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Recent Reading: The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson - Mo's Journal
August 25th, 2009
12:34 pm

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Recent Reading: The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson
My sister lent me this book (Hi, Sharon!). In doing so she said that there's more sex in it than what she usually reads, but she thought it was appropriate to the topic. It's not more sex than what I usually read (or write) but I agree it's appropriate to the topic, although I think it will unfortunately limit the audience.

This is a YA ("Young Adult" - library/publishing term for books aimed at kids age 12-21 or so) novel about a 17-year-old gay male high school senior in the Chicago suburbs. It's a serio-comic first person story, crafted as Charles James Stewart's journal. His father - whom he refers to as "First" - is also Charles James Stewart, which is how he comes to think of himself as Charlie the Second.

A lot happens in Charlie's senior year - social changes (his best friend since elementary school has more time for a new girlfriend than for Charlie), relationship developments (his first boyfriend), a rocky time in his parents' marriage, etc. Charlie has a clever, snarky approach to life and he's very, very funny, often in a self-deprecating way. He's also kind of obsessed with sex, and much of the journal concerns masturbatory activities, sexual fantasies, and - eventually - actual interpersonal sex. The sexual descriptions are explicit and frequent and, unfortunately, will probably rule the book out for a lot of the target audience, or at least for the parents who buy them books.

Still, there's lots here for adult adults. Charlie is a fully realized and well-developed character and he grows and develops throughout the book. It's not a coming out book - he is already out well before the book starts - but rather a coming of age one. I liked that it's not a book about being gay but a book about a gay kid growing up. Charlie learns things about his parents, about family relationships, friendship, and sexuality and he often learns them with pain and difficulty. The other characters are all seen through Charlie's somewhat self-absorbed adolescent eyes, and Ferguson does a great job of letting the reader know things about them through Charlie's descriptions and experiences that Charlie himself does not realize. The sex is sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, often hot, and always very, very real. As is Charlie.

Highly recommended, and I think of interest to slash fen.

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From:libgirl
Date:August 26th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
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I've requested it via the library and, presuming I get it in time, I might do a little piece for it during Banned Books Month at lena3's journal. :D
Thanks for the rec!
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC)
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Let me know what you think of it.

When is Banned Books Month and what qualifies a book as banned?
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From:libgirl
Date:August 28th, 2009 04:48 am (UTC)
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Banned Books Week is in September, this year, it's Sept 26-Oct 3. Banned Books Month is a project that lena3 does.

Here is lena3's explanation of what she's doing. In this case, the books you're reviewing do not have to have actually been banned books, as long as they are books that would meet the criteria that could have them banned i.e. young adult books about gay characters. :D

She'd sent me an email about doing the project again this year and I was waffling because I didn't know what I'd read and I didn't have much time to decide. (Life is insane right now.) Providentially, you posted the same day about this book which looked interesting to me, was something I could get fairly easily and would meet the requirements. :D So, as long as I can read it in time, I'll review it for that project.
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
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It annoys me a lot that the well-written, honest, instructive sex description means that a book is considered inappropriate for just the audience that would benefit from it! This is especially true if the sex described is queer.

The lesbian director of "But I'm a Cheerleader" was infuriated when her movie was given an R-rating, meaning that her target audience couldn't watch the movie. The sexual acts depicted were all acts that, in het movies, had earned PG-13 ratings (e.g., over the clothing masturbation).

For other gay adolescent novels, I recommend "Boys on the Rock" by the late John Fox, and the "Rainbow" trilogy by Alex Sanchez (Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High, and Rainbow Road). The latter is more commercial, but still charming and explores a lot of issues while creating three great characters. The former is a small masterpiece from the 80s by an author sadly lost to us young through AIDS.
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
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I share your annoyance. And Hollywood definitely up-rates for homosexual content. "In and Out" was rated PG-13 and there was no sex - just a kiss.

Thanks for the recommendations.
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
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Have you seen the documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"?

It is an expose on the MPAA and how it operates and thinks. There is an elegant section where they show side-by-side analogous scenes from queer and het movies and how they were rated differently.

I've put a hold on Charlie the Second at the Library. It will be a welcome relief from the intensity of the Robert Stone book (Bay of Souls) I am currently reading. Actually, that's not true; the Stone is bringing me nothing but joy, hard-edged as it is. He is probably my favourite living writer at this point and a model for a prose style I am trying to master.
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen that documentary but want to.

