Welp, spring is creeping up on us and wriggling its little butt, ready to pounce. The elms in my neighborhood are plumping up to bloom and I have laid in a stock of Flonase for the season. I haven’t had any blog-post-sized things to say recently, just plugging away at work and words by turns.
But today I do have an announcement. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, I’ve been posting morning photos that I take while my tea is steeping — mostly of things in my apartment or the views from my window, but spring is likely to change how much I’m outside beyond trash day. A friend remarked that she found comfort and hospitality in the photos I shared, and that clarified a thought that I’d been having for a while. Which is that I have felt very much the loss of being able to practice hospitality, both in my physical space and my mental working space.
So I have started a “newsletter,” which sounds a lot more portentous than what it is: just a daily note, with my favorite of the morning’s pics, and a snippet of thought with a link, a poem, or a piece of music. When I have long-form blog posts here, I will link them out, as well as any author news that comes down the pipeline. It’s simple, it’s free, and it’s not subject to any goddamn rent-seeking algorithms you don’t have to wait for your social media feed to show it to you. You can sign up at the landing page here, or using the form I have embedded in the sidebar. It’s an experiment, so I’m sure this little project will evolve with time.
As Gregor Vorbarra likes to say: let’s see what happens.
Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.
Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.
(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)
My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.
(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)
General Thaddeys Barklay
Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.
(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)
Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm
One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.
(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)
General Eamon Inslee
In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.
(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)
So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.
So in my summer odyssey of brain fog, I became a bit of a Youtube junkie, because that was a relatively effort-free distraction from my back injury and its sequelae as well as my complete inability to make and carry out plans. (As any ADHD person knows, you have to make a plan to make a plan, so sometimes you’re just SOL on a bad brain day.) There, that should fill you, gentle reader, in on what was going on while I wasn’t blogging.
But, I’m back, with a whole list of Youtubers whose channels I’ve been enjoying, and today I’m linking a recent video by Dr. Octavia Cox, who does close readings of 18th and 19th century literature as a public service, and really, why more English majors don’t do this, I don’t know. Dr. Cox invites people to open discussion in the comments, but to be honest there’s no way I’m going to fit my ersatz Romanticist reax into a mere Youtube comment, so I’m blogging it instead. Plus, it has a bearing on the kind of writing talk I do here, so that’s where I’m going with this post.
You should really watch the video for the nuances — it’s only 20 minutes — but the gist is that a very celebrated passage in Jane Eyre, in which Jane-as-narrator castigates the cultural bonds that give women no scope for action and creativity, is bookended by her rather repressive methods as governess at the beginning, and the bitter laugh of Grace Poole (which is really Bertha Mason but Jane doesn’t know it yet), in a metaphorical commentary on Jane’s feminist mental rant at the end.
I think Dr. Cox is mostly right in her analysis of the passage (she is pretty good with these close readings generally — I particularly commend her commentaries on Jane Austen). What I’d like to discuss is the wider angle of Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with the themes of non-balanced power dynamics.
Jane Eyre is one book — among all the other books I read in surveys of the period — that all but demanded that I read it like a writer. I mostly do that anyway, but I think CB deliberately invites the interlocutor into the space where the story is being created: “Reader, I married him” seems to me another way of saying, “Writer, this is how I’m doing this story.” At some points of the text this invitation seems almost like daring the reader/writer to argue; at others it seems to presume a collaborative listening on our part, and this is where I’m reminded that the Brontë children made up stories together in a literal collaboration of writing/reading.
When it comes to this feminist/counter-feminist tidal lock in Jane Eyre, I have to (pause to groan) bring up The Professor. I’m not going to say go read The Professor if you haven’t, because you probably will wish you hadn’t. It’s an extremely idtastic early novel of CB’s in which the titular professor goes to Belgium, courts one of his students and marries her, and finally achieves a relationship in which he can be the dom he’s dreamed of being all his life but who no one in real life would ever want to have as a dom. If you think I’m exaggerating, this novel really puts the sub in subtext, and the reason I bring it up is that this novel is also written in first-person POV — but from the POV of the male character. The female character (well, all the other characters, really, but the love interest in particular) is seen entirely from the outside and is objectified by the narrative as well as the professor. My overall impression of this story is that CB had to write it to cleanse her writerly palate; but the point is this. The D/s elements in The Professor are very strong, counter-feminist, and appear to be quite unexamined; but in Jane Eyre they are brought to the center of the narrative and deliberately engaged by the author with the intent of making a fully integrated story realized not just in the POV of Jane the character, but in the 360 degrees of vantage surrounding her.
