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14 posts from September 2006

September 29, 2006

On Typewriters And Longhand

Scalzi has a post about the bad old days of writing, when everyone used carbon paper and had to retype MSS 'n' stuff.

It's funny, because I'm a year younger than Scalzi (that's right, do the math), but I didn't start creative writing on a computer until I was around 25 or 26. I started creative writing at the age of eight, and started writing daily at 14. Which means, yes, that I did my entire creative writing BA longhand and on a typewriter. I still remember using carbon paper as a kid. I went to private schools where we were doing term papers in fourth grade, which means that I was writing term papers in the seventies still, when photocopiers were harder to come by. Our class materials were mimeographed.

Our high school laid in a lab full of Wangs (knowing what Wangs are will seriously date you) a year or two before I started, and the year after I graduated, computer classes became a requirement. Same in college: I didn't have to touch a computer my entire time there. In fact, I was supposed to do a third of my math requirement quizzes on computer, but I did the calculations and found that I could take a zero on these quizzes and still pass the class, so I did. Math whiz, no?

There was a year in college where I lived alone (with a cat) and I still have a ream box full of stories I typed out that year (many of them were about cats). That was also the year (I was 21) that I switched over from composing longhand and revising on typewriter to composing on the typewriter and then retyping for revision. The process wasn't much different, maybe a little faster. In both cases, you had to be sure to compose double spaced -- not so that your workshop classmates could write nasty notes in the margins, but so that you would have room to rewrite whole sentences and paragraphs.

By this point I was using one of those brother typewriters specifically designed for computerphobes like me. It had a little liquid whatchamacallit screen (more like a tape) above the keyboard that allowed you to view and "edit" one single line of text at a time. (I never figured out how to edit so I never used this feature.) When you typed past that line of text the typewriter "ribbon" (actually a tiny printer) would print it out on the paper. The printer used a special ribbon that they stopped making two years after I bought the thing. After that, since the printer used heat in some way, I could buy thermal paper (very expensive) and print directly onto the thermal paper without a ribbon. Naturally, you couldn't use carbon paper with this "typewriter" but by that time, photocopiers were everywhere.

I couldn't avoid computers any longer when I was living abroad in the mid-nineties and all my friends were on email and I couldn't contact them. My dad got me a Mac laptop (one of the first powerbooks! The screen was still black and white!) for Christmas and showed me the basics. So easy! I spent the next two years teaching myself all the bundled programs and since then nobody has ever had to teach me new software. I really glad I learned this way, because I'm so much more self-sufficient on a computer than if I had been taught someone else's way to use it when I was a kid.

The funny thing is (and pay attention, 'cause here's the funny thing! ... again!) I never had an "a HA!" moment with using word processing software. Yes, it's easier. Yes, you don't have to retype ... but here's the thing: I still do retype, at least once in the process of writing a short story. It's usually near the end, after most of the major revisions have been made. No, I haven't done it yet with the novel, but I'm not in that part of the process with the novel, yet. Yes, I plan on doing it with the novel.

Why? Well, see, here's the thing: computers worked their way into my life while I was still writing extremely juvenile, early twenties stuff, so my writing process wasn't complete yet. So when computers busted into my life, I was perfectly happy to follow the process suggested by the software. I cut, I pasted, I typed new things directly into old paragraphs. 'Puter heaven!

Then, in 2000, I took a writing class taught by my friend Sabina Chen. In the discussion about revision processes, she said for particularly intractable stories she would print them out and then delete them (gulp!) and sit with the print out in her lap and retype the entire story from scratch, using the print-out to refer to, but really mostly rewriting from memory. The point of this is that after you revised and cut and pasted and regenerated and all that, you have a Frankenstein's monster of a story. So you retype the whole thing in one sitting, changing shit as you go, to smooth it out, make it all one.

I tried it, it worked like gangbusters, so now I do it for all my stories. I don't print the old version out and I don't delete it; I just set two files side by side and type the new one while referring to the old one.

Thing is, it's not that different from typing out a rough draft, inking up the rough draft with multiple passes at revision, and then typing out all your revisions in a final draft, smoothing out as you go. I don't notice a substantive difference in processes, nor even in time spent. The only difference is that you can see how the finished product will look each time you make a revision on computer, and not so much when you do it longhand on a typed MS.

In fact, now that I have a computer and am older and have more writing chops, I take longer to finish a story. Because I can experiment with a whole new draft pushed in a whole new direction without having to retype the whole thing, I do so, and have a lot more drafts, and a lot of drafts which I discard, returning to the previous draft to continue forward. I've only finished and sent out a handful of stories at this point, and not a one of them has taken me under a year, and four drafts, to complete. Typewriters and longhand would not have slowed down this process.

When I get back to the nobble, though, it'll be interesting to see if this process changes significantly. I intend to retype, but I might end up not doing so. We'll see.

Reading Scalzi's post and the comments following has really made me wonder if the commenters are correct: would so many of them really be writing if it weren't for computers? I would still be writing if it weren't for computers. Hell, I was writing profusely, daily, for eleven years before I started using a computer. (I wasn't writing well, but that's another story.) So my admission that my computer-based process isn't much different from my longhand or typewriter-based process ... well, set those side by side. Does this mean that, deep inside our brains, my process and the wouldn't-write-without-a-computer people's processes are actually substantively different?

Are we, in this computer age, being inundated by the writing of people with a different writing process than the traditional one?

September 27, 2006

Still Waiting On Sara Gran

It's been ten days, and Sara Gran's last word on the black midlist authors controversy is that she still doesn't understand why pointing out racism is itself racist.

(Let me just point out the racism against whites that has been displayed here. Whites don't have to live in the slums that all black people live in so they all pretty much choose not to. Who can blame them? As a result, no white people know any black people, and therefore, cannot possibly be expected to be familiar with any black authors at all. In fact, how could they be expected even to know that slum-dwelling blacks write? It's not white people's fault. It's an economic thing. It's this racist society that we live in that makes them that way.)

I don't see her reopening the discussion, or making room on her blog for the discussion to continue. This is typical. Racial injustice is just one of many discussion topics. We discuss it for five minutes and the result is either satisfactory (which we hope), or unsatisfactory (which is usually the case when real, actual African Americans get involved). Either way, we're done with that topic for the year, or decade, and we move on to animal rescue, or conspiracy theories.

We especially move on when our sincere effort to open a discussion is met with ... well, a challenging actual discussion, rather than a row of white commenters telling us how smart we are. I read one of Gran's books a year or so ago (Come Closer) and it was quite good. I'd recommend it to anyone. It didn't surprise me that a good and intelligent writer would bring up such a touchy issue of her own accord.

Sadly, it also didn't surprise me that a white upper-middle class woman (yes she is: she's a writer; it doesn't matter how much money she makes) would abjectly fail to create a rational discussion about race. I had hoped she wouldn't, but I guess I didn't expect it.

September 25, 2006

Looking For A Job

Okay, it was inevitable. I'm now officially on the job market. Here's what I'm looking for and if you hear of anything in the Bay Area that might fit, please let me know!

