Jenny's Library

Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

I’m not a nice person.

I’m not a good person.

I’m not a kind person.

This isn’t to say that I don’t ever try to be any of these three things.  I do, especially the last two.

It’s more to say that, for me, surviving in this cissexist, racist, ableist, heteronormative, classist, often fucked up world of ours has involved rejecting the idea that “good” and “bad” are static states of being.  I will never be a “good person” because, to me, “good” is not something that you achieve.  It’s an ongoing process that never ends.

It is, in fact, almost impossible not to be doing bad things as well as good when you are human and therefore flawed.  Especially when you are part of a messed up system, as we all are.

This, to me, is why it’s important to call out bad behavior, or hurtful language, or even ways of framing the world that make it easier to ignore harm that is being done to others.

Not because people deserve to be shamed or judged or called out, but because we are all fish who sometimes forget that the water is there, and part of helping each other do better involves pointing out when we didn’t do as well as we could have.

Since the world is complex (and not just in bad ways), the fact that we have the same goals doesn’t mean that we will always agree.  It may not always be possible to determine who was “right” and who was wrong about the choices people make or the words they use.

But this is where my librarian training kicks in and points out that more speech is better than less.  That it’s better to let people know what it is that you think they could have done better, so that they can decide for themselves if they want to change or not, rather than never giving them that option.  It’s also important to be specific about it, so that no one is left second guessing everything they do and say.

To me, it’s a sign of trust, to tell someone when what they did or said hurt you.  That’s not a thing you tell people when you think they won’t care.  Or worse, will use it to hurt you more.

When I tell people that what they said was sexist, or racist, or otherwise hurtful, I don’t do it because I want to hurt them. I don’t do it because I think they are bad people.  I don’t do it because I think they are irredeemably sexist, while I’m a perfect feminist, a model for everyone to follow.  I’m not specific about what they did wrong simply because I want to nitpick, I promise you that I have better things to do with my time.

I do it because this is what I truly believe, and because I have faith in their ability and willingness to do good things.  And most of all because I have faith that they will respect my opinion even if they disagree with it.

So I want to ask everyone out there who is asking all us to “keep YA kind” to remember that, while criticism is hard to take, criticism is not lack of kindness.  It’s often a measure of trust.

Everyone has flaws, everyone messes up.  That includes you, that includes me.  That includes the author you admire, the friend that has always been there for you, the teacher that inspired generations.

That someone is “good people” should never be an excuse for not listening, or used to admonish others for speaking.  Because “good” is something that you make the decision to do every second of every day, not something that you acquire and then use as a shield.

I have so much more to say on so many things that has happened this past week.  And so many links to smart women who you should really listen to more than me.  Hopefully I’ll even manage to make some link lists and get those words out and onto paper – er, pixels.  But I wanted to start with that, because I think it’s the most fundamental.

If you don’t trust that I am trying to do good as well, that my anger is a sign of hurt and not hate, that the opinions I express are genuine and not merely performative, that I am in fact trying to be kind to a great number of people, even when you disagree with me, even when I say things that hurt you or your friends or make you uncomfortable, then this conversation is never going to go anywhere.

Instead, “kindness” will once again become a way to reinforce the status quo, rather than a call to be more compassionate and empathetic.

Instead both “kind” and “good” will be used to avoid examining the problems we most certainly have, a way to once again NOT have the hard and complicated and uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue.

So you all remember the gag from Mo Willems award winning We Are In a Book, yes?

The part where Piggie and Gerald realize that they can make the person reading the book aloud say really funny words, like BANANA, yes?

inside pages for We Are In a Book

(And if you don’t, why haven’t you read these books yet, hmmmm?????)

Well, BJ Novak has written a book that takes that same gag and runs with it – with hilarious results, as you’d expect.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it looks to be a very funny and well done book.  Full of nothing but text that is sure to make primary graders giggle, the book has no pictures (that’s actually it’s name, too, The Book With No Pictures) but it does have colored and very graphic text to give the audience something to look at when it’s read aloud, and to help newer and pre-readers make that connection between the funny words and the text on the page.

inside pages for The Book With No Pictures

All well and good.  Looks like an awesome book to have around, and somewhat useful in helping newer readers conceptualize text and therefore transition from easy readers to chapter books and novels.

