Tag Archives: Being a reader

On our Childhood Libraries…

Recently a college friend of mine sent around this article, written by a fellow alumnae, author J. Courtney Sullivan.


The article focused on Sullivan’s quest to rebuild her childhood book collection as an adult, and the memories that each of those books held for her now.  Some were of reading with her dad:

When I received the “Stickybear” books by Richard Hefter and saw the familiar endpapers covered in strawberries, I recalled how my dad would read the strawberries as part of the text. Example: “The end. Strawberry strawberry strawberry strawberry strawberry.”

While others helped her realize how differently younger readers absorb and learn to love literature:

Childhood is where a love of reading is forged through the tactile. The stories themselves matter, of course. Sometimes I think about Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona,” with her tubes of toothpaste, her bites of apple. Nothing I’ve read since, no single image, stands out as these do. But in adulthood, it’s always the text I admire. In childhood, the book as object matters most.

It’s a lovely article, and the quest itself upon which Sullivan embarks may be familiar to many of you–she notes that a number of book sellers with whom she dealt were curious about all the early-to-mid 1980’s picture books that were suddenly enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

And, of course, it got me thinking about the books that defined my own childhood.   I realized, pretty quickly, that most of the books that defined my growing-up years were ones that I shared with others–usually, they were books read to my by my Father, or my teachers, or books that I learned to read myself (see below).  I always had trouble as a kid with the thin line between fiction and reality (I still do, let’s be honest here), and it was (is) a source of constant frustration for me that I was the only person who knew the members of the Baby-Sitters’ Club, or who had wandered around Gormenghast castle with Steerpike, or bought fancy shoes with Polly from An Old Fashioned Girl (let it not be said that I didn’t have eclectic tastes as a young-in’!).  So in picking books that were important to me, I realized that I was also picking moments in my childhood that were significant, or people, or places.

In that sense, nothing has changed for me.  Some of my favorite literary memories are from reading specific books in specific places (I first read ‘Salem’s Lot in the Belfast Botanical Gardens, and Oscar and Lucinda in Harvard Square one blustery autumn week).  And the specific people with whom I shared them.  So here are some of the first titles that leapt to my mind upon reading Sullivan’s article:

But No ElephantsFor some reason, I was obsessed with this book as a little kid, and made my parents read the adventures of Grandma Tildy and her willingness to take any animal–except for pachyderms–so often that by the time I was about two, I had the whole book memorized, including when to turn the pages.  It then became my parents’ favorite parlor trick to set me up on the couch when company was over and tell them I could already read.  I rediscovered this book when I was a bit older, and still found plenty to appreciate here–especially the brave little(ish) elephant who proves his worth to his new family when Grandma Tildy finally relents enough to take him in.

Ramona the Pest: My second grade teacher was so good at reading stories out loud that we would do any math exercise, any spelling test voluntarily in order to make time for reading at the end of the day.  We made it through most of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books by the end of the year, but this one I remember most vividly because, in it, Ramona learns how to tell time.  Or learns that she doesn’t know how to tell time.  And it wasn’t until that scene that I realized that I didn’t know how to properly tell time either!  Digital clocks were just becoming a think (I’m old, I know, it’s fine), and so I had been able to avoid analog time-telling up to this point.  It’s a rare day when I put on my watch that I don’t think fleetingly of Ramona heading off to school, and of my teacher who brought her stories to life for us.  (Note: this was absolutely not the cover of the book we had.  Our class book was printed in the 1960’s, so I think it was avocado green or something….)

There’s  A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom: I’ve told about my love of Louis Sachar’s wild imagination a few times before.  But this book was the first “realistic” one that I read.  Or, specifically, that my Father read to me.  We had a nighttime reading ritual of a chapter a night, and I loved this book…right up until the last chapter.  Essentially, the main character, a boy who everyone considers ‘unmanageable’, has quite the imagination, and creates beautiful, elaborate stories with his figurine collection.  He finds the courage and tools to begin socializing with his peers after working with his school’s counselor.  And he sends her a gift in the end.  And because my imagination was as good, if not more tenacious than his, I cared way more about his figurines than his actual friends.  And I lost it.  Ugly crying everywhere.  Luckily, I have a Father who gets it, and he and I set about re-writing the ending to the book, so that, in our world, at least, it ended properly.  And it’s a trick I’ve used to endure books with “bad” endings ever since (and here, “bad” is defined absolutely, positively subjectively).

