Nov 27, 2011

The Sunday Salon – On Reading Important Books

OED with magnifying glass
Photo Credit

The point of departure for today’s post was the recent National Book Awards fiasco, which involved Lauren Myracle’s Shine being nominated for and then withdrawn from the young adult category because it turned out someone had mistaken it for Franny Billingsley’s Chime. You can read about this in more detail here, if you happen to have missed the whole debacle.

I have read and loved Chime, but have not yet read Shine. However, my opinion of these books isn’t really what this post is about. Plenty of reactions to this incident disappointed me because they focused not on the mistake and how it was handled, but on which of the two books was more worthy of being a National Book Award nominee with basis on its subject matter: a book about a hate crime against a glbtq teen and its impact on a community, or a (vapid, silly) book about a teen witch. Amy, as usual, wrote a very sensible and eloquent post about this at the time, so I’ll point you towards it rather than carry on about it.

The sad thing is that even now, over a month later, plenty of people hear the title Chime and think “book I’ve heard bad things about”, when in fact Billingley’s novel got almost universally stellar reviews, and these “bad things” predominantly came from people who have not read it, but dismissed it because they’re outraged about the situation. I don’t want to minimise the fact that the situation was very upsetting, of course, but it saddens me more than I can say that so many people have focused on comparing the two books, which is completely beside the point, rather than on the awards process and what was wrong with it.

The reason why I’m writing about this over one month after the fact is because I’ve been thinking about the whole process of pitting books against one another and deciding which one is better, or more worthier of consideration for an award1, based on their subject matter alone. Having read Franny Billingsley’s Chime, I can tell you that it’s a book that deals extensively with gender, female creativity, and how categories of identity are made sense of in small communities (among other things). These are all topics I deeply care about, as are glbtq rights. But my interest in arguing about which of them are more important is absolutely zero. This is a question that benefits exactly no one and gets us exactly nowhere. In feminist circles, this process is known as playing oppression Olympics and is a well-known form of derailing. Deciding that a book about glbtq rights is automatically more worthy of an award than one about gender (or the reverse) has a similar effect: it draws attention away from more interesting and useful questions about inequality in literature.

Now, this is where this post gets tricky and I have to proceed carefully, because I really worry I’ll sound like I’m saying the exact opposite of what I mean. Critiques of the “importance argument” are often used to dismiss appeals to diversity in literature, but the reason why I care about this is actually because I do care about diversity; because I think that yes, we actually do still need these reminders and appeals. The thing is, stories that offer different perspective, that feature protagonists or are written by authors who are not straight, male, white, or able-bodied, do not all have to be “issue books”. They won’t necessarily be “important” in this very limited sense of the term, and they certainly don’t have to be stories we make concessions for because they are Good For Us and teach us something. There are more than enough good books out there by members of any of these groups that they can be held to the exact same literary standards each of us holds all other fiction to, regardless of the importance of their subject matter.

Again, I don’t mean any of this as an argument against readers making a conscious effort to read more diversely – quite the opposite. It’s not a level playing field out there, and this means we do have to go out of our way to find stories from perspectives other than the very limited ones we’re trained to think of as universal – see Eva’s post on this topic, which says everything I could possibly say (only better). However, I think that focusing exclusively on the “importance argument” reinforces the erroneous idea that to read diversely is to lower one’s literary standards. I don’t want people to run with the idea that any glbtq book that wins a major book award, for example, has won it just because it’s a glbtq book. Yes, there can be value and interest in a book that is not particularly well-written or brilliantly plotted, but is the only one, or the first one, or one of very few, written from a certain perspective. But overall, we don’t need to make concessions – there are more stories out there than we know; enough that to seek them out does not have to require us to give up anything else that we also value.

We don’t have to read diversely just because these books are important. Yes, of course they are; of course we should put an end to underrepresentation; and of course that ethical and social justice considerations matter and are often taken into account by readers. But none of this means we’ll be making a sacrifice. All stories are important; all human issues are of significance, and life will be more interesting if we, as Raych once put it, expand the limits of what we like. We can also read diversely for this reason, then - because it’s a pity that so much should be left out of mainstream fiction and of the range of experiences that are presented to us as all-encompassing. And because these are good stories, with the same power to amaze, delight and illuminate as the dominant perspectives most of us are used to.

