Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Ministry of Sanctioned Words teaches our children--

MSW proclamation! 
So I promise now that the newspaper and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys. Nor will The Independent’s books section. And nor will the children’s books blog at Independent.co.uk.
The Ministry of Sanctioned Words continues on its mission to tell us what words are acceptable and what words are unacceptable. The Independent (UK) now informs the world  that it will no longer review "boy books" or "girl books" because they know what boys and girls like ought to read better than boys and girls do, and so in future they will only review--tada!--unisex books. Because The Independent knows better than you do what your sons and daughters ought to read. Got that? Good. Now go on your way, confident in the knowledge that The Ministry of Sanctioned Words cares for you and your children and knows what they should think and how they should choose books.
Categories

Plenty of boys and girls would cross reading lines of all sorts--genre, age categories, gender--if we quit categorizing absolutely everything and creating more and more new age levels. I wish children today could browse in a big, chaotic library without divisions and labels. That's the kind of library that was on offer when I was growing up, and I read plenty of varied books of all sorts, including books that The Independent would call "boy books."

The Independent against "boy and girl books"

But let's go back to The Independent and the issue of "boy and girl books." Little Johnny doesn't much like to read and has to be lured into a world he likes? Let's take away the few stories he does like--say, ones with native Americans clambering around on rocks and sometimes shooting things or communicating strangely with bears, a prehistoric boy who learns to carve after he is maimed, pioneer boys who run wild on the prairie... Those happen to be the sort of books my third child liked. My eldest son was a history book reader, but he also liked some historical "boy stories," and he adored Tolkien. Oops. Neither of my sons would be allowed to read what he liked under the rule of The Independent, which is evidently ambitious of transforming into an organ of The Ministry of Sanctioned Words. Meanwhile, my daughter didn't mind reading a boy-dominated book in the least. Nor did she mind a girl-dominated book. She just cared whether the book could be called good, and she preferred fantasy.

The Example of LOTR

Now let's go back to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, a book that all three of my children liked; it clearly falls outside the category of "unisex book." Tolkien's complex tale is almost completely dominated by male hobbits and wizards, male humans and elves with the occasional side female (okay, Galadriel is powerful, I grant you, and Eowyn seems like a specific person, and Shelob--well, Shelob is quite a "she"), male ents who have lost their entwives, male orcs who never get any wives at all, ticked-off male ghosts, male furrin fighters from distant parts, etc. Auden defended the book as "part of a literary tradition of reinterpreting ancient archetypes to create a modern mythology," but it was primarily a male-dominated myth, despite the presence of a few female characters (The New Yorker.)

A lot of people like The Lord of the Rings. A poll conducted by Waterstone's bookstores and BBC4 found that readers in the UK thought The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the twentieth century. This finding displeased some and pleased others. As Auden said, some find it "a masterpiece of its genre," while others "cannot abide it") An Amazon poll put the book as the best of the millenium (Salon.) (I somehow can't imagine that degree of rabidness pleasing Tolkien, a student of early languages and literatures.) Yet under The Independent's new rules, Tolkien would not be eligible for review.

Dear Independent, please review on merit

Independent, you are one of many papers I read when I'm on the hunt for reviews; I have read books editor Rebecca Davis. But this change is a bad idea. Why not stick to reviewing books on their merits? Toss out the categories and just divide the sheep (good books) from the goats (not-so-good to downright-terrible books.) Reviewing on merit is an old idea but still a good one--it's like a worn but still-useful proverb. Tried. True.
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The Great Big Book of Snot for Boys

Update: Thanks to the daily Prufrock News, I can tell you that Ron Dreher has already posted a note about this interesting development. Moreover, his post has a much more fetching title: "Stand Up for The Great Big Book of Snot for Boys!" Interestingly, we both have a familial concern for boy books. Studies have shown that boys can be very particular about what they read, while girls tend to be wide readers who will accept what we call "boy books"--I think it was Orange Prize research that showed the same about men and women.

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Coming up. Green men. Have a request?

Coming up next, maybe... A few days ago I wrote a post solving (purporting to solve) that insoluble puzzle, why green men are on churches and cathedrals. I'll upload it in a day or two. And I'm taking requests, questions, and general suggestions for future posts.

