I hope you’ll find this issue of At the Back Fence to be chock full of good things. First I have to rant about censorship, something that’s been bothering the heck out of me, after which there’ll be a follow-up on libraries and librarians. Then we’ll hear from two of AAR’s librarians; Nora Armstrong talks more about censorship while Rachel Potter talks about a long-term AAR project she’s tackled. You can help the process by taking a poll you’ll be able to link to at the end of the column – after Anne Marble’s UBS follow-up.
Protecting Us from Ourselves (LLB)
You’ll have to forgive this rant of mine, but the idea of censorship snuck into my brain recently, and unless I vent my thoughts, my head may explode under the pressure. If you’ve ever been to a creativity workshop, you no doubt know that the brainstorming of ideas – no matter how far-flung – is a suggested method. You’re about to experience my internal brainstorm on words and ideas.
Earlier this month many of us learned that the state-wide English test New York children must take to graduate essentially censors the writings of authors as varied as Anton Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank Conroy, Annie Dilliard, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The free speech advocates who brought this to the public’s attention showed that the vast majority of 24 prose excerpts used in the exams over the last three years had been altered in ways that “distorted the authors’ intent and message,” according to news reports.
Roseanne DeFabio, an assistant commissioner for the state’s Department of Education, told the New York Times that “we do shorten passages and alter the passages to make them suitable for testing situations” so that no student feels “uncomfortable in a testing situation. Even the most wonderful writers don’t write literature for children to take on a test.”
Organizations as varied as the ACLU, the National Association Against Censorship, and the Association of American Publishers signed a letter to the state Education Commissioner asking that the practice be ended; it was considered “an odd approach to measuring academic achievement.”
References to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, and even mild profanity had been removed from passages used in the exams. Another of the groups signing the letter was the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, noted that no matter how well-intentioned, “in the interest of not offending anyone, the New York Regents have stripped passages of the words that give them meaning and purpose. And Columbia University professor Cathy Popkin wrote, “I implore you to put a stop to the scandalous practice of censoring literary texts, ostensibly in the interest of our students. It is the practice of fools.”
The pressure put on the Commission was significant, and shortly after the letter was released to the public, the Commissioner said the original policy would be revised. While many see this as an important step, others remain skeptical. When the test will be fixed, and how they fix it are some of the questions being asked by those who signed the original letter. “Will they use ellipsis to take out sensitive words, pick dumb-downed passages, or are they really taking this seriously and looking at the impact of their sensitivity guidelines…on curriculum and test construction overall?” asked the head of National Coalition Against Censorship.
In Anna Quindlen’s June 17th Newsweek column, she talks about how the Educational Testing Service, in preparing a Georgia End-Of-Course test, wanted to delete the words “slaves” and “pornography” from her book How Reading Changed My Live. She was not amused. Whether or not she would agree with my colleague Robin Uncapher that actions such as these are a “continuation of a kind of anti-intellectual, ultra conformist sentiment that seems to thrive in public schools,” the idea that some of the same words that make an author’s words powerful are being removed so as not to offend someone else is horrifying, particularly since in most of these instances, the works themselves were not hate-filled screeds but often have much to teach us about tolerance.
Somewhat related is a story of interest to anyone who uses the software program Microsoft Word. Although my older version doesn’t do this, later versions have, in effect, been censored by what seem to be the P.C. police. Mark Goldblatt reported in an October New York Times article that certain words had been removed from the Word thesaurus. When I type in the word “fool” on my 1997 version of Word, these are the noun synonyms that I can choose from: dunce, blockhead, booby, dolt, dunderhead, idiot, ignoramus, nincompoop, and ninny. Those using Word 2000 will find only no noun synonyms at all. The only synonym they’ll find is this verb: trick.
When Mr. Goldblatt contacted Microsoft regarding the lack of noun synonyms for “fool,” he was told: “Microsoft’s approach regarding the spell checker dictionary and thesaurus is to not suggest words that may have offensive uses or provide offensive definitions for any words. The dictionary and spell checker is updated with each release of Office to ensure that the tools reflect current social and cultural environments.” It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, that those using a thesaurus on a software program would find words such as “dolt” offensive, but in light of the actions of the various state boards of education, it seems that we are well into the dumbing down of America. Wasn’t it bad enough when they put pictures of food on cash registers at fast food restaurants and that no one seems to know how to make change anymore?
In further researching the Word thesaurus, I came across an article written in July 2001 by Leah Platt entitled Microsoft’s Algolagniac Thesaurus. Let me preface this by saying every person I have ever met in my entire life, when queried, will fess up to looking up “dirty words” in some or other dictionary – even my 10-year-old daughter. So why is there no synonym in later-than-my-version of Word for “intercourse” other than commerce, communion, dealings, interchange, communication, and association? While my version includes sexual synonyms for intercourse, and synonyms altogether for erotic, voluptuous, and prostitute, you’ll not find any in the later version. As Ms. Platt wrote in her article:
“Words with more than one connotation, like intercourse, are provided with only their tamer synonyms. The word sex, for example, is provided synonyms meaning only ‘gender designation.’ Erection? According to Microsoft Word, that can only mean ‘creation,’ as in the erection of a building. Ejaculate? It’s a wonder Bill Gates has kids – in the Microsoft universe, that can only mean ‘exclaim.'”Apparently Microsoft’s corporate interest in promoting a family-friendly image extends even to its reference tools. Imagine this: Bill Gates announcing that concerned mothers don’t want their pubescent boys typing orgasm or penis into the thesaurus and sniggering over the list of synonyms, and so, in loco parentis, Microsoft must screen out the offending words.
“Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, believes that Microsoft’s decision to abridge its thesaurus is not ‘censorship in the First Amendment sense, but in the sense that Microsoft – a corporation – is making decisions for its users about what kind of information is available. Such decisions have nothing to do with consumers’ interests, and, in fact, consumers often don’t know that they are happening.’ “
There’s a very interesting movie playing in art houses around the U.S. these days that didn’t find a theatrical distributor until it had shown first on Showtime, thus making it ineligible for Oscar consideration. Even though it had won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival (and went on to win Best First Feature at the 2002 Independent Spirit Awards), The Believer could not find commercial backing for over a year because of the fear that some people might find it religiously offensive.
The Believer (like Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ) ran up against what Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum calls “the last taboo in Hollywood” – religion. The film, made by a Jewish man who worked closely with a religious technical advisor, tells the story of an extremely religious young Jewish man who becomes a Neo-nazi skinhead. After the movie was pre-screened by an associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (which, ironically, runs the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles) who said the movie “did not work” and was “disturbing” in its depiction of a synagogue’s desecration, the movie’s backers backed off and pulled it from distribution. What Schwarzbaum found more offensive was that a movie like Freddie got Fingered had no trouble getting released while it took so long for The Believer to make it onto the big screen.
This isn’t the first time a movie with disturbing religious themes has found itself the object of religious censorship or boycotting. In 1998 there was Dogma, and in 1988 there was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. None of these movies were pornographic or obscene, and yet, because they were disturbing, thought provoking, and went against the religious grain, they had trouble even being seen by the movie-going public.
Dogma, for instance, produced by Miramax, now a Disney subsidiary, was sold to Lion’s Gate after Catholic and Southern Baptist groups threatened boycotts against Disney (take this “jump” link to The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention if you want a cold chill to run down your spine). The history surrounding Scorsese’s adaptation of the 1955 book The Last Temptation of Christ begins with the book’s initial publication. The Catholic Church banned it and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. More than 30 years later, Scorsese, who was nominated as Best Director for this film, faced a firestorm of controversy even before the film was completed.
Christian groups who had not even seen the movie condemned it and began to boycott the film’s distributors. As a result, three nationwide theater chains encompassing 4,000 theaters refused to show the movie and by the time the movie premiered, individual cities were seeking to ban it. When the movie was later released on video, Blockbuster decided not to stock it in its stores. That policy remains today.
Okay, so these are movies…what about books? Remember the Nappy Hair incident in 1998? For those who may not recall, African American author Carolivia Herron wrote Nappy Hair as a celebration of her heritage. When Herron, an assistant professor of English at Cal State Chico, read from her work in progress at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum, her vignette on hair resonated with listeners. One of the museum’s staff encouraged her to get it published as a children’s book because “it would be something for African American children to celebrate.” Herron had no idea the book would be at the center of a controversy because she thought “we had already dealt with this problem of being ashamed of our hair.”
But when a 3rd grade teacher in the Bronx assigned the book for her students, the title alone became the issue. The teacher told a reporter for The Washington Post that: “The first I knew of the problem was when this parent came into my room and said she was surprised she didn’t see a white hood on my desk.” Later she was called to a meeting attended by dozens of parents – but not the parents of her students – who “greeted her with what she and school officials called abusive language.” Even though the school’s librarian pointed out that the book had received very favorable reviews and was written by its author to celebrate her African American heritage, the teacher was threatened with violence and, because of those threats, asked to be transferred to a different school.
You’ll notice that the school’s librarian was one of the defenders of Herron’s book. Librarians are often at the forefront of anti-censorship fights. Visiting the American Association of Libraries web site was a good place to start, as I found the Library Bill of Rights. Among the first statements in this bill of rights are the following:
Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
Even though librarians have sought to uphold these rights, every year there are fights to ban books. The series that brought my daughter to reading when she was seven was the Harry Potter series, currently the seventh most frequently challenged book/series on the list of ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. This list includes such classics as Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, A Wrinkle in Time, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn – these last two titles are on the curriculum at the school my daughter will be attending this coming year, for which I’m extremely grateful. The 100 books included on the list represent nearly 6,500 challenges libraries had to combat between 1990 and 2000 in order to preserve them in libraries across the country.
The ALA takes this issue so seriously that it has a “banned books week” every year. Because of the strenuous efforts mounted by libraries across the country year after year, most challenges do not result in bans…but many do. In September 2001, for instance, a California high school removed William Styron’s acclaimed Sophie’s Choice from the library for its perceived sexual content. In January 2002, after the involvement of the ALA, among others, the school district ordered the school’s principal to return the book to its shelves.
Some books are challenged as too socially or politically liberal while others are seen as too conservative; it took more than 200 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to clear Fanny Hill from obscenity charges. Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have both been removed from library shelves for the inclusion of the infamous “N” word; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was removed from some classrooms because of its negative portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock. R.L. Stine’s Goose Bumps books, like the Harry Potter stories, are seen as Satanic.
