Bookish Headlines #4

There continues to be news in the bookish world, even if some of it is less news and more editorial. That doesn’t make it less interesting, just less… newsy?

But anyway. Bookish Headlines, the fourth installment!

In her seminal work, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines a genderless world where its people become male or female only long enough to reproduce. One person can become both male and female, mother and father, multiple times in their lives. As ambassador from the interplanetary Ekumen, Genly Ai tries to communicate with the people of the world but is baffled by his own prejudices and assumptions throughout as rising tides of nationalism shift the political landscape around him. Fifty years on, this slim book still has the power to fascinate us and makes us question our own assumptions of gender, power, and communication.

I read a lot. I also read fast. I always have. It comes from having been taught to read before starting kindergarten, and always being in love with the written word. While Sally O’Reilly might raise an eyebrow at the fact that, to date, I’ve read 42 books in 2019 I don’t feel that I missed out on the pleasures of slow reading or think that I rushed through books just so I could check them off a list. But she has a point in this article, in which she extols the virtues of taking your time with a good book and allowing it to wrap you up within its world.

selective focos photography of man in white sweater reading book

Photo by nappy on

If you can’t travel to a particular country, reading its literature is the next best way to learn about it. But not every country in the world has had its stories translated into English, which leaves it closed off to the English-speaking world. Fortunately, more of the world’s literature is being translated, which helps open doors of understanding between countries, cultures, and people. Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance sounds like an interesting book. Given that one of my general reading goals is to read more works in translation, I’ll have to track down a copy.

Personally, I have no real interest in Instapoetry, those little fragments you’ll find on Instagram, written in a typewriter font and accompanied by a line drawing. I’ve never seen an Instapoem that made think, the way a single fragment of Sappho can do. But if Instapoets like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace can help generate interest in deeper poetical works, then so much the better. And while in the article, Lovelace is quoted as accusing her critics of ‘gatekeeping’, and thus would probably accuse me of being a gatekeeper for criticizing her poetry (I debated putting “poetry” in “quotes”), let me point you toward several poets who are not the white cis-gendered men Lovelace reflexively things of, and who will knock your socks off by doing a bit more than writing pithy sentences with strategic line breaks:

Langston Hughes, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’
Rachel McKibbens, ‘Untitled’ 
Roger Bonair-Agard and Marty McConnell, ‘Safe’
Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’
Andrea Gibson, ‘Blue Blanket’ 
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’
Khary Jackson, ‘Her Name’

There are a few slam poets in the list above, and I have seen all of them live. Their performances were electric. I can still remember, twelve years on, how I felt when Andrea Gibson performed their poem, ‘Blue Blanket’ on a local stage. While Slam Poetry has it detractors, and there is, admittedly, a certain amount of shtick involved is some of it, the really good poems and performers will blow your hair back and make you remember what they’ve said for a long, long time.

There are a lot of conversations going on in the book community right now- particularly in YA- about who gets to write what stories. That is, is a heterosexual woman “allowed” to write and sell stories about gay men, etc.? Personally, I think everyone is free to write whatever story they please. The final product will live or die on its own merits. But if an author is going to write about a culture that they are not part of, then it is in their best interest to consult someone who is part of that culture to make sure they don’t misrepresent it in their story.

As a Jewish woman, Ingall reads a lot of pre-publication children’s books to make sure they don’t, for example, depict Passover incorrectly or use the Hebrew language in an inappropriate setting. Her job does not involve censorship. She is fact-checking, not trying to derail books or authors’ careers. It’s an article that a lot of people on Book Twitter and Goodreads could learn something from. Ingall is not opposed to non-Jewish people writing stories about Jews. She just wants to make sure that, if they do, they get the facts right.


4 thoughts on “Bookish Headlines #4

  1. I’ve tossed the question of who gets to write what around in my head quite a bit. I think I really amped up to it when, during my MFA degree, a young white woman brought stories she had written about Africans. She was in the Peace Corps in Lesotho for a time, and many of the stories were about the children she had encountered, their parents, etc. She wrote about AIDs and the gay community. The people in our workshop class, in general, were put off but what she’d written. However, she asked why it was okay for other authors to “get away” with writing about someone unlike them. Could Mary Shelley accurately write about a white male scientist? Why did Tolstoy get to write about Anna Karenina? Heck, why did anyone get to invent characters like hobbits and elves and dwarfs? It was a good point that she made.

    I like less the idea of sensitivity readers than fact checkers. I also like the idea of people who are often underrepresented getting their stories told. I know white authors still dominate the picture book landscape, even with stories about black and brown characters, but I think that doesn’t mean they should stop writing. I think that it is up to me to decide how I spend my money (if I buy a book) or library picks. The U.S. is still a capitalist society, and I think some book people have forgotten that we can change things with how we spend money and don’t need to grab e-pitchforks and chase authors away on Twitter.

  2. She definitely made a good point. Because where does it end? Do we lose ‘Remains of the Day’ because Kazuo Ishiguro wasn’t a white, English butler? Does a gay man not get to write stories about heterosexuals? Do I appreciate stories written by a person about their own community? Yes, I do. But at the same time, it’s an author’s job to write about people and worlds who are not what they are. Their success or failure depends on their ability to get that other person or culture right. It would be a very boring literary world if we could only write about the things we’ve experienced.

  3. The Joy of Books is Lost When We Treat Reading as Self-Improvement was an interesting read, thank you for sharing! I’m a fast reader too, I’ve read 37 books this year, and I don’t feel like I’ve rushed though them either. My reading pace is just naturally fast. I do see the value of spending a longer period of time immersed in one book though, that’s why i love big, fat books so much 😊

    I love your take on insta-poets, I’ve enjoyed poetry I’ve read on instagram and I think it’s totally valid. But I read my first Amanda Lovelace collection this month and it the first time I’ve been actively annoyed by someone’s “poems” (I went with the quotes and I’m not sorry). I’ll check out all the poems you recommend reading instead, maybe I’ll find my next poetry read!

  4. I thought it was intriguing, too! Big books are wonderful for getting lost in. My only worry with them is that I’ll get 400 pages in and find out that it’s not good. I took my time with ‘The Queens of Innis Lear’, and it was so worth it!

    I think I’ve seen more people who are annoyed by Lovelace than are fans. Her ‘gatekeeper’ comment in the article didn’t improve my impression of her. I hope you enjoy the poems!

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