Hey, English Majors: Are Dead White Authors Still Relevant?

Those of you who studied literature in school are familiar with the term, “Western canon,” a politically correct phrase meaning the dead white men (and select dead white women) who are deemed worthy enough of academic study. The laundry list of these authors include Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Twain, Melville, Faulkner, the Bard himself of course, and occasionally Austen and a Bronte sister every now and then.

After hundreds, even thousands of years studying the Western canon, in 2015 more and more scholars are asking: should we still be caring about dead white authors? This question was recently brought up by online publications The Atlantic and Gizmodo.

Irvin Weathersby Jr., an African-American educator, writes in The Atlantic that he had difficulty explaining to his students of color why dead white authors mattered. He goes on to say this:

In fact, the power of literature lies in its interconnectedness, the ways in which authors and ideas overlap and communicate. If this dialogue is muted through an unwillingness to embrace difference, the value of reading is nullified.

His point is not to isolate any particular group, either by reading only dead white authors or by reading only authors of color. He asks that we teach black history year-round, not just during February. Racial segregation is clearly wrong, and that applies to our English classrooms as well.

In Gizmodo, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American sci-fi and fantasy writer, discusses the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Twitter movement, in which readers are challenged to stop reading straight, cisgendered, male authors for an entire year. Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, and Daniel Handler were among the banned to show their support.

Someone once told me they wanted to read my books but were reading only women for a year. I said, cool, my books will be there in a year. – John Scalzi

Ahmed points out that the publishing industry upholds the white patriarchy just like every other, noting that 98% of the NYT bestseller list is composed of white authors. Unless you actively seek out marginalized writers, most books you’re exposed to will be written by white men. He ends with this:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland.

He means that no one is obligated to read anything, but limiting yourself to the default option is–let’s face it–boring. He agrees with Weathersby Jr. by believing that interconnectedness provides readers a more fulfilling experience.

So what do I think? I agree with these writers that the publishing industry should be more egalitarian. Although the college I attended, UC Santa Cruz, does a better job by including diverse authors (even calling the major “Literature” instead of “English” to avoid the bias toward English-speaking countries), I realize that my education was still heavily skewed toward dead white guys.

Do I love reading the Western canon? Absolutely. But I also believe that Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison have as much literary merit as Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. And you can’t deny that the latter gets more exposure in academia than the former.

What this debate makes us conscious of is our own reading habits and what we can do to improve them. Although I have no problem including female authors given my preference for young-adult fiction and romance, I recognize that most of the people I read are white heterosexuals. I know that I’m missing out on unique perspectives, and I hope to remedy that in my reading.

This means I’ll need your help! I’d love to hear your recommendations of diverse authors. I can’t read them if I’m not aware of them, so let’s spread the awareness! By making our reading more well-rounded, we thereby become better human beings.

Why You Should Not Celebrate the New Harper Lee Novel

Image via Jezebel

A couple days ago, the world imploded with the news that Harper Lee, America’s literary sweetheart, will be publishing a new book 55 years after her debut, which is set for release this summer.

The novel, Go Set a Watchman, is not so much a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird as it is a first draft. It features Scout as an adult twenty years after the story of TKAM; preferring the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, Lee’s editor requested that Scout’s point of view be written entirely during that period of time. Lee, ever the people-pleaser, stated that, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”

That attitude is exactly why fans should hesitate rejoicing over this new release. Today Harper Lee is 88 years old and going increasingly blind and deaf with age. Needless to say, she is not in an ideal mental state and is extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

This book’s publication would not be the first time that someone has tried to screw Lee over. The author filed two lawsuits in 2013: one over an alleged attempt to get her to sign over her copyright to TKAM, and the other against a local museum profiting off her prestige without compensation.

The news of this new book comes at a suspicious time, only a few months after Lee’s sister and lawyer Alice passed away at the age of 103. Lee has no children and now her entire estate is at risk, thanks to the whims of her editors and their lawyers.

The poor woman lives in a nursing home, can’t see or read, and has been known to sign anything put in front of her. Why, after decades of intense privacy, would Lee publish a story? Why are her editors so interested in this book which had been previously written off as a subpar first draft? And why has this release been timed so soon after the death of her sister and former legal counsel?

