Credible Fiction

from 'How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop' on

from ‘How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop’ on

I read a book this week that lacked credibility.

It wasn’t a non-fiction book, so those criteria of credibility didn’t apply. It was a novel about a well-defined phenomenon – the decline of the Jesuit order after Vatican II – and it contained lots of well-reasoned explanations for the phenomenon; it was obvious that the author had done their homework and thought a lot about the topic, but still it had a spectacular lack of credibility. Which naturally has gotten me to wondering about what ‘credibility’ means for fiction, and why I would even want it, and to what extent a lack of it affects my judgments about novels.

A lot of people talk about credibility in fiction in terms of accuracy. Have the characters been written in ways that are believable? Would a reader in the know view this character’s attitudes and actions as plausible? Yet the book I just finished was full of academics, saying the kinds of things academics would say in the kind of settings in which academics say them — it even included the transcript of a class lecture — and I still found it lacked all credibility.

Credibility can be derived from internal consistency. Do the characters’ actions reflect their personality traits? Do they relate to the situations? Yet in this book, the characters’ actions, personalities, and situations matched for the most part.

A book might lack credibility by being obviously biassed toward one position, forcing the facts to support the author’s favorite conclusion. Yet in this book, every person had a different opinion and the author was scrupulous about not judging them. So that wasn’t why I found it lacked credibility.

No, what this book lacked was any real explanation of the phenomenon at its center. Which seems odd, when the entirety of the book was people going around asking each other about its cause. And when I realized that’s what I was missing, I was confused – because I certainly wouldn’t have thought the book credible if it had pushed one answer too vigorously. So what did I want, anyway?

I’ve read a lot of novels about religion that satisfied me and were extremely credible, so I thought back to them and realized that they had the kind of credibility a novel can justifiably claim – credibility about the characters’ internal lives. Their opinions, actions, and personalities were credible given their histories, positions, and internal values. We got to know them deeply and see all the underpinnings to their actions.

That was what I had hoped for from the book I was reading. It was why I chose to read a novel rather than a series of blog posts. But what I got was a series of blog posts put in the mouths of characters in a novel; a novel whose author obviously knew the setting they were writing about, but that simply was not interested in chronicling how individual people made their decisions. It was exactly what I wanted a novel to get beneath, and it made me realize that the credibility of a novel, in contrast to a non-fiction book, lies in that exploration of the individual.

My critique group has been telling me they can’t get into one of the major characters in my WIP, and this may be what they’re getting at. So even though I was very frustrated with this Jesuit novel, it was worth reading for that insight.

Perhaps I’ll spend part of the weekend writing out backstories for all of my characters.




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Connect – or not?

Network, by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Network, by
Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A friend of mine was in a class of really shy people this summer, and the leader finally had them play the ice-breaking game Connect. Heard of it? I hadn’t either.

It’s one of those games where you talk about yourself until someone else in the group finds they have something in common with you, upon which they shout ‘connect!’ and talk about themselves until someone else finds… etc. etc. I gather you can use string, but my friend didn’t report that. What she did report was how much fun it was. She became quite animated as she described the things people had in common, how folks leapt in to state their connections, how everybody became at ease with one another and laughed and enjoyed themselves.

When I got home, one of my friends had posted a video on how to have conversations on Facebook. It contained the advice that’s become so familiar — don’t try to answer someone’s recounting of their experience with anything you think is similar in your own experience. They are not comparable and you don’t understand what it is like. In other words, don’t connect.

As I considered it this morning, I thought that a lot of our current advice about how to converse with one another assumes that we’re mad at each other. It’s advice about how to talk to someone who already expects the worst from you, who will tip over into regarding you as an asshole at a moment’s notice, and who enters into the discussion with deep misgivings about your agenda, motives, and basic cluelessness. In which case yes, it’s probably smart to not tell them about your experiences, or try to voice what you think theirs were like. It’s probably smart to just keep your mouth shut and listen. It’s also probably smart to excuse yourself after a while, and let both participants relax and talk to people they’re not mad at.

