What We Need More Than Diversity

colorful hands raised upAn intriguing article at The Digital Reader recently pointed out that many of the older classic SF/F books are falling out of favor with younger readers. The question many are asking is, Why? Nate makes a strong argument that readers are finding a disconnect with some of the older classics because they just aren’t relatable for younger readers. In many cases there are cultural gaps, but one of the big issues is plain, simple DIVERSITY. Some of the older classics treat minority characters in this unrealistic one-dimensional negative light or as simplistic caricatures – neither of which encourages younger readers to engage. I get that and I see that as a major issue. Readers are legitimately responding to a weakness in the classic canon, and that’s almost certainly a good thing.

BUT (I know – isn’t there always a but?), what concerns me is that the ‘books should be diverse’ movement sometimes conflates two different things – books which legitimately have issues portraying minority groups in a pejorative, unrealistic way and books which, for a variety of reasons (usually completely unintentionally) do not portray certain minority groups.

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge older classics which might not have the diversity we’ve grown accustomed to, because that doesn’t mean that these narratives are any weaker. In fact, some of the least diverse classics still enjoy a diverse fan base of readers, and why is that? As an example let’s look at The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I suppose you could call it ‘diverse’ from a quasi-racial standpoint – it has hobbits, dwarves, humans, elves, orcs, to name a few – but from a gender standpoint The Hobbit is anything but diverse. That doesn’t fatally undermine the book though or take away from the overall compelling story the book tells. To dismiss a story like the Hobbit based on a diversity argument would be narrow-minded and silly.

There’s another interesting fact that too many advocates of ‘books need to be diverse’ simply ignore. Books can be diverse in very different ways. I can write a book which depicts income inequality and therefore economic diversity on a grand level. Now, what if that book lacks racial diversity or gender diversity? As soon as diversity becomes a value which must be proclaimed and put on a pedestal as an end in and of itself, I think we start to tread into dangerous territory.

Why? Because that gets into the arena of which kind of diversity is better. Racial diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation diversity, economic diversity? Which ‘deserve’ to be emphasized more? The list could go on, and the point I’m (hopefully) doing a good job at making is this – If the passion for diversity becomes a need to check every box among a litany of things or stridently call authors out whenever we feel ‘our tribe’ isn’t properly represented or glorified, then I think we encourage a world of judgmental ‘diversity police’ which, ironically enough, DISCOURAGES the very diversity that diversity advocates would like to foster.

Here’s the bottom line: the goal of having minority perspectives represented more often in novels and stories is a worthy one. But never fall down the rabbit hole where that line of thinking can sometimes lead; just because you might be of a particular minority group or sub-group, remember, you still can and SHOULD be able to learn from stories outside of your particular tribe. Doing so will make you a better person, a more open-minded person. More than that, it helps ensure a literary universe with less judgment and more understanding.

That is diversity in the best sense of the word.

Posted in books and film, ebooks, fantasy, fiction, reading, science fiction, teen fiction

Artists vs. Authors

jousting1Have you ever stood up for something on principle and said ‘NO! I’m not compromising!’ Or, on the flip side of that, have you ever watched someone else and thought to yourself, ‘If only they were more practical, they might get something accomplished!’.

These are two sides to an interesting coin, to what I view as the two major types of writers in the publishing universe.

The first type of writer is what I call the Artist. I don’t literally mean that they are artists, but they have the mentality of one. Perfection is important to them. Quality and detail is extremely important to them. Principles are important to them, and criticism, if and when it comes, is sometimes taken poorly or disregarded altogether. The work is written for its own sake, and in that sense the Artist places a lesser value on feedback from others, be they readers or fellow authors.

The Artistic breed of writer has pluses and drawbacks. The plus is that the Artist often has a very powerful vision which fuels their work. The Artist’s stories have a certain consistency to them which can be admirable. They don’t compromise without deep and probing consideration, and they often have flashes of inspiration that can set things in motion or bring up new ideas that can spin off into other stories and works. There’s a latent tendency to innovate that the Artist can tap into.

