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Authors & Audiences: A Tricky Relationship

July 3, 2012

It seems pretty straightforward to say that a book belongs to an author.  When we talk about a book we say, “Hemingway’s masterpiece: The Sun Also Rises” or “Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried.”  That apostrophe-s, as we all know, denotes possession. It’s not uncommon for an author to think of their characters, books, and universes, with some degree of seriousness, as their children.  A book, after all, is almost completely a product on the author, and in many ways, I can see the children parallel.  But — if we’re going to milk this “books and character are the author’s children” metaphor for all its worth — this relationship fundamentally changes when the book gets a job, becomes financially independent, starts dating, and grows up.  In literal words, when the book is published.

When a book is published the audience is introduced, and to some extent a book belongs to an author less.  It enters the public sphere, and with that the public sphere enters a world that used to belong exclusively to the writer.  For the first time (with the exception of publishers — new people are connecting with the characters, being moved by the plot and emotional journey, and in other ways making the author’s book part of their personal experiences.  This is a big transition, but a book has to grow up.

Readers have a fascinating power and I think the word “interpret” and its variations are the key to unlocking the source of the power of the readers.  All audiences— and all critics— are interpreters.  When an audience takes a story in; they will read a text and filter it through their own personal experience.  Based on these experiences they will see something — and it’s never quite the same in each case — in it.  They can determine how valuable that something is, but more importantly, they can determine what that something is.  In this, the audience has the power to decide what the book means.

It’s easy to see things between the lines of the page that the author didn’t necessarily intend to put there.  It can be as founded as an examination of the way morality of the unintended consequences in Middlemarch or as wish-fulfilling as an relationship dream of “OMG, HARRY AND HERMIONE BELONG TOGETHER.”  Critics, academics, and careful readers will analyze content and keep it grounded enough to the actual text to keep their readings believable, but even they still take a text and reshape it through their eyes, and derive meaning from it that — intentional or not on the author’s part — was not explicit.

Therefore, as interpreters, audiences are taking ownership of a text. Whether their interpretations are right or wrong, academically founded or a teenage romantic rewriting of an ending, the power of the audience is to decide what is before, after, and between the lines.  But this power of interpretation is often in contention with the author’s control over a world that, once, existed only in their heads and private pages.   However right they are in their own heads, and however convincing an argument they can make, a reader can completely miss the mark.  They can get something entirely wrong.  Or something that the author believes is entirely wrong.  And if the author is alive, and this reading gains popularity, it can put the author in the position where their once-private universe isn’t being read the right way.

To use a real-life example, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was analyzed, J.R.R. Tolkien vehemently denied there being anything topical or allegorical about his books, whether it was to the history of Europe, Industrialism, World Wars I or II, or Christianity.  He said that Middle Earth was Middle Earth, and in no way related to anything of modern Western civilization.  This seems a little bit unfair of a thing to say, considering Tolkien himself was of modern Western civilization, but what really bothers me about this statement is how much it limits the reader’s ability to interpret a work.  I can see why Tolkien was wary of allegory.  As someone who built one of the largest and most intricate fantasy worlds in the history of literature, it must have felt reductive to his work for someone to say that the whole story meant just one or even three things.  That said, for Tolkien to say anything along the lines of, “My story is just a story, and has no allegories, metaphors, or allusions to the world I live in and wrote it out of,” is equally reductive.  Maybe it doesn’t seem reductive to tell a critic their reading is wrong, so let’s make this example a little more human: imagine if a Holocaust Survivor read Sauron as Hitler? Maybe he took comfort in the complete evil and ultimate downfall of “The Red Eye,” at the hands of those he oppressed.   It seems to me, that in saying what a book is not — or even in saying what it is — an author limits the reader, and therefore limits the impact the text can have on that reader, and thus he inadvertently reduces the possible scope of his writing.

