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The week in books: J.K. Rowling’s new controversy, March Madness for novels, and more

A selection of the best the web has to offer on books and related topics for the week of March 7, 2016.

J.K. Rowling.
J.K. Rowling.
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Happy Saturday! For your end-of-the-week reading pleasure, here’s a selection of the best the web has to offer on books and related topics for the week of March 7.

  • Nicole Brinkley goes deep on sexism in young adult fiction, at YA Interrobang:

But sexism also crops in the culture surrounding that fiction. Women’s achievements in the YA publishing world are repeatedly, consistently dismissed in favor of their male counterparts. There’s the heralding of John Green as the savior of YA over the women who jumpstarted the category first; there’s the celebration of men’s books and men’s book deals, even if the men put down both YA and women, over the women who celebrate and love the category.

  • The Morning News has kicked off its annual Tournament of Books. I personally am furious that Fates and Furies was knocked out in round one, but as I have not yet read Bats of the Republic, I can't say it was unfair.
  • Slate interviews William Anderson, editor of The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, about one of the most convoluted mother/daughter writing partnerships in American history. (Was anyone else deeply horrified by that part of Pioneer Girl where Rose makes Laura cut out her account of the time her cousin kept trying to kiss her and she had to hold him at knifepoint to make him back off?)

Rose inserted anti-government sentiment in quite a few of the books, wherever she could. It was a completely lost effort on third-grade kids. The Wilders’ anger about the New Deal was more personal—they really hated taxation, and they couldn’t get help to farm their land or paint their house when they were older. Like big business, they felt that government was stealing labor away. And that annoyed them. And the third prong to it was that they could look back very smugly and somewhat self-righteously, and say, we did this all on our own.

The book often equates richness and royalty with morality, which anyone alive on earth knows is not how it goes. In one low moment, Sara is inspired by Marie Antoinette "when she was in prison and her throne was gone and she had only a black gown on…she was a great deal more like a queen then than when she was so gay and everything was so grand." Yes, that Marie Antoinette, she of "let them eat cake" and "build me a weird farm thing to play in while France burns" and Versailles in general. "She was stronger than they were, even when they cut her head off," says Sara.

Rowling’s insertion of wizarding culture into existing history does not prompt that kind of eagerness, however, because the details already exist. Instead of having control over her story, Rowling must instead negotiate with the course of history. The concept of "history" is not unyielding in this regard, as history is essentially the story we choose to tell of our origins based on evidence that survives to the present day. Fiction is a story we create, and history is a story we find, but the opposite is also true, and this makes the structure of both very similar. In this sense, history isn’t a barrier for Rowling so much as it is a co-writer.

  • At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses his approach to writing Marvel's forthcoming Black Panther comic:

The absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.

Knowledgeable people tell me that Amazon views its physical stores as an important way to introduce the public to new, unfamiliar devices. Techies might be comfortable buying a device like the Echo online — a speaker and virtual assistant for the home — but a lot of people will want to see it in the flesh first. That said, I don’t think Amazon stores would have saved the Fire Phone, the Amazon smartphone that belly-flopped. I should also say that books are not necessarily going to be the focus of all of the stores it opens in the future. Amazon intends to experiment.

What should publishing’s mission be—what should its values be—beyond the important one of staying profitable? If that mission is (as I believe it to be) to create an encompassing conversation for our culture, to provide the material for the critical debates about who we are as a nation, as human beings, as actors in the long pageant of history, then publishing must be attuned to the necessary topics and stories we should be discussing. Further, it should be diligently searching for those voices and intellects that can help us make better sense of our dilemmas and our opportunities.

Happy reading!