Nonprofit: I'm particularly interested in nonprofits that address economic disadvantage, labor issues, immigration issues, and the environment. I have a lot of experience in arts and ethnic nonprofits.
• advocacy/organizing
• programming/program management
• event coordination
• development
• outreach/volunteer coordination/membership
• writing/editing/written project management
• teaching: writing/english/basic reading/all primary school subjects (esp. interested in teaching teens and adults)

For profit:
• writing/edition/written project management

I AM NOT LOOKING FOR ADMIN POSITIONS! And, except in the case of a development job, I'm not interested in entry-level positions.

Thanks all!

September 21, 2006

Sara Gran and Black Writers * updated

A mini-brouhaha has been brouing (ha ha) over at writer Sara Gran's blog.

Gran, a Brooklyn native, wrote a piece for the NYT (now firewalled) about how Brooklyn's Park Slope has become a literary ground zero. The article, which name-checks Brooklyn literary writers (by "literary" I mean as opposed to genre), mentioned only two black writers. Gran was not criticized for this publically. She noticed the lack herself and posted about it on her blog, wondering why she knew of so few black midlist literary writers.

In the world of literary fiction, there seems to be a hole in the mid-list where black authors might be. I rarely read about new black authors on the lit blogs, in reviews, in all the places you hear about new books. I don't for a moment think this is intentional--I know it isn't. But that doesn't explain what's going on here. Of course, books reflect the larger world, and in our screwed-up world, black people on the whole are dramitcally more likely to be poor and therefore dramatically less likely to be literate and therefore less likely to write books than white people. Given the terrible circumstances, there's no way our world is producing black authors and white authors at the same rate.

After reading this paragraph, I immediately posted a link to her post to the Carl Brandon Society list serv, asking people to respond to her and some of them did. Independently, writer Tayari Jones posted about it on her blog, offering a number of excellent resources for anyone looking to diversify their reading list. She concluded by writing:

I don't mean to sound so testy. [she didn't sound testy to me] As everyone knows, I run a civil and welcoming blog. I do understand the larger point that African American and African diasporic writers do not get the attention, press, etc. as white writers. I agree. Of course I do. (I've even blogged about it.) But the information is so easily accessible, that it disturbs me when otherwise resourceful people suggest that they have no idea where to start.

Identifying the problem is a nice guesture. But raising the question is just the babiest of steps. Come on, Sarah. I'll meet you half way. Email me with your address. I'll send you my book. The rest is on you.

Gentleness itself, no? Yet Gran had this to say in response:

Tayari Jones has some harsh words for me on her blog for my previous post. Tayari has some good points, but one thing that disturbs me here is her implication that I don't read/like/know about black authors. I can see where she got that impression, but it isn't true. What I don't read/like/know about is contemporary literary fiction.

Exhibits A, B and C for the prosecution. What's on trial here is racial discourse between people of color and whites. And the prosecution's case is that there is no racial discourse between people of color and whites, and when someone tries to start it, the whole process is so riddled with deafness that it's like a pickup truck and a lemon tree trying to have a conversation.

Basically what happened here was that a white writer was bothered by what she perceived as her own race-based failing. She posted about it, laying out her feelings and ideas as honestly as she could. In the process, as was almost inevitable, she wrote something stupid and biased. Fair enough, but when she was called on these, she didn't listen with humility, but rather got defensive and shut down the discussion, although it may not seem that she shut it down at first glance. This could be instructive to anyone looking to start a similar discussion so here are the Sara Gran don'ts:

1) She exposed herself as lacking knowledge of black writers, but apparently did no research whatsoever to bone up. A half hour search on google ("black writer" or "black author" should suffice) would yield at least a tenner of names she could use to make herself sound more knowledgeable. Or an email to her Brooklyn writer friends would yield at least a handful of black acquaintances once removed who've published books (surely). Did this just not occur to her?

This is a problem because Gran is from exactly the demographic that is most likely to autoresearch an area of interest, yet she threw up her hands and claimed helplessness before she (apparently) even started. This is a common excuse whites use when claiming ignorance about racial matters. It's a way of simultaneously abdicating responsibility for informing themselves, and claiming the teacherly tenderness of the people of color they are "confessing" to; by acting like helpless children, they expect to be treated as such, and not subjected to the treatment they fear (accusations of racism foremost).

2) She ventured a speculation about why she was ignorant of black writers which followed a trail of logic leading from black disadvantage, to poverty, to "dramatically more" illiteracy, to dramatically fewer writers. Basically, she was ignorant of black midlist writers because there must not be any. She excused Af Ams from culpability by saying that this resulted from disadvantage, but the problem still lay in the black community and not in her. She ventured this speculation in all ignorance, not having first asked anyone who could be presumed to know why, not having looked up, for example, "invisibility of black writers" on google, not having gone to a library to find a book on racism and literary representation, or an anthology of contemporary black writing, which could be presumed to have an introductory essay on who the writers are and why you've never heard of them in the NYT.

Again, this is a problem of ignorance, only this time it's not an abdication of responsibility, it is instead, an exercise of entitlement. On this subject, about which I am ignorant, I possess all the necessary inherent information and smarts to venture a speculation. I don't actually need to go out and inform myself.

3) She asked for, but wasn't really expecting, a response from people of color. Why would she? She exists in a mostly white literary community (or else she would know of more than two black Brooklyn writers off the top of her head). Writers of color, if they exist at all, are clearly enclosed in some impenetrable cocoon of their own, a cocoon hulled with a magical sort of hi-tech substance that renders it simultaneously transparent and opaque. Her request for information/suggestions was genuine, but it was made to the community she was used to getting feedback from. I suspect she probably didn't articulate this to herself at the time.

4) She issued a challenge but was completely unprepared when respondants took her up on the literal terms of her challenge:

There must be more black authors out there doing good, important work, even if they're not Morrison. So why am I not hearing about them? Is this just me being an idiot--which I am completely willing to admit--or have other people noticed this too? If so, what's going on here and more importantly, what do we do about it?

A number of people said---gently---that yes, she was just "being an idiot", and suggested ways she could go about stopping being an idiot. She was clearly not "completely willing to admit" that she was being an idiot when black writers from Brooklyn---surely the best people to judge her idiocy in this matter---told her so. This is another white tactic when addressing racism (after admitting ignorance and entitling yourself to ignorant speculation): trying to inoculate yourself against accusations of stupidity by accusing yourself of stupidity first. It never works, by the way, only the most diplomatic people of color can manage to let that one get by with no more than a meaningful look.

Note that Tayari Jones didn't ever namecall, she agreed with the "just being an idiot" option by implication only, and spent most of her post offering solid, practical advice, i.e answering Gran's other challenge of "what should we do about it?" Yet Gran called her post "harsh" (it simply was not, by any measure) and misread the implication to "I don't read/like/know about black authors". Gran herself admitted that she didn't read or know enough black authors, and Jones made no suggestion whatsoever that Gran didn't like black authors.

