Monday, September 24, 2012

The Plus-Sized Problem: Musings on Full-Figured Word Power

Last week, the headline "Ralph Lauren Hires First Plus-Size Model" blared at the world, as if the fashion designer had turned its back on size 00 emaciated stick-insects and paid attention to the Other 99 Percent.

Truth is, RL's model is a size 12.

Now, last I checked, size 12 is on the small side of average. According to "Just What IS an Average Woman's Size Anymore?" from WebMD:
Today, the average American woman is 5’4″, has a waist size of 34-35 inches and weighs between 140-150 lbs, with a dress size of 12-14. Fifty years ago, the average woman was 5’3-4″ with a waist size of approximately 24-25″, she weighed about 120 lbs and wore a size 8. 
If RL's size 12 model was 5'4, or thereabouts, she wouldn't be "plus size." She'd be "normal." But she's not; she's an imposing 6'2"!

OK. I don't know about you. And I certainly don't know about Ralph. But if I see a 6-foot tall woman who wears a size 12, I don't think "plus size." I think "statuesque." "Willowy," even.

Garfield "I'm Undertall" Small Poster
http://www.cafepress.com/garfield.484081872
What this means, of course is that Ralph is telling American women the same thing Garfield has been saying for years: they're not overweight. They're undertall. If they want to wear cool designer duds, they should either lose a Kia's worth of weight. Or just grow a freaking foot. Whichever is easier.

According to a Slate article on by Julia Felsenthal on why US clothing sizes make no sense, the only measurement originally used to determine a woman's clothing size was her bust. 'Cause, you know, that's a  uniform measurement across the human species.

A national commercial standard sizing system was pursued in America for the greater part of the 20th century, without any real success. In 1983, the US Department of Commerce axed the concept entirely. (Which explains how today, though I'm 10 pounds heavier, and have had a child, I still wear the same size I did while in high school -- back when Jesus was little, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and clothing manufacturers hadn't played fast and loose with the sizing charts in an effort to pander to the vanity of a population who, inexplicably, has come to believe a woman is sexy if she's a 0. Hmmmm... But that's a post for another time.)

Words exist for a reason: so we can communicate with clarity and intelligence. What I don't understand is why Ralph decided to call his lovely model "plus size" instead of just "tall." It's like calling Snooki a novelist or FOX balanced. Saying a thing doesn't make it so. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Getting Past "I Just Didn't Love It"

Rejection in the Wonderful World of Writing comes in many sizes, styles, and colors.

Some are the one-size-fits-all form letter rejections that tell the writer nothing about the publishing industry pro's true thoughts on the work in question. "Thank you for the opportunity to review your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel it is a good fit for us. Best of luck in placing it elsewhere."

Some rejections are more personal, offering insights on both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the piece, as seen through the eyes of the rejector.

Fu Fu - lolcats.comAnd then there are the killers. The ones that say things like: "While elements of the story were certainly interesting, and the general premise was OK, unfortunately, I just didn't love it as much as I had hoped."

I can't speak for other writers, but those blasted "I Just Didn't Love It" missives used to sucker punch me. I'd open the email with pathetic hopefulness, then suddenly find myself transported back to high school -- making me all "aww, geez, I didn't get accepted into the popular kids' clique. Waaahhhh!"

For a long time, I thought the IJDLI rejections were the WORST.

Well, no more.

You see, I made the colossal mistake of equating "I just don't love it" with "I just don't love you." Which, of course, is ridiculous. I am not my book. My book is not me. ::Yeesh:: As if.

Strangely enough, it was a reading experience that gave me my writing epiphany.

Lately, I had the opportunity to experience IJDLI from the other side of the Great Writing Divide. A friend recently recommended a novelist -- a terribly accomplished, internationally bestselling writer -- whose tone and sense of humor is a very close match to my own. Though said novelist writes a genre I generally don't read, because of the similarities in our styles, I wanted to acquaint myself further with her works. So I checked out six titles from the library and started to read.

Same twisted sense of comedy: check. Same penchant for writing strong female characters: check. Same loopy approach to plot: yeah, Baby! Check!

But something was... missing.

Maybe it was the genre. Even in the hands of someone so talented, it's Just. Not. My. Thing.

Maybe it was the fact that every time the plot line skewed north, I was more interested in what would have happened if it had gone south. Or east. Or north by northwest.

