Some Thoughts On Reading

'Reading Woman' by Poul Friis Nybo (1929)

Gwenda Bond has a great post1 on her blog about what she calls “The Reading Police”, in which she says (among other things),

“I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven’t read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist.”

I don’t like Book Snobs, either. And it was interesting to me that Ms Bond’s post was mostly about Science Fiction/Fantasy, because I’ve found certain fans of that genre to be among the Snobbiest of All Book Snobs2. I recall, for instance, an SFF-loving bookseller throwing a tantrum after a friend said something along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s my kind of book, because I don’t read a lot of fantasy.” Note, the friend had not said, “Fantasy sucks” or “People who like fantasy are idiots”. She had simply expressed an opinion about her reading preferences after being pressured to read a certain book, and in return, she received a blast about how that book WASN’T FANTASY, IT WAS URBAN PARANORMAL, plus a whole lot more, none of which made me want to read the book or ever visit that bookshop.

I think SFF Book Snobbery often comes from defensiveness. If you’ve spent the formative years of your reading life being sneered at for being a nerd and a geek, then it makes a kind of twisted sense that you would seek to exclude others if your club eventually becomes cool and popular (which SFF is, now). So, I do have a bit of sympathy for these people. I have a lot less sympathy for those who believe that only people with PhDs in English Literature, ideally old white male people, are allowed to have opinions about books. I have read a few reviews and articles written by such people lately and they annoyed me. This is why I was happy to read the following in a collection of David Malouf‘s work:

“I would just remind you, as gently as possible in this age of education, that the great books of the world survived into the twentieth century without being institutionalised in literature departments, and that readers got by, till very recently, without being tutored in the handling of a text.
I say this, not to indulge in that popular local sport of academics-bashing, but to suggest that the professional handlers of literature have no special authority in the making or breaking of canons – they are readers like the rest of us – and to claim as well that the only real training we need as readers is got by reading itself.3

I agree that it’s possible to be a thoughtful and critical reader of fiction without having any formal qualifications. But then, my formal study of literature ended in senior high school, so what would I know? Here are the only memories I retain from Mrs Jordan’s Higher School Certificate English class, none of which have much to do with literary theory:

1. Reading Wuthering Heights, at the same time that a particularly annoying ad was being aired on television, in which one sibling locked another out of the bathroom in order to have unhindered access to a certain type of toothpaste. This meant that when our class read Emily Brontë’s famous ghost-knocking-at-the-window scene, it was inevitable that someone would add in a squeaky sibling voice, “Let me in! Let me in! I bet you’re using my Colgate Gel!”, causing every student in the class to fall about laughing, while poor Mrs Jordan wondered what was going on. I have never been able to take Wuthering Heights seriously since that moment, but let’s face it, it’s a ridiculous book. Read Jane Eyre instead.

2. Studying the play Equus, and then Mrs Jordan putting on the R-rated video and saying, “Please don’t tell your parents about this!” Technically, she shouldn’t have been showing us the film because most of us were under eighteen, but believe me, none of our parents would have cared what we were watching. They were just pleased we’d stayed at school till Year Twelve and weren’t out roaming the streets being juvenile delinquents. What I was outraged about was that the film got a Restricted rating due to male nudity and not due to the violence against animals. Because apparently the censors thought Peter Firth’s penis was more horrifying than HORSES GETTING THEIR EYEBALLS SLASHED. I say “apparently” because I couldn’t bring myself to watch the eyeball scene – I got my friends to warn me when it was approaching, then I clapped my hands over my face. (I did watch the nudity. I don’t think that caused me any permanent psychological damage.)

3. Reading Jane Austen’s Emma, at the same time that The Sydney Morning Herald was running a series of articles about the life of a real Year Twelve student named Emma. I should point out that our year was the first to be subjected to a new, ‘improved’ version of the Higher School Certificate, so we were known as the Guinea Pig Year and there was considerable media attention paid to us, or at least to the Year Twelve students who attended exclusive private schools in the posh areas of Sydney and whose parents were doctors or politicians or Sydney Morning Herald columnists. So we spent a year learning about how difficult Real Emma’s life was, having to fit in her private tutoring sessions around debating practice while filling out applications for Oxford and Harvard, not to mention enduring terrible traumas like that awful time the family’s Rolls Royce suffered a flat tyre on the way to the Sydney Opera House where she was due to perform a violin solo . . . I am exaggerating, but not very much. Eventually Real Emma became aware that Year Twelve students in badly-resourced rural state schools (like mine) were less-than-sympathetic about her travails and she wrote an article along the lines of, “Don’t hate me just because I’m so beautiful and intelligent and talented”, which did not improve matters. But, as I said, our class was also reading about Austen’s Emma, who was equally annoying, and the two Emmas merged into one Super Annoying Emma in my mind, and that’s why I decided I hated Jane Austen. (But luckily, a few years after high school, I happened to read Northanger Abbey, which was hilarious, so then I read all the other Austen novels and they were excellent. Except for Mansfield Park, which features a heroine even more annoying than Emma.)

