It’s not MY fault . . .

by Pari Noskin Taichert

GradeLast week in Albuquerque, a senior who *failed his English class, and had missed three times the allowed number of days in a semester, realized he’d dug himself into a hole. His politically influential parents complained that no one informed them of his problems (not true) and, because policy hadn’t been followed, he should walk the stage with his classmates.

Over the objections of both the teacher and the school’s principal, a higher-up administrator changed his grade.

As a parent, I’m furious for so many reasons about this. As a community citizen, my anger spawned action. I wrote to members of the Albuquerque Public School Board of Education and the Mayor. I called and spoke with the NM Secretary of Education. I’m in touch with the local teacher’s union. My husband and I are seriously considering starting a blog, website or petition called "overhaul  APS" to provide feedback to a school system we believe aspires — at best — to mediocrity while claiming excellence.

All of this has me thinking about personal responsibility . . . and taking action.

I hear and read a lot of complaining in our literary world:
Speaker_21. No one understands the brilliance/marketability of our manuscripts.
2. Agents are rude.
3. The publishing industry is screwed up.
4. Editors don’t edit or know what they’re doing.
5. Reviewers don’t know what they’re doing.
6. Newspapers and magazines don’t support literature.
7. Nobody’s reading.
8. Libraries are under-funded and closing.
9. Readers don’t buy new books anymore.
10. Writers have to market their own work.
11. Writers market their works too much.
12. Independent bookstores are closing.
13. Nothing good gets printed anymore.
14. Even though there are more books, there are less real choices.
15. I can’t make a living at this profession.

. . . Wow. All these excuses.

Where do our responsibilities  — as  writers and readers — rest?

The obvious answers for writers are:
1. to write the best material we can.
2. to hand in our manuscripts/short stories on time.
3. to entertain.
4. to provoke discussion or thought.

Do our responsibilities go beyond that?

Should we concern ourselves with turning around the industry? For example, should all writers boycott Simon and Schuster until the publisher rethinks its new position on rights? Should we educate readers about their choices and the potential lack of them as fewer and fewer publishers become bigger and bigger? Should we advocate for libraries, encourage literacy, support the advertisers on book review pages so that they keep paying for those sections in print publications? Should we explain to consumers how the publishing industry works — advances and royalties and unfunded book tours — so that readers understand that their purchases really do matter?

I don’t know.

That’s why I’m asking you.

And, readers . . . what are your responsibilities in this dance?

* the picture of the hand is from THE ITHACAN.

16 thoughts on “It’s not MY fault . . .

  1. pari

    Hey all,I’m going to be in Santa Fe for much of the day. I’ll check in here mid afternoon. With luck, this post will stimulate conversation.

    cheers . . .

  2. Louise Ure

    Pari, your story of the changed grade has me spitting mad, too. But I would enlarge the conversation to include our political and business life as well. Whether its Enron management or the Bush administration, there’s a paucity of “responsibility taking” out there.

    I don’t know if it’s my responsibility to educate the populace about the state of the publishing business. But here’s something I do know: that authors should share in the risk that publishers take when they buy our books. And those million dollar advances that are paid out (but don’t earn out) hurt us all.

  3. Rae

    As far as readers’ responsibilities, I think we should buy books (when we can afford them), support libraries, and support independent booksellers. Most importantly, we should think for ourselves; we should read what interests us, not just what reviewers are talking about. We should take the trouble to read authors that are new to us. And then, when we find a book / author we like, we should talk about it to other readers.

  4. Fran

    Pari, when I was teaching down at Gadsden, that happened more often than you might think. In fact, I’ll bet it’s happened more often than you know in your schools, but no one tells you. I was forced to change my established curriculum for one honors student because her parents were vocal and political.

    And people wonder why I don’t teach any more.

    I’m sorry to say we may have inadvertantly condtributed to the S&S muck-up by complaining loudly about books going out of print, but we never intended to compromise author rights. We just wanted the books, especially those mid-series, for our readers who get hooked and then become frustrated.

