A Few Notes on Young Adult Dystopian Literature

01
dystopiasMy classmate, Sarah Dashow, and I created a seminar on YA  Dystopian Literature for our course this week. I might still do a little tweaking, but you can see it here. Had fun with the themes and element key in particular.

All this means that I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about YA dystopias recently, so this post ended up as less of a response to my readings, and a little more like a few leftover thoughts and, alright, maybe a little defensiveness caused by reading a lot of fraught online discussions in the course of research.

 

1. There’s always a first time to hear the same old story.

 

I read All Good Children by Catherine Austen, among several other dystopian YAs, recently and it seemed to reinforced one of the main ideas I had about the popularity of dystopian narratives among YA writers and readers (it was nice to see a standalone novel, though). In particular, I was thinking of the greater appeal for less experienced readers who haven’t encountered as many iterations of the same conventions, elements, or themes that define dystopian literature. The use of drugs to make citizens easier to manage, for example, is a well-established trope, going straight back to Brave New World‘s soma—seriously, the specific All Good Children-style version has even got its own the trope name and everything; Government Drug Enforcement. Within recent YA dystopias there’s the mind-influencing serums of Divergent, the lobotomy-esque surgery of Uglies, and mood-altering pills of Matched, among others. And that entire trope feeds into the dystopian notion of lack of free will as a kind of ultimate evil to overcome, which is prevalent in a variety of forms. Hey, you even get a little bit of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe from All Good Children.

 

As11872039 someone fairly well-versed in genre conventions—and who’s watched their fair share of 70s and 80s sci-fi movies—there’s a lot that I recognize. When I read Uglies and the protagonist meets someone who has grown old without the world’s ubiquitous cosmetic surgery for the first time, shocked and horrified by the unfamiliar site, I hear the echo of the first time the characters of Logan’s Run meet an old man, the first human over the age of thirty they’ve ever seen. (Incidentally, the dystopias of the late 1960s and early 1970s like Logan’s Run are a great example of the ways in which dystopias often echo contemporary social anxiety—see below.)

 

2. Romance in dystopias and dystopian narratives that don’t centre entirely upon the dystopia and its dire warning, and are maybe a little more about escapism than social responsibility, are not a new YA-lit-for-silly-girls phenomenon.

 

Dystopian narratives are being widely used as vehicles for romance within YA literature, especially for teen girls, but I’m not about the join the ranks of those bemoaning the rise of dystopian romance in YA lit as a decline or dilution of the ‘real’ dystopia. First of all, romance in dystopia isn’t exactly a departure from its roots—Nineteen-Eighty Four‘s narrative wouldn’t exist without Winston and Julia’s relationship—and love is the ultimate signifier of humanity, a humanity that dystopias often repress or disrupt. Secondly: dystopian narratives stripped of most of their pressing didacticism have existed for a while and are not some kind of new aberration caused by recent popularity. Who would read such trivial things in a potentially transformative genre? Obviously teen girls. Or, you know, grown men. I’m looking at you, cyberpunk. Or really any gritty sci-fi/noir action story that has a messed up society because otherwise how would the male antihero prove how totally hardcore he is? Dystopian narratives less concerned with overt social critique—considered leisure reading instead of serious literature—are not new. The rise of young adult literature, and of dystopian YA specifically, has put this kind of narrative under more scrutiny, but I tend to be suspicious of aspersions cast on things popularly viewed as created for and loved by young girls. I suppose there’s potential for a conversation about what responsibilities, if any, writers of dystopian literature have, if people feel inclined to have it, but I feel as if a lot of this is being addressed with a kind of mistaken mentality that we, as a culture, hopped right from Brave New World/Nineteen-Eighty Four to The Hunger Games, which ignores a lot of the genre’s history and development.

 

3. Huzzah for the rise of the female dystopia! Okay, now, how about everybody else who isn’t white or straight?

 

I hope the prevalence of dystopian YA will complicate and open the genre. For all that traditional dystopian literature engages with problems in society, it comes from a very specific tradition: the white, straight, male tradition, of course. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was remarkable and unusual as a dystopia from the female perspective, divergent from the tradition. Dystopian literature for women has since exploded in dystopian YA. People of colour and queer people deserve their narratives, and are too often swept under the rug in dystopias. (Incidentally, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are brilliant dystopic post-apocalyptic works at intersection of race, gender, and class, but her work has long suffered from the marginalization of genre fiction and, tellingly, her presence within the traditional canon of genre fiction—though infinitely well-earned—is considered a sign of genre tokenism instead of diversity).

 
 
* A lot of the late 60s/early 70s dystopias were concerned with overpopulation and depicted societies either suffering from its effects or with strict population control measures in place; the overpopulated nightmare of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, published in 1966, was turned into the movie Soylent Green in 1973. Kurt Vonnegut depicted a crowed world with voluntary ‘suicide booth’ to keep the population down in his 1968 story Welcome to the Monkey House, and the society of Logan’s Run, in which no one was allowed to live past twenty-six, came out as a book in 1967 and was adapted for the big screen in 1976.

The graph belows shows the frequency of the use of the terms ‘overpopulation’ and ‘population control’ in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google. Apparently population was on the minds of more than just a couple sci-fi authors.

dys_graph

‘LGBTQ Fiction’ and LGBTQ Representation in YA Literature: Time to disrupt the heteronormativity

12000020Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe is a lovely novel. Written from the perspective of Aristotle, the book is well-served by simple but elegant prose. It’s about negotiating identity, and not just in relation to sexual orientation, but also in relation to to family and culture—Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican American and they struggle with defining their relationships with their Mexican heritage. Aristotle and Dante is also about friendship and love in a variety of forms, not just about romance. The relationship between Aristotle and his parents is an important one—the book is about wanting to understand your parents, not only about wanting to be understood—and they’re fully realized characters in their own right, not always the case in YA fiction. The novel deals with serious issues such as PTSD, incarcerated family members, the subtle effect of cultural racism, and features some violence, but it’s ultimately a slow-paced and mellow narrative that remains, at its core, a coming-of-age story of friendship between teenage boys.

