You can win a book from me tomorrow, March 31. Just go here!
You can win a book from me tomorrow, March 31. Just go here!
We’ve been having an interesting conversation in the comments, and in other places, on my post the other day: Careless Conclusions About Genre Reading.
A number of people have mentioned that their culture’s “literary” fiction is depressing. And we’ve been tossing around the idea that literary fiction might be defined that way, as being about suffering. In some ways, this makes sense. The original essay’s author referred to it as “serious reading.” There’s a very strong idea that we gain virtue through suffering.
This concept is pervasive through many religions. In Catholicism, only the spirit matters, so the flesh should be mortified. Physical pleasure should be denied and pain sought out, to liberate the spirit from the flesh. Many oriental philosophies believe that only through pain and suffering do we grow. Pleasure puts us into a dreamy state while pain keeps us alert and aware. This kind of thinking is a part of many martial arts systems, as well. Islam is conducive to the creation of the suicide bomber because the body can be easily sacrificed for the delights of afterlife. Judaism has such a corner on suffering it’s become a stereotype.
Many religious rituals are based in creating pain – fasting, sacrifice, hours of prayer, even self-flagellation.
I think these sorts of ideas underlie the debates over “worthwhile” reading. Romance is all about love and finding happiness; therefore it’s not a weighty genre. Suffering and heartache are resolved with a happy ending, not the sacrifice of the physical self to gain enlightenment. In other kinds of genre literature, the character transformations are rarely about angst of the soul. (Although I think we could make good cases for this in many sci fi & fantasy books.)
I’ve bought into this from time to time in my life. Deliberately denied myself pleasurable things and caused myself various kinds of suffering and pain, to achieve various goals.
And you know what? I’m just not convinced.
I’m blessed with a pretty damn wonderful life. I live in a wealthy country, with access to state of the art health care, culture, food and freedom. I don’t have to worry about my village being raided by Mongols or the plagues warm weather will bring or whether the food supply will last through the winter. My concerns are minor and mostly things I choose to care about, as opposed to being life and death problems.
Which part of this am I not supposed to enjoy?
Sometimes I think just relishing all the wonderful things in life is enlightenment right there. Love, sex, music, food, the scent of flowers and the colors of the migrating birds, time spent talking to interesting people, practicing my art – all of it is so full, rich and rewarding.
It might not be a serious attitude, but then, I never claimed to be a saint.
Never really wanted to be one, in fact.
On that note, I hope you all have a fabulous and FUN weekend!
I’m over at the Here Be Magic blog today, sharing my creepy true story about Birdwoman. If you never read it, here’s your chance now!
So, I read this essay yesterday in The Atlantic Monthly, that ostensibly exhorted people to make a conscientious effort to read more.
Now, I’m all about that. I love to read. I love to talk about books. I should be all about this essay.
Because the author just HAD to go there. She had to draw a line between good and bad reading. Which I’ve just really had quite enough of. Thus, she pissed off the genre-reader in me. Also, she failed to properly cite her data sources and, worse, drew spurious conclusions. Now she’s annoyed the neuroscientist in me.
You can go read the essay if you wish. It’s fine – the author creates an analogy of the healthfulness of the Slow-Food Movement to her proposed Slow-Books Movement. Not really the same thing, but the metaphor works in general.
This is the section that gets me:
Also excluded: non-literary books.
Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)
Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”
Let’s break this down, shall we?
First of all, she cites someone else’s op ed and interpretation as a data source:
In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells.
At least she linked to it, right? So I went and read that. I’m familiar with some of these studies, which that essay does review in detail, with citations. As I suspected, these are very interesting studies that show when someone reads about an action, the brain “lights up” in the same way as when the person actually performs the action. Fascinating stuff. The thing is, to keep things simple, always a key point for scientific experimentation, the researchers used children’s stories. Thus references to lines such as “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.”
Still, pretty cool, huh?
But our essayist goes directly to this conclusion:
Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material…
Okay. I’m scratching my head, wondering how she went from “Pablo kicked the ball” level reading to mentally invigorating literary books. But then I see – she has another study to cite. Her logic is a little reversed, but really it’s just the way she composed the sentence, finishing the thought with:
…as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story.
