Happy Banned Books Week!
This week always gets me thinking about censorship, free press, and the fear of the advent of a Brave New World or Handmaid’s Tale type of societal control. I was so glad when the DFW Writer’s Workshop decided to donate banned or challenged books to a high school this year. The sad fact is that 33% of high school students and 42% of college students will never read another book after they graduate. Maybe part of the reason for that is they haven’t read books that ignite in them a joy for reading, for whatever reason.
As a teacher, I try to get my students fired up for reading, but in this age of screens as entertainment, it gets harder and harder. So, maybe we should worry less about keeping books out of kids’ hands and more about putting books into them, even if the book that gets them interested in reading might make us uncomfortable.
My donations this year, for the most part, were inspired by both this philosophy and the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. So here’s my list:
- Our Bodies, Our Selves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective: Honestly, I was shocked to find this book on the list. A shocking number of women do not understand their own bodies because they were never taught and didn’t ask questions. This is not only an act of societal mysogynism, but also a health risk to women. Anyone who watched the episode of Orange is the New Black, “A Whole other Hole” saw a comedic depiction of a real problem.
- I knew that Geography Club (Brent Hartinger), and Annie on my Mind (Nancy Garden) would be challenged and wasn’t shocked to see them on the list. These are books about LGBTQ teens finding their way in high school. A message that is important in this day an age when we see so many LGBTQ teens contemplating suicide because they feel alone, or bullied. In order to develop tolerance in our kids, they need to learn about all kinds of people. That means all kinds of protagonists in their literature, and kids who identify as LGBTQ need to be able to find protagonists like themselves in their literature.
- I know that Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman) has some of the same objections from the book banners as the above texts. But come on, how could you ban work from such an American poetic treasure?
- Am I Blue (ed. Marion Dan Bauer) is a collection of short stories by LGBTQ authors designed to teach tolerance for LGBTQ individuals to all students, while Revolutionary Voices (ed. Amy Sonnie) is a collection of reflections written by LGBTQ youth of color on their own unique journeys. Again, I feel these are an asset to a high school library, not something that should be put away in shame as if we are shaming the writers and readers as well.
- I know the above selections were a bit “cause-y” and while the causes are important, reading is also fun. So, I ended my donation with: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned (all by Anne Rice). There is a very simple reason for this. I needed teens to realize that real vampires DON’T SPARKLE. Okay, so it was a different kind of cause...
Banned Books Week is very close to my heart because if we hide or shame a subject matter in a book we are also hiding or shaming people in our society for whom that subject matter is part of their identity, be them people of color (The Invisible Man by Ellison), women (Our Bodies our Selves), alternative sexualities (my above selections) or anything else. So even if you disagree with the book, read it so you can better understand and we can all grow more tolerant. Kids who are taught tolerance don’t become bullies.
Banning books makes our schools less safe.
--Kat Cook, DFWWW member since 2013
Tony Skur, a longtime member of the DFW Writer’s Workshop and author of Christmas Help, More to Come, and One More Time, passed away on September 21. He was a true gentleman and patriot who will be sorely missed.
Tony was born in Ohio in 1931 and joined the US Marine Corps Reserve at the young age of seventeen. Three years later, he enlisted in the US Air Force and was accepted into the aviation cadet program in 1952. His first assignment was flying the F-86D Sabre Dog, an early all-weather swept wing jet interceptor.
Volunteering to serve in Vietnam, Tony flew in the Special Operations Wing, piloting one of the most bad-assed piston-powered aircraft ever built. The A-1 Skyraider, originally designed for the Navy in World War II, was the first airplane capable of carrying more than its own weight in ordnance. And carry ordnance he did. Where most planes of the era streaked across the sky at high altitudes, Skyraider pilots flew in the weeds, eyeball to eyeball with the enemy, providing close air support for our ground forces and performing rescue operations for downed airmen. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 with the rank of full colonel.
Tony wrote about flying and he wrote about war, but he also wrote about love, for it was love that filled his heart. While based at Perrin Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, he met the beautiful Kathleen Mayberry and proposed nine days later. Together they raised three sons and a daughter, living in wedded bliss for 59 years. During Kathleen’s later years, Tony lovingly cared for her as Alzheimer’s slowly took her. She passed away in September 2013.
A life of service is a life well lived. Not only did Tony serve his nation in war, he spent much of his time in service to others. While stationed in Tokyo, he helped keep an orphanage supplied with food, clothing, and school supplies. In Alaska, he was asked to prepare 30 children for their first communion, earning him the nickname ‘Pope Tony.’ Until his last days, he volunteered with Meals On Wheels, delivering food to senior citizens in his Keller community.
