deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
This is enough of a paper topic that someone's probably already done the research, but here's a hypothesis:

One of the reasons I so often have to hold myself back from describing YA realism novels as "modernist" or even "existentialist," is that some of the core elements of both -- subjectivity, disorientation, confusion, and chaos in a seemingly absurd world, all as the ultimate, horrifying breakage which must be solved by the central character -- provide a very sensible thematic structure for the way the West defines adolescence.

Man, modernism as an adolescent worldview. Of course I would think that; I'm a post-modernist at heart.
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
Kirkus Reviews reviewers are anonymous, and I like it that way. For one thing, it means that we speak with an editorial voice; when the incomparable Vicky Smith changes my reviews (always for the better), it means she's doing so with the voice of the publication.

Famously, our reviews are anonymous because they give the reviewers (in the very small world where so many publishers, authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and librarians know each other, smaller now in the days of the Internet) the freedom to be frank. Some, whose opinions I do not share, think that we are infamously cruel. The Kirkus folks I know certainly don't think of ourselves this way. Rather, we know that our reviews are being read by people with limited budgets and limited time, not just readers but librarians and teachers with small selection budgets, and we are determined to give those Kirkus Reviews readers all the tools they need to make the right purchasing choices. And yes, sometimes this means we write reviews authors don't like. The children's book review world has a partially true reputation of operating under the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" rubric. This is most apparent with journals such as The Horn Book Magazine, which dedicates almost every one of its limited pages to books it thinks excels. While this serves one purpose for potential customers of reviews, Kirkus Reviews serves a different one, and I'm glad they both exist.

Anyway, when I first started reviewing for Kirkus Reviews, I would occasionally go seek out the social media presence of authors about whose books I had been ... not as kind as the authors probably would have wanted me to be. I'm not quite sure what experience I was seeking out. It wasn't schadenfreude or gloating, because I had nothing against these authors and certainly no desire to cause them pain or financial harm. I suppose it was a desire to see my mark in the world in some small way. I've long since stopped doing that; the point of our reviews is not a relationship with the author, but a qualitative description of the book in hopes that we might help find the right reader for the right book. In general I have thoroughly mixed feelings about the now-thoroughly shattered wall between readers and authors, and especially between authors and book bloggers. I apologize for thinking aloud in reader response terms, but I feel like the transaction between reader and story is fundamentally changed when the reader is constantly aware of the author.

But I do confess I still have one small social media bit of spying that I sometimes do. Occasionally, long after I have reviewed a book -- and not when I have something else by the same author in my pool -- I will go look at the blog of an author whose work I starred or otherwise kvelled about. If the author doesn't mention Kirkus Reviews, I am perfectly happy. And if they mention the review in a way that shows they are thinking about the effect on sales, that doesn't really affect me one way or the other. But sometimes I go to an author's blog and their response to a review I wrote is some variant of "They liked my baby! Those famously picky people liked my baby!" or "Wow, this one sentence in the review shows that what they loved about my book is what I love about my book!" And then I think, you know, Author, my goal was not to make you happy. In fact my goal was to take the ways in which you had given me joy (by writing the book), and convince as many people as possible to share the experience. But the fact, Author, that I gave you such joy -- it rebounds back onto me. ♥ Floating hearts and kittens for everyone. ♥
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
Last fall, when I taught with [personal profile] astern, it wasn't until after we had started the semester that we realized what the ideal opening assignment ought to be. Now that we are taking a teaching hiatus, we have to give the assignment to you. This assignment will not be graded on a curve, so do your best work! We expect you to abide by the Honor Code*, which in this case means you may work together.

Your assignment:

Pick a book. In the spirit of the class we are not currently teaching, I suggest a speculative fiction work for children or young adults, but pick any book you are interested in talking about.

Now pick three types of writing off the following list. You must pick option 9, but the other two can be any you choose.

  1. A personal blog post reacting to your reading experience.
  2. A professional blog post about the text.
  3. The political response: a reading of the text on purely ideological grounds.
  4. A Goodreads or Amazon style review of the book.
  5. A professional (e.g. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly) style review. If you pick this option, read several examples, and pay attention to such things as house style, word count, ratio of summary/analysis/judgment, etc.
  6. Librarian book talk write up.
  7. Editorial analysis, from the point of view of a publisher or agent working with the manuscript.
  8. Critical scholarly discussion of the sort you would post in an educational forum discussing the text for a class.
  9. Formal critical scholarly analysis of any element of the text, as with a formal paper.