23228I’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘LGBTQ literature’ since two of the young adult books that I’d already read before we talked about LGBTQ YA in class had featured characters who weren’t straight—one protagonist was gay, the other lesbian (Kind of. The lead ends up with a woman, but I read her as bisexual. Works either way, that’s kind of the point)—but neither of those were explicitly ‘LGBTQ lit’.  A classmate read David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy and commented on the casual visibility of LGBTQ characters in the town. I later discovered that the book is overwhelmingly referred to as a ‘gay utopia’ or a ‘gaytopia.’ This seems like a reflection of the problem underlying LGBTQ representation in YA lit—it’s still limited to its own ‘genre’ corner.  If you write a fluffy romance for queer characters, well, it kind of has to be in a world where queer people actually exist and aren’t discriminated against—real levity doesn’t mesh with the kind of of conflict created by homophobia and discrimination, and your characters need to be normalized, not odd ones out—rom com leads are every-day people, if a little quirky, (just like you!) who are in love. The fact that when you write light romances for queer kids, everyone identifies it as utopian fiction, well, that says something. It isn’t a good something. Gay kids deserve the conventions too. But the conventions, as we recognize them, are heteronormative.

I get the feeling (and I really hope) that we’re reaching something of a tipping point here. As I mentioned, two of the books that I read this summer that didn’t star straight teens, Ash and Proxy, were both really well-written, enjoyable books in completely different genres—fairy-tale fantasy and sci-fi action respectively—that I wouldn’t identify as LGBTQ books first and foremost. I mean, I would certainly mention it if someone where looking for gay leads, but Proxy is a sci-fi action novel, not ‘gay sci-fi action.’ I’ve seen the term ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ used to describe this kind of spreading representation. I look forward to more representation of LGBTQ characters in ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ fiction; it’s needed to disrupt the heteronormativity that pervades stories of every experience that isn’t explicitly ‘not for straight people’—coming out, dealing with homophobia, being gay or bi or transgendered in a predominantly straight, cisgendered society.

 

A few resources for those looking for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly YA lit:

True Colorz: ‘Young Adult LGBTQ Literature’

‘I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?’

Rainbow Books: ‘GLBTQ Books for Children & Teens’

and, of course, many YA book blogs have ‘LGBTQ’ tags or, alternatively, many LGBTQ book blogs have tags for ‘Young Adult’ tags:

Lambda Literarary: ‘Celebrarting Excellent in LGBT Literature since 1989’

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian: ‘A Queer Canadian Book Blog’

Wrapped up in Books

On Reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the Value of Fantasy, Then and Now

(Hint: It’s about world-building and, when you’re younger, getting away with things.)

01 The first, second, third, and fourth gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

 

It’s been really interesting doing young adult lit readings this semester, within the context of my Young Adult Materials class; thinking about my reading habits when I was younger; considering the books that have stuck with me and why they did; and the continuing awareness of alternate perspectives of materials when reading. The fact is that many of these books haven’t given me much as a reader, which I don’t mind; for me, right now, they’ve been largely fun, but ultimately not exatly satisfying. Not that they weren’t good, objectively, but they weren’t what I’m reading now, what I want or need, subjectively. That’s fine, But when I read them, I do it with my younger self in mind; and I can still feel the parts that resonate with that girl, feel the connection stretching back and I think yes, this line, this character, this book, this would have mattered. I can feel it for others too—for the nebulously existing ‘young adults’ that we talk about in class; I can think, yes, I can see where the value of this book is, in the language, in the themes, in the entertainment, but, understandably, it’s easiest to read through the eyes of younger-Julia, who I know best. I’ve felt echoes like this before when reading—as I mentioned in my post on discovering comics late—but I’ve never dwelt on them. The whole affair is a curiously pleasant experience, like reading aloud to someone else.

 

All this is a lead-up to a few brief thoughts on the book I read this week, Sabriel by Garth Nix, and, more importantly and generally, it’s genre: fantasy. Actually, sorry, I’m going to go ahead and summarily lump science fiction in with fantasy here; their natural tendency to bleed over their genre lines has on occasion ended up in the entire mess being covered by ‘speculative fiction’ as is. Some of our readings in future weeks are science fiction, but they fall firmly in the dystopia category, which precludes a huge swath of the work. But the main reason I’m rolling them together here is that the things that give fantasy value for me and particularly did for my younger self, correspond closely with science fiction.

 

Why I love fantasy then and now; world-building. Because I loved—and still love—systems of fantasy works. Social systems; magical systems; those that echo, expand, or subvert our own or those which are as whole as our reality’s systems—which feel as well-developed and integrated into the fabric of their world as religions and ideologies do in ours—but are still thrillingly alien. After I started reading Sabriel, the first thing I did when I saw my boyfriend was launch into a description of the systems that created the setting; charter magic, wild magic, necromancy by bells, and the world-building; details like the prevalence of magic interfering with technology means that the soldiers near magic-heavy areas carry swords as well as rifles. Of course, then he’s reading it Sabriel, because this infatuation with speculative world-building is one we share. Any speculative society, built on elements of unreality, as long as it’s built carefully and with consideration, is bound to catch us both.

 

02The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

So, world-building. That’s the primary reason I enjoy fantasy as a genre. That simple. Naturally each book has its strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t enjoy all fantasy by default, but the pleasure that an interestingly-constructed world gives me is so intrinsic to a reading experience that I find it difficult to describe. I’ve kept reading series that have developed characteristics which irritate me enough that they would cause me to ditch a stand-alone book, simply because I love the world they’ve created.