If you don’t agree with my skepticism, check out Jezebel’s critique and follow-up of the news. Then read The Toast’s scathing response to the interview given by Lee’s editor at HarperCollins, Hugh Van Dusen. Here are the most alarming statements he gave:

Q: Harper is a famously private person. Does she have any ambivalence about the fact that the publication of the book is going to result in a lot of new publicity?
A: I don’t think so. In our press release she says…

Q: Has the book been edited? Or is what will eventually be on bookshelves untouched from what was in the safety deposit box?
A: If it has been edited, nobody’s told me.

Q: Has there been any direct contact about the book between Harper and HarperCollins? Or is it all down through intermediaries?
A: Are you asking if we’ve been in touch with her directly? I don’t know, but I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know?

Q: Is it fair to say that Harper won’t be talking to the media now that she’s got a new book out?
A: I don’t think anything there’s going to be anything more revealing than what’s in the press release.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a ton of BS. I fear that these snakes are coercing her into signing away her fortune. TKAM has sold over 40 million copies, and now everyone is hoping to profit off this impending jackpot while Lee quietly lives out the end of her days.

I hate to be a buzzkill, because I love TKAM as much as the next person. It is the quintessential ‘Great American Novel,’ and its critique of race relations in the South is just as timely today as it was half a century ago. TKAM is a national treasure, and I worry that Harper Lee is about to get her treasure taken away from her.

So how do you feel about Go Set a Watchman? Are you ready to “Go Set” a preorder, or do you think Harper Lee needs her own “Watchman” over her threatened estate?

Philosophical Questions about Reading

As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to become more contemplative, evaluating your past and planning your future. Today I’ve rounded up some articles I’ve read online, which posited these questions about reading that are sure to get you thinking:

Image via Gawker Media

1. How can fiction help you live a better life? Lifehacker reports that reading fiction has tons of benefits, including learning empathy, breeding curiosity, and making you a better storyteller. So how has reading fiction changed your life for the better? Here were my favorite comments on the article:

“Game of Thrones taught me to not be a hero and to eat and drink more.” – ichiban1081

“LOTR taught me that the world is changing for the worse and Elves are leaving because of it.” – PeteRR

For extra credit, answer me this question, from a previously reported NYT blog: how has reading changed your life for the worse?

Image via The Frisky

2. What do you do when the things you love don’t match up with your politics? Rebecca Vipond Brink at The Frisky feels conflicted over her love for Kurt Vonnegut despite his poor representation of women in his writing. It’s one thing to love an author who lived centuries ago, when racism and sexism were more intensely upheld in society, but what happens when you find yourself admiring the work of a modern author who offends you?

I felt the same cognitive dissonance when reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a known homophobic Mormon author. I also love Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, even though I’m aware of the author’s reputation of appealing to misogynistic frat guys and MRAs. I guess my response to the question would be that I try to distance fiction from author when applicable, as not all stories are intended to be autobiographical. And when it comes to the especially offensive, if I must read their work, I find ways around supporting them monetarily by borrowing books from friends or libraries.

3. Have you ever had a relationship end because of a book? The New York Times does it again with another literary brain-teaser. One writer was dumped in part because her boyfriend couldn’t get over her distaste for Hunter S. Thompson, and another learned that many men can’t handle a woman being more preoccupied by reading at times than them. Whether it was a specific book or just reading in general, has anyone split ways over fiction?

When it comes to books, there’s nothing that turns me off more than a man who doesn’t read enough or unenthusiastically reads something just because you like it. Instead of trying to change yourself for someone, it’s best to find partners who share your values. This is why I would dump someone over a book, if need be. If you utterly abhor The Lord of the Rings, just see yourself out. It’s not me, it’s you.

Image via The Telegraph

4. Why does Nicholas Sparks suck so hard? Apparently I am not alone in thinking the king of the romance novel is a total ass. Turns out Jodi Picoult is not a fan, according to this article by The Telegraph. She laments that women’s fiction does not mean that women are your audience, but rather you’re just a women who writes fiction.

When asked whether she ever used a pseudonym, this was her response:

“I did once,” she says. “So let me tell you what happened. I wrote a book under a man’s name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County [by Robert James Waller] had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big [as a romantic novelist]. Please don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I haven’t had enough caffeine yet.” But anyway.