What does any of this have to do with romance novels and/or All About Romance? While at YahooGroups earlier this week I noticed a banner ad for a site that would scan my computer for pornographic files. I was shocked to discover that many of the pages at AAR could be considered pornographic according to Content Watch, which looks for words in its database that “are frequently associated with known pornographic or inappropriate web sites” (one of the pop-up ads you’ll encounter at this site offers a free CD about the effects of pornography on the family).
Here are some of the words that contentwatch.com highlighted from AAR’s pages popped up: gay, terrorism, nude, lovers, anarchy, bastard, mistress, petticoat, Blaze, nasty, gamble, adult, guns, nude, alcohol, and murder. I realize that this is not censorship per se, but was reminded of one of my favorite WKRP In Cincinatti episodes in which a religious group asks Mr. Carlson to remove certain songs from the WKRP play list. Some of the songs featured obscene lyrics, but later lists included words and ideas that were not obscene, including John Lennon’s Imagine, a song I’ve always found beautiful if unrealistic.
I find it alarming that decades after the repeal of the Comstock Laws and in this age of instant information and modernity, words and ideas in and of themselves are still considered threatening or inappropriate. It seems a shame that because pornographic web sites “feature” in some way words such as “gay” or “lovers” or “nude” that the words themselves now are somehow suspect. We’ve already seen political correctness sweep through schools from pre-schools to college. First-graders in some schools can’t be hugged by their teachers or by one another because touch has been forbidden. On some college campuses speakers have had their speeches cancelled if their viewpoints are seen as too conservative or too liberal – isn’t higher education supposed to expose you to new and sometimes opposing ideas? We also live in an age when oral and anal sex are not considered “real” sex by 13-year-olds (while I’d heard about the oral sex, the anal sex came as a complete surprise when I read it in a recent edition of US World & News Report). Yet new guidelines proposed by the federal government would fund “abstinence only” sex education – can you really put the cat back into the bag like that? As a maligned Jar-Jar Binks would say, “Mesa thinks is very messed up!”
Words can certainly disappear out of language over time; they simply die a natural death. That’s one thing, but it’s entirely another to kill words that a group finds offensive. I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how they “jewed” somebody in a deal and am enraged to hear a bigot spouting racist or religious epithets against other groups. But it’s gone too far now, and words and ideas in and of themselves have been invested with power they don’t have. We seem to have a case of national schizophrenia, where the extremes on each side of the social and political spectrum have screwed things up for the majority of us in the middle. When you look at the reading list your children bring home this fall, ask yourself what was left off, and why.
Before we leave this topic, I’d like to leave you with this tongue in cheek snippet I found on Professor Ingolf Vogeler’s page at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus’ web site riffing on a real incident (thank heavens someone still has a sense of humor on a university campus about political correctness! ):
“You may have missed the latest scandal to befall the scandal-mired government of Washington, DC. It happened like this: as Marshall Brown, an aide to the mayor, was discussing budget matters with David Howard, the public advocate, he thought he heard him say ‘nigger’. Mr Brown, who is black, stormed out of the room before Mr Howard, who is white, could explain that what he had said was: ‘I will have to be niggardly with this fund.’ But Mr Howard did the decent thing: he offered to resign, and the mayor accepted. Quite right. As one reader told us long ago, ‘niggardly’ has no place in civilised discourse. The dictionary assures us that it has nothing to do with the Latin niger, black, meaning only ‘miserly’ in Old Norse; but as a former head of the National Bar Association asked the New York Times, ‘Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?’ Good point. They’d already discovered America, hadn’t they? Straight off the longship on to the Bronx Expressway, and who knows what they heard through those horns on their helmets. ‘But it turns up in Middle English, too,’ you protest, ‘as nig and nog, meaning miser.’ Right: so racism was alive and well in the era of Sir Gawain. Who do you imagine was actually sent to lif’ dat Grail?Some words, let’s admit it, are just too offensive for their own good. Some condemn themselves; but others pose as perfectly harmless, capable of being slipped by bigots into every conversation. These need watching; for the n-word is only the tip of the iceberg. Videotapes from other city offices over the years show a Latina councilwoman, Laetitia Gonzales, bursting into tears when a colleague described her dress as Day-glo pink; the first openly lesbian sub-accountant, Ms Wilkins, resigning when the budget director pointed out a dichotomy in her spread-sheets; and the gay information tsar, Roger Pringle, refusing point-blank to sit beneath a sign reading Queries. Worst of all was the incident late last year when the sub-director of pothole-maintenance, having groaned ‘Not juice again!’ as his secretary brought his breakfast, was sacked for anti-Semitism.
Slurs ancient and modern Despicable incidents of this sort should clearly be avoided. But there you go again; ‘despicable’ itself contains a slur on Americans of Mexican extraction. The Economist has been told off for that, too; again, quite right. Despicable should never be used in public situations; conspicuous should be conspicuous by its absence; and all who are at all perspicacious will lament the presence of these words in our language. It’s all the fault of those damned Romans, who could never have run their empire without the help of all those illegal dishwashers and cleaners they so casually insulted with almost every verb they coined. By exposing and shaming the users of such words, the Washington mayor’s office has done the world a service. The Economist believes it should do no less to keep the language spick and span. Rather than denigrating racial, religious or life-style choices, rather than niggling and nipping at the differences between us, we should take the higher path, and our readers should write to us every time we fail. Those with the longest list of gratuitous slurs will receive a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary reduced, by judicious expurgation, to the size of a Filofax. That should put our writers in a paddy.”
