Ten or twenty years ago, the admonition, “consider the source” wasn’t always as reasonable as it sounded. As everyone who’s studied formal logic knows, “ad hominem,” or attacking the speaker instead of the argument, is a logical fallacy: a way of cheating in a debate.
But these days, with so much of the information presented to us consisting of unvetted, biased and self-serving rhetoric (when it isn’t just cynical bare-faced lying, which it often is), “consider the source” is the very first thing you need to do with anything you read online. That’s especially true with the endless punditry and advice posted by the gigabyte on the topics of publishing and writing.
An excellent example of this appeared yesterday in an editorial that’s been zooming around the Twitterverse and Blogosphere. Posted to Salt Lake City based KSL Online by Kimberly Sayer-Giles, the article is headed, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography.” The gist of the piece–you can go read it and come back if you need to, it’s not long–is that romance novels, in excess, cause women to have unrealistic expectations of their husbands and thereby threaten marriages.
There are so many things wrong with this piece, it’s mind-boggling. I’ll take it from the top.
The header, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography,” is one of those loaded statements like “when did you stop beating your wife?” It takes as a given that pornography is actually “addictive.” There’s no such general agreement. The word “addiction” is over-used to the point of trivialization in popular media. While it can include certain behaviors, those behaviors must be crippling and pathologically compulsive before they’re in the realm of true “addiction.” Of course, the pundits love to use this word because it’s a high-emotion trigger word and a cheap way of grabbing attention. They don’t care how misleading it is, they just want people to read what they saying.
So, the minute you read the article header, you’re being emotionally manipulated by a misleading word and an unsupported comparison.
The article next states that romance novels are enjoying huge popularity. Out of all the other categories of book to which romance sales could be compared, Ms. Sayer-Giles only mentions “religious, self-help and inspirational books.” It seems like an apples-and-oranges comparison, since fiction is consumed as entertainment while “religious, self-help and inspirational books” are all classified as non-fiction: books that are read for very different reasons. But her choice is suggestive of where she’s coming from.
Ms. Sayer-Giles writes,
“In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become as dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages as men can be by the distorted messages of pornography,” said best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn, who studies the differences between men and women.
“Some marriage therapists”–gee, can you vague that up a bit? Which ones? How many? Can we get a quote? And just who is Shaunti Feldhahn? If she “studies the differences between men and women” (that’s a rather broad field in which to claim general expertise), she must be doing so on her own time. According to her biography on Wikipedia, she has a bachelor’s degree in government and economics and a Masters in Public Policy. If she has formal training in psychology, sociology, gender issues, or even addiction issues, she’s keeping it quiet. Among her books, however, is a Bible study guide “for women only.”
Which brings us to the next paragraph:
According to psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery, author of “Finding the Hero in your Husband”, there are similarities between what happens to a man when he views pornography and what happens to a woman when she reads a romance novel.
Now, who is Dr. Juli Slattery? Well…according to the link in the article, “Dr. Juli Slattery is a Christian psychologist, speaker, wife and mother. She serves as Family Psychologist at Focus on the Family and co-host of the daily broadcast with Focus President Jim Daly and John Fuller.”
Focus on the Family, as we all know, is dedicated to vigorously attacking any form of entertainment which offends its extremely conservative Christian world-view. Their most high-profile assaults are against television, but they obviously pay attention to other forms of media, like literature.
At least Dr. Slattery has serious training in psychology. But I really have to question her assertions, as quoted and summarized in the article:
Men are very visual, and viewing pornography produces a euphoric drug in the body. This drug is the reason pornography becomes addictive. When the natural high wears off, a man will crash and feel depressed (as happens with any drug) and crave another hit.
A “euphoric drug?” Could she be talking about…endorphins? Activities that spark that “euphoric drug” include (among thousands of others) exercising, laughing at jokes, riding roller coasters, and healthy sex. But calling endorphins “a drug” makes them sound like something alien and unnatural, and pathologizes the universal experience of a pleasurable “high.” How can we be “addicted” to our own bodies’ natural response?
Dr. Slattery develops her argument for a few more paragraphs, and then we hear from another expert.
Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.
Now, who is this Vickie Burress? Well…she’s associated with Victims of Pornography.org, which is “a project of Citizens for Community Values.” Citizens for Community Values is a very conservative Christian activist group. Along with attacking pornography, they’re training candidates for public office in “Bible-based” perspectives.
Are we seeing a pattern here?
