Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Passionate Sinning

"The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit is to be joyless." - Dorothy Sayers.

I've been periodically haunted by this particular saying since I read it in Gaudy Night as a teenager.  I say haunted because it comes back to me, either in memory or in some random reminder, and each time it hovers before my mind, teasing me to pursue it to its furthest logical ends.

But I dare not, because I am afraid of where it might take me. It's hypocritical of me, I know. I have so often urged my students not to be afraid of the truth and the hard questions that lead there.

Part of me looks at this saying and says, oh yes, that certainly is true. There must be joy in the passion, whatever its object, or passion becomes obsession, possessiveness, exploitation, infatuation and eventually destruction. The object of passion will either be enslaved or become the enslaver and slavery is a hallmark of sin. Joyless passion would be deadly - another hallmark of sin.

But another part of me recoils from the implications of that "only."  Is joylessness the only sin passion can commit? If I do what I know (or believe) to be sin, but I do it passionately and take joy in it - and I'm supposing real joy here, not simply ephemeral pleasure mistaken for joy - does the joyfulness wipe out all the sin? I'm very much afraid, and afraid is not just a figure of speech, that it does not. To do what we know is wrong, even for the right reasons and with fervent, joyful passion...no, I cannot believe that is true because I see in it a license to choose to sin.

Actually, I see a logical loop developing. If joy = not sin, then that might eliminate all sinful passions from the start. If so, then it would be impossible to sin joyfully. Either one would discover that there was in reality no joy in the passion, or one would find that the passion was joyful and therefore not truly a sin.

But what an awful risk that poses to the desiring soul. Sayer's words imply a massive, awe inspiring, knee weakening freedom. It's like being presented with a great cliff and told "Leap into the abyss. So long as you keep a grip on joy, you will land safely." Or is joy rather a signal beacon along a rocky shore dotted with a thousand false lights that present themselves as joy, but are not truly joy? If we are free in Christ to pursue our passions, whatever they are, so long as they are joyful... Where might we go?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

After Sept 11th...

Sunday was, as it should have been, a day of solemn remembrance. Many of us posted those memories to facebook as a way of sharing and memorializing. I couldn't bring myself to write out my memories of that day - they are both too much and too little to say in a facebook post. I've never been a New Yorker. I was in Columbus, OH when it happened. My roommate and I sat on our living room couch and cried while we watched the towers fall on tv, over and over until we could believe it wasn't just a bad special effect in a cheesy day time movie.

But today, I want to remember another day. A day after Sept 11th. The first day I got on a plane after it all happened. I was flying home for Christmas. The lines were long, the security procedures were still crisp with newness and a sense of purpose. We fellow passengers lined up and marched, shoes in hand, proud to be doing our little bit for duty, for country, for the safety of our fellows and ourselves.

And when I got to my seat on the plane the woman in the aisle seat was plainly Muslim. She had on the full chador and hijab minus the niqab, meaning that she was covered head to toe, with only her face and fingers showing. She was young looking. Somali. And reading from her Koran with intense devotion. She was also plainly terrified.

Was she afraid of being a Muslim on a plane full of jumpy fellow passengers? Probably. I would have been. Was she afraid to fly so soon after the September tragedies? I was. Most of us were. The tension ib the plane was palpable. Or was she simply afraid to fly? Many people are. Or perhaps she carried some other, secret sorrow that no one else could have guessed.

But there she sat right beside me, rocking just a touch, lips moving silently as she cradled her book in her hands. Another, dark haired woman joined us, squeezing into the window seat. As she buckled her seatbelt she and I exchanged quick, nervous smiles. I leaned back in my own seat, eyes half closed and prayed for safety as the engines roared underneath us. And the dark haired woman beside me pulled out her rosary, kissed it, and closed her eyes in prayer.

We rose into the sky, each of us in that row calling out with our hearts, "Hear me, merciful God. Keep me safe."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Helping your Favorite Authors

Too broke to buy books all the books you want from all the authors you love? Steven Zimmer has a post up on his blog about 7 (count 'em!) no cost ways to support your favorite authors.  I highly recommend it.

