September 10, 2012

The quintet that isn’t

Filed under: articles,bloggery,eBooks,how I write,Rights of Passage — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:16 pm

I have written three Rights of Passage novels: Borderland (2002), Outland (2003) and Shadowland (2005). It is now 2012 and I haven’t completed the quintet.

There are many reasons for series fiction to remain incomplete.

Sometimes the author has an open ended series (e.g. Discworld or The Culture) in which case it’s not so much incomplete as each book can stand alone. This is not true of the Rights of Passage series although ironically it is true of the Hex/Void trilogy which has since been bound up as a single volume. Right of Passage was my first and only attempt at writing a series with cliff-hangers. Perhaps this is why its sales were disappointing? Either way I haven’t embarked on another series since.

Perhaps the author has other projects on the go. George R R Martin and his fan base fell out with each other over the fans demands for more Ice and Fire novels and their criticism of Martin for working on anything else. On the one hand I completely appreciate (and share) their frustration, on the other hand writing cannot be produced on command.

Perhaps the author can’t afford to write it. You need funding to write professionally. Each of my Rights of Passage novels was funded via an advance on royalties from the publishing company and they can’t afford to fund future books if the sales of the first three don’t merit it. These are lean times for publishing and unfortunately the audience isn’t always there for every book. But without someone paying me to do it, I cannot afford to write. I put aside time for my writing and rely on other work for a regular income stream. This means that for me to invest time in writing I need to know the work is viable: in that there is an audience and a market for it. This is the same, but writ large for publishers.

Perhaps the author doesn’t know how to finish the books. After a gap of seven years this is entirely a possibility for me but it’s not been tested. I had a plan for how to finish these books and I remember a lot of it and I even have notes towards them. But with each year that passes it becomes less likely that I will complete the series if only because my writing evolves and I might be danger of pastiching my own style in returning to an earlier one. These are the risks of series fiction and why I now concentrate on novels which don’t depend on sequels.
The quintet that isn’t consists of three published titles: Borderland, Shadowland and Outland. Two books remain unwritten: Heartland and Lands End.

Is indie publishing the way to get these books into reality?

June 21, 2012

Review: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Filed under: reviews — Tags: — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:36 pm

Sisters RedWhy I read this book
It’s taken me a year and a half to read this book. I originally came across Sisters Red in the context of a recommended reading list by Bitch magazine that went viral after complaints from readers caused the removal of three titles from the list. Different reasons were given for the removal in each case and Sisters Red was charged with victim blaming. The best reasons for the victim-blaming charges relate to a review posted by The Book Smugglers which the author herself took issue with in the comments. (The Book Smugglers also posted an update after the Bitch controversy.)

I decided then to decide for myself about the three contentious books and added two to my reading list. I have finally reached Sisters Red on the pile ‘o doom.

Genre and cover

Sisters Red is a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in a dark urban setting.
Its strong cover (pictured above) is really excellent and speaks of good marketing and a good understanding of the message of the book. However it did lead me to expect that one character would have red hair and the other black – which isn’t true to the text.

What I thought about the book on the first read

This is the author’s second novel and for early work it’s very good but it is missing some subtleties and depth that I’d expect from a more experienced author.

Sisters Scarlet (19) and Rosie (16) are werewolf or “Fenris” hunters as a result of a devastating attack when they were children in which their beloved grandmother died and Scarlet was horrifically scarred: losing an eye and gaining a passionate determination to fight the Fenris at all costs. The novel begins when Scarlet’s old friend and former hunting partner Silas (21) returns from an extended vacation after inheriting property from his “woodsman” family.

There’s a good mix of action and exposition and the device of having the principle characters tell the story in alternating chapters works well. It does mean that we only see Silas from the point of view of the sisters and he tends to seem a bit too perfect. He is patient with Scarlet’s obsession with hunting and tries to encourage Rosie think for herself, he’s rich but not boastful and sad about his bad relationship with his jealous siblings and senile father. Silas is a nice guy and Rosie is a nice girl and love gradually blossoms during the course of the narrative causing inevitable tensions as Scarlet is possessive of her sister and determined that nothing should come between the three and the moral imperative of slaying all the Fenris.

The Fenris are evil predatory male werewolves who are attracted by revealing clothing and the colour red and prey upon young women and girls who Scarlet refers to as “dragonflies” with their iridescent makeup and dazzlingly attire. When a Fenris dies it disappears in a puff of black smoke – conveniently for law enforcement and news media who have no conception of the existence of the Fenris despite there being seemingly hundreds of them around and distinctive pack insignia tattoos.

One of the areas where this novel could use more depth is in the cast. There really only are three characters in this book: Scarlet, Rosie and Silas. I felt there was a missed opportunity to develop the world through interactions with anyone beyond the trio. Scarlet is completely wedded to her “job” but even when Rosie attends classes the only people she meets are walk-on characters or more Fenris. There’s an intriguing homeless man but he’s not developed into more than a one-liner.

At one point Rosie goes shopping and recognises an old friend in the pharmacy. Sarah is now a “dragonfly” girl who talks about makeup and clothes with a gang of other pretty girls, one of whom whispers that Rosie is the sister of “that girl who got torn up”. Rosie then meets up with Silas and the focus of attention changes to their relationship. This reads as a missed opportunity to me. I’d like to see Rosie try to communicate outside her circle and I feel she makes assumptions about Sarah and her friends that are unwarranted given that Rosie dropped out of school two years earlier and hasn’t seen these people since. Perhaps their comment on Rosie’s sister seems harsh but within the context of the narrative this is how Scarlet sees herself: as scarred and undesirable.

Another missed opportunity is the clubs. The Fenris hang out at clubs and prey upon dragonfly girls, this is well established. Scarlet both despises the clubs and believes the bouncers wouldn’t let her in because of her scars. At one point (one of the contentious passages in the victim blaming debate) Scarlet and Silas discuss the dragonflies and Rosie as follows:

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? he asks pointedly.
“Can I tell you how glad I am that and Rosie aren’t like them?”
“No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.”
“Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them?”