But is this how to form relationships? Personally, I have trouble forming friendships with people who are following the rules of good discourse with me, listening so considerately to my stories and not disclosing anything relatable of their own. My friendships are with the people who compare their experiences to mine, getting into deep discussions of mothers and what is it with them, or workplaces and what is it with them anyway, or what each of us liked about our latest vacation, what we ate at State Fair, or so forth. Without that give-and-take of shared, compared experience, I don’t see how I could become someone’s friend.

I wonder if we’re being given a set of etiquette rules that not only assume conflict but prevent friendship. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in these tense times. Maybe it’s an artifact of the people laying down the rules; in the video my friend posted, it was a professional interviewer rather than a professional friend-maker. Maybe these rules, like so many etiquette rules, are really telling us how to have a superficial interaction with someone you don’t care about. Maybe the best goal you can have in an initial encounter is to follow the rules and not make a bad impression.

Or maybe what we really need is for some leader in every social gathering to stand up and give us permission to connect.



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Irritated by an Economist

Who isn’t? In particular, I’m irritated by this article from the NYT, in which an economist tries to grapple with the question of why voters simply don’t believe it when economists say global trade is good.  You’ll be glad to know, voters, that he has an answer! In fact he has four; First, you are isolationist. Second, you are nationalist and don’t care about other countries. Third, you are focused on the benefit to your own ethnic group (that’s racist, folks; you needed me to tell you that because) Fourth, you are insufficiently educated.

You’d think that a professional economist reflecting on the failings of his profession would mention things like that 2013 spreadsheet error in the paper supporting austerity economics – especially since that paper was from the very department he works in. But why quibble over trifles?

When I read this article I thought to myself, here we have a discipline that studies large-scale issues that lead to great human suffering, and often gets things about them wrong, and generally seems more interested in analyzing the numbers than in helping the individuals who are suffering, and they wonder why they are not trusted by those people. Duh?  But then I thought about other disciplines with those same potential drawbacks. I thought about epidemiology.

Why do people feel more positive towards the person who writes about how many microcephalic babies we can expect in Brazil than they do toward the person who writes about how many job losses we can expect in Ohio? I think the reason is obvious; epidemiology is subordinate to medicine.  It’s an outgrowth of medicine, and as such it is the servant of attempts to cure people. The epidemiologist or pathophysiologist may seem (or in my case, be) more enthusiastic about the cool disease than about the patient, but the discipline will not even exist if it doesn’t serve the actual doctors and nurses who are helping that patient.

Where is the equivalent moral grounding for economics? Where are the cadres of selfless economics professionals fanning out through underemployed communities to do something about human misery? I have never seen a field economist. I’ve never been asked to donate to Economists Without Borders. So basically, I mistrust economists because I don’t see any evidence that the profession gives a damn about human welfare – yet it expects to influence policies that affect my life. What’s not to hate about that?

I searched for better articles on why economics wasn’t trusted, and found several that seemed to have a faint notion of this issue — at least, they suggested that economics should be more tightly integrated with social sciences  (one also suggested that they pay attention to data, which boggled me). But I didn’t find anything that suggested that economics needed to become subordinate to some discipline explicitly directed toward human flourishing. I’m not even sure what that discipline might be. And that may be the underlying problem.

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Review: Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer

too like the lightningHow can you go wrong with a book that has been officially permitted by six governmental agencies, certified nonproselytory, and has a page full of detailed trigger warnings for sex, violence, discussion of religion, and opinions likely to cause offense?

Too Like The Lightning isn’t a book set in the future or a book about the future, but a book from the future – and what a clever conceit it is!  This is the cleverest book I’ve read in ages.  I honestly can’t tell the author’s positions on any of the topics she addresses in it; in fact, I can’t figure out the narrator’s positions on most of them – though that may be because this is just the first volume, so BE WARNED, it ends right in the middle.