What this suggests to me is that while Jane the character is replicating the repressive education she herself received, the narrative is interrogating it, and the author is continuing a process of engaging with elements of her own interior world that she is working out through stories.
That’s one of the things that makes Jane Eyre so exciting as a novel, in my opinion; this deliberate cultivation of the id in story to narrate and re-narrate the experience of powerlessness minus trauma. Part of the mechanism of that in Jane Eyre is an actual redressing of the balance of trauma — Rochester has to suffer in order for Jane’s coming back to him to work as a story. But part of it is also setting up situations in which sexually-inflected power imbalances are handled without threatening the integrity of the person who has less power. I’m thinking particularly of St. John whatsisname and how he tries to tell Jane who she is and is destined to be, which is of course his obedient wife, very Professor-like; so, she leaves. And goes back to Rochester, who may be chaotic but at least seems to get her. I have a very strong memory of the scene in which Rochester is begging her to be his bigamous mistress and becomes so insistent and tearful that Jane in the narrative voice says “in another moment, I should be able to do nothing with him” — i.e., if she doesn’t change the trajectory of this scene he is going to make her his mistress by force. Jane frames the threat of rape by someone she loves who lied to her as a situation in which she can’t “do something” with him — she can’t make him be obedient, tractable, calm, or docile as she can with his ward, Jane’s pupil. The Professor this is definitely not.
No, Jane Eyre is not reliably feminist as a governess; one would be surprised if she were. But her counter-feminist tendencies are mingled with this element of dominant-submissive power exchange as a part of the author’s ongoing project of recasting potential and even actual traumas as more integrated stories. Conceptually, feminism and D/s interplay are two different issues, but in the human heart, it ain’t necessarily so. Charlotte Brontë has invited us into her parlor as collaborative listeners as she tells this story; she sets the parameters, and we have the opportunity to reimagine trauma as integrity along with her. I think it’s this aspect of the book that makes it a feminist project, more than the sum of its ideological parts.
Part of the problem for my generation of writers, though, is that the New Critics stand between us and the Brontës, with their insistence that “objective” (which is to say, established and therefore male) storytelling is superior to that which draws on the author’s id; that the recasting of trauma and power imbalances as integrated stories is a contemptible project for a writer to undertake. To which, at this point in my life, I want only to make the same reply that Captain Marvel did: “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
But I am writing this blog post: I’m glad people are still reading Jane Eyre and grappling with its implications, because it’s still a hugely important book, and I can only aspire to the kind of narrative theology that CB’s achievement represents.
Hello and welcome to the newest segment on this here blog, Warmish Takes. There are already plenty of places where you can get Hot Takes, but what yours truly promises here are Warmish Takes, straight off the bat.
Mind you, many of my takes are Warmish because it takes me so damn long to string enough words together: hence the hiatus here while I coped with Summer Doldrums and Plot Problems. More on that in another post. Fortunately, some of my Warmish Takes receive a flush of renewed warmth by coming back round again in the social media turbine, and that’s the case with today’s take.
In keeping with the warmishness of my takes, I’m not going to link out to any NYT articles or dissections of the short story “Cat Person” (the value of which for me is primarily in improving my Current Events percentage in my online trivia league). I’m just going to address this whole idea of “borrowing” (or “stealing” or whatever) other people’s lives and personalities to write fiction with.
And yes, I’m a longtime fan of Anne Lamott too, who says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.” I’ve read any number of tweets the last few months in which writers defend themselves against the charge of sociopathy with something along these lines. Don’t want to appear in a writer’s fiction? Don’t have writer friends. Or friends with writers for friends. Or something.
As pointed out on Twitter, this particular hazard seems to be more endemic to the literary fiction world:
And really, why not? Literary fiction is more likely to involve situations and personalities that can be more easily lifted (or at least recognized) from the people around us. It does seem like a natural kind of hazard. I suspend judgment, like a shiny trapset cymbal to bang upon when the mood strikes. After all, aside from the more obvious heists, writers are the last people to know what alchemy induced them to come up with and sustain a story or a character — I say sustain because no matter how juicy a bit of goss might be, the writer just might not be into it for creative purposes.
