Don’t Finish That Book! Spare yourself the suffering.

Today I was checking Twitter on my lunch break, like you do, and I was scrolling through the usual jokes and promos and discussions, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but this gem from The Atlantic: “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through – and so does literature.”

(insert needle-scratching-on-record sound)

Or, to borrow a phrase from the late Amy Winehouse: What kind of fuckery is this?

As it turns out, more of the same elitist, prescriptivist bullshit I ripped to shreds when it appeared in Ruth Graham’s Slate article. Indeed, author and New York Times editor Juliet Lapidos devotes the fourth paragraph of her own essay to that very article and the “Adults should be ashamed to read YA” controversy. Lapidos admits herself that her always-finish-what-you-start philosophy is unusual, and once I read the article, it was easy to see why. She breaks her case down into three major points, so in the interest of consistency, I’m going to do the same here.

I'm getting tired of this.

Not THIS again.

Pleasure: Lapidos argues that if you stop reading a book part of the way through, you might miss something amazing later. She suggests that reading multiple hundreds of pages of a story you don’t enjoy in order to get to something good is a worthy use of your time. I would be interested to know what working professional has enough time for recreational reading that this seems like a good proposition. My suggestion? Chucking the book you can’t stand after fifty pages and picking up something that engages you in five or ten or twenty pages is a great deal more pleasurable.

Fortitude: I laughed out loud at this one. Here’s an actual quote from the article: “It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength.” To whom? Who, exactly, are you supposed to be proving this strength to? Lapidos says in this section that the “ability to endure intellectual anguish” is beneficial to her job as an editor. And I can relate to that — I’ve been a freelance script reader for over a decade. I’ve paid my bills and put food on the table by writing synopses (which means reading every single word) and critiques of everything from sitcom pilots to 500-page nonfiction tomes about the Iran hostage crisis. Some of them were great. Some of them were godawful. Guess what? Not one of them improved if I still didn’t like them after 20 pages. Not one. And some of them were good and then botched the ending and you do not want to be within earshot when a text I’m engaging with crashes and burns, whether I’m reading for work or for pleasure.

Liz angry. Liz SMASH.

WTF kind of ending was THAT?!

Respect: You are not disrespecting the author, the act of authorship, anyone or anything by putting down a book unfinished. Well, maybe if you know the author personally, but even then some authors will understand. Lapidos suggests that starting books gives you “intellectual cachet” and not finishing them is “one step above saying ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’” On what planet, outside of maybe certain New York publishing-world cocktail parties, is this even an issue?

This last argument sounds suspiciously like the Internet Uber-Fan argument of “You aren’t a TRUE fan if you haven’t read every comic/seen every episode/listened to every B-side/etc.” — which is something that has stuck in my craw for ages. Who gets to be the arbiter of who has what kind of “cachet” or “cred” or whatever term the community in question likes to use? Who are we trying to impress by attempting to earn this “cachet”? If “cachet” is required for a person to view you as an intellectual equal, do you really want to interact with that person anyway?

As I said above, I’m a professional script reader. I’m also a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, a published author and a copywriter. My ultimate goal is to write for television drama, specifically in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural and mystery. Consequently, I have read, watched and critiqued pages upon pages, hours upon hours, of creative works that I did not enjoy in the slightest. You know what the result was? For a long time, I didn’t read recreationally. At all. I was burnt out. This happens to a lot of people somewhere around high school, which seems to be the peak time for being forced to finish books we don’t enjoy… so why on earth should adults with limited time and/or resources attempt to recreate the experience?

There are many, many things happening in the real world, either in the news or in our own lives, that cause us “intellectual anguish”; why heap more on top of that? It’s just as baffling in my eyes as continuing to watch a television show after you’ve started to hate it – and, as a future hourlong-drama writer, I have a vested interest in as many people watching as many of the shows I love and/or may work for as humanly possible! It’s in my best professional interest for people to cause themselves intellectual anguish if they have a Nielsen box and the source of that anguish is Grimm or Agents of SHIELD or (insert other beloved show here)… and yet, I shudder at the idea of anyone doing so. Because I am a writer, I want people to love story, in whatever form, and the best way to cultivate love of story is by reading (or otherwise partaking of) stories we love. Stories that engage us. Stories that don’t make us want to hurl our book or Kindle or remote or laptop across the room after we’ve devoted significant amounts of time to them. Stories that we aren’t merely slogging through in the interest of earning some mythological “cachet”.