 

But there was another reason that these books meant so much to me as a kid; man, could you get away with stuff in speculative fiction. Seriously, guys, nobody tell the adults. This means something significant for younger readers; you get to experience new kinds of writing–you can, for example, get scared or deeply creeped out–and, more importantly, you get to engage with subjects that challenge you without the kind of scrutiny given to realism. Because those are the books I remember. Actually, I mentioned this in a post about challenged books I made around the time of Banned Books Week; because pursuing our faculty library’s shelf of banned books I recognized so many books that I had loved and could remember loving so distinctly on that shelf–works like The Golden Compass, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and The Giver. Alright, well obviously these books did get scrutiny, but that was because they had been getting away with it (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I often see The Mists of Avalon come up in discussions about illicit reading experiences).

 

This came to mind because Sabriel revolves around necromancy and is, of course, therefore suffused with death in a way that isn’t necessarily unusual for speculative fiction, but that you would never find in young adult realism. Of course, death in Sabriel isn’t remotely the same as death in reality, but it provides interesting viewpoints on mourning and, best of all, gets some seriously scary monsters. The first encounter with the dead comes in the form of an attack by a spirit that’s been dead for so long it isn’t recognizably human and has stuff itself into a corpse to exist in corporeal form. And the scene that introduces it is horrifying and awesome. And my younger self would definitely have been with me on this one.

 

Fondly-remembered stories that totally creeped me out when I was younger; The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, and Dead Water Zone by Kenneth Oppel.

 

I can both understand an urge to shield young people from the ugly realities of true fear and the wish to avoid them yourself, but it has to be said that well-played, fictionalized fear is gripping—advancing the plot, raising the stakes, and dragging you into a story. Young readers haven’t had the chance to discover this yet, and people are way less likely to object to you reading a book about necromancers than about real-life fears—good old fashioned regular human murders, for example–when you’re younger. For good reason, too: they aren’t really comparable. Within speculative fiction fear is something to be built up and ripped down, not something to be dealt with or endured as in realist fiction. A murderer or serial killer is one thing—a plot device, but a real possibility—and a murderer that’s a corrupted spirit inside a moldering corpse is another thing. There’s a kind of unique worth created from its dichotomy; of being the scarier, the more frightening of the two within the world of the story, and at the same time less scary, as something that exists only within the world of the story. And this worth meant more to me as a younger reader, because it was uncharted territory.

 
I’m using creepiness as an example here, but that’s just pulled from the week’s reading. As I said, it isn’t just about new narrative strategies; the alternate realities of speculative fiction let you explore ideas and concepts that run parallel to real life. It’s hard to describe the nature of this kind of reading without making it sound like something suspiciously innappropriate, but the fact is that growing up means encountering new experiences, and speculative fiction gives young readers a safe space to encouter and explore them–the first time I remember encountering the idea of euthanasia, for example, was in The Giver.

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The Ninth Gate, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Book challenges, trusting the young, and the reductiveness of “vulgarity”

Being a completely and entirely subjective reaction.

I was already familiar with Sherman Alexie before I started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This was primarily from trawling around the North American YA blogosphere where, for obvious reasons, they’re a little defensive of the genre (I am behind them 100% in this regard). So when a click-bait-y article entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” with the unfortunately subheading “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was naturally met with a whole lot of irritation by those who were familiar with YA canon. Sherman Alexie’s reply, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” appeared in the same publication and it’s absolutely worth reading, not just as a response, but on its own merits. Alexie ended his piece with a reflection on his own work:

…I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

That’s what I was thinking of when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m lucky in that I don’t need the weapons that Alexie provides with The Absolutely True Diary, but I can see their value clearly. Junior is a individual in seriously rough circumstances and True Diary one of the many narratives that needs and deserves more public visibility. The book is, in a manner, about ‘issues’—racism and white supremacy, poverty, disability, alcoholism, bullying, and many more—but more importantly it’s about resilience and it’s about Junior, who’s a likable character with a warm and darkly funny narrative style and you’re rooting for him all the way. I enjoyed it immensely, but I was troubled by the extent of the challenges it has faced when it’s used in classrooms or available in school libraries, and the incredibly reductive nature of the complaints.

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While there are many issues on which I can see the logic of another’s view and while I understand that, on a fundamental level, it’s an impulse to protect children that underlies challenges like these, there are two things that, for me, make our viewpoints ultimately irreconcilable. The first of these is that I don’t really think that these challengers are giving young people enough credit. Obviously material for 18-year-olds won’t be appropriate for 6-year-olds, but kids and teens are pretty good at engaging with complicated texts; and if they aren’t, well, many of the True Diary bans have been happening in classrooms, which really should be the ideal place to develop those skills.

The second is that the definition of ‘obscenity’ is so fundamentally subjective. I’ve seen the word ‘vulgar’ come up over and over again from those that stand in opposition to this book. It’s certainly filled with obscenities—yeah, there’s a lot of cursing—but I can’t really consider that something that is the ultimate definer an obscene work; as a descriptor, it too neatly overrides the rest of The Absolutely True Diary‘s text, with complete disregard for context. The swearing in True Diary, just like the masturbation mentions (there’s no description of a masturbation scene, just a kid’s thoughts about the act—“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate he wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”), are not added for shock value and they aren’t intended to titillate an audience; they’re part of the everyday life of the character and, as much as many would like to deny it, part of the everyday life of many kids.

