Short Sunday: Until …

The word until can be a preposition (it took until late that evening to unload the truck, for example) or a conjunction (we kept unloading until it got dark) and for many years I believed the shortened version of this word was ’til.

Until I heard a piece on the radio a few years ago. I can’t find that now, but here is an interesting post about it from Motivated Grammar:

Why would anyone spell it till if it’s coming from until? Well, it turns out that till isn’t derived from until. Till and ’til are actually two different words with two different etymologies. Till is the earlier form, attested as early as 1330; Until is actually derived from till, not the other way around as in ’til (a backformation which showed up much later).

What you can take from this, of course, is both ’til and till are acceptable. I myself tend to use the former.

Note: A software snafu kept me from working on the computer for the last thirty-six hours, but I seem to be back in business. My apologies for the delay.

 

Tweet: The word until can be a preposition or a conjunction, but there’s more to it.
Tweet: Why would anyone spell it TILL if it’s derived from UNTIL?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , ,

The Power of a Good Book

This human interest story was on the national news last week, so you may already know about it, but I think it’s special and has a great message. More than one message, actually. It’s set in the South, from which so many good stories emanate, and it goes like this …

Born in Valdosta, Georgia (where I was born!), a boy spends his days doing the things boys do—mostly running and jumping and playing in the yard with a ball. He isn’t much of a reader, but by the time he graduates from high school (Valdosta, again) he’s an All-State, All-Dixie, All-American football star. He goes on to the University of Georgia in Athens (Go Dawgs!), where he is a star wide receiver. Everybody in Athens knows him.

Everybody, that is, except the nice lady he meets in the bookstore one day.

The bookstore? The stereotype we have of top athletes—not least American football players—doesn’t include an image of a man reading a novel. By his own admission, this football player didn’t read very well when he entered college three years ago. Who knows what makes him think he should practice reading the way he practices football, but that’s what he does. He starts reading fiction and the door to another world opens. He enjoys that world.

The football player doesn’t have years of practice choosing the next novel to read the way we longtime book enthusiasts do, though. So when he’s encouraging a friend to read for pleasure—as one does—they end up at a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon, trying to make a choice. And asking the lady standing next to them in front of the best sellers rack what she might recommend. To read. For pleasure.

An enthusiastic conversation ensues. (This is a risk one takes when one asks a reader about books.) The lady mentions the novel her book group is reading. The young man has heard of book groups. He’s long been intrigued by the phenomenon and wants to experience it himself. “May I join your book group?” he asks.

You can watch two short video clips about this football player to learn the rest of the story:

Star Football Player Steps Out of His Comfort Zone” and “A Different Side of Malcolm Mitchell.” They’re fun and inspiring and they have a great message, as I noted above.

1 A good story is a powerful thing.
I’ve written about finding that one magic book and I’ve written about how the Boy learned to read. We know the Harry Potter books “turn boys into bookworms.” And we know that reading fiction changes people, particularly young people, in measurable ways. People who grew up with books, with parents who read, know this instinctively, but not everyone is that lucky. When a young person finds a novel that makes him want to read another one, it’s a beautiful thing.

2 A bookstore fosters community.
The importance of bookstores in the community cannot be underestimated. It gives readers a place to discover new books, of course, but more than that, it brings together people from all walks of life and with all sorts of interests. Because a bookstore is a place you might go for a magazine or a newspaper, a Bible or educational materials, as well as a book, whether fiction or nonfiction. It’s a place, says novelist (and bookstore owner) Ann Patchett, “where you can take your children and let them play, and look at books … We have to raise up readers.” It’s a place where you find people meeting for book groups or for public readings. It’s a place where you run into friends.

3 Don’t be afraid to make a new friend.
We get into ruts, we do. We’ve been running around with the same bunch for the last twenty years. And sure, it’s comfortable. But if we take just one little step outside the path we’ve worn between home and work and the drycleaner, we might learn something new, might experience something wonderful, might have new opportunities for growth. I’ve had this experience myself. And look what happened to the football player!

4 Discussion enhances appreciation of a book.
How many times have you had the experience of wishing you had someone with whom to discuss the book you just read? It’s a lot easier now that we have social media, but before Facebook and Twitter, we book geeks buttonholed each other: Whad’ya think of the ending of Gone Girl? Book groups are a great way to stay intellectually stimulated and to be exposed to other opinions and ideas. In one of the videos, Malcolm notes he would never have chosen The Light Between Oceans on his own, but there he was reading it. Reading itself is a solitary thing. But discussion makes it more fun.