Basically, what happened here was that Gran thought herself exempt from any accusations of racism or racial bias because she started the discussion, she set the terms for the discussion, she admitted that she "might be" stupid/ignorant, and she displayed her liberal cred by excusing blacks from any culpability in their own invisibility by noting their disadvantage. Yet, it turned out, she wasn't exempt. And that pissed her off.

5) She ignored Tayari Jones' sincere acknowledgement that she started the discussion. Let me just add my acknowledgement here: Gran herself started the discussion out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the situation. She deserves a lot of credit for that. Race discussions are hard to start because often those who start them come from a place of ignorance and their respondants then call them on their ignorance. As Gran herself wrote:

I think sometimes white people don't want to talk about race, becasue the whole situation is so screwy we're scared of saying the wrong thing. But talking is better than not-talking, even if we do say something dumb. These problems--if that's what they are--have no hope of being fixed until we do.

It takes brass to start the discussion in the first place, but it takes more brass to continue it, and Gran hasn't really shown that brass yet. She's defended herself against perceived attacks, but she hasn't said to Jones, much less her other critics in the comments: thanks for the suggestions. I will do as you suggest. In fact, at the end of her second post, she called for suggestions, as if no one had yet made any.

6) She concluded by trying to share out the responsibility equally.

This is an issue I've tried to generate discussion on before on this blog, and never gotten the slightest bit of interest (until now!). But I still think it needs to be talked about. Mainstream publishers need to try harder. African American publishers need to make an effort to reach out to the bloggers. Blogs need to make more of an effort to seek out black authors. White authors and black authors need to try harder to connect with each other.

Uh uh, Sweetheart, you don't get to load black authors and publishers up with homework just because you realized how invisible they are. This is yet another common white tactic when discussing race: equality means that everything I have to do, they have to do, too. There's no humility in this, and, once again, a lot of ignorance. Straight up: she has no idea how much any given black writer or publisher has done, does, and will do to reach out to the white mainstream.

The deeper implication here is that because I didn't know about this black literary subculture, they must equally not know about my white literary mainstream, therefore they have as much work to do as I do. Nope. This is yet more ignorance on Gran's part. Even the most militantly self-determinist African American activists are always in some way trying to "build bridges" because their economic survival in a white-dominated world depends upon it. Black publishers and authors may not put as much energy into publicizing to white readers and bloggers, but it's not because they don't know they're there, and it's not because they wouldn't like the acknowledgement or economic support. It's because (and pay attention because this part's important) they've tried and the white literary mainstream just doesn't give a shit. They don't have to give a shit. Most white people in this society don't depend---socially, economically, culturally---on the acknowledgement of black people.

And there, in a nutshell, is the answer to Gran's question. It isn't complex. It isn't complicated. It isn't difficult. Black authors are invisible because the white mainstream doesn't care. So that puts the responsibility for increasing black literary visibility squarely in Gran's white camp. She has no right to start assigning responsibility outside of her own community.

*****

Okay, now that I've shat all over Gran's sincere, if flawed, attempt at raising discussion, what do I think she should do?

Very simple. Take a couple of days, like she is doing, to calm down, and then go back and read all the comments and Jones' post again, twice. Then thank all the nice people who made suggestions and tell them, truthfully, that she has gotten a couple of those books out of the library and added those websites to her links roll (or added a links page to her website). Then say that she is thinking about what everyone said and can some more people get in on this discussion and talk about the specifics of why black authors are so invisible?

No defenses, no arguments, just open the discussion back up with some intelligent questions and a lot of respect. It really is very simple, even if it's very difficult.

*** update

Whoa. Stupid me, didn't even read through Tayari Jones' more recent blog posts before posting the above. Here's her response to Gran's second post, and here's an article she wrote about her book tours and the two Americas she's experienced, the white one, which didn't care about her book and wouldn't buy it, and the black one, which welcomed her like a favorite daughter.

So what’s a writer to do? Of course I want to be universal. When well-meaning white people ask me “Is your book for everyone?” I assure them that it is and I believe that I am telling the truth. But since black readers and white readers seldom come to the same event, a writer and her publicity team usually end up selecting one audience to go for. I was lucky this time. I had money enough to hire a fabulous free-lance publicist who exposed me to audiences that are outside the niche-scope envisioned by my publisher. And since my publisher decided to acknowledge the fact of my race for this book, I was able to use their resources to reach the audience that probably loves me best.

September 19, 2006

AsianBack

I'm bringing Asian back ... yeah ...

I'm back in San Francisco as of about an hour ago, and have immediately plopped myself and my laptop down in my favorite coffee shop with my favorite salad and a rendevous with my favorite internet. Hi there!

Tonight, for those of you in the Bay Areas, I will be going to the APAture kickoff party/exhibition opening. Come join me!

For those of you out the know, APAture is an annual arts festival I helped found at Kearny Street Workshop eight years ago (can you believe that shit? Eight years!) It was originally a festival for Bay Area Asian Pacific American artists of all disciplines who were between the ages of 18 and 35 and were just starting out in their artistic careers. APAture has been the first (but not the last) public exhibition, performance or reading for a number of Bay Area APA artistes and writeurs. Yay APAture!

APAture was also a (ragingly successful) way KSW had to bring the next generation (at that time, Generation X) into a rapidly aging organization (KSW was founded by baby boomers in 1972) and have some, ya know, generational transfer. APAture was (and still is) organized by a committee of young volunteers who learned a number of nonprofit organizational skills thereby and took those out into the community, benefiting everybody and looking really good on grant proposals.

Well, now the transfer is complete, KSW is run entirely by GenXers and younger, and somebody decided that the young don't need a special space anymore. So APAture is now a festival for emerging artists of all ages. There are good and bad things to this, and I don't know whether this will be, in the aggregate, a good change or a bad one. It will be hard to tell until a few years go by.

But whatever ... it's still a community event and it's still fun and interesting and a great way to experience what's going on in Asian America (Wesside), so come on down! Call me on my phony-phone if you want to meet up, or just come down.

And welcome me back!

September 16, 2006

Amana Colonies

I took the morning/early afternoon off from driving today and went to visit the Amana Colonies in Amana, Iowa. This is out of interest for its own sake, but also research for the nobble.

Amana, known for their refrigerators and "radarange" microwaves, started out as a German pietist sect persecuted in Lutheran Germany, who emigrated to New York in the 1840s and thence to Iowa in the 1850s and 60s. They were communitarian, which is to say that they were communistic in some form; in this case they held all their land in common, worked it in common, cooked and ate food together, and got credit points for clothing and goods. They remained communitarian until 1932, much longer than most such religious utopian groups.

They called themselves "True Inspirationists" because they held that God appointed "instruments" (Werkzeuge) below whom he would inspire to speak (or write) out his word. If the inspiration were spoken, the inspired person had two scribes ready to hand to transcribe the speech. Often they would become inspired during their church service, although it could happen at any time.

