An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list

I haven’t played a video game since 1991, but I’m tickled by the concept of a horrible goose with a to-do list.

So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)

For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.

I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.

But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?

In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.

Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)

Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.

I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”

Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.

But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.

Like writing a novel.

So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.

Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.

There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.

Perspective in fiction: part three in a series

So, some time back I started writing blog posts in response to themes in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Then — you know, life — I lost momentum on it. But the other day I found myself on a website devoted to helping writers of speculative fiction, and read a couple of articles on the teasing subject of POV choice, and it reminded me of this chapter of Alter’s book, which was the chapter I found the most insightful of all of them, and which has borne a lot of influence on how I think about the question of perspective.

In fact, I recommend Alter’s book on the strength of this chapter alone, because among other things he takes the trouble to sketch the history of narratology both as practiced by writers and examined by critics. I can’t do justice to the entirety of his argument, so for this post I’ll just tackle two of his points: 1) That “the proliferation of narrative theory has brought with it a sometimes bewildering proliferation of competing views and terminologies,” which tends to garble both how we evaluate what we read and how we advise people to write, and 2) that “there is no hierarchy of narrative perspectives” and that great writing flows from an author’s choices of innovating or nuancing the “fluctuating play” of perspective, which gives “experiential depth and conceptual complexity” to the reader’s experience of the text.

Though I have lasting memories of graduate seminars in which diagrams and boxes were drawn (in chalk, because I am An Old) of narratological frameworks, the most sustained discussion of perspective and authorial choice I’ve encountered is in the arena of fanfiction. One reason for this is pretty obvious: the source text, the “canon,” of a book or TV show or film, has already got an array of established perspectives which the fanwork creator can either hew closely toward, or diverge from. Part of the pleasure, or lack of it, in reading and writing fanworks is to weigh the comparison with the source: is the author trying to match the canon? are they taking a different viewpoint of the same events? does the invention of an original character add perspective to the ‘verse?

Naturally, in an environment where lots of fiction is being written and read, there are undulating trends, and discussions of craft to go with them. For a long time, there was a prevailing trend of writing fanworks in tight third-person POV using the present tense — a trend which may parallel similar trends in modern original fiction, but in both cases was influenced by a small number of very skilled writers who used this perspective to great effect. The trend was and is so strong that in one of the articles on the site I linked above, the author actually recommended sticking to a close third-person perspective, as it was easier to master and also more desirable than “distant” third-person in terms of vivid and immediate wordcraft.

I…don’t agree with either of those assertions, and never have. Where to start? I guess I should start with what I absorbed as a young writer imitating different styles. I don’t remember reading a lot of tight-third stories, or at least not ones I wanted to emulate. What I read were stories with an omniscient narrator (Watership Down) and first-person narrators (To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn). Though I wasn’t attracted to tight-third perspective per se, the principle behind it certainly had its influence: namely, that really good fiction drew the reader into an encompassing reality, a world with immediacy, in which author intrusion was minimal.

Now, Richard Adams is so good that it was years before I noticed he’d written my favorite book in omni. And in part that was because he conceived the narrator of that story as a voice and perspective just as present as the rabbits whose journey he was following. But for the twentieth century it was an old-fashioned approach. The real cutting edge then was experimental perspectives that completely filled the frame and excluded the author-as-narrator to the greatest extent possible — Virginia Woolf, maybe, or James Joyce. Good writing became synonymous with that particular kind of immediacy, even bewilderment, that the reader was meant to share with the focal perspective of the text.

(Here’s a reason to read this chapter of Alter’s book if nothing else. He examines a passage of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — a book on the Edwardian Lit seminar syllabus that I did not enjoy, unlike The Man Who Was Thursday — and teases out the nuances of the perspective in a single pivotal paragraph, something that is not simply reportage or contextual storytelling or locked-in psychological sequence, but a threading of three needles at once. Alter reveals that one paragraph as a tour de force, and nails down his point that perspective is not a spreadsheet or a schematic. Gave me a better appreciation of Conrad’s abilities, too.)

