by Sunita

This week, we have a little more on the Hugos and a lot more on reading and writing. First up, Gili Bar-Hillel, an Israeli translator and editor, talks about another way in which the Hugos are narrow in scope. The rest of the world snickers when we call the US baseball championships the World Series, but we call the Hugo con the WorldCon even though it’s overwhelmingly North American and UK oriented:

So what am I saying here? I am saying that OF COURSE the Hugos are dominated by Americans. This should be of no surprise to anyone. I am also saying that if you truly want more world in your WorldCon, it will require conscious effort, not only to attract and encourage fans and writers from other countries to attend, but to actually listen to them on their own terms when they arrive. Stop with the tokenism and the pigeonholing. Don’t cram all of your foreigners onto special panels for and about foreigners – just as you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) relegate women only to panels about gender, and POCs only to panels about race. Not only does it rub our noses in the fact of our being outsiders, it makes it far too easy for the insiders to skip our panels for lack of interest, and not really expose themselves to us at all…

People like me, who are comfortable in more than one culture, can serve as bridges and connectors. We bring a different perspective just by being who we are. But not if we’re cordoned off and observed from a distance as alien objects. Non-Americans who come to WorldCons do so because we love science fiction and fantasy just as much as Americans do. We want to participate, not to be held up as examples of difference. I’m afraid that too often, the programming, while well intentioned, is inadvertently alienating – the opposite of what it purports to achieve.

This is the same kind of essentializing that we do when we talk about “people of color,” as if their color is their defining characteristic. Sometimes it is, of course, especially in terms of how they’re treated in society. But sometimes it’s not, and we do the US/UK-centric thing there too. (This topic is too big for a links post, but I’m working on something longer.)

The author Aminatta Forma strikes a similar chord when talking about the way she and her book have been received and categorized by the UK and US literary communities:

Some years ago I was invited to speak at Oxford University, and I was perhaps naively surprised to find my book taught by the African studies department and nobody from the department of English literature in attendance at my talk. Everyone in the audience was an Africanist. That was when I first heard the words “the English canon”. Now, the English canon, like the British constitution, is tricky to discuss because it doesn’t actually exist: it is unwritten, yet at the same time everybody seems to know what it is, everybody in the world of English literature that is.

. . .

After The Hired Man was published, I gave a talk in a New York bookstore. Some days later I went back into the bookstore to redeem a gift voucher they had kindly given me. Out of curiosity I looked for my book and found it in the African section. An assumption had been made. I located a manager and explained I was the author and that the book was set in Croatia. She picked up the book and walked away with it, her dilemma written into her entire posture, her slow pace. Where now was she to place this book? Under Balkan literature? A few weeks later I was sent a photograph by a friend; there was my book in the same bookstore, prominently displayed on a table marked “European Literature”.

So where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author? Over the years I have posed the question of classification to many writers about their own work and the answer is invariably the same: in bookshops, fiction should be arranged in alphabetical order.

But of course, readers want category-based shelving to help them find books that are similar to each other, and many commercial fiction writers embrace categories because readers in their genre will more easily find their books. Remember how Julia Quinn supposedly chose her pseudonym so that she would be shelved next to Amanda Quick? Genre-fiction arguments tend to be about which categories to use, not whether categories should exist at all.

Next up, a bookseller talks about why print books and bookshops are important to him. Ignore the clickbait-y eyeroll of a headline, because Nicholls also reads ebooks and seems to like them just fine. But he makes a couple of points about print books and reading as a practice which really resonated for me:

Although he reads a lot on his e-reader, Nicholls said he doesn’t want a soundtrack to a book, or sound effects or illustrations or an audio commentary from the author, and he doesn’t want to “interact” with the story. “When I was a child I used to read those fantasy books where you got to decide on what happens next and they were always, without exception, deathly. Fiction is about telling; I want to be told. I want the author to know better than me, even if the story makes me sad, or frustrated or angry. I want a book to be fixed black marks on a white background, simultaneously so little and so much,” he said.

But Nicholls admitted he could feel the “hard line” between print and digital “softening”. As new figures from Nielsen Book reveal that ebooks accounted for 30% of book units purchased in 2014, the novelist expressed the hope that the book market would reach “some kind of equilibrium, a kind of peaceful co-existence; the survival, perhaps even the resurgence of books and bookshops alongside the continuing success and evolution of digital forms, a thriving community of readers meeting at festivals and fairs alongside a noisy, opinionated but generally positive and passionate online community.

“As a fortune-teller, my qualifications are non-existent, but what I hope for is a thriving, growing passion for marks on the page, whether that page is on paper or a screen,” he concluded.

I never read choose-your-own-adventure books as a child for the same reason: I want to read the author’s story, not mine. I can write my own (OK, I can’t, but you know what I mean). I want to peek into the author’s imagination and interact with it. There’s something magical to me about that, which is why I don’t want to tell an author what to write, or take a character in a different direction. I want to experience the product of someone else’s imagination and be invited into their fantasy world. I realize that makes me a minority in our online community, where just about everyone writes fiction of some kind, but I’m too old to change now. Like Nicholls, I want both types of people to be able to coexist peacefully, whether we’re talking e- and print consumers or writers and readers.

And finally, a post you’ll either love or hate. The author finds that the internet has made him too distracted to read books with the concentration they deserve:

Most nights last year, I got into bed with a book — paper or e — and started. Reading. Read. Ing. One word after the next. A sentence. Two sentences.

Maybe three.

And then … I needed just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind— just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny Tweet from William Gibson; to find, and follow, a link to a good, really good, article in the New Yorker, or, better, the New York Review of Books (which I might even read most of, if it is that good). Email again, just to be sure.

I’d read another sentence. That’s four sentences.

McGuire solves his concentration problem by spending less time online, not watching TV at night, and reading on an ereader. He uses studies on the effect of dopamine and other peoples’ similar experiences with reduced ability to listen to music without distraction to buttress his arguments. There are studies that provide opposite evidence (there almost always are), but this article appealed to me because it mirrors my experience. Like McGuire, I love books and I love to read, but I also found that my ability to concentrate while reading, writing, and just plain thinking had become much worse. It’s an ongoing battle for me to focus on what I’m doing rather than taking a minute to check my email or RSS feed.

I’m sure there are many people who can happily read a book while checking Twitter, Facebook, or their phone’s notification screen. I’m just not one of them. I don’t think I’m reading more books now that I’m single-tasking, but I’m enjoying my reading more. And yes, like McGuire, I do most of it on an ereader.

Have a great week, everyone!