Justine Larbalestier's Blog
July 23, 2014
This post is a thing that I do every so often. It started in 2006 when I posted my writing goals. I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out. And then in 2012 in anticipation of the publication of Team Human.
These goals of mine are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize.1 Winning prizes, making bestseller lists, having your books turned into genius TV shows are not things anyone can control,2 but I can control what I write. Not only can I control that, I do control that. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, eh?3
The following are categories I plan to publish a book in. When I publish a book in a given category I cross the category out. I also randomly add categories when they occur to me. Mostly, to give me the pleasure of crossing them out.4
First the genres:
Crime (what some call mysteries)
Mainstream or litfic5
The reason I am reduxing my writing goals post is because I just struck off another category: Historical. Woo hoo! Yes, with the publication of Razorhurst, set in Sydney in 1932, I have finally published an historical novel.6 And there was much rejoicing. I adore historicals. In fact, the very first novel I ever wrote was an historical set in thirteenth century Cambodia and never published. So this is a big crossing off day for me.
I have also added two new categories: adult romance and dystopia. Before any of you groan about how you’re totally over YA dystopia already I have a really awesome idea for one. In fact, I’ve already written a short story set in that world and it will be out late this year or early next. Very excited about turning it into a novel. But even if I don’t write that novel I’m still going to cross off dystopia when that short story is available.
As for adult romance. Read this post here and you will see me realising that adult romances are completely different to YA romances and that I really want to write one.
All I have left is adult romance, dystopia, western, horror and gothic. Some have said that Liar is horror. I do not agree. I wasn’t scared once writing it. The few times I have tried to write horror I have scared myself so badly I have had to stop writing. When I publish one of those I’ll cross it off the list.
I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:
Third person limited
The observant amongst you will notice that every item on this list is now crossed off. Yes, indeed, Razorhurst does make use of the omniscient point of view. I have conquered an entire list! Let there be rejoicing!
A series is a sequence of more than three books that: 1) have the same character or set of characters but each book tells a separate story. You could argue that Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe books are a series of that kind. 2) are a large story that is told across more than three books.
Some people classify trilogies as a series but I think they’re their own thing. I also admit that that’s very hair splitting and may be heavily influenced by my desire to have one extra thing on this list. Hey, it’s my list. I get to do that.
I suspect the 1930s NYC novel is a series. I’ve been working on it since forever and it shows no signs of being finished. So one day, maybe, I’ll be able to cross series off the list.
And lastly a whole new list:
For those unfamiliar with my oeuvre the Magic or Madness trilogy was about witches. There were, obviously, fairies in How To Ditch Your Fairy and if you don’t think those fairies count then I wrote about more traditional fairies in the short story, “Thinner than Water.” I knocked over both vampires and zombies in Team Human. I don’t count the zombies in Zombies v Unicorns because I did not write those stories. I merely edited them.
I get to cross off ghosts because there are bazillions of them in my newest novel, Razorhurst. I am also, more controversially, crossing off siren because I believe the femme fatale is a kind of siren and Dymphna Campbell, one of the main characters in Razorhurst is most definitely a femme fatale. I’ll be very curious to hear your opinions on that those of you who have read Razorhurst.
I am aware that some of you are going to say that there are two more on that list that I could cross off. However, I have decided I can’t do that because in that particular book it is up to the reader to decide if the main character is an x or a y or possibly a z or possibly none of those. There is no definitive answer thus they all remain on the list. I will brook no argument on that topic.
My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. Have any of youse crossed anything off your writing goals list of late?
TL:DR My new book Razorhurst means I get to cross historical, omniscient, ghost and siren off my lists. Let the dancing commence!
Though I would make no objections should such a thing happen. None at all.Well, not unless they’re hugely wealthy or know hugely wealthy people who are willing to buy gazillions of copies of their books from New York Times reporting stores. But then you wind up with the * meaning this book QUITE POSSIBLY CHEATED.Well, except that I’m only counting them once they get published, which is not actually something I can control. It’s something I hope (fervently) will continue to happen.No, it’s not cheating. I made up this system. I set the rules.You know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis. Though I have never written such a book nor will I. But enough of my readers declared Liar to be literature that I decided to cross it off the list.Razorhurst will be out in the US next March.This one is for Courtney Summers.
