Kibitzer Nation

Kibitzers should be neither seen nor heard!

This is what my father would say when we suggested that he change what he was currently doing with a power tool. He was a guy who did not easily cope with distraction. He was also a guy whose activities often invited corrective suggestions, but that’s beside my current point – which is that the amount of kibitzing in the world, as compared to actual activity, seems to be ever-increasing. I suggest a new collective noun; a twitter of kibitzers.

It seems as if all of us know how everybody else should have done it. Some of us are realistic about our suggestions, some of us as unrealistic as I used to be when I daydreamed about just reaching out and catching people who were falling past my window. But we would always have done it better and more forcefully, in a more timely manner…

For some of us, kibitzing remains our favorite indoor sport for our whole lives, until we die more forcefully and in a more timely manner than all those other schmucks who weren’t doing it right. But for others, it somehow morphs into insight and self-reflection. We realize that in fact, we wouldn’t have done it any better. Usually because we’ve tried it, and we didn’t do it any better. What happens, though, when kibitzing takes up more of our time than trying?

Well, look at what’s happened to the teaching profession. Every person who ever attended school, or had children who attended school, or pays taxes to suport school, feels qualified to kibitz about every last thing teachers do. Hardly anybody actually tries to do any of that stuff.

A few years ago, I volunteered at a nature center and tried leading classes of schoolchildren. It is not as trivially easy as kibitzers think it is – and teachers add actual education on top of it! But no, we all kibitz ourselves into actually believing we could do it better and that teachers don’t deserve respect or decent salaries. Then the system stops working – the more clever college students stop training to enter the profession, the new hires see the writing on the wall and leave – and we are confirmed in our kibitzery. We could have done it better.

I’m old enough, and have tried enough things, to imagine myself doing a mediocre job of almost any occupation. So the areas I can kibitz in have narrowed to the ones that I’m actually an expert in (Eight hours of recorded lectures a week? Are they mad?) and the ones I actually know nothing about (Why don’t they just bring back the talking filibuster?).

You have no idea how much time this frees up.

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Cat Valente’s Excellent Idea

The Hugo controversy has died down a lot, and instead of merely being mad at each other people are beginning to come up with interesting ideas. I particularly like Cat Valente’s proposal for a set of awards that specifically reward aspects of storytelling; best fight scene, best worldbuilding, etc.

Coming from a criterion-based institution, I couldn’t love this more. After all, I would never evaluate a student’s paper without having specified the criteria for excellence and identified some specific areas where they were met/not met in the paper. An award like this wouldn’t end controversy about winners, any more than my using explicit criteria ends controversy about students’ grades, but it would turn that controversy from ‘you like this for wrong reasons’ and ‘how could you possibly like that?’ into discussion about what it means to have ‘best twist’ or ‘best villain’.

Plus, the nominating process would channel more discussion toward specific elements of storytelling. I would love to hear what fans think counts as good worldbuilding, or excellent dialog, or an engaging character. This idea is a winner all around!

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Write Without (gendered) Pronouns for Fun and Profit

Last week I read a Facebook discussion about the Pronoun Issue. Someone chimed in to say that you didn’t need to know people’s preferred pronouns. When did you really need to refer to somebody by a pronoun? this commenter asked – a point I have myself raised on numerous fora.

The owner of the Facebook page reacted strongly. Anybody who asked that disingenuous question would be banned immediately as a troll! After all, what if you had to (gasp) introduce the person in question at a professional meeting?

My immediate reaction was that the commenter’s real sin had been to introduce reality into an otherwise diverting argument. But to be fair, I thought, what would I do if I had to introduce someone at at professional meeting and I didn’t know their preferred pronoun? I have written fiction about such characters with no trouble, but there I had control of the context.

I went in search of a sample introduction at the most recent Academic Minute. Here’s what I found:

John Cullinan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Program at Bard College. His primary research focuses on the intersection of Number Theory and Representation Theory, and he has recently begun publishing in the Mathematics of Voting. Dr. Cullinan has been on the faculty at Bard College since 2006 after teaching for a year at Colby College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2005.

Of course Dr. Cullinan probably wrote this for them, in which case there would be no call to mess with it. But if writing such an introduction for somebody else, could we convey all this information without the gendered pronouns? Of course we could! We are educated professionals.