Having now read the entire book I’m afraid I have to agree that there are problematic passages in Sisters Red although this passage cited by the Book Smugglers is probably the nadir of the victim-blaming. It doesn’t get any worse than this. I think the problem is that the author is trying to work through several ideas at once.

Firstly, the cognoscenti versus the unenlightened (wizards v muggles) plot. The trio know about the Fenris and there’s a metaphor used at several times of Plato’s cave and shadows that indicate a wider truth. Pearce is trying to make a point about innocence and experience.
Secondly, there’s also the sisters dynamic. Scarlet sees Rosie as the self she could have been if not mutilated and scarred. In her eyes Rosie is a potential dragonfly, she is not.
Thirdly, there’s the Silas story. His nice guy mystique compels him to make unflattering comparisons being the hunter sisters and the frivolous dragonflies. Unfortunately, it comes across as judgemental to the feminist reader.

The trouble is because we never enter the clubs (we including author, characters and readers) we don’t get to see the dragonflies as people: as young girls simply enjoying themselves. We don’t see them as individuals with their own fears and doubts and issues. I would have liked to see Rosie dress up in silk and glitter and go clubbing – except that I fear the result would be a Fenris attack – but if she could speak to the dragonflies as people perhaps we’d get the some more nuance to the apparently judgmentalism.

To this feminist reader the dragonfly girls and Scarlet and Rosie and Silas too – should feel free to wear what they like and walk where they like without fear of being eaten by werewolves. But because revealing clothing, pretty dresses and strolls through the urban area inevitably result in such attacks Scarlet and by extension the author appear to take the view that girls should carry hatchets and dress for combat. That’s the victim blaming.

There’s a deeper problem too which I didn’t see cited in other online reviews. At one point Scarlet finds a predatory man menacing a young girl and comes at him with a hatchet only to discover that he’s simply a pedophile, not a Fenris. She then lets him go and doesn’t even consider filing a police report. This is anther missed opportunity. I’d have liked to see Scarlet kill the man – or at any rate question her value system. Because this reads uncomfortably as though human predators are an acceptable hazard and inhuman ones require vigilante justice. I don’t think any of this is intentional but it does detract from the book as a feminist-friendly read.

One final issue with the plot twists. At the point they discover that a potential Fenris has SuperUnusual!Trait that’s extremely close to Unusual!Trait that Silas has, I think it deserves further thought and comment from the trio than effectively ‘so some people have unusual traits, weird huh?’. I’d like a little ‘there but the grace of god, go I’ about it. The niceness of Silas is not expressed in great intellectual gifts and the girls both dropped out of school too young to have much aptitude for research as their hit and miss and jump to conclusions method bears out.

I found the book a quick read and I was completely gripped. There’s a lot to like in the quality of writing and the whole approach to a dark fairytale. I think it could have used a stronger edit and more questioning about the problematic passages. The core of the narrative is one of female strength and choices and more nuanced consideration of the moral questions would have contributed to the power of the eventual conclusion.

If I had to rate this out of 5 I’d give it 2 but that would rise to three with cuts of the problematic bits and to 4 if they were rewritten the way I want them to be in my head. Extra bonus points for giving me cool dramatic Fenris-slaying dreams last night!

June 7, 2012

Second book syndrome

Filed under: Advice for writers,articles,ask an author,bloggery,growing up,how I write,Q&A — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 6:50 pm

Lee Weatherly asked how second book syndrome affected me:
“By ‘second book syndrome’ I’m talking about the difficulties that come with writing your first commissioned title – usually with your first book, you write it on your own time, there’s no real pressure, etc – then with the second book, suddenly you have a deadline and a publisher’s expectations. What was once just your passion is now your job, with all the stress that can entail; how do you make the shift? Also, if your first book does very well or sells for a lot of money, that can (perversely) just make the second book far harder to write.”

Rhiannon Lassiter replies:
Hex: Shadows coverWhen I was 19 I was offered a two book contract on the basis of one book part written and one yet to be decided. Second book syndrome kicked in while I was still at university and still very unsure of my own ideas. I suggested a second book in the same series, a sequel to my first, or rather the middle book of a possible trilogy. It wasn’t my aim was to push the company into contracting me for a third. Although I had a number of new ideas I also wanted to continue the story I’d started with the characters of my first novel. Ultimately what decided the issue was that the first novel was selling well and the publishing company seemed keen to continue with more. They published the whole trilogy, which continues to sell well to this day.

However, in retrospect, I made the wrong decision about that second book. If I hadn’t been working on my first degree at the time and struggling with balancing academia and creative writing; or if I’d been more commercially minded, or thought more towards future development – I would have decided differently.

Most professional writers come to writing as their second career. They have some experience in the job market already. They’ve had a different career path and made time for their writing on the side, squeezing their evenings and weekends until they had something they could sell and make enough money to afford to write part time or full time.

I started writing full time straight out of university. I was working on my trilogy and was feeling positive about more contracts ahead. But once my only job was to write and I’d locked myself into this particular idea I started to notice an artistic issue with what I was writing. I was having so many ideas for so many new novels and new ways to write but in this particular trilogy I needed to stay true to the style and concept of the original book.

By the time I started writing my fourth novel I felt I ought have been much more developed as a creative artist than I was. The novel I wrote then was at a complete and wild variance to my previous work. My ideas have always spanned a wide range of genres and as my writing career has developed I’ve had published books across a range about half as wide. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to sell YA and junior, fantasy, SF and contemporary fiction ideas. But I should have started earlier.