I picked up there The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Observations by Charles Nordhoff, who in 1874 traveled around to the most famous of the communitarian societies and wrote about them. The book contained this delicious tidbit:

In the year 1822 the (Amana) congregations appear to have attracted the attention of the English Quakers, for I find a notice that in December of that year they were visited by William Allen, a Quaker minister from London, who seems to have been a man of wealth. He inquired concerning their religious faith, and told them that he and his brethren at home were also subject to inspiration. He persuaded them to hold a meeting, at which by his desire they read the 14th chapter of John; and he told them that it was probable he would be moved of the Lord to speak to them.

But when they had read the chapter, and while they waited for the Quaker's inspiration, Barbara Heynemann was moved to speak. At this Allen became impatient and left the meeting; and in the evening he told the brethren that the Quaker inspiration was as real as their own, but that they did not write down what was spoken by their preachers; whereto he received for reply that it was not necessary, for it was evident that the Quakers had not the real inspiration, nor the proper and consecrated "instruments" to declare the will of the Lord; and so the Quaker went away on his journey home, apparently not much edified.

Oh, Snap!

People are people everytime, everywhere.

September 15, 2006

Favorite Words

Justine Larbalestier started some shit over at her blog about proscripted words. In the comments thread, things finally wound around to favorite words, which I'm asking for here.

What are your favorite words?

My all-time is "purple", for the color, the way it sounds and the way it feels in your mouth. It also kinda looks cool on the page.

I'm trying to think of other favorites, but there are too many, and they're all very plain words like "knot", or "flower" or "messenger".

Going Home

Well, in an hour or so I'm gonna hit the road, and within a few days I'll be back in San Francisco. Looking forward to seeing my friends after a summer away!

Wish me road luck!

September 13, 2006

On MFAs

Via Gwenda Bond, I read this slightly incoherent, but impassioned defense of the Master of Fine Arts course in creative writing, and felt ashamed of myself. Ashamed because I do speak of MFA workshops and MFA courses with just such dismissiveness and contempt as the author describes, all the while having benefitted in certain ways from my own MFA course.

It's probably time that I clarified, not least for myself, my attitude toward the formal study of creative writing at a master's level. So here goes.

First, let me outline and then comment on my three main reasons for going back to school to get an MFA:

1. to set aside a few years in which it would be my main job to write --- and this included the legitimation that being accepted into a reputable MFA program gave me in the eyes of others --- to hone my skills and come out of the crucible with professional-level writing abilities;

2. to learn to teach writing formally and to have opportunities to build my teaching resume by teaching in a university system, all for the purpose of being able to teach writing classes in a variety of situations as part of my career (note: I was not looking to become an academic, I preferred to teach in the community);

3. to make professional-level contacts with my professors and with various publishing professionals that would inevitably be offered to me (yeah, right) in the course of my studies.

So to begin with, yes, MFA programs can be useful for people who are looking for a way to set an amount of time aside for themselves to devote themselves to learning the craft. This goal I actually fulfilled in spades. No matter how bad your program is, no matter how useless or even hostile your workshops are, spending three years with your main job being writing for other people to read cannot but improve your writing chops radically. Add to that being required to read a lot of texts and analyze the writing and then discuss these in class and, no matter how ignorant of "other" communities your teachers and classmates may be, you're going to learn a lot about writing. Your program doesn't have to be good. Your teachers don't have to be good. Your classmates don't have to be smart or talented. If you spend three years writing, reading and talking about writing, you're going to learn a lot about writing, period. And I did. So no complaints on this score.

My second reason for going for the MFA was to get experience in and a credential for teaching creative writing, so I could get jobs teaching in the community. Mission accomplished. My "teaching creative writing" course was probably the best class I took in my MFA, and the three classes I TAed were wonderful: the undergrads were smart and responsive and I learned more from teaching them than I learned from being taught. I also got to teach two classes in the community for credit and, through my contacts at school got a paid gig at a high school for six weeks. I didn't get the paid graduate teaching position at SFSU that I wanted, but my resume is pretty built up despite that, so no complaints here.

My third reason was more amorphous. I stated it to myself and on my application as "making contacts in the writing community" but even I wasn't really sure what I meant by that. In most of my classes, the instructors made no effort to bring in outside speakers, so our contacts were people in the department, period. I wasn't interested in most of my fellow students, not because they were stupid or untalented, but because I didn't share interests with a lot of them. Although I really liked most of the instructors I worked with, most of them were mostly too busy to pay any real attention to most of their students. This was not their fault. SFSU's creative writing department during my time there doubled the size of their graduate school (the dept head told me coming in that there were 100 grad students; the dept admin told me going out that there were now 200 grad students) while only adding two faculty members.

This may seem to be an SFSU-specific complaint, but word is that it's happening to a certain extent all over the place. Creative writing doesn't need expensive labs or materials. All you need is an instructor and a classroom and people will pay ridiculous buttloads of money for that. Creative Writing departments are cash cows, and cash-strapped, recession-addled universities everywhere have decided to get out the buckets and start milking. Keep always in mind that the more you admire your instructors, the more likely it is because they're still writing and therefore very precious about their private writing time. So you're going to have to be very, very good and pay lots and lots of money to get into a small, elite enough program to access the kinds of writers who will be giving you any personal attention whatsoever.

So reason number three, a vague and silly reason in any case? No dice. But then, two out of three ... what am I complaining about, really? I got a lot out of the program, so why am I being such a bitch?

One word: workshops.

My reasons for going to get an MFA ignored and avoided the whole workshop setup, and that's why I fulfilled two out of my three main goals. It's like going into a Coldstone Creamery that uses frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. You say, going in, that you don't like ice cream and you're really there for the nuts and chocolate sprinkles. And the nuts and chocolate sprinkles are excellent. But the ice cream sucks so you don't enjoy it. All the other stuff around the workshops (the grad students guild, the readings and community events, the lit and "process" classes, the teaching, the books we were forced to read, etc, etc.) were great. But none of that changes the fact that the center and black, beating heart of the MFA degree is the creative writing workshop. And that institution is evil.

Before I launch into this I'll just admit that there are many possible opinions on creative writing workshops and I'll admit the possibility that some people really actually get something worthwhile out of them. I don't believe this myself, but I'll admit the possibility. To reduce, workshops are a class time in which your classmates, who have the previous week read a story you turned in, all come together to discuss your story. There are many different ways to style and structure such a class, and since I've been in some sixteen workshops and writers critique groups (not to mention the painting and drawing critiques of my visual arts study), I've seen a lot of these. The parodies of workshops in books and films don't actually bear out my experience: the hostile, grade-school-recess style of workshop has not been my experience (much). I've mostly been in supportive, touchy-feely workshops where participants genuinely felt a responsibility to help one another. If anything, I would have been the most hostile and childish member of most of the workshops I've been in.

The problem isn't in the opportunity workshops offer for people to bring out their worst selves. The problem with workshops is that the bulk of the commentary you're getting in a workshop is from people who've read and written the same amount or less than you, have published the same amount or less than you, have the same or less experience than you, the same amount or less knowledge and skill as you do. You take a workshop because of the instructor, but the people who are doing the bulk of the teaching are your fellow students. Who the fuck pays $32,000 a year for that?