If I were an author, I would never want to say anything that would sever the personal or emotional connection between my reader and my work. Which is why, I think, so many of them remain mum about their work.  When asked about endings, their quote is usually something unsatisfying about it being left up to the audience to decide what happens after that ambiguous final sentence that leads to torrents of debates, fan fiction, interpretations, and (in some more passionate cases), arguments, counter-arguments, yelling, fights and mayhem.  Or as James Joyce once answered, “”I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

In the world of literature, it is not usually expected that there is a right or wrong answer to things, but I’m going to go ahead and say that, in this case, Joyce’s and my hypothetical-author’s answers were right to remain cryptic and to act otherwise would be wrong. This is a pretty sweeping statement, and of course, as with all sweeping statements, there are exceptions.  But after a text is written and completed, I think the author has to watch their tongue.  With the internet making fan-bases more connected, fan-theories more prominent, and authors far more accessible, this is a challenging task.  They are constantly barraged with questions and with websites Good Reads and Twitter allowing unmoderated access between authors and their fans, the content that authors disclose outside of their books is rivaling the importance of what they say inside. Do you remember when the news broke that Dumbledore was gay?  Despite the power of the audiences, authors are authorities on their work, and when they give answers, it’s hard, sometimes even impossible to argue.  (Some even refer to information an author gives about a work of fiction outside of that work as the Word of God.) But every answer an author gives eliminates the possibility of what else the answer could be.

 

 

Bonus Question:

What is your best theory?

Bailey’s Book Reviews: Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

June 21, 2012

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

Gwyneth Shepherd has grown up in the shadows of her family’s legacy, a legacy in which certain members of the family carry a gene allowing them to time travel. With her cousin being prepared for time travel and an aunt who sees the future, Gwen considers herself normal for her family, even though she can see things no one else can. When she finds herself being unexpectedly thrust into the past, no one believes there has been a mistake and that she is the true heir to the time traveling gene. Gwen is suddenly thrust into a world she isn’t prepared for and must follow instructions from a secret society that doesn’t trust her enough to disclose their secrets. Aided only by the handsome but hostile time traveler Gideon, she must go into the past and decide whether or not she wants to be a part of an ancient mission to uncover a powerful mystery and the secrets of time travel.

A great, quick read that is perfect for a lazy summer day. The novel has mystery, romance, and a touch of action. Gwen’s world is an intriguing world of fantasy taking place in modern day England. She is odd and misunderstood by the majority of her peers and is largely excluded from her family’s secrets because she is not expected to inherit the time traveling gene. In the end, however, it is the fact that she is different that makes her chosen and special. Gwen also struggles in trying to decide what to believe amidst an obscure set of truths put forth by an ancient secret society. With no experience or past instruction, she must follow her own conscience to make the decision of whether or not she wants to be a part of this new world. Although this first novel is mostly setting up characters and the plot line for the rest of the series, you still won’t want to put it down. The suspenseful ending leaves you reaching for the next book.

Grade: 3/5
★★★☆☆

By: Bailey Shoenberger

About Bailey Shoenberger: Bailey is a 16 year old from Orange County, California. She loves being in the sun, on the beach, or swimming with her swim team. Bailey is the oldest of four avid readers.

The Book Was Better: The Great Gatsby, Lolita, & What It Takes to Adapt a Book into a Movie

June 14, 2012

A huge step of the life-cycle of a successful book is when it becomes a film.  The most compelling and popular stories will sooner-rather-than-later make it to the silver screen. Some of these adaptations (The Godfather for example) make great and important films.  Most of them make solid, entertaining films.

I’m not very versed in film criticism, but I believe the easiest way to test the success or failure of an adaptation from page to screen is the phrase, “the book was better.”  How many times do you hear this?  It’s been said about Harry Potter; it’s been said about the Watchmen; it’s been said about The Da Vinci Code, it’s been said about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  It’s the general consensus that most adaptations, while good, fall short of their source.  The more famous the book is, the harder it is going to be to make an adaptation that can stand-alone from it, which means Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby might be somewhat doomed-from-the-start.  (At least by my standards.) So let me make something clear, I’m not accusing any of these films of being bad movies.  Some are, but the rest are usually good, well-made films.  The phrase “the book was better” does not mark an adaptations failure because it says anything about the quality of the movie, rather it marks the movie’s inability to stand on its own as a film, separated from the source material.