The drawback of being the ‘Artist’ though is that working with others can be difficult. Compromise can be difficult. Artists personalize things to a degree which most authors do not. People often have difficulty seeing their own prejudices, but Artists even more so. They have internalized their preferences to such a degree in the quest for perfection in their work, that it can be difficult for Artists to see a given story or narrative from someone else’s perspective.

Let’s contrast that for a moment with Authors, what I would call your more typical pragmatic author. These are writers who have become published and see the publishing process not as a force of subversion that weakens their work, but a constructive kind of chaos which ends up enhances the final story.

For an Author as opposed to the Artist, there is a tendency to see other people’s criticism and feedback as useful. Authors have a sense that they are writing and sharing their stories for something much greater than themselves. Whereas the Artist sees the greater purpose of their stories as standing on their own, intrinsically valuable by virtue of their personal vision reaching fruition, the Author sees dialogue or interplay between their story and their readers as the ultimate goal and, at least in part, a measure of their story’s worth.

Neither the Artist or the Author are completely right or completely wrong in their approach to the world of writing and publishing.

I would say that Artists tend to be more likely self-published, or serve specialized audiences who can fully appreciate their work. Authors on the other hand tend to be populists, more open and feedback driven. Perhaps a good analogy would be to compare classical music to rock music. Neither is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other: they seek very different outcomes and fulfill very different roles.

Where do you see yourself? I personally see a mix of the two in myself.

Although I would call myself an Author the majority of the time, there is a significant Artist’s streak in me. There are times when I see compromising one’s art too much as pretty much invalidating the whole point of the creative expression in the first place. There are other times when I see the profound benefits of having the humility of the Author who takes a reader’s heartfelt comments and harnesses that to make their book or storytelling that much stronger.

In one sense, Authors are the people-oriented writers who innovate in response to human interaction.

By contrast, the Artist innovates using genius from within and risks becoming irrelevant as a price to pay for their stubborn individuality. And yet sometimes the Artist’s stubbornness pays off and the external world finally learns to value the story the Artist has told.

So, back to my earlier question, and then some. Do you consider yourself more an Artist type of writer or a pragmatic Author type of writer? Do you feel one is superior to the other? Perhaps in certain genres or types of writing?

To recap, here is the high level view of advantages and disadvantages for the Artist-writer vs. the Author-writer.

Artists:

-Principled

-Inner motivation via strong personalized storytelling vision

-Tends to value things for their own sake, resistant to change through outside force

-Self-focused, sometimes in defiance of the popular will, which sometimes fosters change if they can make others bend to see what they see

-Inspired as opposed to driven

-Strong self-confidence

Authors:

-Flexible

-External motivation via readers, dialogue, interplay of ideas

-Tends to engage with others, open to change

-Compromising, sometimes to the detriment of individuality or personal belief

-Driven as opposed to inspired

-Strong competency tempered with humility

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , ,

Which Planet Intrigues You the Most? Discovering Yourself

I can say with more than a tiny dose of satisfaction that I’ve recently finished and published my latest short scifi novel, Rebel Girl of Mars. The unexpected scifi adventure starts when a colony on Mars gets cut off completely and abruptly, and shows how one girl’s decisions might very well make the difference between her family and friends’ survival – not to mention a decent chunk of humanity.

It’s available for 0.99 in ebook format (print version forthcoming on Amazon). You can also glance at a free sample. For those interested you can take a peek here: Rebel Girl of Mars 

Rebel Girl of Mars, a young adult scifi novel by J. Kirsch

Rebel Girl of Mars, a young adult scifi novel by J. Kirsch

Now that I’ve gotten my shameless plug out of the way, time to open things up to talk about planets and how they relate to who we are as individuals. I have always thought that space, planets, and stars represent the most exciting thing humans can ponder. Unlimited possibilities. I have a huge painting in my library with all the planets of the solar system in watercolor. Which of the planets intrigues you the most, if you could visit one? (And assuming you were given the gear to survive, of course.) I think this is an interesting question not least because it says a lot about human nature and also a person’s particular personality.

