The Love Between Enemies

Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, I became a Fandom Old. I mean, notwithstanding that the last three years have aged me about ten, somehow all the frivolous jargon of internet fandom when it was new is now, little by little, becoming museum pieces.

One such phrase is “bulletproof kink.” It used to be a catch-all term for any trope that reliably gets the user’s attention, whether it had anything to do with romantic/sexual relationships or not. I don’t see it being used anymore, and that’s a shame, because I don’t know of any replacement that really gets at that sense of idiosyncratic enthusiasm which is the whole point of participating in fandom in the first place.

All of which is to say that I have a bulletproof kink that has driven my interests since I was very small, and that is the trope of enemies who love one another.

There are a lot of things I don’t mean by that. I can enjoy stories about enemies becoming friends, enemies becoming lovers, or friends/lovers who have to be enemies for some reason, or enemies who are forced to be allies by some emergent situation. And I’m definitely not alone in enjoying such dynamics between characters.

But what I love in any of these stories is not at all based on the transmuting of enmity into something else. What I hunger for are stories about the love between enemies as a specific form of love in itself.

A love like that can manifest in all sorts of ways. Like “I will kill/insult you but by God I will not stand there and let anybody else kill/insult you” is one. Or, a series of encounters in which the enemies speak on a level of mutual respect even as they work uncompromisingly to thwart one another. G.K. Chesterton understood this love: the entire plot of The Ball and the Cross turns on it. There were some aspects of it in the Harry-Snape relationship in the Harry Potter series, but I was disappointed in my hope that there would be an endgame scene where they were forced reluctantly to fight back to back. I got one episode of Father Brown where he and Inspector Sullivan had to work together, but it was totally robbed at the end by an erasure of Sullivan’s character development; Chesterton would not have approved!

Catch Me if You Can and its daughter-story White Collar are favorites of mine because of this dynamic; and, now that I think about it, I could go down the whole list of books and shows I’ve made fanwork for and point out how a spark of this dynamic drew my interest. But the point is, a love between enemies exists not in spite of the enmity, but as a function of it. It is not a comfortable love; nor is it a destabilizing one. If I had my druthers the proportion of books and movies driven by this trope would dwarf that of media full of squabbles between people who call themselves friends and lovers.

So naturally, any story I write is going to have this trope in it, in spades. And probably the other suits as well. And I’m just getting started. I’ve been in the process of storyboarding Ryswyck‘s sequel, and the most fun lately has been hatching in the dynamic not only between Speir and du Rau, but Speir and Selkirk as well. Love for enemies is definitely Speir’s jam.

So if, like me, you have a bulletproof kink for the love between enemies, I’m here with my scoop, dishing it out.

Music and the Ryswyck ‘verse

It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.

I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.

It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.

But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.

But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.

And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)

As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.

A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.

The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.

In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.

The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.

And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.

So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!

Style and the virtual cocktail party: part two in a series

Last week I introduced Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by supporting his argument that literary art can in fact be distinguished from other forms of written communication. Alter wrote his book before even email became ubiquitous, and now, in the age of the tweet, there are even more forms of the written word to compete with the distinction of literature, so I think it’s worth reviewing the ground Alter covers, with my own perspectives and occasional critiques, in light of 21st-century life.

Alter did not set himself the project of covering all the functions of literary skill, just enough of them to outline what makes writing — and reading — good books a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m going to talk about style, which Alter did cover, along with genre and convention, which he didn’t.

Style, Alter says, is “the medium we swim in as we read,” and therefore is not something you can just pin down in a few descriptive phrases; but as he points out, it’s worth trying to tease out the concept so we can get a look at it. In general, writing exists because it’s a way of getting words from the person making them to another person who is not present. Now that we have phones and Skype and podcasts and television and Netflix, the fact that writing was made to cover that gulf of absence is somewhat obscured. But it’s one thing to leap that gulf with the written word; it’s another to make the most of it as a fillable gap, to turn it from mere negative space to an occasion for art that is complex, fanciful, representative, or stimulating, or all that and more.

That is where style comes in. The way in which a story is told is an intimate component of the story itself, and when a writer is skilled and in control of her instrument, that way of forming and ordering words “goes to the heart,” as Alter says, of the work. Connections are set alight, metaphors are ranked as buttresses, the fleeting experiences of the mind and soul are evoked; pace and diction shape the reader’s experience of the text in a way that draws them — or fails to draw them — into the dream of the writer’s world for the time that they are reading.