I did spend quite a few English lessons exchanging notes with a friend about Scritti Politti lyrics (that’s literary analysis, right?) and I also spent a lot of time staring out the window, making up stories in my head, which is good training for a future novelist, so I can’t say the classes were a total waste of time. And, despite my lack of literary qualifications, I’ve gone on to read and enjoy and think about a lot of books, and have even written a few of them myself.

So, in conclusion, Book Snobs of the World should just go hang out with Real Emma and Austen Emma, somewhere far, far away from me, and everyone will be much happier.

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.
  2. The least snobby are probably Young Adult literature readers, possibly because it’s a relatively new category of books, so there isn’t a vast canon. Romance readers are also fairly unsnobby, in my experience, except for the ones who think Real Romance can only be heterosexual, which is just silly.
  3. From ‘The Making of Literature’, the keynote address at the 1986 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which was later published in both Overland and in the book I’m currently reading, David Malouf: Johnno, short stories, poems, essays and interview, edited by James Tulip.

The Creative Vision Versus The Marketing Department

If you know anything about the publishing industry, you’d be aware of how significant the marketing department has become in each large publishing house. The more difficult it becomes for publishers to make money from selling books, the more important become the people in publishing houses who work out what readers want (and persuade those readers to hand over some money). Publishers’ marketing departments determine how book covers should look, what time of year to publish certain books, and whether book trailers or magazine ads or blog posts will be the most effective method of attracting particular readers to books. But it isn’t just that the marketing people figure out how to sell a book once it’s been printed. Marketing departments also determine which books will get published in the first place. They (try to) predict whether there’ll be any demand in twelve months’ time for, say, gritty true crime or paranormal romance or travel memoirs, and then they sign up the appropriate manuscripts.

This is especially true regarding books for children and teenagers, because these books are often bought by people other than the intended audience – that is, the books are bought by parents, teachers, librarians and other adults, who may have quite different ideas about what’s ‘appropriate’ or ‘suitable’ for young readers. A publisher’s marketing department has a say in how many words a children’s book will have, how it will look, what its title will be – and, increasingly, what sort of content the book will have. If a manuscript is even slightly controversial, if it doesn’t fit neatly into a publishing genre, or if it doesn’t clearly appeal to a distinct marketing audience (for instance, boys aged 8-12), then that will make the book difficult to market. And why would a publisher take a chance on signing up that manuscript for a book deal, when they can instead publish a clone of whatever’s currently at the top of the children’s bestseller list, something that’s far more likely to make the publisher some money?

Without marketing departments, large publishing houses wouldn’t exist, because they wouldn’t make enough money to survive. Publishers can’t (and shouldn’t ) publish every manuscript they’re offered, and the marketing team helps determine whether manuscripts are self-indulgent rubbish or something that will find an audience and pay back its publishing costs. But that doesn’t mean marketing departments get it right all the time. If they did, all the books they’d worked on would be bestsellers, which clearly doesn’t happen. And sometimes, marketing departments get it spectacularly wrong, such as during the ‘whitewash’ controversy a few years ago. (In those cases, and there were more than one, the publishers’ thinking seemed to go: We want to sell lots of books. More books are bought by white people than by people who are not white. White people will only buy books about characters who look exactly the same as them. Therefore, on the rare occasion we publish books about characters who are not white, we must make sure we disguise the contents by putting white people on the cover.) In at least one whitewashing case, the public outcry led to the publisher changing the cover, but most of the time, people who buy books can’t protest because they have no idea about the decisions being made behind the doors of publishing houses.

I must emphasise that most people who work in the marketing departments of publishing houses love books and literature – otherwise, they’d take their skills to some other, more highly paid, section of the commercial world. However, there’s always going to be some conflict between the creative vision of individual writers and the objectives of publishers’ marketing departments, and the marketers nearly always win. This is why I absolutely love creative people – writers, musicians, artists, performers, whatever – who achieve great commercial success in spite of having the sort of creative ideas that give marketing departments conniptions.

For example, picture the faces of the marketing department at the BBC ten years ago, when two men turned up and said they wanted to make a television series for adults set in a zoo, featuring animation, songs, dancing wolves and a creature made of pink bubble gum. Or consider the marketing department of Mint Royale’s record company in 2003, who, according to director Edgar Wright, wanted him to cast “bigger” names in the video for Blue Song. He decided to stick with his original choice, the ‘unknown’ Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Smart move.