The middle of what? is the question.  Or rather, if it’s the question you might be frustrated by this book – because for this book, being in the middle is the whole point. Don’t pick it up if you want a clear quest carried out by a relatable protagonist with virtuous motives; if you want identifiable heroes and villains; if you want anything that fits into your current thinking.  Because this is a book from the future, and its point is to drop you into the middle of that future — a future clearly grown out of our current preoccupations, serving as an ambiguous commentary on them for those who wish to take it that way, but really its own thing whether you like it or not.

In short, this is a worldbuilding book.  But saying that minimizes it, because this isn’t one of those books that reruns themes from history in a postapocalyptic *yawn*, or one of those books that creates a new culture from mediaeval *yawn*, or a book which incorporates the most exotic, incomprehensible traditions from other *yawn*. This is a book populated by people who’ve consciously built every detail of their culture on first principles, who care nothing for tradition, who read Voltaire and would find current postmodern discourse amusing if primitive.

Imagine a world where …

  • gendered pronouns are verboten (but our narrator finds them useful, so he applies them based on what stereotyped role the person appears to be taking)
  • religion can only be discussed in private, with a government-certified professional
  • convicted criminals become slaves for life, forbidden to own so much as a sandwich
  • you’re not the citizen of any country, but of the supranational collective of your choice – or of none, if you really want to live without protection of the law
  • knowing another language is a grievous breach of the speakers’ privacy
  • the police can’t just tell where you are at any moment, they know your heart rate…

All seen through the eyes of one of those convicted criminals, a man who may be shoveling out a sewer one minute and called away to advise a head of state the next. Because Mycroft Canner is no ordinary person, no ordinary criminal, and his problems are no ordinary problems — especially the child he’s trying to protect (or does he really do protection?) in between hopping from continent to continent to deal with his noble masters’ flurry about the yearly ten-best lists, on which they may or may not appear, and about which they seem to care way, way too much.

Those lists are the weak point of the plot, for me. Why does anybody care? I certainly don’t, but that just allows me to ignore them in favor of pondering the worldbuilding and admiring how well the author jerks me around. Are all those permissions and trigger warnings on the first page satire, or are they demonstrating that this would be a good thing? How about Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns, with which the reader argues occasionally? Do they demonstrate that gendered pronouns can really be done away with, that they should be done away with, that they leave a vacuum into which gender stereotypes will slip, would we or not, that Mycroft is messed up?  And what about slavery? Is Mycroft getting a good deal, or a raw deal?

In the last third of the book (just about the point I was saying to myself Oh CRAP, this thing is moving too slowly to wind up in one volume) the book begins to live up to those trigger warnings, so don’t skip over them.  But that in itself is a game-changer, throwing everything you’ve begin to assume about this culture and the characters into a cocked hat – which somebody is sure to be wearing, in this Enlightenment-worshipping future. And by the time it ended, all I wanted was the second volume.

It’s been three weeks since I finished this book, and I still haven’t a clue what the author thinks about anything.  I couldn’t be more satisfied.







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Complicity and Naming Buildings

When I joined my current school, we only had one building named after a person. It was named after St. Clare of Assisi, who I knew only as the patron saint of television.

In recent years, the school has gone through a bout of renaming buildings. We have three more named after nuns and one named after a person I honestly know nothing about, and this has happened at the very time when students at other schools have started protesting buildings named after people they disapprove of.  So I’m wondering what the point is of naming buildings after people, anyway. I never see a defense of some historical name that explains why the person chosen was memorialized in the first place.

It would be pretty interesting to have truthful explanations of why buildings have the names they do. I’m betting the plaque would usually read ‘This person gave us a mess of money and we didn’t ask how they made it. You wouldn’t have this building without their tainted money, so suck it up. You’re complicit.’

That is not the case at my school, of course, since we’re naming buildings after people who’ve taken vows of poverty and obedience. A time will come when that’s viewed as problematic in itself, I’m sure. I hope we will then be honest enough to put up our own plaque: ‘This person gave countless hours to run the school, and we didn’t ask or care whether she wanted to spend her time that way or not. You wouldn’t have any of this without her. Suck it up, you’re complicit.’