When asked this question of most intriguing planet, I’m sure some people would answer Mars or maybe even cheat a little and say the moon Europa. Why? Well, because it’s natural for us to be fascinated with planets that have the capacity to potentially harbor life.

On the other hand, though, I could see other legitimate answers. Some might find other planets more interesting, even if they don’t theoretically seem like promising life-incubators. Let’s take Saturn or Jupiter for instance. Some of the extraordinary weather phenomena on these giant planets has a kind of awe-inspiring artistry to them. The Eye of Jupiter is perhaps the best known planetary feature, and who hasn’t stared at that unusual landmark and been tapped, at least ever so lightly, by an instinct of wonder?

So in summary, learn a bit about yourself by looking at the solar system and seeing the planets almost like different characters. Which one appeals to you, and why, and what does it say about you as a person? You might just discover something interesting about yourself.

Posted in ebooks, Mars, planets, science fiction | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

When Authors Need a Dose of Humility

It’s a saying sentiment among writers I know and respect that you can’t write well unless you read a good bit. That’s often the difference between a serious writer and an amateur with dreams of grandeur: the serious writer cares about her or his craft. The not-so-serious writer thinks they know everything or has a chip on their shoulder.

Look at the mirror and ask yourself, which are you? I don’t mean to be flippant or accusatory, but sometimes we all need a dose of humility. And sometimes humility is needed even among those who are extremely bright (perhaps especially for those who fall into that category).

CHAUCER_HengwrtNowhere has this struck me as more true than with a recent author I discovered. Nicholas Wade. Wade’s thought-provoking book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, offers a genetic-oriented glimpse at what made humans tick and evolve over the past 50,000 years and defeat other early human species. It’s an incredible book because Wade offers some very non-intuitive explanations for how we humans (homo sapiens humans) got to be where we are today.

His explanation of how we domesticated wolves into dogs, for example, destroyed a lot of the misconceptions I had once held. You might be wondering, why was I reading this book as a fantasy / science fiction author? Well the answer is simple: to write good stories, often I’ve found that truth really is stranger than fiction and books on these types of topics can be awesome springboards for new stories and novel ideas.

Back to the main point though: Nicholas Wade, for all his brilliance, also could use a little dose of humility. Some of his more controversial claims are not backed up by evidence, and that’s a shame since he is a really good author. Like any author, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to be vigilant about your own biases. In the case of Nicholas Wade, his main problem is that he is so focused on the power of genetics (genetic drift, natural selection etc.) that he too often wants to see evidence where there isn’t any. It’s like a good storyteller who stumbles in his story by having his characters suddenly behave out of character just to prove a certain moral; it just doesn’t work.

So this is where I felt completely blindsided: Nicholas Wade discusses how geneticists “frequently” find that women have had  children by men other than their mate. Wade goes on to hint strongly that infidelity is a prominent, hard-wired trait in human nature (i.e. in women).

Now I have a problem with this, on many different levels. If you’re going to make a controversial claim (i.e. women have this genetic imperative to sleep around), then you better back up that claim with sound scientific evidence. Nicholas Wade doesn’t do this. In fact, he points to what he calls a “rule of thumb” among geneticists doing DNA tests which states that “5-10%” of tests reveal a different father than expected. Then he extrapolates from that sketchy factoid that this somehow proves that a genetically-wired trait of infidelity is likely at work among humans.

Throwing out a vague 5-10% number shows what is really at work here: guesswork. Wade’s geneticists have no idea how prevalent infidelity is among humans. How could they when the average person never has a genetic test done in their lifetime?? Let’s say it is 5.2% instead of throwing out some vague range. Okay, so 5.2% of genetic tests result in some unexpected paternity somewhere in the lineage. That hardly qualifies as “frequently”, right? When something happens 5.2% of the time, I don’t know about you but I call that RARE. By overstating his case, Wade isn’t doing himself any favors.