And WHY should you do these 7 things you wonder? Shouldn't those artsy writery people support themselves? Well...yes.  But...(you knew there was a but in there, didn't you?) We writers should work our butts off to produce work and to find suitable venues and means to put it out there. But publishing is still a game of word of mouth and numbers. One 'OMG! You have to read this' from a fellow reader whose tastes I trust is worth far more to me than an NPR book review. I can count on one hand the number of times I've bought a book based on an expert's opinion that the book was good. And some of those ended up being wasted money. But my shelves are full of authors I heard about through word of mouth, fell in love with and then went out and bought more of. Word of mouth is still the best way for us readers to find authors we might never otherwise have read. And that is delightful for us.

And this is where the numbers come into it. Publishers want sales. Of course they do. And if you can't buy the book yourself, you can up the chances of generating sales from others. If your favorite author has a small, select coterie of devoted fans that author may not get another contract, no matter how much you and your three best friends love her work.  And that would make you sad, right? Because there would be no next Book from Author I Can't Get Enough Of.

So use those social media my friends. Tell us what you love to read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Words to Make the Heart Sing

Tolkien was fond of pointing out that the words "cellar door" were more beautiful than the word "beautiful." And he was right - if you don't believe me try saying "cellar door" aloud six or seven times until you hear just the sound of the words, not the thing they represent.

Certain words are like that. The sound of the word itself evokes a response in the imagination that goes beyond its dictionary meaning. I once read a lovely essay about the word "dauncerly" - the author had misheard the "dawn's early light" in the national anthem and for years believed it was an adjective meaning a fluttering, delicate movement such as one sees when shorebirds flirt and play in the water's edge at twilight. Now whenever I see light playing through leaves, or glimmering off the water in the evening I think "dauncerly."

My word today is Gonaive (gon-ai-eve). Go on. Say it out loud. Roll the sound of it around on your tongue. Shouldn't it be the name of some gold bedecked queen carried on a litter by six strapping slaves? Or perhaps a city, ancient, noble, and proud, crowded, stinking of donkeys and spice merchants, with a golden temple rising out of the center. Perhaps the city was named after the queen, built in her honor by an emperor whose rule is long forgotten. Only this city lives on in the remnants of their empire, thriving at the crossroads of a thousand paths, the queen's name remembered only in its name and a song that the children sing in the marketplace.

So, tell me your words.  What words do you like to roll around on your tongue? What words inspire stories in your mind?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sherman Alexie and More on YA's "darkness"

Go here for Sherman Alexie's defense of current YA. It's excellent. He finishes with this:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This YA debate has really gotten under my skin because it's not just about books, it's about how we talk about and cope with reality, especially the realities too gruesome to contemplate. Megan Cox Gurdon's article accurately traces an arc in YA books that gets darker and more explicit as publishers have become more and more willing to allow such things onto the shelves. But she's wrong in thinking that the publishers' willingness is a cause rather than a symptom. And she's wrong to imply that all or even most kids used to have idyllic, easy lives with two loving, functional parents who protected them from all the scariness in the world.

The more I think about it, the less I think the "old days" for kids were any easier than they are today. In fact, they may have been harder. I think the difference is that today we're more vocal and aware of certain kinds of struggles in children's and teens' lives. I think writers are now saying things that were unprintable a generation ago, and I think the internet has given a way for people speak to a larger audience, but I don't really believe there ever was a golden summer of childhood in which all children grew up safe and warm.

How many women and men of my parents' generation were sexually abused? How many were date raped? Physically abused? It took me until I was in my 30s to hear the stories from my own family members.  These are the kind of stories that women tell only to other women, quietly, standing in kitchens, looking at the floor, or hunched over the kitchen table, toying with a cup of tea. These are the stories they tell when the daughter or niece or cousin has become a woman like them. I'm not going to name names, but I can tell you that in my extended family alone we're just about at the 1 in 4 statistic that people like Megan Cox Gurdon deride as a gross exaggeration. And that's just the women. I don't know the men's stories.

If you don't believe me, go back and look at the statistics on children with sexually transmitted disease over the last hundred years.  England's medical community kept sporadic records on such things starting around the turn of the century, but even those grossly spotty numbers will make you weep. A big difference between then and now isn't a rise in child sexual abuse, but in the way society handles the abuse. Today we have laws explicitly protecting children as a special class of extra vulnerable victims. We also have a foster care system that, while deeply flawed, at least attempts to put endangered children into safe homes. In 1923 girls under age 9 who were diagnosed with gonorrhea were likely to be sent home with advice to their mothers to keep a closer eye on them. If older than that they were likely to end up in a reformatory and labeled as social deviants.

