September 1st, 2016
B: I never knew Evelyn Waugh was a man.
Me: He was actually married to a woman named Evelyn. Their friends would call them He-velyn and She-velyn.
B: Wow! How did you know that, are you really into that period of literature?
I think I read it on Tumblr?
(It is no less true because I learned it on Tumblr!)
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August 24th, 2016
So, the very morning after I complained about the chair in my office, an email went out to the listserv saying we could come to the English building to pick up one of the outgoing old chairs if we wanted. I took my measuring tape and found the tallest one (feeling slightly like a criminal casing the joint) and now I am satisfied.
I have also signed up for internet service. I am not exactly thrilled about that but I finally figured out that the root of the problem was very high latency; I was getting ping times at the slow end of dialup speeds. I am willing to admit that medium-speed internet is one of the things I won't compromise on.
"I can install it myself," I said to the ISP guy.
"I'm sure you can, it's not that hard," he said.
Never had I wanted so badly to say, "That wasn't a question."
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August 23rd, 2016
|09:48 pm - The saga of the power cords (and other petty complaints)|
So, right after I moved in to my apartment I set up my desk and tried to set up my desktop, only to realize that I had no idea where the power cord had run off to. My current hypothesis is that I accidentally didn't bring it with me when I moved in with my sister, or I accidentally didn't bring it with me to Iowa. They didn't have one at Best Buy, they didn't have one at Target, they didn't have one at the Iowa State University computer store, so I ordered one off NewEgg.
Whoops. I ordered one off the NewEgg Marketplace.
So, a few days pass, a package arrives in the mail.
It's an HDMI cable.
I am first confused, then angry, then confused again. Eventually I get in touch with the seller and they promise to send me the correct cable right away. (At this point I check my email inbox three times to confirm that I actually ordered the correct cable.)
A few more days pass, a package arrives in the mail. I have just come from having a tetanus shot so I'm not in a great mood. (I didn't step on a rusty nail or anything; I went to Student Health for an unrelated thing and they were like "While you're here, has it been a REALLY LONG TIME since your last tetanus shot?")
It's an HDMI cable AGAIN.
Eventually I get in touch with the seller and they agree to just give me a refund so I can buy a power cable from some place that's going to send me a power cable.
(The seller was RiteAV. I can't leave a bad review for them on NewEgg because I didn't have a customer account when I ordered the cable, so I created a customer account just to leave a bad review, but I actually can only review a seller if I bought the thing under my customer account. I feel 10% bad about calling them out because they were nice and apologetic about it, but they sent the wrong cable TWICE.)
They offered to refund me and send me a new cable, but if they sent me another HDMI cable I would have four HDMI cables, and I have no earthly idea what I'd do with four HDMI cables.
Meanwhile, I'm having trouble writing in my office because the chairs are too low, and I'm having trouble writing at home because I'm only getting about 200 Kbps for internet speed. I feel mildly resentful that the cable company is charging my landlord for providing free internet to the apartment but doing it so badly that half of my neighbors are paying the cable company on TOP of that to get decent bandwidth. So I would hate it if I had to do that, but also, I actually do need decent bandwidth!
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August 21st, 2016
I keep reading Carol Bly's "The Passionate, Accurate Story" and then getting myself tied up in knots thinking I've got to write stories about global warming and nuclear weapons and whatever.
It's not that I don't want to write stories about global warming and nuclear weapons and whatever, but they kind of have to be subtle enough that I can respect them, and also not just retreads of Paolo Bacigalupi.
I'm already dealing with a terrible and insidious level of perfectionism, where I can't even get to the stage of having an idea for something unless I can feel like it's going to be fantastic right from the beginning. So when I put on top of that, "OH, AND YOU HAVE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SOLVE THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS" - I mean, that's nonsense, that's just another avoidance mechanism.
And actually "Ramblewood Underground" - it's not all the way there yet in terms of storytelling and story structure but in terms of being a passionate accurate story, it IS very much the sort of thing that I want to be writing, with characters who don't have chemical-weapons-testing jobs to quit like the guy in Carol Bly's story but who exist in the world as it is with all its problems, who can be engaged and compassionate people even if they can't solve those problems.
So that's my challenge to myself: to try to find my way toward stories that I care about, that are important to me, while lowering my standards a hell of a lot when it comes to them being politically and aesthetically perfect.
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August 18th, 2016
So - I think that one of the most important things that art can do, and one of the things that gets into really thorny questions about representation and what is universal vs. what's merely presented as something universal, is this moment when you say "Oh, I thought that was just me. That isn't just me." And - I think these moments are maybe especially significant to me as a person who's introverted and socially anxious - like, it's really hard for me to get that feeling interacting with other human beings because anything I say has been run through so many "IS THIS WEIRD???" filters that -- if it's a thing where I worry I'm weird or alone in my thoughts, I just don't say it at all.
