My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 17 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

October 1, 2013

Those are Fighting Words...... how Language Matters

I had a lovely, lovely dinner last night with a bunch o' book people and two FANTABULOUS authors, Julie Berry (her book, All the Truth That's in Me, was the cause of wrestling matches between me and Elise because we both were in the middle of it and didn't want to share) and Holly Goldberg Sloan, whom I love not only for her amazing book I'll Be There and her new stunner, Counting by 7's, but also for Angels in the Outfield, one of my favorite movies (she wrote the remake).

I wish I could say that I just wanted to write to gush about these books, but really, I'm writing because I got really angry last night.

Why?  Well, Julie was talking about the number of publishers who rejected All the Truth... (bet they're kicking themselves now, because anyone who loves good YA is raving about this book) and one of the other attendees started railing about publishers and talking about how everyone should self -publish.

I said, "Are you kidding?!?!?!  99% of self-publishing is crap.  There's a reason for editors, etc."  (okay, my percentage may be a 'bit' high but I can't think of one self-published book that has blown me away, or even struck me as truly good, although I'm sure someone will post a comment with titles).

She said that the publishers were censoring because they had rejected Julie's book.  Okay, for me that's absolutely ridiculous, not liking something is NOT censoring. 

I said, no, self-published books are often terrible (I am not using quote marks anymore, because I don't remember exactly what I said) and I can tell a self-published picture book the second I see it (the art is normally horrific, especially if there are human faces involved.  I don't know why, I can't draw at all, so I'm not sure what it is about faces, but apparently they're very difficult to get right.)

She then said that I was censoring, I said, "No, I'm reviewing."  and she said, "No, you're censoring."  Luckily, someone, I don't know who, managed to switch the topic a bit, but I was just fuming.  Censoring is an extremely loaded word and makes the accused (and I was definitely being accused) look closed minded and conservative (ironically, this same woman said she didn't like the 'f' word in YA lit, I'm just sayin' ) *I* on the other hand belong to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund http://cbldf.org/, the ACLU https://www.aclu.org/ and the Electronic Frontier Foundation https://www.eff.org/  (yes, I'm doing a throw down with my liberal credentials).

So, is this blog just about venting?  Well, not entirely.  We also talked about how language matters (although not about this word in particular, it was just too touchy).  Julie and I bonded over the misuse of 'disinterested'.  It is almost always used, incorrectly, to mean 'uninterested' meaning, you know, not having an interest (duh).  Disinterested means unbiased, impartial.

The latest barrage on language, as far as I'm concerned is that Merriam-Webster has decided that 'literally' can now mean 'figuratively'  pretty much THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what 'literally' means. http://www.salon.com/2013/08/22/according_to_the_dictionary_literally_now_also_means_figuratively_newscred/

Now, I know that people say, "Oh, language is fluid, it evolves."  Sorry, but caving in to the misuse of a word is DEVOLUTION not evolution.  Fluid is 'impact' as a verb which still drives me crazy as does 'incentivize' (really?  REALLY?) but those words still give a correct, okay, correct-ish, form of the meaning of the word.  Literally, means literal, real, actual, not figuratively.

So, choose your words carefully and be careful who you call a censor, because that is figuratively a fighting word.

http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_anthony__080222_the_abuse_of_the_wor.htm

26 comments:

  1. I'm with you, Sharon. And I think the censorship issue deserves more in-depth discussion. But first, we have to define our terms! To be a censor, you have to be operating in an official capacity. Are some editors, librarians, and even book reviewers acting as de facto censors? Are they, in fact, officials?

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    1. Deborah, I completely agree with you, which is why I took the lazy woman's way out and put a link to a GREAT article on the word 'censor' at the end of the post.