I realize that creating a film that outshines its source is a hard, and sometimes impossible, task.  But I also believe it is a filmmaker’s job goes beyond translator.  I charge filmmakers to make adaptations that, while not out-shining or disrespecting their sources, defy comparison.  When filmmakers choose to adapt books, they takes the power to tell story with their voices, their cameras, and their artistic spirits. The way a filmmaker decides to imbue his adaptation with his voice does not necessarily mean completely overhauling the plot, but usually a big change is necessary.  I think The Great Gatsby is one of those cases.

There are two reasons audiences usually like the books better.  The first is that it is impossible to fit an entire novel into two (or even three) hours and therefore, scenes are deleted, sub-plots are dropped, and favorite side-characters become unimportant extras, for
the simple reason that the movie cannot cover the same narrative space that the book does.  The second (and more affecting Gatsby) is, writing allows for internality that film cannot achieve without crushing levels of narration. How can you put something like,

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something to commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

onto a screen? You can have a time-lapse of the history of the continent all the way up to the building of Gatsby’s house while DiCaprio watches.  But how are you going to get a transitory enchanted moment where man must have held his breath?  And if you do, how are you going to get all of every moment like this visually represented?  The only answer is, you can’t.  There are parts of books that fundamentally can only exist in the written word, and if a filmmaker makes a movie that does not accomplish the same level of depth the book had without those untranslatable moments, the audience is left feeling the lack.  And if he tries to push all of them into the film, the audience will feel suffocated.

The best way to avoid both of these problems when attempting to adapt something as colossal as Gatsby, is to change the narrative of the film.  In his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Stanley Kubrick did just that.  The tagline of film is, “How did Lolitathey ever make a movie of Lolita?”  This tagline says it all.  It pokes at the MPAA restrictions forced upon the film —Nabokov’s novel is so mature that the idea of translating the somehow sympathetic narrative of a murderer and pedophile onto the strictly regulated screen seemed impossible.  By addressing this, it also immediately calls out the idea of a book as impossible to adapt, and by phrasing the question in the past tense (“how did…?”) it immediately presumes that it has succeeded.  And Kubrick really did make a movie out of Lolita.

Kubrick’s Lolita is not a movie you can watch instead of doing your homework.  The film’s Wikipedia page has over 2,600 words dedicated to the differences between Kubrick’s film and Nabokov’s book.  One of the most interesting and biggest changing Kubrick made was vastly expanding the role of Quilty, the principal antagonist of the book.  When Kubrick read Lolita he said he could see “just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative,” and his film is just as much an exploration of what he saw in Quilty as it is a retelling of Nobokov’s story.  Kubrick respects Nabokov’s novel, but does not let his reverence of the original work get in the way of his art.  I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I liked the film better than the book, but it is bold, defies comparison, and, ultimately, gives us a new way to read the original story.

Will Luhrmann’s Gatsby do the same?  My guess is not. But I’ve only seen 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the same clips over and over.  What do you guys think?

Bonus Questions:

What’s your favorite movie adaptation of a book? (Hint: Mine’s The Godfather, followed by The Princess Bride, Lolita, and Clueless.)

What book are you dying to see adapted into a movie? (I’d love to see what a good director can do with something absurdist like The Eyre Affair.)

What book do you never want to see as a movie? (On The Road… and yes, I know.)