“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.” Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymous book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre. “So there you go,” she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

A-to the freaking-men, Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read any of your books, but maybe it’s about time I started. It looks like we have at least one thing in common: our hatred of the suckage that is Nicholas Sparks.

So let me hear your thoughts on these philosophical questions! I’m all ears!

Can a Book Ever Make a Reader’s Life Worse?

“I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over. . . I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all,” read Mark David Chapman at his 1981 sentencing hearing.

Last week I stressed the importance of reading and lamented how people aren’t doing enough of it. With all of its mental and emotional benefits, you can gain so much from reading that it’s difficult to imagine any downsides.

The New York Times did just that in its piece, “Can a Book Ever Change a Reader’s Life for the Worse?” Writer Leslie Jamison discussed this question by referencing Mark David Chapman’s obsession with The Catcher in the Rye as his motive to assassinate John Lennon, and other murderers who were inspired by literature.

Jamison also revealed that one reader relapsed back into addiction after finishing her novel The Gin Closet about a woman’s struggle with alcoholism. This reader sent Jamison a note filled with blame:

“I picked up this book at a thrift store for 10 cents. That’s right and it was the worst 10 cents I ever spent. So depressing and it placed me in a horrible place. Back to drinking and taking drugs. Even tried to slit my wrists. A terrible dark story about nothing worthwhile. No inspiration or hope anywhere. You should be ashamed of yourself. No good will ever come of this book.”

I can’t imagine the guilt that Jamison must have felt after receiving this letter. Although the addict alone is the cause of her relapse, words are certainly powerful enough to persuade someone to behave or believe a certain way.

I think all media is capable of this power, not just literature. Criminals have also imitated movies, television shows, and video games, so it would be naive to say that books don’t possess the same capability to influence.

However, blaming media for the actions of others is wrong, because those who are mentally sound know the difference between fact and fiction. Books can enhance the dark recesses of our minds, but I think that the direction of influence is important.

I believe that people like Mark David Chapman who possess dangerous urges are drawn to stories that amplify them. Books don’t cause murders; murderers find solace in certain books and will often use them as excuses for acts that they know are wrongful.

The Collector by John Fowles: the inspiration for many crimes, most notoriously for the murders conducted by Leonard Lake, Charles Ng, Christopher Wilder, and Robert Berdella.

As for Jamison’s relapsed reader, there is nothing wrong in recognizing one’s own limitations. People suffering from addiction, depression, eating disorders, or other mental illnesses can often find comfort in reading the stories of others, but many won’t–and that’s okay.

Because I have a vivid imagination and a tendency to suffer chronic nightmares, I avoid horror stories like the plague because I know that they would make my life worse. Even crime dramas like “C.S.I.” trigger me, so I’ve discovered that it’s best just to steer clear of them.

That’s not the fault of horror or crime stories, and I would never suggest censorship to make my life easier. Sure, it’s difficult in October when movie trailers for the latest slasher flick pop up during commercial breaks, but plenty of other people love them. Just because we can’t handle something does not mean we abolish it for everyone else.

So can a book make your life worse? Yes, but only if you let it.

Why Aren’t More People Reading?

This month has been a flurry of celebrations–lots of birthdays (including my own!), a surprise engagement between two close friends of mine, and my company’s move into our new office in San Francisco. Last night was also the mid-season finale of Outlander, my latest TV obsession, so all in all, September has been a blast!

Now that fall is officially here, I’m taking some time catching up on literary news. Earlier this month, my favorite feminist blog Jezebel discussed a recent Facebook poll on the books that have stayed with us.

The results found that the most influential books are predominantly ones that people read during their childhood or teenage years, which begs the question: does anyone actually read past high school?

I’m not saying that books like “Harry Potter” and “A Wrinkle in Time” aren’t excellent or can’t be influential. Many of these novels mean so much precisely because we read them during our most formative years.

But honestly, most of the books listed in these Facebook responses have film or television adaptations, so I bet a good chunk of folks only read the books after watching the stories on-screen.

Jezebel says it like it is: most people just don’t read much once they reach adulthood. Whether they’re too busy or too lazy, it’s a really sad fact. They cite a Pew report, which found that 23% of people did not read a single book in 2013.

The Pew results also demonstrated that reading increases as education and income increases. It’s not that going to college and making more money gets you to read more. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have an advanced degree and make a good living because I value reading.

