On Specialist Knowledge

Some years ago, a priest who was teaching a class I was auditing sat down with me to teach me how to chant a collect. (A collect — accent on the first syllable because it is a noun — is a prayer said by an officiant on a specific occasion to “collect” the prayerful intentions of the whole gathering. It has three main parts: it names God in a specific way, asks for a blessing in keeping with that name, and finishes with a doxology. I digress, but this will be useful in a moment.) The lesson didn’t last very long, because she discovered that I already knew where to put which cantilations. “It’s a grammar,” I said.

But here’s the thing. I knew how to chant a collect because I had been listening to priests who knew what they were doing chant collects year in and year out till I picked up the grammar by instinct. I still don’t know what that grammar is, diagramatically. I have the knowledge-by-acquaintance of how to chant a collect; I don’t have the specialist knowledge of how these cantilation structures work.

In my aside above about the definition of a collect, I mentioned the emphasis on the first syllable “because it is a noun.” Until someone on social media mentioned this rule in passing, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that in English nouns that double as verbs, the accent goes on the first syllable for the noun form and the second syllable for the verb form — so a collect is a prayer that collects; a record is what results when you record something, and so on. Do we need to know this information? No, but somebody should know it. That context is meaningful, and may at times be crucial.

On the other hand, there was the time when I was six and an instructor was trying to teach me how to ski down a slope. “Put your weight on one foot,” she said, and I tried to put one ski on top of the other. “No, it’s more like leaning,” she corrected, and I almost fell over. It wasn’t till a few weeks later, when I was playing and thinking about something completely different, that her meaning clicked and I said, “Ohhhh!” I didn’t have the experiential knowledge needed to grasp the special skill she was teaching me. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory of purposely shifting all my weight to one hip, that poised flex of the bearing knee, that sweet spot of placement for my center of gravity (what’s that?).

Many times, we pick up knowledge by experience and we don’t know what we know until we are presented with specialist knowledge. We have to make a successful handshake for the two knowledges to integrate, and sometimes that’s a real challenge.

Such a challenge came up for me last night when Adam Neely’s latest video dropped. I’ll wait here while you watch it. It’s worth all 27 minutes.

Yes, it’s about Céline Dion; yes, it’s about a power ballad I always thought cheesy — though thanks to Adam Neely I am now aware that it’s a deliberate quotation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. So that’s no wonder because, Unpopular Opinion time, I think Rachmaninoff and a lot of the other Later Romantics are cloyingly overwrought. But that doesn’t matter, because Adam Neely’s actual topic is fascinating: it’s an exploded diagram of the aural and emotional effects of a key change on a sustained note.

As someone who plays music as a craft but is not a practitioner of it as an art, I can appreciate the specialist knowledge Neely brings here, and I can even bring to bear my own experience of feeling myself in or out of tune with the ensemble when playing the flute, or the experience of blending when using my voice (I’m told I blend well, but I don’t get much of a chance to practice these days). I have the ghostly memory of what it means to sustain a note and feel the context change around it so completely that I have to hold up against a chill. I know what it’s like to try and sing without succumbing to the emotional power of the music. But even with all that experience, I still had to reverse the video three or four times in places and go, “Okay, Adam, run that by me again.”

It gives me a renewed appreciation for specialist knowledge.

But while it’s true that we don’t know what we know, we also don’t know what we don’t know. This is the basis of what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is how you get assholes convinced they are experts pontificating about shit they clearly know very little about. A friend recently sent me this article about the interpersonal pitfalls of encountering such people when you have specialist knowledge. When people experience a missed handshake between their experience and specialist information, it can read to their brains like an actual threat. The experience of being wrong can be felt as a kind of death, and the person inflicting that experience becomes a killer.

I don’t have to elaborate, do I, about how we’re seeing this aggression toward “experts” in the public square, to the point where “science” itself is a loaded catchall term for any situation in which we don’t put up with someone talking out of their ass? Okay. Let’s skip to what I said to my friend M who sent me that article.

What I said was, “I think women experts actually go through those stages [that Venkatesh Rao talks about] in reverse. We doubt ourselves; then we try to help; then we are reduced to manipulating people; then we wash our hands of it.” Who the expert is makes a vast amount of difference to the level of threat people feel when they encounter that uncanny valley between what they know and what they don’t know. I don’t think it’s an accident that expertise itself is being disparaged at a time when women and minorities are completing post-secondary educations at unprecedented levels.

