Not My First Goodreads Rodeo (But Maybe My Last)

Love doesn’t always inspire love and jokes don’t always lead to laughter, but snark always generates more snark.

Someone is wrong on the internet 24/7.

I’m pointing all this out not because I think you don’t know it, but because I want you to know that I do.

I don’t like the idea of calling Goodreads out, because I don’t like some of the company that puts me in. Just for the record, I’m not any more sympathetic with the nonsense over on “Stop The Goodreads Bullies” than I ever was before.

I have posted negative book reviews. I have seen negative posts about my own writing on plenty of sites.

I have also dealt with in-person bullying, including a man who delivered his screaming death threats right at my back door.

I can tell you, in loving detail, the difference between reading mean words about my work and feeling personally menaced.

Not to put too fine a point on it, STGRB is full of donkey spit.

Now: please give me some feedback, because I may be closing my Goodreads account and I want to know if you think I’m overreacting.

As I said, I’ve posted snarky reviews on Goodreads. I like to be the one who slogs through whatever book people are currently freaking out about.

I learned a lot about writing, writers, and readers by making my way through Outlander, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, and the Twilight books. (Spoiler alert: The last book in that series is actually pretty good. It isn’t bad, anyway. Bella stops letting Edward walk all over her. She becomes a strong, active character who stands up for herself and the people she loves. Oh, and one time she totally yells at Edward for being a moody pain in the butt. That was fun.)

Anyway. I learned a lot reading these books. I enjoyed posting frequent updates and then writing reviews that attempted to address larger issues. I grappled with what I see as dangerous sexism in Twilight. I addressed who has the “right” to write about a book in my review of Not That Kind of Girl. I freaked out about the beating scene and the rape rape rape rape rape in Outlander.

The authors of these books have fiercely devoted fans, to put it mildly. I did not mince words – and I mostly only got respectful, intelligent, engaged responses to my reviews.

Of course I fielded some nonsense. A guy who friended me out of the blue (I still don’t know how he even learned who I was) blocked me after I started posting about Twilight, because those are his favorite books in the world and he can’t bear to hear anything bad about them.

I don’t blame him for finding my posts hard to take. When I was in my twenties, it would have been hard for me to be calm if someone talked trash about, say, Jane Eyre.

Granted, this guy could have just unfriended me, or unsubscribed from my posts until I finished the series. I actually posted a heads-up about the fact that I’d be reading and snarking out about Twilight, because a lot of my Goodreads friends like Meyer’s work. Blocking is a bit extreme, and is generally reserved for trolls. But that was his choice and his right.

It was a choice he apparently went on to regret, since once he learned that I’d posted a negative review of Outlander, he created a new Goodreads identity in order to be able to post comments.

The first time he said “It wasn’t rape she was asking for it” [sic], I decided I wasn’t interested in having that conversation. I also didn’t feel like having that comment on my review, so I deleted it.

My review, my choice. He can post his opinion on his review.

I’ve fielded plenty of “your review is wrong and so are you” comments. I was annoyed when a commenter couldn’t be bothered to write a review of her own on her Goodreads page, but posted a spirited defense of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With A Wild God in the comment section of my review. This was a book I expected to love and ended up loathing. My review was reasonably well liked, and the commenter seemed to me to be trying to get her own ideas more widely read than they would have been if she’d simply posted her own review.

But I’d trash-talked a book she liked and I couldn’t very well blame her for responding. I didn’t agree with her, but she wasn’t being offensive. So I let her comment stand.

I tend to do that.

I don’t tend to put up with men saying “she was asking for it” when it comes to rape, whether it’s real or on the page, so I deleted it again when he posted that sentiment a second time. I could have engaged him in debate, but I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t going to change his mind, and I had better uses for my limited time and energy.

He posted the comment a third time, and this time I deleted and then blocked him. Enough’s enough.

Notice that I didn’t run crying to the Goodreads’ authorities, whining about the bad man who said icky stuff on my review. I dealt with it. His comments weren’t lovable, but they were within the realm of acceptable albeit annoying.

Now: what if he’d said, “It wasn’t rape she was asking for it bitch”?

I think that shouldn’t be considered okay at all.

Specifically, I think that comment would cross the line between being my problem and being something Goodreads should have to do something about.

Interestingly, the commenter in question did attempt to call me a bitch publicly, elsewhere. On this blog, in fact. I’m in control of the comments that are posted here, and I didn’t accept that one when he submitted it.

Again: I didn’t overreact. I didn’t engage. I didn’t contact his family. Or his employer. I certainly didn’t call him. I had plenty of options, because like many trolls, this one doesn’t seem to realize how much information about himself he’s left scattered across the internet. (Hint: I could have done all of the above and plenty more.) But that wouldn’t have been appropriate, and it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle – not when it was far, far easier to just delete, block, and move on with my life.

Deleting and blocking and moving on are what you do when the situation is your problem.