Anyone else spot the flaw in the conclusion here? Yeah. the study found that reading the story itself has a different effect than reading the freaking summary. It did not compare The Country Doctor to Interview with the Vampire. (I’ve read both, by the way – full disclosure.) I couldn’t find out more about this particular study, which sounded interesting, since she didn’t include a citation. Alas.
So then she states:
Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities.
Her opinion, not supported by any data that I can see. Though she appears to connect the assertion to the following summary:
Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”
Our essayist is back to citing another essayist’s summary of research. Okay. So I went back to Paul’s essay and confirmed that, yes, her summary still just says “fiction” – not a mention of Moby-Dick or any William Styron in sight. (And why not mention Sophie’s Choice? Far better known. Too commercial?) Then I looked up Oatley and Mar’s work. Again, no citation provided – don’t English majors have to learn this stuff, too?
I wasn’t able to access the actual papers (*sigh*), but I could review the publication list for their research. Scientific paper titles tell you a lot, because they’re intended to encapsulate exactly what was tested. Such as Exposure to narrative fiction versus expository nonfiction: Diverging social and cognitive outcomes. There’s also Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds.
Yeah – you’re all clever people. You see it, too. They’re comparing fiction to nonfiction. Some of the other titles are less definitive, referring only to narrative fiction. Nowhere did I see a comparison of literary fiction to genre fiction. I’d be interested to see the studies, frankly. However, I suspect most scientists wouldn’t touch an experimental design like that, because of the difficult of defining what is literary and what is genre. Fiction versus nonfiction is a reasonably clean demarcation.
Our essayist says: Best of all, perhaps, serious reading will make you feel good about yourself. I would point out that what she’s really saying is that what she considers to be serious reading (not really a definable term, scientifically) makes her feel good about herself. More power to her! Choose your reading and enjoy it!
But please, people, let’s exercise a bit more caution with conclusions. Literary fiction might be “better” for us than genre. I’m willing to be persuaded.
Your strong opinion is not enough, however, no matter how you might mix and match the data to suit your purposes.
In many ways, this has been a more difficult story to write than Sapphire was. All these years, I’ve heard writers talk about how each new book is a different challenge, some easy, some harder. I suppose that has something to do with art, with the creative process. If it’s not different every time, then we’re likely not growing and challenging ourselves.
And each world, each set of characters brings their own unique set of problems to the mix. It’s as if I’m their therapist. They walk into my office, dump their issues on my desk and stand back, waiting for me to sort it out for them. No one’s path is the same.
A writer friend recently told me she can knock out a novella in two to three weeks. I admit I felt a surge of envy at the remark. Theoretically, I could, too. A novella is around 26,000 to 40,000 words. At 1,500 words per day, you could hit 31,500 words in three weeks. Totally doable. And, when I started Platinum on February 1, I thought I would have it done in a month. I was totally on track to do that, when I inexplicably slowed to a crawl around the end of the third act. I figure this novella will come out around 34,000 words, and I hit a snag around 26K.
Not writer’s block – I was still writing. But the scene wasn’t right. I wrote past it and circled back. Something was wrong. Something missing or not following the correct path. My characters refused to march politely to their happily-ever-after, even though I know how they get there. I had to sneak around them, change the interactions, find exactly what needed to happen so they can see their way past the thorny problems.
What’s funny is, this happened with The Middle Princess, too. And not with any stories I’ve written before this. So I don’t know if this is my new thing or what. Regardless, it’s clear that I need to add extra time onto the end of my estimates, for the big ending slow-down.
Now I know why therapists like to just give their patients Lithium and call it good.
Would be so much easier.
A flock of evening grosbeaks came through and hit our feeder hard for a couple of hours at the beginning of March. (Sorry – it’s been a busy month.) They descended like a brilliant yellow cloud, here and gone again, the proverbial ray of sunshine.
