Issues with Issues

Over on her blog, Robin has some thoughts about “issue” books. Go read it and also be sure to read the comments, which are terrific, especially Molly’s comment about the power of the “survivor” in issue fiction and memoir.

There’s a lot to say here and I won’t say it all, but still — this is gonna be a long one, folks. And inevitably some people are going to misinterpret it, which made me think twice about posting it in the first place, but, well, here goes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, an “issue book” is typically a book identified primarily by its association with some controversial issue, as opposed to its quality. The term is often used pejoratively in many circles, which is how it’s pretty much used below. Why? Well, because while there are certainly good issue books, the fact of the matter is, we rarely call them such. We usually just call them “good books.”

Which is part of my point.

Robin says in her post, “…there are a lot of books out there that take on an issue, it seems, just for the sake of being scandalous.”

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about.

This is a tough…issue (heh) for me because I could come across sounding hypocritical once Boy Toy hits. There are going to be a lot of people who call it an “issue” book. (They’re wrong, but that won’t stop them.)

It’s also tough to talk about because, inevitably, someone is going to think I’m talking about his or her book. Let me say this: I’m not talking about your book. I’m going to try to make my examples as ridiculously narrow as possible so that it’s impossible to assign them to any one book, but let’s face it — someone’s gonna take offense. Try not to. Honest to God, I’m talking about the concept and the overall notion of “issue” books, not your book in particular! There are many fine “issue” books out there, but there are also many that are problematic. (In particular, since Robin’s post was touched off by discussion of Patty McCormick’s Sold, people will assume I’m talking about that book. I’m not.)

Here’s what bothers me about “issue” books — they tend to muddy the waters of what the book is actually about. Sometimes that’s because the book is only about the issue at hand, with the issue overwhelming the actual story-telling. My feeling is that, no matter how passionately you feel about the issue, guess what? You’re a writer. Your job is to tell me a story. That’s the most important thing. It needs to be an interesting, compellingstory, not a screed.

That’s a fine line to walk. It can be crossed very easily, especially when you’re very close to the subject or have done a lot of research and want to show the world how much you know. I’ll poke fun at myself here: A few years ago, I wrote an odd sort of historical fantasy novel (quite unpublished, thank you). The novel starred an actual historical person (a pretty famous one, actually) and I did a hell of a lot of research into his life. I used that research in the book, to the point that it was strangling the story. But I didn’t care — I just loved this person and I was going to show the world why. My early readers finally had to perform an intervention: “I know you know everything there is to know about this guy,” said one. “But I don’t care. I care about the story.”

There’s an old saying: A story is not everything that happened. It is every important thing that happened. When you’re caught up emotionally in an issue, you sometimes forget that, and the story suffers as a result.

I mean, if you want to write about, say, the plight of impoverished albino children raised by wolverines, then that’s fine. But if that’s all you want to write about and you have no interest in investing your story with character development and plot twists and so on because you’re just so damn focused on those poor, poor kids and their wolverine parents, then guess what? Maybe you should write an op-ed piece or script a documentary or pen a non-fiction book or produce a segment of Dateline. But don’t use fiction as a cloak and a crutch because fiction has certain demands and requirements.

What else can go wrong with “issue” books? Well, they can get attention they don’t deserve. And they’re invulnerable.

I mean, let’s say I write a book about a teen who’s only sexually aroused by goats. It’s not particularly well-written, but when it comes out it has all kinds of attendant press talking about the shame of kids who can only get it on with kids (heh) and how X percentage of high schoolers are zoophiles, but no one ever talks about this hidden underground sex practice among our teens, and so on and so forth. The book gets lots of attention and I am feted as being oh so daring for writing about it.

Here’s the problem, though: The book isn’t all that good. Maybe it doesn’t suck, but maybe it’s just…so-so. Still, it’s getting a lot of attention it doesn’t deserve. Meanwhile, another book that’s not nearly as controversial misses out, even though it’s better written and an overall better book. It’s about a guy with a pet goat who sees that goat as a substitute for his dead mother and has to deal with an upcoming move to the city that will take the goat away from him. It’s a really good book, but since the kid isn’t shtupping the goat, not as many people notice.

And I’ve made my own book bulletproof. Anyone who criticizes it can be shot down with, “Don’t you feel anything for those poor, secret zoophile teenagers, you heartless bastard?” Fiction shouldn’t be bulletproof. It needs to be open to criticism and discussion. If someone is afraid to criticize Kid on Kid because of the subject matter, then I’ve just cut off discussion of my book.

Am I saying that “issues” shouldn’t be tackled at all? God, no! I’m just saying that they can’t be the be-all and end-all of the story. The story needs to have a reason for existing beyond, “I really want to hammer home this controversial issue.”

Now, some people will say, “Barry, get over yourself. You’re being way too cynical. You’re assuming people only care about the flash, not the substance.”

