117 posts categorized "white"

October 30, 2014

Street Harassment Dudebro F.A.Q.

 

I'm sick right now, but the kerfuffle around this video has driven me back to blogging.

I'm so exercised over some of the comments I've been seeing that I've actually been commenting on YouTube, oG help me, so I've created an F.A.Q. to respond to the comments, apologia, and excuses most frequently made by dudebros on this topic. (Btw, a lot of these are drawn from comments I've already made elsewhere.)

 

But the so-called "harassment" in the video is mostly just guys being nice and saying "Hello" or complimenting her! Why are you feminazis so opposed to mere human interaction?

You think that because you've never been the recipient of said "niceness" or "compliments" so you don't know where they're headed.

Street harassers do not expect women to respond, much less to actually develop relationships (*extreme eye roll*) with them. What they expect, and want, is for women to feel vulnerable and powerless before them. Why else would a man follow a woman who is totally ignoring him for five minutes? Why else would a man stand on the street and call out to women who all totally ignore him, for hours? If he wants an interaction, he's failing and being humiliated, but if he wants her to feel scared and creeped out, and gets off on the power of that, then calling out to her and following her makes total sense. That's why he does it.

Most or all of us women and girls have started out our public adult lives by being greeted and "complimented" by such men and taking the interaction at face value. Most or all of us have responded with a pleased or confident "hello" or a "thank you" back as we've walked past. And what happens then? Please note again what I wrote directly above. The catcall is not intended to create friendliness or confidence in the woman, so a friendly or confident response does not get the guy what he wants.

So what happens then is that he immediately becomes aggressively sexual, asking the woman out, plastering her with increasingly sexual and intimate "compliments", making sexual suggestions, even sometimes crowding her or touching her. He does this until she is forced to start ignoring him or responding negatively -- either one will do, because both mean that she has started to feel vulnerable. Then he either lets her go, having made his point, or he caps it off by calling insults after her in a purely angry and aggressive tone of voice. Nothing makes a woman feel more vulnerable than a man angrily yelling "bitch! cunt!" at her in front of a bunch of other men who do nothing.

All women in cities have experienced this (unless they've never gone out alone). And all women who have had this experience a few times know that the only way to deal with it is to ignore it. Any response only escalates the situation. A guy who will stand on a street corner and yell at women who pass is a guy prepared to escalate until he gets what he wants. Women know subconsciously, in our guts, what is meant by a catcall, and we respond appropriately. You men, who have never had to deal with this type of situation, have absolutely no idea what catcalls are about, and have no right to try to tell us that we're wrong.

 

I agree that the dudes following her are creepy (what's that about?) but everything else is just people being friendly! (Add in "you fascist cunt" or dudebro insult of your choosing here.)

Again, it's not one thing or the other; it's not a nice interaction or a gross imposition. It's a continuum. Some guys will only say "nice" sounding things, if aggressively. Some guys will say really gross and aggressive things. Some guys will threaten, some guys will touch, some guys will follow, some guys will hit. You never know until the incident is over how bad it will get.

I've been grabbed, groped, butt-slapped, followed for blocks, had disgusting sexual practices suggested to me, had my body examined and described in great detail, been told I was beautiful, been told I was ugly, often by the same person in the same incident, been called a bitch, whore, cunt, sweetheart, baby, girl, had my biraciality praised, then insulted, and my racial makeup broken down and praised, then insulted piece by piece, been pursued around a subway car by someone taking upskirt photos, been rubbed up against in public transportation, been flashed, masturbated at, crotch-grabbed at, lurched at from out a darkened doorway (to no purpose except the entertainment of the lurcher), etc. etc. It all feels the same. The only difference is in how threatened you feel; but you feel threatened no matter what, because they are all threats.

The problem is not that we're too stupid to understand the difference between a real interaction and harassment. The problem is that there is just so. damn. much. harassment.

 

This video is so stupid! 10 hours and THAT'S all that happened? What a whiner!

I actually agree that the video, as it is edited, is not effective. The point of the video is not, and should not be, the type of harassment she's receiving, but rather the sheer volume of it. The video says that in 10 hours she had over 100 incidents of street harassment. Unfortunately, the video doesn't show it, and I think that's a huge missed opportunity.

Because there are really two points here: the first is what I detailed above: a "hello" or a "compliment" are not what you think they are. But the second point is the sheer volume of such encounters. Over 100 incidents in 10 hours? That's 10 incidents per hour, or more than one incident every ten minutes. Try to imagine that, dudebros. Try to imagine having to field "hellos" and "compliments" and demands for your attention from aggressive men every ten minutes of your life. (And it's not just on the street, but we won't get into workplace harassment here.) I know you guys have your own street interaction issues: check-ins and body checks and dominance play. But at the frequency of more than one every ten minutes, every time you leave the house, every day, for the rest of your life? I don't think so. Try to imagine it. Just try.

 

Aw, that's just New York. They're all assholes there. I'm from a small town and nobody behaves like this. We're all friendly to each other. 

I would imagine in a small town, where everyone knows each other and reputations really matter, there would be repercussions for harassment, but also for unfriendliness. Cities are different. There's no penalty for being unfriendly, and none for harassment, as evidenced by the reactions of men to the video, and even to this post. 

And also, men's and women's experiences are different. Most men simply don't know the type and amount of harassment that women experience every day -- because we don't tell them (because of the way that men typically react when we do tell them) and because it usually doesn't happen when we're *with* other men. It's not just "Hellos" or fake compliments.  The last time I counted, I rarely went a week without an incident, and often didn't go a day without at least one incident. I haven't set foot outside my door without headphones on and blaring since 1999. And my experiences are not unusual

I'm sick of men telling me what to think about the behavior of men they don't know and have never seen in action. You will never experience the street the way a woman does. You will never know what it's like to spend all day, every day, for your entire adult (and teenaged, and tweenaged) life braced for a verbal assault that inevitably comes. I don't know what it's like in small towns; I've never lived in one. But I know what it's like for a woman in a city. And I can tell you uncategorically: the quality of life for women in cities would be improved at least 1000% if no strange men EVER talked to us except if they had legitimate business. Once again, there are thousands of places and situations to meet people and socialize, and street harassers do not harass to socialize or meet people.

 

#notallmen

Believe me, we are all of us women aware of that. Not all men harass. Not even most men harass. Not even a majority of men harass. Not even a large minority of men harass. We know. We know better than you do, because we're the ones who see the harassment. We're the ones who walk past 100 men who don't even notice us, before encountering the daily asshole who harasses.

But #allwomen are harassed on the street, unless they don't walk alone, or don't live in a city. I challenge you to find a single living woman who has ever lived in a city and walked in the city alone and never been harassed. All. Women.

If you do not harass, good for you, I guess (or rather, good for us; you shouldn't be praised for behaving the way you're supposed to), but that doesn't change the fact that the relatively small minority of men who harass manage to do it to all women. And this conversation is not about how horrible you are. This conversation is about how to stop the harassment that you are not committing but other people are. So stop making this all about you.

If you would like it to be about you, maybe make it about how from now on you're going to be more aware of what is happening to women in front of you in public and how you're going to take action to stop it.

 

I have to (be the fifty thousandth person to) point out the elephant in the room here: all the guys harassing her are black. It must be part of their culture (or replace with racist insult of your choosing.) But the rest of us aren't like that (stated baldly or by implication.)

In case you were wondering, what you just said was racist. *Gasp!* How dare I?

It doesn't matter if your comment was "All n****rs!" as I saw several times on YouTube or "I noticed that all of the harassers are African American. I think it's part of the masculinity-building in their culture " (or, as some people called it, "hip hop culture.") Doesn't matter. Either way, what you're saying is that it's racially inherent for black men to be misogynist, and that is not true.

What is true is that:

  1. this is a huge can of worms and deserves its own post, which I might write later;
  2. there are a lot of folks who've written (probably way better than I could) about the topic so you should read them; 
  3. race doesn't just affect who harasses, but who is harassed and how severely; and
  4. the race argument is just a racist version of #notallmen.

 

But wait! Am I not allowed to talk to women AT ALL? How am I supposed to meet women?"

Yes, if walking up to a total stranger in the street is the only way you can meet women, then there is something seriously wrong with the way you're living your life. Street harassment is not about meeting people! It's about expressing power on total strangers, so that you can feel powerful at someone else's expense, without there being any repercussions for you.

If you are idiotic enough to believe that men harass women on the street to try to find girlfriends and you've been trying to emulate them, that might explain your lack of success with women. So, YES, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO WOMEN YOU DON'T KNOW ON THE STREET ANYMORE. If you can't meet women at school, work, church (if you swing that way), volunteering, through your friends, through your interests and hobbies, at shows, on the internet (like everyone else), or even, as a last resort, in bars, then you are a huge loser, and women trying not to be harrassed in the street has nothing to do with your problem. Jeezus.

April 16, 2013

Reading Update: Graphic Nobbels

  1. Secret Identity Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen  
  2. The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity Mike Carey and Peter Gross

These two were cool to read together, because they're two takes on the same theme: real people who are connected to popular and powerful fictional characters. But one has no edge, and the other, part of a long series, has the capacity to spin completely out of control.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: Secret Identity follows a boy from Kansas named Clark Kent through his lifetime. He was named "Clark" as a joke -- because his family name is Kent and they live in rural Kansas. He turns out to be a literary nerd who is bullied for his name. When he's thirteen, though, he disc0vers that he suddenly has superpowers like Superman's. His main issue is feeling alone and keeping his secret from his family. He uses his powers and is burned by a woman journalist who creates a disaster to out him. So he goes underground.

Later, when moves to NYC and works for the New Yorker, he is set up (as a joke) with a woman named Lois and they hit it off. During this time, he is briefly captured by the government, who puts him in a lab for testing. He escapes when he realizes they plan to dissect him, and finds the dead bodies of other test subjects, including children and babies. He finally shares with Lois his powers and the fact that he's been using them secretly, and somehow she doesn't have a problem with it.

From this point on in the story, his main conflict is his fear of the government and the media and how their fear of him will cause them to harm him or his family. But he handles it and, for the second half of the book, it isn't really a problem. The story mirrors the maturation of an individual -- his developing sense of self and increasing ability to handle the problems contingent upon every life and the problems specific to each individual's path. And it's true that people get more able as they get older. But it's also true that they get more infirm, lose attractiveness, attention, and respect, and find that some of their personal problems are intractable, and this never shows up in this novel. It's a friendly read, and nice, but it's not very suspenseful or exciting, because all problems are easily overcome and half of them are in the hero's head anyway. And many opportunities to explore the irony of the situation are completely missed.

The Unwritten is an ongoing series about Tom Taylor, the son of the writer of a Harry Potter-esque series of children's wizard novels featuring Tommy Taylor, a character based on him. His father disappears when he is a boy, leaving him with no access to his father's fortune, so he makes his living on the con circuit, signing books and being generally accessible to the public. Then, through a complex series of incidents, he runs afoul of a shadowy organization that appears to be controlling the collective unconscious by promoting the fictional narratives of writers whose written content they direct. (Like Rudyard Kipling, natch.)

The premise of this series is much more fascinating and rich than Secret Identity, and the movement of the plot is more twisty and complex, featuring stories from different points of view and different protagonists. There are also a LOT more characters. But it alreadys shows the capacity to get too twisty, so I hope it tones down in future installments. But it's terrific so far! I don't have much to say about this yet, because the first book doesn't get far enough into the story to evaluate said story. It's just the pilot, so to speak. But more to come.

February 22, 2013

There ARE Second Acts in American Blog Posts

It seems my "damned if you do, damned if you don't" post about white writers writing about POC has been Tumblred and hit some sort of critical mass. It even reached people I know who missed it the first time around. Someone even emailed me today for permission to use it in a presentation. (The same day I deleted a comment calling it "reverse racist." I don't allow that term to be used on my blog.)

So I went to the original Tumblr post and read through all the comments (I still don't get Tumblr. Why make it so difficult to see people's responses?) and I find I have a couple more things to say.

  1. This is a "shut up and deal with it" post. It's not a post telling you what or what not to do with your life. It's a post telling white writers who have been fortunate enough to complete a book, find a publisher, find an audience, and have a public discussion happen about their work to "shut up and deal with the negative criticism in the midst of your good fortune." Shut up and deal with it.
  2. Dude, you don't know any of these people who might be criticizing you. Why would you let my saying that a few nameless, faceless (literally, this is the internet) POC will criticize you stop you from doing anything?

...

Yeah, that's pretty much all I had to say. Beyond that, whoever doesn't get it, doesn't get it. Maybe someday they will.

Also, here's a good rephrasing.

And here's a moment of perspective.

And, if anyone was wondering, here's an ideal response from a white writer.

February 08, 2013

"Smash," Sexism, and Prejudice

I've been watching the TV show Smash and, although it's really not a big issues show, the latest episode this week -- which features sexual harrassment heavily in the plot -- got me thinking a lot about prejudice.

Smash is a musical drama about a broadway show. Yeah, it's the about the show and everything that goes into making a show, from the creative team coming up with the idea for a musical, through writing it, finding a producer, finding funding, casting, rehearsals, etc.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: The first season got the show -- a bio-musical about Marilyn Monroe called Bombshell -- through its initial run in Boston. Along the way, the two actresses competing for the lead succeed in destroying each others' relationships (and pretty much everything goes wrong for everyone involved as well.)

The director of the show, Derek, initially makes a pass at one of the rivals, the ingenue Karen, during the drawn out casting process. He invites her to a late night audition at his apartment, tells her she needs to be sexier, and then sits on the couch while she gives him what is essentially a lapdance, while "doing" Marilyn. Then she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend. (When the boyfriend finds out about this later, he punches Derek out.)

Then Derek makes a more direct pass at the other rival, the experienced Ivy, and she not only goes for it, but they end up in a serious relationship, where the "L" word gets used.

Throughout most of the season, both characters are up for the role. First one gets chosen, then the other, then a Hollywood actress who can't sing gets cast for a while (and has an affair with Derek while she's doing it, putting a strain on his relationship with Ivy,) then they're both being considered again. Roller coaster. Finally, Derek makes the call and he chooses Karen, i.e. NOT his serious girlfriend.

The second season starts with the reviews coming in and the show getting ready to make its first run on Broadway. But everything is going wrong: the producer is accused of using mob money, the librettist's marriage is falling apart, and ... dunh dunh duuuuuuunnnh ... the Hollywood actress accuses Derek of sexual harrassment.

And this is where things get interesting. In the second episode, apparently emboldened by the Hollywood actress's accusation, six chorus girls from other shows that Derek has done come forward and accuse him of sexual harrassment as well. In many other shows, this would be presented as just another trial of Job to be heaped onto Bombshell, i.e., not something worth exploring for its own sake. And I never would have suspected Smash of having the heart or intelligence to make something more out of this.

But then we get this scene (s2, ep2, starts at 11:20 in the video above) in which Derek seeks out and confronts one of his accusers, a chorus girl named Daisy. He mansplains to her that she doesn't understand the term "sexual harrasment" and says he never touched her. She counters that she never said he did, and then outlines exactly what he DID do, which was hit on her through four callbacks and then refuse to cast her after she definitively turned him down. He insults her talent and says that's why he didn't cast her. Then this:

Derek: Since when is it harrassment to ask someone out on a date?

Daisy: You don't get it. You're a big-shot director. You're in a position of power from the minute you wake up in the morning, and you don't treat that power with respect. Or did you really think women say yes because they actually like you?

Being a decent show and not a great show, Smash goes on to blunt this incredible scene with a cheap musical number ("Would I Lie to You") in which Derek gets pushed around by a bunch of  chorus girls, plus Karen and Ivy, dressed identically:

Although the identically dressed girls could be said to be a comment on Derek's view of women, it looks too much like that's actually the show's viewpoint (and not just Derek's) for that point to come across. It looks too much like this:



So there's that. There's also the rest of the episode, which has Ivy letting a mopey Derek off the hook. But just for a moment, the show's understanding of the world and one of its characters opens up, and you get to see some of the underlying dynamics of this world, and how this fictional world connects to the real one:

  • The Hollywood actress is actually lying. Her sexual relationship with Derek was entirely consensual and welcome, and, in fact, she had the power there, because her star power got her a role that Derek didn't want to give her. In fact, his affair with her was partly intended to boost her confidence so she could sing better, i.e. he was "servicing" her. (Of course he was also just dogging and star-fucking.) Her accusation was made so that she could save face. She quit the show because she couldn't sing, and she wanted to quell the rumors.
  • Even though she nominally has the power, because she's a woman and he's a man, his opinion of her abilities is still important and still has power over her. Note that her attack on him was, in essence, for her to take on the role of victim.
  • This is a common (and largely unwarranted) fear of women: that women will take power over men by falsely accusing them of exercising their power.
  • The show is just good enough that it can't quite make itself depict the Hollywood actress "playing the harrassment card." That whole thing happens offscreen, frankly because we wouldn't believe it if they put it onscreen.
  • Derek is a huge sexual harrasser, although clearly not a sexual assaulter, and his power has prevented anyone from stepping forward before.
  • The Hollywood actress's accusation, although false, is what finally allows Derek's real victims to come forward, because sexual harrassment is entirely about power: who has it and who doesn't. Only the powerful Hollywood actress can make such an accusation without negative repercussions, and the chorus girls require the shelter of her power to do the same.
  • Since the real accusations are enabled by the false one, this lets Derek off the hook in his own mind; the real accusations are just copy-cats of the false one, and equally false.
  • Until Daisy breaks it down for Derek, he genuinely doesn't understand what sexual harrassment is, and genuinely doesn't believe he's doing it. When she says "you didn't really believe all those women liked you?" the look on his face says it all: yes, he did really believe all those women liked him. He really didn't have a clue that it's his power, and not his attractiveness, that makes the women accessible to him. It's equally never occurred to him that his relationships have all been with women who want something that he has the power to give or withhold.

I think it was this last one that really opened something up for me. Yes, it was fiction, but it felt real; rang true, as they say. It was that Derek genuinely believed that he wasn't doing anything wrong that got to me. Because, when it comes to -isms, I always tend to look at things from the oppressed pov, and not from the -ist pov. Or at least to try to.

I understand that privileged white people think that they have a right to a spot in a university that a person of color got "through affirmative action." But I always thought that that was more about the white person thinking that POC can't possibly "deserve" a spot in a university. It had never really gotten through to me that white people think that they DO deserve the spot, have earned it, etc. Although I never thought it through in those terms, I might have thought that, were there no affirmative action, the same white complainer wouldn't complain about not getting into the school of their choice because "their" spot went to another white person. But now I'm wondering if the white complainers wouldn't complain anyway, find other reasons why they were denied their just deserts.

Now, obviously, privilege requires a lack of privilege to be privilege. If there's no lack of privilege, there's no privilege. But privilege is self-referential. It bounces off the Other, but doesn't refer to the Other.

Without the power differential, Derek wouldn't have all these willing chorus girls for his bed. And without all the willing chorus girls, he wouldn't have learned to think so well of his attractiveness. But his view of sexual dynamics is entirely self referential: girls say yes because he's attractive, not because they're afraid to say no. The latter conclusion requires you to refer to the other person, to be aware that the other person has needs and fears and other mechanics. The former conclusion is all about you.

Which leads me to clarifying for myself that prejudice is not just -- and in many cases not even primarily -- prejudice against someone, but rather prejudice for oneself, and by extension, one's own group. This should be obvious, but I've never seen anyone break it down this way (I'm sure others have, I just haven't seen it.) In antiracism we focus so much on the prejudice against, that we never end up talking about the prejudice for. But prejudice for is much more prevalent in the world, simply because the people with the power still control the media, the narrative, and the world's voice.

And this might be why the antiracism/feminist/lgbt/intergenerational/body-positive messages are so often ineffectual: because most people genuinely don't recognize that being prejudiced in favor of you and yours necessarily means that you're prejudiced against others.

That's the end of this thought for now, but I might have more to say about this in the future. Still processing.

