Sex scenes and the aroace writer

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.

Here be dragons…or not

Well, that’s fair. And not nearly as bad as I feared.

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.

So, you know — it could be worse.

The Protagonist Opportunity

First, go read this amazing essay by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton. I’ll wait.

So, speaking of hotel clerks, there once was a man who went to a conference at a hotel whose customer-service motto was “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities.” He went up to the desk and said to the clerk, “There’s a problem with my room.” “Ah,” said the clerk, tapping the sign, “but there are no problems, only opportunities.” “Call it what you want to,” the man retorted, “but there’s a woman in the room assigned to me.”

Yes, it’s a stupid joke, and faintly creepy to boot, but it plays into what Palmer and Walton are talking about in their essay, which is at bottom an issue of displacement, in the Archimidean sense. It reminds me of the time when I, with disastrous naivety, joined a writer’s group while I was working on Ryswyck. At one point another member grilled me about who the protagonist was in the story: I tried to say that if anything, Speir and Douglas (and specifically the friendship between them) was the protagonist, if there had to be one — but that wasn’t sufficient. I finally allowed as how the reader’s-eye POV belonged to Speir, but refused to follow the logic that was being pressed on me: they wanted me to refocus the story on one person and leave out what wasn’t relevant to her directly.

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of my participation in this group, but I’m really grateful to Palmer and Walton for bringing an even wider angle lens to this issue — for describing the continuum of storytelling from protagonismos through braided POV through tapestry. Not only does this perspective explain why I find pitch advice for aspiring writers so desperately annoying (“make sure to identify your protagonist and her conflict/desire/pain point!”), it shows how dangerous for our collective narrative diet it is to read no stories except those driven by protagonismos.

Of the tapestry stories mentioned in the essay, I’ve read only the last — Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, which a housemate lent me as a favorite book of his (in exchange for Doomsday Book, if I recall correctly). I would never have picked up this immense book on my own, but I was fascinated by this “tapestry” mode of storytelling, in which all the characters, and the landscape itself, are like the striations of a muscle, working away to drive the story along. I do believe that even a plague flea was given a brief POV in Rutherfurd’s book.

Like Palmer and Walton, I’m not entirely sure what made Rutherfurd the final outlier in the trend away from tapestry storytelling, but I remember the 90s, and recall how much of the fin of that particular siècle was dominated by avatars — the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Ryan White, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan (a lot of men are coming to mind, for some reason!). Stories were avatarized: A Night to Remember became Titanic; D-Day became Saving Private Ryan. Nowadays we’re getting villain origin stories, as if the only way to make Cruella de Vil interesting or compelling is to protagonize her. And let’s not get into Star Wars, shall we?

As the essay points out, the trend has swung so hard that a series like Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” — which in another frame would be seen as a bog-standard braided-POV story — is regarded as an outlier for having a large ensemble cast. Ensemble casts have been actively discouraged as making books unwieldy and hard to sell. My friend and fellow indie author Erica H. Smith has embraced the cast-of-thousands approach — structurally, her books are made up of disciplined POV braids mostly in tight-third, but every other chapter she finds herself inventing another fascinating walk-on character to stir things along and I’m usually like, “Ooh! I like them; are we going to see them again?” “…Maybe.”

This is one of the uses of independent publishing. Ensemble casts, intricate POV braids, walk-on multitudes, tapestries — they may not sell like hotcakes, but someone has to write them. Else the protagonismos displacement might go the way of the Ever Given and block global sea traffic for weeks.

Thanks to this essay, a widened perspective shows me that my own instincts were what I thought they were — a braided ensemble like the cast of Ryswyck is not grotesque, nor is it fully a tapestry story. But as I’ve mentioned in other places, I made sure that the turning point of the plot depends not on Speir or Douglas or any of the other POV characters, but on the most ordinary and unsophisticated character in the cast, a character whose legacy will ultimately cast a longer shadow than a charismatic would-be protagonist like Barklay. I did my best to make sure not only that every character had a trajectory but that nearly all of them are indispensable to the community and to the solution of the story’s dilemma.

The fact that this essay exists is a harbinger of what I certainly hope will come, stories whose moral imperative is based in community, with hope that doesn’t spring from powerful avatars or narrative exceptionalism.

Now excuse me while I go seize an opportunity.

Well, we persevere

I’ve been neglecting my blog — it’s one of the hazards of blog-keeping, but I have been preoccupied with a lot of quotidiana lately, and all you who are signed up to Morning Lights have been getting small bulletins on how writing is going. I’m tempted to say that the short version is “Not great, Bob!” — but really, this is a recognizable stage in any project of mine, so the distress is minimal. To go back to the gardening metaphors, it’s not usually a good idea to dig up plants to see how they’re getting on.