5 There’s always room for one more.
When you cultivate a spirit of generosity, you never know what wonderful things will grow from it. You need look no further than this story to see the truth of that.

Tweet: The bookstore: a place where you run into friends, whether you know them or not.
Tweet: The stereotype of top athletes—not least football players—doesn’t include a man & a novel.
Tweet: When a young person finds a novel that makes him want to read another, it’s beautiful.
Tweet: The Power of a Good Book: This is a risk one takes when one asks a reader about books.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged as: , , , ,

Just Say Yes

Some years ago, I read a book called The Secrets of Six-Figure Women* by Barbara Stanny. (This is not a post about money; the book itself is about career building.) Stanny, a writer by trade, was struck by the strategies highly successful women commonly tended to implement—no matter what their field of endeavor. (Strategies like declaring intention, letting go of the ledge, and knowing where to find help.)

The point that struck me was number five: The Stretch. It can be summarized as Just say yes. For freelance writer/editors like me—and my friend, best-selling author Amy Parker—this is particularly pertinent, because clients often ask for something you haven’t included on your menu of services. You can turn the work down … or you can just say yes, and go for it.

Amy is a just-say-yes author. You remember her, don’t you? I introduced y’all a few years ago. She’s written more than one article for me and suggested topics for others. We still have a “How’s work?” meetup every few weeks.

Amy’s best known for her picture books (fiction) for kids—together they’ve sold more than half a million units—and some publishing experts have advised her to stick with what’s working. But when a publisher offered her an opportunity to write nonfiction for adults, Amy said yes. That yes led to others. And those led to Frederick.

“You need to meet Frederick,” Amy was told. “You need to help him write his story.” This yes led to Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope, Amy’s newest book, a coauthorship with Frederick Ndabaramiye, a young man from Rwanda.

Amy’s been working on this book for three years. I wanted to know what she’d learned from saying yes to this project.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she told me over coffee. She’d just pushed an advance reader’s copy across the table, and we were discussing what a huge undertaking it had been to get this story between the covers of a book.

Releases 16 September 2014

Releases 16 September 2014

Through Amy, I’d met the irrepressible Frederick myself. I’d heard all about the best ways to communicate by phone with someone in Rwanda. (Forget Skype video, due to the sporadic Internet connection, but do use Skype minutes. Expect dropped calls. Every. Single. Time. That annoying static. And there’s the seven- to eight-hour time difference that must be allowed for.) I’d gotten all round-eyed over the speed at which Amy had gone from “I need to go to Rwanda” to “We’re [Amy, her husband, Dan, and their younger son, Ethan] going to Rwanda next week.” I’d seen the photographs of Amy’s trip to Rwanda, and heard her say she was changed by it.

But when a writing collaboration involves someone from Rwanda for whom English is a second language, and you don’t speak Kinyarwanda, there are deeper communication issues than static and dropped calls.

“Frederick’s English is very good, but I had to really work for the human aspect of the story,” Amy said. “When Frederick says ‘It made me feel bad,’ bad could mean sick, angry, or disappointed. I would listen to the whole story, ask a lot of dumb questions, explain it back to him, revise my understanding, and write, using context to construe his meanings.” Frederick’s business partner, Zacharie Dusingizimana, speaks a more formal English very well, so his help was indispensable.

There is an accent to contend with too. Imagine the last call you made to a customer service center; you may have spoken with someone whose English was good, but heavily accented. You have to pay really close attention; it can be trying. And consider that when Frederick is on the phone, he’s holding it (a flip phone) to his ear with his shoulder or the end of his arm, so sometimes the speech is muffled. Did I mention that Frederick has no hands?

You need to meet Frederick, friends. In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, a teenage Frederick lost both hands in a brutal act of terrorism. The boy knew that if he survived, the best he could ever be was a street beggar. That he lived, honestly, is a miracle.

But Frederick’s story isn’t really about the horrific things that happened to him or his arduous recovery; it’s about the extraordinary things he’s been doing since then. It’s about his yeses. With Zacharie, he founded and operates the Ubumwe Community Center—which includes a preschool and primary school—to help the disabled. Frederick calls them “people like me,” and there are more than five hundred of them at the UCC every day.