I finished two of the six books, and got over halfway through three others. And I had to admit that though there was nothing wrong with the writing, the plots, or the execution of ideas, I just didn't love them.
Photo by wintersixfour via MorgueFile.com

This clicked on the Lightbulb of Revelation in my dim little brain. Suddenly, I understood exactly what IJDLI means. It means exactly what it says:

"I didn't hate it. I may have liked it. I may, in fact, have really liked it. But it's not something I want to read again. It's not you; it's me. Others may (and probably will) disagree with me on this. But since this isn't a book I can't stop thinking about, I'm going to cut you loose to find someone more passionate about this project."

In other words, it's the literary equivalent of "let's not get into a marriage of convenience. Better far to wait for someone who loves you truly, madly, deeply."

Who, I ask, can quibble with that kind of logic?

I know what it's like to have a long-term relationship a spouse who is one hundred percent crazy about me. It's awesome. It was so worth waiting for. I'm thinking if I receive any more IJDLI rejections, I'll not allow them to kill my optimism or enthusiasm. I'll just keep on keeping on till I find true love. It's out there. Don't give up till you find it!

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Art of the Book Review: with Joe Ponepinto

I am thrilled to introduce MuseInks readers to Joe Ponepinto (@JoePonepinto), who has graciously provided today's post. 

Joe Ponepinto spent the first half of his life in a variety of mercenary pursuits. To make up for it, he now writes, edits or teaches every day. He is the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, and has been published in many literary journals. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Dona, and Henry, the coffee drinking dog. His blog on writing and criticism is called The Saturday Morning Post.

With the recent flurry of articles that excoriate book reviews as unfairly positive, such as Jacob Silverman’s in Slate, or as written for hire or cronyism as in The New York Times, it’s tougher than ever for book reviewers to maintain their credibility with readers.

As the Book Review Editor for The Los Angeles Review, I at least get to define how ours are presented, in the hope that readers will find them honest, informative and fair.

First, an explanation. I’ve blogged on my own site about the incestuous relationship between book authors and reviewers, and noted we are not immune to the pressures that situation creates. Many of our reviews are positive, in large part because my review staff and I are free to choose books that we think we will enjoy reading. Reviewers on mainstream publications like The New York Review of Books must generally review books that are or will be in the news, so the chances of disliking the book are higher. And we do include negative observations in our reviews, although we tend to discuss them as reviewer and editor beforehand, and look for ways to temper the bad with the good before we publish. 


So all that being said, what do I look for in a book review? With thanks to Ami Hendrickson for the opportunity to blog, here’s a list a of some of the major considerations:
  • What’s it about? What’s it really about? Give me the tone and the theme, not the plot. Anyone can recite the plot of a book. What’s more valuable to me as a reader and an editor, is an indication of the emotions the book is meant to invoke. That relies heavily on the author’s execution of the theme. Of course the premise and some plot is necessary to help ground the reader of the review, but in general, I want to know what the book is about, not what happens.
  • What’s the author trying to do, and did s/he do it? A good reviewer should recognize an author’s techniques and underlying ideas. Most books (the good ones, anyway) are filled with metaphor, both within the actual writing and in the theme. Reviewers—and I find the best ones are writers themselves—must be able to reverse engineer the author’s motivations to determine the effectiveness of the book.
  • The “I’s” don’t have it. I do not like “personal reaction” book reviews. Let me rephrase that: I despise “personal reaction” book reviews. They are self-indulgent navel gazing of the worst kind. Bad enough the reader has to slog through some reviewer’s personal issues, but to brush aside an author’s hard work to do so? I advise my reviewers to write in a professional, third person style, unless there is a strong personal connection to the subject of the book that would warrant such a treatment.
  • Specificity. Nothing turns me off a review faster than a string of generic adjectives. Wonderful, fabulous, well-written, enjoyable and their friends all go out the window. (Clich├ęs, too—like that one.) Show, don’t tell is just as important in book reviews as it is in the writing.
  • Creativity. A book review can be as creatively written as the book itself. When I write a review, I try to capture the attitude of the book to a small degree in order to relate the tone of the work. If it’s funny or quirky, dark or deeply emotional, I try to reflect that mood. But just like more creative genres, if the writing is over the top and tries to outshine the review, that only makes the reviewer look amateurish.
  • This ain’t your high school book report. Show me you know what you’re talking about. Use literary theory. Reference other works for comparison. Build on the criticism that’s already out there, and make your review part of the literary conversation. Reading other books—a lot of them—helps.
Of course that’s just my short list. I could go on at length (and I often do). I welcome inquiries about book reviews and reviewing at lareview.bookreviews@gmail.com.