The problem is the way I keep seeing it framed in social media.

Rather than placing the book in the proper juvenile literature context – in terms of other books that do similar things, or in terms of how kids actually learn to read, it’s presented as making the argument that pictures are a distraction rather than one of many useful tools employed in children’s literature.  The implication is that pictures in books are too juvenile even for little kids, once they learn to read.  Which is as wrong as saying that reading aloud to kids isn’t needed once kids learn to read.  The truth is, both pictures and reading aloud are helpful in developing reading skills, especially in newer readers.  As are books with no or fewer pictures, and kids practicing reading themselves.

There’s also, of course, the undercurrent of the idea that this man has come along to show all us women (as women make up the majority of primary teachers, early learning experts, and children’s librarians) how to do it right for once.

The Book With No Pictures sounds like a wonderful book, and one I can’t wait to read aloud to my kids at the library.

It is not, however, without precedent.  And it is not the radical break from traditional children’s literature that the people commenting about the awful state of education today seem to think it is.  And it’s not going to stop me from reading books with pictures as well as words, reading books with picture but no words, telling felt stories, or trying to get my hands on some early learning kamishibai stories from Japan.

Jon Wallace wants us to know that his depiction of Starvie, a female character in his new book, who happens to be a “Pleasure Model….created to do nothing more than have a perfect appearance,” is not at all insulting to women. And that even so, he “promise[s] there are more Real women characters coming [in the following books].”

Isn’t that nice of him?  I think that’s sweet of Jon Wallace to promise us that. So, to return the favor, I’m going to make a promise as well:

Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1 by Thomas Zahler, Ryan K. Lindsay, Katie Cook, Barbara Randall Kesel, Ted Anderson

The vast majority of the stories collected in this volume are simply underwhelming;  full of cliches, at times hard to follow, and surprisingly lacking in creativity for a fantasy series – even one based on a popular television show.  Sadly, this is hardly unusual. So all of this might be forgivable if it weren’t for the insulting stereotypes that several of the comics employ. Or the extent to which the book doesn’t seem to be clear on whether it’s main target audience consists of children or adults. 

When I read books for children, I expect them to present ideas in ways that make sense to children. For example, if a comic whose main audience is made up of eight year old girls includes a party in one of its stories, I expect it to focus on the kinds of things that 8 year olds usually associate with parties: cake, balloons, streamers, games.  What I don’t expect is for it to instead decide that the party will be depicted more like a college frat party.  Complete with card games instead of kid’s games, togas, lampshades on heads, a drunk Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy looking nervous while being talked up by two male ponies.

 And yet, this is not fan art, but an actual excerpt from the comic:

inside pages from My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1

It’s one thing to include jokes for adults on the sly. Or to make a work that’s enjoyable to a wide range of ages. Or to otherwise acknowledge that adults can be fans of works that are intended for kids.  It’s quite another for a comic that claims to be targeting children to completely forget who their audience is.

And it’s a completely different level of wrong for a tie-in comic for a show whose main audience consists of young girls to decide that adult men specifically need to be catered to instead of those young girls.  And for it to be done in such a way that allusions are made to young women being targeted for unwanted attention – or worse – by their male peers.

And yet this is indeed what happened – in a book marketed to children.

Children, mind you, that are too young to have the power to speak up and tell the writer or publisher if this bothers them. Children that are so young that articulating their opinions and feelings, especially about unfamiliar topics, is still quite difficult in a way that adults often forget or fail to understand.

This goes beyond merely annoying or insulting. It’s both disturbing and creepy.

IDW published this, if anyone wishes to make their feelings known to the people responsible.  I read this comic via Netgalley and so will be forwarding this review to them as requested.

The arguments against authors listing which of their works are eligible for awards confuse the hell out of me.

