Nick Mamatas wrote one of my favorite young adult novels this year, called Under My Roof, because how can you not like a story about a family that becomes its own micronation when it straps a nuclear device to garden gnome? I mean, that’s every boy’s dream (since Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, I’m gratified to see I’m not alone in this opinion). That it’s funny is a bonus; that it’s sarcastic is not in the least surprising to anyone who’s ever read Nick’s LiveJournal and seen him go to town on one damn fool thing or another. Which is why, you know, I keep reading his LiveJournal.
In this episode of A Month of Writers, Nick goes to visit an English class to answer questions about his novel. Hilarious hijinx, as they say, ensue.
NICK MAMATAS: My sister’s class, or Triumph Of The Swill
Well, I attended my sister’s English class (your basic frosh composition class) and answered questions about Under My Roof.
The class was absolutely scandalized by my work. Indeed, about half the questions asked had, as a subtext, “How dare you write this book!”
Explicitly, I was asked several times if I didn’t think that a kid might read the book and build a bomb or become a racist or anti-American. Often, I was asked questions structured like this: “In the book you call poor people sad fuckers. Isn’t that anti-poor?” And I’d explain that in the book a character calls some poor people he encounters sad fuckers, and that is different from me saying that of all poor people. Then the next question would be, “In the book, you say that Muslims are terrorists…” and then “In your book, you say that soldiers are dumb…”
But make no mistake, this wasn’t some uber-PC crowd. Indeed, one woman went off on a long tangent about making English the official language of the United States — this was of course prefaced with “I’m totally not racist, but” (you know, racist throat-clearing) and then her friend said that yeah, she’d read a study that predicted that in a few years New York would be 75% Spanish and that “we’ll be the minority.” And I said “We who?” and she said “We, you know, us, normal people.” (I shared an eye-roll with the Nigerian and Pakistani students in front of me at that point.)
There were also aesthetic complaints. For example, the book “wasn’t even in order.” “Are kids supposed to understand this?”the “we” woman asked. I said “Well, advanced kids” and she really got upset at that. (Hee hee!) The character of the mother was wrong because as “a New York woman” she would have just beaten up her husband. Also, this book “isn’t in the majority; I want to know how many books you sold, and what people have been saying about it! Did anyone like it??!?” I mentioned the starred Publishers Weekly review and the raves from the LA Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and The Believer, then I was told that Harry Potter outsold me. Well yeah, he did.
Finally, someone said, “Well, what were we supposed to learn from this book!” and I said “Nothing.” Later I was able to explain that good novels ask questions; they don’t provide answers. Someone complained,”If a kid reads this, he may start thinking.” (I should say that that last was from an ESL student; he may not have meant to express his comment as an eventuality to be dreaded.)
Then someone asked “Well, what if I was really into shooting men! Should I write a book about that?” I said “Sure, go ahead” and the classroom erupted. Then someone boiled the last hour down to, “What do you think a writer’s responsibility to society is?” and I said “None,” and the class erupted again as, apparently, my sister had spent the past fifteen weeks filling their heads with this vile lie.
But the best was when someone asked me about research and telepathy and I explained that I didn’t research telepathy as it doesn’t exist, so I just made the powers up and one woman finally blurted out, “So…this book is a FANTASY!!”
(original entry, with comments, is here)