Wade also fails to point out something important here: surprises in paternity for a genetics test could be the result of other factors at work, not just infidelity. If you have adopted family members in your genealogy, chances are you may have surprises when it comes to paternity. If people lied about their family history for cultural reasons, geneticists aren’t going to pick up on that either. In many cultures having a child with someone of another race is frowned upon; lying about the identity of one parent would then become a cultural decision, not a genetically-ordained tendency toward infidelity.

The point here is straightforward, at least in theory. If as an author you can’t back up your claims, it’s time to choose some different claims. If as a fiction author the story you’re writing doesn’t build toward the ending you envisioned, don’t force it. Change the ending! The same can be said of writing in the nonfiction universe. Sometimes a dosage of humility is exactly what we writers need.

If you have a slanted perspective, take ownership of it and question yourself. Your readers will benefit – and by the way, so will you.

Final Note: I would still recommend Nicholas Wade’s book as a good read overall. Just be prepared for an overly genetic-oriented explanation for things which might very well have other, more valid explanations: http://www.amazon.com/Before-Dawn-Recovering-History-Ancestors/dp/014303832X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432736833&sr=8-1&keywords=before+the+dawn

Posted in writing | Tagged , ,

The Thing About Awards…

More than a few big names have been making a big deal out of the Hugo Awards recently, (If this sounds unfamiliar, the Hugo award is a prestigious award for works of science fiction, ranging from short stories to full-length novels and other categories besides.) There’s been a great amount of spilled ink (and pixels) bemoaning that the Hugo has “lost its relevance.”

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Which brings me to the point of this post: What’s the value of the Hugo Award and how do we keep it “relevant”?

Recently well known author Eric Flint wrote a soundly reasoned piece on the subject of the Hugo award and he basically concludes that the Hugos do not reflect current publishing reality. That as the scifi genre has gotten larger and larger, with more authors and a wider variety of readers, it’s become impossible for any group of readers to keep up with the field. As a result, Flint concludes that this “loss of relevance” for the Hugos is inevitable.

Is it though?

I have to admit that until I became an author I didn’t know anything about the Hugo selection process. To have a few hundred or maybe a thousand people decide the “best book” in science fiction every given year seems a little…I don’t know – presumptuous? A ridiculous overreach? Before we start blaming the size and scope of the science fiction genre or a host of other factors on ruining the Hugo, let’s start with that – with the complete lack of inclusiveness in this selection process. Out of the entire universe of science fiction readers, the folks selecting the Hugo award represent what, maybe .00000000000001% of that population? And people wonder why the Hugo might be in danger of losing its relevance?

This is where democracy in action can actually work. Yes, perhaps no single reader can stay informed and on top of everything latest and greatest among the pantheon of science fiction books in any specific year. But collectively if the Hugos actually incorporated a significant number of voters, that would also incorporate that much more reader experience and knowledge. If voting didn’t have the same strings attached, if people who were passionate about scifi could vote, period, the selections and choices would reflect the larger community a heck of a lot better than it does now.

Something else to remember when it comes to awards: Human beings have this innate need to be recognized, to have their efforts seen and acknowledged. This aspect of human nature goes a long way to explaining why awards exist. But I think the dark side to this needs to be considered too: Maybe worse than an award losing its relevance is an award that becomes its own idol. An award which we revere almost like a god, and maintains its own relevance only by creating an artificial class of insiders versus outsiders looking in.

In his essay Eric Flint critiques the award categories for the Hugo and points out how some very deserving writers were never given their due. I sympathize with that to a degree. Yet on another level I think that might be asking the wrong question or looking at the wrong issue. From a personal reading perspective, the Hugo Award has never been a guiding light for me. I have read many SF/F books that have enriched my life by exposing me to new ideas, some almost mind-blowing, books which never had any recognition or won any special award. Many people in the scifi community act as if the loss of the Hugo would be a tragic loss, something to be mourned.