It’s Good to be Gross: The Hunger Games & Feminism

June 5, 2012

I’m about two hours (or possibly two years) late to this party, but I have finally read The Hunger Games.  It wasn’t that I had been avoiding it, I just never managed to get around to it, remember to buy a copy of it, or really feel any need to read it.  But as the fan base grew, and one by one all of my friends had read at least the first book, I kept hearing: “This is the best thing to come out of Twilight.”  After might be a better term than out of, but I think that its contrast to Twilight highlights what’s so exciting about Collins’s trilogy.  It wasn’t hard to figure out what my friends meant, even before I’d read the book.  They were talking about how Katniss, unlike Bella, is a strong, independent, not lovelorn, protagonist with a survivalist instinct, and very little time to stew in the angst of what it means to be an (extra)ordinary teenage girl.  When the movie came out I saw a clip of an interview with some of the cast. I wasn’t able to find this again, but I’m pretty sure this is how it went. The interviewer asked Jenifer Lawrence, “Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?” and she answered, “I’m Team Katniss.” I found it a surprisingly powerful moment, and ultimately it was the reason I decided to finally read The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

My overall impression is that it is a better book than it is written. Collins lacks a bit of artifice and is often too afraid to trust the reader to notice subtlety, so she is more overt than I like in fiction.  At its worst moments you can see the strings of what she’s setting up and she wants us to feel.  When Rue is dying,  Collins writes, “But if this is Prim’s, I mean Rue’s, last request, I have to at least try.”  Collins has already set up and reinforced that Katniss sees her sister in Rue, and the Freudian slip hits her point a little too head on.  Had she left that unstated, the moment would be ten times more powerful than it was.  For example, the most powerful part of Rue’s death was when District 11 donated bread to Katniss. This moment was powerful because it was subtle.  From that gesture you could infer the grief of her family and the gratitude of the district that someone who was supposed to kill Rue, cared for her instead.  Inferring is always more powerful than telling directly.

My quibbles aside, Katniss is a great female protagonist.  She’s actually one of the best and an excellent role model for young women.  One of the most important reasons is also one of the less talked about.  Katniss is gross.  Actually, viscerally gross.  Yes, her circumstances are gross, but Collins makes a point of this grossness.  She burns off Katniss’s hair, has Katniss gorge herself at every opportunity she gets, covers her in blisters, welts, and pus, has her check her hydration by the color of her urine, and painstakingly describes her vomiting.  This grossness, while not the cause of Katniss’s greatness, illustrates in my mind the two most prominent reasons Katniss is so great.

First, Katniss poops, pees, vomits, and does all the gross things that have historically been considered too base for a beautiful creature like a woman to acknowledge she does.  These moments highlight Katniss’s strength.  It’s not that Katniss does these things, it’s that she’s not afraid or embarrassed to do them.  In one of my favorite books, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

“I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness… I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue.”

A constructionist feminist before feminism was a thing, Wollstonecraft believed that the delicacy that is considered so pretty, ultimately breeds weak women. In many ways, Katniss proves this point.  No one would argue that Katniss — in our minds or on the screen — is an ugly girl.  She’s gorgeous, and her beauty comes from her strength, rather than her softness.  The one time she resembles dainty is in her interview, and after it she watches the tape disgusted and embarrassed.  She thinks she looks weak, not pretty.  Katniss is gross because she is strong and to survive she has to be.  She has no need (or time) to be elegant.  The elegance that comes with daintiness, in contrast, is a virtue of the Capitol that she actively scorns.  Katniss’s beauty does not come from a rejection of femininity, but a rejection of the weakness labeled as femininity.  She is imbued with a stronger, more powerful, and more natural beauty.

The other thing these gross moments illustrate is that Katniss is her own person, and not just a vessel for the reader.  These moments are so physical and so extreme that they break our empathy — we are not vomiting, we are not dehydrated, we are not burned — and force us to sympathize with Katniss instead.  In having moments like this, the audience separates itself from Katniss, and through that she becomes more of a character.  Not all, but a lot of fiction, and a lot of YA fiction targeted at girls, uses the protagonist as a self-insert.  We are supposed to live vicariously through her.  This is not, by itself, a bad thing.  It creates a very direct connection between the reader and a book. But a character should be more than a shell for us to curl up in and live through.  A character must be a person.  Katniss is.  In many ways, The Hunger Games is a study of who that person is.  In this, Katniss becomes real. We don’t think we are her (we don’t even think we could be her), but we want to be like her.  This is why The Hunger Games is the best thing to come out of Twilight.