Alter also takes some pains to show how style is handled by less skilled writers: “A good deal of bestselling American prose,” he says, “is written in a mode one might call Standard Contemporary Novelistic, representing, I would guess, a homogenization and formulaic reduction of certain features of robust and muscular style introduced in the twenties and thirties by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Farrell, and others. This writing often reflects a certain workmanlike competence, but the suspicion of a cliche lurks around the corner of all too many sentences.” He goes on to say that striving to be “literary” is in fact a hallmark of mediocre writing, and skewers a passage of one of Barbara Cartland’s books in illustration of this.

I mean, on the one hand, ouch! But on the other, it’s worth getting at this sort of troubled synapse between the writer who hamfists a palette of literary styles, and the average reader who might, in fact, resent having to do even a little work to engage with a complex book. It brings to my mind two passages from books I’ve reread with enjoyment.

In my favorite of the Robert Galbraith novels written by J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, our detectives are trying to unravel the mystery of a novelist who was killed, it seems, in the same tableau as the ending of his last manuscript. They wind up interviewing both “bad” and “good” writers, along with critics, agents, and publishers, who knew the victim, and Rowling doesn’t hesitate to draw direct parallels between the attitudes of the pathetically-derivative self-published writers and those of the celebrated masculine authors — their preening and their neuroticism, their senses of what’s decent among writers and how rarely those standards are lived up to, and so on. But the Cartland-like “bad” novelist insists on describing her work as “quite literary,” and undercuts her friend’s writing by saying “it’s not great literature or anything,” even while deploring how her friend had been treated by the murder victim. Alter’s right: an aspiration to be seen as “literary” is a sign of underdevelopment in a writer, one of those giveaways that tell you exactly what you’re likely to find in their work.

To compare with another meta-literary discussion: in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane attends a cocktail party with fellow writers, who are all talking about the Book of the Moment, either with admiration or bitterness, or a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes unwillingness to seem unsophisticated. “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” Harriet says, and is treated to a long description of an incomprehensible plot filled with grotesque characters. “But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it….Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her current manuscript]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.”

I think one of the problems of the modern age (and by the modern age I mean a period that has its beginnings with the rise of the novel itself, leading to our polytextual mosaic of daily existence), is the perpetual consciousness of the literary arena in the mind of the writer. A writer doesn’t want to write from an external locus of what styles and subjects are “significant” — underdevelopment of one’s own style is one thing; failure to strike the right note among one’s peers is even worse. It’s not coincidental that these reflections on writers’ communities are from mystery novels — a genre which has been a handy scapegoat for all that is formulaic and hyper-laden with overused tropes. The writers of the mysteries actually in the reader’s hands — Rowling and Sayers — are taking their swipes at an establishment that dismisses their own literary merit out of hand even as it indulges its own artistic narcissism to a unrecognized and gross extent.

And the virtual cocktail party is always going on. Let a genre writer stick sensibly to “workmanlike” prose, and watch his book’s style be dismissed as unremarkable, his story as tropetastic. But let a genre writer conversely innovate one or more of her genre’s conventions, and she may get tagged as “pretentious” by reviewers and readers who “couldn’t get into it.” “Pretentious,” as it was pointed out in a blog I cannot now find, is a word that gets applied to people who the speaker thinks are undeserving of the thing they are “pretending” to, as a usurper pretends to a throne. To call someone “pretentious” is to tell them they ought to “know their place.” Alter says that he is unabashedly using literature and style as “honorific” terms, to counter the critical environment that has been busily deprivileging literary art as a mirage covering propaganda and deterministic structures. But Alter knows, I think, that we can’t just leave it at that.

As a writer and as a reader (and when they let me, as a critic), I think it’s part of the “high fun,” as Alter puts it, of literature to ask of a text how a thing is done, why it’s done, what effect it has, the sheer engineering of the thing; and then to apply a value judgment if appropriate. Here’s an example of a convention that irritates me as a reader, by way of example. In a lot of well-regarded modern fiction, it’s become a Thing to write dialogue without the use of quotation marks, and sometimes to dispense with the convention of starting a new paragraph with a new speaker as well. Whatever the author might intend by it, this has specific effects as the reader goes through the text. It buries the dialogue visually in the narrative as a whole, making the text appear to be a hermetically-sealed experience of the POV character if there is one, or the general situation if there isn’t. This can evoke a dream-like quality to the experience of reading which can quickly be escalated to nightmare if that’s what the writer wants.

