kathleenhaleIt is late, and I have been watching the twitter storm erupt over the Kathleen Hale piece published by The Guardian for a full 48 hours at this point. I have really struggled with whether or not to even write this post – whether yet another post is needed to discuss it. I’ve seen many posts by many really fantastic bloggers, some of which I will link to below, deploring Kathleen Hale’s behavior, staying, rightfully, that stalking someone in real life is ALWAYS wrong, regardless of their behavior on the internet. I’ve seen a lot of author blogs providing really good advice about how to interact with readers.

The blogger/author community has, for the most part, been really wonderful, presenting a united front and near universal censure of Hale’s behavior.

I continue, though, to be extremely bugged by the reactions of the individuals who are NOT in the blogging commmunity. Who, often, seem to read the piece and who react to it completely differently. I’ve seen a lot of comments about how “brave” Hale was to write the piece, or how “self-aware” she is in acknowledging that her response to the provocation was inappropriate. The universal sense, to me, seems to be one of “well, yeah, she went over the line when she confronted her troll, but still, you know, it is really upsetting to get trolled.”

And this is why I am writing this post. Because while many posts have alluded to the fact that Blythe Harris didn’t do anything wrong, this is the aspect that I want to talk about here. Blythe Harris was not a troll. She was not Kathleen Hale’s number one online critic. She was not catfishing Kathleen Hale. In fact, until Kathleen Hale went batcrap crazy on her, I would guess that Blythe Harris had absolutely no idea that Kathleen Hale was obsessed with her.

Let’s start with a brief deconstruction of The World According To Kathleen Hale. We can start with an acknowledgment that this is a woman who writes fiction, and who is not adverse to a bit of hyperbole to advance the story. She begins her piece with a charming anecdote about an interaction with her editor that almost certainly happened only in her own imagination. There is almost zero chance that she actually started scribbling edits in the book – her book – that her editor handed her.

Moving on to the actual “interactions” with Blythe. You’ll notice I put “interactions” in quotes – that’s because there were basically no two way communications. She refers to a single tweet that occurred when Blythe tweeted her in response to her tweet to the YA reader community about her second book. Aside from that one interaction, Blythe, as near as I can tell from her recitation of the facts according to Kathleen never again initiated contact with her directly.

In addition, it is really important to point out that her explanation of Blythe’s online persona is highly misleading – intentionally so, I believe. She has framed Blythe as “her number one online critic.” Her “troll”. A person who has embarked on a concerted effort to ruin her, Kathleen Hale’s, life and career. She fails to provide any proof in the way of screenshots, or even dates and/or actual quotes, at all. But her entire article is built around an insinuation that Blythe Harris is just as obsessed with Kathleen Hale as Kathleen Hale is with Blythe Harris.

I am not friends with Blythe Harris. Our paths have crossed before, and I have seen her reviews. Even the briefest looking around demonstrates that Blythe Harris spent almost no time discussing Hale’s book. Her “review” of Hale’s book was a one star DNF that included some status updates. From Hale’s article, you might think that Blythe had only ever reviewed Hale’s book – that she was a entity conjured up from the darkest bowels of internet hell to ruin Hale’s life. The fact that Blythe Harris has reviewed 322 books on Goodreads, with an average rating of 3.57 stars would certainly seem to contradict that. Blythe Harris spent less than 1% of her review time on Goodreads on Kathleen Hale’s book.

In addition, Blythe Harris was a contributor to a blog which is easily found. Her review archive indicates that she reviewed 92 books on that blog. None of them are Hale’s book. Now, it is, I suppose, possible, that she has scrubbed the blog of any mention of Kathleen Hale in the time since the piece was published. I would simply note, however, that there is no proof that this is the case. The Guardian piece does not acknowledge that Blythe runs a review blog at all. If there had been harassment occurring on the blog, it seems fair to assume that it would have been mentioned, or even screenshotted. I think it is therefore a fair conclusion that Blythe never mentioned Kathleen Hale’s book on her personal blog. Kathleen Hale got 0% of Blythe’s attention on her blog, and around .03% of her attention on Goodreads.

Blythe Harris was not a troll. Surely it must be a truth that trolling someone takes work, that it takes effort. That a troll must be someone who spends more than .06% of their internet activity on the object of their trolling. More importantly, Blythe Harris was not trolling Kathleen Hale. The people are who are supporting Kathleen Hale’s Big Adventure are being misled.

