Memoranda Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, I started this blog with a post about how I learned to hate poetry. Three hundred and twenty-one posts and about two hundred thousand words later, here I am, still blogging, although far less frequently than at the start.

Here’s a selection of Memoranda posts from the past decade.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

First, ten discussions about children’s books, in no particular order:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

The Years of Grace and Growing Up Gracefully by Noel Streatfeild

Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

End of Term by Antonia Forest

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And ten discussions about favourite novels and novelists:

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford and Meet the Mitfords

The lost art of letter writing

Here are ten posts about writing:

How To Write a Novel, about writing advice

Same Book, But Different, on editing books for different countries

Book Banned, Author Bemused – my book got banned in the US!

Five Ways in Which Writing a Novel is Like Making a Quilt

Writing About Place

The Creative Vision Versus the Marketing Department

Goatbusters, or How The Writerly Mind Works

The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen In The Montmaray Journals

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice For Writers

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)

And ten rants about book-related topics:

Just a Girls’ Book, followed by Just A Girls’ Book, Redux and Girls and Boys and Books, Yet Again

That Gay YA Thing

Some Thoughts On Reading

Looking for a Good, Clean Book

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Regarding Internet Piracy

ARCs

A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

Here’s to another ten years of Memoranda. Hopefully I’ll be blogging a bit more from now on, because I’ve just deleted my Twitter account.

Five Feminist Books

Happy International Women’s Day! I thought I’d mark the occasion by recommending some feminist books. Social media has its uses and there are lots of interesting feminist blogs and online forums, but sometimes you just want a well-argued, well-edited volume written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I do try to keep up with the latest books from young feminists (for example, I’ve read Princesses and Pornstars by Emily Maguire, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran), but I often find myself underwhelmed by these books. They tend to be memoirs, heavy on anecdotes from the lives of the authors and their friends, but skimpy on historical facts, scientific evidence and feminist theory. There is nothing wrong with books about the personal experiences of women, but when these authors are white, heterosexual and famous, their experiences don’t necessarily have universal appeal or relevance. Still, these particular authors aren’t writing for me. Hopefully, the young women (and men) buying those books find them thought-provoking and life-changing. And if those readers ever decide they want to learn more about feminism, they could try some of these feminist books from the last fifty years:

1. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer

You cannot possibly claim to be well-informed about feminism if you haven’t read this book. Despite Germaine Greer’s scary reputation, this is really not a difficult read. It’s a clever, provocative, funny, infuriating argument about how and why women have been oppressed for centuries, backed up with hundreds of cultural references. It’s not her best book and it contains plenty of statements I disagree with, but it’s a great introduction to her work.

2. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (1983)

'Outrageous Acts' by Gloria Steinem

While Germaine Greer was busy being a bolshy intellectual, Gloria Steinem was disguising herself as a Playboy Bunny in order to infiltrate the toxic world of men’s clubs. This book is a collection of some of her best-known magazine articles, including I Was a Playboy Bunny, If Men Could Menstruate and In Praise of Women’s Bodies, as well as essays on Marilyn Monroe, Linda Lovelace and Alice Walker. Ms Steinem’s focus is American political and social life, written in a warm, funny, inclusive manner, although there are also essays on international issues including female genital mutilation and the politics of food. Those who think intersectional feminism was invented in the last five years might find their beliefs challenged by this book.

3. Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999)

'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi is an American journalist best known for her 1991 book Backlash, but Stiffed is a great read for those who falsely believe that feminism only benefits women. Ms Faludi began by investigating a group of male domestic violence perpetrators who’d been ordered to attend counselling. Her initial assumption was that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them.” What she eventually discovered, after years of interviews with male factory workers, athletes, military cadets, sports fans, porn stars, evangelical husbands and more, was that many men felt betrayed after losing jobs, skills and life roles in America’s post-war cultural upheaval, but were unable to work together to form a male equivalent of the women’s liberation movement. Her research is meticulous, but it’s the men’s personal stories that make this so fascinating.

4. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine (2010)

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine

This is a book to press upon people who believe that girls are inherently emotional and chatty and unable to read maps, while boys are innately superior at rational thinking, designing bridges and running the world. Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian cognitive neuroscientist, analyses the current research and produces a compelling argument that there is very little difference between male and female brains, with the small cognitive variations that do exist easily explained by the different social and cultural worlds experienced by girls and boys from birth. This is often a very funny and entertaining read, especially when she’s taking potshots at Simon Baron-Cohen, but there’s a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to back it up.

5. Bluff Your Way in Feminism by Constance Leoff (1987)

'Bluff Your Way in Feminism' by Constance Leoff

You probably won’t be able to find a copy of this, but it’s a little gem of a book, rocketing through five thousand years of feminist history, from Aristoclea and Sappho, through Aphra Behn and Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir, to Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou. There are also lots of hilarious feminist quotes, useful explanations about the different types of feminism, and a handy glossary if you’re confused about terms such as ‘biological determinism’ and ‘parthenogenesis’.

You might also be interested in reading:

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

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.