Books read, late June

It’s panel prep season! A lot of my reading this fortnight was preparation either for Fourth Street or for Readercon. So: many rereads. And so little time for other things.

Edward Eager, Magic by the Lake, Magic or Not?, The Time Garden, and The Well-Wishers. Rereads. The suck fairy had been at The Time Garden–there’s barely a bit of it that isn’t racially stereotyping and insensitive. Which makes me sad, because the general conceit of magic through varietals of thyme was cute and fun…but it made me aware that in my childhood I might not have encountered a character of Pacific Island heritage who was not portrayed as a cannibal, and that was pretty gross. (Nor was this the only example of racist portrayals in that book, nor was it Eager’s only use of that trope–Magic by the Lake is the companion volume to The Time Garden, as the children in the two encounter each other in the same scene written from different perspectives.) I have a lot to say about Eager’s relationship to Nesbit’s works–that’s the panel I’m preparing for–but here I will simply say that the difference between Nesbit doing her own thing and Eager looking back to try to do her thing looks pretty important to the result. The dubious magic pairing held up better (Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers)–the latter was in the “okay for its time” category regarding how coy it was about race while trying to take on the theme of desegregation in housing and education–doing that while carefully never using any words that might be race-markers and never letting the illustrator illustrate the Black characters is…pretty shaky ground. But at least the book came down on the side of “these people are people and we support that,” I guess.

John M. Ford, From the End of the Twentieth Century and The Dragon Waiting. Rereads. The former is a brilliant and eclectic collection of short stories, essays, and poems. The latter…oh, oh, the latter. The Dragon Waiting holds up no matter how many times I reread it. It simultaneously does alternate history and does subtle meta things about alternate history and inevitability. It’s got vampires and wizards and Richard III and a strong Byzantium and…stuff, it is full of stuff, it is entirely full of stuff, and every time I reread it there’s something more I’d forgotten or hadn’t fully apprehended. Highly, highly recommended.

Dorothy Heydt, The Witch of Syracuse. Kindle. This is a mosaic novel about a woman who is sometimes a physician and sometimes a witch. It’s set in ancient Greece and does really well with its setting, historico-mythically. The heroine is engaging and fun, and the trials she runs into are interesting. Definitely enjoyed and would recommend. (Free! -ed)

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It. Reread. Actually held up substantially better than Eager despite being almost twice as old: Nesbit’s children are flawed, forthright, stubborn little beasts having magic adventures, and it’s still reasonably fun. She takes more care than her era really would have found proper to make sure she’s not stereotyping Roma people (not perfectly successful at this–but better than not trying), and there are little pokes and jabs at the status quo in odd and charming places.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, Will Murray, Chris Schweitzer, et al. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Like I’m the Only Squirrel in the World and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Who Run the World? Squirrels!. These are just plain fun. Especially if you have no reverence for the other Marvel superheroes and enjoy seeing them skewered, mocked, and parodied. There is nut-eating as well as butt-kicking in these.

G. Willow Wilson et al, Ms. Marvel: Super Famous. I like Ms. Marvel a lot and enjoyed this comic, gentrification and all, but it suffered by being read in close proximity to the Squirrel Girl comics, because they took nearly identical paths to their young heroines’ romantic lives. Ideally there will be more divergence in future. Meanwhile it was still reasonably fun to encounter Kamala’s super adventures overlapping with her family stuff.

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The first thing about this book is that it nails the voice. It’s a 1930s British spy novel, and Rajaniemi gets that, down to the bones and, er, ectoplasm. It is intensely atmospheric; while the WWI of this book is not our WWI and the thirties that ensue are not our thirties, they have the same emotional heft, the same grit and shadow as ours. I like this a lot.

Second, what it has is follow-through on its worldbuilding. I watch a lot of procedurals with my workouts–no, a lot–no, really really a lot–and they quite often want to veer at least temporarily into an episode that has ghosts. But they don’t want to think about the implications of the kind of ghosts they’ve chosen: how much they can observe the world of the living, how much they can interact with physical objects, what effects that would have on life in general and the setting of the procedural in specific. Because they don’t want to write a ghost story, they want to write a procedural and do a little flirting on the side.

Hannu Rajaniemi wanted to write a ghost story. He wanted to think very, very hard about what all the implications would be if we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that spirits could interact with our world in certain specified ways, that people could then build technologies and social structures around. And so there is a story with heart here, with very human characters doing very human things–but the world-building was just lovely, because it thought through surveillance and evidence in a world with ghosts, it thought through how you would go about building spy networks when death did not release your agents, and the story that ensued is a very emotionally complex human story with the speculative premise utterly essential.

