I’ve published short fiction with Tor.com before, but this is my first essay with them!
Beyond Cinderella: Exploring Agency Through Domestic Fantasy. Go, read, enjoy!
I’ve published short fiction with Tor.com before, but this is my first essay with them!
Beyond Cinderella: Exploring Agency Through Domestic Fantasy. Go, read, enjoy!
Arkady Martine, Django Wexler, John Chu, and I had so much fun teaching the workshop at 4th St. Fantasy convention last year that we’re doing it again this year…but with a twist! This year’s theme is “Getting Unstuck.” Participants in the workshop should submit pieces they’re stuck on–not outlines but some prose written–and we’ll use tactics both usual and zany to get through the block. We’ll work on identifying patterns that contribute to getting stuck as well as ways out.
The deadline for signing up for the workshop is May 20, but it’s first-come first-served–AND convention membership rates go up on March 1–so now is a great time to sign up!
Recently I was a guest on the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. BtGS is a feminist SFF podcast that wanted to do more episodes on intersectional issues, so we talked about disability representation in SFF. You can give it a listen here!
(I will confess that I am terrible at listening to podcasts myself, but it can be so much fun to be on them–one gets into good conversations. So we’ll see if I can’t get better at this.)
Last week I finished watching Season 2 of The Good Fight on CBS Some Access (that’s not what they call it, but…welp). I really loved the show from which it’s a spin-off, The Good Wife, and they kept some of my favorite characters and added a few new characters I like a lot. All the things that frustrated me most about the original show were gone, plus they had kept the rich and extensive universe of characters going. Yet I found watching this season a slog–I was going downstairs to watch it with my workout with a little distaste rather than a lot of excitement–so I had to think about why.
The Good Wife had fictional court cases inspired by real ones in recent headlines, starting from the first season. That wasn’t new. But The Good Fight doubled down on the contemporary references. It is a show that is entirely about American politics in 2018. There’s a lot that’s directly about Donald Trump and his effects on local and state level politics. There are also plotlines that are less inspired by and more copies of current events in other areas. Even plotlines that are supposedly about the characters’ love lives are often also about the fate of protesters or how candidates are presented in modern elections.
I sympathize. I do. There’s a lot out there, and sometimes just screaming into your pillow is not enough. Sometimes you really want to scream something in words, that someone else can hear. Words like, “What is even going on,” and, “I am not okay with any of this.” I get it. But I think that there’s a paradoxical effect where the closer you get to an actual nonfiction commentary without being one, the harder it is to take.
I think the people who wrote M*A*S*H are a great counterexample here. M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War, but even a cursory glance tells you it wasn’t about the Korean War. It was about the Vietnam War. Not only does the quagmire timeline not make sense for the US’s presence in Korea, none of the characters’ backstories do either. Anyone over the age of 22–so all of the main characters except Radar and maybe Klinger–but probably just Radar–should have WWII experience if they’re regular Army. If they’re not, they should still have the perspective that came of having their country in an all-out world war within the last decade. But they don’t seem to. What they do have, eventually, is Colonel Potter, the old-timer with world war experience that he’s always hearkening back to–but not recent experience, of course. This makes no literal sense, but it makes complete emotional sense when you consider that the show is really about the US troops in Vietnam instead.
Why bother? Why use one war to comment on another? Why remove your characters that far? If they wanted to talk about current events, why didn’t they? For me, one of the answers is: it can get overwhelming. Dealing with news stories and then having your fictional entertainment copy those same news stories exactly: it’s too much of one thing. Which is bad enough when that one thing is chocolate peanut butter ice cream, far worse when it’s a specific corruption charge.
Another answer is broader thinking. One particular policy discussion can start to fall into “denounce this one thing, this one thing is bad.” In real life, that can be necessary! But art gives us the chance to look for patterns. To ask, what kind of thing is this, where have I seen it before, where might I see it again, would it still be bad in those contexts too or is there something specific to this one. What are my actual principles here, when removed from the immediacy of people I already know I trust or distrust? How would I react to a situation like this one if there were a few things different? and what does that tell me about this situation?
Of course my bias is toward indirect comment because I’m a science fiction writer. M*A*S*H may have been the first Vietnam War commentary I encountered, in reruns my parents watched while they were making supper, but The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is also pretty influential in my line of work. Haldeman is a Vietnam vet who had things to say–and he used the depth of hundreds of years to say them. Haldeman also wrote War Year and 1968, both of which are non-genre novels inspired by his experiences–both of which are very different from The Forever War. Indirection and shift of perspective give you different art, even when it’s coming from the same person.
I’m not giving up on The Good Fight. I hope that it manages to find its footing and a place to stand where it can create commentary that stretches beyond the current moment, that gives us a lens that allows us to look into that moment without damaging our eyes with the intensity. But my preference as a reader and as a writer is going to continue to be work that tries to find a different angle for perspective and illumination.
I leave this evening for Copenhagen. Among other things while I’m getting ready to go, here’s my latest essay in Uncanny Magazine, https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-seduction-of-numbers-the-measures-of-progress/ –“The Seduction of Numbers, the Measures of Progress.” Go, read, enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
I made a jokey tweet (…that is entirely true) about my lack of high/low culture divide. (Specifically: “I think you would be alarmed if you knew how often, “Sir Mix-a-Lot’s identical twin brother does not like big butts, and cannot tell the truth,” is my IMMEDIATE response to philosophical conundrums and logic puzzles. My high/low culture separation is nonexistent, basically.”) And some stranger came along and said, “And yet weirdly, you say that almost in a tone of self criticism, as if it were a /bad/ thing. :)” So first of all: good use of emoji to indicate tone in a medium not well-suited for that, stranger, well-done, I get that you are being extra-friendly.