I’m so glad I read this book. Frederick is my son’s age, and his story touched my heart. I cried; I was inspired. Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope, releases tomorrow—on 16 September 2014.

* You don’t have to be building a career to find this book useful; these are good strategies for life, full stop.

 

Tweet: Strategy for success in your endeavors—Just Say Yes!
Tweet: My friend @AmyParker said yes to a book & and adventure. It led to this.
Tweet: Frederick’s story isn’t about the horrific things; it’s about the extraordinary things—his YES.
Tweet: AmyParker’s been working on this book 3 years. Here’s what she learned from saying yes.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, Books You Might Like | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Short Saturday: Yes, Editing Is Expensive

I’m an editor, and, yes, I am well aware I’ve given you a quote that probably made you stop breathing for a moment. (Or, usually, just not respond.) So I was delighted when I found this pair of articles from an editor I don’t know but really appreciate.

In “Why are book editors so expensive?” and “The other reason book editors are so expensive,” Belinda Pollard says there are two key misunderstandings about freelance editing:

1. Editing a book takes longer than people think.

2. The fee isn’t an editor’s salary.

Yes, it takes a long time to edit a book well. (Which is the only way I intend to do it. In my opinion, there are no shortcuts.) I read a manuscript twice before I start to write the notes. By the time I’ve finished the notes (this often takes me a week), I’ve usually read the manuscript a third time, and some parts of it many more than that.

Regarding the second point, I don’t generally like to discuss this, since it sounds like a complaint (and I don’t intend it to be)—but yes, for example, the entity who is paying my employer’s withholding taxes is, you know, me. The entity who contributes matching funds to my 401K retirement fund is me. The entity who provides my business equipment is, again, me. If you have a corporate job, your employer pays for these things.

Read these articles. Think about it. I’ll save my rant for another time. :)

Tweet: Why yes! Yes, editing IS expensive! What are time and expertise worth?
Tweet: What is your time worth? It takes a long time to edit a book well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , ,

Have You Read All These?

“My library was dukedom large enough …”
—The Tempest, act 1, scene 2 (Prospero)

Have you read all these? I used to hear that a lot from visitors when I was younger. Now I pretty much only hang out with other readers, who have no trouble believing that one person might actually have read as many books as they can see in my living room. I got an early start.

I am certain by now you understand I have … well, a book problem. Like Nick Hornby—who has, since 2003, been writing a monthly column for Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” which documents both books read and books purchased—I frequently buy more books than I can read. Or than I do read before I buy more.

This leads to the TBR (To Be Read) pile phenomenon. I’ve always had one. When I was young, it was small (maybe ten books). Now it’s probably a hundred books, and after reading this article (“In Defense of the TBR Pile”) at Bookriot, I am no longer ashamed to say so. I’ll get to them eventually. :)

I find these books—the TBRs—by reading book reviews, by browsing the bookstore, by talking with friends about books. Mostly by reading reviews—which includes reading books about books. No, really. Take those Nick Hornby columns: they’ve been collected into four (so far) books:

The Polysyllabic Spree (2004)
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006)
Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008)
More Baths Less Talking (2012)

I love Hornby anyway, but I truly enjoy these essays about books. And they’re not the only ones I own. I’m not talking about books about the writing life or author biographies or memoirs, though I’ve got those too. No, this is straight up nonfiction: books about books.* For example:

Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (Maurice Sendak)
Ex Libris (Anne Fadiman)
One for the Books (Joe Queenan)
Reading Diary, A (Alberto Manguel)
Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi)
Reading the World (Ann Morgan)
Shelf, The (Phyllis Rose)
84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)

My recent reading of Joe Queenan’s One for the Books added several to my “have a look at these” list.

So, yes, I have read all those books. And while I’m fond of my books, I wouldn’t call myself a collector. You’ll see hardbacks and paperbacks side by side on my shelves, and while on occasion I might delight in a particularly special book, a first edition, a signed copy, I’m just as happy with one I’ve read, enjoyed, and marked up. (Yes, I write in my books. This may upset some of you and please others.) I love those beat-up mass market paperbacks from my high school days, when that was all I could afford.

Hornby writes (in The Polysyllabic Spree),

Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on point. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature 29 times out of 30.

I don’t know … I’m pretty fond of Mozart. But I have been known to say that if I hold a book in one hand and the television remote in the other, the book wins every time. And reading books about books? Yes, it increases the TBR pile. And I’m OK with that.