Write at least 500 words in each of your three styles (unless you are choosing to write a professional review, in which case use the word count appropriate for the house style you are choosing). Pay attention to what is different. Besides obvious changes (such as casual versus professional language), what differs? What different choices did you have to make? Did more or fewer words make things easier?

One of our goals with this hypothetical assignment was to show how, while each of these styles of writing is valuable and important -- we certainly don't think, say, personal blog posts of squee aren't valuable -- they are all wildly different. In fact, we hope some of you will choose to write both personal and professional blog posts, or both Goodreads and professional reviews, just to focus on the more subtle (but vital) differences between these types of writing.

Current students are so incredibly proficient at writing about reading, because what with blogs etc., they do so much of it. And yet at the same time, they are proficient in some very specific kinds of writing about reading (primarily personal blogs and Goodreads-style reviews, with some amount of professional blogs), and the process of showing people the requirements of the different kinds of writing is different than it used to be. Without devaluing existing proficiencies, we hope to show that high quality reactive blog post, for example, is not the same thing as scholarly forum discussion.

Over the next couple of days, we will be producing examples of each of these kinds of writing for a single book, and we will post our own examples as well as our own analysis of the differences in the writing style. Let us know here if you have tried this exercise yourself and would like us to link here to your results (whether that happens now or sometime in the future).

* Why yes, we are both bi-co, why do you ask? [Back]
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
You know how [ profile] diceytillerman and I are always talking about the beauty of criticism and deconstruction?

This is what we are talking about:

XKCD comic: Beauty )

Transcript )
deborah: The management regrets that it was unable to find a Gnomic Utterance that was suitably irrelevant. (gnomic)
Tonight, during a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of authorial intent, we decided there should be a graduate seminar in Milton, Blake, CS Lewis, and Philip Pullman. B decided we should call it "The Divorce of Heaven and Hell".
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I find that, perhaps because of my profession or because my home has enough books to provide structural support, people tend to assume that I will agree with the sentiment "But at least they are reading!" For the record, I don't. I don't see any intrinsic value in reading, per se. I know plenty of people who read and gain nothing from it. I know plenty of people who spend substantially more time online or watching television and gain as much from those tasks as others do from reading, or more.
Rachel Maddow Read Poster

Here's what I do see value in:
  • The mechanics of reading: I'll readily admit that the mechanics of being able to read, basic literacy in the reader's home's language, is exceptionally valuable, but its value can be overstated. Here's a hint: if you are looking for intellectual, thoughtful participants in society, literature, and the media who don't have access to the basic mechanics of looking at letters and deciphering them, you need look no further than your nearest friend who is blind or visually impaired (I know, I'm ignoring braille). I won't deny that it's much easier to get by if you can decipher letters on the page/screen, but it's patently not necessary. I say this as a reminder to myself as much as anyone. Why did I have no problem with a student using audio books when the student had a registered disability, and yet I had a gut negative reaction when a student with no registered disability mentioned to me that she was listening to the assigned reading on her iPod? If I think that the reading experience for the student with the disability was as valid and as rich when she used the audio books, why should I think that experience would be any the less for the able-bodied student? This is not to say that I think that people who have the ability to learn the mechanics needn't do so; of course I think they ought to. But we need to have more respect for other forms of consuming texts, such as audio.

  • Literacy in a second language, spoken and preferably written: Like many Anglophones, I actually don't have this one. I wish English-speaking countries had more respect for the importance of bilingualism. I'm not going to say that bilingualism automatically makes people less chauvinistic. But still, having more than one language increases your capacity for being able to understand other cultural perspectives.

  • The ability to understand, critically engage with, and discuss fiction and nonfiction texts: Where by "texts" I mean books, newspapers, television shows, commercials, movies, and Internet materials. All of these types of texts participate in the construction of our society.