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Love or loathe the Ministry? 

Click on the Ministry tag below for more recent developments
in the public sphere and inside the ivory tower--

18 comments:

  1. Clearly my reading of Nancy Drew books -- borrowed from my cousin when I was small -- is the source of my problems in life. If only the Independent had been there to protect me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The lack of proper unisex books has no doubt caused all sorts of havoc... but now The Ministry is here to save you from yourself.

      Delete
  2. Your comments about LOTR persuade me that I need to revisit the hobbits. I am between books, and the nudge is persuasive. Though I wonder: perhaps I should clear my idea with the folks AF Independent.

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    Replies
    1. I believe we all must clear our ideas with the Ministry, Tim!

      Delete
  3. please ignore typo.....damn autocorrect on phone.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This kind of nonsense is so annoying. I would happily forgo ever being reviewed by such sillies. Some of the most effective bloggers I know when it comes to reviewing Y.A. are very active in making sure the right book gets into a kid's hands. -- Even when it means focusing on books that appeal to one gender or the other. Guy's Lit Wire (http://guyslitwire.blogspot.com/) was founded to create a place for boys to find books because they weren't reading at the same rate as girls. It's an awesome site and been very active for quite a few years now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I've used some of the "boy book" sites that have sprung up in looking for books for my sons... And am glad they are there.

      I'd be quite surprised to be reviewed by any of the big UK papers, so I think that I'm safe. Relative obscurity is protective! ; )

      And I think anything we do to discourage reading is just wrong--children are so little encouraged to read now, and so many give all their spare time to electronic games.

      Delete
  5. I used to review for KLIATT and I never thought once about the issues raised by TI. Dumb me!

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    Replies
    1. I had to look up KLIATT--have recognized your other reviewing venues but didn't know that one...

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  6. They are out of business now, like a few others for whom I wrote. Perhaps I was bad luck for the publishers. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hah. Publications come, and publications go.

      But there is huge luck involved in the business of making books, always.

      Delete
  7. I thought at first MSW was a joke and a very bad one! Hopefully most readers will ignore. Not having sons or grandsons I can't speak for their preferences, but eldest granddaughter reads a wide variety including LOTR at present.

    Beside the point here, I've lately noticed a tendency in myself to choose more female authors.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Marja-Leena,

      The Ministry of Sanctioned Words is just my name for all the various peoples who are trying to control what we say and think... And it's rather surprising how many examples there are. I could do a blog that was nothing but "The Ministry of Sanctioned Words," I imagine. But it's bugged me a little more than usual of late.

      I love the idea of children browsing (something that is almost dead now) at a good bookstore or library in order to find what is a "fit."

      Delete
  8. I did understand that the naming MSW is yours, and very clever it is too! All this control of what we say and think seems very political, rather 1984.... I see it in the kind of reporting in the media.

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    1. Oh, yes, it certainly does smack of Orwell and Huxley and dystopian tales.

      Delete
  9. Oh, and about browsing for books - that is the way I did it as a child and still do sometimes. With the internet, I do see some reviews and mentions that may intrigue and send me to our library's site. And of course now we have blogs by authors...

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    Replies
    1. Yes, those pesky blogs by authors!

      I love browsing. In high school, every afternoon after school I was wandering the stacks at Western Carolina University's Hunter Library, where my mother was head of serials. Had to wait till she got off work for a ride... And that was marvelous. I read so much! Sometimes I would go to the special collections department and root around in things that now you wouldn't be allowed to touch. It was so much fun for a bookish girl.

      Delete
  10. I've had some interesting comments and requests via facebook. Here's a request comment: *Really* looking forward to reading about green men and churches. Post ideas/requests: what sort of music do you listen to while writing, and how does it vary? Are there particular artists or songs linked to certain stories or poems in your mind? And, with 'Catherwood' being republished, I'd love to hear about the genesis of that novel. (Apologies if you have already written on these topics in the past.)

    I might wait a bit to talk about "Catherwood" again. I'm not sure how clearly I remember those sorts of things now, though I do remember some elements well.

    Music is an interesting question...

    ReplyDelete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.