Several years later a friend of mine published her first novel and told me she’d been offered another contract and the option of writing a sequel to her first book. I advised her against it. I suggested she write something completely different in another genre to avoid boxing herself in too soon. That’s what she did, and after three more successful novels returned to the world of her first book from the position of being much more assured in her craft, with a established list of novels in different styles and a new perspective on the earlier work.

My friend and I have both achieved success in writing across genres and styles but if you don’t want to be stereotyped early, I’d recommend avoiding series fiction as your entry into professional writing. As a newly published author – as any kind of author – your mind will be seething with ideas; you need to allow yourself time to experiment with them.

Writing full time is not the best career for a new graduate with no experience of the rest of the working world. I was incredible fortunate in that I had the opportunity to do this. But I started with no experience in managing my finances and planning my workload. The way that writers are paid advances (on signature, delivery and publication) and royalties (twice a year after advances have earned out) means that financial forward planning is virtually impossible because it all depends on the market. Don’t take for granted sales figures that make it possible to work full time as a writer; the period in which your book is on sale in bookshops, being reviewed and noticed and marketed is fleeting.

Ultimately second book syndrome leads to third book syndrome and fourth book syndrome and so on. I know authors who have published hundreds of books; but managing publishers expectations and your own expectations of your work never ends. The lessons that you learn are to give yourself space and to be kind to yourself about your workload and rigorous when it comes to your art. Every writer has to learn that individually but I’d recommend gaining self knowledge of what kind of writer you are by stretching the boundaries of possibility as soon as you can. Whether it’s your work space (and I redesigned mine on a yearly basis until about three years ago) or the time you set aside or your style, or genre or whatever makes you individual, expand to your boundaries, learn them and break them.

The second novel is too soon for you to decide your identity.

July 24, 2011

Review: Iorich by Steven Brust

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:53 pm

Steven Brust is slowly ploughing his way through a fantasy series that will ultimately have at least 18 titles (not counting backstories and sidestories about other characters). He started in 1983 and has produced 13 so far (again not counting backstories and sidestories) which gives him a productivity of almost one novel every two years. Iorich, published in 2010, is book 12 (counted in order of publication, internal chronology is more complicated).

I’ve been collecting Draegaera books since the 1990s and had almost a complete matching set. Unfortunately the cover design has changed with this latest book and I will have to resign myself to non-matching editions from here on. One reason I didn’t get this book last year was that I was waiting for the paperback. For a time I bought the hardbacks as they came out but I’m trying to fit more books on my shelves and hardbacks take up too much space. Another reason is that I feel this series has severely dropped off in quality. From the puff quote on the back, Cory Doctorow disagrees with me to the extent that I wonder if he was reading a different book.

The problem is that the early books in the series were so very good. In Taltos we met Vlad Taltos, a human assassin working the mean streets of Adrilankha who gets mixed up with the high nobility of Draegaera. In Jhereg we found out more about Vlad’s job and the complicated politics of assassinations. In Yendi we learned about the twisting turning machinations of politicians and sorcerers. In Teckla the scope of the plot expanded to urban unrest and Vlad’s marital troubles. Since then we have followed Vlad through plots involving the highest people in the land, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, the Empress, the Gods and other beings who oppose the Gods. Vlad now has a price on his head and a Great Weapon on his belt.

Vlad is no longer the insouciant assassin and sarcastic courtier with no responsibilities and a knack for trouble I first admired. He’s grimmer, glummer, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and seems to have lost interest in narrating his own adventures. Once he investigated dodgy happenings, created complex spells of courcery and witchcraft, matched wits with his betters and hatched plots of his own. Now the events of his life, world-shaking as they are, have been rendered much more mundane. In Dzur he went out to dinner and annoyed various people. In Jhegaala he tried to find some relations, failed, and annoyed various people along the way.

Now in Iorich, his friend Aliera is in prison for something everyone knows she is guilty of but is almost certainly not the real reason for her arrest. It takes Vlad almost the entire book to establish that this is the case and that although his various noble friends feel sick about it no one is doing anything about it for political reasons. Vlad wanders around Adrilankha easily avoiding the hundreds of people who have cause to wish him ill dead. He drops in on his old friends and makes sarcastic comments. He spends two days following someone and then realises this isn’t a good use of his time and stops. Eventually he comes up with a plan and invites various important people to be involved (their unexciting roles are basically to keep various other people busy at the critical time) but the critical details are not narrated. This is a far cry from the excitement of Jhereg in which Vlad had to ask everyone he knew for help, explained all the details and even then the reader wasn’t sure if it would work.

In Iorich there’s never a sense of danger. Even when Vlad gets beaten up it’s not as exciting as when he was beaten up in Yendi because he doesn’t know why, doesn’t care about it and his life isn’t in danger. If his life had been in danger he could have easily escaped by drawing his sword: one of the 17 Great Weapons which can destroy souls, save you from having your own soul eaten, slay Gods and kill other beings even more powerful than Gods. Despite all these advantages, Vlad isn’t totally happy with his sword because he’d like to have a conversation with it and doesn’t know how. (I can think of at least 5 characters who could teach him how but this option doesn’t appear to have occurred to Vlad.)

The life seems to have gone out of this series. Even the dialogue is flat where once it was sparkling. It may be deeply significant, especially if you’ve read the other books in the series and can guess what some of the people Vlad speaks to are feeling and thinking. But it’s not lively, doesn’t further the plot and doesn’t seem to get Vlad or the reader anywhere. Vlad barely bothers with the Iorich advocate he has hired and when he does he doesn’t say much of significance because he’s wary of the advocate witnessing against him. This does not make for a thrilling plot.

Eventually someone is conveniently stabbed and all the politics get sorted out – at least enough to accomplish the main purpose of Vlad’s mission, although no one is precisely elated about it. Job done. Another Taltos story completed.

