Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Alive and Well and Living in Cyberspace

A month ago, maybe 11 and a half years late, I took the plunge and made my presence known to the 21st century. That would be, my internet presence, characterized by blogging, tweeting, and redoing my (previously) woefully inadequate website. Characterized by becoming a goodreads author and the proud administrator of 35 sparce but avid facebook fans.

Characterized by an obsession with numbers.

I remember when checking Amazon all the time in the hope that my most recent book's ranking was closer to 7 than 3,000,000 was the beginning and end of my numbers issue.

But no more.
Now I have to worry about how many potential readers have designated my new book "to read" versus "wish list" on goodreads and "like" on facebook and wonder what the subtle differences mean.

I have to wonder what happened on the day that 85 people decided they wanted to read the book that made it so different from the day 6 people signed on.
I have to wonder why I am being followed on twitter by an Irish job-hunting service and a person who describes himself as an actor/wastrel but not by the youth services librarians and YA bloggers and writers whom I follow with great interest.

The notion of followers and members is already a bit odd, not to mention the designations are a bit at odds with each other, one suggesting that I have suddenly taken to roaming the internet with long robes and gallons of Kool-Aid prostelatizing about my wonderfulness, the other that I have become the gatekeeper of an exclusive club with lackeys beating down my door.

The fact being that now, for reasons relating almost entirely to a newfound obsession with keeping score and boosting my numbers into the stratosphere, I pant and pine and long for zillions of members and followers -- men, women, children, large fuzzy mammals, pest-control aficionados from the Southwest, and folks who would appear to be inviting me to visit their pornographic websites. It’s all in the numbers, baby. (And while Baby’s at it, put down that pacifier and follow, follow, follow.)

I am seriously crazed. When the number of goodreaders wanting to read Where It Began lurched toward 1,000, I wanted to take out an ad. I don’t know where, but probably not on my 18 member blog. (How do I love my 18 members? If it wasn’t creepy to get their home addresses, I’d be sending them little gold boxes of chocolates, that’s how much.)

How seriously crazed? All I can think of is the time, in bygone years before public schools became sensitive to everybody’s self-esteem, and you didn’t have to send a valentine to everyone in class. There you sat, wondering how many valentines you would get, hunching over your little stash and trying to look nonchalant, wondering if your final number was going to be closer to 7 than 3,000,000, watching the popular, cute girl virtually inundated, her desk buried under a mountain of lace-backed red hearts.

Only this is more public. The whole world -- or in my case, 18 members; 35 fans; 151 followers; and 1079 goodreaders – is watching.

Photo credits: Bingo by Salvatore Vuono; Box of Chocolates by Simon Howdon; Calculator by Michal Marcol; Child on Computer by Clare Bloomfield; Cupid Aiming at Heart by digital art; Cuori in Festa by Idea go; Hands on Computer Keyboard by Stuart Miles; Heart by jscreationzs; Social Networking by jscreationzs; Woman's Hand Pressing Social Network Icon by Sujin Jetkasettakorn.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hey Gang, Let's Ban Us Some Books!

With the recent kerfuffle about how "dark" teen books are somehow bad for teenagers and should give reasonable parents pause, I thought this would be the perfect time for me to get some writing banned.

Why do you want to ban this writing, you might well ask.

Let’s see. How about, because I don’t approve of it?

That seems to be good enough for the Wall Street Journal, which recently published quite the long article by a woman who -- apparently lacking access to a chain bookstore or child psychiatrist -- opened with the contention that a perfectly reasonable mom of her acquaintance was unable to find a single young adult book that wouldn’t be psychologically damaging to her tender young daughter at her local mega-bookstore, which had unfortunately made the suicidal decision not to stock any less-than-dark books by the wonderful Joan Bauer or Meg Cabot or Rachel Vail (to list a very few), unlike all other chain bookstores in the continental USA.

(Yes, I know I'm exaggerating, but if the Wall Street Journal doesn't have to check facts, why should I?)

She then suggested that all those dark, disturbing books might lead teens to engage in dark, disturbing activities. As in, Hey gang, I just read a book with a narrator who cuts! What say we all smoke some dark, disturbing substances and cut right after cheer practice?