As soon as I encounter a book like this, my reaction as a reader is something along the lines of: There damn well better be a payoff if you’re going to make me adjust to the absence of a helpful convention. And sometimes there is. But sometimes, it just comes off as a cheapskate way of making the text seem more difficult than it really is. Eventually, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop will move on to a new style Thing, and the tides will leave some books exposed as gimmicky.

As a reader, there are some difficulties I will tackle with joy — and some I will leave on the plate. I will read the Divine Comedy for the hell of it, struggle through a massively allusive Dorothy Dunnett novel, savor the patchworked personal narrative of a memoir like H is for Hawk; but Finnegans Wake? Someone else can read that. I’ve no axe to grind about what I’ve sampled of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I haven’t got round to finishing it either.

As a writer, I don’t aspire to produce deathless literary prose, in part because you can’t say “I’m going to go cut down a forest” without eventually having to tackle some tree or other. Erin Bow can write imagery with a miraculous economy and a gossamer touch, and I envy the hell out of that, but it’s a thing she no doubt developed by hard work while also being absolutely inimitable. In my youth I sought to write lots of first-person narratives because I had been reading a lot of very good ones and thought that was how you went about writing great fiction. But I’m not Harper Lee, either. While working on several fanfiction projects (and I’ll tackle the conventions of fic when I write about character and/or perspective at a later date), I learned how the surrounding style conventions worked and evolved, and chose what suited me to use; and by such degrees, and by reading more, and reading more kinds of things, I developed my instrument, which just happened to be useful for the kind of story I wanted to write. Go figure!

But as a reader who is also a writer, I crave discussion venues that aren’t just replications of the virtual cocktail party. In a response paper in a long-ago seminar of Victorian lit, I remarked on Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte had a quandary on her hands with the endgame of the novel, recognizable to writers and dreamers if not to anyone else — that Jane and Rochester had to get together at the end, and Rochester had to have suffered something by then, so how? What she did about the quandary makes for a much more interesting discussion, to me, than “I liked/didn’t like it” on the one hand or “Monological imperatives in Dick and Jane: a study in psychic transrelational gender modes,” from a Calvin and Hobbes strip pasted up on a fellow grad-student’s office door in an oblique commentary on our common critical enterprise. But a venue for real, actual literary discussion is surprisingly elusive — not just in the halls of academe but in listservs, blog communities, and book clubs whose purpose would seem to be nothing else!

I mean, I can’t be the only person who wants to have a thoroughgoing discussion about what’s actually in the book. Right?

The Distinction of Literature: part one of a series

A couple years ago, at my local independent bookstore, I picked up The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter. I already admired Alter greatly for his contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (and have been lusting, if that’s the word I want, after his new translation of the Hebrew scriptures), so I snapped this book up thinking it might be fun.

Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be a book I return to engage with again and again, and not only because it was written shortly before I started my undergraduate and then graduate studies in English literature. Alter’s characterization of the critical scene at that time is amusingly familiar. I’ve been out of the academy for 20 years, and this book was written 30 years ago, so there’s a sense in which I’m picking up a conversation with Alter 30 years late. But in another sense, the “ideological” age Alter is writing about is no longer just a description of the critical scene; and more than that, Alter’s treatment of the components of literary skill has worn well enough to be perenially useful.

The chapters of Alter’s book, in fact, are useful enough that I’d had it in mind to write a blog post or two talking about one or more of them in connection with my own approach both to reading and writing. But a recent reread of the book has prompted me to think I might want more of a series than that. So this is a post addressing the basic argument Alter delineates in his introduction and first chapter; other posts will tackle the functions of literary skill and merit that he identifies in other chapters.

Here’s a rough-faced summary of the argument. Alter asserts that although literary studies in academia promised to benefit from the structuralist and post-structuralist theory that challenged the ivory-tower, New-Critical style of literary criticism, by the time of Alter’s writing the study of literature has wound up in a boondoggle of doing things to texts for ideological purposes, scarcely ever reading them on any terms but polemical ones, and as far as Alter can tell, never recognizing or enjoying literary art at all.