No, I suspect there has to be a constellation of motivations in order for a writer to satirize a real-life person in the fiction they write. There are plenty of coffee mugs and bumper stickers warning the public at large: “Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.” I usually take this for a pretty light jest; some writers pay compliments to people they love by drawing on them for a character and killing the character off. And a real friend eats that shit up with a spoon!
So yeah, judgment suspended. But…I can’t be the only writer who doesn’t really do this?
I mean, not that you’re not all interesting, you crazy multifaceted diamonds, you. It’s just a way of going about things that is really foreign to me. I just don’t really get the concept of fictionalizing things and people that are really out there. I don’t get fictionalizing my own life, or any of my experiences; all of that stuff is like wool sheared from the sheep, destined to be carded and dyed and spun and become something, well…else. Not rearranged into the shape of the original sheep and framed on a wall. It just doesn’t make any sense to me as a writer at all.
It’s not dazzlingly unique to say that all my characters are made out of me-stuff, out of things I’ve thought and felt and experienced; and I’m sure that’s true of these other kinds of writers too. Who knows, maybe I do have a roman à clef kicking around in me somewhere. But as of this warmish moment, it’s not interesting to me, either to write or to read.
The pundit class may be inexhaustibly devoted to the spit-warm take that we should sympathize with and seek to mollify these anti-public-health sadopopulist wombat cubes with weeping sores where their empathy should be. But I’m well past exhausted and cracked the needle on the annoyance knob long ago.
Never mind if it’s possible to make these anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, pestilence-spreading, mass-murder-policy-platforming corkbrains crumbled in the bottom of a jug of thirty-cent wine feel like the rest of us don’t look down on them. They’re like that dude in Christy who bullied the title character and then she nursed him through typhoid fever, only to have him snarf down some hardboiled eggs and perforate his weakened bowel when her back was turned. Very tragic, but it’s not his name on the cover of the book.
Nope. It is not our obligation to prove a goddamned thing — not about vaccines, not about COVID, not about Tromp and his cupcake coupsters, nada, zip, zilch. You, Greg Abbott; you, you obnoxious shouter at staff in a Walmart; you, you Facebook swastika-jockey projection-artist; you are the ones with the burden of proof.
YOU prove that you’re not a heaving pile of mass-murdering maggot-brains whose motto, like Hell’s in Paradise Lost, is “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” YOU prove your good faith to US, and maybe you’ll be able to step foot out of your house without getting booed to Ultima Thule and back for the rest of your life.
Or, of course, we might be nice. But we don’t have to be.
This post begins with a story of two tweets, one of which I will link and one of which I will not.
Earlier this week, I ran across a tweet from someone who didn’t want to give oxygen to some person’s anti-trans screed, but screenshotted part of it to discuss one particular aspect of it. The highlighted text wasn’t what drew my eye, though. The screed-writer was so outraged by trans people demanding that society validate their self-perception that the phrase was italicized. It was this italicized phrase that caught my eye.
I thought: “Why, yes. Yes, that is exactly what is expected of you, Unknown Screedist. I’m sorry to hear that you find your moral duty so repugnant.”
Everybody has their particular moral lodestone, and this has always been mine: People get to say who they are. Yes, even if you’re 99.44% sure they’re wrong. Yes, even if you would really prefer they name themselves something else. Yes, even if they make you look bad by association.
If nothing else, holding to this principle insulates you from committing the No True Scotsman fallacy of argument. And here is the second tweet, fresh off the internets this morning:
It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. It was “confusing” to be attacked by people who acted not like Jesus Christ, but by the mob who demanded his crucifixion. We are used to thinking of “terrorist” and “Christian” to be mutually exclusive categories of person. But they aren’t. People get to say who they are. If a person committed to a terroristic act says they’re a Christian, I won’t gainsay them. I will note that their idea of worshiping God bears an awfully strong resemblance to the domination system that Jesus Christ came to dismantle, but I can’t force them to internalize that.
And I won’t. Because forcing other people to internalize what you think they are is the core impetus of fascism. It’s what some people find so appealing about our disgraced former president, and some of us others find so chilling: that offhand, pseudo-reasonable tone in which he said things like, Well, what can you do? Democrats are just evil. They’re just bad people. Any act of violence against Bad People is therefore justified, is lifted out of the sad category of terrorism into the shining platform of holy war.