January 10, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions

So I'm starting to see if I can put together an urban fantasy novel (and/or series) entirely by pre-plotting it. If it doesn't work, I won't write it. But I want to try writing this way, since I've never tried it. (I always start with a concept, a basic plot, even possibly an ending ... and nothing else. Then I start writing and see where it goes, leading to spending three years on a short story and ten years -- and counting -- on a novel. Trying something new now.)

So right now I'm investigating the urban fantasy novel formula. And I'm reading stuff I wanna respond to. Let's start with Carrie Vaughn's series of short posts on this (in which she never lays out the actual formula.) She does enumerate annoying clichés, though, and also says this:

I can’t help but look at the popularity of urban fantasy and ask, What is this symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?

The answer is pretty simple: these books are symptomatic of an anxiety about women and power. We have made so many gains over the last few decades. Women really can do anything, pursue nearly any career, become influential and powerful in any area. And yet. Women are still ostracized for appearing powerful. Women are still told that their role is to be deferential, nurturing, humble, self-deprecating, and they’re still criticized and marginalized when they don’t fit conventional images of femininity. Women still have to fight for acceptance in so many areas. You think this dichotomy, these mixed messages, aren’t real? Look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s (aka The Bitch) and Sarah Palin’s (aka Caribou Barbie) runs for office and get back to me.

So many of my pet peeves are symptomatic of this conflict: these aggressive yet conflicted women characters who are simultaneously strong yet exhibit low self esteems, who kick ass with violence but submit to the sexy alpha male. Another symptom: so many of these books only have one strong woman character, and many other female characters are stereotypical and inconsequential. Maybe lots of urban fantasy isn’t really about strong women, but about one special, chosen woman. (Thank you, Suzy McKee Charnas, for articulating this so well at Bubonicon.) There’s still anxiety about toppling the status quo. It’s possible in these worlds to have a strong woman, but not strong women.

I have to say that it's interesting to see her looking at the anxieties these fictions work on from the outside (i.e. NOT from the pov of the writers and readers.) But I think you also have to look at them from the pov of the people whose wishes are being fulfilled, i.e. the writers and readers, who are all or mostly urban professional women of childbearing (read: dating/marrying/relationships-with-men-having) age. And it's clear that these books are dealing with the confusion and anxieties of these women themselves, who want a number of conflicting things. Among these conflicting things are:

  • Personal power: the power to be and do what you want in life and in the world.
  • Negotiating power in your relationships; equality with your partner.
  • Kickassedness: the ability to protect yourself against exploitation, violence, oppression; but also the ability to appear very cool, to protect yourself in cool-looking and -seeming ways, not in gross or questionable ways. (e.g.: directly kicking someone's ass rather than being manipulative.)
  • Desirability: to men, that is. Most of these novels give very little thought to being a desirable friend/coworker/associate, much less lover, to women. Yes, sexual desirability. But only to men. This is heteronormativity, yes, but it's also about the kind of desirability that is the most problematic for urban career women. The wish being fulfilled here is to be desirable without negative consequences. (ETA: reading over this now and realizing how this sounds. I meant: sexual desirability to people with whom you have a massive, society-wide, gender-based power differential. And wanting to be desirable to them without incurring the negative consequences of being less powerful than they are. That's all.)
  • Competence: in life, but mostly in career. This never crosses over into desirability, i.e. being a desirable worker to employers and coworkers. That desirability is taken for granted, interestingly. Our heroines never have to stress about applying for a job, or even for a promotion. However, the wish fulfillment is to (grudgingly AND willingly) be acknowledged as competent/great by bosses and coworkers, who are mostly or entirely male.
  • A traditionally masculine man, who wants a contemporary, powerful woman: HA! The biggest crock, but also one of the biggest wishes being fulfilled. This one is the most regressive, but possibly the most understandable. It's wish fulfillment for women who were raised to desire the traditionally beautiful and masculine alpha male -- women for whom alternative masculinities have never been effectively promoted -- but were also raised post-second-wave-feminist, i.e. raised to take advantage of and expect to be treated as equals. This item is the one that shows up the biggest failure of second (and third) wave feminism: its failure to not just conceive of, but also actively promote, alternative masculine roles that work with the alternative roles for women we've essentially pushed through.
  • Outsider status: although all these conflicts and anxieties and desires are common and mainstream, there's still the desire to stand outside of the mainstream, to be special and also be to be a bit oppressed. This is partly adolescent, partly American (wherein our entire identity hinges on overcoming challenges and being individual), and partly guilty-white-girl. The last one is why so many urban fantasy heroines are mixed race (never just poc, though.) In this post-civil-rights-movement era, outsider status is most quickly vouchsafed by being a person of color. But, of course, no white woman REALLY dreams of being black, so it's always American Indian or Asian (although the half-Asians are usually the sidekicks.)
There are more, I'm sure, but these are the ones jumping out at me. No conclusions right now. More soon.

March 03, 2012

Reading Update: Tired of Urban Fantasy?

Raven Cursed Faith Hunter
A Perfect Blood Kim Harrison
Sins of the Demon Diana Rowland

All of these are the latest installments of urban fantasy series I've been devouring since last year. I love the combination of mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance in the genre -- not too much of any one of these genres, each of which -- except for mystery -- is largely a turn-off for me. And I really dig that the wish-fulfillment in these series can only be fulfilled by that particular combo of elements. Because it's not something simple like needing the perfect man, or needing to be vindicated by solving a crime, or needing to cleanse the Earth of an evil, or needing to find a MacGuffin. It's all of those together, plus the complicated need of a not-super-young, urban, professional woman for self-actualization ... whatever that means.

Guilty pleasures though they be, good books in this genre manage a real socio-cultural balancing act in pushing so many buttons at once, but not pushing them too hard; and in moving the character arc forward book-by-book, without either resolving too much, or repeating the central conflict over and over.

However. I'm starting to get tired of the genre. None of these latest installments really got me excited. Maybe it's because I read the series that each of them belongs to all at once, and then had to wait for the next book and kind of forgot the last book in the meantime. But I also think I've sucked the genre dry, and am sated. Pun intended.

Also! I'm tired of Kim Harrison using mixed-white-Asian features as an attention-getter, without any culture backing it up. And duuuuude, Diana Rowland actually wrote "oriental" in reference to her mixed-white-Asian character's featurs at the end of Sins of the Demon. That is SO not okay. Dude, hasn't she read Said?

I'm feeling a need for nonfiction right now. I've got a couple of ideas lined up. Stay tuned.

August 29, 2011

Reading Update: Just Disembodied Kids

I was explaining Just Kids to a friend today and she asked me if Patti Smith was a feminist. I immediately said no, although Smith might perhaps espouse feminism if you asked her directly. There's none of it in her work, though, and none of it in this book. Instead, there's her patent desire for boys, and to be a boy, both.

Until the book came out, I was a Patti Smith fan, but I had never delved into her life and wasn't aware of her association with Robert Mapplethorpe. But reading the book made the connection between Johnny in the hallway and Mapplethorpe's delicious hustlers. It all made sense. I'm not a connoisseur of her work, but I'm noticing now that she only becomes physical in the world when she's embodying a boy figure, like in "Birdland," or "Land." Her girl-bodies are all abortive, like in "Kimberly," or "Redondo Beach."

Her physicality is borrowed. And in the book, she has to be herself, so she's not physically present. She expresses no desire, no press or pressure, no sex, no gender. She's a mind wandering through a very physically enacted world, full of drag queens and drug addicts and street hustlers -- all of whom perform and live through their bodies. For most of the book she doesn't drink or do drugs, doesn't seem to experience the sex she has, goes for long periods without sex, goes for long periods without food, fails to describe the hunger she claims she felt, and finally admits to prudishness and alienation around the transgressive physicality of Mapplethorpe's photographs.

All the men she describes have physical descriptions and auras. The women only have resumes. Although she mentions many women who affected her life, reading the book is like reading a life led by a floating mind in an all-male camp.

So it meant something completely different to me than she likely intended when I saw her disclaim a "female artist" or "woman artist" identity in an interview on Youtube from 1998. Aside from my contemptuous "Way to throw all other women artists under the bus" response, I also thought: of course you don't see yourself as a woman artist. In the arts, do you see yourself as a woman at all?

August 26, 2011

Reading Update

Carrie Vaughan Steel
Scott Lynch The Lies of Locke Lamora
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
a friend's novel MS
Tess Gerritsen The Silent Girl

 I think I might be missing a few books in there, but I'm not sure. I've started reading physical books again, not just stuff on my kindle, so it's easy to lose track.

I went through the Harry Potter series again after I saw the last movie, and it's still really good. Rowling was able to maintain the goodies of the first three (nearly identical) books, while allowing the characters to grow up, and the overall atmosphere to grow more complex and dark. Great writing.

Carrie Vaughan's Steel was fun, but since I'm not a big pirate fan, I didn't enjoy it as much as pirate fans probably will. Loved The Lies of Locke Lamora, but got stuck on its sequel. Will be reviewing the Gerritsen for Hyphen.

June 28, 2011

On Being Harassed in the Street

Up front I'm telling you that this is about Hollaback's "I've Got Your Back" campaign, to create an online and offline movement to end street harassment. I've donated and I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Boy, it's been a long time since I posted. Actually, the last time I posted was right around the time that I moved back to San Francisco. And I'm so glad to be back.

But I don't tell people that one of the reasons I'm so glad to be back in the city is that the amount of harassment I encounter has gone waaaaaay down. The main reason I don't mention it is that the reactions of many people break my heart. Too many people, upon being told in general that I get a lot of harassment, act uncomfortable -- with me! -- and don't offer me any sympathy, much less engage in any discussion. I'm talking about abstract conversations here, where there's no immediate danger, and all I'm doing is communicating.

It's so much worse, then, when the harassment happens in front of your friends or social circle and they do nothing or act uncomfortable with you, as if you were the one who had done something wrong. I know that those situations can be sometimes scary or emotionally heightened. But think about the general emotional orientation of someone who doesn't, when the scary moment is over, automatically offer help and sympathy to a friend who has just been verbally assaulted.

I mean, c'mon, people! How hard is it to say to your friend who was just harassed, "I'm sorry you had to deal with that," or ask her "are you alright?"

It's those simple offerings that can make the difference between you being part of the problem, and you being part of the solution. Either you kick a friend who's just been kicked, or you blow on her bruise and offer her salve. Why is that such a hard choice?

The immediate sympathy and help is key, but what's an even greater act of friendship is listening, discussing, and helping your friend to process the harassment, to understand it, contextualize it, and help render it less powerful. Treating your friend as a thinking, feeling adult who is capable of understanding what has happened to her, and capable of insight, is a really important part of being an empowered woman in a society that often treats us as meat.

And the greatest act of friendship -- and righteousness -- of all is intervening on the spot, and standing up to the harasser for and with your friend.

This last one -- standing up for your friends -- should be automatic. If it isn't, maybe it's time to think long and hard about how you were raised, and what choices you learned to make to survive. Yeah, I was a bullied kid and I threw other outcasts under the bus if it would save me ... when I was in grade school. But now I'm an adult, and every failure of mine to protect and support my friends when they are attacked is my failure, not theirs. And yes, as an adult I've failed many times, or been weak or stupid in my support. But I'm glad to say that there have also been times when I was mindful enough to succeed in supporting and backing up my friends. And I strive to be that person every day.

I'm thankful for those fierce friends of mine who have done all of these things: Jaime, Patty, Cyndie, Robynn, and others whom I'm forgetting right now. (There have been so many incidents over the years, and when I was younger I deliberately forgot about it when friends failed to support me, so I managed to also forget when they did support me.)

And I'm also remembering people who shall remain nameless -- some of them people I greatly respected -- who stood by and did nothing. And, though I forgive quickly, I'll never forget. As MLK said:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

You're not alone -- in being harassed, in feeling helpless, in not knowing what to do. But tackling street harassment as it happens in front of you is your responsibility, as it is the responsibility of every citizen of a free state.

Please donate to the Hollaback "I've Got Your Back" campaign, and start (or continue) to get everyone's back on this.

April 27, 2011

Rewriting "Hanna"

SPOILER ALERT. Don't read any of this until you've seen the movie!

I just saw Hanna and I'm both exhilarated and disappointed. The first three quarters of the film are wonderful: fresh and exciting and great filmmaking. Then the last quarter is shit.

The film takes a fairy tale situation and forces it into interaction with an elevated version of "reality." A beautifully filmed, highly selective version of the beauties of everyday life. A girl grows up in the forest, raised by her father, who is a hunter. She reaches a point in her growth where she has to go out into the world and claim her true identity. This is all stuff of fairy tales and myths: a child of mysterious birth who is supernaturally strong and powerful. In a fairy tale she'd be a secret princess, hidden from her father the evil king. In a myth, she'd be a demi-god, child of a god and a human, hidden from the human's evil king father, or something. Her quest is to discover her true identity and claim her power and status. So far, so good.

Along the way, on her quest, she receives help from various characters; in fairy tales they'd be kind humans and figures of power: a good witch, supernatural creatures who make bargains with her, etc. In the fairy tale, people who help her get left behind, never to be heard from again.

In the film, Hanna and her hunter/woodcutter father decide it's time for her to kill the evil king -- in this case, an evil CIA project director named Marissa Wiegler. She goes to the king's castle, kills a fake version of the king, and then escapes the castle into the "real world." Once there, the movie gets really great. The castle is an underground bunker in Morocco, and Hanna wanders through Morrocco and Spain, encountering a bunch of really surprising and beautiful set pieces, including women singing while they launder clothes in a river, and a group of Roma wearing Juicy Couture singing and dancing flamenco. She also hooks up with a quirky and wonderfully written family on vacation in their minibus, and sees what a good, albeit weird, family looks like. She gets her first kiss; not from the Spanish boys we expected, but rather from the English family's young daughter.

But then the fariy tale intrudes again. The evil king turns into a combination of evil witch and big bad wolf. Hanna careens through France and Germany and ends up confronting the baddies in Berlin. And this is where the movie turns to shit. Once she leaves the weird family, things get muddy. And, as my friend Jaime pointed out, once she starts using a computer to research her past, the movie completely falls apart.

This is because, once the English family gets left behind, she reenters the realm of fairy tale, but the filmmaker/s sort of lose their grip on the structure of the fairy tale. She discovers her true identity -- she's a genetically engineered supersoldier, of course. This shouldn't be a problem, because in a "modern" fairy tale, the demi-god/prince/ss would be a genetically engineered supersoldier. There's no such thing as gods or princesses or the supernatural in this story. And that's fine. BUT, the filmmakers -- or maybe just the writers -- let the genetically engineered supersoldier narrative take over the fairy tale, and those are two completely different (and not complementary) narrative structures. So the fairy tale goes to shit, as does the CIA supersoldier program story, because the latter wasn't how the story was set up.

The first half or more of the film is expansive, showing us how big and beautiful the real world is, and hinting at the stakes for this girl in trying to leave her fairy tale and enter reality. But the film narrows, in the latter part, to a simple confrontation between her and Marissa, and Marissa's defeat stops meaning anything broader for Hanna and for the audience members who identify with her as an everyman protagonist. Hanna, as would happen in a fairy tale, leaves all the people who have helped and nurtured her behind, but the baddies, as would happen in a spy tale, follow her and kill or hurt everyone who has helped her. Hanna never looks back, never even wonders what has happened to these people. This is made even more problematic by the revelation that she's been engineered to feel less fear, less pain, and less empathy. There's no redemption or expansion for her.

So I'm gonna try rewriting this to fix it and take this from a film that could have been great, to a film that would have been great. Wanna hear it? Here I go:

In the film Hanna doesn't return to see what happens to the people she left behind. In my version, she does. She turns around and goes back, one by one, to all the people who have helped her, thus retracing her steps back to the world of people and "reality."

We have three fairy tales being referenced here: The three little pigs, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Once she leaves the English family, we're brought into these three, and reminded that she's on a quest through the scary forest of the CIA-ordered spy world. We also have three locations: her grandmother's house, a gingerbread house inhabited by a good gnome, and a fairy tale theme park, which was a really bad choice. But the three locations are important, because she's left four people, or sets of people, behind: the English family, the grandmother, the gnome/contact, and her father. The latter three, being part of the fairy tale world, die. But the English family's fate is left ambiguous. What she has to do is "bury" the dead, and save the family.

In the film she visits her grandmother's house -- where Marissa had invaded and killed her grandmother -- long before the climax, and the scene is completely thrown away. I'd rewrite this so that the grandmother's house is an actual house (the grandmother belongs to the fairy tale world) and not an apartment, and I'd show brief scenes of the grandmother in her house, getting the message from the hunter/father that Hanna is around and probably coming, reviewing the tapes from her daughter, cooking, cleaning, etc. But Hanna doesn't visit her house before the climax.

I'd also get rid of the climax in the playground. Marissa has sent three assassins after Hanna, and this could have been a smart choice: the three little pigs as bad guys going after the protagonist wolf, Hanna. Only ... the three little pigs is all about houses. They each have a house, and they run to each succeeding house until they find the one that will protect them. So the defeat of the evil three pigs has to involve a house, not an open air playground. There are two houses in this part of the movie: the grandmother's apartment and the gingerbread house the gnome/father's contact lives in. They should have put in a third one, maybe a CIA safe house, where Hanna traps the three pigs inside and kills them by blowing up the house. Or something, some inversion of the three pigs story.

In the process of this, her father gets killed, as he does in the film. In the film he distracts the pigs from her and she runs away and he kills the pigs and gets killed by Marissa. Bad choice. What should happen is that he distracts the pigs, she runs away, then he gets killed by the pigs. Hanna hears the gunshot that kills her father, but she doesn't go back in the film. In this one, the gunshot should be the turning point for her, the point where she makes the choice between being the killer/princess/demigod she was made to be, or the real person with a real family that the film keeps hinting she could be.

In my version, she stops, struggles with herself, and goes back to find her father. The pigs catch her there, and she traps them in the house and kills them, then makes some sort of burial/goodbye gesture to him. Then she returns to the gingerbread house where, in the film, the good gnome was tortured and killed for her sake. Marissa, in the guise of Hansel and Gretel's evil witch, should be waiting for her there. Hanna then traps Marissa in the oven; in this case, the only oven in the house is a waffle iron we see the gnome/contact using to make Hanna waffles. Maybe she burns Marissa with the waffle iron, or knocks her over the head with it. Then she makes some sort of settlement with the dead gnome/contact, and leaves without killing Marissa.

Next stop, grandmother's house. Of course, Marissa gets there before she does, and the grandmother is already dead. There, Hanna has a final confrontation with Marissa, kills her with an axe, as the big bad wolf must be killed, and finds her grandmother's body. Possibly, there's a final piece of the puzzle hidden in the grandmother's house, that Marissa tried to destroy by killing the grandmother, but Hanna finds it on the grandmother's body. She then "buries" the grandmother, symbolically.

I think when Hanna sneaks into her grandmother's house, she should hear the tail end of a phone conversation between Marissa and some agents who are holding the English family. In the film, these agents are the three pigs, but in my version there are other agents. Marissa tells them to get all the information they can out of the family and then dispose of them. After dealing with Marissa and the grandmother, Hanna has another struggle: her own personal issues have been dealt with, her demons killed, her questions answered, her family buried. Does she still have a responsibility?

And, of course, the answer is yes, because her quest here is to rejoin reality. So she races back to France to try to save the family, and does so, undramatically. My version of the film ends with them walking into a police station -- not a Hollywood police station, but a police station in a rural French town on a weekday, where nothing is going on and the police are doing whatever rural French police do to while away the time. Another lovely set piece.

And that's how Claire "C's" it.

April 04, 2011

Quick Reading Update: More Binging

Patricia Briggs Cry Wolf
Patricia Briggs Hunting Ground
Megan Whalen Turner The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner The Queen of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner The King of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner A Conspiracy of Kings
Annette Curtis Klause Blood and Chocolate

Still not ready to write about Patricia Briggs' werewolf series and its gender politics. Later. Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series rocks pretty dang hard. Don't feel like analyzing it much right now, though. And Klause's becoming-classic Blood and Chocolate was great, too. Nice to see a werewolf world in which werewolves aren't analogies for humans but are actually something different.

