Thursday, September 28, 2006

Are you sure you want to support the ALA's "Banned Books Week"?

It’s Banned Book Week this week. Interesting title isn’t it: “Banned Books Week”: alliterative, declarative, and attention getting.

The campaign is worthy enough. The American Library Association would like to keep as many books as possible freely available to anyone who wants to read them.

The thrust of the campaign is startlingly absolutist. It takes the stance that banning books is absolutely wrong. Therefore, those who seek to ban books are absolutely wrong.

This is one of those arguments that those of us with a liberal education tend to nod their heads at and murmur “Here, here.” while dropping some coins in a box or wearing one of the inevitable “Good Cause” ribbons (bracelets in the case of this campaign – higher appeal to the high-school demographic).

But perhaps we should use that liberal education to examine what is really happening here.

Firstly, the “Banned Books” being referred to haven’t necessarily been banned, they have been challenged, but “Challenged Book Week” wouldn’t get nearly as many automatic nods would it?

Challenged means that someone has used a formal process to express the view that public money should not be used to make certain books freely available in schools or libraries.

Many of these challenges are unsuccessful so many of the books on the list have not been banned.

The ALA provides a Banned Books List (which they tell you in the small print that doesn’t make its way on to the banners is actually a “most frequently challenged list”).

The ALA provides press packs which push the issue emotively by saying in the opening paragraphs (which everyone reads) that “More than a book a day faces expulsion from free and open public access in U.S. schools and libraries every year.” The tone suggests that this is clearly a Bad Thing and that Something Must Be Done. But think about this for a moment: that’s a few hundred challenges a year (405 in 2005) from across the whole of the USA. And many of those are for the same handful of books.

If you read the full press pack (which few people do) you find that 70% of challenges are made with respect to books in school libraries.

Let me put that another way. For books that are freely available (to adults and children) in public libraries (which don’t carry the tacit “read this – it will be good for you” label that school libraries do) there were approximately 122 challenges – that’s less than 3 a week. I was unable to find out from the ALA site how many of these challenges were successful.

The ALA gives a lot of prominence to the fact that 42 of the books challenged are on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. So that just shows how ignorant and dangerous the people making the challenges are doesn’t it? Why would any right-headed person try to deny another access to Great Literature?

But there is intellectual slight of hand in this statement as well. Firstly it’s not clear how many of the 42 books challenged where challenged in 2005. If they were all challenged once each in 2005 then they represent about 10% of all challenges. When you check the list of great and good books on the site the ALA provides, it becomes clear that the challenges to these books are counted over many years and almost all of them failed.

The second slight of hand is the implication that these books are Great Literature and therefore ought to be beyond challenge. Great Literature is Good For You.

So who defined these books as Great Literature – the Nobel Organisation? – Professors of English Literature at famous universities? - Well read librarians? No. The list was compiled in 1998 by undergraduate students taking degrees in PUBLISHING: And to help them along, they were given a starting list of 4,000 books to choose from. This list of the top 100 novels is therefore the outcome of a multiple choices exercise by publishing undergrads who wanted to know what would continue to sell.

Take a look at the list. It’s a hoot. Personally, I’ve only read 42 of them (though I’ve seen the movie of a few more) but, I ask you, on what criteria are “”Ulysses" and “Finnegan’s Wake” on this list? Could it be that a special award from the publishing industry to books that are bought but that few ever open and even fewer ever finish? And do you think that Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” is ranked higher than his “Midnight’s Children” because it’s a better book or because the fatwa made it a publishing sensation?

I think the ALA should be ashamed of themselves for propping up their argument by citing this list as an authority. They are Librarians. They clearly know better than this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m no longer nodding automatically in favour of the ALA any more. An organization that uses this kind of argument deserves close scrutiny, not automatic respect.

So let’s go back to basics here.

I am left with the impression that if the people behind the ALA’s campaign were totally honest, they would say that what should be banned is people’s right to express an objection to the books that are “endorsed” by being put on school reading lists. They would argue that it is clearly established that some books are Great Literature and beyond reproach and that there are no circumstances were a books should be banned.

I find that line of argument arrogant, undemocratic, and intellectually impoverished.

But then, I just invented for them – rather in the same way that they treat their opponents in their “Banned Books” campaign – in order to take away the automatic halo they might otherwise get.

I’m sure that are many librarians who try their best to keep books available and who would not buy the stance implicit in the “Banned Books Week” marketing campaign.

The “Banned Book Week” campaign actively targets school children. Is this really the standard or argument the ALA thinks should be used to help school children work out what to believe? I hope the ALA has not taken the stance that facile manipulation is OK provided it is in a good cause.