The entire article is very vague about precisely what it is about romance books that attracts women to neglect their marital relationships, and what, in detail, “romance addicts” do (or don’t do) that makes them so “dangerously unbalanced.” It offers no specific case examples, nor does it describe any common themes or tropes in romance that would be problematical. It glosses over the fact that “romance” itself is a huge and diverse category of fiction, about which it is difficult to generalize. The article also ignores the fact that almost all romance, by definition, promotes strong committed relationships and happy endings.
But I think the entire argument is one of those typical examples of backwards reasoning that lie behind every attempt to demonize some form of entertainment or recreation. It presumes that women who read romance novels and engage in fantasy to the detriment of their marriages would be just fine if they hadn’t been seduced and entrapped by those evil external forces. It would be far more fruitful to look at the women and their marriages first, because it’s highly probable that women who become “addicted to romance” are escaping critical problems with their spouses, not creating them. Fantasies may not be the most constructive way of dealing with marital conflict, but they can be a lot safer than confronting a husband who is, say, a violent batterer or an alcoholic. “Romance addiction,” if it even exists, is almost certainly a symptom, not a cause. Almost all addiction is.
The article concludes with suggestions for “fighting the addiction.” Ms. Sayer-Giles says,
Read self-help books together or contact a relationship professional or coach, who can help you to rekindle the flame in your marriage.
“A relationship professional or coach,” such as…? “Kimberly Sayer Giles is the founder and president of LDS Life Coaching.” That’s LDS as in Latter Day Saints: Ms. Sayer-Giles is a Mormon, and her advice comes from that perspective.
I have a lot of trouble believing that reading can be “addictive” in the same way that, say, playing the lottery or certain types of video games may potentially become. Reading is a unique activity, requiring a high level of engagement and creativity on the part of the reader. Yes, it’s pleasurable and stimulates endorphins–but unlike the passive experience of viewing pornography or watching TV, reading requires active psychological collaboration or it doesn’t work. It’s not the same kind of instant and unthinking reward that come from most addictive behaviors. While there may be women who sour on their nice but obese and absent-minded husbands after reading hundreds of books about muscular Highlanders, it’s doubtful that they’d prefer a paperback to real-life sex if the sex was even a fraction as exciting as the encounters in the book. Let’s put the real blame for these marriage problems where it really belongs.
Of course, I have to confess my own bias here. If reading and books were actually addictive and “dangerous,” I’d be out there corrupting the public at every opportunity. I’d lurk around elementary schools and offer free books to children! I’d read aloud to helpless senior citizens in nursing homes! I’d give books to babies! “Turn on, tune in and read” would be my clarion cry–no one would be safe! I’d be Public Enemy Number One!
Come to think of it…
But in all seriousness, I can only wish that reading was a true addiction. The fact is, I’ve never known anyone, of any age, to be harmed by reading any book. No one. Not ever.
No, it’s when people–especially young people, and women, and the dispossessed of all kinds–stop reading that we need to start being afraid. That’s when our society will truly risk becoming “dangerously unbalanced.”
Two items in this mornings Shelf Awareness newsletter join a long and continuous list of proclamations from people who claim they love bound paper books:
National Book Award judge Sallie Tisdale, writing for The Oregonian,lyricizes on the tactile qualities (smell, weight, feel, and so on) of paper books as opposed to ereaders.
The Encino Patch reports that “hundreds of people” turned out to protest the closing of Encino’s Barnes & Noble and the installation of a new pharmacy in its building.
Every time I see another person proclaim the wonder of paper books, often saying something along the lines of, “you’ll pry my paper books out of my cold dead hands,” I have one response.
Admirable sentiments! Good for you! I love paper books, too! So…
Why aren’t you buying them????
According to the monthly sales reports released by the AAP, paper book sales are dropping steadily, while ebook sales are increasing at geometric rates. As a book award judge, Sallie Tisdale gets all the books she could possibly read free of charge. Would she be so enthusiastic if she had to pay for them all? And all those protesters in Encino: it’s a sure bet that none of them were visiting their beloved Barnes & Noble and buying things regularly. If every one of those protesters had gone in and bought a book every week, that Barnes & Noble would still be open. All you customers of struggling little independent stores who “boycott Amazon” and say you’ll never own a Kindle–how often do you go to your favorite bookstore and actually give them some money? Based on sales, the answer is obvious.
I see this effect at By Light Unseen Media. Two years ago, our paperback editions sold respectably on Amazon.com. Now, paper book sales on Amazon are pathetic, but our Kindle editions are selling like mad. Ebooks now form the bulk of our profits, and I’m not doing a thing to encourage that. I’m not marketing ebooks more heavily than print books. But paper books simply aren’t selling. Readers are buying ebooks–and just like I say here, it’s all about the readers.