March 12, 2011

Reading Update: Bestiality and Violence

Patricia Briggs Bone Crossed
Patricia Briggs Silver Borne
Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club
Malinda Lo Huntress
Robin McKinley Beauty and the Beast
Seanan McGuire Late Eclipses
Patricia Briggs River Marked

Not gonna comment much here, except to say that Fight Club, which I finally read, is the male version of the woman-centered dark urban fantasies I've been bingeing on. Think about it. I might have more to say about the genre later.

McKinley's Beauty and the Beast was very readable, but not much of a departure, after all the Beauty and the Beast stuff that's happened since. Maybe this is the book that started it, who knows.

Huntress was fun, and it's always great to visit Lo's fantasy world in which same-sex relationships are a simple fact of life. But I was expecting more of an Asian fantasy world, and the world was still dominated by western fairy myths and monsters and magic. So I was disappointed there. But still good, solid YA fantasy, and beautifully written to boot.

March 10, 2011

Reading Update: Trigger Happy

Laurie Halse Anderson Speak

What a great book (despite the ending, which wrapped up a little too neatly)! A girl starts high school an outcast because of something she did over the summer: dropped by all of her friends, and incapable of speaking up for herself. It becomes clear [SPOILER], long before she addresses it, that she was raped at a party and feels disempowered and silenced as a result. Anderson does a fantastic job of layering in the symbolic and the subtle, exploring how time and growth can bring a person's power and voice back, and all the various ways in which teenage girls are silenced. I was particularly struck by how she shows girls being punished for speaking up: by their parents, teachers, classmates, and even their friends.

The protag starts out looking passive and victimized, but by the end of the book, you realize that perhaps she's the strongest character of all of these. Her instinct to be silent may be less the instinct of the eternal victim than that of the wounded predator who hides in her den to lick her wounds. When she comes roaring out at the end, it's not at all unexpected or inconsistent.

Also, I finally understand about trigger warnings. Speak was totally triggering me at the beginning, before Anderson started delving into the reasons behind the protag's ostracism. The bullying and ostracism itself was so upsetting to me that I was reading a page or so at a time and then pacing around my house (or the BART station, or wherever) yelling silently in my head at various characters in the book and memories in my head. Angry angry and frustrated. I finally realized I was doing it and managed to settle down and focus on the book -- but only by distancing myself from it somewhat.

My only quibble: the book is written in first person. It kind of (as in, very much) detracts from the power of the protag's silence when she is speaking to us throughout the book. If it had been in third person, particularly if it was sometimes close third and sometimes objective third, the times the protag spoke would have been infinitely more powerful, without the author losing the ability to get inside her head.

Otherwise, strongly recommended for teen girls and boys.

March 09, 2011

Oh My God

Gwenda has a post pointing to Ursula Le Guin talking about cursing.

Le Guin is talking essentially about the devaluation of language that's happened because everybody says and writes "shit" and "fuck" a lot.

But I just wanna say that I wish people would take the "Lord's" name in vain the way god intended. I'm really tired of hearing "Oh my gosh," as if that's somehow better than "Oh my god." "Gosh" exists for one reason only, to soften the use of the word "god" as a swear word. Since it's unchristian to swear using the epithets of the Judeo-Christian god, somehow it's more christian to swear using soundalike stand-ins for the epithets of the Judeo-Christian god (and states of lack of salvation,) instead of swearing using the names of flowers or household implements or pets, or just, I dunno, not swearing at all.

If you're gonna swear, swear, goshdarnit. Geez. Golly. Dang.

January 16, 2011

Trailer Sunday

Thought it might be fun.

 

I loved the book, but this trailer is awful. Can we agree that if the trailer doesn't make you want to read the book, it shouldn't be?

This is part of the reason why the book is so good: there's a lot of fighting in it, and good fights are really hard to stage. (cf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Also? Not just any teen-girl voice will do. It has to have bottom, gravitas. Okay?

 

It's an Aryancrombie & Fitch ad, with special effects. Why would I want to watch a bunch of puerile, blond models try to act emo?

Okay, yes, I'm going to watch the movie, but I'll wait until it hits video ... about five minutes after it hits theaters.

And this book isn't even particularly diverse, but Hollymood managed to smooth away even the diversity of different kinds of European coloring. Argh!

 

And, of course, this fan trailer for The Hunger Games is much better than the previous two professional trailers. Makes me want to read the books all over again, but I just read them too recently. Can't wait to see the trailer for the movie, though. Wonder if it'll be as good as this trailer.

December 30, 2010

Reading Update: The Dust of 100 Dogs

A.S. King The Dust of 100 Dogs

Okay, first of all, great title!

Second of all, great concept! This is one of those rare books that is conceptually a complete original, owing to its mishmash of ideas, that all somehow work together. They barely work together, but if a miss is as good as a mile, a bare catch at the tip of your mitt is as good as a solid thunk in the pocket. It barely holds together, but it does, and that makes it a terrific read.

Emer Morrissey is a 17th century woman pirate captain attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean. A survivor of Cromwell's Irish campaign, she was sold as a wife to an old man in Paris, ran away, and made her way to the new world and into her new role. It's complicated.

Just as she was about to escape it all with treasure and the love of her life, an old enemy gets to her. Everyone kills each other, but before she dies, she is cursed to live the life of 100 dogs. She does just that, spending three centuries in full awareness of who she is, yet living in the "consciousness" of one dog after another. Finally, the curse ends, and she is reborn, again with full memories of her old lives, as a suburban kid in seventies and eighties Pennsylvania.

But a suburban kid don't have it easy, either. Her father is a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Her mother, also Irish, survived abuse from nuns in an orphanage, and is functionally illiterate. And her older brother has just slipped from teenage rebellion into serious drug addiction. All she wants is to return to Jamaica and find her buried treasure, but that doesn't turn out to be that easy, either.

Honestly, the book shouldn't really have the impact it does. It's silly, unrealistic. The parts of history the author doesn't seem to know are rendered foggily in the book. The amount of rape and torture a beautiful and unprotected teenaged girl would suffer in the situations she finds herself in would probably defy description, yet she doesn't suffer them. And she's somehow a superhero when it comes to killing, with no training whatsoever. Also? The dogs thing? Very underplayed, often completely forgotten. Doesn't play a very big part in moving the plot forward.

Like I said, it barely holds together, but it does hold together, and is one of the most energetic, fun and interesting reads I've had this year. I don't recommend it for YA, necessarily. It's a bit gruesome. But I do recommend it.

December 28, 2010

Reading Update: A Waste of Time

James Dashner The Maze Runner

One of the worst books I've read this year.

Let me qualify that: when I was in eighth grade, I took the bus to a private school on the other side of town. My "bus friend" was a neighbor my age who went to the same school but was a year behind me. We kept each other entertained on the 45-minute ride by playing storyteller and audience. She was the storyteller and I was the audience. I wasn't allowed to watch TV, you see, and she could watch whatever she wanted. So she'd retell the stories of TV shows she'd seen, and I'd listen avidly. (Please note, this was, probably not coincidentally, the year I finally started to make friends, although the stink of book-reading nerd didn't come off for a while after that.)

Our favorite series was Voyagers!, a time travel show with a womanizing time travel dude and his boy sidekick, that only lasted one season. My friend and I developed a sort of storytelling ritual, much like the ritual of watching a TV show, with its snacks, and its commercials, and its cold opens. But ours was much more interactive. For example, whenever the dude met his love interest for that episode, she'd look at me, say, "and ..." and we'd both clap our hands and shout, "Chemistry!" It was a lot of fun.

She was a better storyteller than most seventh graders, but let's not fool ourselves: it was nowhere near as good as actually getting to watch the shows she described. But a) it was better than nothing, and b) it was a way for us to interact. We felt like very good friends, but when we started trying to invite each other over for dinner or sleepovers, the friendship didn't turn out to work so well. We were bus friends only, storytelling friends only.

This is what the experience of reading The Maze Runner was like: it wasn't as good a reading a good book, but it was a) better than nothing, and b) a way for me to interact with the newest YA dystopia trend while waiting for something better to come along.

The story is mostly okay, although it doesn't end up making a lot of sense. And the fact the story isn't over yet (it's a trilogy) can't account for all of it. It was suspenseful enough to keep me reading to the end to find out what it was all about, but when I got to the end, I was so bored by the whole thing that I can't be bothered to descri- zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

And the writing is terrible. Here's a sample paragraph:

Thomas cried, wept like he'd never wept before. His great, racking sobs echoed through the chamber like the sounds of tortured pain.

Uh ... aren't great, racking sobs actually the sound of tortured pain, and not just "like" them? Did anyone edit this book? The whole book is written like this. Argh.

Needless to say, I'm not reading the other two.

December 24, 2010

Reading Update: Beasties, Silly Aliens, and Boring Vampires

Scott Westerfeld Behemoth
Pittacus Lore I Am Number Four
Pete Hautman Sweetblood

I am totally loving Scott's Leviathan series, and can't wait for the next one to come out. Yay! Go read it!

I saw a trailer for I Am Number Four and had to go read the book. It's about -- in case you hadn't heard -- a kid from another planet, Lorien, which was attacked and destroyed by the Whatchamacallits (I'm too lazy to look it up.) The Whatchamacallits had their own planet, but used it all up, so they attacked Lorien to extract all their natural resources. They killed everyone except for 18 people: 9 kids and their keepers. The kids are "garde," people with superpowers. Somehow, the kids are going to repopulate the planet or something. And somehow, the Whatchamacallits want to kill them off. (I'm not sure why; it's never explained and makes no logical sense. I mean, if you're a user-upper species and you've used up your own planet to the extent that you need to go use up somebody else's, don't you want those people to go back and make their planet all shiny and new again, so that you can use it up again in a pinch? Anyhoo.

It's compulsive and fun and I'm looking forward to the next one, but ... well, it's kind of ... "contrived" is not the word I'm looking for to describe the wrong note in a science fiction/fantasy YA novel, is it? It felt deliberately constructed to appeal to teens, and the fact that a movie is coming out so soon after the book suggests that it was marketed more than conceived. I mean, it has all the elements that'll appeal to boy readers: a Mary Sue protag with superpowers, a hottie girlfriend, another hottie girl with superpowers, for boys who swing that way, a nerdy best friend who puts the Mary Sue before himself, a cool father figure, and a school bully who is easily tamed. What is missing is any real world-building integrity, any essentail logic in the premise or how it plays out. The bad guys are unremittingly, irrationally bad. And it makes no sense that beings from another planet are capable of breeding with humans, and in fact, look like us. This should have been a fantasy novel, not a -- nominal -- sci fi.

I'll keep reading, for a while, but I'm not going to talk about the, I'm sure, entirely contrived hype around the identity of the author.

Sweetblood sounded like a good read from the blurb. A diabetic girl has theories about vampirism and diabetes, and then meets a creepy guy who might be an actual vampire. Only SPOILER! he's not. He's just a creepy middle aged dude who lures teens to his house with parties and booze, and then hits on the girls. And she doesn't even meet him until halfway through the book. It's reasonably well-written, but it's boring. It's just about a diabetic girl who has trouble controling the diabetes and gets into a little bit of trouble. Then she straightens up and flies right.

It's rather typical thinking, actually: making the disease the bad guy in the story. It's never that simple in real life. Diabetes is a problem, always, especially when you're a teenager and learning how to manage it on your own. But it's never the only problem, and doesn't cause meltdowns like that in isolation. There's always other stuff going on that raises the stress levels and makes the disease harder to control.

Anyway.

November 29, 2010

Reading Update: More YA Binge, Plus Dragons!

Well, I thought I was done with the YA bingeing, but then I dared to take a peek into The Hunger Games (shoulda known better; the 40-teen waiting list for the book at the library mighta tipped me off) and got totally and completely hooked. Then I peeked into Vampire Academy, expecting it to be stoopid, and got totally and completely hooked again. The only possible thing that coulda peeled me away from Vampire Academy was another Temeraire book and ... lo and behold, one had come out during the summer and I had totally missed it!

The long T-day weekend didn't help (I have tomorrow off, too.) So I gulped the following down and will do another group post, describing and reviewing each in five sentences or less. Ergo (HERE BE SPOILERS):

  1. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games: A 16-year-old girl living in the coal-mining colony of a future, post-apocalyptic America becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games, an annual reality-TV-show-cum-minotauran-tribute the colonies must pay to the dictatorial regime in the city. Each colony must give up a 12-18-year-old boy and girl each year to compete in a to-the-death contest which only one of the tributes can win, or survive. Because she learned to hunt to feed her starving family, she turns out to be an excellent contestant, but finds herself torn between her desire to survive, and her need to not let the competition steal her soul. This was an amazing example of influence -- as opposed to Eragonian derivation -- with notes of "The Lottery," Greek heroic epic, "Survivor," Jarhead, and, yes, even Twilight (are you team Peeta or team Gale?) Totally addictive and very rewarding.
  2. Suzanne Collins Catching Fire: Believe it or not, the previous, near-perfect narrative, actually gets better. The second book in the trilogy isn't as perfectly structured, but introduces much more complexity, as Katniss and Peeta, her co-winner of the Hunger Games, have to pretend to be in love while they travel the country on a press junket, or else risk their families' lives. But Katniss seems to inspire rebellion wherever she goes; she's become an unwitting folk hero to the oppressed people of the outer colonies, who have begun to rise up.
  3. Suzanne Collins Mockingjay: The inevitable conclusion to the trilogy is almost unbelievably good -- unbelievable in that it improves on the previous two, and manages to make a satisfying ending to the whole. Katniss is now in the stronghold of the rebel district, and wondering if she hasn't gone from one dictatorship to another. They're at war, and Katniss is being forced, again, to be a media figurehead for the rebel forces, followed everywhere by cameras, and prodded to make rousing speeches. I won't hint at the conclusion, only to say it's the only thing that could happen. The palpable weariness and trauma of the characters, after so many reversals and tragedies, brings the spirit of this book down low; but it's realistic, and necessary, to make the series' point. Definitely the best YA I've read this year.
  4. Richelle Mead Vampire Academy
  5. Richelle Mead Frostbite
  6. Richelle Mead Shadow Kiss
  7. Richelle Mead Blood Promise (I'm gonna do all of these together): In this world, there are living vampires (Moroi) -- who marry and have kids, and are tall and thin, and have good reflexes, and drink blood and are weakened by the sun --  undead vampires (Strigoi) -- who are made, either from Moroi who kill someone by drinking their blood (Moroi don't kill, only feed a little at a time,) or from humans or Dhampirs, the usual way -- and Dhampirs, half-human, half-Moroi mixes, stronger than the Moroi, who act as their guardians. The protag is a Dhampir girl who is bonded to a Moroi princess, able to read her thoughts and know where she is at all times. Unlike many series, this one grows more complex as it goes along, with our protag learning slowly along the way to question their way of life and her near-subjugation. There's also a romance, and a love triangle, and not a little Buffy-style narrative-slicing thrown in. Character-building and clear logic are weak, but the series is more than just riding the twilit wave; recommended.
  8. Naomi Novik Tongues of Serpents: Captain Laurence of the aerial corps, and his Chinese Celestial dragon Temeraire, have been stripped of their military standing and transported for life to Australia, for their treason during the Napoleonic Wars. While trying to make themselves useful by building a road, they find that one of the dragon eggs they were sent out with to start a new covert in New South Wales has been stolen; the book follows their adventure across the entire continent in pursuit of the stolen eggs. A bit of a disappointment, this is the first Temeraire book to not match the quality and excitement of the others: unlike all of the previous novels -- in which Temeraire and Laurence have to perform important tasks which then turn out to be game-changing -- in this one, their task, to save the egg, is of relatively little importance to their immediate, and very little to their broader, world, and the game-changer at the end is inevitable and not brought about or influenced by anything they have done. In this one, they, although constantly active and experiencing things, are essentially passive, and the world they are moving through is curiously flat: uninformed, unlike all their previous worlds, by a complex political and cultural background. I hope her next one spends a little more time in Australia and picks up the slack of this one.

November 20, 2010

Reading Update: Fun Genre Binge

I haven't updated in a while, and it's mainly because I didn't have a whole lot to say about these books because I was reading them in the spirit of junk food or comfort food. I hooked up (from Shinn's Troubled Waters) with the Wrede books through Amazon's recommendations (yes, I did.) Same with Elliott. Then someone at Borderlands recommended Carrigan and I went forward from there. The next thing I knew, the new McKinley was out, and I had to read that, and then I discovered that Marta Acosta had released the last of the Casa Dracula books and I had to read that.

It was a binge.

So now, before I go back to the growing stack of books I'm supposed to be reviewing, I'm going to sort out my feelings about each of these (or at least, my thinkings) in five sentences or less. Wanna hear it? Here it go:

  • Patricia Wrede Mairelon the Magician: A teenaged street urchiness dressed as a boy tries to steal from a performing magician and finds that he's real, and powerful, and rich. She becomes his apprentice and travels with him and his servant, trying to prove that he didn't commit a crime he is accused of. Fun, but dragged a bit in the middle and there was too much going here, and then going there, and then coming back to here, and then going back there. Later we're tipped off to the fact that the novel is intended as a tribute to 19th century stage farces, but who wants to read those?
  • Patricia Wrede The Magician's Ward: Sequel to the preceding. The young woman apprentice magician apparently gets a class pass because wizards transcend class, so she's introduced to high society as her master's ward. There's a mystery to solve, which involves her going back to the underground economy she used to serve, and of course her master falls in love with her. Also fun, but also too beholden to uninteresting, early, and awkward forms of farce. And why do consummating kisses always have to be performed in front of the entire cast, never in private?
  • Kate Elliott Cold Magic: Definitely the best of this bunch and the start of a promising series. A young woman living with her aunt and uncle and cousins in an alternate steam-punky England, is given away into an unbreakable magical marriage -- as the oldest female in her family -- to a stranger, a "cold magician," in accordance with some old family agreement she never knew about. She discovers that SPOILER she's not actually a member of her family, at least not by blood, and that her aunt and uncle knowingly used her as a decoy to save her beloved cousin, who was the real target of the marriage agreement. Now her husband's family wants her dead, so that they can get their hands on her prescient cousin, and she's busy herself trying to figure out where she came from, what the truth of her family is, and how she feels about her new husband. Can't wait for the next one!
  • Gail Carrigan Soulless
    Gail Carrigan Shameless
    Gail Carrigan Blameless: I'll just do these three together: A "preternatural" Englishwoman, i.e. a person whose touch takes away vampires' and werewolves' supernatural powers, helps England's government ministry on supernaturals solve mysteries. The head of this agency, a werewolf, ends up SPOILER marrying her, and their relationship forms a central issue in the series. From Book 2 on, the author tries to make a virtue out of a series of unintentional malapropisms and misuses of language she committed in the first book by making one of her characters a malaprop; but it doesn't work: she has no gift for language and that's a HUGE problem in this book. I also didn't like the horribly anachronistic slang and attitudes (yes, I KNOW this is an alternate timeline, but the author doesn't seem to understand Victorian attitudes at all, although she tries to use them.) Despite these crippling flaws, the books are well structured and terrifically fun and I'm going to keep reading.
  • Robin McKinley Pegasus: I've mentioned before how annoying I find it when the first book of a series can't find a good place to stop. Each book has to have its own arc, people! Even Lord of the Rings did! A girl and her pegasus try to prove that the intelligent pegasi are just as important as humans, but the lesson is somewhat muted by the fact that the pegasus lets the girl ride him and basically brings his entire race of people to heel to serve her needs. Nothing by McKinley can truly be bad, and I'm anxious to find out how this one turns out, but probably not anxious enough to read this book again before the next one comes out, to remind myself of what actually happened.
  • Marta Acosta Haunted Honeymoon: The fourth and, sadly, the last book in the Casa Dracula series about a voluptuous, wild-child Latina writer who gets half-turned into a vampire by the man of her dreams. In this episode, she has to choose, finally, between the straight-arrow, righteous vamp who turned her, and the slightly scary, mysterious, but hella sexy vamp she's been doing on the side. Although a hundred percent chicklit -- down to detailed descriptions of every outfit she wears, every meal she eats, and every fuck she sexes -- the series doesn't skimp on fundamental character development for her protagonist. It's not terribly serious, but it is both fun and satisfying, and I'm sad to see Milagro go.