I liked this a lot, and I recommend it highly.

Please consider using our link to buy Summerland from Amazon.

Books read, early June

Adam Regn Arvidson, Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest. This author went and had an in-person encounter with each of the species on the endangered species list in Minnesota and wrote about it. I LOVED THIS. I wish every state had a book like this. It gives a different context and perspective on your immediate habitat even if you’re a person who thinks about conservation and habitat frequently and broadly. I think it would be very readable even for non-Minnesotans, but for Minnesotans, a must-read. Mussels, orchids, lynx, all sorts of things.

Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective. This is a short piece but stands under separate cover, so it gets a separate review. This is a female PoC Holmes-and-Watson in space, but the in space part is baked into the bones. There’s no part of this that’s just plunked down in space with no thought to implication, no part where the shift in culture and gender is not done with careful consideration. As a result, I found it to be far more charming and interesting than the versions in which the template is used too exactly without regard to worldbuilding and character context. If you like nontraditional minds as characters, this one’s for you. No, I don’t mean Holmes….

John M. Ford, The Princes of the Air and Web of Angels. Rereads. These are Mike’s first two books, and I hadn’t reread them since he died in 2006. What struck me this time about Web of Angels in particular was how emotionally and culturally Protestant it is. Possibly the most Protestant book I’ve ever read that was not about conversion theology. It’s proto-cyberpunk, is what it is, it’s cyberpunk before movement cyberpunk, and the aesthetic and tonal differences are fascinating.

Victoria Glendinning, Anthony Trollope. This is a fun biography of the author in question, talking about his relationships and their effects on his work, particularly his relationships with women including his mother and his niece. It made me want to read more Trollope, although he is the scariest author I read, so I will still probably not do more than one. But soon.

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation. I think it’s worth looking at Deb Reese’s commentary on a Native perspective on this book, including its endnotes. I see what Ireland was trying to do, and the parts of it that were away from the residential school were as interesting as a zombie novel ever gets for me, interesting enough that I was very glad to keep reading and see what she was doing with it. But I also see that there are some areas where wounds are still very, very fresh in some communities, so…this book simultaneously does an amazing job with prejudice and perception and power in its main characters’ lives and has some caveats around it that I expect Ireland will be keeping in mind for future work, knowing how good this is and how good the work she’s done elsewhere has been.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There. This is a “life of the Park” book mostly–a little bit about codebreaking, but mostly a book about how it was to live there, how it felt and who ate what and how it was to arrange lodgings–the sort of thing that a writer who wants that background will probably find valuable.

E. Nesbit, The Magic World. Reread. A set of Nesbit shorts, all aimed at kids and doing that Edwardian upper class thing where she’s talking at kids but assumes a great many specifics about their background. Simultaneously there are a few pre-Soviet socialist moments that are fascinating in their British Edwardian details. But mostly it’s a book where some small magic takes place and some child enjoys it or manages to squirm out from under it, often but not always with animal transformation and frustrating relatives.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Jacob Chabot, et al, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I Kissed A Squirrel and I Liked It. I’m sad that it’s still necessary for some of these tropes about dating and what NOT to do to someone you’re dating are necessary to mention–and really glad that comics are willing to mention them, and put them in the context of superpowered adventures. I raced through this.

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. This was the last of Grandpa’s books on my pile, and it took me forever to read–not mostly because of my awareness that it was the last, mostly because it is over a thousand pages of Nazis, and I kept needing to take breaks for my emotional well-being. Shirer was a journalist who had a front-row seat for a lot of things and could comment on the situation firsthand, which was particularly interesting in the early chapters (he did not have a front-row seat for the plot to assassinate Hitler, for example). This book is of its time, does not have all the context that we’d later have, but that’s also where its value lies: you can see how much of this stuff was terrifyingly known immediately or soon thereafter, what it looked like while it was happening. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad I’m done reading it.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition. The second Murderbot novella! Now featuring ART! I like ART so much. I continue to do the dance of Murderbot as it wends its way through frustrating human customs and societies and tries to figure out a place for itself. Looking forward to more unreservedly, highly recommended–I read this as a reward for finishing my own book draft.

