Bookbanter Column: “Doing What’s Right” (May 21, 2011)

If knowledge is power, we live in an age where that power travels at the speed of light, or in the case of the Internet, the speed of a T1 line and a fiber optic cable.  The information superhighway has become sort of a misnomer when applied to the worldwide web, as the information conveyed now travels so much faster than an automobile traveling at eighty, ninety or a hundred miles an hour, along with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and the many thousands of blogs out there updating every minute and hour of every day.  So when a bad decision is made by an editor and then a publisher, not all the apologies and changes of heart in the world can affect the outcome once the author has made her decision, pulled her story, and blogged about it on the Internet.

Let me backtrack a little first.

Wicked Pretty Things

The young adult anthology Wicked Pretty Things was originally scheduled to come out in September of this year featuring a number of popular as well as up and coming authors including Jessica Verday; edited by Trisha Telep and published by Running Press in the US and Constable & Robinson in the UK.  Telep had pitched it as “a collection of dark fairy YA stories (with a bit of a romantic edge).”  Verday submitted a story, “Flesh Which is Not Flesh,” for the collection that featured a relationship between Wesley and Cameron, two boys.  She was then told by Telep that the story would be published so long as she made one of her characters female as a “male/male story would not be acceptable to the publishers.”  Verday thought about this for a while and then made the important decision that she knew she had to: she withdrew her story from the anthology, making her stance clear in a post on her blog.  This was a hard choice for Verday, who has only published three books in a trilogy and is still an up and coming author, but she chose to stay true to what she believed and what she thought was the righting thing to do.

In a follow up post, Verday defended her decision and presented the comments and responses from the publisher, which was essentially that while the publisher regretted the decisions and actions of the editor, they were still going forward with the anthology, along with keeping Telep as the editor.  It was acknowledged all around that bad choices had been made on the part of Telep and that they would now willingly publish “Flesh Which is Not Flesh” in its original form.  But Verday wasn’t changing her mind, as the initial “knee-jerk” bad decision had still been made and to now pretend like it hadn’t happened would completely defeat the point of Verday making this decision in the first place.  Also the publisher had said that it was a case of miscommunication with the editor and that they had never been consulted in the matter, and publisher Christopher Navratil even wrote an article entitled What Happens When a Headline Goes Viral for Publishers Weekly about it; the issue here was that the publisher kept saying they did not support Telep on this decision by any means, and yet they were still standing behind her and publishing the anthology.   Running Press were essentially covering their bases however they could to save face and look good and put the whole matter to bed.  Telep was very apologetic, saying “I sincerely regret the sequence of events which has led to Jessica Verday’s story ‘Flesh Which Is Not Flesh’ being excluded from the forthcoming anthology Wicked Pretty Things. This has been the result of a misunderstanding on my part which is entirely regrettable … I fully support LGBTQ issues.”  Yet as Jim C. Hines clearly put it on his blog: “But it was hurtful.”

Much to Telep’s and the publisher’s chagrin, the matter wasn’t going to die.  Verday had spoken her mind on her blog and word spread across the Internet as more blogs and Twitter accounts and readers heard and learned about the story and then broadcasted it on their respective networking communication site of choice (including the BookBanter Blog).  Then Lisa Mantchev, Lesley Livinston, Karen Mahoney and Seanan McGuire – all authors that were to be featured in the anthology – withdrew their stories for publication, and Melissa Marr asked that her name not be used to promote the project.  McGuire, much like Verday, is a relatively new author who has gone on to win the John W. Campbell Award in 2010 for Best New Writer and be listed on the New York Times bestseller list.  In a heartfelt post McGuire makes her viewpoint clear: “I am not withdrawing from this book because I’m not straight. I am withdrawing because of my little sister and her wife, and because of my girlfriend, and because of my best friend, and because of all the other people who deserve better than bullying through exclusion.”  Each of these authors had to make hard decisions that may certainly have affected their careers, and yet they stood behind their choices and never backed down.