This is the entire purpose of the rule of law: not to separate the Good People from the Bad People, but to uphold or deprecate certain acts according to their vital importance. It’s vitally important to fascists — and to people whose life’s investment has been placed in our social structures — that gender conformity be enforced. It’s vitally important to them not only that they think of themselves as the flower of Christianity, but that the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that we are not Christians at all if we are not like them. Defining people and codifying them is the basis of their ideal state: not the rule of law.
So my advice, for anyone who cares for it, is this: don’t play the game. Let people say who they are. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. Let no stroke or dot of the law be subverted by a crusade to prove to people who they are. That is a game for fools and fascists.
Every person has a right to the proving ground of their own self-perception. And I’ve committed not to invade.
I want to say at the outset that I ended up really enjoying this book and gave it four stars on Goodreads which has become kind of my standard for “damn good but not life-changing” and did I mention that stars are stupid ways to rate books? Anyway, I’m saying all that because the criticisms that follow might make it sound like I had major beef with this book, which I don’t.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a European-inflected story of fantasy court intrigue, with not one but five courts combined, plus another court mostly offstage playing the role of diplomatic spoiler. Five countries have formed a confederation called Elira, and the central country, Axium, is where the “Councillor” of the title, Lysande Prior, is from. Lysande is an orphan foundling, casualty of the war with the White Queen, who was taken under the wing of Sarelin Brey, the Iron Queen whose throne in Axium oversees the city-principates of Elira. Lysande grows up a scholar, sneered at by the nobility, who has been developing an illicit habit of drinking a concoction of chimera scale for both stimulation and solace.
When Queen Sarelin is murdered, the court at Axium discovers that Sarelin has appointed Lysande the Councillor who will choose the new monarch from the other city-princes, a plan which goes off the rails immediately when Lysande institutes a new council of all five leaders to make this deliberation while she investigates the murder, which may be a sign that the White Queen is rising again.
Lysande isn’t the only one afraid of the White Queen’s rise. Every principate in Elira has been undertaking to exterminate or at least suppress all people known as “elementals,” or what Avatar fans would know as benders — people with the magical ability to summon and control an element such as fire, air, or water. The assumption is that any and all elementals are evil minions of the White Queen, and why would they not be, with such power to harm ordinary mortals in the palm of their hands?
Both my main criticisms of the book are a matter of pulled punches. Lysande’s arc is about discovering her own power despite her upbringing in the orphanage with its mantra restrain, constrain, subdue. Why do the denizens of the court sneer at Lysande with her ink-flecked doublet? Because class war, that’s why. But you can’t have a class war without something to make it stable — or resolve it altogether. To use a Bowen systems metaphor, you need a triangle. The elementals would appear to furnish the third leg of the triangle between “the silverbloods” and “the populace,” but other than a bit of window-breaking, it’s not psychologically established that the silverbloods have been stoking the populace’s resentment against elementals in order to maintain their sway, or that the elementals are to the populace anything but the oppressed in parallel. I mean, it’s right there within the story’s reach, but Beaton doesn’t quite reach for it, either because she’s occupied with other aspects of the worldbuilding or because she wants to conceal the fact that elementals can crop up in the bloodlines of the nobility as well as the populace.
This is important because all three of these, er, elements, find their nexus in Lysande’s POV. The orphanage taught her the mantra restrain, constrain, subdue, but its main function seems to be as a bond for her to break free from and leave behind; it could be something they teach children of unknown provenance in case they turn out to be elementals, or it could be something all non-noble children are taught so they don’t rise against their betters. The point is, the story really only cares what Lysande thinks about the mantra, not what the oppressive teachers were hoping to accomplish by inculcating it. I think this is a missed opportunity, because a major plot point of this story involves Lysande reading her own thoughts and feelings into the affect and words of another character, and missing clues to a later betrayal. She’s a scholar; she’s trained herself to avoid eisegesis and steer to exegesis. The story needs to give her something to exegete, but there are some blank spaces.