John Cullinan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Program at Bard College, doing research on the intersection of Number Theory and Representation Theory which has recently been published in the Mathematics of Voting. Dr. Cullinan received the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2005 and has been on the faculty at Bard College since 2006.

Now I need make no assumptions about Dr. Cullinan’s gender or preferred pronouns. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

So I say let us quit our bitching, pull on our grown-up undergarments, and just write our stuff without gendered pronouns. You might notice that I have been able to write this entire blog post without them. Or you might not have noticed, which is sort of the point.

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This is What’s Going on

My Facebook friends are probably tired of my posting links to Freddie deBoer pieces. I do it because he says exactly what I would say if I had his progressive street cred.  Here he is on the progressive takeover of criticism:

…it seems to me that the progressive takeover that Curtis describes in sports media has been, if anything, even more comprehensive and obvious in the world of art and culture criticism. This morning I was browsing The Atlantic and I was struck by the degree to which I just expect all of our cultural criticism to function as a checklist for socially liberal politics…”

“…This thinking seems to preclude several different points of view that strike me as legitimate and worth thinking about. Like

  • That there are many people with left-wing or progressive political sympathies who recognize that art can be interrogated for its political beliefs but nevertheless want to read art and culture criticism that does not consist primarily of explicit progressive political complaints; …
  • That there are conservative or apolitical readers who would like to read more cultural commentary that does not involve an explicit rejection of their politics and who have suddenly found the world of artistic criticism has dramatically shrunk; …
  • That everyone already knows what the internet’s opinion will be on Miley Cyrus, on Jonathan Franzen, on Kanye West, on the Entourage movie, and sundry other pre-digested cultural artifacts, and so you’re left wondering why anyone bothers at this point;
  • That after years of reading this stuff, it’s become incredibly boring. [emphasis mine]

I wish someone would nominate Freddie’s post for a Hugo so thousands of people would read it.

I honestly think that this is the real issue that has made so many people who don’t give a rip about the Hugos view the Sad Puppies with sympathy. Sympathy, I admit, that they are trying their best to fritter away from within their own ideological silo, but still sympathy. I want to read some literary criticism that is about literature. It’s a darned shame that what I have to choose between is yet one more article about sexism in Star Trek and a game of ‘who can be most outrageous?’ on the conservative side.

I have hope though, in the number of people in fandom who have stated their intention to actually talk about the books they like this year. Surely some of them will have unique and interesting things to say.

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I Love/Hate Women’s Work in fiction

A few things I’ve been reading lately caused me to reflect on a double standard I hold regarding Women’s Work in fiction.

I’m a fan of Women’s Work, as behooves somene who grew up on Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls. I dearly love a character who excels in the Womanly Arts, but my view of those arts is pretty much pre-electricity. A Womanly character, in my mind, can build a fire in a woodstove and figure out how to adjust the damper. She can take a chicken apart and cook it, grow a garden full of vegetables and put them up for the winter, and shoot the occasional bear. And she always knows what’s edible in the woods and marshes.

In her spare time, she can make a dress or knit or crochet. She can also handle less practical handicrafts like quilling or making paper snowflakes, and she can make a comforting meal out of two old tomatoes and a straw hat. When the adventurers come home and find the table set, the kettle purring on the hob and copper pans reflecting a homey glow, I feel very happy both with the story and the homemaker, and it troubles me not at all that the homemaker is female in 99% of cases. I am way more impressed with her stew than I am with the swordswoman’s antics.

So basically, I appear to be OK with stereotyped female characters. But there is a stereotype that makes me snarl out loud, and that is Caregiver.  I do not admire heroines who interpret every nuance of expression, worry about how members of their battle team are getting along or whether the aliens understand the engineers. It drives me crazy when becoming a witch or a dragon rider or the best musician or the Chosen One ™ means the heroine spends the rest of her life as an amateur social worker.

The weird thing is, this seems to be the aspect of stereotypical femininity that authors discard last. Lots of fiction ‘liberates’ women by taking them out of the kitchen but still leaves them saddled with the emotional work of the novel.

I was discussing this with a friend today and she asked how a writer could possibly create a sympathetic character who wasn’t a caregiver. Write her like a male character, I said. Like 90% of the male characters out there.

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After the Hugos – So How Do I Feel Now?

Months ago, before the enslatening, I posted in support of the Sad Puppies. It wasn’t because I read their kind of fiction, or cared who won the Hugos, or wanted less diversity in the field; it was because something about them made me feel I could breathe again.