In Twilight, you pick Team Edward or Team Jacob, and swoon with the knowledge that two big, strong, beautiful men live to catch you before you hit the ground.  Edward is Bella’s hero.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss is a superhero, and the thing about superheroes is they don’t have to rely on anyone.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

May 23, 2012

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

For some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know. Samantha Kingston thinks she has it all. She and her three best friends rule the school and, more importantly, know they can always rely on each other. Samantha’s boyfriend is one of the cutest boys in school. Her senior year is nothing more than worrying about college and partying on the weekends. February 12th should be a normal day of cutting classes, going out with her best friends and worrying about boys.  However, just past midnight, a car crash changes everything and Samantha finds herself reliving her last day over and over again for one crazy week. With each new day, she comes to understand more about the life she is leaving behind. She gets a chance to right old wrongs and help someone appreciate the fact that with life there is always hope.

Before I Fall

By Lauren Oliver

 

This book is a heartfelt story of appreciating life while we still can. It is a great quick read for on vacation or during a long weekend. Samantha Kingston, like many high school students, is always looking forward and wants nothing more than to enjoy life. Though pretty and popular, as we get to know her, we realize even the most put together people have pasts they aren’t proud of and continue making mistakes. Just like Samantha, we all want to prove ourselves and get frustrated when we don’t live up to our expectations. Our lives aren’t perfect and that’s okay. Our friends might be flawed but, no matter what, we have their backs and they have ours.  It is through dying that Samantha comes to truly appreciate the little things in life. She learns there is so much more to a person than meets the eye and one day can change a life entirely.

By: Bailey Shoenberger

 

 

About Bailey Shoenberger: Bailey is a 16 year old from Orange County, California. She loves being in the sun, on the beach, or swimming with her swim team. Bailey is the oldest of four avid readers.

Jane – April Linder

May 7, 2012
Jane by April Lindner

Jane by April Lindner. Young Adult retelling of a classic Jane Eyre story.

Note: Meet Bailey, a Just the Right Book subscriber who has offered to review Young Adult books for us. We sent Jane to Bailey because we thought it would be Just Right for her. Here’s what she thought of it:

Jane by April Lindner

 This is a great book for lovers of a classic romance story.  Jane’s sense of being an outcast and not wanted or loved by her peers is easy to connect to everyday life. She struggles to find her purpose in life and her place in the world like many people today. Used to being overshadowed by her beautiful sister and popular older brother, she embodies the conflict of being different in a world where there are clear lines you must follow in order to fit in. Although Jane doesn’t have many friends, lots of money, or fantastic style, what she does have is confidence in her strengths and the will to make the best of every situation. She proves that beauty and popularity are not the keys to life and that when it comes to true love nothing can stand in the way.

Jane is an average, unremarkable girl who finds herself thrust unexpectedly into the world of fame and fortune. Although she would rather study and work on her art, she is forced to work as a nanny after her parents die in a car accident and money for college starts to run out. When she is sent to look after the daughter of the infamous rock star, Nico Rathburn, her immediate concerns are whether or not he is really over his wild ways. However, after getting to know Nico and his household she comes to have a new outlook on life and gets the chance to experience true love. Although the journey isn’t easy, she is able to define who she is and what she wants along the way. The seemingly simplistic plot line takes an unexpected dramatic twist in the second half of the novel as complications arise with her budding romance all leading to a satisfactory ending.

Teen Blogger Bailey S California

By: Bailey Shoenberger

About Bailey:  16 year old from Orange County, California. She loves being in the sun, on the beach, or swimming with her swim team. Oldest of four avid readers.

News from My Bookshelf

April 25, 2012

(Reprinted from Huffington Post April 25, 2012)

As the owner of an independent bookstore, RJ Julia , and the founder of the online book service Just the Right Book, my starting point for learning, being charmed or just distracted, is first and foremost books. Since there is an astonishing amount of information out there, I thought it might be fun to share with you items I have noticed, learned or was curious about in the past week. I hope you find the insights engaging and, in turn, learn something, are charmed or just happily distracted.