But that knee-jerk reaction of mourning might come out of the wrong assumptions. Scifi, like fantasy, has grown and matured as a genre that can compete with any other form of writing in the realm of great storytelling which impacts people’s lives. It’s no longer the niche genre it once was.

It’s not really that the Hugo has lost its relevance so much as the science fiction genre has outgrown the Hugo. It’s time to look toward the future rather than obsessing about a wistfully imagined golden-age past. The Hugo served a wonderful purpose during the formative decades as scifi grew up. Now it’s time to move on to the next step. The selection process for Hugo  nominees and finalists needs to be more inclusive. Whether you believe that the Hugo Award needs to be revamped or not, that much would clearly increase the engagement of the SF/F community – and that’s what’s needed. At the very least it would be a huge step forward.

Posted in reading, science fiction | Tagged , ,

Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards – Fiasco or Inevitable?

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Lately there’s been a lot of talk about a vocal group of scifi/fantasy authors and fans who have voted as a single bloc to drastically change the landscape for the prestigious Hugo award. This group has been calling themselves the “sad puppies” and they are being reviled by some.

At its heart the sad puppies movement seems to want a return to a more traditional celebration of sci/fantasy. As one of the chief architects of the sad puppies movement, Brad Torgersen, puts it like this:

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

He then implies that this is a kind of “defrauding” of readers who expect their knights heroic and their dragons evil. The vitriol between Torgersen’s supporters and opponents has been epic, to say the least. But I have trouble understanding both sides in this debate on a certain level, and I’m going to be an equal opportunity basher here.

First, to the sad puppies viewpoint. Torgersen’s protest that a fantasy story with dragons as the good guys would somehow disappoint readers of sci-fi fantasy makes absolutely no sense. That’s been the bedrock of sci-fi fantasy since the beginning, this notion that you see other viewpoints than just your own and learn to question the world around you. I would love to ask Torgersen, why does he think that aliens have been such a mainstay of sci-fi and fantasy for decades? Series like C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books (splendid books, by the way!) have been successful for decades because of their interesting ‘what-if’ angle on how another alien species might interact with us and how we might look through THEIR eyes. A book about knights and dragons told from a dragon’s point of view would be a celebration of that traditional sci-fi fantasy tradition, not an insult to it.

Sci-fi fantasy is more flexible than many other types of fiction and that’s one of its strengths. Sci-fi fantasy reinvents, it experiments, it constantly pushes to different horizons.

Seeing the noble knight kill the dragon a million times over isn’t fantasy – it’s unoriginal myth-telling. It’s reading the same time-honored story as hollowed tradition, not because you want to engage with your reader, but because you want to hammer home most essential truth and you’re willing to sacrifice everything else in the story to achieve that. If the sad puppies are going to argue that portraying knights as evil is anti sci-fi fantasy or portraying dragons as good is anti sci-fi fantasy, then I think they are being traditionalists in the most mindless sense of the world.

Can you imagine how silly their arguments would sound if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had depicted a good dragon named Gandalf instead of a wizard?

Last point, and this is key: I think too many of Torgersen’s detractors fail to realize that the sad puppies movement has this aspect of being a legitimate reaction to something else destructive in sci-fi fantasy. When a sci-fi fantasy author is using the story/plot/chars of her or his book to push a very partisan worldview with a very partisan agenda, that’s not storytelling: it’s a manifesto. It doesn’t require a “sad puppy” to see that this too can be dangerous and destructive.

The perfect example of this is The Golden Compass. What began as a wonderful trilogy resulted in millions of readers feeling alienated by Philip Pullman’s insistence that his books be read specifically as an indictment against Christianity. Whether you like The Golden Compass or not, it’s impossible to deny the simple truth that Pullman wanted his readers to interpret his work a certain way, and only that way.