It’s your problem when, say, you don’t like a neighbor or classmate or colleague. If their behavior is annoying but legal, you have to grit your teeth and deal. If it’s a big enough bummer, you can move or put in for a transfer or even quit your job. But it’s a big world and there are a lot of idiots in it and we all have to deal with them sometimes.

It’s your problem when your neighbor leaves his Christmas decorations up until March, or someone at the table next to yours at the local café won’t stop yacking.

By “your problem,” I mean: oh, well. That’s life. Deal with it.

It is no longer your problem if your neighbor screams threats every time he sees you, or the guy at the café table next to yours won’t stop making crude sexual remarks to you. “Not your problem” means you can hand this to someone else because we have a system in place (in theory, at least) to deal with this kind of thing.

I’ve spoken to and read about victims of sexual harassment in schools that don’t seem to grasp this concept. The young women in question are sometimes told to dress differently, or instructed “not to engage.” Sometimes they’re the ones who are switched to a different class from their tormenter.

All of this implies that the young women are in the wrong basically for existing, and that this is the kind of behavior you have to put up with if you’re going to be out and female.

Targeting someone solely for her gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion is what’s known as engaging in hate speech.

There’s a reason that guy who became weirdly obsessed with my Goodreads reviews didn’t call me a bitch there. He was also faultlessly polite when he latched on to my Facebook writer page, which is public.

Calling someone a bitch is not the same as calling her an illiterate moron, or a jerk, or a bad writer. “Bitch” is a gender-based insult. Gender-based insults cross a line.

Please tell that to Goodreads.

Goodreads has decided that a guy who just told me to take out my tampon is engaging in unpleasant but acceptable speech.

I don’t know this guy. I wasn’t talking to him. I wasn’t reviewing his book, or a book written by a friend of his. I wasn’t even snarky, which is weird for me.

Months and months ago I wrote a review of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. This guy randomly latched on to my review. Out of nowhere, he told another commenter that she is “very, very dumb,” and then made the lovely tampon comment to me.

Not okay. No longer my problem.

Oh, and he’s a Goodreads librarian.

Definitely not my problem.

I flagged the comments; and then, when I got no response, I sent a letter to Goodreads explaining that they needed to take care of this guy.

I just got a note back from an unnamed Goodreads representative. He or she told me that – well, I’ll let them speak for themselves.

We’re so sorry to hear about this situation! In cases like this, we’d recommend blocking the user. He won’t be able to message you, comment on your posts, or otherwise interact with you.

This is my problem, in other words.

I’m surprised they didn’t suggest I change my user photo and start going by a pseudonym or my initials, so strangers can’t tell I have girlyparts.

Am I out of my mind?

Well, yes. I think that was settled when I decided to title my first novel How To Write A Mutant Bestseller.

But what I mean is: how is this comment not blatantly, plain and simple, newsflash-from-the-land-of-Duh obviously unacceptable?

It’s clearly about my gender rather than anything I wrote. Here, judge for yourself:

You miss why this is an iggynorunt play! We know there never were any witches. However, there were Commies in US gov. So, as a parable it’s political hokum. Meantime, pull out the rag and thiMk.

This is my problem, Goodreads? Seriously?

This is the kind of comment you don’t mind someone making on your site?

This is how you like your librarians to talk to other members?

Up until that last sentence, it’s just business as usual. I don’t know that I’d have bothered to answer it, especially since I haven’t been too active on Goodreads lately and anyway I don’t quite understand what he’s talking about (“iggynorunt”?); but I’d have been content to leave it up and let other readers puzzle it out if they so chose.

That last sentence crosses a line.

Right?

Let me know what you think, because what I think is that if Goodreads is okay with this, I’m not okay with Goodreads.

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Dear White Writers: Please Don’t Be Stupid

Ever notice how some writers only mention skin color when their characters aren’t white? These writers aren’t setting out to be jerks (probably), but they don’t seem to realize that in terms of respectfulness or lack thereof, this is right up there with referring to men by their last names and women by their first. Or only giving physical descriptions for female characters. Or describing both men’s and women’s appearances, but adding an attractiveness rating for the women.

This is the kind of writing I grew up with, back when I was a kid in the ’70s. It’s annoying. It’s offensive. It’s also extremely lazy.

Thankfully, writers have wised up a bit when it comes to female characters and the issues I just mentioned. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re improving steadily.

Sadly, even some very good writers are still behaving like ass-clowns when it comes to characters of color. Actually, these writers are flubbing it when it comes to any color at all. It’s not as if white people are all the same shade – why not bring that up? Some of us are redheads who freckle if someone so much as mentions sunshine. Some of us are the kind of wretched pale that shows not only every current blemish, but every pit and pimple we’ve ever had. Some of us always have dark shadows under our eyes, even when we just woke up from a nine-hour nap. Some of us are sallow types who should be legally barred from wearing the color green. Some of us look as if a professional makeup artist applied a delicate hint of blush to our cheeks every morning. Some of us have skin that looks like that god-awful soy “bacon.”

