much new in the conversation (except, perhaps, the miscommunication, rage, and hurt that come with a social media platform like Twitter), which really all loops back to the fact that it's a problematic argument in the first place. Just as I didn't need to have to choose between my own reading, neither do young readers today.

To begin with: The "debate" was sparked by a few different threads that criticized different aspects of teaching classics in schools. This is a wholly legitimate concern. One YA author decided to thread classics she felt were bad or harmful in a K-12 school environment (often using somewhat dramatized modern tongue-in-cheek stylings), leading to a swift backlash. Except... it's legitimate to come and say "I don't think we should be forcing kids to read books that are boring or racist or sexist". And that does cover a lot of the classics taught in schools, at least in the US. Classics are often cultural touchstones, but their influence is also pretty context-dependent; books gain classics status by our elevation of them. So why elevate certain books simply because that's what's always been done?

Then there's the question of educational value. Is there educational value in controversial classics? In this, I find myself agreeing with all sides: Yes, but not on a universal scale, and not necessarily in every classroom. Literature serves different purposes at different ages and for different kids. There is certainly the question of teaching critical thinking, textual analysis, and literary interpretation, but those don't actually require "difficult" or controversial books. When most kids aren't reading in the first place, there is value in promoting works that are written with modern children in mind, and these works still leave space for exploring larger questions. Not to mention that modern YA is also infinitely more relevant to important cultural shifts happening now, whether in terms of conversations about race, whether in representing a wider range of sexual and gender identities, or whether just in terms of navigating a world that is constantly changing. To dismiss these works wholesale is to miss out on the extraordinary work being done within the field.

But I also find myself agreeing that there is still value in some of the traditional "classic"/canon-y titles, just not necessarily for the reasons that some have argued. I personally love many different older titles, some of which are firmly in the canon and others which are not necessarily, some of which are clearly problematic products of their times and others which transition reasonably well to a modern setting. I think young readers could learn a lot from Sei Shōnagon, for example, as an opportunity to contrast early diary writing with modern texting lingo, or Frederick Douglass, another "classic" author with immense value in the classroom that reaches beyond a single subject. Middlemarch, in my mind, is also a book that absolutely deserves a place in a classroom. And I even contemplate some of the more controversial, established titles: John Steinbeck absolutely has his issues and as an adult I'm able to parse through a lot more than I was as a child, but I still learned a lot from Of Mice and Men that's stayed with me for years. It's just that I don't think that these titles necessarily deserve space in place of titles that younger readers can relate with. We need to be able to separate two different goals of encouraging reading/a love of books versus challenging readers. Personally, I struggle with the idea that children - even teenagers - must be challenged with "difficult" books. I think that some will want it and seek that out, but it's much more important that kids learn critical thinking in a way that will make sense to them. 

For me, the problem with the whole debate hinges in part on this misunderstanding. On the one hand, you have educators focusing on getting kids to love reading. On the other hand, you have authors focusing on the challenging aspects of literature. But these aren't actually contradictory, nor must they be mutually exclusive. To take an example of a book that came out when I was a kid and is already reaching classics status, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a modern(ish) YA classic and one of the more innovative, powerful, and memorable books I've ever read. It's a book that forces the reader to contemplate numerous coexisting realities and an unreliable narrator, challenges expectations, and addresses pretty heavy topics, all through a brilliant script format that turns the story into a meta-commentary on narratives. And there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other kidlit/YA books that achieve those two goals as well, many of which actually are recent and geared toward the kids of today. Why not elevate these books?

The canon is not actually real or objective. It's eternally in flux, eternally changing, and endlessly relevant and irrelevant simultaneously. There is nothing set in stone that says one book deserves to belong to the canon while another is forgotten to history, there's just our choice to elevate one book over another. And it's okay to recognize that these things change. Writing changes and our culture changes and our perception of the canon changes with it. Clinging to the books of your past isn't actually about ensuring that modern kids have access to the classics - they do and they will. Nobody told me to read Tolstoy or Zola or the Brontës at 14, I chose to because I was already a passionate, devoted reader and I wanted to explore a new-to-me world. I was able to read through these outdated texts and try to see them in their own, shifted light. I'd like to believe that I learned from those beloved-by-me classics, just like I did from those classics I loathed (hello, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby!). I read these all for "pleasure", not in any classroom setting. There was a time when I was certain that I had lost something important for it, that I had fundamentally misunderstood the texts and that must be why I hated so many of them. But today I realize that... no. I simply didn't like them, and that's okay. And I simply loved others, and that's okay too. And there are some books that today I realize had additional layers and meta-contexts that I didn't understand as a child (Gone With the Wind is perhaps the starkest example...), and I'm okay with that as well.

I know that this argument will come back in a few years, or a few months. It inevitably always does. Its return is always heralded by the same dividing lines, where there are those speaking for modern texts (usually also reflecting the growing diversity of YA literature, which is very much not disconnected from the backlash the field faces, nor the dismissive attitudes and violent rage that these authors inspire.......) and there are those defending "the classics". I myself used to defend older texts as uniquely elevated, but no more; I just don't see any intrinsic value in classics as classics, nor in defending the canon as a fixed construct. Readers - and young readers in particular - deserve better than to be eternally fed this false dichotomy of enjoyable versus valuable, of "lower" works versus elevated classics. It simply isn't true and it does us all a disservice.