      I would say that librarians are definitely official and can choose to keep books they disapprove of off the shelf. Editors? I'm not sure, I'd like to hear more from people who work with editors (I have my Unshelved boss, he definitely does NOT censor me, well, if he did, he wouldn't be my boss and he's just not that type of person). Reviewers? In some ways we may have a little (very little) power re: sales, but as far as content goes, nope, not a thing. If I berate a book because it has something I disapprove of (which I did many years ago with Daddy Are You the Tooth Fairy by Jason Alexander) I am not keeping it from anyone, I am simply giving information plus my opinion and people are welcome to do with that what they will.

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  2. This is a fantastic post and a really important post. For someone to lob the word "censorship" at a fellow guest at a table, more than implying you may be engaging in it but actually stating that you practice it, that is irresponsible at best and offensive in reality. Censorship has a very heavy connotation, one that brings into play governments and regimes worldwide which have deliberately barred their citizens and constituents from having access to knowledge. I'm sure all of us who read your blog as well as who read, period, can bring to mind such countries where censorship has been employed as well as countries where it continues to be employed (such as our own?). Providing criticism of a book an author is trying to publish, as well as books that are already published, is not the definition of censorship. It is criticism. ... As for language being fluid and adopting new meanings for words, which new meanings are actually the opposite of the, ahem, literal definition, I say "Hah!" Just because a word becomes a word "du jour" in many circles and carries with it a newly coined incorrect usage does not a new definition make. But perhaps my age is showing with regard to this subject. I worry, tho, with words like "literally" and "figuratively," because of the watering down of language. I'd rather we know the rules so that we know how -- and when -- to break them. When we take the rules away, it's becomes much more difficult to communicate with each other as well as express our ideas. I can't even call it pidgin/patois, because pidgin/patois arises when two or more different languages collide and blend to create a communication system. ... Again, what a fantastic post you've shared. Thanks!

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    1. YES! Thank you for getting it! Criticism is NOT censorship. Perhaps trying to shut down criticism is though. Hmmmmm........

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  3. Impact as a verb, and incentivize (I've sounded off on that one, on Facebook): they figuratively drive me crazy.

    As for self-publishing: Oh, I hear you. The publishing world may not be perfect, but publishers understand design, as well as illustration and editing. The editing may not be perfect, but at least there is editing.

    Self-publishing is too easy, and everyone who has self-published is convinced his/her book is the best ever written.

    I do know of one excellent series of self-published books, When Women Were Warriors, by Catherine M. Wilson, but Kit is an exception--at least, she is the exception that I am aware of.

    Carla

    Carla Kozak
    Children’s and Teen Collection Development Specialist San Francisco Public Library

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  4. Carla, you need my t-shirt: The misuse of literally makes me figuratively insane. The first day I wore it I had a woman say, "But they've changed the definition now." Sigh, I told her I refused to give in.

    I do not know Kit's books, I will look for them asap. Thank you for the recommendation.

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  5. Yay for you, Sharon! Good post, and it touches on many of my pet peeves, too. Self-publishing is definitely one, its message being "Writing is easy! Anyone can do it!" at the same time that it delivers much evidence to the world that reading is tedious and unrewarding. Also I chime right in with your support of the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested." This distinction seems to be disappearing, and with it another subtlety of the language.

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  6. There are legitimate reasons to self-publish. I've considered it, in large part because I tend to write on obscure or less-popular topics that typically don't fit into large publishers' marketing plans and the lovely small press that published GRINGOLANDIA no longer exists. At this point, though, my "self-publishing" efforts are confined to my blog, where I have the freedom to say what I want, about subjects I want to explore. This blog does the same thing, in contrast to Unshelved, and that doesn't make Life, Literature, Laughter a lesser blog, only a blog with a different purpose and audience. I disagree more with the idea that "everyone" should self-publish than with self-publishing itself because there's no "one size fits all."

    You make a good point about the debasement of language. The same thing annoyed me when I edited MultiCultural Review,. It made me feel old, insisting on grammatical rules and the traditional meaning of words when my (mostly younger) writers ignored them.