Which brings me to my main point. I think describing a white character’s skin as looking like undercooked bacon would be hilarious. But for the most part, white writers only employ food-based skin descriptions when it comes to black characters. They then rely heavily on two favorites: coffee and chocolate.

“I’m safe!” you can practically hear them thinking. “People like coffee and chocolate! Chocolate and coffee are good! Therefore I’m saying that black people are good and likeable! I win the Internet!”

Yeah. Except no.

First of all, these descriptions have been so overused that even if they weren’t hateable for other reasons, writers should steer clear of them solely on that count.

Second, there’s something creepy and paternalistic (not to mention just plain gross) about saying that someone’s skin resembles your favorite edible treat. That idea goes somewhere icky, and it goes there fast. If you don’t think so, please go look up the lyrics to “Brown Sugar,” and then have a good time throwing up.

Third – look, just stop it, okay? If you still refuse to believe how absurd and offensive this is, allow me to give you an example of what it would look like if writers were this kind of stupid when it came to their white characters.

“I’m Selena.”

“Hi,” I said.

Selena smiled at me. Her skin was the color of baked custard, with freckles that looked like the nutmeg my mother always sprinkled on that childhood treat.

“Hi,” she replied. “It’s your first day, right? Let me show you around. Hey, Katie! Meet the new girl!”

A woman with a French-vanilla-ice-cream complexion glanced up from her phone. “Hey,” she said briefly, turning back to her texting.

“Don’t take it personally,” Selena murmured. “Katie’s never much for chatting, and we’re crazy busy today.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, hoping the others at my new job would be a bit more friendly.

I was in luck. Selena introduced me next to Abby, whose vanilla-latte skin was a perfect complement to her blue eyes. She greeted me cheerfully, and I smiled and nodded and tried to restrain myself from touching her exotic blonde hair. Maybe if we became friends, I could ask her how she washed it.

Oh, that’s another thing dumb white writers do – use the word “exotic” to explain or emphasize that a character is a woman of color. Cut it out, or I’ll come over and slap some sense into your coconut-cream-pie-colored face.

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A Strange Story Behind The Mockingbird

Don’t worry. This isn’t some kind of Harper Lee tell-all. If I had anything of the sort to report, I’d have done it already or else taken a vow of extremely localized silence.

This is just a story most people don’t know – a true story that (I think) inspired a key plot-point of To Kill A Mockingbird. It has to do with mental illness and Boo Radley rather than racism and the fact that some men only care about rape when they can wave it as a battle flag against people they despise. Not that I’m bitter or anything, and not that I wish everyone would talk a little more about that aspect of Donald Trump’s “I Have A Dream Of Declaring War On Mexico” speech.

Anyway. Mockingbird is on my mind this week, of course, because Harper Lee’s previously unpublished first book is due out any day now.

I’m a recent arrival to the Harper Lee party. I’m 47 years old. Ten years ago, I’d never read Mockingbird. I have now read it three times, and am rereading it now so it’ll be fresh in my head when I finally get my hands on Go Set A Watchman.

Don’t ask me how I managed to avoid Mockingbird for so long. Somehow I wasn’t assigned it in school. And I didn’t read it for pleasure because it looked scary and all anyone ever told me about it was, “Racism is bad.” Which I agreed with, in an uninformed-lower-middle-class-white-girl kind of way, so I figured I could safely return to my usual diet of enduring classics such as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. (Which is actually a pretty good book, so I guess I shouldn’t trash talk it.)

I finally read Mockingbird because I was asked to lead a young-adult homeschooling book group in discussing it, and I was way too embarrassed to admit my ignorance. It seemed like as good a time as any to get this classic under my belt, so I picked it up with a sigh of resignation.

That emotion didn’t survive a single chapter, but I have to admit I wasn’t completely won over until I hit the first patch of dialogue. When Jem said Dill looked pretty small for his age and six-year-old Dill agreed, “I’m little but I’m old,” I knew I was hooked.

But if you’re going to lead a discussion of a book, you can’t just sit back and enjoy it. That’s a great way to have a room full of people smiling and nodding at each other – pleasant, but not really worth reserving a room at the library for. And these parents were counting on me to actually teach their kids something. So I went into research mode.

I started with the quote Lee opens with: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”

That quote is credited to Charles Lamb. I recognized that name.

I looked it up and sure enough, Charles and his sister Mary were the ones who wrote Tales From Shakespeare, a children’s book from the early nineteenth century that’s still in print because it’s still a lovely introduction to the Bard.

I sort of already knew that. I didn’t know that Charles and Mary Lamb led fascinatingly tragic lives.

