At this time of year I always feel that endings and beginnings are colliding like two weather fronts and brewing up a giant storm in my life.

On the one hand, there’s end of term business: I’m grading papers and making up exams. On the other, it’s time to look forward to next term: I need to think about my course outline, meet with my new teaching partner, find last-minute instructors for some of next semester’s sections. And let’s not even talk about how Christmas will happen between these semesters.

Anyway, that’s why this blog post has been brewing since Sunday. A collection of stray reading-related thoughts I’ve finally found a stray hour to record.


Recently I’ve been on a podcast binge. I think what started me off was reading somewhere about NPR’s podcast recommendation engine, earbud.fm. Podcasts are perfect for when I don’t know what audiobook to start next, or don’t want to commit to a long listen. Here are some I’ve been enjoying:

  • The Partially Examined Life (3 philosophy grad-school “dropouts” discuss a philosophical text/idea)
  • Literary Disco (3 pals–I think maybe they met doing their MFAs?–discuss books and other things)

I think I like the late-night-dorm-room-chat feel of these two, though every once in a while they make you feel like the only sober one at a party where everyone else is telling in jokes.

  • On the Media (“how the sausage is made”–I especially liked this episode on whether and how the media can create empathy)
  • Revolutions (I’m late to the party and still back at Oliver Cromwell; Mike Duncan is an engaging storyteller and synthesizer, but sometime I wish I had a better sense of his sources)
  • Books on the Nightstand (two publishing professionals so this one is positive only but still interesting)
  • I have some of the New Yorker fiction and poetry episodes waiting but have only listened to part of one so far. It was great (a poetry one). An author reads and discusses a poem or story by another author.

I’m especially interested in book discussions rather than recommendations/author interviews/publishing news. I think I miss long blog comment threads about a particular book and am looking for the same feeling. Two bookish podcast recommendation lists I found helpful, along with the NPR site, were Book Riot‘s and Bustle‘s.

Reading Plans

Since last Sunday was the first in Advent and the start of a new church year, I’ve been thinking new year thoughts, looking back on how well I did on my reading plans this year, and thinking ahead to next. I hope to have more to say about all that in the next few weeks.

I love all the best, favorite, and top 10 lists that start to appear at this time of year, especially the quirky and personal ones, and they always have some impact on my own reading plans–ooh, that sounds good!

I do have some short-term plans: a couple of read-alongs, listed by Keira Soleore here, which grew out of Twitter conversations and which I’m really looking forward to. And in January, I plan to read only from my TBR. No buying, no library. Every time I look at what I own and haven’t read, I wonder what I’m waiting for! (When can I retire?)

Bad Sex?

I loved Manil Suri’s advice to the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction award (who turned out to be Morrissey). Suri is a former winner, and part of what he says is just common sense about being a good sport and comforting yourself. But it’s also good advice about taking risks in writing:

Finally, you’ll start wondering if you brought this on yourself. Why didn’t you tone things down? Why didn’t you take precautions?

The instant you have this thought, stop everything you’re doing. Because you’ve just embraced the doubts they want you to have. . . .

You now have the option of capitulating. Perhaps you’ll never write about sex again — and if you do, only in a chastened way, so it’s not too attention-grabbing.

But there’s another option: to repudiate your critics, instead of your words. . . .

I want you to write a fresh passage between now and Tuesday, as exuberant as the one they have picked, but twice as outlandish. . . .

For your acceptance speech, read the new piece aloud. Then . . . go back to your desk at home, and start writing your next book, the one in which your new sex scene will fit perfectly.

This award bugs me, partly because it suggests a discomfort with writing about sex that’s as weird and intense and, well, balls-out as sex itself can be–don’t write it in the road and frighten the horses!–and partly because it takes no account of how a scene fits in a novel. Some of the passages don’t seem bad to me, and sometimes I wonder if they’re of a piece with the weirdness of the rest of the novel. Are only Morrissey’s sex scenes wacky and overwrought? I kind of doubt it.

I also dislike the sometimes smug tweeting about the award from Romance folk, as if only they know how to do it right. Plenty of romance sex scenes are laughable when read out of context by unsympathetic readers, some even when not. Some of the criticisms I see, like “if it were good sex it wouldn’t be literary,” are just annoying stereotypes. And some miss the point that sex scenes serve different purposes in different kinds of books.

In romance, where close identification with the characters is the norm, and where there’s typically an element of fantasy, it makes sense that sex that’s good for the characters would also be good for the reader. Romance sex scenes are meant to provoke reactions like “fanning myself.” And the forthrightness with which some writers explore sexual fantasies and feelings in their books is a good thing.

But in a different kind of book, even if the sex is good for the characters, the point of reading about it might not be close identification or arousal. And so the writer might choose to write about it in way that isn’t “sexy.” Maybe they want to strip away the fantasy. Maybe they want to make us aware of how the characters are caught up in it, but not participate in it ourselves.

I want writers to take risks that sometimes backfire, so we’re not trapped in polite formulas. And I want books with all kinds of aims. So thanks, Manil Suri, for cheering on the exuberant and outlandish.


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13 Responses to Miscellaneous

  1. lawless says:

    On the Media is produced at the local NPR station and is truly terrific radio that gets at the meat of whatever is being discussed. They ask the hard questions, too.

    While I’m listening to the radio less lately — usually only if I’m in the car and something’s on that I like — I used to listen to the Saturday morning lineup, of which On the Media is a part, religiously.