Life is not an MFA program. There is no assigned reading. Engaging with art and story is not homework. Treating it as such does nothing more than poison people’s hearts and minds against the intellectual and emotional rewards of narrative. I can only hope that a majority of readers continue to find pleasure in whatever narratives speak to them, have the fortitude to ignore naysayers, and respect their own instincts enough to make choices that resonate with their souls rather than obeying the poisonous shoulds of the elite.

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YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”

By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.)  I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:

Image

And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:

ImageMore often than not, I’m reduced to outraged sputtering, but every now and then I am able to find and use my words, and I will show you the life of the mind, even within the limitations of 140-character posts.  But Twitter is so ephemeral that I wanted to collect my thoughts on this topic somewhere more permanent.

Firstly, on whether YA fiction has merit: of course it does.  It has the same percentage of bad, mediocre, good, and transcendent as any other category (and it is just that, a marketing category).  I challenge anyone to deny that Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are serious, important books; or that the characterization and sense of place in Beautiful Creatures are exquisitely nuanced; or that the impact of socioeconomic privilege on the characters in The Raven Boys is poignant and boldly truthful.  But even beyond the merits of subject matter and of craft — what of imagination and fun?  I find Middle Grade and YA novels to be imaginative in ways that many adult novels are not; their target audience, after all, is not assumed to have figured out who they are or how the world works or what is and isn’t possible.  (Not that any of us adults really have either, though a lot of us like to make a good show of it, either for our own peace of mind or for the sake of conformity.)  As someone who’s always becoming, always questioning and growing, I find a great deal to relate to in MG/YA books — we’re all “coming of age” in one way or another, wherever we are in life, and I love the sense of possibility inherent in stories about young people.  It’s not that possibility only exists for the young; it’s just that a lot of us stop seeing it at some point.  Whether that point feels like comfort/stability or stagnation/suffocation depends on the person.

I can’t begin to tell you how many adult novels I’ve read — mostly for various jobs I’ve had — that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life.  Certainly, this is a subcategory of book the same way, say, faery stories are a subcategory of Fantasy or space operas are a subcategory of Science Fiction — but if you think I have one ounce of sympathy for the privileged one-percenter chafing at the restrictions they placed on their own lives when they chose conformity (or just accepted it, being unaware of any other options)… ahahahaha. Stories like that might as well be science fiction compared to my rural upbringing and an adulthood spent struggling to create my own life as I want it to be rather than as I’m told it must be.  But, “the 1%”/”the 99%” aside, those books are about people who are miserable because they don’t see possibilities in their lives. I’d always rather read about the people who discover possibilities, and who set off on their own paths before falling into that grey flannel prison.  It’s not escapism, it’s inspiration.  (For some, it’s salvation — the number of readers who have gotten through difficult times in their lives with the help of “escapist” or “lowbrow” fiction of various kinds must be in the hundreds of thousands at least.)

Secondly, on attitudes fostered by Internet echo-chamber culture: I don’t know what angers me more — Slate-ism (“everything you love is inferior because you love it and are therefore not thinking critically/like an adult”) or Tumblr-ism (“everything you love is harmful because everything harbors *isms of various sorts and you are doing harm by choosing to see the good in flawed work”).  I’ve had a hate-on for Tumblr-ism for some time now, but Slate-ism is akin to the elitism of the college English department I fled without looking back, the favoritism of certain subject matter and media in the fine art world, and the blinkered attitudes of some media critics towards non-“Prestige” television; I’ve been fighting it longer and on multiple battlefields.  Both seem to boil down to the following ideas: love is blind, joy is infantile and good is a fairy tale.  Pernicious lies, every one, born in the festering cynicism of holier-than-thou intelligentsia, disillusioned idealists, and the kind of people who have bought into the ideas fostered by the “Eat your vegetables” approach to reading that’s taught in what I imagine is a majority of high schools and colleges.  It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes.  Anything else isn’t really adulthood.  Which seems a rather juvenile and simplistic view of adulthood, don’t you think?  Especially considering that childhood and adolescence are Serious Business too, especially when you’re right smack in the middle of them — a fact that MG/YA fiction illustrates exquisitely, whether in realism or in metaphor, time and again. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, I want to address the great, steaming mountain of bullshit that is “Should”.  All this policing of what is and isn’t appropriate to read or wear or do or think or say is contained in that one miserable little word.  If we’re going to throw around ideas about what is and isn’t adult behavior, let’s start there.  That’s what adults do, right? Ask the hard questions and examine their own lives? Serious Business, remember?  So let’s unpack our “Should”s. Where do they come from? Our parents? Our communities? Our religions? Our jobs? Ideological choices made long ago, when entertaining the possibility that there was more than one side, more than one option, was too much for us to consider?  Who decides what “Should” and what “Shouldn’t”? What you “Should” read, watch, listen to, eat, do? Who you “Should” love, hate, marry, work for, emulate? Who you “Should” be? I’m sure a lot of the people who are raising holy hell over the fact that — gasp — people over the age of 21 are reading books that are meant to be marketed to younger people — would be the first to stand up and call bullshit on outmoded sociopolitical “Should”s. Some pretty sweet irony, that.