Present Writers: Dorothy Heydt (Katherine Blake)

This is the second of a new series I’m doing here on the blog: Present Writers. See the first post, on Marta Randall, for series details. I admit that I’m fudging a tiny bit here on the series parameters, because a cursory internet search did not give me Heydt’s exact age–but it did say that she invented a conlang in 1967. If she was less than 11 when she did so, I apologize–and hats off for the small child achievement–but I think I’m safe in guessing that this is an author who fits.

And what an author. Heydt is not vastly prolific, but her work is highly varied. She’s made several things available in free ebook formats on her website, so you don’t have to spend any money to find out what I’m talking about. (Although you can kick in to support the author if you see fit!) There’s a book about a physician who dabbles with witchcraft in Ancient Greece, a virtual reality novel dealing with esports before the term esports was a thing, a parallel realities novel that is some of the most engaging and thoroughly domestic fantasy I’ve ever read, and lashings of short stories. Heydt has range.

There are fight scenes in Heydt’s books–A Point of Honor has a jousting knight for a main character, albeit a virtual one–and chase scenes and other pieces of excitement. But a lot of writers can do those well, too. Heydt really shines in making character interactions and pieces of speculative practicality come to life–the details that make a character or a world feel lived-in. Heydt’s use of violence is considered, nuanced, and full of consequence–it is never a default, and in fact is often absent because it was not the right element for the story. With that sure a touch, Heydt makes The Interior Life a master class in what can matter in genre–and a strong contrast to what traditionally has been considered to matter.

When I first looked at Heydt’s website, only a few things were there. She’s added more since, which gives me hope. But in the meantime, I strongly appreciate what there is, I urge you to go give it a look, and then a long hard think, and then come talk to me about what you thought. Because we’re so very lucky that she’s present and sharing so much.

Readercon schedule!

I have my schedule for Readercon, which is in two and a half weeks! (July 12-15 in Quincy, Mass.) Here’s what I’ll be up to and where you can find me:

Defying the Pigeonhole Marissa Lingen (m), Stephanie Feldman, Chandler Klang Smith, Ellen Datlow, Michael Dirda. Thursday, 9:00 p.m., Blue Hills. This panel of readers will celebrate favorite authors who can’t be contained by a single genre—some exploring multiple genres within one work, some dipping in and out of them throughout their careers—and talk about the ways they break free of expectations to soar.

Rethinking the Dangerous Victim Marissa Lingen (m), Noah Beit-Aharon, Yanni Kuznia, Walt Williams, Tom Greene. Friday, 10:00 a.m., Salon 5. Many SF stories hinge on distress calls that turn out to be scams. In the real world, under 10% of felony reports are false; the number is even lower for false reports of general distress. Why do we return to the dangerous victim story—the story in which the person who claims to need help is not only lying but actively malicious—again and again? What exciting adventure stories can we tell about helping those who are genuinely in need?

Group Reading: Reckoning 2 Reckoning contributors including Jess Barber, Michael J. DeLuca, and Marissa Lingen. Friday, 3:00 p.m., Salon A. Contributors to Reckoning 2, the second annual nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice, read from their work.

Nesbit and Eager: Works in Conversation Marissa Lingen (m), Lila Garrott, Nisi Shawl, Julia Rios, Veronica Schanoes. Friday, 6:00 p.m., Salon 6. Edward Eager deliberately modeled his work on MGOH E. Nesbit’s; to what extent did he perpetuate her politics, including her socialism? How do her early-20th-century English work and his mid-20th-century American work encapsulate and challenge the attitudes of their times and places?

Feminist Socialism in Fantastika Veronica Schanoes (m), Tamara Vardomskaya, Gwynne Garfinkle, Marissa Lingen, Robert Killheffer. Friday, 8:00 p.m., Salon 6. MGOH E. Nesbit was a noted feminist and socialist. In her honor, this panel will celebrate classic and recent speculative works that challenge readers to imagine worlds and futures of gender and class equality, and explore how those concepts have changed through the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Reading: Marissa Lingen Sunday, 10:30 a.m., Salon B.

Solarpunk for Everyone Michael J. DeLuca (m), Tom Greene, T.X. Watson, Marissa Lingen, Darcie Little Badger. Sunday, noon, Blue Hills. Solarpunk has become established as a progressive, proactive, optimistic, climate-aware, politically aware field of speculative fiction. As solarpunk authors imagine the future, how can they make sure that future includes everyone? How can solarpunk develop and showcase remedies not only the climatological errors of the present and past but the social flaws of oppression, bias, and exclusion?

