As I’ve mentioned previously, I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Spring Awakening, the musical interpretation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 2007, and for good reason–it’s an amazing show. But I have to admit that it left me feeling a little bit off for some reason; it was hard to shake off the, for lack of a better word, dark and melancholy feeling that sort of settled over me throughout the entire performance. Another word I’ve used to describe the show is “creepy”, which is hardly illuminating. I think I might have isolated in part what makes the show so damn creepy, and while it rankles even after you leave the theater. (This discussion will probably be of no use to anyone who hasn’t seen but plans on seeing the play and doesn’t want to be spoiled. Just a warning.)

The show starts out like your typical adolescent coming-of-age comedy, for the most part, sort of like American Pie but everybody’s a bit younger. Sure, it’s taking place in 1891 in Germany, but whatevs, same diff. There’s masturbation humor and homoerotic subtext a la History Boys and Stiffler’s mom-type jokes and girl/boy meet-cutes, everything you could want in an adolescent Apotovian comedy, basically. The show opens with a funny scene between main female protagonist, fourteen-year-old Wendla Bergmann, and her mother, as Wendla begs to be informed finally where babies come from and her extremely agitated mother simply tells her that when a woman loves her husband, she becomes pregnant. Now, the contemporary feel of the play distracts you from the blatant irresponsibility of this act on the part of Wendla’s mother; my parents never explained sex to me, but I had sexual education in school and I watched television, so I got the message pretty quickly and way before I turned fourteen. But Wendla is a young woman in 1891 and all her girlfriends are just as clueless as she is–they literally have no other way to learn about sex but from the adult women in their lives, who refuse to teach them and thus leave them unprepared for real-life sexual situations that, I’m sorry, have existed since the beginning of human history, namely: TEENS ARE GOING TO HAVE SEX. Ignorance is not an obstacle to that fundamental condition.

This is problematic for several reasons, the biggest being that Wendla has sex without connecting it with the act of procreation; if she had known that was how babies were made, she probably wouldn’t have submitted to Malchior in the hayloft. Once she finds out she is pregnant, she reminds her mother that as far as she knew you could only get pregnant by loving your husband, and since Malchior is not her husband she figured she was pretty good on the contraception front. DUH. But I’m getting off topic. Here, an originally comic situation–parental discomfort with teen sexual curiosity and avoidance of the issue, which we see in a hundred sitcoms every year in some form or another–becomes a devastatingly tragic one when Wendla, completely clueless, has sex and gets pregnant and then ultimately (SPOILER! SERIOUSLY) dies from a botched abortion.

Another example of this is the relationship between Wendla and Malchior. Here, we have another typical teen comedy set-up: the smart, secretly sensitive radical falls in love with the sweet, mousy virgin, and vice versa, but forces–parents, teachers, various other teen dramas–conspire to keep them apart. Except that, almost from the beginning, the relationship is tinged with–and then drowned by–darkness, because Malchior and especially Wendla misinterpret sexual and romantic longing and the desire to feel something translates into a violent encounter where Wendla begs Malchior to beat her and Malchior becomes exceedingly aggressive. Though Wendla and Malchior eventually have what appears to be relatively tender (though awkward) sex later, the fact that Malchior knows about sex and its physical consequences (although he, like Wendla, must be ignorant of the social and emotional ramifications of having sex at such a young age) and Wendla so obviously does not makes the scene seem, if you think about it, a little bit like rape. At least, a sort of taking advantage, since if Wendla knew she could get pregnant from having sex with Malchior she probably wouldn’t have done it. And, indeed, in the original Wedekind play Malchior does explicitly rape Wendla, but of course they dialed it down a bit for Broadway audiences. So, what is first a romance fit for a teen chick flick becomes much darker and more tragic, especially after Wendla dies.

What I meant to point out about all this is that Spring Awakening is able to effect an emotional resonance by taking the audience’s expectations based on reasonable indicators of tone and content presented early in the show and completely subverting them. Light comedy and sweet romance are transformed into haunting, angry tragedy when the characters start connecting sex with violence and never look back. It’s an interesting–and effective–narrative strategy that, I think, comes from a narrowing of perspective, like, it’s all masturbation jokes and hot for teacher fantasies until you start examining individual relationships and the dark underbelly of sexual exploitation. I don’t have much to say about it other than I think it’s cool that they’re able to so flawlessly cause that effect, and that they manage to say something really meaningful in the process.

