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The Oscar “fiasco,” but for books!

The Oscar “fiasco,” but for books!

When a mistake is made in front of thirty-three million people, it’s going to generate some chatter. I didn’t watch the Oscars live, but I woke up the next morning to see people tweeting about the “Oscar fiasco.” Words like “disastrous” and “devastating” were being used. I thought there had been a violent protest, or somebody had dropped dead of a heart attack on stage.

So, I was relieved to find out it was just a case of the wrong winner being announced.

“Just”? Yes, that’s what I said: “just.” Because it really wasn’t that big a deal. It’s happened before and it will happen again. In fact, I’ve seen it happen. Yes, even the sacred world of books has been touched by such tragedy.

I won’t say the name of the award or the author; the author has since passed away and wouldn’t want this moment to be part of his legacy, and the people who run the award are some of the most likable people around. And, to repeat, it wasn’t that big a deal.

The author was nominated for Best Short Story and it was a story that appeared in a collection the company I worked for published. He flew in to Toronto from Alberta for the ceremony, sat at a table with people from our company and the collection’s editor, and generously bought bottle after bottle of wine for the table. And if you know me, you know that someone who offers an endless supply of free wine is immediately in my good books.

His award was the first of the evening, and the organizers were trying a clever new idea for how to reveal the winner. Instead of opening an envelope, presenters opened a bag containing the winning book. This would work nicely for every other category because those categories were for full books, meaning the names of the winning writers were on the covers. For the short story category, the person putting the to-be-revealed books in the bags would have to be certain about which collection the winning author’s story appeared in.

And apparently, that person wasn’t as certain about it as they should have been. They thought the winning author’s story appeared in our collection, so our book was put in the bag.

The presenter, who was more familiar with the nominated stories than the person who set up the bags, pulled out our book and knew that only one of the nominated authors had a story in that book, therefore, he must be the winner. And our author’s name was announced.

The author was stunned. He’d just come for the party and wasn’t expecting to win. The look on his face was priceless. He walked to the front of the room to accept the award, but by the time he got there, there was confusion. No one was handing him an award; rather, the presenter and the organizers were conferring. A short time later, someone came to the mic to say they’d made a mistake and that another author had actually won the award.

The book’s editor had his head in his hands and was repeating, over and over, “how could this happen?” The author returned to the table, a little embarrassed, and people expressed rage on his behalf.

The author just waved his hand, dismissing the sympathy. “They made a mistake and they fixed it. It’s not a big deal.”

A mistake was made. That’s it.

What was the result of the mistake? Temporarily, the wrong person was believed to have won. Then someone rushed to fix the problem. And that’s what happened at the Oscars, too.

A mistake was made. The mistake was corrected. The rightful winner was awarded — it was just an embarrassing moment.

We can quibble about whether the organizers should have responded more quickly so that they could have avoided having the producers of the wrong film deliver acceptance speeches, but let’s step back a bit and ask ourselves how bad it really was.

The actual consequences of the mistake aren’t dire in the least.

And here’s the thing about all of this: the author I’ve been talking about was the least-bothered of all the people involved. In fact, he seemed more bothered by the fuss people were making afterwards than the mistake itself.

I suspect that’s the case with everyone involved with La La Land. They would much rather people celebrate Moonlight, the winner of the award, than focus on the awkward moment when they had to get off stage to let the real winner come up. They’d undoubtedly rather the moment be forgotten entirely.

In the end, what really happened? There was an embarrassing moment. But no one was cheated out of an award. The rightful winner received the award. And even though there might have been some embarrassment, no one involved in either film came out looking bad because of it. If anything, the graciousness of the La La Land team made them look good. They’ve even praised Moonlight. Emma Stone said it was one of the best films she’s ever seen.

And that has reminded me of the way our author responded to his moment of non-winning. He said that the important thing was that the award went to the right person, and he praised the winning story. And then he bought more wine for the table, because we were there to have a good time, and he was going to make damn sure we did.

Things don’t always go as planned. But when something goes awry, it doesn’t need to be turned into an opportunity to express outrage. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say, “That was awkward, but they fixed it, and now they should just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

On Cancelling Books

On Cancelling Books

This week’s column is taking us a little far afield, as it’s not about a children’s book. I thought it was a subject worth addressing, though, as it deals with a situation that bothered many in the kidlit community, including some prominent children’s authors who were stunned to hear that the company publishing their books was also publishing a controversial alt-right personality. And I know a lot of the readers of Bookcave have an interest in what goes on on the publishing side of things, so I thought my views as a book publisher might be valued.

Never before have so many been so thrilled to hear a book has been cancelled. Simon & Schuster announced on Monday that a new book from Milo Yiannopoulos, which was scheduled to be released this spring by their imprint, Threshold Editions, has been cancelled.

If Simon & Schuster was expecting to be patted on the back by the masses, they’re probably disappointed right now, because people are still stinging from the fact that the book was contracted to begin with, and that Simon & Schuster went on to announce they would stick with the book even after the initial outcry against it.

Is the criticism of Simon & Schuster fair? To a certain extent, it has to be, though perhaps overdone in a world that only thinks 140 characters at a time and can only view things as unchangably black or white.

