Monday, September 26, 2011

So-Called "Banned Books" in the U.S. Are Actually a Sign of Freedom

Real book banning, Berlin, 1933
Seventy-eight years ago, in 1933, Josef Goebbels presided over the burning of over twenty thousand books in Berlin's Opernplatz, saying, "....The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is at an end."

In 1559 the Roman Catholic Church issued its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, to protect the faithful by preventing them from reading works with moral and theological errors.

In 1557 the English Crown stemmed dissent by chartering the Stationer's Company—a printer's guild with control over copyright, the ability to restrict the number of presses, and the right to seize books that violated the standards of content set by the church and the state.

The current Iranian government limits or suppresses entirely the publication of content related to women's rights, democracy, freedom of speech, and pornography, among other topics.

These are all examples of true book banning. What we have in the United States is not the same thing. The only books I can think of that are banned, in the legal sense of the word and by our government, are publications containing child pornography.

What we do have in the U.S. are individual institutions (both public and private) that refuse to carry books they don't think are appropriate for their students or customers. We have middle schools and high schools that don't want to teach particular books or own copies in their libraries. We have Christian bookstores that refuse to stock fantasy or anything that smacks of witchcraft. We have thoughtful parents who have read and are offended by certain books petitioning their schools not to buy them, and we have narrow-minded, careless parents who've never even read the books making willy-nilly lists of things they don't want their children to see. Whether or not you or I agree with any particular choice these institutions have made, and whether or not all those parents and school boards are in fact misguided, they're rightfully exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of association. In America, we have a constitutional right to be meatheads.

In France, there is a central curriculum in schools, set by the state. Everyone follows precisely the same course of studies, devised by the French Ministry of National Education. Every student reads the same books, selected by the government. Vraiment ridicule. In the U.S., local school districts have freedom to create their own curriculum. They also have the right not to teach whatever they want. Parents have the right to petition for or against books.

So let's not get all hot under the collar about the challenging of children's and young-adult books in this country. Let's celebrate it. I say this because every example I've read about during this book-banning week is not a case of true banning or censorship. Every case is paradoxically an example of freedom—of speech, of association, of local educational autonomy. These are all good things in the grand scheme of liberty, which I personally hold dearer than some random Missouri school district's quarantined copies of Slaughterhouse Five.

The rest of us should exercise our freedom of speech by supporting the so-called "banned" books that we love. I'll do my part right here: Slaughterhouse Five is an astounding example of literary form beautifully serving function, and I think every teen should read it if only to make an emotional connection to the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

(Thanks to Travis Jonker for causing me to think about this topic by linking to an article by Jonah Goldber in the National Review.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Books I Haven't Read #2: Anne of Green Gables

Japanese people know more about Anne than I do. "Akage No Anne" (Red-Haired Anne) is way popular there.

I am the least well-read, supposedly-literary person I know. I love books and I hate them. I love them when I've found one that engrosses me so deeply that I resent the real world when it intrudes ("get your own damn dinner"). I hate them because they make me feel guilty that I haven't read enough.

With the exception of Jane Austen's entire oeuvre, I've completely given up on adult classics that I should have (but haven't) read. Those books are frankly never going to happen in my life, because I only read middle-grade and young-adult books now. So if you want to talk to me about Anna Karenina, it had better be the BBC (2000) version, and if you want to chat about Catch-22 I'd be happy to tell you how much I liked Alan Arkin's performance as Captain Yossarian. Everything I know about Heart of Darkness I learned from Apocalypse Now. Rufus Sewell is Will Ladislaw for me (this is not a bad thing, on second thought).

But even though I read MG and YA exclusively, there are so many books I've missed—and I am such a slow reader—that I will probably never catch up on many important classics. And this leads to my shame as a children's writer; nay, as a human being. What other woman my age has never read a single Nancy Drew mystery, Little House on the Prairie, or Little Women? What is wrong with me?

