Read Harder 2017

::dusts off blog, again::

::coughs as dust fills the air::

It’s been a while, Interwebs! Long story short, my partner and I expanded our family last year (baby, not dog). Six months later, we moved to a new city and I switched jobs–really, switched careers. Reading for pleasure sort of dropped to the bottom of my to-do list. I managed to finish the latest Kate Daniels* novel, but there is a very sad pile of abandoned, expired library loans in my Kindle account.

So I am doing two things to rekindle my love of reading. The first is coming back here. The second is tackling the Read Harder 2017 challenge.

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What’s so good about bad books?

Last week I found myself contemplating the world of Kindle publishing via two very different sources. The first was the astonishing Tumblr Kindle Cover Disasters, which you should all visit as soon as you get home from work, since I guarantee you will laugh out loud at a pitch and volume that makes it clear you’re not getting any work done. (Hats off, Max Wood. Hats off.)

The second was a Slate article by Katy Waldeman titled “Which Bad Novel is Perfect for You?”  Waldeman’s piece focused on the Kindle Scout program, which allows Amazon buyers to vote for their favorite 5,000 word excerpts of unpublished novels. Amazon then considers the top vote-getters for publication.

Waldeman argues that the Kindle Scout program is practically designed to select and publish a specific type of books: namely, bad books. Books that

sail across that fine line between being pleasurable despite their badness and being pleasurable because of their badness. … If a guilty pleasure is an occasional, delicious bag of potato chips, these books are a nacho tower fluorescent with cheap cheese, unappetizing, weirdly compelling, “so bad it’s good.” You don’t feel guilty enjoying it in spite of its flaws. Rather, you feel some mix of superior and delighted as you devour it on account of its flaws.

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Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Like most devoted readers of fantasy, I was stunned and saddened to learn that Terry Pratchett passed away last week at the age of 66. Pratchett always seemed to be one of those authors who would be just as delightful in person as he was through the pages of his books. To quote many other Pratchett fans, how could you not admire someone who wore this t-shirt to conventions? (See right.)

Others have already written much more eloquently than I could about Pratchett’s extraordinary literary output, the incisive wit of his writing, and the way he used the mad Discworld to make our own world seem equally ridiculous and magical in turn. But I spent much of last week re-reading Discworld favorites and looking up favorite Pratchett quotes, and I couldn’t resist sharing some of them here in celebration of an author whose voice I already miss.

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Books you savor/Authors and fans

Another week without a review! I feel like a terrible slacker, but I have a slight excuse. I’ve been slowly savoring not one but two excellent books: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m a quick reader by nature, but these two books are rich and complicated enough that I have to take them slow. Scratch that. I want to read them slowly, to put the book down and know I’ll have more to read tomorrow.

Since I’m not writing a review, why don’t I write about author-related social media drama instead? I follow author John Scalzi on Twitter, and today I saw this pop up on my feed:

Obviously I had to learn the backstory behind that incomprehensible yet awesome piece of Twitfic. It turns out that there’s a scavenger hunt called GISHWHES running right now, and one of the tasks is to get a published sci-fi author to write the team a 140-word story about the actor Misha Collins, Queen Elizabeth, and something called an Elopus. And some of these hunters have not been very polite when turned down.

Huh. A couple of thoughts. First, I’m guessing the hunt is done in the spirit of good fun and camaraderie, but it seems like the organizers didn’t think some of their tasks through. (Apparently people are also begging @NASA for mentions and have asked @NeilHimself for both a short story and to do a dramatized reading of Canadian DMV rules.*) Writers, from what I understand, are in fact real people, who have families and mortgages and editors yelling at them for copies of their latest drafts. This scavenger hunt ended up siccing dozens of (or, in Scalzi’s case, over a thousand) people on every famous and semi-famous sci-fi author with a Twitter account or a blog, all begging for them to do extra work for free. Assigning a task that requires other people to do extra work for free seems like kind of a jerk move, IMO.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s “just good fun,” “they don’t have to do it,” “they’re lucky to be so popular,” “Famous Author X didn’t mind,” etc. I’m not swayed. I’m going to guess most authors find it more annoying than fun.

Twitter creates an interesting sense of immediacy between authors and their fans — one that still takes me by surprise sometimes. (Did I mention that Cherie Priest re-tweeted my review of Boneshaker? I’m still kind of gobsmacked!) The ugly flip side of that interaction is that sometimes fans act as if they own the author — as if the author, by virtue of being on social media, becomes someone who owes them favors.