Similarly, part of Lysande’s arc is embracing her D/s sexuality. In this ‘verse, no one is particularly fazed by bisexuality, or other gender-inflected orientations, but D/s is still somewhat taboo, it appears. Here again restrain, constrain, subdue is an obstacle for Lysande, whose desire to be the Dom in her relationships gathers force during the course of the book. Now, I know what I just said a week ago about smut sunblindness and my preferences for evoking rather than baldly stating what’s going on in a sex scene. But there are a couple of sex scenes — again, rather key to the plot — in which Lysande becomes less diffident about bringing her Dom orientation into the open, and the most explicit thing in them is the communication of the characters’ eyes. I’m not saying that D/s sex scenes should always be explicit. What I’m saying is that a scene about Lysande loosening her own tethers can’t depend on the opening stages of foreplay to establish what that feels like to her before subsiding in amorphous euphemism in which all we clearly know is that she’s on top. It doesn’t seem, judging from a later scene, that Beaton can’t write that kind of sequence; it’s that she chose to pull the punch here. If Lysande commanding the initiative was the main point of the scene, it’s possible a fade-to-black might have been more effective for the purpose, but clearly a few clues also needed to be established, and that was the sequence’s downfall — attempting to have it both ways.
I dwell on these criticisms because they really did slow me down a bit in the first half of the book — I was interested in Lysande but not compelled by her, and the problems I mention were sustained throughout. But the prose is evocative and well-paced, and getting to know the world was fun, and I always like a bit of politics, and the other characters, while avataristic, are interesting, with something likable about nearly all of them. These things come together to make the last stage of the book very satisfying, with its tiered reveals and a catastrophic attempted wedding and a duel between elementals with fire, water, and rapiers. No punches pulled there! Much of this depends on the character of Luca Fontaine, the prince of Rhime, who is Lysande’s only real equal (with the possible exception of her attendant Litany) among the other characters and has a bottomless capacity for snark, swag, and sleight of hand.
Possibly the best thing about this book, despite the obvious pitfalls of the choice, is that it is set firmly in Lysande’s POV and is therefore not portentously concerned with Lysande’s Destiny with a capital D. This story is about her experiences as they unfold and her changes as she meets them, and it does an excellent job of letting us in to Lysande’s surprise that anyone might want to ally with her, without protesting too much. Because of this, it’s easier for me to imagine what Lysande might look like to people looking at her from the outside — easier to imagine her gaining enemies as her power grows. It’s true I did guess early on who the murdering traitor was, but there was still plenty of suspense as to when Lysande was going to discover it, so it was no encumbrance.
Take it all around, this is an ambitious, creative, imagistic fantasy that takes interesting characters and established tropes and twists their right angles into fascinating tessellations. I’m glad I persevered with it.
Every summer around solstice time — that is, in a normal year; I don’t even know what I did last summer — I put away my writing projects and indulge in an orgy of reading. I gather up books I expect to be a pleasure to read, and sample them as the mood strikes me. So here’s a roundup of the books on my proverbial nightstand.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red (Murderbot #1): Fun, snarky, jabs an elbow into the fourth wall from time to time, exactly as advertised. Will read further into the series but it’s not urgent, as the ending of this initial novella lands pretty satisfyingly.
Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A pan-Asian fusion of fairytale and magical fable. Deceptively simple prose that evokes a fine beauty. Plan to read the companion novella, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.
K.J. Charles, Slippery Creatures & The Sugared Game (Will Darling #1 and #2): Charles is just the best at period queer romance, and that’s all there is to it. These are well spiced with murder, mayhem, and snark, and the POV character is so Fed Up With Everything that my primary delight in reading these is when Will loses patience and tells off and/or punches people — or both at once. My hold on the third book just came in, so I’ll be finishing this trilogy in short order.
E.J. Beaton, The Councillor: Fantasy court intrigue, European-inflected but with new twists on mythic imagery and magic. I like the POV character so far but haven’t quite…chimed with her? I don’t think it amounts to a flaw in the writing, but it is slowing me down somewhat.
Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace: I read the first chapter of this and decided it was too exciting to be an adequate distraction from the panic attack I was having at the time. Will circle back later.
S.A. Chakraborty, City of Brass: Had a critical mass of recs for this series, so look forward to giving it a try.
Still welcoming recs for pleasurable reads in the above vein!
Ask ten aroace folks what they think about sex scenes in stories and you’ll probably get seventeen different answers. So consider this more a meditation than an assay at representation.
Writing always starts with reading. In the olden fandom days I used to complain a great deal about how ship fics crowded out nearly everything else in the pipeline. It’s vastly irritating to work hard on a piece that isn’t terribly explicit or shippy (or God forbid, gen) and see it drop in the pond without a ripple, while the one-off explicit story one writes for a challenge gets an avalanche of recs. There are still a few embers of annoyance there, when I care to stir them. Why the hell does a story have to have a sexually-driven throughline to compel widespread interest?