And generally, I am in favor of this trait of mine. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t only select friends for it…but it’s strongly, strongly correlated with the people I’m closest to. The last person I talked to about Debussy, for example, is also the person who got “Hooked on a Feeling” in my head for the last 48 hours and counting (…THANKS). Another dear friend inspired me to write her a story because she loves classic space stories and mid-twentieth century British literary fiction, so I got the peanut butter and the chocolate together for her, since I like them too. It’s just…an ease of conversation thing, an approach that makes it easier not to have to signal conversational turns because we’re all up in those things together. But here’s what I mean about signaling conversational turns when I haven’t figured out whether someone shares that trait yet:
There’s the problem of someone thinking that a low culture reference in what they intended to have as a serious conversation is automatically a joke. Example: someone wants to talk about writers who handle family relationships well or interestingly. They bring up A.S. Byatt and we talk about her works for some time. Great. If they think I’m changing the subject or not taking them seriously if I mention Lois McMaster Bujold (long series space opera), Fonda Lee (kung fu movie-influenced fantasy), or Hilary McKay (children’s), that’s not going to work, conversationally. It’s not going to help. I know that some of my friends who focus on genre get immediately indignant, defensive, and declare that people who have that reaction are being jerks. But I think they don’t necessarily mean to, they just…are trying to work from context they don’t have.
Here’s my example: when I was in my mid-teens, I had a cousin I loved very much, and she loved me very much, and I noticed she was laughing at pretty much everything I said. Not, like, hearty deep laughter. But polite laughter, baffled laughter. And I realized that we had diverged enough that she was trying to figure out what on earth I was saying, what would make me say the things I said, and the only thing she could think of was: she would never say any of those things except as some kind of weird joke maybe? And it was polite to laugh at people’s jokes? Therefore hahaha, OUT OF KINDNESS AND CONSIDERATION. So sometimes people are not trying to be jerks about breadth of artwork included in a discussion, they’re trying to get the context for what you are signaling. It’s a pitfall, not a conversation-ender, if you can manage to signal clearly that, no, you are still talking about the same thing they’re talking about. Communication can be achieved here. It just sometimes takes work.
The other end of the spectrum comes when people have past bad experiences with people trying to one-up and show off with how superior their tastes are. This is a crappy thing to do to people, but pretending no one ever does it won’t make it go away. So…if someone is trying to have a fun conversation about stuff they like, and you are trying to have a fun conversation about stuff you like, the trap comes in when they have been conditioned to read your fun as a dominance game over them, a way to show off how much better you are than them. And it’s useful to try to listen to the other person’s reactions carefully, to figure out when they’re being ignorantly dismissive for fun and when they’re protecting a bruise, where they’ve been smacked a bit before. (Sometimes, sadly, even literally.)
So yah: it’s easy to just dismiss the line between high and low culture, to look at some of the fruitful and amazing art that comes from ignoring or even gleefully trampling it. To say, nope, we want none of those divisions here. I’m on board. And every few years someone writes a manifesto about doing just that, as though nobody who came before them ever did, instead of practically everybody. But…if we can ever leap to “maybe this person’s context is different and it’s worth trying a little more communication to be sure” instead of “JERKS!”…if we can think of communication pitfalls instead of insurmountable problems…that seems worthwhile to me, when I can make it work.
The hopepunk panel at ConFusion was mostly not about the -punk part at all, but Nisi Shawl’s punk past weighed in for a moment, when she talked about doing it all with three chords if that many, not with complex technique, just jumping in and bashing out a song on feeling and momentum.
And I thought…wait…but…
That’s not cyberpunk at all.
In a lot of ways the cyberpunk movement and the subsequent -punk movements have meandered around how much they are or aren’t living up to punk’s rebelliousness, sticking it to the man, going against the establishment, corporatism, whatever else they have identified as punk roots.
But musically. Let’s be honest. Three-chords-if-that? Is not an accurate parallel to what cyberpunk was doing. Or any of its heirs.
Do you think they’ll get offended if I call them cyberprog? Steamprog?
Can I write some solarprog? Like solarpunk but with lots of obscure chord structure and orchestration?
Should I go back to twitter now? Okay.
I’ve read two blog posts by friends about exiting Campbell eligibility, about timing of publishing and keeping work in the public eye and feeling good about professional development personally even when it comes out in weird chunks. One is by Arkady Martine and the other by Jordan Kurella, and I am simultaneously happy and not at all surprised to see them focusing on the important parts, on where they are as writers and where their upcoming work will be, and not on specific awards eligibility.
Obviously I’m not in the same place; Campbell eligibility is more than a decade in the rearview for me. But the way that how work is going and what the public sees do not correlate is something that I’ve had to adjust to. Sometimes I can write up a storm and no one gets to read it for ages. Sometimes I’m struggling, flailing, thrashing around, and people keep smiling and telling me how great things are going for me right now, because what they’re seeing is the result of a really great time.
That’s how it goes. And I get grateful that I got exposed to Bull Durham early, because I get Annie Savoy’s voice in my head saying, “It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.” Well. Well, yeah. This is what I do. I was raised in the church of baseball, but I’m not its acolyte. I’m a writer. When I keep having story after story coming out, or when nothing comes out for ages but I’m writing like gangbusters–it’s hard to smooth it out perfectly, it’s hard to make it all perfectly even. A year is not the right scale for that, a year is too short. And that’s okay.
So when the end of the year rolls around, I’ll have some stories to link to, and I’ll be able to talk about what I did, and the two won’t really be the same. And again next year, the two won’t really be the same. That’s the nature of the beast. Being able to point to something and say, look, that’s what I did, that, yes, isn’t it shiny, I did something, me, and that’s what it is: that’s satisfying. But it’s even more satisfying to know that it’s the right something, long-term.
It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. Yep.