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Is This the "Best" Science Fiction and Fantasy Books Have to Offer?

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Is This the "Best" Science Fiction and Fantasy Books Have to Offer?

NPR’s “Best” Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels–Dated and Sexist

I just read this interesting article in The New Statesman written by avid science fiction and fantasy reader, Liz Lutgendorff, who decided to read all 100 of NPR’s list of “best” science fiction and fantasy novels.

She writes in the article’s opening:

When it comes to the best of anything, what do you expect? If it’s science fiction and fantasy novels you want epic adventures and getting out of impossible situations. But what you often get is barely disguised sexism and inability to imagine any world where women are involved in the derring-do.

She goes on to detail some of the worst offenders on the list, both for science fiction and fantasy. From ubiquitous rape with no consequences to utter passivity to a lack of genuine emotions or relevance to the plot, the faults of these novels in their representation of women are numerous and sobering. She describes the disgust she felt by the time she finished the list and how it almost ruined her favorite genres for her.

It raised some questions for me:

  1. Who at NPR compiled this list and what criteria did they use? Did they think about the representation of women and minority groups? Or did they just go by “common wisdom” or nostalgia?
  2. Why are these novels considered the “best”? Lutgendorff mentions that several were considered ground-breaking or progressive for their times. In what way? Who decided that? How did they define “ground-breaking”?
  3. Along with that, why are there few recent books on the list? Have there been no ground-breaking science fiction or fantasy novels in the last fifteen years?

There isn’t just one definition of “best.” And that’s the biggest problem with NPR’s list. Along with that, NPR is hampered by their reputation of being a bit more high-brow than the general masses. One reason they probably didn’t include more recent books on the list is because science fiction and fantasy are popular fiction genres–meaning they aren’t seen as “literary” by academic or critical circles–the circles that are an important part of the NPR audience. NPR would face scorn if they placed current popular fiction on that list. The older books can be pointed to as “classic” now, which gives them a more refined sheen. They are less likely to be in the hands of teenagers or have movie adaptations or anything else that would point to widespread pop culture acceptance. So it’s more acceptable to put them on a “best” list.

But in terms of representation, there are far more ground-breaking science fiction and fantasy novels now than ever before. I would like to see “best” explored in more depth. What does it mean to be “best”–by whose criteria? A novel might be “best” in one area and utter rubbish in another. There are recent novels that most people generally agree are badly written but whose impact and reach are undeniable. There are others that are beautifully written and ground-breaking, but hardly anyone has heard of them. Fifty years from now, there will be science fiction and fantasy books from 2015 that will be considered classics. That won’t mean they were the “best”–it only means they managed to survive longer than other books that may have been equally good.

This is why, in spite of some of the things I really dislike about GoodReads, I love Goodreads Listopia. So what if Goodreads doesn’t have the literary snob appeal of NPR? (And I love NPR, for the record, okay? But let’s face it–literary snob appeal abounds.) Any list, anywhere, compiled by a wider array of readers will have a better chance of providing fairer representation than a list compiled by one (or even a few) people at an organization that has a high-brow reputation to uphold.

With something like Goodreads, I can narrow down how I’m defining “best” for my purposes. “Best Fantasy Books With Gay Main Characters” or “Non-Caucasian Protagonists In Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” or “Best Strong Female Fantasy Novels” or “Best Steampunk Books.” These lists are moderated, but anyone can add to them, so there’s a better chance of a wide variety of reader perspectives being included. I may not agree with every inclusion on the list, but at least I know many voices–instead of only one or two–are being heard. And I know what criteria is being applied to define “best.”

I think the difference is in purpose. NPR’s list’s purpose seems to be for honor and recognition of science fiction and fantasy books they deemed to have made an important contribution to the genres–mainly in the past. I suppose that is a fine purpose, though it seems to be largely ignoring contributions made by women and minority writers. Goodreads’ Listopia purpose seems to be to connect readers with books they will have a good chance of enjoying right now–whether or not those books are considered classics fifty years from now.