Yet I don’t hate to read it myself. I quite like a good romance from time to time, particularly if it’s got mystery or mayhem to go with the sex. True, I’ll often skip, skim, or gloss the sex scenes, not because I am disgusted by them, but mostly out of a reflex I used to call “smut sunblindness” — one doesn’t want there to not be a sun, but staring at it is A Bit Much.
I’m leaning toward a food metaphor for it these days, though. If I order a hamburger or somesuch, I rarely ask to omit the tomato and onion, even though I inevitably end up fishing them out and leaving them in the wrapper. Why? Because I like the flavor those things bring to the party, to paraphrase Alton Brown. I just don’t necessarily want to eat more than a bite or two of them.
“A sex scene should be about sex and something else,” counseled a writing-advice book I once read; I can’t remember if he was quoting Vonnegut or merely used Vonnegut as an example. (He took care also to excerpt some bad and overwritten sex scenes to ahem, nail down the point.) I think this is quite right; the more a sexual interlude drives character development or plot arcs, the more likely it is I’ll want to read it, and the more likely it is to be erotically interesting, too.
This principle informs my writing, too, naturally. If you’re not going to tastefully fade to black, there ought to be a reason for staying in the room where it happens, so to speak. Say perhaps that the encounter is the locus of a turning point between the characters, or a catalyst for the motives of one or both; say that it’s an occasion for release, or recognition, or ruin. That much should be clear whether or not one chooses to use unequivocal language.
I don’t, for the most part; my goal in writing scenes like that is to evoke emotion and sensation by an indirect approach, which is, as I said above, more erotically interesting to me. Once the scene is written, though, I tend to treat it just like sex scenes I didn’t write; I gloss them on reread and sift for the emotional throughline on the other side.
This is another instance of how hobblingly inadequate writing advice like “Write what you know” can be. It so easily becomes “Write only what you know,” and that is manifest bullshit. If we wrote nothing but what we know, we would write nothing but memoirs. Often I turn that around and say, “Know what you write,” but in this case, I could also say “Use what you know.” As an aroace person I know for a fact that that “something else” turns a piquant sexual interlude to a compelling one; that access to emotion and sensation is the goal of good prose; and that, as Lord Peter Wimsey observed, sex isn’t some separate thing “functioning away all by itself; it’s usually attached to a person of some sort.”
So as a person of this sort, I happily invite all and sundry to make use of my expertise. Happy belated Pride.
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on my stoop waiting for my ride to pick up my car from the mechanic (I hope and expect that purchasing new tires will be the last major expenditure involved in getting a new car), when an Amazon truck trundled to a stop in front of my building. Turns out the package was in fact for me — not only had I forgotten when this book’s release date was, I had not actually expected to get it on the release date. But then, I don’t usually bother to pre-order books.
But I pre-ordered this one, largely because The Goblin Emperor was my compulsive comfort read last summer, and while this summer is definitely an improvement over last, I’m all for Moar Comfort.
It’s a thinner, smaller book than TGE, which was one reason why I did not hesitate to plunge in in the early evening hours and read till it was finished — rather late, but not so late as to give me a serious book hangover. I would say it pretty much met expectations.
Thara Celehar’s storyline was not the most interesting aspect of TGE for me, partly because the murder mystery in that book was not really a murder mystery — it was there to support the court intrigue plot and the development of the characters. What makes Celehar interesting as a character is his persistent stubbornness — and his deadpan delivery of wry truths; and in this book, written from his first-person POV, we discover the full range of his charism of speaking to the dead.
Celehar is now living in Amalo, an industrial city that in the last book was the departure point for the last emperor’s fateful airship voyage. There’s intrigue here, but it’s not court intrigue, and so it doesn’t lend the same kind of weight to Celehar’s character development that the court intrigue lends to Maia’s. The murder mystery in this book is not integrally linked with the temple intrigue, but it serves the same function as the murders in TGE: it’s there as a principal joist for the real plot of the book, which is Celehar earning his place in the community as Maia did in his.
There is in fact more than one murder mystery in this book, but none of the deaths are actually that mysterious, because, as I said, the mystery is not really the point. The point is to follow Celehar and his methods and his interactions with the denizens of Amalo. Also there’s a tantalizing gesture toward romance with a colorful opera impresario, but this is also not a romance, so the Happily Ever After is deferred beyond the scope of the book.
