Something English teachers should probably not do to innocent authors

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From Ann Leckie:

“…the “rules” and advice about what does and doesn’t sell and how stories ought to be is safety railings and nets that you think are helping you, except they’re actually keeping you from doing the thing you really need to do, which is to jump off the fucking cliff.”

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Sometimes it all just fits together

Yesterday my class discussed Munchausen Syndrome by proxy.

Then I came home and read an article about how Rachel Swirsky had spit in the faces of working men everywhere by writing a story in which three anonymous characters in a bar beat somebody up with pool cues.

Then I read another article about how Neil Gaiman had spit in the faces of people with PTSD everywhere by naming his newest collection of stories ‘Trigger Warning’.

Then I read a few chapters of Sense and Sensibility and went to bed.

And I thought, “All in all I’ve had a pretty cohesive day.”

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Happy About Sad Puppies

The Sad Puppies are back again, putting forward their slate of nominees for the Hugo awards. I haven’t read any of them, or any of the other slates that have been put forward (except for one story that had absolutely no fantasy or science fiction in it, but was about a lake I’m fond of). I probably won’t read any of them. My book club is doing The Worm Ouroborus, and it looks as if I’ll be enmeshed in that for the foreseeable future. But wow, am I enjoying the Sad Puppies brouhaha!

You see, for years now I’ve been feeling less and less comfortable even on the fringes of the SF community. I have a high tolerance for academic criticism – I write fantasy set in universities, after all – but it has been exceeded. It’s seemed every year as if only certain opinions about things SFnal should be voiced, and I never quite understood what the current versions were.

In the past year alone, far more established and more savvy authors than myself have written about being made to feel unwelcome at conventions because they wanted to openly discuss certain policies, about not attending any cons at all until the infighting died down, about ‘dodging a bullet’ by refusing to comment on what was happening, about being ‘disappeared’ from movements they helped establish. Every year it’s seemed as if there were more career-wrecking mistakes to be made, until I began to feel that the best thing would be for nobody to even notice my books at all.

So to have the Sad Puppies charge in, slamming the doors open and trampling the eggshells with their muddy boots and making raucous, unapologetic demands that we pay attention to their brand of non-cautious fiction — suddenly the SF I once knew is back! By which I don’t mean the particular SF they write, for I haven’t read it, but the SF with the wide horizon, in which you could play with any idea that interested you. The SF where you could find lock-and-load he-men on one shelf and books about five-gender anarchist societies on the next; where unwashed barbarians rubbed covers with witches and dragon-riders and starship designers, and where the authors of all that stuff were treated as individuals with imagination, not exemplars of political positions.

The SF where it was all right to just have fun. The SF where you could breathe.

So I say, go Sad Puppies! But I also say, one Sad Puppies movement is not enough – it’s too easily turned into a binary, progressives-vs-reactionaries story. We need eight or ten more movements like this; a big, colorful, noisy chaos of creativity and invention. After all, shouldn’t a field that does worldbuilding be at least as big and vibrant as the world?

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BookRiot Reading Challenge – BINGO!

One of my FB friends dared a bunch of us to do the BookRiot reading challenge. But her rules said we couldn’t share the names of the books we read until the challenge was over, so it has caused an almost complete shutdown of book discussion.  This was probably to keep the rest of us from being completely crushed by the member who has finished it by now. Still, here I am reading all this stuff that I cannot name till August… plus, it’s taking up the time I might have spent reading stuff I could review on my blog.

OTOH, I’ve pretty much given up naming the books I review. I get all my desire to grade people taken care of at work. So here’s where I am on the reading challenge thus far, with no names. Well, one name.

A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 – DONE. OMG jejune. So many pages of ranting against the evils of church and state, in almost-iambic pentameter. Tiresome tiresome bored bored bored — but it will also count for the ‘before 1850′ item, if I don’t find anything else I like in there.