Noel Fielding1 and Julian Barratt went on to make three successful television series and sell out Wembley Arena, and they’re the only reason I’ve even heard of Mint Royale. Here endeth today’s lesson.

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  1. If you’d like to see more of Noel Fielding’s dancing, here’s his poignant, heartfelt interpretation of Wuthering Heights. With cartwheels. And bonus Heathcliff appearance.

Looking For A Good, Clean Book

The first time I heard about this, I assumed it was a joke, but apparently this is an actual thing – librarians being asked by adult patrons to recommend ‘clean’ books. ‘Clean’ means different things to different readers, which must make it difficult for the librarians, but generally, these readers are looking for books untainted by ‘language’ (that is, swearing), sex and violence. Sometimes the readers are looking for a suitable book for their children, but often, they are adults looking for a book for themselves that, in the words of one Christian blogger, “won’t be a near occasion of sin”.

'Mary Magdalene Reading' by Ambrosius BensonLuckily, these readers don’t have to rely on librarians for recommendations, because there are a number of blogs and websites that review and recommend books based on such criteria. The most well-organised and thorough site seems to be Compass Book Ratings (formerly SqueakyCleanReads.com), which I came across because it rated one of my own novels. As Compass Book Ratings rightly points out, movies, TV shows and games are rated, so why not books? This website rates books for children, teenagers and adults, with books given a rating for literary quality (from one to five stars), three separate ratings for profanity/language, violence/gore and sex/nudity (from zero to ten) and a recommended age range (9+, 12+, 14+, 16+, 18+ and 21+). A handy search page means that a reader can search by genre, ratings and recommended age ranges to compile a ‘clean’ reading list, or alternatively, the reader can check the ratings of a particular book.

For example, here is the Compass Book Ratings review of The FitzOsbornes in Exile (which is, I think, a fair and generally positive review). The book gets a four-star rating for literary quality and is recommended for readers aged sixteen and above. It receives a rating of two out of ten for profanity (“8 religious exclamations; 7 mild obscenities”), two out of ten for violence (with a list of all the violent incidents in the book, such as “a character is shot, but suffers no permanent injury”) and four out of ten for sex/nudity (again, with a list of incidents). There’s also a listing for “Mature Subject Matter” (“War, Homosexuality, Refugees, Persecution of ethnic groups”) and “Alcohol/Drug Use” (I was puzzled here by the claim that “a 14 year old smokes cigarettes”, until I realised it referred to a brief mention of Javier, the chain-smoking Basque refugee). This all seemed fairly accurate to me, although I must admit I’ve never counted the number of swear words, and I do think a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old could read this novel without incurring any permanent moral or psychological damage. And really, if a reader is going to be disturbed by “7 mild obscenities”, a “discussion about Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality” or a mention of “periods”, then I don’t want them to waste their time or money reading The FitzOsbornes in Exile.1

Of course, ratings for a book aren’t very meaningful unless you can compare them to other familiar books, so I looked up the ratings for The Great Gatsby. Good news for me! It gets four stars, which means my book is of the same literary quality as the Great American Novel! The Great Gatsby is slightly more profane (a rating of three) and violent (a rating of five), but oddly, is reported to contain no sex or nudity at all. Really? The FitzOsbornes in Exile is more confronting than The Great Gatsby, regarding sexual morality?

Then I looked for books with higher (that is, less ‘clean’) ratings and found reviews of Jasper Jones (which gets a ten for profanity, nine for violence and eight for sex, and is described as “well-crafted” but “overwhelming”) and The Fault in Our Stars (which gets a more positive review, but a ten for profanity and a six for sex). What was more confusing to me were the recommended age ranges for books. Jasper Jones is recommended for eighteen years and over, but a book of quotations about Jane Austen (which has no profanity, sex or violence at all) is strictly for readers twenty-one and above. ‘Clean’ books on the topics of family life and motherhood are also recommended only for readers well into adulthood, so I assume the reviewers are making judgements here about reader interests, rather than the books’ potential to cause moral harm. But no, wait. The reviewer of Persepolis says that the “use and amount of profanity in this book would make it inappropriate for anyone under the ages of 21”, while To Say Nothing Of The Dog is twenty-one-plus because it has slow pacing. Okay . . .