That is why, I believe, that the reaction between the book blogging/author community and the rest of the world is so different. We are being mischaracterized by Kathleen Hale and we know it. I read the comments to The Guardian article. The amount and level of vitriol aimed at “nasty bloggers who leave one star reviews to ruin authors careers” is staggering, in spite of the fact that I have personally never seen such a thing.

I know that this is a very long post, and that it contains no images to break up the text. I apologize for that, but would ask you to bear with me, because I want to try to answer the people who have wondered why bloggers are so upset about this. Why we feel like it is such a big deal, since as long as we aren’t trolling trolls who troll we’ll be just fine. Who celebrate Kathleen Hale’s honesty and insight.

Well, first of all, it is terrifying because Blythe Harris wasn’t a troll anymore than I am or any of us are. Kathleen Hale has driven the narrative and people are convinced that she got what was coming to her. Even if we all agree that this kind of behavior is never okay, the fact remains that in this case in particular, she didn’t do anything to provoke it. All of that stuff that Kathleen Hale referred to – that all happened basically in her own head.

And, in response to the folks who find her so bold and fascinating, so self-aware and insightful, well, that’s just not true. I simply deny that she is either self-aware or that she is honest. One cannot be honest by presenting such a one-sided version of the facts that it barely intersects with reality. And one cannot be simultaneously self-aware and self-serving, and that entire piece was nothing but self-serving. What it was, truly, was character assassination, masquerading as essay, aided and abetted by privilege.

Which brings me to a point. I can’t leave this post without pointing out that Kathleen Hale is a very well-connected young woman indeed, connections which she left completely out of her piece. Her fiance is Simon Rich, former columnist for The Observer, which is affiliated with The Guardian. Her brother-in-law to be is Nathaniel Rich, whose most recent novel has been breathlessly review on the pages of the Guardian. Simon’s parents are even more illustrious – his father is Frank Rich, critic and columnist for the New Yorker, his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins. Could this explain how this piece that is so terribly mendacious made it into The Guardian without anyone bothering to critically read it or do even the most rudimentary fact checking as to whether or not this person, Blythe Harris, ever did anything that even remotely resembled trolling?

The article itself fairly reeks of entitlement, with its barely veiled contempt for the subject, Blythe, who lives in a slightly run-down residence (not the sumputous interiors that she posted on instagram, apparently) and works processing insurance claims. Who goes to New York on holiday, not Greece. Was it truly necessary to point this out, or was it payback for someone who is not a member of her social circle daring to have an opinion about her book, and putting it out there, on the internet, for everyone to read. And, as well, is it even true? Or is she making that up in the same way that she made up the entire assertion that Blythe Harris was her “number one online critic” when Blythe Harris spent 99.6% of her internet time talking about things other than Kathleen Hale or her book.

Finally, Hale herself is affiliated with James Frey, he of the Thousand Little Pieces debacle, in which he fictionalized his memoir in order to make it more interesting. Does that sound familiar to you? Because it does to me.

Kathleen Hale appears to be a very troubled woman – by her own admission. She manufactured a villain out of her own imagination. Blythe Harris was not her number one online critic, she was just a reader who reviewed a lot of books who happened to have the misfortune of being one of the earliest one-star reviewers of Hale’s debut novel. The fixation was entirely one-sided, like those stalkers who, upon being confronted by the police, insist that they are actually in a secret relationship with the object of their affections when they have never even spoken to one another.

How, having said all of that, we can see from the reaction of the blogging community what actually happens to an author who stalks bloggers. All support has been withdrawn. I seriously doubt that when Hale publishes her next book that she will be able to find a single blogger willing to assist in her promotion. There are, perhaps, those who will find this reaction unfair. You are entitled to your opinion, but I would ask you to consider it from our perspective. Why would any blogger touch her with a ten foot pole, knowing that any interaction that they might have could be completely mischaracterized for public consumption.

I think that she is probably too well-insulated for any of this to really matter. She has the contract, the connections, and the platform. Now she just needs to decide who her number one online critic is at this point, so she can pen her next hit piece against that person. It will be difficult to decide – there are so many of them.

Links to other blog posts/articles:

The Guardian (original article): Am I Being Catfished

Dear Author: Poisoning the Well

Dear Author: On The Importance of Pseudonymous Activity

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: The Choices of Kathleen Hale

Jim Hines: Victim or Perpetrator

Trigger warning: This post includes a rather blunt discussion of child sexual abuse.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, the entirety of which can be found here, John Grisham said this:

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child,” he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week.