What this book is, I decided, is All Creatures Great and Small, if it were about dead bodies instead of animals. Not quite episodic, not quite plot-integrated, it’s the story of a youngish professional dropped into a new setting, navigating interpersonal politics and accepting cups of tea he doesn’t like while demonstrating how to tame a zombie or survive a night on a haunted hilltop, with shoestring resources, occasionally forced to change into secondhand clothes that make him look ridiculous.
If James-Herriot-but-with-ghouls sounds right up your street, then you won’t mind so much that Celehar insists on detailing the names of all the streets he takes and the trams he doesn’t take and the kinds of tea served in the airship builders’ favorite tea houses and the names of five different Ethuverazhin operas. And I don’t mind, really, because Addison has created a world that by necessity has to be differentiated from ours in language, social structure, technology, and magic — and given the choice, it’s better to toss these things in casually rather than stop to explain every little thing. It’s the kind of worldbuilding I favor myself, and the kind of narrative matrix I tend to use, and that’s why I know that some people would find it tedious: because betas have told me so.
But that never deterred me, and it clearly doesn’t deter Addison from telling exactly the kind of story she wants to tell, and that covers, if not a multitude of sins, certainly the number of foibles you can find in Witness for the Dead.
Now what did I do with my copy of All Creatures Great and Small?
I’m not sure how or why this 2017 essay by Claire Dederer washed up on my Twitter timeline, but it was an interesting and layered read. Its question was: what does one do with the art of monstrous men? And of course, in that #MeToo moment, it was a question on everyone’s lips. And, since the essay invites its readers to weigh in with their perspective, I’m going to.
Dederer chose to peel these layers using the particular onion of Woody Allen. Which is interesting because I know exactly two things about Woody Allen: his movies are supposed to be towering comedic art, and he’s a child predator. Have I seen said movies? I have not. Have I read in depth the accounts of Allen’s misdeeds? Also no.
This is because I was raised in a strictly evangelical Christian environment. My parents may have watched a Woody Allen movie or two; I don’t know. When I became a fully independent adult, I had a nearly limitless array of modes in which to revolt; “watching Woody Allen movies” just didn’t make it onto the list. Diving into the liturgical church; reading, writing, and watching sci-fi and fantasy; and excusing myself from marriage and motherhood occupied most of those energies.
But. I’m intimately familiar with the self-suspicion Dederer describes. Am I a monster? I was asking myself this while I was still a child. I asked myself this when I was a callow college student. I asked myself this while working as an underemployed adult. I asked myself right up until I was 38, and one morning I contacted again an old memory of fleeting cruelty from a man when I was very small. But for the first time ever, instead of focusing on how furious and helpless it made me feel to remember it, I thought: I was right.
At the time I had said to myself: I must be mistaken. This can’t be sadism. This must be something else. I must be making a mistake.
But I wasn’t. I was simply telling myself a necessary lie, a lie that the powerless have to tell themselves for the time being. My perception is messed up, that’s what the problem is. No, what the problem is, is that lies like that throw out little metastatic filaments and snare the rest of your soul and make you think you’re fundamentally broken. Evil, even.
But I’m not a monster. I have a fully functioning human instrument. My perception is just what a human’s perception ought to be: limited, but a miracle of function. My insight is a fine blend of acuity and experience.
It’s interesting to me that Dederer describes the indignation against monstrous men making good art and moves from that toward suspicion of herself as — too selfish? not selfish enough? — a secret monster making good art, or an aspiring monster in order to make good art. Yes, it’s all very sturdily Jungian; do your shadow work.
But this meditation is centered around a movie apparently written as an elaborate apologia for a middle-aged man fucking a 17-year-old girl. A girl who, because Allen is a good writer and has a sense of “balance” in these things, is miraculously free of the neuroticism that the grown women characters display. Listen: show me a girl who is preternaturally mature at 17, and I will show you a girl who secretly suspects she is the real monster in the room.
I believe that the only thing that has kept me perpendicular and sane these last four years is that moment of unbelievable escape beforehand, when every single one of those protective lies unraveled and fell to my soul’s feet. It was easier on me for a time to think of myself as a monster rather than stare my helplessness in the face. It took escaping one to also escape the other.
