Jenny's Library

Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

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.

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I ran into a fellow youth librarian that I know, but haven’t seen in a while, at the LA Times Festival of Books (I know! what are the odds! anyway…).  At one point when we were talking she asked me which age of kids I preferred working with.  I used to have an answer to that, back when I subbed in schools.  I don’t anymore.  I think in part because I have more flexibility of choice in the library; it’s easier to set up library programs so that they bring out the best in each age, rather than having to handle the worst of each age for an entire school day.

I think the other reason is because my current position really emphasizes childhood and adolescence as a continuous process.  Teachers get kids at one age, and then see them grow incrementally throughout the year.  I go from working with toddlers to teens to preschoolers to elementary age students all in the space of a week.  Then I do it all over again the next week.  Teachers see kids grow, but only up to a certain point, at which time they are replaced by kids the age the outgoing class they used to be.  I, on the other hand, see kids move from our baby classes to our toddler classes and so on.  If I worked here long enough, I could see them move all the way up to being a parent with their own baby.

Which may be part of why I’m finding the number of people talking about young adult literature in comparison to adult literature, but not in comparison to children’s literature, to be increasingly annoying.  There hasn’t really been an upsurge in people doing it (except that there has been an upsurge in people talking about young adult literature) but I’m fast losing patience with it.

I understand why it happens.  Adults who add a handful of young adult titles to their reading lists are hardly going to do the same with picture books or middle grade novels.  And yet…I don’t actually understand it.  I love picture books and don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t.  I’ll still like you as a friend, but I don’t really get not liking Portis’s Not a Box or Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear.  And I think all of you science fiction and fantasy fans that aren’t reading at least a couple of Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series are totally missing out.

Most of all though, talking about how books for teens are different from books for adults, without also talking about how books for teens are different from books for kids, just makes no sense to me.  It’s like talking about how teens are not like adults without having any understanding of how they used to be as children.  There’s often an implicit understanding, when talking about the things 17 year old drivers do, that not that long ago they were only 15 and couldn’t drive themselves anywhere.  But when people mention The Hunger Games and where it fits in the larger dystopia canon, it’s only ever adult books that are mentioned, not the middle grade dystopias, such as The Giver, the Shadow Children series, A Wrinkle in Time, or The City of Ember, the books that shaped it’s target audience’s expectations for how such stories should go.

This problem seems to be especially bad when it comes to science fiction novels.  I think, in part, because most adult science fiction literature fans were nerds as children and read adult books more often than most children tend to.  But also because many adults just aren’t aware that adult genres don’t exist in children’s – or even teen – literature the way they do in adult literature.  When adults study children’s literature in school, whether as English students or library science students, we don’t talk about mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, and romance.  We talk about animal stories, historical fiction, school stories, and other genres that are much more popular among actual children.  Which isn’t to say that adults genres don’t exist in children’s literature, it’s just that they don’t have quite the same presence, and their tropes and themes are often very different.

Modern ideas about school and home are present in dystopias for children and young adults in a way that they aren’t, usually, in adult fiction.  It goes beyond simply being a warped version of the world they know, it’s also about development and how children perceive the world around them.  So the kids in Camazotz are still playing ball – because children’s sense of time and play and the way their actual memory works means that synchronized bounces read as wrong in a way that never getting to play with balls at all does not.  The children of Ember still go to school, in part because we assume that American children would have a hard time seeing themselves in kids who did not.  Teens in Delirium have tests they must pass, because while we are borrowing from Romeo and Juliet here, modern teens (supposedly) need an institution rather than a political alliance to rail against.  Jonas and Katniss both have mandatory assemblies to attend, despite the danger of populous action they present, because what’s more benignly oppressive than a pep rally?

These are all tropes and traditions that go beyond just science fiction for teens.  You can draw parallels to adult science fiction novels, but you can also do the same for contemporary novels like Looking for Alaska, in which a school assembly is a dramatic turning point and the site of student rebellion, or Lowry’s historical Number the Stars, which features a different child defying an entire country.

I could go on, but the point is that there are traditions and tropes present in young adult literature that readers will miss out on if they are no longer familiar with stories about mice on motorcycles or spiders than can spell, not to mention the subgenere of “preteen girl loses mother tragically.”  This isn’t to say that all of these tropes are interesting or that children’s or young adult literature can’t or shouldn’t change – just that a lot of what young adult literature does makes so much more sense if you’ve Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume more recently than several decades ago.