What are we trying to accomplish when we take names off buildings? Are we trying to hide from our own complicity? ‘I’m not too good to benefit from this thing I deplore, I’m just too good to admit it.’

Today’s Memorial day, one of the few days in the year when we all unite, or at least seem to, in celebrating the ways we benefit from something we deplore. This is the day we all suck it up. We’re complicit. But tomorrow we will start anew looking for ways to deny that.

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The Charms of Discourse

That was the subtitle of Advice From Pigeons, but only Sofia Samatar got the reference. Maybe Matt Bruenig would have: he has an interesting post up today about how The Discourse marginalizes the people.

I always agree with Matt completely the first time I read his stuff, and then begin to accumulate second thoughts and concerns and objections as I go on. I certainly agree with his critiques of identity politics in this one. He is arguing that the combination of The Discourse and Identity Politics creates a seamless barrier between the working class and the pundit class.

  • Lower class people, almost by definition, cannot engage in The Discourse. They do not have the education, credentials, or jobs necessary to do so.
  • Upper class people (broadly construed) can engage in The Discourse, but if they do so as a partisan or advocate of the lower classes, they are dismissed because they are not themselves lower class.

This is pretty obviously true. But when I zoom out or in, I have disagreements.

Zooming out, I see Matt’s piece as accepting that the liberal academy and intelligentsia, and The Discourse, are important to social justice. If there’s anything the Trumpening should be making us ask about, it should be this. Working class people have not gone away just because The Discourse has not included them, any more than creationists have gone away because The Discourse doesn’t include them. Matt points out clearly that pundits and practitioners of TD (I am tired of typing The Discourse) are different, become different, from the groups they rose from. What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that they become irrelevant; that TD is simply a way of keeping academic types occupied with themselves, so the rest of the country can go on its own way.

Zooming in, I ask myself if the entire process of education isn’t legitimately about changing people’s approach and language, teaching them to take analytic approaches. TD is the language of analysis, of technical experts who weigh alternatives using abstract terms that apply to all of them, rather than of advocates who are arguing for one alternative over another on far less abstract bases.

Perhaps the problem is not that TD shuts out the people, but that TD speakers insist on bothering the people. If advocates want analysis, after all, we technical experts are available for hire or pro bono; why should we assume that we are assets to movements that have not sought our services? I do not assume that I’d be any use on a hospital floor, even though I could draw a fine flow chart of the patient’s pathophysiology.

I think a lot of what comes out of the academy these days is about our own insecurities and ego issues. The rest of the country is lucky if it gets to ignore our flurrying around as we try to figure out how working in the ivory tower imparts value to ourselves and society, and what to do about the fact that when we come up with an explanation that satisfies our souls, it is usually phrased in The Discourse – so nobody outside the tower either understands it, believes it, or cares about it. Is the answer to require outsiders to learn our language before they can participate in the discussion, or to go and find out through honest research just what our discourse is good for in people’s lives?

In Advice from Pigeons, Charms of Discourse are used to summon demons by flattering them – defining them in ways that lure them into a charmed circle and keep them trapped there, listening to their own stories, until they figure out how to refute the assumptions embedded in the charms.  It was true when I wrote it, and it’s still true today.

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Forget ‘Wellness,’ let’s Do Stuff

Here’s an interesting article about debates on the concept of ‘wellness’ from the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, behind a paywall!) One of the things I like most about it is that the author welcomes vigorous debate about the underpinnings and worth of ‘wellness’.

Intellectually, the arguments of wellness skeptics excite because they question our most dearly held assumptions: What do you mean, healthy isn’t superior? How can a focus on wellness suggest social malaise?


The arguments she points out include that wellness diverts responsibility for people’s welfare from society onto the individual, adding health maintenance to an endless list of tasks that government could help with but has instead foisted onto us; that the people promoting wellness are often insufficiently trained and their maxims unreflective and self-contradictory; and that it’s faddish, classist activity for those with extra time and money.

