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June 13th, 2016

07:57 am - Recent cooking
Charred eggplant and walnut pesto pasta salad - I dislike eggplant unless it's cooked just right, but this was quite delicious and not as bad as I expected with the prep time -- though it was challenging to handle the pasta, the pesto, and the eggplant all at once.

For my Tony viewing snack I made a fruit compote with strawberries, cherries, ginger, and a little lime juice. Served it over ice cream. Actually I didn't let it cool down enough before I ate, so I served it over melted ice cream, but it was still delicious.

We're almost at that time of year when I want to eat nothing but avocado on toast. Luckily I do have some avocados. I'm looking forward to having central air...

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June 11th, 2016

09:40 pm - Some things about dialects
Deborah Tannen has an interesting article on "New York Jewish Conversational Style."

I'm interested in following up on Lakoff's discussion of the "rules of rapport"; I think I've seen quite a few conflicts between my family's Canadian-WASP emphasis on deference and the emphasis on camaraderie that's more common among Americans. (Conflicts, I think, that the Americans mostly never heard about, because you can't impose on someone by talking about their rudeness!)

When I started working at my current branch (which is very Jewish, but German much more than Eastern European, so I'm not sure to what extent there's overlap in conversational styles) I often had the experience of feeling -- put on the spot, I guess; like I wasn't being given enough time to answer, or to think of the right way to word something. But the thing is, whenever I start working at a new branch I feel like people are being so mean to me, and then after three months something clicks and I start to pick up on the subtle cultural and linguistic characteristics of the neighborhood, and suddenly I realize that most people weren't being mean to me at all.

I'm not sure if I wrote about this before, but I used to have this interaction a couple times a week and feel really anxious about it:

Patron: Where are your books on Subject X?
Me: Is there anything in particular that I can help you find?
Patron: Just books on Subject X.
Me: Here they are.
Patron: Fine.

In my idiolect*, "fine" in this context almost always means "Unsatisfactory, but I'll accept it's the best I'm going to get right now." "Fine" is what you say when your flight is canceled because of the weather and the person at the airport books you into a hotel that will certainly turn out to be unpleasant and inconvenient. It's when you drop your expensive gadget and support says it's not covered under warranty, but they'll give you a discount on a replacement.

In my patrons' dialect? "Fine" meant "fine," a lot of the time. (I can't be sure it NEVER meant what it means in my idiolect, because we have a lot of unsatisfactory spots in our collection, but I think most of the time it genuinely meant "fine"!)

This blog post on differences in "please" usage between the US and the UK also came to my attention recently. You know what's weird? I've lived in the US for close to twenty years, and I have never once noticed that the American norm isn't to use "please" when you're ordering in a restaurant. (This is one place where Canadian usage -- my Canadian usage, at least -- is entirely British; in fact, if my order is long I'll often start with "Can I please get a ....", say what I'm ordering, forget having said please already, and add another "Please?" at the end.) So I used to bristle a fair bit because my patrons' politeness norms weren't my politeness norms; it took me a little while to figure out that there was no rudeness intended, just different norms.

I hope people haven't been thinking I was rude or weird all this time, but I'm not sure I could break the habit. (I have been trying to change from things like "Please don't run in the library" to things like "The library isn't a good place for running," because of a blog post I read about how much time we spend ordering children to do things. But it's hard to change.)

*Just like a dialect is the version of a language spoken by a particular community, an idiolect is the version of a language spoken only by yourself. I'm often unsure whether a particular linguistic thing I do is from Canadian English, Southern US English, New York English, or somewhere else entirely.

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June 10th, 2016

11:37 am - Grown-up books in disguise: threat or menace?
"Most YA fiction is grown up fiction in disguise", Anthony McGowan writes in the Guardian.

As usual for thinkpieces on YA, it's not a great article - it's long on generalities and short on specifics (Which teenagers aren't reading which books? What styles or themes or characters belong in adult literature but not YA?) - and ultimately, these are the problems that we get into when we treat teenagers as a monolithic group. As Farah Mendlesohn has argued, when we say "the average teenager won't like this book," we're often correct -- but we're excluding a lot of the most passionate and dedicated readers.

