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BookNotes: Don’t say race

PEN America is fighting against six pending pieces of legislation that will seriously curtail free speech on college campuses. Florida – oh Florida, why is it always you? – isn’t satisfied with “don’t say gay.” Now they’re saying teacher education programs can’t teach college students anything related to racism or identity politics, which of course is not defined, as well as stripping financial aid from students saying unpopular things on campus. Iowa is doing the same, while Oklahoma has stripped out any class that teaches them about race. Utah and Indiana are fighting DEI, which last I looked was comprised of efforts to promote tolerance and fight racism, you know, subversive stuff like that. Check out the complete rundown here.

Speaking of Florida, Miami-Dade schools required a permission slip for students to hear a book written by a Black author, because their new laws are so vague and dogwhistley (a word I just made up) that it appeared to be necessary. Of course, we don’t need permission slips to hear books by white authors. That would be known as “the rest of the curriculum.” Check it out here.

• Washington Post’s book critic, Ron Charles, dug into a new form of larceny in book publishing this week. I can’t link because it was in his weekly newsletter, which I strongly recommend. In short: jerkoffs are repackaging books and posting them with pseudonyms similar to the actual author’s name. In this example, music historian Ted Gioia wrote a book titled The History of Jazz for Oxford University Press. Some yahoothen posted The Evolution of Jazz by a Frank Gioia, co-written by “Ted Alkyer.” No such historian, but there is a jazz expert named Frank Alkyer. The “publisher” of this mess is Leon Lanen, which has 90 books on OverDrive and is presumably raking in the dough. Apparently the text is not similar enough to qualify as plagiarism, but “has the uncanny valley feel of a book report written by an earnest teenage robot,” according to Charles. You too can program an AI to fake a book! 

Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, tells Charles that the number of pirated and scam books stealing names as well as text is “staggering and definitely cuts into authors’ incomes.” Therefore my fury at the panelist who insisted we should all just dive in and start using the Plagiarism Machine last week has now doubled. In related news, Sarah Silverman, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Christopher Goden and Richard Kadrey have filed suit alleging their books have been used to train ChatGPT without permission. It’s not going well.

• Fallout continues with resignations and censures in the wake of the Hugo Awards controversy, in which several authors were inexplicably disqualified and still no explanation has been given, even a bullshit one. Publishers Weekly has the update.

Librarians are fighting back against the protesters and hate, standing firm in favor of the freedom to read and support for LGBTQ readers. They’ve been doxxed, threatened, their families threatened, accused of “grooming.” In one Tennessee town absolutely in an uproar about Gender Queer, there’s a history: in 1958 the local high school was integrated by court order, and someone planted 100 sticks of dynamite and reduced the high school to rubble. An Iowa library barely survived a vote in November to dismantle it over one book. And an Idaho Librarian was called a groomer for *checks notes* accepting an award from the American Library Association.

• Check out LeVar Burton standing up – as he does – and going after book burning with Reading Rainbow kids.

• Right in my backyard, a candidate for state office in ye olde Missouri decided the best way to elevate her campaign is to set library books on fire

The state of Alabama has withdrawn from the American Library Association. Too woke.

The news is too depressing this week! Let’s end with a meme.

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February 2024 Linkspam: The First Duty

I have traditionally taken January off from public appearances and traveling, in an increasingly vain attempt to maintain my sanity. That means January is usually pretty quiet. In this case, it was quiet, gray, and very very cold. January is not my favorite month.

However, I have AWP to look forward to! The annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is coming up early in February, and I couldn’t be more excited. AWP is more literary-focused than the other conventions I go to, with a heavy emphasis on literary fiction and creative nonfiction and oh so much poetry. I attended my first in-person AWP last year in Seattle, and immersed myself in words for five days. It was wonderfully creative and the energy was so invigorating, I can almost forget that I came home with pneumonia. Yay! 

This time it’s in Kansas City, which is a short drive from my home base in St. Louis. It’s good that it’s so close in the year that I am most impoverished, so I am saved any tough choices. I will be blogging daily from AWP on my Patreon, so if you were ever thinking about subscribing, now is a great time! It’s a dollar a month, which is $12 for a whole year – such a deal! Short stories, poetry, travelogues, writing articles, essays, photography. Click here to find out more. 

I’ve also launched two new blog features, fiction is progressing and there’s a bunch more to share, so read on, MacDuff.

Publicity/Appearances

I’m delighted to announce that I have been accepted as an attending professional once again at Dragoncon. DC is notoriously selective, and I’ve been honored each time they have accepted me. So I’ll be spending Labor Day weekend in Hotlanta once again, to meet and greet my 70,000 closest friends!

Before that, however, the schedule is shaping up for the year. First we have Conflation, which takes place in St. Louis later this month. This year’s theme is Apocalypse, which I think means I get to wear pants. We’ll be bringing the Literary Underworld Traveling Bar, of course, and I’ll be running a writing workshop using apocalyptic images to spur writing sprints. It should be a nifty exercise, and I’m looking forward to it.