I’m sure a certain amount of that is me not understanding where the people making such arguments are coming from, but I also feel like there’s a lot of assumptions in many of those arguments about how people come to be Readers of the genre.  Not people who simply read books in the genre, but people who read enough and care enough that they would be willing to pay money to vote on an award.  So this post isn’t so much an argument for authors doing anything in particular as it is an attempt to banish those assumptions.

Point the First:

To say that “speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro” (as Martin Lewis does in his post on the topic)  is not only understating the case, but describes the dynamic in a way that does nothing to illuminate how fan-author interactions actually work in a world in which the internet exists.

I’ve mentioned before that the internet is the reason that I started reading science fiction and fantasy again, after having stopped in my teens.

This is an exaggeration, of course, as I never really stopped reading speculative fiction entirely.  What actually happened is that it ceased to be the bulk of what I read, and instead became something I occasionally read, often with a significant amount of caution.  The reason for this being that every bookstore that I walked into was happy to promote works by male authors that wrote about manly men who did manly things (which tended to include treating women like shit), and appeared utterly oblivious to the fact that women read and wrote in this genre as well. Even worse, as I transitioned from children’s books to adult books, it became increasingly difficult to avoid stumbling across books that, quite frankly, were deeply NOT FUN because of the way they depicted gender and adult relationships.  A problem made worse by the way that female writers were marginalized by the publishers and bookstores, because, in the absence of any sort of feminist analysis in reviews and promotional materials, my best bet at avoiding those books was to look for the female authors that were so hard to find.

It’s also more accurate to say that the internet is how I began to find adult speculative fiction.  I was working in a bookstore and reading all kinds of teen and middle grade speculative fiction when I first began seriously using the internet as a tool for finding books.  This was back in the mid oughts, when people outside of young adult literature were beginning to notice that young adult fiction had really taken off.  Right in the middle of Harry Potter Midnight Magic Parties (I worked two of them).

What’s is true and important about this story is that despite always being a reader, despite having read The Lord of the Rings in elementary school, despite reading middle grade and young adult speculative fiction at the time, I didn’t start looking for adult speculative fiction on purpose. I stumbled across it.

I’d just began watching Criminal Minds, of all things, having caught some episodes in reruns over the summer.  Curious to see if anyone else had thought about how the show played with gender, I typed a few words into google and stumbled across Elizabeth Bear’s livejournal.  I started out reading her posts about Criminal Minds, and ended up reading her books.  I also found other people to talk about books with!  People who listened to what I said and didn’t try to tell me that what I really needed to do was read [author that I’ve tried and whose books left me feeling slightly ill]. It was amazing and, I have to admit, slightly life-changing.

What’s is true and important about this story is that I found Bear’s books because she talked about them, not because other people did.

I found joy in reading adult speculative fiction again because that barrier that Lewis mentioned is permeable, not despite it.  My first experiences with discussing adult speculative fiction in a way that did not make me feel small or silenced involved authors discussing their own works.  So this idea that authors discussing their own works taints the discussion by definition is not one that I understand.  It can certainly happen – and does happen often. But I also honestly cannot imagine finding speculative fiction nearly as interesting without having access to essays and posts and tweets about it – about their own work even – by women like Amal El-Mohtar, Kate Elliot, Kameron Hurley, Sylvia Kelso, Lois McMaster Bujold, N.K. Jemison…and well, you get the idea.

Now, I’m not saying this dynamic doesn’t change at all when one is talking about awards – the power differential matters a lot more, for starters – I’m just trying to explain why “awards are for readers and not authors” is not an argument that makes sense to me.  Not just because these aren’t clear distinctions, but because my experience has been that my options as a reader are improved when authors have more options as well.

Point the Second:

Anyone who thinks that every author who posts an eligibility list is “lobbying for awards” (as Martin Lewis calls it) or “self-pimpage” (as Adam Roberts does*) doesn’t understand how imposter syndrome works.  (I’m guessing they also aren’t reading the twitter feeds of the women who are talking about this.)  I can’t think of a time that I’ve submitted my art somewhere because I thought it was the best or expected it to get chosen.  I submit it for the same reason I attempted rock climbing and hiking Angel’s Landing, even though I knew I’d chicken out of both: because there’s more value in failing than there is in never trying.

