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It’s All About Who You Know

An array of baggage for every reader. ("Prada Luggage" by Marcus Troy via Flickr user o5com, used under CC.)

Last week, I was lucky enough to host Paolo Bacigalupi at my school. He addressed a crowd of mostly high school students, and he, not to put too fine a point on it, rocked. He was kinetic and energetic, brought the audience right in, and had lots of interesting things to say.

And while I could devote a whole post to the awesomeness of the visit, what I really want to talk about is a very particular brand of baggage.

Last year, Sarah and I gave some thought to baggage, and ultimately concluded that it’s all ok because the committee ameliorates the idiocy of the individual.

(Have you noticed that this is an oft sung refrain? Committee work makes you really really believe in committees working, once you’ve experienced it working and seen how astounding it can be.)

We were looking at the baggage a reader carries, which is the obvious one. But there’s also the baggage that the author brings on board.

Among other things, Paolo (I can call him that after eating lunch with him, right?) talked about liking and being determined to write stories that are action packed and exciting and have explosions.


The man who brought us Ship Breaker and now Drowned Cities (probably a nomination, so read it now if you haven’t already), those brilliant, thoughtful, big idea books, just wanted to bring us EXPLOSIONS??

In all fairness, I am slightly overstating things; he also spoke eloquently and intelligently about science fiction and data points and how he actually starts from these big ideas and then populates them, because if there isn’t some thematic depth he doesn’t want to tell that story. So it’s not all about the explosions after all, and he might have been playing the audience a bit although clearly he also meant it when he said a good read, in the most plot and paced based way, was really important to him.

But still, it got me thinking. And then I was thinking about The Name of the Star, which I briefly mentioned last year as being a Mary Poppins sort of book, although I had not yet catchphrased it so cunningly. I didn’t say anything else about it at the time, but the one thing that I didn’t love about that book (says she who put book 2 on her Goodreads to-read list the minute she finished book 1) was this occasional sense of Maureen Johnson’s voice peeking through.

Now, I don’t really know Maureen Johnson, although I’ve been lucky enough to meet her briefly a time or two. What I do know, and love, is her online presence. Her blog, her Twitter stream, her peculiar brand of humor, her zany mental gyrations, her love of and amusement for all things English. And occasionally I saw those things in Rory, the main character of Name. And it was a bit jarring.

I could go on with moments of unexpected collision between author and text and my reading, but those are two good examples for the point I am (slowly) getting at.

What we know about, or from, the creators of a text can be hugely influential to our thinking about the text.

And because it’s about the author, I find it harder to dismiss as just baggage. I mean, if Paolo says it’s all about the explosions, can I really, with a straight face, discuss the symbolism of the explosions?

Well, yes, of course I can. But what if John Corey Whaley was all, “Wait, you thought the woodpecker was symbolism? No, I just read an article and thought it would be, like, cool?” Could we still talk about the literary quality when the author has stated overtly that it was an accident? I think there is the possibility of an author’s word subsuming our interpretation, because it’s sort of like arguing with God (assuming you believe in a capital-G deity). You can do it, but can God (ahem, the author) be wrong?

(Probably uneccessary caveat: Obviously I don’t expect JCW will ever say anything like that, I was just reaching for an extreme example about a book most folks reading this know.)

And looked at the other way (and going back to example #2, Maureen Johnson): is it fair to dismiss some of the humor and insightful commentary in the book as being just that wacky and witty Maureen, and not give props to the character having those thoughts/making those funnies?Just because it comes from the mind of the author, does that mean it’s an authorial intrusion? Would that reading of the text have occurred to a reader who didn’t follow Maureen on Twitter, and if not, how can it be a relevant criticism? But in that case, how do we get past our response and unhear the author voice?

Do we just know too much, in this interconnected world? Can we ever be just readers (if such a thing even exists) when we know the authors, whether personally or via social media?

(John Green, I’m looking at you. I had so many requests for Fault from Nerdfighters who had never even read any of John’s books. And that’s an amazing kind of story too, but I think they might have read a different book than the one I read, since I don’t follow John Green online. They had a whole context. Baggage indeed, both their own and John’s.)

