Submitting: A Day in the Life of A Blind Writer, Essay 24 of #52essays2017

Black Static cover.Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.

Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.

So, while submitting “Beautiful Limbs” to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.

Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:

Hello,

I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…

Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.

Sincerely,

Leona

Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:

Hello Leona,

Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.

Thanks again! Best,

Laurie

Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….

I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.

I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.

I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.

Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:

I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.

Tin House cover.Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.

Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.

In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.

*This is essay 24 of #52essays2017. Read #23 “She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, where I talk about challenges facing the blind actor*

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Smelling Old Books While Reading EBooks

When I was about fourteen, my eye disease stole my central vision and left me unable to read normal print. Books handed down from parents and grandparents–Treasure Island and Jane Eyre and (my favorite when I was a kid) a collection of Poe Tales–were suddenly reduced to the physical sensations of touch and smell, traces of what I had been, a voracious sighted reader.

You may understand then, dear reader, how wonderful the ubiquity of EBooks is for me and so many other blind readers. Until recently, obtaining accessible books relied on a handful of not great alternatives–braille, talking book, scanning into a computer–all of which took a lot of time and money to produce. This meant that when and how many published books were made accessible was quite limited and created a huge disparity between sighted and blind readers. Perhaps you may also understand how difficult it is to hear backlash from readers, writers and publishers who take delight in railing against EBooks.

Last December I read a Publishers Weekly article called Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize in which I found his blithely naïve reason for not publishing a digital version of the acclaimed anthology: “’in the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” to which I cry, “Not anyone!”

I generally don’t like to come off as a prickly blind person, so I stewed in the implications of such a statement for nearly six months. Then I had an unfortunate encounter with a Guardian opinion piece called Books are Back. Only the Technodazzled Thought They Would Go Away, which opens with this hook: “The hysterical cheerleaders of the e-book failed to account for human experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn off”

Apparently reading an e-book is somehow not part of human experience, so that, for the Guardian author, only his way of reading–holding a print book to his eyes–is real: “Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.”

To which I say, “EBooks are accessible books; if you want to deny them reality, try poking out your eyeballs!

Just kidding. But seriously, for me, EBooks are not virtual; they are real, while bookshops with their physical books are virtual, or nearly so; they do smell nice.

If the Pushcart article had not hit me first, I likely would have dismissed the Guardian article as tawdry comment-pandering, inflammatory and beneath my notice. However, I do think the problem is systemic, particularly in the highfalutin literary fiction world (less so in genre fiction) where, for example, many of the acclaimed literary journals do not publish electronic versions. Resistance to EBooks is an easy way to maintain a rarified air.

The biggest problem I have with all this is the idea that EBooks must necessarily push out physical books, or vice versa–why can’t we all live together?

Readers of all stripes should have the choice to read however they please, and frankly it costs next to nothing for publishers to make EBooks available at the same time as they print on paper–perhaps this is really the problem. EBooks are so easy and cheap to produce that for those who cannot extricate value from cost, they must be worthless, as if putting Plato’s Republic, Ulysses, or the King James Bible into an e-book form makes them less difficult to read or less important culturally.

Though I cannot understand another’s intolerance for EBooks, which for me, and many others, revolutionized the accessibility and immediacy of countless works, I can understand the fetish for books, with the fresh cut paper and ink smell of new books and the grassy vanilla mustiness of old ones.

The sense of smell, unlike the other four senses, has a direct pathway to the part of our brain responsible for the processing of emotions and memories. As V. S. Ramachandran puts it in Phantoms of the Brain (which is strangely available as an Audible but not Kindle edition), “[Smell] is in fact directly wired to the limbic system, going straight to the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure that serves as a gateway into the limbic system). This is hardly surprising given that in lower mammals, smell is intimately linked with emotion, territorial behavior, aggression and sexuality.”

Smell then feels more primitive and embedded with our deepest emotions and beliefs. Perhaps this helps to explain the intolerance of certain book lovers when it comes to eBooks. Perhaps also, this offers us a method of reeducation…

To fill the olfactory void left by digital books, I offer you book-scented products! As the author of 30 Book-Scented Perfumes and Candles puts it, “Any of the items listed below can be a perfect gift for anyone who tasted the convenience of reading on the Kindle, Kobo, or Nook, but will never forget (and doesn’t want to) the addictive smell of the old good books from childhood.”

As I write, I’m burning Oxford Library, a candle made by Frostbeard. Though my choice was in no small part dictated by economics (some of the book Scented products on the list are pretty darn pricey), I must admit to being influenced by this charming claim: “You’ll dream of sliding ladders, spiral staircases and leather-bound books when you curl up with a novel and this seductive, earthy aroma.” According to their Etsy page, the Oxford Library scent is composed of oakmoss, amber, sandalwood and leather.

Curious to know more about the lovely smells of Oxford, I looked them up in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, and found that oakmoss signifies, “Different species of mosses from which are extracted dry, bitter-smelling materials essential to chypre fragrances,” and amber is “A blend of fragrant resins, such as styrax, benzoin, and cistus labdanum, traditional to the Middle East,” and that sandalwood, with its long history in perfumery, provides some of the “main chemical building blocks of fragrance” and is one of a few materials “found in almost every composition,” and that the smell of leather is “characterized by bitter-smelling isoquinolines or smoky-smelling rectified birch tar, to replicate the smell of the tanning chemicals used to prepare leather.”

All these combine to create an aroma of masculine luxury, seeming to represent the dusty men as well as the dusty books of Oxford. The smell suggests at once the Platonic ideal of “Father” and a first edition of Wuthering Heights–not bad for a few bucks!

So where does the actual smell of old books come from? Perhaps it is obvious, but much of the glorious smell indicates degradation. As reported by The Telegraph in The Smell of Old Books Analyzed by Scientists, a team of scientists developed a “sniff test” for old books to determine their level of endangerment: “Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, and lead author of the study, and her team note that the well-known musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper.”

Certain of these chemical compounds can be used as a warning sign for libraries: “The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize their preservation.”

Of course, one of the simplest ways to preserve a book is to minimize handling, and the easiest way to minimize handling (without denying all access to its contents) is to digitize the books!

Yep, I’m back on my soapbox: digitized books–searchable electronic texts as well as facsimiles, help preserve the originals while simultaneously making the works available to people who may not be able to travel to the Bodleian Library at Oxford!

In other words, accessibility is not just about blind people but also about the general reading public. Take for example HathiTrust, whose tagline is, “Welcome to the Shared Digital Future,” and whose mission is to work with institutions around the world to “ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.”

It may be this very accessibility that really sticks in the craw of a person like our Guardian author, as if the means of dissemination has anything to do with people taking the time to read the books in question. For those of his ilk, the physical manifestations of books are meant to be treasured and amassed: “A book is a shelf, a wall, a home,” oh my!

Wonderful as they are, a personal library does not a reader make. Spending time and energy reading, having a mind-meld with an author–perhaps across centuries–should be the primary endeavor, and the acquisition of a beautiful edition a distant second, a luxury for those with the money and space to collect such things.

Speaking of luxury, when things get a little less tight in the Astoria Bat Cave, I may have to invest in a fragrance called Paper Passion, which invokes the smell of a freshly cracked new book. Then, whenever I feel blue about a snooty publisher or author neglecting to publish an electronic version of this book or that, I will spritz myself. And, while I deliberate whether or not buying the physical book, and spending the requisite hours scanning, is worth it. I will sniff my book-scented skin and be grateful to live in the digital age, hopeful that accessibility will win out in the end.

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*

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