That type of arrogance borders on the monumentally stupid and shows a certain contempt for readers. I think the anti-sad puppies crowd needs to realize that if readers feel betrayed, if they feel that their beloved genre is being hijacked by specific agendas, then they are going to react accordingly.

If you set a world with a transgender character in an alien landscape, that transgender character should feel real. That alien landscape should be well thought out and real. The world and the characters should have a purpose, and if the entire point of the world is to show the oppression of transgender people and nothing else…well, then guess what you have? A two-dimensional story. A story every bit as two-dimensional as a story focused purely on oppression of a straight person would be, if it were only trying to send a political or social message and nothing else.

This is the bottom line – all stories should be told for the sake of themselves – not as a mouthpiece with only one interpretation or the author’s personal belief trumping reader interpretation throughout. At the same time, stories need to be diverse and they need to have diverse viewpoints. The sad puppies and the rest of the Hugo fandom universe are going to have find a happy balance where all of that is taken into account if they want to move forward – not just for the good of the Hugo, but for the good of the sci-fi fantasy community as a whole.

Posted in fantasy, science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Welcome to Flow Chart Heaven – The Top 100 Scifi & Fantasy

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For some reason I’ll never understand, I have always been enthralled by flow charts. To me they are always fun to look at, in part because it’s such an interesting visual way to learn more about yourself. Recently NPR celebrated the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time. You can go to their intricate flow chart and see, based on your own preferences, which of the 100 most awesome of scifi fantasy books most closely matches your personality: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/09/flowchart_for_navigating_nprs_top_100_sff_books/

On a side note, I will definitely have to do a future post on other cool visual data in book publishing. There’s a very interesting visual showing the gender discrepancy between published books and professional book reviews – but that’s a story for another day (and another post!).

Posted in fantasy, science fiction | Tagged , ,

Very Realistic YA – A Movement in Search of Enemies

A recent argument very critical of YA books in general caught my attention via Ink, Bits & Pixels. Here it goes:

“The conversation began with Hansen’s observation that, despite being geared towards young adults, this genre [YA books] generally doesn’t reflect the reality of being a teenager. Hansen’s observations quickly evolved into #VeryRealisticYA — a widespread exploration of the many sexist, heterosexist and overall problematic social norms young adult fiction often perpetuates.”

To frame the need for more “realistic” YA books, the author went on to say that “YA often romanticizes unhealthy, inequitable relationships.” As well intentioned as the “Very Realistic YA” movement is, I want to wave a GIANT red flag here.

Can we agree that books, films and other media should be depicting a much more diverse array of protagonists? You bet! I’m 100% with anyone who wants to say that. But I take issue with the other premises in the above article. Premises which make some judgmental assumptions.

Is it true that YA books don’t “reflect the reality of being a teenager?” Here’s my gut response. If that’s so true, why do you think teens have been buying so many YA books for the last decade? Hmm? Would they continue to buy those types of books that don’t “reflect their reality”?

Perhaps the answer is yes. Maybe for other reasons, maybe teens want ideals or less realistic situations which they can’t fulfill in their personal lives to be represented in the stories they read about. Okay then, fair enough. If that’s the case, then the “books have to be realistic” crowd needs to recognize that realism alone isn’t necessarily the highest virtue that people are after. If it was, this whole debate wouldn’t even exist, would it?

But my misgivings with the ‘realistic fiction’ advocates go beyond that. There is a certain judgmental premise in their approach which rubs me the wrong way. For example, I looked at a series of tweets, many of which were pointing out what ‘should’ be considered realistic YA plot elements in YA books. As I roved over the list of tweets I found it humorous because some of the “realistic” claims – such as a teen’s first kiss not being at all memorable – struck me as just the opposite of realistic. Personally I remember my first kiss vividly. Is that normal? I have no idea. I’ve never done a poll of all people about their first kisses.

