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>Do My Work for Me?

>Sorry to have been neglecting you all; I’ve been trying to wrap my mind and keyboard around my editorial for the May issue (which is looking just fine without me, but nevertheless). Lillian Gerhardt, former ed-in-chief of School Library Journal, once advised me to always keep one speech and one editorial in reserve for those times when the brain runs dry. (She also said that her method for coming up with a topic was to read the newspaper and get cranky about something.)

I do have a topic, though–the Naomi Wolf article has me thinking about where the intersection between criticism and practical application should be. So we determine that book is racist, sexist, materialist–objectionable in one way or another. How do we go beyond pointing that out? Or is pointing that out the limit? For example, I am almost completely with Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in their analysis of how pornography works. But their solutions? Not so much. Anyway, your spirited comments on the Wolf have been a big help to my thinking and I thank you.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >point it out and move on. It seems to me that people drawn to this profession have an ineluctable need to point things out. but look how much thinking it inspires if only because something you say drives someone else crazy.
    “Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.” Shoma Morita. Well, it’s a little gooey but you can extrapolate. I think as long as people are pointing at things to direct attention there instead of pointing at things to direct attention to themselves, it’s grist for the ever grinding mill.

  2. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >I think you have to be unattached to the outcome. Willing to say things that will get the gears in someone else’s brains moving without being attached to the direction of the wheels so that when we share what we believe to be true it isn’t to bludgeon anyone else into being our clone but to be willing to come forward with our truth knowing it may launch a quick dismissal or a thousand ships or a thousand attacks or a thousand sneers or thousand gears moving into places we would not have chosen. And I’m only glad of the people who have done this for me whether I agreed with them or not. And sometimes (but not often, heh heh heh) they’ve changed my mind.

  3. Andy Laties says:


    Now, really. How can anyone disagree with what you just said? Where does this leave the conversation?? Can’t you be at least a LITTLE inflexible?? PLEASE??

    In reference to this practical/critical thing — and returning to Roger’s reference a couple of days ago to Zena Sutherland saying that librarians should be critical during the acquisitions process since people can get their poppy-culture books on their own — I recalled that back in the day, Zena was the children’s book reviewer for Chicago Tribune, and she was famous for doing ferocious reviews of books she thought were bad. Her reviews were entertaining — she could be fierce. Well — people complained, over a period of time. They said they didn’t want to read negative book reviews. They wanted to read book reviews that told them what they SHOULD read, not what they shouldn’t read. Zena wouldn’t agree to write only positive reviews, and the Tribune stopped using her as a book reviewer!! They switched to pretty much all positive children’s book reviews. So — even pointing out the yucky stuff can get you shut out of the opportunity to have an influence on the practical decision-making. (Of course Zena had ample opportunity to make her opinions well known in the professional community — it was speaking directly to the public that she had to substantially sacrifice.)


  4. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >It’s not opinions that I object to. It’s when people use theirs to keep others from forming their own i.e. banning books. I think it’s okay to influence people to think but not what to think and someone who doesnt get a chance to read a book can’t possibly know what to think about it. Unfortunately, the catch for ethically thinking reviewers is that they have enormous power and what they think will determine whether a book gets into a library or not and that’s a practical problem I’m glad I don’t have to solve because i don’t know how you reconcile yourself to it.

  5. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >But it’s abstract, Andy. Gossip in the Stacks has most elegant practical solution.

  6. rindambyers says:

    >I think the “how do we go beyond pointing that out?” question is the exact question in all of this that we should never and can never, realistically, expect in any situation to be completely answered by anyone but that does not mean we need to stop the searching!

    If we lose that question and the questioning, we lose debate, discussion, dialogue, and not only the sharing of ideas but the exploration of new ideas. Thus, ultimately, by resolving the question permanently, we would lose our ability to learn from each other and, most importantly, the spaces wherein that learning can occur. We would, I think, by doing that, dehumanize ourselves.

    I don’t think the line between what is pornography or what is not pornography can be firmly drawn or ever will be firmly drawn in each individual case, whether art or books. Some things, yes, we can and yes we need to as a society, clearly define as pornography, things which clearly exploit or dehumanize or harm other human beings, though, realistically, those opposing that definition will always also exist. In other cases, that line will not be so clear or definable, nor will the lines ever be for everyone. But what we must not ever stop, in what we must be ever vigilent, is the questioning, the probing, the debate, the discussion of the issue.

    Thank YOU, Roger for such interesting issues to discuss. And for providing a space to do it in.

  7. Andy Laties says:

    >Anyway Roger you’re better than the Chicago Tribune!!

  8. >Hang on Portia! What a reviewer thinks does NOT determine whether a book gets into a library or not. The librarian determines that, whether or not she realizes it.