As a reader, I know which list I’d rather try. As a writer, I’d love to find myself on an NPR list someday–it’s definitely an honor, but I’d much rather have my books on a Goodreads list where readers who will enjoy them can find them.

Source: I read the 100 “best” fantasy and sci-fi novels – and they were shockingly offensive

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Toward Fairer School Dress Codes

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Toward Fairer School Dress Codes

School Dress Codes: What do you think?

Lots of people are getting mad about school dress codes, especially the ones that seem primarily aimed at female students. From kindergartners being humiliated for wearing sundresses, to high school honor students being sent home for wearing long baggy shirts over leggings, there’s been a steady and increasing practice of singling out women for what they wear and how they look.

Schools say they’re just trying to maintain a “distraction-free” learning environment. They want students to be dressed “appropriately” as is befitting a serious education institution.

Ahhh…distraction free and appropriate. Well, that makes it all okay, then! We certainly don’t want to be inappropriate or distract anyone from learning. And bare shoulders on a five year old could certainly be distracting–not sure for whom, or if those people should be allowed to work with children, but you know, we’ll just go with it.

However, the current school dress codes only address the problem of straight male students and teachers being distracted by female students. I mean, yes, of course lesbians could also be distracted, but apparently no school believes they have lesbian students to worry about.

What about the straight women and gay men, or bi- and pan-sexual students and faculty? We deserve to be protected from distractions and being driven to lust by the male form as well.

So in an effort to help make school dress codes more fair for everyone, here are my suggestions for how we can keep young men from distracting others in the classroom:

School Dress Codes for Boys:

  • Shirts that reveal or emphasize muscle definition are not appropriate for a classroom learning environment and could distract female students and teachers. Shirts that are deemed too revealing, especially across the shoulders or pectorals must be covered by a sweatshirt or jacket. Students without a sweatshirt or jacket will either be sent home or be provided with an orange plastic rain poncho to wear for the remainder of the school day.
  • All shirts must have sleeves that extend to no more than two finger-widths above the elbow and must not cling to or reveal the bicep muscles. “Muscle” shirts are strictly forbidden. School administrators will pin pink sleeve extensions to any male shirt deemed too short.
  • Button-down shirts must be buttoned all the way to the top collar button. Leaving the top button open to reveal the throat and any part of the clavicle is unacceptable.
  • Trousers and jeans must not cling to the curve of the buttocks. All pants must be of sufficient looseness so that the shape and size of the buttocks is not discernible as the student walks. Tie-on ruffled bustles in school colors will be provided to any male whose pants are deemed too tight across the posterior.
  • Trousers, jeans, and pants must not show or emphasize bulges in the groin area. Students with visible groin bulges will be sent home to change or required to wear a loose fitting floral skirt provided by the school.
  • Hair must not be thick or wavy. Male students with such hair shall be required to keep it cut to 1/4″ or shorter so as to avoid distracting other students.
  • Eyelashes must not extend more than 7 mm in length. Eyelashes longer than 7 mm must be trimmed to an appropriate length or covered by sunglasses.
  • Sunglasses must not be worn inside the school. Not only is this for safety reasons, but also to prevent others from being distracted.
  • Facial hair must be worn as a full beard with mustache or as handlebar mustache with long chin puff. Clean-shaven, stubble, chin-straps, and other well-maintained facial hair styles are inappropriate as they may distract students and detract from the learning environment.
  • Male students with long fingers will be required to wear mittens at all times so as to avoid distracting other students with speculation of how finger length corresponds to groin bulge length.

Implementing these sensible school dress codes will teach young men to have self-respect as well as contributing to a serious school environment focused on learning and promoting professional behavior.

