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Posts Tagged ‘ranty’

It’s Pick a Fight Day on LJ!

(No, it isn’t. Just on my LJ.)

So, I’m mostly okay with this article in the Telegraph about how it’s okay not to have read John Updike, or for that matter other literary greats. It’s certainly true that it isn’t possible for even the most well-intentioned of book lovers to have read all of the Great Literature that’s been published in the last two hundred years, even if you aim only for the top tier.

But here’s where the writer and I part ways:

This is not an argument against the literary canon. I do believe there are certain key authors – most of them Dead, White, European and Male – who jolly well ought to be studied at school by virtue of the quality and intelligence and depth of their writing. And I certainly don’t believe in the modern anything-goes approach to teaching novels to children in school where they’re served up in gobbets of “text” (whole books being considered too challenging for the Xbox generation) and where literary merit is thought of less importance than “relevance” or “accessibility”.

All I mean is that once you’ve had a reasonable grounding in sufficient “proper” literature to form your taste, you should never again read a book out of duty.


Okay, middle first. I’m with him on the distressing notion that a whole book is too much for kids to read; God, I hope there aren’t many schools doing that. But. But.

Dead, White, European, and Male. The blithe assumption that they’ve got a majority share on “quality and intelligence and depth.” Gyah. I won’t even waste space on arguing that one; you all can do that for yourselves.

The end; the end is where I start talking back to my monitor. The idea that you should form your taste by reading “proper” literature. That literary merit (as judged by, I presume, highly-educated White European Males) should be our primary criterion for handing books to kids — because “relevance” and “accessibility” are silly little concerns, not something we should be wasting their time on.

How the hell does he expect anybody to learn to love reading, with that approach? How does an education in which you’re forced to read books out of duty incline anybody to go on reading them when the duty is removed?

A couple of months ago, I finally managed to articulate one of the things that bothered me about high school English lit classes: I think they force-feed students lots of things the students have no particular reason to understand or care about, and they do it because this is the last chance society has to make you read those books. So who cares if Death of a Salesman is about a guy decades ago having a mid-life crisis and you’re a sixteen-year-old barely aware that traveling salesmen once existed? Who cares if you have any reason to find Willy Loman’s pain sympathetic or even comprehensible? You’ll read it because we think you should do so before you die, and once you graduate our chance to enforce that is gone.

I don’t think any power in the ‘verse could have made me like that play, but I’ve got a tidy little list of authors I should give a second chance, because I might enjoy them now that I’m ready for them.

But I formed my taste by reading books I liked, books I cared about. It probably isn’t the taste Mr. Dellingpole thinks I should have; it’s okay for me not to read Updike, but probably less okay if the reason I’m not reading Updike is that I’m reading George R. R. Martin. But I submit that quality, intelligence, and depth exist as much in one’s interaction with a book as they do in the text itself: all the literary brilliance in the world doesn’t matter if my eyes are glazing over as I turn the pages. You want to know how I learned close reading? By obsessing over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books and piecing together the fragments of prophecy and foreshadowing scattered through them. And it’s entirely possible I never would have become an alert enough reader to survive Dorothy Dunnett had I not gone through those baby steps first. But if somebody had convinced me I ought to be spending my time on Zadie Smith instead of Jordan, it’s also possible I would have never picked up Dunnett in the first place — or, y’know, other books in general.

If I were in charge of high school curricula, you know what? Literary merit would not be my overriding concern. I would set out to give kids books they might enjoy, and then once they’re engaged, teach them how to pay attention to what they’re reading. Everything else can follow from there, because once you’ve done that, the chances of there being an “everything else” get a lot higher.

It’s a fine irony when Mr. Dellingford decries readers who pick up literary books only out of a sense of obligation — while also telling us we should obligate kids to do just that.

Narrative tropes that annoy me, #17

Characters who automatically, unfairly, and without much in the way of supporting evidence, put the worst possible spin on Our Hero’s actions and blame him for whatever bad thing has just happened.

I’ve read two books lately with that trope. There better not be a third one any time soon, or that book will probably get dropped and not picked up again, regardless of what else it may be doing right.

whiskey tango foxtrot, over?

I don’t know if this is a California thing or what, but I’ve come across some appallingly ill-organized stores since moving out here. The Blockbuster within walking distance is so bad I’ve pretty much vowed never to set foot in it again: not only are 3/4 of the DVDs stacked in haphazard piles rather than laid face-out for ease of browsing, but there are L’s in with the A’s and C’s among the S’s, to the point where I had to search the entire section to be sure that if the movie I wanted was anywhere in the store, it was too thoroughly lost to be worth my while.