At the same time, I tend to lean toward the views of Amanda Nelson’s “I Read Violent Trash as a Kid and Turned Out OK,” which I suppose brings it full circle to my first point: what exactly are they worried will happen to kids exposed to curse words and mentions of masturbation? I mean, I suppose it’s either that they’ll be traumatized or corrupted, but I just can’t get behind that reasoning—once again, I don’t think young people are so vulnerable to something like swear words, and complicated or new subjects should be talked about, something unlikely to happen if a culture of suppression and silence surrounds them.

It’s safe to say that the mother who described the books as ‘like 50 Shades of Grey for kids‘ and I will never see eye-to-eye, even if I understand that she wants to protect her son, and that’s fine. But those asking to have the books removed aren’t just trying to protect they’re own children, they’re trying to decide what’s appropriate for all kids. Ultimately there’s nothing I can contribute to this discussion that hasn’t been said many times over by many eloquent people. Sherman Alexie himself puts it best in an interview piece entitled “The Value of Subverting Authority,” when he was asked if there was any “measure of censorship in school that’s appropriate,” and whether there were any books that he would ban, given the chance:

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgements. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity… We can all learn from every text. Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.

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Incidentally, what I find of particular interest are the reasons that books are reconsidered, removed, or retained in public libraries; the successful challenges of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are overwhelmingly in schoolrooms and school libraries. For those who would like to know more about the kind of challenges that public libraries received, how they consider them, and what actions they take, Toronto Public Library has three years of its Materials Review Committee’s summaries of their ‘Reconsiderations of Materials’ available online: 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2010, for example, a library user submitted a form requesting that a young adult horror novel called Swans in the Mist by D.E. Athkins be moved to the adult collection, because it contained “sadistic scenes” and “might give teens violent ideas” (The committee ultimately decided to retain the book in the teen collection). The documents are an interesting read.

‘Real Readers,’ ‘Real Books,’ and Missing out on Comics

I’ve read many variations of the charges historically laid against comics, but oh, they never get old. Bill Bryson, in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid—his memoir about growing up in 1950s Iowa—recounts the charges Fredrick Wertham laid against comics in Seduction of the Innocent. According to Wertham they caused moral degradation, “promoted violence, torture, criminality, drug-taking, and rampant masturbation, though,” as Bryson notes, “not presumably at the same time.”

 

“Wertham saw sex literally in every shadow. He pointed out how in one from of an action comic the shading on a man’s shoulder, when turned at an angle and viewed with an imaginative squint, looked exactly like a woman’s pudenda. (In fact it did. There was no arguing the point.) Wertham also announced what most of us knew in our hearts but were reluctant to concede—that many of the superheroes were not fully men in the red-blooded, girl-kissing sense of the term. Batman and Robin in particular he singled out as ‘a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.’ It was an unanswerable charge. You only have to look at the tights.”

 

So it doesn’t surprise me to read quotes from librarians in 1940s condemning comics using their own framework of understanding—children who read comics weren’t really reading, and even worse, they were being permanently damaged by this failing and would never really be able to read properly. For all that current librarianship is big on connecting people to the information they need, it’s origins are more prescriptive—for those who came to the library for reading materials, it was about connecting people not with the right book, but with the right kind of book.

 

The preconceived notions about who reads comics and why have been thoroughly rehashed as the format has become increasingly legitimized in the public eye (as The Onion remarked last year with their rather pointed headline: “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story”), but despite this librarians are still talking about them as if they’re a untested and potentially unsound variable. Lucia Cedeira Serantes, in “Misfits, Loners, Immature Students, and Reluctant Readers: Librarianship in the Construction of Teen Readers of Comics,” looks closely at the language used and attitudes displayed by librarians in relation to comics and teenagers, and a fair bit of it is depressingly old-school; viewing comics as inferior graphic novels and both as inferior to ‘real books,’ and viewing the teenagers who read them as immature, either in terms of literacy level or as readers who hadn’t learned to discern yet, and hoping they’ll move on to ‘real’ reading.

 

The idea of comic books as a morally corrupting influence on youth fell by the wayside long ago; Wertham’s campaign against comics has long been discredited and Seduction of the Innocent holds on only among those interested in the history of the format, as a kind of cultural artifact; accusations of Batman and Robin as ‘secret homosexuals’ or that Wonder Woman was a lesbian because of her independence are obvious vestiges of a particularly homophobic age. But the attitudes expressed by librarians at the height of the moral panic that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code still hold on today. While the idea that comics are void of morality has been dismissed as a ridiculous moment of national hysteria, the notion that comics are void of literary value has hung on. The mere existence of the term ‘graphic novel’ attests to the fact that comics as a form have plenty of potential for compelling narrative, but continue to be stigmatized; something like Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are ‘literature,’ i.e. definitely not comic books.

 

01Coveted elementary school library reading materials.

 

I read comics as a child; my elementary school library was serving a lot of French immersion students and had cottoned on to the Franco-Belgium comics scene in a big way. In a similar stroke of ingenuity, my parents realized that I would be pleased as punch with birthday gifts of Sailor Moon manga no matter what language they were in, and so they made their daughter happy and were assured that she was practising her French in a single stroke.

 

02Well played, parents, well played.

 

But then I stopped when I entered junior high, mostly because comics just… disappeared, both my awareness and environs. Presumably because comics were for kids. Or if they weren’t for kids, they were for guys. Anyway, there were plenty of other things to read, I wasn’t lacking.

 

I started reading comics again when I was half-way through my B.A. in English lit, throwing myself into ‘graphic novels’ and superheroes and new narratives, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to read them when I was a young adult. I love them now, and although I wouldn’t recommend every book that I read now to my young adult self, I have often found myself reading a book and thinking about how much I would have enjoyed comics as an interesting and enjoyable narrative form, and wishing they’d had more visibility at the time.