Unfortunately, the air became more and more toxic as the summer progressed. But I still feel better than I did before the puppies, and it’s still for the same reason; I now know more about the range of opinions in SFF. It no longer feels like one uniform echo chamber.

There certainly are echo chambers out there, on all sides, and it’s obvious that many people therein are more interested in pleasing their own partisans than in having even the slightest appeal for outsiders. People say horrible, foolish, unforgiveable things in echo chambers. As an outsider, I’ve noped out of a large percentage of the SFF discussion venues I poked my nose into this summer. But before this summer, I didn’t even know that there were multiple echo chambers in SFF. That discovery alone gave me a big sigh of relief.

And then, I found people who were trying to maintain non-aligned spaces where folks were welcome no matter how they felt about the puppies. I saw efforts by conservative and progressive authors, self-published and mainstream, from different countries and races and religions. I discovered that some other people had been as unhappy as I about feeling trapped in an echo chamber, and that feeling that way – or being willing to pay attention to people who felt that way – didn’t mean you were a reactionary, racist misogynist.

I know what I want from SFF now. I want to hang out in places where that person you just answered could be religious or atheist, conservative, libertarian, or progressive; so you’d better make your statements as if the people who disagree with them are human beings, not stereotypes and the butts of echo-chamber quips. And I now know those places exist and there is nothing wrong with me for wanting them.

So whatever good or ill the Sad Puppies did otherwise, I will always be grateful.

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Against Political Criticism

If I wanted to write political arguments, I could. But I write fiction instead, because I think political arguments are incomplete and one-sided. They’re simplistic answers, and the only way you can get to such answers is by ignoring half of the questions.

It takes a whole story for me to even identify a few of the questions. It usually takes a story told from multiple viewpoints. I don’t make the Royal Academy novels complex for the sake of complexity, but because even the limited academic canvas I’ve chosen is tremendously complicated, and has no clear set of either questions or answers.

This is why I scorn critics who act as if, by writing SFF, authors have enlisted in a cause and can be legitimately judged according to how well they serve it. I do not care what the cause is. Somebody who judges books by how Diverse or Problematic they are is just as great an enemy of literature as somebody who judges books by how well they support True Christian Belief or Meritocracy. They are all offended by the author’s uppity insistence on telling the truth as he sees it, using her entire brain, reporting their actual thoughts and observations.

This is why I am irritated as heck by so much of the supposedly ‘thoughtful’ criticism I run across online, with its lists of things a novel should contain in order to serve The Cause. Not that I think these checklist critics should be silenced. If a novel doesn’t support your political position unambiguously enough to suit you, by all means say so. You could pay it no greater compliment.

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Angstfic Monday

I had an attack of angst about my WIP. Who’s going to fall in love with these characters? Who’ll turn the page just to find out how their problems get solved, make up fanfic about soothing their fevered brows, etc. etc.?

Now, I’m not even sure those are all appropriate questions to be asking about a YA novel. I’m not particularly anxious for people to be shipping Simi/Lord Cembel or Paio/Farriman. But this is the only model of fan appreciation I have to work with. I need to read something fans find juicy, I said to myself, and bought a book I saw some fen raving about online.

Wow. I’m about 5% into this thing and the protagonist has witnessed an execution-by-torture, lost his only friend, been tortured himself, and put himself in danger of even worse because of unresolved guilt over somebody else’s death by torture.

I have to admit, it grabbed me. I compared the beginning of this book to the beginning of my WIP, and there was simply no comparison for speed, intensity, and identification of the protagonist’s issues. I love confident writing, and this makes mine look really tentative. But I foresee that by 10% in I will be hoping for someone to put the guy out of his misery.

However, I have been inspired to put a little more oomph into the WIP, and have just discovered that plot events suggest a little baby is under a curse. I’ve never seen anyone write fanfic about a cursed baby, but we take what we can get.

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Team Message Fiction

Lots of talk in fannish circles this year about big bad message fiction, and how it’s either corrupted the field or always been embedded in the field. Talk about fiction in service of a message (BAD), as opposed to fiction where message elements are integrated with stuff like characterization and plot (GOOD).

Personally, I love me some hard-core, high-octane message fiction. Uncle Tom’s CabinAtlas Shrugged, Malcolm, Martin Eden, That Hideous Strength, Pink and White Tyranny. I love message fiction from all different angles, if its message is convincing. I’ll happily read a well-argued novel advocating a message I hate – though after I’ve read such a book, I probably won’t hate the message as much as I thought I did. Other times I’ll hurl a book that ineptly supports my deeply held beliefs, and find that I’ve hurled part of my support for the cause with it.