I didn’t get much success with trying to write first-person narratives — an abandoned novel project and any number of first pages that never went anywhere. When I began to write fanfiction, however, I experimented with a perspective style I called “wide-angle” third (and which the Mythcreants author termed “distant” third — ye gods, the pejorative!) — and grew increasingly confident using it. I found it especially useful writing stories with an ensemble cast, using multiple POVs. Now, you can write ensemble casts in tight third POV, and a lot of people do. But for my purposes, I found it extremely useful for writing, say, Buffy Summers without having to present her thoughts as well as her dialogue in her inimitable voice. Especially if I was writing a story that also included the POV perspective of Giles, whose voice is, well, different. Too, I was writing stories with lots of angst, and there’s nothing worse for an angsty story than too much on-the-nose emoting. A wide-angle perspective, I reasoned, could give a reader the whole picture at any given time, without actually delving into omni.

I liked this so much that I actually went back to my first-person novel project and started it over with a wide-angle third perspective. It worked enough to reveal to me the real problem with the story, which was that it required some heavy research I didn’t care enough to do. So the story is still mothballed, but I feel less bad about it.

So, having written five hundred thousand words of fic (in one fandom) using wide-angle third, and having bridled at all the fandom praise being lavished on the opposite approach — and then getting over it, as one does — I was more or less free to consider what I wanted for my original fiction, with less arbitrary inward constraint or pressure of outward trends. For Ryswyck, I felt for and found a set of filters that would accommodate five very different POVs, which allowed for a bit more unabashed narration, especially when I wasn’t opening a scene with dialogue. Almost one of my first decisions in framing early drafts was to take a cinematic approach — or, something that would correspond to a cinematic approach if the story were being filmed: jump cuts, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, repeated motifs: Speir being served a cup of tea on an artillery platform followed in the next scene by Douglas reaching for his cup on the desk — things that don’t have to be noticed, and are less apt to be noticed in a text medium, but which keep the eyeline steady from scene to scene.

And here’s a thing I miss about the old fandom venues: fic memes like “DVD commentaries,” in which the author of a fic interpolates comments on the process of a particular scene or story, including POV choices. It’s nice to discover (or tell) just what kind of on-purpose things a writer has done to achieve their effects.

Which brings me to the principle that undergirds all that I’ve learned about writing in the last twenty years. As a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor I used to tell students, “You have to know the rules to break them successfully,” and along with that goes its corollary: You can break almost any rule so long as you do it on purpose. That is — as the result of a decision process you came to about what would work better than any other technique in a given situation. This serves Alter’s larger point about how literary art is both craft and art, which can provide a reader with challenge and enjoyment, can speak to and evoke recognizable reality. If I were teaching now, I’d want my students to know something about the wider goals of using perspective, even as I drilled them on the disciplines of different perspective choices: how a take-six feels in the fencer’s hand, on the way to knowing without discursive thought when to use it in a bout.

Once you’ve encompassed that, the piste is wherever you say it is.

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.

Best of Blog: The Mouths of Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and in consequence I would like to talk about a particular part of a woman’s body that gets a great deal of attention. No, not that part. Not that one either.

I’m talking about the mouth.

Seems to me that we’re always talking about the mouths of women, and particularly we talk about what’s going into a woman’s mouth, or else what’s coming out. Succinctly, then:

What’s going in.Susan Bordo pointed out some years ago the sedimented notions of gender and eating in visual advertisements. In advertisements for food, she argued (with many examples), men eat and women prepare. Women serve food to their children and their men: they don’t eat it. If they do eat, it is in controlled portions with low calories which they make for themselves at a time when nobody else can see them. A woman is caught in a closet with a pint of low-cal Haagen-Dasz; a man swans off a diving board into a three-scoop bowl of chocolate ice cream with not a calorie counter in sight. Almost twenty years later I pick up a Woman’s Day magazine, and with very few exceptions, the same narratives obtain.