These novels are my addiction. I can’t help caring about Vlad, about his ex-wife Cawti, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Kiera the thief, Kragar the Jhereg boss, Daymar the Hawklord, Aliera and her cousin Morrolan, and the host of characters who have passed through the pages of the series so far. I’d have lied to meet The Demon again (who isn’t a Demon) and the Necromancer (who is) and the Demon Goddess Vera (opinions vary) – although I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Telnan after spending far too many hours in his company in Dzur.

But where were these people in Iorich? They all seemed to be drinking wine or eating cheese or off somewhere with Sir Not Appearing in This Book. Where was Mario? Since he’s every inch an assassin and turned up in the last book when we weren’t looking for him and weren’t bothered about him, why wasn’t he in this one when his lover was in danger of execution? What about Khaavren who is expected to show up in the next book, might he be interested in a political conspiracy? Isn’t his job to unravel this kind of stuff? For that matter where are the villains who spent the entire book off stage being sneaky behind the scene?

It’s not too late for this series to pick up again. After all, there are still a number of books to go. But we need to see Vlad fighting for something, or against something, or doing something more than just existing and fretting about his problems. Pull up your socks, Vlad, draw your Great Weapon and do something!

April 20, 2011

Advice for Writers: Who advises the advisers?

Everyone loves to give advice. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of telling someone else how to lead their life.

I follow several different advice sites and “Ask InsertNameHere” columns, most of which have forum systems for giving your own advice. Often when I should be writing I spend my time explaining to strangers on the internet how they should act around cranky relations, annoying colleagues and other people’s children. But although I do occasionally post under the category advice for writers on my blog, I’m never quite sure that it’s the right thing to do.

One reason is that very few people ever take my advice. I can’t tell you how many times a friend or friend-of-a-friend has asked me for advice on getting published only to ignore everything I’ve suggested. (The most often ignored advice is: “Don’t write a 100,000 word novel and then submit it. Submit a 15,000 word draft and see if anyone actually *wants* more.”) Nowadays I save my professional advice for my writers group, who are tough enough to cope with the occasional scathing critique (“someone hit by three crossbow bolts would not shake it off easily”), and for the teenagers who ask questions at schools and book fairs who have done me the courtesy of showing up and asking a question.

Another reason I don’t write a lot of advice is that there’s heaps of it already out there. Last year the Guardian asked every prominent author they could find for their ten rules for writing. There are books like How NOT to Write a Novel and blogs like Write to Be Published and The Stroppy Author’s Guide to Publishing. Just google for “advice for writers” and you’ll find 96 pages of results.

With so much advice on offer you have to wonder how useful it is. Much of it comes uncontextualised: “write what you know”, “don’t write in the second person”, “don’t write about vampires” – TELL ME WHY! Sometimes it’s just plain wrong: “pay to get your text edited before submitting it”, “design your own cover”, “don’t bother submitting to professional publishers” – NO, NO, NO! A substantial portion of online advice comes from unpublished, pre-published or independent authors with experience in self-publishing and self-promotion – but little to no experience of professional publication.  Go to an indie author for advice on alternative avenues of publication: eBooks, internet, self publication and small presses. But for advice on publication by an established publishing company go to a pro author – or better yet, a professional agent, one who won’t charge you a readers fee. (And there I go, giving advice.)

Advice doesn’t exist in a vacuum – consider the credentials of your potential mentor. I’ve been asked to give advice about graphic novels, travel writing and poetry: genres in which my only experience is as a consumer. (Not that I mean to discount the experience of the reader: reading widely in a genre is a fine basis for critique.) I’ve been given advice by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about: “you should write a book like Harry Potter” or “my life would make a fantastic story – write about me!”

Some authors don’t give advice. Philip Pullman’s response to the Guardian’s request for tips was: “My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work”. Careful readers will notice the stealth advice in that statement.

Most authors with an online presence give some sort of advice in their blogs, FAQs or other web pages. Advice posts are easy to write – you don’t get to be a pro author without picking up at least one tip or trick along the way. That means they’re an easy way to add content to your site – and marketing folk will often recommend creating a blog and posting up some advice to demonstrate you have an online existence. (Yes, I have been guilty of this when my blog was looking very empty.)

I asked some professional authors why they gave advice and the answers were enlightening:

  • “I think it’s the teacher in me”
  • “[it's] a great way to procrastinate”
  • “if you’ve found something that works, it’s tempting to think you’ve discovered the right way, and perhaps the only way, to do it”
  • “I get quite a few emails asking for advice – particularly from teen writers – so it’s useful to be able to refer them to a page on my blog”
  • “[I] see it as a kind of ‘pro bono’ payback for all the times other writers have helped me when I wanted to know something”
  • “because I hate to see people slogging away re-inventing the wheel”
  • “I have absolutely no idea but I’m always grateful for whatever I can get. Especially if it’s free…”
  • “it can be very fulfilling to help a writer ‘break in’”
  • “there are writing techniques, rather than ‘rules’, just as there are techniques for music or art – and there’s a world of difference between breaking them through ignorance or with intent”

And, perhaps the most compelling reason of all, “people ask”.

The authors I asked responded with noticable humility. One author I asked said “I always stress however that it’s based on my experiences so don’t treat what I say as gospel – the industry changes and editors all have their own opinions”. Another commented: “I give writing advice… but always present it as slightly eccentric and ‘what works for me’”. Another successful author said: “I always feel slightly ludicrous giving advice, I don’t know that much myself…”.

Advice given with the best of intent can be wrong. Celia Rees replied: “For every rule given, there’s someone who has broken it and gone on to sell millions. Even the vampire thing – sure, they are going to throw every Stephenie Meyer lookalike straight in the bin, but if someone came up with another twist, that could be a different thing. The only rule is… there are no rules.”

And I’m 40,000 words into a novel I haven’t submitted yet because I want to make sure I get it right. Rules were made for breaking.