Young Adult literature, like children's literature, is tricky because you have to manage several different kinds of difference from adult readers. There's reading fluency -- and while a lot of kids are reading at an adult-airport-bestseller level by the time they're twelve or so, especially if they're economically advantaged, a lot of kids aren't. There's real-world knowledge, which can make political thrillers and historical fiction dull or confusing for many teenagers. And there's emotional maturity and experience. All of these things develop at different rates for different readers.

Like a lot of children in my generation (I went to high school in the late '90s), I didn't read a lot of YA in my teens - I read a lot of middle-grade fiction, and after that I mostly read adult science fiction and fantasy, because intellectually I was ready for adult fiction, but I was not ready emotionally for very nuanced and complicated romantic relationships, or books about mid-life crises and parenting. Even as a high-school senior reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, with its college freshman protagonist, it felt like a world that I didn't belong to, a world that was still a little too dangerous for me to enter. I wish that young me had had the kind of YA that McGowan sniffs at for being too grown-up for teen readers; I think a lot of it would have been just right for me. But there have been books that could be appreciated by both adults and teens in the 19th century, when it was very common to read Dickens or Hawthorne out loud to the whole family; in the 1980s and 90s, when Stephen King was the most popular author among teenagers even if he was too gory to be published as YA; and I do think lots of those books that are being published as YA now would have been published as adult back then. I don't think that's necessarily a problem. Books will find their readers, whatever section of the library they're placed in.

But I also think it's very important to make sure that every reader can find the book that's right for them. There's an awful lot of concern over boys who don't read - and I don't think it's misplaced, but it's hard to know whether it's a publishing problem or a cultural issue or what. (The push to take pleasure reading out of schools makes me tear my hair out, but as far as I know that's more an American problem.) There's not a lack of books about boys; there's not a lack of books that should appeal to boys who don't particularly like to read; on the other hand there IS a lack of books about people of color, about people with disabilities, about trans people. (There is far more, and better-written, LGBT YA than there was even ten years ago, but it's still an issue.) A lot of mainstream YA lit suffers from the sitcom thing where everyone is at least middle-class enough that lack of money is never a real problem. I don't want to let publishing off the hook too easily.

It's just that, if teenagers aren't reading enough, then it's not "Life: An Exploded Diagram" (the author's example of a YA book too mature for YA) that's at fault.

When a stylistically challenging, thematically mature, or just plain odd YA book gets published - can we see that as a victory for the teenagers who need those books, and not as a loss for everybody else? Can we aim for a publishing ecosystem that represents all teenagers, including those who aren't reading fluently, including those who have needs in themes, styles, and subject matter that don't always get considered? And if we're worried about kids who don't read -- as we should be, I think -- can we look for solutions that go beyond the books that get published?

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May 29th, 2016

12:28 am
This may be strange, but I love the brutality of a lot of the vids at the WisCon vid party.

Like: it's something I couldn't put up with for more than three and a half minutes, but three and a half minutes is just right.

Like: in the original source the violence may be lazy or gratuitous. A good vid can play up what's glamorous in the violence (and it IS easy to make a gun fight or a knife fight operatic if you're good at editing) and also construct a new narrative structure where the violence is hugely emotionally significant and not a cheap ratings grab.

When I see a vid like that, I often think, oh, that's the kind of book that I want to write, which is strange because I think the books I write tend to be gentle. It's not like you can't have both; I think one of the things I appreciated about Fury Road is that sense of gentle ideals within a brutal world. But I do think that's something I want to try harder to do in my writing, to nudge my characters toward more desperate decisions with more dramatic consequences. Not because gentleness is wrong or boring, but because it means more when there are real, awful choices on the table.

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May 25th, 2016

05:28 am - Captain America: Civil War
I actually enjoyed it but I don't think it held together, so you may want to skip my crankinessCollapse )

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May 20th, 2016

10:52 am
I would pay someone actual cash money if they could prevent me from ever hearing again "There is obviously not a market for YA with LGBT characters which I know because of statistics and demographics and MAGIC" from people with WAY LESS KNOWLEDGE OF THE YA MARKET THAN I HAVE.

(I am lucky in that actual professional industry people have never been less than supportive of me on this subject. I'm just talking about random people on message boards.)