Hey! Have you read all these?

Hey! Have you read all these?

*This is a significant category, it seems. Consider: Bibliotopia (Steven Gilbar); Book Lover, The (Ali Smith); Book Lust (Nancy Pearl); Gentle Madness, A (Nicholas Basbanes); Sixpence House (Paul Collins); Whole Five Feet, The (Christopher Beha) … and that’s just a sampling.

 

Tweet: Certainly you understand I have a book problem. I often buy more books than I can read.
Tweet: “My library was dukedom large enough …” Hey—have you read all these?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: ,

The Case for Procrastination

OK, not really. True procrastination is driven by fear; it accomplishes very little and sometimes makes things worse. But this is what I really mean: a few weeks ago I spent ninety minutes in my precious after-work hours on a blog post I ultimately decided I just couldn’t make work. I went to bed discouraged, thinking, What a waste! The next morning after some idle tea-sipping, I mentally stumbled on the hook that would make it work after all.

Because I wasn’t really idle, and I wasn’t procrastinating. I was thinking. (Annnnd drinking tea at the kitchen table and watching the birds at the feeder.) The problem with thinking, of course, is the activity isn’t visible. Sometimes others—bosses, spouses, Facebook friends—judge us, claim we’re procrastinating. Heck, sometimes we judge ourselves: not doing enough, not doing it fast enough, not crossing off everything on that to-do list.

Stop the madness, kids.

Here’s what might look like procrastination in my office: checking e-mail, looking in on Facebook, or sitting in front of a jigsaw puzzle. What they really are, though, are pressure valves. Editing (particularly copyediting) can be intense work; sometimes you just need to look away for a minute. Most of the time, a literal “look away”—from the document to TweetDeck, say—is enough. If you find a jigsaw puzzle on my dining room table, though, it’s a safe assumption that my stress level is very high.

Mistakes happen when you get so busy you don’t have time to think. And I don’t mean missing a comma or failing to see an important plot point or not crafting a perfect sentence. I mean things like sending a brusque e-mail that should have been softer, or interpreting a message from a business associate completely and utterly incorrectly (and, it follows, responding completely and utterly incorrectly).

It may look like procrastination when I delay writing that e-mail one more day (and if, in that day, the issue is settled without my having had to say anything, so much the better). It may look like procrastination when I delay firing off an e-mail answer (but after a cup of tea, a shower, or a good night’s rest I come up with a much better response).

It may look like procrastination, but I’ve learned that stepping away—from a project, a problem—is a good solution for me. A viable solution. Sometimes I just “hit a wall”; stepping away is mental health preservation. Sometimes I’m too stinkin’ busy with deadlines to deal; I’m prioritizing. And sometimes that thing I ignore resolves itself while I’m looking away.

So here’s how procrastination works if you’re in the writing pursuit. Or, at least, this is what it looks like for me. Creative work—no matter how rewarding or delightful or fun you find it—is intense. Hard work. You need downtime to process and prepare. (Julia Cameron calls this “filling the creative well.”)

I enjoy writing, and I look forward to the hours I’ve scheduled to do it. But if I find myself scrolling through my notes without actually writing, I stop. I’ve even found I end up with a better blog post if I write two-thirds of it, then come back and finish later. Or stop when I’m stuck, anyway, no matter how far along the piece is. If it’s not flowing, I just stop. Tomorrow (or later today) it will definitely flow; of that I have no doubt.

I think surrender is a key concept in the procrastination method of production. Too much forced-march forward motion—in writing, editing, e-mail answering, or anything else on your to-do list—too much intentionality can be counterproductive. And too much guilt for not pushing on right this minute is too.

Tomorrow really is another day. Think about it.

Note: For an interesting article about the thinking life, check out this podcast at Science Friday. And for a whole blog devoted to procrastination, see here.

 

Tweet: I wasn’t really idle, & I wasn’t really procrastinating. I was thinking.
Tweet: The case for procrastination: Mistakes happen when you get so busy there’s no time to think.
Tweet: The case for procrastination. As if you needed one. :)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged as: , ,

Short Saturday: Guys Read?