November 26, 2010

Protesting against increased university fees

Our new insect overlords

I come from a time in the distant past before university fees. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the UK’s top universities without paying any fees myself. Now, in the harsh light of the year 2010, this seems like privilege beyond imagining. I certainly didn’t feel rich, I had £3,000 a year to live on (a gift form my parents since I didn’t qualify for grants) which paid for my accommodation (Class C rooms at class AA rates), my food (Tesco value range) and my books. But I left university with a degree and with no significant debt.

Right now, the average student graduating in July 2011 will find themselves with £21,198 of debt. Students graduating in 2014 may find that figure increases to £40,000 or more. And that’s based on an undergraduate degree only – not postgraduate or research work.

The rationale is that graduates will earn more and therefore will easily be able to pay of this monstrous burden of debt. Cue hollow laughter. Have you looked at the job market recently? Courses with a vocational aspect, professional accreditation or a clear path into a profession will stand students a better chance of graduating into a good job. But for most the future is bleak, especially in the arts. Unemployment is currently standing at 7.7%. For women the statistics are even worse. The number of unemployed women is at 1.02 million, the highest figure since 1988. And please note that this comes at a time when the government is introducing drastic spending cuts in the public sector, reducing Town and District Council spending by 40%. No public sector jobs for you hopefully graduates, and no civil services ones either with cuts affecting them almost as radically.

Our insect overlords seem almost surprised at the scale and scope of the student protests, as if they thought students wouldn’t notice or care about the increased fees. This morning David Willetts (the universities minister) said cheerfully patronised students: “”My real worry is that maybe young people are put off going to university because they think that somehow we are going to be charging them fees upfront. That’s not the plan… No young people or their parents are going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay to go to university. They will only pay after they have graduated. I don’t want any young person, therefore, to be worried about going to university, and some of these protests – they mustn’t put people off.”

Thanks for that, Mr Willetts, I thought it was the crippling burden of debt putting people off going to university. But now I understand those student are just confused and it’s the protests that are worrying people unnecessarily… Come off it!

And so much for widening participation. I actually found myself saying to a colleague “But doens’t the government want people form poor backgrounds without a family history of higher education to go to university… oh wait, it’s the Tories in right now.” Aimhigher, the national programme to get more working-class teenagers into English universities, will close in July 2011. David WIllets think’s it’s no longer needed and that “the universities [should] have the freedom and flexibility to decide how to spend their resources on promoting access.” Yeah, because with dwindling resources and no central support the widening participation programme will continue as vibrant as ever.

But let’s not blame the current cabinet of millionaires though. Born with a silver spoon protruding from every orifice, Cameron and co have no idea what it’s like for ‘ordinary people’ despite throwing that phrase around like a wrecking ball during the election. This is what the Conservative party is like.

I remember growing up as one of Margaret “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcher’s children. I remember the meanness, the hypocrisy and the sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. And now they’re back, like the Evil Empire in act V of Star Wars, and it’s at least partly #NickClegg’sfault. (That’s the last time I ever vote Liberal.)

We should praise and support the students for marching and for protesting an unfairness that will have the worst effect on people not old enough to have voted in the last election. And, to the students, while you’re protesting don’t forget that there will be another election (however hard the Tories try to push it back into the distant mists of the future) and when there is you can march again down to your local poll station and vote them right back out where they belong.

November 9, 2010

Review: Does my head look big in this?

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:37 pm

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I was given this book by a close friend of mine who knows I’m interested in books about Muslim women. It’s taken me awhile to get down to it on my to-read pile but I approached it with a lot of positive expectation.

The set up is simple. Sixteen-year-old Amal has decided to give up being a “part-timer” and wear hijab not just for bad hair days and religious observance but all the time. The book launches into this straight away, in what will be a consistant teenage voice. Amal is bubbly and confiding, an average teenager who likes shopping and watching television. She’s attended mainstream and Muslim schools and is about to start her third term at grammar school in Australia.

Early on Amal says that she “does [her] all-time best thinking through making lists” but the first list of the book degenerates into an “essay” and there’s not much use of list-making either in dialogue or narration later. This is a good idea but ultimately it seems like an concept that the author forgot to follow up – unfortunately so, because it could have really tied together some of the events of the plot.

In the first list/essay Amal disposes of the “Religious/Scriptures/Sacred” reasons to wear Hijab in 59 words which boil down to: “God says men and women should act and dress modestly”. This religious theme remains largely unexplored. Amal will later mention that she is now praying five times a day but we don’t see her praying or discover what her prayers are about. In concentrating on the things that make our heroine a ‘typical teenager’, the author seems reluctant to give a sense of how Amal experiences her faith. The intention is clearly to handle the religious subject matter with a light touch but I would have liked some more exploration of how Amal experiences her faith. We edge around this in some consideration of why she intends to save romantic relationships for marriage but it comes down to “being true to what you believe in”. As a reader, I appreciate the fact of Amal’s belief but it seems to exist at one remove from the text.

After the list that becomes an essay we do get a real list in chapter three, dividing people into columns of those who will be okay with hijab and those who will be “not so OK”. Here I had a real problem with the text. Each column has thirteen points and on the “Ok people” side we have Amal’s Mum and Dad; friends Leila, Yasmeen, Eileen and Simone; cousin Samantha; a school teacher, nuns, Orthodox Jewish woman, monks, bald women, hippies, people who appreciate good fabric and nudists because “if they believe in the right to take it all off, surely they believe in the right to keep it all on?”. Why monks and nuns count separately I’m not sure or why nudists get the pass.

Then on the negative side are listed a group of girls who will later turn out to be the popular posse at school, assorted shop keepers, Amal’s uncle and aunt, future university students and staff, neighbours, job interviewers, the school principal, a boy she likes (she hopes she’s wrong about this) and nudists (again) “who are offended by people who keep it all on”. She also lists feminists, or rather “hard core feminists who don’t get that this is me exercising my right to choose”. Nudists get the benefit of the doubt but moderate feminists who support a woman’s right to choose how much of their body to display don’t even get a look-in on the lists? This is a problem for me and something of a danger sign for the rest of the book.