And you know what? Authors don’t owe readers a damn thing. Well, OK, they owe us something under one condition. When I pay money for a book by John Scalzi, or Ilona Andrews, or Donna Tartt, I am owed the book that I paid money for. I am not owed a sequel to that book, or a better ending if I didn’t like the book, or a short story for a scavenger hunt, or answers for a class assignment that asks me to interview an author.**

In short: if you decide Neil Gaiman is a jerk for not filming himself reading from the Canadian DMV rules, and you are therefore not going to read his next book, it’s your loss. Also, maybe be extra-polite when asking strangers for a favor. Just a thought.

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* As someone who had to get a Canadian driver’s license I think this is a horrible scavenger hunt task. I found the Canadian DMV so Kafkaesque that I sincerely believe reading aloud from its rules might turn your favorite celebrity into a giant roach.

** Fellow teachers: No. Just no. It is deeply uncool of us to assign things like this. We can assign students to interview their parents or a friend, or an expert we’ve acquired prior permission from. No making students bother people unrelated to the student or the class, especially if you know that 120 out of your 125 students are immediately going to go bug the same person.

Checking out Kobo

I’m behind on my reading, in part because I’ve once again immersed myself in The Goldfinch, in part because I’m still on track to finish my Nanowrimo “novel.”* But tomorrow something very important happens: the new Kate Daniels book will be available for sale, and I need to figure out how to buy it.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I’m increasingly uneasy putting so much of my book-buying money into the Kindle format. I love e-readers and I can’t imagine my life without one. But essentially what you’re buying from Amazon is the right to lease a digital copy from them. If Amazon decides you’re violating their terms of use, they are within their rights to lock your account and delete all of your purchases.

Yeah. Not awesome.

But it turns out Amazon isn’t our only option, even if you adore your Kindle and have too many Kindle books to switch formats right now.

My local bookstore has partnered with Kobo, an ebook retailer. Sign up through your bookseller, buy through the Kobo website, and your local bookstore gets a cut. (I’m guessing it’s a tiny cut, but it’s there.) A lot of the books it sells are in DRM-free EPub format, which you can easily convert to Kindle-friendly MOBI using the free Calibre program. I tried this out on a Cherie Priest short story, “Tanglefoot,” and it worked like a charm. Witness my success:

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The bad news? Kobo also sells a lot of books as Adobe DRM EPubs, which are emphatically not easy to convert to a Kindle-friendly format and come with the same limitations as the Kindle format. Worse, the website doesn’t seem to tell you which format you’re buying until you’ve paid for it and it’s in your library, which is sneaky at best. Also, a lot of the books Kobo sells are $2-5 more expensive than their Kindle counterparts.

So, alas, Kobo isn’t a magic bullet for those of us looking to break free(ish) of Amazon’s clutches, and I’ll probably be buying the new Kate Daniels via Amazon (sigh). But if Kobo made it possible to see which format you’re buying before you pay for it, I think I would spend a lot more of my ebook money there. I would also advise anyone buying their first eReader to seriously consider one of Kobo’s devices, which seem to be comparable in price and quality to the Kindle.

Has anyone else tried out Kobo, or another non-Amazon ebook retailer?

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* Other possible terms for this work: “novella,” “very very very rough draft,” and “weird lumpy story-thing with plot holes big enough to drive a tank through.”

The best terrible writing advice you will ever receive

I first heard about Nanowrimo (National Novel Writer’s Month) back in 2005, when a friend of mine decided to tackle the challenge. As someone who always secretly believed that maybe she might have a hidden talent for fiction writing, I was intrigued and wanted to try it too. Alas, it was held in November, quite possibly the worst month on the academic calendar, a month of midterms and paper deadlines and other things that make it impossible to write 1,667 words per day just for kicks.*

Then a couple of years ago, I found out about Camp Nanowrimo, which brings together people who want to write during a summer month. This July I’m giving it a shot.

How’s it going? Well,  I changed the year in which the story was set around word 5,000; I realized my plot had a fundamental problem at around word 10,000; then I changed my protagonist’s name around word 15,000. Also, everything I’ve written is probably garbage. But I’m still on track to finish! So, you know, good. Good-ish. Almost good.