My Brooklyn weekend

Wow! This was the most inconvenient weekend of my life! The MTA has seriously jumped up to #1 on my Enemies list after the last three days of subway hell. And, ironically, this was the weekend where I had to be in Brooklyn like the whole time. Not that the people who read this blog read it to hear me whine ad nauseum about the New York public transit system, but bear with me, I promise it won’t happen again (for a while).

So, here’s the thing about the subways here. During the week, they run with regularity; trains get a little spotty at night on some lines, but all in all the system is pretty reliable and it runs 24 hours to all but four stations. Sounds pretty good, right? Okay, but on the weekends, everything goes absolutely berserk. And I know this. I’m prepared for it. I expect to get on a 1 train and hear a garbled announcement informing me that it will be going express for four stops or skipping every other station or waiting for five minutes while another train passes. I’ve gotten used to it. But THIS WEEKEND? It was like the entire subway system had spontaneously combusted.

So, Friday was the only day this weekend that I didn’t spend in Brooklyn. My phone was dying, so it was pretty tough to get in touch with people and I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I ended up at Cooper 35, an Asian pub in the East Village where I had four dollar bay breezes with Katie and Nikki and their work friend Vivian. Later, we went to Phebe’s, a bar near there, and then after that Cambria and I wandered over to the Washington Square area and had chicken strips and French fries before heading home. We also met this guy in a band who asked us to stand outside and watch his stuff while he brought out the rest of his drums or whatever. It was odd.

Saturday, my friend Brigitte and the rest of her friends from Minneapolis came into town and we met up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Courbet exhibit, which was pretty stupendous I must say. You know what wasn’t stupendous? Forgetting my phone at home and then going home after the museum to get it only to find the 79th and 86th St. subway stations closed. I was not going to walk another 10 blocks to 96th St., so I got on the very crowded and very slow M104 bus. I got home right about the time I was supposed to be at dinner. IN BROOKLYN. So of course I just called and said it would take me forever, but due to the aforementioned MTA meltdown my friends were having a hard time getting around, too, and everyone was late. We ended up going to a very tony restaurant in Williamsburg called My Moon. The bread was good, but I only had a side dish of asparagus because nothing on the menu looked appealing and I was trying to conserve cash. The asparagus was good. Afterwards, we walked to Monkey Town, a restaurant/bar in Williamsburg, for a City Breathing concert. The place was really odd and hard to find. Once we got inside, there was all sorts of goofy shit hanging from the ceiling–I think it was supposed to look sort of jungly–and there was a restaurant and a bar, but it was pretty small. The back room where the concert was was really interesting. It was a square room with huge screens on each wall and against each wall was a couch that spanned the length of the wall and really low tables. The band set up and played in the center. We were sort of squished on the couches despite having made reservations, but it was really the perfect setting for the music; we just sort of leaned back and closed our eyes and let the music wash over us, every once and a while looking at the video projections that were accompanying the playing. City Breathing is simply amazing; go on their MySpace and download their album, then if you’re in the area come to Brooklyn any Wednesday in May at Bar Matchless in Greenpoint.

On Sunday I was supposed to go to brunch at Bubby’s in DUMBO with the MN crew, but I declined via text message as I knew that I would have to get up really early to get there by 11:00, what with me living on the Upper West Side and brunch being in Brooklyn, which is a slog anyway when the subways aren’t on crack. I had gotten home from the show at about 3:00 AM, also. So I slept until noon and then headed down to the Times Square area for the matinee of Spring Awakening, which was amazing. About half of us didn’t read that little bit in the Playbill where it tells you where and when the play takes place, so we were like, “Why are they all German? And what is this, 1894? What’s with the dumpy FLDS-type garb?” Turns out, it was set in a German provincial town in the 1890s! Apparently, the musical (with music by Duncan Sheik, remember him?) is a slight adaptation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind; back in ol’ Frankie’s day, Spring Awakening, which deals with teenage sexuality and criticizes bourgeois attitudes towards sex, the play was banned a lot. I don’t know how Wedekind would feel about bringing the play into the twenty-first century by adding dancing and musical numbers with such titles as “You’re Fucked”, but I suppose he’d probably be on board. Anyway, although I really loved it, I left with sort of a creepy feeling that I haven’t been quite able to shake. I think it was the fact that, though the play took place in late nineteenth century Germany, the music and a lot of the staging is so contemporary that it sort of threw me off. Also, the play’s ability to create humorous scenes that, over time, take on greater significance and become fairly horrific is pretty unnerving. Awesome, but unnerving. Also, side note, the nudity’s not that bad but there are some brief explicit sex acts so probs you shouldn’t bring your kids.