The book I want to confess about today is Anne of Green Gables. I haven't read it and I'm sure I never will. My editor will be disappointed to hear this, since she recently made a pilgrimage to Green Gables Heritage Place on Prince Edward Island. My impediment is professional, however: I have a sneaking suspicion that the book is dated, which means it's of limited value to my own work and can't earn a precious slot on my night table or Kindle. At this stage in my life I only have time to read books that will inform my writing. And "this stage in my life," which is the cram-thirty-hours-of-activity-into-twenty-four-hours-every-day stage, is more of a personality trait than a life-cycle thing, so I suspect it will last until I die.

What do I know about Anne, without having read her? Precious little, and maybe exactly enough. She was an orphan. The couple who adopted her thought they were buying—excuse me, "adopting"—a boy to help with farm chores, but Anne was sent to them by accident. Anne endeared herself to them and got to stay. All sorts of old-fashioned, one-room-schoolhouse hijinks ensued. She acquired a bunch of friends, and suffered no signs of stress disorders from being an orphan. I suspect there's no real story arc or plot, other than a series of little happenings (schoolwork, chores, maybe a party or fair) and wholesome personal misunderstandings that get resolved through Anne's strong, bright personality.

How did I do? Aw never mind, don't tell me. I don't want to feel like I have to read the book.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why Does Every Writing Day Start with Choking?

No choking allowed.

Earnest Hemingway had a clever trick to keep his writing momentum strong from day to day. In the evening he would stop writing when he was, in his own words, "going good." That is, he'd leave off work while he still knew what he wanted to say—while he still had the feeling of being on a roll. And then he wouldn't think about the piece again until he sat down the next day. He was convinced that his subconscious worked on the story while he was deliberately not thinking about it overnight. Roald Dahl adopted this technique from him, saying, "I never come back to a blank page. I always finish about halfway through."

I've tried this method and it works...but oddly, only to a certain degree.

With Monstrous Beauty I had a complete outline to work from before I ever sat down to write. This in itself is a rare and wonderful thing for curing writer's block: when you have a detailed outline, you know exactly what to write every single day, which is one of the hardest parts of writing. Scratch's the hardest part of writing.

Having that outline was a gift. But it wasn't, as I had hoped it would be, a cure-all. I found that some days I was on auto-pilot, cranking out what the outline expected of me that day, and the result was stiff and wooden and sounded just like, well, a poorly padded outline. There were passages that were chores, that didn't move me, but I had to write them anyway because in order to get from A to C you have to have B, right? Incidentally, those uninspired sections required many more passes later to make them pretty, which killed some of the time I saved by having the outline in the first place. But the worst part was that even with a daily plan, I still began every single morning by doubting myself. The doubt wasn't fully formed or verbalized, rather it was a primal sort of fear. A "fight or flight" response that usually caused me to "fly" to e-mail and facebook for an hour of miserable wheel-spinning, rather than tackle the manuscript. And all this in spite of the fact that I knew what to write.

So even though I thought having an outline ought to be the same thing as Hemingway's "going good," somehow it wasn't, exactly.

For my current manuscript I have a rough outline, but there are gaping holes and I'm mostly writing by the seat of my pants. Even on days when I'm writing well—writing lyrically, moved by the action, in love with my characters—and I leave off "going good," I find that I still almost always start the next morning with a clutch, a choke, a moment of irrational fear. I have no idea what it's about. It's instinctive, more than intellectual: a paralyzing fear of failure. I should be eager and raring to finish yesterday's successful task, but instead I feel constricted; I feel the way I did in college during an agonizingly close tennis match when I double-faulted the last point of the third set and lost. I knew as I tossed the ball for my first and then my second serve that I was not going to perform effectively on that critical point, and I fulfilled my own prophecy with doubt.

That was the last time I double-faulted a match away: after that I spent months perfecting the Chris Evert Cool. I taught myself to concentrate on each point without berating myself for past points. I wasted no energy on emotion, saving it all for performance. It's a behavior that you can groom through practice and repetition in sports. If you fall off the wagon, you develop tricks to get your mind back in the game. (One is to concentrate so hard on the ball that you see the brand stamped on it with each shot.)