Worse, post-secondary education has become inextricably tied up with class, so that we are all too likely to see someone with a college degree as someone who was able to complete a class gatekeeping ritual where others could not. The degree, and the jargon they pick up getting it, has no other meaning than that.

Yet this can’t be entirely true, or else Adam Neely wouldn’t have thousands of people watching (and reversing to rewatch) his explanations of music theory every time he drops a new video. It helps that Neely’s not threatening: he’s a cute young white guy with a Baptist haircut (an aesthetic I happen to like, so I’m not disparaging him here), operating on a social media platform. He’s clearly leaning in to all these advantages for his living; and why not, if it results in thousands of folks having fun while learning about music theory?

Step one, getting the expertise, is difficult enough. Step two, making use of it for the public good, is often dependent on whether we are the kind of person others want to recognize as an expert, and is therefore not necessarily within our control. But when we succeed, it’s nearly always because of a personal encounter: a priest teaching a theology student, or a ski instructor helping a six-year-old negotiate a slope. Even a one-way encounter on social media is still a place where one person (me) on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic can navigate that uncanny valley between what she knows and what she can’t yet grasp.

I don’t think that if we are an expert in something that it obliges us to try to reduce people’s threat level in any given encounter. But it seems to me that a reduced threat level is part of the exploded diagram of a successful encounter between someone’s experience and specialist knowledge, whether that’s within our reach or not. And I don’t blame people for washing their hands of some folks for whom, clearly, the least scintilla of acknowledgment is a crucifixion. Some of these folks are just going to have to go through some things.

I guess my takeaway this morning is that we need specialist knowledge, and we need people who are practitioners of it, and we need those handshake moments without which we cannot integrate our lives as we’ve lived them so far with what comes next. It’s an uncanny valley, and the tone colors are amazing. Meet me here.

Self-“insertion”

So that time-dishonored topic of self-insert characters has rolled around on the Birdie App again, and I had Opinions:

“I suspect this scorn for authorial “self-insert” has leached into the water supply from the early psychologists and New Critics, who liked to tout the “objectivity” of high art as against art that draws on personal narrative, i.e., what women were doing at the time.

This got mixed in with the whole "Mary Sue" Disk Horse and cemented "self-insert characters" as a benchmark sign of bad writing.

It's bullshit at the root. As better people than I have pointed out, it's easy to seem "objective" when your POV is already dominant enough to be widely understood.

But the point of creating stories is to speak to some truth. Everyone with a functioning human instrument can do that; it's just that our culture wants to pretend that only some of us are worth hearing stories from.

I once wrote half a million words centering on what I called a "Mary Sue on purpose" — but my so-called "self-insert" character quickly took on a life of her own, which is as it should be.

I’m not writing any overtly self-modelled characters right now, but I reserve the right to if I goddamn want. So there.”

Originally tweeted by L. Inman (@linman) on January 31, 2021.

This is a topic Erica and I revisit occasionally: how we make characters out of our own soul-stuff, how we spin a creation from the ephemera of our minds. All characters are, as I quoted above, made of the author in one way or another — modelled, acted out, mimed, wept out of our own tears. You can’t “insert” anything into a story of your making, even a simulacrum of your own self for metacommentary’s sake.

Yet there are these hidden rules of criticism like bear traps in the path, that the reader is obliged to guess what parts of your story are biographical, and your job is to make the guessing very difficult. But, as it turns out, it’s always pretty easy to guess — wrong.

Oh, certainly, a better-written story is seamless in its elements, and nothing feels manufactured or out of place. But: the rules are a lie. You don’t have to guess the author’s biography, and there are no prizes for guessing right. Cynicism is not the opposite of naivety; the trajectory away from naivety goes in an entirely different direction.

I find it kind of telling that an author like John Scalzi, who is a Notorious Feminist Patsy Ally, is being tagged here for “bad” writing that is associated with the “bad” writing of women. We all know that women can’t come up with fiction that isn’t based on their own meretricious lives, amirite? But it’s different when F. Scott Fitzgerald does it.

Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally run across a story in which the id of the author is painfully obvious. It’s just that I don’t think that kind of discernment is useful as a critical apparatus — or at least, not as a primary driver of criticism. In that sense, the project of the New Critics was a worthwhile project. It’s just that they started out with a lot of begged questions, and that doesn’t do the reading public any favors.

We need a new new criticism, for these factionalist times.

On Killing Characters: or, the parabolic functions of SFF

It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.

Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.

All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:

(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)

What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.