Specifically, they were intelligent, highly sensitive people who lacked the sort of toughness it would take to thrive in the life they were thrown into. They were two of only three survivors of the seven children their mother gave birth to. Financially speaking, their family was what can only be called shaky-genteel. Their father, John Lamb, worked for a barrister. Even given what seems to have been a great deal of generosity from his employer, the Lamb family never had quite enough money, and they suffered more than their share of illness.

John Lamb had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to work. Thankfully, he was offered a pension equal to his former wages. Money was still very tight, though.

John soon began to suffer from senility as well. At about this time, his wife Elizabeth became a victim of chronic pain that left her severely disabled. And then John’s elderly, unwell sister Sarah Lamb came to live with the family. Charles Lamb – the author Lee quotes – had a mental breakdown; his only surviving brother, John, had an accident and came home to be cared for by Charles’ only surviving sister, Mary.

Mary, like Charles, was a highly gifted, emotionally delicate person. These abilities were more like curses in her situation. She had the hands-on care of several physically (and in one case mentally) disabled people. The family was financially dependent on her as well.

Mary took in sewing in order to be able to make some money while also taking care of her family. This was in the 1790s. No modern conveniences; no old-fashioned conveniences, either, if that isn’t too rude a description of having plenty of servants to do the heavy lifting. So when you think of Mary Lamb, don’t get a pretty mental image of a woman in a lovely impractical dress stitching daintily away at something equally lovely and impractical. Mary, not to put too fine a point on it, was working her arse off.

Being ill and dependent does nothing to sweeten the temper. Being old and weak and idle when one was once young and strong and in charge is a sure-fire recipe for bitterness. Mary Lamb’s days were taken up with the full-time, hands-on care of people who were undoubtedly querulous and demanding. She was, as I’ve mentioned, a terrible emotional fit for her lot in life. She should have been allowed to be what she was eventually able to become – a writer. Her daughterly, caretaking role would have been far better filled by a pragmatic, docile sort – the kind of person who’s content to see life as a lot of hard work with a little fun now and then.

No such woman was volunteering to take over Mary’s chores, however. Mary had no choice but to grit her teeth and keep toiling away. And that’s where her story gets tragic and Harper Lee gets involved.

Because of the sheer amount of labor Mary Lamb had to do, she took in a little girl as an apprentice. I haven’t been able to find any specifics on her pay or work hours, but I’m guessing this was about as desirable a position as any of Oliver Twist’s early employment opportunities. Her life couldn’t have been fun even before the fateful day I’m about to describe; but to Mary, this apprentice was just one more person to take care of – and to train, on top of that. (Any parent knows just how helpful even a bright, well-meaning child is.)

So. We have a sensitive, intellectually inclined, increasingly desperate woman trapped in a life of filthy hard work. We surround her with disabled, dependent people who outrank her – her mother and aunt by virtue of age; her father and brother by being male in the 1700s – and who doubtless aren’t any too thrilled with their lives.

The only wonder is that this pressure cooker took as long as it did to blow.

One night, Mary and the little apprentice girl were preparing dinner. Again, remember just how grittily hands-on a basic task like preparing a meal was in eighteenth-century England. There wasn’t much in the way of “Screw it – let’s just have spaghetti tonight” options.

The apprentice was clumsy or awkward at her task – or maybe she was doing fine but Mary thought she could be doing better. At any rate, Mary snapped. She shoved the girl into another room – which was probably the best thing she could have done, considering what dangerous places even modern kitchens can be.

All might have been well if she’d been allowed to finish whatever task it was by herself while her apprentice, safely out of the way, hitched and sobbed or sulked at a safe distance.

However, Mary Lamb’s mother – who may have been in the very room the apprentice was pushed into – also snapped. Her life was a rough one, too. She’d been in debilitating pain for years. She’d seen four of her seven children die before that. Maybe this evening she’d been attempting to relax a bit in front of the fire before the apprentice girl stumbled in, sobbing.

Oh, and this was before dinner. So everyone was hungry, which always puts people in a wonderful mood.

Mary’s mother began shouting at Mary, scolding her for how she’d treated the apprentice.

And Mary – well, Mary lost it.

I keep thinking she must have been chopping vegetables. That’s the kind of thing it can be very annoying to see someone doing “wrong” – which any cook can attest means simply doing it differently than the cook in question. Also, the size and shape of a chopped vegetable can have a lot to do with cooking time and attractiveness. Maybe the roots would have taken twice as long to cook the way the apprentice girl was chopping them, and looked like misshapen meteorites to boot.

Mary Lamb was certainly chopping something, because when her mother started shouting at her, Mary was holding a knife.

Mary took that knife with her when she went to the room where her mother sat shouting.

Mary stabbed her mother in the chest, possibly mid-shout.

I’m not sure where Charles – Mary’s favorite brother – was when all this happened. I do know that when he returned to the house, Mary was still holding the knife. Charles was the one who removed it from her hand.