Here’s what I do know: To have self-anointed critics start saying “this kiss in YA books is realistic” and therefore acceptable and another type of kiss isn’t…well, doesn’t that strike you as obnoxious? It’s especially ironic too because the realistic fiction crowd wants to push for their own version of realism and in so doing undermine the very diversity they claim they want to promote.

ya-booksThis is all I’m trying to point out: human experience is incredibly diverse. As soon as someone begins to say “these are the REALISITIC components of teen lives” they are already way, way out of their depth. My response to the John Hansens of the world and all other “veryrealisticYA” advocates is to stop trying to model an average, ‘realistic’ teen set of experiences. It simply doesn’t exist, and trying to impose some sort of standard smacks a little of censorship. Something I’m not a huge fan of, by the way.

One last point and then I’ll call it a day: the realistic YA folks seem to have a big problem with “romantizing inequitable relationships.” Do they not see how judgmental that statement is?

The problem with the people who fixate on whether relationships are “equitable” is that they don’t consider this messy thing called life. Realistic relationships are often not equitable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! It can even be good! My spouse and I have different strengths. When we go to a party, I am the take-charge leader in our duo. When we work on some professional projects, she usually takes the lead and tends to call the shots.

Equitable? That word might look good on paper, but it sure doesn’t describe most relationship dynamics in the real world. One person may need to be in a relationship where the other person protects them or predominates in certain roles. I’ve known people in relationships which have very different dynamics than my own. Am I going to say mine is superior to theirs? Is the stay-at-home mom who manages her family’s finances in a less equal relationship than a high-powered corporate mom who never sees her kids but makes big money? I don’t know. That’s not my judgment to make.

The “very realistic YA” crowd could use a shot in the arm of simple humility. Realism isn’t an objective standard that someone can dictate to the rest of us. If you don’t like the experiences in YA books, a genre which I love and continue to read, then here’s my suggestion: Write your own books. Put up or shut up. Don’t tell the rest of us what we should be reading or writing about for the sake of realism. There’s room in fiction for a lot of variety in human experience. Instead of trying to narrow that down, let’s celebrate it. ALL of it. Diversity is a two-way street.

Posted in teen fiction | Tagged

What the Tea Leaves Say About Ebooks

Recently Dan Cohen from the Digital Public Library of America wrote an interesting piece on the future of ebooks – http://www.dancohen.org/2015/03/24/whats-the-matter-with-ebooks/. Bewildering to many is the fact that the surge in ebook adoption has plateaued for the past year or so, and many analysts are huddling together to figure out why. As a writer with 9 different published scifi and fantasy works in ebook format, this is more than just an academic question for me. Also as someone who loves to read, this is something I often think about.

Dan seems to be of the school of thought which says, as one ebook advocate notably put it, “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.” And there are many ebook boosters who see ebooks as the future and print as the moldering past, a simple and straightforward black and white distinction.

And yet…something about this doesn’t sit right with me, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I reject ebooks. I wholeheartedly embraced ebooks when I first entered my publishing journey about 2 years ago. Ebooks have their place, and it’s a growing role as readers avidly adopt it for its convenience factors – easy storage, customizable features, and so on.

But I think it’s a mistake to see print simply as “the past” and ebooks as “the future.” Ebooks have, and always will have, some troubling deficiencies. As an author it matters to me that my readers can get access to my books without censorship. As an author I care about the integrity of the content in the books people are reading. Ditto when it comes to being a reader. Is anyone really happy with the idea that a company, some ebook distributor or publisher, can easily tweak or edit the content of the ebooks in your library? Especially when more and more readers seem to keep more and more content in the cloud?

In contrast to ebooks, print books are extremely difficult to censor. Short of physically tearing out the pages or blacking out the offensive passages or destroying the book outright, you can’t censor a print book – and when you do, it becomes patently obvious to the reader. She or he immediately knows the crime you committed. Not so with ebooks. Censorship and manipulation can be done with a subtle and sneakier approach. Even well-intentioned companies like Amazon have in the past unilaterally, without consulting readers, changed the content of purchased ebooks.