  • The ability to enjoy nonfiction and fiction texts: I believe that the ability to enjoy fiction enriches a reader's ability to posit hypotheticals. I believe that the ability to enjoy nonfiction increases a reader's willingness to learn about the world. Note that I am not privileging any type of text; I don't see more intrinsic value to enjoying John McPhee's The Control of Nature, an episode of Discover, or a stellar piece of investigative journalism.

  • The ability to distinguish among the different genre characteristics of the media consumed : Note that I am not saying that readers need to prefer high quality to trash, just that they need to be able to distinguish between them. The reasons for this are more obvious with nonfiction. If a reader can't distinguish between nuanced nonfiction and tabloid journalism, she'll be easily deceived. This doesn't mean it's not okay to enjoy tabloid journalism (or junky television, or pulp novels). But a reader who can distinguish what the characteristics are of the media she's consuming will be better able to critically engage.

The upshot of all of this is that someone who cares passionately about, say, So You Think You Can Dance, The Babysitters Club, Slashdot, Buffy, and The New York Post, thinks about them all critically, and discusses them with other people who think about them critically, is likely to be a better thinker and more informed participant in society than somebody who sits at home statically consuming the latest Booker prize winner without any further thought or discussion.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I was reading Jackie Horne's (my thesis advisor!) new article "Harry and the Other: Answering the Race Question in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter" in the most recent The Lion and the Unicorn (unfortunately not freely available). This article, in introducing the ideas of antiracism, gives what I think is a really nice and succinct definition of some of the tensions:

This quotation got way too long )

She then defines the different forms of educational practice arose out of these two definitions of antiracism:

this quotation also got way too long )

The essay itself is a quite interesting analysis of the tension in the Harry Potter books between these two forms of antiracism, but it's this introduction I found myself wanting to quote. I think a lot of the antiracism discussions on the Internet in the last three years have really been about this tension Jackie describes. The personal versus the structural, and the universalist versus the relativist.

Jackie C. Horne. "Harry and the Other: Answering the Race Question in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter." The Lion and the Unicorn 34.1 (2010): 76-104. Project MUSE. Tufts University, Medford, MA. 22 Mar. 2010 <>.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I have 60 words in which to review a lengthy YA book which includes, in passing, hateful language which is totally in character for the protagonist (e.g. "fags," "spazzes in helmets"). The language is condemned neither by the text nor by any of the other characters; in fact, no attention is called to it at all within the text.

What I'm finding most problematic about this is not how to write the review. That's easy: I have 60 words, which means I tack on "bigoted" to one of my mentions of "the protagonist", which is about all I can do. No, what I'm finding most problematic is that this wouldn't have been an issue for me if the protagonist had been equally briefly and casually fatphobic, because I so take that for granted that I would have cringed and moved on. What's surprising in this book is that I don't actually expect over language of this sort to make it to the editing process without some kind of textual self-awareness being added. (I certainly am not surprised to find homophobia or ableism in contemporary YA, but more of the systemic kind, and not this sort.)

I know some people could make the same post and turn it into a judgment on the publishing industry for self-censorship, but I'm not one of them. I do think that language helps shape thought, and I think a raised eyebrow from another character or from the narrative voice could have clued in even the less aware reader that yes, the protagonist said "fags," and maybe that language is worth a second thought. I find it much more problematic that fatphobia is much more often treated with the same casual disregard this text gave to homophobia and ableism.

(Yes, I acknowledge that children's and young adult literature comprise a corpus created by adults for a group of readers who don't have control over their own literature and that we use their literature as a teaching tool. Like Nodelman, I find this both problematic and necessary.)
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
Reason 1: Her blog post for today, "Intertextuality". Way to not-at-all sneakily introduce young readers to the completely accessible awesomeness of the subject they usually wouldn't get until college or graduate school, if at all, Kristin!

Reason 2: This galley which I am currently holding in my grubby little hand, with a cover graced with what I am reliably informed actually is an accurate depiction of a short bow.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I was lucky enough to see an early copy of Kristin Cashore's forthcoming Fire, which takes place in the same universe as her debut Graceling although substantially earlier. There are many things I could talk about when discussing what I love about this book. I could talk about how much I love the protagonist and the plot, which is true. I could talk about how squeeful it makes me for there to be incidentally disabled characters in this world. I could talk about how much I love Fire's unconventional character arc -- so unconventional, in fact, that even knowing Graceling as I did I fully expected a last-minute situational reprieve.