I don't much like fanfic warnings (which is, I know, an unpopular opinion), but particularly dislike warnings for queer content.

I never heard of Robert Stone. I'm having a really good reading summer. I just finished an Elinor Lipman book last night. I always like her - funny Jewish women and serious themes. I just started a bio of Masters and Johnson this morning. And I've got the third and last Rashi's Daughters book as my next novel.

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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
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Stone has only written about 8 novels since he started writing in the mid-70s. His books often take place at a moment when the characters are somehow adrift in their lives (or at least questioning where they've ended up). He throws them in over their heads into worlds that they aren't prepared for and the dislocation either transforms them or kills them. In the book I'm reading now, an English professor finds himself in the middle of a coup on a Caribbean island.

His writing is mysterious, simple, majestic. His work makes perfect sense, but you often find yourself wondering why a certain scene was there. He likes to include bits that nag at the back of your brain. He makes you work, then gives you thriller elements so you can feel at home.

Outerbridge Reach, which I read last winter, is one of the greatest books I've ever read. His second novel, Dog Soldiers, was made into the movie "Who'll Stop the Rain" in 1978.


...or I could have just given you a Wiki link. lol.

Edited at 2009-08-26 03:24 pm (UTC)
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
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I just requested Outerbridge Reach from my library.
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC)
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Very curious to know what you think. I will try not to worry about your reaction! lol
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
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Oh, and about fanfic warnings. I've railed against them before and refuse to use the MPAA rating system. I'll give warnings, but they are more like "explicit sexuality," rather than R. I suppose people have a right not to meet cock in a fic if they'd rather not.

Is anti-warning an unpopular opinion? Do you not use any at all? Maybe I should give them up, too.
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
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Is anti-warning an unpopular opinion? Do you not use any at all?

I generally say something like "This story is intended for an adult audience. It includes explicit descriptions of sexual activity and violence and deals with complex and sometimes disturbing themes." But I won't say what happens in the story, except for a one or two line blurb that is intended as a teaser to get people interested, not a warning.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that certain elements in a story are "triggering" for some readers and need to be warned for, including character death, rape, suicide, underage people having sex. Some people have much longer lists of what should be warned for.

Here's a typical comment:

"Reading about rape, suicide, mental illness, eating disorders, character death, torture etc can leave some people with flashbacks, depression spirals, and be the trigger to an episode of bingeing, self-harm, or even suicide attempts.

What gets me is that if a writer is putting a character through a rape, or PTSD, or a disabilty, or the death of their SO, and is working with that character's feelings and reactions to and about the situation, how can the writer fail to see that some readers may be adversely affected? And how can the writer not care to protect those readers who need it? How can you write about something, without considering its real world implications?

Fiction is about the cathartic, vicarious evocation of other emotional states. Surely it is not too much to ask that a writer considers the real life implications of the emotional states they may be raising?"


I don't dispute that some people have mental illnesses that preclude reading certain stories, but I don't think it's the author's responsibility to provide a list of elements that show up in the story. I think it can spoil the impact sometimes but that's not really my main objection - there are all sorts of ways to get around that (like putting the warning in a link that you can click on or not).

Mostly I just think it's ridiculous to expect that. If someone can't read stories where people die, for example, then don't read my fiction. I don't kill characters often, but when the story calls for it, they die. Okay, so it's sad if you like the character, but Charles or Hank will be alive again in somebody else's story. And if I have Logan contemplating suicide (which he attempted every day for *years* in the novelization of X1, which is where I got the idea) I'm not going to warn about that or say whether he ends up dying or not. If you can't read a story with element A in it, ask someone to read it for you first or don't read fanfic. But don't watch tv or read published fic either, without getting it vetted.

Voicing opinions like that gets me deemed insufficiently sympathetic to the mentally ill, but I don't care so much. That said, if anyone ever asked me "Does anyone die/have a certain kind of sex/get hurt/act mean to a character I like/teach or learn calculus in this story?" I'd be happy to answer. I just feel like it's the responsibility of the person with the problem to find out, not the responsibility of the author to warn. And yes, in all the "triggering" discussion there was an extensive one about someone who gets triggered by mention of calculus.

Edited at 2009-08-26 03:59 pm (UTC)
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
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I recorded a CD in 1995 called "A Bullet in My Brain." One friend refused to come to the release party because she said, "I can't be exposed to any violence in my condition." Having played folk music with her on and off for a year, I replied, "Do you really think I recorded a gangsta rap album?"