I don’t have any conclusions or answers, just a nagging sense that the blessing that is living in NYC, where things like the Teen Author Reading Festival take place, home of previews where special guests sing you a plot summary of their upcoming books, is also a curse. I am, like Cassandra, burdened with too much knowledge.

And also perhaps a bit melodramatic about it. But really, how do we read past what—or, more importantly, who—we know? (Or have seen on a stage or social network; “know” is almost as loaded as “friend” these days.) How does a reader in today’s hyperlinked world immerse him or herself only in a book without regard for the flotsam and jetsam of the real world?

And that’s not even getting into the very peculiar baggage of authors you actually know, as in hang about with, in real life and with real affection, and the additional complexities that can bring to critical reading.

First world problems, maybe, but our baggage is worth examining as we look at how we read in general and especially and how we read for quality, when unexamined baggage of any stripe can impair our careful consideration. What are you carrying, and how do you leave it behind?

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. Of course we can know too much. I don’t want to go back to the days when readers knew Jane Austen as the pseudonym, “A Lady,” but we are approaching a point when there is just too much information out there (and not just about authors. I’m specifically thinking about but pre-pub buzz). I was not aware of John Green’s online presence when reading “The Fault in Our Stars,” but through reading and discussing the book, it was impossible to avoid learning about Nerdfighters.

    So while I’d love to put myself in a cave and have new books delivered to me by magic, free from media-machine buzz, I recognize the utter impossibility of this (plus, caves are damp and cold). That being said, I do think it is possible to be a “pure” reader in the information age. It requires a lot more work–actively forgetting or ignoring things like Paolo’s intent behind the explosions–but it will ultimately make us smarter readers. There are definitely instances when I do want to know a little more about an author’s intent prior to, or after reading a novel, but I need to do my best to immerse myself in the reading experience. In the end, if I can’t legitimately defend the merit of any authorial decision on the basis of how it serves the work, then maybe the “well, that’s just [author’s name here]” explanation is valid.

  2. I didn’t realize you could be a Nerdfighter without having read any of John’s books! I’m the opposite, I guess: I’ve read many of his books but I’m not a Nerdfighter? What IS a Nerdfighter anyway? I thought it was just fans who wear T-shirts that say Nerdfighter.

    Another kind of baggage for me is reserving judgment on an author until I’ve read more than one book. If I loved his/her first book, I cynically (FORGIVE ME) wonder whether it was a fluke. Especially when it’s memoir-ish, because what will the author have to tap into now? I’M TERRIBLE, I know. And for award purposes, the author’s entire oeuvre (or lack thereof) doesn’t count anyway, it’s all about “Is this the best book out there this year?”

  3. This isn’t quite the point you’re making, but to me it seems related: how much are we influenced by what we do or don’t know about an author’s fame, success, or her own or her publisher’s literary reputation; how much are we influenced by our own familiarity with her previous work? A few years ago, right after the National Book Awards were announced, PW published an interview with one of the judges, who said that she thought the awards submissions should come without author or publisher name attached because it’s the only way to have a truly unbiased approach to the work. As an editor (and as a reader!) I’ve often wished the same thing for all awards submissions, especially when I see books getting starred reviews and buzz that don’t seem merited. In my experience most people can’t help but think that if they’re reading something by an author who has won, say, two Newberys, the new book is potentially award-worthy, so they’re starting from a positive outlook that the book itself would have to disprove (so starting high and only if the book falls short would it be all downhill from there), rather than starting from a neutral or even slightly negative outlook that they might have with a book from an author or press they’re not familiar with (starting low and having to climb uphill if the book is worthy). Heavy Medal’s initial 2013 list bears this out: a number of the books mentioned are not out yet and have no reviews, but are on the potential reading list because the author won an award or honor in the past. I do the same thing when I’m deciding what to read that might be in awards contention–we all have to start somewhere–but it does feel like bias to me.

  4. I think being a Nerdfighter is entirely a matter of personal choice. Some people have read and love the books, some just watch the videos and others just like that there’s a vaguely superhero-ish moniker now for intellectual kids that isn’t nerd or geek.