But instead of going to talk about what really fascinates me: how Fire is not a Mary Sue. Generally, that's not such a big deal. Most fictional characters aren't Mary Sues. But Fire ought to be. I just plugged her into one of the Mary Sue Litmus Tests and got a 96. If I hadn't read the book, but had somebody describe it to me, I would have yelled "Mary Sue! Mary Sue!" gleefully. Unusually colored hair? Check. Everyone loves her? Check.

And yet, ultimately, Fire is a fully realized and intensely flawed character, far more than the sum of her identifiably-Sueish traits. If I didn't know better, I'd see her as a reaction to litmus tests, almost as if the author said "these are bogus; I can write a character with all of these traits who is not a Sue at all". (Cue aside about authorial intent and how interesting it is to read her as a reaction to litmus tests even though I know she wasn't written that way.)

One of the things I love about Kristin Cashore's writing is how, while writing firmly within genre, she consistently breaks narrative expectations. Yet my love for Fire as a character who breaks out of Mary Sue tropes is a little bit silly, isn't it? After all, the clearly identified trope of Mary Sue doesn't come from conventional published original fantasy (although it certainly exists there as well). How can I read across genre-boundaries when I say that the text is breaking narrative expectations?

Here, of course, I'm the reader whose expectations have been so satisfyingly broken. I read both girls' fantasy and fan fiction, so I have narrative expectations that cross both genres. But the book itself certainly doesn't have an implied readership of fan fiction readers. Although that's not necessarily true. Given the marketing and demographic realities of current young readers of fantasy, there may well be an extremely large overlap between this book's implied readership and those who are familiar with the tropes of fan fiction, just as there is probably an extremely large overlap between this book's implied readership and those who are familiar with, say, High School Musical. Is that overlap relevant, though? Would Hunger Games be a different book if its implied audience weren't very likely to be familiar with Survivor-like reality shows?

I'm just thinking aloud here; I don't have answers to any of these questions.

Except to say that Fire was totally awesome.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
yAt! My copy of the encyclopedia Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Robin Anne Reid, has arrived. I wrote the essay "Girls and the Fantastic" and the short entries for Ursula LeGuin and Raphael Carter. I'm so pleased by it, and will shelve it right next to my Oxford encyclopedia of children's literature.

In other news, I'd like to encourage you to check out the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives blog ([ profile] tufts_dca), especially if you like photo blogs. [ profile] lamentables, I'm looking at you! We post about once a week, and most of the posts involve an awesome picture from our archives. For example, my most recent contribution there, "Disaster!", features a fabulous photo of Jumbo the Elephant looking just a tad battered.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I've been far too overwhelmed to post here recently, or even to read my blogs, and for that I feel immensely guilty. I've been doing so much: getting settled in my new job at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, working on my research on romance fiction, working (far too little) on the project I'm doing with Rebecca Rabinowitz on subversive children's literature.

I've also been talking with Alan McKee in preparation for our installation of Henry Jenkins' fangirl/fanboy detente. That has been an absolute joy. It's so wonderful whenever you find another scholar who delights in examining the same kinds of questions that you do. Both of us have found such pleasure in talking about media fandom, and I confess it has been from both a scholarly perspective and a fan perspective. This, of course, is the most wonderful part about being an acafan; the shameless delight in the subjects of our study.

I wonder how much further I would have gotten in children's literature scholarship if the academic blogging community had existed 10 years ago. Would I have made further inroads there? I've made such friends in media and fan scholarship, real genuine friends, people I love and care for -- and I suspect I will be making similar friends in romance scholarship, based on what I've seen of that community. As an independent scholar, it is so discouraging to have no infrastructure for my fields of study. And it's not like I'm not busy, it's not like I'm not doing this scholarship in my spare time after work and dinner and gardening and feeding the cats. If it weren't for the social network of wonderful people who share my interests, I don't know if I would be able to keep it up.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
(I feel like I should split my professional blog into two, so the librarians don't need to read about the scholarship and the scholars don't need to read about the librarianship. If anyone who reads this is finding the alternating posts distracting, I'd be happy to take suggestions.)

