David Kubicek

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Archive for the tag “J.K. Rowling”

Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.

I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.

Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.

Banned Books Week 2010 Begins Sept. 25; Plan to Celebrate

Banned Books Week 2010 begins Saturday Sept. 25 and runs through the following Saturday, Oct. 2. I encourage every reader and writer – every citizen, in fact – to celebrate because it gets to the heart of what the First Amendment is all about. To find local events, do a Google search for Banned Books Week in your area, like the events being planned by Indigo Bridge Books in my hometown.

According to BannedBooksWeek.org, “Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities . . . They object to profanity and slang, and they protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups – or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore contemporary issues and controversies to classic and beloved works of American literature.”

Click here to see a map of book bans and challenges in the US from 2007 to 2009.

To be clear about the terminology, “challenged” means that a book has been objected to, but when it goes before the school board or whoever is charged with considering the matter, it is not removed from the shelves. A “banned” book is one that has been challenged, and the powers-that-be have taken it upon themselves to decide that people should not be allowed to read it and have stripped it unceremoniously from whatever shelves said powers-that-be over have jurisdiction over.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that every work of literature – titles that you would instantly recognize – has been challenged or banned by some powers-that-be somewhere at some time for the sole reason that it’s impossible to please everyone.

Some books have been challenged for the silliest reasons. The Harry Potter series is repeatedly challenged because it supposedly  indoctrinates its readers in black magic. There are villains, to be sure, and these particular villains can do some seriously nasty things to their enemies. But the main characters are good people, and they celebrate Christmas, by God. But instead of fighting with their fists or guns as in western sagas, they use magic. It’s a fantasy, for crying out loud. The author, J.K. Rowling, has said she doesn’t know of a single ready who has said, “Oooo, I want to be a witch when I grow up!” (Although, I must admit, being able to point a wand and turn someone into a toad is somewhat appealing; I have a list.)

I’ll climb down of my soapbox now and mention that I’ve had a couple brushes with those who wish to make the world safe and bland by limiting our knowledge and oA Need to Kill, by Mark Pettitur imaginations. Can’t have us using our imaginations; that would be BAD. (Okay, so maybe my pant leg got caught on a nail protruding from my soapbox; I’ll pull it free and jump down now.)

One brush I had with the keepers of morality was A Need To Kill, by Mark Pettit, a true crime book about child killer John Joubert who terrorized Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s. I didn’t write this book, but I did some fairly heavy editing on it. A local group thought some of the descriptions were too graphic and tried to have it removed from the shelves of ShopKo. I don’t know if they every succeeded. I thought it was kind of cool that a book I’d been involved with was being challenged, and I never followed up on it. Challenging books may be a bad thing, but having a book challenged can be a guilty pleasure for its writer; it’s like earning a merit badge, like having arrived, because he or she is in the company of giants (not real ones, lest some group should challenge this blog post; when I say giants, I mean writers of literary stature).

The other book that ran into some difficulty was October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, a collection of horror stories by various authOctober Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Masonors, which Jeff Mason and I edited. I don’t know if it was formally challenged or banned anywhere, but there were a few indicators that some people were displeased with it:

  • A local radio station was excited to do an interview – until they actually read the book, and then we never heard from them.
  • One lady returned the two copies she’d bought, along with a letter admonishing me for the colorful language used in some of the stories and expressing her hope that the next book we published would be more wholesome.
  • One of my former co-workers was convinced that I was possessed by the devil.

Anyway, find some Banned Book Week events in your area and celebrate. For more information about BBW, check out the American Library Association’s Website.

Day Jobs of Famous Writers Before They Were Famous

Most writers have been faced with the challenge of making a living while waiting for that big break. Day jobs I’ve held included dishwasher, custodian, film processing lab technician, copy-editor, advertising copywriter, publisher, and print shop stripper (it’s nothing dirty; I “stripped” negatives into paper frames which were used to “burn” offset printing plates–with today’s direct-to-plate technology, printers may not even need strippers anymore).

Here’s a look at jobs held by a few famous writers before they were famous. Some of them eventually were able to write full-time, others never sold enough books and had to keep their day jobs, and others like Scott Turow (who continues to practice law) and John Grisham (who remains interested in politics and considered running for U.S. Senator from Virginia in 2006) maintain their non-writing career interests.