So, just to cover myself, I am reading a second book written by a young author. This one is an absolute classic that nobody would believe I had not read yet, and it is just as good as that would indicate.

A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65I found one, I downloaded it onto my kindle, I read the first few pages. It has a setup similar to Suds in Your Eye, one of my all-time faves — but so far the characters have not popped.

collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) – I have several of these hanging around. One of them looks pretty good, actually.

A book published by an indie press – Having trouble figuring out what counts as indie. Self-published? If so, I’ve got ‘em.

A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ – I found a book that was touted as the first by a trans person for a trans audience. It’s pretty good – though I can’t tell how much of its salient points are trans specific and how many are age specific. The first half was much much angst of the young, and the second half has started out with even more angst and an even younger protagonist… we will see.

A book by a person whose gender is different from your own – duh. I mean DONE. But in case I use those for other categories, I just downloaded something by one of the Sad Puppies authors. Manly fiction.

A book that takes place in Asia - I’m about halfway through a fantasy police procedural set in Singapore. It’s fun, it’s well written, it’s not jumping up and down yelling ‘READ MORE OF ME NOW!’ but I might recommend it for a book group I’m in, so I will finish it sooner rather than later.

A book by an author from Africa – I read several books from Africa over the past few years and was getting this ‘same old same old’ feeling whenever I looked at the reviews of new ones. Am I just unable to find a diversity of books from Africa? I thought, and was mightily relieved to find an African author complaining about the same thing. So I have given myself a pass on reading another book about ‘war/famine/abuse/murder is all that happens in Africa,’ and found a sequel to one of the few feel-good books from Africa I’ve read. I’m sure I’ll read this one and enjoy it.

A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans,Aboriginals, etc.)

microhistory – OOH OOH I FOUND THE PERFECT ONE. Somebody in my field! Somebody from a fantastic time in my field! Somebody who created one of the coolest museums ever!

YA novel – It would be harder to avoid reading a YA novel.

sci-fi novel – DONE. And I found a medical/physiological one, so there. Nobody’s tricking me into reading about spaceships.

romance novel

National Book AwardMan Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade

A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.) I have one on my kindle. Actually I have two. I could have fifty if I wanted, but two is enough. Take my word for it.

An audiobook - I got one of my book club books on audio, so this will happen at its appointed time. Gotta love scheduling!

A collection of poetry - Found one – a poet I’ve never read a whole book by, but I’ve loved everything he had in anthologies.

A book that someone else has recommended to you – DONE, and enjoyed and irritated by and even blogged on.

A book that was originally published in another language – DONE, and that is the very last time I get a book recommendation off of Jezebel. 400 pages of unadulterated meh.

A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind – more of a challenge than I expected. If only a new Castle Waiting book would come out! I just do not feel like reading any of the mildly sickly near-horror steampunk things that seem to have taken over so much of the genre, nor do I want to read something earnest about Real Life ™. I have read enough graphic novels to be sick of most all the tropes, and all the manga I follow are done except for Skip Beat

I updated to remove a recommended author’s name here, because I read the newest book and was so not happy. But at least this category is now DONE.

A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure – DONE. Is it cheating if it’s a rediscovery of something I read parts of when I was 10 and browsing through 1890 issues of ‘Harpers Young People?’ If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

A book published before 1850 – DONE. So, so done. See above.

A book published this year – I have two on pre-order. You don’t get any more this year than that, do you?

A self-improvement book – sort of done. And actually acted upon! … though it lost me when it got to the part about standing my socks on edge.

So, there I am. Further than I thought, and six months to go! Eat my dust.

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NOT meaning I have too much to do. The artistic kind of over-working, where something is touched up with a fine brush until it loses its brio.

