Link Round Up: Women Readers, Digital Reading, and College Syllabi

imageHere’s some sad, sad Pac-Mans, to quote Stephanie Leary. VIDA posted their count of major publications, their reviewers by gender, and their reviews by gender of the author.

Oh, that is one hurtin’ Pac Man collection right there. The New York Times book review pages feature books by men twice as much as books by women, while The New Yorker features books by men four times as much as books by women. I knew it was bad but oh, holy night, that just dropped my jaw.

VIDA is ready to “invest our efforts and energy into the radical notion that women are writers, too.” I’m all for it, but I knew that – given that romance is mostly written by women, read and bought by women, and also mostly edited by women. And of course romance isn’t reviewed in major publications like The New Yorker or The New York Times—though there are bigger changes afoot. Publisher’s Weekly is now focusing on romance, led by Rose Fox, and I think other publications will have to follow their lead.

And there’s always the internet, where book readers review books in growing numbers – I love that there are so many of us now.

Secondly, I’m up at Kirkus this week, in a two-part article (code for ‘Damn, that was really long’) that examines The Good and the Bad of Reading Romance Digitally.

I’ve not had any problems immersing myself in the experience of reading an e-Ink screen. In fact, I find it more comfortable than reading a book. Why? One reason: text size. I’ve joked that I’m an ideal test subject for digital reading device developers, because I’m an avid reader in her mid-30s with the eyesight of a 95-year-old. With the e-Ink display, I can crank the text up to “Great-Grandma Size” and read without my glasses. It’s marvelous to be able to customize the display, the text size and even the number of lines per page, depending on the book file, to suit your preferences.

There are also a growing number of sources to access digital books. Most people think of the big ones, Amazon and Barnes & Noble at bn.com, but there are also small independent online retailers like AllRomanceBooks.com and publisher bookstores like Harlequin’s at ebooks.eHarlequin.com.
Then there’s your local library—did you know that many libraries offer digital lending? Go to Search.Overdrive.com and click “Find a library” to see if your nearest branch offers digital lending. It’s wonderful, and since libraries pay a good amount of their not-for-profit dollars to have that access, if it’s available, use it! 

This article, I believe, will also appear in the print edition of Kirkus as well. The “bad” of digital reading will be published online on 19 February.

And finally—a good friend of mine sent me this link to a Buzzfeed picture of a required text for an English course: Yup, That’s Twilight.

My first thought was to wonder at all the different things you could do with Twilight on a syllabus, and what parts of the book could be focused upon in a collegiate setting. With some google-fu, I found a librarian’s Tumblr, where “librariansoul”, a “gay, atheist, feminist male librarian” revealed that the book is for an Honors level Introduction to Fiction course at Ohio State University.

Librariansoul thinks the decision to have an honors level course look at Twilight, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw and Dracula is a hot pile of crapidea, saying

Henry James was an excellent writer but Stephenie Meyer couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag and Bram Stoker, to be honest, wasn’t a whole lot better….

Courses where all four of these works should have been on the required reading list:
• Some sort of survey course that covers hundreds of books and fills all the weird gaps between them. Frankenstein is only supernatural literature in a kind of superficial sense; The Turn of the Screw is a fairly ambiguous ghost story; Dracula is a gothic horror novel; and Twilight is romantic bilge. They have very little in common, and yet I can’t see how they would be much good in a comparison/contrast sort of way, either.

In conclusion: Twilight wasn’t the only strange and inappropriate entry in Dr. Garcha’s list of required reading material; the whole thing should have been seriously reconsidered.

I am with him that those four novels have in common that “there be some paranormal/supernatural stuff in here, yo.” But I don’t necessarily think putting Twilight on a syllabus would be a bad idea, or make it the worst English course in history. I tend to think everything is worth examining, particularly things like Twilight that evoke such a response that people get the movie posters tattooed on their entire bodies. (Don’t make me post a link. Ok, fine, here **fixed the link – sorry about that **). I had a rather negative reaction to the book, but I also know plenty of people who adore it, and that response and the potential cause alone would be worth examining, in my opinion, particularly with the tools available to your nearest English student.