The guys I hang out with certainly do. But parents and teachers (and data) will tell you their boys don’t read much fiction. There are lots of theories about it, but kids’ author Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca)—a former teacher—was in Nashville recently for a signing at the Nashville Public Library, and had this to say about it:

As a parent, teacher, and author, I have assembled a great list, from actual live experience, of what not to do to engage a kid in reading:

• Do not tell them reading is magical 
or good for them
 or important 
or something they better do for an hour before bedtime or goddammit they will end up like shiftless Uncle Dave who is always asking to borrow money.

• Do not denigrate kids’ other activities—video games, texting, talking to friends, watching TV, sleeping … as stupid in comparison to reading.

• Do not insist they read “classics” because you had to.

• Do not refuse to get a book for them because it isn’t up to their reading level.

• Do not tell them (or me, or anyone) that they are “reluctant readers.”

(You can read the interview in the Parnassus Books blog here for what Scieszka thinks you should do. And you can read this for how it worked in my house.)

The Nashville Scene also interviewed Scieszka, and there’s plenty more about reading for boys (and about the Guys Read initiative) … but you writers will love this. Asked if he has to work harder to write humor (his specialty), the author noted:

I have a harder time not writing humor than writing humor. If people aren’t laughing, it makes me nervous. But contrary to what a lot of people think, it is not easy to write humor. It is the same kind of ditch-digging as writing anything. To make it really good you have to write and rewrite and rewrite some more.

I have been having all kinds of fun writing the Frank Einstein series. Robots, chimpanzee CFO, crazy inventions—but in the middle of Book 1, about the fourth or fifth or 28th rewrite, I realized again, like I always do, that writing is a very hard and very anti-social job. You have to hide yourself away, and get that story in your head down on paper. One. Word. At. A. Time. Excruciating!

One word at a time, friends. :)

Tweet: Do guys read? Parents & teachers (& data) will tell you boys don’t read much fiction.
Tweet: Kids’ author Jon Scieszka has some thoughts about getting boys to read more.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , , , , ,

The Androgynous Mind (Gender in Fiction 4/4)

When I started looking into the issues of gender—specifically women—in the publishing industry, I was blissfully serene about them. Which is to say, I thought we were past all that. I’m of the generation of women who can remember a time when Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver (pearls and a dress, mopping the floor!) were what we thought we’d aspire to. When I was in high school, the McDonald’s across the street only hired boys to flip hamburgers; when I was a young married woman working in a bank, I was asked to train a young married man who, it turned out, made significantly more money than me, although I’d been with the bank for three years, and he’d just started. When I complained to management, the (male) boss told me the reason for the disparity was … this guy had a wife to support. (I’m still a bit shocked as I write this.)

Well.

I’m older now, and the world has changed a lot. One can get lulled by that and even, with one’s diminishing reserves of energy, can overlook some things because one knows nothing happens fast. Particularly change. Particularly in the publishing industry. :)

But dagnabbit, those VIDA Count numbers are damning, aren’t they!

And at the same time I was really looking at VIDA and thinking Yeeeeeah, that’s … not good, I was reading The Shelf, Phyllis Rose’s marvelous book about, well, books. She has an entire chapter she’s called “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege.”

Let’s go back to the fundamental question of women and literary achievement, the question Virginia Woolf raised in A Room of One’s Own. What conditions are necessary for women to produce great literary work? Woolf’s answer was, to begin with, down-to-earth, practical, material. Women need an income and time and space to themselves in order to write—metaphorically, five hundred pounds a year income and rooms of their own. When Woolf was writing, in 1927, married [English]women had only had the right to own property since the year of her birth [1882]. So women, as a class, were poor, and Woolf believed that their poverty affected their creative power in subtle as well as obvious ways. For one thing, they were not educated as well as men. If they were lucky, they might attend the women’s college at Oxford or one of the two women’s colleges at Cambridge that existed at that time. But even there they would see, from the austerity of their own surroundings and the splendor of the men’s colleges, what relative value their society put on their minds and the minds of their brothers. This, in turn, would affect their self-confidence, and more than anything else except talent, self-confidence is what an artist requires, a belief that what you have to say, or the vision of the world that you feel it in yourself to convey, is important.* (Emphasis mine.)