He’s not exactly wrong. When I was an undergraduate, and even more in graduate school, I could usually be counted on to provide the least ideologically sophisticated responses to the texts on the syllabus. To say what the reading of the book has done to you, rather than demonstrate your proficiency at doing things to it, was at best precious and droll. But I couldn’t stop doing it; and that may be the true motivating factor (besides, of course, money) why I did not persist in academia after getting my MA.

So I don’t really have a quarrel with Alter’s overarching argument. But the last time I looked this book up on Amazon, its reviews had a lot of praise along the lines of the phrase “breath of fresh air” from backlashy types who were all too eager not only to criticize the ideological boondoggle but to heap scorn on what Harold Bloom liked to call “the School of Resentment” — “politically”-motivated scholars whose minority status made them delicate snowflakes in need of crushing with the shovel of reality. But scorn is not Alter’s project at all — and so this blog post is to deal with the distinctions that need to be made.

“All study of literature must emerge from and return to reading,” Alter says in his introduction, and follows it with a statement of the main theme: “Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside reading.” He is critical of the idea that the literary canon, loosely conceived, is nothing more than a vehicle of hegemony for congratulating itself, without taking Bloom’s tack of rejecting all criticism of the canon itself.

Alter only mentions Bloom a couple of times, and I resent (heh, see what I did there) doing so more than once in a short blog post, but it’s like shooting one big sturgeon in a barrel, really; it’s not to be helped. Bloom built his academic brand on the idea that great literature is so because its writers have engaged the tradition with serious intent and succeeded by overcoming their own idiosyncrasies to become, as Alter says, “relevant,” to broaden the scope of what might be called universally human. That most women and other minorities have failed to do this is, for Bloom but not for Alter, merely incidental. Alter has no axe to grind here; he just wants to read a damn book and talk about why it’s good.

But I don’t think Alter entirely achieves a distinction between the operation of the canon, “the impulse of self-recapitulation” that keeps the tradition going as a recognizably literary endeavor, and the ontology of the canon, the thing that makes a text worth recognizing as literary art. He warns the reader that the examples he will choose to illustrate elements of literary skill are not diverse because he wants immediately recognizable texts to hand for his discussion. The unfortunate phrase “affirmative action quotas” crept in there at one point. I can distinguish this from Bloom’s project of apotheosizing the Western Canon, but it just points up the problem that has not, as we know, gone away at all.

Let’s take as an example Ann Leckie’s groundbreaking SFF novel Ancillary Justice. It became a bestseller on its publication in 2014 and won the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo Awards, and thereby was admitted to a canon, if not “the Western Canon” of literary art. It also drew a massive backlash that went on to affect how the Hugo Awards themselves were conducted in the future.

At contention was, among other things, Leckie’s use of a single pronoun to refer to all human persons in the novel, a pronoun that was used without distinctions and meant clearly to be universal in its comprehension of human identity. The pronoun was she. Now, there were (and are) plenty of thoroughgoing misogynists ready to state baldly that females and the feminine are representative of nothing but themselves, that to truly denote universal humanity you need a man. But this is an idea that is thoroughly sedimented in us all; and Leckie’s book required every reader to grapple with it.

Ancillary Justice‘s detractors used the argument, tellingly, that the book really had no literary merit and also no true popularity except among people with an ideological agenda. It could neither be valued nor enjoyed. Apparently, the pleasures of reading Ann Leckie’s book in an ideological age are either 100% or zero.

I’m pretty sure Alter would see the problem with this. And the question must be asked: can we appreciate the “high fun of literary art” of a text like Ancillary Justice if we have not already entertained the idea that the experiences and insights of women and other minorities can stand as relevant and representative, without asterisks or qualifications, of the human condition that art is made to speak to? I can’t help but think of how even after instituting blind auditions, women still weren’t getting into orchestras…until carpet was put down to hide the telltale clack of high heels when the auditioner came in. Then, amazingly, the acceptance rate quickly reached parity.

Without throwing Alter’s argument out the window wholesale, I would say that interrogating the canon(s) of literary art is not just a parity project but vital to the development of the very functions of skill and merit that Alter would like to see recentered in our minds when we pick up a book. And it is with those reservations that I appreciate the chapters that follow.

So stay tuned for more in this series on such topics as character, style, structure, and perspective. And ignore the acacia trees that grew overhead while I was writing this post, heh.