Libraries and Librarians (LLB)
When my husband and I were Yuppies (as in our pre-child days), we embarked on a yearly sojourn to Manhattan. We didn’t hit every show on Broadway, instead, we went to smoky jazz clubs, shopped till we dropped, and ate our way through the city. Somehow we always managed to end up in front of the New York City Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue – that’s the one with the beautiful stone lions out front, most recently seen in Spiderman.
Although I don’t have any particularly poignant stories to share about youthful visits to the library, I hold libraries and librarians in reverence. To me a library is almost a place of worship; when I had the chance to interview Victoria Alexander some years ago, instead of asking her about writing romantic comedy, I spent most of the interview asking what it was like to be allowed to research at the Library of Congress.
When my own daughter was quite young, we started going to the weekly “story-time” sessions at our local branch library, and as soon as she was able to write her name, she received her library card. She’s sometimes afraid other kids will think she’s a nerd because she loves to read, but when I see her talking with her favorite librarian about the fantasy novels she’s read and adored (he’s a fantasy fan too), she becomes very animated and excited…it’s wonderful to watch.
I knew that Robin’s piece in the last At the Back Fence about libraries would strike a chord with readers, particularly Andy Rooney’s comments on the types of materials he believes libraries should limit themselves to housing. What I didn’t realize is how profound an impact libraries and librarians had on many of you. I’d like to share some of the highlights of the ATBF MB discussion which followed Robin’s segment.
Reader Sharon wrote that it was her privilege to work for the finest librarian she’d ever known. Because Sharon spent so much time at the library anyway in the early 1960’s, Miss Frank hired her at the age of fourteen; she worked there until she went to college. This beloved librarian devoted lots of space to Young Adult fiction and shelved much science fiction at a time when it was scorned. Because the neighborhood was predominantly Polish, she also stocked Polish books. Sharon lovingly added:
“Her budget was small so she bought carefully but well. I literally read my way around the library discovering authors like Heyer, Maurice Walsh and P.G Wodehouse. She taught me to be open to all types of writing. After I ran out of fiction I devoured all the non-fiction.”Miss Frank always said that the best way to run a library was ‘to dump the books on a street corner and run like hell’ She was a truly great woman. The Buffalo library system will never allow a new Miss Frank to develop as they no longer allow librarians to stay at branches long enough to develop a rapport and a relationship with their patrons.”
Joan recalled that in her small town, the children’s librarian would visit the elementary schools near the end of the school year to promote summer reading. She remembered how the librarian would bring “the most wonderful books and tell the stories just enough to pique interest, so we would come to the library and check out the books.” Joan is a high school special ed teacher in her home town and has taken her severely mentally retarded students to her childhood library so they can experience the joy and wonder of discovery as she did. She added, “All these books! And all free! The librarians are just as wonderful as I remembered and the kids are just as enchanted.”
The local public library was too far from where Peggy lived, but she adored the school library, so when school let out for the summer, Peggy got bored. When she was in junior high, the school library, much closer to home, opened for a few hours one day a week. Peggy shared: “I staggered home with as many books as I could carry. One day at about age 12 I was forced to spend an entire summer day ‘guarding’ a section of sidewalk that had been replaced in front of our house, so that no one would step or write in the wet cement. I read Gone With the Wind that day. The ironic part was that eventually the public library moved to a larger facility near my house – right about the time I got my driver’s license.”
Jennifer was not the only reader who mentioned that librarians and libraries allowed her to escape the abuse she found at home. She wrote, “Andy Rooney isn’t correct about this (his argument is that libraries should only house research materials). Maybe his life was not one which needed fiction, but mine was one where fiction made reality tolerable.” She went on to write:
“Librarians helped me find books that were the way that I learned how ‘normal’ families behaved and how there was love in the world. Librarians in many cities recognized my need to learn and helped me expand my knowledge so that my grades not only were excellent but my test scores became so advanced that I was given many opportunities for further education. None of that would have been possible without libraries with wonderful librarians. Fiction was the only escape from the harshness of my reality at the time and it was the only thing that kept me going when it seemed hopeless. If there had only been nonfiction which I did utilize and enjoy, there would have been no gentleness in my life nor hopes. Little House on the Prairie may be only a book to others, but that book showed me as a child that maybe my family was not the norm. It gave me a little ray of hope and that was all it took for me to survive. When asked how I survived the harshness and violence, my answer is always the same – libraries and librarians.”
Connie recounts her own difficult childhood, living paycheck to paycheck with an “alcoholic, wife-beating father, mother, and siblings crammed into a three-room apartment.” Money could never be spent on something as “extravagant” as a book, though her mother did see to it that all her children had library cards. She recalls, “One of my most vivid childhood memories is of me on my parents’ bed, totally oblivious to the noise of my parents’ latest argument, crying over the fate of Black Beauty. I would never have survived my childhood without the comfort of books and the luxury of libraries. Even today, my childhood doesn’t seem as harsh as it probably was, because I wrapped myself in the cocoon of books and took sanctuary in libraries.”