1 Of course, when I say this I am not thinking of specialised book awards like the Orange or the Lambda, which yes, I do think are necessary for these reasons, and whose recipients are anything but uniform in terms of subject matter.

The Sunday

ETA: I just wanted to clarify (as I did in the comments, but I know not everyone reading this from a feed reader will necessarily click over) that although I didn’t get into that in detail here, I absolutely don’t subscribe to a single valid definition of “literary quality”, and I completely agree that the way we have been trained to think of and recognise markers of quality is culturally constructed and far from politically neutral. Literature does different things for different people (and for the same person at different times), and whether or not a book tells a story that needs to be told is a perfectly valid criterion by which to judge its success. As anyone familiar with this blog will likely know, my own readings are often influenced by social and political considerations, and I don’t think this is something we should be apologetic about. What troubles me about these discussions, though, is that sometimes the underlying assumption is that we must give up other things if we are to make room for stories that haven't been told before, because they won’t satisfy on more than one single level, or the level at which they satisfy is not as valid in a strictly literary sense. Expanding our understanding of the world and making us see things from someone else’s perspective are among the things I personally value the most about literature, so they certainly do go into my own definition of “literary quality”. But I would also argue that there are very few books out there that only do one thing.


  1. The problem and counterargument I see is this: The purpose of some of these literary prizes is that they are (at least to my understanding - its difficult sometimes to judge WHAT their purpose is) trying to promote the book they think has the most literary value over the last year. Therein lies the rub, and the reason that I don't think a book prize of this sort can EVER be truly "fair". Literary value is not a simple quotient, there is not correct answer that a perfect judge would come up with, wherein, if we all REALLY knew everything we'd pick book X as the most valuable book to the literary tradition.

    Instead, what people do is look to the past, at what books have made up the literary tradition, and one of the qualities that does make a book valuable is its timeliness, in some sense or another - when, say, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, it was in part because of what he wrote about: if he'd written with the same mastery of language about something else, I dare say, he probably wouldn't have won. Subject matter DOES matter. Some of the books we remember as classics, in fact, really aren't that amazing in some other qualities - Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair are frequently panned for their less than stellar writing (a subjective measurement though that may be), but they remain in the literary tradition, precisely because they were the right book at the right time saying the right thing, rightly.

    Now, this doesn't mean every book should be an issues book, or that this is even a requirement for entering the literary tradition. In its conception, for instance, it does not seem to me that, say, Wuthering Heights was meant to tackle any particular issue. Or even Jane Eyre, though both books have later been interpreted to understand the issues of their times (and ours, after all). Cranford is another good example of this. But then, these books DID grapple with something else - in Cranford, you have the artist illuminating, for example, the way that relationships and community function, or in Wuthering Heights you have... whatever the devil that thing that Wuthering Heights stirs up in people is. Some books, for all the pleasure you may get from reading them, for all the artistry of their construction, may simply not bother grappling with anything, and that struggle is a big part of the literary tradition. I read a few Clive Cussler novels as a kid, because my parents both love them, and he's an acceptably good writer, and the books are engaging, but I'm not sure he should win a major lit prize, simply because the books do not struggle with anything.

    I don't know if that's the right answer, in part I suppose I'm just being obnoxious and provocative (sorry!). More just... well, there is SOME role that purpose and scope and meaning have to play in the value of a book, and I don't know if we can just dismiss that role when we judge a book.

    If it were me? I'd get rid of the d***ed prizes altogether. I think we're usually worthless judges of our own time, as a collective humanity. Prizes reveal more about the hangups, preconceptions, and stereotypes of the judges and public than they do about the books. But then, I'm a grouch.

    Not that I'm saying my argument applies to Chime or Shine - I have read neither, and am equally ignorant about both.

  2. Okay Ana, I'm going to ramble here because this post made me think of my 7th graders and it sorta applies, but not really, but then again it does. Soooo let's see if i can make it fit in dialogue.

    My team consists of 97% hispanic (primarily PR) with the remaining 3% divided into black, white, and asian. Not a day goes by when one of my little darlings will use the term RACIST. As in, "It's because I'm black, isn't it?" (and the kid could be hispanic) or "That's racist, ms." when I REFER to myself as white. Finally, just as a blanketed, "what? you're being racist" to just about anything that someone could say that they dislike.