I spent my vacation in a seaside town, which meant I got to visit lots of galleries of seaside art, both by amateurs and professionals, and what struck me most was the difference between over-worked art and confident art. Confident art identified the most important aspects of the image and put them on the canvas or paper with skilled, straightforward strokes, left to stand on their own. In over-worked art (like most of my own paintings) you can see where the artist went back and corrected, corrected and corrected again, usually with a too-fine brush.  Instead of a shape caught on paper, the painting becomes about the paper itself and those little tiny brushstrokes.

The same thing applies to writing, especially to characters – and most especially to protagonists, and most of all to female protagonists.

I just finished reading a book which I enjoyed a great deal, mainly for its brio. Its dangerous beasts moved so fast you could feel their speed as they slashed open their prey! Its villains struck before you could think, and the consequences were real and drastic. Its settings were blocked out just enough to show their beauty and difference, its secondary characters surprised me in delightful ways… but its female protagonist was over-worked, doubtless in the interest of making her likable.

Villains, dangers, settings and secondary characters are, you see, allowed to be what they are; but female protagonists must be Good and Likable. You can see the teeny tiny brush strokes all over them. Has she considered her own class and how it advantages her? Let’s have somebody give her a little lecture on it. Did she pay any attention to the plight of the servants? Let’s have her future self look back at her attitude with condemnation. Shouldn’t a good woman have tried to get to know the people in that village? Let’s add a subplot in which she realizes they would have benefited from doing so! Did she really kill things to study them? Yes, and her older self will explain why that’s acceptable. Is she sexually liberated? Let’s put in an aside about her prudish editors.

Little by little the woman’s shape is obscured by all this tinkering and improving and what could have been a fascinating character becomes a surface of little brushstrokes, where the author’s attempts to fix what probably never needed fixing are more noticeable than the original idea. So I end this novel not sure if I want to read the sequel, because I really don’t understand who the protagonist is or how she might grow and blossom.

If only she had been put down in broad, confident strokes, allowed to stand on her own and take whatever judgment the reader made!

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Seeing vs Reading

I bought sketchbook for my Kindle Fire, and all last summer I messed around with it. I can’t say I made much progress. This Xmas, though, I took the kindle to Texas with me and because the weather was lousy I had much time to sit around with it. I was not happy with my work, so I began googling other artists to figure out how they painted the same scenes with better results. I started copying the stuff I liked, and what a difference it made!

This is a copy of a Rockport Center for the Arts ad, which is itself a clipped version of a poster by Al Barnes.

This made me realize how much harder it is to apply the same approach to writing, and how time-intensive and laborious reading is compared to seeing. I can spend two days reading a novel and at the end decide there is nothing I want to take away from it so far as technique is concerned. Whereas if I go to a mid-sized gallery, I can pick out the three or four pictures I want to pay attention to in half an hour. And if all that attracts me is the horse in the background, it doesn’t take more than a minute to realize it – and I can spend my sketching time focused on that horse alone.

Other folks have pointed this out, for instance in discussions of why it’s harder for self-issued books to succeed than for self-issued songs. It’s the difference between a three-day investment of time and a three-minute investment.

When I was younger, I was delighted to have a pile of new books. I wanted to be pulled into their worlds. Have I changed, or have the kind of fantasy books out there changed? When I read books that are lauded for their world-building nowadays, I feel so tired. There are all these social structures and multiple universes and diplomatic conflicts and political situations. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the beauty? Where’s the just plain living? And where’s the one thing I want to take away from it — well, it may be that description on page 342, and I will never get that far.

More and more, I depend on the author’s voice and on what is in those first five pages to tell me whether I will find anything I want in a book. Which means that more and more, I find myself gravitating towards short fiction. Which may be a very good thing, since it appears that nowadays there is a lot of short fiction and nobody is reading most of it. Perhaps this will be the year in which I read short fiction from obscure and unpopular magazines, and become educated enough about it to have something to say.

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Shop talk, AARRGGHH!