Another story: I once designed a logo for company and used the image of a burning candle. It was very well received until one of the board members made a fuss. He is very allergic to anything but natural beeswax candles and "looking at your white candle image made me wheeze!" I had to make it brown, which made it much less iconicly a candle.

There is a big difference between being considerate of people's experience (and we all have some "condition" that requires compassion), and someone with a particular condition expecting the world to restructure itself so they never have to experience any trauma ever, anywhere. I have yet to demand that the City of Toronto wipe out the wasp population just because I freak when they get near me in the park.

Fanfic is full of tropes. "Character death" or "hurt/comfort" become story types rather than elements of narrative. If all the fic you read is supposed to follow a given script, it's not unreasonable to ask, "which script is this?" However, if fic is just another type of literature, then all these events are elements of a larger narrative. I want my fiction to breathe, live and then die, like everything else in life.

Is there hurt/comfort in my book? yup. Is there character death? yup. I am not going to flag it, though. Same as you. I'm not even apologizing for the het sex! I've gotten a few disgruntled comments about it, as if I'm breaking a law in a slash book.
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From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
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Fanfic is full of tropes. "Character death" or "hurt/comfort" become story types rather than elements of narrative. If all the fic you read is supposed to follow a given script, it's not unreasonable to ask, "which script is this?" However, if fic is just another type of literature, then all these events are elements of a larger narrative. I want my fiction to breathe, live and then die, like everything else in life.

Yes! And I think that's a lot of what bugs me about the warnings. I'm not writing fanfic tropes; I'm writing what I intend to be and hope is complex, multi-layered character-driven fiction. I don't want to reduce it to a laundry list of warnings.
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From:talktooloose
Date:August 26th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
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One more thing.

An upcoming chapter (38) definitely has content that will be triggering to some and perhaps even be politically offensive to some. I've thought it through carefully and decided that my reservations are not based on anything except fear of some reactions.

I think it is a moral thing to write about and not exploitative, so I'm going to just tough it out. I wont' give a warning, either.

You're absolutely right that a responsible author will know that something might be triggering. That is why I believe that a novelist must consider why he/she is telling a tale. I very specifically avoided making the scene where Keever and John have sex (Chapter 5?) too explicit. It's a scene of exploitation and I did not want anyone getting off on it. Heh, probably I did that out of a protective instinct for John himself. But then, if I feel responsible for my characters, I think that's an outgrowth of my general compassion. That sense of empathy, I must believe, will stop me from creating hurt for the sake of hurt*.

*"hurt for the sake of hurt" can be found in the movies of Lars Von Trier, where it is usually directed at innocent women.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:August 26th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
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That is why I believe that a novelist must consider why he/she is telling a tale.

I believe that for a lot of reasons, and triggering reactions in the mentally ill is not one of them. As I said, I think it's the reader's responsibility to avoid material s/he can't handle, not the author's responsibility to predict it.

But I do think about *why* I'm writing pretty much every scene and I think most authors do. This often comes up in discussion of sex scenes - if they don't have a function in the story, they shouldn't be there. I think it's equally true of any other kinds of scene.

Still, truly, thinking this through doesn't preclude others from using/receiving the material differently from how you intended it, and it shouldn't. Text belongs to the reader, too, not just the writer.

Two examples from my fic:

- In my first series, there's a scene where Logan tells Scott to suck on one of his claws and Scott does it, although he's terrified doing it. It's told from his POV. I intended it to be creepy and scary. I heard from lots and lots of people who perceived it as hot. At first I was shocked by that. I got used to it.

- I seem to have started a whole *thing* of Cyclops-as-teenage-prostitute. AFAICT there were never any stories that used that particular plot element before mine and there are a whole hell of a lot of them now. (It's possible/likely that Minisinoo was more of a factor in spreading this, although hers came after mine and some others). When they first started showing up, I had a number of people write to me saying that "Soandso stole your idea." I always replied that I do not own adolescent prostitution, nor would I want to, and I really am not bothered by people using that element, regardless of where they got it. But I *hate* when people eroticise it. I present Scott as viewing that time in his life as scary and degrading and something he doesn't want other kids forced into, even if he learned something from it. I don't like *at all* the idea that some folks read about it and get off on it, but I imagine some do, even without explicit description (and like you I do not put explicit description of that part).
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