After a quick jaunt back to my apartment to put on some pants (spring, come back, where have you gone?!), I hopped back on the effed up subway to go BACK TO BROOKLYN IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT. We went all the way to Midwood (what? yes, that’s what I said too)–that’s the Avenue J stop on the Q, if you’re a New Yorker, although you still might not know where that is, I certainly didn’t–to eat pizza at Di Fara’s. Now, this was supposedly the Best Pizza In New York–they had lots and lots of articles on the wall to prove it, and a plaque from…somebody who gives out awards for good pizza, I don’t know. And the pizza, when we finally got it, was completely delicious. BUT! I got there at 8:00 and I believe we waited until 10:30-ish to eat, a lot of that outside in the cold. Said Brigitte, “Of course it’s the best pizza in New York! By the time you get it, you’re starving!” Also, apparently the bathroom (which you can only get to by crawling under the counter and going in the back) was so disgusting (“Filthiest bathroom I have ever been in,” according to Amy) that everyone who used it practically bathed in Purel after. However, necessity being the mother of invention, the group composed a collaborative pizza poem while waiting, which was then performed various times aloud. Good times!

It was so late by the time we finished eating that we all decided to go home, which sounds lame, but the New York people had work the next day (today!) and the MN people still aren’t quite over their exhaustion from flying out of Minneapolis so GD early on Saturday morning. Boo, jet lag. Anyway, it was a very packed weekend full of Brooklyn, and though I’ll miss Brigitte and the rest of the crew I won’t mind spending next weekend getting a little more sleep and getting a lot less accomplished.

P.S. I’m really struggling to like Brooklyn (my best friend is moving there in less than two weeks and I’m not super excited about it because it’s really effing far from where I live), so if anybody has any reasons for me to like it (“hipster culture” is NOT a good reason) or places in Williamsburg that we might like to experience/explore (again, I’m cautioning against anything that smacks of hipsters), please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments or email me. Yay for Brooklyn?

Novels have I loved

The Manuscript Mavens have been rifling under their beds and through their closets (metaphorically speaking, mostly, I’d imagine), digging up long-forgotten manuscripts and displaying them for all to see. Today, Diana Peterfreund did the same thing. So, you know, being the lemming that I am, I’m following suit! I actually think this a really fun and interesting experiment, because it proves that 1.) writing makes you a better writer, and you should never feel bad about previous (failed or otherwise) attempts at writing because you always learn something, and 2.) that writers almost never sell their first completed manuscripts. I mean, some writers have upwards of six manuscripts sitting around in drawers or in computer files that will never, ever see the light of day.

Now, I have a pretty terrible memory, so while I’m going to try to remember everything I’ve ever written, I probably won’t. But I think I can get close.

Juvenilia: I started writing little stories when I was about eleven, and I don’t remember very many of them. I would type them up on the family computer at first, then I got my own when I started high school. One was heavily inspired by Gone With the Wind, I remember that. I also remember handwriting a story in a little notebook I’d been given; it was about a girl who somehow came to possess a pair of ruby-slipper-esque shoes that granted wishes. She was embarrassed at school (I must’ve been suffering from some middle school angst at the time) and wished that “the floor would open up and swallow her whole”, so of course it did. I don’t remember what her name was or what happened to her after that. I suppose I just left her in the hole. Maybe she wished the shoes away. Also, there were long periods of fanfiction, including more than one (read: three) Lois & Clark fanfic novellas (I know, cringe, right? I mean, that show is awesome, but seriously? THREE fanfic novellas?). They were actually fairly clever (I think; I don’t really remember), and had reasonably good stories, and I even let my aunt Christine read one (double cringe!). Anyway, I lost everything from this period in the Great Mac Crash of 1999, so all that is left is the one hard copy that I let my aunt read, but I bet that got thrown away a long time ago. Ha! What will my biographers do?