My guess is that for a lot of the authors making these posts – women in particular – they are not so much about trying to convince readers to nominate and vote for them as it is an attempt to remind readers who are about to get busy talking about all the usual names that they still exist and would you please remember to read me too?  They are lobbying for themselves, yes, but it would be more accurate to say that they are lobbying to be read and discussed, to be considered rather than forgotten.

You can see this dynamic happening in the discussions on twitter, where an author will say something about not being sure about if they should put up such a post, and other people – readers and writers both, and often women – will rush in to encourage them to do so.  The value of those posts is as much in that exchange as it is in the posts themselves.

Point the Third:

To me, Amal El-Mohtar’s argument about diversity isn’t really about who is getting nominated for this specific round of the Hugos, etc.  It’s about how people see themselves and the choices they make because of that.

I tried out for the soccer team my first year of college, despite being far too out of shape to have a chance. On the first day, when we were doing timed laps and I was not only the last person in, but struggling to make it to the end of the run long after everyone else was done, the rest of the women trying out began cheering me on.  One of the senior team members jogged back onto to track and ran the rest of the way with me, making sure I didn’t give up.  I didn’t make the soccer team.  I didn’t even make it to the end of try-outs.  But I carried that moment with me for the rest of my time at school. The knowledge that the women around me wanted me to do well kept me going far beyond that one run.

Roberts may see people in an arms race and trying to “level the playing field.”  I see people helping each other, affirming that they want others to do well.

This discussion isn’t just about authors, either. It’s also about readers like me. And whether the books I read and like deserve to be part of the discussion, to be considered or not.  About whether my opinions have merit, or whether I should leave the serious discussions to the people that can be more “objective.”  To the people who were part of the discussions back in the good old days when awards were about merit – and I didn’t even bother reading adult speculative fiction because I had no idea how to find books that didn’t insult me.

Conclusion:

There’s been a lot of changes to publishing in the last few decades, and I don’t doubt that their impact on awards hasn’t been entirely positive.  The problem is that these changes have been also useful for a lot of readers like myself.  There seems to me to be a lot of focus on judging authors actions in reaction to these changes rather than actually looking at the system as a whole.  There also seem to be a lot of potentially good arguments about wanting to focus on literature being sidetracked by the assumption that the status quo is neutral. Not to mention the implication that those of us who appreciate reminders, or can’t devote enough time to keep track of this all by ourselves, are somehow polluting the process by participating. Which leaves me feeling like I’m being told it would have been better if I’d never joined the discussion – and a lot of other people whom I disagree with, but who I suspect have good ideas, sounding rather defeated.

It would be nice if we could move the discussion past this, but I admit that I’m not sure how to do that.**

*Am I the only one who went O.o at that phrasing?  Perhaps it’s just the experience of coming to this as a woman, and therefore as someone who runs the risk of being called a “whore” in the literal sense, but that…was really not the way to convince the people who are in favor of eligibility posts that you aren’t being blind to how differing experience and privilege affects how people approach this issue.

** I do want to give props to the people who have put together the Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) tumblr.  I don’t think that I’m ever going to be against artists talking about their own work in their own space, but as a reader and fan this kind of project is really what I find to be most useful.  It’s also a good example of how focusing only on what authors should and shouldn’t do is really limiting our discussion – and consequently our solutions as well.

(If you haven’t yet, please read Amal El-Mohtar’s initial and follow-up posts for background. And also just because they’re really good.)

Dear SFWA,

SFWA members,

and fellow interested parties,

I’m not a member of SFWA. I don’t write science fiction – or any other kind of fiction.

What I am is a librarian. A youth services librarian, to be precise.  Since speculative fiction is one of the most popular genres in children’s and young adult literature right now, I think it’s safe to say that my goals and yours are often in alignment.

After all, you want to get your books into the hands of readers and I want to get books into my readers hands!  These may not be our only goals, of course, but as far as goals go, they rank fairly high.  As a fellow professional, I appreciate all the hard work you do to make that possible.  From supporting your members financially and legally to singling out their best work for praise and honors – and much more.

