The Thursday Book Beat: Cursed Child, Criticism, and Community

Another Thursday, another exciting roster of book news for you! I’m ramping up my summer reading with some nonfiction by Siddhartha Mukherjee this week–The Emperor of All Maladies is so engaging, and my inner medical nerd is having a great time.

Speaking of nerding out, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has started previews in London this week, and reactions seem to be overwhelmingly positive.

If you can’t wait to learn about this new Harry Potter story before the July 31 publication of its libretto, the New York Times’ review has some spoilery details that you might enjoy. J.K. Rowling has asked audiences to #KeepTheSecrets ahead of the first preview night, appealing to them to not destroy the experience for the many millions of fans who will not have a chance to attend the show in person.

There is some nervousness in the Harry Potter fandom, understandably so, that Cursed Child will change some things, or that long-beloved fanon (fandom headcanon) might be irrelevant or just plain wrong. J.K. Rowling has engaged with fans and fan-created works more often than many authors, and the Harry Potter fandom has long been a oft-cited example in the discussion of fanfiction and mainstream observance of fanfiction.

Vox recently published a piece on that mainstream observance, and very real fear, of fanfiction and the women that write it. It explores transformative fandom, a term created by Dreamwidth user obsession_inc in “Affirmational fandom vs. transformational fandom,” explaining the history of fanfiction alongside the women that have driven it forward into public consciousness.

Transformative fandom, says she, is “all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans’ own purposes, whether that is to fix a disappointing issue (a distinct lack of sex-having between two characters, of course, is a favorite issue to fix) in the source material, or using the source material to illustrate a point, or just to have a whale of a good time.” In a way, Cursed Child seems to be both an answer and an invitation to transformative fandom–Rowling has provided another story for fans to consume and explore, to criticize and participate in, and she’s done it within a decade of the final book in the original series. HP fans may or may not be happy with what they find in Cursed Child, but they’ll certainly engage with it.

Should we be afraid of that kind of engagement? I agree with Vox’s Constance Grady that transformative fandom is powerful and able to effect change, that in media, it is “the most radical act of all, because it reverses that ‘lady thing to respectable thing’ process. It takes a piece of media that may not have been designed for young women and makes it for young women.” Transformative work, like fanfiction, is also usually questioned in how it criticizes and revises the original work–how valid is criticism when it rewrites a text? We see some of that tension with regards to literary criticism and validity of that criticism in LitHub’s newest pet project.

Dubbed “Rotten Tomatoes for Books,” Book Marks seeks to aggregate book reviews written by “critics from the most important and active outlets of literary journalism in America,” and provide a letter grade for those books based on the reviews.

Each book’s cumulative grade functions as both a general critical assessment, and, more significantly, as an introduction to the range of voices and opinions that make up the world of American literary criticism.

Really, my first question has to be: Why? There is certainly no dearth of literary criticism available for readers today–Goodreads does an excellent job of gathering a wide range of reviews, though your mileage may vary with specific reviews/reviewers. So the next question has to be: who is this meant to serve? Is Book Marks’ target audience readers or publishers

Many avid readers already know of Goodreads, and often rely on recommendations from friends or specific publications that they already trust. Casual readers are also more likely to ask a friend who reads more for recommendations, instead of looking to The Atlantic or Salon for ideas. I’d also say that the Rotten Tomatoes parallel doesn’t work, since visitors to that site are usually operating under a certain timeframe–I want to know if Movie A is worth me spending 2 hours of my weekend at the theatre, or if I should just wait for it to hit Netflix in a few months. With books, there’s no real time sensitivity to consider, because the titles most likely to be featured on Book Marks aren’t going to disappear off shelves any time soon. The only urgency might be experienced by the author and publisher, who encourage first-week sales.

A few other interesting points: Looking at the outlets that Book Marks is sourcing reviews from, it seems to be focused on publications that regularly review literary fiction, which doesn’t exactly always include non-white/cishet/able-bodied writers. Book Marks’ own masthead does not seem to include a person of colour, and the highest grade earned by a female writer thus far on the site is A- (Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers). Lit Hub has taken in a lot of this criticism already on social media, and tried to address concerns, but it’ll be interesting to see if and how they move forward.

But let’s end this week on a high note! Isabel Allende will be given a Lifetime Achievement Award by PEN Center USA for her extensive volume of work in Spanish-language literature. The award also celebrates Allende’s social justice and feminism-driven work.

LAMBDA Literary held its 28th annual Lammy Awards ceremony on June 6, highlighting the best of LGBT literature over the past year. Chinelo Okparanta took the Lesbian Fiction Lammy for her novel Under the Udala Tree, and Hasan Namir’s God in Pink won the Gay Fiction Lammy. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North was lauded with the Bisexual Fiction Lammy, among many other winners.

Alex Gino, whose children’s book George was awarded the LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Lammy, got a full confetti dusting from fellow authors Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera after the ceremony!

Congratulations to Isabel Allende, and all of the 2016 Lammy Award winners!

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz is a writer and boy band scholar. You can also find her at Book Riot for endless discussion and flailing over all things literature. Ice cream, Broadway musicals, and Arashi are her lifeblood.