Scroll through some visual examples here:

man in t-shirt
How dare this man flaunt his fine pecs and shoulders like this? Plus, those sleeves are definitely too short. He should be looking down–in shame. 😉
Hint of throat and too fitted across the chest. Button up and buy a bigger size, sir! Plus, see above about that neatly-kept facial hair. Tsk, tsk.
Bulge alert! Give this guy a floral skirt, please–for the good of the children! (And the drill he’s holding isn’t Freudian at all…nope…)
Stick a bustle on this butt, STAT!
Terrible shame to make him cut such gorgeous curls, but we must NOT subject students to this kind of visual distraction in the classroom. So…snip-snip!
Indecently long lashes! Have some self-respect, dude! Think of what you’re doing to your fellow students, parading those things around in public! Geez… *fans self*
Couple issues here–first the shades. Second, the slight scruff. Way too cool for school, buddy.
So remember, guys, when you’re deciding what to wear to school…um…I forgot what I was saying…too distracted…

Let’s hear it for fair school dress codes for all!

 

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Hot Boys in YA Fiction: Just Fun or Unfair?

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Hot Boys in YA Fiction: Just Fun or Unfair?

YA Fiction: All the Boys are HOT

In the Guardian today is this interesting article: Is teen romantic fiction bad for boys? | Childrens books | theguardian.com

Boy with glassesThe gorgeous guys of young adult romantic fiction do a disservice to real life teen boys, with their acne and braces, says blogger Millie Woodrow-Hill

I have to admit–I can see the author’s point. YA fiction is full of hot boys, bad boys, impossibly-mature-for-their-age boys. Girls love it (and what’s not to love?), but it does send the message to boys that hotness is to be found in one’s muscles, dreamy eyes, low voice, beautiful face, and rebel devil-may-care attitude. Is this unfair or damaging to boys who don’t fit the criteria?

Boy with red hairMaybe. And maybe it’s damaging to girls, too, who could possibly overlook wonderful, but not hot boys who haven’t filled out yet, or who have bad skin and high voices.

On the other hand, Ms. Woodrow-Hill should remember that every time we are in the point of view of a book character, that person is an “unreliable narrator.” We only see the story from their perspective–and so we are fenced in by their biases, their personal tastes, their thoughts, their interests, and their desires.

And when it comes to romance, finding the other person incredibly attractive is kind of key, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be a romance if the heroine thought, “Gee, this guy is nice, but butt-ugly and I can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss him.” Maybe she might start out feeling that way, but there’s going to be something about the boy that makes her change her mind. Otherwise, we might have an amazing story, but it’s not going to be a romance. The literary genre “romance” always includes physical attraction in addition to the growth of a romantic relationship.

Boy with capSo of course our unreliable (i.e. biased) heroine is going to find her hero attractive. And in YA fiction, those feelings are always heightened, as they tend to be for teens and young adults. So the boy is not just “attractive,” he is insanely hot–to that particular character. 

Could we write more stories where the heroine finds a conventionally-unattractive boy hot? Probably. Would readers accept it? I don’t know.

But there’s another element to this–the imagination of the reader. When the heroine says “this boy is hot” the reader creates an image in their own minds of what that means. It may be influenced somewhat by the description in the book, but I guarantee that the reader’s own mental picture is going to outweigh even the book description. The reader is going to create that character into what the reader finds hot, and that will be quite different for each reader.

Boy 4So there’s a lot going on here–experiencing a story is a joint effort between the author and the reader. And I will be the first to admit that as authors, we need to try to bring more diversity into YA fiction. It’s not just not-so-hot boys being left out of our stories. What about gay teens, or disabled characters, or main characters that aren’t Caucasian? The people we present as interesting story characters are very limited, and I do think we can and should do better on this.

I do disagree with the author of the article when she suggests that YA fiction heroines are generally “awkward,” “clumsy,” or “out-of-place.” YA fiction heroines tend to fit conventional ideas of beauty and they always discover that they have amazing skills or talents they never dreamed of.

What Ms. Woodrow-Hill is forgetting is that concept of the “unreliable narrator” again. The heroine of YA fiction may see herself as clumsy or awkward or unattractive. But that usually turns out to be a matter of her own warped self-image and not actually the unbiased truth about her.