It’s important to remember that the book was acquired by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and I think we can all agree that it’s tough to hold other imprints of Simon & Schuster to blame for this, as they are unlikely to have had any involvement or even knowledge of the acquisition. It’s also fair to say that authors published by Simon & Schuster are blameless, and that is why I refused to boycott those authors’ books, as others were doing.

As for the parent company … that’s a bit more complicated.

Threshold Editions is a very special little imprint. Their author list is a who’s who of people I’ve flashed my middle finger at when they’ve appeared on TV. Not only have they published books “written” by Donald Trump, but they’ve got children’s books from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. That’s a very special publishing mandate, if you ask me, as evidenced by my uncontrollable vomit as I clicked through their website.

Threshold almost certainly operates relatively autonomously. They deserve the blame for signing this book, and for their list. How involved is Simon & Schuster in the decision-making? I don’t know. Presumably the parent company signs off on projects, but how much discussion goes on, I can’t say. They could just rubber-stamp whatever Threshold wants to do, or they could vet every project. I’m not sure either of those gets Simon & Schuster off the hook; even if Threshold has complete free reign to do what they want, that’s something Simon & Schuster signed up for when the imprint was created. And it’s not like Threshold has been showing its poker face over the years.

So, when I suggest that the imprint may have been acting autonomously and that Simon & Schuster may have just signed off on projects based on the word of the imprint’s editors, that’s not much of a defence. I mean, if you’re not keeping a judgmental eye on what this imprint is putting out, you’re asking for trouble.

Moving beyond the initial acquisition, Simon & Schuster has faced criticism for not cancelling when there was a public outcry. In fact, they even put out a statement saying publication would proceed.

Is that criticism fair? It may come down to their hands being legally tied. There was a contract.

Publishing contracts generally have at least one out clause, but it would be unusual for that out clause to be enforceable simply because the publisher changed their mind. Something would have had to have changed to contractually allow the publisher to drop the book.

For Simon & Schuster, nothing had changed yet. No new information had come out about the author, there had just been criticism. Every bit of criticism that came out in those early stages of the outcry was a matter of public knowledge prior to the signing of the contract. For Simon & Schuster to cancel at that point, they would have had to argue that they didn’t do their research, which would have been a failing legal argument. They were stuck with either publishing the book or being sued for breach of contract. (And maybe they should have opted for the latter, to be honest.)

I suppose that brings up a question, then: why are they able to cancel the book now?

First, let’s look at some of the reasons a publisher might unilaterally cancel a book.

Sometimes the manuscript isn’t the manuscript the publisher had contracted. This happens more often with non-fiction than fiction, because it’s more common for non-fiction to be signed based on a proposal. And with non-fiction, the author can sometimes go a different direction as they put their book together. I was once involved with a book of historical non-fiction that was signed based on an established author’s pitch. As the author was working on the book, he made some comments to me verbally and in emails that raised red flags about potential land mines – I was concerned by some anti-Semitic and misogynist views he was expressing, and had reason to think those views were making their way into the book. I asked the editor assigned to the book to be on the lookout for any comments, subtle or otherwise. Well, it turned out the objectionable content was not subtle in the least, and that, in fact, anti-Semitic theory had become central to the book. The author then insisted this material could not be removed as he felt it was necessary. That made things easy: it was not the book we’d contracted, he was unwilling to change the content, therefore, the book was terminated.

Sometimes a book is signed from a finished manuscript, but the editor and author have discussions about possible changes. If the revisions are not in line with what was discussed, or are unsatisfactory, most publishing contracts allow the publisher to cancel the book. It rarely comes to this, though; usually things get resolved before the publisher moves to enforce such a clause. It’s not something publishers are generally comfortable with. For what it’s worth, I don’t recall such a termination ever happening at any company I’ve worked at in my twenty-plus-year career.

A book could also be cancelled if advance sales are so low as to be disastrous. Again, it’s rare that a publisher enforces a sales-based cancellation clause. When I’ve seen low-order books cancelled there has almost always been a mutual agreement to terminate the contract. The publisher has talked to the author about the situation and the author has agreed that it’s best to part ways. The author generally feels that if the publisher isn’t getting orders, the book might be better off if freed from the contract so it could be submitted elsewhere. While it’s not a happy outcome for anyone, it’s far better than a unilateral cancellation.

None of these things, as far as I know, played into Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel. None of these things needed to.

There was a change that Simon & Schuster could reasonably argue would materially affect the market for the book: video emerged of Yiannopoulos seemingly endorsing pedophilia in certain situations. If Simon & Schuster was looking for a way to cancel the book, they’d found it.

Of course, there is a caveat. The contract called for the author to receive a $250,000 advance. Often, when there is an out clause in a publishing contract, the author is entitled to keep any money already paid to them. In some cases, they might even be entitled to advance installments that have not yet been paid. So, those concerned that Yiannopoulos’s book contract was rewarding him for his intolerant views are likely to be unsatisfied by the new development, as he’s still getting paid.