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  7. What a challenge!
    (I'm going to leave the topic of "censorship" to the others, but wanted to address what seems like a side point in your post:

    When the publishing community focuses ONLY on highly marketable, mainstream books -- as in those that will play well at Costco/Target/Wal-Mart/etc. -- we lose a huge opportunity to hear multiple voices and perspectives! I think that forces the issue of self-publishing.

    Are books with the full weight of the publishing community "better"? Maybe. Probably. (They do have the benefit of greater access to editors, illustrators, cover designers, etc.) I have to believe that there are EXCELLENT self-published books. But I KNOW that there are excellent writers who are unable to be published by the big marketing machines.

    Take the similar industry of journalism. For a long time, the ONLY way to get news was through the mainstream news sources: major newspapers, TV news, etc. The internet has democratized that... and now we have the opportunity -- whether we choose to use it or not -- of reading multiple accounts of events. Clearly some are better written than others, but we do get the advantage of multiple perspectives and voices. And, on the whole, I think that's a good thing. Although it does require us, as consumers, to be more conscious about understanding author bias.

    For a long time, for example, publishers would only publish male writers. Women writers published under "pen names." We've certainly come a long way since then, but there continues to be bias in the publishing industry -- just ask women authors, authors of various nationalities, etc. I would hate to see us return to a time when only the "officially" sanctioned voices got to be heard.

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    1. Amy, I do hear you. When I was at ALA this summer I talked to a friend at an unnamed house and said, "Can't believe you publish this." and she said, "I know, but it's how we can pay for the smaller, non-best selling books." So, yeah, does crap come out of traditional publishers too? Absolutely. Because of sheer numbers the percentage of crap vs. good will be smaller (and I know my 99% was facetious, but I do get a lot of poorly written/illustrated and VERY pedantic self-published books).

      So, I don't think they focus only on highly marketable and mainstream, I do know it's harder for many worthwhile books to get a 'look see'. There are small presses (Lee and Low is great for multiculti) and I do know wonderful, WONDERFUL book loving editors at all the major companies. I don't know what the solution is, but there's a lot to sludge through in the self-publishing industry. What are your suggestions? (this is not a snotty question, I truly would love to see what shifts might work).
      Amy, on the journalism side, and yes, we can call this hypocrisy, given that I'm taking advantage of the Interweb (as I call it in my house to irritate my teens) to get my writing out there - I don't see this as the Democratization of the news. I see it as, like Jeanne DuPrau said in her comment, EVERYBODY thinking they're a journalist. (Patch anyone? And I say that as someone who has written for them) Free content is often an example of "You get what you pay for." You are absolutely right when you say "Although it does require us, as consumers, to be more conscious about understanding author bias." and the problem is, I don't think a majority of people are conscious. How much questioning has there been of pundits who simply say something as if it's factual when it's anything but? There may be some great journalism out there in the independent voices (although I'm still pretty happy with NPR and Mother Jones and the San Jose Mercury News) but, like the slush pile that is self-publishing, there's a lot of junk to get through and who has the time or energy?
      BUT, do I want to go back to only male authors and the corporate line? Nope. I wear my feminist and left-wing politics proudly, but I don't think it's one (conservative) or the other (everyone plays). Do I have a solution? Nope, no more than I do to the self-publishing question. But it's fascinating to discuss.

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  8. Hi Lyn!

    I do understand that there are limitations to traditional publishing and I love GRINGOLANDIA, so if you had self-published, you would have been the exception that proves the rule (I actually have never understood that saying).
    I actually did avoid blogging for the longest time, not just because I am the Queen of Procrastination, but because it seemed a symptom of our self gratifying, Look at Me culture. It seems to have evolved into something different, or maybe I'm just fooling myself.
    In my case, Unshelved is a very specific format and just for reviewing books, so it's not really comparable to blogging (at least my part of it, my bosses blog)