And the grocery store! I thought for a while they didn’t carry Near East couscous, because it’s shelved two or three aisles over from the rest of the couscous. (Which is in the aisle labeled “natural foods,” including such natural foods as Powerade.) Hunting for taco seasoning, did I find it among the Hispanic foods? Among the spices? No, it’s in with the stuffing and gravy packets. Or at least some of it is; either Safeway doesn’t stock the most stereotypical brands of such things, or they’ve hidden the Old El Paso god knows where. In with the pet food, maybe. The cheese, sour cream, and yogurt aren’t in with the milk, eggs, and butter — no dairy section for you! — they’re clear across the store, along with the lunch meats, which are likewise nowhere near the rest of the meat.

Srsly. Is the state of California too busy being hippies in the sunshine to think about how they set up their stores?

Maybe I should hire myself out as a consultant.

any sociologists out there?

Apparently I’m developing this thing for arguing with mind-melds.

In this instance, SF Signal is taking on gender imbalance in spec fic publishing. Lots of food for thought in there, but I’m at the point where my single overwhelming thought is this:

Is there, anywhere out there, a sociologist with both the necessary interest in genre fiction and the necessary methodological rigor to get us some actual data?

Because until somebody does that study, we’re arguing from evidence that is 98% anecdotes and gut feeling. Some magazines (Strange Horizons, Fantasy) openly discuss the gender breakdown of their submissions and publications; Broad Universe has scraped data from issue runs of some more. But where’s the data for novels? First novels, bestseller novels, big contracts, broken down by (admittedly fuzzy) categories of sub-genre, maybe even weighted for type of narrative if our hypothetical sociologist is good enough. Reviews, awards, hardcover versus trade paper versus mmpb publication. In a dream world we’d know the submission stats, too — but good luck getting those. Even without them, it would be a start.

It makes me regret my exit from academia, but truth is, I could never do this study. You really need a sociologist, not an anthropologist; this is not participant-observation work.

Some things we do know: that the people who say “I just buy/read good work, regardless of who wrote it” are naive. It’s well-established, in fields ranging from biology to symphony orchestras, that the perceived gender of individuals affects their reception: the percentage of women in orchestras went up after musicians began auditioning behind a curtain, with a carpet laid down so high-heeled shoes wouldn’t click on the floor. Swap the names on journal articles, and readers will rate higher the one they think is written by a man. Very few editors or readers out there are actively hating on women writers; the real problem is the inactive prejudice.

But we need data before we can get to the deeper questions of “why,” let alone “what do we do about it?” The relative absence of women in science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) no doubt arises from many factors, ranging from fewer women with the educational background to write hard SF, to less free time on their hands for the writing of it, to a reluctance to submit to markets they perceive as unfriendly to them, to editorial bias, to reader bias, and so around the merry-go-round. The relative presence of women in the current paranormal romance/urban fantasy borderland arises from a different set of factors. I don’t think anecdotes and gut feeling are without their use, but we might get farther if we had actual concrete information.

an odd reaction in fandom

By now, everybody’s heard that Dumbledore is gay. That is not, I promise, what this post is about — just the inciting cause of the post.

To entertain myself, I took a brief look at Fandom Wank, wondering what kinds of reactions they were rounding up. (Answer: pretty much the ones you’d expect.) The only link I really followed was one to, where they were discussing the issue of “interview canon.” And there I found an attitude that really raised my eyebrows.

I’m paraphrasing here, because several posts I saw raised this point, each one phrasing it differently. But the reaction was something to the effect of, “Authors shouldn’t create canon in their interviews; it should all be in the books.”


Step back for a moment and look at that. Authors shouldn’t create canon . . . .

Imagine you are a non-fanfic-writing-individual. An author you like gives an interview. They reveal — in response to someone’s question — a detail about the story you didn’t know before, be it that so-and-so is gay, so-and-so grew up in a home with seventeen cats, so-and-so really likes mint chocolate chip ice cream. What is your reaction? Me, I’d think, “oh, that’s interesting,” and enjoy the sense that there’s a real world the author is writing about, that exists beyond the simple words on the pages of the books.