Amal’s story explores themes of identity and individuality and teenagers will find a lot to empathise with. Amal supports her friend Leila against a bullying brother and repressive mother with dramatic results; she supports another friend against the girls who call her fat and the ideals of a diet-conscious mother; she makes friends with a boy named Adam and then wonders if he’d like to be more than a friend. Amal also makes time to forge a relationship with a crochety neighbour and encourage her to bury the hatchet in her own family feud. All of this is believably and realistically handled.

Other elements jar. The school is equipped with a standard-issue mean girl posse, complete with fashionista queen bee who makes fun of hijab-wearing Amal and curvacious Simone. But instead of enfolding Tia Tamos and her crew into the evolving understanding of the class, she is left in the cold and eventually shut down by one of the boys who calls her a slut – to the delight of Amal and her friends. I found this depressing reading on a couple of levels. It’s not feminist-friendly and it’s lazy writing.  From the first Tia has been a straw man antagonist and I’m getting tired of the carbon copy depictings of mean girls in high school stories. I would have liked to have seen Amal engage directly with the racism and stereotyping of the mean girls rather than emulating their tactics – and relying on a guy to speak for her.

One of the best parts of this book is Amal explaining to the leader of the debate team that she doesn’t want to speak for Islam or explain that it doesn’t endorse the Bali bombings because she is not Islam and can speak only for herself and that no one has asked Christian students to explain their religion or that it doesn’t endorse the Ku Klux Klan.

“Muslim is just a label for them. In the end, they’re nutcases who exploded bombs and killed people… And if you want me to talk on their behalf and act as though they’re part of me, what are you telling me you think about me?”

I really like this response. It’s honest, it’s apposite, and it speaks to the experience of thousands of Muslims across the world who have suffered as a result of ignorance and Islamaphobia. It’s also very true to the impression I have of Amal.

At the end the group of friends with Amal at their centre have achieved positive transformations but “Simone is still reading diet magazines” and has stopped smoking because her boyfriend told her to, Leila’s brother is “still a creep”, Amal is blowing kisses to Adam but doesn’t consider that flirting and Tia Tamos appears to have fallen off the planet in the chirpy conclusion of the book. Amal plans to write a list – but then realises it would be very short because she knows what outcome she wants – and this last part would be great if the list-making theme had been a more significant part of the book.

Ultimately I’m torn about whether I’d recommend this book. On the positive side it does what it sets out to do and shows us a young Muslim girl experiencing high school with the same essential concerns and behaviours as any other teenage girl. The first person narrative is variously lively, confiding and thoughtful. The narrative is well-paced and plotted.

But then again, it is perhaps too typical a high school novel. There’s a lack of intersectionality in the identity plot when it comes to the battle between the sexes. The girls’ interests and topics of conversation are limited to fashion, television and boys. The mean girls don’t really add anything to the plot except a background hum of normative and/or racist loose talk. The approval of boys is the social height of the high school world. There’s no engagement with the fact that Leila’s family insist on traditional gendered roles and her brother is unfavourly favoured – the conflict here centers on her mother’s attempts to marry Leila off. There’s also not a lot of engagement beyond banter with the popular obsession with thinness and diets.

It’s founded on strong ecumenical concepts but in feminist or social justice considerations it’s more fragile. Given the identity politics issues that drive the narrative I would have liked much more engagement with issues like traditional gender roles, thinness and diets, sexism and feminism itself – I’d like to know what underpins Amal’s assumption that the only feminists she cares enough to list will disapprove of her wearing hijab. Because without that intersectionality this book sometimes lapses into stereotyped, shadow-puppet and straw-man characters who could have been lifted out of obscurity with a more robust engagement with common assumptions and societal norms.

Reluctantly, because with moderate editing at a few critical points I’d rate it higher, I’m giving this 2 out of 5 stars.

I’d be interested in any recommendations of books with a similar subject matter.

September 27, 2010

Banned books week: speak loudly!

The Day They Came To Arrest the Book

The Day They Came To Arrest the Book

September 25 to October 2 is Banned Books Week. Here’s a list of the top ten most challenged books in the US (in 2009) and here’s another link to the top hundred most challenged books (2000-2009). What’s depressing about these lists for me is how old some of these books are. We’re talking about important YA fiction that I grew up with and yet these books are still being challenged for their honest and powerful engagement with important issues.

Speak was published in 1999
The Color Purple was published in 1982
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was published in 1976
The Chocolate War was published in 1974
Forever was published in 1975
To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960
Brave New World was published in 1932

Those are books dating from 78 years ago still being challenged.

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.  Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection. (ALA)

And one has to wonder, on what basis are these challenges being made? Dr Wesley Scroggins would like to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. He cites it first in his article “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education“. Scroggins thinks this book is inappropriate and “should be classified as soft pornography”. The subject matter? A high school teenager’s struggle to speak out about having been raped by another student. I’ve read Speak several times and there is nothing in this book that could be counted as soft pornography. Perhaps Dr Scroggins equates rape with porn – in which case it’s his opinions that teenagers should be protected from.

I should also add that far from defending this book against the likes of Scroggins, Republic Superintendent Vern Minor commented: that:

“the curriculum is abstinence-based and that students can opt out of sex education classes. He also said “Slaughterhouse Five” has been removed, and that “Twenty Boy Summer” is being reviewed. Some of the issues raised by Scroggins were before the start of the school year and were complicated by the timing and renewal process of teachers’ contracts, Minor said.”

The ALA explains that challenges are often seemingly motivated by the desire to ‘protect’ children.