Our Bodies, Our Elves: Sexual Awakening in Epic Fantasy Josh Jasper (m), Steve Berman, Marissa Lingen, Sonya Taaffe, Noah Beit-Aharon. Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Salon 6. Starting in the later 20th century, the bildungsromans of epic fantasy began to include sexual awakenings. Some are raunchy, some are awkward, and almost all are self-directed; the wise elders of the genre are mysteriously silent on this crucial topic. When authors can imagine elves and dragons, why is it so hard to also imagine decent fantastical sex ed? How do today’s writers and readers approach this aspect of adolescent self-discovery stories?

Fourth Street panel schedule (mine)

Fourth Street Fantasy convention’s schedule is up! and on it the specific panels I’ll be participating in. In addition, I’ll be one of the workshop leaders for Friday morning, but if you’ve signed up for that, you’re already stuck with me, and if you haven’t, it’s too late. Otherwise, here’s where you can see me on panels:

Saturday 2:00 PM: You Don’t Own Me: Concepts of Freedom in the Work of John M. Ford

Pamela Dean, Marissa Lingen, Elise Matthesen (M), Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Distilling the work of the late John M. Ford down to a few key points is a mind-bending and questionably plausible endeavor, but there are some recurring themes we can at least pretend to conclusively discuss in our too-short time together. One subject that peeks out from the fog of invention over and over again is that of freedom in multiple aspects. Whether it’s freedom of identity and freedom from imperial conquest (The Dragon Waiting), freedom from erroneous stereotypes and cultural traps (The Final Reflection), freedom from colonization and from the boundaries of parental control (Growing Up Weightless), or even authorial freedom from every established constraint on the demeanor of a franchise (How Much for Just the Planet?), Ford was on the case. We miss him and it’s been awhile since we talked about him deliberately. Let’s fix that.

(Note: I think that this discussion will actually be a really good intro to Mike Ford’s work if you haven’t had one–it’s a deep dive, but on theme rather than plotting. I think everyone on it will be motivated to try to make it a conversation everyone can understand rather than going into the weeds with details that will lose you unless you’re a hard-core Mike fan.)

Saturday 5:00 PM: Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

John Appel, Elizabeth Bear, Casey Blair, Marissa Lingen (M), Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Time is big. Really, really big. You might think it’s a long anxious wait to get to the bathroom after a 4th Street panel, but what about gulfs of time longer than the recorded history of our civilization? SF/F deals frequently with the concept of Deep Time, but how astutely? Can a human society really hold a consensus cosmogeny together for a million centuries? Can a wall of ice really be manned by the same order of guards for 8,000 years? We already look at the people of just a century or two ago as something akin to aliens. This panel will also address the essential challenges of communication and interpretation across vast spans of years— for example, the U.S. Department of Energy has a mandate for the permanent warning signs and symbols in place at its deep bedrock nuclear waste storage facilities. They need to somehow work ten thousand years from now, when the assumption is that our culture, languages, histories, and data will be gone… but our hazardous atomic waste will still be dangerous. How can we talk when only our words are left, and even the words have no context?

Useful Reading: This Place Is Not a Place of Honor by Alan Bellows

outage

There are two standard cultural narratives about being unexpectedly deprived of internet, at this point in our relationship with that piece of technology. I bet you’ll recognize them both.

The first one goes: I didn’t realize how much I was missing by looking at the internet until we had an outage and then I stopped and smelled the daisies and talked to my family and my life was so much richer and I resolve to do without the internet loads of times going forward yay. The second: I didn’t realize how dependent I was on the internet until we had an outage, and then I was frustrated and agitated and could not cope and oh golly I guess I have a real problem here and I resolve to do without the internet loads of times going forward yay.

You can see why these are stories, I guess, because “I already knew this thing and lo here it is” is not much of a story. Except when it goes against the standard cultural narrative, in which case sometimes maybe it is.

We had a long internet outage yesterday morning, and it completely disrupted my morning routine. Usually I read social sites and news of various types while I’m reading my breakfast in the morning, and I use streaming video to watch something during my workout. Yesterday I checked my phone to make sure there was nothing urgent, read the newspaper with my breakfast (instead of with my lunch as usual), and watched video on DVD with my workout. In short, I coped just fine, there was no failure of cope, there was not even a moment where I wailed, “But what will I do?” But it was an annoyance, and I feel fine about that because I have considered how I use the internet in my morning routine and am happy with it. The internet is a tool, I’m happy with what I use it as a tool for, there does not need to be a ritual chanting of “fie upon you, get away foul internet.”