They don't know what they're talking about any more than you do. Because the workshop consists of the talk of people who've just walked into class, you're not actually getting a lesson. You're working with what you yourself already know coming into the class, and what your classmates already know coming into the class. What happens by the end of class is that you have more confidence in your ignorant opinion, because you've expressed it forty-five times, not that you've necessarily learned anything new. And if you learn anything it's a workshop vocabulary, refined by committee, which may or may not have anything at all to do with good writing, getting your work published, or advancing the art form. How would you know if it didn't? Your classmates, who are your teachers, don't know any more than you do.

What actually happens, even in the most well-intentioned, kindly workshops, is that your workshop partners pathologize your writing and, like so many doctors, sit down to diagnose the disease. If you turned in something that was really good, two minutes of a half-hour workshop would be spent telling you it was good (if that), and then the rest of the workshop would be spent picking nits and pushing this (good) piece toward a consensus comfort zone. Even if most of your classmates, if they had read the piece in a journal, would have found the piece to be complete and publishable, they're not capable of saying so in a workshop setting, because they go into the reading looking for faults. The person who brings in a good piece to a workshop will likely leave thinking it's a mess.

Additionally, they're all writers, instead of readers, so they've begun, through the workshop process, to feel empowered to push writing in specific directions. So, instead of applying that power to their own writing (because after all, only twice in the semester will the workshop be about them, whereas the rest of the semester the workshop is about someone else) they apply it instead to yours. They want to read a piece that is written poetically, so they attack your expository sections as "lifeless". They want to read a piece that dots all its i's and crosses all its t's, so they tell you they "want more" information about this or that character or situation. They praise techniques they've seen before in published work (because that means it must be "good", right?) and criticize techniques they've never seen before (because that means it must be bad.)

Creative writing workshops, more than any situation since junior high sleepovers, offer people the opportunity to group-decide what another person gets to wear in public, and the miracle isn't that faddish, safe, and personality-free writing results, but that any individuality escapes its clutches at all. My main problem during my MFA course was how to stop my ears up to the comments of people who hadn't read what I've read, experienced what I've experienced, and who didn't want to write what I wanted to write ... and who didn't want to read anything I wanted to write, or learn from me any new experience I might have to offer. They're insidious, those little "I loved the mother, can we get more about her?" comments. You want them to love more of your story, so you try to give them more of the mother, even though the story isn't about the mother. You write more poetically, even though your experiment was with transparent prose. You ground the piece in "realistic" descriptions, even though you were trying out surrealism. If what you're looking for is a shelter in the storm of indifference in which you can try out your little learning experiments, a creative writing workshop is quite possibly the worst place in the world to do so.

The writing workshop is a crutch, it's about permission-giving. If you've never been published before or done a reading in public, you have no idea how your work will be received. A creative writing workshop gives you a softened audience response, and once your work has been workshop-approved, you'll feel much better about sending it out to editors or reading it in public. Never mind that all the best writing is risky, and all the books that changed literature were lambasted by gatekeepers. The writing workshop reins in those things that'll get you lashed in public so you can feel safe. I can't tell you how many times I've heard classmates say "I'm thinking of reading this at a reading next week and I wanted to workshop it first." I've said it too.

In addition, and this is important, any writer who is interested in studying and developing either ethnic literature or genre fiction (much less both) along with their "literary" fiction, is going to have trouble in most of America's MFA programs. They should put a sign over the door that says "Colored folk and nerds, prepare yourselves to fight." I have no excuses; I knew this going in and my experience bore this out. I went in prepared to fight and was actually surprised at how seldom and mild my fights were. The main fight was to find people who shared my interests enough to say anything intelligent or insightful about my work. My main complaint there was that I didn't expect how little relevant or interesting critique I received. I was expecting hostile critique, which would actually have been useful and revealing. Instead, I got well-meaning but ignorant and pointless critique.

And this is the essence of my criticism of MFA programs and especially workshops: in their essence, they are largely irrelevant and useless.

I'm not saying they don't feel good. The passion with which the abovementioned writer wrote of his MFA experience must have come from what I can only call the "discovery of my peeps" experience. That is, that time when you finally go and seek out "people like you" in certain key ways and actually find them and get to spend quality time with them. All those arguments you had with family and neighbors all your life ... you were right after all, and all these people agree with you! It's thrilling to find that other people in the world not only care that you're writing, but care enough to help you make your writing better. I get that. I really do. And if I hadn't spent the six or seven years before I went into an MFA program in artist communities with other artists and writers, having just those smoky drunken shouting conversations and experimenting with words onstage at poetry slams, and curating exhibitions and writing copy for readings and taking checks for writing classes ... then I'd probably have had my "discovery of my peeps" experience in the creative writing department of San Francisco State University as well. MFA programs, for most of their participants, are a way for people to out themselves as writers, to ceremoniously, publicly, join the ranks of the artist/intellectual. I'd already done that, publicly, years before, so the MFA program was not only not that experience for me, but having to watch my peers having that experience was tedious.

Finding a community of the like-minded is a powerful reason to go back to school, don't doubt that. But this can be done in other ways, ways that don't require application processes and tuition payments (not to mention massive debt). The MFA program, despite its expense, is merely an easy and passive way to attach yourself to a writers community, albeit one composed mostly of amateurs like yourself who are all scratching away (or not) at the door. But then, writing is hard work, it is active work. If you're looking for an easy and passive way to do it, then you're not going to be a successful writer anyway.

In conclusion, I'm obviously torn. I got a lot of what I wanted to get out of my MFA time, and my writing improved immeasurably as a result. So I'm glad I did it. But I'm not sure I should encourage anyone else to do it. Just because it feels good and I got something out of it doesn't mean that it's helped to make me into a writer the world actually needs. For all of those, like me, who have to stop up their ears to writing workshops, avoiding the MFA may very well be the best thing you can do. And for those who listen to the MFA workshop voice and use it as a crutch, I don't think the world needs your writing.

September 12, 2006

Yet More On Groping

Writer John Scalzi's wife Krissy (whom I've hung out with and who is as cool as this whole thing makes her sound) was groped at a bar a couple of nights ago, and took physical action against the perp. He backed down. John was so proud of her, he blogged about it. Then Instapundit's wife, Dr. Helen, blogged back that Krissy was being unnecessarily violent and touched off a shitstorm.

In light of the shitstorm already out and about regarding Harlangate , this is the perfect opportunity to observe all the typical reactions to someone being groped and dealing with it that I noted in my groping meme post.

Go check out the comments in John's original post, and in his follow-up.

I find particularly heartbreaking the post from commenter "luna_the_cat", who left no calling card, unfortunately:

A few years ago, coming home late and laden with bags of shopping which effectively immobilised my arms, I was targetted by a group of screaming male teenagers. One of them approached me at a run, arms outspread, clearly aiming for a tackle and at an angle which would have taken me off the path and into some bushes.

I did not so much "kick him" as I merely put my foot up in the right place, and he ran his crotch into it. The impact knocked us both down, but I can tell you I got up one heck of a lot quicker than he did. Fortunately his mates decided to back off, and I made it to a better-lit street quickly.