    I find this SUPER INTERESTING. (Nearly 100% are on free lunch, so I don't know how much economy plays a part in this...) I try to have convos with them about TRUE RACISM, opening with, "perhaps we don't know what we're talking about here..." but I get nothing but glazed over looks as I try to get them to GET IT.

    So that thought was going on in my head while I was considering the GLBTQ card. I couldn't imagine going up to any of my colleagues saying, "You don't like me because I have a GF" or alternatively "You SHOULD like me because I have a GF", but we DO as Americans play that token card. My crowd makes jokes about it. Because, it's like gallows humor, you know? "Oh our one teachery black friend left our school so we need to fill our quoto."

    In a way, we handle race (and quite possibly any differences...cuz I've had teachery folk come up to me saying, I was once opposed to the gay marriage rights until I met you... what the what?! Thanks, I guess...) as my ignorant students espousing THAT'S RACIST.

    So what does this have to do with books? And awards? Maybe we have a natural inclination to want to find that book about the big issue to say we've read it THUS PROVING WE'RE A GOOD PERSON. It goes back to that whole "token" concept". I love ______ therefore I can't possible be racist; sexist; homophobic.

    So obvs Shine should win because it's about A THING that we need to take issue with, who cares if the writing is good or not. (It is by the way). However, that mentality hardly helps NORMALIZE the issue that it's about. And by normalize, I hardly mean the gay bashing, but obvs the gayness of the characters.

    All right, sorry for the blown up e-mail in a comment kinda post that doesn't even really make much sense. lolz.

  3. Jason, I really don't disagree with you, and I didn't mean to say that social justice considerations should be dismissed from awards judging processes. As you said, "literary quality" is not a uniform or easily defined category, and I'd be a real hypocrite (given the usual content of my posts) if I were to argue that political considerations have no place in how we respond to books. What DID bother me about the whole thing was that people often assume that if we focus on importance, we are necessarily giving up other things - that books that don't fit into the culturally constructed (and white, straight, male, etc) standard we have established ARE lacking something, but we must sigh and accept this lack for the sake of justice. In reality, though, these different ways of telling stories are not missing anything, and really don't need us to condescend to them. Does this make sense?

  4. Christina: Nothing to be sorry about! You made perfect sense, and made some excellent points about the possible psychological processes behind this. And while I think they're only human, you're completely right that they don't necessarily help normalise these stories.

  5. Yes, this. One of the things that troubled me about the conversation surrounding the whole Shine/Chime debacle was the accusation that the subject matter of Shine was one of the reasons the organizers asked the author to withdraw. It felt like they were saying subject matter trumps literary quality. (They weren't necessarily saying this, but it felt that way to me--that subject matter is everything.) That implies that books with an "important" subject matter should get extra quality points to make up for its actual deficits in quality.

    I find that I don't have time to read anything near as many books as I'd like to, so in my feeble efforts to read more diversely, I make a point of seeking out the best books available from a diverse range of authors, and I don't have to sacrifice quality to do that. I can see, however, if my goal were to really dig into literature from a specific region or on a particular topic, I might sacrifice quality at times to dig more deeply. (Reading something like Uncle Tom's Cabin to explore race relations, for instance.) But it largely comes down to our goals for our reading. You can read diversely and read the very best literature.

  6. In my opinion I don't actually care about the literary value per se of books about people other than oneself, but rather the sociopolitical repercussions. I have seen political opinions actually change from people finally understanding what it is like to walk in another's shoes. And *books* about it are important because so many people live in enclaves of people like themselves, and don't get exposed to other people. (Although in the case of what it is like to be the opposite gender, this rarely obtains, but the argument is still valid, it seems to me, because one is more likely to accept contrary insights from another source than one's partner, with whom one is too tightly bound or with whom one has too much emotional baggage invested.) But convincing people they will be interested in reading books about other types of people is a big challenge. I suppose awards are one way that is accomplished. Word of mouth is probably even more convincing, and I think it is here that bloggers can and have made a very big difference.

  7. And to clarify, I don't mean to imply that Shine had any deficits in quality. I haven't read either book and so have no idea. I just assumed the judges thought Chime was the better book, not that Shine was no good.