“If it’s not fun for the whole psyche then what’s the point?”

Musing this evening on the perils of self-censorship. People I know have started to read Ryswyck and are telling me where they are in the story. They make brief comments or ask me questions: “I’ll be interested to see how you develop the concept of undefendedness,” said one, and, “Am I right that this takes place in a sort of hypothetical Britain-like country?” another buttonholed me at church to ask. “I’m two-thirds of the way through,” said a friend last night, and proceeded to tell me what was happening with each of the characters as if they were people we both knew.

This is an ongoing source of quiet amazement for me. When I first thought up the story that would become this novel, I was convinced I couldn’t write it — and more than that, I was convinced I shouldn’t. A snippet from the first blog post about it:

Spring has definitely sprung around here. There is a profusion of daffodils everywhere, we’ve cut pink-blooming boughs from the peach tree for the chapel, and the mint patch has begun to sprout. And, I’ve been making myself up stories again. I won’t write the one I’ve been dreaming out, because it is just too idtastic: it follows two characters through a co-ed military school that has a reputation for turning out brilliant officers but has the air of a mystery cult, and for good reason. There’s lots of courtesy and kindness, and also a great deal of sex and violence. This poses a problem, not for me, but for the Sir William — now Lord — Rees-Mogg in my head who prefers that we keep up our standards.

Still and all, I reflect that most of the stories I’ve made up over the years come from my id originally. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of this, but I really just can’t manage it: it seems more to me like the id-origins of my stories are the grubby roots and the stories rise from them aboveground as plants.

But one does prefer the aboveground plant to be what’s noticed, I must say.

(March 15, 2012)

Fortunately for the book, I only needed the slightest encouragement to write it anyway, which my friends were only too happy to provide. It’s one thing to know Joanna Russ’s list of ways women’s writing is suppressed: it’s quite another to realize that you’re doing most of the suppressing for them. And still another to stop doing it.

That’s the miracle of art, though: a divine stubbornness that doesn’t feel miraculous in the least. A cussedness, a grubby stamping on the shovel’s shoulder, digging up that flowerbed. From a dreamed-out story outline in the rough, to a finished project one is proud of: that is worth all the slogging in the middle.

I suppose the reverse benefit of such difficulty is that when you’ve finished the project, you can enjoy the result and stick it to The Man in one move.

Fun for the whole psyche, indeed.

Worldbuilding: representative sexualities

One of the questions I got from my beta readers when editing the manuscript of Ryswyck, and one which I expect to get from readers from time to time now the book is in the wild, is a theme with variations: what are the sexualities of the characters, and how are they understood in the ‘verse? Are the questionable choices of — well, Barklay in particular — a function of sexuality, or of something else? Where does Douglas land on the spectrum, if there is one? Where does Speir? Just how friendly is your worldbuilding to non-het points of view?

Since it’s Pride month, I might as well address the topic now. And comment, incidentally, on the reactionary situation that has developed since I first conceived Ryswyck about seven years ago. And if I’m going to talk about the worldbuilding of my ‘verse, I’ll want to talk about the backstory of our own. (Those of you who don’t need the history lesson, bear with me for a couple paragraphs.)

Until 150 years ago, we didn’t have any descriptive words for what it meant to have non-heterosexual desires and experiences. We had a handful of extremely ethnically specific words, and we had a host of pejoratives. Western society, for hundreds of years, had nothing but a reified concept of human sexuality that excluded all but a certain range of heterosexual points of view. Anything in reality outside that range fell short of being human: it was bent, twisted, wicked, sick, or broken.

Then in 1869 the word homosexual was coined. It was intended to be a scientific/medical description of a certain pathology. But this had consequences. The word and concept of heterosexuality then needed to be invented. With that duality it was possible to talk about sexualities on academic terms and in public forums. People who identified themselves as homosexual began to have a way to talk about themselves without mirroring a reflex of disgust. They started reclaiming the pejoratives for their own use; more and more experiences and identities came into the light and were named, so that by the end of the 20th century we had what we call alphabet soup, and more descriptive terms for sexual and gender identity are coined and put into circulation all the time.