I spent my entire life not caring about The New Republic, or The National Review, or whatever it was called. But now something or other has happened to it, and that’s upset a lot of journalists, and my feedly has been full of ponderous posts about it for a week. I know that journalists are a topic dear to the heart of journalists, but after deleting the twentieth article about TNR from news outlets that I really hoped would send me y’know, news, I enter a state of AARRGGHH!

It’s like when you want to take a picture of something outside, but your camera keeps focusing on the cat nose prints on the window.

Because I always overthink things and stretch them out to cover way too much of human experience, this has made me think about shop talk in general and how much it gets in the way of the thing it’s about. And I think this is one reason everything gets to feeling alike on the internet. The same internal shop-talk dynamic seems to surface no matter what the topic being discussed: romances, feminism, social justice, knitting. People are often more interested in ourselves being interested in the topic than we are in the topic. Whatever the view outside the window, we end up focused on the flyspecks.

Something that makes me love my day job is that by no stretch of the imagination can I make it all about me, or even about why I’m interested in it. Plus, of course, what’s outside the pathophysiology window will kill us all eventually. That puts flyspecks into perspective.

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Gained in Translation?

I can't find the source for this, but isn't it great?

Coming from a family of Danish immigrants, my mother had some European odds and ends associated with Christmas. Nothing elaborate – some ornaments of dwarves with chenille arms and legs, seated on alder cones and playing musical instruments; one of those balsa-wood whirligigs that ran on the heat from candles, spinning wooden angels around and around. But we only saw them at Christmas, and in between times I built these up into marvels in my mind. By the time the balsa-wood gizmo came out of the box, I expected it to have reindeer and holly boughs and little woodland creatures peeping between its vanes at every turn. But no; it was the same wooden angels with perfectly round heads, going in the same lackluster circles for the same few minutes that we remained interested.

vintage wooden christmas pyramid

You too can own this - it's waiting for you at Etsy.

I never learned, though. Fifty years later, I retain my belief that European=enchanted, and whenever I enter an import store at Christmastime I expect to be whirled up in a dream of deer and woods and starlight.

So I was a sucker for Krampus when I first encountered him in videos of an Austrian Christmas parade. Here, at last, was the irruption of wilderness, of woodland magic, into a domesticated santa-centered, primary-colored holiday. Here were the deer and pine trees at last, breaking through the balsa-wood angels. I hung all my longing for something that united nature and Christmas on the mysterious furred, horned figures.

Of course I bought Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus as soon as I could get my hands on it. And as soon as I did get my hands on it, it met my expectations. The cover image is delightful and this is a beautiful little book in weight and design and feel – World Weaver Press has done a fine production job.

The stories inside vary tremendously. There are stories about people who find themselves working for Krampus, gathering up children; people who find themselves gathered up by Krampus; people who fight back and either conquer Krampus or are conquered by him; even one chilling tale of someone who falls in love with Krampus. Some are modern horror and some old-fashioned folk tales, some extremely dark and some extremely pastel. Krampus is real in most of them, but not in all. Some have heartwarming morals and some have none. My favorites were the Victorian-styled A Visit by Lissa Sloan, which had a Dickensian feel to it and a satisfyingly wicked Krampus-victim, and Caren Gussoff’s Ring, Little Bell, Ring, which was the most thoughtful of the stories and gave me the most to mull over.

In general, though, these stories made me question my original enthusiasm for Krampus. There was very little of the irruption of woodland magic in them, and very much of Santa Claus’s enforcer, ‘an evil monster punishes bad people.’ Is that all there is to Krampus? My images of woodland magic, of nature pushing into and through our vision of Christmas and making it into something deeper, may be my very own creation – like the Christmas whirligig that existed only in my mind.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving them up, though. Perhaps I’ll just have to write the story I want to read — and a book that inspires people like me to imagine their own stories has, in its own way, broken through the surface of Christmas into something deeper.