But we need to have a talk, because I’ve been hearing some pretty disturbing things lately.

I cannot say in strong enough words how much Beale’s actions, and SFWA silence on the matter, offends me not just as a private individual, but also as a library professional.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we librarians take issues of freedom of speech very seriously.  We don’t like it when ideas are silenced or people are denied access to information just because the ideas or the people in question are unpopular.  We’ve even been known to do what we can to render laws unenforceable when we think they infringe upon our patrons’ right to read – or even their right to privacy (since the former depends a great deal on the latter).

Defending the public’s right to read can be trickier than it sounds at first. Librarians have learned over the years that sometimes this requires placing limits on people’s behavior while they are in the library.  Solicitation, making loud noises, or being hostile to fellow patrons are all ways in which private individuals can infringe upon others’ right to free speech within the library.  All of these, harassment especially, disrupts people’s ability to make their own reading choices in privacy and without fear. It’s not just a matter of fighting back chaos, it’s about respecting everyone.  Not just the people who are the loudest or most demanding.

The SFWA is not a library, nor is it a workplace.  But it is supposed to be a professional venue.  The same basic concepts about free speech and workplace harassment apply.

US law says that Beale has every right to whatever opinions he has on any subject.  He has every right to express them – in his own space, on his own time.  I’m certainly not going to advocate for libraries start filtering access to his site.  I wouldn’t even be opposed, assuming space and budget and collection development policies indicate it would be a good choice, for his opinions to be neatly shelved alongside all our other books, where patrons may choose to read or ignore them as they wish.  It can hardly be more inflammatory than Mein Kampf or less scientific than the latest book by Glenn Beck.

But the moment that Beale used SFWA resources to promote his opinions is the moment that he made his speech more than just about him and his own rights and his own opinions.  He’s made it about you – all of you – about your integrity, about your professionalism, and about your good judgement.

This is the part that worries me.

As a librarian, I like being able to look over the titles of the Norton award winners and nominees.  It has been one of the many resources I can go to for suggestions on what to buy or recommend to my teenaged patrons, and it’s been a very interesting and helpful one.

But recent events, and your silence about them, threatens the integrity of this resource.

Beale may have his own opinions about the the capabilities of “a society of NK Jemisins” but I have professional obligations to my young patrons.  Obligations which includes fostering their hopes and building up their skills and resources, even for those patrons Beale would deride as “savages.”  When I choose books for my library’s shelves, for library programs and displays, I choose them based not only on literary merit, but also on what they offer my patrons in terms of interest, personal growth, and joy.  When I go to various resources for suggestions and advice, as the sheer volume of books requires that I often do, I’m making a choice to trust the judgement of others.  This includes trusting them – trusting you – to, unlike Beale, see all my patrons as worthy of respect.

You can see my dilemma now. For the problem now is not just that Beale is one of your own, but that he has appropriated your voice.  In blatant disregard of your own policies yes, but unless there are appropriate repercussions for such actions, there must be doubt about your commitment to your own policies.  Doubt about your our own integrity.

What does that say about your judgement?  The judgement I have until now relied upon?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you, individual SFWA member, if I continue to pay attention to the Norton nominees and winner each year, or if I don’t.  It matters to me, though.  When I say that I use the list of Norton nominees as a resource, I say this as a librarian and a reader who has passion for the genre and experience evaluating it.

And when I say that the Norton Award will mean nothing to me, going forward, without Beale’s expulsion, I say this as a librarian who knows my own library’s collection well.  I know that what is most missing from my library’s collection are stories by and about the very people Beale has insulted and dehumanized.  We already have Tolkien and Heinlein.  We will continue to purchase Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman’s latest whether they are nominated for the Norton or not.  What I need are reminders to make room in the budget for stories like Akata Witch, Above, Hereville, and Ash.  Books that tell my most marginalized and oft forgotten patrons that they, too, belong in the library. That they, too, belong to a world of stories and worlds of possibilities.