Despite the website claiming to have a “formalized content review process” that produces “consistent results”2, the ratings really depend on the individual reviewers, who vary in their qualifications and reviewing philosophies. The reviewers range from a thoughtful high school English teacher with experience on a library board, who wants to find books “that are both enjoyable and relevant to my students and acceptable to their parents as far as content is concerned” and who states “I do not believe in censorship, but I do believe there is an important place for content advisory”, to a student who proudly states she will “throw books across the room on occasion if the content is inappropriate or distasteful” and another young woman who is horrified by “seemingly great books that end up having WAY too much content”. Otherwise, the reviewers are not exactly representative of the general population. All the reviewers are white and, while it doesn’t explicitly state this anywhere on the website, I wondered if the site was affiliated, if only informally, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons3.

Apart from the variable quality of the reviews, I had Issues with Compass Book Ratings. (Yes, I know the site’s not for readers like me, who’ll read just about anything. I’m still allowed to have an opinion on it, especially if it rates my books.) I’m concerned that the site provides lists of ‘objectionable content’ without any context, which can then be used as ammunition by people who want to ban books that they haven’t bothered to read. And I have a problem with keeping teenagers away from ‘objectionable’ content in books, anyway. Surely it’s safer for them to read about these things before they encounter them in real life, so they’ve had a chance to think about them and discuss them? And if there are adult readers who’ll be psychologically damaged by accidentally picking up a book that contains any mention of sex, nudity, violence or swearing, then maybe they should consider abandoning reading altogether and taking up a safer hobby, like knitting. But mostly, I’m disappointed that Compass Book Ratings hasn’t reviewed the Bible. Violence and gore and sex and nudity? Surely they’d have to rate that book ten out of ten.

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  1. Honestly, I’d love it if all those readers would avoid my books entirely. Then they’d stop ranting on the internet about how disgusting my books are, and they wouldn’t feel any need to direct their homophobic readers to my own LGBTQ-themed blog posts, and we’d all be much happier.
  2. The website recently added some disclaimers on this page, which makes me wonder if they’ve had some complaints about inconsistent ratings. Those disclaimers weren’t there when I first encountered the site, and the site owners haven’t removed the ‘less consistent’ reviews.
  3. The site seems to be based in Utah, at least one reviewer graduated from Brigham Young University, and the site gives glowing reviews to a number of books written by and about Mormons.

Book Banned, Author Bemused

I’ve previously written about my books being edited so that the vocabulary, punctuation and spelling make sense to overseas readers. However, I didn’t mention another issue, which is that different countries often have very different cultural values. Contrast, for example, attitudes (and legislation) in Australia and the United States regarding gun ownership, capital punishment and universal healthcare. And also, book banning.

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American editionEarlier this year, I was interviewed by Magpies (an Australian journal about literature for children and teenagers) and was asked about the reaction of US readers to the epilogue of The FitzOsbornes at War. As the book hadn’t yet been released in the US, I talked about reactions to the previous two books. I said I’d always expected some US reviewers and readers would object to my gay and bisexual characters, but that I’d been surprised by some of the things they’d also deemed ‘controversial’ – for example, that some of my characters were atheists or socialists, that not all of the married couples were happily married, and that there was a brief discussion of contraception. One US reviewer of The FitzOsbornes in Exile complained at length about the “sketchy moral questions that permeate the book” and hoped that there’d be some signs of moral improvement in Book Three. Um . . . well, not really.

But I suppose it depends on how you define ‘moral’. I think The FitzOsbornes at War is all about morality, but I quite understand that some readers won’t approve of some of the characters’ actions. It’s a novel full of conflict and drama and people in extreme circumstances making difficult (and occasionally stupid) decisions. But reading about characters doing things that you regard as against your own personal moral code is not the same as doing those things yourself. For instance, teenagers reading about a gay character will not suddenly turn gay (unless they already are gay, in which case what they read will make no difference to who they are, but might possibly make them feel less alone). Will reading about such ‘immoral’ behaviour make the behaviours seem more ‘normal’, more ‘acceptable’? Well, maybe. The US librarian who’s pulled The FitzOsbornes at War off her library shelves certainly seems to think so.

Note: Sorry, I’m going to have to include plot spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War here. If you haven’t read the book but are planning to read it, you might want to skip the next seven paragraphs of this post.

I’m not going to link to the librarian’s review, because I don’t want anyone to go over there and hassle her. (Not that you would – I know the people who regularly visit this blog are always respectful and courteous, even when they disagree with a post – but just in case someone else does.) Still, I found the librarian’s reasons for removing the book really interesting, so I would like to quote from her review, which awarded the book one star out of five:

“Does it not bother anyone that this novel seems to have characters that are entirely amoral? I was wondering whether to overlook the PG13 content and language because of the educational aspects of this well researched historical fiction World War II novel, but really–I just have to wonder about everyone being okay with the gay king living with his wife and his wife’s lover and their children in happy wedded bliss (This was a recommended book in the Parent’s Choice awards!)…Sorry this one is not staying at our library.”