But I was at a party tonight, and it was that strange and great and horrible mix of pleasant conversation and roiling social anxiety, and I remembered the first time I heard that Stars lyric where Torq sings "But it doesn't make it easy / To leave the party at the right time," and I thought, OH MY GOD, there's someone else who understands that leaving the party at the right time is ridiculously difficult.
I think I managed it. If I hadn't bought lights for my bike, it would've been the wrong time.
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August 11th, 2016
Things That Need Doing
1) Buy a bicycle, which would make everything else easier, except that I think the store's going to need to order me a different size of whichever bike I decide on. (I test-rode a bunch of things yesterday and the only good fit is a bike I'm still kind of lukewarm about.)
2) Buy a coax cable so I can get cable and a USB wireless adaptor so I can set up my desktop. (I hate to do this while I'm still getting really bad internet speeds, but at least the desktop would have better ergonomics for typing.)
3) Go to the university to do my payroll paperwork and my sexual harassment training
4) Get a new bank account at a bank that has local branches
That's not bad, except that it will be raining all day and I really do need to get my payroll paperwork done before the deadline.
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August 9th, 2016
I have more or less moved in! (I'm still at the "Whoops, here's another twelve things I forgot to buy" phase and my mattress is being delivered this afternoon.)
I think I did the best I could looking for an apartment long-distance and I like the apartment itself but I feel a bit like I'm in Suburb Hell. The definition of Suburb Hell is that I can't go for a walk to get a soda; it's marked by big-box stores with giant parking lots. Within a half-mile of my apartment, there's Target and WalMart and Best Buy and a bunch of restaurant chains and it's all surrounded by immense parking lots... and yet I absolutely would be able to go for a walk to get a soda. It's very uncanny-valley; it looks like Suburb Hell but actually I probably will not feel trapped, just so long as the highway has crosswalks (I'm not at all sure that it does). There's even a multiplex in walking distance so I hopefully will never have to spend three hours on buses to see a movie.
Further into downtown, Ames reminds me a lot of the Midwestern Architecture version of Chapel Hill: pizza, pubs, coffee shops, somewhat aggressive State University Team Spirit. Later today I hope to go down to campus and get set up with a student ID so I can go to the library. I'm still nervous and unsure about a lot but it feels good to feel like I'm done, even for a short time, with groping around for the next chapter of my life.
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July 27th, 2016
|01:08 pm - The kinds of questions we ask ourselves|
I am still thinking about this essay, now several years old, which constrasts the kishoutenketsu structure that characterizes traditional Chinese and Japanese narratives with a traditional western plot structure that relies on a conflict-driven plot characterized by a protagonist trying, failing, and eventually succeeding at something.
I don't think it's necessarily useful to divide things so neatly. Kishoutenketsu literally means something like 'arising, development, turn, resolution,' and this idea of a 'turn' or a 'twist' is broad enough to encompass Eastern and Western narratives, high-conflict narratives and low-conflict ones. My book on writing (very cheesy and commercial, and certainly not low-conflict) Boys Love novels says that you should use kishoutenketsu as a plot model. But then I think about a Yoshimoto Banana short story that I read several years ago. The viewpoint character is a girl who lives next door to a boy who's well-off but whose family life seems mysterious and sad. One day, circumstances lead her to understand the boy's family life much better; then he moves away.
By the standards of the conflict-plot model, this is a bad story. The girl isn't really driven by her efforts to help the boy or find out more about his family life; these are just things that happen. (If you were hung up on the conflict-plot model, you'd say she gets things too easily.) But the story works because really, there are two kinds of questions we're asking through the course of a narrative that generate tension or suspense. There's wanting to know what's going to happen next; and there's wanting to understand what's going on now. If a story like this one works, it works because we feel like we understand a little more about the boy and his family; and it works because we feel like that knowledge is meaningful in the context of the story; and maybe we feel like we understand a little more about the ways in which families can be sad or cruel or complicated. It's not driven by success or failure, but by revelation. Or epiphany.
This is where the Western/Eastern thing breaks down, because epiphany-driven storytelling has been the model for Anglosphere short stories for the last hundred years. And even if we think of Hollywood blockbusters, even in hugely conflict-driven movies, it's often the epiphanies that generate the most resonance -- isn't "I am your father" the key moment of any of the Star Wars movies? Even very traditional conflict-plot stories are driven by much more than the conflict, by much more than the protagonist's success or failure -- they're driven by a situation with mysteries that need to be understood. And a lot of that is lost when we try to cram stories into a conflict-plot model that reduces events to a try-fail cycle.
This is true even when it's really just a conflict-plot model with a Freudian overlay: we've got to dig up the hidden trauma, search out the mystery at the center of the problem, so that we can beat the Big Bad. But even then, I think it reflects something important -- the idea that we'll succeed not by being the cleverest or the strongest, but the ones with the deepest understanding of things. Perhaps, if we're lucky, by being the ones with the most empathy.