If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.

Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.

No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.

I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”

Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.

A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?

I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.

But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.

Artifacts of the Internet Old: the digital dig

Part I of an as-yet undetermined series.

Further to my last post, Gretchen McCulloch’s book got me thinking about the history of my own experiences getting on the internet. I’ve been threatening for a while to do posts about the lexicon of Fandom Olds, but McCulloch’s book made me realize that for this era when the internet is new, the time at which you got on it is itself an artifact worth examining — worth, even, recording for the benefit of people who study these things.

When John Keats died in 1821, he wrote his own epitaph which his friends duly inscribed on his gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. It was a reference to his perception of the fame and immortality he had achieved in his short life. Ironically, of course, Keats’s name and work turned out to be far more durable than his perception: people thought enough of his poetry to canonize it, thought enough of his letters to save and collect them, thought enough of his life to write biographies of it, and 200 years later you can take a class at nearly any university covering Keats as a subject in himself, or together with his set, or as an indispensable part of a survey of the Romantic literary period.

But in our own era — with the rise of the internet and the informal writing we use to navigate it — our usernames are writ in ether, and that can be a bug or a feature depending on when we joined the online world.

McCulloch divides the internet generations by adoption rather than age. Old Internet People are the early adopters, the techies and people with specialist interests who used bulletin boards, Usenet, and listservs as their platforms when they joined the internet. Full (and Semi) Internet People joined a bit later, in the late 90s and early 2000s, using blogs, LiveJournal, MySpace, GeoCities, and the like to create their web presence. The teens and young adults joining the internet now don’t remember a time when there was no internet; their first platforms were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or later Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

The fact that new platforms (together with their new practical uses) are continually rising to replace the old ones means that there is a lot of digital archeology building up. Some of it can be dug — and some of it can’t.

My first job out of graduate school was a temporary gig as a library tech working in the manuscripts and special collections department of my alma mater. I was also working on a novel at the time, and I was aware that the emails and AIM chats I was exchanging with my friends about the project, not to mention the chapter files themselves, stored on a handful of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks that were maddeningly subject to random corruption, were less easy to archive than the 20th-century manuscripts and correspondence I was handling at work. I made a haphazard effort to print out a lot of these, sometimes cutting and pasting chats into Word documents, but I wasn’t very thorough, and I don’t know where that file is, and as I recall it is very thin compared to the virtual reams of communication that died with my defunct AOL and Earthlink accounts. (I should probably archive my Yahoo email account, now that I think about it; but I never think about it.)

I identify myself as one of the Full Internet People McCulloch describes, because I am by nature a late adopter of new technology and new platforms, delaying to join until a critical mass of my acquaintances have already done so. I wouldn’t have known online fandom existed, much less gone looking for it, if a graduate school friend hadn’t liked a series I recced to her well enough to find a listserv for it.

But the fact that what she found was a listserv, and the fact that most of the people I met there were early adopter types who were already versed in BBS and Usenet, already had their own websites, were getting into the brand-new craze of blogging (“Blog — it’s a web log! Geddit?”), means that everything I learned about the internet I learned from Old Internet People. I learned enough HTML to code my own GeoCities website, followed my online friends to LiveJournal and learned to use Photoshop so I could make icons, absorbed enough CSS to tinker with the theme I was using, and occasionally joined chats for multi-person discussions.

More than that, I was in continual engagement with people who were older than I was, both online and off. Most people my age were not participating in fandoms or hanging out in chatrooms; they were launching careers and starting families. If it seems weird now that one would be doing either one or the other, it was even weirder to the people I knew offline what I was doing. For my older friends — fellow members of my religious community, coworkers, friends’ parents — I was wasting vast tracts of time communicating with people that would never be proper friends, about things that were by definition ephemeral. I wrote half a million words of fanfiction when I could have been writing original work of my own.

Bearing battle scars from arguing my case against this offline disapproval, I find it incredibly odd now that the internet — and fandom with it — are ubiquitous in “real” life, as if these arguments had never happened at all. You can hear phrases like “spoiler alert!” on the radio or television, and nobody is confused. News isn’t just discussed on Twitter, it happens there. My mother is on Facebook.

It’s my lifetime — not the lifetime of my parents, and not the lifetime of young people now — that has seen the full effect of the internet as a new and massive accelerant of change. When I was a college freshman, you checked your email by going down the hall to a small room of terminals in your dorm, typed “vax1” into a command prompt on a green screen, then put in your username and password. When I was a graduate student four years later, webmail came in, and I finally had an email with an @ sign and domain name, and accessed it via a browser. Ten years later, when my brother started at the same school, my university had graduated to using a Gmail client, and he probably had built-in DSL, too.