But there was still more.  Fantasy author Jim C. Hines made a post on his popular blog with the title of “Wicked Pretty Things and the Erasure of LGBTQ Characters.”  In the post he begins it with a conversation between his six-year old child and himself in clarifying that marriages do not have to be solely between girls and boys, whereupon his son responds with: “That’s silly.  How would they have babies?”  Hines commented with: “I understand where his confusion comes from. Pretty much every cartoon on TV has male/female relationships only. Every movie he watches, every book he brings home from school… Any nonheterosexual relationship is simply erased.”  Then he segues to Jessica Verday and lays out what happened, citing his sources everywhere he can and makes his point on that matter clear.  Then he goes one giant step further in offering to publish the authors’ stories that were withdrawn from the anthology, as well as pay them under the following conditions:

  1. If you have not already found a home for your withdrawn story, I would be happy to read it.
  2. If I like the story (and knowing most of the authors involved, I suspect I will), I’ll offer $100 up front to publish it here on my blog.
  3. Each story will include a donations link. Once the initial $100 has been covered, further donations will be split 50/50. Half will be paid to the author, and the other half will be donated to a LGBTQ-friendly cause.
  4. If I publish multiple stories, I will look into putting together an e-book collection of those stories, with profits again being split between the authors and a LGBTQ-friendly cause.

The post went on to receive a large number of comments and when asked recently how Hines’s decision had continued to be received, he responded with:

“I made my offer because I agreed with the authors. An editor has every right to decide what she will and won’t publish, but if you’re an editor who refuses to publish LGBT content or assumes such content is automatically ‘inappropriate,’ I have the right to refuse to work with you. A lot of people were writing to express their support for these authors, and I figured the best way I could show my own support was to offer to buy and publish those withdrawn stories.

I’ve spoken to several ex-WPT [Wicked Pretty Things] authors so far. Some of them have already found other homes for their work, which is great. I’m waiting to hear from a few others. I just want to make sure these authors are able to be paid for their stories, and that — hopefully — we’ll all be able to read and enjoy them.”

In my last round of researching for this column as I began to write it, I came across the announcement – albeit not officially emblazoned on their site or displayed anywhere – that the publisher had canceled the publication of Wicked Pretty Things.  It looks like enough people were making a big enough deal about this to force the publisher to make their own hard decision on the many choices that authors, writers and bloggers alike had already made.  This was the right outcome.

The bottom line is this: Trisha Telep made the wrong call in asking Verday to change her story because she thought it wouldn’t be accepted by the publisher for the anthology, even though it followed the guidelines laid out by the publisher.  But once that call had been made, the stance and point were clear and feelings had been very much hurt, and not all the apologies and regrets from Telep or the publisher could change the fact that when Telep saw it was a gay story (“a total of 3 kisses and sexually, it’s G-rated”) about two teenage boys, she said no.

And to end this column on a lighter note, while Running Press will no longer be publishing Wicked Pretty Things this year, it is nevertheless the proud publisher of the book Threesomes and Moresomes, which Nick Mamatas has kindly shown the cover for on his blog.  Nothing wrong with that book, right?

Threesomes and Moresomes

Bookbanter Column: “Zombie is the New Undead” (April 11, 2011)

You sit in your favorite chair, in your favorite room of the house: the library. Your legs are comfort- ably crossed, the temperature is just right: warm and cozy. You’re reading your favorite book on your Ipad, swiping your finger rapidly across the screen to turn the page and continue with the gripping story. You’ve tuned out the world, focused on the captivating story with the unstoppable heroine who is fighting to save the day; you know she will triumph, but you still read for the inevitable surprise. As you begin a new chapter, you finally here a scratching at the door. But you have no pets; who could it be? The scratching continues, as if whatever is on the other side is trying to claw their way through the door. It is then that you hear the deep, inhuman groaning. You put down your Ipad, fear crawling its way up your spine, as you hesitantly walk towards the door. Building up your courage – kidding yourself that it’s just your little brother playing around, but you secretly know better – you fling open the door and scream as the zombie reaches out for you . . .

