Speak Loudly

It is unfathomable to me that there are people who walk among us who still try to ban books. And yet, just this past month, someone-whose-name-doesn’t-deserve-another-Google-hit tried to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because he thinks rape is akin to pornography. (Remind me never to go on a date with that guy, by the way.) Ms. Anderson eloquently responded to the matter here.

This dirt bag caused the literary world to shake its head in annoyance, anger, and a little bit of laughter since, after all, the irony of trying to ban a book is that the minute you state your intentions, that book immediately becomes more widely read than it would have without the extra attention. He also has good timing because what better time to pick up a copy of Speak and other banned books than this week, the beginning of Banned Books Week?

There’s a good NY Times article about ways to celebrate this week, and of course reading books that cause controversy are worth reading any time of year. Banned books are more than just sex scenes, even though the people who try to ban them are often too dense to understand that. Books that are questioned by the “authorities” are those that speak to a larger truth. Truth, obviously, is something that should be kept hidden from young minds so they grow into the world unprepared and, as a result, end up just as closed-minded and ignorant as book banners.

Banned books not only spark conversation and debate, but they are also the ones that usually go down in history labeled “classics.” You can support these important titles by buying them and reading them, but as writers, you can support what they stand for by producing them yourselves. It should go without saying that no one sits down to write a novel with the intention of getting it banned. Scenes of violence or sex might cause controversy, but gratuitous or heavy-handed devices won’t get you very far. Plus, readers see right through those flashy “look at me” tricks.

Instead, focus on the heart of these books. Don’t shy away from topics that are difficult to write about and don’t sugarcoat life’s harsh realities. Sexual identity and orientation, racial tension, religious conflict (internal and external), domestic violence, and degradation are all important issues that teens and adults face. Use your words for issues that matter and support others who refuse to adhere to simply what is safe. If you can write, then you should speak.

Entitled

“And I am a writer, writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home; And I’ve written pages upon pages, trying to rid you from my bones.” – The Decemberists, The Engine Driver

In a recent writing session, I asked former colleague/YA writer/all around awesome person, Tracy Marchini, when she gave her novels their titles. The answer: “right away.” Under normal writing circumstances, I wouldn’t have even asked because obviously the title comes first. But this wasn’t a normal writing circumstance for me – I was writing fiction.

As most of you know from following the blog, I’m (painfully slowly) writing some YA fiction at the moment (again, a painfully long moment that will someday lead to a finished novel, I hope). I’m enjoying the process immensely, when I find the time for it, but in my mind, I still would not refer to myself as a writer of fiction. To me, I’m still a personal essayist who simply ran out of (true) things to say for the time being.

With my non-fiction, which includes these blog posts, I think of a title first. Sometimes that’s all I have. I either think it sounds clever or captures the spirit of what I’m writing about. With essays, themes are layered, but they usually revolve around the same central issue. Novels rarely can be wrapped up so tightly. Their titles range from encapsulating an idea to a particularly good line of dialogue to a one-word, thought-provoking concept. The endless possibilities make my brain hurt, which is why the file currently frowning at me from my desktop reads “UntitledYA.doc.”

How do you all think of titles? Do they come first or do you, as the quote above says, write pages upon pages before you can rid title-block from your bones?

Write a Paranormal Bestseller W/out the Paranormal

So you wanna write a bestseller…

Only trouble is you don’t even like vampires, let alone want to write about them. I feel your pain, realistic fiction writers. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good paranormal story, but there’s a certain timelessness to realistic fiction whose story remains true generation after generation. I’d love to see a strong return to the realistic, adult or YA. There are some great realistic titles on the bestseller list now, but the charts are still largely dominated by paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that… but for those of us who think real life still has an important place on the bestseller list, here are some tips for cashing in on that paranormal success without ever mentioning the V-word:

1) Write a vampire/werewolf/zombie/angel novel without using vampires, werewolves, zombies, or angels. There will always be people who cling to these creatures, whether they’re biting people, romancing people, or being comically self-referential. But when these novels reach bestseller status, it’s safe to assume they are being read by more than your typical genre fan. What “the masses” are responding to within these characters are not their supernatural abilities or folklore, but rather what they represent. Vampires seduce us, yet suck us dry. Werewolves are wild and have the power to make us just like them. Zombies are mindless followers out to destroy those with free will. Angels are our saviors in whatever crisis we face. We all know people like them in our lives, and they don’t always come from another realm of existence.