But there are also stories where understanding things better doesn't really get you anything, except for understanding things better. These are the stories that often feel aggressively anti-narrative to me, in the same way that Japanese fiction often used to feel anti-narrative to me when I started reading it. And at worst, these kinds of stories can feel meandering and pointlessly sad. But at best, I can relate better to the people in these stories: people who don't know what will make them happy; people who don't have much of anything concrete to fight for or fight against; people whose action in the world often consists in watching and waiting and hoping to get a better understanding of themselves and what's going on around them. These are the stories that say, if the conflict-plot model doesn't work, if you're not going to win or lose at life, what else matters? Where else can we build meaning, or find meaning? The epiphany story is bigger than an assumption about the cruel and brutal truths at the center of the universe. Kindness can be a revelation; the moments in Miyazaki's movies of quiet and natural beauty come like revelations, even in a movie as violent as Princess Mononoke.
The conflict-plot story is fundamentally a story about how you can win as long as you have enough strength or guts or will. That's not my story; it's not most people's story, I think. I want a story that decenters its protagonists, a little. A story with enough room for the cruelty of the universe and also its beauty. A story where, in the middle of all the other conflicts that are going on, the protagonist can sit down and breathe in the fresh air and see things at a different angle than they did the night before.
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July 16th, 2016
|02:35 pm - Hamilton Things|
(1) We saw Daveed Diggs's last show!
( The rest is under a cutCollapse )
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July 14th, 2016
|07:25 pm - Neoreaction a Basilisk|
I got the ebook for Neoreaction a Basilisk by Phil Sandifer because I backed the Kickstarter; the book should be widely released next year.
This is kind of a weird book. It's a book of philosophy-as-horror that takes as its organizing principle the internet "rationalist" movement, and the neoreactionary and alt-right movements, and the ways in which they intersect; but it loops out to consider Thomas Ligotti, China Mieville, Franz Fanon, Paradise Lost, Hannibal, and especially William Blake.
As a work of philosophy, it is unusual in that it is thoughtful, accessible, and well-written. Having read a couple of the "Philosophy and [Arbitrary popular mass-media product]" books, I have to say that it's refreshing for a writer to take Arbitrary Popular Mass-Media Product seriously in a way that doesn't seem like a condescending "Hey, kids! What does Hannibal have to teach us about [Arbitrary Philosophy 101 Topic]?" - and it's maybe still more refreshing that the book deliberately turns away from the impulse to tie things up neatly, arguing (correctly, I think) that rationality needs empathy and imagination if it's to get beyond a small and circumscribed vision of the world, and stepping away from the bounds of what we can logic out necessarily means embracing uncertainty.
I'm not sure how much appeal the book would have for somebody who didn't have at least a little bit of train-wreck-curiosity about the main topics of the book, and if you do have a little bit of train-wreck-curiosity you probably already backed this guy's kickstarter. But I am really glad I read it.
(And it pointed me to China Mieville's essay on social sadism, which I must now track down.)
N.B: Sandifer is also the author of Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons, on Theodore Beale and the recent Hugo debacle. I recommend it as well.
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June 13th, 2016
|10:30 pm - The Taco Cleanse|
"ALERT: Are you getting enough of the color blue in your diet? Colors are so important to the way our bodies function, and since the ocean is blue, it's especially critical that our bodies get enough blue in. The thing is, it can be tough to get blue food into your everyday diet without making conscious choices to choose blue! We developed this recipe to help."
Blue corn chip-crusted tofu.
The Taco Cleanse is both a cookbook for vegan tacos and a gentle send-up of health-and-nutrition-related pseudoscience, woo, and the very concept of cleanses. (Laura Beck of Vegansaurus writes in the foreword: "Cleanses are the fucking worst. They're socially acceptable starvation disguised as health, and that is the fucking worst.") In a nod to Cafe Gratitude, the book contains recipes like "Affirmation Cumin-Onion Rice," "Energizing Dutch Waffle Tacos," and "Euphoric Avocado Wedges</a>.
I will confess that my first thoughts when I heard about this book were, in order, "LOL," and "Oh actually I could definitely use some recipes for veg*n tacos." Not all of the humor bits work -- the section on "Taco Mudras" is uncomfortably ambiguous between making fun of white hippie appropriation of eastern spirituality, and just making fun of eastern spirituality. But mostly it manages to thread a weird, thin line -- silly yet practical, deadpan and serious in its total conviction about the healing power of eating more tacos.
I will have to report back once I find out whether the recipes are any good or not. (Not Dutch Waffle Tacos. No. Well, I mean, if I had a waffle iron...)
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|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.
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
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
May 20th, 2016
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
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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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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