I’m not casting any stones here — I have “Should”s, present and former. We all do.  But, for the love of all that’s precious and important in the world, FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again.  I don’t care whether you’re fifteen or fifty; if something brings you joy and causes no harm to others (which, memo to the intelligentsia: that does not count readers’ love of MG/YA hurting your feelings), you should do that as often as you possibly can.  Adulthood is serious business, and to get through it all and take on the responsibility of making the world what we want and need it to be, we need to feed our whole selves — we need those reserves of hope and joy, we need that catharsis, we need those reminders of possibility and who we were and who we could be.  And whether we find that in Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or the new Jay McInerney or a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye — or, hell, all of the above; we are human, we contain multitudes — doesn’t matter at all, as long as we find it.

Adventures in Unemployment

So, let’s say that you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed.  This is a particularly distressing turn of events since you did this already last year, then worked part time and drew partial unemployment, then had to get an emergency extension (thanks, President Obama!), then cobbled together full-time work from multiple part-time jobs.  Goddamn it, you think, not only am I not working, I have to fill out all that paperwork all over again.

And so, despite the fact that you’ve cashed out your retirement savings in order to be able to, you know, eat and pay rent, and would almost (almost) rather eat expired yogurt than jump through all those hoops again, you sit down with your pay stubs and your computer’s calculator and try to figure out exactly how much you earned in the past five calendar quarters.  This is not easy, because you can’t find all of your pay stubs, and you have to Go Ask Chuck ™ exactly how much was in your 401(k) before it got taxed sixty ways to hell and back, and you have to reverse-engineer some of the information based on the post-tax amount you deposited in the bank. But somehow you manage to figure out your pre-tax income using only your brain, a calculator and the back of a Starbucks receipt, because while you may have a degree in Underwater Basketweaving and let Chase Online balance your virtual checkbook for you, you’ve been doing your own taxes (1040 Long Form plus Schedules C and SE) for years and fuck if you’re going to let this get the best of you.

Then you send off your paperwork and hope they don’t deny your claim, all while still playing catch-up with November on your previous claim… because whoever read your last continuation form couldn’t read the multiple teeny tiny addresses you wrote in the quarter-inch of space they give you, so they took a week to figure it out then said “fuck it” and sent you a duplicate form.

Then you have your eligibility interview, via telephone.  Then you get a letter saying that you’ve been granted a claim for a Small Amount of Money per week.  You see nothing unusual about this because you didn’t make all that much money last year; it’s not like you had some cushy corporate gig.  And then, on the same day, you get another letter saying that they can’t verify your identity and can you please send them photocopies of your driver’s license/passport and a W-2 form within ten days?

At this point you’re too stressed out about other things to panic over the thought that someone might have attempted to steal your identity, or might recognize the blue envelope (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, is that a Blue Letter?!!!) and the address on it and think, “Here is someone who is sending copies of their identifying documents through the mail. I will steal them and open a credit card with this person’s info and shitty credit score.”  You lost the keys to your fireproof box long ago, so you pick the lock with a hairpin (no, really) and get out your passport, photocopy it and a newly-arrived W-2 from one of your many jobs, and drop it in the mail.

And you wait.

And you receive a notice in the mail that your claim has been denied, either for a couple of weeks or indefinitely (you can’t figure out which), because you did not send them copies of your identifying documents. Which you did send them. Over a week ago.

Fuck.

The next day, it’s time for you to go in to the One-Stop Employment Center for your re-employment assessment interview.  So you drive your unemployed ass aaaaalllll the way down to your assigned office, and arrive 15 minutes before your appointment, as requested.

And you wait some more.

Then you’re instructed to go into the conference room with about thirty other people, and there’s a projector in there, and you think, “Jesus Christ, are they going to force us to watch the orientation video?! I watched it at home like they told me! I have the certificate! Noooooooo!” Because that damn video is half an hour long, and you don’t want to sit through it again.