Charles was also the one who made sure that Mary was able to stay in a private mental facility after the murder, rather than the public one the family wanted her committed to. This must have taken a double financial toll on the Lambs, considering that Mary had been a breadwinner.

Mary was basically found not guilty by reason of insanity. She stayed in the Islington mental facility for six months. Charles then found her a place to live near London where she could work as a seamstress and subscribe to a lending library. This was in the days before free public libraries; books were outlandishly expensive, so readers could pay a reasonable annual fee to local libraries for the privilege of being allowed to check out reading material. (Basically, it was like Netflix for books.)

Mary and Charles Lamb spent the rest of their lives together. Both of them were avid readers and interested in writing, so their home became a sort of literary salon. They hung out with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, among others.

William Godwin is probably most famous now for being the father of Mary Shelley, who’s most famous now for writing Frankenstein. Back then, however, William Godwin was well known as a writer himself, but also as a publisher. He’s the one who got the Lambs to write the book they’re now most famous for: Tales from Shakespeare.

By giving Mary Lamb a new claim to fame, this book may be what more or less wiped out her old one. She was accepted back into society – she and her brother even adopted a child together, and looked after her until she was educated enough to become a governess. She and her brother were seen as a chaste sort of literary “couple.” She paid Charles back for all the care he’d given her by tenderly looking after him when his own emotional difficulties were occasionally overwhelming. And after her death, she was seen primarily as the sister of a decent poet and the co-author of an innovative children’s book.

And what does all this have to do with To Kill A Mockingbird? Especially since the quote Harper Lee uses as a preface to her book isn’t even from the Shakespeare stories?

If you’re familiar with Mockingbird, you’ll recall that there are several plot threads that eventually braid together into perfection. When people talk about this book, they tend to focus on the rape trial; but Boo Radley is also a fan favorite.

Boo Radley is introduced early in the book as the most notorious member of a legendarily weird family. He is the town’s “malevolent phantom,” never seen but always blamed for any local troubles, even things that couldn’t possibly be of human origin:

When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicion.

So who is Boo, and why is he always thought of as “the culprit” even when he isn’t?

Boo ran with a bad crowd in his teens – some boys who

did little, but enough to be discussed by the town and publicly warned from three pulpits: they hung around the barbershop; they rode the bus to Abbottsville on Sundays and went to the picture show; they attended dances at the county’s riverside gambling hell, the Dew-Drop Inn & Fishing Camp; they experimented with stumphole whiskey.

Teenage shenanigans to be tsked over by the local ladies. But eventually the boys go too far:

One night, in an excessive spurt of high spirits, the boys backed around the square in a borrowed flivver, resisted arrest by Maycomb’s ancient beadle, Mr. Conner, and locked him in the courthouse outhouse.

Again, this seems something more to be snickered over than terrified by (unless you’re the poor beadle, of course). The other boys are sent to the state industrial school, and end up receiving “the best secondary education to be had in the state” and going on to lead exemplary lives. But Boo’s father refuses to ship him out like this. Instead, he keeps him at home – literally. After the outhouse incident, “Mr. Radley’s boy was not seen again for fifteen years.”

Until.

According to Miss Stephanie, Boo was sitting in the livingroom cutting some items from The Maycomb Tribune to paste in his scrapbook. His father entered the room. As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities.

Mrs. Radley ran screaming into the street that Arthur was killing them all, but when the sheriff arrived he found Boo still sitting in the livingroom, cutting up the Tribune.

I read this passage aloud when I led the teen book discussion. We all laughed when I got to the part about Mrs. Radley.

“Why are we laughing?” one of the kids asked. “I mean, it’s kind of weird that that’s funny, isn’t it?”

That’s true. But somehow Harper Lee managed to inject humor into a rather terrifying incident.

Mary Lamb was almost 32 when she stabbed her mother; Boo Radley was 33 when he stabbed his father (with happily less fatal results).

I can’t make any decisive claims. I just think it’s a rather long coincidence that Lee just happened to quote a man whose sister just happened to commit an act so close – and yet so humorously far – to the deed of one of her most important characters.

If you haven’t yet read Mockingbird, I hope the quotes I offered tempt you to do so. I gave it a pass for as long as I did because everyone who spoke about it only talked about its social significance. No one told me that Harper Lee can be wickedly funny and writes like a dream. I’d describe her as what she used to hope to be, “the Jane Austen of the South,” but I’m worried that might make her sound stuffy. She’s anything but.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going downstairs to wait for the mailman to bring my copy of Go Set A Watchman.