Which seems to me about as likely as a reader finishing Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and going, Hey Gang, let’s go get raped by a sociopathic athlete at an otherwise fun party.

In sharp contrast to the charming, not-dark books of yore, such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. (Which I love as much as the next guy, but I always thought that not having enough food to eat and the other vicissitudes of Francie’s life, which I seem to recall included evading a child rapist with the assistance of a well-placed bullet, were sort of on the dark side. But that’s just me.)

Leading me to what I want to ban: Duh. The Wall Street Journal.

Why not? They printed an article I really didn’t like. It upset me. Not only that, it lead me to write a pro-banning article that will no doubt upset others, such as open-minded people who think that teen and adult readers are capable of independent thought, of actually thinking things over, and of making intelligent decisions.

But what if all those upset, anti-banning types are wrong about provocative writing leading to intelligent thought? Exactly! That's why we have to ban The Wall Street Journal!

Because what if parents and educators read the scary, dark article and simply salute, jumping to the wrong-headed conclusion that the children in their charge shouldn’t be reading The Hunger Games, or Speak, or Scars, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian?

What if kids who have gone through dark, disturbing experiences, kids who have to take heroic action to survive their families and neighborhoods and schools, kids who are shunned and hurt and bullied, can’t find a single piece of reading material that lets them know that they are not alone?

What if delicate flowers whose mothers frequent badly stocked chain bookstores never get to read about characters whose lives are perhaps more challenging than anything they’ve ever imagined, never get to empathize and understand those characters, and go forth into the world na├»ve and intolerant?

Now that’s dark and disturbing.

Which is why, given my excellent reasons for disapproving of the contents of the Wall Street Journal, we must ban it at once.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cupcakes and the Fate of Fiction, in which I probe writers’ block and the artistic significance of snack food

Back when I was thin and in college and trying to figure out the mysteries of the human psyche -- which lately I’ve taken to just watching with my mouth hanging open –- I came upon the secret key that would unlock my creativity for years to come.

In a word: cupcakes. Literal cupcakes, not metaphorical ones, with frosting and multi-colored sprinkles.

You know you want one. 

The bearer of the secret key was one Stanley Schachter, Ph.D., a mid-20th century psychologist, who discovered The Obese Personality. Which I discovered I had.

I was not even slightly chubby at the time. I had not yet spent my junior year in England huddled on top of a grossly inadequate cube-shaped radiator trying to keep warm and gobbling up bag after cellophane bag of McVitties chocolate covered biscuits (which aren’t even that great) in the absence of edible food from one end of the campus to the other.

No, it was my personality that was obese. According to Stanley. Who had done some fascinating experiments during which amply fed thin and fat people were stuck in a room, supposedly waiting for something that never happened, in the presence of yummy snack food.

Well-fed skinny people did not eat this yummy snack food due to the fact that they were full. Well-fed obese people, on the other hand, scarfed it down due to the fact that it was yummy. Also, when the experimenters fiddled with the waiting room clock, when it appeared to be mealtime even though it wasn’t, the obese people ate even more yummy stuff, whereas the skinny people didn’t because it was not, in fact, meal time.

Clearly, I was in the camp with the obese, yummy-snack eaters. I ate things simply because they were good. I craved yummy things with gooey frosting, mounds of sugared chocolate nestled in little, pleated paper skirts. Indeed, only a person with a deeply obese personality could possibly want a cupcake as much as I do.

Fortunately, we can sometimes make our flaws work for us.

As a writer who sometimes encounters frustration, horror, and a sense of stuck-ness, an unwillingness to crank out bad prose but an apparent, one hopes temporary, inability to write anything worth saving, I have realized that the unhealthy, cupcake- craving aspect of my obese personality is, in fact, an invaluable ally in the quest to produce prose.

Two more pages, I tell myself, even trashy, garbage-y, embarrassingly dreadful pages, and there’s a cupcake with your name on it.

After which I promptly crank out two terrible pages and race down to the kitchen. Because if you don’t crank out even bad pages, you don’t have a thing to work with. Which is why I’d feel very sorry for all those well-balanced writers with the skinny personalities if they weren’t so damned physically fit and sanctimonious.

They have writers’ block but I have cupcakes.