We have not even got as far as the whole fat thing yet, except to talk about calories, and since we’ve now had food scientists assert that it’s indeed the calories that taste good, we don’t even have to go there to talk about those calories. The narrative is: woman putting something in her mouth that gives her pleasure = suspect. If she hasn’t fed the kids first, outright transgressive. I’d love to see a growing preponderance of visual advertisements that depict a woman consuming something with enjoyment that does not suggest guilt (even by mentioning guilt’s absence) or sin or temptation or any other hovering transgressiveness.

What a woman consumes by mouth is naturally a metaphor for other kinds of appetite: hence the deep suspicion of contraception as a means of license for women’s sexual appetites which will be uncontrolled as soon as they are freed from the “consequences” that keep them in check, and a sense that anysatisfaction of that appetite must benefit the race in order to be licit.

Indeed, even women’s intellectual appetites are a transgression, as the whole plot of Gaudy Night draws out: a woman either has bad taste in novels, films, and public discourse, or else she is wasting time that would be better spent doing something useful.

All of this is so ubiquitous that to point it out is either to belabor the obvious or to draw a defensive response from the sex not concerned, and that brings me to the other function of mouths.

What’s coming out. My father’s favorite epithet for me when I was growing up was “sharp-tongued,” and though it was effective in making me feel unlovely and inappropriate by nature, what I often thought most when I heard it was that my tongue clearly wasn’t sharp enough, or it would have cut me an escape hole by now.

What actually happens when I open my mouth as an adult is that people say: “What?” “I’m sorry, speak up, I can’t hear you.” “Say that again?” Never is this more problematic than when I am invited into the pulpit: I have to project far beyond what feels comfortable in order to be sure of being heard, to push the envelope of ineffectual yelling to make sure my words are understood. In fact, just the other day I was in a restaurant with my mother and sister and brother, and the waiter had to ask every single one of us to repeat our order over the background noise. “We’re quiet talkers,” my mother said laughingly. Well…yes. That, I think, is its own comment.

Yet it’s not untrue that I can be sharp-tongued, as any longtime reader of my rants on this blog may be able to attest. But how much is this an indictment of my very being, and how much is the equally-sedimented notion that women’s voices are heard too much, that to be a woman and to call for redress or repentance or recognition is to be a scold and a harpy, to snatch unlawful airwaves and display inherent ignorance, to rebel against the rightful judgment imposed from without? If women are saddled with an anxiety of eating, surely they are equally saddled with an anxiety of speaking.

In this context let me compare two well-known passages from the Middle Ages. First, the Clerk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ends his tale of patient Griselda with an envoie clearly intended as a smack at the Wife of Bath, whose prologue was longer than her tale. He says in part:

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee your tonge naille,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille
As of Grisildis pacient and kynde….
Folweth Ekko, that holdeth no silence,
But evere answereth at the countretaille….
Ye archewyves, stondeth at defense,
Syn ye be strong as is a greet camaille;
Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense.
And sklendre wyves, fieble as in bataille,
Beth egre as is a tygre yond in Ynde….
Ne dreed hem nat, doth hem no reverence,
For though thyn housbonde armed be in maille,
The arwes of thy crabbed eloquence
Shal perce his brest….

The words of women are clearly seen here as weapons to make men cower, and indeed are the only weapons available to them, since they are physically weaker and at a social disadvantage. “Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense” — you can practically hear the sarcasm dripping from the page — “Don’t let men get away with offending you by any means,” as if a woman ever does, amirite? Yet though a woman can beat a man down with words, he may well go down believing he was in the right all along, and aggrieved that he cannot retaliate with physical violence.

Compare the long-awaited appearance of Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she meets Dante not with gentle words but with a stern scolding:

“With inspirations, prayer-wrung for his sake,
Vainly in dreams and other ways as well
I called him home; so little did he reck.