July 17, 2014
The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.
The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. It sold extremely well and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.
It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths, and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.
Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.1
Yes, different timezones make for chaos.
July 11, 2014
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
Nothing too complex.
Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
Young adults are unintelligent.
Young adults have no adults in their lives.
Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
See also: #weneeddiversebooksHeavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find?
July 1, 2014
I’ll be launching Razorhurst in Melbourne next Tuesday. Details below:
Would love to see all you gorgeous Melbournites there! Yay, Batmania!
The Sydney launch went marvellously well. Thank you, so much to everyone who attended. I was overwhelmed.
Kate Elliott and I held the June book club over on Kate’s blog. We discussed the marvellous The Street by Ann Petry. This month’s book is Patricia Highsmith’s The Taste of Salt/Carol the first lesbian bestseller in the US with [redacted because SPOILER]. We’ll be discussing it on the last Monday (US)/ Tuesday (Australia) of the month.
June 22, 2014
This Thursday at 6:30PM in the glorious city of Sydney the wonderful Melina Marchetta will be launching my new book, Razorhurst.
Here’s hoping you can attend. I have SO MUCH to say about this book. It was some of the most fun research I’ve ever done. Razors! Women mobsters! Walking every street of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross! Wearing 30s clothes! Studying enforcers!1
In other also super exciting news Liar is now available in Brasil under the title Confesso Que Menti. Here’s what it looks like:
Hope my fans in Brasil like it even though it’s very different to my other books that have been published there.
One last thing: I know I have not blogged for several weeks thus, breaking my promise to blog at least once a week, but I was travelling and it was not possible. There will be much more bloggage from here on out. In the meantime you can always find me blathering away on Twitter.
From a very safe distance in a way that they wouldn’t notice with a mask on.
May 31, 2014
My latest book, Razorhurst, is almost a reality. In just a few short weeks it will be available for purchase in both Australia and New Zealand. There will be rejoicing at, not one, but two launches. The first is in sunny Sydney:
I’m very excited to be launching my first solely-set-in-Sydney book in my hometown of Sydney.
The second launch will be in lovely Melbourne which I ardently hope will be super cold because we’re getting no winter at all up here in Sydney and I want to wear my gorgeous (yet currently useless) winter clothes:
Hope to see you all there!
May 26, 2014
Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.
If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:
KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.
JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.
Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.
KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.
JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*
Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.
KE: Also a classic text on classism.
What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).
The juxtapositions are whiplashing.
OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG
JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.
Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .
It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.
Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”
KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.
JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.
KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.
JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.
KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.
JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.
KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.
JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.
It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)
KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.
JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.
KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.
JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?
Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.
It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.
There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.
KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.
JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?
KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.
JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.
This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.
KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”
JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.
The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.
KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.
JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.
KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.
JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.
The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.
KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”
So I can see why the novel was a sensation.
JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!
That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.
KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.
JL: Ha! I guess that’s our TL;DR: ENEMAS!
May 20, 2014
In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”
The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.
I call bullshit on several different fronts:
Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.
They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.
The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feels so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.
Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?
I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.
Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?
I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2
Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.
Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?
Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.
In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4
Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.
I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.
Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.
Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.
TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.
Read this lovely post by Karen Jensen on what YA is and how contemporary realism never went away.And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy.We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable.Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is.Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing!I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird.
May 15, 2014
The Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub continues apace. This month we’ll be reading Petyon Place by Grace Metalious (1956). That’s right it’ll be a big ole dose of saucy New England.
When: Monday 26 May at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 27 May at noon on the east coast of Australia.
The discussion will take place here on my blog, where you will be able to check in at any time, and we’ll also be chatting on Twitterwith the hashtag #BWFBC
THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time. 26 May in Australia, 27 May in the USA.
We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Peyton Place.
May 8, 2014
I’m sitting here staring at the map for my new novel, Razorhurst, which comes out in Australia and New Zealand in July. The map is a thing of beauty. I’m a little teary looking at it. I’ve never had a map in one of my books before. Let alone such a gorgeous one:
Map designed by Hannah Janzen
As you can see the map does not cover a large swathe of territory. Razorhurst is a Sydney novel but that map is not of all of Sydney, it’s not even all of Surry Hills, the suburb (neighbourhood) where Razorhurst is mostly set.