I’m surprised that none of the people criticising wellness seem to have raised the critique my father always made – that it was “a G-d waste of time.”

My father did more exercise than ten other men. When he was in his sixties he could out-work men half his age. Not because he believed in wellness; because he believed in Doing Stuff. Yarding wood all summer, cultivating a two-acre vegetable garden, collecting wild food along the highways and byways, mowing the lawn with a hand scythe and raking it with hay-rakes; building log-cabin sheds and corduroy trails, hand-splitting fence rails, bringing groceries up the hill in a pedal-powered car, snowshoeing out into the woods to drag home Xmas greenery on a toboggan; even, for a brief but unforgettable period, hand-milling the family’s flour. I get a real hit of nostalgia, watching the losers’ punishments in Hell’s Kitchen.

Doing Stuff and Exercise were opposites. Doing Stuff meant that you ended up with Stuff! Exercise meant that you ended up with wasted time and nothing to show for it. It was acceptable as rehab,  but the point of getting rehabbed was that you could then finally quit the exercise and go Do Stuff.

Coming out of this worldview, I see corporatized ‘wellness’ as just one more way we’re encouraged to make peace with the fact that society does not want most of us to be Doing Stuff for ourselves. All kinds of laws forbid us from Doing Stuff in our communities. We’re supposed to pay licensed people to Do Stuff for us, or buy our Stuff from corporations. And to make up for the fact that we no longer get to Do Stuff, we pay to pedal on the exercycle.

In her article, Dr. Petrezela points out the advantages of wellness activities for building social groups, supplementing inadequate medical services, empowering the overlooked. Yeah, I think, I suppose so, but where’s the Stuff? Does this kind of empowerment result in any real change? Or does it distract, for just a little while, from the fact that so many avenues for Doing Stuff have been closed off? When I read about more and more people in our country chronically unemployed, getting depressed, getting addicted, committing suicide, I can’t convince myself that what they need is Zumba.

What if in the end, for human flourishing and well-being, there is really no substitute for good old-fashioned Doing Stuff?

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Not to be Politically Incorrect, but…

There’s this thing going around on Facebook.  Some guy posted a whole mess of his opinions under the heading: “I feel the need to drop a little truth on y’all. So buckle up…I’m about to be politically incorrect.”

You can read it if you want, I’ll wait.

Back? Yeah, I know, that took a while. But tell me, is there a single word in that post that is not politically correct to the nth degree? So why does the poster label it as ‘politically incorrect’?

While this irritates me on one level, it cheers me on another. It tells me that at least one person doesn’t want to be politically correct. Good! However, the answer is not to just call our politically correct opinions ‘politically incorrect.’  The answer is to actually challenge parts of the big list of politically approved opinions, when we feel they aren’t adequate, and to take the flack that comes with doing so.

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Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home – a modern Hausa novel

51aYUsVCGFL._UY250_I just read what’s supposed to be the first book translated from the Hausa into English: Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

CORRECTION: Carmen McCain, author of the articles I linked to below, tells me that there have been several other Hausa novels translated – though this one may be the first one by a woman to be translated into English.

I enjoyed the book in the same way I enjoy Victorian-era novels like Pink and White Tyranny. It was obvious from the first sentence who the good people were and who the bad people were, and that the bad people would come to grief.

Marked you not how retribution, like a poisèd hawk, came swooping down upon the wrongdoer? Oh, it was splendid! (W.S. Gilbert, Patience)

The real thrill though, wasn’t what seemed familiar but what was completely new to me. In this novel, a man who wants to marry an additional wife brings the current senior wife a bag of gifts and makes the announcement. If he decides to divorce one of his wives, he simply gives her a letter with his declaration written three times in it. There are no legal battles over child custody; the bad husband tells his wife to take their nine children away with her, while the good one brings his divorced wife’s children back to his house one at a time, giving them to the current wife to raise.