Chapter 1: Prohibitions (continued)

Before I move onto chapters 2 and 3 of How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which are both read and waiting to be talked about, I wanted to say one more thing about time constraints and creative work – more specifically this time about gender.

I have noticed that a great many of the female writers I know often feel a need to justify their existence. The space they take up, the resources they use, and most especialy the free time they enjoy. (Or, sometimes, don’t enjoy because they don’t feel entitled to it.)

This is not always a bad thing, depending on the person, situation, etc. For example, I think most middle class Americans like myself could do with a bit more perspective with regards to the resources we use, and that’s just to start. It is also tempting at times to mess around on the internet and call it research. Instead of getting off of the internet and actually, you know, writing. Discipline is not to be sneered at, after all.photo of a sculpture of a woman thinking

Yet, creative work often requires a certain amount of down time. Time spent reading or walking or watching TV or showering. Time spent thinking – or not thinking – in order to work through mental problems and come at things with energy and a new perspective. Time spent experimenting also – trying new things, both in art and life. So this feeling that one has not earned leisure time can also be very destructive, creatively. It can encourage doubt and stifle the play that goes hand in hand with the hard work of making art.

There is also that same slipperly slope that I talked about previously, the idea that if one cannot even afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard. I imagine this dynamic changes a bit for writers that get paid for their work, but I can’t help but think that it still feeds into other self doubts, such as the idea that one is not worthy of more pay or praise than one already gets – and possibly not even that.

Even then it might not be worth noting, except that it does seem to be mostly female writers that I hear making these kinds of comments. To be fair, this may simply have to do with who is on my feed and chat lists, and the nature of our relationships. Also, the last thing I want to do is set up more expectations or judgements, or presume to know what’s best for other people, or dissmiss frustrations. Still, somehow I doubt George R. R. Martin ever felt the need to justify his leisure time quite as often as the female writers I know do. And I can promise you all that I value your words much more than his.

So, from one artist to another (whether your art be beading, knitting, fanfiction, poetry, Hugo winning novels or anything else) do me a favor and remember the importance of leisure time next the time you feel guilty for spending some time to rest or play.

(originally published at: http://jennygadget.livejournal.com/94166.html)

Chapter 1: Prohibitions

(In which I meander quite a bit and talk a lot about libraries.)

Now that school is out, I have time to read books that are not teen novels.  Books like: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ.

Reading a Book by Ernst RudolphIn the first chapter Russ immediately tackles the false idea that hurdles must be codified into law in order to matter.  In fact, the prohibitions Russ focuses on first are economics and time, not even yet the cultural memes that women should not be spending their time on silly frivolities such as novel writing or painting.  In many ways I found this point, the one about women (and other non-dominant groups) having less leisure time in which to be creative, to be the more important one.  Perhaps because I was already familiar with the subtle and even overt ways in which women are pressured not to create art.  Perhaps because recent events – both in my own life and on a national and world-wide scale – have me thinking more about the right to leisure time.

Leisure time and affording the time to be creative are not the same thing, but they are inexorably linked.  It is not just that if one cannot afford the time to read one is less likely to be able to afford the time to write.  I think even more fundamental is the oft unspoken idea that if one cannot afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard.

I am not nearly as nationalistic as I was several decades ago, but one thing I do still firmly believe that is that a democracy’s strength depends upon how many of its (different kind of) citizens participate in the process.  Not just voting, but in policy, debate, and even the creation of the culture that citizens are immersed in.  I am deeply worried about the trend I see, in my own country especially, that views the technology that is needed to access mainstream culture as being nothing more than a luxury.  Even putting aside for a moment the antiquated, classist, and ignorant idea that access to a computer and mobile phone are not necessary for such fundamental needs as finding work, the attitudes towards technology and class that many of my fellow Americans display is both appalling and frightening.

photo of baby with cell phoneThis is not just about the fact that easy access to technology means an increased ability to be aware of current events, and the digital divide means that many citizens are cut off from the mainstream conversation (and mainstream conversation is even less aware of their needs and opinions).  This is also about story and art, and how there is no real concrete division between works that “improve” readers and those that do not.  One of the things you learn in library school is how modern public libraries were not a response to the impossibility of everyone owning all the books ever, but rather about radically improving on the already existing and popular subscription libraries – both commercial, which were open to anyone who could pay, and private, which required one be approved for membership.  Public libraries are fundamentally democratic in history and nature not because they are about access to information, but because they are about equalizing access.  Furthermore, they are not just about facts and opinions, but literature and leisure time as well.  In asserting the right to read, public libraries end up defending not only privacy but also the idea that people of all classes and groups have the right to decide for themselves how their free time is best spent.  It is not difficult to see how chipping away at that right ends up implying that such people should not have the right to make other choices for themselves as well.

