A Month of Writers, Day Thirteen: Nick Mamatas
Posted on December 17, 2007 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
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)
Nick Mamatas? Controversy? I’m shocked. Shocked I tell you.
If you think Nick was controversial, though, you need to read Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.
This was funny, yet it made me sad.
My country is doomed. Were we always like this, or are the students Mamatas spoke to, and their ilk, the product of all those products that contained lead before the EPA cracked down on it? Were the people of Rome like this before it fell?
Doomed, I said.
An Eric: “…Were we always like this…?”
Uh-huh. I had boneheads like this as classmates back in the late ’70s. Unimaginative yet superstitious, bigoted, literal and linear. I don’t hold myself an exception, btw. I still get caught in those mental patterns more often than I’m comfortable with. And I’m no hick; I grew up in the middle of a very industrial, racially diverse, mid-size Midwest city. I’m also pretty sure things were even worse before WWII. The golden age of American public education we pine for probably only lasted from about 1950-1955. That devil Rock-n-Roll ruined it, I’ve heard.
I’m glad to think that my English class probably would have been better. But that’s because we were in an exceptional program. I’m tending to agree with the “doomed” impression, but I don’t know that anywhere else is particularly better.
I don’t know if the book is funny, but this post certainly is. If this is a sample of his writing, I’m going to have to get “Under My Roof,” kids book or no.
Oh dear. It makes children THINK??? Oh my dear heavens.
I’d better rush right out and get copies for all my nieces and nephews.
Bless you, Mr. Mamatas, for putting up with that, and for spreading the meme that not everything has to be a socially concious, fat-free, fair-trade decision. Of course, these days, the faculty is likely to lynch you for thoughtcrime if the students don’t.
It’s scary to think that is the way so many people feel about fiction and writing.
This scares the hell out of me.
“Were the people of Rome like this before it fell?”
Well, you know how English students are. Think they have a responsibility to change the world or point out eternal truths. I’d rather they just write an enjoyable story with likable and relateable characters.
Or unlikable but entertaining characters.
This sounds like a lot of people I knew in high school and college about 20 years ago. Some of these kids may be their children.
“You know, normal people.”
Normal in this case being white, conservative and Christian, I presume? Eh? … I don’t know how to process all the disgust I feel boiling in my intestines. If only righteous indignation could feel good, then we’d have us some lynching going on tonight. But it just brings you down to their level.
(At this point my eyes unfocus and drift away from you).
Under My Roof is a damn fine book.
Heh, as Jim Wright once put it: “Straight, Conservative, devout Christian White People who speak English as their Native Language”
I hope Nick Mamatas made enough of an impression on at least a few of them to get them to do some thinking.
Jeebus T. Low-Fat Dancing Christ atop the Mars-high stack of all tomes ever penned — just how many dozens of drugs are administered to these students to extinguish all vestiges of independent thought?!?
Here’s a question to which I haven’t (yet) found the answer in my just-arrived-today copy of Coffee Shop: How do authors repress the victory-dance urge when this sort of “Whoa, someone just absorbed their *first clue*!” moment strikes?
Nick and John: I thank you both. Nick: I’m buying this one; keep scaring the straights, and please offer my condolences and support to your sister. FWIW, I think you’ve given us a new vision of what awaits the literate in Hell.
I love books that upset people. I’ll have to hunt up a copy.
“My country is doomed.”
Was it Ellison said that thing about the most common element in the universe being not hydrogen but stupidity?
Fear not, ‘An Eric’, stupid and/or ignorant people are everywhere, not just over there. Think of it as evolution in action.