 

In terms of fiction, I read standard English Major fare—Austen and the Brontës; Middlemarch and Aurora Leigh, but I also adore the sensationalist literature of the time, some of which is campy and some just truly awful books—Castle of Otranto and The Monk. And a whole mess of contemporary literature that currently seem to all within the nebulous mass of literary fiction that ‘well-read’ people read; and also the classics of genre fiction, mainly sci-fi/fantasy and some detective; and sometimes I read really badly-written books because I liked their hilariously terrible cover.
And comics. Sometimes graphic novels. Or non-fiction.
Or I abandon books for weeks and read reams of articles and online commentary. Or webcomics. Sometimes I forgo reading in favour of re-watching episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

 

The point is, my reading habits are inconsistent: I read things that are popularly considered to be good literature and things that are popularly considered to be garbage, and I gain from all of them. But more importantly, it wouldn’t matter if I tipped the scales in one way or another, because there’s no such thing as a ‘real reader’ and there’s no right way to read. My boyfriend, for instance, has an aversion to the literary fiction which I love and although we share tastes in comic books and genre fiction, I’ve never felt inclined the crack open the kind of military or political history he prefers. Readers; they have different wants and needs. Go figure.

 

The notion of reading materials as a natural hierarchy, a ladder that you climb in one direction as you read ‘better’ materials—ascending until you’ve outgrown reading all that other garbage and have finally matured enough for the worthy literature and will never look back now—is absurd and narrow-minded. The treatment of comics as a reading material that is worth less than others is the result of buying into this idea, and it means that people are missing out on an entire swath of materials that can engage, inspire, and yes, entertain them. Maybe not everyone, but enough that it’s a small tragedy. Comics have made gains in credibility, but it’s a problem if librarians are still framing comics as a convenient bottom rung to coax young adults onto the ladder so they can move onwards and upward. Sometimes I forget that comics are still so stigmatized: it’s irritating to go home for the holidays and have your leisure reading interrupted in order to be informed that comics are for children. There’s no reason an entire narrative genre should be viewed as something to be grown out of. What a waste.

 

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Comics to love, young-adult appropriate: try the comics or the graphic novels; enjoy the superheroes, fantasy, or realism; mix with ‘real books’ or enjoy exclusively.
Do whatever you want.

 

(Needless to say this isn’t a comprehensive or even particularly cohesive collection, it’s just a mix of books that I own or have read recently which came to mind when thinking about young adult readers.)

‘Slaughterhouse-Five II, The Unstickening’: Kindle Worlds and Kurt Vonnegut

So I discovered this… interesting fact recently. Actually, I found out before the holidays, but immediately after the discovery everything I tried to type about it turned in to capslocks and incoherence, so I set it aside for a bit. Not rage-capslock, capslock of pure bafflement. I was so baffled that under-case letters could not appropriately convey the depth of my bemusement.

They still can’t, so here’s the basic premise before I get on with it: AMAZON PURCHASED THE LICENCE TO PUBLISH YOUR ‘KURT VONNEGUT FAN FICTION’ (???).

So, that’s a thing that happened.

vonnegutOne of these things is not like the others.

Now, I discovered this fairly recently when Kindle Worlds was brought up in a class in which we were talking about copyright. It was something I’d heard about, because a love of science fiction/fantasy means overlap with subcultures filled with adorably avid fans, and I originally ran across an article about it at The Mary Sue, but hadn’t actually thought about it since. So, when it came up in class I looked into it. Well, Kindle Worlds was announced in May and is now is up and running. The premise of Kindle Worlds is that Amazon has procured a set of licences to publish self-submitted work, widely being called ‘fan fiction’ in the context,  set in the designated worlds; Alloy Entertainment; a book-packaging, multimedia group that managed teen lit like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl; Valiant Entertainment, a comic publisher that died in 2004 and was revived a year later; and a collection of independent authors who have bought in. You write your Pretty Little Liars story and submit it; if Kindle Worlds approves it, they make it available as an ebook through Amazon for a couple dollars. You get some money, Amazon gets some money, and the rights’ holders get some money. ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ was added Kindle Worlds in August.

Science-fiction author John Scalzi had a good rundown of his immediate reaction that touches on the general points of the setup, for those interested. In particular he points out that: “… there’s probably a technical argument here about whether this is precisely ‘fan fiction’ or if it’s actually media tie-in writing done with intentionally low bars to participation (the true answer, I suspect, is that it’s both).” I’m coming back to this, since I think it’s a reasonable distinction to make for the ‘World of Kurt Vonnegut,’ at least.

The thing is, I’m not anti Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction, but the monetization aspect weirds me out and also the content guidelines. My particular favourites are definitely the first two:

  1. Pornography: We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.
  2. Offensive Content: We don’t accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language.

Sorry, who’s deciding what’s offensive content? Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been contested constantly since its release by those who found it full of offensive material. It was pulled from a school library as recently as 2011. This is the man who gave readers “an idea of the maturity of [his] illustrations” in Breakfast of Champions with a sketch of an asshole (consider yourself warned). What constitutes ‘excessive use of foul language’? He wrote an entire essay on obscenity in Palm Sunday: having been accused of it obscenity because of the ‘foul language’ in his books many times by reviewers, strangers, and acquaintances: “even when I was in grammar school, I suspected that warnings about words that nice people never used were in fact lessons in how to keep our mouths shut not just about our bodies, but about many, many things – perhaps too many things.” If you’re writing in Kurt Vonnegut’s world or with Kurt Vonnegut’s characters then, well, alright, writers borrow from each other all the time, but c’mon, at the very least it shouldn’t be restricted by content guidelines.

trouts tomb

Is there anyway this post can’t collapse into itself in a perceived tension between the highbrow/lowbrow? It feels weird and wrong and dangerous to license someone like Vonnegut in this way, though I freely admit that I am as bias as they come—I love Vonnegut, he is by far my favourite writer—but if you can license Gossip Girl then you can license Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut is not above engagement. Alright, so obviously people can do what they want, and people have been writing fan fiction forever and it doesn’t bother me because why would it?, but then there’s the monetizing; it rubs me the wrong way that Kindle Words is actively soliciting work.