Angry Birds logoBy claiming that citizens have a right to access to paper books but not ereaders, novels but not movies, craft books but not pinterest, or even To Kill A Mockingbird but not Angry Birds, what the majority middle class culture is doing is denying both the art found in new, modern mediums and rejecting the long held belief that equalizing access to culture is a democratic necessity.  Budget decisions must always be made, of course, but public libraries have always struggled to balance the popular, archival, and informational needs and wants of their communities.  The difference now is that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to support the idea of the library as a place to go to obtain access to popular culture.

It is undeniably true that the internet is shaking public libraries up quite a bit, but we often miscast this as being the only trend rather than simply being the most visible symptom of a larger one.  It doesn’t help, after all, that for nearly half a century it was logistically, economically, and politically impossible for public libraries to provide access to mainstream culture in the form of television, thus habituating entire generations to the idea that libraries are about books and not stories and news.  Neither is it useful that so few people understand the historical parallels between the subscription lending libraries of old and their modern day Netflix and Hulu accounts.  Or even, really, their ability to purchase access to the internet.

If the rise of the internet, the increased use of google and wikipedia, and even shrinking government budgets were libraries’ only concerns they would still be in much better shape than they are now.  If changing technology were our only problem we would simply be reinventing ourselves to fit the new mediums and types of information storage.  Instead, we are constantly fighting for our right to exist, and usually losing the battle because even we often fail to realize that our main enemy is not technology but the idea that access to culture is a luxury and not a right.  In order to win this war we need to not only fight for ourselves, but for all the rights of the people we serve.  We need to highlight not only our job search workshops, but also our classes on Facebook and Tumblr.  We need to argue that access to technology is important not just in order to help people improve their short-term, personal economics – but to fulfill the original purpose of public libraries: to improve and strengthen democracy by encouraging participation in culture via providing more equal access to it.photo of Trinity College Library

It is tempting to focus on the resume classes and pretend that we also aren’t about people playing games in the internet.  After all, the latter sounds like a waste of taxpayer dollars – the kiss of death for any government service nowadays.  But pretending that leisure time is not also what we are about will mean losing the war in the long term.  It isn’t just that it will be harder to pull voter’s heartstrings when the economy picks up (assuming it ever will), the bigger flaw in this plan is we are accepting the argument that less wealthy do not deserve leisure or culture.  From there, as Russ has made clear, it is just a short step away to arguing that their voices are not worthy of being heard.  And what is a public library without the idea that citizens have a right to both read and write?

(originally posted at: http://jennygadget.livejournal.com/93761.html)

About a year ago now, I purchased and began reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

cover image for How To Suppress Women's WritingThis was prompted by a couple of related events.  The first was simply that a lot of people seemed to be talking about her (at least, the people in my online circle of friends and interesting people), likely in part because of her death the year before that.  The second was the response to Liz Bourke’s post at Tor.com about women in military science fiction.  More specifically, one particular man’s response to it, his success in monopolizing the comments, and how that led to the entire conversation being shut down.  Which, because people were already talking about Russ anyway, got me thinking about the ways in which women (and others) are so often talked over and dismissed.  How to Suppress Women’s Writing called to me, promising advice for how to identify and deal with this problem – or at least provide witty singers for me to quote.

The plan was to read it and keep track of my thoughts as I did so.  This being me, I got as far as the second chapter.  Not because it’s a boring or incomprehensible book – quite the opposite! – but because I had trouble finding the time to write down my impressions.

But now! I am determined to start again.  Determined! I say.  So, I am re-beginning with this introduction.  Shortly to follow will be reposts of what I put on livejournal a year ago concerning the first two chapters.  And then, finally, posts on the other nine chapters!