Now imagine that author answering such questions with “Eh, I don’t know.” Makes the world look like those old Hollywood facades, doesn’t it? A pretty front with nothing behind it. What you see is what you get. Kind of boring, really.

Authors shouldn’t create canon in their interviews.

That statement contains a giant roaring assumption that just boggles me: that fanfiction is some how an end goal for what an author does. That authors should be taking the desires of fanficcers into account when writing their books, when talking about their books, when answering the questions of fans. Why? Because apparently it makes things more complicated for the fanficcers, having to track what got said when and whether or not it should count as canon.

If the comments had been phrased in the vein of, “man, now we have to debate whether or not to count that as canon,” I wouldn’t mind. It’s a problem for the people writing fanfic; let them decide how to handle it. But the accusatory tone I saw in some of the comments . . . how inconsiderate of J.K. Rowling, to create canon in her interviews. Apparently she makes a habit of this. The nerve! To know more about her characters than she wrote into the books! To share that information with people when they ask!

Fandom wankery, indeed.

Okay, I’ve got it.

Okay, I have my thoughts in order now. For those of you just tuning in, this is about an anonymous comment left on my journal, which I feel to be very wrong-headed, but against which I was having a difficult time assembling my arguments. I can’t promise conciseness, exactly, but I’m aiming for coherence, which is what I was lacking before. And thank you to everyone who commented, often making points along these same lines, which helped me go “yeah, that’s what I was after.”

To recap:

It seems to me that a lot of books these days throw in a mixed cast for the hell of it, to be PC, to try to please everybody. Some stories are just Man Stories; some are just Women Stories. Could you imagine a random female having been thrown into, say, DELIVERANCE? The whole idea is silly. I say you should write a story as it is–if it’s male adventure, then that’s what it is; throwing in a woman won’t make it different or better.

We can leave aside the triple use of the eyebrow-raising notion that writers “throw” such things into their stories “for the hell of it.” I want to talk about the gender politics here.

First up: “Man Stories” vs. “Woman Stories.” This presupposes a notion of stories being ineluctably “male” or “female” in their point of view, intended audience, whatever. Presumably “Man Stories” involve blowing stuff up, while “Woman Stories” are touchy-feely. But I’m likely to suggest watching Die Hard, while my husband will vote for When Harry Met Sally, so clearly that’s not universal. Does this make me a bad woman, and him a bad man? Gendering stories like that just reinforces the ideology that as men or women we “should” behave in certain ways, have certain tastes, etc. And that has pernicious knock-on effects in the long term.

Next: the suggestion that “a random female” doesn’t belong in Deliverance, or whatever male-focused story you want to substitute in there. (Hint: “a random” anything doesn’t belong in any story.) I’m not terribly familiar with Deliverance, so let’s take the example from comments in my other post, that of Wellington’s army on the Peninsula in the 19th century. Granted: soldiers of the time were all-but-universally male, and the fact that the occasional cross-dressing woman did end up in the army doesn’t mean you should shoehorn one into the story out of some misguided notion of gender parity. But is that the only approach? Armies were surrounded by laundresses, prostitutes, local women, officers’ mistresses, wives following their soldier husbands, and a variety of other individuals of the female persuasion. Not every story will involve such people, true; a focused short story about one soldier comforting another as he dies on the battlefield might have just two characters, both male. (But does the dying one have a fiancee or wife? Are there women picking over the corpses around them?) Arguing from extreme cases is pointless, though. More important is the general picture: that while the soldiers of the time were male, writing about a 19th century army while ignoring all that supporting cast perpetuates a fallacious notion, namely, that Manly Man Soldiers don’t need or have wimmen in their lives. They did and do. Or, to state it more broadly: it perpetuates the fallacious notion of women’s irrelevance to history (or the present day).

From there: if your story is set in a secondary world, you own what you created. And I don’t mean the copyright. I mean that you have made choices; you are responsible for them. Does this mean you should create only utopian societies where everything from gender onward is peachy keen? Of course not. That would be boring. But if you set it up so women are insignificant to your story, then can you explain why? Are your reasons good? I could tell you why there are so few men in Doppelganger, and while my reasons have a certain amount of validity, I’m not thrilled with them. I’d probably handle it differently now. But the point is, I own those choices; I’m the one who made that world and told that story.

All of this, of course, applies just as well to race, etc.

