These are some of the qualities I really like in people: big heart, approachable, playful, down-to-earth, fiesty, willing to engage. This is why Lauren Baratz-Logsted is so easy for me to like.
She’s also an easy interview because she’s not one to play it safe. So we tackled the subject of controversy. Lauren’s had a bit of it, and I think this interview gets at something I’m hoping you guys will run with in the comments section – those nasty, anonymous Amazon reviews.
What does controversy say about writers? And readers? And is the ultimate toll of controversy good or bad? Here’s Lauren . . .
THE THIN PINK LINE: My first published book was a dark comedy set in London about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. It got a lot of positive attention – starred Kirkus, etc – and a cult audience has arisen around antiheroine Jane Taylor, also featured in the sequel, CROSSING THE LINE, and several Amazon Shorts.
But the book has had its detractors. The main fault-finders appear to be members of the religious right. They express their outrage in Amazon reviews, questioning the morality of a book where the protagonist lies to nearly everyone she knows and then emerges at the end unscathed. This stance misses a few key facts: 1) Jane does not emerge unscathed – even when she appears to be winning, she’s also losing; 2) the book is a novel, a dark comedy or satire at that; it’s not a prescription for behavior but rather an indictment of how all too often in life people pursue important things – marriage, kids – more because “everyone is doing it” than because any serious thought has been given to the thing itself.
How has this affected me? On the negative side, it’s tough to see your work misconstrued. That said, there’s a saying among writers, “Never explain, never complain,” and a writer doesn’t get the luxury of sitting on each reader’s shoulder, telling him or her how to interpret the work. On the positive side, it’s wonderful to be read and have readers react strongly to an author’s work. Just like hate isn’t the opposite of love, indifference is, I’ve come to realize that having a certain type of reader object to my work is a perverse sort of compliment, and that far worse than a strong negative reaction would be a tepid response.
CROSSING THE LINE: This book continues the (mis)adventures of crazy Jane Taylor, this time dealing with the issue of cross-racial adoption. Reviewers liked this book even better than the first, perhaps because it features a kinder and gentler Jane while keeping the madcap pedal to the floor.
But detractors wondered what kind of world would let Jane keep the baby she finds at the end of the first book. Again, this wholly misses the point that the book is a novel, a created world.
I’ve found that the greatest compliment people pay to fiction is that “It reads like a true story,” while the greatest compliment for nonfiction is, “It reads like a novel.” Bizarre, no? We always want the thing that is completely other to what we’re reading/experiencing.
But some forms of writing simply don’t lend themselves to that perverse formula and satire certainly falls in there. Does anyone read Christopher Moore believing what happens in his books could be happening right next door? Or anywhere on earth? Not unless they’re imbibing while reading they don’t.
Isn’t part of the point of the novel, any novel, to be taken somewhere else? And, while we’re at it, what is it with people finding fault with books – I get this too sometimes – because they can’t relate to the main character? Or because the character is unsympathetic or does unsympathetic things? Nearly 200,000 books published each year in the U.S. – would the world really be a better place if all those books were the same?
A LITTLE CHANGE OF FACE: I really got into trouble with this one. The book is about a very attractive librarian named Scarlett Jane Stein who deliberately alters her looks for the worse in order to see how the world will treat her once she’s no longer a swan.
That’s not the part that got me into trouble. The part that got me into trouble is that one of Scarlett’s gal pals goes by the intitials T.B., which stands for Token Black.
Sunday afternoon reviewers on Amazon accused me of being racist; while I can’t know this for a fact, I suspect those people must be white and that my book rattled their own latent-racist cages. I suspect this in part because the African American readers I heard from all loved what I was doing – they *got* it. They got that I was lampooning, making social commentary on the fact that however far we think we’ve come as a society, African Amercians are still marginalized in Hollywood and on TV and in books.
One African American fan, a student at Dartmouth, wrote comparing my work in this book to the work of Spike Lee; as she put it, aptly, if I were racist I never would have named the character T.B. – I just would have had her behave like one as do so many other characters in books and film. I’ll tell you something: I’ll happily take a thousand white people accusing me of racism in exchange for one African American Dartmouth student comparing me to Spike Lee.
HOW NANCY DREW SAVED MY LIFE: Not really controversial at all, at least not yet, just a bizarre little contemporary comic-gothic – a genre I believe I have all to myself – that’s equal parts Jane Eyre, Nancy Drew, and Chick-Lit. So far, the biggest controvery so come out of this is readers wanting to know if Icelanders – much of the book takes place in Reykjavik – really are such big Nancy Drew fans.
THIS IS CHICK-LIT: This one started with someone else’s controversy: the announcement in April 2005 on Publishers Lunch that Elizabeth Merrick was editing an anthology called This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers.
Of course I was annoyed. Wouldn’t you be? How about if someone did a book called This is Not Sci-Fi? Silly, isn’t it? Or how about These Are Not Coming-of-Age Stories? And, being annoyed, I publicly expressed my annoyance. What writer, having worked years at creating books that will hopefully make readers laugh and think, wants to hear their work denigrated wholesale by someone who is obviously ignorant of the genre in question?