Quote of the Week
“The girls are vacant and beautiful and wild, their budding sexuality had a certain lack of control, like a toddler with a power tool,” Jonathan Tropper, This Is Where I Leave You.

(Guess where my brain is with the premiere of Lena Dunham’s Girls (HBO) and the runaway success of 50 Shades of Grey?)

Book of the Week
Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. This incredible masterpiece is the story of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful and sensuous women. The story is set in Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert, during a siege by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago. I was utterly mesmerized by every aspect of the novel — the four women, the history, the landscape, ancient medicine and magic — brilliant.

Op-Ed of The Week
In his Op-Ed in the New York Times, Richard B. Primack discusses Thoreau’s Walden and gives us a lovely method to assess the ways in which particular plants in the Concord, Mass landscape have changed in the many years since Thoreau wrote his masterpiece. His musings intrigued me enough to want to go back and read Walden — (Shhhh… I’ve never read it all the way through!).

Blog of the Week
I subscribe to Six Pixels of Separation and always find Mitch Joel’s blog very useful. I especially love his “Six Links Worthy of your Attention” series. This week he blogs about “The World of Thumbonomics” and author Heather Lutze (Findability Formula; new book Thumbonomics — The Essential Business Roadmap to Social Media and Mobile Marketing). I suspect, like me, lots of folks are trying to figure this Social Media thing. At

Déjà vu of the Week
All the conversation about the Dept of Justice lawsuit against Apple and five publishers reminded me of a fascinating talk by Barry Lynn at an American Booksellers educational conference. He was discussing his new book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. My recollection is that he elaborated on the impact of Americans now determining their well-being through the filter of being a consumer rather than a citizen. I plan to go back and reread the book (after Walden of course!) because I’m curious to see if it provides insight into the one business question that has me riveted: What is the cost of the lowest price?

Book Club Selection of the Week
The book for the Big City Book Club this week is Time and Again by Jack Finney. For those of you who have never read this book — urge you to pick it up — not only is it a fascinating journey into NYC in the late 1800′s, it is also a wonderful love story and exploration of fate.

I also suggest Justice by Michael Sandel (he of Harvard fame). It was one of my favorite books of the last few years. A book I believe should be part of any Book Club selections and even worthy of starting a new book club for! His new book is What Money Can’t Buy — I imagine he again gets us thinking about what is important.

Serendipitous Moment of the Week
Sandi Kahn Shelton (a writer and journalist; her pen name is Maggie Dawson) was in my store this week and literally bumped into a friend — Matthew Dicks — another author — whom she introduced to me. There was something very charming about Matthew and his wife and it made me curious to read his new book which will be published in August. He graciously dropped off a galley of Memoir of an Imaginary Friend the very next day. The title intrigued me enough to bring it home (as opposed to the other dozens of books on my desk saying “pick me-pick me”) and started it on Thursday night — I finished it Saturday morning. This book is magical, uplifting and incredibly smart. Loved it — not only can’t I wait to tell you more and encourage you to read it when it comes out but I think it would be great fun if we invited kids and adults to write about their imaginary friend — and how that friend helped them or made a real-life difference.

Article of The Week
I keep reading about an article by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and MIT professor and the author, most recently, of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Her writing is generating tons of online comments and she raises an important issue for us all — are we somehow finding it easier and better to connect online? Are we over-wired and under-engaged? Very curious to read her book and understand the full expanse of her research and thoughts.

Question of the Week
What elements of 50 Shades of Grey are contributing to its incredible success? Romance? S & M Sex? Kate Roiphe’s theory about submission (as cited in her Newsweek article)? Or is it merely a distraction?

Happy Reading and Thinking and Commenting,

Roxanne J. Coady

 
 
 

Follow Roxanne Coady on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ReaderRox

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