Novel #1: I started this one my senior year of high school, and I remember telling Cambria, now one of my best friends but back then only a class acquaintance, about it. She later told me that she thought it was so cool back then that I was writing a novel and that it kind of made her feel better about her own writing ambitions. Anyway, it was called The House on Gilmore Lake (name probably inspired by that great show, brand new at the time, Gilmore Girls) and it was about a woman named Kate who had just broken up with her boyfriend and took a leave of absence from her job to go back to her small town to convince her sister to undergo chemotherapy for a cancer that was going to kill her if she didn’t seek treatment. Gumming up the works was the fact that her sister’s husband, Kale (later they used that name, which with a sixteen-year-old’s naivete I thought I’d invented, in Disturbia, and I was like, “Stolen!”), was her (Kate’s) high school boyfriend and they were soul mates and she was still in love with him. Also, Kale and the sister (don’t remember her name) had a child…a boy, I think. Yeah, definitely a boy, although I don’t remember his name*, either. Further complicating things is that the girls’ mother died from cancer when they were teens and also refused treatment, so of course Kate sees that her foolish sister is trying to follow in the footsteps of their mother, who she so deeply admired but who Kate hated for choosing not to fight her illness and leaving them. Ah, the melodramatic yearnings of bored suburban youth! It also kicked off a creepy fondness of mine for naming slightly sinister characters “Laura”**–the mother’s name was Laura, and there’s a Laura in AUT and there’s a very sinister Laura in this quasi-apocalyptic (“quasi” because there’s not really an apocalypse, it’s just supposed to feel like there was; it’s an emotional apocalypse) novel I’ve briefly sketched that I won’t get near for a few years. As for the ending of The House on Gilmore Lake, well, the sister (Amy? Nope, still don’t remember) does die and Kate gets back together with her boyfriend (Winston? I don’t know, he had a “W” name and was a doctor) and they take over temporary custody of Kale’s son because he’s such a mess. Even back then I decided that not everybody gets a happy ending.

Novel #2: I wrote this one when I was a freshman in college; it was around 180 pgs and TERRIBLE! Probably worse than the first one. It was even more melodramatic, IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT. It was about a woman named Giley*** (Wuh? Also, I didn’t even remember this; Cambria reminded me of it recently and I was like, seriously? Are you sure?). Apparently, I like giving some characters weird names–Giley, Kale, etc.–and this has continued on, as one of the protagonists in AUT has a fairly unusual name. Anyways, Giley was trapped in a sad, crumbling marriage and she is a former professional who stopped working to have children and then miscarried three times and is totally tortured by all of this and then starts working for a battered women’s shelter and meets some women in worse situations than her and then one of them is a teen mother who Giley takes under her wing and then she eventually leaves and Giley adopts her daughter. I think Giley stays with her husband, but I wouldn’t know–ask Cambria, apparently she remembers more about this particular work.

Novel #3: AUT. No, seriously. BUT. I started writing AUT when I was a sophomore in college (that would be, um, about six years ago). It started off as a story about a sullen teenage boy whose mother gives him some awful news, but I quickly abandoned that storyline as, even though it was inspired by somebody I actually knew, I couldn’t have written it very well and I was aware of that. So, I came up with a whole new story, about a sullen teenage boy (he stayed; I love him) who is a senior in high school and kind of a loner. At first it was supposed to be about a girl he used to be best friends with who kept trying to kill herself and landed in a mental hospital (my affection for melodrama had not waned, even with the cancer and miscarriage storylines out of my system), and then he saves this other young woman from killing HERself and through that somehow he learns something. Anyway, that didn’t go as planned. While writing the first draft, I scrapped the second woman and concentrated instead on the friendship between my male and female protagonists, telling the story half in flashback and half in the present. Eventually, he tries to break into the hospital to free her (seriously) because he’s discovered that her apparent psychosis is caused by repressed memories of her father killing her mother, but she escapes without his help in the middle of a huge storm and drowns herself in the town’s creek. Also, an investigator who has come to town looking into the murder of the girl’s mother teams up with this teenage boy and the boy eventually gets a confession out of the father, who escapes. I wrote a follow-up short story where the father is finally found by the police and ruminates on his enormous guilt before killing himself. That story was actually okay. I turned it in for a fiction writing seminar my senior year and Ron Hansen, my professor, gave me pretty excellent feedback, which I found encouraging, but the thing is that the novel was NOT good and I knew that pretty much from the moment I finished it, when I was a senior in college. I put it aside and tried to forget it.

Novel #4: A novel-in-short-stories I’ll call Flyleaf. This novel started with the title short story, which was published in the Santa Clara Review, where I worked as Associate Editor at the time. My friend Ben, who was the Fiction Editor, published it, saying, “This is not the sort of stuff I’d normally like, but it’s good. It’s going in.” It was a good short story, although other ones in the novel are better. I still would like to publish this one day. There are fifteen stories, and they all center around a young woman in her late twenties who is a self-help editor, and her relationship with her male best friend, with whom she is in love. There’s a delightful cast of characters and a bookstore that seems like a character and it’s mostly a light, funny story about friendship and books and New York. The problem is, I wasn’t living in New York when I wrote most of it (14 out of 15 short stories are finished; it’s just that last one that keeps eluding me), so a lot of it needs to be fixed up, and the later stories are funnier and better written than the earlier ones, so I need to even out the style a little, but writing it was a really great break from the intensity of AUT and I love it dearly and intend to return to it someday soon.