What do you think? Could you envision that book on a syllabus? What would you want to examine about it, if so?

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  1. 1
    Carrie S says:

    I hated the Twilight series, but I can totally see it on a syllabus.  Sometimes in an English Lit class you’re studying texts not so much for their “quality” but for their impact, or for comparison purposes, and Twilight, for good and bad, has had a huge impact.  I can also see it in a Feminist Lit class, not because it is feminist (don’t get me started) but because it was so popular with girls and women despite it’s very traditional, and in my view, oppressive, vibe.  The four choice do seem odd to me as a general Intro to literature, though.  I wonder if they switch themes every year? 

    written75:  I had written 75 papers y the time I graduated, I still hadn’t learned how to spell.

  2. 2
    Alina says:

    I agree with you. I’ve read the entire series (I didn’t want to participate in the “make fun of it” part of its culture without having actually read it) – I think the writing is bad and I’m horrified by the complete lack of awareness demonstrated by the writer. But no amount of dislike for the books or the author can ignore the fact of its enormous popularity. Clearly, Meyer tapped into something and I don’t think it would be a waste of time to look at it in a college classroom.

  3. 3
    Theresa says:

    I’ve seen Twilight on a syllabus for a Young Adult lit class at a university in Oklahoma… considering I think it’s complete crap, it was that single book that kept me from taking the class, because having read some of it standing in the bookstore, I couldn’t stomach the though of having to read it all. I found the writing positively without any redeeming quality… or, more bluntly, awful beyond words.

  4. 4
    Virginia E says:

    Years ago, I had a college course on Supernatural literature. It was before Meyers and her little series, but we had Dracula, both film & print. (Ah, Jack Palance as the count – DROOL!) Even if you don’t like an author’s technical writing skils, you can appreciate the mythology and how the story reflects it’s time and audience.

    I also had an upper level anthropology course on Man & the Supernatural.

  5. 5
    TDF Pamela says:

    When I was in grad school, I took a course on the adolescent problem novel, and we studied Twilight.  Mind you, it was a class full of feminists, so we promptly ripped it to shreds for everything from the poor writing to Bella’s appalling lack of personality to the creepy possessiveness that pervades the whole thing.  I think my professor assigned it more so she could see what we (there was a group of us all studying children’s/adolescent literature who ended in her in classes together a lot) could make of it rather than to look at it as a problem novel.

    So it’s not outside the realm of logic to study Twilight, but I’m not sure I’d assign it in an intro to lit course.  There’s a lot there to unpack and analyze, but I don’t know if students just taking the course for a humanities credit would be able to do it.

  6. 6
    Jennifer Uribe says:

    I’ll admit.  I was totally going to go look at the tattooed movie poster, but the link doesn’t work. *sigh*

  7. 7
    Alina says:

    Jennifer Uribe: just Google “Twilight back tattoo”.

  8. 8
    Noelle N says:

    @ Jennifer…. I had to see the tattoo too.  I searched it out and YIKES!

    http://moviecarpet.com/iwave/images/7/o-why-49-year-old-woman-gets-a-giant-twilight-tattoo-on-her-back.jpg

  9. 9
    D.L. says:

    I can totally see it working on a college syllabus, but (agreeing with above comments) I think it would work best in some sort of popular literature or sociology course.  I *loved* Pamela’s comment- I hadn’t thought of it before, but this would be great to include in feminist lit courses b/c it’s so anti-feminist.  It’s great fodder for discussion.

  10. 10
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    The only thing I can imagine Twilight would be appropriate for in any self-respecting English course would be as an example of what not to do. Ghastly writing, flat characters, and a complete antipathy towards the idea of independent female thought.

  11. 11
    Kerry D. says:

    In case anyone doesn’t know about it, do check out Reasoning with Vampires for a wonderful analysis of both the bad writing and the bad ideas in Twilight. She’s now at the beginning of New Moon but just go back through the archvies and laugh.

