Category Archives: controversy

22

The R Word.

On Friday night, I went to see a screening of the movie Dear White People, a wonderfully funny and warm but still very biting comedy about race relations on an Ivy league campus. (“Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count.” ) The filmmaker, Justin Simien, said that he wants the movie to start a conversation—nothing gets better without a dialogue. He also cited as his inspiration great black cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s and movies like Do the Right Thing that had things to say and left you feeling not just entertained but moved, sometimes uncomfortably so.

So race was at the front of my mind the next day when I went to the NYC Teen Author Book Festival to see some of my authors present on different panels. The audience was probably 90% white women in their 30s and 40s. This is an observation, not a judgment. But it’s something I kept thinking about because in the middle of New York City, that’s an awfully homogenous crowd.

I was not alone thinking about race that day. One of panels was called “Summer Reading” and the four authors discussed their novels, each set during the summer. At the end, an audience member stood up to say that she had been at the festival for two days and only seen one author of color. She also mentioned that she works with underprivileged teens in Hartford whose summers wouldn’t at all resemble those in the books being read from. She wanted to know what the panelists had to say about that.

It was an uncomfortable moment not just because a big issue was being raised but because my first thought was, “These four authors have nothing to do with planning this event and shouldn’t be asked to speak to such a large issue when they were just there to talk for five minutes about their particular novels.”

That’s a lie. My first thought was, “Please don’t let my client say anything stupid.” Listen, I’m an agent. It’s just in the bones.

Happily for me, my client on the panel, Gae Polisner, actually had a very thoughtful response, explaining that she writes fiction that comes from a very internal place and that her leads resemble her because she can only write from a place she knows and understands and just hopes that she touches on truths universal enough that they’ll resonate across the broadest spectrum of people possible. That is a great answer for an author. It does, however, leave some great big questions for an industry. Take a look at these articles by Walter Dean Myers  and his son Christopher Myers.

Those articles were spurred on by a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showing that of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color. That’s less than 7%. To give some perspective, nationally, approximately 27% of the population is people of color.

Happily, I have easy answers to this diversity gap.

Ha! Just kidding. I don’t have easy answers. I actually don’t have any answers—just more questions. Like where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet? Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing? Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written? And, perhaps my own biggest question: are we too overwhelmed or scared to ask these questions because we don’t know what we’ll uncover about ourselves?

I won’t lie—I almost scrapped this blog post several times. It makes me nervous to bring up such a big subject because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want anyone to cringe while they read it. But in the spirit of Dear White People, let’s do it. Let’s have the conversation.

11

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

4

Literary letdowns

I’ve recently heard from some friends who have been disappointed with critically-acclaimed, wildly popular books. In some cases, I’ve recommended the book on the wrong end of a vicious verbal barrage. Imagine this:

 

 

 

 

 

Toss in a few more obscenities for good measure and now you get what I’ve been dealing with recently. First it’s THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. Next, it’s INFINITE JEST. Even a couple of my most memorable childhood books have been slandered during this, the merriest time of year. If one more person puts down ENDER’S GAME or HATCHET

At first I thought my friends were being a little too harsh. They couldn’t see any of the, ahem, silver linings, in the aforementioned books. Then I thought back to those times I too had experienced that hollow feeling that follows the breaking of high expectations. We’ve all been there. Every one of us has cracked open a book hoping to turn that last page, clap the back cover closed, and look up to a new world with a fresh perspective.

It rarely happens. And we’re let down. Now’s the time to share. Let’s get all of the whining out the way right now and enjoy the rest of the holiday season. What books didn’t live up to your expectations?

7

Slow reading

Now that New York State schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, a lot of us parents are mystified by the new rules for academic success as determined by the educational powers that be.  One of the things that my husband and I keep getting stuck on is how much of an emphasis is now placed on speed.  Our third grader must answer math problems in less than four seconds per problem, for instance.    Given that most of my math is done either on my iPhone calculator or my fingers, I have no moral authority to speak about that one, but when they tell me that eight-year-olds have to read a certain number of words in one minute in order to establish reading “fluency,” well, that’s when the tic  in my left eyelid becomes pronounced.

Which, as many things do on this blog, leads to a shameful confession:  I am a slow reader.