Firstly, as far as I know, the book isn’t recommended in the Parents’ Choice awards. A Brief History of Montmaray was, several years ago, but The FitzOsbornes at War hasn’t been.

Secondly, is it just me or does it read as though it’s okay to have a gay character in a book, but only if he’s utterly miserable? Heaven forbid that gay people and their children could ever live in “happy wedded bliss”, either in books or in real life. Oh, wait, some people’s version of heaven does forbid it . . .

Thirdly, if the “content and language” is regarded by the librarian as PG13, doesn’t that mean that this book should be okay to shelve in the Young Adult fiction section? Shouldn’t it be suitable for readers over thirteen, with some parental guidance if necessary? Can’t teenage readers and their parents decide for themselves whether they want to read this book?

Fourthly, does this librarian truly believe the characters in The FitzOsbornes at War are “entirely amoral”? The word ‘amoral’ doesn’t mean ‘disagrees with my own moral values’. It refers to someone who has no understanding of morality, no sense of right and wrong. I’m assuming the librarian is referring to Toby, Julia and Simon, given the reference to the “gay king” and his family (although, who knows, perhaps Veronica and Sophie are included in the condemnation, for having had sexual experiences outside marriage). Really, these characters are “amoral”? In a novel that also contains Hitler, Stalin and Franco? So, should all books with amoral characters be banned from libraries? I’m guessing that particular library doesn’t have a copy of Richard III or Macbeth, either. (Not that I’m for one moment suggesting that my novels approach the literary quality of the works of William Shakespeare. But it seems ‘literary quality’ isn’t a factor in determining which books are stocked at this library, anyway.)

(Fifthly, and quite irrelevantly, did the librarian really describe Simon as the “wife’s lover”? Poor Toby! You’d think he’d have more of a claim as Simon’s lover than Julia, after all those years.)

This is where the cultural difference thing comes in, because I am trying, and failing, to imagine a librarian in an Australian public library taking The FitzOsbornes at War off her library’s shelves – not because a library patron had complained, but because the librarian herself thought the book ‘amoral’. Australia has a long history of banning books, but it would be very unusual for a book in an Australian public library to be challenged or banned nowadays, particularly if the only objection to the book was that it contained a gay character who was happy.

Still, I’m in pretty good company. Here are some of the books that were most frequently banned or challenged in US libraries between 2000 and 2009:

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451? Seriously, a novel about books being outlawed in America is on the US banned books list? I can only shake my head and turn to John Stuart Mill, who’s quoted on the American Library Association’s website:

“. . . But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Regarding Internet Piracy

I’ve been contemplating this topic for a while, but put off blogging about it because . . . well, I suspected it would be a difficult and depressing experience. However, I’ve decided that writing this post as a discussion question, rather than a one-sided rant, might end up being very informative for me. At the very least, it might make me feel less frustrated about the issue.

First, that term ‘piracy’. Perhaps that’s part of the problem? Pirates – either the traditional cutlass-wielding, skull-and-crossbones-flag-waving ones, or the modern, machine-gun-wielding, hostage-taking ones – are violent, murderous thugs. Using the same word for people who illegally download music, movies and books is hyperbole, and it makes illegal downloaders far less likely to take their own crimes seriously. But the thing is, internet piracy IS a crime, and it’s a crime that has victims. It’s just that illegal downloaders (or the people who upload the files in the first place) don’t seem to regard it as a crime, not even a minor crime.

This is where I, a Generation X technophobe with an extremely slow dial-up internet connection, confess my ignorance. I’ve never downloaded a movie, a song or a copyrighted book from the internet – not just because I lack the technological ability, but also because I believe that if I take someone’s creative work, I should pay them for it (assuming they’re asking for payment). To me, ‘don’t steal from other people’ is a basic moral principle, along the same lines as ‘don’t hit other people’. But the recent SOPA* proposal generated lots of online discussion that made me realise that there are many internet users who regard downloading copyrighted material for free as either ‘not really stealing’ or ‘justifiable stealing’. Here are some of the justifications I read:

I’m not hurting anyone if I illegally download movies/music/books. Okay, maybe a few huge multi-national companies will earn a bit less money, but they’re ripping us consumers off, anyway, so they deserve it.

I’ll concentrate on book piracy here, rather than movie and music piracy, because I’m an author. Yes, you are hurting someone when you choose to download a pirated book, instead of buying it. You’re hurting the author. If you’d bought the book, the author would receive some royalties from the sale. This would allow the author to pay her electricity bill and buy some more printer cartridges, so that she could write another book. The publisher would also note that the author had sold some books, so would be more likely to publish the author’s next book. If the author sold lots of books, the publisher might actually sign up the author’s next book before it was even written, and pay the author an advance, which would allow the author to pay both her electricity and her gas bills. This would make her so happy that she might even be able to give up her part-time job(s) and become a full-time writer, so her next book would be written much faster.