The irony is that in addition to likely keeping the advance, Yiannopoulos will undoubtedly publish the book anyway, either by himself, or through another publisher. And unless the book contains hate speech (none of us have read it, so let’s not jump to conclusions), that is his right, and that is the publisher’s right. He got paid, he’ll get his book out; he’ll be the only person who is happy, in the end.

Everyone else has been scarred. Simon & Schuster has been scarred, but more importantly, completely innocent people have been scarred. There are authors who were stunned to find out they shared a publisher with someone whose views they consider vile. There were other imprints who were doing their own thing and were completely uninvolved in the decision-making and found themselves being boycotted. There were branch plants in other countries who were being impacted by American political writing. And there were countless employees who were not involved at the decision-making level who found themselves demonized because they had jobs. And, of course, there were readers, many of whom wondered if they were doing something wrong if they bought a book by an author they loved who happened to be published by the same company as an author they loathed.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

One Country, One Book?

One Country, One Book?

The folks at TED do a lot of things. They do so much that I don’t really pay attention to them most of the time. But once in a while they come up with something that catches my eye. I was recently tagged in a Facebook post about this article from the TED-Ed part of TED, in which they asked educators from countries around the world to name one book that was each country’s “classic” that is taught to students.

Some things jump out of me about the list. One is that it’s heavily male. That likely reflects a historical bias, since books by men were (and often still are) given undue preference, so the books that came to be regarded as “classics” skewed male. We can, however, correct that when talking about “classics” that are “required reading,” and we should. If you can’t come up with a required reading list with a male-female balance, you aren’t trying. Another thing I notice is that most of the books deal with war. That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

And, of course, I can’t get past the obvious: none of the books were written for young readers. It’s as if they’re saying “if the book was written with you in mind, it wouldn’t be a classic.” Okay, I’ll just flip a couple of middle fingers at that notion and move on, because I’ll just be preaching to the converted anyway.

The general concept of a “world required reading list” is interesting, though right away you can spot a problem: how do you narrow a country’s literature down to one book?

Let’s use the Canadian choice as an example: Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Let’s overlook that it’s yet another book on the list that is by a male writer and that it is yet another book on the list that is about war. Taken on its own, it was nice to see it get a thumbs-up, for a couple of reasons: first, it’s a great book (despite what happens to the poor horses); second, Timothy Findley’s fame has diminished since his death. At my day job (Cormorant/DCB) we often ask interns about their reading, and in the past few years several have said they’d never heard of Timothy Findley. And these are book people. (Findley isn’t the only writer on the “forgotten” list, but the relevant one here.)

But while I’m glad to see Findley get the nod, is The Wars representative of Canadian literature? Is any book representative of Canadian literature? Canadian literature is as diverse as this “world required reading list.” Asking someone to name one book, and only one book, as “required reading” for Canada is asking someone to give a distorted view of what Canada is.

That said, I love the spirit of the list. The list reminds us that there is more to read in the world than just what is produced in our own country, or in our own language. And in doing so, the list points to a huge gap in how we teach young people literature. When I went to school — and little has changed since then — the writers taught in English literature classes were all (or almost all) from three countries: Canada, the UK, and the United States. That was the world of literature we were exposed to. As a result, that became the base of every young reader’s knowledge, and that remains the case today. It’s a very limited view of the world.

I would love to see young people exposed to more literature from around the world. It would make them better readers and better writers, but it would also make them more aware of the world itself. Nothing takes you to a new place or exposes you to a new culture better than a book. A book does the job far better than a movie or the internet, because your mind lives in a book while you’re reading; it’s a far more intense and far more personal connection than anything you experience on a screen.

I would not, however, do so at the expense of Canadian books. In fact, I’d like to see school students reading more Canadian books. In my ideal world, there would be two required English courses every year: one that teaches nothing but Canadian writers, and another that teaches world literature — and more than just British and American writers. I’d even challenge the idea that you have to teach kids a Shakespeare play every year. That’s a lot of time sucked up by one writer. Why do we all need to be Shakespeare experts? (Maybe I’ll write a column about that bit of blasphemy one day. You can hold off on your fists-shaking-with-rage responses until then.)

Imagine what we’d end up with if we exposed young people to a half-dozen or so Canadian writers — a diverse group of writers — every year, and combined that with connecting them to the rest of the world on a deep level by exposing them to a half dozen or so international writers every year. By the time they finished high school they’d have a rich understanding of the world. We’d envy them. I wish I’d been exposed to more world literature when I was young.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Helping No One, Hurting Many

Helping No One, Hurting Many

When you’re governing the province ranked last in Canada in literacy (and second last in Canada when territories are included), the thing to do is further discourage people from reading, right?

Well, maybe not, but the government of Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t seem to care.

It was announced last year, but took effect on January 1: readers in Newfoundland and Labrador are now being hit with a 10% tax on book purchases.

Now, I’m not against taxes — not in the least. Taxes are good, for the most part, even if we don’t like paying them. And the Newfoundland and Labrador government had a revenue problem they were addressing by adding and increasing taxes in a number of areas. But decisions on taxes should make sense, and things that are tax exempt should make sense. It made good sense for books to be exempt from the province’s HST, as they are in every other province in the country. (Nova Scotia and PEI toyed with the idea of taxing books, but came to their senses when they thought it through — something Newfoundland and Labrador failed to do.)