You wait some more. Then an EDD employee comes in and requests that everyone who has the “I watched the video” certificate go line up at Window 5 with their paperwork to sign in.  So you do.  You’re sixth in line. You don’t have one of the papers they said for you to bring, but they don’t care.  They have you sign at the bottom of some form or other, and then you go sit down in an uncomfortable plastic chair.

And you wait.

And you wait.

Finally, they call you in, and the gentleman assigned to handle your interview flips through your paperwork, makes a photocopy of one of the forms for you, and gives you two things to sign.  And then you pull out your claim denial letter and ask him to help you make sense of it — does it mean they aren’t paying you for a certain week, or does it mean they aren’t paying you at all? Because Small Amount of Money is small, but every little bit helps.  You make a remark about how you would have just called the EDD hotline, but you can never get through.  So this kind gentleman says that they have a direct line to the EDD people and you can use the phone in the next cubicle to call them.

You get your hopes up — a direct line! — and then they come crashing down when you realize that all this means is that instead of being disconnected if there is a longer-than-15-minute-wait (as you do if you call from your house phone), you are allowed the privilege of waiting on hold. With the same brief loop of hold music. And the recorded “please stay on the line” message. Over. And over. And over.

So you wait.

And you wait.

And you wait some more.

Thirty-two minutes later, the hold music shuts off. You wonder if you have been disconnected — is there a 30-minute limit for being on hold even from this line?!

You sit there and pray to every deity you can think of for someone to get on the phone.

And you wait.

And you consider hanging up and going home.

Then, finally, someone comes on the line and you read them the first paragraph of your letter.  They inform you that they have received your documents and that they must have crossed the denial letter in the mail.  The hold has been taken off your account and your benefits will be deposited in your bank the next day.  When you say something about hoping no one had tried to steal your identity, they explain that at least one of your employers used a DBA that did not match your claim application, so that was why it was held up.  And so you hang up, thank your interviewer — who says that the next time you need to call EDD, you need to come down and get on one of their phones in order to get through, like it’s no big deal to drive an hour and fifteen minutes round-trip to sit on the phone for half an hour to get a single question answered — and leave.

That night, you receive notice of a direct deposit of more than two weeks’ worth of Small Amount of Money.

Two days later, you receive an Amended Claim letter that includes all of your income from last quarter — you had thought they deliberately didn’t count your 401(k) cash-out — and says that you’ve been awarded the maximum benefit.  You’re also notified that one of the two weeks you submitted a claim for was a “waiting period” week so you aren’t getting paid for that, but you have zero fucks to give because now you don’t have to just sit there and watch your savings be depleted as your many Indeed.com job applications go unanswered.  And they’ve extended the Federal emergency benefits through the end of 2013 (thanks, President Obama!) so, just in case those dozens of resumes and cover letters and favors and referrals and the hours of legwork (virtual or otherwise) don’t pan out, at least you aren’t going to starve.

The Five Stages of Spec Pilot Writing

  1. YAY! New idea! *gazes raptly at shiny new idea*
  2. SHIT! This is exactly like [series that lasted four episodes] + [movie that tanked] x [pilot a more powerful writer than you’ll ever be couldn’t get made] ÷ [webseries that parodies your serious topic]
  3. Hmmm, what if I did THIS instead of THAT?
  4. GAAAAAHHHH IDEA FLOOD SOMEBODY SHUT IT OFF SHUT IT OFF NOW HELP! *sputter choke splash*
  5. Well, shit. Guess I have to write it now, don’t I. *retreats into writing cave*

[Steps 6-infinity: Write ten pages in thirty minutes. Tear hair, gnash teeth, rend garments. Pull all-nighter to finish. Do a victory dance. Send draft out for feedback. Revise. Rinse, lather, repeat.]

Managing Expectations, or, How to Make a Car Salesman Sweat

Once upon a time, I was in the market for a new car.  My 1995 Ford Taurus that got me out to LA (but not without an epic breakdown to the tune of $911.52 in Flagstaff, Arizona at noon on a Sunday) was in pretty bad shape — I hadn’t dared to get on the freeway since right after I got to LA, and I wouldn’t go into a parking garage for fear of rolling backwards on a ramp and smashing up somebody else’s car.  I had bought her in 2001 — on September 12, to be exact; I remember watching CNN reporting live from New York while I waited for the paperwork — and it was time for something more reliable.  I had never owned a new car before, and my original plan was to buy a pre-owned one, especially on the budget I had to work with.  But after months of research and a few test-drives, I realized I’d rather be able to relax for a few years instead of being ambushed with SOOPRISE $800 REPAIRS six months in.  So the question remained… what kind of car should I buy?