The journalism side has been pretty busy as well. Unfortunately we had to postpone the Student Boot Camp where I was to talk journalism ethics with undergrads, but it’s being rescheduled for September. In the meantime, we are deep into planning the Society of Professional Journalists’ Regional Conference right here in St. Louis, and I’ll be neck-deep in that project for the next couple of months. 

Added to the schedule: the National Federation of Professional Women has asked me to speak at their conference on June 20-22. The topic hasn’t been decided yet, but it’ll be either freelance writing or fiction. Or both. Whichever! I can run my mouth forever. 

Unfortunately, I had to opt out of ConCarolinas this year. It’s always a blast, and I know that weekend I will have some serious FOMO for missing it. But alas, it’s a plane flight and hotel on my own, and something had to give with the budget this year. My best wishes to the Carolinas Crew and all my good friends at Falstaff Books, which always has a big presence at that show. 

2024 calendar:
• Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Kansas City, Mo. Feb. 7-10 (attending)
• Conflation, St. Louis, Mo. Feb. 23-25
• Midsouthcon, Memphis, Tenn. March 22-24 
• Sigma Tau Delta conference, St. Louis, Mo. April 3-6 (attending)
• SPJ regional conference, St. Louis, Mo. (date TBA)
• National Federation of Professional Women, St. Louis,Mo. June 2022 (speaker)
• TechWrite STL, St. Louis, Mo. July 10 (speaker)
• Imaginarium, Louisville, Ky. July 19-21
• Dragoncon, Atlanta, Ga. Sept. 5-9 
• Edwardsville Book Festival, Edwardsville, Ill. Oct. 12 (tent.)
• Archon, Collinsville, Ill. Oct. 4-6 

Journalism

• Highland extends two TIF districts and create a third (Highland News-Leader and Yahoo News)
• State settles with Illinois contractor over unlawfully deducted wages (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Highland residents have mixed opinions of new trash service (Highland News-Leader and AOL News)
• United Steelworkers file grievances over U.S. Steel’s plan to sell to Nippon (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Durbin, Duckworth call for non-unionized automakers to stop interfering in unionization efforts (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Projected increase in property values should lower tax rate in Highland (Highland News-Leader and AOL News)
• A year of workers’ rights in Illinois (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• As work continues at water-damaged city hall, Highland officials try to pin down costs (Highland News-Leader and AOL News)
• Federal legislators seek answers in sale of U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• We’re Outside levels up al fresco dining in Alton (Feast Magazine)
• Steelworkers concerned about sale of U.S. Steel to overseas owner (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Identity of woman who died in Highland fire is released (Belleville News-Democrat)
• Steelworkers reach settlement with U.S. Steel over Granite City layoffs (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Two labor giants pass away in one week (with Ed Finkelstein) (St. Louis Labor Tribune)
• Congresswoman moves to expand relief to UFCW grocery workers (St. Louis Labor Tribune)

Note: Not all articles are available online, and some may be behind paywalls. 

Blogs

With the new year, I’ve started two new blog features. I used to do an annual post titled Show Your Work, where I would highlight instances where journalists uncovered badness and brought about real change. The problem was that I was forever forgetting to update my file, and so the post was generally limited to the major award winners.

But there’s a lot of work that never wins an award or any special attention, but it blows the lid off something awful. And once the light is on, they can’t pretend it’s not happening. As P.J. O’Rourke used to say, journalists turn on the light and watch the roaches scurry.

Thus each week I have posted on DonaldMedia.com a roundup of Show Your Work, along with updates in the journalism world and a rundown on what was total garbage on the internet this week. Like you, I am tired of seeing rampant misinformation mindlessly reposted on Facebook without the simple Google search that would show it’s completely wrong. Thus the quote above: the first duty is to the truth. 

As a corollary to that, I have begun posting BookNotes on ElizabethDonald.com that not only updates on the latest kerfuffle in the publishing and speculative fiction universes, but follows the ongoing issue of book banning and censorship in the U.S. I was worried at first that I wouldn’t find enough information to make that a weekly post. Alas. 

This is a longer intro than usual, but suffice to say, there will be more blog posts in the future. They will be cross-posted to Patreon to make it easier for my Patrons. Note that neither blog feature will appear next week unless I get super ambitious, as I will be at AWP. 