Woolf recognized and accepted that she was who she was because she was a woman. But Rose goes on,

She hadn’t been allowed to have the wide experience of a Tolstoy. But even more important than the experience was the ability to transcend anger [about gender injustice]. She called this state “the androgynous mind” and saw it as a state of consciousness in which all of the artist’s sense of his or her own individuality was burned away.*

This passage made me sit up in bed. Yes! I’m not a novelist, I’m not an artist, but when I read, it’s with that androgynous mind—and I think that’s why I’ve been so oblivious to the idea that there is, still, a gender divide in the way books reach the marketplace and who reads them once they’re there.

The thing is, it’s maddening, but I don’t have the energy to carry this torch of anger about the way women are thought of as somehow less. I know I’m not (less). Partly because of the people who raised me, partly because of the men I’ve known, partly because I’m just tough and stubborn.

So I’m going to let author Joanne Harris (Chocolat) be angry (in her blog post “Capitalize This”—and you should read the whole thing), and tell you why you—man or woman—should be too (language warning):

So, why am I dwelling on this? Well, I think it’s the tip of an iceberg—an iceberg we glimpse so often that we tend to forget it’s even there; a great big iceberg of sexism within the whole book industry, which stealthily perpetuates the belief that no woman writer can ever really be successful without having somehow copied from, used or otherwise capitalized upon the popularity of a man. …

I can’t even remember all the crazy, sexist assumptions that have been made (and voiced) about me during my career as a writer. Here are just a few of them:

      My husband supported me financially while I was starting out. (He didn’t. We both had jobs.)

      My husband secretly writes my books. (Oh, for fuck’s sake.)

      My media, university or Hollywood connections helped me start off. (They didn’t. I don’t have any.)

      I’m sleeping with my agent/editor. (One is gay, the other female. And no, I’m really not.)

      I’m desperate to make more movies, to boost my writing career. (Nope. Much as I like movies, I’ve never needed a leg-up from Hollywood. That’s why I keep turning down offers.)

      I only write for women. Because, you know—vagina. (Nope. I write for anyone with a pulse.)

We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women. Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a list like Harris’s. Academic, critic, and feminist author Joanna Russ, in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, pointed out that successful women authors hear …

• She didn’t write it. (Her husband or lover did, of course.)

• She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (Because it’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist. In short, unwomanly.)

• She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!)

• She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eye, poor dear, that’s all she ever …”)

• She wrote it, but … it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book, sci-fi.)

• She wrote it, but she had help. (You know, Robert Browning, Branwell Brontë.)

• She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf, with Leonard’s help …)**

It’s hard not to be angry when you see it all laid out like this, isn’t it! Yes, Meg Wolitzer should be angry, Joanne Harris should be angry. We all should be—even you guys. So put on your androgynous mind. Because you are missing out on a lot of great books.

* I transcribed this from page 100 and 102 of the hardcover first edition of The Shelf, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

** I adapted this from the 1983 cover of Russ’s book, which you can see here.

 

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Tweet: Gender issues in the publishing industry: I thought we were past all that.
Tweet: There is still a gender divide in the way books reach the marketplace & who reads them.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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It’s Hard to Catch Up When You Start Out Behind (Gender in Fiction 3/4)

I’m still grappling with gender issues in fiction. You’ll have seen I hadn’t even thought about the fact that there was a gender divide until I discovered in a personal way that many men don’t read women authors … perhaps because of a perception that women authors write “women’s fiction,” which seems to mean different things to different people. It’s a many-tentacled beast, this topic.

It is also, shall we say, fraught. (Adjective: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension; uneasy.) It might be easy for some to shrug off the commentary … if it weren’t for that pesky VIDA Count, which annually highlights the literary gender imbalance in the top literary magazines:

The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, Paris Review, and The Nation (2011 Count only) are widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues. Publication in these magazines and journals furthers the careers of writers by bolstering applications for grants, residencies, employment (academic and otherwise), graduate programs, awards, and more. Winning/earning/receiving these types of honors affords writers the time and resources needed to continue/advance their careers.

This is according to VIDA’s FAQs. Poke around the site and you’ll see the appalling numbers, year after year (here’s 2012).

Numbers don’t lie. And when a woman looks down the table of contents in the New York Review of Books—a list of book reviewers and critics—and sees twenty-six men and just one woman reviewer … what’s she supposed to think? Particularly when only one book written by a woman is reviewed by those twenty-six men. Author Jane Vandenburgh was outraged, and, frankly, so am I.

I mean, again, how can we expect male readers of literary fiction to even know female authors exist if they’re not being reviewed in the important literary outlets?

One might say, Well, no wonder …!