I've been contemplating a post on why I think pure literary analysis of fan fiction is a worthwhile project, because there aren't many people who are looking at fan fiction as text per se. Most scholars looking at fan fiction (and developing some very rich and fascinating scholarship, by the way, which I have no intention of denigrating) are looking at it in its context and as a part of its context. Fan fiction within fandom, within the community of readers and writers, and fan fiction as an unauthorized reworking of professionally produced media. All of the scholarship is important and interesting, but my focus is on fan fiction texts as texts.

Before I talk about why I find this important, however, I realized that I might need to start with a post on why pure literary analysis is a worthwhile project, period. I think many people come out of their schooling with the vague idea that there is a canon of worthwhile literature, and that the worthwhile literature reveals great truths under a critical lens. Maybe the canon is the Western Canon of Dead White Males, or maybe it's the postcolonial canon, or the feminist revisionist canon, or the queer canon. But no matter what list of texts is used, there is still something unique about those texts that makes further examination of them fruitful and educational, or so the thought goes.

There are plenty of schools of literary theory that aren't about exploring texts in a vacuum. In those schools, non-canonical texts can reveal plenty about the cultures in which they are created and consumed. But I do explore texts in a vacuum. It's what I love doing. I'm fascinated by other scholarship about texts in context, but it is not my thing. (After a conversation with Kristina Busse, I realized this statement can be misconstrued. I do examine cultural constructs when I do literary analysis. I will look at the workings of food or gender or sexuality or labor as I read. If I were going to identify the schools of literary theory which provides my analytical lenses, I'd end up calling myself a reader response deconstructionist who is strongly influenced by gender theory, queer theory, and Marxist theory. You know, a dilettante of a postmodernist. But I look at those cultural constructs within the text, look at how they work to create meaning internally, and I don't tend to look at the production or consumption of the texts. Of course I understand that my analysis of the cultural constructs within the text comes from my external social and cultural context; I'm not a New Critic, and I don't believe in a Platonic interpretation that exists outside of socially constructed reality. But given my limitations as a theorist who lives in the world, I remain text-focused.)

So why do I do what I do? I could come up with some great critical and scholarly justifications for looking at non-canonical texts in this way. I could talk about how learning to be a close reader makes us better citizens of the world, better able to interpret the bombardment of information that exists in our world. But I'm not going to make those justifications. There's only one real reason my scholarship is what it is.

I love close reading. Love love love. Love like a much loved thing.

I love finding new tricks in a text, new ways to influence towards a specific interpretation. I love finding self-deconstructing moments in which the text works against its own project. I love the poetry of the subtle ways in which words create layers and layers of meaning, and I love peeling back those layers to see the artistry. I love that artistry both when it was probably created by authorial intent (I recently noticed the extremely subtle Odyssey parallel running through Julia Quinn's Romancing Mister Bridgerton), and I love it when it was almost certainly not created by authorial intent (the feminist and anarchist interpretations of Paradise Lost which are so powerful) -- and this is one of the core reasons why I find author intent irrelevant, because the text provides such a multitude of beautiful and rich interpretations regardless of the author's conscious or unconscious goals. (I remember in undergrad I almost couldn't write my paper on Woman Warrior because the textual artistry in that book overwhelmed me, and I felt like I was lessening to it by explaining it to people.)

I could say that I love what it teaches me about the text, about myself, about language, and that's all true. I do love the educational aspect, I do love what I learn about the world. But that's not why I do it. I do it because it's fun. I do it for joy. This is what I wrote in "Read All Over: Postmodern Resolution in Macaulay's Black and White." (Children's Literature Association Quarterly 28 (2003)) -- how a self deconstructing picture book can provide the reader with pleasure in the exercise.

I think it's time to come out of the closet about this. I don't do this to make the world a better place, even though that's something I'd like to do. I don't do this to support a queer, feminist, Marxist, or postcolonialist project, even though that, also, is something I would like to do. I do this for joy. I read closely for joy, and a study the close readings of others because that, too, brings me joy.

And I think that's enough of a reason, don't you?
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