“But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.”

I stumbled onto this controversy when I saw a post on booklikes referencing the article. Without even reading it, I knew precisely what had happened to rock John Grisham’s world: some friend of his had been prosecuted for possession of child pornography.

I’ve mentioned this before, but for my new followers and people who have forgotten, I have been a child abuse prosecutor since 1996. In the last eighteen years, I’ve prosecuted hundreds of men who were hands-on offenders, who sexually abused infants, toddlers, preschoolers, elementary school children and beyond. I’ve also prosecuted more than my fair share of men who were in possession of child pornography. I know a great deal about this subject.

A great deal more than John Grisham, as it happens.

There is a lot to unpack in Grisham’s statement, but let me begin with the obvious problem: he is not objective. He is drawing all of his conclusions about fairness/unfairness based upon his personal opinion of what happened to his friend, and his personal discomfort with the fact that it is men who are just like him – “sixty year old white men” – who are in prison for possession of child pornography. This, my friends, is what we call entitlement.

Indeed, it’s a variant of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. In other words: this man is like me, I am not a criminal, ergo this man is no true criminal. Sub-sets of this fallacy include the “why don’t you go after real criminals” fallacy (i.e., my friend/family member is a good guy. Good guys are not real criminals. Ergo, my friend is not a criminal, and you should go after real criminals. This holds true literally no matter what the crime might have been that he committed – straight through to murder and/or rape of a child), and the “he just needs help” fallacy (i.e., my friend/family member is a decent man. Decent men don’t do things like this unless they are having a mental breakdown. Ergo, he doesn’t need to go to prison, he needs help. Again, no matter what crime he has committed).

I will wager, right here, right now, a stack of John Grisham books that John Grisham has no freaking idea what kind of pornography his friend was actually downloading. Because here is the other thing that I know from years of prosecution – he got all his information from his friend. He has not actually seen the images/videos that were located on his friend’s computer. How do I know this? Well, duh. The police don’t – can’t in fact – show anyone the content of the images seized. Because to do so is a crime in and of itself. Only members of law enforcement, the prosecution team, or the defense team are permitted to view the images. And of course his friend is telling him that they were sixteen-year-olds who looked thirty. Because if the truth is that it was videos of prepubescent children being raped, that would make him want to vomit. He is relying on his friend’s statement about what he did to inform his judgment on how fair it is.

Let me let you all in on a secret. Sometimes criminals lie about what they did. They minimize. They are desperate, and being honest about the gravity and the heinousness of their crimes is not in their best interest. If I had a nickle for every guy who went to prison for raping an eight year old who told his friends that “she was sixteen, and she came on to me,” I’d be a wealthy woman indeed.

I’ve been doing this a long time. I can count on zero hands the number of prosecuted offenders who just a few images of individuals in their late teens on their computers. Zero hands, as in zeee-fucking-ro. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) establishing that the offender “knew” that victim was under 18 is an element of the offense; and 2) establishing that the victim actually was under 18 is an element of the offense. So, if you believe that you are viewing pornography of a 16 year old, but it turns out she is actually 24, that’s not a crime. It’s gross, sure, but it isn’t criminal. And if you reasonably believe (i.e., you are on a mainstream porn site) that you are viewing pornography of a 24 year old, and it turns out that she was actually 16, that’s not a crime either. It is only when the offender is “aware” that he is viewing pornography of someone who is underage AND she is actually underage that it is a crime. So, yeah, going looking for actually underage girls engaging in sexually explicit conduct, that is going to get a man into trouble. As well it should.

But even so, it is far more likely that his friend had ten thousand images of child pornography on his computer, including torture porn, bondage porn, and, even, animal porn, with children who are elementary school age or younger. Because, for the most part, prosecutions occur when men download images/videos of very, very, very young children who cannot be mistaken for adult females. Or it means that the image is of an identified victim – one whose name we know and the date on the image is verifiably her before she turned 18.

This whole idea that we are imprisoning unsophisticated old white guys who just accidentally stumble upon a website where there is the occasional seventeen-year-old nekkid girl, consensually cavorting about with men her own age, yeah, that’s some bull shit right there. Just doesn’t happen.