• BookNotes: Nevermore (Elizabeth Donald)
• Show Your Work: Zappa to me (Donald Media)
• BookNotes: Gang aft a’gley (Elizabeth Donald)
• Show Your Work: Malarkey! (Donald Media)
• BookNotes: AI and book banning, once again (Elizabeth Donald)
• Show Your Work: Snow truth to it (sorry) (Donald Media)
• Show Your Work: It’s not like they didn’t know the schools were falling down (Donald Media)
• Show Your Work: January is off to a banging start (Donald Media)

Fiction

I am happy to say the manuscript for Blackfire Rising is now in the hands of my editor at Falstaff Books. I can’t wait to (re)introduce you all to the Blackfire crew. They are always so fun to write, and with the new characters being introduced – wait, I’m ahead of myself. Suffice to say I think you’re really going to enjoy it. More to come… 

Patreon/Medium

• The snake rule, or words we keep in newsrooms for no good reason (Patreon and Medium)
• Review: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store (Patreon)
• Review: Wonka and the taste of nostalgia (Patreon)
• The White Star Line wineglass (Medium)
• Review: Falling by TJ Newman (Patreon)
• To be a writer, one must also read (Medium)
• Those writer’s resolutions… (Patreon)
• The 2023rd top-ten list you’ll see this week (Medium)

Note: All Patreon entries are indexed going back to its launch in 2018. I wanted new Patrons to be able to easily find the work that they’ve missed, and hopefully seeing how much work is on the Patreon might encourage some good folks to subscribe. (Hint, hint.) Seriously, subscriptions start at $1 a month, and I truly believe some of the best work I’ve ever done is on the Patreon. Check out the index here.

Photography

• Fly like an eagle (Patreon)

I have also added a whole new gallery to the webstore. I have so much travel photography now that I decided to put together some galleries for the places I’ve visited. Baltimore, Yosemite, Paris, Notre Dame, Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington D.C…. okay, really, my job does rock. Almost all of the images in the galleries are available for purchase, so if you see something you like that isn’t in the store, email kyates@donaldmedia.com and we’ll get you a quote. 

 

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BookNotes: Nevermore

 

Today’s top read: The Estrogen Zone, or how women pioneered creative nonfiction before it was even a thing. All the way back to Nellie Bly, women like Joan Didion, Rachel Carson, Gail Sheehy, and others had to deal with the most rank sexism to fight their way out of the “flamingo pink” women’s pages to get to do real work in the white-male-dominated world of nonfiction and journalism. 

(Lest you think this is ancient history, know that as a young reporter I was assigned to write up weddings. Yes, all the details of the dresses worn to the bridesmaids’ luncheon, too. To be fair, I also got to cover the shooting of U.S. Marshals and eventually got to do real journalism.)

Much of the article is focused on Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochrane and pioneered investigative undercover journalism by getting herself committed to an asylum to uncover how women with mental health issues were mistreated. One such woman’s “mental health” issue was not wanting to be married to her husband anymore, so he dumped her in the asylum. For life. Cochrane and Ida Tarbell and Nell Nelson and Annie Laurie and the amazing Martha Gellhorn exposed injustice and oppression before it was cool, and did it in defiance of a society that insisted their place was to serve men in their homes. It’s from The Fine Art of Literary Fistfighting, a history of creative nonfiction that just vaulted to the top of my wishlist.

• I’m not rehashing Barbenheimer Goes to the Oscars, but Den Of Geek has an interesting piece despite being solidly in Oppy’s camp about the missing women of Oppenheimer. I recall being annoyed at how the women characters were reduced basically to sex objects and background noise (with a notable exception included in the article) but I had forgotten about all the women scientists they ignored or mocked. The movie version of history shouldn’t be more sexist than actual history. I had never thought of Nolan’s work as being overtly male-centered, but now I can’t unsee it. That said, it isn’t fair to say Oppenheimer is solely for male viewers, as that’s in itself a sexist assumption that women aren’t interested in all that sciencey stuff.

• This Week in A.I. Hell: The estate George Carlin sues the podcasters who made an A.I. zombie Carlin special, whereupon the podcasters immediately declared, “Uh, we didn’t use A.I.! We totally wrote it ourselves.” They sound like my students. We’ll see in the depositions, boys. This case has the potential to set legal precedent about the use of A.I. generated images of deceased celebrities without their families’ consent or compensation, thus the backpedaling.

• That creepy author who requested nudes from young women to promote his book, which we talked about last week? His agent dropped him, he appears to have been removed from his speakers bureau, he’s been kicked off a number of boards and organizations… basically, stick a fork in him, he’s done. It’s easy to completely torch your career by being a creeper. Also, he’s very sorry.

• An interesting interview with author Eric A. Stanley on their new book detailing anti-trans/queer violence. They argue that modernity cannot be examined separate from violence and oppression of LGBTQ+ people and their art. “I think a lot of the promises of inclusion are crumbling, and people are unsure what to do. I hope that this will radicalize us all toward demanding an end to this world and [demanding] one [where] we can all survive,” they said. The book is titled Atmospheres ofViolence, and you can read the whole interview at Public Books.

Finally: Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe.

Note: Next week I am back on the road, attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Kansas City. Daily travelogues and convention write-ups will appear on Patreon, so now is a great time to subscribe! There will be no Show Your Work or BookNotes next week due to the conference, unless I get super ambitious. But I’ll be back the next week!

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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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