I have also said several times recently that I want to improve my relationship with doughnuts. Specifically, I currently eat a doughnut between zero times a year and twice, and I feel that three or even four doughnuts in the course of a year would be superior. People are making lots of fancy gourmet doughnuts these days, and I feel that trying a few more of them on rare occasions would improve my life in a tiny but measurable way. I do not have to participate in ritual decrying of doughnuts as bad for me. Of course they would be bad for me if I was eating tons of them all the time. But I think that my current doughnut count is actually slightly low. As a sometimes food, sometimes could come around more often. Not a lot. Just a little.

So…I think it’s worth noticing, when the shape of the narrative isn’t fitting. I think it’s worth noticing when the story doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. I get on the internet in the morning, I check in with my friends, I read a bit, and I’m good with that. I’m happy with my tools. I hope you can be happy with yours too.

My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

“We’re like a faaaaamily.”

Perhaps you saw the actor Jason Bateman disgracing himself and his upbringing around the internet recently, rushing to defend a male co-worker’s abusive behavior with bleats about faaaamily and process while the abused female co-worker cried and struggled to find space in the conversation at all. That hit pretty close to home for me, because two years ago I listened to a convention chair complaining from the dais at opening ceremonies that we shouldn’t even have to have a Safety Officer because we’re like a faaaamily. I said, in a bright, clear voice, “Because everyone knows abuse never happens in families!” And the people around me grimaced, and some of them laughed in the way that you do when something is not funny.

But I want to come back to it again just to say no to it again. No. No, again.

I am a big believer in chosen family. A startlingly large percentage of the people I mean when I say “my family” are no biological, legal, or marital relation to me; even the tag “my cousin” most often applies to a woman who is, in fact, only my cousin as a relationship approximation–which, considering how many cousins I have through biology, legal adoption, and marriage, is quite a feat.

But when people push it on you from the outside. When, instead of looking at a particular friend and saying, aww, cousin, sibling, auntie–you have someone in authority telling you: you must view this set of people in that fashion. That is an absolute red flag. And even when it’s someone who is on equal footing with you, it’s worth checking: when you choose to be family, do you mean the same things by family? are you choosing the same things? The more you’re choosing en masse–choosing one particular convention or “fandom” as your family–the less you can be sure that you are. And the more you can be pretty much certain that at least one person in that group hears “family” and thinks “people who aren’t allowed to have boundaries with me” or “people who aren’t allowed to tell anybody when I hurt them” or some set of hierarchies that you might not even be able to describe once you’ve been experiencing it for years.

Sometimes the people who are most toxic about a group being a family are the ones who are sincere about it. Other times it’s people who don’t mean a word of it but are perfectly happy to weaponize it against others. Either way: especially when it’s someone speaking to a large group–especially if they haven’t met all the members of that large group–it’s time to be skeptical.

Because abuse does happen in families. Abuse gets swept under the rug in families. But even not up to that point, some families have horrible dynamics about how no one young is worth listening to, or about never visiting the elderly, or both. Some families have horrible dynamics about who does all the work and who gets to put their feet up. And–especially in times like the interview with Jason Bateman and his co-workers. Especially in moments like the con chair at that convention undermining the safety officer. The question is: why are they using this now. To what end. Who benefits, if they start leaning on family rhetoric.

It’s really great to have chosen family. It really is. My godkids’ parents sat down with us before we accepted the job, and we talked it through: what does this commitment mean to all of us, are we on the same page, because this is a role that culturally and personally varies so much. Those people are my family. I am so glad of them every day. I really, really don’t want to undermine anyone’s actual chosen family with this post. I just want to flag how prevalent this is, in how many industries.

And if you go to report harassment, assault, abuse of any kind, and they invoke family rhetoric to try to minimize what you are reporting, THIS IS WRONG. THEY ARE WRONG. Even if they are your actual family. Even if they are your family in every way, even if they birthed you and raised you and were there for you on holidays and happy occasions and sad ones and everything a family can be. If your actual family treats you that way, I am so, so sorry. But I need you to know that THEY ARE WRONG TO DO IT.

And if someone who is not in any of those ways your actual family pulls out the “we are family” like you’re supposed to dance out of the end of “The Birdcage” with them? NOT ONLY NO BUT HELL NO. NO MORE. NO MORE OF THIS. WE ARE DONE.

think twice, maybe it’s not all–maybe it’s not all riiiight

I’m teaching the critique workshop at Fourth Street later this month–it’s June oh good gracious it is June–and there are all sorts of things that we are just not going to have the chance to talk about, since we’re only doing a little bit of panel discussion and a lot of critiquing. I watched a movie about an improv group, Don’t Think Twice, that made me think of a topic that is certainly outside the scope of that panel discussion, so here we are! I really liked the movie, and I recommend it to people who are in creative pursuits, especially people who are in creative relationships.