How about you?  What books, moments, places, and people make up your early literary history?

The Girl Who Is Sick and Tired of All These Girls…

Alright, beloved readers.   It’s time we had a talk about all these books with ‘girl’ in the title.

A number of people wiser, sager, and probably more rational than I have weighed in on this topic already, so let’s take a look through them first.  Perhaps the most statistically interesting factoid about “girls” in books came from Emily St. John Mandel, best-selling author of the National Book Award finalist Station Eleven. 

St. John Mandel and her research assistant used Goodreads to track titles with “girl” in it, and gather data from those results. They whittled down the 2,000 most popular books with “girl” in the title, eliminating children’s and young adult books, eventually getting a list of 810 books.  You can read the full break-down of her data in an article published at fivethirthyeight.com, but the two points that most media sites picked up on was that the “girl” in question was rarely “girl” aged.  68% of the time, she was usually a grown-up woman.  Secondly, “girl” books written by women had a better chance of surviving the book than “girl” books written by men:

via fivethirtyeight.com

First and foremost, can we talk for a moment about how there were more than 810 books with “girl” in the title for St. John Mandel to use?  That is a colossal number–and it seems to be rising.  Though this graph is a little dated at this point, you can still see how many novels are have “girls” in their title and in their plots:

Via fivethirtyeight.com

There are reasons for this: first, publishing is a precarious, unpredictable, and downright weird business.  If publishers can find a trend that works, they will milk it for every tiny drop they possibly can.  So when “girl” books like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train did so colossally well (and their movie adaptations, by and large, succeeded, too), there was a huge push to get more and more books that would attract readers looking for a new fix.  There are a lot of thematic parallels in these books–unreliable narrators, women in peril, noirish themes, conspiracies, small town/home town settings, etc–and publishers are banking on the fact that you will finish one “girl” book and head right for the next.  That’s why they all look so similar, too!  In a piece for The GuardianEva Wiseman described them as “embossed covers in shades of storm”.  And as each “girl” book succeeds, the need for more grows.

But there’s way more to it than just linguistics and marketing.  There’s that 68% of “girls” being grown-up women, and everyone still calling her/them “girls”.

Eva Wiseman sees the trend as subversive, because “the girl is a “girl” not because she’s weak, but because she is on the verge of changing into something else. She’s not simply a victim, or a wife.”  Robin Wasserman also argues there is potential in the word:  “To be called “just a girl” may be diminishment, but to call yourself “still a girl,” can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth. As Gloria Steinem likes to remind us, women lose power as they age. The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry.”  Emily Roese argues that “When ‘girl’ is not taken to mean naïve or innocent, but instead flexible and susceptible to change, the term can be a highly empowering label that neither whittles the protagonist down to a shell of a woman stripped of motherhood, nor demotes her to a naive youth. Within this terminology, woman’s wisdom and awareness is retained, while girl’s ingenuity and creativity can resurface.”

I don’t think any of these wise interpretations are necessarily wrong.  But I think there is something more to it.  But these “girls”, and this is important, are acting independently.  Whether it’s in vanishing, or in solving a mystery, or through lying, or through truth-telling.  These “girls” are, to whatever extent is possible, controlling their own narrative.

In literature, typically, when “girls” grow up, they are supposed to become “wives”, or “mothers”, or fill a position that is inherently relationship-oriented, but “nurse”….Which also explains the rash of books out there called “The [Insert Profession]’s Daughter“, or “The [Insert Profession]’s Wife“, with the assumption being that the [Professional] discussed in a man.  Men are defined by their professions; women are defined by their relationships to men.  But these “girls” are not “wives” or “mothers”, whose existence is dependent on their relationship to another.  They are independent entities, demanding to be the center of the story that is being told.