What makes Vonnegut’s work is his brilliant and utterly unique narrative voice, not his world building skills. In fact, he didn’t have world building skills. Sure, he had some reoccurring characters, but they weren’t fixed points, they were whatever they needed to be for whichever book they were in. You don’t read Kurt Vonnegut for the plot or characters, you read it for the Vonnegut. In the case of things like Gossip Girl or Vampire Diaries, they’re trying to monetize a pre-exisiting subculture of creative expression. Fan fiction has never been remotely legal, but it’s never stopped those who wanted to write it.

The thing is, Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction didn’t exist. People were not clamouring for a place to legitimize their lovingly-crafted works inspired by a favourite author. I know this because as soon as I discovered this news that you could now sell your Vonnegut fan fiction on Amazon my immediate response was “wait, what Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction.’ I found eight pieces of Vonnegut fan fiction online, excluding works where people use Vonnegut scenarios and other works characters—can’t publish those on Kindle Worlds—five of those eight are acknowledged by their authors as English assignments that they decided to post online; at least two of the others definitely could be school assignments, both being about 300-400 words and based on the same short story (Harrison Bergeron) that some of the others were; the last one is a single chapter of a piece that was abandoned in 2011.

The entire murky area of ‘is Amazon publishing fan fiction or are they publishing licensed tie-ins’ and whether that’s even a relevant question is moot in the case of Vonnegut; people are now writing stories in ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ because they are being actively offered a platform to sell it.

All of this newly published work smacks a little of a ‘now that I have an official platform for this where I can make money, now this is worth writing so I will sit down and write it’ mentality. Hugh Howey, a successfully self-published science-fiction author whose work is open to Kindle Worlds, was approached by someone at Amazon to write something for ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut.’ That’s freelance writing of a licensed tie-in, not fan fiction. It seems disingenuous to use the term ‘fan fiction,’ saying: “I sat down to write my first piece of fan fiction. I chose Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as this was a world newly opened for exploration…’ after having been asked to do so. Fine, that’s something that estates do from time to time—there’s many publications that have been authorized by estates or even commissioned; And Another Thing… the sixth instalment of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or Sebastian Faulk’s James Bond novel Devil May Come to mind. But pairing up with Kindle Worlds means the Kurt Vonnegut Trust has encouraged people to write in Vonnegut’s canon by commissioning it—all good and well on its own—but they did it in the laziest possible way and how is that a “natural extension of his legacy”?

So, well done to the Kurt Vonnegut Trust, you’ve created a monetary opportunity for terrible Kurt Vonnegut erotica where there was none before. You didn’t just let this happen off in some dark corner of the Internet (because it wasn’t happening, not organically), you created it. There are already two works of erotica in The World of Kurt Vonnegut. One is by a prolific author who, after the 10 books she published in July, had The War Widow’s Story (Slaughterhouse-Five erotica) out two weeks after the announcement of Kurt Vonnegut World. The other, well, haven’t we all just been dying to read about the sexual exploits of Billy Pilgrim’s granddaughter? Thank god she’s unstuck in time, so she can get up to explicit adventures “until the end of time.” Having not read either of these stories, I can at least be reassured that they don’t contain any offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.

Really, The Paris Review had it best in a throwaway comment  in a news roundup when the acquisition of the licence for Kurt Vonnegut’s was announced:

The Amazon powers that be have ensured that Vonnegut fan fic is now legal, and one can buy it via Amazon. “Bill Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is going to quickly become a Kindle Worlds favorite,” says a member of the Vonnegut trust, ominously.

There’s a lot to be said for writer’s playing off each other; parodies, homages, retellings, along with more heavily derivative works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or The Wide Sargasso Sea; the advent of copyright has changed the way many writers interact with pre-exisiting and in many ways that’s a damn shame. ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ makes it about money as well as craft, because money is seen as the legitimizing factor. And so money becomes a draw. Not for all, of course, but for some. That’s a problem for me, and it should be a problem for the Vonnegut Trust as well. These works exist in a weird quasi-official capacity and every other world licensed by Kindle Worlds is something which has either shifted from single-writer to collaborative work long ago, or else is an individual author making the choice to include their worlds. According to the CEO of RosettaBooks who, along with the Kurt Vonnegut Trust, entered the agreement with Amazon, the decision was made primarily to promote Kurt Vonnegut’s back catalogue. I just don’t know if there’s anything that can convince me that the canon of Kurt Vonnegut—of a single author with a body of work that cannot be cobbled into a coherent world, who could not have predicted this development and planned with his estate accordingly—should be part of this project. The Kurt Vonnegut Trust has set up what is essentially a commission for any writers to publish for profit with no regard to why they chose to write with Vonnegut’s work, with restrictions set by a third-party, and with no control over the products published. I would LOVE to know the pitch Amazon gave them, that made them think this was a good idea and a completely reasonable act of the stewards of Vonnegut’s legacy.

I feel like it’s really important for me to point out that I am not angry about this, not even exactly opposed to it, I’m mostly just confused. This isn’t about a ‘devaluing’ of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, there’s obviously no literature that’s untouchable, but this is work that’s being created by a really specific opportunity, and it makes me worry that derivative or transformative works now have a ‘proper’ channel as dictated by RosettaBooks, the Vonnegut Trust, and Amazon.