I consider myself lucky that there are four librarians who write for AAR. All four women are (obviously) well read, great writers, terrific researchers, and very knowledgeable about many, many topics. I asked whether they’d care to comment about censorship and the experiences they may have had in their own library systems, and Nora Armstrong (who contributed to The Readers’ Advisory Companion, which recently received a starred review in Library Journal) sent in this useful segment.
A Librarian’s Perspective (Nora Armstrong)
On filtering software: In large part it doesnt work. Thats because its built to search for specific words, not concepts. Lots of legitimate sites are blocked if they have hot words in their titles, like penile erectile dysfunction or breast cancer. So if you install a filter on your computer and then your middle-schooler is looking for information on breast cancer, s/hes not going to be able to get access to most sites that deal with it. Unless theres a real live human doing the filtering, who can actually look at the sites and determine their appropriateness, too many good hits get thrown out because of the buzzwords. The library system I work at has filters on the public computers in the childrens section, one that incorporates a human element in the site-screening process. There are no filters on the public computers for adults, but we do have an appropriate use policy, and we dont hesitate to enforce it.
On censoring: The system where I work has dealt with materials challenges for over ten years. Its never easy, and often I find myself defending the inclusion in our collection of books I find objectionable. Challenged materials run the gamut from Heather Has Two Mommies (a kids picture book about growing up in a lesbian household) to The Turner Diaries (a white-supremacist screed that was a seminal text for Timothy McVeigh). And no matter how much I might well, object to whats in these books, I do have to stick to my principles of intellectual freedom. Its a Public Library, for heavens sake! If we ban The Turner Diaries because we consider it racist, what should we do with some of the early writings of Malcolm X? Do we pull Huck Finn from the collection because its offensive to modern sensibilities? What about Rita Mae Browns Rubyfruit Jungle, a modern lesbian classic? Should we remove the Bible because it contains violence and adultery? Where does it stop? We have a handout with a bold-type headline that reads, “Warning! Materials in this library will probably offend you.” It then goes on to explain the principles of intellectual freedom. The bottom line is this: balance. A collection has to have balance, has to represent the whole community, has to address the informational/recreational reading needs of everybody in the population the library serves. Since most populations are diverse, the collection has to reflect that diversity. Which isn’t to say that every public library has to have a subscription to Playboy – although some do – but that there should be some thought behind the purchase of materials, so that the money spent on materials appeals to the widest section of that population.
Romance collections are especially ripe targets for those who want to restrict a library’s holdings. We physically moved the new romances from a prominent spot in the new-books section because a patron complained, not about the content of the books, but about the clinch covers. God forbid somebody crack open one of the Brava books! If some people had their way, Robin Schone and Bertrice Small could forget about ever selling another book to the library market. I can hear it now: theres just too much sex in those romances, and the tax-paying public shouldnt be subsidizing the purchase of this smut (oh, wait: I have heard this). Personally, I think some people are threatened by the depiction of empowered women (sexually and otherwise) that we find in modern romance novels; all they see is the sexual side of the relationship, not the emotional aspect of how the hero and heroine interact and relate.
Most people think of kids books when the subject of censorship in public and school libraries comes up. Some parents are convinced that the Harry Potter books are inherently unacceptable because they present magic in a positive light. Judy Blumes works are consistently targeted for what some claim is inappropriate sexual content in works for adolescents. Even the Little House books have been subject to challenge, because of whats seen as intolerant views of American Indians. To all of this I say, Well, youre the parent. If youre worried about what your kids are reading, then go to the library with them. Librarians are responsible for seeing to the reading needs of all the public, not just one set of kids. Okay, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings may not be the right book for your child, but it might just save some other kids life.
Readers’ Advisory, Or “If You Like…”
AAR has offered an If You Like… feature for several years now, and after having gone to my daughter’s favorite librarian shortly after the fourth in the Harry Potter series came out to ask what other books she might try, he pulled some paper out of his desk that listed other authors and other titles for her to consider. Over the next few weeks, she tried several of the books – some she loved, some she liked, and others were never finished.
I’ve only just learned that the listing he gave her was a readers’ advisory. Who told me? AAR’s Rachel Potter, one of our librarians, who asked me earlier this year if she could revitalize our If You Like feature, which had been abandoned for our Favorite Books by Favorite Authors feature. For those unfamiliar with the If You Like page as it currently exists, it’s a page of reader recommendations for various authors – if you like Mary Balogh, you might also like Author X.
Never one to turn down a volunteer, I told Rachel to go for it, and to ask for help if and when she needed it. I’m going to turn this discussion over to Rachel for awhile so she can go through the rest of the story, from her perspective, and then I’ll join in again.
If You Like… (Rachel Potter)
When I began reading romance again three years ago, AAR’s If You Like… page was quite helpful to me. In doing my own personal reader’s advisory I’d discovered I liked certain authors – Laura Kinsale, LaVyrle Spencer, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. By reading reviews and message boards, I could always get recommendations for good reads, but sometimes what I was looking for was not just another read. Sometimes I’d finished an author’s entire backlist and wanted more of that, more of the same soothing, exhilarating, entertaining, affecting style. Getting to the end of an author’s backlist is a frustrating experience. It leaves you high and dry and gasping for more. And since readers are generally impatient with authors’ muses-the idea of waiting is agony-and I am a typical reader, I wanted information on the clones. Who were the authors who wrote like Kinsale, Spencer, and Phillips? Was there any other way I could get my fix?