November 02, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Please Join Us!

Dear Donor,

Sorry to address this letter in a form letter fashion, but I'm afraid I don't know how to mailmerge ... or to export a mailing list from our database ... or to get into the database in the first place. So I'm just going to photocopy the printed list from last year (thank God for my predecessor's mania for hardcopies) and cut and glue it onto the envelopes. I'm sure there's an easier way, but I don't know it. (If you know how to do any of these things, I sure could use a volunteer. I'm a program man myself, not an admin.)

I'm writing to ask you to make a donation to the Save Our Forests Alliance.

As you may know, it's been a hard year for the SOFA. We lost half our board of directors in an "attempted coup" and then the other half resigned when they discovered that their takeover was illegal and they'd have to invite the first half back for mediation. The first half declined to return to where they weren't wanted.

But their loss, right? After all, we're the premiere anti-deforestation organization in our part of the Midwest. Anyone who can't put the mission ahead of personal agendas doesn't need to be a part of that. But we know that you, dear Donor, are an intrinsic part of that.

The only downside to losing selfish board members was that our treasurer was in charge of our accounts, and s/he won't return my calls (I was advised by a lawyer not to name names or hint about genders on official documents,) and there's something strange going on with the bank misrecording our account activity so that our accounts are reading zero. But I haven't been confirmed as executive director by the board (because we no longer have one; that should all be fixed as soon as I get ahold of our advisory board members and get them to step onto the board on an interim basis, but as I said, I can't get into the database so I don't know who they are; if you're one of our advisors, could you please email me at nickt@sofa.org?) so I can't access our account records or demand an accounting from the bank. They keep referring me to our former treasurer.

Because our now-erstwhile E.D. had been fired previous to the board breakdown (the one thing they all could agree on was that the only effective leader in the organization had to go) the remaining managers couldn't access the accounts, and the staff couldn't be paid. No one wanted to listen to my explanation that it would all be sorted out eventually, when our lawsuit came up in court and we were able to get a judge to order our bank records to be released. So we lost our entire staff. No one was willing to work on spec or (God forbid!) volunteer for a few weeks. I understand; we're in a recession. But the forests can't save themselves, can they?

We at SOFA know that you know they can't. Which is why we need your help today. We're asking our most loyal donors to make a gift of $500, $100, $50, or whatever you can afford, to help us continue our valuable work.

We have the infrastructure, and the programs in place. All we need is some interim funding to get our operations going again. We still have that giant spool of nickel-plated chain, shiny and new and waiting to bind our volunteers to the trees in front of the capitol building. We still have our office (for another month, until the eviction goes through) and it's not to late to pay up our back rent and stay here! We could even start programming again, if our volunteer coordinator would only send me the spreadsheet of volunteer contacts. I know I shouldn't have slept with her when I knew I was getting back together with my girlfriend, but the girlfriend didn't work out after all, and anyway, I don't think our forests should be punished for my mistake, do you?

Please help. We can't do this vital work without you.

I'd enclose a remittance envelope, but I don't know where they are. I've put our address at the bottom of the letter however (I would have used letterhead, but I don't know where that is, either) to make things a little easier on you. I'm writing you because I know that you, like me, still have the passion for our forests, and can still see the forests without getting lost in the trees of doubters and haters and less-than-committed people.

Together, we can make this country great again. Please give today.

Our best wishes for the holiday season.

Sincerely,

Nick Tanner

Interim Executive Director

p.s.: Don't forget to ask your employer to match your donation! You could double or triple your donation that way! Please give today!

 

This is my second NaBloWriMo instant fiction post: short short stories I'm writing every day throughout November, mostly inspired by online videos and images. Stay tuned for another one tomorrow.

October 31, 2010

Why Isn't College Dramatic?

During the summer TV slump, I watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars again. Yes, the first season was great, the second was good, and the third was heeeeeeinous. Still. What puzzled me was why the third season was so bad. I mean there's the fact that they moved to a different network, and that they were forced to cut the stories shorter, so there was no season-long arc. The shorter stories turned the show's premise into schlock: high-concept detective TV. Like Hart to Hart.

But what was really the problem with season three was that the show suddenly focused on (young) adult female sexuality, and it totally went to pieces. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) In the first two seasons, Veronica was a nerd male fantasy: hot, smart, smart-ass, ass-kickin', and not at all scary with the sexual confidence 'n' stuff. She was a raped virgin. It was okay for white-hat-wearin' girls on this show to be virgins, or at least not sexually active.

But when she gets to college, it would look weird (i.e. non-normative) for her (and everybody else) to not be sexually active. And that's where the fantasy falls apart. Because for a hot chick who's that kickass to be sexually active, she has to be great in bed, too. And then she's suddenly beyond the nerd-boy's reach, not to mention scary. It's a dilemma, because for her to not be good in bed would kill the fantasy as well.

So suddenly the show has all of these weird sexual politics in it. The first story is about a serial campus rapist who shaves his victims' heads, just to make the power dynamic of a rape more visual. (Of course, it was completely ridiculous, b/c instead of actually shaving the actors' heads, they made them wear totally fake-looking fuzz-head wigs.) It's as if (showrunner) Rob Thomas had to balance out Veronica's suddenly active sexuality with a classic punishment for female sexuality.

Then he introduces what is apparently the only on-campus feminist group (at a private college? in California?) protesting the rapes (as if women who weren't outspoken feminists wouldn't be protesting serial rapes too: welcome to the 21st century you creep) who are a bunch of lying, cheating, conniving -- not to mention humorless -- bitches. He actually opposes da feminists to the lampoonists, two nerdy/misogynist guys who write a bad humor mag. As if the third wave of the most successful social justice movement of the last century -- which represents half of humanity, by the way -- was as trifling as a misogynist college humor mag. The "feminists" actually fake one of the rapes to make a point, an incredibly irresponsible thing to do in fiction in a culture that still blames rape victims and tries to scare them away from the very organizations that are there to help them. Gee, Rob, threatened much?

The second long story is a completely noirish story about the murder of a wealthy college dean, and the affair his young, beautiful wife is having with the hot, young professor. The wife isn't even an attempt at realism. Her hair is done forties-style, she dresses forties-style, and she has no personality, besides breathiness and lipstick. We, of course, never get to see her even kissing the hot young prof, although we do get to see him naked in a hotel room with her. (Why do we only get to see men in states of undress in this show? Could it be a fear of female sexuality?) And, of course, the hot-to-trot young wife is a femme fatale: she turns out to be the one who killed her husband and set up her lover to take the fall.

There's another story about a nerdy college boy whose friends hire a prostitute to take his virginity. He falls in love with her and hires Veronica to track her down, but then gets turned off to her when he realizes that her being a stripper and a prostitute isn't just an abstract concept: men are going to remember her and treat her accordingly. The show seems to think his hypocrisy is only natural, and rewards him for dumping his prosty girlfriend by giving him Veronica's best friend as a new girlfriend.

The problem here is clear: the male creator of the show didn't (doesn't?) understand adult female sexuality, and college is -- for people who go to college -- often or usually the place where sexuality blossoms and becomes adult. To write/create effective, realistic stories about girls becoming sexually active women, you have to understand how this happens.

Rape, usually date rape, is far too often a part of this. But the weird roofie-then-shave-head rape of Veronica Mars is most definitely not the usual way campus date rape happens. (Rob Thomas loves the roofie, by the way -- Veronica was roofied and raped in the first episode of the entire series. But far more often, the intoxicant of choice is simple booze.) And even -- or especially -- when rape doesn't happen, consensual sex in college is a very complicated mishmash of negotiation, persuasion, emotional blackmail, self-consciousness, wish-fulfillment, awkwardness, weird body issues, desperation, and, always always, desire. And that's just the women.

Because the cameras cut away the moment the bodies start getting horizontal, the real substance of a sexual liaison between very young adults is also cut away. There's a weird commitment, in this and all other shows, to making all consensual sex satisfying for both parties. (The first time in the series that we see Veronica in the afterglow, she's complimenting her 18-year-old boyfriend Logan on his sexual prowess by saying he could monetize it. That's not problematic at all.) Thus the weird, exciting, awkward, embarrassing, and above all, loooong sexual learning curve we go through throughout our twenties is compressed into a single encounter, and a whole new generation of late teens is subjected to a sexual inferiority complex.

Nobody ever shows a sexual encounter that is just as awkward and unpleasant as it is exciting and pleasurable. Nobody ever shows the young woman's sexual arc getting cut off before climax again and again as she (very slowly) learns to articulate her desires, and her young man partner learns (very slowly) to satisfy her. Instead of a multi-episode story arc in which Veronica complains embarrassedly and irritatedly to Mac that she's not getting off, and she and Mac puzzle over what they want and how to get their boyfriends to do it, instead we get super hot single girls being roofied, raped, and shaved, while Veronica looks unsympathetic and has sweaty orgiastic rock in a penthouse suite with a mysteriously game 18-year-old.

I remember the spring before I graduated, I and my equally 22-year-old friend took a road trip to San Diego to stick our toes in the ocean. We met two boys on the beach, 18 and 16, the elder of whom was trying to school the younger in picking up girls. We had the usual "how old are you?" discussion, which, at 22, was already becoming not so usual anymore. The boy told us "I'm 18, and I fuck like an 18-year-old, too!" My friend and I laughed and tried to convince him that wasn't a good thing. But beneath our overeager superiority and condescension, there was a very immediate realism informed by the four years of college we'd just been through, and the constant sexual disappointment we'd both experienced, plus our fairly recent awakening to the fact that good sex took a lot of work from both parties.

The highschooler was a veteran of sudden gropes and makeout sessions at parties. He hadn't yet gone through the process we'd gone through, which complicated sex and made it much more interesting, but also more confusing. It was an interesting moment, in retrospect, and meant much more than we thought it did at the time.

*****

I could go on, but I think I've made my point about Veronica Mars (which also applies to Buffy): kickass, hot, young, girl-things aren't necessarily evidence of feminism in their male creators.

But all this got me to thinking about why it is that there aren't any compelling dramas about college life. College always ends up being a joke in popular culture. This came up for me a few years ago when I was a devotee of Yahoo! Answers (where people ask questions and anyone can try to answer them. I was there mainly for the book recommendations.) Someone asked for recommendations of novels about college life, and wondered why this didn't seem to be a genre, in the way that YA high school novels were. People had a hard time coming up with titles (as did I.) The only one that anyone could think of was The Secret History. (I also thought of Brideshead Revisited but I don't really consider that a college novel, since the college part was just a prelude to the midlife crisis part.)

I think part of it is that, similar to Rob Thomas and female sexuality in Veronica Mars, people see and understand the difference between adolescence and adulthood, but don't seem to be aware of, or able to articulate, the process of moving from one to the other. Of course, for the half of the U.S. population that doesn't go to college, the transition between high school graduate and working adult is technically immediate. There's no discrete period of years or distinct set experience that is considered the coming of age moment. That's a large part of why college is considered so important: it's a distinct coming-of-age process that set off from the rest of the world -- age segregated -- and that is opaque to anyone who's not in it.

This opacity is bizarre to me. Half of us go through it. Why is it so hard for us to understand what happened? My boss of four years has a daughter who was fifteen when I started working for her and who was nineteen and coming out of her first year of college when I stopped working for her. I remember the girl being very shy and self-conscious and unable to talk to grownups like me in high school. Then she disappeared for nine months and came back from her first year of college smart, confident, firm, and able to look me in the eye, shake my hand, and ask me adult questions about how I was and what I was doing. The transformation was dramatic.

I  remember my freshman year myself. A lot happened, and I came back physically as well as emotionally different. But if I tried right now to narrate the incidents and trends that led me to dress differently, stand up straight, and represent myself with confidence to hundreds of strangers (I canvassed for a PIRG that summer) it would sound trifling and inconsequential. (There was a couple I befriended with a Doberman puppy. There were desperate makeout sessions with a guy friend I wasn't attracted to in a baseball dugout. There was a high-school-best-friend breakup scene long distance on the phone. There were mosh pits and vomit and second-hand clothing stores. There were various physical and emotional transformations happening throughout my family that I was leaving behind. There were certain dreams and desires collapsing, and other ones aborning. Need I go on?)

Why is it that everything that happens in college seems humorous or unimportant, like first world problems? Even when you're talking about the kids who have to work full time during school, or who have to take care of ailing parents, or of their own kids, or deal with illness or disability or abusive relationships, etc. etc. Even then, while the problems aren't inconsequential, somehow they don't seem as serious in narrative as the same problems in teenagerhood or in adulthood.

Maybe it's that the coming of age that happens in college is always triumphal (unless it culminates in someone dropping out.) Graduating from college, in our society, is in effect sealing your membership in the educated classes. Even if you work at McDonald's for the rest of your life, you'll never be less than middle class (whatever that means these days.) And you don't have to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. This is always viewed as an accomplishment, meritorious, a permanent safe passage.

There's also the fact that college life is protected. High schoolers are protected as well, but they're a part of "real life," being part of families of people "out in the real world" dealing with problems in all classes, races, sectors, neighborhoods. Teens are dramatically transforming people half in and half out of childhood, but part of the totality of society. College, however, even city colleges and community colleges in urban campuses, are still physically and psychologically set off from the rest of the world.

This awareness of the special protectedness of college life and the privilege it confers is probably an enormous part of why, in this supremely class-conscious society, we don't take college drama very seriously. Especially not the people who go through it. There's some sort of merit in acknowledging privilege not by straightforwardly acknowledging it, but by tearing oneself or one's own peers down for being privileged.

Hm.

I think what I just said above is true, but it doesn't feel like the whole story. Any ideas? Why isn't college fictionally dramatic?

October 30, 2010

Wimmin Leaders in TVland

Ego-googling, I came across this post by Courtney Stoker on Geek Feminism, about why so-called feminist geeks hate women characters on tv.

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ”being one of the guys” strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, “I just don’t get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys.” These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because “I don’t get along with women” is dealbreaker for me.

Liz Henry pointed to my post on Voyager in comments and "Burn" responded that:

I watch a lot of crime/procedural shows and there’s frequently a similar dynamic going on with the women bosses. ... A brilliant but non-conformist and risk-taking team leader, some team members, and then the big boss, who represents the government/police/military/whatever hierarchy. Team Leader takes risks, team members are also frequently risk-takers, and the Big Boss warns them not to push the boundaries, but of course the Team Leader goes against orders, and is pretty much always correct in the end. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of women cast as the Big Boss/representative of the Bureaucracy.  Since the narrative sets up the maverick Team Leader as a hero, and the Team Leader is almost always male, it sets up the dynamic of the audience sympathizing with the team rather than the bureaucracy, which places more women (usually middle-aged) into this almost-guaranteed-to-be-unlikeable role of the fun-killer.

I've actually responded viscerally to this without noticing it consciously before, so I'm glad Burn pointed it out. This may be part of the reason I don't enjoy most police procedurals. But I have been watching some recent woman-centered procedurals and they, more than sf shows, have been pioneering strong, interesting, middle-aged women leads.

I'm thinking about Saving Grace (which just ended its run recently,) The Closer, and In Plain Sight. All three of these shows posit strong, troubled, often obnoxious women cops (in In Plain Sight she's a U.S. Marshal) who are advanced enough in their field to work independently or be team leaders, without being the "big boss." All of them are unconventional risk-takers, all have alienated the establishment in their field and gotten themselves into trouble, and all have found a place where they can be accepted by finding male allies -- both superiors and equals -- partly through their sexual appeal, and partly by finding men who are as unconventional and troubled as themselves.

All three are also very strongly emotional, and are impelled by their empathy with the victims they work with. However, they all distort their emotional responses, subsuming their emotions in their work, acting out in small tics and rituals (in The Closer it's her compulsive sweets-eating,) taking their troubles out on their (unrealistically) understanding lovers, and only showing their vulnerability at special moments, often only to crime victims. All of them are dealing with serious histories with male authority figures: father abandonment, priest sexual abuse, a series of bad relationships.

I love all of these characters, and even compared Grace in Saving Grace to Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica, and called it a new archetype, the "Starbuck". I think Mary from In Plain Sight might be a "Starbuck" too, but there are arguments against it. For one, she and her younger sister and her mother, all three share the damage, so elements of the Starbuck archetype are divided among the three of them. Mary doesn't really have Starbuck's (or Grace Hanadarko's) charm, but her mother and sister do have it, without having the strength or kickassness. I don't think Brenda Leigh Johnson is a Starbuck at all, either. She might be more interesting, since she uses "feminine weakness" to compromise others.

I'm a character addict, in television and written fiction. I can enjoy a fiction with a good story and flat characters, but it doesn't stick with me. What makes something strong and abiding for me in fiction is strong characters. And I think what's really important about the way that women are portrayed in these shows isn't that the women are leads, or that they're strong and capable and kickass. It's rather that they're very particular characters, very individual and flawed and interesting.

Creating a new archetype isn't the same as  creating a new stereotype. Archetypes are more about place-holding in our imagination. They tell us that the individual we're seeing isn't anomaly, but rather is one individual among many in a similar situation, who has similar responses to that situation. Drawing a character from an archetype, or creating a new archetype, doesn't mean that your characters will become flat. Only if you flatten the character yourself will it become a stereotype. And what's happening with this new type of approaching-middle-age or middle-aged independent woman is that the shows are using them as maquettes to build very individual characters upon. Let's hope it lasts.

...

One more quick note: I think it's important to note that all three are blonde (as was Starbuck) and all bottle-blondes (including Starbuck.) There's something basic here about American beauty standards: I think presenting a non-blonde female lead in itself is fighting a small fight, and offering a sole female lead in a woman-centered fiction is probably enough fight for one show. I think the female leads have to be blonde. Look at the other female leads in woman-centered shows: Meredith Grey, Nurse Jackie, Hellcats, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, United States of Tara, the new one The Big C, etc. I think there are a few with brunettes, like Weeds, but not many. The ones that aren't (Cougartown, 30 Rock) are mainly comedies.

It's particularly interesting, about the bottle-blonde, because at least one of these isn't entirely white: Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace is part ... you guessed it ... American Indian, although it's Choctaw (or Caddo?) in her case, not Cherokee. I haven't quite decided what to make of that yet; I'm trying to hold back sour commentary on the white American desire for mystical Indian ancestors to justify their existence here and wipe them clean of the racial sin of racism. But I ain't gonna go there.

October 18, 2010

Reading Update: Hrm

Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters

Yeah, the book was fun, female-centered fantasy. Pretty smooth. But sitting here 24 hours after finishing it, I'm having trouble remembering details of it. Not a strong plot, not a lot at stake. Hrm.

In other news, looks like fall is finally here in the Bay Area and I've turned on my heater. Makes me want to snuggle into some knits and read.

September 30, 2010

Reading Update: The Mediator

I'm in the middle of thirty different books right now and got all wadded up and confused, so I tossed it all to the winds for a week in favor of Meg Cabot's sfnal series The Mediator.

I guess I should enumerate:

Meg Cabot The Mediator #1: Shadowland
Meg Cabot The Mediator #2: Ninth Key
Meg Cabot The Mediator #3: Reunion
Meg Cabot The Mediator #4: Darkest Hour
Meg Cabot The Mediator #5: Haunted
Meg Cabot The Mediator #6: Twilight

The series revolves around Suze, a "mediator" or someone who sees (and feels, and is able to touch, kiss, and beat up) ghosts. The mediator's job is to help the ghosts move on to their final destination by figuring out what unresolved issue is keeping them here and help them resolve it. Sometimes this involves smacking angry ghosts around, something that Suze really kind of enjoys doing.

The series begins when Suze arrives in Carmel, CA, where her news reporter mother has just married and moved in with a TV home-improvement guru and his three sons. Suze had been living in New York, alone with her mother ever since her father died when she was six. Her job as a mediator, necessitating damaging fights with ghosts and the occasional breaking and entering, had gotten her into a lot of trouble in NY, and she was considered weird by her school mates.