That we are highlighting the actions and roles of women in these stories is also pretty significant.  But to keep calling them “girls” traps these characters in a kind of fairytale world where young ladies went where they weren’t supposed to go.  The fact that these The “girls” in these titles are very often portrayed as vulnerable, breakable, and, possibly, insane, reinforces that.  Or else it uses “girls” in the same way we say “girls’ night” or call things “girly”.  It trivializes the power and agency these characters have in their stories.

I realize that “girl” is quicker to say and potentially easier to remember than “woman”.   And I also realize that there are times where “girls” are more appropriate to the story than “woman”–I’m thinking specifically of Emma Cline’s The Girls…But we shouldn’t be afraid of “women”, in books, or in real life…in both fiction and reality, women do lots of things all the time, all by themselves. But by insisting on referring to these characters as “girls”, we’re downplaying a really fascinating literary trend, as well as the characters who made that trend possible.

Books–Coming to a Screen Near You!

How do we feel about film adaptations of books, dear readers?

To be honest, I don’t have a personal consensus about this issue, so I doubt we as a group are going to come up with a unilateral stance.  If Games of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that books can be adapted well…and that they can also get in the way of the books (figuratively and literally!) just as easily.  On that note…stop toying with us, George R.R. Martin.  We are suffering enough.

Anyways, there are precious few adaptations that I enjoyed more than the books–like The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, as I think I’ve mentioned previously here.  It’s difficult (as I know we’ve discussed here) to stuff a many-hundred page book full of literary symbolism, sensory detail, and emotional descriptions into a two-hour film.  Yet books still form the basis of a significant number of films and tv shows, precisely because they come with so much insight, intrigue, and development pre-packaged.   And, regardless of what Some People say about the death of literature, there is clearly a devoted following of literary fans who make these shows and films popular, and create the drive to make more.

So here, for your reading and viewing pleasure, are a few of the bookish film adaptations that have been discussed recently.  Feel free to air your opinions on them here, and to come into the Library and check out the books before they hit the screens, so as to taunt your friends and family with non-spoilery spoiler hints for months to come!

Little Women: I love Little WomenMy adoration of this book, of Louisa May Alcott, and of her family, has been well-documented.  And for that reason, I personally cannot bear another adaptation of the book, even if it is PBS Masterpiece putting it all together.  It’s like having a little bit of my soul taken out and manhandled by a major production company.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who are genuinely excited about this one, and I want there to be a really good adaptation on film, so I can only hope that this is the one that will prove that Little Women can be made into a meaningful, timely, and non-hokey production (if you’ve seen the BBC adaptation from the 1960’s, you know what hokey looks like).  As the Masterpiece website notes, “Little Women is a truly universal coming of age story, as relevant and engaging today as it was when originally published in 1868″, and we need those messages of hope, of strength, of determination, and of everyday feminism and female support that the March sisters learn from each other during their coming-of-age.  So please, please, please, Masterpiece, get this one right.  On the plus side, Angela Lansbury, Tony Award winner and creator of my personal heroine Jessica Fletcher, is slated to play Aunt March.  I will tune in for that, if for no other reason.

Alias Grace No doubt the huge popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, convinced the Powers That Be that adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s books were a good idea.  No doubt Margaret Atwood’s stunning writing and incredible insight helped, as well.  Though one of her lesser known works, Alias Grace is another fascinating (and feminist) book that centers on the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Atwood’s tale is told by the fictional Doctor Simon Jordan, who is ostensibly researching criminal behavior, but finds himself swept up into Marks’ story, and the paradox of the mild-mannered woman he knows, and the horrors she is supposed to have committed.  This new adaptation of Alias Grace will air in Canada beginning in September and will be streamed to Netflix afterwards.  For those eager for a taste of what’s to come, take a look at the trailer here.