But how can I trust you to help me with that when you can’t even manage to treat your own members with respect?  What is your judgement worth, if it fails to understand the difference between private speech and blatant disregard for organizational policy and goals?  What am I saying to my own patrons if I trust the judgement of people who associate with men who refer to them as “savages”?  If I trust the integrity of people who make excuses for shocking displays of racism?

If you lack the most basic respect for your own members, if you lack the most basic belief in the humanity of the patrons I serve – of the youth I serve – then I have no use for you.

Sincerely,

Jenny Kristine Thurman

When I packed my bags and set off for college, I expected that I would have to get used to new routines and ways of doing things.  What I didn’t plan on was having to relearn old habits when I came back home for the holidays.  It felt odd not having my friends close at hand and my stomach was often angry with me for no longer eating dinner promptly at 5:30.

Not every change was quite so loud and insistent as my disrupted internal clock.  It turned out that I’d also picked up new ways of saying things without even realizing it – until others brought it to my attention.  My mom would get a funny look on her face, as I, her second youngest child, stood there in a Disney t-shirt and referred to my classmates as “women” instead of “girls.”  Amused, she asked me one day while I was home for Christmas why I did that.  I can’t remember her exact wording, but the implied question was clearly whether or not my snobby, feminist leaning, all women’s college actively discouraged us from certain kinds of language.

The truth is that it didn’t – not in the sense of lecturing or trying to correct us.  Instead, they modeled how they wanted us to treat ourselves and each other.  Our handbooks, our professors, the welcoming talks we attended, everything that came from the college and was given to us called us women.  Sometimes young women, but always women.

So when she asked me that, I didn’t have a ready answer for her.  I’m not sure that I’d completely realized that this was not a normal thing to happen in college (did co-ed colleges refer to their students as boys and girls???? ) but I thought about it and told her that we did it not because we were all that sure of our adulthood, but because it was important that we treat each other respectfully.  It was one thing to refer to one’s close friends as girls, it was quite another to talk about a classmate’s research project and refer to her as a child while doing so. If we wanted to go out in the world and be treated with respect after graduation, we needed to get used to it now, so that we would more readily recognize when people weren’t treating us right later.

If I were to have that conversation now, I would add that the point was also get us used to believing in ourselves.  That by referring to us as adults, our college was indicating that not only did they trust we were capable of rigorous academic work and mature behavior, but that they expected it of us.

I can’t help but think of that conversation when certain kinds idiocy stumble into my corner of the internets.

What does it mean when an organization whose job it is to represent women in a professional capacity publishes, in the organization’s monthly newsletter, an article that uses language like “lady writers” and “lady editors”?  How exactly do they think that’s furthering the professional interests of their members?

Most of all, do they think their members will not notice?  Do they think it’s female members own editors, writers, agents, and publishers use that kind of language while doing business with them?  Is that how they think women in the organization think of themselves?

Is that how we think of ourselves?

I doubt it.  Or, rather, I doubt we mean to – but that’s the power of language. It not only gives us a tool to share our thoughts, it shapes them too.

The language that’s used in places like SFWA’s Bulletin is important not only for symbolic reasons, but also because insulting language encourages people to dismiss the people being derided.  It tells certain people that it’s ok to act disrespectfully and it conditions others to being marginalized.  It’s one thing for that kind of talk to happen on some random blog or even reddit, it’s quite another for it to occur (apparently frequently of late) in a professional publication.

The SFWA does a great many wonderful things for it’s members.  But so long as insults of this sort are included within it’s newsletter, all that work is going to be constantly undermined.  And I don’t just mean that all the negative focus on such asinine behavior will cast a cloud over the good work many people do.  Fighting for fair contracts and the like is only going to do it’s female members a limited amount of good if the organization itself speaks to women in such a way as to undermine their belief in their professional worth.  A single insult is hardly going to break all the amazing female writers I admire, but a persistent lack of respect is hardly going to help them either.  And isn’t that the goal of SFWA – to help it’s writers?  All of them?

The problem with phrases like “lady writers” and all the other, even worse, things that have been published in SFWA’s Bulletin of late isn’t merely that they are outdated and sexist.  It’s that they waste members dues by undermining the fundamental purpose of the organization.