I made it home ok, but I was a bit shaken, and I told my husband what had happened -- only to walk into a firestorm of criticism from him on the basis that "they hadn't actually touched me when I made the decision to kick him, and I didn't know that they meant me any harm, and I shouldn't have provoked them. There were better ways I could have dealt with it!" That's one of the things I have a real hard time forgiving my husband for.

... I wish my husband had your attitude.

September 11, 2006

9/11/06

My friend C. woke me up around 6:30 or 7 that morning with a phone call.

"Oh my god!" she said. I've heard her upset before, but she prides herself on her crisis coping skills. I'd never heard her on the edge of hysteria like this.

"Oh my god, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center and it collapsed! They've also attacked the Pentagon and they're not sure about the White House! It's all over tv, but don't watch it! You shouldn't watch it!"

My first response to this was annoyance: "What are you talking about? Of course I'm going to watch it."

I didn't really believe her. I just thought, insofar as I could think before coffee, that she was responding to first reports, which are always inflated and, well, hysterical. I spent the rest of the day in my jammies on my couch, except when I got up to get food, and when I accosted my roommate in the hallway, myself by that time somewhat wild-eyed, with an injunction not to go to her office, which was across the street from the TransAm building in downtown San Francisco. (Most major cities were going through their moment of hubris, thinking they were important enough to be attacked by terrorists. SFans got over ours within 48 hours, although the city of SF and Homeland Security continue to be hysterical about the Bay Bridge.)

It was a strange day. My roommate had a tv in her own room so we sat, separate, watching the same show over and over again---the towers collapsing, the tiny plane disappearing into the side of the pentagon, the clouds of dust and ash shooting out sideways and through the canyons of New York. Just like I did with my roommate, so I did with my family and friends: we sat separated, each in our own individual or coupled units, watching the same show replicated on millions of small screens, repeated dozens of times over the course of the day.

It was a national sick day. So many of us, especially on the west coast, where the news reached us before we dressed for work, sat in our pajamas all day on the couch, eating comfort food and staving off that indoors-too-long headache. Staving off that feeling of unreality and monstrousness you get as a child when, through an emergency of the body, the order of the day is disturbed and you are thrown out of your routine. Somewhere, the world was continuing, having lunch, going to fifth period study hall, and you were home watching "Get Smart" reruns. Though you would never admit it to anyone, deep down, you hated such days. Such days in childhood were worse, in their way, than those long dark nights are now, those nights when you realize something about yourself and, no matter how many DVDs you slide into the player, you can't look away from that realization and there's nothing you can do but sit in a buzzingly empty room and study it, study yourself, your lacks. It was a headache day, and everyone spent it alone.

And no amount of hindsight can change the fact that we all knew, we all felt on the day, as we sat there watching the towers fall down, that something big had happened, something more horrifying than jet-fuel bombs, than people jumping out of 80th story windows, than flight attendants with throats cut by box cutters. The pundits will have it that we sold our rights out of fear of further terrorist attacks, but that's simply not true. We sat home all day, all year, suspecting that school was out forever. We sold our rights so that Mommy would come home, feel our foreheads, and tell us that we were going back to school tomorrow, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Why do you think the first chicken-soup tagline was "America, open for business?"

The problem is ... well, no, there's more than one problem. The first problem is that, once you've seen a horrifying truth, you can't unsee it. The second problem is that the truth we saw five years ago today was vast, complex, and vague. In fact, that's exactly what was so horrifying about it: that it wasn't a truth that can be contained in a few weighty sentences, but rather that it is the sort of truth that demands that you go out and find it and shape it. It's a horrible-monster-truth that is so big that you have to walk towards its multiple, fanged, snapping maws just to see to the edge of it. Another problem is that it's a truth too large to encompass that demands heroic action. But what heroic action? Against what? Who is the enemy? What is the transgression that must be righted? Do I need a sword? A pen? A ploughshare?

You can try to get big and general, but once you get big and general enough to encompass it, it loses all meaning. "America's arrogance" doesn't mean any more than "oil imperialism" or "the wages of capitalism". I suppose the only real thing to do is to break it down into its component tentacles and pick one to hack away at. Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" is really the first 9/11 emollient on offer. Because, to make the unreality go away, it has to be big, and it has to be real enough. Pick one: the Bush regime, neoconservatism, global warming, stop the addiction, religious racism, geographical ignorance, cultural ignorance, etc.

It would be nice if we, as a nation---just as we did on 9/11/01 when we all sat alone together and saw a big ugly truth---could as a nation all look up and realize that action and empowerment are the cures of inaction and disempowerment. It would be nice if we each picked a tentacle of 9/11 to hack away at, all the while seeing and recognizing the amorphous shape of the larger beast. I don't think it's going to happen, not enough to turn this around. It's impossible not to suspect that George W. Bush will be the American republic's Julius Caesar (without the intellect or the military prowess, natch.) Maybe that means that we have another century or so of open empire, under a dictatorship. But looking at China, looking at the EU ... I don't think that's going to happen, either. The problem with Julius Caesar comparisons is that you need the intellect and military prowess to have that kind of unquestionable power. We're a sad sloppy second, at best.

Maybe today is simply the anniversary of the death of our republic, a sadly misshapen creature, even in its youth and strength, and now something dying of terminal obsolescence. Republics are small things, and we are too big. Maybe that's the heart of the Big, Ugly Truth. I don't know, I still don't know. But I'm observing something today. And maybe it's just appropriate that I don't know what.

September 06, 2006

Harlangate Groping Meme

Inspired by the Harlangate brouhaha---and especially by commentary from many that we shouldn't let this incident sink back beneath the waves but rather be the inspiration for more action, more awareness---I've decided to start a new meme. This is primarily for women, but men are welcome to participate, of course.

Definition: by groping I mean a man physically touching a woman in sexual ways or in ways that demonstrate gender power. This almost always refers to a woman being groped by a man, because groping---especially as it relates to Harlangate---is about a man asserting sexual and gender dominance over a woman. However there will be times when groping is used as a weapon by a man against a man, by a woman against a woman and, arguably, by a woman against a man. Feel free to use the meme to discuss these.

(Note: the intention of this meme is to isolate groping from rape, molestation, and other sorts of sexual assault. I'm not trying to take the attention away from more serious assault but to draw attention to this "lesser" form and discuss why it is an issue and not something we just need to grow a sense of humor about.)

1. Who/When/Where/How was the first time you were groped? And how did you react?
2. Who/When/Where/How was the last time you were groped? And how did you react?
3. Talk about the most memorable time you were groped. Why is it the most memorable?
4. We often think of the perfect response after the event is already over and it's too late to make it. What is your perfect response to being groped, perhaps one you've never been able to produce on the spot? (This can also be the perfect response to a specific situation.)
5. How does groping make you feel? (Feel free to talk about how your feelings on the subject have changed over time, or about how you hope your feelings will change in the future.)
6. What are some of the consequences of groping, some of the things that happen around it, or because of it, that make your life shit as well?
7. What do you want to say to all gropers?