I have had the misfortune, because of my job, to view a damned lot of child pornography. It is terrible stuff, especially the videos. Sometimes they have audio, and one is confronted with the visceral reality that these children are crying, and begging not to have to do it. It will burn into your brain and it will not let go. Sometimes they are drugged, and are barely conscious. Sometimes they are hit and beaten. Often the children in them have the empty eyes of the emotionally broken and dead, and the bruised, skinny bodies of the neglected and hungry. The normal human response to those videos is horror, and pain, and a deep sadness and empathy for the children in them.

Calling it “child pornography,” actually, diminishes its awfulness and gives it legitimacy because, when they think of it at all, people who are unfamiliar with the reality mentally picture it as looking just like adult pornography, but involving smaller participants. Calling it kiddie porn, as we so often do, trivializes it, especially since we have culturally decided to expand the meaning of the word “porn” to include things like food porn (images of extremely delicious looking food) and fashion porn (images of beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes) and book porn (images of mouth-wateringly beautiful libraries) Porn – that word – it has a modern meaning, and that meaning is all positive. Porn = desirable, sexy, alluring, enticing.

Child pornography looks nothing like adult pornography. It looks like exploitation. It looks like violence.

These videos glorify the rape of children. They are images of terrible, horrifying crimes. They document the murder of the soul of a child. The idea that men get off on this stuff is vile and nauseating. In addition, no one is “entrapping” these guys into going out onto the internet and playing hide and seek with law enforcement. They know that what they are doing is wrong. They know that what they are doing is disgusting, and is likely to end with them in prison.

Anyone who thinks that viewing child pornography is a victimless crime needs to read this: In Court, A Victim Gives Voice To Sex Abuse. John Grisham needs to read it. The young woman about whom the article was written was sexually abused by her father. He was sentenced to 30 years for sexually abusing her. He filmed his crimes, which have been uploaded to the internet, and which are referred to by child protection experts as the “Vicky” series. Vicky is not her real name, but the videos of the Vicky series are everywhere. They cannot be controlled. They will never be wiped from this earth. This is what she says about knowing this:

“I wonder if the people I know have seen these images,” the woman wrote, according to the statement, which was read by a senior assistant district attorney, Kateri A. Gasper. “I wonder if the men I pass in the grocery store have seen them. Because the most intimate parts of me are being viewed by thousands of strangers, and traded around, I feel out of control. They are trading my trauma around like treats at a party, but it is far from innocent. It feels like I am being raped by each and every one of them.”

John Grisham’s friend got three lousy years for his behavior. “Vicky”, and the other children whose images he, and people like him, watched, and masturbated to, and I’m sorry for being blunt, but we all know that is exactly what was going on while he watched those images, those victims got a life sentence of pain from the abuse itself and a life sentence of knowing that, even when they are all grown up and can’t be hurt anymore, all over the world, legions of men that they have never met will ejaculate while watching them plead with their rapists to please not make them do it.

So, yeah, three years in prison sounds like a pretty small price to pay for that shit.

EDIT:

fuck you

And, the truth comes out: John Grisham’s Friend Swapped Pornographic Images of Children Under 12.

So, explain again, you entitled douchebag, exactly how unfair it was that a good buddy from law school convicted pervert served 3 years 18 months 15 completely inadequate months for possessing trading images of 16-year-old girls children under the age of 12 being sexually abused, including intercourse. (There, I fixed it for you)

He is out of prison and was reinstated to the bar. From where I am sitting, it looks like he got a slap on the wrist. I’ve seen defendants serve longer sentences for stealing a set of golf clubs.

You are right about one thing. It is a fucking outrage. Not the same outrage you were thinking of, but an outrage, nonetheless.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Classics on 1959
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 182
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

“What else could you call Hill House?” Luke demanded. “Well—disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I read newspaper articles, or blog posts, or facebook shares of stories about parents who are trying to ban books from their children’s school libraries. Books like Captain Underpants, and Paper Towns, by John Green, and Harry Potter, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Books written before 1900, after 1999, and every where in between. And I am simply bemused by all of it.

I grew up in a ranch-style home in Boise, Idaho, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. My parents were voracious readers, and YA literature as a genre was extremely limited. I graduated to reading adult books the same year I graduated from elementary school – leaving behind the books of my childhood, Trixie Belden, The Chronicles of Narnia, Edward Eager and Nancy Drew at approximately the same time I put on my first training bra and got braces. I had loved reading children’s books as a child, but they no longer challenged me. I began “shopping” for books in the general fiction section of our library, and in used bookstores.