Literacy is, as it always has been, important, and the benefits are undeniable. The disadvantages cause by illiteracy are also undeniable. I don’t need to outline any of these advantages and disadvantages here, though I’d be happy to do so if challenged. I don’t think I’ll be challenged, though.

When you artificially increase the price of books by a whopping 10%, you discourage reading. When you discourage reading, you encourage illiteracy. I don’t think I’m revealing anything that isn’t blatantly obvious here.

So it’s unlikely the government of Newfoundland and Labrador is unaware of the impact of their decision.

They just don’t care.

Because, you see, they need money.

Sadly, they appear to be math-challenged. Books are not, as it turns out, big-money items. And since school purchases are excluded from the tax, we’re talking primarily about bookstore and online sales here. The amount of revenue the government will bring in is negligible. No one will benefit from this tax. People will only suffer. That’s why I oppose it: it helps no one, but it hurts many.

Who does it hurt? Clearly, book buyers. But also booksellers — and there aren’t a lot of those in Newfoundland and Labrador compared to other provinces, so the existing booksellers should be cherished.

The province’s publishers will be hurt; they, like many publishers across the country, thrive on regional authors and regional stories. Their sales will be affected.

What about authors? This is a huge blow to the province’s authors. Their sales will be affected, but so will their opportunities to get published.

How so? Well, the bulk of any author’s sales are usually sales in the area in which they live. A Nova Scotia author will sell a lot of books in Nova Scotia; a BC author will sell a lot of books in BC; a Saskatchewan author will sell a ton of books in Saskatchewan.

When publishers are deciding whether to sign an author, we look at sales history. If an author’s sales in their own region plummet — which is a distinct possibility for those affected by this tax — that will be reflected in the numbers that all publishers in Canada have access to. (Fun publishing fact: thanks to Booknet Canada, I can look up the sales of any book sold in Canada. We do this every time we’re deciding whether to publish a book.)

Now, there is a silver lining: while Newfoundland and Labrador has a low literacy rate, those who are book readers are great at supporting regional authors. They’re among the best in Canada. So I hope the book buyers will be unfazed by their government’s attack on their wallets.

But they shouldn’t have to bear this load. This tax was poorly thought out, if it was thought out at all. It’s mean-spirited, unproductive idiocy.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

We Won’t Boycott Authors

We Won’t Boycott Authors

Recently, the imprint of a major publisher in the US (and one with a branch plant in Canada) signed an author to a $250,000 book contract. I’m not naming the author or the publisher, for reasons I’ll explain later. But if you’re familiar with this story — as many in our community are — you know that the controversy about this signing is that the author has expressed racist, sexist, and homophobic views and has engaged in online trolling that has promoted the harassment of others.

This is the sort of author I would never publish, and I can’t condone anyone else publishing him. They’re not obligated to publish anyone, so if they allow the publication of someone whose views are vile, they are promoting those views. They are promoting intolerance. That’s a healthy advance, too, and since the justification of a large advance is the author’s celebrity, and since this author’s celebrity is built on hate and intolerance, they’re rewarding him for being despicable.

But while I have serious issues with anyone publishing such an author, there have been some sites and journals who have said they will no longer review books from that publisher. (We’re talking about the parent company here, not the imprint.)

I have a problem with such a boycott.

The lesser issue is that this book is being published by one of the company’s imprints. The parent company umbrellas many imprints that, as far as I’m aware, operate independently of one another. The other imprints had no involvement or even knowledge of this book’s acquisition, let alone any ability to do anything about it. Is it fair to these imprints to boycott them because of something out of their control? How about the Canadian operation? I don’t know if they’ll be distributing the book or not, but it may not even be their call. Or it might be. I don’t know. But if I were to consider a boycott, I’d want that information before doing so, because the people at the Canadian operation may not have anything to do with this book.

That’s the lesser consideration.

The greater consideration, though, is that this publishing company represents many authors. These authors had nothing to do with the imprint signing this book. They probably didn’t even know the imprint existed (few authors are likely to keep tabs on a conservative publishing imprint).

I can’t in good conscience punish these authors for something that had absolutely nothing to do with them. Many of them, I can assure you, are unhappy that the controversial book is being published, but they can’t legally opt out of contracts, nor should they. And frankly, a “boycott” by me would simply be grandstanding. It would literally be the least I could do. I would much rather do things that counter such views (and I think I do in the books I publish with Dancing Cat Books). But refuse to review that company’s authors? I’m not going to punish writers for this.

In the brief history of Bookcave I’ve reviewed books by two of the authors that are presumably being boycotted. I have a couple of more books by this company’s authors that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. I do this because the authors deserve to be reviewed. They should not be held accountable for the actions of an imprint, or the parent company’s approval of those actions.

Which brings me to the reason I haven’t named the author or publisher.

When you announce you’re going to boycott the company because of this book, you’re fuelling the discussion of the author, which plays into his hands. He loves being known for his views. You are actually helping him to sell more copies of his book, which, presumably, you would not have been promoting otherwise. And by boycotting, you’re hurting completely innocent authors.

In effect, you’re helping the author you don’t like and hurting all the other authors.