Boy kissing girlAnd I think that’s the point of a lot of YA fiction and why it is so popular with girls. Being a teenager (of any gender) is hell on the self-image. The appeal of these books is not so much the hot boys, though hot boys are fun. It’s the idea that no matter how insecure and doubtful I feel about myself, something is going to happen to prove me wrong, something that will show me that I am desirable, that I have potential, that I am so much more than I thought I could ever be.

I highly doubt that YA romance is causing vast numbers of young girls to expect fantasy hot boys instead of real-life flawed boys. Girls already do that, with or without books, just as boys do. We are all shaped by our culture’s definitions of beauty and attractiveness. Those expectations leave scars on our self-image, no matter what gender we are.

People have expressed the same fear about adult romance warping women’s views of men. But the vast majority of women are perfectly able to separate fantasy and reality, and that goes for young women as well.

I think a more important question to ask is whether our emphasis on hot boys is showing that women still have a tendency to measure their own value by the cultural value of the man they are with. If the point of most YA fiction is the heroine discovering her own true value and self-worth, are we saying that happens because a hot boy falls for her? Would she still have incredible value and importance if the boy who loves her was unattractive?

Or maybe we’re just overanalyzing all this. Maybe it’s as simple as this: teen girls have strong sex drives and vivid sexual fantasies, just like boys do. They are fully as capable of objectifying boys’ bodies as boys are of girls’ bodies. And while part of growing up and becoming mature is the ability to love and appreciate another person in spite of their imperfections, the fun of a good novel is the chance to indulge in a wildly unattainable fantasy.

Boy sitting

 

 

 

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I Heart Mary Lambert's "I Know Girls"

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I Heart Mary Lambert's "I Know Girls"

This is Mary Lambert–you know, the beautiful voice of the chorus in Macklemore’s “Same Love”? She’s a writer and performs spoken word and poetry. Below is a video of her poem “I Know Girls.” It is heartbreaking and profound and makes me want to give all the girls in the world a big hug.

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When Writing Becomes An Act of Bravery

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When Writing Becomes An Act of Bravery

In Honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)…

While students across America are groaning about their latest writing assignments and writers all over the world are frantically trying to keep up with their NaNoWriMo goals for the month, there are a group of women poets in Afghanistan who risk their lives to put words on paper.

From BBC News – Dangerous ‘truth’: The Kabul women’s poetry club:

In a little room tucked behind a Kabul cinema bedecked with Bollywood billboards, Afghan women are waging a literary war that is both personal and political.

They call poetry their sword.

The article goes on to explain that in Afghanistan, the Taliban threaten and harm women who dare to write. For these women poets, writing is not just a way to express themselves, it’s an act of rebellion and warrior-like courage against a culture that is unjust and often cruel.

The Mirman Baheer literary society brings women together to share and publish their poems, and find strength in greater numbers. It now counts a few hundred members in clubs in several Afghan cities.

“It’s our form of resistance,” explains one of the society’s founders, Sahira Sharif, a member of parliament.

Karima Shabrang even goes as far as saying “I would prefer a dignified death to a life lived as a hostage in silence.”

I’d encourage you to read the entire article. These women poets challenge me and make me proud to share the title “writer” with them, my brave word-sisters.

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Did You Make My Jeans?

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Did You Make My Jeans?

When I was in high school and college, Gap was where the popular kids shopped. It’s not that hot now, but about 5-7 years ago, there was a resurgence in “coolness” because of the (RED) campaign. Remember those t-shirts with “inspi(RED)” or “ado(RED)” on them that were a partnership with Bono and supposed to be raising money to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa? So global. So socially conscious. So…

…full of shit.

Oh, Gap–how thou are shown to be a hypocrite! If you want to promote “socially conscious consumerism” why not start by paying better attention to the working conditions of the clothing factories you contract with to produce your clothing?

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights came out this month with a devastating report about the Next Collections Factory, in Bangladesh. About 70% of the factory’s products are for Gap and its subsidiary company, Old Navy. At this factory, workers are forced to put in sometimes more than 100 hours a week, for pennies an hour, and cheated out of their rightful overtime pay. Pregnant women are illegally fired and denied maternity leave and benefits.