Some people have started to scoff at this. “This is ridiculous, we have L, G, B, T, Q, A, I, WTF, BBQ — where is this going to end?” I’m glad you asked that question, Imaginary Scoffer. It seems to me that the most reasonable and moral trajectory of this process would be to re-reify the concept of “human” sexuality, this time to include the increasingly obvious multiplicity of ways to experience love and desire. People could use descriptive terms for themselves without also having to press those terms into service as polemic, to defend themselves against the backlash of the heteronormative point of view.

But what’s happening instead right now is something I think very sad and short-sighted. There are some non-het groups who can’t or won’t conceive of a reunified human sexuality, and have turned on those whose identities resist definite labels. “You Bs, you Ts, you Is, whatever you are — you aces and aros, take your queer umbrella and get out! You belong with the enemy: the straights!”

None of this was on my radar when I was worldbuilding for Ryswyck. All I wanted, as Kameron Hurley saw, was to write a story without having to say, “Well, as you know, Bob, Douglas is pansexual and homoromantic!” So I invented context for him, and for Speir, and for Barklay and Stevens and Cameron and Rose and Corda and Darnel and Orla: context in which my characters were free of the pressure to see their identities as essentially polemic. The society they live in isn’t perfect, but it has advanced in this one area in part because the communities are small and everyone needs each other; needs to be able to trust one another, whatever their identity might be. The people who get to know Douglas come to know that he might like to go to bed with a wide variety of people, but the person he falls in love with is overwhelmingly likely to be male. Nothing else is needed. Everyone gets to say who they are. Everyone gets to rest.

But our interaction with such a story is unfortunately not simple. There are some authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels for the reasons I sketch above, because they want to upgrade the whole context in which characters relate to one another. And then there are the authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels because they want plausible deniability in case straight people get…het up about “forced” representation.

Nobody forced me to write from a non-het-centric point of view; I just did. I have enough age and experience now that I don’t feel my own identity as inherently polemic. I’ve done myself the same courtesy I deeply believe in doing others: letting them say who they are. Even if I think they’re wrong, or problematic (a word that covers a host of sins), or merely tiresome.

Everything doesn’t have to be a fucking polemic.

I know, I know: the battle lines being drawn right now are not imaginary. The Nazis have crawled out from under their rocks, and brazen cruelties march across every television chiron, and it’s hotter in Alaska right now than it is in Kansas City, and I-29 opened for five minutes before going under again.

But what is speculative fiction for if not for featuring to ourselves a way of being that is recontextualized, recentered, reimagined — while still being ourselves? All this noise may cover it up from time to time. But people are always people. And courtesy is still a thing.

And it’s time our context got an upgrade.

Decisions, decisions

So! As predicted, I have received two notes from friends saying they got their paperback copy of Ryswyck in one day — one text even came with a picture — and my author copies have yet to even ship. So if you were hanging fire about ordering your paperback, let the fire land by all means, and order.

Meanwhile, I am percolating tomorrow’s sermon, which bears a very strong resemblance to procrastinating, because that is how I roll. So while I’m doing that, I shall post a list of prospective blog topics, for general amusement. And for my own reference, because while some of these topics have patiently resided on the Excel spreadsheet I made for the purpose, I do have to remember to open the file and update it…which, I, um, didn’t. Well, I’ve been busy.

Canned rants

  • Aspiring megachurches with ridiculous non-cross logos
  • People who drive slowly in the left lane
  • Serious Literature: why does it have to be so fucking depressing?
  • And more!

Cinematography and cinematographic writing

  • Writing for the eye and for the mind’s eye
  • Can a book be written like a movie?
  • (Spoiler: probably not, but some conventions are analogous)

Robert Alter and narratology

  • POV trends (or, are we off the present-tense tight-third bender yet?)
  • Robert Alter and “perspective”; the writer’s tool box

Spoilers and plot structure

  • or, why I’m not fussed if people find out what happens in my stories
  • committing to a structure with its strengths and limitations

Bowen family systems theory and Ryswyck

  • or, can you count the triangles in this drawing?

And now, back to John Marsh’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Or tacos.

The Peanut Gallery is open!

Worldbuilding: Standing in mother’s place

In some ways, worldbuilding is like unsnarling a necklace chain found in a drawer, particularly at the beginning. It takes patience and mental energy to tease the links apart, to soften and separate the knots, to draw one loop free of a ball of metal tangles. Very often it can’t be done in one sitting; one has to put it away before ragequit takes over — take a break, take a walk, rest one’s inner and outer vision.

