Good morning, book people!
Some more whitewashing discussion on The Hunger Games this morning. This post by author Malinda Lo (Ash) makes some great points–Lo discusses color and class, and reading cues for racial background. Here’s the description of Katniss from early in the book:
straight black hair, olive skin [and]… gray eyes
That could definitely be taken as ambiguous, though with that, and the fairness of Katniss’ mother and Prim, I’ve always read her as biracial–particularly since she shares the “Seam look” with the rest of District 12, and her mother and Prim do not. (To my mind, she also identifies more with the Seam than with her family.) Make sure you read the comments on Lo’s post, too.
JJ, an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s, talks about her read of Katniss as white over at Uncreate Conscience. I don’t agree with her whole post, but it is a thoughtful critique worth reading. An important point from the conclusion:
Here’s a question I have about speculative fiction (including science fiction and fantasy): if race is not specifically mentioned, or the world has a different idea of “race” than ours, how does one go about indicating ethnicity? If it’s important to the author that a character in a work of spec fic be of a specific race, how can one indicate that? If ethnicity isn’t important, what can s/he do to change the default assumption of “whiteness”?
At the WSJ, Jeffrey Trachtenberg fills us in on a Random House/THQ Inc. deal. THQ is a developer and publisher of “interactive entertainment software” (read: video games). It’s mostly paid content, so it might be worth stopping by a Starbucks with your laptop/phone/iPad if ebooks and interactive books/games are your cup of tea (or coffee).
Over at Lightning + Lightning Bugs, agent Weronika Janczuk posts more about agents and self-publishing. Some useful commentary, some nice summations. Expect a few more posts like this–as my friend Livia pointed out at our last critique group meeting, a lot of agents were putting out their thoughts about ebooks and self-publishing last week. True, it’s probably not all tied into the Amanda Hocking news, but her St. Martin’s deal has lent a certain amount of legitimacy to self-publishing–legitimacy I think the big houses and agents have been waiting for (but unwilling to bet on) for a while.
Cory Doctorow has a new column up at PW, on the “the Baroque process of getting a book listed on both Lulu and Amazon.” It’s long, but Definitely Worth Reading. If you read only one thing from this list today, make it this piece.
And finally, a bit of fun–bookish webcomic Unshelved reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan last week. Here’s a snippet; click through for more. (via Scott Westerfeld)Read More
Good morning, book people! Mir and I are still sick, but we’re over the worst of it. How are you doing? We’re tricycling (I know, I’m sorry, but he’s cute, okay?) around the interwebs this morning–there’s a lot of interesting stuff to read.
The Guardian’s Robert Crum blogs about conservative politico (and Education Secretary) Michael Gove’s new stance that UK children should be reading 50 books a year. The statement has excited a lot of debate in the UK, and authors such as Phiilip Pullman and Anthony Browne have come out against it. The Guardian also asks–which 50 books should kids be reading?
I’m a little torn over this. I hate the idea of forced literature, but I do think kids–think everybody, really–should read more. Incentives to read, like the prizes offered at our school as part of the MS Read-a-Thon charity drive (people sponsor you to read x number of books in a given time) really only work for the readers. (And some of us are ineligible–I was miles ahead of my class, reading around four books a week, so they took me out of the running.) Gove’s idea might be a bit off the rails, but at least it’s doing something: making us talk about reading.
The Google Book Settlement has been rejected! True, a lot of people probably saw this coming, but it’s still big news. Wired has a pretty clear rundown on what the settlement terms were, and the result.
Next up, at The New York Times, a piece on using Theatron, a VR program, to help students stage virtual productions of Shakespeare and more. The Theatron website is a bit of a mess, but it looks like a fun program to work with, and much more enlightening than the 30 minute claymation versions of The Tempest and Macbeth we had to watch in school.
Also at The NYT, David Greenberg on why last chapters so often suck disappoint. Do not fear, though–your last chapter probably does not suck. Greenberg is writing specifically about books “aspiring to analyze a social or political problem.” These aren’t alien concepts to kidlit, but the scope is definitely different. Useful reading, though.