    As for whittling down the TBR pile, I have resolved not to buy any more romance (outside of autobuy authors) until I have made a goodly dent in the TBR pile. The vast majority of my TBR is romance, some of which I may just never get through and need to discard. Some of it I need to be in the right mood or right circumstances to read. But since it seems to be the culprit, I’m cutting back on it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My TBR is a lot like yours. For a while, I kept buying romance even when I was reading less of it, and it’s really piled up. After a hiatus, I’m actually looking forward to more romance and I know there’s good stuff in that ereader, although also things I bought before I really knew my romance tastes and should now just jettison.

      I don’t do well reading only romance, though, so luckily my much smaller paper TBR has more variety. I’m looking forward to actually getting into those shelves. Why do I keep coming home with piles of library books when I have so much bounty at home? It’s a mystery.

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        I do this too, constantly visit the library and put books on hold, though I have my TBR pile I’d really like to address. I’ve concluded that library books make me feel secure! (I’m not saying this is the case for you.) But I do worry about running out of books in some way, and this keep me surrounded by choices. I also tend to have a much greater variety of genres from the library.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I know what you mean about security, although I have a couple hundred books in my TBR so how could I run out?? But I think, as someone said, things can go stale on the TBR. It can feel overwhelming to find something in there or, in the case of ebooks, remember why it appealed based on author and title. But if I read about something that sounds good and request it from the library, or browse the new books, I am not faced with overwhelming choice. I have started buying a lot less to avoid compounding the problem.

          The library also got me out of my reading slump, because taking risks on things I wouldn’t normally read and reading more variety helped. A bunch of books got returned unread but that’s better than buying and not reading. The library is guilt free risk-taking for me.

        • Jorrie Spencer says:

          Yes, on taking risks. It’s doubtful, for example, that I would buy Voices From Chernobyl, really not something I usually read. But I’ve got it on hold at the library and will at least look at it.

  2. You make a good point about there being a place of all types of sex scenes–the mundane, the intense, the romantic, the adventurous, the silly, the outlandish… My main criticism of such scenes is that they have to be organic to the story and the characters. They’re not (as Manil Suri says) to be randomly shoved in wherever.

    Sex is difficult to write about, because there’s so much going on within and without the people involved that it’s hard to write it all down coherently. But in the hands of a skilled writer, they can be well done. I wish more writers would study good writing.

    I agree that many sex scenes when taken out of context can be ludicrous. But those zingers that were nominated—well, they were speshul, funny and eye-rolling.

    (Thanks for the call-out.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree some of the nominated scenes seem just terrible. But I do think context matters. I mean, is they style of the Morrissey scene totally different from the rest of the book? I’m tempted to say “shine on, crazy diamond” rather than “how awful.” It also bothers me that sex scenes are pulled out for criticism rather than any other passages of “bad” or over-written or whatever writing. It suggests a discomfort with sex and frankness about sex that is part of why people struggle to write it well.

  3. Cecilia says:

    Oh, I love that article by Manil Suri! Thanks for mentioning it; I don’t think I would have come across it otherwise.

    Yes to everything you say about the Bad Sex awards and the tenor of the discussion around them. The only thing I’d add is that often the scenes are written in a character’s POV, and so why shouldn’t the description be awkward or over-the-top? Sex is such a big unwieldy flummoxing phenomenon; I think most of us who try to capture the experience in words fall short. “It went on. It was very good” (from one of this year’s contenders) gets as close as anything more detailed, IMO.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is it, exactly–how do we put sex into words? I mean, if it’s going well, words more or less fail us. (I generally find that if I’m still keeping up my internal narrative, I’m not managing to have great sex). Why isn’t there a “bad religious experience in fiction” award or some other things that are overwhelming and intense and sublime and awful and hard to write about? (Maybe because we don’t see that as much in fiction).

      And seen from outside of the characters’ point of view, sex is often kind of funny, so the writing isn’t nice and polite there, either. I mean, most of us, if observed having sex, would not look like nicely lit and choreographed movie stars. At least I wouldn’t.

  4. I’m taking notes on the podcasts. Where can I find the New Yorker poetry and fiction podcasts? Or is that only available to New Yorker subscribers?

    Re. the bad sex award. Yes! Often the samples quoted for these awards are just surreal or unsettling, but that may be completely intentional on the author’s part. Different genres of writing have different aims. And even in romance, sometimes awkward or uncomfortable sex has its place. Yes, it’s great that there is so much good sex to read about, but let’s allow for variety in the ways we write about sex in all genres.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in romance, in terms of writing, character development, originality, emotion have been bad sex scenes (i.e. depictions of uncomfortable sex). Maybe that says something about me! Some of the most memorable, anyway, because they are different from all the good scenes, which even when all done often revolve around similar emotional and physical beats.

      I just downloaded those New Yorker podcasts from iTunes. But you can also find all of theirs here: http://www.newyorker.com/podcast

  5. rosario001 says:

    If you want in-depth book discussions, there are a couple of BBC radio programmes you might like. My favourite is A Good Read, where the host (the wonderful Harriet Gilbert) and two guests discuss books chosen by each of them. The podcasts can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02nrsfl/episodes/downloads That podcast feed also includes Open Book, which I find a lot less interesting (it’s built more around author interviews).

    The World Book Club, on BBC World Service and Bookclub, on BBC Radio 4, can be quite good as well. They’re both a long interview with the author, based on audience questions, but the discussion is fully on the book itself rather than on the writing process and that sort of thing. The podcasts can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003jhsk/episodes/downloads and here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s5sf/episodes/downloads

    There’s also Hear, Read This, where the 4 hosts discuss two books over about an hour. They haven’t done one for ages, but the archive can be found here: http://hearreadthis.com/ . I used to like that one very much, but by the end I started to find a couple of the hosts kind of annoying.

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