Smart people saying smart things

The blogger Slacktivist has a periodic series of posts he titles “Smart people saying smart things,” where he links to and quotes from a handful of solid pieces by other writers. I’ve happened across several great posts recently, so I’m going to steal his approach and modify it a bit here.

A really good discussion of how things change when you got published, and how to bear in mind that meeting you may be a really big deal for a reader of yours — yes, even if you don’t think of yourself as being all that famous. If they love your work, they love your work, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t sold as much as Author A or won as many awards as Novelist N. And while trying to be extraordinary for them may be daunting, you don’t have to be; simply meeting you is out of the ordinary. All you have to do is be a good kind of out of the ordinary — i.e., remember that this may mean more to them than it does to you, and don’t be a jackass. Also, if somebody’s a fan of your work, respect that; don’t grind down their joy by grinding yourself down in front of them. They may love a short story you’re embarrassed by. They may praise the exact thing you wish you could revise out of your last novel. That’s okay. Accept their delight as the gift it is.

I also want to call out one specific thing Mary Robinette said, about taking advantage of people. We see this cropping up a lot in allegations of sexual harassment: some guys are knowingly and maliciously using their social power to get what they want, but others are the equivalent of that guy with the enormous backpack who turns around without first checking to make sure there’s clearance for it. They don’t realize the pressure they’re applying simply by opening their mouths — and because they don’t realize it, they may apply it harmfully. We’re social monkeys; we like to do favors for the shiny monkeys, because then some of their shine rubs off on us. If you’re a published author and you ask a fan to do something for you, pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t exploit their goodwill. Don’t ask them to do things that will be burdensome, or if you do, make sure you compensate them fairly. Always thank them.

A potted history of the different ways internet culture has dealt with trolls across its brief history, and why it keeps on burning us out. What she says about the internet changing so fast — I honestly hadn’t even heard the term “cancel” used in that context yet, because I am out on the very edge of the social media pond, and those ripples hadn’t yet reached me. But this lays out very clearly how we haven’t yet figured out a good way of dealing with social interaction online, and the effects that’s having on other parts of our lives, including the way we interact with narrative media. I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope one exists, and that we find it sooner rather than later. Because the anthropologist in my looks at what we’ve got and wonders how long we’re going to lurch along in a car that’s on fire before we either fix it or decide as a society that getting where we’re going faster isn’t worth the third-degree burns we suffer along the way.

Palmer means stoicism in the specific philosophical sense, not a general “grit your teeth and bear it” approach. I don’t know much about philosophy, so the majority of her post was news to me, and very interesting — tangentially the part about stoicism as a metaphysics, but more to the point, stoicism as ethics. She makes some good points about why it is well-suited to being the philosophy of those in power, and why even for the downtrodden it can be both a wonderful lifeline and a dangerous trap, encouraging us simply to accept the world the way it is, rather than striving to change it. And it also makes me think about writing fiction, and the unexamined assumptions that can be hard to get around in your worldbuilding . . . like the idea that we can change the world, not just in a localized sense, but a general progress one. Humans didn’t always have that idea, and it’s easy to forget that.

What happens when the “Tiffany problem” isn’t about small things like plausible medieval women’s names but rather the lived experience of people around you. I like her point about physical intuition, and how reading broadly can help us build up the kind of instinctive understanding that helps us process what is and is not likely to be true in other people’s lives. It’s an angle on the subject of empathy I haven’t seen before, and reminds me of a thing I’m still flailing at in the New Worlds Patreon, which is how to explain the instinctive feeling I have that some kinds of worldbuilding hang together plausibly and others don’t. Fundamentally, the answer is that I’ve read a lot about a lot of different cultures, so I have that intuition about the ways they work; I’m not sure it’s possible to boil that intuition down to a checklist of questions to ask, without doing the reading first.

(Also, this essay gives me some additional vocabulary to talk about what skills I still lack in the kitchen, so hey, bonus.)

2 Responses to “Smart people saying smart things”

  1. eLPy

    Great post with some really good points. Social media has me wondering all the time what it is and is going to do to us, especially these younger generations that rely so heavily on it.

    Interesting point that the powerful could take advantage of people believing we ought to just buck up. Haven’t thought about it that way.

    Overall great post, thanks for sharing. I have to agree as well that reading widely to build this “instinctive understanding”. It seems so important and yet not always second nature.

    reply
    • swantower

      I strongly suspect the social media landscape is going to look very, very different twenty-five years from now. I don’t know what it will look like, but I do get the feeling our current arrangement will turn out to be unsustainable.

      reply

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