Unless you’re a professional gamer or TV critic, nobody becomes successful glued to a screen. Another study showed that over 20% of Americans earning less than $40,000 annually watch over five hours of TV a day. On the other hand, almost half of those earning over $150,000 watch less than one hour a day. I can guarantee you that wealthy Americans are spending more time doing productive activities, and that includes reading.

As for me, I read about 20 books every year and watch probably an hour of TV a day, sometimes more, most often less. I also take advantage of my long commute, preferring to listen to podcasts and audiobooks than playing games on my iPhone.

I truly believe that people who do not make reading a priority in their lives are missing out on opportunities to reach their true potential and achieve great levels of success. Reading (especially fiction) stimulates our minds, challenges our preconceived notions, and broadens our horizons. It makes us more knowledgeable about the world and more empathetic to others. It encourages critical thinking and boosts intelligence. All around, it makes us better people.

Odds are, if you’re reading my book blog, you already love reading, but if you know someone who hasn’t read a single book in quite some time, then share this article. I hope that I can inspire more people to put down the remote and pick up a book…not just for their sakes, but for the world’s.

When Grammar Nazis Attack!

Image via Jezebel

If there’s one type of story that makes waves in the literary world, it’s one about someone who has done J.K. Rowling wrong. The beloved author of the Harry Potter series is like Beyoncé: everybody just bows down in her presence.

Or should I say, almost everybody. There have been a few misguided souls who have attempted sticking it to Rowling, like that writer who was just jealous her spotlight was being ‘stolen.’

This week it was James Cook, contributing editor of The Daily Dot, an online publication. When Rowling asked her Twitter followers to “re-tweet” her support for Scotland’s rugby team in exchange for Pottermore content, Cook took the opportunity to tell her, “It’s ‘retweet’.”

Cue the outrage of Dumbledore’s Army! Due that unnecessary comment, Cook was harassed by many fans and felt obligated to offer a half-assed apology on The Daily Dot. Because it was categorized under “LOL” and featured condescending comments like, “For some unknown reason, Harry Potter is still a very big deal in France,” it’s obvious that Cook enjoyed his temporary infamy and seemed smug that he could gain his 15 minutes over a hyphen.

It’s jerks like Cook who give grammarians a bad name. I joke about being a ‘Grammar Nazi,’ but I would never in a million years correct a stranger over something as insignificant as hyphen usage. We all knew what Rowling meant, and if we’re getting technical here, either form can be correct.

Who cares if it’s e-mail or email? Cybersecurity or cyber-security? Sure, there are rules when the prefix affects meaning (release versus re-lease, for example), but I’m not about to get my panties in a twist over a personal punctuation preference.

Would Cook have been justified if Rowling used ‘your’ when she meant ‘you’re?’ I guess, but when his victim is a famous billionaire, then he better decide whether the backlash is worth the effort.

So while I’ve never attempted to take on someone of that scale, I have corrected people’s grammar on social media. Most notably, several years ago I told an acquaintance on Facebook that she was ‘lactose intolerant,’ not ‘lactose and tolerant,’ like she stated. Turns out her friends were just as clueless and commented their surprise. After what probably felt like humiliation to her, she promptly unfriended me.

Probably not what she meant 😉

Was I wrong to correct her? My tone was definitely lighthearted rather than vicious, but one could certainly argue that it wasn’t my place. It’s pretty clear that she wasn’t a close friend due to her response, so maybe I should have let it slide. But honestly, if you’re going to start deleting online relationships over silly mistakes like that, then maybe you should develop a thicker skin.

I’m not perfect, and my loved ones revel when they can catch me making grammatical mistakes during a conversation. Do I get butt-hurt? Nope, I brush it off and learn from it. Trust me, I bet that girl never labeled herself as ‘lactose and tolerant’ ever again, but if nobody pointed it out to her, she–and her friends–would sound like idiots for the rest of their lives.

But let me get your opinion: at what point does correcting someone’s grammar go from educational to annoying? Have you ever been the corrector or the corrected, and what happened? Do you stay silent in front of superiors or is nobody off-limits?

Share your stories in the comments!


When an author changes her mind: On J.K. Rowling sinking “The Good Ship”

Image via Wikimedia

While most of America has come to a screeching halt to watch the Super Bowl today, the rest of the literary world has become embroiled in an all-out frenzy over J.K. Rowling’s recent admission that Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger would not have made the best couple after all in the Harry Potter universe.