    We continue to try to educate our readers about how things work, and of course it’s in our best interest to support all the indies and libraries. And authors can use their clout to voice opposition to the current upheaval in publishing. Then too, I think it’s way past time to support the smaller publishers, not the PoD/vanity folks necessarily, but the little guys who are trying to make a difference. They may very well be the future of publishing quality in the storm of big business.

  5. pari

    Hey,Thanks to everyone who commented while I was away.

    Louise,Yeah, I could write about easily responsibility is shirked nowadays, but that would get political waaaaaaaaaaaaay too fast. And, boy howdy, can I relate to your comment on those big advances. They’ve created such a weird skew that publishers are scared out of their pants to take risks on “midlist” books — or ones without an obvious big hook.

    Rae,Yes. Yes. Yes.Everything you wrote goes for all of us who are readers — every single one of us. I’ve been thinking of writing a post about the commoditization of thought; it might be a bit esoteric though.

    Fran,I just want to cry about your post. Teachers are in such a difficult place now and it’s only getting worse for the public school folks.

    As to S & S, I think that the intent isn’t noble on their part; it’s greed. The publisher doesn’t show a great desire to keep its midlist folks in print.

    As to small presses — I’m with you 100 percent. But how do we work the distribution angle so that these myriad voices can be heard? I just don’t know.

  6. Naomi

    I think that it’s hard to get the public (even readers) charged up about our issues. Look at the music industry with file sharing and downloadable tunes and the film industry with piracy, etc. Consumers really don’t care too much. They are going to continue to try to get their product at the lowest cost possible.

    The biggest problem with book writers is that we work in isolation and our contracts are pretty much under wraps. Other than the Authors’ Guild, there are no large trade organizations. (MWA is a nonprofit devoted to the promotion of mysteries; it’s not a trade organization.) I’m not saying that a powerful group such as the Writers Guild of America needs to be established in book publishing (I’m not sure that it would even work), but that we have little or no collective power.

    Unfortunately what results is that every man and woman is pretty much out on his/her own. I don’t think that the average author feels able to tackle anything beyond fulfilling personal book contracts and promotion.

    But there’s indeed a lot of self-interest in figuring out trends and rallying for libraries and independent publishing/book selling. I think we do that here on Murderati. But a larger, more impactful movement? I don’t see it.

  7. Alex Sokoloff

    Well, Naomi, knowing more than I want to know about the WGA (!) – I would say that authors intrinsically have much more power than screenwriters have – because we retain our copyright, and that’s EVERYTHING.

    The WGA is a federal labor union, with collective bargaining power – because screenwriters are employees, and we sell our copyright. If you ask me, that was a deal with the devil, and no amount of health benefits and minimum basic pay makes up for it.

    The S&S development is extremely troubling, because it’s eroding the one huge power authors do have. That’s something we’re going to have to hold the line on, at all costs.

  8. pari

    I don’t think I’m talking about organization on a formal level . . . just getting enough people to say “no” to certain things that hurt us all.

    For example, why should any author get a million-dollar advance for a single book? What happened to negotiating good royalty deals and enjoying the profits of the book that way?

    Or, what about the marketing side of things? I understand Scholastic wanting to keep J.K. Rowling in its stable — but why is Scholastic set to spend more than $12 million on marketing alone for one book?

    What about the myths we writers perpetuate? If more of us spoke about the realities of the business –NOT COMPLAINING, JUST EDUCATING — how many readers would understand that their decision to buy a new book used really does make an impact on careers?

    It’s difficult, yes. But I think we writers — and we readers — are shooting ourselves in the feet by not trying to take action at least on a personal level.

    Maybe I’m still steaming about the grade at that school. I remain pretty fired up.

  9. Mike MacLean

    As a teacher, I experience the victim, “it’s not my fault” mentality on a daily basis. A whole lot of people out there are unwilling to take any responsibility for their own actions, and they pass their attitudes on to their children. This might sound melodramatic, but I think it’s one of the biggest problems facing this country today. I wonder when the parents of this kid will be there when he kills someone in a drunk driving accident, or when he is arrested for selling drugs.