1. I'm sure I was groped in college while drunk, but the first time I remember was during my backpacking "grand tour" of Europe after graduation. I was in a bar in Cork, Ireland, with a group of girls from my youth hostel. I went up to the bar to buy a round and felt someone grab my ass. I whipped around and all the men behind me were looking at me, grinning. There was no way to tell who had done it. I demanded to know who it was, but no one would tell me, all innocent looks on their faces. Later, I went up to the bar again, and again felt a hand grabbing my ass. This time, I simply reached behind me and grabbed the nearest shirt before turning around. I hauled the guy up to my face, popping a few of his buttons in the process, and yelled at him. He claimed it wasn't him (and I think he was telling the truth) but wouldn't tell me who it was, although anyone standing behind me could have seen who it had been. I apologized to him for his shirt and he took advantage of my contrition to come over to our table and hit on one of my hostel friends.

The worst part about this at the time was that the girls I came with didn't care that I'd been groped and didn't even bother to commiserate with me. And one of them ended up making out with the guy I'd caught, even though he'd been complicit in it to the extent of refusing to give up the guy/s who had done it. This is going to be a theme.

2. I don't remember the last time, either, but one of the most recent incidents that sticks out in my memory was a few years ago when I was walking down a busy street in San Francisco's Mission district on a weekend with a group of friends, men and women. We were coming from one bar and going to a restaurant and were all a little tipsy. I felt a hand pinch my ass (I was walking next to two friends and behind a few others.) I looked around to see who had done it and couldn't tell who it had been so I let it go, although I saw a guy who had been behind me speed up and pass our group. A short while later I felt a pinch again and turned around and it was the same guy who had sped up and passed me before. Clearly, he'd thought he could do it again because I hadn't said anything the first time. I immediately began screaming obscenities at him, and so loudly that everyone for half a block looked at me. The guy really speeded up at that point and disappeared around a corner ahead of us and I never saw him again. My friends looked at me for an explanation, but when I gave it, no one said anything, sympathized, expressed outrage, or anything much really. Like I said, a theme.

3. The most memorable time was walking down my street at night (early evening, but it was dark and the street was fairly deserted.) I noticed a guy following me so I stopped, turned around, and glared at him. This works with creepoids who get off on scaring you, or scarier types who are actually looking to follow you home or into a more deserted spot where they can do something. But unfortunately, this guy was a harrasser, not a scary creepoid, so being caught at it didn't put him off. He slowed down as he came up to me and started murmuring what I can only imagine were supposed to be sweet nothings in Spanish (I was all the while glaring at him), came directly at me, licked his thumb and forefinger, reached around me, and pinched my ass. I was so outraged I chased him down the rest of the block kicking wildly at his ass (I missed every time). He laughed the whole way. This was memorable because of the sheer disgustingness of his licking his fingers and then touching me.

4. My purse is always heavy, since I carry so many things in it, plus (usually) two books. I wish every time that I had reacted by swinging my purse into their faces (at their eyes, or breaking their noses) or into their balls, hard. One time, during the aforementioned backpacking tour, I was in Venice with a guy from my youth hostel who spoke some Italian. We went out and got into a conversation with some local guys, one of whom pointed at me and said something to which my companion replied somewhat heatedly. I asked him what the guy had said and he told me the guy had called me a whore. I turned to the grinning asshole, without thinking, and kneed him in the balls. Damn, I wish I had that presence of mind (or maybe lack of presence of mind) every time.

Another one I wish I could remember is to comment on their bodies (since groping is so overshadowed in my life by commenting. I can count the gropes on two hands, but the comments on my body are weekly, sometimes daily.) I wish I could remember to turn that around on them.

5. I love that saying that you're not paranoid if the whole world is really out to get you. I don't think the whole world is out to get me, but the sight of my confidence and independence (not to mention my race/s and my height) as I walk down the street is too much for many, many men. Too many men. Much of the world and I are in a contest, though not an equal one. The contest makes my body a battleground, somehow, but not their bodies. They push, and push and push against my body: daily, even hourly, with looks and body language; weekly, even daily, with out-loud comments; and every so often, they push physically. I feel like there's some way I can win, but I can't. If I notice them, they win. If I get angry, they win. If I laugh, they win. If I ignore them and let them say/do what they want, they win.

It doesn't matter what happens to them, how shitty their lives are, they can still take it to the streets and take it out on me by attacking my body. It doesn't matter how low they are, they can make me lower than them by turning me into their meat. And I can't turn it back around on them. The power just won't flow that way. Men can be private in public, as long as they're minding their own business, or staying in their part of town, just obeying the rules. Men can have their private thoughts and not be constantly bracing for the next, inevitable onslaught. But no woman can. I can't, not ever, relax in public or let down my guard. And it doesn't matter if my guard is up or not, I can't stop the next attack. I prefer to hit back, to make it a battle, to teach at least one snivelling little puke that it's not worth his while, so I do feel some empowerment. But I don't have the power to just. make it. stop.

6. Groping, in my case, has also sometimes led to a lack of trust between me and some of my (former) friends. I don't know why people think that a strong woman who can take care of her own shit doesn't need support. Just because I handled it doesn't mean that you can sigh with relief and ignore what I just went through. I'm not merely a target when I'm by myself, but I'm a target when I'm with other women, and even with men as well. And the whole point of targetting women with groping at all, much less when they're in a group, is to isolate them, to pick them out and say, "You're meat, and everybody here knows it." This is why the reactions of the people around you are so important. When I'm alone and dealing individually with some asshole, it's much, much easier than dealing with it when I'm in a group. Because being groped in front of friends is humiliating. And then to watch your friends act like nothing has happened, like you're an embarrassment to them, that's worse than everything else.

The worst, though, is when some guy you're with (and it's always a guy), who was silent and still the whole time you were being attacked, steps up to you after it's all over and takes you to task for how you handled it. Usually this is couched in language of concern: you shouldn't do that, what if the guy had turned around and hit you? what you did was just plain dangerous. But it's really because the whole thing made him feel less of a man and the only way to get his mojo back is to grind you down further. It could be how he felt watching you embarrassing some strange guy in public; that was too much power so he has to take you down a few. It could be that he felt that he should have done something to protect you and the fact that you clearly didn't need his protection, which he was too cowardly to offer anyway, requires him to stomp on you. Or it could simply be watching you taking care of your own shit, which is too much for cowards like him. It's not enough that you got no support, that you were humiliated in front of your companions, but now they're kicking you when you're down.

This is one of the worst consequences of sexual assaults: it creates distrust between the victim and her support network. This is why you're supposed to stand up for your friends. Not just to help them, but so that attacks on them don't become double attacks.

7. I'd like to tell all gropers that their pussiness is showing. Real men don't need to attack women just to feel like men. What I don't think gropers realize, in the flush of their triumph, is that not only does the woman they just attacked know how pathetic they really are, but everyone who saw the attack knows it too. Everyone knows. Even the men who laugh along with know it.