  8. Teresa: I wasn't actually aware that people were concerned that Lauren Myracle had been asked to withdraw because of Shine's subject matter. I don't feel I know enough about the NBA to assess whether or not that was the case and don't want to dismiss the fact that censorship and silencing still often happen out there, but I agree with you that this is certainly not the only possible reading of the situation. Your point about people reading for different reasons and making decisions about their particular goals is an excellent one. (And don't worry, I know you weren't saying Shine was lacking in quality.)

    Jill: I love what you said about books having the power to make us walk in someone else's shoes, and how that experience can change people's minds. To me, though, that's certainly part of what I mean by literary quality - a book that does that successful IS a quality one, as that's also one of the things I value the most in literature. I guess this goes back to what Jason said about the term meaning different things to different people and being traditionally defined according to certain historical constraints.

  9. To clarify my first comment further: it's the either/or assumption that troubles me, NOT the idea that "tells a story that needs telling" or "addresses a politically relevant topic" are valid criteria by which to judge literature. Just... people who adopt them don't *necessarily* do so at the expense of anything else, and the belief that they do is part of the reason why these criteria tend to be dismissed (I think).

  10. This is a fabulous post! I agree that it's important to read diversely - it's the best way to expand our horizons. I also agree that different books speak to different people at different times. Who am I to deem a book unworthy just because it didn't speak to me? It may well speak to someone else.

  11. Also (I feel a little silly for commenting on my own post repeatedly like this, but I keep thinking of more things I ought to have said or made more clear in my original post thanks to your excellent comments), Teresa made me realise that one of the main things that bothered me about the Chime/Shine commentary was that references to the second book's importance were being used to silence, rather than to open up, discussions about what literature does or what literary quality is. I *want* to talk about these things; I think they're extremely interesting. But I don't want to do so in a way that automatically aligns me with homophobes if I prefer a non-glbtq book over a glbtq one (and again, I'm not saying I do in this case). I want it to be possible to ask, "What do we value in literature? Why does this book matter?" without this meaning I don't care about diversity and want to uphold a very narrow hegemonic definition of literary value.


    Kathy: The facts that literature does many things and that we can never assume we know why a reader (or award committee) values a certain book are certainly worth keeping in mind :)

  12. Super intelligent post and super intelligent comments, and then me...

    I'm so simple minded these days that I am entirely stuck on the idea that a book's topic is more important than content or form. As a writing instructor that just makes me cringe. It certainly has become popular to promote (sensationalize) books which are poorly written, poorly structured, poorly executed in general, just because of the subject matter being presented.

    While I appreciate the need to present different perspectives and ideas, I am a very large fan of presenting them well.

    I realize this only applies to a small portion of the discussion going on here, but as I said, my serious case of "baby brain" means I can only focus on tiny little tidbits at a time. :)

  13. Trisha: First of all, you have nothing at all to apologise for! There's nothing wrong with commenting on a particular aspect of a post - in fact, we all do it, as it's simply impossible to address everything and some things will grab our attention more than others. About what you said, I don't worry so much about that already happening as I do about readers assuming that it *should* happen, or that it's what will always happen with, say, awards like the Lamdba or the Coretta Scott King. I don't want us to feel that we can't say "this book is valuable in that it includes characters we seldom see in literature, but the writing leaves something to be desire", for example, for fear that one will cancel out the other. And I also don't want to justify or normalise the idea that promoting diverse books means promoting books that are lacking in terms of writing, structure. or any other traditional marker of quality. As with everything else, some of them will be, others won't. All this to say that as writing is important to you, it's more than fair for you to mention it whenever you discuss a book. Readers who value other things (which is perfectly valid, of course) will still be able to recognise a book they might appreciate in your review.

  14. As I was reading your post, the phrase "affirmative action" kept popping in my my feeble non-baby (thank goodness ;)writing teacher brain, to push any written work above another bc of its content is problematic in soooo many ways. I spend semesters pushing my students to make their arguments and say what they have to say WELL. It doesn't matter if you're writing about one of the most important topics in society at any time if you lose your audience bc of lack of style, interest, and especially logic. I live in the South...the Bible in my experience, this argument is especially true when trying to read GLBTQ works when dealing with a majority homophobic 18-20 year old audience. The same could also be said for feminist, civil rights, religious texts...I am blown away semester after semester at some of the narrow minded ideals I encounter...and even more problematic to me is the fact that they even realize they're narrow minded AND THEY'RE OK WITH IT!
    All that to say, awards should be a sign for all of us that a literary work (whatever that means) stands above others in its genre bc of the writing and the way it grabs the attention of the reader. The content won't matter if the reader doesn't read it.

