Monday, February 25, 2013

How should we judge books?

I just finished up the Breathless Reads tour and I have to say that some of the questions asked by audience members were really insightful. There’s one I just can’t quite shake. It was asked by a guy in Madison, CT. I’m paraphrasing even though the recording is probably online somewhere, because I had lost half my voice by then and I can’t bear to listen to myself, so correct me if I’m way off. As I remember, he asked this:

Do you think books should be judged on their popularity or their literary merit?

Immediately Beth Revis said “literary merit” and if there is a right answer that’s probably it, especially if we’re talking about being judged for things like NBA awards. (Apologies to the question-asker if that’s what you meant, as I heard it as “How should librarians and teachers and readers decide which books are the “good” books?”)

My immediate thought was “Why do we have to judge books?” So I blurted out, in typical awkward Fiona fashion, that I didn’t think books should be judged at all. Then I panicked that it sounded like I was saying Printz awards were bad or that people shouldn’t write reviews and holy crap what if that got twisted into me saying people shouldn’t criticize my books and then I’d end up as the next big blogger/author/Goodreads scandal and stuff like this was why I should probably just not speak, ever, and let seasoned pros like Beth answer all the questions. [Sidebar: It’s fricking scary to be a new author. You do one dumb thing without thinking (or before you’ve had your second cup of coffee) and someone records it or screen caps it and then all of a sudden people are boycotting you and you're being scorned all over the interwebz and jeez, so what if we’re (kinda) adults who should know better? We’re still human. We try but sometimes we mess up.] Anyway, I backpedaled and sort of adjusted my answer because I appreciate every single one of my reviews and I would never want people to think differently. Trust me, you will never meet anyone more into free speech than I am.

But what I meant was (and yeah, it often takes me a couple of days to figure out how I feel—another reason I’m not the best at Q&A panels), there is no accepted standard of book-worthiness. Even big fancy trade reviews are just one person’s opinion at one point in time, potentially skewed by personal situations or preconceived notions.

My personal opinion (and I know a lot of authors disagree with me) is that “bad” books do not get traditionally published. Getting a book published in today’s market means that several knowledgeable publishing employees loved it, lobbied for it, and spent hours reading and rereading it to make it the best it can be. To hear someone say [insert big popular title] is bad feels like literary ethnocentrism. You don't like it so it's bad? Yeah, okay, there are some books I read and think, “I feel like this could have used more editing” or “the voice/setting/story just doesn't make me want to keep reading,” but that doesn’t mean those books are bad. It just means something didn’t work for me when I tried to read it. Sometimes people want Nine Inch Nails and sometimes they want classical. Sometimes they want milkshakes and sometimes they want prime rib. Is one “better” than the other? I don’t think most books can be easily compared.

In high school I had to read almost exclusively classic books, the kind of books people describe as Dead White Guy books, the kind of books that might have turned me off reading forever had I not been exposed to libraries and bookstores full of a wide variety of stories at an early age.  At several of our school visits, the teachers wanted to know which books we read as a teen and you could just tell they were hoping we’d dutifully recite a list of Steinbeck and Hemingway titles like, “Look, if you pay attention in class and embrace The Grapes of Wrath you, too, can be a published author someday.” Yeah. Not me, sorry. I read Dean Koontz and Sweet Valley High. I read Glamour magazine. I STILL read all those things and I’m not going to apologize for it. If the only thing that holds a reluctant reader’s attention is a magazine then I am all for it, and I say that as an ex-teacher and future professor. Reading almost anything can help kids become better readers and writers, but we need to make sure they have access to the things that interest them.

Obviously, librarians and teachers can’t buy all of the books and they don’t have time to read them all and decide. The easy decision seems to be to select only the books that are both popular and critically acclaimed, but why not shoot for a mix of the literary, the fun and fluffy, and the ‘summer blockbuster’ type of books?**  Rather than just acquiring only award-winning novels, which may or may not be accessible to reluctant readers, why don’t librarians check out what actual teens have to say on Goodreads? Or maybe they could let teens vote and self-select 50% of the new titles. How cool would that be? (I don’t work in a school so I don’t know if this is something that could never happen, but it would rock it if could).

Judging books  as “good” or “bad” seems like a move toward shaming people for what they read. And when we do that, we run the risk of encouraging someone to put down a book and turn on the always universally socially acceptable television. We run the risk of alienating the people who buy our books and keep our industry alive.


PS I usually don't blog stuff like this because I'm afraid someone will make it his/her own personal mission to comb every single tweet and interview I ever did looking for that one moment where I poked fun at a famous title or appeared to contradict myself. To that I say: 1) review above--I'm not perfect. 2) my feelings about books and the publication process have changed a lot in the past 2 years, and this blog is about how I feel now.