I like my message fiction to be full of message. I have no time for critique fiction where nobody gets to work out their message, because all they ever do is point out how the world doesn’t agree with it. I want a message that’s integral and integrated, its consequences for those who buy into it worked out in passionate detail. In Ayn Rand and Dickens even the scenery is invested in the message, and that suits me just fine.  I’d rather be steeped in abhorrent values than mince around the edges of OK ones.

But what I cannot abide is poorly argued, secondhand message fiction. I want to see why characters believe what they believe. I am not satisfied to fill in the reasons for myself, if the author just sounds a dog-whistle; and I am most familiar with the dog-whistles on my own side of the political spectrum, so that’s the side that irritates me the most. I feel personally insulted when an author introduces a current hot topic — one that I feel requires some serious message fictional analysis and support — as if I will salivate on cue.

It’s no mistake that most of the message fiction I love was written by people who came by their messages honestly, from living through stuff and thinking hard about it. Real message fiction requires that you have a message, not just a bunch of received opinions, assumptions shared by your social set, and things other folks said on the internet. That’s why there’s not half so much of it out there as people think.

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Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

For years I’ve been rolling my eyes at people who said SFF needed more diverse characters, but if they had just handed me this book I would have been an instant convert. What a tremendous lot of lively fun Mr. Aaronovitch makes out of his protagonist’s encounters with a wide variety of Londoners!

The confidence is what shows most. Not only are there characters from different backgrounds — not only are they allowed to be individuals instead of exemplars, and allowed to completely ignore social issues — but there are enough of them that they even get to be members of groups. Peter Grant knows what to expect in a room full of African ladies, for instance, even if they happen to be river-spirits. This book is about people who actually live together rather than people who wonder whether it’s possible to live together. This milieu may be par for the course in modern British novels, but for me, coming out of the fraught discussions in US fandom, it was magic in itself.

The second stand-out feature was the thickness of Mr. Aaronovitch’s descriptions of London. I grew up reading British police procedurals, many of them set in London, but this book made me feel as if I was seeing it for the first time – as if those older books might have been written by ladies in New England with a Fodor’s guide in front of them. (Though a Fodor’s wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as the one thing I really wished for was a map of the rivers involved.)

The third thing that made me love this book was the flashes of insight — the forma — the protagonist has as he meets the different rivers. I don’t know quite what it is that makes them work so perfectly, but they call up different varieties of human pleasure so intensely in just a few words! Here he is meeting Father Thames:

I felt the force of his personality drag at me; beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.

This is the stuff of archetype. It reminds me of Sam and Frodo reminiscing about home as they trudge through Mordor, or C.S. Lewis’s tramp asking for toasted cheese in the bowels of That Hideous Strength. Suddenly, with just a few words, I’m on board with a lifestyle whose charms I never understood, wishing the men who like that sort of thing could have beer and skittles and uncomplicated women every day. More! More!

I’m the sort of person who always likes the stage setting more than the play itself, so the mystery and magic and various arcane creatures who strut their hour in this fantastic London get a solid ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ from me. The magic is interesting, the way it’s learned is neat, and the way the police interact with it is refreshingly low-key. I loved finding out how you get a warrant to arrest a ghost. The villain and what he does to people, on the other hand — well, it seemed arbitrary. I needed more, and earlier, grounding in the basic premise. The final solution likewise seemed to come out of some assumptions I didn’t share, but I was more than willing to go along for the ride just to see the scenery.

The author is very clever in handling the romance so that there’s real tension about whether the original love interest will survive. I was sure all along, however, that our hero would live through the magical procedure that had an 80% chance of killing him. Why do authors even bother telling us these procedures are dangerous and unlikely to work, when they always do work and the hero always survives them unscathed? The Martian is the only recent book I’ve read in which tension is actually heightened by mathematics, and that requires a lot more build-up … well, never mind. </petpeeve> Aaronovitch is not the first, last, or greatest sinner in this regard, and it did leave me with interesting questions about Molly.

All in all, Midnight Riot is great fun, with an engaging protagonist, marvelously drawn world, and a plot that kept me reading long past my bedtime. And there are sequels! I can’t wait to dive into the next.

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