And in the end, to such a depth he fell
That every means to save his soul came short
Except to let him see the lost in hell.

For this the gateway of the dead I sought,
And weeping, made request of him by whom
He has been raised thus far and hither brought.

It would do violence to God’s high doom
If Lethe could be passed, and ill-doers
To taste this blessed fare could straightway come

Without some forfeit of repentant tears….

O thou, yon side the sacred stream,” said she,
Turning the sharp point of her speech my way —
Though even the edge seemed sharp enough to me —

And thus continuing without delay;
“Say, say if this is true; so grave a charge
Requires thine own confession; therefore say.”

Dante’s response to this is to indeed give up the “forfeit of repentant tears,” to weep and admit his wrong before the whole company of the Earthly Paradise, and in fact to swoon at the overwhelming consciousness of this terrible truth. It is after that that Beatrice leads him up into Paradise, making him more able, the more he comprehends of Heaven, to look upon her beautiful smile.

There are two things to be said about this. One is that however problematic the doctrine of Courtly Love may be in other respects, it at least introduced the concept of a woman as a man’s liege-holder, who by his love for her “bears rule” over him and therefore has the right to so chastise him when he is in the wrong. This is a rule he offers her freely, but it is also a rule that reflects the reality of her dazzling effect on him.

Which leads me to the second thing. The figure of Beatrice is unequivocally put forward as a “God-bearer” to Dante — someone who is the image of God, or an image of God, to him who loves her. The Divine Comedy is the story of a particular man who encounters God in this particular way, but were we each to write our own Divine Comedy we should (if we are lucky) have our own God-bearing person or image to lead us home with such patience no matter how little we reck. The point is that women are, as men are, the image of God. And whether one thinks that God made us in God’s image, or we made God in ours, this truth still holds — that we, humanity, this quintessence of dust, are nevertheless a brightness we can show to one another and to bear rule over one another, and we show our Godlikeness in our gift of language.

We humans have mouths, by which we eat and drink, and from which we speak, and I am taking this time out of my day to say that half of us should bear well in mind that we are fundamentally allowed to eat and drink and speak. We are anxious because the power to eat and drink and speak is presented to us as a power we have no right to. But it’s just not true.

Because women are the image of God.

[Originally published 3/8/2012]

Best of Blog: friendship essays

Back when I started the project that became Ryswyck, I felt pretty lonely talking about friendship as a driving moral imperative in stories. Now, though, my friends link me to Twitter discussions of friendship as an Actual Love, and big-name bloggers are tagging friendship as the stuff to give the troops, as Bertie Wooster would say.

So I decided to file some of my past posts on the subject as Best of Blog articles on this site. (The Writer and Eucatastrophe also technically counts as a best of blog article, but since it’s as close to a manifesto for this site as I’m ever going to write, it gets its own menu link.) Eventually I’ll probably add more posts from the ol’ catacombs, but this is obviously the most pressing and relevant topic, so here they are:

Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Friendship and eros in stories, originally published 12/31/13

and its later sequel

Friendship, Eros, and some notes on the Queen’s Thief series, originally published 5/24/17.

(I note that the tone of these articles, especially the first, is rather defensive; years in fandom has exposed me to a lot of shipping drama, and if you’re going to come out and say you prefer gen stories rather than erotic ones, you have to hedge it all around with assurances that you’re not some kind of purity freak, or outright homophobe for that matter. Let’s just say for the record that the Nutrition Facts on this site do not include either purity freakage or homophobia.)

By the way, if you have not yet discovered Megan Whalen Turner‘s Queen’s Thief books, you are so in for a treat. I can’t even remember who put me on to these books (probably R.J. Anderson, but it’s lost in the mists of time), but they are fabulous, clever, innovative, compelling, and witty and you should go read them right now (while you’re waiting for Ryswyck to come out).

There, I think that will do it for today.