Books are too expensive. If they were cheaper, I’d buy them. As it is, I’m forced to download them illegally.

As an avid reader, I have some sympathy for the ‘books are expensive’ viewpoint, but if you can afford a computer and a high-speed internet connection, you can probably afford to buy a paperback every now and again. Most online booksellers sell books at discounted prices, particularly when a new book in a series comes out – for example, the e-book edition of A Brief History of Montmaray was on sale for less than five dollars during April. You can often find bargains in second-hand book shops (yes, I know authors don’t receive royalties when the book is sold a second time, but they did when the book was sold the first time). You can also borrow the book from a library – the library bought the book, so the author gets royalties from that initial sale. (In Australia, there’s also a government scheme that pays authors a small amount of money each year, proportionate to the number of their books in libraries.) There are lots of cheap options for book lovers. And if you truly value books, don’t you expect to pay something for them?

There’s also a reason that books are expensive. A lot of work goes into creating them – not just the author’s work, but the labour of editors, proof-readers, designers and typesetters (even legal advisors, in the case of my books, because I don’t want to be sued for defamation by a real person I’ve put into my novels). Each of these people deserves some compensation for their work. If no-one pays for the book, how will these workers earn any money?

Sometimes I wonder if readers think all writers are as rich as J. K. Rowling. I’m certainly not, and neither are any of the writers I know. That’s okay for me – if the aim of my life was to earn loads of money, I’d do something other than writing. I don’t live a luxurious life. I don’t need a car, or a TV, or a mobile phone, or an iPod, and I don’t need to go on overseas holidays. But I still have to pay my bills and buy food, so I do need some money.

Books should be for everyone to share. The people who run file-sharing websites are doing society a favour, out of the goodness of their hearts.

No, the people who run file-sharing websites are making a fortune from advertising on those sites. They’re doing it to make money, and none of that money goes to the artists, musicians and writers who created that content. There’s plenty of free, legal creative content on the internet, uploaded by creators who want to share their work, and that’s great. For instance, anyone can read my blog posts for free, either here or at blogs where I’ve done guest posts. But when I spend two years writing a novel, I’d really like to get paid some money for it when it’s finally published.

Creators should be flattered that people are illegally downloading their work. It shows how popular the work is and creates a bigger market for the creator’s next work.

Illegal copies of The FitzOsbornes at War were all over the internet a few hours after the book went on sale in Australia. I didn’t feel flattered. I felt depressed that my hard work was being stolen.

I’m flattered if readers write nice comments about my books on their blogs. I’m flattered if readers care enough about my characters that they’re inspired to write Montmaray fanfiction**. I’m flattered if people say they’ll buy my next book because they liked the last one. But I’m never going to feel flattered by people who illegally download my books instead of buying them.

The book/movie/music I want isn’t available where I live. I shouldn’t have to wait six months for it to reach my country. I’m forced to download it illegally.

I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint, too. In a global fandom, it seems unfair that some people get instant access to creative work and are able to discuss it, while others have to wait. But in the case of books, publishers often have good reasons for releasing a book when they do. For example, they might think a book will sell best if it’s released at the start of the school year, or the start of the summer holidays, so the release dates will differ for the United States and Australia. (I know I don’t need to explain this to Australians and New Zealanders, but I’m amazed at the number of Americans who’ll ask how my summer vacation’s going in the middle of July.) Anyway, in the case of books, you don’t have to wait. You can order a (paper) book online and get it within days of the original release date, no matter where you are in the world. If you order from sites like The Book Depository, you won’t even have to pay postage. It’s true that if you want the e-book, you will have to wait till it reaches your territory, due to territorial copyright laws. But don’t penalise the author or the publisher for this – they’re just following the law. (Author Seanan McGuire wrote a post about this recently.)

I wouldn’t upload my favourite e-book to one of those big file-sharing sites, but what’s wrong with me sharing it with my friends? It’s no different to lending them a paperback that I’ve bought.

I don’t have an e-reader, so I’m not sure of the technical details, but some e-books can be legally shared (in a limited way) with friends, and that’s fine, just as some libraries have e-books available to borrow. The problem is when one person sends an illegal copy of an e-book to a friend, and that friend shares the copy with several others, and one of them posts a link to the file on Twitter, so that in the end, several hundred people have read the book for free. That’s quite different to lending a paperback to a friend – in that case, only one person at a time can read it, and probably only half a dozen people, at most, will read the same copy of the book. I think the people involved in this sort of file-sharing are genuinely keen to spread their love of the book, and don’t see it as a large-scale problem. But when illegal downloads of the Montmaray books outnumber sales of the Australian editions, then I have a big problem, and so do my Australian publishers. There is no motivation for them to publish my next book, because they know it won’t sell enough to make them any money.