Often challenges are motivated by a desire to protect children from “inappropriate” sexual content or “offensive” language. The following were the top three reasons cited for challenging materials as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom:

  1. the material was considered to be “sexually explicit”
  2. the material contained “offensive language”
  3. the materials was “unsuited to any age group”

But what sort of protection are we actually taking about? Not protection from the bulling rule of a powerful clique (events portrayed in the Chocolate War), not protection from sexual abuse (events portrayed in Speak), not protection from racism (events portrayed in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry). This so-called protection is from reading, discussing and thinking about the books which portray the issues and by-extension the issues themselves. In fact, information is being replaced by misinformation (rape = soft porn). And don’t even get me started on the value of abstinence-only sex education classes with an opt-out option – another example of misinformation or no information being considered somehow less offesnive or challenging than ACTUAL INFORMATION.

Anyway, Banned Books Week comes fast on the heels of a teenage literary festival disinviting guest of honour Ellen Hopkins after one librarian challenged the suitability of her work. When other speakers pulled out the festival was cancelled and some commenters blamned the banned author and her friends for this result. That’s right, because victims are always to blame for the acts of their oppressors.

I honestly think it’s getting harder and harder to publish important, brave and valuable books about issues that affects the lives of teenagers. Perhaps because Dr Scroggins believes all teenagers should or do live in a 1950s twilight zone world. Or perhaps because some modern publishers and critics think the issues are done and dusted: that racism, sexism, classism and other social ills are now in the past so let’s publish Disney Princesses and Glitter Fairies and forget about that difficult stuff.

Obviously there are some wonderful forward-thinking individuals in the publishing world, writers, editors, publishers and critics – not to forget the dedicated librarians who believe passionately in access to books. But I’ve been told by a prominent publisher to concentrate on the romance angle so a book of mine would be “too issuesy” and it’s common practice for every single epithet (from “fuck” to “bloody hell” to “arse”) to be stripped from my work before publication.

If it’s this difficult for parents, politicians and other ‘protectors’ of children to accept the books on the ALA list which are decades old, how less willing will they be to accept contemporary fiction with contemporary themes? There’s a bleak outlook for YA fiction if this trend continues.

But in the light of banned books week, let’s take some time to honour those authors of challenging fiction. To Judy Blume who taught my generation about the physical biology and the emotional implications of sex. To Robert Cormier who in books from The Chocolate War, After the First Death and We All Fall Down was never afraid to write about frightening difficult subjects. To Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, who said in an interview: “But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.”

To all the authors who speak out about uncomfortable truths, I salute you. Keep writing and keep fighting for these important books.

August 26, 2010

Are superheroes bad rolemodels?

Filed under: articles,things I read on the internet — Tags: , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 12:10 pm

Super ZeroesPsychologist Sharon Lamb’s address to the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association was heavily syndicated across the internet last week. The essential details are here: Today’s superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers.

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday… Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
“In today’s media, superheroes and slackers are the only two options boys have… Boys are told, if you can’t be a superhero, you can always be a slacker. Slackers are funny, but slackers are not what boys should strive to be; slackers don’t like school and they shirk responsibility. We wonder if the messages boys get about saving face through glorified slacking could be affecting their performance in school.”

The story has turned up on parenting websites, geek websites and all over the mainstream media. The Guardian kids page ran a competition inviting children to invent a new superhero or draw the Guardian’s own suggested creation JournoGirl. All this publicity is great for Lamb who had a book out last year Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. The subject is probably more interesting in book form because right now, reading the various articles, the speech and the reports of it don’t really tell me anything I didn’t know.

The news that superheroes can be negative role-models is a revelation on the same level as The Woodland Excretory Preferences of Bears and Benedict XVI: Roman Catholic. My eyebrows are raised a little idea that these negative behaviours of modern movie action heroes is in contrast to the more ‘positive’ images presented by older comics superheroes. Exploitation of women and non-stop violence is not a new development in superheroes, nor is it only boys who are affected by the popular image of heroism. (And I think the Guardian could have tried a little harder when offering us JournoGirl as an example of modern superhero.)

For those who don’t know me well, I should add that I like superheroes. I read comics and graphic novels, I like a good action movie. But my favourite superhero stories have always been those with a more thoughtful and ambiguous consideration of good and evil. Anyone who hasn’t read Alan Moore’s Watchmen should track down a copy, then follow it up with Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come. My personal favourite superhero is the Batman because he doesn’t make any claims that what he is doing is right – but to him it’s just better than not doing anything. (Unfortunately Batman is not the most feminist-friendly of superheroes – but he’s better than many.)

Most superheroes are honestly not great role models. Even superman himself is hardly that. For a start he’s not human so living up to his achievements is impossible. He has the strength to stop fights which is good – but he doesn’t model alternatives to violence, he’s just better than everyone else at it.

But who *is* a good role model? Whenever someone or something is described as a bad role model I always wonder who the good ones are supposed to be. Celebrities? Pop singers? Sportspeople? Politicians?. Fictional characters at least have the advantage (or disadvantage?) of being free from the foibles of ordinary humans – but their own foibles are appropriately supersized. You don’t want to be around superman when he’s been shooting up the red kryptonite!

If you ask a group of adults who counts as a good role model you’ll be offered a list of Noble Peace Prize winners, a scattering teachers and mentors and a lot of “ums” and “errs”. Children themselves might come up with a longer list – perhaps we should ask them?

[Rhiannon's books for junior readers Super Zeroes and Super Zeroes on Planet X are available from all good booksellers.]

August 16, 2010

Boys and girls; readers and characters

Filed under: articles,how I write,things I read on the internet — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 9:50 am

A friend of mine pointed me at a post by Tamora Pierce about her use of female protagonists. She was responding to a blog post by Hannah Moskowitz, an author of YA fiction, suggesting that there are not enough books for boys which real teenage boys can relate to: Boy Problem. Moskowitz’s theory is that boys have been stereotyped, sanitised and stripped of substance and she calls on authors to “write, publish, and promote books with real boys”.