It is true that swooniness is a definite factor in the popularity of the most popular YA books. I personally don't find the gender of either love interest to be a factor in whether I find a book to be swoony, but probably some people do, OK, cool. If you advance 'demographics and statistics and MAGIC' as a reason why a book with a lesbian relationship isn't going to sell 8 million copies, well, I'll point out that going by demographics and statistics and MAGIC, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' shouldn't have had millions and millions of sales outside the BDSM community -- but I also won't think you're 100% wrong. (Actually my favorite love stories tend to be the ones where I really believe in the emotional arc of the relationship, whether or not I find any character in the book dreamy, which is GOOD, because I am an OLD, and I should not be swooning over any YA book character.) All right. So there's still room for thousands and thousands of books that are not ultra-bestsellers, that you hear of if you're paying attention and maybe don't hear about otherwise. To say 'there is no market' erases all the people who see that not as something carved on a stone tablet, but something that can be changed -- that they are working hard to change by reading, and writing, and talking about books.

Bookstores and publishers and agents and librarians and bloggers have a lot of room to do better, with regard to all the books that fall under the radar. But I don't think that writers can react to the realities of the market with the kind of glib despair that says 'It is what it is, I will only write the kind of books that I assume will sell well.' I'd rather acknowledge that it might be an uphill path at times and say 'Hey, I'm not afraid of walking up a hill.'

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May 17th, 2016

01:03 pm - The walled-off library
Some time ago on Facebook there was a discussion about whether teen nonfiction materials should be put into their own section to protect teens from potential predators. And I'm like - lots of these kids are going to be in COLLEGE in a couple of years. Reading adult-level nonfiction (if not Baudrillard and Foucault-level nonfiction!) is part of the skill set they're going to need. Interacting with adults is part of the skillset they're going to need. There isn't enough teen nonfiction to provide a decent-sized collection for browsing and research at most public libraries, anyway, unless you have millions of dollars to just duplicate the adult collection.

And then another discussion came up about teen-only areas in libraries. And, you know, I think it's a nice idea to have a place for teens to hang out with comfortable chairs, that doesn't immediately get taken over by 10-year-olds, or by adults running small businesses out of the library. (But let adults BROWSE THE COLLECTION, please, even if they're not allowed to sit down!) However - it does bother me when this is positioned as a measure to protect teens from sexual predators. Safety is something you achieve through good sight lines and adequate staffing, not by imagining that everyone 17 and under is a potential victim and everyone 18 and over is a potential criminal.

I think that when we talk about 'helicopter parenting,' one of the things we're really talking about is the kind of suburbanization that makes it impossible for a child to go to a friend's house or the movies or the convenience store without begging an adult for a ride; it makes independence harder. I think that as a librarian, it's really important to protect teens, but it's also important to foster their independence, their curiosity -- their young adulthood, really.

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May 13th, 2016

10:10 pm
I was watching some "Every Frame a Painting" videos this evening, and his treatment of the Coen brothers' technique with shot-reverse shot sequences put me in mind of something I've been thinking about lately, with writing.

There's a lot of amateur writing that's just unclear. Sometimes it's misplaced modifiers that make you pause in the middle of a sentence to reread, things like "I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner." (When the intended meeting is "As I was coming down the stairs for dinner, I smelled the oysters.") Sometimes it's awkward blocking, where the positions of the characters and the sequence of the actions is perfectly clear to the writer but the reader is wondering where that third arm came from. Sometimes it's a consequence of trying to be flashy and impress people, where abstract latinate words and metaphors get thrown together into something close to word salad.

And there's room, in great writing, for all kinds of stylistic pyrotechnics. But sometimes when you're tying yourself in knots trying to write just the right words, it can be useful to come back to clarity and simplicity as guiding principles -- what are the most precise words I can get to just literally describe what happens? When it really works, it's like what the Coen brothers are doing in those shots: it seems like it's so simple it ought to be boring, but actually it forces you to get in there and listen for the right word, the right gesture, the right emotion. It's not that one style is superior to another style -- I'm not a huge fan of minimalist writing -- but I think it's really easy for young writers in particular to think that their own plain and ordinary words are not good enough.

When you know that your own words are good enough, whether they're plain and ordinary or sesquipedalian, that's when you start to get your own voice.