In my view it is healthy to allow people to challenge that material that will be presented to their children. It is also healthy to run a process which allows people to make an argument against the challenge.

At the moment it seems most challenges are failing.

I hope that that is because the challenges are ill founded and not because the literate classes circle the wagons around any book in print and then use their expensive educations to brow beat people who have well-founded concerns.

I encourage you all to get involved in these debates in your local community.

I also encourage you to suggest to the ALA that they have moral courage to stand on the issues and refrain from using marketing and spin as a substitute for argument.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lonesome Roads and Country Music

"My name is Mike and I am a country music fan."

It's one of those statements that feels like it should be followed by a 12 step program

  1. Admit that you are a country fan
  2. Express the desire to change
  3. Get rid of your country CDs
  4. Practice walking past the bars that have signs saying "Line Dancin' Tonite"
  5. Apologise to all the people you played country songs to after saying "you'll really like this, honest".
  6. Apologise on bended knee to all the people you actually sang country songs to, especially when you were trying to sound like Kris Kristopherson and dragged your way through "Take The Ribbon From Your Hair".
  7. Start watching MTV
  8. Carry on watching MTV and try to pretend you enjoy the music more than Punk'd or Dismissed
  9. Lose the alligator boots, the string tie, the silver wing tips and that damned hat.
  10. Go to Karioke and try to sing like Robbie Williams
  11. Go to Jazz clubs and try to stay awake
  12. Admit to yourself that none of this is working, breathe a sight of relief and celebrate by buying a copy of "Childish Things" and learning all the words to "We Can't Do It Here"

I was reminded of my closet Country Fan status last night when I was on the road, driving across Switzerland for three hours (drive any longer than that and you've left country). It was dark and wet, the traffic was light, the working day was over but I still had miles between me and the comforts of home. So I turned on the radio to find myself some tunes to keep me company on the lonesome road.

Swiss radio is an eclectic mix with stations in German, French and Italian and all kinds of music mixed in together. The same station that plays you "The Black-eyed Peas" will also play German Rap (you have to hear it to believe it - those German words are looooooong) and French power ballads like the recently popular "Fuck 'em All". The Swiss have catholic tastes. The Top 5 Tunes at the moment are: Rihanna "Unfaithful", Scissor Sisters "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'", Robbie Williams "Rudebox", Justin Timberlake "SexyBack" and Tiziano Ferro "Stop! Dimentica". So, when I turned on the radio I wasn't searching for country but it found me anyway.

DRS 3 had a "Country Special" night. DRS is a PBS station transmitting in Swiss German but it turns out that they love country. The talked me through the Americana Music Awards, filled me in on how Dillon is back in fashion and then played me some tunes that made my foot tap (not a good idea when you're driving) and my ears open wide.

If you're a closet Country Fan or even if you're a straight MOR/Pop person who's "just curious", I recommend you take a listen to James McMurty who just won song of the year and album of the year. The song is "We can't do it here" and it's on the winning album, "Childish Things". The song is about how the rich mess up and the poor pay the price. It's political without being preachy. The words are direct and powerful and the music feels like you've known it all your life but you still find it exciting.

If you're in the mood for a little more after that, take a look at country band called The Greencards (1 Brit and 2 Ozzies, which explains the name) and listen to "Weather and Water" which is an atmospheric folk/country fusion that lingers after the track stops.

Anyways, I can't idle here no more. I got me a livin to make. You folks take care now.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Hole in the Ground -righteous anger

This link was sent to me after my post about being angry at President Bushs 911 speech. It was offered as an example of righteous anger. I think it hits the mark.

The Hole in the Ground

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Anger is my sin. I'm much better at it than I'd like to be. I've been trying to live without it or at least not live for it, but this morning I find myself paraphrasing Conan (the Barbarian, not the annoying nerdy TV guy) and saying "Today is a good day to be angry".

I avoided the news yesterday. 9/11 is still full of memories and emotions for me and I didn't want to sit through the CNN reconstruction.

I thought I'd be safer today, so I cruised BBC news online.

There I read that President Bush claims that "The War Against Terror” is:

"The decisive ideological struggle of the 21st Century and the calling of our generation,"

"It is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain a way of life enjoyed by free nations."

Anger. Disbelief. More Anger.

I sat quietly and let it ebb.

I tried to remind myself that this is just another politician working to help his party win elections in November

I tried to find humour in the idea of President Bush using a word like civilization (echoes of a Vietnam war poem "we're gonna civ'lize dem basards")

I tried to believe that there is good in the heart of every man.


The word split my head like a pumpkin hitting the concrete.