The If You Like… page came in handy here. Through it I discovered other personal faves like Rachel Gibson, Jennifer Crusie, and my favorite author, Kathleen Gilles Seidel. I was happy. I had a whole new set of backlists to explore. But after a while I grew critical of this feature. Where were the newer authors? The smaller authors? And why were did some of the suggestions seem so…off? My librarian’s heart was dissatisfied. I wanted a better reader’s advisory tool.
When I approached Laurie about updating the page, I expected that all I would need to do was add a few more authors, throw in a few lesser-knowns, and take out some of the wackier suggestions. No problem. No sweat.
My first step was to go to the experts. I let AAR staff know that I was updating the page. I started off by making a few short lists, thinking that I would tackle each list separately. I gave AAR staff my lists and asked for suggestions. A storm of controversy ensued. Why was I only doing certain authors? Where was this author? Where was that one? Wouldn’t it be better, they asked, if I separated my authors out by sub-genre instead of style? After all, wouldn’t it be easier to classify authors by historical era or by the tone of their books – serious or light? This last argument took on a life of its own as we tackled the concepts of light and serious. Did light mean funny? Was serious dark and angsty or did it refer to the historical detail included and the careful research that certain authors do? Back and forth we went. Finally we decided that light did not mean funny – though light authors often are humorous – it meant light in tone or angst-free. Serious referred to stories of a certain intensity, so, by this criteria it is possible for an author to write a serious book with glaring historical errors.
As a result of this discussion, I separated the If You Like… project into two parts: a style part and a division by sub-genre part. This meant doing two entirely different pages. I went to work on the sub-genre page. To get input into certain categories (Regency Historical-Serious, Regency Historical-Light, etc.), I went to the readers. I got tons of great suggestions off the Reader to Reader message board, and many readers and authors emailed me personally to give suggestions. A surprising number of them were very interested in the project and quite enthusiastic. This strategy was so effective that I now had pages and pages and pages of lists. A cattle call of authors, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me. Now the problem was that these lists were too long to be helpful. A short list is of only limited value, but an overlong list is even less helpful because it’s so overwhelming. I submitted my lists to AAR staff and we wrangled again over who should or should not be on the lists and whether their placement was correct. Should Maggie Osborne be included with LaVyrle Spencer or Pamela Morsi? What a dilemma!
Finally we decided that in order to make the lists manageable, we would have to winnow them down by writing quality. To do this I looked up all the grades AAR had given to all the authors on the lists. This encompassed hundreds of authors. Then I struggled over the criteria. Was an author with 4 B-‘s to her name more worthy of inclusion than an author with a B+, a B- and couple of C’s? Who knew? More arguments ensued. Some authors squeaked by, not by their grades, but because one or more of the AAR staff was a big fan of their work. Basically, there was nothing scientific about this process, but in the end I had 30 plus lists of authors we could more or less agree on.
Now I am working on the style page, which is challenging in its own way. It’s easy to throw Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley on a sub-genre list together. They have an era in common. It’s harder to pinpoint that exact quality that makes Balogh fans so enamored of her work. And once you pinpoint it, you have to find other authors who have that same indefinable quality to their books. Some authors are stubborn; they’re relatively incomparable. I’ve had real trouble finding authors to compare to Carla Kelly, Nora Roberts, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. But I’m trying, and when this process is finished, I hope to give you two new and improved ways to find great books-both by sub-genre and by style. Wish me luck!
Where You All Come In (LLB)
As Rachel has explained, any time 25 or so opinionated people get together to talk about authors, the discussion gets complicated as we look for comparisions and contrasts. AAR Reviewer Teresa Galloway decided to poll all of us at AAR to determine whether or not any correlation could be drawn among various authors. In other words, by polling all of us, would it show that if Reviewer A liked Author X, she also likes Author Y and disliked Author Z?
The results were endlessly fascinating, and we’ll be bringing them to you soon. So interesting were the results that we thought we’d poll our readership in a similar fashion. AAR Publisher Liaison/Reviewer Jennifer Schendel has volunteered for this arduous task. We’ve come up with a list of 36 authors that we’d like to have you think about and categorize in order to assign one of five numbers from “always or almost always like” to “never tried.” We’ve also given you the added option of assigning a letter “J” in conjunction with your numeric category so that you can tell us if (and at what point) you think an author jumped the shark – ie, “5J” or “4J”.
You’ll be able to link to the Style Ballot after the end of this column, but before the questions we always put forward regarding the various topics discussed within the column itself. Before we get there, however, we’ve got one more segment to bring you. Anchoring this column is Anne Marble’s follow-up segment on the Used Book Store.
More on the UBS (Anne Marble)
Many readers found common threads in the original ATBF segment on used book sales. These threads ranged from readers sharing that they shop at the UBS due to limited budgets to those readers committed to buying new books whenever possible to support a favorite author to the horrors of finding dead bugs in used books. Many readers buy new whenever they can, but if they can’t afford to, they don’t feel guilty about it. Others don’t have any “new book” stores or a limited selection of new book stores in their areas (LLB was shocked to learn that the new/used romance friendly bookstore she treks to in Garland – with a population of a quarter million people – is the only book store in all of Garland). Still others have been frustrated in their search for just the right UBS.