Then again, one might say, Dude, what the heck?

In spite of the fact that women buy more books than men in this country—you can check out Bowker’s Annual Review at the library, but I’ll reduce it to this: women represent 60 percent of book buyers, 65 percent of units (books) sold, and 58 percent of dollars spent on books in 2011, and those numbers are little changed in 2012 and ’13—Slate points out, “men still dominate the major outlets as tastemakers, reviewers, and authors whose works are deemed worthy of review.”

The UK book world also suffers from “a sharp divide along gender lines,” which you can see in this infographic. Speaking about male authors, the Guardian says,

At the [London Review of Books] last year 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed (58 out of 221); at the New York Review of Books 21% of 254 reviews were by women, 17 of 92 authors reviewed were female and 13% of 152 articles were by women. Of 1,163 reviews in the [Times Literary Supplement] in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women.

So even though women are buying more books, they’re being exposed to significantly more male authors than female authors.*

How does this happen? Women read more … but …

Hold that thought.

I’m an agnostic when it comes to gender in fiction, as you now know. I choose books by my interests; I read reviews from a broad range of sources (mine are a little more populist—I see Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Time, even People magazine regularly, though I do seek out reviews on the NYT as well), listen to recommendations from friends (both men and women), and choose what appeals to me. In recent years I’ve been blogging about my favorite book from all the titles I read in a given year, and back in January I announced my favorite for 2013 was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The previous year it was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It tends to work out pretty close to fifty-fifty, just by happenstance.

But I’m a woman, and it’s men we’re talking about. It seems some choose their fiction—consciously or unconsciously—based on the gender of the author, excluding female authors. Still, I’d be willing to wager there are plenty of men who read women authors—and, in fact, so would Slate magazine, in this sassy article from last year, which points out that Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were read by men in great numbers (Agatha Christie, too, for that matter), although I am tempted to say, you know, That was then, this is now. So let’s not get lost in the past—I think Gone Girl has been read by quite a few men. Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies), The Goldfinch. But this is a short list. Can you name other contemporary female-penned novels men have been reading? I have no data but I suspect that Goodnight Moon is as beloved by boys of a certain age as it is by girls. My editor friend from across the pond, Robert Doran, suggests there are plenty of boys who’ve read Enid Blyton, whose books for children are still best sellers, though they were written in the 1930s into the 1960s.

This was my thesis when I started out—sort of a surely-you’re-joking-guys reaction. But we’ve seen, now, that many men just won’t choose books by women. Why?

What if it’s just that many of the books that appeal to men’s interests just happen to be written by men? That would make sense, right? (But actually, it’s more than this. I’ve had several men—men I respect, love, think well of—tell me they don’t like “being in a woman’s head” in the case of female protagonists, and that male protagonists written by women don’t ring true to them. Which makes me feel a little stupid, since I can think of only once instance in which a woman written by a man felt “off” to me.)

So what if it’s more what society teaches little boys (and little girls) early in life, rather than boys per se? Doran thinks it runs pretty deep:

If society continues to see the female gender ‘role’ as weaker and desirable only insofar as it can be dominated and owned (strong terms, I know, but we certainly aren’t in a place where femininity is valued in the same way as masculinity, or seen to be as useful and productive), and if boys, naturally and through conditioning, want to be strong and powerful, why would they want to associate themselves with a female perspective? I think many men and boys unconsciously feel the weight of this societal influence even as they choose a book.

Some parents try very hard to avoid planting biases in their children, of course. There is even a discussion in the UK to move away from gender-specific children’s books, as reported by Publishing Perspectives:

A petition calling on children’s publishers to “stop labeling books, in the title or on the packaging, as for girls or for boys” because “telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest,” has received more than 3,000 signatures.

This is interesting, I think, because by the time those boys are in school, at least in the States, the attitude changes:

Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus.”

It’s because by then it seems boys are starting to lose interest in reading fiction. So many other forms of entertainment compete for their attention. Publishing journalist Porter Anderson notes,

Every time you say “Oh, guys don’t read,” you can hear the books in boys’ hands snapping shut. These guys will fulfill your assumption if you even hint that reading may not be “manly.” Be careful what you say.

So perhaps the question isn’t why don’t boys/men read women, but why don’t they read, full stop. And how do we turn that around?