**[I fully admit I may be biased since I am a proud reader and writer of fluffy and delicious milkshake books :)]

Monday, February 18, 2013

Breathless statistics

Here we are before our first event.

Hi guys. I got home yesterday from the Breathless Reads USA tour. I did not do the Canada leg because when I was invited, the Canadian dates were planned for this Mon and Tues with a return home on Wednesday and my work and grad school is mainly on Mon-Tues-Wed and I just couldn't afford to miss two weeks. I heard Canada was awesome though, so I hope to go someday.

I had a blast on the East Coast and in Memphis and thought it would be fun to share some random statistics for the US part of the tour.

Number of tour days: 6 + 2 travel days = 8
Number of events: 6 bookstores + 4 school visits + 4 blogger interviews = 14
Number of flights: 9 (for me--varies on how far you went to get there and back).
Number of times Beth almost killed us driving to South Carolina: 0 (She was awesome).
Number of times I forgot to open the mini-van door and let people out of the back: 6? 7?
Number of flights Jessica slept blissfully through while I looked on in envy: most of them
Number of hours spent in transit from airport to hotel to school to bookstore: 15?
Number of motion-sickness pills I took: 7
Number of days before I started to lose my voice: 3
Number of hottie male YA authors who moderated for us: 1--Hi Nathan!
Number of high school boys who proposed to Elizabeth: 1 
Number of times we made fun of Morgan for how she says "about": 30? 40?
Number of things I accidentally left behind in hotel rooms: 3
Number of nights I got more than 4 hours of sleep: 1
Number of twiglets Elizabeth tricked each of us into eating: 1

With the zesty flavor of blackened toast combined with sun-baked dirt, twiglets might just make you swear off snack food forever. Is this why the British are so slender?

***Apparently tricking non-Brits into trying twiglets is a Thing. Watch Justin Bieber enjoy his first tasty bite.

Number of students at our biggest school event: 250-280
Number of attendees at our smallest event: maybe 25-30
Number of schools where the kids cheered like we were rock stars: 1
Number of schools where the kids started to fall asleep five feet from us: 1
Number of days I turned on the TV in my hotel room: 1
Number of days I had time (and energy) to work on revisions: 2
Number of days I had time (and energy) to exercise: 1
Number of NYT bestsellers Beth brought to our final event: 1
Number of churches we got kicked out of: 1
Number of times Jessica got carded: 2
Number of tiny cupcakes I ate on Valentine's Day: 3
Number of times we saw the beach in Miami: 0 :(
Number of future retreats we planned due to things like not seeing the beach: 3? 4?
Number of critique partners I met for the very first time: 2 (YAY!)
Number of awesome bloggers, readers, and booksellers we met: a kajillion! :)
Number of awesome TV appearances: 1--go Morgan!
Number of awkward and unflattering photographs snapped: I don't even want to know. But no worries, here's more evidence of our loveliness. What an awesome team :)

Here we are after our last event. Yay! We made it.

***Check the comments for some awesome additions :)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Status update and readalong wrap-up

Some Things, list-style

1. Thanks to Nikki and Annabelle for running the Venom Readalong and thanks to everyone who read, posted, tweeted, etc. I checked out some of your answers and found them to be thoughtful and insightful. In some cases I think you guys gave me too much credit, but I'll take it :) *puts credit in jar* *shakes jar* *smiles*

2. Congrats to the Readalong winners! Anyone who is not a winner can still get signed Belladonna bookmarks. Just email me and put 'Gimme bookmarks' as the subject so your email won't get lost. If your email is SmittenKitten1234@gmail and you want the envelope addressed to something other than Smitten Kitten, don't forget to include your real name. If you are international, don't forget to add your country. If I owe you bookmarks already I will be sending them soon.

3. My edit letter is arriving Monday so I will be going into the Revision Cave for Venom #3. Yes, the Superbowl will be my Last. Free. Moment. And by free I mean I have to write a ten-page paper on Sunday. *cries* Then I will be doing full-time school/full-time work with a side of Breathless tour. So if you tweet at me or email me please be patient. I will eventually respond. (And if I don't it's because your tweet got lost in the madness--so tweet again, preferably in March :D).

4. Breathless Reads Tour--you should go to that if you can :) I would say I'll blog about it, but I've heard there may not be time for eating or sleeping, let alone blogging. (Hey, it kind of sounds like nursing, except ideally no one will vomit on me). Maybe I can slap a pic or two up on my FB. No promises ;)

5. BREATHLESS READS TWITTER CHAT!! Can't make the tour? No problem! Bring your burning questions for the 2012 BR authors to our twitter chat. Feb 5th, 5:30pm Eastern time.

6. It feels like I'm forgetting something. If I'm forgetting something, email me and let me know, okay? :)

Oh wait! I remember. If I survive the tour, after I get home I will be giving away a couple ARCs of this:

Check back March 1st for more details! See you then!