Whether you’re a government, a publisher, or a distributor, censorship becomes that much easier and more convenient when you can modify a digital object where your clientele can’t easily detect what you are doing.

There is a strength in print – in the integrity of content – that ebooks simply lack. There is a universal practicality in print that I find myself, because I love technology and not in spite of my love for technology, still revering the printed word. I hope Dan is wrong, quite frankly. A future world in which print is marginalized and enhanced ebooks are completely dominant is not a richer world – it’s a poorer one. It’s a world in which we as readers and consumers, and even authors, can be easily manipulated and controlled by publishers and others who want to make decisions about censorship or what people *should* read.

Long live print. Long live ebooks. Long live a diverse ecosystem for readers and writers, where print serves as a bulwark against the kind of under-the-radar censorship that ebooks currently don’t have any good answer for…and probably won’t within the foreseeable future.

If we’re asking ebooks vs. print books, we’re asking the wrong question. Both need to have a strong place in the marketplace to spread ideas. Both have values. Both have strengths which the other lacks.

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DUMB Goals are for Readers Too

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Normally I focus on all things related to writing and reading and popular culture (I have a soft spot for movies in case you couldn’t tell), and today I want to comment on something that may at first seem to have NOTHING whatsoever to do with reading and writing.

But in actuality it has to do with the very essence of what makes reading (and writing) worth doing.

If you’ve never heard of DUMB goals, they were first popularized by a charismatic author by the name of Brendon Burchard. He argues that the typical platitudes people say about setting goals (i.e. S.M.A.R.T goals) is destructive in its limited, uninspiring, and short-sighted approach. Many management guru and workforce types extoll the virtues of SMART goals, which are famously manageable and specific. In other words, b-o-r-i-n-g. Sure, on a basic level they’re necessary. You have to take the little steps to get from point A to point B. But if you’ve ever had someone tell you not to read something because “it might be too difficult for you” or some other such condescending nonsense, I bet you understand those kinds of limiting assumptions are a 100 on the annoyance scale.

So let me ask you this: please, please, as a reader, set high goals for yourself. Epic goals even. Not SMART ones. DUMB goals stand for “dream-driven, uplifting, method-friendly, and behavior-driven.” Don’t feel you have to remember that – but remember this: Most goals in life won’t be inspiring and probably won’t be something you’ll come back to in the long-term unless they resemble a DUMB goal a lot more closely than a SMART goal. This is true for reading too.

Ask most people who open any daunting tome of a book (Stephen King’s Under the Dome comes to mind), and they’ll tell you it looked challenging, but it also motivated them. It was something they could be proud of at the end and say ‘Yep, I read the whole book and the pages flew by!’ or ‘It wasn’t easier, but it was worth it.’

As a reader, I don’t challenge myself as often as I should. Do you suffer from that same mistake? By ‘challenge’ I’m not talking about reading fancy-schmancy academic books or highbrow literature necessarily. When I say we as readers should “challenge” ourselves, I’m talking about taking a risk period. Trying something we wouldn’t NORMALLY give a second glance to.

As a reader, I challenge you to set a DUMB goal. Have you always wished you could read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Or maybe you are one of those heretical few who never got through all of the Harry Potter books? Take a reading challenge. Read something you’ve always told yourself you were going to read “someday.” Make someday NOW. Take that next step.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’ll even make you a deal. Share what you would read if only it didn’t feel so daunting to you, and I’ll reciprocate. I’ll take a risk and read something out of my own comfort zone or from the sphere of the seemingly out of reach. The hardest journeys are best traveled with a companion or three. Take this reading challenge and pay it forward.

P.S. For those interested, here is a brief video of Brendon Burchard in all his energetic, ‘take on the world’ glory. It’s maybe 10-12 minutes, and you’ll be glad you watched it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54aFTZ9POw4

 

Posted in fiction, reading | Tagged , , , ,