    I think my issue with self-publishing is what Jeanne DuPrau says in the 'Anonymous' comment above yours (Jeannie is not trying to be anonymous, she just wasn't sure how to register, and I'm no help) is that there's a perception that EVERYONE has a book that the whole world should see (not just family, etc.) and that Writing is Easy (maybe, but good writing is not).
    Lyn, Julie also told us that they came up with 'Communication points' for the 'youngsters' at her husband's software company that you probably could have used at MultiCultural Review. We're trying to get her to share it, I'll let you know if she does. (We old curmudgeons have to stick together) :-)

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    1. Like writing books, blogging well is not easy, and the Queen of Procrastination begins several points down. (Regular posting is important to a blog's success, though judging from the response to this and other of your posts, you to may be the exception that proves the rule.) While "self-gratifying, Look at Me" blogs do abound, the most valuable blogs are ones that provide useful content that can't be found in traditional media and/or that document events that are potentially important but again flew under the radar at the time.

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    2. typo alert--you too may be the exception...

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    3. Too true, my Wrestlemania bud (as Lyn well knows, I chose Queen of Procrastination as my 'pro' wrestler name when she chaired the Wrestlemania committee for YALSA and I was one of her 'Wrestlemaniacs'). I have been told I need to blog on a regular basis and one of the paving stones of good intentions on my path to Heck is to do just that.
      I'm not even sure if I'm providing useful content, but I'll try. I'm hoping for at least entertaining. Blogging does have editors though. Chosen and unchosen. For example, I ran the initial post by two friends, one of whom is a journalist. So, that's my 'official' one. I also know, although I haven't gotten too much of this yet (but I'm sure I will now), a backlash of people correcting my grammar, telling me how to do things differently, etc. As the old joke (well, not that old) goes, "How do you get 20,000 instant hits on Facebook? Misspell something."

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  9. What a great discussion, and with some of my favorite people taking part! There was a time when I thought self-publishing would gain in quality a whole lot faster than it has. I'm happy to cheer when a good book is self-published because it's the only way to reach a niche or targeted audience! Mostly, though, self-publication continues to be practiced in a self-indulgent manner, because the author can't stand rejection or interprets editing as just another form of rejection. Communication points? I want to know more. Will you let me join the old curmudgeonly club?

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  10. Yup, absolutely. One of the most common phrases I hear from a self-published author is "I haven't seen this message in a book and it needs to be said." Well, first of all, as I very bluntly say, If you're starting with a message, your book will suck. Are Whirligig, When You Reach Me and Before I Fall ultimately about redemption? Sure. Do they beat you over the head with it or are they story first? Also, I have found with many self-published authors a true lack of knowledge about the scope of children's literature. Of course, this is NOT limited to self-published authors. Remember Madonna saying that she wrote children's books because she realized there was nothing good out there? (Even if there hadn't been anything good out there, she wouldn't have changed those stats with what she turned out.) Sigh and grr.

    And yes, feel free to join the old curmudgeonly club and I'll see if I can hint for those communication rules. :-)

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  11. Well, we just heard your side, but usually i only need one point to draw a line, so I'm with you on this. Language matters. And the accusation of censorship is a serious one. We can see how it affects foreign countries when ideas are censored. Publishers don't censor, they distribute good works (as measured by their criteria, of course).
    If someone is concerned that their important ideas do not have a channel of expression, then let them self-publish. But if someone wants to be a great writer, then they gotta pay their dues. Get the piles of rejection slips. Rework each phrase until the words swim around in circles.

    Censorship is not the same as publishers choosing what they will publish.

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    1. Very true, you are definitely just hearing my side of the discussion, but I appreciate you siding with me. :-) I really didn't exaggerate or change things and the only thing you're missing is the visual I have each time of this woman very aggressively looking at me and saying (kind of loudly) "You're censoring" I love your second paragraph, it is perfectly put. Thank you.

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  12. Great post, Sharon! Thanks for sticking up for traditional publishing and introducing a very interesting discussion. On another topic, I'm glad to hear you love Counting by 7s and All the Truth that's in Me!!!