  5. Speaking as an author, there’s this delicate issue of marketing, and who your audience is when you talk about your work, and how your publisher is promoting you, and sometimes, it’s about taking one for the team. Ask me what my forthcoming book is about around my dinner table, and I’ll tell you it’s about self-sacrifice. It’s about what we’ll do for those we love, particularly mothers and daughters, but also lovers. What do I say when some random Joe asks me on the street? And how is MacKids promoting it? “It’s about killer mermaids, ghosts, and a curse.” No explosions, but there’s one in my next book.

    Also, I really believe with great books that the Muse sings in the writer, sometimes when he/she doesn’t realize it. A lot of symbolism may at first be inadvertent, but it’s because the author has his/her mind open to the story–the real story, not the explosions–and so the heavy stuff flows from the gut. Most of the time they see the symbols later, and claim them, but I’m willing to forgive when they don’t. It’s part of the intersection of magic and labor in the craft.

  6. The Yalsa Hub has a fun post today that I think also shows the “positive baggage” we bring to the new work of previous award winners.

  7. Roxanne Feldman Sophie Brookover says

    Karyn asked, “But really, how do we read past what—or, more importantly, who—we know? (Or have seen on a stage or social network; “know” is almost as loaded as “friend” these days.) How does a reader in today’s hyperlinked world immerse him or herself only in a book without regard for the flotsam and jetsam of the real world?”

    For me, the answer is a two-parter:

    1) You Just Do. That sounds so flippant, and that’s (mostly) not how I mean it. I mean like this: you (the global, not specific you) make a conscious decision to immerse yourself in the book before you, and honestly, the better the book is, the easier it is to do this. A not-very-good book is one you eliminate from contention based on its dubious merits, anyway. A really amazing book by an author you’re fond of in the world outside the pages, however you know them, is one that will stand on its much more meritorious merits (while you silently celebrate your friend/”friend”‘s accomplishments). Either way, I’m led to…

    2) Which you (this time, the specific you, Karyn) hit on earlier: The committee ameliorates the idiocy of the individual. I believe this is 100% true. It’s very easy to become obsessed with a particular title & not want to see its flaws but you can count on your colleagues to bring you gently back to reality.

    As for whether or not it’s bias to cast an automatically keen or gimlet eye upon titles by previously-winning authors, well, sure it is. But we all have biases — about certain genres, series, particular types of voices, and more — and this is another area where the committee peforms its idiocy-ameliorating function. First, by encouraging open & frank discussion of our baggage/biases, and second, by keeping each other honest about those biases & baggage. (Biases & Baggage — doesn’t that sound like the title of a particularly charming cozy mystery, featuring whip-smart dialogue? Someone get on that, stat!)

  8. “Do we just know too much, in this interconnected world?”

    Add “know” to loaded words.

    OTOH, for me, I feel that we have too much information and it changes the way we read. I’ve been cutting back on some of my online time because of it, but at the same time, I feel disconnected from the reading world. I miss what could be valuable reading information, such as needing to read Drowned Cities, if I don’t plug in.

    Unfortunately, I can’t read every review magazine or publisher newsletter. Being able to listen in on author conversations or hear their insights, as well as those of fellow readers, can be a huge help. When I was classifying Ship Breaker, I tweeted about and Paolo himself replied! (I can call him that since he tweeted me, right? :))

    I try not to read too much about a book so that only my own baggage provides interference during the reading. An offhand comment, an irreverent twitter stream, all these things combine with my voice when reading, whether I want it to or not. Sometimes, these things cannot be avoided. (I am avoiding reading the other comments before I write this though!)

    I think, being aware of these things will hopefully serve as an internal message. Do I really feel this way about this work or are my thoughts colored from the lunch I had with the author, or the book club I discussed the book with, or maybe the twitter hashtag that bashed the book? Knowing those things will certainly help me to be more objective. Though, in the end, my schema is going to change what the author intends anyway.

    So, I guess, what I’m saying is, I will determine what that author intends. No matter what he/she was thinking when writing the book. Ha, who’s God now??

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