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How To Be A Writer

  1. Just decide you are one. This is enough in and of itself to make you a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a word, let alone sold anything. Why should conventional thinkers have the right to define who and what you are?
  2. Tell everyone you encounter that you’re a writer. People are often narrow-minded fools, so they may take this to mean you’ve written something. They may even assume you’re published. Don’t let this put any pressure on you to produce any actual words. You’re an artist. You’re here to set standards, not follow them.
  3. Remember, reading is a waste of your time. Some people may tell you that reading is how every writer learns the basics of the craft, but these people are clearly idiots. Reading and writing are two entirely different things – that’s why they have different names! Besides, if you read other people’s writing, how can you develop your own unique voice? Just because musicians listen to lots of music, and visual artists pore over the works of the greats, that doesn’t mean you have to fritter away your precious time yawning over ink on a page. Remind yourself that it’s far more important for you as a writer to live an epic life than to read some stupid epic.
  4. If you do actually write anything, don’t fret over trivia like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Only small-minded pedants care about that kind of thing. Your story is what’s important. Good readers – readers with their priorities straight – will focus on that. (If any of those readers sheepishly confess that your independent thinking in this area makes it a bit difficult for them to figure out what your story is, remind them that Shakespeare wasn’t exactly a great speller, and Dickinson’s unconventional punctuation and capitalization were criticized by the philistines who didn’t understand her greatness. If they continue to try to persuade you to hire a proofreader, or at least pay some attention to your computer’s spell- and grammar-check functions, cut them off. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.)
  5. Any criticism of your writing is a personal attack on you. Respond accordingly. Argue with negative reviewers – the more loudly and publicly, the better. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
  6. If you hope to make a living selling your work, it’s vitally important that you defend your right to do so. Negative reviewers are attempting to infringe upon that right. They’re snatching the bread from your plate and throwing it on the filthy floor. If you have children, these reviewers are clearly out to starve them as well. You wouldn’t just stand by and watch someone starve an innocent child in real life, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. Even if you don’t have children right now, you may want to someday, and the more money you make from your writing, the sooner you can afford to do so. And if you don’t have children now and never intend to – well, those nasty critics who panned your work didn’t know that, did they? Treat them like the offspring-starving scum they are. If you have any fans, urge them to do the same. And remember – anyone who doesn’t leap to your defense in such a battle isn’t a real fan.
  7. If anyone suggests that you might have something to learn from a negative review, sneer.
  8. If anyone suggests that since you don’t think you have anything to learn from negative reviews maybe you shouldn’t bother reading them at all, roll your eyes at their stupidity.
  9. If anyone suggests that maybe the hours you’re spending online arguing with your critics would be better spent working on your next book, smile pityingly and ignore them.
  10. The path of the true artist is a difficult and lonely one. If your words and actions make your writing life increasingly lonely and difficult, you know you’re doing the right thing. No great writer was ever appreciated in his or her time. Okay, Shakespeare made a living at it and retired prosperously. And Austen was asked to dedicate one of her books to the Prince Regent, who was a fan of her work. And Dickens’ novels routinely went bestseller. But these insignificant exceptions obviously prove the rule. Now, get out there and make yourself unpopular!

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Dear Dove: Bite Me

So I was going to write this big ol’ rant about the new Dove campaign – the one where all these women are kidnapped and shipped God only knows where, told that they have to enter a particular building if they ever want to see their families again, and then filmed making the decision as to whether they’re qualified to enter the door marked “Beautiful,” or if their lives aren’t worth living and they should walk through the door labeled “Average” and then maybe have some chili fries and an order of physician-assisted suicide.

I admit I’m a little shaky on the premise. I may have a few details wrong. I couldn’t watch much of the video in question, especially after the part where they show all these MEN carefully hanging those signs up and then all these women forced for some reason to face them – women who are clearly thinking, “Damn it – of all the days to leave my chainsaw at home. Do I at least have some spray paint? Or a ball-peen hammer, so I can break my way in through that space between those stupid doors? No? #$%&.”

It really bothered me how many people thought this was lovely and delightful and see? All women are beautiful! Because give me a break. You wouldn’t go around saying in a proud, deeply condescending voice, “Well, I think all men are handsome!”

Why not? Why is this any different? Oh, gee – maybe because we’ve all accepted the fact that MEN HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN BE DECORATIVE.

That’s right. When you put it that way, suddenly the whole “You can be beautiful, too, dollface! In fact, you already are!” campaign seems like exactly what it is, which is a way of making sure women don’t fight the idea of being defined by how we look because we’re too busy embracing that idea and hoping it hugs us back.

I was going to say a lot of stuff like that.

Then I remembered two things.

One: I’m supposed to be working on my novel, which is currently my favorite way of not being decorative. Ranting on my blog, however tempting and enjoyable, does not count as writing time. It counts as goofing-off time. (Some people goof off by binge-watching TV. I goof off by screaming at strangers. Don’t judge.)

Two: I’ve gotten pretty good at making those e-cards, and they’re short and fun to read and people like them.

So here’s the one I made to stop myself from spending seven hours writing a feminist diatribe no one would read.

Enjoy.

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Hate Mail to a Dead Woman

We’ve all seen those online articles about famous works of literature getting hideously misguided rejection letters. I got sent links to lots of them when I was going through the fun, fun process of receiving rejections on a near-daily basis.