Perhaps this is why none of these terrible revelations about monstrous men behind closed doors have given me more than a few layers’ worth of pause about their art. Yeah, I felt a little guilty watching Carol — not because it was a film about lesbians, but because it was a Weinstein property. But there’s just not much shadow work to be done there, if I’m honest. No, what I’m thinking about is the parable of the demoniac who got rid of his demon, only to have it come back with seven friends and make things worse. Jeffrey Toobin is back on CNN as a pundit, after how many months in exile? Not many. They filled an empty chair with Toobin because there was an empty chair there.
This is not about selfishness, though arguments about selfishness are the stuff of (women) artists’ lives. This is not even about monstrousness, though the troops of House Depiction Is Endorsement come out to bay across the valley at the giants of predatory cruelty.
This is about insight. To claim insight is the ultimate act of temerity. Dederer lost a male reader because she questioned Allen’s insight in making Manhattan; she was not an obedient audience. She could make bloodthirsty remarks about butchering men in the street, apparently, without giving this man a qualm; and indeed why not? That can be dismissed as derangement. Derangement and neurosis, or demure nubile receptivity: no place for actual insight, in stories or in life, for people who are not white men. If a white man is not sitting in the chair, it’s an empty chair, amirite?
Yes, I say these things because the reality on the ground makes me angry. But it’s a mathematical anger. A logical anger, even. A Zachary-Quinto-saying-Live-long-and-prosper-when-he-really-means-Fuck-you kind of anger. A Stacey-Abrams-writing-a-shedload-of-romance-novels kind of anger.
An insightful anger. An anger that finishes what it starts.
In the summer of 2017, while Dederer was working on this essay (and her book on the subject), I was feverishly finishing the manuscript of Ryswyck. It’s an interesting thing to remember, the galvanizing power of that anger. I wasn’t marching in the streets; I was sweating in front of a computer screen in my apartment. In the same 24 hours, I wrote the last sentence, and John McCain turned his thumb down on ACA repeal. In such acts, visible and invisible, the resistance propounds itself.
We’ve had our fill of monstrousness, and even with the Abuser in Chief gone, there are still plenty of inexplicably cruel people willing to be monsters in public, and occasionally it feels really demoralizing. So it’s good for me to remember that I got free of that debilitating self-suspicion, and when I did I vowed to set free as many other people as I could.
In that sense, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword. It is the sword.
To be honest this was my baseline expectation as far as outcomes for this contest. Though I’ve seen readers of Ryswyck use the word “fantasy” in describing it, it really doesn’t have any of the classic features of fantasy: no magic; no talking animals; the spirituality of the book rises to mysticism in places but not so as to confer, say, Jedi powers or anything.
On the other hand, it doesn’t really have many of those classic sci-fi features either: no space opera, no interesting technology, no aliens — its futurism is almost entirely parabolic. After I entered SPFBO I saw where Hugh Howey was starting up a similar contest for the sci-fi side of things. Watch me enter Ryswyck in that and have someone say it’s not really science fiction. I’m having a genuine laugh imagining that. God, am I glad I didn’t start publishing books till my 40s — I’m continually charmed by my own poverty of fucks to give.
My impression, too, is that people are way more inflexible about science fiction bright lines than fantasy ones. I have tagged Ryswyck as sci-fi in digital marketplaces before but steadfastly describe it as “speculative” in my own venues lest I run into some Heinlein aficionado or similar who wants to start an argument. They’d be disappointed!
There’s an irony in this because although I’ve written a book that appears to straddle genres, I made no attempt whatsoever to be “original,” God help us all. Secondary-world speculative fiction is plentiful, and a lot of it is built with Eurocentric analogues. It gets shelved in all sorts of sections. No, what I cared about when building Ryswyck was not genre features but tropes. I put in all my favorite tropes and the proverbial kitchen sink, and let’s be real, my primary motivation for writing The Lantern Tower is that there are some favorite tropes I missed.
As a former library paraprofessional I get why we have bright lines for genre boundaries; you have to if you’re going to bother having genres at all. People like having the stuff they want conveniently sorted onto one shelving range. As librarians say, a mis-shelved book is a lost book. So, in another way, is a misidentified one. But the convenience can outlive its usefulness and diminish when boundaries proliferate and grow rigid. Still, it’s better to have one’s book be debatably one genre or another than to have it tossed into the literary fiction section where there is 99.44% weeping and gnashing of teeth.