It’s not rocket science, book lovers! If you don’t want paper books to disappear, you have to buy them. They’re getting more and more expensive to produce, and publishers have to pay their authors and eat occasionally. We’re going to respond to the readers who support us, as much as we may sympathize with the fervent lovers of paper books who never buy.
If you don’t buy paper books, they’re going to go away. That’s simple economics.
I have no conscious memory of a time when books, and reading, were not the reigning passions of my life.
I probably owe a lot to my parents for that. My mom read aloud to us from the earliest age that we could sit still and listen. I don’t recall my dad reading to us, but my dad loves books. In every house we lived in, he outfitted a complete library with walls of built-in bookcases, all of them packed with books. My dad’s “man caves” were full of dark varnished wood shelves lined with hundreds of mysterious, multicolored, enticing spines, from the tattered cardboard of the pulp “big little books” he collected, to gilt-embossed leather.
I was reading by the time I was four, without the benefit of preschool, Sesame Street or any coaching at all from my stunned parents. My folks didn’t buy their first TV until I was nearly three. Television never became more than a colorful, but ultimately boring novelty for me. The world inside of my own imagination was always infinitely more engaging.
When I was in grade school, my reading was an intensely private activity. These were the days when being The Fat Kid made you a freak, not just one of the obese 30% of your class like now, and I was bullied relentlessly for that and other things. Books were my sanctuary, and I would read my favorites over and over. The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Black Beauty. Beautiful Joe. Every Black Stallion and Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on (I still have some vintage Nancy Drews that are probably collectibles now–not that I’m ever giving them up). Gone with the Wind. The Yearling. Lassie Come Home. The Borrowers books. The Wind in the Willows. The Two Jungle Books. A Wrinkle in Time (which my sixth grade teacher read aloud to us) and later, the rest of L’Engle’s series. Fantasy by Lloyd Alexander, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner, Carol Kendall, J.R.R. Tolkien. As I got a little older, I inhaled whole new genres by the stack. Every Gothic romance paperback the local library branch owned; all of Zane Grey (not a word of which I can now remember). Horse stories by the dozen, and anything with a touch of fantasy, magic or science-fiction.
At the age of twelve, I plunged into vampires and the paranormal, beginning an obsession that has never once flagged. Besides reading Dracula in one sitting, this led to an interest in tracking down esoterica: obscure books, articles and information. In my spare time, I pored through The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, card catalog Subject headings, the back page ads of dubious magazines, the footnotes and bibliographies of books…anything that could lead me to More Of What I Liked.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized there were other people as fiercely passionate about books and reading and the arcane as I was. I thought I was the only one! By then I was hoovering up fantasy and science-fiction, and I attended my first science-fiction convention in 1973, when I was sixteen. I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Bellairs (whom I met at a convention), and I joined The Mythopoeic Society.
But my family wasn’t affluent. I can vividly recall when my definition of unattainable wealth consisted of being able to spend an entire $100 on nothing but books–because when I was in high school, that was almost unimaginable for me. I found lots of sources for inexpensive books. A big one was the catalogs for Publishers Central Bureau, which I now know was a brokerage for remaindered titles, but which I saw then as a repository for rare and unusual gems just waiting for the patient (and keen-eyed–the catalogs were set in 4-point type). I could spend hours in used book stores. My avidity led, inevitably, to a few disillusioning rip-offs: some of you may recall an erstwhile little company named T.K. Graphics, a science fiction and fantasy mail order house that folded owing lots of people a lot of money for back-ordered books.
I found a number of equally book-devouring friends and we passed tips and leads and titles back and forth. “Bibliomaniacs,” we called ourselves. We thought we’d made the word up.
As I got older, I had less time to read–but, at least for a few years, more money to spend. There was a decade or so during which I could not walk into Barnes & Noble without dropping at least $80. Those days ended when I went back to graduate school, and now I read less than ever. But it’s not merely the time or money factors. I’ve heard other writers talk about this. As my creative talents evolved and deepened, they demanded more and more of my energy. Now, I’m far more invested in creating my own works of art and fiction than in passively consuming the work of others. I still enjoy reading immensely, but usually I find that it stimulates my muse more than relaxes me. I do most of my reading just before bedtime. But I can still spend hours immersed in a book–or a series of them!–when I’m in the right mood, and I still spend far more leisure time reading than I do watching movies or television.