So why can't I develop a toolbox to deal with the Prose Clutch? Typing through the fear each morning eventually loosens the emotional knot. But I white-knuckle it for that first hour every day and I've usually already wasted too much time on my G-reader by then. It's disconcerting to me that the fear is there even when it shouldn't be. It's frustrating that I can't master my own writing nerves, the way I've mastered my tennis nerves. It's part of what makes writing such a cerebral endeavor, such a constant challenge. It's one of the things that makes me realize I'm still learning how to play this game.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: Eddie's War by Carol Fisher Saller

It's Random Acts of Publicity Week! Which means it's time for me to tell you about this gem from a new publisher; a book you probably haven't heard of but YOU MUSTN'T MISS.

Eddie's War (namelos, 2011) is a beautiful little thing. There is no other way to describe it.

It's the story of a boy, his family, and his small Illinois town in the years leading up to America's involvement in World War II. It's Eddie's story: he ripens like a summer peach before our eyes, from a preschooler clambering onto a chair in the public library to "read" newspapers, to a sensitive teen who grapples with the complexities of war, intensely personal family problems, and first love. But each of the characters in this spare novel is fleshed out—with so little text it's an enviable literary feat—until each of their stories unfolds inside his story. Anyone who lives in a small town knows the intimacy between neighbors and friends (ranging from invasive to astonishingly generous), and in Eddie's town of Ellisville we readers are privy to that intimacy as if we're part of the town. The smallest gestures show us the depth of the characters: Sarah Mulberry digs through her purse for a quarter so that a local gypsy girl can go to the movies and we respect her and love her as much as Eddie does.

Reviewers like to say that the form of a verse novel should be absolutely necessary to the story, and in this case it is. The spare lines and plain language evoke small-town 1930s and 1940s middle America. Eddie's frank, thoughtful, boyish voice shines through without a whit of unnecessary embellishment. He's an observer, and we watch through his eyes and learn along with him. The verse form mimics the way our minds work when we're observing events and processing them—bite-sized, vivid, with snatches of all our senses involved:

This Halloween was fine and dry,
moon nearly full.
Chilly, the night smelled just right,
dry leaves, cut hay,
Sounded right, too,
wind rustling,
owls calling.

The period research in Eddie's War is impeccable (I hope the publisher submitted it for a Scott O'Dell award), not only in the world-wide events, but in the scandalous newspaper stories, goofy advertisements, and corny radio jingles. Farm chores and the duties of each season are seamlessly integrated into the action of the story. As a child, I would have loved living the country life vicariously through Eddie, from corn cob fights to simple, somber, food-filled wakes in friends' homes.

Marketing a book as "all ages" is a tricky endeavor, and so namelos has chosen to pitch this book for ages 10 and up. But the truth is that adults will love it, too, particularly people who were alive during the second world war, or who remember their parents' and grandparents' tales of the war. At the same time, the slim physical package, quick page turns, and male protagonist make it perfect reading for "reluctant" boy readers. It's also a superb novel for school curriculum having to do with war. 

An all around beautiful little thing.

Read in Kindle edition.
Starred Kirkus review.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Foreign-Rights News

Tomorrow, Tuesday September 6th, is the first day of Random Acts of Publicity 2011, a week-long online event in which authors take time to promote their friends' books or their favorite new releases. I'll be posting a review of Carol Fisher Saller's lovely debut novel, Eddie's War. Please come by to read it.

But since I usually post on Mondays, I have some book news to tide you over:

Syrenka by Sally Fama Cochrane
1. Thanks to Sara Crowe, my forthcoming novel, Monstrous Beauty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR, Summer 2012), has sold in Brazil (Novo Conceito) and in Germany (arsEdition).

2. Thanks to Carus Publishing, my first novel, Overboard (Cricket Books, Spring 2002), has sold in Turkey (ARVO Basim Yayin).