It sounds like I’m singing the old song “when I was in school we walked uphill both ways, over broken glass!, etc.” — but that’s not what joining the internet was like then. We knew it was new. We knew it was an innovation. We built our mental ships to take those waves, and willingly charted the new reaches of online communication. And, maugre the opinions of my offline relations, my online friendships are the ones that have lasted longest: they were formed from the start to withstand physical separations and other vicissitudes that make intimacy hard in the modern era. Erica, my most longtime beta and the one who gave me McCulloch’s book, I met on that first listserv in 1998. (Or thereabouts; we didn’t really get close till after we’d both joined the LordPeter list, so the details are hazy.)

So if this were an episode of Time Team, consider this Trench 1 in my digital dig. We know what kind of site we’re on; next, we’ll see what kind of finds we get.

Mother, factorial

[Crosspost from my Tumblr blog 15 October, where I stashed these thoughts during the site hiatus.]

Today I amused myself by ficcing my own ‘verse, as I like to do sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up. The majority of my main characters live in a country that is matrilineal, for reasons which I had fun building out. (Matrilineal, I say, not matriarchal — but even a matrilineal society is so far from the current landscape I live in that there seems little difference from this vantage, as I shall soon demonstrate.) One of them is the youngest of thirteen children, whose mother is a hard-working and locally influential farmer in a rural northern district. So today’s fun involved me making up stories for myself about his eldest sister and how she went about starting her own family with the help of a cousin from the next village over.

Now, I wanted to work out just how distant of a cousin I wanted her partner to be (I quite like him, he’s a nice fellow, very decent despite having grown up in a small and rather dysfunctional community), so I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to jot down a genealogical diagram…

And then had to stop, flummoxed. You know what a genealogical diagram looks like: a line is drawn between a man and a woman to signify they are married and/or had children, and then the next tier shows the children all depending from a single bar. But for Rosemary Douglas, mother of thirteen, head of her household, that doesn’t work. In her childbearing career she made contracts for children that double as local alliances with men who could afford to commit to sworn sponsorship. All of them planned — except for her youngest. How the hell would I diagram that?

I decided — I couldn’t. I’d just have to leave the fathers out. But neither did it make much sense to just have Rosemary, with a bar below her marked with all her children’s names in birth order from left to right, with no room for the kind of detail one would want for working out genetic relationships in matters like this. How would Ilonians diagram their genealogies, then?

I wound up drawing something like a factorial: Rosemary at the center, with her sons in a segmented line down the left, and her daughters in line down the right, the elder closer in and the youngest at ends of each line. Her daughters could be diagrammed the same way: a hinterland rather than a tree, very Ilonian. To work out genetic details at need, one could write the name of the father/sponsor on the line segment between Rosemary and each child, and work back to his mother from there. You could see then how often lines would cross and avoid overentanglements.

I have no idea how actual maternal lines are diagrammed in RL. But I was sort of shocked afresh at how spatially embedded in our minds patriarchy is. I was used to thinking of a Bowen genealogical diagram as a logical reflection of how humans are, how their generations pass, universally. But it isn’t, really. It’s like how “matrimony” doesn’t mean the same as “patrimony” except with mothers: matrimony means “I have acquired a womb!” and patrimony means “I have acquired a dynasty!”

In any event, in reference to quotations I’ve seen round here about sci-fi and fantasy as the kind of imaginative activism necessary to envision a better world for ourselves, I have been doing exactly that: telling myself stories of people living complicated, imperfect, not-always-easy lives in a world I want to see emulated, for the sake of my own sanity in these times. And I’m telling you about it, in case it helps.

The gift of dynamic readers

Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.

So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.

Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.

I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.

A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.

Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.

It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.

And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.

This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.

Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.

And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.

The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.

And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.

“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.

But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.

On stories and “On Stories”: or, how I updated C.S. Lewis’s argument by accident

Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.

This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.

Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.

Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.

I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.

(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)

The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?

We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.

And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)

But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.

Ambition and salt: or, a fatphobia of words

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.

Angela Davis

I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?

I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.

But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.

A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.

When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.

But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.

Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.

But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”

What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.

After the plague, Piers Plowman

Now that the pandemic has roused the sleeping proletariat at least so far as to slap at the snooze button and miss, I’ve been thinking about professionalism in the modern age.