To which I respond, “Jerry Springer. Anna Nicole Smith coverage. American Idol, for God’s sake.”

And some people will say, “Even if an issue book isn’t particularly well-written, the writer deserves kudos for bringing the issue up for public consumption.”

And I say, “No. A writer deserves kudos for telling a good story. If it’s a good story that also discusses a tough issue or changes the world by shedding some light on a topic, then that writer gets an extra heaping helping of kudos. But a good story comes first.”

Maybe that stance makes me a hard-ass. OK, so be it. The fact of the matter is, I make my living telling stories. I take it pretty seriously. Again — if you don’t want to write good fiction, go make a documentary. If it’s well-done, I’ll be first in line to watch it. I don’t quibble with people’s intentions or the necessity of exposing the evils of the world. But use the proper tools and use them properly.

Look, Boy Toy’s got child sexual abuse in it, OK? But when I talk about the book, I try to avoid talking about that because the book isn’t about child abuse. The abuse is a natural part of the story. It enhances the story and the story (hopefully) earns the rather raw and difficult images I bring to it. But the book is about a kid named Josh who’s trying to figure out how to move into the future when he can’t quite shake his past.

Looking for Alaska was a great grief book because it wasn’t about grief. It was about very specific kids dealing with grief in their own way. The Girl with the Silver Eyes was a great divorce story because it wasn’t about divorce — it was about how a specific character dealt with it. Wide Awake strikes a chord not because it stars young, gay political activists, but because it tells a timeless truth: stand up and be counted if you want to make a difference.

Robin’s own Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature is a great book not because it’s about evolution and fundamentalism, but rather because she’s crafted a credible, powerful character in Mena who strives to understand and to better herself. Quite frankly, the book could have been about Mena trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem as opposed to the Theory of Evolution and it would still be great because of Robin’s wit, devotion to her character, and attention to detail. When the book comes out, people will say, “It’s about evolution vs. intelligent design” because that’s a quick, sexy, controversial way to sum it up, but they’re wrong. Robin’s book is about a girl trying to reconcile her upbringing with what she feels (and fears!) may be the real truth of the world. The evolution stuff is window dressing. Gorgeous, well-crafted window dressing, to be sure, but what’s important is the window we’re looking through, not what surrounds it.

I’ve blathered on a lot here, and people are going to assume that I hate specific books and specific types of books, and nothing could be further from the truth. I just worry when I hear someone say, “Oh, Book X is so amazing! It’s about Controversial Subject #30, and I can’t believe Author Y was so courageous to write about it!” I immediately think, Yeah, but is it a good story?

Because, again, someone could probably get a lot of attention writing that Kid on Kid book (coming Fall 2009!). But fiction doesn’t exist just to bring “issues” to light. It has to have its own internal reason for “living.”

Again: a lot of blather. What it boils down to is this — The story is what matters. If the story tackles an issue, great. But don’t reward a bad story just because it touches on difficult subject matter. Save your kudos for those who touch a live wire and do it well.

On MySpace

So, last week (while I was on my way to the Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival), I got a phone call. It seems MySpace wanted to feature my blog on the MySpace Books page.

Well, after a few days of figuring out what to write about and coordinating with the folks at MySpace, the blog is up and prominently displayed on the MySpace Books page!

Some of you may have mixed feelings about MySpace. My opinion is that it’s like any other piece of technology — it has the potential for good or for ill, depending on how it’s used. I just can’t see a downside to this sort of exposure.

I had a lot of fun writing the piece and I’m currently discussing the possibility of further entries with MySpace. We’ll see how this goes.

Lost: Necessity

Not much to say this week. This particular episode wasn’t good, wasn’t bad. It was just necessary.

Basically, this served as a bridge episode, setting up certain elements to prepare for next week. (And, hopefully, beyond. Though this show has displayed a disturbing tendency to set up pitches and then let them fly by.)

Most interesting tidbit this week? Juliet’s claim that she had never seen the smoke monster before. And yet she knew exactly how to stop it. Strange.

Just before the preview for next week came on, I thought to myself, “If they don’t grill Juliet for everything she knows, I am SO finished with this show.” So I was gratified to see Sayid threatening Juliet for information. Then again, for a torturer and alleged bad-ass, Sayid has actually proven pretty terrible at getting information out of people. Yeah, he tortured the hell out of Sawyer in Season 1, but his run at Ben (“Henry Gale”) in Season 2 didn’t accomplish much. I want to see Sayid get everything there is to get out of Juliet.

While I enjoyed the “lame con” Hurley pulled on Sawyer, it’s ultimately meaningless with Jack coming back next week. It’s nice to see that someone was thinking ahead (and it connected last week’s seemingly disconnected episode as Hurley’s reason for his con), but it’s just moot.