    When it comes to writer responsibilities, the other participants are more qualified to answer that than me. Your list is a step in the right direction. I’d add to promote the cause of literacy when ever possible. And maybe support those who give us a place to tell our stories, especially the small presses.

  10. pari

    Mike,Thank you for being a teacher. I think your point is the thing that disturbs me most. Our school system claims that it supports acaademic excellence and then lets a kid who was failing, a kid that missed so much school in a single semester, get a pass because his parents claimed a teacher didn’t “follow the rules.” It’s simply galling.

    As to us writers making a difference. Well, LITERACY is a big one. I know that NM has a high illiteracy rate. AZ probably does too. So, I agree with you there.

    And . . . I think we need to take a bit of responsibility — each one of us — to make sure the things we value don’t get lost.

    The problem is that action and responsibility take work. We’re all so busy it’s difficult to put out more.

  11. Stacey Cochran

    Brilliant post, Pari. As a college English professor who occasionally has to make hard decisions like this about a student, I found it particularly comforting to hear your position. Next time our paths cross, remind me to buy you a drink.


  12. Chap O'Keefe

    I once belonged to a Yahoo discussion group for the series I write for, Black Horse Westerns. I was one of its busiest members and edited its newsletter, Black Horse Express. I wrote an article called “Writers and Money” — not a complaint but an explanation of how writers in some countries could claim Public Lending Right for books in libraries and others couldn’t.

    The Scottish author who was then looking after the website side of affairs threw out my article and was backed up in his decision to over-rule the editor by the US author who was the Yahoo moderator/group owner. I set up another newsletter, Black Horse Extra (March, last year), reinstating the article and giving readers the choice of whether they read the Express without it or the Extra with it.

    The Yahoo blackhorsewesterns Big Boss Man then served me with a Notice of Removal from his group. (Yeah, that pompous and silly, I kid you not). Needless to say I’ve continued to plow my own furrow supported by several sane authors who have become good email friends. Check out the Backtrails (archives) at the site and you’ll see how we’ve gone about it.

  13. B.G. Ritts

    If nothing used was ever resold…landfills overflowing…no more antiques, no more used cars, no more used books? We want to support libraries, but is using a library’s copy of a book all that much different than buying a used book?

    People buy used products because they cannot justify paying the price of new ones. Is not the idea of e-books selling for the same price as trade paperbacks a bit silly? Most everything changes. My former company got out of photographic film, paper and cameras because of digital.

    Book publishers need to see the light instead of trying to stave it off. There may not always be books as we currently know them. Why can’t new ways to deliver an author’s words to the paying public be found at reasonable prices? Perhaps we need cases on all books that would require a payment to the publisher/author just to open them — then it wouldn’t matter if it was used or new.

    As to the changed grade, when I was a sophomore in high school, it was apparently politically correct for a certain student to be named the senior class salutetarian instead of the one who was in line for the honor. A teacher who wanted not to be forced into retirement was apparently persuaded to change a grade that made the difference. That teacher was still retired — and my friend didn’t get to be her class’s salutetarian.

    Of course, I’ve heard more than one teacher say s/he could justify any grade given to any student. I think this kind of thing happens much more than we ever want to consider.

  14. pari

    Stacey,I’ll take that drink, thank you. And, thank you for being a prof, for opening and nurturing minds. It’s important work.

    Keith/Chap,Good article. If we had something like that in the U.S. it’d be wonderful. I’d never heard of it before and will watch for it now. Thank you.

    B.G.,I’m not at all opposed to used books. I’m opposed when books are in print and the author loses those sales and pennies. The publishing industry is such a numbers game and each time someone buys a book-in-print via a used bookstore, that’s undermining the author’s ability to negotiate new contracts and to earn a living.

    I agree wholeheartedly that publishers need to be investigating new avenues for “reasonable payment.” The idea of being able to track books’ use would be astounding. I’m sure the technology exists for it right now . . .

    Re: gradesYou’re right that it happens all the time — as evidenced by the comments today — but it burns, doesn’t it? You still remember the honor stolen from your friend. What lesson did she learn? What lesson did the other girl learn?

    I’m seeing red again.


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