This is because building a world is a reversed process of how our world usually unfolds. I want my characters to be in a particular predicament; but the predicament depends on a situation that doesn’t happen in our world. So how can I get that situation to come about? Well, it could happen due to these causes. And where do those causes come from? They came from a larger situation like…this. And why is the larger situation like this?

Then: do all these causes agree with one another? If not, what would need to happen to make them agree?

And then: what invisible assumptions am I making? Are those assumptions valid in the world I’m building? What kind of parabolic light do they shed on our world? Is that the parable I wanted to sketch?

All this is by way of saying that when I invented a matrilineal society for my main characters to live in, it was a means to an end, starting from my characters and working outward. I didn’t start with the world and work inward to the characters.

A lot of times when we describe the premise of a SFF story (or urban fantasy, or anything that requires extensive worldbuilding), we describe it from the outside in. We say, what if there were Jesuits IN SPAAACE? Let’s hear a story about that. But did Mary Doria Russell say that when she started to write The Sparrow? Maybe she did. But maybe not.

I didn’t say: what if we had a matrilineal society in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Let’s hear a story about that. I said: these two characters interest me. I think I’ll call them Speir and Douglas. This half-tangled story I’m drawing about them — what’s happening to them? What’s happening around them? What are they doing about it? And why?

Only then did I say: hey, it sure would be interesting if this society was matrilineal. And if there were a long-past nuclear holocaust, that would explain why the technology is so piecemeal compared to our own. How do those two things fit together?….Well…

And so I got out my tweezers and turned on the anglepoise lamp and set about pulling free a straight chain. Because like all writers, I’m a glutton for self-punishment. It’s not enough to spend a luxurious week in free-form daydreaming, reeling out a one-show-only viewing in my mental theater. Oh no. I had to plan to tell the story to other people. I had to make it sturdy. I had to make it internally consistent. I had to develop a coherent moral imperative. Dammit.

So from a writer’s point of view — or this writer’s point of view, anyway — vicarious enjoyments are like a gumdrop trail of rewards: if you write this story, then guess what, you can read it. You want that, don’t you?

It was so simple, seven years ago, when I was inventing Ryswyck. I was just an ordinary space-cadet writer sitting at a table with a pair of tweezers and a necklace. I thought that inventing, sketching, and detailing a matrilineal society was a pretty pedestrian way to tell the story I wanted to tell.

It may have been, but it isn’t now.

In the country I invented, mothers are the undisputed custodians of their children; their surnames are the ones that children are known by; their fertility is a precious asset that they control; they live in bonds of sworn trust with the local communities they live in and participate in collective decisions as a matter of course; their relationships are governed by witnessed contracts of which they are equal and sovereign negotiators; their property and inheritance is at their own disposal and likewise can be negotiated by contract with the fathers and sponsors of their children.

What I am describing is not a matriarchy. But it is so very, sickeningly far from the world I wake up in day after day that the distinction is obscured by distance. By day I work up to my elbows in stories about how there are maternal health care deserts spreading in rural areas in what we tell ourselves is the pinnacle of civilized society. I get on my Facebook feed and between the dead dolphins and the ominous Bonhoeffer quotations are sandwiched horrific headlines about men shooting their wives point-blank in the face for not behaving abjectly enough to their inherent superiority. Laws being written denying that a female body houses a self and a soul of its own. Public citizens treated like public property. Godwin’s Law is dead and Margaret Atwood is a prophet.

The story hasn’t changed. But the parable has.

At church yesterday all the women were offered a pink carnation for Mother’s Day. I politely avoided taking one. I don’t want to be handed a fucking flower, I want to be handed a sword.

Fortunately, I’ve already got one.

So: would you like to read a story about characters in a matrilineal society set in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Would you like to read a story about two countries whose leaders recognize the choice between destroying one’s enemies and not destroying the world they live in — and who stand a chance of choosing rightly? Would you like to read a story in which a character’s slogan becomes Undefendedness is an offensive strategy — and who deploys that strategy to great effect? Would you like to read a story in which courtesy and humanity are more valuable than cynicism?

You may think that if you stretch out your hand for this story, you’ll be getting a flower.

You won’t be.

Meet the main cast

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.

Stephanie Speir

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.)

Walter Douglas

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.

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.