Carmel offers her a fresh start, especially since the principal of her exclusive Catholic school turns out to be a mediator too. The new family home, an 150-y-o boarding house, turns out to have its own ghost, who lives in her room: Hector "Jesse" de Silva, a very good-looking 20-year-old scion of a Mexican family, murdered in the house in its first year. Naturally, she falls for him. The series MILD SPOILER revolves around Suze and Jesse's relationship issues and how they try to resolve the problem of a cross-dimensional romance.

Okay, let's just be clear: these books are snacks, not meals (you can scarf one in a few hours), and empty calories at that. And yet ... I found them utterly addicting, and ripped right into the next one as soon as I'd finished the last. They're fun, funny, full of cute boys (there are almost no bad-looking boys in the series, which owes more to the fact that the narrator is a horny 16-year-old girl than anything else), and smoothly written and structured. None of the cute boys -- not even Jesse -- has any personality, and that's a big problem. In fact, all of the characters, except Suze, are two-dimensional at best. So the series will ultimately be forgettable.

But there are two main hooks for me here, which are a little surprising: Suze DOES have a personality, and it's not a Mary Sue personality. She's a bantam, horny and always looking for a fight, and definitely never the smartest person around. She's smart enough, but her nemesis Paul, who first appears in Book 4, is clearly smarter than she is and always one step ahead of her. In fact, so is Jesse, in his way. Jesse is book smarter, anyway, although he may be too "honorable" to see past her ... um ... wiles.

Suze is also a bit of an emotional klutz: clearly affected by her unpopularity in New York, she has trouble believing any boy would like her, and is completely unprepared for popularity or leadership in her school. And her emotions always get the best of her, in both senses. She can't seem to do the smart thing when her hackles are up, and ends up getting into a lot of trouble. I found this incredibly annoying and, incredibly, realistic. I remember being sixteen. It's not a smart look.

The other hook is Suze's physical aggression. It's not presented as a cool fetish -- nor is she a particularly gifted fighter. She's just very experienced at fighting, not afraid to fight, and convinced of the efficacy of fighting, given her experiences with fighting angry ghosts in the past. Cabot presents the fighting as what it is: neither good nor bad, just one way of dealing with things. And ironically, it's the male characters who oppose Suze's aggression, and try to convince her that there are better ways to resolve problems. I also love that she loses fights as often as she wins them, and in a realistic way: when fighting the ghost of a 19th century lady, she wins handily. But when fighting that lady's roughneck husband, she gets into trouble, as you'd imagine.

Anyhoo, this is a great anodyne for anyone suffering from too much Twilight. It's a precursor to both Meyer and Shymalan (the first three books were published one and two years after The Sixth Sense came out, but were presumably written before, since it's only in the fourth book that she makes humorous reference to it -- something I'm sure Cabot couldn't have resisted doing earlier if she'd had the opportunity.) And this is the anti-Twilight in a lot of ways: the new girl in town meets an undead boy (who watches her sleep!) and connects with him in a way that no one else can, and has to figure out a way to be with him. Only this klutzy girl is determined, kickass, and full of personality, and makes her own solutions rather than leaving it all up to her undead boy. Even the resolution to the "how to be with him" issue is the opposite of Twilight's, but I won't spoil it be saying what it is.

I would definitely hand this off to any mourning Twilight fans who need correction.

August 26, 2010

Reading Update: Teen Pregnancy, Swords and Sorcery, and Feminist Sci-fi

Nick Hornby Slam

Robin McKinley The Blue Sword

Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World

Slam: Meh. 15 y/o kid obsessed with Tony Hawk gets his girlfriend pregnant. TH whisks him forward into the future to see what will happen. Then it happens. Good understanding of the teenaged male mind. Not much of a story, though.

The Blue Sword: Just about pure wish fulfillment. Girl brought to a colonial outpost near the wild hill people in a secondary world, gets kidnapped by their king and trained to be one of his warriors. No one mistreats her, everyone reveres her. She turns out to have magic and learns everything incredibly easily. Then it turns out that she has hill people blood in her. Yawn. Did I mention that the hill people are like a combo of American Indian and Bedouin, with magic added? There's hardly any conflict, and when it finally rears its head, in the form of the bad Northern war-maker, she just pulls out her magic sword and brings an avalanche down on him. Fun, but I'll forget I ever read it in about a minute.

Walk to the End of the World: The first of the groundbreaking Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic world in which men have completely enslaved women to the point that they are constantly in danger of dying out. If you swallow this premise, which is the only implausible part of the series, but is also clearly a product of its time (1974 pub date,) then the series is kind of amazing. Her characterization and depiction of interpersonal politics is spot on. Of course, it keeps stumbling over the problem of all men, everywhere, believing that all women everywhere are evil and also stupid. Centuries of a Christian theology that held women to be the root of all sin didn't succeed in convincing everybody of either of these premises, so I'm not sure why it would work now. (Like I said, this one piece is a huge stumbling block.) But if you can suspend that disbelief, it's a great read. I'm halfway through the second one right now.

Now I'm off to the gym to sit on a bike and continue reading the second book. Yee haw.

August 21, 2010

Reading Update: YA Trash

We break from our regularly scheduled nonfiction to bring you

Whip It by Shauna Cross

Which I read because I just couldn't bring myself to see the movie. I hate Ellen Page, ever since she made that horrible crypto-pro-life hipster jizz-bag Juno. A grown-ass woman who looks like a child is not my idea of a hipster queen. Argh.

And the book was YA genre trash that I tore through in two hours (seriously, three paragraph chapters are the rule here) but it was fun. The best part about it is the roller derby, and I really wish she had spent more time explaining and describing it. I was never interested in roller derby before (because of its extreme hipster cred) but now it sounds fun and interesting.

The rest is just typical YA crap: misfit teen with Parents Who Don't Understand Her. She finds something she loves and eventually Has A Showdown With Her Mom. Mom gets over it and turns up to cheer her on. Yay. The end. Whatever.

June 25, 2010

Reading Update

Shailja Patel Migritude

A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective

Talking about Shailja's book would break two rules: reviewing a friend's book and reviewing a book I'm publicizing professionally. But I will mention that it's a book made from a performance made from spoken word poetry. And that I've seen the performance twice (and loved it!) And that I was surprised at how well the book read on paper. That is all.

The Automatic Detective is a lot of fun. I dragged out the reading of it by only reading it on the BART, otherwise I would've gotten through much sooner. But keeping it to a BART reader gave me something to look forward to on the BART. I even chose BART over driving the other day so I could spend my travel time with this book.

The novel revolves around the protagonist robot, Mack Megaton, who has been acknowledged as having the free will glitch in his programming that confers sentience, and who is four years away from completing his probation -- at the end of which time he'll become a fully recognized citizen. Mack requires probation because he's actually a killer robot created by an evil genius -- a killer robot who then refused to serve his purpose. There are worries, not least in Mack's own conscience, that Mack may break one day and start killing people.

Anyhoo, Mack is a bit emotionally distant from the world, but he does have a few friends, chief among them the wife and daughter of the family next door. The wife ties his tie every morning (he doesn't have the manual dexterity to do it yet.) One day, he surprises a thug in the act of terrorizing the family, and in the confusion, the prescient (mutant) daughter is able to slip him a note telling him to look for them. Then the family disappears and someone blows up Mack's apartment.

From this point on, we're in a classic noir, except for the cartoony sci-fi world ... and the fact that the femme fatale isn't fatale. It's, as I said, a lot of fun, and seamlessly pulled off. Loved it and highly recommend it as pure entertainment. No redeeming social value.

April 28, 2010

Reading & Writing Update

So I'm working on a new story and I think a good way to get me to work more on it is to say that I'll read an excerpt from it at my reading on Friday. Yeah. That's it.

Also, I'm on a Robin McKinley binge. Just read:

Sunshine
Chalice
Spindle's End

Weird, reading three books at once, and in the same year as I read another book, all by the same author. You get to see the repetition of themes and structures, like her concern with elements and how magic draws from them (something I love too.) Or her interest in male/female partnerships between people whose personalities attract, but who have a built-in physical repulsion. (In one story this is a vampire/human thing and in another this is an elemental priest/human thing. It seems like a kind of metaphor for women being simultaneously attracted and repulsed by men, who are somehow inherently physically alien and physically dangerous, yet who provide a kind of complementary weight and access.)

She also seems to have a liking for the balanced male/female pairings. There's a lot of romance wish-fulfillment here, but at least it's a wish for equality.

She does have a tendency to let the plot fall apart at the end. Final confrontations are not her forte. Spindle's End and Sunshine especially have very messy climaxes. The one in Spindle's End went on forever and wandered back and forth and didn't declare clearly when it was over until it was, really, over. The one in Sunshine was just really unclear how it happened, and therefore not entirely plausible within its own world-rules. The climax in Chalice worked reasonably well, but -- and here's the problem will all three books, I think -- the part leading up to the climax was a lot of casting around for filler so that the pacing didn't go off right before the climax. This was especially bad in Sunshine. Frustrating.

I'm thinking back to Dragon Haven now and remembering that its climax was actually rather good: came slightly unexpectedly, and was a bit weird, yet satisfying. Fit in its world.

I've ordered two more from Paperback Swap and will have six McKinley books under my belt, at least, before the year is out. Bad climaxes notwithstanding, exactly what I want to read right now.

April 03, 2010

Reading Update w/ Thylacine

Kinda like a dog, kinda like a cat, but it's a marsupial! With a big mouth!

I posted the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) above in honor of my reading updates today:

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

The thylacine shows up in Westerfeld's Leviathan, where it is the only "natural" (i.e. non DNA-manipulated) creature around. I really wanted to see one after reading the book and there it is. What an awesome animal! What a terrible pity they're extinct!

The book is fun! My no-review rule holds here, though.

Fire was very different in a lot of ways from Graceling. It is a good, solid, adventure fantasy with strong wish fulfillment and romance elements in it. But the female hero's power isn't ass-kicking. It's (basically) beauty, with a bunch of telepathy thrown in. This was very interestingly handled, since Cashore didn't make it either a dream-job-type deal, like the beautiful princesses in fairy tales, who are purely loved, or a simplistic my-life-is-so-hard-pity-me deal. But she did show that beauty is a very mixed blessing, especially this kind of magical beauty, which forces people to behave in extreme ways.

The protag, Fire, is a "monster," a brightly-colored version of her species (in this case, human, although there are monsters of every animal species as well) which possesses a mesmerizing beauty, telepathic powers, and a strong lust for the flesh of other monsters. (Note: Cashore seems to forget this last part when dealing with Fire, so that we never actually get to see Fire chowing down monsterly on other monsters. Boo.) Fire is the last human monster, daughter of a monster father who was really a monster: he controlled the king and brought the kingdom to ruin. Now, with her father and the king he controlled dead for a couple of years, and the kingdom on the brink of ruin, Fire has to help the new king and his brother, a military prodigy who commands the kingdom's army and Fire's love interest, prevent the kingdom from splitting up.

In the meantime, Fire has to fend off (usually not by herself) predatory monsters who want to eat her, and (mostly male) humans who love her too much, or hate her. And she has to decide how best to use her telepathic powers without becoming a true monster like her father.

I have to say, this was great in the first half of the book, but then when we got into the second half, where all of Fire's principles are compromised, it kinda fell apart. SPOILERS FOLLOW! For example: she never trusts any of the men who fall in love with her -- including her best friend Archer, who truly loves her, but is also controlled by her magical beauty. Yet she never questions Brigan's (the king's brother) admittedly reluctant love. This isn't satisfying. In Graceling, Cashore is careful to set up a romance in which each of the two lovers is able to protect themselves against the other's power. This doesn't happen here, so Cashore should have had some sort of reckoning with Fire's beauty and how it affected Brigan ... but we never get there.

Fire also struggles with using her telepathy to control other people for the good of the kingdom. But when she finally gives in and starts using it -- struggle over. She (and we) never see the slippery slope, even though we know it's there. Too simplistic. And finally, she is essentially treated (by the author) as physically helpless. She never really kicks ass, even though she has the power to protect herself from any attacking individual. She never loses her temper, never strikes back against any of the men who throw themselves at her. It makes her unsympathetic, that she never takes charge of protecting herself, even though she does eventually agree to use her powers for the good of the kingdom. There's a lot of potential complexity in her that was left sitting around.

I really wanted to love this book, but I just didn't. It didn't have the perfection -- the matching of means to end -- that Graceling did. Maybe because it was a little more ambitious, and was trying something very tricky. There's a lesson right there: give the more ambitious books more time.

March 24, 2010

Reading Update

David Small Stitches

Malinda Lo Ash

Georgette Heyer Faro's Daughter

Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army

I have a lot to say about Daughters of the North, or The Carhullan Army (which latter title I vastly prefer) but I just don't have time right now. Maybe I'll get to it later. Had some problems with the insistence on "beautiful" over functional language at the beginning (was surprised to hear that this is "stripped down" from her previous books.) Had some problems with backstory (weak) and character-building (her motivation was weak.) Had some problem with the major plot-killing point that the Carhullan radicals never once seemed to consider the issue of how badly society would collapse and how few resources they actually had to keep the masses alive if they actually succeeded in their revolution. But the main portion of the novel, depicting the life and world and human dynamics of Carhullan was breathtaking. Bottom line: Great book!

March 02, 2010

Reading Update

Finished Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series:

The Sea of Monsters
The Titan's Curse
The Battle of the Labyrinth
The Last Olympian

It was fun and addicting, but it wasn't as good as Harry Potter and I'm trying to figure out why.

I think part of is was that Harry Potter had the growing-into-teenagerhood-battle-of-the-sexes thing, but didn't have to contend with traditional archetypes. It's really hard to represent female empowerment when your two strongest battle goddesses are sworn virgins who get their power from their virginity. Also hard when your top three most powerful gods are, well, gods, not goddesses.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Riordan did some interesting stuff here with making the potentially most powerful demigod -- the child of Zeus -- a girl. But then he also took her out of the running by having her swear eternal maidenhood, which means both eternal virginity AND eternal adolescence, argh. This could have been the vehicle for some interesting discussion about teens and decisionmaking about their sexuality, but it's glossed over in favor of a truly not okay dichotomy between slutty/manipulative/dumb/vain Aphrodite (and her children,) and cold/standoffish/superior/selfish/uncaring Artemis (and her followers.) Oh yeah, also: Hera is a vengeful hypocrite who only cares about appearances, although she's constrained to sexual fidelity to her husband, being the goddess of marriage; Demeter is just plain dumb, caring only about farming; Persephone is also dumb; Hestia, who kind of saves the day, is weak and "prefers" to appear as a little girl sitting by the fire, overlooked by everyone but -- literally -- keeping the home fires burning; and Athena, the wise one, turns out to be wrong about our hero, and also has children parthenogenically, through platonic love affairs with men.

Yep, there's not a single good, strong, triumphant female god in the bunch, although all the male gods end up coming through: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Dionysus ... well, maybe not Ares. And all the male gods are rampantly sexual -- in fact the main action of the series is caused by extracurricular fucking on the part of the three strongest male gods.

I DO however, think it's really interesting that the character chosen to play the part of Achilles in the series' retelling of The Iliad in the final book is a girl. Yep, that's right. Clarisse, daughter of Ares, argues with the Apollo children over who gets the spoils of a particular battle -- although the spoils are a flying chariot, not a pretty girl. When Apollo cabin wins, Clarisse refuses to fight against the Titans. Her Patroclus is another girl, actually, the head of the Aphrodite children. Although there's no overt homoerotic tinge to their relationship, it's the only relationship in the series that approaches (but never breaches) the Bechdel barrier.

And yeah, that's another issue: doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Although the hero of the Harry Potter series is a boy, there are plenty of moments in HP where girls talk to each other about magic or school or dresses or stuff (even girly stuff.) In fact, we see them off whispering to each other and talking and having a good time all the time. Not in Percy Jackson, though. The only Bechdel-safe relationship (mentioned above) is implied, not shown. Actually, it's not even implied; the girls bond over the death of one of their boyfriends. Argh.

I also thought that the series' utter failure to consider Western Civ as maybe, possibly, not the only important or humanity-changing Civ in hisotry was a big fail. And it's not like there weren't multiple opportunities to dig just a TINY bit deeper into the whole "Western Civilization will die in chaos and take you and your playstations with it!" thing. HP, on the other hand, took what it wanted from western witch/wizard tradition and build the rest anew. It wasn't beholden to ancient archetypes (although you might not know it from the Christ-like conclusion to the series) any more than it had to be. It didn't go running toward outdated archetypes with open arms.

"Open" is the word I'm looking for. Although PJ was just as cutesy/funny and well-structured and so forth as HP, there's a lack of openness in the narrative, a lack of feeling that anything could happen (even though, of course, in HP, not just ANYTHING could happen. But it sure felt that way.) It was stuck in thousand-year-old ideas.

February 18, 2010

Reading Update

Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief

Since this is shaping up as the new Harry Potter-esque film crossover, I thought I'd check it out. Pretty fun. He also makes an interesting point about western civilization in the book that I've just been making while teaching writing (and will make again and again.) His point, though, seems to imply that western civ rules the world period, no critical thinking about it. So a bit problematic.

But given that you want to update Greek mythology for kids (in goofier-than-Gaiman way) I think this is a pretty good try.

February 16, 2010

Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?

ETA 5/6/13: I'm re-reading this now because of a discussion I'm having with someone, and I'm realizing that some of the criticisms below in comments are more accurate than I could see at the time I wrote it. I wrote this post with the explicit intention of "validating" the perception that women/poc submissions "aren't as good" as white submissions as a rhetorical device. My intention was to validate that perception to draw the reader in, and then smack them over the head with the fact that too many terrific women/poc writers simply aren't submitting for the following reasons (etc.)

I'm realizing now that this was not a super-effective tactic. And I have to admit that I didn't think it through clearly. When I conceived of this piece, I had recently been fired from a paid gig at an online magazine that was all white (except for me) and mostly male. Although I got some legit-sounding excuses for being fired, I didn't think it was a coincidence that I was fired right after I intensified my campaign to diversify the artists and writers being covered in the magazine. These things are hard to prove, though. The editor in question had told me that: a) they didn't get enough submissions from writers-oc and b) the ones they got weren't good enough. I had also been trying to diversify another (paid) online magazine that some friends were involved with and that I read but didn't contribute to. They told me the same thing: not enough submissions, not good enough. The way the editors I knew said this reminded me of how editors in this online fight had been saying that they don't get enough woc subs, and I noticed (or thought I noticed) that there was an unspoken implication that the subs they did get weren't good enough.

The other thing was that I thought it might well be true that the editors I had talked to weren't getting good submissions from woc because the good woc weren't submitting to them. I had had that experience as an editor of a poc magazine -- one of not getting enough good submissions even though I was seeing terrific writers in the community all the time. That was something that no one would say in public, and I was struck with the idea of writing a piece that did say it, and then turned it around on its ear. And then I simply wrote it, without thinking of how off-putting or ultimately inaccurate that would be. Bait-and-switch is fundamentally dishonest, and even if my intention was always honesty, honest dishonesty is ... uh ... problematic? I should have been more straightforward, is what I'm saying.

Also, a writer below took me to task for saying that most women or poc "fail" to make the leap to mainstream mags. My intention was always to use the word "fail" to mean "didn't do," and my critic contended that my use of "fail" expressed actual failure in the not doing. I.e.: it sounded like I was criticizing women/poc for not making that leap, and calling them failures. Because this was never my intention, I dismissed the criticism at the time. In re-reading, I'm realizing that she was completely right. This is exactly how that sentence, and its contextualizing language, reads. I should have worded that much more carefully. My critic, understandably, didn't believe me when I wrote back that an accusation of "failure" wasn't my intention with that wording. All I can say about that is that when I wrote this post, I had just recently made a completely conscious decision to publish my first book with a diversity-focused feminist small press, and deliberately did not submit it anywhere else. I did NOT consider this "not doing" a "failure."