Novel #5: A YA fantasy I intended as part of a trilogy. I finished it, it was okay, but it’s unpublishable. I’m embarrassed to think that I even tried to find an agent for it. Let’s just call it a result of Harry Potter fever and let me off the hook for it, okay?

Novel #6: AUT, the remix. I had thought I was done with AUT, but after a huge lightbulb went off in my head I picked it back up during what I call my “Thomson year.” (That’s the year after I graduated from college when I was living at home in Northern California and commuting two hours and fifteen minutes each day to Belmont, working at Thomson Learning, a textbook publishing company.) Anyway, I decided that I had all the ingredients of a good story, but I just needed to do a little switching around and turn what was just sort of a mystery into a real mystery. I took the female protagonist and killed her off. I brought back the idea of the second female protagonist, but I completely changed her. All that remains of the previous incarnation of AUT is the town it takes place in, the male protagonist and his parents. Oh, and the private school they all attend, and the principal of that school. The female protagonist remained in name, but though I managed to maintain the essence of her personality, her story changed and with it her character to an extent. I invented some new characters, including the second female protagonist, who I really love.

I did something entirely new with this novel–I plotted it. I got a notebook, wrote the title on the cover (oh, yeah, the title stayed, too), and went to work fleshing out the mystery plotline, writing character manifestos, and drafting scenes. I didn’t put any of this onto my computer until right before I started my Master’s program at the University of Chicago, and I abandoned the effort for a while as I tried to figure out what I was going to write for my creative thesis. Although I wanted to write a semi-fictional account of my grandmother’s WWII memoirs, I realized that it was too large an undertaking for a six-month project, so instead I decided to write AUT. I completed it in roughly six months under the supervision of my adviser and my preceptor and with the help of my friends Nickie and August. They all read draft after draft after draft and I’m so grateful for all their feedback. You know the rest–got an agent, revised some more, looking forward to submitting soon, etc.

Novel #7: Right now I’m calling it MB (the “M” can stand for two things right now, and I can’t decide which one would be best–I know which one I like best, but not which one works best, you know?), and it’s another YA mystery but with a little bit of a lighter feel and a non-tragic romance. It’s set in Northern California, like AUT, but instead of the East Bay area, it’s set more in the Sacramento-ish area where my brother lives. Can’t say much more about it right now, but I’m about six chapters in and I haven’t been working on it very much lately, what with the AUT revisions and the laziness that followed. I’m in a writing valley right now, which I’m okay with. I know I’ll get back on the horse soon enough; I’m just taking a much needed break. But I’m SO excited about MB–I think about it constantly–and I really can’t wait to take up writing it again. It’s a summer novel, so I’ll probably give myself maybe another week and then launch in, taking advantage of the New York summer (hot, oppressive, etc.) to inspire (or perspire! HA!) me.

*ETA: Miles! The boy’s name was Miles! I think.

**I do not know why I do this. I have a very good friend named Laura, so Laura, if you someday read this, know that it has nothing to do with you–obvs, as I was doing it long before I met you!

***ETA: No! Her name was Gelsey.

Split blogsonality

Okay, just a few short months ago I had a different personal blog, and it was largely irreverent and stupid, but I think it was funny, and then I started this blog, meaning to provide a more serious commentary on the long and arduous process of being a writer, and somehow I became, like, this humorless drone whose post titles have TERRIBLE blog-themed puns in them (“blogsonality”? SERIOUSLY?!). Somehow, all my personality drained out of this blog and got sucked up by my Tumblr, which I do update a lot, like 4-6 times daily. I’m going to try really hard to integrate the random crap that I find funny or little boring bits about my life (with self-deprecating humor, I promise) into this blog as well, because I don’t want to Balkanize my virtual life. The internets are worth more to me than that.

Oh, and, P.S.? These are the types of stupid posts you’ll be seeing from now on. I’ll still write about writing or the publishing industry when it is relevant, but just so you know, mostly my brain is full of embarrassing pop culture knowledge and, like, Entenmenn’s cookies.