Well, enough of this, enjoy this lovely short story by Haruki Murakami, derived from the work Franz Kafka, published in The New Yorker and available for free to enjoy across many mediums, not just Kindles: Samsa in Love begins: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”

newyorker-murakami-samsa-javierjaen_sm

Filter Bubbles, Anonymity, Doxxing, and How They Inform my Concepts of Online Identity and Existence

With a footnote of the difficulties underlying anonymity, legality, and a ‘free speech’ defense

(the good news is almost a third of this post is a footnote, so you can ignore it)


The term ‘filter bubble’ isn’t exactly new:
Eli Pariser wrote the book and did the TEDTalk in 2011, but it‘s still unknown to many. Well, here’s the gist; websites, particularly Google, are personalizing your web experience, including your search results, and they’re not particularly interested in letting you know. Why would they be? Well, at least we know why we should care about personalized information. Pariser identified what he sees as the fundamental problem of filter bubbles in an interview he did over at Brain Pickings:

 

…personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use.

The filfilterbubbleter bubble makes things convenient—easier to find what you want when your search engine or browser is diligently trying to offer up things it thinks you’ll want—but there are downsides; commercial sites will see you coming back and charge you more (airlines are notoriously suspected for this) and your search results will bury links that are of less interest to you, shuffling dissenting opinions under the carpet because Google knows they’ll displease you or won’t be of interest—you won’t click, Google won’t get ad revenue. I use Chrome as a browser because it runs the lightest, though I also use Firefox, but I’ve been seriously considering switching Chrome out for Tor. At the very least I like to keep Google on its toes, running searches from Duckduckgo and frequently browsing or signing in and out of my accounts through proxy servers in the Netherlands and UK, but I know that it’s still got plenty on me—I use Gmail, I may as well give up privacy-wise. Every so often I think about entire sections of the Internet that are hard for me to access because I don’t know the ways in and they can be hard to find—the difficulty of discovering the French Internet always bothered me and filter bubbles make only make this harder.

 

It may be safe and warm inside your own cultural or ideological bubbles, but it’s irresponsible not to be aware of it. Getting outside of the realm of the familiar is important—filter bubbles have a serious potential to limit an individual by preventing exposure to new things, on many levels. It’s easier for this to happen online than in physical life—hard to ignore a protest on the street, but easy when news stories about it might be buried. Obviously this is a specific example, but a person shouldn’t let themselves be limited to things that are catered to them.

 

On a more fundamental level, the Internet is a great place to be exposed to differing and opposing views. That’s the great thing about it. Sure, I read sites that are created for my specific demographic—a blog for geeky feminist women? Don’t mind if I do. But I visit sites whose target audience is not me—a straight cisgendered white woman. I try to find and frequent sites intended for people with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, sites aimed at an LGTBQ audience, because to simply read what’s targeted at me is limiting and I risk being blind to views held or issues faced by others. I also know the sites that I think perpetuate or insulate views I find illogical or even reprehensible. Anti-vaccine advocacy sites, for example, or MRA site (Men’s Rights Activists, who may have legitimate concerns, but frankly delegitimize their own causes by expounding the rhetoric of modern men being crushed under the boot of the cruel and tyrannical feminazi oppressors), or SafeLibraries (which touts the American Library Association as nefarious peddlers of pornography to children). Not all the time, but I won’t just immediately close a site I disagree with. It’s important to know your values and to understand those of others, even if they challenge yours—especially if they challenge yours. If your beliefs can’t hold up against challenges, then what good are they? Of course, eventually I need a hug because the Internet made me sad/mad, but hey, that’s what friends and partners are for.

 

Chris Baraniuk, in an article on the filter bubble, makes note of what he’s termed ‘The Elective Filter Bubble,’ created by unfollowing or blocking those people on social media whose views you disagree with. This is essentially a reflection of real life social interactions where you hang out with people like you, but he finishes his article by asking ‘knowing that we, as a species, are inclined this way, is it any wonder that the Filter Bubble exists?’ Well, no, it isn’t, because we know it’s created artificially. That’s the problem; it’s created through algorithms, not through deliberately made choices. The big issue with the filter bubble is not knowing about it, not realizing the dangers of that ignorance, and not keeping an eye out for increasingly tailored access to online information. It’s getting between us and information, shaping the way we search, and it’s by and large doing so without our knowledge.

 

In terms of the elective filter bubble, well, for all of Facebook’s constant and dubious changes to privacy settings, you have reasonable control over what you see. Throw in AdBlocker and it’s relatively easy to ignore the ‘suggested links’. Yeah, it’s pushing stuff that it thinks I’ll like to the top of my feed, but my Facebook feed isn’t exactly where I get all my news. Facebook, for me, is not a forum for the wider world, fair game for outside voices, like the rest of the Internet. Someone says something I find offensive, they’re gone. Bring on the elective filter bubble. I make an concerted effort not to filter the rest of the world, but primary uses for Facebook are the chat feature, to talk to friends who I’ve moved away from, or events, where I rsvp for in-person attendance. Sure, I upload photos, post to walls, ‘like’ things, but ultimately it’s a site I use to communicate with a non-virtual crowd, not the world at large. Facebook is—more or less—a reflection of IRL (In Real Life) relationships, where, yes, I tend not to befriend people who might hold different values that ‘challenge’ my views because there’s only so much time for real friends, and I’m not wasting it on someone if their views kind of make me think they’re jerks. It’s mostly just old school friends or new school friends, anyway.

 

That said, my Facebook and WordPress/Twitter/Goodread accounts may be separate, even though it’s not like I’m running a secret identity here. I link to the posts I write all fairly frequently because this is a public blog, why wouldn’t I want IRL friends on it too? The disassociation between online identities and ‘real’ life is hardly unusual.