Oh — Locke going with the Others? Veeeery interesting. I wonder if we’ve seen the last of him for a while. I hope not — Locke’s character is just starting to be redeemed. If he does return, then he must know a hell of a lot about the Others, and I swear if the writers pull an amnesia out of their butts to explain away that knowledge… Ugh.

We’ll see what happens next week. Looks like a Juliet flashback. She’s a new character and we’ve already had plenty of Juliet this season, so let’s hope it’s worth it.

UPDATE: In the cold, clear light of morning, this just occurred to me: Are they really going to pack up and leave Otherville? Um, there are houses there, people! There’s infrastructure! Move in a bunch of folks and who knows what you might discover? Plus, there’s a friggin’ security fence that keeps out the bad guys! If next week’s episode doesn’t have a damn good explanation as to why they’re not just going back to the beach to gather everyone up and move them to a safe haven…I’ll be very concerned.

river’s end bookstore

The day after the Teen Book Festival, I hopped in the car and drove an hour and half (ish) to Oswego, NY. (I got a tiny bit lost along the way, but no harm, no foul. Turns out my AAA directions were…lacking.)

The story of how I ended up in Oswego is sort of atypical. See, Banna Rubinow at the river’s end bookstore had read an advance copy of the novel. She liked it a lot and said so on the store’s web site. I saw the mention and asked if I could quote her on the Fanboy site. From there, we started corresponding semi-regularly. When Banna found out I was going to be in Fairport for the book festival, she asked (I was going to say “demanded,” but she was very polite!) if I could find time to come to Oswego, too.

Let me think about this… I’m in the area anyway… Do I have time to go to a store that is enthusiastic about my work? I gave the matter all five seconds it needed, then said yes!

In advance of the trip, some of the local and regional papers covered my event, which was very cool! (Authors: If the river’s end invites you to attend, go! They get advance publicity for you like you wouldn’t believe!) The Syracuse Post-Standard interviewed me and then posted the stuff that wouldn’t fit in print online. Beyond cool!

Fitting for April Fools’ Day, the gods decided to prank me — not only did I get lost, but it also rained all day. The good guys still won, though — the store had a nice crowd gathered to hear me speak. I did my “stump presentation” on the history and importance of geeks, then read a little bit from Fanboy before taking questions and signing books.

I have to say — the coolest thing about events like this is the chance to meet great people. The gang at the river’s end was just terrific. I felt like I’d walked into a five-star hotel, not a bookstore! I had a cup of hot tea in my hands almost before I finished saying hello, just the trick on a cold and rainy day.

If you’re ever in Oswego or nearby, check out this store! It’s an absolutely beautiful shop and its location is unbeatable — right on the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Oswego. Owners Bill and Mindy Reilly and their staff do a terrific job making visitors feel at home.

The staff weren’t the only cool people in attendance, though! The audience had some great questions and seemed to enjoy the talk and the reading. If my signing hand is any indication, they stuck around to buy copies of the book, too, so I hope they all enjoyed it!

If you guys in Oswego are reading this… Thanks for such a great time! I really thought that after the book festival I would be too tired to have fun in Oswego, but as soon as I walked into the store, I felt this amazing burst of energy and it was like I’d just come back from a relaxing vacation!

Pictures from the event in Oswego are in the Gallery on the Fanboy site. Click on the shot of the ladies of the river’s enddecked out in Goth regalia to get there!


Barry with the Goth Girls of the river's end

Teen Book Festival 2007 – Updated!

I attended the Teen Book Festival in Fairport, NY this past weekend (Saturday, March 31, to be specific).

I don’t think I can adequately explain how damn much fun I had! Really. I mean, I’ve been to events before where I felt like a rock star, but this was the first time I felt like a god! (OK, maybe a demi-god.)

Festival Goddess Stephanie Squicciarini deserves an award, a plaque, a week at a spa, and a handsome cabana boy named Paolo by her side 24/7 in honor of her heroic efforts. Her crack squad of volunteers deserves the same. (OK, they might have to share Paolo, but that’s OK.)

It was great to see ten other YA authors, so many of whom I’ve admired for a while now. I knew David Levithan and Lauren Myracle from last year’s Texas Book Festival and it was great to catch up with them. And I was so happy to meet other cool folks like Nancy Werlin and Terry Trueman! Newbery winner Linda Sue Park even stopped by Saturday night to chat with us…and to cause a near-heart attack in yours truly when she  said she’d actually READ MY BOOK! Whoa!

Cecil has pictures, including the infamous “author flower.”

My pics are on the Fanboy site — you can see ’em in the Gallery.

Too many good times to recap them all. It was great to meet Terry, who’s buds with MY bud Terry Davis. It was great to talk business and art and that strange place where the two intersect with people who have been at this longer than I have. It was even great to bore poor David to tears by talking comics ALL NIGHT LONG with Cecil.

UPDATE: The folks at the TBF have posted pictures from the event in a flickr account . Check ’em out — more will probably be added later as other attendees add their pics.