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Mother Cats, Teachers, and Buzzwords on the Internet: a tortured analogy

cat on keyboard

If she could spell 'dudebro,' she'd have her own blog

Fredrik deBoer is on a righteous ranting roll this fall over the failings of the online left. In particular, its desire to sort the world into good and bad based on buzzwords and its deer-in-headlights bafflement when someone who is GOOD according to some buzzwords turns out to be BAD according to others, or when BAD people learn to use GOOD buzzwords.

I couldn’t agree with him more, but I have a slightly different take on buzzwords from being an educator and a cat owner. What if these buzzwords are training tools? What if Fredrik is observing not failings of the left as a whole, but of people who refuse to graduate from an intro class — kitten leftists?

Allow me to expand my analogy.

Ever owned a mother cat? Then you’ll remember this cat-call. Mrrrwrow!  Mrrrwrow! It starts outside, coming closer and closer to the cat-door. It’s a muffled, throaty sound, because her mouth is full. Sometimes the prey’s wriggling adds an extra warble to it.

“Oh listen,” a clueless visitor might say, “there’s a tomcat yowling!” But your heart sinks, because you know this sound. You can translate it. It means:

Look what I have for you, children! I’ve broken one of its legs for you, now you do the rest!

You know what will happen if you let her in. Fun for the kittens, torment for the prey, an eventual corpse under the bed unless you catch the poor thing yourself and put it out of its misery. Why, you ask yourself, do I give houseroom to these amoral predators? You get up and shut the cat-door or fetch the broom.

I haven’t had a mother cat for thirty years, but recently I developed flashbacks. I would be sitting reading the internet peacefully, and at the edge of my senses I would hear that sound. I would open twitter, and within ten tweets I would be asking myself Why do I give houseroom to these amoral predators?

It first happened when I was reading a conservative blog and the host began to repeatedly mention ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ and ‘Stuff White People Like.’  These buzzwords were cues to us, I realized. We didn’t have to be fair to anything tagged with these terms.

Look, children! I’ve broken its back for you! Bite it, bite it!

In progressive circles, the terms ‘problematic,’ ‘privileged,’  and ‘dudebro’ often serve the same purpose.

This is prey, children! That’s right, pull off its wing!

– and in jump the commenters and retweeters, like so many month-old kittens around a wounded bird.

The thing is, though, buzzwords are inextricable from learning. A student’s presented with a complicated problem; which parts of it are relevant? Can those be used as cues to identify similar problems? There they are — buzzwords, whether you meant to present them or not. You’re lucky if the buzzword the student takes away from your case study is ‘aortic stenosis’ and not ‘forty-five-year-old.’

Teachers should be in the business of helping students to see below these surface features, but there’s always the temptation to simplify our lives by using buzzwords on purpose. My buzzword when I started was ‘Doctor Bob.’ He was the person in my case studies who put in heart valves upside down, or mixed up vasoconstriction and vasodilation. When my students saw a problem with ‘Dr. Bob’ in it, they knew that this was something they should evaluate critically – as opposed to most of the stuff I tell them, which they should write down and memorize.

Here you go, children, I’ve broken his leg for you!

But what were my students learning to associate with critical evaluation? The ‘Doctor’ part? The ‘Bob’ part? Was I training them to substitute buzzword-prompted suspicion for habitual, routine analysis? There’s a reason that ‘sophomoric’ is an insult, and we teachers are partly to blame for it.

Nowadays I have a lot more fictional characters in my classes. Doctor Bob is still there in one question, but the rest contain patients and nursing students, experienced nurses and aides and med students. The people correcting them in my case-study scenarios, or suggesting the sensible treatment, also vary. Eventually, I hope, my students will take the same attitude of careful evaluation to all of them — even me.

I hope they will be just as careful in other interactions, and not let buzzwords substitute for analysis, data, and making up their own minds. In fact, I hope they develop their own alarm bells to warn them when prey is being pointed out — when they’re being invited to act like a mess of month-old kittens instead of independent, thinking adults.

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