2) Get adult/YA crossover fans without being creepy. Twilight Moms freak me out. Taken literally, these desperate housewives lust after teenage boys who can literally tear them apart with their teeth. That’s wrong on many levels. However, Twilight Moms, much like adult fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, are not to be taken literally. To the crossover fans, these novels are more than just cool spells, hot teens, and kickass heroines. They’re about choices and battles and taking on more than you’re ready for. They speak to our senses of responsibility, memories of falling in love, and feeling as if the fate of the entire world is in our hands.

3) Want artistic recognition? Think Kafka. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant insect. Hilarity does not exactly ensue. Instead, his family hides him and he slowly loses his humanity. The question on every English major’s mind is, “what does it mean?” and it should be the question on yours when you go to write. Addiction? Sexual identity? Divorce? Death? Insanity? What is your character hiding, and what has he become?

4) Buffy Doesn’t Always Have to Stake Things. Your female lead doesn’t need a man to kill things for her, whether those things are vampires or spiders. She’s vulnerable, yes, and sometimes she makes really poor choices, but don’t we all? Write a heroine who’s realistic and fallible, but who can still completely hold her own in a so-called “man’s world” without resorting to cheap flirtation or playing the damsel.

5) You Don’t Need an Apocalypse to Prove that Life Sucks. The world is going to end in a fiery blaze of concentrated evil and we will all be left to face the consequences, possibly resort to cannibalism or turn into a zombie, and finally we’ll be forced to form a small band of survivors intent on saving us from ourselves. Or, in other words, we are going to go through some serious shit at some point in our lives, stuff that could potentially destroy our very essence if we allow it to consume us. So, let’s not do that and learn to live again, maybe with the help of a close friend or love interest, but not necessarily.

Go forth and write the next bestseller… and get real.

A Fine Line Between Book Love & Hate

We are book lovers. The written word is what we’re passionate about. We can spend hours upon hours upon hours discussing our favorite titles, under-appreciated authors, overrated novels, and what we love about writing our own stories.

If you love something as much as we love books, you have the ability to hate it with the same level of passion. Now, there are plenty of books we just don’t like. Not our thing, don’t read a certain genre, we’re not the intended audience, etc. But I’m not talking about those gray areas. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get much sleep last night and woke up a little cranky, but – let’s talk about books we loathe!

I think the first book I ever truly hated was Johnny Tremain. My 6th grade class had to read this in some sort of combination English and Social Studies lesson. Now, I’ve heard Johnny Tremain referred to as a classic and it even won the Newbery Award in 1944. To my 11-year-old mind, however, this was the most boring thing I ever had to read ever. And I read a lot! Maybe I should return to it with my mature, adult eyes, but whenever I think of this book, I can’t help remembering how much I wanted to throw it across the room and how much I hated my 6th grade teacher.

A novel that comes in as a close second on the hate-scale is another that I was “forced” to read in my youth. In A.P. English, we had to read Bartleby the Scrivener, which might have been the first time I wrote a mini-rejection letter in my head: “Dear Herman, I love the idea you’re going for here, but the execution is god awful. Sorry, I’ll pass.”

But, like I said, the story of Bartleby still intrigued me; I just “preferred not to” read it. It wasn’t until my teacher then suggested Billy Budd by Melville that I knew true hate, and it’s the reason I’ll never read Moby Dick. Two examples of an author’s long-winded, incredibly dull storytelling skills are all that I need, thank you. Sorry to any Melville fans; I’m sure there are things to admire about his sentence structure, style, and command of language. I just don’t see it. I ended up telling my teacher about three-quarters through that I just couldn’t finish. She seemed sympathetic to my cause and still gave me credit for reading it.