A month ago, Tony was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Even though he had a rough start with chemo therapy, he fought hard and kept his spirits high. Unfortunately, he passed away in his sleep Sunday evening, September 21, 2014.
Always a gentleman and a true gentle man, he will be sorely missed by his family and friends, but we can take solace in knowing he is forever reunited with his beloved Kathleen. Colonel Anthony Skur, my dear friend Tony, rest in peace.
-- George Goldthwaite, DFWWW Member since 2009
The first banned book I ever read was Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I can’t remember what grade I was in, but my mom had to sign a consent form in order for me to read it along with the rest of my class. She also had to sign a consent form when we watched Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo & Juliet after reading the play.
Even though the main characters die at the end, I think that form had more to do with the fact that we got to see Romeo’s butt, a quick flash of Juliet’s breast and a totally covered post coital smooch. It’s amazing, but we survived.
Even though I can probably still quote a few lines from Romeo & Juliet, it didn’t make an impression on my teenaged mind. It had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s mad writing skills. I just couldn’t connect to Romeo and Juliet. But Holden Caulfield was a different story. Even though he was a different gender, I felt like we were on the same floor in the angst-ridden department. After all, not all teenage girls are lovesick or pining over their own star-crossed lover. I was moody, cynical and probably clinically depressed. And Holden’s story made me feel as though my thoughts and feelings were valid. He had them too.
Yes, there’s a lot of swearing, a prostitute and underage drinking, but in this day and age, that’s totally PG-13. I pray they never make Catcher in the Rye into a movie because there’s not much of a plot. (I know it hasn’t stopped Hollywood before.) It’s a simple character study about a depressed young man coming to terms with becoming an adult. It’s a book that I’ve read several times throughout my life and each time, it’s like visiting with an old friend.
I’ll leave you with my favorite passage.
I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another “Fuck you.” It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.
Yes, I know.
We all want that big publishing contract handed to us upon completion of our first novel, and the career trajectory that rivals Stephen King. And there are still some people who get it. But there are also people who win the lottery, and their odds might be slightly better. The fact is, more people than ever are
trying to get published, and there are only so many traditional houses that can take them on. Eventually, we’re all faced with the question of whether we want to let our work—our art—sit in a drawer forever while we wait to be discovered, or take a chance on our own.
I’ve been self-publishing my own books for nearly a decade, and gotten so much experience with the industry that I now produce books for other people. This isn’t where I tell you how wonderful and artistically freeing it can be. In fact, if you’re considering self-publishing, here are a few reasons to think twice before you go charging in…
1. Self-Publishing Should Always Be a Last Resort
I always tell my clients to try to get their manuscripts published the traditional way before they self-publish. I spent another decade collecting rejection letters before I decided to try something different.
Most of my clients are in the same boat, just as frustrated as I was after getting nowhere, and determined to follow their dreams. But the amazing thing about all that querying and submitting and pitching is that the process itself still gives you some great insight about the industry: how it works, what it wants, and what sells.
One of my clients refused to listen to me about this. She had just put pen to paper for the first time three months before, scribbled out what she felt sure was a bestseller, and wanted to get it out to the reading public no matter what the cost. She had no understanding of what it takes to market or distribute a book, and was utterly baffled when she wasn’t on talk shows the week after it came out.
2. You’re Trying to Get Discovered in a Slightly Smaller Ocean
Remember how hard I said it was to get the attention of a traditional publisher these days? When the economy tanked in 2008 and unemployment skyrocketed, there were suddenly a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands who thought writing a bestseller sounded like a pretty easy gig. The result is an ocean of writers, all with their own manuscript, waving it at any person with a sign over their door that says ‘Agent’ or ‘Publisher’. And when they realized it wasn’t going to happen, a large segment of these writers turned to self-publishing.
When I started out, the landscape was very different. Expensive vanity publishing houses were everywhere. The production quality of most print-on-demand distributors was lacking. Ebooks were still a burgeoning market, and the technology to create them was far above the layman author. In other words, only the most determined—or the ones who had the most money to burn—could self-publish.
Not so anymore. The industry responded to the growing interest, and now pretty much anyone can self-pub easily and cheaply. You can even try to crowdsource it, if you don’t have the funds yourself, a trend that’s also growing among the traditional houses. The result of this is, of course, a slightly smaller ocean than the one trying to flag down the traditional publishers, except now you’re attempting to convince readers why they should pick your novel not only over the “real” books, but all the other self-pubbed ones as well. Ask yourself how you intend to market that bad boy before you set it loose on the world.