In response Tamora Pierce wrote a post of her own on Why I write girl heroes for the most part arguing that “there are still more books for guys out there than there are for girls” in both classic children’s fiction and contemporary teenage novels, and listing various authors of books for boys.

The whole discussion is fairly amicable and shouldn’t be viewed as polarised sides of an argument. Both authors have acknowledged the validity of at least part of the other’s point. My own opinion is that I’ve not noticed a lack of YA fiction with male protagonists – but I think Moskowitz is right to say that boy heroes are stereotyped as much as female ones. It’s also interesting that they both agree that boys don’t buy books the way girls do:

The problem we’re talking about is fairly simple: boys don’t read YA. This isn’t an issue of “boys don’t read”–we’re not talking about these boys. We’re talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why. – Hannah Moskowitz

Why do publishers appear to publish so many books for girls? Because girls buy books. That’s it, clear and simple. Guys don’t. They take books out of the library, or they borrow books from girls, but they don’t buy. Not like girls do. – Tamora Pierce

Obviously there are comments to both blog posts from boys who read and from boys who read fiction with female protagonists. But those male commenters appear to be exceptions, in their own eyes as well as the apparent commenting demographic.

My own experience is heavily coloured by the fact my first trilogy was SF and published for YA while I was myself a young adult (19 when my first book was accepted). My protagonist and hero was female. My readers were male and female. The readers that joined my fan forums, wrote to me and messaged me didn’t demonstrate a gender bias. When I worked with school class groups I had no difficulty in interesting boys in my SF workshops – some girls seemed deliberately uninterested in SF and would need to be drawn in more subtly. But then SF is often viewed as a boy’s genre.

When I give my workshops for schools I ask the students to introduce themselves in turn my saying their name and the book they read most recently – or a book they’ve enjoyed. (I always lead off with “I am Rhiannon and I’ve recently read” and sometimes don’t choose the most recent book if the choice could carry unwanted connotations; I do try to pick something I’ve read in the last month.) My experience of the response, boys and girls is along these lines: Harry Potter, Discworld, Harry Potter, Jackie Wilson, Twilight, Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Twilight, Jane Austen, CHERUB, Asimov, Twilight, Discworld, Dickens, Jackie Wilson. I get girls who won’t admit to reading anything and whisper and giggle to their friends. I encourage them in by asking what they watch on TV and I also draw them in (literally!) in the stage when they have to draw their character, whatever their artistic skill the girls who dress to impress *care* about what their imagined character looks like. I get boys who won’t admit to reading anything and shout and want to have sword fights in the action sequence of the workshops. I ask them if they play computer games and what games they like. They can be attracted by drawing their character but respond better to dramatic tableaus and a call for ‘speakers’ to represent a group.

These boys and girls are obviously stereotypes. I encounter very few of either type. Perhaps three whispery giggly girls and three disruptive wriggling boys in a group of fifty students. The other participants may have their own challenges but these are the non-readers and the most difficult to engage. I think the fact these children view reading as uninteresting or unadmirable must come from parents and there is unfortunately a stereotype of the reading child as a teacher’s pet, elitist and unathletic, unattractive and unpopular.

As a writer I write for the reading child: the child I was and the reader I remain. But I want to speak to every child – and every child is a reader to some degree. Even the resolute non-readers experience narrative in TV programmes and/or computer games. (There are children with a damaged narrative sense for whom constructing a history is an established counselling technique.)

I write predominantly female characters for several reasons. I attended an all girls school from age 11 to 18 and my family is predominantly female. I’ve grown up among girls and women more than boys and men. When Terri Apter wrote that the world of girls was one of “secrets and whispers and shifting affections” that resonated with me. I watched Heathers and Mean Girls and saw my own experience reflected.

I aim not to stereotype my characters and, as I said above, I think it helped that I entered writing as an SF author. But now, after over a decade as a professional writer, my consciousness of the economics of writing particular types of novels affects my casting of characters.

The accepted wisdom in publishing as I’ve experienced it is that girls and women are enthusiastic readers, regardless of the gender of the protagonist; boys and men are reluctant readers who are only willing to read books about boys and men having adventures. My own experience suggests that contempt for reading in teenagers is much more a construct of exaggerated gender roles in society than any gendered antipathy. Both women and men can fall into the trap of wanting to appear anti-intellectual.

I write both male and female characters and although many of my protagonists are female they’re not exclusively so. I write with both plot and character in mind and what type of person would feel and act in this way in this place in this time. I don’t intentionally write romances although some of my fiction could be mistaken for romantic because I try to express emotional contexts including love and obsession in my work. I don’t exactly write horror novels either although the psychological thriller landscape of my fiction can be described that way. I’ve attempted to write across genres; moving from SF to fantasy to ‘realist magicism’ to contemporary to thrillers.

I still write male characters more thoughtfully then women, I have to work harder with the characterisation for men. But I’m also not an aristocrat, a psychic, a computer hacker, a world traveller or a ghost. Another worldview is always a stretch. I hope that my male characters are believable to my male readers just as I hope all my characters are believable to all my readers.

The problem of gender in character roles is essentially an economic one. If you write fiction by the numbers then you’re probably better off writing about boys than girls. If girls read books about boys and not vice versa then the payoffs are inevitably better. However, very few authors can cope with writing formula fiction long term. Everyone wants to write their own story.

What transcends the economics is the artistry of creation; the writer’s story isn’t an autobiography. The character who best expresses the vision of the novel in the form of the protagonist may be an authorial alter-ego but gender is a very minor part of that authorial identification. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series had Lyra as its female hero protagonist. Joanne Rowling invented the male hero protagonist of Harry Potter. Pullman is to Lyra as Rowling is to Harry. When categorising a book for boys or for girls is it the gender of the author or the hero that matters? Or perhaps once you achieve a certain degree of success these questions stop mattering so much.

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