The reason these terrible-to-me books were read at such young ages is because after high school, people stopped forcing me to read things I might hate. In college I didn’t love everything I read, but I certainly didn’t hold any violent grudges toward them.

You tell me: what’s the one title you can’t barely think about without feeling enraged?

Just Say No to Bad Books! 
(but respect other people’s opinions about them because everything is subjective!)

No Sleep Til: Part 2

Yesterday was the Brooklyn Book Festival, which is a massive gathering of literary folk in Brooklyn Heights. It’s sort of like a mini-BEA, or like a literary state fair. This is my third year going to the BBF, and like last year, there were lessons to be learned:

1) I am even older this year. Like last year (see link above), there was a party to attend in Brooklyn the night before the BBF, but unlike last year, I opted for a quiet night in instead. Likewise, I ended up leaving the festival earlier than planned because I was too tired to go on. I hope both of these decisions are just signs of an oncoming cold instead of the alternative – being spent by 3:00 at the age of twenty-six.

2) Book nerds are like happier postal workers. Rain and wind are no match for them. The weather at the BBF this year was pretty dreadful, but hoards of people still gathered at Borough Hall, ready for literary fun.

3) Children do not grow up any faster in NYC, except when they do. In a YA panel called “Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made Of” (!), three YA authors discussed setting their stories in NYC. Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) grew up in New York, and assured a Q&Aer that kids in New York don’t grow up any faster than those in the suburbs. This completely contradicted a point she made earlier, which was that one of the things she loved most about growing up in a city was that it forced kids to mature earlier. Despite the conflicting messages, I know what she means. Certain sensibilities, such as being cautious and aware of your surroundings, are slightly more beyond-your-years than children who know all of their neighbors by first and last name. However, the nature of being a child – unsure, trusting, ideological – remains intact. The city doesn’t take that away from them.

4) Air Supply is terrible. As Steve Almond pointed out in a “It’s Only Rock n Roll (but I like it)” panel, a true music snob is able to completely de-lust himself or herself after discovering the object of their affection listens to, say, Air Supply, un-ironically. I feel the same about others’ literary tastes. Also on this panel were Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead, both of whom I enjoyed tremendously.

5) I didn’t hear or see the word “Franzen” once. OK, this isn’t so much a lesson as it is something I found reassuring. My love of Freedom and appreciation of Franzen aside, it was nice to know that literary people are able to talk about something else. Then again, I did leave early.

6) “No Sleep Til” refers to Astoria (Queens), not Brooklyn. The Beastie Boys must have never slept.

Sadly, I did not get to see two panels I had been looking forward to. One featured Ben Percy, whom you should all be reading. He’s like a Gen-X version of Cormac McCarthy and his new novel (The Wilding) is just as amazing as his short stories. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s a CB author.) The other panel was a humor discussion that involved John Hodgman. “Discussing” humor, in general, is not funny, but anything involving John Hodgman usually is.

Lastly, my client Feliza-Rose David is awesome and so is her blog, which is where I found this jem of a Ke$ha parody called Writer’s Blok by author Jackson Pearce over the weekend. Enjoy, writer-friends!

Happy Anniversary, Me!

Little known fact: this week marked the one year anniversary of Glass Cases publications.So first and foremost, THANK YOU for keeping this blog alive and for supporting me and for being all around amazing!!!

Technically, my first blog post was August 28, 2009, which you can view here – please don’t mock my formatting issues. I like to think I’ve stayed true to my original idea, even though I guess I never did the theme weeks. Oh well. Maybe some other time. As you might be able to piece together, this blog started when I was a wee assistant, not really sure if I’d make it in this crazy, mixed up world of publishing (OK that’s only half true). But, as my position with Curtis Brown changed, the blog did become a little more industry-related, but only in terms of writerly education; I still leave the business side of things to be explained by those who are far superior at it than I.

The first Glass Cases publication did not get posted until this week in September 2009. Such an innocent time, back then. Hard to believe we once lived in a Snooki-free world.