Bird Box: One of the newer announcements regarding literary adaptations is the production of Josh Malerman’s dystopian horror novel Bird Box (soon to be starring Sandra Bullock) about a mother and her two small children must make their way down a river, blindfolded, lest they behold the dreadful entity that has destroyed everyone else around them.  Malerman’s use of sensory details and creeping weirdness made for an absolutely immersive page-turner of a book…but it is, nevertheless, a book about about a world that’s been devastated by “The Problem”, and one glimpse of those…’Problems’ is enough to induce a deadly rage into anyone who sees them.  Though there are flashbacks and traditional scenes, the most memorable, heart-pounding moments of this book come when the characters are blindfolded.  So how is that going to translate onto a screen?  Can it?  We’ll see when Netflix brings this adaptation to life…

So what say you, dear readers?  How does it feel to watch books on the screen?  Are there any adaptations you’re eagerly awaiting?

On Book Shaming…

One thing you won’t find in the Library.

I realize that my social media feeds probably look very different than most people’s, dear readers.  I subscribe to a lot of book review sites, book lover’s sites, library sites, reader’s advisory sites…to be brief, there’s a lot of book talk going on.  Today, when I logged in, two links were posted back-to-back that got me thinking.

The first was a page that presented a list of books that an “educated, literate” person “would never admit to reading”.   This list, bizarrely, ran the gamut from the Twilight Saga to The Protocols of Zion (a terrifying work of anti-Semitism that was celebrated by the American Nazi Party), from John Grisham’s earlier works to the Scarsdale Diet Manual (a fad diet from the 1970’s that contributed more to heart disease than it did to weight loss).

That a list would run such an enormous gamut without comment or critique was in itself…odd to me.  A lot of the books there were ones I had read in history and literature classes in college (The Valley of the Dolls was on more than one syllabus, actually).  There were a lot of books written by wom

en, or written for a primarily female audience (romance novels, etc).  A lot of them were just old.  And there’s nothing wrong with reading old books.  They may be a little anachronistic, but…so is The Fall of the House of Usher.  But I haven’t heard anyone try and use that against it.

The second link was to a list of “Great Books” that the author had lied about reading (they had told people they had read these books even though they didn’t).  And you know what?  I hadn’t read any of those books, either!

And it got me to thinking…why on earth do we attach so much shame and emotion baggage to the books we’ve read, or the books we haven’t read?  Maybe it speaks to the cultural power of books (or, at least some books) that we feel like we aren’t ‘whole’ people without having experienced it?  But I never finished War and Peace, and I’m still here.  I’ve also read Anna Karenina in the original Russian, and am no better off, either.

Never finished it.

And why are we embarrassed to admit that we have read something?  I ask this as someone who routinely advocates the Choose Your Own Adventure novels for grown-ups, so clearly, this is a genuine question on my part.  I can understand being disappointed by a book.  There have been plenty of times where I am bummed that I spent so much time on a book that wasn’t worth it.  There are times I am embarrassed that I didn’t finish a book on time.  But the implications with these lists is that our self worth is (or should be) attached to our literary choices in a way that is pretty damaging to our psyche…

These kind of lists make me worry.  I worry because there are people out there who don’t read because they don’t know what is “cool” or “right” to read.  Or they don’t read because they don’t have anyone to discuss books with them, or feed their interests.  I worry that people don’t read because other people have made fun of their reading choices.

So let me be very clear here:

At the Library, you can read whatever you want.  And no one has the right to make you feel badly about what you read, or what you don’t read.  Not even you yourself.

If it interests you, if you want to learn something, if you want to try something new, or if you want to re-discover something you loved, we are here for you, and are more than happy to help you find them. And if you don’t like it, if you didn’t learn anything stunning, if you still want to try something new, or go back to something familiar, that’s is absolutely, 100% ok.  But if you never try, or if you spend your time worrying about someone judging you for what you’re reading (or not reading), or, even worse, judging yourself, then you are never, ever, going to get something meaningful out of the book.

So let’s put all these lists about what we “should” read, or what we “shouldn’t” read, and, instead, focus on reading more: Reading outside our boundaries.  Reading to learn.  Reading to live.  Reading to make connections.  Reading to grow.  And not feeling bad about any of it.

When Good Characters Go Blonde…

…As a bit of a preface, I’ve been reading Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane series for years.  Back when I was doing my junior year abroad in London, and I had no money and a bag of potatoes to eat, I stumbled across the first book, Quite Ugly One Morning at my local library, and the utterly crazy twists and turns of the plot kept me spellbound.