Sex-y time

There are some debates happening on various blogs about sex in YA and whether or not we YA writers have a responsibility to the Truth (as we see it, of course) or to our readers and their parents. Well, of course we have a responsibility to our readers, but what does that responsibility consist of with regards to sex scenes in the books we write for them?

Well, it’s not an easy question. I was just going through John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 vlogs the other day and I watched one entitled “I Am Not a Pornographer”, in which John Green explained why the sex scene in his Printz Award-winning Looking for Alaska was not porn.

Sayeth the John:

Pornography is designed to titillate. I don’t think there’s a single halfway normal person in the world who would find a single thing in my book in any way arousing. There is one very frank sex scene [I believe here he’s talking about (white text to prevent spoilage) when Miles gets a blow job]. It is awkward, unfun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic…the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection. The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails…it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.

I personally think that’s a pretty made of awesome way to put that, but let’s be honest, not every sex scene in a YA novel is meant to explore that same idea. For a very personal instance, there is a sex scene in my novel. It is short and non-explicit, but it is not lacking in emotional intimacy in the same way that Green’s scene is. It is, in essence, a poor choice on the part of the protagonists because it is motivated on one side by a deep feeling of loss and tragic desire for oblivion, and on the other side a desire to make things better and the knowledge that he cannot, but it does not ruin them. There’s a fuzziness to the act, like it may or may not have contributed to the failure of their relationship, but I think that it comes from the same place inside Protag #3 (you don’t know how badly I want to use names) as the behavior that does cause the failure of their relationship, so, like, who knows?

I didn’t include the scene to make a statement about whether or not teenagers should have sex (although I think they shouldn’t), or whether or not they do have sex (of course they do). The sex that my protagonists have is not emotionally empty–actually, I think perhaps that it’s too full of emotion, and the act is an attempt to express and reconcile those emotions by using the body and the other as a conduit, which does not–and cannot–work because the emotions are to big for the act. Does that make any sense? They are using the act in an attempt to express those things that they cannot say to each other, because they’re too young and immature to recognize the depth and seriousness of their own emotions. But I think the lesson is pretty much the same–whether there’s too much emotion or too little involved in a teenage sex act, in at least these two cases, the physical act is a cheap stand-in for really understanding and sharing with someone.

I don’t read a whole ton of YA, but I suspect that there are sex acts in some YA novels (perhaps more than I think) that are meant to be titillating. I mean, hi, the entire Gossip Girl series? I think that probably however sex is presented in YA novels directly corresponds to how the author of the novel feels about teen sex.

I think this argument comes down, at the root, to what you’re trying to say. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary (or even good) that any given book have a specific “message” or “lesson” to “teach” to the reader, I think that most books written by contemplative authors do end up having a sort of thesis, which is pretty much the author’s world view or a world view the author aspires towards or fears. I think every book is a reflection of the heart and mind of the author when she or he wrote it, and readers respond to that as much as they respond to any other factor that determines how good or bad they think a book is (the writing, the characters, the plot, etc.). YA novels are the same, and YA authors are the same, and how an author writes about sex is part of that world view. There is no right or wrong but instead a desire–even a duty–to be authentic to the characters as you wrote them and to the world as you see it.

Bad reviews and worse behavior

Galleycat* just posted an interesting little piece on Wednesday about an author behaving badly, namely Deborah MacGillivray, a Highland Press co-publisher and Kensington romance author who “uses yahoogroups and author groups to encourage, browbeat, or by other means, individuals into taking down negative reviews by reporting that the review is a) not helpful and b) abuse” and even purports to have hired a private investigator to find out personal information about a certain Amazon reviewer gave one of her novels three stars (not the worst rating possible on Amazon by far). Which is, like, the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.

I know how hard it must be to hear negative, or even mediocre, reviews of your work. And I know how sketchy the Amazon reviews can be–I once knew an author who wanted help convincing Amazon to take down a couple one- and two-star reviews, but we ultimately cautioned her not to do so. It made sense to me that she should want them down–they had been posted by people who had never posted a review before, they were vague and not nearly as carefully considered as the several positive reviews on the site, and they hurt her feelings. Some Amazon reviewers are notoriously cruel, and I don’t know of any author who hasn’t felt the sting of an extremely nasty (undeservedly so–I think reviews should be calm and thoughtful, even if they are bad) review. But, in the end, if someone has an opinion about the book it isn’t really fair to deny them the right to express that on Amazon, even if you think that it is invalid.