Internet_dog

For years I was a serious lurker—a peculiar status built from watching Internet communities over years without engaging. I watched with amazement as people created and built, watched with resignation as trolls sought to anger or offend. Honestly, I’m not sure anything on the internet could really shock me. It started because when I was younger, you never disclosed personal details online. Sure, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but you don’t know that the person you’re chatting with isn’t a dog. A sketchy dog that could be be trying to ingratiate themselves to you so they could get your personal information, show up at your house and murder you. Yeah, things have changed a bit since then.

 

For myself, any online presence is preformative in a way that doesn’t feel as natural as real life—something about words, I think. I find choosing words is harder than choosing an outfit, knowing that anything put online is going to linger, to be perused. Maybe you keep a private blog, but even then, it’s not the same as keeping a journal. There’s always the possibility of exposure. Maybe some do it because the difficulty of access makes it more private to them personally—post privately to a blog and no sibling can read it without the password, whereas they could pilfer a book journal from under your mattress. But online you can get hacked by a total stranger. (I mean, they probably wouldn’t bother, but they could.) Whatever you put online, no matter the venue or intent is ‘out there.’
 
 
This doesn’t mean that anonymity shouldn’t be valued, it means that you weigh anonymous actions against the possibility of the linking of your online and offline identity. A
n anonymous whistleblower, for example, knows the possible consequences of being uncovered. The notorious troll Violencrantz/Michael Brutsch—creator and/or moderator of subreddits (forums within Reddit) like ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Creepshots’ among other, truly horrifying titles—being interviewed by the journalist who had discovered his real-life identity, begged the man not to dox him (reveal his identifying information), saying “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.” When asked if he regretted anything he’d done now that he was to be ‘unmasked’, Brutsch said he didn’t: “I would stand by exactly what I’ve done.” Alright, fine. He was a total creep, but he won’t disown his online actions. Kind of:

 

The problem was, he explained, that if his identity got out, his many enemies would start attaching lies to his name because they simply don’t like his views. They would say he was a child pornographer, when all he had done was spearhead the distribution of thousands of legal photos of underage girls. They would say the fact that he created a subreddit dedicated to Hitler meant he was anti-Semitic, when really it was just trolling. (Brutsch says he’s got Jewish blood himself: “If you see a picture of me, I’m about as Jewish looking as they get.”) They would Google-bomb his name and the word “pedophile” along with his publicly-traded company’s name.

Clearly Brustch knew what would happen. He asked the journalist, Adrian Chen, multiple times what he could do to stop Chen from outing him:

 

“I’m like the spy who’s found out,” he said. “I’ll do anything. If you want me to stop posting, delete whatever I posted, whatever. I am at your mercy because I really can’t think of anything worse that could possibly happen. It’s not like I do anything illegal.”

Maybe Brutsch didn’t do anything illegal, but he did things that many would consider immoral. Can you really claim that you stand behind the things you’ve done, but turn around and say ‘but just don’t say that it was me that did them. Alright, I mean, some people may have seen it that way, but I would like to avoid consequences, please’? Yes, he got fired. As he knew he would if he were outed—he made enemies online for fun. ***

 

I’m not condoning doxxing and I think there’s a complicated conversation to be had about online anonymity and its abuse, but the real crux of the issue here is Brutsch’s ambivalence about the separation of the two factions of his identity.  Maybe the notion that anonymous identities are somehow truly inauthentic or separate from ‘real’ identities is a comfortable fiction left over from the early days of ‘no one knows you’re a dog’-Internet. Sure, no one knew you were a dog but did that ever actually stop you from being a dog? This isn’t ReBoot, you’re not inside a virtual, as essentially a synonym for magical, alternate reality. Online identity and ‘real life’ identity are not separate, they’re fragments of the same whole. You can’t claim independence from your online identity. It wasn’t me, it was jessy_488! (Sorry to any jessy_488’s getting thrown under the bus here). Online may not be a space, but it’s certainly a place, and is that sense is just a real as your bedroom, your classroom, your workplace. These physical spaces don’t bleed over, but online the lines are nebulous. Post something casually and it can come back to bite you professionally. Every move you make online is recorded and permanent in the way that real-life factions of your identity are not.

 

comicbookresources_sm100% accurate depiction of the Internet, courtesy of comicbookresources.com

 

I differentiate and draw lines between my fragmented online identities for personal reasons, but ultimately I know they aren’t separate. So, sure, I just don’t do anything online that I would be ashamed of. Things I might be embarrassed by? Yeah, obviously, I’ve been online since sixth grade. Of course, it’s the same principle I apply in ‘real life’ but frankly even if I didn’t, things can’t follow you around quite as easily. In the case of trolling, well, if I did troll, then I would be using a different calculation to decide what I do online: thrill of upsetting others vs. social fallout if revealed.

 

That’s how it works for me personally but I know that it’s because I’m lucky; I don’t have to make any tough decisions about things like whistleblowing; I don’t live in a country where online censorship is an issue that could cause serious danger to myself as an individual; I’ve never been stalked or been in an abusive relationship; and I don’t get involved in flame wars or piss off trolls who might dox to encourage harassment. It’s easy for me to say because I have a fairly limited presence online and have never encountered real trouble with anonymity. I’ve never needed to be anonymous. Doxxing isn’t illegal, but it has the deeply problematic intention: not of bringing people to justice under the law, but of being used to harass and intimidate, whether as a tool for hacktivists or simply people who feel they’ve been crossed and want some personal revenge. Ultimately it runs up against the fundamental problem of what gives someone the right to dox or to decide who deserves doxxed.

 

It’s not that I don’t believe people are entitled to anonymity online, it’s that anonymity online should never be assumed or taken for granted.

 

a note on free speech & anonymity