Anyway, this post today is just my chance to look back at the blog that I still can’t believe people read, and to express my thanks to all of you, particularly those who have contributed stories. Appropriately, celebrating my one year milestone means you have to buy me paper, or something. Instead, I’ll settle for e-paper… in the form of submissions! Guidelines are still on the side of the blog and I hope you all continue to support the blog by sharing your work with us.

Thanks again for everything, readers! Have a great weekend.

(this symbolizes my leap into a new blog season)

Release the Franzen

This week has been officially claimed in the name of Franzen. In case you hadn’t heard, he wrote a new Great American Novel, as has been talked about at exhausting length by journalists, bloggers, and other authors. On Tuesday, when his latest opus dropped, I ran out to buy it, partly out of obligation, partly out of curiosity, and mostly because I thought that even if it’s not brilliant, it’ll probably still be good. I started reading it on the subway ride home, and thought to myself after reading the first page, Damn you, media. This might actually live up to your crazy hype! I haven’t opened up the book since Tuesday, but its sitting on my coffee table, looking smug… and waiting.

Lev Grossman wrote a really great profile on Franzen in the now-famous Great American Novelist cover story. The article was written well enough to make me think that Franzen is like most other writers: socially awkward, reluctant to new technology, and is his own harshest critic. The underlying message of the article, of course (once you get past the heavy-handed bird metaphor), is that while Franzen is just a regular guy, he is a better writer than you will ever be. Ever. So why are you still trying?

Another story to come out of Franzen Mania Week that I found particularly important took a different approach in addressing the Franzen Is Our New Literary Master theory. Jason Pinter’s interview with commercial authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke to a larger problem in what is considered “great,” at least commercially, which is that women writers are usually out of the running. While I didn’t agree with everything they claimed, I thought they made a valid point in saying writers like Nick Hornby and Carl Hiaasen, who write what I consider the equivalent of “dude lit,” are generally more respected, reviewed, and receive more media attention when their books are published. (This seems especially true in the case of Hornby; maybe because he’s British.) Women who write commercial fiction, meanwhile, are subtly denigrated by labels like “chick lit” and “beach reads.” In other words, books you wouldn’t mind seeing taken away by the tide. 

To me, the double standard in commercial fiction is blatant sexism and it degrades women by saying that if a large number of women buy something (hello, Elizabeth Gilbert), it must not be very serious or of high quality. Yet, while this occurs in the commercial world, how does it translate to literary writers? No one would call Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Mona Simpson “chick lit,” or try to downplay their abilities as serious writers. Even so, the literary world is still very much a boy’s club. Surprisingly, with my identification as both a feminist and a writer, I’m not too offended by this.

Would I love to see a pensive-looking Lorrie Moore on the cover of TIME with a Franzen-esque boastful headline? Of course. It is undoubtedly appalling that white men are still leading this fray. (Where’s Colson Whitehead, TIME!?) However, it makes sense to me that Franzen is being chosen as the natural successor to literary “lions” like Updike and Mailer. They’re just picking the next great white guy the same way the media used to call Denzel Washington the next Sidney Poitier, and not, say, the next Jimmy Stewart. This is one of those dumb realities that I’ve come to accept. The emphasis, obviously, is on the word dumb, but to me there’s no point in getting up in arms about it. Still, if anyone tries to call Toni Morrison’s next novel a “beach read,” I’m going to have to fight someone.

What Jonathan Franzen did more than simply writing what Mr. Bransford called a “blockbuster” is he got people talking about what it means to be successful. With great power comes great backlash. The Twitter account @EmperorFranzen and the hashtag #franzenfreude are evidence of the real Jonathan Franzen’s relevance. Personally, I’m just happy a literary writer is finally being hated and talked about as much as a commercial writer. (Take that, Dan Brown!)

Will Freedom change my life? Probably not. Will it change the way literary fiction is received by the masses? I’m going to say no. Will women ever get respect as writers without having to settle for gender-specific labels? Sigh… I’ll leave that one for another time.

Hope you all have a good Labor Day weekend. Anyone going to see what the Freedom buzz is about on your day off? Or maybe you’d like to pick up Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood instead… you’ll probably be going to the beach anyway, right?