    It is so important to be fairly critical in reviews…not just to do true justice to the book and give the librarian a fair purchasing decision…but also to remind and teach librarians to be and how to be critical in their purchasing decisions. We should be critical in purchasing, as Zena said (though I critically purchase poppy stuff for my library…I just have good reasons for it, and would happily happily argue with Zena about this one if only it were possible)… but many librarians don’t read critically. They don’t read books critically and they don’t read reviews critically. They look to reviews to determine whether a book should be in their library… rather than reading a review and then making a determination on their own.

    Anyone on child_lit? Look for this week’s “Resistance in the Classroom/beside myself” thread for more discussion on teaching adults to be critical readers.

  9. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >Wait a second, yourself, Nina. “They look to reviews to determine whether a book should be in their library…” so go back and reread the beginnning of your post. But hey, all I’m saying is that you have to be very careful when you become a reviewer of letting it destroy your soul. Power corrupts and…..

  10. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >And I don’t think we want critical readers. To read critically is antithetical to understanding. It presupposes a set of rules upon art – the first rule of which is there are none.

  11. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >I also find fairly distasteful the notion that anyone reads better than anyone else and should explain how to read and what and why they should like or dislike something. This, as I have attempted to state in previous blogs, is a very loaded and dangerous notion.

  12. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >I eye with the same wariness, someone with a compulsion to continously force their views on someone else, as I do small mustached men attempting to emotionally rally Germany. Something, I say to myself, is strangely amiss. Make haste to small surrounding countries and practice your w’s.

  13. Andy Laties says:

    >I just read a gorgeous passage on the subject of a writer whose work was sure to anger the critics, and how he undercut them:

    The most logic-defying piece of writing in Russian literature to this day, “The Nose” is narrated in a consistently matter-of-fact manner of poker-faced seriousness. From Gogol’s time to our own, there has always been a group of critics in Russia (their political orientation changes every few decades, but their basic outlook has remained constant regardless of how far to the right or to the left their politics may veer) who are primarily concerned with whether a given work of literature teaches the reader a valuable lesson and what sort of example it will set for young people. Mindful of how irritating “The Nose” was sure to prove for such a mentality, Gogol incorporated into his story’s penultimate paragraph a prepackaged response from this particular critical camp. “But what is most strange, most incomprehensible of all is that authors can choose such subjects. I must confess that this is altogether unfathomable, it certainly is…No, no, I cannot understand it at all. In the first place, it is of no use to the Fatherland, and in the second place…but no, in the second place there is no use either. I simply have no idea what this is about.” This little disclaimer served to forestall the expected kind of criticism–a clever strategem that produced exactly the results Gogol intended.
    –Simon Karlinsky, “The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol”. University of Chicago, 1976. 129.


  14. >Portia, you’re simplifying my remarks. Nowhere did I suggest that anyone reads “better” than anyone else. The fact that there are no rules for art is exactly why people should look at it critically. By “critically”, meaning: looking for understanding. Understand WHY you like/don’t like something and be able to express it. Understand WHY a reviewer might be saying what they’re saying, and how this translates into the specific needs of your library and your community. The point of criticism is to argue–ergo, to be a good critic, you must accept that is there isn’t a right answer at the same time that you argue for one. It’s like feeling out the boundaries of a black box…bouncing things off each other to figure out what seems to be there…but you’ll never divine the extent of it. Still, why not try?

  15. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >Yes, yes, I agree. Clearly, that’s what the blog does as well. The little niblet I was zeroing in on in your post was the idea that some librarians don’t read critically and that this is not good. That you have to take it to the next level of abstraction and even to be able to articulate it, to understand. If writer’s did that they wouldn’t have to write the book. They could just do a short summary of the whole business and be done with it.
    Kid playing in the mud.
    Writer writing about it.
    Critic dissecting writing about it.
    Kid playing in the mud has most direct understanding of mud.

  16. >What about people arguing about critics dissecting writers writing about kids playing in the mud?

    Which makes me think of “Doodler Doodling”, my favorite sleeper of 2005. By Rita Golden Gelman, illustrated by Paul Zelinksky. Seems like your kind of book.

  17. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >I think you’re being kind of obtuse, Nina. But I can’t tell if it’s deliberate. You can read critically all you like if it gives you pleasure. I just don’t think it’s a BETTER way to read and you clearly do. i don’t think anyone reads BETTER than anyone else. Differently, yes, better, no. However, if you want to play around with mud, I would think critical readers would read anything critically, including books about children in playing int he mud. If they don’t, why not?

  18. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >It also implies a set of absolutes by which one judges for all. And, of course, no such thing exists. Anyway, Nina, I just went through all this with Roger in previous blogs. Am I going to have to do this with every critic who comes along? This is getting tiresome. Let’s move on.

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