Now, on to the original post:

***

I'm about to post something more on the general topic area of literary diversity, but I realized that I've never actually written a more foundational post that I've been meaning to write for a couple of years now.

Basically, this is about the totally valid and justified complaints of white editors that writers of color and women aren't submitting enough work to them. This is absolutely true (as far as it goes.) If you teach (as I do) writing in community orgs, 90-99% of your students will be women and poc. If you've studied creative writing in universities, even or especially at the MFA level (as I have), you'll know that about 60-75% of students are women. But start reading slush for a major publisher or journal and you'll notice a sudden, steep drop in the percentages of women, and an even steeper drop in the percentages of poc submitting work. And look at what is actually published and you'll see the drop is even steeper: mostly men, mostly white.

ETA: Some of Those who read slush know will tell you (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms ETA: as evidenced by the heated comments below. Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I've talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published. (Sometimes. There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work. But that's another discussion.) So when a white male editor says, "We only had one woman and one poc in the anthology because we were going for the best work," that could be true, or true-ish.

(ETA: with reference to comments below, let me just put in here that your percentages may vary. We're still working with more women (and a larger percentage of poc) attending writing classes, but more men and white writers actually submitting work. How radical your discrepancy is, like I said, varies, but the discrepancy exists.)

And yet, I know from teaching and learning in community and academic settings that there are metric tons of good poc and women writers out there, just waiting to be plucked from the vine.

What gives?

For someone like me, and many of you, who are in on every step in the long, slow process of literary accomplishment (looks like this: community writing classes, MFA courses, community readings, ethnic magazines, indy publishers, mainstream lit magazines, major publishers -- I am or have been involved in all of these except the last two) it's very easy to see that there's a huge chasm at one step in this process. And that chasm comes between writers developing their craft in the bosom of their communities, and writers taking a leap away from their local identity communities into the ether of the mainstream -- basically at the point where writers have to take a deep breath and submit their work to mainstream editors who don't know them and aren't familiar with the communities they come from.

Here's the problem:

MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP.

Yeah, that's right: most of them. You know all the "ethnic" and women midlist writers at majors who will get dropped soon and move to indies because they get no attention? For every one of those, there are at least three who never bothered with the majors but stayed in indie and community publishing, and ten who never made the leap to publishers at all. Yes, it's true. It's not that most women and poc writers fail to become good enough to make that leap. It's that, of those that reach a point where they CAN make the leap, most either don't recognize that they've reached that point, or, for other reasons they never manage to make the leap.

I have a friend near my age who was taking community writing classes with me, started an MFA the year after I did, and has been writing just as long. When this friend finally got a story published, it was in an ethnic mag. Last time I checked, my friend still hadn't submitted any work to mainstream journals.

Why not? What are those reasons? Enlightened editors want to know. Well, I have some ideas, although I can't speak for all women/poc writers who don't make the leap (please feel free to add ideas in the comments.) These reasons are in order of frequency (in my opinion):

  • Many women/poc writers don't hang out in mainstream literary circles locally or online so they don't know what to expect or what's expected of them in this scene. They don't understand how to "break in" to mainstream markets, so they stick to the literary scene they know how to work.
  • They don't know about your publishing house/journal (see directly above).
  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)
  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.
  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.
  • Those who do submit work often don't submit their best work, because they fear their best work will be considered "too ethnic" or "chicklit," so they submit more standard "literary" work that their hearts weren't really in.
  • They don't think that anyone like them READS your books or your magazine, and they want to reach their own audience.
  • They have a political agenda around their work and have decided that that agenda is best served by keeping their work within their communities.
  • ETA: Ide Cyan and Minal Hajratwala added another good point in the comments. As Minal put it: "A serious economic/class differential that means that many women of color who write are barely able to eke out the hours to write, let alone any extra hours to venture into a whole new & unwelcoming literary 'scene,' to network, attend conferences/ workshops, research publications, submit work, blog or read blogs, deal with rejection (in the face of a host of other societal rejections)... Some of the students in my community-based classes are writing mainly because it helps them survive, and the idea of publication is not a priority."

Most of those good writers who don't submit do it for the first two reasons. I know, it's hard for editors and publishers to remember a time when they didn't know the rules and the landscape. Many editors and publishers grew up in culturally savvy families or communities, so they don't even know how they learned the rules and the landscape. But the folks who aren't submitting either don't know the rules, or don't think they're considered important enough to engage the rules. They either don't have a map to the landscape, or simply think that it's a closed, privately-owned parcel of land. And far too often they're right.

And most of them aren't necessarily even aware that they think this way. I can't tell you how many writers I've encouraged to submit their work who had never done it before because it simply never occurred to them. They never signed up for a writers list-serv. They don't read lit blogs that post opportunities on them. They don't know about Writers Market or the Poets & Writers database. They don't know that you can (and sort of have to) look the various markets up and note down their guidelines and simply submit work according to the guidelines. (There's a big component in here of internalized racism, where the writer has been absorbing messages of her inferiority for her entire life, and is unwilling to risk being rejected on that basis, but that's another blog post.)

I have a good friend who has been writing for decades. My friend has a towering reputation in local and extended identity communities, is invited to read around 10 times a year in a variety of venues, has had work published in a number of anthologies, has edited an identity-based anthology published by an indy publisher, and has also been the editor of a literary journal. This friend had an offer of a book on the table from an indy before the economy went to shit and the publisher had to taper off publications for a while. This friend has never made an unsolicited submission. So when the indy publisher had to rescind the book offer, my friend didn't know what to do. When I suggested we get proactive and prepare a package of work to send out as an unsolicited submission, my friend was both surprised and relieved. And this is someone with a lot of publication and literary experience. This is someone even the most boneheaded white male publisher would be delighted to get a submission from.

So, the point of all of this is that editors have to go out and find good writers of color and women writers just like they have to go out and find good white male writers. The obvious first place to start is independent magazines and publishers, but editors will need to go deeper than that. (I won't go into it again here.) And the big issue is not just knowing where to look, but knowing how to approach.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don't hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like "We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!" Don't beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable "minority" names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for "minority" writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a "minority" group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, "I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn't nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren't as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!"
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don't give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you're rejecting a promising submission from someone who's obviously a writer of color or who says they're coming from a poc website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don't have time, but it's part of an editor's job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don't reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there's nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they're not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you're rejecting.

That's all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they're going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:

  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don't see any names like ours. Yes, I'm much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I've learned not be picky.) And if a market's guidelines don't say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about "no genre" and "high quality" (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I'm probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they'll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that's their job (no, you can't just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn't diverse, she'll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you're successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern's name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says "How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?" without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a "usual round" of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you're "touching" minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and poc as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole 'nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It's a cycle: if they're reading it, they'll want to submit to it. If they're being published in it, they'll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I've said before, it's a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

January 10, 2010

Peeved Reading Update with SPOILERS

Things That Drive Me Mad In Fiction, Episode 56,902:

I can't stand it when the stakes are really high, and a character makes a totally obvious rookie mistake, just because the author doesn't want to have to write an extra few pages to get them through it. Like when their enemy serves them food or drink and they hesitate, thinking it might be drugged, and the enemy says, "It's not drugged," and they just take their word for it.

Right now the one that made me put the book down for a while in sheer frustration is in Cinda Williams Chima's The Dragon Heir. The heroine has her younger brother and sister taken hostage by an evil wizard, who wants her to do something for him. He says he's stashed them someplace she'll never find if she kills him. She asks him how she's supposed to know that they're still alive and he says he's keeping them alive for leverage. And she just takes his word for it.

Of course, later they'll turn out to be still alive, because this is that kind of book, but it'll be too late for me because I've already lost my respect for her and for the author. Argh!

I also hate when there's a simple explanation that can prevent all kinds of trouble and misunderstandings and the character doesn't make it. SOOOO unrealistic. Real people spend all their time explaining; they'll shout you down to give you their explanation. We're all excuse-givers. But there's a part in the book where one of the many bad guys is trying to seduce this heroine's family by enticing the brother and sister with horseback riding. The heroine says no, they can't go horseback riding, but for some inexplicable reason, utterly fails to tell her younger siblings that the guy offering them the rides is the same one who has been causing their family serious trouble for over a year now. Instead, she just weakly gives in to their pleading. Why? There's no reason not to just tell them! There's no reason to give in on this one! It makes no sense!

In other bad news, the bad wizard puts a slave collar that only he can take off around the neck of a girl wizard, forcing her to do stuff for him. She goes into a sanctuary area, where he can't use the collar to hurt or kill her, but still does stuff for him! And she, again, utterly fails to tell anybody inside the sanctuary that the reason she's working for the bad wizard is that she has a slave collar on, even though they all know she's working for the bad guys. What the hell? Everyone knows that as long as she stays inside the sanctuary she's safe. So why wouldn't she tell them she has it on? If they help her while she's in the sanctuary, then there's nothing the bad wizard can do. Totally stupid and pointless! Argh!

Also! Everybody in this one family is magical except the mom ... SO THEY DON'T TELL HER ABOUT THE MAGIC! FOR NO REASON! UNTIL THE VERY END!

But the worst thing is that Chima invented a really interesting character in book two, who's interesting because he has strength of character, but not any strength of magic. So in book three he's useless, having no strong magic, and runs around the entire book being annoying because he feels useless. Then! Then! Chima proves to us that he's useless by killing him off! Damn! If your own creator thinks you're useless ...

Okay, wrap up to the trilogy: first book (The Warrior Heir) good, second book (The Wizard Heir) less good but more interesting, third book (The Dragon Heir) too many characters, too little common sense, a hot mess. Overall: a decent fantasy, but a little too cartoony. The bad guys are just bad. They have no real reason for being so. The magical world doesn't intersect at all with the real world in any way, even though they keep saying it does. And pretty much everybody's white. Yak.

November 19, 2009

Reading Update & Resolution

I just read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Yes, I'm far behind. It was published seven years ago. Yes, that's how long it took me to get past my now-entrenched contrarianism. Yes, I'm that bad: if a book is being hyped, then I simply won't read it. It takes something as deeply in-tune with all of my priorities and isshooz as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to get me around the contrarian thing and actually reading the hyped boox.

And no, I didn't have an epiphany reading The Lovely Bones that caused me to realize that by being contrarian I was missing wonderful boox like this one. The Lovely Bones just wasn't that great. In fact, it's a perfect example of one of those boldfaced lie family melodramas in which everyone is a good guy, and everyone, even though they make mistakes, does it for the most noble and loving of reasons. The book proposes a universe in which there is an organized Heaven (which is problematic for me right there), in which Everything Eventually Is Okay, in which families always love each other, even when they fuck each other up (the serial killer's mother loved him, she was just crazy), in which dead people get a chance to fulfill their whatevers before they move on, in which the people dead people leave behind wait around and don't move on until the dead people are ready for them to, blah, blah, blah.

Yeah, and much was made of how this book, that came out soon after 9/11, touched a nerve in American society. You bet it touched a nerve: it told us exactly the kinds of soothing lies we needed to hear about death: that death is always meaningful, that lives are always meaningful, that trauma can be overcome (even after you're dead) and it's your fault if you don't overcome it, that you will live on after death, and that all of your fantasies about being loved and missed after death will come true, and then some.

Also, the whole literary writing style thing? After about the midpoint of the book, it seems the book wasn't edited that well, because there are whole paragraphs where you can't tell who the subject of the sentences is, or what's going on at all. But, of course, it's all Beautifully Written.

What I DID realize was that contrarianism isn't protecting me from this kind of drivel. Sturgeon's Law applies across the board, unless you're reading only canon classics and prize-winners (and even then.) What I AM missing is a big part of the public discourse on literature. I realize that much of the public discourse on literature is about drivel, and taking drivel seriously. But I do need to know what drivel is being taken seriously and why. So my new resolution is to read the biggest hyped books every year. I'll wait to the end of the year to find out which ones were the biggest hyped, but I'll read them. This includes the "literary" stuff (was The Lovely Bones considered literary?) and the Dan Brown/Stephenie Meyer stuff.

Sigh.

October 21, 2009

My Views On The New NEA

Hey all,

I was asked to participate on a six-week blog panel discussing current issues surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal government's national arts agency, now that it has installed a new director and will be facing new challenges (in this economy), and new opportunities (under the new president.)

The panel is hosted on Barry Hessenius' Barry's Arts Blog at the WESTAF site. Each week of the project brought in a new panel, composed of different sectors of the art world: 

  1. Former NEA
  2.  National arts leaders
  3. Funders - public & private 
  4. Arts Education leaders, Academia, Emerging Leaders, and Consultant
  5. Private Sector / Stakeholder
  6. Working Artists

We're now at week six and I'm on the panel of working artists responding to questions about how the government can best support and promote the arts in the coming years.

Please do check it out and comment at will!

October 08, 2009

Governator Severely Rebuffed @ Dems' Party

Wow. Schwarzenegger showed up uninvited (or perhaps, invited by some, but not by others) at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco and got his ass booed and insulted. Apparently, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (why can't I pronounce that name?) told him to "kiss my gay ass." Sounds like Ammiano.

What's really interesting is the competing commentary from different Dem politicians in this article. Ammiano shits all over Arnie with no eye toward what's politic. Cali Senator Mark Leno keeps his mouth shut while Arnie's in the room, then lets him have it in a -- polite -- speech afterwards. And good ol' Willie Brown tears into his fellow Dems for childishly attacking Arnie when they have a bill going up to be signed.

It's like a spectrum, along the axis of slimeball expediency vs. unleashed outrage. So which of these folks do you suppose is more powerful? Who will end his career highest on the ladder?

August 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

August 21, 2009

Geek Post: Why Voyager Rocked

Over at Tempest's blog, she asks why people really disliked Captains Sisko and Janeway. (If you don't know why this is a loaded question, don't bother reading this post, because it means you don't know shiz about Star Trek.)

I started to respond in a comment, but then it got really long, so I thought I'd just take it over here.

Voyager was a groundbreaking show. The first half of the show's run was shaky, but once 7 of 9 stepped in, the show became truly groundbreaking. In the 7 of 9 era, the characters and roles were slightly reshuffled, until the ship was led by a triumvirate of strong women. In fact, the ship, and the show, were led by the three archetypes of crone, mother, and virgin (that's Janeway, Torres, and 7 of 9 to you.) It took a little while for these roles to shake out, but watching them develop was thrilling. And watching how Voyager took these three archetypes and thoroughly subverted them, was even more thrilling.

Janeway started out as a shaky and boring character for one simple reason: we have archetypes of male leaders of all ages, but we don't have valid archetypes of early-middle-aged female good leaders. Think about it: there are the bad mommies (Medea) and evil witches galore (Circe, wic witch of west), there are the insane women-of-a-certain-age (neither good nor bad), and there are the various monsters (harpies, sirens, Medusa, oh my!), and there are the magical wimmins, like sphinxes and such, who help heroes to something, but exact a price. There are no heroines, no protagonist archetypes, who are early-middle-aged women.

And let's face it: Star Trek's bread and butter has always been Western archetypes.

So Janeway got off to a shaky start, since she had no archetype to embody. After a great deal of silly romantic trouble, and a genuinely touching reckoning with her relationship with Chakotay, she finally settled into her role as, not the captain of the ship, but the mother of all mankind. Yes, it took them about three seasons to realize that, out in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager was a microcosm of all humankind and Janeway was the crone queen. They picked up on this when they opposed her to the Borg queen and discovered that they were equals. The good mommy of diversity, and the bad mommy of assimilation.

What was brilliant about the way they wrote her character was that they then used her position of power to question the way leaders in hierarchies make decisions. She didn't always make the right one, but, while always acknowledging that, the show didn't look down on her for it. Her wisdom was always greater than everyone else's, but her wisdom wasn't always right. They used the Borg queen and 7 of 9 to underline this lesson, comparing the hierarchy that may be necessary among diverse individuals, with the consensus that is possible among the thoroughly assimilated. Hierarchy and diversity were not always shown to be the best choice.

Torres started out as the fiery hottie, the amazon, which is why her character didn't work so well: it's hard to have a fiery hottie who's also a brilliant leader. Amazons are forces of nature, tamed by the love of a hero stronger than themselves. By "taming" her fieriness a bit with marriage and a child, they slotted her into the archetype of mother. However, the man she married wasn't the hero stronger than herself, but the reformed weasel. So she got to remain a leader. This ended up being the perfect platform to talk about a young woman growing into a position of leadership. It subverted, whether intentionally or un-, both the archetypes of mother and of amazon.

And Seven subverted the virgin archetype thoroughly. Raped (in the sense of being abducted) and thoroughly physically violated at the age of 6, Seven as an adult retains a childlike innocence, coupled with some seriously dangerous hardware. And by hardware, I don't mean the kind of asskicking karate-hardware that is the substance of millenial male fantasies from Buffy to whatever happened in the action film genre yesterday. By hardware I mean smarts: brain enhancements, databases, skills, abilities. She also has a fading sense of certainty about herself and her place in the universe that is the legacy of her Borg upbringing. This Borg confidence is depicted as one of the good leftovers of her background; the show doesn't assume that everything she learned as a Borg is bad or wrong except her military capabilities, as a more salacious show would do. And there's some very sophisticated discussion of her Borg spirituality (yes, they have some) and her Borg worldview.

This bumps into the fact that Voyager dealt with multiraciality and transnationality in a much more sophisticated way than all the previous (and subsequent) Treks. Although Torres is largely treated as a tragic mulatta, and her two species viewed reductively, note that her human half is Latina, itself a multiracial identity. Although the two episodes in the series that deal directly with her multiraciality are stupid (there's an early episode where she splits into her Klingon and human halves, and her Klingon half can't think, while her human half can't fight -- not offensive at all!; and a much later one in which she's pregnant and goes crazy trying to make sure her daughter doesn't end up with Klingon brow ridges), the rest of the show, when not focusing on what they think she should be doing with her multiraciality, deals with it rather delicately: showing how she extracts strength and trouble, questions and confirms herself, both, through her cultural uses and memories of her parents.

Seven, on the other hand, is a transracial adoptee, a third culture kid, and a multiracial (since she carries marks of both races on her face and body.) Like I said above, Voyager, unlike TNG, doesn't assume that a Borg separated from the collective is better off. We see Seven having a lot of trouble adjusting, and learn slowly that part of her successful adjustment is owing to the confidence and centeredness she found as a Borg. In one episode, she says that her memories and experience as a child and as a Borg remain with the collective, and it comforts her to know that she will be immortal in that way. Nobody else on board has that kind of certainty of an afterlife. The show's treatment of Seven is an example of true diversity: Janeway sometimes finds Seven's ideas and decisions abhorrent, but she tolerates them and learns to live with them.

I find it strange that people are so hostile to Seven. She was brought in to replace the ingenue character of Kes, who never quite worked out. Kes was both the virgin/ingenue, and the sexual/romantic partner of an old-looking and seeming character (Neelix.) That never worked out, for obvious reasons. And when they started giving her superpowers, it wasn't believable -- or desirable -- because she'd spent the previous three years being annoyingly perky and powerless. Seven was very carefully thought out to replace her: Seven was a virgin/ingenue, but with built-in strength and power. She was the opposite of perky, and was clearly on a coming-of-age trajectory. When Seven got with Chakotay, it was clearly the next phase in her evolution: she wasn't going to be expected to get it on and remain virginal, like Kes was.

I truly think that people who think Voyager was a bad show either didn't watch the second half of the run (most likely) or haven't yet become comfortable with the idea of women in leadership positions. Even the somewhat groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica, which started out with women in leadership positions in civilian and spiritual life, couldn't quite bring itself to depict a good woman military leader. That's pretty radical.

Also, Voyager depicts three strong male characters who choose to take supportive roles vis-a-vis women. Chakotay is a strong character in more than one sense: he takes his own path, he's a military leader and also a leader in personality, and he straddles the military and rebel worlds without breaking apart or going crazy. Chakotay, halfway through the show, in the episode in which he and Janeway confront their romantic feelings for each other, lays it out: he's accepted the role of helpmeet, of the man who enables the woman leader. It's completely awesome. Later, he becomes Seven's lover, and it's clear that he's an older teacher-type lover, a kind of Kris Kristofferson to Seven's Barbara Streisand.