  12. 12
    Kerry D. says:

    Will this work?

    I’m SO SO sorry. I didn’t close my link. Please, can someone fix it if my attempt above doesn’t work?

    (SB Sarah: It’s fixed! No worries!)

  13. 13
    Alina says:

    I think the biggest problem with Twilight is that it’s based on an erotic/romantic dream the author had. In a dream, you just “know” things, no explanation needed. It doesn’t translate to books. She has the heroine describe the hero as “truly good”, “a beautiful soul”, etc., because that’s how she dreamt it and she doesn’t stop to think that it’s not enough to just tell her readers, “He’s awesome, you should adore him.” The books are honestly the best example of “telling not showing” that I’ve ever read.

    That’s not by a long shot the only thing that’s wrong with them.

  14. 14
    Kinsey says:

    Kerry: That Reasoning With Vampires site is AMAZING. I foresee a mighty timesuck in my future.

  15. 15
    orangehands says:

    All four books are about mortality and sexuality and parenthood, so it isn’t just “has some supernatural elements”. I wouldn’t particularly want to take this course, but the books do share common themes.

    Anyway, I agree with what’s been said above; definitely worth exploring in a college setting. Exploring doesn’t mean liking – or disliking – a book, it means its had some kind of impact and/or the teacher really wants it on the syllabus. I think this would be really good in a class about literature and religious undertones in modern YA fiction. (Check out Stony321’s take on it.) You could have this, Narnia, the Golden Compass, Harry Potter, etc.

  16. 16
    Liz says:

    The breakdown of reviewers and authors by gender was interesting. In terms of romance writers and reviewers, I don’t feel like the lack of reviews in those particular outlets is such an issue. Romance publishing is mostly doing fine, while magazines and newspapers are in trouble, so it doesn’t really benefit romance if suddenly the New Yorker deigns to review a few romances.  I think those numbers include a number of non-fiction books, and I’m more bummed in the inequity there, since the authors and reviewers are often “leaders in their fields” first, and authors second.

  17. 17
    orangehands says:

    Just looked at the page.

    and the way fiction’s seductiveness is tied to other potentially dangerous attractions.

    All four books – while, okay, yes, do seem to be really random – do fit the course’s theme.

  18. 18
    Carrie S says:

    In my feminist lit class we had to read “Dora:  A Case Study” by Freud.  Even Twilight is better written and less insulting than that one.  I would have begged to have been allowed to read Twilight instead.  Or, had it been an option, I would have beeged to have had my ears chewed off by rabid weasels.  So, y’know, it’s not all happy fun time in undergrad land.

    Ha!  My security phrase is instead28!  I would rather have been attacked by, specifically, 28 weasels, than have had to suffer through Freud!

  19. 19
    Anna Richland says:

    I just zipped through Meg Cabot’s Insatiable and the heroine starts off very anti-vampire, with a few rants just like these re Twilight: she even says “misogynistic monster” out loud more than once. (And there is at least one direct Twilight cut – me-ow). Of course, heroine meets a vampire prince and her comeuppance and some serious badda-boom-around-the-room ensue. It was a great book, but it did, however, show me that it must be very hard to write a vampire love story that doesn’t involve rich men wanting to “take care of” (=control) weaker human female types.

    Captcha thirty78: When I was thirty, I had no children and could read 78 romances a year, and books cost $4.99.

  20. 20
    Liz says:

    I think people’s response to this will depend on what they believe a course called Intro to Fiction is for.  Is it to introduce students to Great Books and Important Ideas?  Those who think so won’t want Meyer on the syllabus.