I had test-driven the Mazda3 and Toyota’s then-brand-new Yaris but wasn’t entirely sold on either.  My one experience test-driving a VW Beetle hadn’t been so great, but I had scheduled another test-drive at another dealership so I went ahead with it just to see what happened.  This experience was much better… the salesperson knew I was doing research and might not be ready to buy yet, but he still took me seriously as a customer (unlike the guy at the first dealership).  We went to the lot where a new shipment of cars had just come in and were still in their swaddling clothes* fresh off the assembly line, and took out the Beetle that was easiest to get to.  What a terrific little car… incredibly easy to handle, great on the freeway and solid.  I was completely sold on the Beetle, though not on the color of this particular one — it was silver, and I don’t do neutrals.  So I planned a test-drive of the blue one I had seen all wrapped up in paper.

Then it was time to go see the finance guy.  The sales guy had been extremely low-pressure (and reminded me so much of my friend Luke that he put me immediately at ease), so of course this was where things started to get interesting.  Here was the hard sell I had been warned about.  Sign this and if you change your mind we’ll tear it up, the car might not be here tomorrow, etc.  This guy was going to close the deal come hell or high water.

And I stonewalled him.

Beetle

Big blue smiley face on wheels.

At this point I should add that I went in to the dealership alone, which was the #1 thing I was told not to do as a woman shopping for a car.  I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and Converse, no makeup, looking more like a college freshman than a working adult with money to spend.  Basically, I might as well have been carrying a big neon sign that said DON’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY — as far as this guy was concerned, anyway.  So when I told him I needed 24 hours to decide, and stuck with it, he did not know what to do.  He was totally following the “badger the little lady into signing the papers” script, and I was not having it.  “I need 24 hours.”  “I need 24 hours.”  “24 hours.” “Twenty. Four. Hours. *smirk*”  He was literally sweating.  I could see panic in his eyes: Shit, it’s not working, what do I do?! But there was nothing to do.  I walked out without signing anything.  And I ended up having to delay my test drive.  Three weeks later, I went in, took the test drive, and drove off the lot in my brand-new 2007 Beetle.  I even talked them down to a price that was farther below sticker than is usual [or was at the time, anyway].  Liz: 1 Dealership : 0

Fastforward a few years.  My car’s “Check Engine” light had come on, so I took her to the dealership to see what was up.  I was told that it was supposed to be relatively quick, but it was anything but, and I was supposed to be at work.  And then I was told it was going to cost an additional, distressing amount of money to run another diagnostic.  So I spoke up.  This time around, I was dressed more “rich suburban housewife” — skinny khakis, giant sunglasses, big shiny designer bracelet.  I was polite to the service manager, but you best believe I flashed that bracelet and gave him an ice-cold “don’t you know who I am” tone.  Result: “I’ll have the foreman check it out and come talk to you.”  I then saw the service manager talking to the foreman, who looked terrified and never came to speak to me.  They just ran the diagnostics, gave me the result, and ultimately didn’t charge me a cent.  Liz: 2  Dealership: 0

It would be entirely fair if what you take away from this story is that I enjoy playing mind games with car dealership employees, but I really don’t.  Do I feel triumphant and a little smug?  Yes, because in both cases I was taken less seriously than I should have been, and in both cases I was able to get the results I wanted (or, in the second case, needed; despite the wardrobe, I was and am still a Broke-Ass Writer) anyway.  These are important skills to have — knowing how your appearance/dress might read, knowing what assumptions the other party might make about you going into a meeting or negotiation, can help you figure out the best way to break down those assumptions and open the lines of communication.

No matter how much you or I act in good faith, we’re going to encounter people who don’t, and sometimes the best way to handle it when we can’t walk away altogether is use their own weapons against them.  In the first situation, I was completely honest and direct — Mr. Finance’s assumptions of what I must be like and how I could be manipulated were shot all to hell, and proved to him and the other people in the room that I should be taken seriously as a customer.  In the second, I was also honest and direct in my verbal communication, but this time they were the ones stonewalling — and it was either sit there and take it, miss a day of work and be charged hundreds of dollars I didn’t have, or use those nonverbal cues to force them to pay me the respect they should have as a matter of course.  Of course every situation is different and Jedi mind tricks aren’t always appropriate, but it’s another tool that we have at our disposal, and sometimes just knowing it’s there when we need it is enough.

* New cars come off the ship partially wrapped in paper.  Presumably to protect the finish.