Of course, this MacGillivray person has crossed the line between hurt feelings and vengeful insanity. To harass an Amazon reviewer (or any reviewer, for that matter) for not loving your book and being willing to say something about it is an obviously insane move, one that ought to carry severe repercussions for the author but ultimately ended up hurting the reviewer, who hadn’t done anything wrong. Romance review site Dear Author has a petition going to convince Amazon to turn a critical eye on their current reviewing process. Hopefully one day they can come up with a solution that is fair to both authors AND reviewers.

*Is it just me, or does Galleycat do weird things to your computer? It makes my mouse flicker on and off, and it always stops after I close Galleycat. Odd!

The new critics

Emily Gould posted a woefully short item on Galleycat yesterday about the labyrinth that is the Amazon customer review system, pointing out something that I just learned this week: there is a woman named Harriet Klausner who has posted 16,191 reviews on Amazon to date. Apparently, she’s a retired librarian and, most importantly, a speed reader who reads four to six books a day and reviews every single one of them on Amazon. Now, that’s a talent. Publishers treat her like a professional reviewer–they send her books for free in the hopes that she’ll read them (unlike most book bloggers, she probably does get through most of what she’s sent because she’s such a freaky fast reader!). One of the best things (for publishers and authors, at least) about Harriet? She hardly ever gives a bad review. Seriously, do a scroll down her Amazon reviews page. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You see? Four or five stars, no less, and everything is excellent, poignant, or insightful, amongst other laudative adjectives.

People in the book industry decry the decline of the print book review daily, but I can’t help but wonder whether we even need professional book critics anymore?* Lookit, I read the New York Times Sunday book reviews, but I don’t really care about them. I read them out of professional interest only, in a sort of “Oh, let’s see what books the Times and every other ‘literary’ book outlet will be wanking about for the next ten months” way. Also because I find Michiko Kakutani mildly entertaining at times. But the truth is, I don’t buy books that I read about in the Times, even if they get a rave–maybe even especially. Because I don’t trust professional reviewers. I don’t feel like they’re at all interested in telling me anything about a book, whether or not it’s worth reading or buying; they don’t have me, the buyer, the reader, in mind when they’re writing their reviews. They have themselves in mind. And not themselves as readers–themselves as critics. Because this is their profession, and so every piece they write contributes to an overall collection of work that represents them, as writers. Their thoughts about a given book are actually quite a small concern in comparison.

To tell the truth, I don’t hold much truck with Amazon reviews, either, at least not when it comes to entertainment. I love them when I’m looking to buy a DVD player–they tell me what to avoid because of XY&Z problems, what is specifically wrong with an item and whether it lives up to its promises–but let’s be honest, when it comes to books and movies and music the opinions of some anonymous Amazon reviewer who I don’t know are just as useless to me as Michiko Kakutani’s opinions. Items of entertainment are so highly subjective, and anyway I feel like most Amazon reviewers review books because they either hate them or love them, like our friend Harriet Klausner–there’s no perspective in such extremity.

This is why everybody needs a good book blogger they can trust. Even if they’re anonymous, if you read enough of the book blogger’s reviews (which are often much better written, thought out, and more even-tempered than Amazon reviews) you can get a sense for what they like and don’t like, what they tend to read and what they tend to avoid, and as you keep reading the blog and perhaps trying out some of their more highly recommended suggestions you can start to see whether or not they align with your tastes. These aren’t professionals; sometimes they’re getting the books comped from the publishers, but often they’re buying them themselves, like you do. That’s what’s so great about book bloggers–they’re not critics, they’re readers. This is important, because readers read for vastly different reasons than critics read, and they often come to different conclusions about a book. A novel full of pretentious bullshit might appeal to a critic because then they can say all kinds of pretentious bullshit about it, but a reader can see through all that BS right quick and come to their own readerly conclusion, which is a far more trustworthy opinion.

This is not to say that I agree with all book bloggers, but I just think they’re part of the new revolution of reviewers. Maybe people don’t read the books section because we’re beyond critics. Now we just want to know what books are loved by people like us.

*Wow, reading over this post I think I was coming across as someone who thinks print book reviews should die. No! Not me. I think whenever people talk about books, it’s a good thing, whatever they’re saying (unless they’re trying to censor people or talk about burning books). And there are a lot of newspapers with great review sections and great reviewers. I personally dislike the New York Times in reference to almost everything and I get really frustrated that the “paper of record” is in so many ways so irrelevant to the lives of so many people. But that’s another post. I don’t want book reviews in newspapers and magazines to go away. I just think that book bloggers are the wave of the future, that’s all, and that I personally prefer them over print reviews. Although I really like the reviews in Publishers Weekly…I’ve gotten a lot of great book recommendations from them.