This whole issue reminds me of an article I read a few weeks ago in the Business section of The Sydney Morning Herald. Marcus Padley wrote about how the stock market depends on ‘integrity’ and he reflected on some conversations about life that he’d had with his teenage children:

“My kids are making some glorious backward steps of their own. There is a new code they have got from someone other than me, and God forbid it should become part of the financial markets. I am referring to the culture of taking things because you can, of exploiting any loophole. This culture says if people are dumb enough to let you take it, it’s not criminal, it’s smart. I blame the internet […] Knowing how to get away with things and getting away with them has become their philosophy and the consequences (lost industries) are too long term to be of concern to them.”

Leaving aside the obvious retort that the “taking things because you can” culture already IS a “part of the financial markets” (hence the Global Financial Crisis), I wondered if there really has been a generational shift in ethics due to the internet. However, I’m reluctant to buy into that ‘young people these days, they’ve got no morals’ attitude, which is why I’d like this blog post to be a question, rather than a statement.

If you have any insights into the issue of illegal book downloading, I would love it if you left a comment below. You can do it anonymously. (I know the comment form asks for your e-mail address, but you can always use a fake one. The only time I ask for valid e-mail addresses is if I’m doing a book giveaway, so that I can contact you if you win.) I’m genuinely interested in understanding more about this issue, because it has significant implications for my life as a professional writer.

Oh, and if you’ve ever bought one of my books – I’m very, very grateful to you.

*I’m not going to discuss SOPA, other than to say that the proposed legislation seemed to take a heavy-handed and probably ineffective approach to the very real problem of internet piracy.

**I think fanfiction is a wonderful and creative thing, but it’s probably best not to tell me about it if you’ve written Montmaray fanfiction. And please don’t try to make money from selling your Montmaray fanfiction, otherwise my publishers could get very cross at you.

Girls and Boys and Books, Yet Again

Oh, no! The YA publishing industry is dominated by girls! Girls reading books, girls writing books, girls actually allowed to be main characters in books . . . It’s out of control and it has to stop, says Robert Lipsyte in his recent New York Times essay, Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?

Fortunately for all of us, Aja Romano has now published a brilliant response to this rubbish. Unlike Mr Lipsyte’s essay, Ms Romano’s article is full of facts and logic and common sense, and is written by someone who’s actually familiar with contemporary YA literature. It’s well worth a read.

EDITED TO ADD: Tea Cozy has a great post about this, which includes a link to another brilliant response by Saundra Mitchell, who also posted a long list of YA books about boys.

Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

Last year, I posted a rant about a couple of YA book reviews that had evoked my feminist rage. One of the book reviewers, Malcolm Tattersall, subsequently contacted me and expressed an interest in taking the discussion further. We were joined by the other reviewer, Tony Thompson, as well as Lili Wilkinson and Mike Shuttleworth. An edited version of our online discussion has now been published in the latest edition of Viewpoint. The article is titled Pink and Blue and Read All Over: Gender Issues in YA Fiction, but as far as I know, there isn’t an online version of the article. If that changes, I’ll post a link here.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)I’ve only flicked through the latest Viewpoint, but a review of Aimee Said’s Little Sister and Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye caught my eye, because the first sentence of the review states that “these are most definitely Girl Books”. I GIVE UP! No, wait, I don’t. I just finished reading the review by Jenny Zimmerman. It is mostly positive about both books, but concludes:

“I must protest about the deeply unhelpful message in almost everything aimed at adolescent girls. You know the one: Then She Met a Perfect Guy and Lived Happily Ever After . . . Mr Right is out there and waiting to rescue you from eating disorders, teen pregnancy, parental divorce or bullying. Unless there’s something profoundly odd about you, you will find him any day now. Is this what readers demand, or what writers feel must be included in fiction for young women? Yes, falling in love is a huge part of being a teenager, but it would be nice to come across some YA fiction which doesn’t assume that a girl without a boyfriend is an unfinished story.”

Well, I can think of a few YA novels that end with “a girl without a boyfriend”. All of my novels, for example. At the end of The Rage of Sheep, Hester drives off with her trusty dog and her Walkman, perfectly capable of solving her own problems – and I can’t imagine any of the FitzOsborne girls waiting around for a boy to rescue them.

Hermione Granger Rules The World

I love the Harry Potter books, but I also agree with Sady Doyle’s feminist criticisms of them. Ms Doyle discusses the REAL hero(ine) of the books in her article, In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger Series, and follows this up with The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger. Both articles are well worth a read, if you’re interested in either Harry Potter or the way girls are portrayed in popular culture.