And in conclusion: little or nothing of what I’m saying here applies to the book this all started with, because I don’t think these fallacies are what was at work in that writer’s mind. My anonymous commenter simply happened to post in reply to that entry. There may be a connection in his mind (I’m assuming it’s a him), but not in mine.

commentary invited

Normally I wouldn’t single out a commenter on this journal for public (and communal) rebuttal. But in this case, the comment was posted anonymously. Now, maybe the person in question just doesn’t have an LJ account, and didn’t realize that it’s generally appreciated for such people to sign their comments. On the other hand, maybe not.

The comment was posted in response to my issues with The Lies of Locke Lamora. Here it is, in its entirety.

It seems to me that a lot of books these days throw in a mixed cast for the hell of it, to be PC, to try to please everybody. Some stories are just Man Stories; some are just Women Stories. Could you imagine a random female having been thrown into, say, DELIVERANCE? The whole idea is silly. I say you should write a story as it is–if it’s male adventure, then that’s what it is; throwing in a woman won’t make it different or better.

So: either an honest person who didn’t realize they should sign their comment, or someone hiding behind anonymity because of the substance of said comment. Either way, I don’t much care who it was, because I’m not looking to attack the person behind the words; I’m looking to attack the words themselves. Because I think this statement is very wrong-headed.

Here’s why I’m posting it: I know how I feel about the statement, but I’m having trouble articulating why. The thoughts are there; I just can’t catch them and make them settle down as words. (Not efficiently. I could maunder inefficiently on about the essentializing notion of Man Stories and Women Stories and the popular straw-man of “just to be PC.” But nobody wants to read four pages of me trying to get to the point.) So I turn to you, my mighty LJ readers, to help me out on this one. I know there are any number of you who could go to town on the fallacies of that comment, and I invite you to do so.

That way, the next time this comes up, I’ll be able to articulate my arguments against it more concisely than I can right now.


I can’t decide which Herculean labor is the right metaphor for the battle I’ve been waging for several days now, against the backlog in all of my major e-mail accounts.

Candidate A: Cerberus. There are three accounts, after all, so it’s kind of like dealing with a three-headed monster.

Candidate B: the Hydra. Because every time I think I’ve made progress toward defeating one of the accounts, it sprouts new heads/new e-mails to attack me again.

Candidate C: the Augean Stables. Shoveling endless mounds of shit, and feeling like I’ll never be done.

This post brought to you by the forty or so e-mails I dealt with yesterday, and the fact that today’s schedule has prevented me from dealing with any more, which just ensures that tomorrow’s battle will be harder.

Totally random gripe, but you know what? I’m not actually a fan of the way the web is getting more multimedia. (This gripe brought to you by the Onion, which has too much video and audio content these days for my taste. I miss when it was mostly text.)

Why does this irritate me? Because 95% of the time I’m at the computer, I’m listening to music. My own music. If a website loads up some song (MySpace, I’m looking at you) or I click on an innocuous-looking link and find a video starting to play, I have to go pause my music — or, as I more often do, just back up to the previous page and go find something else that won’t interrupt me. Also, I can read text at my own pace, whereas a video makes me go at its pace — and when it’s seven minutes long, I generally decide I don’t care enough about whatever it is, and I go do something else.

Which is not to say I never want to watch videos. I just want to know that’s what’s coming. A lot of people these days put a (pdf) warning when a link leads to an Adobe file, since many of us dislike having Adobe launch out of nowhere, and don’t always remember to check the url we’re being pointed at before we click on it. I’d love to see a similar thing for videos, so I don’t get ambushed by them. Then I can decide whether I want to go watch a video right now or not. Also? Don’t just link saying “This is awesome” or some such. If you do that to a webpage, I can skim the content briefly and decide whether it’s something that interests me. If I don’t know what a video’s about, I’m not going to sit around and wait to find out, then decide whether I, too, think it’s awesome. (It usually isn’t anyway.)

I also don’t follow any video podcasting on blogs. I’d follow audio podcasting if I could be bothered to put it on my iPod (and video too, maybe, if I had an iPod that supported it), but not watching or listening on my computer. Again with the wanting to move at my own pace thing. And being able to skim over the stuff that doesn’t interest me.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not an epic problem; I’m far more concerned with writing my novel and catching up on my e-mail and what our legislators will do about the White House thumbing its nose at them. But it’s a minor irritant, and I thought y’all might like a post that isn’t about MNC.

So warn folks when you’re linking to a video, and give some sense of what the video is. Or Angry Kitten will come after you.