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Month: January 2024

Booknotes: Gang aft a’gley

Technically Jan. 25 was Burns Night, when Scotsmen and literature nerds throw dinner parties on the birthday of poet Robert Burnes. It’s traditional to play bagpipe music, recite the Selkirk Grace, serve haggis, drink scotch, and other Scottish-type things.

I’ve never actually attended a Burns Night, but my local coffeehouse is hosting one on Sunday and I am hoping to attend. Uh, without trying the haggis. Look, I know what’s in it. Just pass me the scotch.

• It’s a day ending in Y, and therefore there must be a controversy in the book world. This week it’s the Hugos, which are being held in Chendgu, China for the first time in history. That’s not the controversy – yet – nor is it the Hugo nominees precisely. There were some surprises, but now they have released the voting statistics for the Hugo nominees and it seems that R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao and Neil Gaiman were ruled ineligible for no reason given, either to the authors themselves or to the voters. “The only statement from the administration team that I can share is the one that I already have –  after we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible.” That’s literally the response administrator Dave McCarty gave to Gaiman. He did specify that the Chinese government didn’t have anything to do with it. Okay. 

There’s some jerkoffs making nasty videos about Gaiman over it, which I’m not linking. But a lot of folks have added that “awards don’t mean anything.” I respectfully disagree. As one who won a regional award early in my career, it meant a great deal. True, you’ve never heard of my award, but I get to put “award-winning author” before my name forever. More than that, when the banquet was over, I went back to my hotel room, sat on the edge of the bed, then kicked my heels in the air and giggled and repeated over and over, “I am not fooling myself. I am not a fraud. I am a WRITER.” In the subsequent years it and other awards have served as selling points as well as affirmation that my work has value, bringing others to consider my work who might have drifted on by without that award.

Mr. Gaiman et al don’t need that affirmation. And none of us actually write for awards. But arbitrarily kicking authors off a list without explanation renders the award meaningless. If you can stack the deck by excluding people at random, your award is a popularity contest. Awards show what we as a society deem valuable in our art – I’m looking at you, Oscars – and what we choose to exclude matters as much as what we choose to honor. 

• Speaking of plans gang aft a’gley, we have Mr. J.D. Barker, a New York Times bestseller and Stoker nominee, who apparently reached out to young female BookTok reviewers “suggesting” that if they did videos promoting his book NUDE, he would pay them. But they’re supposed to send the videos to him first for review, so I guess if they didn’t make the cut, he gets free book porn? Barker blamed his PR firm – which he owns. See the original TikTokker calling him out here, and his response where he says it was all a mistake and he’s very sorry. I could detail all the ways this is bad, but do I really have to? “Sorry” doesn’t quite cover “what the hell were you thinking in the first place?” 

• This week in AI Hell: After mass disgust at the people who used AI to create Zombie George Carlin and also used AI to “write” a script for a “comedy” special without asking or compensating his family, they’re suing. This could very well be a bellwether case to establish precedent that you can’t arbitrarily dig people out of the grave and make them perform like marionettes, even if AI gets good enough to make it passable. 

And now, some closing words from Rabbie Burns.

Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine – no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s plough-share drives elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
Shall by thy doom.

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BookNotes: AI and book banning, once again.

This week’s roundup in book news is pretty much all AI and book banning, but we do have some fun stuff first:

• A postdoc teaching associate at Northwestern University believes he has found about 20 stories and poems he believes were authored by Louisa May Alcott, previously unknown. They were ghost stories and even some spicy stories, which maybe we can finally use to put a pin in the idea that speculative fiction and genre fiction can’t be literary? Please? 

• Angel City Press is an independent press focused on Los Angeles cultural history, and the owners recently announced their retirement. So the Los Angeles Public Library bought the press, and they will be the third public library in the country to own their own publishing house (following the Library Congress and the New York Public Library.) 

• Shocking precisely no one, AI-generated book rewrites are flooding Amazon. Pirates are stealing new, in-copyright books, making AI “rewrite” them and popping them back up on Amazon. Sometimes they call them “summaries” of the books they’re stealing; others simply pass themselves off as the real thing. Wired did a full write-up on this.. Amazon, by the way, has instituted a rule that no author can upload more than three books per day to the site. That’ll do it!

• This week in book banning: A Florida school district has decided the new DeSantis law policing books with “sexual conduct” means they have to remove 673 books, including the dictionary. Here’s a commentary on it from Vanity Fair and the straight news article. Also on the naughty list: John Grisham, John Steinbeck, John Irving, other writers not named John, Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Beloved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catch-22, and ironically Brave New World. By the way, teachers are no longer allowed to even call students by their preferred nickname because •gasp• it might be a trans name! In one county alone – Escambia County – more than 2,800 books have been removed from circulation. I wonder if Fahrenheit 451 is on the list again?

Meanwhile, lawsuits challenging book bans in Florida and Iowa are moving forward. In Florida, Penguin Random House has joined with PEN America among others to sue Escambia County School Board on the constitutionality of the book bans. In addition to the obvious First Amendment issues, the suit alleges a 14th Amendment violation under the Equal Protection Clause, as the challenged books are disproportionately titles by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors. It’s hard to imagine in a country where a pending state bill actually defines the word “terrorist” as “person of Hispanic descent living in Oklahoma.”

In Texas, a federal appeals court blocked a law that would have required a ratings system from booksellers dealing with school libraries. And an investigation by the Texas Tribune found that in a district banning books about trans people, the superintendent called a meeting with the librarians and told them the county was very conservative and anyone with different political beliefs “better hide it.” This was his lead-in to tell them to remove any book about LGBTQ themes, even if they don’t describe sex. “There are two genders. There’s male, and there’s female,” he declared. This happened two years ago, but now the federal government is investigating under civil rights enforcement.

On the other side, Massachusetts has presented bills to ensure that books cannot be removed from schools or libraries due to personal or political beliefs; only library professionals decide how to curate the collection. Believe it or not, last week police actually raided a middle school without a warrant seeking a copy of the book Gender Queer. The superintendent apologized for allowing it, saying “I recognize that this was likely a targeted racist and homophobic attack on a colleague and teacher.” The teacher in question was an advisor for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. 

Book Riot has been exploring this issue in depth, because book banning is clearly not going to stop with schools, and as we’ve seen in Murfreesboro, Tenn., it won’t necessarily stop with books, either. The town passed “public decency” ordinances that outlawed LGBTQ people in town. They were quickly repealed when lawsuits were filed. 

Also, there’s an interesting commentary by Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen this week on trauma, book bans, and what it does to society when librarians are threatened and accused of grooming. She points out that librarians often cover the social services gaps in communities, and offers a resource guide for them.

Coming up next week: Authors Guild will hold a Zoom on school book bans and civil rights, which I plan to attend. 

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