Woke up this morning to the depressing news that the reviewer assigned to Ryswyck for an indie contest I entered has DNF’d it.

It’s true that everyone who has finished the book found it “exponentially rewarding” as one reader termed it. But I can’t hang over everyone’s shoulder urging them to go on reading — can’t, shouldn’t, don’t want to. I find myself in the position of being unable to repent my artistic choices, but knowing they have their consequences, and a depressing DNF percentage is one of them. Well, it was a long shot anyway, and as an old internet acquaintance said, we persevere.

I admit when things like this happen I wonder why I am bothering with this enterprise; but as soon as the thought takes shape its answer is already apparent. This is my vocation, and I can’t not do it. I think we think that if someone has a vocation that its truth will be proved by its success, that deserved fame and fortune is an ontological marker for what you were meant to be doing. But, as long as I’m breathing, I’m making up stories and finding ways to put them out in the world for others to find and enjoy and be lifted by. It doesn’t really matter if the work is bad, and I don’t think mine is. For a writer, writing — like blood — is compulsory.

Anyway, when I run into things like this, I give myself ten to thirty minutes to have a panic attack or a despairfest or a hot flush, and then I carry on.

In other news, my photography kick has extended itself now that I have a good phone camera, and I’ve wanted to post galleries on here to go with my daily selection for Morning Lights. I haven’t had the bandwidth to make selections from what’s becoming hundreds of photos, but if I sat down once a week or so to pick a half dozen I really like, it might be a way to keep the rhythm up here. If I want to. We’ll see. Post-pandemic life is a vast improvement on this time last year, but it does throw into sharp relief the stamina one doesn’t have. The bandwidth may just all go into writing, in which case I must beg my readers’ indulgence.

And so it goes.

The winter kaleidoscope

One day soon I will make a Lenten-themed post, but today is not that day.

I braved the deep freeze last week to get my annual physical and purchase a new phone, as my old one’s memory was stuffed too full to function after five years. The new device, being well-designed in the much more recent past, has a camera that doesn’t suck.

Also, I can get a text from someone that downloads itself and doesn’t take ten minutes to do so, so there’s that.

On the TLT front: I finished the aforementioned chapter and have started on another. This one has been a bit of a slog, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s my mood or the deep freeze or the laborious transition to more promising dialogue, but there it is.

Stitching the plots of my two arenas together is becoming less frustrating as I start to actually do it. I just have to remember to put in all the little touches I thought of to set this or that up.

Since for the most part I’m away up in my little nest, working and cooking and taking random photographs and texting my sibling in Austin to make sure they’re okay, I feel somewhat like my view is telescoped in repeated refracted colors, like a kaleidoscope. It may or may not be good for creating art, but to be honest? I don’t want to leave it.

Perhaps when spring gets here, I’ll feel differently. But for now, it’s just me and the cat and the open Word document. And that’s just fine.

Getting (re)started, plus music

So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.

So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).

Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.

Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.

So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Café called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!

Review: Jo Walton, Or What You Will

Because Erica so much enjoyed this book for the meta of writing that so easily beguiles writers into nattering about their process (I say; beware), I thought I had better read it. I checked out the ebook at my local library and read it over the course of a few days, and gave it the standard four stars on Goodreads that I always give to books that I enjoyed and that were well-written.

(Honestly, the star method of rating books is so two-dimensional. If only there were some way of rating books with an opaline sphere with colors for the quality of writing, colors for the emotional pull, colors for the personal impact, &c. But that’s not very useful in late-stage capitalism, is it? No, it’s five stars or bust, for book evaluation as for customer service. I hate to think I might be letting good authors down by not giving them five stars, but I can’t help using the metric the way I think best, and anyway, writers can’t be fired — or even deplatformed, as the opal orbs of their past indelible impacts would testify if only they could. )

— Clearly, I’m still under the influence of the narrative voice of Or What You Will, which is effortlessly strong, like a deep, pellucid current. How else could Walton get away with writing a book in which the entire first half has maybe one chapter devoted to the vehicle story and the rest a series of digressions about — if you do not come too close, if you do not come too close — the history of Florence, the history of the author being narrated into being by her own muse, the history of Montreal, the nature of religious experience, the evolution of a writer’s relationship to her own past art, and anything and everything the muse thinks important to enlist our participation in his project of saving Sylvia Katherine Harrison’s life. Or her soul, as the case may be, if there be a difference.

(And anyone who knows me by my fanworks knows there is no way on God’s green earth I wouldn’t notice all the references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Anyone who’s read my fic, that is, or Virginia, who’s not here for me to talk with about this book. The moment when a loved one of the author texts her that they can’t wait to discuss a book with her, but dies before they can, gave me a pang.)