    In my experience, though, most people who teach such courses today are suspicious of the project of a literary canon (who decides what’s great? how do we decide? The course description you linked to clearly reflects the idea that the status of the novel has changed since its beginnings, for instance).  They see themselves as teaching critical reading skills, mainly; how to have ideas about something and support those ideas; how make an initial foray into the kinds of conversations about literature going on among people working in the discipline (which are not about flat vs. round characters).  You tend to get more of a mixture of high/low or canonical/non-canonical readings with that philosophy.  (I’d argue that—for now—Frankenstein has definitely achieved canonical status and Dracula is fast getting there).

    You can introduce concepts of plot, character, etc. with all kinds of examples, even those you/students think are bad.  I’ve taught an intro fiction course with a Victorian sensation novel (now often taught, but a popular, previously non-canonical form), a Raymond Chandler novel, and a recent “literary” novel that has a lot of qualities of mystery fiction.  And I think my students learned what they needed to from such a course.  You can tell very little about what’s going on in a classroom from a reading list and basic course blurb.

  21. 21
    Emily says:

    I love Twilight dearly, but cannot imagine a professor teaching it for its literary value.  The writing is very pedantic. I don’t think we should all read Moby Dick, but if you wanted to teach paranormal fiction there are plenty of dynamic writers out there. Stephanie Meyers is an excellent storyteller, but her vehicle of delivery is unimpressive. I would put Charlaine Harris and a few others on there before Twilight. I think Twilight would be great for a pop culture class though!

  22. 22
    Catherine says:

    There was a great interview with Jennifer Weiner in the Huffington Post last August on the lack of women in the NY Times book reviews.  Quote:  “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

  23. 23
    Dani says:

    In university English courses, books aren’t on the syllabus because they’re GOOD. They might well be, they often are, but that isn’t why they’re there.

    They’re there because you can LEARN something from them. And there’s a tonne you can learn from a careful analysis of Twilight. What does this book say about gender roles? How might the author’s background and religious beliefs be reflected in the text? What does the representation of the native peoples say about our society’s attitudes to that culture? What aspects of the relationship as it is presented made it an appealing fantasy for young girls?

    I read PLENTY of crappy books in University. And my teachers rarely threw sprinkles on that shit and called it ice cream. Rather, they would say “This preachy boring-ass novel was written by a socialist. How does that make it DIFFERENT from a preachy boring-ass novel written by a conservative? And what does the symbolism in this trashy pulp magazine short story tell us about the underlying attitudes of the time in which it was written?”

  24. 24
    Gillian says:

    A couple of friends are doing a course on “Gothic Literature”, and one of the novels is Twilight, representing the current novels. They had a big argument about whether it would be more appropriate to have “Interview with the Vampire” as the one that re-started the genre. But they’re both ready to rip Twilight to pieces in the course.

  25. 25
    cookie says:

    Liz, orangehands, and Dani’s posts cover most of what I think, and with a lot more eloquence than I could have mustered.

    The term ‘self respecting’ makes me a little squeamish: it might be the sort of term used to keep The New York Times from publishing book reviews on romance novels. I love science fiction, fantasy, and romance; the oft dismissed ‘trash’ fiction of the world. It irritates me when people dismiss these genres because they’re not ‘good enough’ or ‘worth studying.’ Clearly there’s something going on in Twilight: just the reasons for its popularity are worth some study. There’s quite a lot of things worth examining in Twilight: good and bad.

  26. 26
    Milena says:

    My daughter read the first book of Twilight at school. That was the one book the whole class read, all the way, and on time. Yes, the writing is bad, yes, it’s wrong on so many levels, but it got a bunch of twelve-year-olds reading… and then figuring out what worked and didn’t work for them (a lot of the girls in the class decided they were in team Jacob because he was less nagging than Edward, for instance). As far as I’m concerned, it served its purpose beautifully.

    Not to mention that my kid ended up filming a parody in which Bella saves herself and doesn’t need either guy. :)

  27. 27
    Lyssa says:

    As a survivor of wonderful Honors courses that examined “Gender and Race in Science Fiction” (which was actually a hoot, watching everything from JTK turned into a Woman, The horror, to Brother from Another Planet, to reading some really interesting feminist Lit.), I can see a prof using Twilight in their syllabi.  But I do think there would have been better novels out there to examine the same subject matter.