Given the thousands of pages I read in the course of a typical month, people assume that I took that speed reading course they used to advertise on television back in the day.  I did not.  I am the kind of reader who compulsively reads every word and who pauses often to swirl a particularly juicy adjective around or take loving note of an exceptionally well turned phrase.  When it comes to work, I sometimes hate that I am so slow–my manuscript piles reproduce like Tribbles, after all.   On the flip side, I think I am a much more insightful reader and editor as a result of my tortoise-like approach to the material in front of me.

Thing is, I read books the way  I eat dessert.  I want both experiences to last as long as humanly possible so the enjoyment derived from them will be prolonged as well.  What good is a bowl of ice cream if the primary experience is brain freeze from slurping it down too quickly?  Similarly, what’s the point of speed skating through a great novel or non-fiction narrative only to be done and on to the next?  Don’t we already live our lives doing constant hamster sprints as we struggle to keep up with the masses of information being thrown at us?  Shouldn’t we take a stand and force ourselves to read deliberately, thoughtfully, patiently, discerningly…slowly?  Wouldn’t that be better for our intellectual development as well as our souls?

I think the world needs less fast tracking and more thinking it through.  And, I’m not the only one.  Hopefully, my kid will learn that writing can be savored, not just devoured, that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

What say you?  Is fast reading an important skill in the internet age or is there more value in the slow(er) processing of information?  And, how long does it take you to read an average book?

 

 

 

2

Literary meltdowns

This past Sunday night, I went to a concert and witnessed something I hadn’t seen in a long time—a genuine, on-stage, rock-star meltdown by Brian Fallon, the lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem. You can read all the particulars here, but suffice it to say, it was genuinely weird, uncomfortable, irritating… and yet perversely memorable.

Anyway, back at my desk here in Book Land, I started thinking about comparable literary meltdowns. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an author completely lose it on stage—maybe not since college, when I saw Noam Chomsky go bananas when too many students asked him about the Middle East. But of course, the history of the written word is littered with tantrums, explosions, and even a gunshot or two. (That’ll teach you to mess with Hunter S. Thompson!)

So, let’s have some fun—when was the last time YOU saw an author really lose it? Or, if you’ve never seen one in person, what’s your favorite meltdown story? And after witnessing/reading about said meltdown, did it enhance the author or diminish in your eyes?

12

Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

4

Categorizing

Shy, but spunky wallflower meets hot, broody guy.  Sparks fly, complications arise, but true love triumphs in the end.  This could take place in any high school, college, or corporate setting.  And love is love at any age, right?

So, why is there such a flap over bookstore placement of Young Adult vs. New Adult titles?  It all comes down to sex, of course.  The older the protagonists the more sexually explicit the books has always been the rule of thumb.  But, is that still true?  Was the New Adult category created so that everyone involved was of legal age but still playing varsity, emotionally speaking?  Or is there more to this in-between genre that makes it deserving of its own place on store shelves?

I get not putting sexually explicit material next to middle grade or picture book offerings.  But what’s so hard about sliding over a couple of bookcases and hanging a sign saying “New Adult”?  If the problem is that you don’t want kids exposed to inappropriate content, then clear labeling is a tried and true way of dealing with the issue.  Clearly this is a category that is extremely popular for both older teens and adults but one that is having a hard time finding its way into the hands of print consumers because of what seems to me like simple orneriness on the part of booksellers.

Am I missing something here?  What do you all think?

9

Seuss up!

For someone who had never read many children’s books at all before her own child showed up, I’ve become a Dr. Seuss fanatic.   Something about the cadence, the crazy, made-up names (the man would go to any length to make a rhyme happen), the awesome message of tolerance and forbearance, and the cockeyed optimism in the face of greedy Grinches, howling Hakken Kraks, and Horton-taunting bullies, is never less than inspiring.   Which is why this story about drag queen Martha Graham Cracker being disinvited to read a Dr. Seuss book to kids in an after-school program is so un-Seussian.   Ironic, right?

The story has a happy ending, as you’ll see if you follow the link, but it got me thinking about how Dr. Seuss would have addressed some of the more controversial issues of our day.   What would Horton say about gay marriage?  How would the Cat in the Hat feel about the inability of our two major political parties to come to any kind of consensus about anything?  What kind of lectures would the Sneetches deliver to all the haters still clinging to racial and ethnic prejudices?

One of my favorite lines from the Seuss canon is:  “So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.”  If more of us operated with care and tact, it would be a much more friendly world, no?

What are you favorite Dr. Seuss quotes and characters?

3

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?

 

6

The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?