But I recognize my younger self in the legions of book bloggers, and if I was a twenty-something now, I’d be one of them. There are still millions of people who live to read, who network and share recommendations and search–no, forage, hungrily, incessantly, for More Of What They Like. We can’t get enough of it, we readers. An author sweats and slaves and labors over a book for a year and we stay up all night to finish it in one long, dripping, literary chug-a-lug, wipe the foam off our noses and ask when the author’s next book will be released. We are insatiable.
Notice that I’m referring to “reading,” not “books” in any one form. Yes, I love bound, paper books–old, new, hardcover, paperback, large, small, any kind of books. But for me, the content of the book was the key to its appeal. A physical book was simply a vehicle for the thoughts and soul of an author, and what mattered to me was the communion, the meeting of minds, that the book facilitated. I find that same communion in ebooks and audiobooks, in books read on a website or serialized in a magazine, books read as typescript or galleys or mass market paperbacks or bound between boards so heavy the book has to rest on a table to be read. Reading is a one-on-one transaction. There’s the author, and there’s me. The rest is details.
This is why I became a publisher. This is why merely being “a writer” wasn’t enough. Writing, for me, is like breathing–I do it every day, I write compulsively and obsessively, when I stop writing, you can bury me, I’ll be dead. But it’s only one side of the bridge–the connecting miracle between the author and the reader. I wanted to build the whole bridge. I wanted to master the means by which two minds co-create a work of the imagination or intellect by sharing it. Publishing is the process of collecting the raw creative output, shaping it into a form that can be transferred, and making it available for others to experience. I wanted to understand and do all of that–not just for my own work, but for the work of others.
I wanted it because I remember so poignantly what it is to have a passion for reading, to be endlessly searching for just the right story, just the right book. I wanted to help many kinds of authors and readers find each other, not just the readers who would enjoy what I happen to write.
It seems to me that many of my fellow publishers have forgotten who is at the off-ramp end of their bridge. In all the interminable pontificating and punditry I read about “the future of publishing” and “changes in the industry” and “what new publishing models mean for authors,” very few publishers seem to understand their readers’ point of view. Do publishers nowadays remember what it was like to be a passionate reader? Were publishers actually readers, ever?
I think there was a time, before 1970 or so, when most publishing houses were owned and run by serious readers, people who had a genuine love of literature. If that didn’t describe the CEOs, it certainly applied to the editors, and the editors had real power and influence in their companies. But I don’t think that’s true now. The old publishing houses have all been bought up by media conglomerates, reduced to “divisions” and “imprints,” and their editorial staff are overworked, committee-fied, stripped of decision-making power and expected to focus entirely on fast profits. Even small publishers are intent on “marketing,” and “building networks” and “branding” and “creating tribes.” They don’t see themselves as having readers. They’re competing for “consumers” or even just “eyeballs.”
This, I think, is the biggest problem the publishing industry faces right now. Not digital media, not piracy, not a falling interest in reading–publishers have forgotten how important their readers are. They’ve forgotten the one and only reason that publishers exist at all. We exist for our readers. Not authors: readers. Our readers are everything to us. When publishers lose track of what readers want, they’re floundering around in a desperate world of half-baked experiments and hysterical speculations. It’s because publishers have lost touch with their readers that ebooks are obscenely overpriced and retailers like Amazon, who do know what readers want, are shaking the industry to its foundation.
Authors write to be read, and publishers publish so that authors can be read. Without readers, we are nothing. I will never, ever forget that. I’m afraid that a great many of my fellow publishers have forgotten it–if they ever knew in the first place.
Inanna Arthen will be doing panels, a reading and generally hanging out at 3Pi-Con in West Springfield, MA this weekend, August 22-24.
On Friday night, Inanna will be reading from Mortal Touch at 8:00 p.m.
On Saturday, Inanna will moderate a panel on “How to Get Published” at 1:00 p.m. She’ll co-present, along with Cecilia Tan and Trisha Wooldridge, a workshop/panel on “Tarot and Writing” at 2:00 p.m. At 11:00 p.m. Inanna will moderate “Could Literary Vampires Exist in the Modern World?” (and that’s not the latest event on the schedule for Saturday!) At 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, Inanna will join Morven Westfield, Phoebe Wray, Elaine Isaak, Trisha Wooldridge and Michelle Murrain in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading.
Inanna will be offering her usual Convention Special of a free, five-minute, three-card Tarot reading for every copy of Mortal Touch that you buy. 3Pi-Con has at-the-door admission, so if you’re in the area, check it out!