Like many, Shinjinee shops at the UBS because of budget constraints. Buying used lets her take chances on more than just one author’s backlist. “If I relied only on buying new romances, I would miss so many wonderful works that are not available new or in any of the public libraries around me. If I relied only on buying new romances, I would also have a very distorted picture of what is out there, given the limitations of what my local stores stocks and sells.” She wishes she could compensate authors after buying their books used, but compensates for by spreading the word about the books she has loved to her friends.
Jeniac also goes to the UBS because she can’t afford to buy everything new. However, if she finds an author she likes, she makes a point of ordering whatever she can of that author’s backlist new. She was also worried about the restrictions the recording and movie industries are already putting on customers. Could those restrictions find their way into book publishing? Jeniac said, “There already seems to be an inclination towards restricting libraries’ rights to circulate books, and used-book buyers are getting the evil eye. I see the library and the UBS as the publishing industry’s equivalent to radio stations: They allow readers to see what’s out there.”
A great example of a reader discovering an author at the UBS is the tale Wylene told of finding one of her favorite authors at the UBS:
“More than fifteen years ago on one of my regular visits to a UBS in the small Southern city where I was a graduate student, the owner, who had become a friend, handed me a paperback with the words, ‘I think you will like this one.’ The book was Nora Roberts’All the Possibilities, still my favorite category romance. Since the cover price is $2.50, I probably paid $1.25 for the book. ATP made a Roberts fan of me. I searched the area UBSs for her earlier titles, and I rushed to the nearest Walden’s to buy the new titles. And I am still buying them.”
Wylene now has more than 100 Nora Roberts books stemming from that original $1.25 purchase, most of them purchased new. Nora Roberts may have “lost” $1.25, but she gained a fan. Wylene has discovered many a favorite author this way.
On the other hand, some readers buy new whenever possible because they want to support writers. Carol says, “I buy new books because I can (a real blessing, I know), and to support writers whose work I enjoy. I read around seven books per week and it gives me a good feeling to know that I’m supporting a writer (to) move up in her (or his) career, albeit in my own small way.” However, Carol also realizes that UBS’s help both writers as well as helping readers find books they couldn’t otherwise find.
Several readers avoid used books if possible because of the horror of finding disgusting things inside used books. Diane said, “Forget typos or historical inaccuracies; nothing pulls me out of a story faster than ‘What is that, dried snot?’ LOL. I’ve found crushed cheese doodles and dead bugs in the used books.” Diane was afraid she might be weird, but it turned out she was not alone. For example, Laura admitted to flipping through used books before buying them to make sure they didn’t contain any surprises.
I can relate to this. I once bought a used mystery only to realize that some “concerned citizen” had scratched out all the swear words before selling it to the UBS. Apparently that reader thought she knew more about how that book should be written than the author. That was even more annoying than the books that reek of cigarettes and incontinent cats. Still, UBS’s are worth the potential obstacles, even gross and annoying ones. After all, I’ve found some of my favorite authors through the UBS.
With Amazon now selling used copies of a book on the same page as the new book, some readers may be discovering new authors by buying them this way. However, authors are also concerned about lost sales. The Amazon controversy continues to light fires under both writers and readers. Author Diane Farr was upset because Amazon allowed used copies of The Fortune Hunter to go on sale before its release date. She contacted Amazon to try to make them stop these sales, but to no avail. Contacting one of the sellers was a further exercise in frustration. Diane Farr added, “Reputable used book stores don’t sell used copies of a book until it has been out for a decent amount of time.”
This is probably true in some areas, but not all readers have found this to be true. When I asked AAR staff about this, most admitted that while they had heard of stores doing this, they had never shopped at a UBS that followed this type of structure. All the UBS’s I’ve shopped at put books out for sale as soon as they come in. For one thing, most of them operate on a shoestring budget, and they don’t have the time, resources, or staff to track this information. For another, book stores have to cater to the needs of the customers as well as the needs of the authors. Otherwise, those customers will go elsewhere.
Diane Farr went on to say:
“(that reputable book stores) realize that depriving authors and publishers of their sole source of income – sales of new books – is short-sighted and self-defeating. For a bookstore, that is, since a bookstore of any stripe depends upon writers to write and publishers to publish. Amazon.com does not. It’s not really a bookstore. It makes more money acting as middleman in this massive used book swap, because it does not have to incur shipping and storage costs. In fact, it incurs no costs at all. Money for nothing; a bonanza. Since they’ve instituted this publishing-industry killer, I understand they’ve turned a profit for the first time in their existence.”
While I don’t agree with everything that Amazon is doing, and wish they would go back to selling books instead of trying to sell everything, let’s not forget that the publishing industry had problems before Amazon came along. Most of those problems have been caused by issues ranging from large chain bookstores changing the way they order books (ordering to net instead of relying on the importance of sell-through numbers); the conglomeration of distributors; and the mergers of publishing companies with huge international companies that don’t understand publishing.