I deeply appreciated the friends who were trying to encourage me during a difficult time, but I always had mixed feelings about those articles. For every Gertrude Stein who gets a killingly funny rejection (“Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one”), and every George Orwell whose work is turned down for a reason so wrongheaded it makes me blush to be an American (“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA”), there are, well, the rest of us.

The sad fact is, most of us writers and wishing-to-be-writers get rejected for exactly the reason it says on the form letters: our work doesn’t meet an editor’s or agent’s current needs. The sadder fact is, editors and agents need good writing, and most of us rejectees aren’t producing it.

So I always squirmed a bit when I was sent one of these articles. I couldn’t convince myself that I was just another (initially) unappreciated J.K. Rowling or Sylvia Plath.

But I also always read those articles whenever they came my way, because whether or not you’re a writer, there’s a certain deep pleasure in seeing people who ought to know better screwing up big time in their own field.

Please don’t tell my gorgeous agent, but I’m currently knee-deep in researching the YA thriller I pitched her – the one about a serial killer and a ritzy free-schooling girl’s academy and a narrator whose obsession with Emily Dickinson is all that’s keeping her sane as she grapples with a relentlessly hideous life. (I swore up and down that this novel would take no research at all, or at least none to speak of. Ten minutes, tops. I’m kind of a dork sometimes.)

Anyway. In the course of all this research (which, seriously, I am so close to being finished with that I don’t even know why I’m mentioning it), I managed to get my hands on a lovely out-of-print book. (I’ve been getting my hands on a lot of lovely out-of-print books lately, for some reason. Thank goodness most of them are cheap.)

This particular book is called The Recognition of Emily Dickinson, and it’s a brilliantly edited collection of essays and reviews written in response to the posthumous publication of Dickinson’s work.

Dickinson’s first editors toned her weirdness way the heck down – they “corrected” her innovative punctuation and capitalization, broke her poems into conventional four-line stanzas, and occasionally changed words in order to force rhymes – but still, early reviewers were understandably baffled. Even after all those efforts to domesticate it, Dickinson’s work was something new and strange, and people are wired to be wary of extreme originality.

Okay, I’ll stop being charitable. Some of those first reviewers make me think of ants that accidentally crawled onto an elephant. Their tiny minds were incapable of taking in the greatness of what they’d stumbled across, so they just kept muddling on with their usual oblivion.

You want the trash-talk? Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a poet and novelist you’ve never heard of, described her work as “poetical chaos,” and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Andrew Lang, whom you have heard of – he edited The Blue Fairy Book, and all the other colors in that series, too – dismissed her poetry as “mere nonsense.” And one anonymous critic whose review is largely admiring couldn’t help remarking that in Dickinson’s poetry, “grammar and even good taste are sometimes only conspicuous by their absence.”

But some of Dickinson’s first readers had a dim notion that something important had just happened. They might not understand it completely, but you don’t have to be a seismologist to know that your house just had its foundations rocked by one mother of an earthquake.

The reviews are presented chronologically. As they go on, they get more savvy. They stop whining about how poems are supposed to RHYME fer crying out loud, and start recognizing the revolutionary strangeness and eerie beauty of Dickinson’s work, which was first published in 1890. By the 1920s, critics had mostly gotten a clue.

Except for one. One big, moronic exception who went by the name of Harold Monro. (Yes, I spelled that right.) His blunders make me happy for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.

Mr. Monro didn’t want to leave anyone in suspense as to his opinion of Dickinson’s poetry. He titled his essay “Emily Dickinson – Overrated”; and then, just in case he hadn’t made himself absolutely clear, went on to render this thoughtful, prescient judgment of her work:

“At a first impression Emily Dickinson’s tiny lyrics appear more like the jottings of a half-idiotic schoolgirl than the grave musings of a fully educated woman.”

Bear in mind that this essay was written in 1925. Monro was born in 1879. He’d had time to get used to the idea that Dickinson was pretty good at what she did, all things considered.

“She was intellectually blind, partially deaf, mostly dumb, to the art of poetry.”

Or not.

“Her style is clumsy; her language is poor; her technique is appalling, and there is no excuse (except that very excuse of faulty technique) for the frequent elementary grammatical errors.”

Okay, okay – we GET it. Sheesh.

Here’s what makes me happy about this essay – other than the childish pleasure I take from seeing someone come down so hard on the wrong side of literary history, and yes, apparently I am that shallow.

Ever heard of him?

He’s not H. H. Munro, a.k.a. Saki, the delightful Edwardian short-story writer. No, he’s just plain Harold.

Not ringing any bells?

Harold Monro led an interesting life. He founded the Poetry Bookshop in London and three different poetry reviews, and was ferociously energetic in his efforts to generate greater popular interest in and respect for poetry.

I respect him for that. I honor his work in that department.

However, he was also a poet.