Shall we retreat to the lovely Victorian era?  One of the best selling books on the paperback market in the 1800s was a guidebook to brothels in major American cities, detailing exactly what kinds of services a customer could expect from which houses. It included where the youngest whores were to be found. It was like a Fodor's of sex. The first child abuse prosecution in the western world was brought only by applying animal safety laws to a child using Darwin's theory of evolution to convince the court that the girl in question was technically an animal and therefore entitled to the same protection as a draft horse. She was so badly abused by both her parents that she had to be carried into the courtroom on a stretcher for the jury to examine.

Want to go back further in time to find Neverland? In the 1660s Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about the prostitutes who dotted the London streets. If you read his, and other gentlemen's writing, you'll find that they did not consider a 10 year old prostitute either surprising or difficult to find. Some of them express disdain that parents should sell their children so soon. None of them are surprised. Today we have laws against beating and starving children.

One more leap back in time - to the wife of Bath. A fictional character, I know, but much in her story squares with historical details found in other sources. She was married to an old man at age 12. She tells the audience that she learned very quickly to use her body as a bartering chip for money and the freedom to leave the house. What would we call that today? Slavery? Prostitution? Pedophilia? All three? But at least now marrying off a 12 year old is illegal in every state in the US.

Megan Cox Gurdon wants to believe the darkness isn't really there, that it only exists on the pages of YA books produced by a small group of boho liberals who, for some obscure reason, want to bring horror into the lives of innocent teens. I say the darkness is there and has always been there. We may look at it only through our fingers, but it's no less real for all that. It's been there since the moment of original sin brought the darkness into our own souls. And we can't fight the darkness if we don't turn to face it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Con Carolinas Rehash, Or More Cups Next Time

This is going to be more of a series of highlights than a profound meditation.  To whit:

- Despite various insanities with cell phones, passports and plane delays, all the long distance Magical Words Beta people (self included) made it safely to the con.

- I managed to insult self-published authors right in front of one of the best quality self-pubbers out there-John Hartness. He was very gracious about it and later had dinner with Emily, me, and a bunch of others.  Hilarious fellow and a good story teller. I've decided he's the exception that proves the rule. 

- Em and I had a party for the Magical Words Beta Critique group in our room and 30 people came - twice what I had expected. There were insufficient cups, but we soldiered on.  Next year more cups and possibly plates. The Magical Words writers Faith Hunter, Ed Schubert, David B. Coe, Stuart Jaffe, AJ Hartley, Kalayna Price all came to the party. It was like college all over again except nobody tried to quote Spinoza (thank goodness!) and we didn't make it to 4am. 

- Misty Massey did not come this year, alas, but hopefully she'll be there next year. Missed you Misty!

- Emily was a panelist this year, so I had to resist the urge to point and say "I'm with the talent!" She was hilarious and informative as usual. 

- I learned a new term; "War Porn" - the writing of weapon/battle scenes that are not plot or character necessary, but just sate the reader (or author's) lust for battle.  Porn is porn, people - if it's not about people, it's just porn whether it's body parts or gun turrets. 

- The panels on censorship provoked about the same levels of rage and consternation you might expect. 

- The writer's track this year included two panels on using the web for authorial self-promotion. They were probably in the top most useful panels of the con. Bottom line, this is the era of personalities, so get yours out there and make it sell your work. 

- Hands down, the most useful single panel was Allen L. Wold's panel on developing and outlining a plot through character and setting. I'll elaborate on this in another post. (Meanwhile, See Allen's books on Amazon). 

- Valkyries roamed the halls. Discussion of the subject position of the male gaze ensued. (That's academic speak for we teased the guys for noticing what you'd have to be blind not to notice. No Wagnerian diva was ever more attention getting.) 