  • Dashiel Hammet: The author of hard-boiled detective stories and novels started out as a private detective. His first case?  To track down a thief who had stolen a Ferris Wheel.
  • John Grisham: Author of such legal thrillers as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, is an attorney who, from 1983 to 1990, served as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
  • Jack London: The author of White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea Wolf had a variety of experiences, including oyster pirate, gold prospector, and rail-riding hobo .
  • Langston Hughes: One of the first African American authors who was able to support himself by writing, he was, according to legend, discovered by poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a  busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hughes had dropped his poems beside Lindsay’s plate. In his poetry reading Lindsay included several of Hughes’s poems, which resulted in journalists clamoring to interview the “busboy poet.”
  • William Carlos Williams: The poet and fiction writer was an excellent pediatrician and general practitioner, although he worked harder at his writing than he did at medicine.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: The American poet, philosopher, and essayist assisted his brother William in a school for young women they ran out of their mother’s house.  He later was a minister and lecturer.
  • Henry David Thoreau: He began as Emerson’s handyman, moved on to selling vegetables, returned to the family pencil business, was a tutor and a teacher.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables was a weighter and a gauger at the Boston Custom House, which housed government offices for processing paperwork for the import and export of goods. Later he was Surveyor for the districts  of Salem and Beverly as well as Inspector of Revenue for the Port of Salem. He also wrote a campaign biography of his friend, Franklin Pierce, in which he left out some key information, such as Pierce’s drinking.  On his election, Pierce rewarded Hawthorne with the position of United States consul in Liverpool.
  • Dan Brown: Before striking gold with Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol , he was a high school English teacher.
  • Zane Grey: Early 20th century author of such popular novels as Riders of the Purple Sage, he would eventually publish nearly 90 books and sell more than 50 million copies worldwide. After years of rejection, he sold his first book at age 40 and was able to give up his day job as a dentist, a job that he hated.
  • J. K. Rowling: After her daughter was born and she separated from her husband, the author of the Harry Potter series left her job in Portugal, where she taught English as a second language, and returned to school to study for her postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) so she could teach in Scotland. She completed her first novel while on welfare.
  • Mary Higgins Clark: After graduating from high school, she was secretary to the head of the creative department in the internal advertising division of Remington-Rand, a business machines manufacturer. She took evening classes in advertising and promotion and was promoted to writing catalog copy–future novelist Joseph Heller was a coworker. She also modeled for company brochures with aspiring actress Grace Kelly. Her thirst for adventure led her to become a stewardess for Pan American Airlines where she was on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron curtain cut off east from west.
  • Harlan Ellison: The man who would later distinguish himself as a preeminent speculative fiction and mystery writer held many jobs before he was 20 years old, including tuna fisherman, itinerant crop-picker, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, department store floorwalker, and door-to-door brush salesman.
  • Scott Turow: The author of such best selling novels as Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors, still practices law as a partner of the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, although on most of his cases he works pro bono.
  • Nicholas Sparks: After graduating from college the author of such best sellers as The Notebook, Dear John, and The Last Song tried to find work in the publishing industry and applied to law school but had no luck in either area. So he embarked on other careers, including real estate appraisal, waiting tables, selling dental products by phone, and starting a manufacturing business.

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Unitarian minister and scholar Dr. Wesley Hromatko, who inspired me to look into the day jobs of some famous authors.

Censorship: The Dumbing Down of Society

What do the following books have in common?

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Give up?

They are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned and challenged classics. There are a few dead giveaways on that list, but others probably will surprise you (Winnie-The-Pooh? What’s that all about?). The puny sampling above does not do the list justice. Hemingway and Faulkner are on it (several times), Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and Stephen King. The list reads as a virtual Who’s Who of literature.

Once, in an indirect way, I had a brush with censorship. A Need To Kill (Ballantine, 1990) by Mark Pettit, published in hardcover in 1990 by Media Publishing, was the story of convicted child-killer John Joubert, who had terrorized the Omaha bedroom community of Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s.

Media had contracted with Pettit, a reporter for an Omaha TV station and the only journalist at that time to have  interviewed Joubert in prison, to write the book. When the chapters started coming in, publisher Jerry Kromberg thought they were a bit skimpy. Pettit was used to writing 30- to 60-second news reports giving just the facts. So Kromberg asked me to beef up the chapters so they could get a decent-sized book out of it. The hardcover first printing of the resulting book sold out in a few days, and Ballantine snapped up the mass market paperback rights.

A group of local folks weren’t too happy with the book. They petitioned  ShopKo to remove it from their shelves. I don’t know if ShopKo removed it. I saw a newspaper article detailing the effort, then I heard nothing, and I didn’t go to ShopKo to see if A Need To Kill was still on the shelves.

I don’t know the specific charges against A Need To Kill, but I can guess–graphic violence and some sexual content–and I’m not putting A Need To Kill on the same level as any of the books on the  ALA’s banned and challenged list.

My point is some group, somewhere is going to have a problem with almost anything that is published. One reason the Harry Potter books were challenged is that they “encourage” witchcraft. Really? The main characters have a well-defined moral compass, and they celebrate Christmas. They just happen to be able to do magic (which would be kind of cool), which they try to use responsibly. This is fiction. It exercises the imagination, stimulates brain cells, and. I hope, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s (although the verdict is still out on that last point).

One reason often used to challenge Huckleberry Finn is the frequent use of the “N” word and the depiction of  African-Americans as slaves. Huckleberry Finn was set in the 1840s when the “N” word was in common use, and African-Americans were slaves. The novel is true of our society at that time. Oh, and one other thing, Huck is not a racist; during their trip down the river, as he comes to know Jim as a human being, he rethinks commonly held ideas about the races that he’d once taken for granted.  This was a progressive position for the time when Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885.

I admit that some parents might not want their children to read certain things until they are old enough to understand them. That is the parents’ right, but it is also their responsibility to monitor books their children are reading (or TV shows they are watching or games they are playing or Websites they are visiting).

But I have a problem when others decide  my son or me or any other adult should be allowed to read. And to remove certain books from library and bookstore shelves is to make them less available for those of us who prefer to decide for ourselves.

Censorship eats away at our civilization, dumbing down our society and stifling our imagination. It has plagued our world ever since human beings first began to make chicken scratches on stone tablets (obviously I have no data for this, but I can imagine one cave dude shattering a stone tablet on another cave dude’s head because he didn’t like the fellow’s story of The Hunt). The Nazi book burnings scared the crap out of a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who visualized what our future would become if books were outlawed. The result was Bradbury’s 1953 short novel Fahrenheit 451, which to me is the ultimate condemnation of censorship.

There is, however, an upside for authors who have their books banned: readers want to  know why, so the authors often will experience a boost in sales.

I’ve rambled on for more than 800 words. Now it’s your turn. What do you think about censorship: for it, against it, don’t care?

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