Beyond the age of 12, I read the same books that my parents read.

In our house, we had a study, and my father built a wall of bookshelves. I was lucky. My dad was a doctor, and we were relatively affluent for the 1970’s. We owned books. A lot of books. Anatomy books, because, as I said, my dad was a doctor. Neither parent ever even considered, apparently, telling me that, no, I was not permitted to look up the plates of the male reproductive system in the anatomy books. Because I totally did this. My first sight of adult male genitals was in one of those medical illustrations that showed me where all of the veins and the urethra were located and how it all worked. I found this hilarious. So did some of my friends.

In the fifth, or maybe sixth, grade, one of my friends brought Judy Blume’s first adult novel, Wifey, to school. Some of you will have read Wifey - it is the story of a married woman who has an affair. I didn’t “read” this book, exactly. Rather, we passed it around so everyone could read the scene with the blow job in it. All I really remember about this passage was my eleven-year-old mind silently screaming “ewwwww” as I passed it, giggling hysterically, to the next girl so she could read it, too. Also, the male character with whom she had the affair was described as hairy. This was revelatory to me.

Neither of these experiences made me decide to lose my virginity at the age of eleven. In fact, truth be told, I was a rather late bloomer, and didn’t rid myself of my by-that-time-unwanted virgin status until after I had entered my freshman year of college.

And these were not my only experiences with adult books. I read everything. I read The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I like to refer to as “Prehistoric Porn” when it was all the rage. I read Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Harlequin romances (these were actually pretty much squeaky clean), and Harold Fucking Robbins, so named because, to my recollection, pretty much every character in his books was getting in on with someone. I read spy thrillers – Helen MacInnes, Len Deighten, Ken Follet. I read 1970’s romantic suspense: Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and regency romance written by Georgette Heyer and Clare Darcy.

And I read the 1970’s and 1980’s sweeping epics: The Far Pavilions, Sho-Gun, Trinity, The Winds of War, North and South, Chesapeake Bay. M.M. Kaye, James Clavell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, John Jakes, James Michener. I read all of these authors, in original hardback, when I was 12, and 13, and 14, and 15. And let me tell you, as in life, in those books, there was sex. Married sex, unmarried sex, rapey sex, consensual sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. You see, sex is part of life, and life is the stuff of books. There was violence, too, but no one ever seems to object to their children reading books because they show realistic depictions of war and other forms of violence.

I took D.H. Lawrence’s supposedly naughty classic, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, off of the bookshelves and was mightily disappointed with it after I struggled through.

So when I see parents who are freaking about Paper Towns by John Green, I just can’t wrap my mind around this. I’ve read Paper Towns. It’s funny, and charming, and the narrator is endearing, and it speaks to universal themes of being a teenager. It is sparkling, and literate, and at times laugh out loud funny. It deals honestly with sexuality, and let’s face it, teenagers are sexual creatures, as much as we rather wish that they weren’t. The fact that a book acknowledges that they are sexual creatures doesn’t mean that it is promoting teen sex, but being honest with the fact that high school seniors are sexually aware even if they are not sexually active is hardly a piece of groundbreaking news.

These same parents will often suggest that they expect their teens to be reading “classics” that don’t have “that kind of filth” in them. Like Of Mice and Men, or 1984, or The Lord of the Flies. And, even more, I can’t wrap my mind around this, except to conclude that these parents have not, themselves, read the books that they are promoting. Of Mice and Men is a bleak, and deeply dismaying, tale in which a (spoiler alert) developmentally-delayed man is essentially put down like an unwanted dog, by his only friend, with a bullet to the back of his head, as a kindness. It is crazy devastating to read. 1984 is a book that discusses the evil and incredible utility of propaganda, so trying to ban books in order to force teens to read Orwell is a prospect fraught with so much cognitive dissonance that it almost makes my head explode. And The Lord of the Flies. Jesus Fucking H. Christ, that is a book about teenagers who kill each other.

You won’t let them read about teenagers who are finding their own way in age appropriate romantic relationships with each other, but flat-out murder is fine?

Don’t get me wrong – smart teens should be reading hard books, with serious themes. Their minds are so agile, so ready, so demanding and desirous of being filled with good stuff that it is a waste of talent if we don’t encourage them to read great books. To stretch their intellects. Serving them pablum is a terrible, utterly awful, idea. It is insulting to suggest that they are incapable of processing hard themes and reading deeply and seriously.