Then, the things the characters had to pay for or not pay for. I recognized the divorced wife’s need to stay in her children’s school district, and sympathized with her selling off possessions to pay for the older childrens’ boarding schools. But when she told her eldest son to attend University because it wouldn’t cost anything, I did a double-take. Free higher education! And when the bad husband ends up in hospital, there’s no mention of who will pay his bill but much discussion of who is bringing him his meals. I recognized this from a visit to a hospital in Tanzania, but had not known a similar system applied in Nigeria.

Marriage negotiations amazed me. The book follows a good marriage through the lovers’ first sight of one another on the street, the proposal at his first visit to her house, the formal visits from female relatives (during which the bride-to-be stays modestly hidden in another room), negotiations and gifts, the furnishing of the wife’s room. All of it new and fascinating to me, but obviously routine to the author and her target audience.

What I liked most about this book is that it did not cater to me at all. It was not written for Western eyes. For maybe an hour I was in a world where the opinions of people from my country simply didn’t exist, being given moral advice that went contrary to many of my assumptions and values. This is just the kind of challenge I want from literature!

So how much of what I think I picked up about Nigerian culture from this book is accurate? I have no way of knowing. But the book is itself a part of Nigerian culture, and I picked it up… I can say no more, except that I wish more books from this gigantic body of literature had been translated into English, and I will be watching for them!

Here’s an article about the author’s life and work

Here’s one about the Hausa-language literary tradition from the 1300s to the contemporary littatafan soyayya novels (of which this book is an example).


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The Anatomy of a Jack-ass Argument


My students were analyzing a case study and I went over to bother them, the way you do. “Here’s my hypothesis,” one of them said.

I recognized my own words coming out of her mouth.

I ask students to form hypotheses rather than theories. I do it as lip service to an argumentative strategy from my discipline that I think is bullshit, inane, counterproductive, and deserving of scorn; but I also think my students did not sign up to be cannon fodder in my personal crusade, and ‘hypothesis’ is a perfectly good way for them to sidestep the whole nonsense.

The argument I refer to is, of course, the ‘Scientists don’t mean what you mean when you say theory‘ argument for evolution. This offensive demand that English speakers reinterpret what they mean when using their own language has been trotted out for far too long as if it were going to convince somebody of something, some day, if we only said it often enough.

Back in the ’80s, when a whopping 48% of USians rejected evolution, I was in grad school studying evolutionary biology. So I got to be in on alarmed discussions in the field, and was taught this foolproof argumentative strategy.

Here’s how it went:

Creationist: Evolution’s just a theory.

Evolutionary Biologist: That’s not how scientists use the word theory! We use it to mean something that’s established by multiple lines of evidence. After all, we call gravity a theory too. You don’t think that’s in question, do you?

Creationist: I know what ‘theory’ means. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. You can pretend it means whatever fool thing you want, but I know my own language!

Well, this has been going on for thirty-plus years, and I’m happy to report that the percent of people in the US who disbelieve in evolution is now … 33%. Our side is winning at the rate of 0.5% per year. Which is, frankly, better than that argument deserves.

I’m an evolutionary biologist, but my sympathies lie entirely with the creationist in the dialogue above. Re-defining people’s language to make it mean what you want it to mean is not cool. It’s arrogant jackassery. It was arrogant when evolutionists tried to redefine theory to mean ‘something we’re sure of,’ it was arrogant when economists tried to redefine rational to mean ‘self-interested,’ and it’s arrogant when social scientists try to redefine racist to mean ‘breathing in a biased society’.

If you think a concept is really important, you’ll create a language that allows you to talk about it precisely. Like metastasize, or atherosclerosis, or eutrophication. Those are examples of working language, used by people who want to accomplish something other than messing with folks’ heads and picking fights. And they are the kind of words that will eventually get into the public vocabulary on their own merits, be recognized as describing something important, and actually change people’s opinions and behaviors.

Or hey, we could all just call whatever we’re working on virtue, truth, and beauty. We’d feel good about ourselves, have lots of invigorating fights with the public, and move maybe 0.5% closer to our goals per year.

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