Barb also disagreed with the Authors’ Guild’s stance on Amazon and used books (detailed in that earlier ATBF column). After reading the original press release, she sent an e-mail to the Author’s Guild, “…suggesting that their position was not actually helpful to authors. With new book prices (even paperbacks) being what they are, I rarely buy ‘untested’ (by me) new authors. But I will buy ‘untested’ authors at the used book store or thrift store…” Barb was surprised by the response she got from the Author’s Guild, which suggested that her email was part of an email campaign instituted by Amazon!
Now that on-line businesses such as Amazon and Half.com are selling used books, many readers wondered about the future of the UBS. TRR Reviewer Susan Scribner was concerned because she had seen one of the biggest UBSs in St. Louis go out of business. She asks, “If you can sell hundreds of used books over the Internet, why bother to open a store, have staff, etc.?” Anyone who has experienced the horror of seeing a favorite UBS go out of business knows how chilling that question is.
Now that technology is getting cheaper, is there a way UBS’s could cheaply track sales? Bridget suggests that publishers should equip UBS’s with bar code readers and pay them a bounty for collecting information on sales. That way they could determine which authors are selling well through the UBS and reprint those books.
Other technologies could change the face of the UBS. Once print on demand (POD) technologies take off, making it possible to authors’ backlists in print more cheaply, will there be fewer UBS’s? Also, electronic books are becoming cheaper, more convenient, and more popular. As e-books become even more prevalent, will UBS’s become less popular? One concern many readers have is that while paper books can be given away, lent, and even turned in for credit at the UBS, most publishers of e-books don’t allow this.
There is probably no danger of UBS’s that cater to romance readers ever going away. For one thing, romance readers are voracious, and they need more than just a few sources of books. Also, romance readers like to have the right to sell, trade, or give away books they don’t want, and so far, these rights are only covered under used books. On top of that, there are too many readers looking for too many HTF titles. and even POD or e-book publishers won’t be able to keep all those books in print. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, romance readers are book lovers, and they love the idea of holding a paper book in their hand, new or used. The tactile experience of curling up with a good book is important, the feel of paper and the smell of the book. As long as that book doesn’t smell like cat pee or contain any dried bugs.
What To Do Now?
Before sending you off to the ATBF Message Board, we’d like to have you take the Style Ballot mentioned earlier. Once you submit your ballot, you’ll be returned to the “questions” section of this column, which is next. (And don’t forget that voting in this year’s Purple Prose Parody Contest begins Sunday; you can vote through June 30th.)
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
Censorship – What I know about censorship in the past is that fiction was banned for content deemed too sexual, too violent, or seditious. What is your reaction when you hear about tests that censor an author’s words so that “no student feels uncomfortable in a testing situation?” In other words, has the basis for censorship changed in recent years?
Disappearing Words? – Had you heard about the Microsoft thesaurus eliminating words? Does this bother you? Is there a difference between their removing words with sexual connotations and their removal of words that some might just consider “mean?” Which is potentially more of a problem?
The Boycott – There have been discussions on our boards about boycotting artists for reasons other than their writing, for instance, bad online behavior. Some readers do boycott books, for instance, when adultery is involved. When boycotting a book or a movie, the person boycotting is voting with their pocketbook on something they’ve not read or seen themselves; the person is simply taking someone else’s word that the book or movie is offensive. This is essentially personal censorship before the fact. How can someone censor without having experienced what they’ve been asked to boycott?
The Censorship Pendulum – My interpretation of censorship is that things were censored in the past for being too “liberal,” for want of a better word. Now it seems censorship is occurring when something is deemed as too “conservative.” Help me define terms so we can better talk about the censorship pendulum and tell me where you think political correctness has entered the picture.
Personal Experiences with Censorship, Bans, and Boycotts – Whether you are a librarian, parent, or member of some religious or secular organization, you may have been touched in some way by censorship, bans, or boycotts. Please share your experiences.
Words and Ideas – Do you believe there are words and/or ideas that should be “erased?” Are any words and/or ideas dangerous in and of themselves? What do you make of the tenets of the ALA’s bill of rights as presented in the column?
Librarians – Do you know exactly what librarians study, what their duties encompass besides shelving books according to the Dewey Decimal System? Have you taken advantage of Readers’ Advisories?
Libraries and the Internet – Anyone who reads a newspaper knows that Congress has been thwarted by the Supreme Court in their attempts to limit the use of library computers by users looking at pornography. What’s your opinion on this subject? Does your office have a policy regarding personal Internet usage? If so, what is it?
If You Like… – It seems as though we romance readers are list-crazy and always looking for ways to quantify books and authors through comparisons, contrasts, and everything except algebraic equations. Why do we do this, and what was the most helpful “list” you’ve seen so far? Why was it particularly helpful?
Incomparables – Are there any authors who are the Regency equivalent to an “incomparable?” In other words, try as you might, you cannot come up with any other author who has a similar style or is at a similar level of writing.
UBS “Surprises” – Which of the following items have you ever found in used books: money, bugs, cat pee, human effluvia, bookmarks, or autographs?
UBS Hauls – What was your biggest and/or best UBS haul? Did you come in with 10 books to trade and walk out with 15? Did you discover some great collectible? Have you ever hung out at the trade-in desks at a large UBS hoping to discover something fabulous before it is stocked on the shelves?
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board