For those who haven’t discovered this delightfully smart, insightful, and occasionally, startlingly visceral series, the main character is a journalist named Jack Parlabane, who makes his career by taking on the stories that one else even believes exists, and gets his scoops by breaking in, snooping, and hacking the most seemingly impossible places.  And while all these hijinx are exciting, and some of the situations are wildly, almost absurdly outlandish, what I love is that Christopher Brookmyre makes all his characters real, and flawed (sometimes appallingly so), and, generally lovable (this usually doesn’t extend to his villains, who can be pretty appalling,  in the best of ways.

One of the things I love most about this series is that fact that I have massively disagreed with Brookmyre on a lot of aspects of this series (and if you’ve read it too, I will be delighted to discuss at length).  He has made me so unhappy and so angry that I’ve wanted to challenge him to a duel–but even I have to admit that his choices have made the books better, and richer, and kept the trajectory of the series moving forward with consistent energy.  Moreover, they are choices that fly in the face of a lot of prevailing stereotypes and gender assumptions, and I kind of have to respect that, even if I hate the outcome grandly.

Christopher Brookmyre, creator of Jack Parlabane, for STV Glasgow

…until I found out, in the latest book (which is terrific, by the way, go read it), which is the eighth in this series…that Jack Parlabane is blonde.

For the past eleven years, I have been picturing him with black hair.  No.  Scratch that.  For the past eleven years, he has had black hair.

Now, part of this, I am sure, is because David Tennant* read the audiobook of the series opener, and knowing what Tennant looked like probably influenced my idea of the character looked like.  Maybe I was just willfully blind to any previous description, and I just noticed now something I had missed.  But none of those obscures the absolute shock I felt when I read that.  Like someone I knew personally had somehow betrayed me–not Brookmyre, but his fictional character, Parlabane.

There have been some fascinating pieces written about the way we imagined literary characters.  One of my favorites is Peter Mendelsund’s “What Does Anna Karenina Look Like?”,  an excerpt from his eye-opening What We See When We ReadSome of the things that he mentions in the piece is that our emotional attachment to characters can make us feel like we know them, even if we can’t tell you what their nose looks like…or even if we’ve never imagined their nose.  Or that our clearest conception of a character is based on the sketchiest of details provided to us by the author.

There are even websites that use police composite technology to create sketches of characters.  Brian J. Davis has a whole site devoted these sketches.   And, frankly, very few of them look like the people I know in my head.  Part of this is, no doubt, because police sketches always look a little…weird:

Daisy Buchanan, from https://101books.net/2012/03/28/how-fictional-characters-might-actually-look/

But it also makes me wonder…when and how precisely do characters become something different in our heads than what was in the authors’?  What makes our relationship to an imaginary entity so real that we believe that we know them inside and, specifically, out? By what wizardry is that relationship created?

And what about the characters for whom we don’t have a good understanding?  I’ll be honest, I couldn’t really describe what Rochester looks like.  He is one of my favorite characters, I’ve read him countless times, I know his soul; but I couldn’t really describe his looks to you well enough that you would recognize him on the street.  I’ve watched a whole slew of adaptations of Jane Eyre, and seen Rochester portrayed by everyone from Orson Welles (umm…) to Toby Stephens (hooray!), but none of them look like Rochester to me.  Because I don’t know what he looks like.

But that doesn’t mean I appreciate the character any less–or any more–for that.  He is too real to me for his looks to matter.  Just as Parlabane is so real for me that his looks matter enormously.

I don’t have any good answers or explanations here, dear readers.  I am still grappling with this whole blonde thing to be honest with you.  But it’s got me thinking about what is it about fictional characters that make them real and tangible in our lives, and why that is.  And if anything, it’s made me appreciate those characters–and the authors responsible for them–even more.

Have you ever dealt with finding out your favorite character was different than you pictured, dear reader–be it blonde or otherwise?  How did you react?


*We don’t have this particular recording at the Library, but I cannot recommend David Tennant as an audiobook reader more highly.