  15. Peppermint Ph.D: I'm not against affirmative action at all, for the reasons Eva explains in her post, and as I'm not a teacher I have no experience of trying to interest a narrow-minded classroom audience in a story by or about someone they're prejudiced against. I have no doubt it's extremely difficult, and I really admire people like you, who are out there trying day after day. But I also really do believe that in a context in which writing, style and logic matter a lot, such as a classroom context, you really don't have to pick between them and diversity. There are more than enough works by people of colour, lgbtq writers, feminist writers, etc. out there that educators can have both. As for awards, it depends on which dimension of literary quality they set out to privilege, which is definitely not clear a lot of the time. Like Jason pointed out, we assume the term means the same to everyone, but that's not really the case. I would hope that a good jury panel would distinguish books that succeed at more than one level - a book that is well-written, has complex characterisation, raises relevant questions AND illuminates an area of human existence that literature has traditionally stayed away from would be an excellent candidate for an award, I would think. But I know that's not how things always work in reality. And of course, there's nothing wrong with someone deciding "this award will specifically focus on THIS dimension" - the James Tiptree Jr award, for example, does exactly that.

  16. Nymeth, I obviously didn't make myself clear bc I thought I was agreeing with what you had said. I used the example of affirmative action, not because I am against it, but because sometimes even the best policies backfire and the person or literary work that is spotlighted is not truly the best for the job or the award. I was also trying to say that I do not shy away from hard texts, but my job is made much easier by a difficult text (difficult bc my students have such prejudices against the subject matter to start with) that also has exceptional literary value...writing that captures their attention, that pulls them into the characters, words they can't ignore, etc.
    Sorry if I didn't make myself clear.

  17. No, please don't apologise! I'm the one who's sorry for misunderstanding you - it's really not your fault. I think my brain went into panic mode because in these conversations I always worry way too much that I'll come across as being against things I actually support, so I thought my original post might have sounded that way. But I really appreciate your comment and clarification. Thank you for adding to the conversation - I'm so grateful to everyone for making me think about these things more carefully.

  18. I don't think that I read as diversely as I probably would like, and I know that there are a few blogs out there that really do a great job analyzing books that may be less popular or a bit out of my comfort zone a bit. I am always willing to learn and experience new things, but often, I have no idea where to go with that wish, and rely on people like you and Amy to point me in the right direction. There is so much merit to this discussion, and I think that we all have various opinions that help heighten my understanding of the issue, which is not one that I see addressed very often. Thanks for getting this message out there, and for being so eloquent in stating your opinions. I am so thankful that you are here to help me understand. Very wise and helpful post today.

  19. This is a great post, Ana. I feel that I agree with you, I love the way you always cut through all the bullshit and find such a balanced way of looking at things. The literary world is better because we have you, I hope you know that.

    I'm also amazed at how a good writer may inspire thought or contemplation unintentionally. I mean if they are faithfully writing and depicting characters and a world as they see and envision it, they will often be doing work they are not even conscious of...IDEK I just know that sometimes I read a book and it's one line that doesn't even tie into the overall themes of the book that ends up staying with me long after I've finished it.

    Which is just a weird way of me saying that overt or explicit representations of things are not always as effective as what you may find unexpectedly.

    But! Yes I like the idea that we don't have to choose between issues and "good writing" ;)

  20. Ana, this is such a great post. I love the dialogue in the comments. I know that one specific reason I read is to learn more about different cultures and social issues. I think that literary awards can bring attention to great books, but they can also make us think one book is "better" than another without even reading it. It's a tricky line to walk.