September 04, 2006

On Harlangate

For those of you who don't know, legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was given a special Hugo award at Worldcon last week-ish. During the ceremony, which was announced by eminent science fiction writer and guest of honor Connie Willis, Ellison and Willis, longtime friends, became engaged in an unscripted comedic dispute---for the benefit of the audience---over Ellison's infamous bad behavior. Willis told him to behave; Ellison responded by putting the microphone in his mouth, making a number of other comments and gestures, and ending by squeezing Willis' breast.

No action was taken at the time against Ellison (Willis was professional about it and simply continued the ceremony.) But now the entire SF community is howling away about it on their blogs. The substance of that discussion is not merely that Ellison's actions were unacceptable. A lot of long-held anger against the apparently sexist old-boy network in SF/F is being vented. (I write "apparent" because I'm still new to fandom and don't have any personal experience with the old-boy network.)

I'm not going to comment on any of this because you can guess how I feel about it and any of the millions of other blogs commenting on it right now are saying pretty much what I would say.

But I do want to talk about Harlan Ellison, whom I've never met, and whose work I've never read (and probably never will, now.) The one thing I've known about him since I entered the SF world three years ago is that he's famous for being an asshole. Everybody loves his assholery. When I was at the Clarion West writers workshop, one of the running themes was getting visiting writers and editors to tell us their Harlan Ellison stories. We ooohed and aaaahed over what an asshole he was and all felt in on the joke. Even I loved hearing about the time Harlan walked out of his room naked at a workshop (he writes naked) and shocked some unsuspecting visitors, or the time called up a young writer he'd never met in the middle of the night to critique her first novel, which had just been published. That became a catchphrase for our class: "You don't want to write anything that Harlan Ellison would call you about."

When we were designing the class t-shirt (a clarion tradition: the t-shirt bears the names of the participants and their favorite quotes from the workshop) the Harlan quote was to go on it, but several members of the class became afraid of the consequences should Harlan hear about it and not like it. (I thought we should ask him simply because I wouldnt' want my name used without my permission, either. I didn't know at the time how much power he had.) So they arranged to have someone who knew him call him up and ask him for permission. He gave it, graciously, like the grand old man of science fiction that he is.

What I was left with in all of this, more than anything, more than my sense of his assholeness, more than my understanding that "everybody loves Harlan's assholeness", was that everybody was afraid of Harlan Ellison. For he wasn't just a randomized asshole. He was especially known in the gossip for turning his assholeness on people who displeased him.

When Octavia Butler died this year Ellison was asked for a comment by the media and was quoted as saying that Butler was King Kong to his Fay Wray, an attempt at a comedic comment on Ellison's shortness and Butler's tallness. I reacted, however, to the unconscious implication of the comment: Ellison is white, Butler was black. King Kong had just been remade, to much discussion in the blogosphere about the racial subtext of the original (raging black atavistic male kidnaps tiny, pure white civilized female) and how the remake hadn't adequately addressed or subverted this subtext. Butler is much on the record having addressed the intersection of her height and her blackness, talking about how men have always taken her height as a personal insult. At best, his comment seemed outrageously insensitive.

I took my objections to the Carl Brandon Society list, a list-serv for SF/F writers of color, and wondered if Carl Brandon should make some sort of public statement. One of the board members talked me down, explaining that Ellison and Butler had been good friends, and that, although his comment seemed insensitive, he was probably grief-stricken, and shouldn't be taken to task for what he said in that condition. She also explained that Ellison has been both a feminist and a civil rights activist in his past and should be respected for this. I let it go and I'm glad I did. Ellison shouldn't have been taken to task then, not because he didn't deserve it---he did---but because Octavia Butler didn't deserve to have her death be about what an asshole Harlan Ellison is.

I also discussed this issue on the Clarion West class of 2003 list. I was told by many of my classmates (again) that he was a friend of Butler's and in mourning, that the comment was just a stupid joke, and (again) that he was really and truly an old time activist for civil rights. So it was unfortunately not at all surprising when Harlangate happened and Harlan apologists (in the words of one of my classmates who agreed with me) started "flying out of his ass left and right." Their arguments? That he was a friend of Willis'? Check. That it was just a joke? Check. That he was an old-time feminist who supports women's rights with his money and his mouth? Check.

Only, this time, he's not going to get away with it. The board member who talked me down this spring over the King Kong comment, brought it up again on the list and said that she'd still have advised calm, but would change some of her comments if she could. Prominent SF writers and publishing types and bloggers are stating publicly and distinctly that his actions were disgusting and unacceptable. People are talking about general measures that should be taken at cons to prevent any more groping of anyone by anyone. All to the good.

I just want to remind everyone at this point (and yes this is an "I told you so" moment) that Ellison's been pulling this shit for decades. He was groping women in public back when that was still considered okay. He was viciously attacking people publicly and privately, calling them (especially women) without their permission, and exposing his naked self to strangers, again, without their permission. For decades everyone has been giggling, making excuses, and saying "Oh, that Harlan Ellison". It took a public groping of a well-respected writer, who was the event's guest of honor, onstage at the ceremony for SF's highest award ... and in 2006 ... to get people to finally, publicly censure him. And still no official action has been taken against him.

No one should have this much power, no matter how nasty they are. Despite the (justified) tack that many people are taking on this issue, which is that it is not just about Ellison, but rather about sexism in SF ... this is about Ellison, about an individual who, just by being an asshole over the years, and then going after and intimidating anyone who objected to his assholery, has pretty much put himself above the rules.

Is he still going to get a free pass? Will we be giving out any more free passes?

September 03, 2006

Almond Eyes

I would have put this in Strunk & Light, but this is a peeve of another color. Observe:

This is an almond.

Almond

These are all possible almond eyes.

Almondpossibilities

See? Look Asian to you? Okay ...

These are the real, actual eyes of an East Asian person (Lucy Liu).

Lucy_liu

And these (Anna May Wong).

Anna_may_wong

And these (Jet Li).

Jet_li

And these (Mr. Miyagi ... I mean Pat Morita).

Pat_morita

Look "almond shaped" to you? Wanna have a look at the almonds again? Here you go:

Almondpossibilities_1

So ... whaddaya think? Were those Asian eyes "almond eyes" or "almond-shaped eyes"? Not so much?

How about these?

Angelina_jolie

Or these?

Kate_moss

Or these?

Benaffleck

Or these?

Brad_pitt

Those were, in order, Angelina Jolie, Kate Moss, Ben Affleck, and Brad Pitt. In other words, Whitey. (Yeah, I don't think Brad was such a great example, either. But you have to have him if you have Angelina.)

Still not getting it?

How about now?

Angelinaalmond

... now? ...

Benalmond

No? ... now maybe?

LucyalmondPatlamond

Jesus H., people, do I have to spell it out for you? East Asians don't have almond shaped eyes. White people do.

Yeah, that's right. So the next time you're looking for a cheap way to say that your Fu-Manchu-Dragon-Lady-love-you-long-time character is fucking Asian, know that if you write that s/he has "almond (shaped) eyes" we are all gonna know you for the fraud you are.

Look at what you're looking at!

ETA: Further reading:
Borg Eyes
Why Are Interracial Relationships Important to Society?
Vin Diesel Breakdancing

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