From a writer’s point of view — and for all I know, from a critic’s — this book is a narratological puzzle box, bound to give delight to those who like such things. Would people who are not writers or critics find it self-indulgent? I don’t know, but the thing I said out loud at one point was How the fuck is she getting away with this?! — so Your Mileage May Vary is not going to apply if Our Muse succeeds in getting you on a Vespa, which he probably will if you’re interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.

I am not sure the ending quite succeeded for me, after all the buildup, after all the debate between author and muse about what is real in the real world and what is real in the worlds of her invention. But then, the narrator is ultimately thinking about his own life and soul, and I can’t help centering on the author’s — and the narrator’s arc is satisfying, so far as it can be (and the fire and the rose are one).

I can’t help thinking about characters I drew up when I was in my teens and early twenties, and how, in some respects, they saved my life, by living out stories — and sometimes telling me about it — that I needed to “see” lived out, as some kind of internal healing mechanism. (In some ways, especially that way, writers are always seeking eucatastrophe.) I suppose it was while writing what’s so disparagingly called “self-insertion” fic that the germinating plant began to peel away from the cotyledon’s husk: a prolonged meta exercise like writing yourself into a media-property story teaches you exactly what wishes can be fulfilled, what parts of yourself you can save, and before very long at all the avatar I’d built was an entirely different character with a different trajectory, different preoccupations, different needs. She was a lot more heteroromantic than I am, to start with; but I didn’t know that at the time.

In any event, I didn’t do much of that with my characters in Ryswyck. The situation was the other way around; instead of saving myself (“saving” like Dante’s “salute” — greeting with true recognition which when you think about it is nearly all of what salvation is) by means of writing them, I saved myself so that they could be written. Yet the enacting that I suspect all writers do behind closed doors — weeping one’s own characters’ tears, rehearsing their cadences as if playing them upon a stage, laughing at their jokes — is still present, and does me as much good as it does them, maugre Socrates and Freud and all the dour, humorless figures who cluck their tongues from their pantheons over this process of selving as if it were invalid. I can go and kneel where prayer has been valid, if I so desire — and I can also make the valid prayer in the first place. I have never not thought so, even at my deepest depths of self-suspicion.

Because of this, I deeply appreciated the Muse making the point that people who have suffered abuse in their lives (like Sylvia, his author), or been exposed to some traumatic and humiliating event, are not, despite common wisdom, blighted people. They can know or learn how to love; they can be happy; they can pray and make art and live full lives. They can have a coherent sense of autobiography. They can co-inhere. And the best thing about this assertion is that the Muse is making it on behalf of the author who made him, is advocating for her in a way she cannot advocate for herself. And if nothing else, it is a good thing that Or What You Will exists, to reach out, grasp the reader by the collar, and insist that if you greet the author, you should greet her with true recognition.

Thus do we all save one another.

Things to be noted

A couple of blogs ago I used to borrow Harriet Vane’s method of detective synthesis and make corresponding lists of “Things To Be Noted” and “Things To Be Done.” It was a fun posting format, but honestly so many of the things to be noted at present would have a corresponding line item reading “Nothing to be done about it” that I have decided to dispense with the second half for this post. So, things to be noted:

The author at fencing — or banditry….

1. Fencing is good for your health. I mean, obvs the thing to be done about that is keep doing it, but that’s been hard during the pandemic, plus Coach M has been stricken with a non-COVID illness (like they still have those apparently), and is on a slow mending trajectory. The weather was clement enough this week to have outdoor practice, so I showed up both times and although I was barely good for a hour’s drill the first night, by the second night actually managed to bout the other two people there. With masks and masks, of course.

2. I “attended” my friend’s funeral via Facebook yesterday, and I don’t know what exactly to note about it. On the one hand, fuck the pandemic for making the funeral for V of all people to be one where very few people can attend, no one can sing except one person with a piano accompaniment, and there’s no touching fellow mourners or public Eucharist. On the other, I’m pretty sure V doesn’t care. I bet she’s enjoying the irony! And even with all that, it still seemed a lot more Eastery than Easter was this year. Eucatastrophe doesn’t come cheap, I suppose is what I have to note about it.

3. Despite all my nursing efforts and a clean pot, caterpillars are munching my spider plant for yet another year. Honestly I don’t know what’s to be done about it, except to stick garlic cloves in the soil again, which I’ve done. Also I note that a few hummingbirds are checking out the possible action on my balcony, and there’s definitely something to be done about that, but whether I will get up the gumption to do it is another matter.

4. I…do not have the executive function even in a normal year to keep track of podcasts and actually listen to them, but I did discover a podcast doing interesting recaps of Leverage episode by episode, and since that’s firmly in the column of my comfort viewing, I am all about it. Unreserved rec.

