Bookish Headlines #6

It’s been a while since the last round of Bookish Headlines, but my literary newsfeed was dominated by “What’s New for April” articles. These are useful if you’re looking for upcoming releases, but they’re not the conversational or critical articles I wanted to read.

Last fall, Gabbert, her husband, and a couple of friends decided to start a book club wherein they discussed “stupid classics”- shorter works from the literary canon that they probably should have read in school, but didn’t- to better understand the origins of cultural references that derive from books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While I greatly disagree with Gabbert’s opinion of Fahrenheit 451 (she thinks it’s terrible and anti-minority, I think it predicted the poisonous cancel-culture prevalent in the YA book community), it’s good to see someone who isn’t vehemently opposed to classic literature simply because the authors are dead.

Ian McEwan has declared that his latest novel, Machines Like Me, set in an alternate history where artificial intelligence is part of everyday life is not science fiction. According to McEwan, his alternate reality explores the human condition “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas”. The “looking at the human dilemmas” part is apparently what makes Machines Like Me a work of ‘literary fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction’, which is too obsessed with rockets and aliens to comment on the human condition.

Except for the fact that science fiction has been using rockets and aliens to comment on the human condition since the beginning of science fiction… But that’s neither here nor there. By now, SFF fans are accustomed to literary types sneering at our rockets and wizards, and we just go on with our lives. But I do wonder why, in 2019, literary fiction writers are still so terrified of genre fiction.

flight sky earth space

No literary snob is going to keep me from reading about rockets! Photo by Pixabay on

As the HBO show Game of Thrones wends its way through its eighth and final season, fantasy author Tad Williams looks at how George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (upon which the show was based) has affected and been affected by popular culture. As J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was influenced by the post-WWII society in England, so has A Song of Ice and Fire been affected by the post-9/11 world we live in. Great stories do not exist in a vacuum. They are built upon the foundations of historical events and the stories that have come before them. HBO’s Game of Thrones is its own story, and yet it reflects the polarized and often untrusting world that we live in now and, as The Lord of the Rings has for decades, will have a profound influence on the works that come along in the future.

While audiobooks are incredibly popular among adults these days, people have always recommended reading aloud to children. But there is more to reading children’s stories than just opening the book and saying the words, as anyone who has read Dr. Suess’s Fox in Socks will tell you. So if you’re looking to be a better bedtime narrator, here are some tips for improving your read-aloud skills. The “talk slower than you think you need to” is good advice in general, whether you’re reading a book out loud, imparting important information or questions over the phone, or just trying to make an order at a restaurant.

The publishing world often doesn’t seem to know what to do with books written by women. Do they put a book by Jane Smith into the oft-dismissed category of “chick lit”? Do they call it “women’s fiction” and market it differently from “literary fiction”? And what about genre fiction written by women? Why do Diana Gabaldon and Deborah Harkness’s fantasy series end up in the fiction section while Charlaine Harris’s books get shelved in the SFF section? If we put a male name on a manuscript written by a woman, will the publishers respond more favorably?

Despite the fact that it is 2019, publishers are often dismissive of women, whether they are authors, characters, or readers. Howard discovered this first hand when working on her novel with a writing group led by two men. When the novel sold it was classified as “women’s fiction” because the story centered on family life. As though men aren’t interested in or part of families. Given how often (mostly male) politicians like to harp on “family values”, you would think that men would want to read about family life, too. But apparently not. I guess the publishing world thinks that women want to read about family life, and men want to read about…I don’t know… aging alcoholics?

It’s not a very flattering outlook for anyone, so perhaps its time to do away with terms like “women’s fiction” and “chick lit” and call fiction written by women what it is: fiction.

6 thoughts on “Bookish Headlines #6

  1. I am wondering if the drive for more audio books will lead to more families reading aloud. However, I guess it can be a little scary for some people to read aloud. It seems simple, but you do need a fluency (which many people, I think, lack a bit). And you need emotion, which can be scary for people, as well.

  2. I hope the popularity of audiobooks leads to more people reading to each other. But I understand that narrating a book and separating all the characters and getting the emotions right is difficult and a little intimidating. But there’s something very soothing about being read to.

  3. Would you mind elaborating a bit more on what you mean by the “poisonous cancel-culture prevalent in the YA book community”?
    Also, an interesting follow up to how literary critics approach SFF and genre, is Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay titled ‘The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists’. It deals with the same issue but with fantasy instead of science fiction. The essay might be available online, otherwise it is in the book ‘The Secret History of Fantasy’.

  4. The cancel-culture I’m talking about is when one or two reviewers read an ARC and are offended by an element of the book and write a scathing review that attracts more and more attention with more people jumping on the bandwagon and calling the author out on that element until the author feels compelled to withdraw their book from publication. It’s happened to Amelie Wen Zhao with her debut, Blood Heir, and to Kosoko Jackson with his book, A Place for Wolves. In both cases, when more level-headed reviewers read and critiqued the book, the original complaints mostly lacked merit. But no one else will be able to find out because the books aren’t coming out, and the authors’ careers might be damaged forever. In other cases, the author decided to go ahead with publication, only to be hit with a wave of one-star reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere before the publication date, which can genuinely hurt sales.

    If a book is genuinely offensive, that’s one thing. But if we’re responding to a book and downgrading it based on a rumor, that’s quite another. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury made the point that governments weren’t the only ones who could censor books. The public is perfectly capable of doing it to themselves.

    Thanks for the recommendation of Le Guin’s essay! I knew she’d written one on the topic, but I’d never seen the title. I will write it down and look for it over the weekend!

  5. Thanks for your explaination of cancel culture. I’ve definitely seen that around. It’s one of the reasons why I’m starting to pull away from the YA community a bit.

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