    Reading in college (specially in Honors classes) should introduce students to better writing, authors who examines more than teenage angst. Frankenstein is a wonderful novel perhaps “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or “I, Robot” to balance that work. For Dracula perhaps The Historian (which I did not enjoy that much), or ‘Salem’s Lot ” by King, or how about “Fledgling” by Octavia Butler (a well written vampire story).

    Here’s links to those suggestions:
    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Historian/Elizabeth-Kostova/e/9780759513839/?itm=1&USRI=the+historian

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Salems-Lot/Stephen-King/e/9780385528221/?itm=1&USRI=salem’s+lot

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Fledgling/Octavia-E-Butler/e/9780759516342/?itm=1&USRI=fledgling+butler

  28. 28
    notsurewho says:

    To set the context: I’m in my final year of an Honours English, Media and Cultural studies course.

    Twilight the books, Twilight the film and ‘Twilight’ the phenomenon have been mentioned many times in the last few years,  sometimes in passing, sometimes in comparison.
    And, this semester, it is officially on our reading list for Gothic Images in Film and Lit.
    Other books on the course include Mathew Lewis’ The Monk, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Clive Barker’s Books of the Blood 1-3. While the film list is extensive. and includes Antichrist(2009) and Frankenstein (1931). (And Twilight the film.)

    So to answer Sarah’s questions, I don’t so much ‘envision’ Twilight on a reading list, but have come to accept it, and hope I don’t give myself a hernia when I try and watch the film again- as first time round I got 20 minutes in before the stitch I got from laughing at the camera work etc. became unbearable. 

    But my point, which I’m not sure I have, is that as many people have said -Twilight may not be a literary master piece – but it is a novel that exemplifies many things about its audience. It reflects not only the era it was written in, but also the era in which it became popular.
    I have no doubt that we shall be looking at hybridity,  sexuality and the abject in our study of it but we shall also be looking at the notion of the teen through the vastly humourous theorising of Lacan and Freud.
    And, in my opinion, it is only a matter of time until someone in the class brings up the ‘monstrous feminine’ in regards to Bella and her attraction to the ‘Other’, hell… that person may be me.

    On an aside, I agree with Librariansoul concerning the quality of Dracula but being Irish in Ireland, and rather fond of Colonial and Post-Colonial theory, I tend to see that novel as more than simply ‘gothic lit’, and I would probably argue that Dracula, Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw and Twilight are potentially appropriate texts for a lit course if one isn’t reductive and avoids believing a text is solely an example of its genre.

    (As a bookseller I am well aware of the necessity of restricting books to a genre but that doesn’t mean I like it. )

  29. 29
    Hydecat says:

    A friend of mine recently included Twighlight on her syllabus, along with Interview with a Vampire and many other similar works. The class was Popular Genres and she decided to go with a supernatural theme, since it is pervasive in popular culture. I see no problem with including books like that on syllabi, either because they are theme-appropriate or because there is something else in them that you want to show to your students. In English classes (the ones I’m familiar with and that I teach) we don’t just teach about good writing, we also teach about cultural and social context and how to read books as a part of our larger world. Twighlight could be interesting as part of a course on representing women in fiction, for example (a bad representation in my opinion, but useful for that reason). I’ve taught Dracula because it’s mixed narrative style is a great way to talk about point of view and how it shapes the reading experience.

    Also, I have to take issue with any argument about good and bad prose. Yes, there are distinctions between good and bad writing, and yes they matter—up to a point. But people have different priorities when they’re reading. I personally intensely dislike Henry James’s prose style because I prefer active storytelling. James may be a master of psychological realism or whatsit, but if you like page-turning prose that makes you keep going, you’re going to want Wilke Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. They have less sophisticated language, maybe, but superior story-telling skills.

  30. 30
    SB Sarah says:

    @notsurewho – just look at the film as I do. Tree porn!

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