I was so lucky. My parents never tried to prevent me from diving into their open bookshelves. I read from pulp to classics, and everything in between. I read Anna Karenina – a book chock full of adultery and suicide. I read The Gulag Archipelago – a mind-blowing indictment of Soviet oppression (another culture that enjoyed banning books).

My bookshelves were always open, too. So, for all of those parents out there who think that they are doing me a favor when they try to ban the National Book Award Winning book about the masturbating teen, Junior, from Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Emily Danforth’s great big gay coming of age novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, let me tell you in no uncertain terms that I would emphatically prefer that you keep your eyes on your own paper, and your nose in your own book.

Leave my children out of your crusade. You don’t speak for me.

  1. Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
  2. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (releasing October 21, 2014)
  3. Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope
  4. Jackaby by William Ritter
  5. An Inquiry into Love and Death by Simone St. James
  6. Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
  7. Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
  8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  9. The Gifted Dead by Jenna Black
  10. Rooms by Lauren Oliver
  11. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
  12. Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourne (releasing September 30, 2014)
Classics Spin: Summer by Edith WhartonSummer by Edith Wharton
Published by Penguin Classics on 1917
Pages: 127
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
four-stars
Considered by some to be her finest work, Edith Wharton’s Summer created a sensation when first published in 1917, as it was one of the first novels to deal honestly with a young woman’s sexual awakening.

Summer is the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners adopted by a family in a poor New England town, who has a passionate love affair with Lucius Harney, an educated man from the city. Wharton broke the conventions of women’s romantic fiction by making Charity a thoroughly independent modern woman—in touch with her emotions and sexuality, yet kept from love and the larger world she craves by the overwhelming pressures of heredity and society.

Praised for its realism and honesty by such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James and compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Summer remains as fresh and powerful a novel today as when it was first written

People refer to this as Wharton’s most erotic book. I disagree with that characterization – I think that The Age of Innocence, with its unrequited, simmering passion between Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is much more erotic. This one is sexier.

Charity Royall is a young woman who has been raised by Lawyer Royall in North Dormer, a small New England town. Her family comes from the mountain, a poverty-stricken area. At some point, Lawyer Royall finds himself attracted to the young woman and proposes to marry her. This is squicky as all hell, since he has basically been her father since she was a small child.

Charity understandably turns him down, being attracted to Lucius Harney, man about town, photographer, and the nephew of another one of New Dormer’s finest citizens. He is clearly above her in social position. Charity, recklessly, falls for him, and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship. This is a Wharton book, however, which means that the reader pretty much has to guess what has happened.

It isn’t just the lack of explicit sex that wasn’t erotic. It was the shallowness of the connection between Charity and Lucius Harney. There is no reason to believe that Harney wasn’t absolute rubbish as a lover, self-absorbed and concerned with neither Charity’s pleasure, nor her plight. (Did I just accuse a fictional character of being crap in bed. Why yes, yes I did. And I stand by the accusation. There is no chance that poor Charity had an orgasm. None at all.) It is easy to sympathize with Charity, and to deplore her poor choices, but it was so obvious that Harney was just exploiting her, and it made me want to shake her.

Wharton’s books explore the border between social expectation and human agency. I have read three of them – The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now Summer, and all of them describe and condemn the way in which individuals are oppressed by society. Honestly, I think that Wharton is at her best when she is writing about the upper classes – she came from wealth and extraordinary privilege, and was related to the Rensselaers, the most prestigious of the old patroon families – so she understood and was able to describe the suffocating constraints of that society on, in particular, women. She lived in a time when the social customs were confining and even subjugating, and her books reveal the airlessness and the arbitrary nature of many of those customs. They were a social cage, designed to separate classes and maintain distinctions lacking in substance or merit. Having an intellectual life was out of the question for most individuals, including most men, but definitely all women.

Wharton’s books explore what happens when the individual steps outside of those lines, seeking more for him or herself than that which birth has conferred.

Usually, it is pretty much a disaster. In this book, actually, Charity managed to pull out a win for herself. While the twenty-first-century independent romantic in me was pretty much completely grossed out by the way it ended, by 1917 standards, Charity does pretty well, with a solid, middle-class existence. She fared a lot better than Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth. Interestingly, she doesn’t share Lily Bart’s honorable qualities. That’s probably sort of the point – when hunger conflicts with honor, hunger must, and usually will, win. Or, you die.