5. Writing productivity has been, as already noted, roundly and profoundly situation-abnormal-all-you-know-what. But I did manage to sketch a scene from TLT with a dialogue throughline that I will now not have to remember on my own. Also, and I’m sure this comes as a surprise to no one, Douglas is being stubborn, so I have had to rethink certain aspects of the structure — but in a hopeful way, as it looks like Douglas is quite right. Which is also utterly unsurprising.

So, there you have it — all the news that’s fit to print for a hot August Sunday.

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.”

Review: Alexandra Rowland, A Conspiracy of Truths

I really thought I was going to like this.

I can’t remember how A Conspiracy of Truths landed on my TBR pile — possibly through my online trivia league’s recent SFF trivia-fest — but it looked like my jam, to the hilt. In any case, a few months ago I went through the old TBR pile looking for a choice for book club, and read the opening sampled on Amazon, and thought: well, it’s more than 400 pages, but it’s got a snappy voice and a cantankerous POV character who’s in a bit of a pickle. Sold!

Incautiously, I announced it as my book club choice before reading it.

As it turned out, not even the most catholic-minded, voracious reader in my group finished it. I finished it for two reasons: 1) I had to lead the book-club discussion, and 2) I felt a driving need to be absolutely certain this story didn’t unravel to something I would have been sorry to miss.

Spoiler: it didn’t.

I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because, well, it’s better-written than Jodi Taylor’s One Damned Thing After Another and I gave three stars to it. But whereas I finished Taylor’s book thinking: “Well, that was complete junk food, but I had fun consuming it,” I finished this book thinking I’d just read a Serious Tale that actually roused me to resentment.

This takes some doing. My approach to reading is generally the Golden Rule approach: I do unto the author as I would have them do unto me. So when I pick up a book, I give it all the generous credulity at my disposal, which often takes little effort, and save the critical eye for looking back from the end. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I didn’t like the book until like two days after I finish it.

But here’s the premise of this book. (Spoilers follow.) An old wanderer from a long tradition of powerful storytellers enters (with an apprentice) a cold, backward, Slavic-coded country and gets arrested for witchcraft, which makes him by their laws an enemy of the state. He uses the tales he tells from his jail cell to turn his imprisonment to his advantage in a complicated intrigue. Scheherazade meets The Thief — right?

Nope. Presented with what is a legitimate threat to his life and freedom (and with the knowledge that a similar fate came to someone he knew as a friend), the nameless Chant emulates the capricious, sadistic god his storyteller forebears once worshiped, and plays the women leaders of the country against one another, with the express purpose of destroying the entire country and having another, nameless, offstage friend of his shovel its remains into the sea with her army. So…technically…these folks were right on the money: he is an enemy of the state.

Every time a character started to interest me, Chant would get her killed. And yes, the characters were interesting, in a Gormenghasty-grotesque kind of way. The only character I actually liked was the apprentice, and Chant’s contempt for him was practically a parody of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward Watson: Ylfing is valuable only because Chant needs him, and Chant only needs him because he can’t find anyone better.

The companion book to this story, A Choir of Lies, is supposedly about Ylfing when he ascends to Chanthood, and tries to handle another sticky situation differently than his master. The blurb suggests that the credulity and open-heartedness of the young man that was the only bright spot in this book will not be enough to sustain him through whatever difficulties arise. I can’t say that’s much of a temptation to read it.

This is what I want in a story billed as a “conspiracy”: I want people to connect, to recognize one another’s invaluable gifts, to take a difficult situation and turn it inside out (if they’re the conspirators), or to foil the nefarious plot (if they’re the protectors of the current order). Nothing like this happens in A Conspiracy of Truths; people simply use one another all the way to destruction. The only consistent moral imperative of this story from first to last is how justified Chant is in his destructive machinations. It grew so unpleasant I started looking for ways to read him as an unreliable narrator; but the story never escapes his grip for a moment, so there was no way of finding out that Chant’s reality isn’t the centered and approved reality that the author wants to give me.

My voracious-reader friend, doing her due diligence in lieu of finishing this book, found this interview with the author about the subgenre of “hopepunk” — a term which I did not realize Rowland had coined. I was glad to read a description of hopepunk from the source, as it were, because I have never found the concept useful or appealing, despite approving thoroughly of all its component parts. Hopepunk — a righteous fury against bad systems coupled with an affirmation and triumph of the underdogs — seems to be what A Conspiracy of Truths is aiming at.

This is the theory. But in practice, my response to both the concept and this book can be summed up with one bewildered, annoyed sentence: “Yes, but not like that.”