The thing that they can’t really fit into a well-composed movie of about 90 minutes–and oh gosh I am glad they kept it to that rather than letting it sprawl–was…well. I feel like, especially early on, especially the first time you get a well-functioning creative group, whether it’s improv or a band or a writing critique group or what. Even if it’s a group of two. I feel like there is a certain sense that you will never have something like this again. That it must be preserved at, if not all costs, certainly very, very substantial costs, because it is your only chance at such a creative synergy.

And…it is. And also it’s not.

A well-functioning creative relationship is worth working at. It’s worth preserving. Definitely not to be thrown away at a whim. And when you look back at someone’s life as a whole, there are clearly creative partnerships, working relationships, in which they functioned like no other time. People and dynamics that were better for their work than any others, that turned out to be irreplaceable.

But.

You can’t tell in advance which ones those will be, necessarily, and which ones will just be really intense for the person in them and kind of useless for the work. You can’t tell which will be lead-ups to something even better, even more fulfilling and interesting.

Which is not an excuse to treat other humans badly. I mention this because of the opposite: it is a reason not to be treated badly yourself, not to stand by and watch while someone is treated badly, on the theory that the creative relationship is indispensable. It’s even a reason to pay attention to whether the work that was wondrous and irreplaceable a few years ago is still going that way. Because “this isn’t working well for me” is enough reason not to keep critiquing together, not to keep performing together, whatever it is you’re doing. It’s not trivial to find people to work with. Sometimes it’s not even possible. But that doesn’t mean that the person or people you’re working badly with now have to be clung to and endured no matter the cost to yourself or others.

So how do you evaluate? Well, I don’t honestly know for other creative relationships. But for writing critiques, there are several things: Do you still want to work with the person/people? Are you looking forward to their feedback, do you think it will be interesting? If you had to choose someone to work with now, would you choose this person/group? Do you think you know in advance what they’re going to say about everything you do, and if you think that, are you right? Do you find yourself unproductively annoyed or frustrated by more of their feedback than not? (Sometimes useful feedback can be annoying on the way in, and it’s up to you how much of that you’re up for. But unproductive annoyance is another matter.)

One of the tricky ones: if these things are true, how enmeshed in a group situation is the person? How possibly would it be to get yourself out, and how worthwhile? Sitting through “I think you should describe the living room in excruciating detail on the first page” is annoying; being in a crit group with someone you know to be a bigot is far worse. Disagreeing with someone persistently about what a story should do is bad; being in a group where someone is allowed to treat you with contempt while the rest of the group doesn’t seem to mind it is in a different category of bad. Sometimes it’s worth enduring a group where the fit has gone slightly awry if it’s mostly still a good group. But there have to be limits, and some part of you will know where they are.

“This isn’t working for me” needs to be a fine thing to say in critique relationships. “I just don’t have the time to dedicate to this group that I used to/that I feel it deserves/etc.”: an entirely valid reason not to do it. A lot of times writing groups just quietly reach a natural end date even if they’re working well when they do meet, because the rhythm of people’s work isn’t conducive to the rhythm of the group. But if you don’t want to get feedback from people on your work, you do not have to. Even if it’s otherwise working fine. Even if “everyone else” seems happy with the status quo.

Especially if you went for long stretches of your life without anybody caring about your creative work, it can be really hard to let go of the people who first do that. And sometimes you get really lucky and meet someone in high school or college or in your first workshop–even if your first workshop is in your middle age–whose feedback you’ll value for the rest of your lives. Sometimes someone who was awesome when you were both twenty will still be awesome when you’re both sixty. It’s sad when this turns out not to be the case, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect on you. Sometimes it doesn’t reflect on either of you and you’re both still awesome, you’re just not the right people to critique each other’s work any more.

Sometimes this means taking a leap. It means striking out without a new crit buddy, a new group, a new situation that you understand. Sometimes it’s really useful to identify why something isn’t working (wrong genre? wrong category? wrong life assumptions? wrong schedule?) in order to get at something else that might. It’s worth iterating. But always, it’s worth knowing that there is no last chance for as long as we’re alive. Be kind, be thoughtful, but also be clear that there are many forms and types of critique relationship available, and you don’t have to endure indefinitely in one that isn’t working for you.