Tom Paris is a stereotype, not an archetype: he's an immature wild-boy, who's the best pilot in the whatever, but is traumatized by the consequences of his own cowardice and immaturity. He eventually grows up enough to atone for his past wrongdoings and Become A Man, but he doesn't have the personality of a leader. Instead he falls in love with Torres, who is a leader, and takes on the implicit role of a woman leader's partner. And then there's Tuvok, who has a wife and kid at home, and is smarter, older, more controlled, and better educated than everyone else on board. And he makes himself Janeway's instrument because he recognizes the power of her leadership, and because he believes that it's the right thing to do.

(And one more thing: the Doctor plays the vain, fussy, diva character. The male Doctor. Think people might have a problem with that?)

The strong and satisfied male helpmeets are probably the bitterest pill for Voyager-haters to swallow, even though no one has mentioned it. In fact, no one ever mentions the male characters on the show at all, not to love or to vilify them. I think it's the absence, the lack of male leadership that causes people to clock Voyager as "boring," or "silly." I used to watch queer films and think they were boring, until I read somewhere that this is a privileged response: most of the films I watch show heteronormative sexuality, which is more interesting to me in the titillating sense, so I don't have to have any interest in other types of sexuality. But (cue violin music) once I got with the program and stopping making every narrative have to be about ME, I found a whole world of narratives out there about people nothing like me with concerns nothing like mine that were not just interesting, but amazing. Including queer narratives. (Here's one among many, by the way, and you can watch it free on the web.)

Which is all by way of saying that Voyager was definitely uneven. And I don't hold it against people for misjudging the show based on the first few seasons. But ultimately, Voyager was one of the groundbreaking shows of the ages, and definitely the most groundbreaking Trek since the original series.

So there.

August 14, 2009

Four Years in the Life of John Hughes, Fascist

(I wasn't gonna write anything about John Hughes, but then my friend Joel Tan called for submissions on Facebook for a little Facebook anthology of John Hughes/80s memorials. I will post a link when it's ready.)

At first it seemed like John Hughes was just bad timing for me.

I was fourteen when "Sixteen Candles" came out and sixteen was too far away. I was a late bloomer and had never known what it was like to have a devastating crush on somebody in school. And let's not even talk about Long Duk Dong. I blocked him out and had to be reminded of his existence, frequently. I also suspected that the character I most resembled was Anthony Michael Hall's. Ugh.

When "The Breakfast Club" came out, I was in a brief fresh-faced phase, not popular, but at the height of my high school popularity, only an average student, the first cut from the team, and unable to identify with any of the stereotypes therein represented. A year later, I'd turn into The Basket Case, but by then the movie had ceased to matter, and the dandruff thing just grossed me out anyway. I never got dandruff until after college; it was a distant, adult thing.

When "Pretty in Pink" came out, as I said above, I had moved to a more Hughes-like public school and morphed into the Basket Case, and was watching Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi movies and reading Paul Celan. The previous year the movie would have spoken to me. The previous year I was buying skippy little sixties dresses with my best friend and strategizing how to sneak into clubs we never tried to sneak into. Now I was dropping out of school and trying to ignore how the furniture moved every time I looked away from it. Now the movie appeared to be exactly what it was: a cheap knockoff of an outsider life.

I laughed at "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" along with everyone else: it was funny. I never could articulate then -- nor can I explain even now -- the dread feeling in the pit of my stomach that movie gave me. I still feel it. It had a cold, existential edge to it, and the characters, aside from looking like adults, were so unpleasantly alien to me as to kill any enjoyment aside from that of purely cynical entertainment.

When "Some Kind of Wonderful" came out, I was -- miraculously -- in college, with a blonde bob, and my dream of being a drummer blossoming (it was to peak two years later when I actually bought a used drum kit for $60.) But ... I was in college. I couldn't even bring myself to express the wish of seeing the movie in front of my friends. I waited until I got home for winter vacation and went to see it at a second run theater by myself, a throwback to my Basket Case year. I did not allow myself to love it, even though the misfit finally got the misfit and this was perhaps the only John Hughes movie I could ever have loved; I was too grown up.

But, it turns out, it wasn't timing at all. I never fit the schedule; I never fit the mold. I was not pretty and graceful and cool like Molly Ringwald or Mary Stuart Masterson, and strangely, I never quite wanted to be. I was not exactly the white kid down the block, either; and the goofy and neglectful parents of this universe were nothing like my involved, overeducated, transnational pair. The characters I wished myself into were Maria from "West Side Story" and Alex from "Flashdance": parentless, urban, racially ambiguous girls who risked being shot for love, being fired for art. Self-sufficient girls who made up their own minds and were leagues away from the shallow problems of suburban high school popularity contests.

John Hughes movies were themselves the round hole I never fit into. They ruled my teenaged years like bullies, like Reagan, like the eighties. John Hughes fading out of the consciousness of my age group was a fact akin to the mainstreaming of alternative rock and Bill Clinton: the decline of a set of ideas that had poisoned the end of my childhood; the cultural accession of values more closely in alignment with my own; a huge weight off my chest.

I've been moved by the outpouring of emotion at the death of John Hughes, as I was by the fallout from Michael Jackson's death. But I was moved by the emotions of others, not by the deaths themselves. MJ meant nothing to me, but he was harmless. There was nothing in his message (such as it was) that hurt me. I can't say the same of John Hughes, whose shallow examinations of class distinctions in suburban high schools were a throwback to the geography of the fifties and sixties -- when different classes were still being schooled together.

Hughes never understood real power dynamics as they played out in American public schools. His blithe assurance that a drunken party could achieve social parity between two groups with vastly disparate levels of power was the teenaged version of the blithe assurances that if you laughed along with them, bullies would stop torturing you, or if we stopped talking about color, we'd see that racism was over, or if we squirted more ketchup on our tater tots, we'd get the nutritional equivalent of vegetables.

I was so glad to be shut of John Hughes, that I never thought about him from that day to this, except to murmur unconsciously insincere agreement when somebody nostalgized about one of his deathly movies. But now that he's dead, and I have to look squarely at his legacy, that's over for me. Time to let out the dead, grey feeling in my gut that his movies always birthed. Time to wash away the worst of the previous bad era.

Now, how do we wash away the Bush years?

August 08, 2009

Reading Update

I think I've lost track of my reading.

Um.

I read China Miéville's The City and the City. Cool idea, but it ended up being a bit of an anticlimactic, nearly straight-genre mystery. I think the book's core was his story "Reports of Certain Events in London" stretched out to book length. "Reports" is a terrific short story about a Pickwickian society of people who study feral streets, i.e. streets that don't tamely remain in a particular place but wander around.

Of course, The City has a completely different premise and purpose, but has a similar feel or feel of intention: to mess with the structure of cities using a surprising novum. And to introduce a mystery that can only happen within that particular situation. And I think this ... idea? structure? purpose? ... was better served in the short story than in the novel.

But still a good read.

Also re-read Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible and it really holds up. Well structured and thought out. Insightful. Fun to read. Some minor glitches with the representation of the female protag, but altogether a good job.

And I think I'm missing something. Arg.

July 17, 2009

White Men Can't Jump

I used to watch him after school. You can get really close to the basket in the gym if you crawl under the little risers on the short side, rather than the main ones on the long side. I was right behind the basket. From there I'd be facing him as he ran towards me. I had to sit on some of the struts with my head at stomach-level, otherwise, if he just looked across, he'd see me. I could've stood up, but then he'd've seen me. I'm taller'n him. By a lot. That's part of the point.

I used to joke with myself that I could hide in the dark in a way that he couldn't, but it's not really that dark under the bleachers; the flourescents get everywhere, and it's more like a bright grey down there.

So what I had was a great view of his stomach, which was interesting, because when you're playing, or when you're watching people play, the one thing you never look at is their stomachs. He used to wear these normal sized t-shirts in high school -- back before everybody had to wear oversize stuff even on the court -- so when he reached for it his shirttail would ride up and I could watch how his stomach muscles stretched and bunched. It's something you never think about, you just do it, or don't do it. And early on, he did it wrong. You could tell by the way his stomach muscles worked. And as he caught on and started to do it right, you could see the difference in the way his stomach worked.

I learned a lot from this, but that's not why I watched him. I mean, we didn't know each other very well. We didn't socialize. After a while I got really aware of what my belly was doing and I could visualize it in my head and make it do what I wanted it to do that way. And I made sure that I never did what he was doing. He was like a negative example.

I guess it's weird. I don't know. He had something that no one else had. He was always an alternate, and senior year, he didn't even make the team. He improved a lot, but so did the rest of us, and we started out ahead. His thing was that he never gave up. It's not like it sounds. It's not like: "Dude is so cool, he never gives up." Everybody gives up. Everybody gives up. The guys who make the team, the guys who start, like me, we're determined, and disciplined, and all that. We work for it, hard. But none of us work for it if we don't get some idea early on that we're going to be good, if we don't get, like, praise, and encouragement, and "you're a rock star!" and shit. We need to know that the work is going somewhere.

He didn't need to know that the work was going somewhere. He just kept doing it and doing it. It was so obvious that he was never going to get the Stuff. He might never make the team, and if he did, he wasn't going pro. Not ever. Too short. He quit growing at 15 already, it was pretty obvious. He did it beyond the point that normal people get bored. I'd watch him go at it for, like, two hours after school; set up after set up, fail after fail. His progress was so slow you couldn't see it. Not at all. I'd get bored watching him and wouldn't do it for a few months, and when I came back, he'd be better, but so little better that I'd be discouraged. All we ever said to each other was a chin-jerk. But there's something about that ability to just keep doing it that gets under my skin, you know? In what way, I'm not sure.

I don't know if I admire it or not. Dude won a YouTube contest. Yeah. Good for him. But then what? I mean, maybe that time could've been spent going again and again and again at something he was actually going to be really, really good at, and not just good at because he spent so damn many hours. And what about all the other stuff around it? I mean, that username: whiteflightbd. It's not like he doesn't know. His dad pushed that on him. Thought it was funny. Fine, whatever, but he could've done one less dunk and spent that time thinking for a second about how that name was a bad idea. I can't even feel bad for him 'cause I was the rock star in school and he wasn't. He was the weird kind of in, but not really, dude who had people to hang out with but no real close friends. Or maybe he did and I just didn't know any of them. All my friends played, maybe his friends didn't. Maybe that's why he wasn't that good.

I don't know if I admire him or if I think he's kind of sad and horrible. No, I didn't obsess much. But there's something in him that I just don't have, something that no one I know has. And maybe that's a good thing. Because there's something in me, something much more obvious, that he just doesn't have. And I'd rather have mine than his.

And yet.

*****
Please note, folks, this is fiction! I just made it up! I don't know this guy or anything about him!

June 20, 2009

Up(Yours!)Dike's Rules for Book Reviewing (And Why They Suck!)

John Updike's Golden Rules for Book Reviewing, via (you'll have to catch this link quickly, since it forwards after a few seconds):

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
  6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

Okay, let's just be clear here: these are "golden rules" insofar as they are John Updike wishing reviewers would do unto him as he would have them do unto him. I know he wrote reviews himself, but he was primarily a fiction writer and had no benefit coming to him for developing a reputation as a strong and honest reviewer. Rather, the opposite: he had a stake in not pissing anyone in the industry off and in building goodwill among writers, publishers, and other folks with cookies.

I'm a writer as well, though a barely published one (no book yet, so no nasty reviews yet, so grain-o-salt it.) I also write reviews for my blogs and for more ... er ... legitimate venues. And I, openly, thoughtfully, and advisedly don't follow Updike's rules (with a few exceptions), even though I know it could hurt me as a writer in the long run. Here's why, point for point:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

    Really? So if we've seen -- in the past decade -- twenty, or fifty, or two hundred debut novels by white, male writers in their late twenties about rediscovering their and their family's place in the universe by backpacking around ________ (fill in foreign locale here), we don't get to blame the 201st writer for not attempting anything different? That's bullshit. Book reviews are part of a larger conversation analyzing our culture by examining artistic and artificial products of that culture. The writer's choice of subject is absolutely fair game. If we're bored by a book not because it's horribly written but because it's the five-thousandth iteration of that particular subject -- stale, clichéd, and unoriginal -- the reader needs to know ... and we need to say so.

    Or to get more granular: if a writer chooses something hot-button and difficult as a subject and displays her huge blind spot in doing so, do we not get to point that out? Say she's writing about prejudice against the disabled in a city like, say, Oakland (to get really blatant) but there are no characters of color anywhere in her narrative. In Oakland. It's bullshit to say "she didn't want to address race so she left the POC out." You can't address anything in a mimetic scenario that in real life would include X, if you don't include X. And reviewers get to call writers on this.

    Maybe I'm laying too much weight on reviewing, but I consider it part of cultural criticism, which I consider to be something of a sacred trust (or a profane trust?) I consider cultural production itself a sacred trust: people talking to other people about what they think is important; telling stories about what it is in our society we should be paying attention to. If they leave stuff out, ignore stuff, or choose not to address stuff, they get to be called out for it
    , one hundred percent, you betcha.

  2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

    Ar to the Gh. Seriously? This explains a lot about Updike and about how MFA lit fic is written. It's written so that it can be quoted, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, in reviews! Think about it, folks. What's the point of writing (or reading) a 80,000-word work of prose if you can get an adequate "taste" of it in 50 words? Doesn't that basically tell you that the 80,000 words are written in (bo-ring) equal, like increments of 50-100 words? Why would anyone wanna read that?

    A book is long-form prose. It should not be quotable, that is: it should not be tastable via quotation. It should be so integral and complete a piece that you have to read the whole fucking thing to get a real "impression" of it. This is not to say that enjoyment -- "mouth feel" -- of the language is unimportant. It is, however, to say that insisting that a quotation be included will disadvantage books that were written as wholes, and not as excessively long and plodding and plotless prose-poems by people whose prose poetry would never be accepted as such by the poetry industrial complex. And, in my not-humble opinion, all books (excepting collections) should be written primarily as wholes, with the lovely language taking second priority to the integrity of the piece. (Unless, of course, the writer specifically chooses a project that deconstructs novel or book structure and focuses in on the moment of language, in which case the writer should be prepared to be called out for it.)

  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

    Again, this means that you can only describe the language of the book, and not character, structure, plot point, theme, setting, action, thought, or that indescribable something that animates (or fails to animate) the whole and makes it a living piece of art. The only things that are quotable in a review are small increments of language. You can't quote a plot, or confirm a plot by quotation. You can't quote a character, or confirm a book-length characterization by quoting a phrase. And, let's be clear: a characterization that can be confirmed by quoting a phrase? My people call it "stereotype."

    And "fuzzy precis?" Eat me, Updike. The typical review is 500 - 1000 words. You can't give anything but a general summary of a novel or book in that space. You just can't. The succinct precis is the reviewer's most basic tool, you tool. In fact, I would even say that the "art" of the review is being able to convey a sense of the book without having to hack up the book into pieces to do so. Casting contempt upon this "art" by referring to it as a "fuzzy precis" doesn't do anything. Reviewers won't, and can't, stop using it, and whole books will become no more quotable thereby. Asshole.

  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

    I mostly agree with this, but want to point out that Updike gives only the example of his own books being spoilered, and not having his experience of reading another's book spoiled thereby. That's pretty revealing.

  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

    No and no! Comparisons are odious! This is the one, specific place where what Updike said above -- about not calling out a writer for failing to do what he didn't attempt -- applies. My rule number one: DO NOT COMPARE INDIVIDUAL WRITERS AND DO NOT CALL OUT A WRITER FOR FAILING TO ACHIEVE WHAT ANOTHER WRITER ACHIEVED. This is the best way to encourage people to imitate one another: by implying that there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way to do something. Saying "this writer's way of addressing the subject is correct, yours is incorrect" only sets up an orthodoxy. Writers should rather be critiqued purely on the successes and failures of their own projects, and not on how their projects compare to those of others. If someone tries something and fails, yes, say so. But with an eye towards how THAT SPECIFIC ATTEMPT could have been more successful, rather than with an eye toward how that specific attempt is wrong, but hey, look at this one!

    The only thing I agree with is this: "
    Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?" That goes double for me.

  6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

    Yeah, yeah, fine. I can't really disagree with any of this. But I have to say, if a book fails to relay the "joys in reading," that needs to be said. Readers must become more discriminating through reading reviews. Readers must learn over time what makes a book ordinary, and what makes it challenging or interesting. They must be given a vocabulary they can use to talk about books. They must understand that some joys of reading, the ones they are always seeking, are not the only joys. They must learn that simply because a small joy may be discerned in a book, it doesn't mean that the book is worth reading. And they must ultimately learn that every mediocre book that is published, reviewed, bought, and read, means very specifically that another, much better book will not be published, much less read. Readers must learn how to improve the publishing economy for good writing, and poison the publishing economy for bad writing.

June 16, 2009

Breakin' Up Iz Hard 2 Do, Part II

So what I wanted to do -- about a month ago now, in the weeks leading up to WisCon, when I was considering "breaking up" with the antiracist blogosphere as a result of RaceFail and MammothFail -- was write a series of posts about how antiracist action online actually works, and why I have problems with it.

But a number of things intervened.

*****First, right before WisCon, Al Robles, an elder in my Bay Area Asian American activist community, died suddenly. His family organized a memorial event and I was asked to help, so I took over volunteer coordination for the six-hour event. The event took place at the venue where we had staged the Asian American arts festival I ran for its first few years; being there as a coordinator reminded me of that work and of the atmosphere of common purpose and mutual help that can arise out of creating a "real world" racial community. It also reminded me that I had a real world community in the first place, that I had been neglecting, partly in favor of my online stuff.

Also, being at Manong Al's memorial really made me think a lot about Al. The sort of elder whose memorial event draws thousands of people, requires ten tables to hold all the food, and has trouble restricting the stories, poems, and testimonials to six hours, is a very particular person. Al was a leader, not in that he put himself and his agenda first, nor in that he had great managerial skills he used to organize people. Al was a leader by example. He was everywhere he needed to be to get the work done. He was physically there; he put his hand on your arm when he saw you. He knew everyone in the community because he talked to them, partied with them, and remembered them whenever he saw them next. He never lost his interest in individuals, never lost his excitement about the new (and old) things people were doing, never failed to connect the creative life (he was a poet) with the activist life, and the activist life with the good life.

The consideration that makes my eyes well up, both in love for Al and in shame for my own failures, is the memory of Al as someone who always gave respect, gave face, to everyone, from the most snot-nosed, fist-pumping teenager, to the oldest, out-of-commission elder.  He made you want to earn the respect that he gave you unconditionally. He loved whatever it was that you did. Thousands of people turned out to say goodbye to him because people like that are so rare.

It makes me really think about who is going to take over for Al. Less than two years ago we lost another elder, Manong Bill Sorro, who had a similar role in the community as Al Robles, had a similar way with people, although the two were very different. As I said, these people are rare. Manong Al and Manong Bill were my touchstones in the community and now that they're both gone, I'm all out of touchstones. They were it for their generation. Who will be it for my generation?

I'm not that kind of person, but I can try to be more of that kind of person. I don't have to be the Manong Al or Manong Bill of my generation, but I think we can split up those duties a little more evenly, especially if we believe in community and continuation. But to do that, I have to get off the fucking internet and get my butt down to where the community is.

***** Second, I went to WisCon. Given the atmosphere surrounding RaceFail and then MammothFail, I was expecting WisCon to be emotionally fraught, stress-filled, and conflict-ridden. Instead, what I found was that there were more POC there than ever before, and that the POC there were organizing, coming together, and also connecting outside the POC community with a confidence and interest and even joy that I hadn't seen at WisCon before.