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04:27 pm
I have been very dissatisfied with writing lately. That Ira Glass thing, about how you start out with good taste but bad skills, and so at first it seems like everything you do is awful? In my experience it gets better but it doesn't ever stop. You keep on finding higher things to aim at. And with short stories -- well, all my favorite novels are ragged, shaggy things; you can't keep up a high-gloss polish for a hundred thousand words, and if you could, the novel that resulted would be chilly, like a marble statue that is very lovely but doesn't make much of a friend. So I don't mind writing an imperfect novel. My standard for short stories is that I want them to be flawless, and I see that as an achievable goal (maybe not achievable by me, but achievable by Zadie Smith, let's say.)

Of course "it has to be perfect" is not a great approach to writing a story, emotionally speaking, and "it has to be perfect because I have to have a ton of publications on my CV when I graduate because the job market is brutal" is even worse.

But really, short stories should be where you get to take the risks you wouldn't necessarily take in novels because 80,000 words is such a big investment of time...

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April 16th, 2016

05:50 pm - Free to good home!
Dear Dwircle,

Please let me know if you would like any of the following books!

If you are willing to meet me in Brooklyn or Manhattan, they are free. Otherwise it's whatever it costs me for a flat-rate Priority Mail mailer. (I'll ship internationally for $1 plus shipping, because it's a bit of a hassle.)

Erin Bow - Plain Kate - hardcover

Patrice Kindl - Owl in Love - trade pb

Kij Johnson - Fudoki (has a 1/2" tear on dust jacket) - hardcover

I will be posting this in multiple places and getting rid of unclaimed books fairly quickly, so, MUST ACT SOON, THESE PRICES WON'T LAST, etc.

(This list used to be longer. I had some local friends speak up for some just now. Will be posting more books as I go on, though.)

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April 12th, 2016

08:39 pm
I read far too much YA, but most of it's good YA; and when I read science fiction or fantasy or mainstream fiction, it's usually something that's been hyped so much that it's something I can find interesting or admirable even if it's not my thing.

And YA, even when it's not great, at least tends to have the virtue of concision.

(We shall overlook Cassandra Clare for the moment.)

Anyway, I started reading a popular genre romance with a view to outlining it and seeing how to construct a popular genre romance.

And I start yelling as I read: "This scene is nothing but backstory!"

"This scene is entirely limp, it's not story, it's just this happened and then this happened and then this happened!"

"This scene can be totally deleted, it's nothing but transportation and logistics!"

Sometimes I worry about how short my books are, and I would like to write books that are more intricately plotted; but some long books don't have more plot, they just have more padding.

I do realize that probably one of this author's great virtues, to her fans, is all the pleasant and inconsequential moments, this small town she's constructed where everybody's pretty nice to everybody else, and too concerned with each other's love lives; I'm just thinking "I guess I'd be pretty bad at writing romance."

There's also the thing where they've only just met and both characters are thinking, "This person sure is distractingly hot!" I realize that I'm at the far end of the bell curve on this one, but I almost never think a person is distractingly hot unless I've known them for at least a year or so. For all that people make fun of bad YA romances -- and for all that I easily get burned out on bad YA romances -- most of them really do make an effort to show the two love interests as people who get each other, who suit each other, who like each other. I'm not trying to say that one way is better than the other; but YA romances are less likely to make me feel like a weirdo.

(Rest assured that I am NOT making sweeping judgments about romances based just on one blah example! I've read a few romances that I liked. However, they were either funny or historical, which may not be examples I can emulate.)

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April 11th, 2016

09:46 pm
Masterpieces are good for the past. They are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.
- Antonin Artaud

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April 5th, 2016

10:48 am
One of the reasons Stephen Krashen criticizes learning foreign language grammar in discrete units -- this week we're learning the past tense, next week we're learning the imperfect -- is this idea that one set time frame is enough to teach you that bit of grammar that you're supposed to know. So if you don't understand it the first time around, you don't get another crack at it. If you get sick and miss a couple of classes, too bad!