In fairness to those outlets who are boycotting, their intentions are good. We’re on the same side in this, even if I disagree with the boycott route.

The decision to publish this vile person’s book is shameful, to be sure. But that shame shouldn’t be shared by people who had nothing to do with it.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Over-intellectualizing a Toy Elf

Over-intellectualizing a Toy Elf

So, here’s the mistake people are making: they’re putting way too much thought into a toy elf.

For the past couple of years, screeching hordes have been stomping their feet and howling about the damnation that will befall us because parents are giving their kids a toy elf and telling them that if they don’t behave Santa will hate them forever.

Okay, I’ve hyperbole-d enough.

Or have I? Here’s an article that’s pretty close to ground zero for the anti-Elf-on-the-Shelf movement.

And it goes on, such as with this recent over-the-top reaction to Elf on the Shelf.

In fairness, the latter author seems to be joking around at times, but he also seems sincere in his criticisms.

Seriously, people are overthinking the hell out of this.

Many think-pieces have been written about how this is normalizing surveillance and enforcing behaviour. Writers have been complaining that kids are being told that this elf sees them when they’re sleeping, knows when they’re awake, knows when they’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness … wait, that sounds familiar. Where have I heard that?

Oh right, that’s exactly what kids have been told since the days when Thomas Nast was creating illustrations of Santa spying on kids with a telescope and taking notes on behaviour.

I grew up being told that Santa was watching everything I did and collecting data on me to evaluate my worth as a human being. So did everyone who grew up in a Santa-friendly household.

And we turned out okay, didn’t we?

Okay, maybe we didn’t, but if we’re a messed-up world it’s surely not because we’re scared to misbehave.

How is Elf on the Shelf any different? It’s the same thing, only there’s an intermediary. If anything, the message being sent is that Santa can’t actually see everything you do so he has to send an inanimate object to do the spying. That’s actually less scary. If I were a kid and didn’t want Santa to find out about my dirty deeds I’d know exactly what household item to toss into the nearest ravine.

If we’re concerned that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance, here are a few other things we need to toss in the dumpster:

Simon Says, a game teaches kids to accept authoritarianism.
Hide-and-Seek, which normalizes stalking.
Building snowmen, which is a metaphor for genetic manipulation.
Doggie, Doggie, Who’s Got Your Bone, which teaches kids to be petty thieves.
Elmo, who teaches bad grammar.
London Bridges, a game that makes children terrified of travelling by road.
Teddy bears, which normalize keeping bears in captivity.
Santa, because this is a guy who clearly gives some kids better toys than others, so he’s a nightmare for childhood self-esteem. And because he’s a dirty spy and a miner of data.

And the thing is, every one of my silly complaints in the above list is as valid as the complaint that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance.

So, then, what’s the other complaint? That Elf on the Shelf is all about marketing. Should we take a moment to reflect on the history of Santa Claus, the most potent marketing figure in the history of North America? Santa is all about marketing. There’s a reason he sits in the middle of a mall or department store to find out what kids want for Christmas when they’re within earshot of parents with credit cards. There’s a reason why when you watch Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade on TV or in person you see an endless stream of sponsored floats. Santa exists to get you to spend money.

Christmas itself is a massive marketing tool, which is why it has become a secular holiday as much as it is a religious holiday. Christmas is all about buying things and people eat that message up.

Elf on the Shelf is just a clever little marketing idea that worked. There was a book involved — damn, I wish I’d come up with this marketing ploy.

So, is this really about Elf on the Shelf somehow being evil, or is it about Elf on the Shelf being different from “how we did it when we were kids”? I suspect there’s a large helping of the latter at play. How can we have problems with Elf on the Shelf but not have the same problems with Santa Claus?

When it comes down to it, the people freaking out are adults. Are the kids? Do we really think there are kids who are terrified because they are under surveillance by a toy elf who is going to tell Santa when they’re bad? Do we think kids are that fragile?

The kids just want to have fun. This is a game. It’s not damaging them. They are playing. When the game is over, the game is over.

Who are we demonizing when we try to make ourselves look smart by tossing out complaints? Parents. Parents who just want to give their kids a fun addition to the holidays. Do they deserve that? Hell no.

Let’s relax a little. This is a benign bit of holiday fun. Put the cynicism aside, call off the fun police, and let kids and their parents play this simple little game for a few weeks.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

 

There’s Something in the Air, and It’s a Nose

There’s Something in the Air, and It’s a Nose

Recently, one of the major literary awards released new submission guidelines. While they said their goal was to make sure deserving titles get their due, really, the guidelines were designed to reduce the number of submissions they get, meaning that some deserving titles might not get submitted. This award happens to have a larger than normal jury, and a very well-paid jury at that. So, I could go on about privilege and how people should earn their pay, etc. … except that this site is about kids’ books and the award in question is not specifically for kids’ books.

In fact, they made it clear that they don’t want to see kids’ books, and that’s what I’m going to go on about. One of their new guidelines says young adult novels are ineligible.

Now, let’s be fair: a lot of YA is written specifically for the young readers’ market; often YA is written with school curriculum in mind, too. So, there is some logic to excluding books that are for a specific and narrow market rather than the general population.