Zombie. Dictionary.com defines it as “the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.” Wikipedia says, “A fictional undead monster or a person in an entranced state believed to be controlled by a bokor or wizard.” But if I was to refer to Night of the Living Dead, you would have a concrete image in your mind of a weak, slow-moving undead human with its arms stretched out, groaning and moaning, hungrily in search of brains. While the concept of zombies has been around for a long time, George A Romero’s cult classic brought the idea of the walking dead human back to life in a whole new way, spawning countless successive zombie movies.

28 Days Later  Shaun of the Dead

Zombies have appeared numerous times in literature, but it wasn’t until the publication of The Book of the Dead in 1989 that we first saw a collection of zombie stories, based on the premise from Night of the Living Dead. The image of the archetypal zombie described above had fully solidified in our society’s conscious. But during the first decade of the twenty-first century there was a drastic change in the familiar paradigm of the zombie, thanks to the likes of 28 Days Later (2002) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) in film, and Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide published in 2003, followed by his New York Times bestseller World War Z (2006).

  World War Z  Breathers

All of a sudden the zombie wasn’t a scary, slow-moving creature, but one that was an incredibly fast, terrifying nightmare, or could be funny and entertaining; a pet to be kept in your shed. It was a creature we fought a war with and barely survived. It was, jokingly, something we might one day have to face, and here were some detailed ways to protect yourself. S. G. Browne, author of the bestselling Breathers – a book about how zombies would be treated as members of society – has this to say about our contemporary zombies:

“In addition to running like Olympic sprinters and making us laugh, modern zombies are domesticated as pets (Fido), write poetry (Zombie Haiku), and have invaded classic literature (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). They can also be found on the Internet going to marriage counseling, falling in love, and singing to their former co-workers (Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains.”) In short, they’ve expanded their range, become more versatile. More well-rounded. And who doesn’t enjoy a more well-rounded zombie? Plus, zombies are tragically comical. Shuffling along, losing their hair and teeth and nails and the occasional appendage. Add the fact that they used to be us and we can’t help but relate to them.”

And what is it about these undead that fascinates us so? Browne’s last sentence does point out an interesting fact that zombies were once people, and when we recognize the person, that is when we have issues in “putting them to rest.” But what is resonating with humanity on a psychological level to want to read and watch and experience the thrill of a living corpse coming for you? Browne continues:

“The prevailing argument I often hear describes the current popularity of zombies as a direct reflection of global fears regarding the economy and terrorism. Horror as catharsis for the fears and anxiety of a society making commentary on itself. I disagree. I believe the current fascination with zombies has less to do with economic angst and more to do with the fact that zombies have been taken out of their proverbial archetypal box. No longer are they just the shambling, mindless, flesh-eating ghouls we’ve known and loved for most of the past four decades. Today’s zombies are faster. Funnier. Sentient.”

This is but one opinion on why we enjoy watching and reading about zombies. Mira Grant, author of the bestselling Feed – set in a techie near future where a virus can turn anyone into a zombie – presents another viewpoint:

“Zombies are, in many ways, a blank slate for our fears — they let us fear illness, fear sublimation, fear the terror of the familiar becoming the alien – without admitting that those fears cannot always be fought in a physical form. And in a time when so many of the classic monsters are being sexualized and humanized, zombies are one of the only things it’s still acceptable to hate and fear on sight.”

Grant brings up an important point. The world of vampires over the last two decades has certainly been revamped (pun intended!) with the likes of Louis (Brad Pitt) and Lestat (Tom Cruise) in the 1994 adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, Angel and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and – of course – Edward (Robert Pattison) from The Twilight Saga. While there have been a number of stories and books about “likeable” zombie characters, no true hero has been raised from the grave.