And it makes me ridiculously happy that not one of my book-nerdy friends (and I have a lot of them) recognized his name or knew anything about his writing. I sure didn’t.

People who don’t read poetry know Emily Dickinson. People who couldn’t quote her know she’s important. She is, quite simply, a household name.

And the guy who was dumb enough to trash-talk her as late as 1925, when mostly everybody knew better – well, his poetry has gone down to the vile dust from whence it sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

Back to work for me now. In spite of what it sounds like, I really have gotten a lot of writing done as well as a lot of reading. (Tell my long-suffering agent that if you see her looking worried, would you please? Thanks.)

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Resolute Quirkiness

I don’t read everything that goes bestseller. I don’t even read everything that gets talked about. But lately I’ve been reading a lot of books I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t been for the chorus of voices screaming, “How DARE you say anything bad about this book?”

Oddly enough, they’re not talking about sacred texts. I know more devout Christians willing to calmly discuss troubling concepts in the Bible than I do Lena Dunham fans willing to talk about troubling incidents in Not That Kind of Girl.

I read Dunham’s book in order to be allowed to talk about it without being accused of taking certain passages out of context. Earlier, I read Kathleen Hale’s No One Else Can Have You for basically the same reason: everyone was talking about the author, and no one was saying if the book was any good.

I noticed something in both books that I’m seeing now in Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, which I grabbed from the library just because the title caught my eye.

Here’s the short review I gave Hale’s novel:

I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! QUIRKY QUIRKY QUIRKY!

I gave it a longer review as well, but this pretty much sums it up. It also sums up Dunham’s book. Both writers seem so anxious for the reader not to forget that HEY I’M THE NARRATOR AND I WROTE THIS BOOK! that they can’t seem to stop photobombing their own work.

And here it is again in July’s novel. I’M SO QUIRKY! I’M SO QUIRKY! QUIRKY! QUIRKY! QUIRKY!

I’m not anti-quirk, myself. I’ve heard several people describe my YA novel, How To Write a Mutant Bestseller, as “quirky,” and some of them even meant it as a compliment.

What bothers me is when a stack of pages calls itself a book when really it’s a dare the writer made herself: How repulsive can I be without benefit of visual aids?

Specifically: Can I discuss bodily fluids of every sort for so long and with such enthusiasm that a reader silly enough to have brought my book to the breakfast table will turn with relief to an episode of “The Walking Dead”?

I guess I can understand this aspect of Hale’s novel. She, at least, was writing for young readers; and young readers are supposed to love being grossed out.

But when did the rest of us become enamored of bioexcretions? When did the ability to suppress one’s gag reflex become a necessity when opening a bestseller?

I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey. (No, I didn’t like it. Yes, I thought it was abusive and horrible. No, I was not secretly turned on by the trope of a cynical kazillionaire falling hard for a broke, innocent young woman. Yes, I know I’m repressed and uptight and bad and wrong.) The author mentions, and dwells on, semen less in all of her sex scenes put together than Miranda July does in two pages of high weirdness in The First Bad Man. And just for the record, I don’t mean that there’s a lot of sex in July’s novel and so there’s a lot of, you know, cleaning up that needs to be done. Nope. Semen is there just to be revolting – oops, I mean quirky. QUIRKY. QUIRKY!

And just like in Dunham’s book, I get the sense that the author is standing there ready to sneer at me for not being cool enough not to be disgusted when she’s trying so hard to be disgusting.

Sorry. I happen to think that if you have to spend your writing time dwelling on substances our bodies try to keep tucked out of sight, you’re telling me that you don’t have anything more interesting to write about. And if you’re puerile enough to find those substances as enthrallingly hilarious as you did when you were nine years old – well, I’ll just be over here reading something else. Something that uses words to provoke thought and tell a story, not necessarily in that order.

The title of this post was inspired by a line from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that always makes me laugh. Catherine Morland is a wide-eyed country girl on her first trip to the big city. She makes a new friend – Isabella Thorpe, one of those girls who knows everything about everyone and who’d be ashamed to wear clothing more than twenty minutes old. Catherine is duly impressed, and immensely flattered by Isabella’s attention.

Then she meets another young woman, Eleanor Tilney:

Miss Tilney had a good figure, a pretty face, and a very agreeable countenance; and her air, though it had not all the decided pretension, the resolute stilishness of Miss Thorpe’s, had more real elegance.

(Yes, that’s how Austen spelled “stylishness.”)

If the new generation of American writers can’t stop being so resolutely quirky, could they at least start putting warnings on the covers of their novels? I’m really tired of having to learn the hard way that a book that’s hailed by major reviewers as witty and delightful really belongs on my “Not Safe For The Breakfast Table” shelf.

And now that I’m done sounding 90 years old, it’s time for me to get back to researching that YA novel I’m working on. The one about serial killers and Emily Dickinson.

Any quirkiness that results from my efforts will be purely coincidental.

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