Below is the Institute’s executive summary of the report. You can read their full report here.

Next Collections Sweatshop, part of the Ha-Meem Group in Bangladesh

  • The 3,750-worker Next Collections factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka is part of the Ha-Meem Group, Bangladesh’s second largest garment exporter which owns 26 factories and employs over 30,000 workers.
  • At the Next Collections sweatshop, approximately 70 percent of production is for Gap and Old Navy.  Gap is the largest specialty apparel chain in the U.S.
  • Next Collections workers are forced to toil 14- to 17-plus-hour shifts, seven days a week, routinely putting in workweeks of over 100 hours.  Workers are visibly sick and exhausted from the grueling and excessive hours.
  • Workers live in poverty, earning just 20 to 24 cents per hour.
  • Physical punishment and illegal firings are the norm.
  • Pregnant women are illegally terminated and denied their legal paid maternity leave.
  • For the last two-and-a-half years, Gap has been complicit with Next Collections/Ha-Meem Group in a scam to defraud the workers of their legal wages and benefits.

–Management hands out phony pay slips to pretend that Gap is in compliance with legal hours and wages.

–Workers are paid in cash, off the books and cheated of 15 percent of their grueling overtime hours.  At Next Collections alone, workers are being robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and millions if one includes all the factories of the Ha-Meem Group.

  • Workers live in miserable poverty in tiny primitive hovels.  By the third week in a month, most have no money left for food.
  • Bangladesh garment workers continue to be the hardest workers in the world and are also among the poorest.

As I’m writing this, I am wearing jeans I bought last year at Gap. And I can’t help but wonder about the woman or man who made them. Did they lose a child because mom was pregnant and forced to work too many hours and destroyed her health? Did the person who stitched my jeans go home that night agonizing because she had worked a 20-hour shift and still had no money to buy food for her hungry kids?

These jeans cost about what…maybe $60? The person who made my jeans would have to work 250 hours to pay for them. That’s a week and a half if you count by 24-hour days. It’s 12.5 work days at 20 hours a day. (Remember, the person who made my jeans likely was forced to work 20-hour shifts at a time.)

Compare that to an American worker, even one working at minimum wage, who could earn about enough to buy my jeans in ONE 8-hour work day. And living on minimum wage isn’t easy. $60 a day is not even scraping by. Try living on Next Collections wages: TWO BUCKS for an 8-hour day. That’s it. Even given the currency difference in Bangladesh, that is simply not enough.

Gap Factory Worker

Mazharul, did your wife make my jeans?

I look at the photos of the workers on the report’s website. Some of them look like they could be my age, or my daughter’s age. They’re not so different from me. One of them–Mazharul Islam–reported that he was beaten by the factory director for asking for his wife’s paid maternity leave.

Morium Begum, a 20 year old woman working at the factory, was pregnant, sick, and exhausted. The factory management forced her to work over 100 hours in a week. She miscarried her baby as a result. She says in the report, “For me, it was a loss I will never get over.”

Workers at the Next Collections factory

Morium, did you make my jeans?

I could go on and talk about the other workers mentioned in the report, but I’ll let you read their stories on the website instead. But I wish I could tell all those workers two things:

1) I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what you were being put through, the mistreatment you faced, to make my jeans.

2) Thank you. I love my jeans–they fit well and are comfortable. You did a good job. I just wish you hadn’t had to suffer in the process. You deserve better than that.

I can’t bring myself to shop at Gap anymore, now that I know. The problem is, I’m not sure any other retail store is much better. For all I know, my entire outfit today could be a product of exploitation and suffering of other women and men half-way around the globe.

And as much as I’d love to get on my high horse about that, I honestly don’t know what to do. Changing the global textile and fashion industry is so much bigger than just me. But maybe the first step is just knowing. Just taking the time to ask one simple question–

Who made my jeans?

Gap Factory Worker

Did you make my jeans?

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