Hypable reports that in a Wonderland interview between Rowling and interviewer/Hermione actress Emma Watson, the Harry Potter author revealed what many fans like myself always suspected:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment,” she says. “That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she continued, “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.”

Now, of course, we shouldn’t make too many conclusions without reading the entire interview, and even then, context is key. Admitting a mistake is not the same as regretting it, and media should remember not to project such emotions on Rowling.

That being said….HOLY MOLY, does this shake things up! Good Shippers are probably screaming from rooftops in denial right now. I remember digging through HP internet forums, reading smug comments that Ron and Hermione were perfect for one another, and it was SO obvious, and other shippers were just too stupid to see the truth.

This, of course, begs the question: to what extent do readers respect authorial intent? Many are refusing to accept Rowling’s news, saying that she should sit wrongly in her wrongness because that ship has long since sailed and there’s nothing she can do about it.

Others feel vindicated because the Good Ship, however sweet and wish-fulfilling it may be, wasn’t steeped in reality. Rowling suggests that Ron and Hermione would have needed “relationship counseling,” but that’s pretty clear to fans who witnessed their bickering through seven novels.

So what do I think? I would take Rowling’s word, no matter the verdict, because it’s her story and I have no right to demand it take a direction it wasn’t meant to take. But I also understand Rowling when she stated that she was clinging to her original plot; sometimes stories evolve, and smart writers need to know when to kill their darlings and sink their ships.

I will say, however, that I was doubtful of EVERY ship in the series. Honestly, I felt that the epilogue was completely misguided and unnecessary. It read like bad fanfiction, and this is coming from someone who read A LOT of Harry Potter fanfiction.

Apparently, the Good Ship wasn’t as good as everyone thought. But what of the other options? Harry and Hermione were better suited for each other, but I could sense a more familial relationship than a romantic one. Harry and Luna connected on a morbid level of death and suffering, but let’s face it, her loopiness would sabotage any long-term success.

Then there are the ships you just love to love: Hermione/Draco, Hermione/Luna, Harry/Draco, Hermione/Snape, Remus/Sirius. Think I’m crazy? So is the whole world of fanfic!

Dramione forever!

As of today, on FanFiction.net, there are over 673,000 HP fanfics (not including the crossovers into other stories). Here’s a look into the pairings:

  • 53.8K Hermione/Draco
  • 51.4K Harry/Draco
  • 27.1K Harry/Hermione
  • 25.6K Ron/Hermione
  • 16.7K Harry/Snape
  • 16K Hermione/Snape
  • 7.1K Harry/Ron
  • 2.5K Harry/Luna
  • 703 Hermione/Luna
  • 15 Dumbledore/Sorting Hat
  • 5 Hagrid/Buckbeak

The point of these statistics is to show that people will ship literally anything and anyone, so it’s best not to take any ship too seriously. What is serious is how devoted HP fans are to their fandom.

Many might think it silly to argue over the potential romances of fictional characters. But for my generation who grew up with Harry and friends, the books are more than just words on pages. They inspired an entire generation of children to fall in love with reading. They created a wonderful community that still stirs up lively discussion over six years after the series ended.

If you never joined this bandwagon, then I’ll be honest and say that I feel sorry for you. It’s easy to resist hype for the sake of being hype, but being involved in the Harry Potter zeitgeist is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. You can call them mere children’s books and nothing compared to “real literature,” but you missed out on one of the most impactful literary experiences of our time.

Harry Potter taught millions of people to hold fast to their friends, fight for what is right instead of what it is easy, and love one another whether Pureblood or Muggle. And most importantly, to believe in the magic of both the world and the written word.

Image via Pinterest

So call me biased or dogmatic, but I’m proud of being a bookworm and I will defend the merits of this series until the end. The members of Dumbledore’s army can be the most strong-willed, opinionated people on earth–and after all the midnight book release parties, movie premieres, and forum trolling, I can say that you won’t find better company.

So sail on, HP shippers! And let’s keep our fingers crossed for the only announcement from Rowling I really care about: a future prequel starring the Marauders!

Don’t forget to share your thoughts on this news! What are your favorite ships, and why? And if you could address all the haters out there, what would you say to them about what Harry Potter means to you as a fan?

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