(Thanks to Read Plus for the link.)

A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

As I’ve previously mentioned, I love the North American cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, which features a girl in a glamorous 1930s ballgown. One of the shadowy figures in the background is a young man who seems to be smoking a cigarette, and I did wonder how long it would be before someone objected to this. Not very long at all, it turns out. A few weeks after the book was released, this US librarian commented about it on her blog:

“It’s probably a good idea when you market a book for teens that the cover image not feature things that teens can’t do – so, having someone drinking on the cover isn’t usually a good idea. Neither is smoking.”

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' North American hardcover
Yes, he's smoking – but that doesn't mean YOU should smoke
The librarian was far more observant than I was, because she noticed that the cigarette in the young man’s hand had been Photoshopped out of existence – and that was before she compared the cover to the look-alike cover of Consequences of the Heart, in which the cigarette is clearly visible. I’d just assumed ‘my’ young man was holding a cigarette and that the camera angle meant the cigarette was hidden behind his fingers. It’s obvious that a white cloud is hovering next to his hand, and I imagined most people would assume he was smoking. Characters in the book smoke, so why shouldn’t characters on the cover do the same thing?

I can see why responsible adults might be concerned about this. Smoking is bad; therefore, we should make sure that all images of smoking are unappealing, especially if they’re going to be seen by impressionable teenagers. The question is whether art and literature should be censored to achieve a social aim, and whether such censorship is actually effective in achieving those aims.

I should say here that I’ve never smoked. I loathe the smell of cigarettes and I wish everyone in the world, but especially people in my apartment building, would stop smoking. I also worked as a speech pathologist for fifteen years and not many speech pathologists smoke, because we have a very clear understanding of the awful health problems caused by smoking (and those dissected tar-soaked lungs they insisted on showing us during our university anatomy lessons were fairly off-putting, too).

However, I also write historical novels, which I try to make as realistic as possible, and the fact is, attitudes to smoking were quite different in the past. I’ve seen 1930s advertisements in which ‘doctors’ solemnly claimed that a certain brand of cigarette was a healthy way to relieve stress. No one knew about lung cancer or laryngeal cancer or heart disease then. (Actually, some of the first research into the health dangers of smoking was carried out by a Nazi doctor on the orders of Hitler, a non-smoker). In 1930s England, most men smoked some form of tobacco, and ladies who wished to be thought of as ‘sophisticated’ carried around little silver cases of cigarettes. And is there a photograph in existence of Winston Churchill without his cigar?

It would be ridiculous if none of the dozens of characters in The FitzOsbornes in Exile smoked, but I did think carefully about who would smoke. Of the young characters, Sophie and Veronica are too well brought up (and impoverished) to have developed a cigarette habit. Julia, despite her sophistication, is never seen smoking. Rupert’s health problems preclude him taking up smoking. Daniel either doesn’t have the money to buy cigarettes, or doesn’t want to support capitalist tobacco companies. The only main characters identified as smokers are Toby, who mentions cadging cigarettes at the beginning of the first Montmaray book, and Simon, who’s occasionally seen lighting the cigarette of a woman he’s trying to seduce. I don’t think either of these characters could be regarded as good role models for teenagers. Toby has a perpetual hangover and gets expelled from a series of educational institutions, while Simon’s morals are ambiguous, to put it generously. I don’t think any non-smoking teenager is going to read The FitzOsbornes in Exile and think, “Gosh, I want to be just like Toby and Simon! I’m going to start smoking!”

Come to think of it, even the ‘good’ FitzOsbornes behave in ways that are not terribly healthy. They speed around the countryside in a sports car while not wearing seatbelts, eat pastries laden with refined sugar and full-fat cream, and taunt Nazis from the windows of slow-moving trains. But I really don’t think my readers are going to emulate any of those behaviours. (Apart from eating cakes – and I’m sure my readers would consume them in moderation and then incorporate an appropriate amount of exercise into their daily routines.)

However, is it possible that teenagers might see the cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile in a school library or a bookshop, and, not having read the book, start to think, “Smoking is cool”? Yes, it’s possible. They could also get the same idea from watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, or from viewing any number of modern films. It’s far more likely they’d be influenced by the attitudes of their friends and family.

So, I have to say to teenagers: if you’re reading this and you’re tempted in any way, for whatever reason, to start smoking, DON’T DO IT! SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU!

You’re allowed to read my books, though, if you really want.

Fifty Books A Year

Books

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

Number of Novels Read: Ten.

Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

Number of Anthologies Read: One.

Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

That is all.