Anger that this man let those people die on his watch and then made a career out of exploiting their deaths for personal political gain

Anger at the cowardice of using humanistic hyperbole to deflect attention from his complete failure to protect his people, heel his nation, rip up the roots of aggression or even exact revenge on the aggressor

Anger at the arrogance of a man who sends others to die and to kill to finish his daddy's war and wraps his motives in the flag to place himself beyond reproach.

Anger most of all on behalf of all those who died on the day, all those who have been killed in their name, and all those who have died for the ambition of their leaders.


Pointless, useless, impotent anger.

This man WON his second election without any hanging chads.

He knows his people.

He may even mean what he says.

I should not be angry. I should be doing something.

Anger is easier than action.

But anger has a price. Long held and nurtured, anger grows into hate and hate diminishes us all.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Show, don't tell" : the editorial mantra of the MTV Generation

“Show, don’t tell” is becoming the editorial mantra of the MTV generation with Lit Fic aspirations
and a whole set of creative writing courses behind them.
Of course there are times when show is a lot better than tell but the aversion to tell is a fad that
I think comes from a limited fiction diet.
Show rather than tell is the natural preference of a generation who see the film before they read
the book.
They want their fiction to preserve the myth that they are free agents who draw their own
conclusion from the scenes presented to them. Fine when it works but surely that is not the only
way to read?
It seems that the post-baby-boom generation is afraid of the authorial voice because it might
suggest that someone actually wrote the story.
So here you are, the author, with something important to say and a succinct, pithy, direct and
original way of saying it and the editor is going:

"No, don't tell me, I'll get it in a minute. I know you're trying to express that
lost-sock-in-the-laundromat-of-life existential panic thing the French are always on about".
It's like trying to talk about a book to someone who would rather play charades.
It doesn't matter that you tell rather then show as long as you tell well. That's why they call
it storytelling.
So here's a little exercise for you. Go to the link below.

Great Openers

It is a list of great opening lines to novels and much fun even if you completely disagree
with this grumpy-old-man rant of mine.
I think this list is very telling, (sorry, I couldn't resist it).
The first quote on the list counts as telling rather than showing I think:
 "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."
-Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
 Imagine Ms Tyler's editor putting "show don't tell" in the margin next to that.

What makes a villian memorable?

So you're writing about the eternal struggle between good and evil; you've got a strong plot and a charismatic hero/ine; now all you need is a good villain.

So what makes a villian memorable?

I'm a fan of villains who are real people and who have enough charisma that you'd love to be their friend if it wasn't for their unfortunate addiction to decapitating their enemies.

To keep the character real this villain has to have some reason for doing what they do.

I'm a fan of the old saying: "Heroes have flaws, villains have reasons" as a way of distinguishing the motivation of the two poles your story hangs on

If you want to make your villain first rate then take a look at this article on what makes a good villain in a film

Here's a sample of the article to whet your appetite:

"Villainy is, in essence, behavior inspired by values which are inscrutable, aversive or repugnant to us in our more civilized moments of reflection. We console ourselves with the thought that villains are twisted aliens. Consequently, what makes a villain truly interesting is to glimpse his or her non-alien, distinctly human rationalization of these values, much as Gordon Gekko's terse philosophizing provided in ‘Wall Street’. But, was Gekko a villain to Gekko?"

Erotica, chocolate and fairy godmothers

There is a perennial debate on the definition of erotica and how
it relates to pornography.
I like the definition in this article. 
The first half of the definition is:

"Erotica is as decadent as having a slab of the best Swiss chocolate
lying hidden in the back of your lingerie drawer."

Go to the article to get the rest of the definition. Then have a
look at Ninn as the fairygodmother of erotica.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Flash Fiction: "The Third Word"

Over on the ERWA writers list, we write "Flashers" - stories of exactly 100 words
with a begining, a middle and an end.

The idea is to try and sharpen our skills and see what we can achieve with a very few words.

I've become very fond of this medium - it keeps me focused.

I recommend it to any of you who are trying to improve your writing.

Below is a Flasher that is not exactly erotica but which I think is a good example of its kind.

The Third Word
© Mike Kimera 2006

Please, Daddy.

That’s what I whisper in his ear when I am spread and he is hard and
sweat is all that is between us.

Please, Daddy.

Passes my lips like a promise or a plea, rousing his lust, stirring my
memories, mixing his need and my guilt

Please, Daddy.

A prayer offered to this bar-met stranger, the right age but with the
wrong face, as he pushes into me

Please, Daddy.

As always, pleasure and shame race through me, my present and my past
bound together. Perhaps this time I will finally release the third word.

Please, Daddy. Stop.