And that was this year's con in a nutshell.  Some people go to family reunions to recharge and reconnect with their tribe.  I go to ConCarolinas. Thank you all for the encouragement, the good advice, and the hilarious story telling in the halls between panels. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Self-Righteous Illiterate Slams Genre She Doesn't Read

Hmmm.  I may be coming off as too negative.  Megan Cox Gurdon can't actually be illiterate - she's written for National Review Online for years and I'm sure Bill Buckley's magazine and it's blogchild wouldn't hire someone who couldn't read. But I question the subtlety of her reading skills when she says things like "publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into [...] children's lives." (See here)

Before I go further, allow me to engage in a bit of Toulminesque common ground finding.  I agree with Mrs. Cox Gurdon that parents have an obligation to wisely oversee the content of their kid's reading for the child's own protection. (We can argue about what wise oversight looks like in another post.) And I agree that there probably are some books out there that portray violence, sex, drug use or what-have-you just for the heck of it.  At ConCarolinas just last week I attended a panel that addressed the question of "War Porn" in the fantasy genre.  So there is a real issue worth discussing here. 

However as the #YASaves thread on twitter shows (check it out!) many, many thousands of teens and adults can testify that the books that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns made a huge difference in their lives by giving a face and a voice and, most importantly, a hope to the problems they face. As Susan Lazear says over at GeekMom.com "I wish today’s YA had been around when I was a teen, when I felt like no one understood.  When I quite literally shut everyone out for nearly two years because I couldn’t deal with the stress, the pressure, the hormones, all those things I felt inside but couldn’t verbalize.  When I quietly dealt with eating and body image disorders for years all on my own, and no one ever noticed." And she's not alone.  Thousands of other readers, including me, can say similar things. 

Because the YA that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns isn't really all YA.  It's the fantasy genre.  The vast majority of the books she lists to support her claims about YA being too dark, too ugly, too full of bad habits kids could pick up, are urban and epic fantasy. In the process, she reveals the major flaw in her argument - she either doesn't read or doesn't understand these books.  To give just one example, she condemns The Hunger Games as being full of dreadful violence.  End of story. It's violent, ergo it's bad for teens and evidence of the coarseness of the genre.  But what she fails to realize is that The Hunger Games is fundamentally a book about moral choices in an immoral world, about finding the strength and the wisdom to know what to protect and who when you can't save everybody, not even yourself.  And that, my dear friends, is a problem faced by every teen in America and indeed the whole world. Because it's a fundamental problem of the human experience. And because the teen years are when we start to realize such ugly truths as well as realizing how much we have to choose to become the heroes we are looking for.

Disney used to tell us that someday our prince would come. But when I was a teen, lo these many moons ago, I read and reread every book I could find that told me a hero doesn't have to be super, or handsome, or well prepared. The hero has to be willing. The books that mattered most to me, the ones that steeled my soul, were the ones where the hero has to crawl through their own weakness to finish the quest.  Frodo says "I will take the ring to Mordor," and then walks nearly all the way there.  The Aerin of the Hero's Crown kills a dragon all alone because the armies have gone in the other direction and no one else is left. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth (ooh, zombies and teen sexual tension!) the heroine has to grow the hell up and push on alone through a world that literally wants to eat her to find the land beside the sea. Do I need to go on? Of course not, you, dear readers, could write a list a thousand books long, I'm sure. 

The point is, that as a teenager I desperately needed someone to tell me that it was okay for me to (metaphorically) pick up a sword and become the hero of my own story. And I needed to have hope that whether I found a Samwise at my side or not, it was worth slogging onward because change is possible, a better world or at least a better self are possible, and there are intangible beauties in the human soul even in a broken world.  Faulkner certainly didn't tell me that. Heaven knows Hemingway didn't tell me that. Nor did Fitzgerald or most of the other authors we read in High School.*  But C.S. Lewis did. And Tolkien. And McKinley.  And McCaffrey and many others, including S.E. Hinton, who Mrs. Cox Gurdon credits with starting this downward slide into "darkness."  And that's my fundamental problem with Mrs. Cox Gurdon's argument. She's straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. 

To conclude, I'd like to point out one more camel she swallowed. Why isn't Twilight at the head of her list? This is a book that actually is influencing millions of young teens to engage in dangerous behavior. I don't mean running around in the woods with vampires - I mean mistaking infatuation for love, emotional and physical abuse for romantic passion, and sexism for gentlemanly affection. Somehow Mrs. Cox Gurdon's desire to shield her dear children from the darkness doesn't extend to that piece of literature. So maybe she is illiterate after all. 

*I freely admit that this may be a flaw in my High School's reading list, not in the whole category of literary work as a whole. For example, I never knew how both hopeful and sarcastic Dickinson could be until I got to college.