In Japanese there's something called keigo, which includes all the special verb forms and conjugations that you use to make a phrase more humble or more respectful, which is used for speaking to clients, customers, your boss, your professor -- it depends on context, but essentially, anyone for whom regular standard politeness isn't quite polite enough. I was thinking just now about how bad my keigo skills are. And I realized just why that is.

The last time I was in a class that did any keigo was maybe 1999 or 2000. Japanese III or IV in high school. After that, I did Japanese III and IV in college - and weirdly, we didn't do any keigo in either one, maybe they do that in Japanese II? And I did a year abroad (during which we did no keigo -- it was something you were already supposed to know.) And I think that if you're seriously studying a foreign language the majority of your learning probably happens out of class time, but keigo's not the kind of thing that you get much exposure to by watching TV or reading books. Even if you're a native speaker, it's something you have to put deliberate time and effort into studying, which is why older people are continually lamenting the keigo of the young.

I was reading up on a foreign language approach called the Growing Participator Approach which focuses on acculturating learners into a speech community - where the syntax and vocabulary of a new language are only a small part of the whole package of cultural learning and identity negotiation that happen as you become part of a new community. And it seems to me that my keigo problem is the kind of thing that an approach like the GPA would tackle particularly well. In a traditional classroom setting, you can write business letters, you can roleplay being salespeople trying to sell each other widgets, or the kind of keigo that's used in shops and restaurants -- but I suspect that what really would have made a difference for me is what GPA refers to as 'language helpers/nurturers' (GPA doesn't use 'student/teacher' terminology for reasons that I find both pedagogically sound and charming) guiding me in sociocultural norms in real-life situations where keigo was called for, whether in talking to a professor or writing an email or that first time I went to McDonalds and the cashier said "Are you eating?" using the formal verb, and I was thinking, "Well, that's normally what you do with food..." (It turned out that 'omeshiagari desu ka?' means 'Is it for here?,' as opposed to takeout.)

Japanese people tend to be really reluctant to correct your politeness, though. It's hard to do without the implication of "You're being rude."

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March 31st, 2016

02:49 pm - Being surprised when the things you love don't love you back
When I did my one and only gender-related university class, which was about feminism and media in Japan, it actually annoyed the heck out of me. Couldn't I enjoy anything without it being problematic? Were there no things that were Feminist Enough unless they were independent zero-budget productions?

Of course, now that I'm no longer twenty, I have an easier time finding nuance in the world; it's not just learning that It's OK To Be A Fan of Problematic Things, it's kind of making peace with the fact the majority of corporate mainstream media just isn't going to be very socially conscious, or very artistically interesting.

And that doesn't mean that we shouldn't call out the issues that exist! Or that we don't have the right to be disappointed when we have to choose between sitting through the silly tedium of Thor 2 and not going out with our friends at all.

But at the same time, there's so much else out there. "If you don't like what's out there, make your own" is good advice for people who want to make their own, but nobody should have to accept this narrative of being grateful for whatever small bones big corporate entities are willing to throw to you, when there are so many people trying to make good art outside of the constraints of what's commercially viable on a gigantic scale.

The flip side of this, of course, is that it's easy to be fannish about the kind of stuff that's commercially viable on a gigantic scale -- it means that you have readers if you write fanfiction, and viewers if you make vids, and people to squee with if you like to squee -- and writing fanfiction and making vids absolutely can also be ways of making good art outside of the constraints of what's commercially viable on a gigantic scale.

But I am so tired of feeling like my only options are to be excited about the next big blockbuster, or to be cynical about the next big blockbuster.

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March 28th, 2016

12:55 pm
TFW it takes about twenty minutes from a discussion to go from "Why do women think there is sexism in publishing????" to "Maybe women just aren't as good at writing books as men, did you ever consider that, huh?"