And yet zombies continue to pervade every sphere of entertainment, as well as every genre of writing, whether it’s bestselling anthologies like John Joseph Adams’ Living Dead, or Christopher Golden’s New Dead; to original novels like Brian Keene’s The Rising, Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, or Stephen King’s Cell; to the popular graphic novel series (and now successful TV series) The Walking Dead; to international levels with Swedish author of Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead. To say I am barely scratching the tip of the iceberg does not do the list of zombie literature justice. Readers may want to check out the Wikipedia page on a “List of Zombie Novels” for further details.

Living Dead  Cell  Handling the Undead

Jonathan Maberry has even brought the subject of zombies to the popular world of young adult fiction with his first book in the series, Rot & Ruin. Maberry came up with the idea when asked to do a story for the New Dead anthology: “I decided to explore the experience of a teenager dealing with something vastly beyond his control. During the writing of the novella I fell in love with the characters and the world of the Rot & Ruin (which is what everything is called that’s beyond the fence line of the small town in which the characters live).” With the success of the first book, Maberry has three sequels planned, with Dust & Decay coming out in August. Even he has been surprised with the success of the “young adult zombie” novel: “It’s won a number of awards already including the Cybils and Dead Letter Award, and has been nominated for a Stoker, the YASLA and others.”

But will the zombie fascination ever come to an end? As a bookstore employee for the last seven years, I have seen the rise of zombie fiction, and while it does seem to have slowed a little, an end appears nowhere in sight. On this topic, Grant says,

“I don’t think the zombie fascination will die down or cool off until we stop being afraid of going to the doctor, of the man on the subway, of the woman with the pamphlet telling us to repent. They’re the monsters for this modern age. The vampire had a pretty good run as the biggest bad in existence — about five hundred years, give or take. I doubt the zombie will break that record, but it’s going to try.”

While John Joseph Adams, editor of the successful Living Dead anthologies, has this to say:

“I think it’s safe to say that zombies will continue to be popular for the foreseeable future. In literature, everything zombie-related has so much competition right now, however, it’s become really hard to stand out. But I think there’s a core fan-base for zombie fiction that will buy up every zombie book they get their hands on, so it’s a safe bet from a publishing point of view–i.e., put zombies in it, and it’ll sell. (The art director corollary is “Put an airship on it, and it’ll sell.) It’ll be interesting to see how things develop; if the zombie genre is going to continue to thrive, its practitioners will have to figure out ways to innovate while keeping things traditional enough so as not to alienate the existing and loyal core fan-base. Fortunately for the genre, zombies work well as a blank canvas and can be easily made to do the writer’s bidding.”

The Age of the Zombie is still alive, undead, and well, because the archetype of the zombie has been so drastically altered. Zombies are like superheroes now, in that there is little limitation to what they may be capable of. Writers are constantly coming up with new and different ways to present the living dead, whether it’s decaying family members we feel the need to aid in Handling the Undead, or the concept of a zombie prostitute in S. G. Browne’s short story “Zombie Gigolo” from Living Dead 2, or even zombie Stormtroopers in Joe Schreiber’s Star Wars: Death Troopers. Anthologies, on the other hand, help to reveal zombie stories known authors have written, but also pose a challenge of writing a zombie story by a writer not know for this genre. In fact, in five years time it is far more likely that the remaining bookstores will have an individual zombie section, separate from their horror section. It really boils down to a relatively simple concept, which Adams pointed out above: as long as there are people buying and reading zombie stories, publishers will continue to publish it, and writers will therefore continue to write it, as well as parody it. Think of it as a never ending cycle, if you will, or perhaps an undead cycle that cannot be put to rest.

Living Dead 2  Death Troopers

Author’s note: The zombie works mentioned above are just a smattering of the whole body of zombie work, covering all mediums. As a reader and movie watcher, I know I have only been exposed to a small amount. I invite readers to post comments on their favorite zombie stories, or perhaps rare ones that not many are familiar, as well as anything else they might want to mention about the living dead.