  21. What I've enjoyed most about this conversation is that we are simply having it. A lack of ability to talk to one another about complicated issues is also a concern that I have for my students. In MS we recently voted on whether or not to pass of Initiative 26 - the personhood amendment. Thankfully we voted it down, but it was close and my students (and some adults) were literally attacking each other over differing viewpoints, really hurtful stuff too. After the election, I told them that instead of writing another essay for the persuasion/argument assignment before Christmas break, we would be practicing arguing over some hard subjects...we discussed the problems associated with the election and the need for them to be able to have a civil conversation with someone even if you don't completely agree with him/her. We'll start this assignment tomorrow.
    I, too, appreciate this forum more than you can imagine. It's intellectually stimulating and keeps me focused on issues that are important to me besides just having to convince others that those issues are important. :)

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  23. Wow..I'm in awe with the discussion you have going on with the comments. Awards mean very little to me. Whether or not the book connects is much more important. I want to read both of them just to put it all into perspective.

  24. Hi Nymeth, I haven't read either book so I can't comment on their quality, literary value, or topical value. What I want to comment on is how shameful the whole process was - how one book was confused for another, is astonishing and horrible for the person eventually asked to give up the nomination (lauren Myracle's Shine) for the one meant to be nominated. I still am unable to believe that they could make this mistake. It makes me wonder if they read either book. And I am ashamed because it is embarrassing that they confused two books. What does that say about writing? About literature? About story telling? What makes a story unique? How could the judges make such a terrible mistake? That's what bothers me - how they couldn't remember which book they wanted to nominate. I would rather wish that the judges of the National Book Award stepped down first, and let a new judging team judge the nominated books again. Even if it were delayed, it would mean a fair judging for all the books involved. Because no matter if Chime wins or loses, it will also be coloured by how it got mistaken with Shine, too. I know judges have to be fair and impartial as possible in reading and judging a book for quality and all the things they are looking for. It leaves an icky feeling that this happened, and neither book nor author deserve it. So you are so right to say that comparing the two books has overtaken what we should be asking of the awards committee, which is, how are you judging? using what specifications? and how could this (mix-up) happen?

    Thanks for posing this so we could put in our two cents worth too!

  25. Oh Ana, you warm my heart with this post! Yes yes yes!! I can't stand it when one book is pitted against another instead of looked at on it's own merits, or when a book is nominated just BECAUSE it's an issue book, etc. etc. I wish people (and many do) could base a book's merit on it's own content. I hadn't actually heard about this, but it is so freaking sad!! NOT because Myracle necessarily deserves to be on the list (though I did love her book) but just that it happened to her :( I would be so hurt and upset. And I'm still SO looking forward to reading Chime!!!

  26. I'm so late to the party I have pretty much nothing to add but my support. The principal importance of books and freedom of the press and lack of censorship is diversity -- is giving readers a chance to learn about and understand people different from themselves. And we need lots of books about similar topics because a book that works for me may not work for you.

  27. I don't have much to add to the discussion, but I appreciate that you brought this issue to my attention. I'm amazed that the mix-up happened in the first place. I do think it's worrisome when people pit one book against another, especially books of such varying topics as these. Thanks for your always eloquently laid out thoughts.

  28. Yes, yes, yes times 100. I get so frustrated when people assume that by reading African literature or GLBTQ literature I am 'lowering my standards' when that is not at all the case. Frustrating I tell you. I think reading deliberately is important but that doesn't mean ignoring everything else either. Also, reading deliberately means focusing on a large number of things like race and gender and sexuality and etc etc etc not one at the expense of the other!

  29. Wonderful post, Ana! It is a finely nuanced and informed argument which has started a furious debate - as always :) From what I could understand from your post (that it is okay to read 'serious' books as well as 'entertaining' books and it is really upto the reader to read what she / he wants), I agree with you. The only comment I have to add is that literary awards are always subjective and the judges have to pit books against each other and have to publicly say that one book is better than the other by bestowing the award on one book. But as readers, I think we can easily see that it is just a subjective opinion of the judges and it doesn't mean anything about the other shortlisted books or even the other books which were not even shortlisted. Kafka, after all, didn't win any award. Neither did Tolstoy.

  30. Well as usual Ana, your insights render me speechless. I don't know what else I can say that you haven't already said better! I'd say AMEN but don't want to sound religious...ha!

  31. Great post about a complex issue, Ana (and also great comments and discussion). I didn't pay too much attention to this kerfuffle because I'm pretty indifferent to literary awards. I DON'T think they're problematic because literature is subjective--that's what I love about books, and all the arts really--but most of the books I like are regarded as 'trash' reading by a lot people. So I personally don't put much value into how other people define worthwhile books or not.