Becoming a Reader

I don’t know if you know this, but the Peabody Library has the best Pages around; a by Pages, I mean the young people who re-shelve books, help with gathering requests, generally do the daily tasks that keep the Library running smoothly…not the paper pages.  Though we have a lot of paper pages, and many of them are delightful, too…

…But anyways…the other day, I got into a conversation with one of our Terrific Pages about the books that made us into readers in our childhood.  It turns out that I was not the only one who was (is) addicted to the Choose Your Own Adventure Series!  And fifteen minutes later, I found three said CYOA books waiting for me, having been snuck up from the Children’s Room by said Terrific Page.  And my day, nay, my week was made.

Seriously, so much fun.

But that conversation got me thinking about those books that made me a reader as a child.  Not just the books I enjoyed, or remember fondly, but those reading experiences that I am still trying to replicate to this day.  Those books that continue to shape my thinking, my reading tastes, my world view…That might be a little exaggerated, but not by much, to be honest.

I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to read all of these books again.  Some of them I didn’t actually enjoy, as I’ll explain below.  Some of them, I know, meant something to me at the time because of some particular Life Thing I was experiencing, and picking them up now, when that Life Thing is over, may actually be a bit of a dream-killer.  The best of this list, however, are the books I have read again as an adult, and loved just as much, though perhaps for different reasons.

So here, in case you were interested, are some of the books that made Younger Me into the reader I am today.  What are yours?

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: For the record, my copy of this book had a much more purple cover, and one that looked much less like a story from the Brothers’ Grimm.  But regardless of the cover, this book was my go-to from fourth through sixth grade.  I think I read it five times during those years, and loved it every time.  At her christening, along Wit, Charm, Health, and Courage, Princess Amy of Phantasmorania receives a special fairy christening gift: Ordinariness She is the “plain” one in her family of beauties, the clumsy one in a family of grace and elegance, the one who is unsure of herself in a family that has inherited self-confidence.  But rather than wallow, our heroine heads off on her own, getting a job as a kitchen maid at a neighboring palace, and finding a prince who is just as “ordinary” and unique as she, and who loves her precisely as she is.  I loved the humor in this book, especially the gentle satire regarding Amy’s elitist family, and Amy’s resourcefulness.  This is a book that isn’t meant to make “ordinary” readers feel better.  Instead, it’s a rally-cry to embrace everything about yourself that makes you you, and to demand happiness on your own terms.  And that’s a message we all need to hear, no matter how old we get.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar: I developed a taste for Weird Fiction from a very young age, and I blame it all on Louis Sachar.  Wayside School is a building that should have been built on one story, with the classrooms all next to each other; instead, it was built with one classroom on top of another.  Each story in this book, and its sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down, focus on the students in the classroom on the thirtieth floor.  These stories have their messages–asserting that everyone learns a little differently and that’s ok, that bullying isn’t cool, etc.,–but they are also genuinely bizarre, in that way that the best children’s stories should be.  What I specifically remember is the section of the book that deals with The Thirteenth Floor.  Like many buildings, Wayside School doesn’t have a thirteenth floor (this book was the way I learned that)…but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thirteenth floor.  Those chapters freaked me out to no end when I was seven, and, after re-reading these stories, they still do.  The same unsettling uncertainty that makes Poe’s or Stoker’s stories so chilling is present in spades in Sachar’s stories, and I was hooked from a young age.  Apparently, there are more Wayside School books now, you lucky readers!

High Trail to Danger by Joan Lowry Nixon: I think I’ve mentioned this book before at some point.  I’m going to discuss it again because it nearly destroyed my life, and extinguished all happiness from my soul.  When seventeen-year old Sarah’s father is killed in the mining town of Leadville Colorado, she decides to travel west to clear his name.  But her search lands her in more danger than she ever imagined.  I lived for this book, and for its sequel, A Deadly PromiseI loved the historic details of Leadville (which was a real place, and just as dangerous and wild a place as Nixon describes), I loved Sarah’s determination and fearlessness.  But I did not love the love triangle that developed between Sarah and the two gentlemen she encountered on her quest.  Because she chose the wrong man.  And then I threw the book across the room and didn’t talk to anyone for two days (this is absolutely true).  I abhor love triangles to this day, for any number of adult, feminist, and literary reasons, but they all stem from my inability to recover from this first, total, heartbreak.

