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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

I must become all things to all people . . . .

Many of you are probably tired of reading about the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, at least for this round; you can only take it for so long before your brain gives up. But this post is less about the debate’s focus than its execution: namely, one possible source for the difficulty of communication that I think we can all agree plagues any attempt to move forward. Based on my peripheral encounters with theories of communication, I think tablesaw is right about the ways in which the conduit metaphor shuts down the possibility of effective progress, and Reddy’s alternate metaphor of the toolmakers with their blueprints and the evil magician coming along to mess with them sounds like a pretty apt description of the situation we find ourselves in. (Not just here, either; just poke your nose into politics and watch it play out.)

But I have one big question for the “Becoming Toolmakers” portion of the essay. To quote:

In the toolmakers paradigm, to become a better one-on-one communicator, I must learn more about the person with whom I wish to communicate and communicate to that person in mind. In the toolmakers paradigm, to become a better writer and address a universal audience, I must learn more about everyone by learning about multiple, intersecting cultural contexts different from my own, and I must write with all of them in mind.

On the one hand, this is more or less how I think about communication: that you must always bear your audience in mind, and try to craft your ideas into a shape that will work within that audience’s context. On the other hand — sweet Pentecost on a pita cracker, how am I supposed to speak mindfully to everyone at once? I don’t even know who all my readers ARE! Even if we agree to leave out everybody who isn’t moderately fluent in English, according to this “solution,” in order to communicate effectively, I must learn about inner-city Chicago blacks and Pakistani immigrants in London and American-born Israeli Jews and nisei Japanese college students at Stanford and affluent Hispanic teens in Dallas and everybody else I haven’t named and then write with ALL OF THEM IN MIND.

And that’s before we even get to the possibility that the communication strategy which is effective with one group may be actively detrimental with another, and vice versa.

Dude. There is little in the world I love more than learning about multiple, intersecting cultural contexts different from my own. I spent ten years in school majoring in just that, and I’ll keep doing it on my own from now until you pry my library out of my cold, dead fingers. But the “solution” as framed above is not a solution; it’s a godlike ideal no human will ever be able to live up to. Is it sufficient if I try? Or if I decide, okay, there’s a black character in this story, so I will focus my efforts on trying to speak to the myriad of possible black perspectives (because there is no single “black perspective”) and not worry about what the Hispanics or Asians or whoever think? How do I account for all the perspectives in the world that aren’t mine, and speak to all of them at once?

I don’t have an answer to that. I think tablesaw raised some great points in that post, but I hit that bit at the end and my eyes bugged out of my head. It’s kind of like the rule we kept returning to, during the panel discussions at VeriCon: how do you do [thing X]? Be a genius! It’s the solution to everything. Except that I can’t just wave a magic wand and turn myself into a genius. I can take little baby steps toward this utopia, but will they be enough?

where I stand on the appropriation debate, in a nutshell

As I mentioned the other day, there’s been another round on the Internet of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, regarding what it means for white writers (or writers of color, for that matter) to to include or not include characters of color in their stories, and all the difficulties thereof. (Depending on your location on the social map, your friends list may have consisted of nothing but this debate for the last several days, or you may have missed it entirely.)

I came to a realization because of all of this. On the one hand, if you write CoC, you may be accused of getting it wrong, of presuming to speak from a subject position you have no right to occupy, and various other sins. On the other hand, if you don’t write CoC, you may be accused of ethnocentrism, of contributing to their erasure from the discourse, and various other sins. Either way you go, you will offend somebody; there’s no “safe” path, much as we wish there were.

This has led many people to conclude, not without justification, that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

In which case, I choose Door Number One: I would rather be damned for doing, than for not.

I would rather try (and get it wrong) than not try (and get it wrong). Because the former has at least some chance of getting it somewhat right, for some readers. It will also, in the manner of a lightning rod, attract more criticism — even folks who are aware of these things are more likely to be aware of, and vocally critical of, that which is executed badly than that which is not executed at all — but that’s no reason to give up.

first sale of the year!

There’s a certain pleasure to breaking into a market that hasn’t bought anything from you before. But there’s also a pleasure, of a different flavor, to selling them a second story.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which previously published (and podcasted) my Nine Lands story “Kingspeaker,” has now purchased a Driftwood story titled (surprise!) “Driftwood.” (Thanks to the vagaries of the creative process, this was the first story I wrote for that setting, but it took longer to beat into publishable shape than “A Heretic by Degrees,” which came out more or less right in the first draft.) ninja_turbo, I think this means you’re officially allowed to be a Driftwood fanboy now.


The Ell-Jays are going through another round of the discussion on Representing the Other, sparking some thoughts, but none really concrete enough for me to articulate them here. It does, however, remind me of a realization I had the other week, watching The House of Flying Daggers.