3. Going About It the Wrong Way Can Still Bankrupt You
The most important question to ask yourself before you decide to self-publish is, why am I doing this? Do you just want a book to give your family and friends, or is this a serious career attempt? If it’s the latter, you want to reach as many readers as you can. Ebooks are a cheap, easy route, but if you only publish in electronic format, aren’t you cutting off a huge segment of the market? Not everyone has an eReader, and some industry moguls say they’re a fad that’s already in decline. So you have to consider publishing a physical copy as well, and that’s where you can run into some serious money.
That old saying about not judging a book by its cover sounds great, but it’s human nature to do so. If your book doesn’t look as professional as any you would find in a bookstore, that puts you at a disadvantage. And since not too many people have the training to typeset their own book and design their own cover (although too many try), they have to find someone else.
This is the point when people tell me that companies like CreateSpace and Lulu are a great option for this. But you have to understand, these places are producing covers for thousands of people. Most of them are simple, boilerplate designs that are going to look like everyone else’s. If you truly want something original, something that stands out in that ocean, hire an independent designer.
I’ve met other self-publishers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars just having a book designed, which is, frankly, insane. You have almost no hope of making back that kind of investment, especially your first time out. So set a budget for yourself, and stick to it.
4. The Stigma is Still Just as Bad
I will never, ever forget the first time I told my writer friends I was self-publishing. I can laugh about it now, because the look of horror that spread across their faces was just as bad as if I’d told them I’d tested positive for bubonic plague. I even remember reading an article years ago where one famous author said it was better for writers to try their whole life to get published “legitimately” and fail than to self-pub, a philosophy which still makes me see red.
Self-publishing has certainly come more into the mainstream now. You even have established writers leaving their publishers because the royalties are so much better. Of course, they’re bringing name recognition and an established fan base with them, so that’s not really the same thing. A savvy reader can spot a self-published book a mile away, and they avoid them like, well, like the plague.
And why all the hate? Because self-publishing has always had a reputation for poorly-edited books, and just because the practice is more prevalent now doesn’t mean that’s changed. In fact, it’s undoubtedly worse. It’s up to you to present your best face to the world when you publish your own book, so don’t forget to get it edited (which can cost a fat stack of cash as well).
5. Your Success—or Failure—Will Ultimately Have Little to Do With Your Writing
When you self-publish, you become a business owner as well as a writer. And as such, you have to concern yourself with profits and costs and all the things which a publishing house would normally do for you. How will you market? How will you distribute your eBook to the multiple eReader platforms? Which printer will use the best quality materials for your paper copy (check out this article for a fantastic comparison of the major print-on-demand distributors; I was pleased to learn that mine, Lightning Source, is probably the best)? How will you network with bookstores and venues to get signings and appearances?
Just writing a novel—even if it’s a great one—isn’t enough.
Because anyone can be a self-publisher these days. But it takes an entire range of skills to be a successful one.
- Russel C. Connor, DFWWW member since 2006
You can buy Russell C. Connor’s novels through all major online retailers, or go to darkfilamentpublishing.com if you’re interested in having him produce your book. Find him on Twitter @russellcconnor.
Here’s the upcoming schedule for everyone who has finished their summer reads and are ready for the next batch of book babies to take home with them…
Member Kenneth Mark Hoover’s latest novel, Haxan, has been released by ChiZine Publications and Harper Collins. Booklist described it as a “mixture of western and urban fantasy with a cold, moody atmosphere…”
Kenneth was recently interviewed by My Bookish Ways on the heels of Haxan’s release, and it’s a great Q&A for writers and readers alike.
Member Harry Hall’s book, The Pedestriennes, America's Forgotten Superstars, which placed in the 2012 Mayborn Literary Contest, is available for preorder. The book uncovers America’s original pastime before baseball – professional endurance walking – a sport that garnered crowds, media attention, and its fair share of controversy.
In anticipation of the book’s arrival, Dallas Morning News featured an interview with Harry on their runner’s blog.
And finally, though we have some time to wait, member Melissa Lenhardt just sold her mystery, Stillwater, to Skyhorse Publishing. We look forward to its arrival.
So, there you are. All aboard and buckle up. We invite you to join us and read us, because we're certain there's no better book train to be on than ours.