Over at The WSJ, Meghan Cox Gurdon on children’s books set behind the Iron Curtain and writes a thoughtful review of Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray. YA & kidlit people definitely need to read this.
Now that we know Jennifer Lawrence will be playing Katniss in The Hunger Games movies, speculation is wide-open about who’ll play Peeta. People has a quick rundown of the contenders so far. Please, please, please, people, don’t let it be the kid from Glee! Also, does seeing the double “e” in Peeta make anyone else want coffee?
A lot to read at The Shatzkin Files today, but both of these are worth the time. First up, Mike on what Barry Eisler’s decision to turn down a $500,000 advance means. One point not raised, that I’m curious about–how much did Eisler’s CIA background–probably a promoter’s dream–skew the publisher’s offer?
Mike’s second post is also self-promoting–he’s announcing a partnership with Michael Cader, Publishers Launch Conferences, which will “deliver live events…on publishing and digital change.” This post isn’t as concrete as the first, but it’s a good look at how some of the top digital books folks are thinking–and monetizing–so if you have the time, do read it.
Eric at Pimp My Novel has a rerun of a post on publishing myths, but it’s still a great post, so head on over.
ETA, 9:36 am: Michael Gove is Education Secretary.Read More
There are certain rules about writing about my color. Be polite, but realistic. Don’t make it an issue if it’s not. Make sure the skin color of your protagonist matches the skin color of your cover model (you heard me, Bloomsbury). And don’t use cliches like “coffee colored” or “rich and smooth as cocoa”.
The last one is pretty much an industry standard–last week, agent Colleen Lindsay even tweeted about it, saying, “When writing about people of color, find a way to describe them that doesn’t involve comparisons to various coffee drinks or cocoa,” (if you’re not following @ColleenLindsay, get thee to Twitter this instant–she’s full of excellent advice and #pubtips). But if we can’t describe black/brown characters as coffee or cocoa without setting off editorial alarm bells, what can we say?
Technically, I’m a person of color. My skin is brown–not full Indian brown like my father’s, but a brown tempered my mother’s fair Scottish skin, a brown I used to call “baby poo”. Nowadays, though, I call it milky coffee, or caramel. My uncle describes it as burnt toast. Once, I even looked it up on a Behr color chart. I’m 350F-5, also known as camel. Now, much as I like camels (Who doesn’t? They’re sea-sickness on legs!) they bring to mind dry hair, cracked toenails, Mick Jagger lips, and a bad attitude. Which is why, If someone else described me as camel-colored, I may have to fight the urge to spit in their face. (Just as a defense mechanism, of course.)
In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead uses the term “Swiss Miss” as an unintended racist slur, a way for her white main character, Miranda, to recognize bigotry (Miranda uses it because she thinks Julia, the girl the slur is aimed at, pretentious). Throughout the book, Stead uses color in an absent sort of way–Julia, is never given a clear ethnicity. And while I don’t automatically associate myself with the brown character in a book, I did imagine Julia as half-Indian, like me. In fact, the “Swiss Miss” comment even reinforced the idea.
While I’m reasonably sure that this rule comes from a good place, from a desire to not cause offense, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary. My brother, paler than me, isn’t offended to be called white; neither is my mother. White is simply their coloring. Is there a similar rule for other colored characters? Granted, even I know Daleks hate to be called pepper shakers and that Triffids hate it when you call their mothers celery sticks, but is it really bad form to describe elves as pointy-eared, or zombies as gray? Do I have to start describing them as rotten brain-loving necrotids?
The zombie, a rich, caesious sort of color gazed into my eyes, his pools of festering erythema locking on with an intensity that made me flush all over. “BRAAAAIIIINS!” he moaned, reaching out a large, misshapen greige hand. “BRAAAAAIIIINS!”
Interestingly–if we believe the over-simplified writing do’s and don’ts lists out there–browns are the only colors off-limits. No one appears to object to olive or peaches and cream. And some browns are okay–nut brown, and almond brown show up a lot. Perhaps it’s a specificity issue, a result of the ever-growing melting pot. Describing someone by their heritage or country of origin can create a certain image. It’s okay to describe someone as African or Chinese, Swiss or Mexican. But in countries like the US, Australia, and the UK, citing race may not be enough–hence our reliance on coffee and cocoa.
Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Do terms of color fall under the same umbrella as the N-word? (I’ve been called the N-word is both contexts.) Is it okay for me to say I’m a milky-coffee color because I am, and not okay for my mother to say it because she’s not? Are they now a sign of solidarity? My spam filter’s a little overzealous–did I just not get the memo?
And then there’s the all-important question of, uh, importance. How much does the main character’s heritage lend to a story? Has the author described their character as coffee-colored because it matters (Sarah’s reaction to her mixed background is a vital plot point), because it’s what they know (I’m Indian, therefore my character is Indian), or because they want to appeal to a certain audience/catch the “ethnic” crowd? In the first two cases, maybe the industry, the gurus who sit on high and declare writing rules (or the really very nice editors and agents who are trying to help) won’t really care how you describe your character’s skin color. And if it’s the latter? I’m not sure, but I probably won’t be reading your book.
Despite my somewhat flippant attitude, I have been known to take offense–I do take offense–at some things. But I think it’s important to remember that words are just words. A word’s power is not innate; it comes from the meaning we give it. True, the N-word will most likely always be off-limits, despite its neutral origins, because we’ve given it that perjorative power. But coffee and cocoa? Why not reclaim them, before it gets out of control?
Photo Credit: David Blackwell, via Flickr.
Everybody’s doing it. Everybody’s looking at me. My hands tremble, lightly at first, then transition into a fully-fledged shake. My feet edge me closer, closer, closer until my gut clenches and I think I’m going to puke. It smells foul. It looks foul. The steam hurts my eyes.
“Don’t be a moron. Drink it. You’ll feel good.”
“Yeah, yeah I know, but…” But what? My parents don’t do it. My grandparents don’t do it. My brother sucks down Jolt and RedBull, but they’re at least, well, sweet, and kind of tasty. This stuff is black and sludgy like the scraps probably festering in our blocked garbage disposal.
Anna pushes the cup into my hands. “The school wouldn’t let us have it if it was bad.”
Maybe. Schools are supposed to keep their students safe, right? And the senior coffee machine, with the senior coffee break, was supposed to be a rite of passage. Every day at 10:45, right after recess, the girls mob the machine, shaking sugar packets and dumping non-dairy creamer into environment-killing styrofoam cups. Brown stains coat once-white teeth, and the air around me is sharp with acrid tang of burnt grounds.
“I can’t.” It’s too gross, I want to say. It’s addictive. Have you seen the webs caffeine crazy spiders spin?
She motions at a girl next to her, Tilly. My gut gives up its comforting clench. Tilly is on the rowing team. And the hockey team. And the rugby team.
Can stomachs suffer from vertigo? Bile rises to the back of my throat.
“She’s having a little trouble with the coffee machine, Til. Think you can help out?”
Tilly nods, a slow, deliberate movement that starts somewhere in her shoulders and works it way up into her neck. I shuffle backward, one step, two step, three step…and into a wall. This is Not Good. Tilly lifts my hands, forces them around the mug. Anna tilts my head, angling it to make the flow easier, to reduce spillage. The other girls still mill around the machine, oblivious.
I purse my lips and spit, but Tilly’s prepared. Snaking one of her hands up to my mouth, she prises it open. The other hand lifts the mug to my lips…
It’s bitter, and sludgier than I imagined. I try not to swallow, but do it anyway. The next gulp is easier, sliding down my throat like raindrops on a windshield. It’s sweeter, too. My head relaxes, and my hands tighten around the mug.
Anna lets go. Tilly steps back. “See?” they say. “Isn’t that better?”
My belly is warm and cozy, and my whole body feels squeezed up, like it’s engulfed in a tight–but loving–hug. Everything seems clearer, too–the girls around the machine are chatting, laughing, alive, not at all the drones I thought they were. Anna slides an arm around my shoulders. “I told you it’d be good. Everyone loves a good cup of coffee!”