Driftwood being the kind of place it is, not everybody there is human-shaped, and the ones who are, aren’t necessarily human-colored. Because of that, there’s no actor who’s precisely my mental image of Last. But there’s no reason in this world or any other that he has to have European facial structure, and so it occurred to me that if you dyed Takeshi Kaneshiro the right colors, he’d be my casting for the part.

Turns out a lot of my short story sales recently have featured secondary-world characters of a chromatic nature. This is what we call “a start.” But I want to do better in this world, and also in novels.

thinky thoughts, Indian edition

Vandana Singh is currently guest-blogging over at Ecstatic Days, and she linked to this piece on the navarasas, or nine emotions — “emotions” being a simplification for a concept described more fully in that piece, since it includes both the causes as well as the effects of feelings. It’s a neat structure, I think, and in reading through it, I found myself placing each rasa in the context of the Bollywood movies I’ve seen, since that’s the most familiar Indian frame I have. (I have heard some Indian music, and read the Ramayana, but those aren’t fresh enough in my memory.)

In particular, I like adbhuta, which makes me think of the “sense of wonder” we often say is at the heart of SF and fantasy. The description given there is more focused on the mystical, but I can easily imagine it stretching to cover the wonder SF evokes with its technological flights — as well as things like human beings walking on the moon. Those are, after all, part of “the world and all its wonders.”

This makes me want to build a whole Western genre system around the rasas. Speculative fiction would be the genre of adbhuta, while romance, clearly, is the genre of shringara. You’d get two types of horror for bhibatsya and bhaya — splatter and thriller — hasya for comedies, which don’t get their own genre in the bookstore but certainly do in the theatre . . . I’d probably put litfic with karuna. Adventure fiction, drawn from across traditional genre boundaries, would be veera. That leaves me with rowdra and shanta, and the latter may not have a genre, unless it’s self-help books. (Which sounds more derogatory than I intend. They just set out to evoke shanta, as fiction generally doesn’t.) Not sure what to do with rowdra. Apocalyptic fiction? I’m not sure where mysteries would generally end up, either. Scattered across many, perhaps, dependent on whether they set out to scare you (bhaya) or make you curious (adbhuta) or what.

It’s an interesting lens, anyway. And I like the adbhuta connection, at least.

sorry, your book is in another castle

Time-honored wisdom among writers says that it’s better not to respond personally to reviews. I agree with that; what I’d like to do is use a review as a jumping-off point to discuss something it made me think about.

I’ve gotten my first negative review. (Counting the Kirkus slam as a rite of passage, rather than a review. <g>) A reader on Amazon who had adored my first two books rated this one two stars, and explained his reasons.

Let me say straight-out: from my perspective, Midnight Never Come is the best book I’ve ever written. It is not flawless; if I thought it was, I’d kick myself, because the only way I could think like that is if I weren’t trying hard enough to improve. But I consider it more intricate and well-thought-out than either of my first two novels.

But that isn’t the point, is it? Quality, if we can even speak of that objectively, is not the major determinant of the reading experience. Midnight Never Come is not the book this reader wanted (and hoped for) from me. I’ve said to several people that you can read it through a variety of genre lenses (urban fantasy, historical, romance, political thriller) — but secondary-world adventure fantasy isn’t one of them. So while I think there are points of similarity, such as the espionage, that will attract some readers who liked the Doppelganger books, it all depends on what you attached to the first time around. There will be other readers who pick this up, wonder what the hell happened to the Marie Brennan they enjoyed before, and walk away — some of them permanently.

This? Drives writers crazy. Because it’s a balancing act for which there isn’t even a recognized “win” condition. Some forces want you to do more of the same; some want you to grow and change and try new things. It isn’t even a straightforward matter of readers on one side, writers on the other, because of course writers may want to keep exploring a world their readers aren’t responding to, or readers may get bored by a writer they perceive as stuck in a rut. What’s victory? Selling lots of books? But what if that comes at the cost of pursuing ideas you’re really passionate about?

Actually, I take back what I said. There is a win condition, and it’s called being Neil Gaiman. The man could probably write anything he wants to, and his fans would love him for it.

This is my third novel. It’s not set in the same world as my first two. This is officially my first encounter with the phenomenon: that every time I change tracks, I will lose readers whose sphere of interests don’t include this new thing. There’s nothing wrong with it (unless I lose so many readers my publisher drops me), and it doesn’t mean the disappointed readers are wrong. They just wanted something else than what I delivered. I may or may not find that the shift brings me within the ambit of a greater number of new readers. Someday, I’ll decide to shift again: rinse and repeat.

I can tell myself it’s natural, but it’s still saddening, realizing the choices I’ve made have disappointed a fan.