It’s a tiny, tiny part of Sydney, which got me thinking. I say I know Sydney better than any other city in the world and that’s true. But I hardly know Sydney at all. The Sydney I know is a handful of suburbs (neighbourhoods). I rarely go any further west than Marrickville, further north than the city, further east than Paddington, further south than Alexandria. I’m the total opposite of this bloke valiantly striving to walk every street in the city. My New York City is similarly constrained.
Worse, even in those parts of the city I claim to know well, there are so many lives going on that I know nothing about. This is brought home to me most vividly at my gym. My gym is known for being a crim gym, also as a weightlifter’s and body builder’s gym, and as a gay gym. I don’t fit into any of those categories. I’m not an enforcer for any shady business men, while I’ve lifted weights I’ve never done it in competition, I’m so very much not a bodybuilder,1 and I’m not a gay man.2
I’m fascinated by those first two groups because they live in worlds I never intersect with except at the gym. Their Sydney is not my Sydney.3 I’ve never been anyone’s enforcer. Never been involved in any kind of robbery. Never sold drugs. Never done whatever else it is that those guys do that I don’t know anything about because I am so not part of that world.
I do know a bit more about bodybuilding because the bodybuilders sometimes talk about it.4 What I’ve overhead is mostly about what they can’t eat in the lead up to competitions and them fretting about their body fat percentage. I’ve also overheard loads of stuff I can’t make sense of because I don’t know enough of the specialised language of their world.
Bodybuilder 1: I just need to get down to 4%.
Bodybuilder 2: You’ll get there! Stay away from tuna. Fattiest fish ever.
Me: (not out loud) If you’re only 4% body fat how do you not die?! Tuna’s too fatty? Um, okay.
Bodybuilder 1: I miss salt way more than fat.
Bodybuilder 2: I miss salty fat. Food with flavour.
Bodybuilder 3 (under her breath): Weak. So weak.
Hmmm, I digress.5 My point is that there is so much going on mere metres from where we live that we know nothing about. People who live their lives in the shadowy illegal economy. People who work the night shift, going to sleep just as I’m getting up to write. Engineers! Actuaries! Vampires!6
There are as many different Sydneys as there are Sydneysiders. Hell, there’s more than that because visitors experience a whole other Sydney. I have been known to say that I am unfond of London and also of LA. My London is always rainy and the people are really rude. My LA consists of me being stuck in a car feeling like I’m going to throw up. I’ve only been to both cities a handful of time and know them hardly at all. My London and LA are awful. But I have many friends who adore both places. Who can’t understand why I don’t like London/LA. When I describe my LA/London they just stare at me. It doesn’t resemble their city at all.
The map above is of my imagined Surry Hills of the 1930s. It’s a map of my Razorhurst, a place that never existed except within the fevered imagination of the tabloid Truth.7 We all know novels are imaginary. But I often think that the places we live are also imaginary. My Sydney isn’t like anyone else’s. Neither is my New York City. They exist almost entirely in my mind. In how I interpret (and interact with) the place I live in. Maybe cities are secretly novels. Or vice versa.
Either way I love cities and novels and wish I could know and understand them so much better than I do.
TL;DR: Look at the map for Razorhurst! How gorgeous is it? Very. Cities are vast and complicated and unknowable.
What? I like the way my skin is not orange.I’m not the only one at my gym who doesn’t fit those categories. My gym contains multitudes.Though I will admit in writing Razorhurst I borrowed from some of the things I noticed about the blokes in the gym rumoured to be crims. I spent a lot of time watching how they walk and talk. I was discreet about it. They are very large, scary men.Sadly I have never overheard any of the (rumoured) crims discussing their business. And if I did wouldn’t I have to report it to the police? And wouldn’t they then hunt me down for being a stool pigeon. (Am I the only one who imagines a stool pigeon is one that poos a lot?) I don’t want to die.Yes, those who’ve been reading me for awhile are aware I always digress. What of it? Digressions are fun. Like footnotes and being more than 4% body fat. I overheard one of the bodybuilders just before a competition complaining that his feet hurt because they weren’t padded enough. THE HORROR.Possibly.I quote from Truth a bit here.