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    1. With Scottie's permission, I may 'out' her here as the Director of School and Library Marketing at Penguin Young Readers Group. But Scottie is also a great example of what I love when I deal with traditional publishers. As I said, the people I know are true aficionados and champions of children's literature.

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  13. There are some good self-published books in Sci fi/fantasy...but I agree, most are painfully in need of editorial help at a minimum.

    My own loosing battle is the verb "gifted" -- I just read a book in which the prince was "gifted" with a horse, and it hurt me. What is wrong with that nice old verb "to give?"

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    1. I am completely on your side, what the heck is this with 'gifting' and 're-gifting'? Before there was a word for it, we definitely experienced it, my husband and I got a chipped vase as a wedding present with the original gift card (to someone else) in the box under the vase. The story was fun to tell, so we didn't really care about the vase. :-)

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  14. I think it's truly beautiful that people can get worked up over language. And I can't say enough how much I agree with Sharon on that point. I also share with her the belief that, while language certainly evolves and we have to evolve with it, that doesn't mean "Anything goes." Holy crap! Losing the distinction between "literal" and "figurative"?! Not only is it easy enough to learn the difference--not only is the difference important--the difference is also profoundly powerful in human affairs! Fundamentalism, anyone?
    Like Sharon, I also have to hold my nose when I encounter certain neologisms--and like her, I see this as partly my own preference, which I have no right to push on others. And often enough, I just haven't gotten used to the new term yet. There was a time when "jet" had a very different meaning; we all got used to it. Again, though, that doesn't mean that we abandon the conventions of English. The balance between tradition and change has to be exactly that: a balance.
    But what I love most about this post is how Sharon linked the larger issue of language with the particular use of "censor." I love the people in the children's lit. community; I've been amazed by the sheer percentage of wonderfulness I've encountered in them. And I'm also dedicated to a lot of "liberal" principles, the kinds of ideas we often refer to collectively as "political correctness." (That term itself, by the way, I strenuously object to). So I think it's good that people are on guard against censorship.
    But if the expression of views about the quality of literature counts as "censorship"--then we're all screwed. A world in which a negative opinion of a book is "censorship" is a world without freedom, and without genuine human engagement with culture, which has to be predicated on freedom. Don't get me wrong; it certainly happens sometimes that editors choose not to publish certain works for the wrong reasons. But that temptation applies to all of us in many of the decisions we make; we're all capable of it. And even if an editor rejects a book because it's too "hot," that's not automatically "censorship." This whole situation can be very, very complicated.
    And what's a guiding principle when things get complicated? That everyone deserves freedom of expression. And Sharon's post EMBODIES that, it seems to me, both in what she expresses and in the exchange that inspired it.

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    1. Damn Tim, I am truly humbled by your words and I want you to write my blog posts so I can just nod and say, "What he said." This was amazing. Thank you.

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  15. Please excuse my ignorance, regarding self publishing.- the point about an author "paying their dues". ... doesn't the goal go beyond a tangible book for a writer?

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  16. Anonymous, first of all, I'm so glad to see a REAL comment on the blog, I almost ignored it because, sadly, I get about 100 e-mails from Anonymous a day all of which are spam. :-) (I'm not saying the others aren't real, just that they're from October and since I haven't done a new post in quite awhile, all the comments I've been receiving are spam).

    I'm trying to find the "paying their dues" comments, but it's hot and my brain has melted. So, paying their dues, I think (and I'm not sure if I said it or someone else), means getting rejected, learning from rejection, putting blood, sweat and tears into a book and learning to make it the best it can be. If one simply writes a book and pays to get it published, much of the work (and also satisfaction) has been eliminated. The goal should be more than a tangible book, but sometimes, that may be all one gets from self publishing. Does this make sense? Am I completely off track on what you're asking? (this is quite possible).

    Thanks for commenting and for being a real person!!

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