Of course I also decided to do something positive with my anger, hence the creation of THIS IS CHICK-LIT, the intention of which was to showcase the broad spectrum of stories – romantic comedy, satire, mystery, paranormal, futuristic, even metafiction and magic realism – that fall under that umbrella heading. I even had the contributors, in an appendix at the back of the book called “Reaching Across the Aisle”, each recommend one lit writer her readership would also love. What could be more concilliatory than that? I’ve been taking the high road here so long, my nose is bleeding!
But still the charges come. Surely, what I’m really upset about, say the charges, is that I wasn’t invited to be one of “America’s Best.” To which I reply, No, you twit, I’ve never considered myself the best of anything, even if the category is Short Women Writers Who Write In Several Genres And Can Probably Kick Your Ass At Pool. On the other hand, I am kind of bothered by your self-anointment as “America’s Best Women Writers” when I don’t see Toni Morrison or Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler or Joyce Carol Oates anywhere on the list. Shouldn’t they be there?
VERTIGO: And now sex rears its head. Well, it had to happen sometime, didn’t it? VERTIGO, as billed by its publisher, Random House, is a literary novel set in the Victorian era with erotic and suspense undertones. It’s about a very good wife who becomes substantially less so when she becomes involved in steamy correspondence with a man in prison for murdering his own wife.
I guess for some odd reason I thought we were all adults here but reviewers, and this time I’m talking about professional reviewers, seem to feel compelled to inform potential readers that there is “graphic sex included.” Well, of course there’s graphic sex – the book is about a turn-of-the-century spiritual, cultural and sexual awakening! I wouldn’t be serving my readers properly if I didn’t give them the whole experience. [Note: Many eyes were on VERTIGO pre-pub and each reader always had suggestions of what he or she would do different – VERTIGO is just that kind of chameleon book – but there was one thing they all agreed on, whether man or woman or gay or straight or lesbian, and that was, “Don’t change the sex scenes!”]
I don’t think any of the sex in the book is gratuitous – it’s all dictated by the plot of the story – and I think I’m just as reluctant as any writer to write such scenes, since they can so easily be laughed at. But, as I say, we are all adults here. When did we reach the point where we felt the need to inform adults that there might be some sex along the way? I suppose it must be the neo-Puritan times we’re living in, where the outraged emphasis ends up being on the wrong things.
One journalist asked me during an interview how I felt about my mother, now 83, reading such things and knowing I had written them. My reply: “Wouldn’t it be more relevant to ask how my husband feels about me writing a book where the woman considers murdering her husband to be a possible solution to her problems?” [Full disclosure: Despite that last rhetorical question, my husband loves VERTIGO, says it’s my best novel. Maybe it’s because of the sex?]
ANGEL’S CHOICE: And now we come to the last, and what may turn out to be the most controversial of my books, ANGEL’S CHOICE, my first YA [just out, December 26]. ANGEL’S CHOICE, about a girl on the fast track for Yale who finds herself pregnant in her senior year, is about the decisions she makes and everything that follows.
I never set out to write a polemical novel, but rather one about one person’s choices and about how for each of us the choices we make do matter – on the micro as well as the macro level. And yet already I can see people on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice issue lining up to claim the book as their own or even both rejecting the book as being antithetical.
Again, it’s not meant to serve anyone’s agenda – it’s just a story, albeit one that I hope readers will find to be a good one. My editor at Simon & Schuster calls it “an important book,” but who knows?
So back to the issue of controversy and negatives/positives derived therefrom: It does get weary-making, people seizing on tiny threads or the wrong threads or erroneous threads when the whole has to do with something different or something more or even, at the risk of sounding hubristic, something greater; it’s like flies buzzing around your ear.
There are times when a writer is tempted to shout, “Hey, you! Heckler in the back row – I’m talking to you! Do you think maybe the reason my work makes you uncomfortable on some level is because it’s striking too close to home?” But you can’t say that. You can’t sit on each reader’s shoulder and tell him or her what to think.
I don’t court controversy – I don’t sit down in front of my computer screen and say to myself, “What can I do to piss people off today?” – but I’m not running from it either. In fact it’s reached the point where I’ve come to think that if my writing doesn’t upset a certain percentage of people – not through design but through natural reaction to the work itself – then I’m not properly doing my job. All of that said, everything said, I’m grateful to have readers; I’m grateful to be read.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted, in addition to being the editor of THIS IS CHICK-LIT, has written four Chick-Lit novels: THE THIN PINK LINE, CROSSING THE LINE, A LITTLE CHANGE OF FACE, and HOW NANCY DREW SAVED MY LIFE. She is also the author of the literary suspense novel VERTIGO and the serious Young Adult novel ANGEL’S CHOICE. You can read more about her work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com. And if you’re on MySpace, you should know that Lauren’s on MySpace, too!
And if you want to catch Lauren wearing the interviewer’s hat on LitPark, just click here and read a fascinating dialogue about chick-lit.