Tech. probs., abbrev.

I would really like to know why the HTML code Twitter gave me for establishing a live Twitter feed on the sidebar keeps disappearing whenever I try to save. WHAT DID I DO WRONG?!?!

Google confusion

The strangest thing happened to me today. The email I use for this blog is not the email I use for just my every day nonsense (I thought it best to separate them, I don’t really know why; maybe I just like sending Google invitations to myself) and I thought maybe, since so many people were commenting (thank you! I love you), I might’ve gotten some emails. I was pretty sure I’d set that account to forward to the account I have open all day, every day but I just wanted to make sure. Turns out, it so wasn’t. Also: there are emails in that inbox from my senior year in college. I graduated in 2001, so you do the math. I can’t believe I even had that account in college! It’s gotten to the point where I pretty much control every permutation of my name on Gmail, but of course I can’t remember all the passwords to all the addresses, so I just picked this one randomly and then figured out the password and I must not even have looked in the inbox because I was so surprised to see all of those emails there. And also, why so many emails from the College Republicans? I wasn’t even in the College Republicans, although one of my sorority sisters did run for State Congress as a Republican (when she was twenty-one and still in school…it was sort of a one-off situation, but she got, like, 30% of the vote), so maybe I just volunteered in order to get involved in her campaign or something. I wonder if I still have her campaign t-shirt lying around…anyway. It was so weird. I archived all the old emails so that I wouldn’t lose anything permanently, and changed the settings so that now (hopefully) the emails should forward to my main account, but if you DID email me and you haven’t heard back please resend. Thanks!

Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write every day?

Last Friday, author Lilith Saintcrow posted an essay about writing every day on the urban fantasy blog Fangs, Fur & Fey that I think caused quite a stir. In it, she flat out says that what separates a real writer from people who just call themselves writers is that real writers write every day. She says, “You absolutely cannot hope to come up consistently with a readable product if you don’t write every day.” Now, with all due respect to Lilith Saintcrow, I just don’t think that’s absolutely true.

I don’t write every day. Now, obviously, I’m not a published writer like Lilith, so I may not be a prime example, but I definitely don’t sit down at my computer every day and work on my current novel. Actually, let me rephrase–I move through phases. There are stretches where I write between five and fifteen pages a day every day for three to six months. Then there are stretches where I don’t write–actually write down words, sentences, paragraphs that contribute to the ongoing building of a project–at all. It’s just my cycle. And I’ve never felt in any way self-conscious about it because it seems to work for me. I have never (knock on wood) gone through a period of not writing when I should have been writing. When I wrote my thesis, I wrote every day for hours and hours, pages and pages, for six months straight. When I was finished with it, I turned it in, put the novel away to simmer, and pretty much took the summer off. I read a lot, watched a lot of movies and TV shows, worked and hung out with my family. I did occasionally draft stuff–I came up with the idea for the novel I plan to work on post-AUT over the summer, wrote a very long summary/plan for it last summer–but rarely did I sit down and actually type out words. And I didn’t feel guilty about it at all, nor did I think I didn’t deserve to call myself a writer. After reading Lilith Saintcrow’s post, even though I respect her opinion, I still don’t.

The thing is, just sitting down in front of a computer or with a pen and steno pad is only one way to define the act of writing. Most of the work I did on AUT over the past six years happened completely in the confines of my head. I play out scenes in my head way before I put them down on paper, I excavate my characters in my head, I work through possible plots in my head. I consider this “writing”–it’s Step 1. Sometimes, I do the head work (as opposed to leg work, I guess) and write at the same time, sometimes just the head work. In this way, I feel like I am constantly writing–I think about my projects during most of my free time, so whenever I’m not having a conversation, or reading or watching something, or working, or sleeping, I’m “writing”. I may not be churning out pages, but I’m working, and that’s why I think it’s untrue, for some writers, that not putting words on paper belies a lack of seriousness or makes them (us) unfit for the title of “writer.” Writing is an individual-type experience–what works for one writer might not work for another. I think it’s good advice to try and write every day, especially for someone who is just starting to write–writers write, don’t they say? And frustration brought on by inability to complete projects might be solved by forcing yourself to sit down and just write the damn thing, for sure. But I think that, ultimately, the statement that if you don’t write every day you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer is a little harsh. I’m sure there are plenty successful writers who don’t write every day and make their deadlines just fine. Someday, I hope to be one of them.