ANYWAY I am sending off my book to my agent and my editor today \o/

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March 27th, 2016

02:04 pm
In calm theological reasoning, he could demonstrate, in the dryest tone, that, if the eternal torment of six bodies and souls were absolutely the necessary means for preserving the eternal blessedness of thirty-six, benevolence would require us to rejoice in it, not in itself considered, but in view of greater good. And when he spoke, not a nerve quivered; the great mysterious sorrow with which the creation groaneth and travaileth, the sorrow from which angels veil their faces, never had touched one vibrating chord either of body or soul; and he laid down the obligations of man to unconditional submission in a style which would have affected a person of delicate sensibility much like being mentally sawn in sunder. Benevolence, when Simeon Brown spoke of it, seemed the grimmest and unloveliest of Gorgons; for his mind seemed to resemble those fountains which petrify everything that falls into them." - Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Minister's Wooing

Stowe is talking here about the Calvinism of early-19th-century New England, but I never realized how much the utilitarianism of Internet Rationalism has in common with that kind of Calvinism -- mostly, in that its believers are particularly eager to congratulate themselves on being tough-minded enough to do the math and very nobly accept the sacrifices of somebody else for the greater good.

Stowe is a much better writer than she's generally given credit for, I think; mostly I hear her talked about as if she's only important for her advocacy of abolition; but actually her style's a lot more graceful and readable than a lot of 19th century writers with better reputations, even if I'm not particularly jazzed about reading a 500-page 19th-century novel about Calvinism. (It IS pretty racist. But not more so than any other 19th century novel by a white author.)

(I have been working through this MIT OpenCourseWare syllabus on American women authors, and this is the end of it, because I already read The House of Mirth.)

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March 24th, 2016

08:04 pm
Charlotte Temple is neither a well-written book by modern standards nor an enjoyable one by my standards. The prose is very purple ("pellucid drop of humanity" for "teardrop," for example) and it's sentimental and moralistic.

But it's kind of interesting that it purports to be a pro-listening-to-your-parents, anti-eloping-with-some-guy-you-just-met book; and yet, it seems more of an indictment of a society that trains girl to not speak their own minds, to go with the flow, to be eager to please others, and then acts surprised when girls raised under that system turn out to be rather easily seduced. Not because they are full of lust or disobedience, but because they don't know how to say "Hey, dude, nope, I'm not eloping with you."

Any kind of "feminism is actually BAD for women! psych!" contrarianism has to face the fact that even the most restrictive and confining forms of patriarchy don't actually seem able to protect women even as they claim they're the only thing that can.

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February 27th, 2016

09:45 am
*Reads The Price of Salt*

Ah, having read the book, now I do not need to go to see the movie.

*sees gifset of costume design*

...Yeah. I do need to go see the movie.

My sister and I were having a discussion, wherein we agreed that The Price of Salt was a much more interesting title than Carol, and why did they have to change it? But the title only makes sense within the internal narration of the book, in a line that I can't imagine made it into the movie; so I guess they had to change it. Still could've been something more interesting.

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February 15th, 2016

01:42 pm
"I will go get a lunch and try to figure out this structural issue."

Subway to Shake Shack. Escalator is broken, climb three flights of stairs to find Shake Shack too full of people. Back on the subway. Eat lunch. Spend 45 minutes walking in the cold to find a coffee shop with seating. Buy a chai. Sit down with notebook. Figure out my plot within ten minutes.

A successful day!

(I always have an easier time unknotting plots at coffee shops than sitting at home, so this is actually a useful thing to do. And also I had barely left my bed in three days because it has been COLD AF and I felt a need to get outside as soon as it warmed up even a little).

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February 11th, 2016

07:36 am
Having the most frustrating experience arguing in Library Facebook Group about a job posting (part-time!) that requires you to submit a list of books you've read in the last year, to prove that you read widely.

1. The increasingly high burden of job applications. When I was first applying for librarian jobs, I basically just had to submit a cover letter and resume; now, I'm very often having to submit answers to essay questions. Preparing a list of all the books I've read in a year could take a significant amount of time. I think it's unreasonable to ask someone to put that much time into an application when there are a couple hundred other people applying for a job.

2. The EEOC says that you cannot discriminate in employment on the basis of age, disability, national origin, race, religion, or sex. Some states have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That's why HR people say you shouldn't even make small talk about someone's religious jewelry in a job interview -- because it raises the possibility that it might turn into an issue. But based on a list of books a person reads, it seems all too easy to draw up a profile of what kind of person they are and what protected categories might apply to them, and discriminate (even subconsciously) on that basis.

There have to be better ways to get at "Do you read a lot, do you read widely, how would you do in reader's advisory situations" than asking for my Diary Of Books Read Which Contains Many Personal Feelings.

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