Anyway, reading Edith Wharton is like opening a vein. She is depressing as hell, but always worth reading.

Talking about female independence: Lady of Quality by Georgette HeyerA Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1972
Genres: Romance
Pages: 307
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The spirited and independent Miss Annis Wychwood is twenty-nine and well past the age for falling in love. But when Annis embroils herself in the affairs of a pretty runaway heiress, Miss Lucilla Carleton, she is destined to see a great deal of her fugitive's uncivil and high-handed guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton. Befriending the wayward girl brings unexpected consequences, among them the conflicting emotions aroused by her guardian, who is quite the rudest man Annis has ever met...

Georgette Heyer's historical novels have charmed and delighted millions of readers. Her smart, independent heroines and dashing heroes brilliantly illuminate one of the most exciting and fascinating eras of English history, when drawing rooms sparkled with well-dressed nobility, and romantic intrigues ruled the day.

"In this delectable Georgette Heyer novel, the lady of quality and her bit-of-a-rake swain are the ones on whom our eyes are fixed. They don't play us false. Miss Heyer is in top form...romantic, amusing, and full of tart-tongued comment on the mores of the time."—Publishers Weekly

This was Georgette Heyer’s last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing Lady of Quality in her late sixties.

I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.

Now, onto Lady of Quality.

Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf – a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.

A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero’s character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.

There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis’ of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.

Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren’t, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all – we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.

The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.

Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla’s fate unresolved – Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.

Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her – not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a “domestic tyrant,” and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying:

‘You have paid me so many extravagant compliments, that I need not scruple to tell you that yours is not the first offer I have received.’

‘I imagine you must have received many.’

‘Not many, but several. I refused them all, because I preferred my – my independence to marriage. I think I still do. Indeed, I am almost sure of it.’

‘But not quite sure?’

‘No, not quite sure,’ she said, in a troubled tone. ‘And when I ask myself what you could give me in exchange for my liberty, which is very dear to me, I – oh, I don’t know, I don’t know!’

It takes some convincing, and a bout of influenza, to convince her that marriage need not mean an abandoning of self, and that, indeed, Oliver Carleton is not looking for self-abnegation in a wife. But ultimately, as in all Heyer novels, the heroine agrees to marry the hero, after perhaps one or two kisses.

I think I might have liked the book better if she had said no.

We never do find out what happens to poor Miss Farlow, and must trust to the goodness of characters who treated her so poorly that they did not simply set her next to the curb to be hauled away on trash day.

I didn’t dislike this book, and Heyer’s writing, as always, is nearly perfect. But it is not her best, lacking much of the charm and all of the sparkle of the best of her earlier works.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
on 1934
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 315
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars
The French Rivera in the 1920s is 'discovered' by Dick and Nicole Diver, who turn it into the playground of the rich and glamorous. Among their cycle is Rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful starlet, who falls in love with Dick and is enraptured by Nicole, unaware of the corruption and dark secrets that haunt their marriage. When Dick becomes entangled with Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his relationship with Nicole, and the lustre of their life together begins to tarnish. Tender is the Night is an exquisite novel that reflects not only Fitzgerald's own personal tragedy, but also the shattered idealism of the society in which he lived.

Tender is the Night was published January through April, 1934. As an exercise in understanding, I am going to list a few things that were happening in 1933 through 1935 in the United States (per wikipedia):

The U.S. was in the midst of a deep depression. 25% of the workforce was unemployed. FDR implemented the first New Deal beginning with his inauguration in March, 1933.

Bonnie and Clyde began the rampage that would ultimately end their lives by murdering two young highway patrolmen. They were shot dead on May 23, 1934, after their behavior transfixed the nation for two years.

The Dust Bowl began on November 11, 1933, in South Dakota. In May, 1934, a two day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust.

This is what it looked like in America:

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

This is what he was writing about,

the murphys

in his epically self-indulgent book about rich, pretty people with rich, pretty people problems, like what to do when you drink too much booze, have sex with beautiful actresses half your age, and generally behave like a hollowed out husk of a human being.

Is it any wonder that it flopped?

In the final analysis, sure, it had redeeming literary value. But the characters were soulless and charmless (as Fitzgerald’s characters often are) and the world that they lived in was shallow and superficial. It left me utterly empty. Sort of like Dick and Nicole Diver.