I realized that the online fights that had stressed me out so much, make my stomach tie up in knots and feel like all was sick with the world, had energized a lot of other folks. I was forcibly reminded of how I felt eleven years ago, when I first joined battle -- in a very limited and constrained way -- with folks online on the multiracial list-serv and the Asian American writers list-serv I joined. It was energizing; it did make me want to do stuff. And, because I was in San Francisco, I just went right out and did stuff: joined orgs, started programs, etc. It was a wonderful cycle of discussion and action: I discussed ideas online, and then took those ideas out into the real world and acted on them.

Of course, the energizing aspect of the arguments and sometimes fights had a limited efficacy. They were only energizing as long as they were still new to me, and still had something to teach me about that particular way of viewing the issues. Once I had been through the cycle of argument once or twice (and had experienced intelligent, articulate opponents who just plain didn't listen to you) the argument stopped energizing me and started to stress me out. Eventually, I had to quit the two list-servs, and I didn't miss them much when I had. That was mainly because the people I "knew" on the list-servs were just usernames. I was also spending time with folks in meatspace and many of those folks are still my friends; I'm not still friends with a single person I interacted intensely with online at that time, even the people I met in person and tried to work with there. But what I got out of those discussions didn't go away. The results -- the ideas and ability to articulate arguments -- stayed with me.

***** Third, I went back to Berlin, where I spent much of my twenties, and saw a lot of my friends, ten and fifteen years later. I saw that my friends had taken one of three tracks: folks who hadn't quite gotten started on a career and were still struggling to figure out where to go and what to do; folks who had started a career, then started a family and were now negotiating the limitation on their career that a young family imposes; and folks who were well into a creative career, some simply moving forward and others wondering if they wanted to stay on this track or make an adjustment.

I'm with the last group. I've spent the last decade plowing ahead full steam in ethnic-specific arts and culture, and I've accomplished much that I'm proud of. But I've definitely reached a point where I'm trying to make an adjustment in my direction, and that's a difficult thing to do. While in Berlin, I got a rare perspective on where I am in life, by seeing my peers dealing with being in that same place. And I think I can take this adjustment more quietly -- be less manic and bewildered about it -- and focus in. I think that's the key: letting some options go, and focusing in on what's most important to me.

*

I came back to online antiracism a few years ago with my interest in speculative fiction, and with working with POC SF communities that I had connected with through Clarion West and WisCon. And the community here is wonderful, and vibrant, and full of energy and purpose. I've learned a lot from reading blogs, and getting into discussions ... and even from some of the less pleasant fights I've gotten into. Some things I've learned couldn't have been gotten at another way.

But there are also problems with it ... and it was my intention to tease out those problems in a series of posts, as I said above. But after Al's memorial, and after WisCon, and after my visit back to the site of my young adulthood, I think I'm realizing that I don't need to do that right now. What I'm feeling is particular to me and my situation. Maybe down the road I'll have some perspectives that will be useful to someone else, but I don't think I do right now.

I've been upset and angry at an argument that I've heard too many times before that doesn't have the power to inspire me anymore, but that doesn't mean that this discussion isn't inspiring anyone else to new and great things. I think I'm probably best off shutting up and getting out of the way.

*

One thing I do want to clarify: when I said in an earlier post that the best thing that came out of RaceFail was the smart posts published early in the incident, a few outraged people pointed to Verb Noire (which has just announced its first publication, which makes me want to pee with excitement) as a direct result of RaceFail. I was surprised by that perception. Having been involved in so many start-ups (APAture, Hyphen, the San Francisco Hapa Issues Forum chapter, the now-defunct Digital Horizon afterschool program) and seen so many from a peripheral viewpoint, it's second nature to me to assume that any start-up or initiative has its roots in longstanding dreams and long planning processes ... that then come together around a particular opportunity.

Yes, I believe that RaceFail brought on a convergence of a number of things that led to Verb Noire being launched right then, but I don't believe that without RaceFail there would have been no Verb Noire. (Please tell me if I'm completely wrong here; I have no telepathic connection to the publishers, and no idea what specifically got them going.) Furthermore, I'd be worried if I really thought that RaceFail was the only or main impulse to starting Verb Noire. Last straw, yes; main thrust, no. It's a terrific project, coming at the right time, but it's larger than just RaceFail. The language and direction of the project already seems larger -- seems to fill up a space that has to do with more than just a failure of the general SF community to understand cultural difference and appropriation.

Basically, until it was pointed out to me, I didn't connect Verb Noire directly with RaceFail. RaceFail to me is just an incident: an incident that got drawn out way too long and produced some good writing, some bad writing, and a lot of bad feeling ... but still just an incident. Verb Noire is ... an organization, a long-term program, an institution of new perspective in the making. The two are bound up together, certainly: all good organizations, programs, institutions have their roots in unacceptable circumstances, or ongoing failures, and series of incidents that demonstrate these circumstances and failures.

But the two are distinct. One is discussion; the other, activism. For me, there does come a time when the discussion that inspires activism starts to get in the way of activism, and I have to opt out of direct discussion for a while.

*

I don't know what this means for me on a practical level. I have an online presence that takes some work to maintain and that brings me a lot of pleasure, aside from other things. But it also, I have to admit, sucks too much time away from my writing and my working in my community. I might have to cut back on being present online for a while, but I'm not sure how or how much. I'm not making any quick decisions.

I have no conclusions yet, no declarations to make. I think I'm going to be reading less from blogs, and participating less in any sort of online discussions in this area for a while. But at this point, I'm just thinking out loud.

June 13, 2009

"Not Too Soon" Demo

Interesting early version of one of my favorite songs from the early nineties.

June 06, 2009

News from Asian America

Just a quick note to those interested in the broad trends of Asian America: Read this.

May 16, 2009

Outrage, Pullback, Punishment: The Structure of One Common Antiracist Post

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

So, to kick off my out-loud consideration of if and how to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere ...

I'm going to start with organizing some observations about how racism is talked about on the POC antiracist blogs I've been reading for the past six years and laying out the basic structure of one type of typical antiracist post.

First, most POC A/R blogs rarely take the bull by the horns, that is to say, they rarely take the initiative in introducing topics of discussion and setting the terms for the discussion. Instead, most POC A/R blogs are reactive, that is, they keep watch on what is happening in the world and especially in the media, and respond to incidents or discussions initiated by people out in the world, or by the media.

The way this works is what I call "Outrage, Pullback, Punishment" (and yes, it is a plus that it compresses to "OPP"). How it works is as follows:

Outrage: something racist happens in the world. A blogger or group of bloggers pick up on it. They note it in their blogs and express outrage at it. The item gets passed on from blog to blog.

Pullback: of the bloggers who post on this topic, less than half will express anything other than outrage. But a subset of these bloggers will spend a little time pulling back from the outrage to contextualize this incident of racism and explain why it's a problem. They will go into the history of these types of incidents, they'll go into academic theories of X, they'll give talking points on why this sort of thing is bad for people of color, bad for justice, and bad for the world in general.

Punishment: of the bloggers who pull back and contextualize, an even smaller subset will propose or initiate action. This action is dual: it proposes advocacy of a particular view, action (usually apology and some sort of remediation), and threatens punishment if this action isn't taken up immediately. I call this step "punishment" because punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Lest anyone think I'm trying to hurl accusations from a glass house, I'll give an example from my own oeuvre. (I'm actually critiquing all of POC antiracist blogging, including my own, which is part of the whole and speaks the same language.) The recent example is the Avatar casting controversy:

You'll notice here that the structure not only makes the information easy to understand and assimilate, but it also makes the basic conveyance of the information easy to adapt to each blog. Each new blogger who picks the story up simply gives a spin to the same blog post and passes it on.

This structure of communication has been effective in the past for specific purposes. The best example would be the Jena 6 controversy in 2007 where a group of black teenagers were unfairly prosecuted for an assault on a white teenager that was provoked by a series of racist incidents. Originally ignored by the mainstream media, outrage in the POC blogosphere contributed heavily to the story being picked up nationally. Additionally, the "punishment" phase of this story advocated action that was less punitive and more justice-oriented, and resulted in large demonstrations in Jena and all over the country, that have succeeded in bringing about a more just resolution for many of the defendants than would have happened otherwise. Here's a post from the Angry Black Woman which demonstrates OPP and links to other posts you can check out as well.

An earlier example was the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy (2002/2004), which involved first a series of t-shirts with racist images of Asians on them, then a lawsuit (later settled) that alleged that A&F gave visible jobs to white employees and restricted POC to the stock rooms. The online campaign against the t-shirts -- organized with a speed that surprised even participants -- led to real-world protest outside the stores, which in turn caused the company to withdraw the shirt and issue an apology. The t-shirt protest was actually organized via email, list-servs, and discussion boards, more than via blogs. But if you look at the discussion boards link, you'll see one of the origins of OPP structure. The continuing online scrutiny of A&F's racial attitude helped keep pressure on them that contributed to the favorable settlement of the lawsuit.

As has been rightly said since the Jena 6 protests, online social networking has created a world in which effective protest can be organized quickly and nationally to address even local injustices. OPP is a great launching point for these kinds of effective protests: OPP informs and arouses a sense of outrage very quickly, and creates a sort of information tree or hierarchy which people can follow back to a source of organization if they wish to get involved. People are no longer dependent on being reached by recruiters, they can recruit themselves to act. And POC communities, if they know how to leverage the hinges of the Tipping Point, can control to a great extent the spread of their mobilization effort.

This structure of communication also makes it easy for the mainstream media to pick up on POC responses to national incidents. Reporters don't have to dig through a lot of discussion and process its implications to know what POC bloggers are thinking. They just aggregate the most popular bloggers and do a keyword search for the controversy du jour, and bingo, insta-quote. So in this way, POC can come closer to the mainstream media.

All this is great. But.

The negative result of this is that POC A/R blogs tend to accept, without thought or discussion, that the white-dominated media and mainstream culture gets to initiate action and discussion, and the POC A/R online media's role is merely to respond to this discourse, and not to control it or be a partner in shaping it.

This is fine when an injustice happens -- as in Jena -- and must be addressed quickly. These sorts of things happen all the time, so having a structure in place to deal with these things -- to remedy actual injustices as they happen -- is important. But it does not move the discourse on race forward. It unconsciously takes for granted that POC have no initiative in the world. In the call and response of the mainstream media discourse, POC have only a response, not a call. And as we all know, whoever calls, rules.

I say _________, you say "racist"

Mr. Patel!
Racist!
Airbender!
Racist!

If you look back on any effective movement of the 20th century (suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam) their communication structure all had these things in common:

  1. A clear, articulated overall goal towards which all participants were willing to work for years.
  2. A set, but evolving discourse and vocabulary, which the movement controlled.
  3. Media: alternative media organs (papers and magazines) dedicated to promoting this message and discourse; and, over time, allies in the mainstream media dedicated to promoting this message and discourse.
  4. The necessity of responding deliberately and thoughtfully, owing to the lack of instantaneous communications technology. Because everything written was printed and had to be edited and proofread, everything broadcast had to be accepted by media corporations and could be heavily controlled, the message and discourse were very polished, thoughtful, respectful, and carefully tailored to appeal to listeners who may have held a differing opinion.

If you think about it, OPP simply cannot exist in a movement in which the above conditions obtain. Chaos and Freedom are the twin faces of the same internet beast. The viral responsiveness and speed of protests like Jena 6 and A&F owes to the Freedom face. The lack of a goal, a message, a discourse, and deliberate or thoughtful response owes to the Chaos face. Although there's more than one argument to be made here, I would contend that the POC Antiracist blogosphere is not a movement, it is merely a community.

As such, it can facilitate the creation of temporary movements (like the Jena 6 protest movement), but it cannot change, or even affect, the national discourse on race. All it can do is respond to it.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about initiatives that do shape, or attempt to shape, national discourse on race, and how these work together with online OPP.

May 15, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: How To Handle Antiracist POC Communities

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

WisCon starts in a week, and, as a result of RaceFail and the more recent resurgence of controversy around race, I've been thinking a lot about the issue of how antiracist action is handled on the internet. I'm going to spend the next week on a series of posts about my thoughts on this topic. I need to clear my head and -- not knowing what to expect from WisCon this year -- prepare my thoughts for whatever comes.

(One quick caveat here: I despaired years ago of getting through to ignorant, privileged whites on the internet through argument, and haven't engaged in that sort of argument for a long time: because it kills me, and because it doesn't seem to do much good. The only thing that works, in my experience, is providing copious resources that someone, who wants to seek and understand, can find and use in his/her own way, so that they can choose to prepare themselves to join a discourse, rather than argue their way into knowledge.

So if I seem to be only criticizing the antiracist POC side here, it's because I am. No amount of tantrums, unprofessionalism, and bad behavior from the privileged side surprises me anymore, and I find it pointless to even criticize it. At the latest, after last year's Rachel-Moss-WisConFail, and the conscious delight privileged white males (and females) took in baiting feminists, people of color, differently abled, and transgendered people, I have refused to engage with such perspectives, which I consider a continuum. I only now engage with "our" responses to such perspectives, or more accurately, with a broader-based strategy to combat ignorance and prejudice in our media and in our society. Doubtless RaceFail blame falls much more heavily on the side of baiters and privileged idiots. But they can't bait those who won't be baited. They can't enrage those who won't be enraged.)

Back in February, around the time I thought that RaceFail was going to die down, I started writing a series of posts on this topic. But RaceFail didn't die down then, nor for another couple of months. The residue of a contentious and conflict-soaked election campaign, and of a devastating economic collapse, the impact of which we'll be unraveling for years, was like jetfuel to the usual flame. Whereas internet blowups usually only last a couple of weeks -- a flash flood -- the almost palpable panic and fear and weariness cracked open the levees we'd been ignoring for so long, and our little corner of the blogosphere was overwhelmed. What started as an initially salutary repeat of a discussion that had never quite been put to rest, soon turned into a community eating itself.

Not coincidentally, February was the time the Carl Brandon Society's Heritage Month book advocacy campaign kicked off. We'd chosen one recommended reading list in January -- immediately before RaceFail had started -- and were trying to put together a second list in February as the tone of the discussion got ugly. The difference was dramatic. In January our members were joyfully and actively participating, just like last year. By mid-February, our list-serv had fallen silent: everyone was too busy at work or in their lives to participate. For the first time since I joined the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee, our members actually ignored direct requests for participation. And I have to say: I don't blame them one little bit.

Heartsick and anxiety-ridden over the tone the public discourse began to take on, I bowed out of the discussion and abandoned the posts I had started. I did save them, though, and, although I'm even more heart-sick and anxiety-ridden now, I have to talk this out, if only with myself. Essentially, I have to decide, in the next couple of weeks, if I'm going to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere.

This is not the first time I've had to make such a decision. In the year 2000, I had to "break up" with the discussion list-servs I was on in 1998/99, that helped me learn and understand so much about my own identity and community, and that helped me formulate my own thinking about race and organizing and why these are important. Without those list-servs and those discussions, I could not have become an effective community organizer, teacher, and advocate. I would not have been able to articulate to myself or anyone else why building a community voice is essential to racial justice.

But the discussions on those list-servs stayed in one place and cycled around that place over and over again, like a ferris wheel. Staying in that discourse after I had completed a few cycles was not merely annoying, it actually militated against progressive action. It made me anxious and sick to my stomach, it made me angry, and -- whereas initially it had brought me closer to my fellow community members -- it began to drive a wedge between us, emphasizing small differences in opinion, and sucking energy and air away from broader-based action.

I thought I would miss it too much. I said I'd "take a break" for three months and then see if I could go back and take part in a more rational manner. What happened instead was that, within a few weeks, I had nearly forgotten about the list-servs, and had discovered a pocket of free hours that I could now dedicate to more real-world action.

But those were purely discussion list-servs; not only were they not intended for action, but calls for action and event announcements weren't allowed on those lists. Breaking up with the antracist POC blogosphere is a much more complex proposition, because it exists not just for discussion, but also for discourse, not just for expression of outrage, but also for action and organizing. And there are people in this community who are so geographically far away, I can't access them any other way.

So this consideration is not just a "in or out" proposition. Being on the CBS Steering Committee requires me to use online organizing and keep up with what's going on in the communities. Writing for Hyphen blog requires me to participate in POC bloggery. I'm not quitting these organizations, so the question is: how to tailor my participation in online POC antiracist action so as to curtail the negative influence of discussion loops, while keeping me in the loop?

This is what I'll be considering over the next few posts. I probably won't respond to comments until I'm through, since this is a longer thought process than usual, and I don't want to break it off or argue until I've gotten through it. Be advised that anything that smacks to me of attack (in comments) may well be deleted. (That's another tactic I'm going to be considering.)

May 11, 2009

Can We NOT Do Racefail Again, Please?

I'm sticking my head out of its hole here (please note: my head is NOT wearing its CBS hat) to make a plea ... and realizing that I'll probably either get ignored, or get my head bitten off. This plea goes out to my fellow active and activist PoC and white antiracist SF/F fans. Anyone who doesn't fit this description, please refrain from commenting below (I will probably delete you.)

Apparently, Patricia Wrede has written an alternate history YA in which American Indians/Native Americans simply never existed, replaced by magical mammoths. If you don't immediately see what's wrong with this, read this list of links. (I also surfed through from this post and found a buncha stuff that wasn't on the links post above.) The posts linked often link to further reading, so go knock yourself out surfing.

Okay. I, for one, think this list of posts offers a perfect summation of what the problem with Wrede's premise is. What I'm asking for now is for PoC and white antiracists to take a REALLY DEEP BREATH ... and to fail to have a massive, collective, monthslong comment thread freakout like the one that happened this January/February/March/April (a.k.a. RaceFail '09.)

I know you guys are tired of it. We all are. I know the ignorant and vicious attempts to block and derail discussion are making you crazy. But responding to them in comments didn't do much good a few months ago ... and I think it'll do even less good now that the clueless are still smarting from the pileups at various whitepeople blogs which caused everyone to freak out and f-lock and delete their blogs and out each other's real identities and and and ...

What good did any of that do? What good will it do to go there again? The best thing that came out of RaceFail was a list of good, thoughtful posts about cultural appropriation that we can point out to people who want to be educated. Unfortunately, as much as people during RaceFail were linking to these great posts, they were ALSO engaging in increasingly angry comment threads with flamers and trolls who weren't interested in learning anything, and wouldn't have learned anything even if they were BECAUSE THEY WERE ON THE DEFENSIVE, AS EVERYONE IS IN A COMMENTS THREAD BATTLE.

So my suggestion -- my plea -- is to avoid engaging in comment threads as much as possible. You can't argue someone out of their ignorance. You can only lead them to water and WALK AWAY, hoping they'll drink after you've gone. There are some links pileups starting already. Let's contribute to them, and then make some private pledges to simply link to the links posts in comments and NOT COMMENT FURTHER.

WisCon is a week and a half away. I DO NOT want to walk into WisCon wondering who has put themselves in the wrong now. I DO NOT want to have to navigate sudden, new schisms having to do with random ignorant comments-thread comments. We DO NOT have to use this opportunity to excavate every ignorant corner of our fellow SF/F fans' racial consciousness. Let's put the info out there and let them do what they want to with it.

(A suggestion: those of you planning your own blogpost about this, please consider closing comments, so that anyone who wants to respond cannot do so anonymously, but MUST respond by posting something on their own blog. This will cut down on a lot of opportunities for people to enrage you from the safety of anonymity. I'm leaving comments on this post open because I'm hoping we can discuss ways and means of NOT engaging in a RaceFail 1.5.)

*****

In other news, (putting my CBS hat on): the Carl Brandon Society is sponsoring a "Cultural Appropriation 101" class at Wiscon (Friday afternoon during The Gathering -- it will only take up part of the Gathering time, so you can still attend.) The class will be taught by Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond (both CBS Steering Committee members) and Cabell Gathman.

This will be a SAFE SPACE for anyone who suspects they may be missing some of the basics to come to and learn and discuss, and ask the questions you're afraid to ask for fear of being jumped on. We strongly recommend that anyone who feels a little shaky in the basics, or who doesn't agree with what a lot of PoC are saying about cultural appropriation, come and attend this class BEFORE going into any panels on race or cultural appropriation. Forearmed is forewarned.

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