So what do you think?  Would you want to re-read your beloved books today?  If not, how about sharing them with a Younger Person in your life, and get their life as a reader started?

On Book Awards and Class…

Last week, I promised to bring up the issue of class and book awards, and since we didn’t have the time to discuss it last week, as a follow-up to our discussion of the Hugo Awards and the Puppy Invasion, I figured we might as well get to work now, dear readers.

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

One of the issues that was discussed, as reported by Wired, during the Puppy Horror was the class aspect of the awards.  And while most of the points brought up were exclusionary and near-sighted, there is an element to this argument that should be addressed.

In December of 2014, author Adrian McKinty (pictured left, courtesy of The Irish Times), author of the Sean Duffy crime novels, which I adore, and the Michael Forsythe series, which I also adore, among other literary achievements, sat down and wrote a blog post about the Man Booker Prize (fair warning: there is some strong language in the post).  In it, he challenged two-time Booker-prize-winning author Peter Carey’s claim that Americans should not be allowed to compete for the prize since it would, essentially, spoil the ‘particular cultural flavour’ of the award.*   McKinty used this argument as a jumping-off point to argue that the actual “flavour” of the Booker Prize was classicism, not nationalism.  As he noted, the vast, vast majority of the judges for the Booker Prize were attended private schools (which are much more elite than our version), while only 5% of the British population as a whole had attended private schools.  The result, he stated, was that:

…the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.

He also proposed a short set of practices that might help the Booker Prize improve its nominations, which included allowing publishing houses to send in more than one book for consideration (that way they could be riskier in their nominations, rather than nominating books they think will win based on past years), and encouraging genre fiction, because: “The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.”

Surprisingly, McKinty’s recommendations may have actually helped.  As he noted in a blog post last October (language, again, FYI) the last three winners of the Booker Prize have been working-class, which points to a conscious attempt at diversity among the jury (See Paul Beatty, the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, below).

There are two big issues here: class, especially in the United States, is less defined by income, and is much more a social thing, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research examined in a recent survey.  That is mostly because the country is so big and diverse that there is no one bracket to determine wealth (look at house prices in Massachusetts vs. Arkansas, for example).  Thus, an income that might define you as “middle class” in one area would put you firmly in the “working class”, or even the “working poor” in other places.  So there is no one experience of class, or an ideology of class cohesion.

Just the fact that a graph like this exists is proof of my point. From the Economic Policy Institute

And class is perhaps the only social identifier that is inherently anti-social.  Capitalism, by definition, is a competition.  In order to win, you have to beat someone else to resources, to funding, to markets, to jobs, etc.  It’s why the relationship between classes is always categorized as a “struggle”.  McKinty alludes to this in his blog post, but the brutal point is that this “class struggles” makes us instinctively want to punch “downward”, or at those we perceive as “downward”….which is where the intersection of race, gender, nationality, and class all become significant together.

Because one of the positive things about encouraging books from and about “working class people”, especially in the US, is that we would inherently get more books by and about women, people of color, and immigrants, all of whom make up a plurality of the “working class”, and all of whom go under-represented in fiction.

But there is a snag to this.  In order to get these stories, we need to encourage these stories.  Because the main identifiers of the “working class”, across the board are A) a lack of higher education and B) a lack of access to continuing education and self-development, for reasons of distance, finances, or familial obligations.  And that is a huge, huge issue.

Because we are not going to get those stories unless we encourage people to tell those stories.  And in order to do that, we need to give people the tools to be storytellers–reading, writing, and practice.  But more than that, we need to provide time and space.  The first two can be acquire via education.  The second two, however, are some of the most difficult to acquire, especially for those without income security.  And no book prize in the world is going to improve its “working class” prejudices until we all show that we value everyone’s stories by listening to them, and providing the space for them to be shared.


*I feel the need to state here that Peter Carey is the author of some of the most important books in my life, including Oscar and Lucinda and His Illegal Self, and use this moment to point out that we all, always, have lots of learning and growing to do.