I grew up in a suburban housing development where most of the summer activities revolved around the pool. Many of my childhood memories involve long hot days – or chilly days, seeing as how it was Denver – swimming and splashing around. We created tricks to learn, like holding breath and doing handstands or consecutive summersaults with inflatable balls as the pivot.
For holidays and special events, the adults organized competitions. One year, for 4th of July, they lined up all the kids on the edges of the pool. Glittering on the bottom, were coins, all denominations, some real money, some tokens for prizes. When the whistle blew, we were to dive in and grab what we could.
You can imagine the chaos.
The water was icy cold and, though, I could dive down, it was difficult to resurface with so many kids in the pool. Flailing limbs hit me in the face. Water went up my nose. Scrambling hands seized the coins before I could reach them. I felt like I was drowning.
When I think about competition, this is the kind of visceral response I get. My heart strains, my chest clutches. I’m drowning again. Just to grab some quarters.
Today they’re announcing the finalists for the RITA and Golden Heart awards. The phone calls are going out this morning, rolling out to the east coast folks first and following the sun across the country. And yes, Sapphire could maybe be a finalist.
There are good reasons why it likely won’t be. Strongly erotic novels usually don’t final. I’m not sure one ever has. And the finalists already listed are BIG NAME authors. Nora Roberts is up there for one of her J.D. Robb novellas – a series that continues to be my favorite – so for Sapphire to final would be like a newbie actress being nominated for an Oscar along with Meryl Streep.
Or like me trying to grab that dollar coin from the bigger boys.
So, I really try not to dive in. I try to save my swimming for another day, when it’s all about the fun and not about striving for prizes. I realize this makes me the too-skinny girl sitting on the side of the pool. There are other ways to get shiny dollar coins.
For example, last week this gal tagged me on Twitter about a blog post she’d written. She discussed the phenomenon of the self published, formerly Twilight fan-fic BDSM book Fifty Shades of Grey. She also recommended two of my books – Petals and Thorns and Sapphire – instead.
Better than a shiny coin any day.
And I didn’t even have to half-drown for it.
Good luck, everyone!
I’m over at Word Whores today talking about the insidious influence of the Science Fiction Book Club on my impressionable young mind.
http://t.co/Yxuj89Yt – very flattering!
We’re starting to get the warmer weather cloud formations again. Some of them are so funny – little self-contained spaceships sailing by.
So, I mentioned yesterday that over the weekend I pitched The Middle Princess to a St. Martin’s editor. It was interesting, because the advice is to always pitch just one book. Even if you envision the book as part of a series, the Laws of Querying say thou must never, ever pitch the series. You may only pitch a stand-alone book.
It’s a funny rule, as many have observed, because clearly publishers like series. They like them because readers like series. When was the last time you wanted to implore your favorite author to right something totally different, in a new world with characters you’ve never “met”? Never, right? In fact, I often have that sense of trepidation when my favorite authors come out with a whole new world and characters. I have to overcome my resistance. I drag my feet, not *wanting* to have to get to know all of these new people. What if I don’t like them? Why can’t I have my old friends back??
Ahem. Not that I get worked up about this kind of thing.
At any rate, this lovely editor gal, while asking me to send her the manuscript and a synopsis (yes – it’s a necessary evil. just write one already), also requested that I sketch out the next two books for her. That was the interesting part – I obeyed the Law of Querying and did not mention that I envisioned that the older and younger princesses would have their stories, too. But it must have been clear. Built-in trilogy. Yes, I totally see it that way.
There’s just one teensy, eensy problem.
Yeah – all of you who’ve been reading any length of time already know what it is.
I so cannot plot in advance.
Or at least… I thought I couldn’t. Turns out I can.
Break out the naked cherubs and dirty martinis!
I’ve oft extolled the many virtues of my critique partners, Laura and Marcella. Marcella is really good at character motivation, goals and obstacles – stuff I just hate to think about. And Laura is excellent at drawing out stories from my subconscious. Laura argues that I *do* know what the whole story is, that it’s all there swimming around in that black lake under my thoughts. She appears to be right.