I believe the answer is the same as it always was: If your children see you reading a book, they will want to copy that behavior. If you make books available, they will pick them up, sooner or later. As I’ve noted in another post, although I read while I was nursing him and every moment I got after that, too, the Boy wasn’t interested in reading … until he was. And after he finished working his way through the Michael Crichton canon, he worked his way through Mary Stewart’s Merlin series.

Children whose parents modeled reading for them tend to grow up with a reading habit. Now if the stodgy ol’ literary establishment will admit to itself and to us readers that women write some damned fine books,** we’ll be at the races.

* There is another aspect of bringing books to the public’s attention that we might consider: the buyer—the person who decides which titles a store will stock. Unlike reviewers, buyers—often the store owners—do know who is buying books and are aware of her tastes. The buyer shapes store inventory. In an email conversation with me, Doran noted: “Buyers are considered industry tastemakers. They have the power to create presence and to react to or ignore review coverage and other publicity. They are much more focused on the woman with a dollar in her pocket than the reviewers are and ultimately their power is comparable.” The problem being, of course, that with fewer and fewer physical bookstore, there are fewer and fewer book buyers to wield influence.

 

** Some damned fine women authors (fiction) that men should read (this is just a start; I could go on):

Isabel Allende                                     Maile Meloy
Kate Atkinson                                     Alice Munro
Margaret Atwood                              Joyce Carol Oates
Emily and Charlotte Brontë             Flannery O’Connor
Geraldine Brooks                               Ann Patchett
A. S. Byatt                                           Louise Penny
Louise Erdrich                                    Marilynne Robinson
Kaye Gibbons                                       Lionel Shriver
Ellen Gilchrist                                   Lee Smith
Nadine Gordimer                                Muriel Spark
Barbara Kingsolver                           Donna Tartt
Jhumpa Lahiri                                     Anne Tyler
Doris Lessing                                      Eudora Welty
Hilary Mantel                                    Virginia Woolf
Alice McDermott                               Meg Wolitzer

 

Tweet: It’s Hard to Catch Up When You Start Out Behind (Gender in Fiction 3/4)
Tweet: Gender disparity in the literary world? See the VIDA Count. Numbers don’t lie.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Short Saturday: Jonathan Franzen and Oprah, in Retrospect

I’d completely misunderstood the brouhaha about The Corrections being selected for Oprah’s Book Club until I read this passage in The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose, and since we’ve been talking about this (and will continue to, next week), I thought I’d bring it to your attention:

In 2001 Jonathan Franzen published The Corrections, a great novel—great in every sense of the word, big and capacious—and, in what has become a notorious sequence of events, Oprah Winfrey, who was still doing her immensely powerful daily TV talk show, chose it for her book club. Selection by Oprah’s Book Club, with its coveted O logo on the cover of a jacket, meant an extra print run and possible sale of a half million copies. It offered, too, an appearance on her show and the chance to be interviewed by her gracious and intelligent self, a massive bookselling opportunity. Oprah was at that time the heroine of the publishing industry, its savior, some said, who used her own media time to sell books. How could you not love what she was doing? But she was selling literature to an audience almost exclusively of women. And that made Franzen nervous. He did not want to be identified as a writer of domestic fiction, a women’s writer. Although his novel concerned an American family and the tensions between the old-fashioned midwestern parents and their sophisticated yuppie children, classic matter for domestic fiction, he worried about being penned into the lesser category rather than vaulted into the greater one of serious literary fiction. … Understandably, Franzen didn’t want his book narrowed in its appeal. Women routinely anguish over the same thing, but there is little they can do about it. Every woman who writes, as Joyce Carol Oates has said, thinks of herself as a writer but is thought of by others as a woman writer.*

Honestly, I can’t say that I blame him, now that I’ve looked at it in this way. (Rose refers to an interview Franzen did with NPR’s Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air, in which he expresses his discomfort with the Oprah association. You can read an overview and listen to it here.)

You’ll notice also that Rose uses the term domestic fiction. The type of fiction she’s referring to is what I’ve recently identified as women’s fiction, but I like domestic fiction because it eliminates the confusion I referred to in my last post (“Is Women’s Fiction a Dirty Word?”).

So that’s it. Just a little more for you to chew on. I’ll see you next week for more on this subject. (Oh, one last thing: I loved loved loved The Corrections.)

* Transcribed from pages 104–105 of the hardcover first edition of The Shelf, published by Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2014.

 

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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