As I’ve said, an agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list.

I was already thinking about it a little bit since watching (and re-watching) a Netflix documentary about the music mogul Clive Davis — which is really quite fascinating as a rich vein of artifacts in our cultural history. The documentary follows not just Davis’s career, but several careers of artists he’s worked with over the years; but to me the most interesting on a personal level was the career of Barry Manilow.

Now, people snicker behind their hands about Barry Manilow, and I admit I’m not a fan. But here’s the story: Manilow put out a record on a small label and it didn’t sell. Davis recruited him for Arista Records and put together a songwriter shop to compose him some hit singles. Then Manilow streaked to the top of the charts! But as his career progressed, he pushed back on singing songs he didn’t write himself, and worked out a compromise with Davis about the makeup of his albums.

It seems to me that there are some parallels between the music business and the book business. As Davis points out, you need a “continuity of hits” to remind people that you’re there and get them to take interest in the rest of your work. A similar pressure seems to be weighing on authors to be massively prolific so they can continue to meet their publisher’s ROI goals. And content outlets like Kindle Unlimited have turned books into a commodity that can be sold in bulk — and who knows how much of that money the author sees. I’m guessing it’s not much.

I didn’t know these things about the publishing industry when I was making my decisions what to do with Ryswyck. I plunged into the world of aspiring authors on Twitter and in writers’ and agents’ lists and forums; entered a few contests; wrote a few pitches. There was a pervading atmosphere of assembly-line marketing, and a tacit assumption that the apex goal of a writer’s schematic was to be accepted by an agent and publishing house and thus accorded the status of Professional Author.

I still feel the pull of that forlorn attraction. But even so, this seemed (and still seems) to me to be entirely backwards. As I saw it, the entire point of being a published author was to get the book I wrote into the world. I didn’t write a book as a means to obtain Pro Author status. I wasn’t interested in producing an upmarket, high-concept, trendsetting property of 110k words or less. I wanted to sell Ryswyck, which is (if I understand those buzzwords correctly) none of those things.

The disappointment was brief and acute. But I got up and dusted myself off, and shook out my Project Manager hat, and started making spreadsheets for all the things an independent author needs to do. And, as it turns out, really the signal difference between an independent author and a traditionally-published one is indeed that marker of status. My trad-pub author friends either have day jobs or families to support them; they do a great deal of their own marketing; their advances are designed to clear overhead and little more than that. Only the highest-grossing authors really make a living doing this; everybody else makes their living by doing “this” and some other stuff, including busting their hump to make appearances at cons and land speaking gigs.

So what makes a professional? In the modern age, we tend to judge it by the Olympic definition: a professional gets paid to compete, and an amateur pays for the privilege. But not all Olympic events are equal, and the more artistic ones suffer by this definition. Michael Jordan can play on the Dream Team and then go back to his highly-visible salaried position on a professional baskeball team; figure skaters, once they turn pro, are hardly heard from again unless they become commentators or you find yourself with tickets to an ice show. If I asked a 20-year-old who Kristi Yamaguchi is, would they know?

Our remaining tickets at the Symphony were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, enough philanthropists have underwritten the losses that the professional musicians did not immediately lose their jobs. But: they’re still professionals…even if…they’re not getting paid. The performing arts are heavily subsidized by philanthropists; the publishing industry is heavily subsidized by the day jobs of their authors. And I doubt they buy their authors group health insurance either, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

What makes a professional? Besides the Olympic definition, there’s the class theory definition: a professional is someone who completed an education or training course and has been certificated by the profession’s constituent authority. A tradesperson…sells goods or labor for their income. But very often they also have to get certified — I mean, you’re not going to hire an uncertified electrician for your house remodel. When I worked as a library paraprofessional — that is, a person with two degrees neither of which was a Library Science degree — I often thought that the market had become overprofessionalized. But now I think it’s the opposite: no one is a professional anymore; we are all in a trade. We all sell our labor and our goods for our living, only some (many) of us need some kind of certification to do so.

I don’t have the chops to go into how this is both levelling and massively difficult if not impossible in late-stage capitalism. Suffice it to say that while the publishing industry makes a good (if ruthless) business model, it makes a very poor guild.

If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, I don’t yet know what it is. Except that I think it’s high time we artists set about to rethink the definition of our professionalism and stop overlooking how much we subsidize our own careers. If these chin-stroking plutocrats admire feudalism so much, wait till they have a real guild to deal with.