All this time, I’ve thought I needed to perform the action of writing to draw out the story, but it turns out there are other methods. In a Yahoo IM conference, the three of us talked about the other two sisters, the overall arc and themes I set up in Middle Princess. They asked me questions, made suggestions and I told them the answers and whether their ideas were warm or cold.
It was exhilarating and fun.
At the end, I had my sketches of the next two books. This is extraordinary for me. I find it fascinating that I continue to discover new things about my writing process, to acquire skills I lacked before.
Kinda like it should be.
I might even have looked at some kitten pictures yesterday. David is egging me on for a Norwegian forest cat. Wouldn’t that be fun?
So, finally, here’s my break-down of the Gulf Coast Writers Silken Sands Conference last weekend. It was a lovely conference and I’m so glad I went, even with what happened while I was gone. A small conference like this lets you have so many more opportunities to hang in a casual way with the editors and agents in attendance. That OMIGODINEEDTOPITCH OCD frenzy just never develops.
It’s actually fun.
So, when I got in, the fabulous conference organizer, Jillian Chantal, picked me up from the airport. My hotel room had a view of the beach.
I soaked in the view – and the moisture – then hooked up with Jillian and Angela James, executive editor of Carina Press, to head to this We Got Crabs place next door.
Very fun place. We sat outside, enjoyed the live band. AND they had $2.50 martinis.
There’s Angela, looking happily dwarfed by her martini.
I got to have fresh crab. Even though it took me a while to get the bib open.
On Friday morning, I grabbed a little beach time with Carolyn Crane’s second book in her Disillusionists trilogy, Double Cross. Man, did I gobble up these books. Such a fascinating approach to the use of psychic energy. Her cast of characters is like a deeply twisted Justice League. I’m working on getting her to write more! This is one of my favorite parts of being an author – I can stalk other authors without them being so suspicious and then badger them into giving me more of what I want. Guerilla author – that’s me.
Then Angela took me and two other Carina Press authors out to lunch. Katie Reus and Wynter Daniels were delightful companions and Angela a charming and generous hostess. I got this amazing shrimp boat platter:
Afterwards, we attended Angela’s seminar on building your author brand and author websites. Very informative. And she analyzed our websites, too. She took great care to make us feel like valued members of her publishing family. It was really lovely.
That evening was the costume party – come as your favorite literary character. That’s the picture at the top. Me as Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I carried the book with me as a clue, but nobody got it. Mainly because very few people there had read the book. Seriously people, this is such a good book! How can I make more people read it???
On Saturday morning, I got to pitch The Middle Princess to a lovely editor from St. Martins, who I’d already chatted with (small conference for the win!), so it was laid back and pleasant. It helped that we sat on the patio overlooking the beach. Okay, it was a little weird because Angela and my Ellora’s Cave editor, Grace Bradley, were also taking pitches at nearby tables. I felt like a pitch-slut. But, I also know that Middle Princess isn’t right for either of those presses and I’m writing stuff for them.
I may or may not have put in a little more beach time after that.
After that, I had lunch with Grace, which was lovely and low-key. The conference provided yummy box lunches and they made a (mostly) Vegan one for her, so we took our lunches and had a long, leisurely conversation. I attended some workshops that afternoon and spent a bit of time at the pool bar with the charming Keri Ford.
This was St. Patrick’s Day and by evening the beach was a MADHOUSE like you would not believe.
Sunday morning – well, if you’ve been reading you know Saturday night and Sunday morning were bad for me. But I did my workshop on the Erotic Story Arc. (Thank you Keri Ford for the pic!)
Grace came to the workshop and had great input. Keri took a pic of us together, but it’s on Grace’s phone and she’s on vacation in the Caribbean, which makes me bitter on several levels. Hopefully I’ll get that eventually and post it here.
The always-generous conference organizers gave me a ride back to the airport, along with Jenny Bent. It was fun to get to talk to her and discover we have surprising things in common. What a delightful person she is.
That’s the round-up. In case you haven’t been reading carefully: try the small conferences. *Totally* worth it.