In the middle of all of this I discovered my new favorite Twitter feed @WorstMuse, which you should all follow immediately if you’re on Twitter. Here is some of my favorite @WorstMuse writing advice.

Naturally, I was inspired to come up with some more bad writing advice, such as:

  • Make sure everyone in the book falls in love with your protagonist. Otherwise, the reader won’t know s/he is desirable.
  • Remember, it is super-romantic when a male protagonist follows his love interest around even when she tells him to leave her alone. Chicks love that!
  • Metaphors are like Oreo cookies covered in solid gold: you need them in every sentence.

Any other terrible writing advice you’d like to give me as I slog forward into the second half of July?

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* Why didn’t I just decide to write my own 50,000-word novel some other month? … um. I’ll get back to you on that.

Bookshame!

Funny story. There I was, sitting on a review of Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars and wondering if I should pull it out of respect for upsetting current events (it’s set at a Catholic home for unwed mothers). But along came this article in Slate and the resulting Twitterstorm around it, and I just had to postpone the Patchett review in order to hear your reactions.

Here were my first two thoughts on reading Ruth Graham’s “Against YA: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” (And for once, the title isn’t just obnoxious Slate linkbait. Here’s a quote from the article itself: “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”)

1. Huh?

Seriously, huh? Why does it matter if adults are reading YA books? Why should that be a source of embarrassment or shame? Shame is something one should experience when one engages in behavior that hurts other people or damages society, like denting someone’s car and not leaving a note, or voting for David Duke. What social harm results from adults reading the Harry Potter books or Anne of Green Gables?

I should admit that I am not a big YA reader — The Fault in Our Stars, for example, doesn’t really interest me. And I often relish those messy adult novels with unlikeable protagonists and ambiguous endings (exhibit A: The Patron Saint of Liars, which I loved). But I would never turn my nose up at a book just because it was written for teenagers. And frankly, there are some YA books that I think would do many adults some good to read. The Hunger Games, in my opinion, is not only an action-packed YA novel but a sharp critique of the idea that awful things can be justified by their entertainment value. (Which is basically the point Graham is trying to make, much less effectively and with a very weird target in her crosshairs.)

Graham argues that adults who read YA books are unambitious and lazy in their reading choices, that they are rejecting the complexities of the adult world to return to the immature, black-and-white world of teenagers, where teen romance is Life Or Death and everything is supposed to have a tidy ending. So what if they are? The devoted adult YA readers that I know often have demanding, complicated jobs that give them a healthy dose (and then some) of the complex and messy adult world on a daily basis. Why should they be embarrassed to spend their free time in a world where life is a bit simpler and stories have satisfying resolutions?

And that leaves aside the obvious criticism, which is that the notion that you’re either reading YA books or you’re reading Serious Fiction is complete nonsense. A healthy reading diet leaves room for a lot of genres. I, for example, am reading and loving The Goldfinch, but I just picked up the first Parasol Protectorate book to give myself a breather from the intense wonder that is Donna Tartt.

2. How does one criticize YA novels without coming across as an anti-YA snob? / Should I stop snarking on Twilight?

In the Twitter discussion of Graham’s article (and another, much better article by Linda Holmes about young female readers), I noticed a number of YA fans and authors mention that they’re sick of seeing people beat up on Twilight. Many of them feel that most of the vitriol stems from the fact that Twilight was a) written by a woman, and b) is beloved by mostly women and teen girls.

And I have to say I don’t disagree. I’ve heard way too many people categorize Twilight as “crap written for teenage girls” to dismiss the idea that there’s some misogyny behind some readers’ rejection of Twilight.

That led me to some soul-searching. I really, really, really did not like Twilight because I thought the story was boring, the writing was awkward, and the gender dynamics were problematic. I snark on Twilight a fair amount, sometimes for the prose, sometimes for containing lame sparkly vampires, sometimes for basically being a novelized version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinions about women. The Twitterstorm made me pause and consider my snark. I think my disdain is based on legitimate objections to the book itself (I only read the first one), not on a snotty assumption that if teenage girls like it, it must suck. But do I really need to belittle something millions of teenage girls love every time vampires come up?

On the other hand, is it really so terrible to mock a book that I think contains objectionable gender stereotypes?

So. Reactions to Graham, or to my thoughts on YA? Hit me up in the comments!