    Your post reminded me of a quote by Gustave Flaubert, "Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live." People read for many different reasons, but I think as long as you're reading because you genuinely love stories, and books, reading diversely should should follow. And we should respect others' diverse tastes even if we don't personally understand them! :)

  32. Blogger ate my comment. Will I never learn to copy them before attempting to post? Mainly I said:

    a.) I think people make judgements about the socio-political importance of one book against another because they're anxious that books that can be eye opening are getting lost in the cracks (less people reading, less money for book promotion, less leisure time as everyone has to work harder, less disposable income etc, etc). It's a hard time to be launching a book, or even pushing your favourites to others and people somehow feel like they have to push other books out of the way in order to put the one they think can change the world front and centre.

    b.) When people start championing books in this way (without critiquing in depth - I think that's really important, you can say 'Book X deals in really important subjects, I hope lots of people read it' but in my opinion if you're really pushing this book hard you've got to be prepared to back that up with a real hard look at how the book does and doesn't work) it brings on talk that people are lowering their standards for politically correct reasons, even if the 'important'
    book is excellent

    All of which to say I understand why people are talking in this way, but I personally don't like the approach and it doesn't seem to work out so well for the books they're championing anyway.

    And then I said something like:

    c.) I wonder if the more focused awards (Orange, Green Carnation, Man Asian) combat the tendency to talk about the differences in the sociopolitical importance of the nominees, because every book has a claim to sociopolitical importance either through it's subject matter, or through its author?

    Don't eat my comment again Blogger :(

  33. This was my introduction to the mistake and the buzz. I have read Chime, and I have read a different book by Lauren Myracle. The thing I am most curious about is Billingsley's response. What was it? Do you know?

  34. Zibilee: I think that what you describe is how a lot of readers feel. They'd like to branch out, but marketing departments assume that what they want is more of the same, and the cycle perpetuates itself. I don't read as diversely as I'd like to either, but blogging means that if I'm looking for something I know where to look.

    Amy: Thank you so much <3 I could say the exact same about you. Also, I completely agree with you about stories having the potential to do more than their creators ever intended. It's one of the things I love the most about literature.

    Melissa: Yes, it IS tricky. I like that awards exist, as they bring books I might never have discovered to my attention, but we need to be careful not to think they mean more than they actually do.

    Peppermint Ph.D.: Well said! Just being able to have these conversations means a lot.

    Staci: I would love to hear your thoughts if you do!

    Susan: Yes, it's an almost unbelievable situation, isn't it? How does something like this even happen? And how can people, when it does, handle it in a way that makes everything even more distressing to everyone involved? The winner as already been announced and it wasn't Chime. But, probably unfairly to the author who did win, people really will wonder how much the decision was affected by this whole debacle. In fact, I remember articles anouncing the winner focusing more on the mistake than on the book that won. Like Amy so well said in her post, this year everyone loses.

    Chris: I think the danger is not so much books being nominated because of the issues they portray as it is people ASSUMING that happened :\ I don't have a solution, but yes, it's worrying in so many ways. Anyway, I still need to read Shine, but it does sound like something I'd love.

    Beth F: See, you did have something to add. I love your comment - well put.

  35. Kristi: And thank you for your kind words!

    Amy: I knew you'd be able to relate! It's definitely not a matter of either/or. Having a particular focus doesn't mean we don't also care about other things and seek them out.

    Vishy: I'm mostly worried about the assumptions people make regarding what will or will not be important. Sometimes we think we know when it's really not that clear cut.

    Kathleen: Aw, thank you!

    Heidenkind: Yes, I completely agree about the subjectivity. And I absolutely love that Flaubert quote! There's a real in danger in assuming we know a reader's motivations, when it fact people seek out particular stories for all sorts of reasons.

    Jodie: Argh, sorry again about the eaten comment :( You make excellent points about why these judgements are made, and I also agree about championing books in this particular way often being counterproductive. The HOW of it really does matter. A lot of the time people try to silence discussions with a quick "but it represents x and it's realistic!", but wanting more stories about x to exist doesn't mean we're not allowed to question these texts. Also, good point about those more focused awards levelling the ground.

    Trapunto: Good question! I know Lauren Myracle was extremely gracious about the whole situation, but I have not seen a reaction from Billingsley. I can't imagine it having been pleasant for her either.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.