But anyone with any familiarity with YA knows that there are many YA novels that were not, in fact, written for young readers. It’s not uncommon for a book to be written as “literary fiction” only to have an agent or publisher decide to market it to young readers. And why not? It’s easier to sell books for young readers than it is to sell adult literary fiction.

So, this award is telling people that such books aren’t literature because, after they were written, someone decided there was a good marketing opportunity?

The line between adult fiction and young adult fiction is often blurry. I have published several novels as YA that could easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. I defy you to read Christine Walde’s Burning from the Inside, Barbara Radecky’s The Darkhouse, or anything by C.K. Kelly Martin and tell me what, aside from the age of the characters, distinguishes these novels from “adult literary fiction.” And these books are not unique; there are many other books for young readers that are of such literary merit that they are read by adults and should be considered for “adult” awards.

Likewise, “adult” novels are frequently cross-marketed to young readers. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example, was sold as both adult fiction and young adult fiction; did it become ineligible for awards as a result? Should it have?

Imagine if The Catcher in the Rye were published today. I promise you, there’s at least a 90% chance (if not complete certainty) that it would be marketed as young adult fiction. And if you think there is something about it that makes it different from a lot of YA that is published, you haven’t read a lot of YA.

Naysayers will read this and say, “Of course he thinks that — he’s a children’s book publisher and probably doesn’t know much about literary fiction.” So, I’ll remind those people that I also spent many years acquiring and editing adult literary fiction, including a number of books nominated for such awards as the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, etc. It’s far from a foreign subject to me.

Why do I care? In part, I suppose, I get tired of people who know nothing about YA looking down their noses at YA — and let’s face it, that’s what’s going on here. But I care, too, because there are many YA authors who produce superb works of high literary merit, and they are being denied proper recognition because someone in an ivory tower doesn’t like a certain marketing tag.

The right step for the award in question was not to say YA titles are ineligible; it was, rather, to ask publishers to use their discretion and ensure any YA titles being submitted qualify as works of literary merit for audiences of all ages. They didn’t do that, unfortunately, and the blanket “no-YA” policy demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the category they have chosen to dismiss.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

When a Publisher Decides to Make Racism Okay Again

When a Publisher Decides to Make Racism Okay Again

Abrams Books has always seemed like a relatively benign press. In fact, they have done some good things. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example. And their STEM books, such as Rosie Revere: Engineer. If we thought about Abrams, it was in a good way.

Then they apparently lost their minds, because they thought it would be hilarious to publish a book called Bad Little Children’s Books, which, by Abrams’ own admission, “presents a collection patently offensive parodies of children’s book covers.” You can see these covers here. (That article is, admittedly, one sided, but I’m okay with that as it’s the side I agree with.) Some of the mock covers, one could argue, are just fun irreverence, while others are in bad taste. But some are outright racist.

Take, for example, the cover that jokes about acquiring smallpox from a Navajo blanket.

Or the cover for a book about rockets and missiles of the Islamic State.

And apparently those two examples of racist jokes weren’t enough, because there is also a cover that equates burkas with terrorism: a burka-wearer is shown bringing a gift-wrapped box that is ticking.

To the surprise of no one except, apparently, Abrams, there has been outrage.

Abrams has tried to excuse their misstep. Actually, that’s not accurate: they’ve played victim and pretended they’ve done nothing wrong and that bad people have vilified them.

They’ve claimed that the jokes are not “racist,” they’re “satire,” and have accused critics of “censorship.”

Well, first of all, they don’t know what “satire” is. “Satire” is used to mock the people you’re satirizing. And if that’s what these fake covers were doing, Abrams might have an argument. That’s not the case, however. They simply present the jokes. “Satire” isn’t a word you attach to racist jokes to make them okay. If you do satire properly, then the targets of your satire feel the burn. The supposed targets of this “satire,” Abrams wants us to believe, are racists. Now, let’s consider this: do you think racists will look at these jokes and feel the sting of satire, or will they find them funny? The answer is obvious, and that’s why Bad Little Children’s Books is, at best, a complete failure as satire, or, at worst, not satire at all.

These books do nothing to mock racists. Rather, they send a message: “let’s make racism funny again.” It’s like Abrams thinks the jokes aren’t racist if they say the author didn’t really mean them.

Second of all, no one is asking Abrams to “censor” anything. They’re asking Abrams to act ethically. Apparently this is too difficult for Abrams, which is why they have doubled-down and why they’ve attacked their critics. Their defence didn’t even come with an apology for offending anyone. Rather, they just insisted they are right and everyone else is wrong and that if we don’t get it, we’re at fault.

But here, again, Abrams has gone to a problematic word: “censorship.” They want us to believe that doing the right thing would be the “bad thing,” because censorship is a “bad thing.” But is pulling the book a bad thing that needs the ugly “censorship” label? Books get pulled for other reasons. If a book is libelous, containing factual inaccuracies about a person, would Abrams say, “nah, we’ll keep it in print because to do otherwise is censorship”? If a book violates child pornography laws, would they cry “censorship”? I would hope not. While rare, books do get recalled and pulped if a serious wrong has been done. I would qualify racism as a serious wrong.

“Censorship” is just a convenient word, a weapon-word, that is used to attack the critics. It’s an attempt to re-categorize valid criticisms under a negative label. It’s rhetoric.

If they choose to keep the book in print, that’s their right. But it is also the right of myself and others to judge them for it. And I will.

Tellingly, Abrams has played the PC card by calling the book “politically incorrect.” People who accuse others of political correctness do so in order to excuse poor behaviour. It’s a dismissive term that, again, tries to put the blame on the critic and make the offending party out to be a victim.

Abrams could have responded responsibly. Instead they used these weapon-words to cast those who disagree with them in a negative light.

You have to wonder what was going through their heads when they decided to go ahead with the book. And the more you wonder, the harder it is to side with Abrams.

Who did they think the market for the book was? Who did they think would find this funny? Did they think, for example, Muslims would find the ticking-bomb cover funny and buy the book? Of course not. So … shouldn’t that have told them something? I mean, Muslims are at the core of the joke … so if they’re excluded from the target market — as they would have to be — it’s a joke about Muslims for non-Muslims. Abrams doesn’t see the problem with that?

They either thought about the Muslim market and didn’t give a damn what Muslims thought, or they didn’t think about the Muslim market at all. It’s the same deal when it comes to indigenous persons and the small-pox-blanket book. I can’t imagine Abrams thought Navajo book-buyers would look at that cover and say “ha ha, a painful part of my people’s history is really funny.”

So, the only options for describing Abrams’ behaviour would seem to be cultural insensitivity, a tolerance of racism, or plain stupidity. I suppose “all of the above” is also a possibility. But “satire”? Nonsense.

Legally, the book may not qualify as hate literature, so they can publish it. Freedom of speech allows them to do so. But freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Sadly, Abrams has opted to be irresponsible. They’ve decided that the rights of people like them to laugh at the stereotypes of others is the only valid consideration.

 

UPDATE: Shortly after this column was posted, it was announced that Abrams had decided to cease publication after all. And I was prepared to pat them on the back for it, until I read their statement: “We have been disheartened by calls to censor the book and to stifle the author’s right to express his artistic vision by people we would expect to promote those basic fundamental rights and freedoms. However, faced with the misperceived message of the book, we are respecting the author’s request.” So, instead of the appropriate mea culpa, they continue to blame and attack the critics. Another own-goal. At least the author came to his senses. The publisher continues to sing the wrong song.

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72199-under-fire-abrams-to-stop-publishing-bad-little-children-s-books.html

 

UPDATE 2: Well, Abrams had to clarify, because it turns out that they went to weasle-words when they said they would “cease publishing” the book. What they really meant was that they are not going to reprint. But the book is still available. They still carry it and distribute it. I’ve been in publishing for more than two decades, and I am confident the original wording was carefully chosen to mislead.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Outside the Cave, November 27, 2016

Outside the Cave, November 27, 2016

People seem to like the Outside the Cave feature, so let’s keep this going.

For those of you who are new to Bookcave, Outside the Cave is where we share some of the things we’ve been reading on other websites. Please frequent those sites and give them some love, and come back here too.

The folks over at Book Riot must have read our optimistic post about how we’re too strong to be beaten by the US election, and they were having none of it. They came up with this list of reasons why post-election US is like a dystopian YA novel. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell anyone who frequents Bookcave that dystopian YA novels don’t make the future out to be an unending episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. If you read or write dystopian YA, give this piece a look because it’s not just a doom-and-gloom article; it also points to some problems with dystopian YA that we should be paying attention to.

Now, after you read that you’re going to feel a bit down, so go back and read our optimistic piece in which I tell you the future will be okay because of you. Thanks, you.

But even better than that, read this fantastic post on Lori Weber’s blog, in which she talks about writing for kids as a form of activism. It’s passionate and inspiring. If you read nothing else today, read this.

Elsewhere, Buzzfeed shocked the world by posting something with a clickbaity title about Harry Potter fans being at a crossroads. And I took the bait. But it’s an interesting read for fans of Harry and of kids’ books in general. My very simplistic summary is that many ultra-hardcore Potter fans (those who can drop the names of obscure characters I can’t remember) are content with the original series and aren’t always comfortable with the additions that have been made in the nearly ten years since The Deathly Hallows was published.

Take a moment to let it sink in that The Deathly Hallows will be ten years old in July 2017. Now, deep breath in, deep breath out. Everyone okay? Let’s continue.

I don’t have a lot in common with those who rail against the way the new entries change what they know about the Harry Potter universe, but they make some good points. And they address the concerns many fans have had over the way Rowling stepped in it with some unsettling cultural appropriation in The History of Magic in North America. The entire discussion around that book is relevant for those of us in the Canadian kidlit community, where there have been efforts to provide greater opportunities for Indigenous authors.

Speaking of which, one of the superb indie presses trying to provide these opportunities is Second Story Press, and they have recently released two books about Canada’s residential schools. These books are on my list for review in the coming weeks, but Lisa Day gives a few thoughts in her Book Time blog, and talks about deciding whether to read one of the books to her son.

Finally, a review from Bella’s Bookshelves. Am I the only one who hasn’t yet read Martine Leavitt’s Calvin? Probably. And I should get around to it as soon as possible. How’s this for praise: “Calvin is the best YA book I’ve read in eons. A 17-year old kid has a schizophrenic episode and thinks he’s Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes.” So … it’s pretty darn good, right? And that’s just how she starts the review. This is someone who knows her YA, too. So, what the heck is taking me so long? I’m on it.

Here at Bookcave, there are some pieces in the pipeline for the coming week. I somehow work MC Hammer into a piece I’m posting on Monday, and I’m about to polish up a review of a recent award-winning novel. Look for the latter on Wednesday. We’ll have our usual Friday and Sunday features, of course, and I might slip in another article during the week if I get a chance. Keep coming back, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook — new postings are announced there.

A little off-topic, but important as people get to know Bookcave: while I don’t get any actual numbers for several days, I understand some have contributed to our Patreon campaign, which I greatly appreciate. (There’s a link in the top menu.) I want to reassert what I say on the campaign page, which is that every cent that comes in will go towards paying other writers to contribute articles, reviews, short fiction, and possibly other content. Bookcave will always cost me more money than it brings in — it’s set up to do so. If there’s a way for me to personally profit from this, I don’t know what it is and I haven’t been looking for it. If any Patreon supporters want to know how the money gets used, I’ll be more than happy to account for every bit of it. Bookcave exists to support the Canadian kidlit community.

For that matter, anyone who is interested in knowing the details of my plans for Bookcave is welcome to contact me at barry@bookcave.ca. It’s a project that excites me, and I think that anyone in the community who hears my full vision for the site will be equally excited.

So, that’s Outside the Cave for this week. As always, keep reading Canadian kidlit, and keep bookmarking websites that talk about Canadian kidlit. And if you have a blog or site of your own that I haven’t given a shoutout to yet, send me a missive and I’ll try to post a link in an upcoming Outside the Cave. We’re confident you’re in this for all the right reasons and we want to support you.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

 

Cave Notes

Cave Notes

First of all, thank you to everyone who has visited Bookcave.ca. I wasn’t sure how much attention it would get, but looking at the site statistics, we’ve had far more traffic than I would have imagined.

On to our Cave Notes …

Cave Notes is another new weekly feature that reviews what we’ve done on the site in the preceding week and adds additional comments or notes about things that didn’t seem like column-length material but might be interesting to readers.

After a crazy week 1, things have settled down to a more normal level of content in week 2. Long-term plans call for us to have daily content, but for now we’ll be offering material three or four days a week.

On Sunday we introduced a new feature: Outside the Cave. One of the goals of Bookcave is to help increased the online dialogue surrounding books for young readers, and Outside the Cave is where we tell you about what we’ve been reading on other sites around the web. We hope you’ll be a regular reader of all these websites (and Bookcave too, of course).

On Monday we got a bit political, but in a positive way, finding hope and optimism in the wake of an American election outcome that has upset many people in the kidlit community. I’ve received a lot of great feedback on this article and I thank everyone who has been in touch with me about it. I hope it’s made some of you feel a little bit better about things.

On Wednesday I reviewed Mahtab Narsimhan’s most recent book for middle-grade readers, Mission Mumbai. I hope people have found it to be an interesting take, given that the review was written by someone who has published the author in the past. It’s not a perspective we see very often in reviews.

It occurs to me if that my Bookcave boss (who happens to be me) weren’t such a darn-good guy, I wouldn’t have been allowed to review an author I’ve worked with. It would be a “conflict” and there would be a concern about “bias.” However, our Reviews Editor (again, me) was okay with it. And yes, there is a bias: the bias is that I like this author’s writing, and that’s why I published her twice. And frankly, if I didn’t like the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it. (Inside scoop: I don’t review books I don’t like.) So, my hat’s off to my Bookcave boss and our Reviews Editor (me and me) for being such right-minded individuals. Individual. Whatever.

Finally, I will once again reassure people that I still have a day job as publisher of Dancing Cat Books. Bookcave is something I do on the side – I haven’t been headhunted. It seems adding Bookcave to my LinkedIn profile led many to think I’d moved from one place to another. Given that Bookcave pays me $0 (it’s run be a cheapskate, you know), it would not be a wise move.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s posts. If you would like to support the site, there are a few ways of doing so. One way is to retweet our @Bookcave2 tweets, particularly the ones that link articles. Another is to share our posts on Facebook. Retweets and shares help us to get the attention of other social media users and hopefully they can start following us and reading our articles.

If you hate being hit up for cash, click away now while you still like me, because I’m about to turn my hat upside down. Should you like to make a monetary show of support, you can do so on Patreon, where we have an active campaign. Any Patreon support we receive will be used to help grow the site by allowing us to hire writers to contribute articles, reviews, and perhaps even short fiction. Patreon support could also help us to launch a podcast and maybe even add video content. And I’ve come up with some rewards for supporters, too, so let’s take a moment to feel sorry for the people who clicked away at the beginning of this paragraph, because now they don’t know about the rewards. Okay, the moment has passed. Now let’s feel awesome for ourselves.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson