Pitfalls of lacking a high/low culture divide

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.

you little non-punks, get off my lawn

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.

Timing, consistency, control

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.

The Mechanism of Omelas

One of my friends has gone through a deeply unpleasant divorce and continues to struggle with custody, and an unfortunate thing that I keep observing is that it’s almost impossible to write civil law around people whose main interest is making other people miserable. Almost every piece of family law assumes that people will act in their own interest or, if they are parents, ideally at least somewhat in their child’s interest. Structuring a law that will protect the vulnerable and allow for people in the structurally identical role who are purely destructive forces to¬†not act destructively is incredibly difficult.

Which, given what I do for work, makes me think of dystopias. And specifically it makes me think of what I do and do not find interesting in structuring them.

There’s a certain school of writing, of teaching writing, that claims that we’re all the hero of our own story, and sure, I buy that, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all heroes with great or even good motivations–even internally. Not all of us even bother to lie to ourselves about our motivations. There are people in the world like my friend’s ex who will be very up-front about their desire to hurt. They are, however–and let me be very clear about this–quite boring. They are boring in real life. They are not particularly more interesting in books.

So if you choose them as your core dystopian power structure–if the heart of your dystopia is that some genuinely mean jerks have come to power, not because of an ideology or a clear set of concrete goals beyond themselves but just to screw with people in ways that aren’t even all that effective compared to what they could do if they were more rational–well. I can’t tell you that never happens, can I. But for me–for me personally as a reader–the fact that it’s real doesn’t give it a lot to grab onto. Especially if there’s a speculative element to the meanness.

Here’s where “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” contrasts for me with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season–where they’re not doing the same thing and not trying to. The children in torment in the former are in torment for the sake of the point being made. (Perhaps that point is walking away from utopia in fiction writing. There are worse points, if so.) But it is not, I think, intended to be practical; it is metaphorical, poetic, nonlinear. You are not supposed to be able to draw a line between the single child’s suffering–and the next one when it dies, and the next–and what, exactly, about that suffering makes Omelas a supposed paradise. It Just Does. In The Fifth Season, on the other hand, it is very explicit, very extremely clear, how the suffering creates–not a paradise–but a livable society–what the consequences would be for ending it. What is being purchased and at what price.

There is value in making a general, stirring point, in rallying people to the cause of Goodness And Truth In The Larger Sense. But it’s also pretty easy. Not…not as easy as we would have hoped, is it? “How do you feel about Nazis?” is supposed to be the canonical easy question: I AM AGAINST THEM. Still. Still, even with people failing easy mode, this is easy mode. Pushing a bit harder on people, handing them a decision that’s made for heartbreaking reasons instead of dreadful ones, giving them characters who are trying to figure out where their compromises become counterproductive instead of characters who never had any morals to compromise…that’s not the only reason to write dystopia. But it’s a pretty solid one.

Last week one of my friends was saying on Twitter that he wants more of basically everything, more variations at every scale, so that there are more chances for it to lead to something cool, and I’m with him on that. And I think this is where the mechanism of Omelas comes in: I, personally, tend to default to thinking that it matters how and why your dystopia exists and is maintained. I tend to think that’s relevant to its stories and its downfall–on average. But there are going to be times when you have a particular story that is just not accounted for in the laws of people behaving according to their own interests. Or when that just can’t show up in the story, when the story is very short or very distracted into something else quite specific. It’s worth asking yourself about the mechanism of Omelas–you can wind up with a geologic masterwork like The Fifth Season. But occasionally the answer to that question is nope, nope we’re not answering the mechanism, the thing I’m doing is worth doing without poking at how. And that’s okay too. Some people will–yes, sorry–walk away from it. But–variety, more, more. Humanity is impossible to account for under one set of “I’d like to see more of” or “I really prefer it when.” So is its fiction.

The Panel Not Taken

One of my friends was recently talking in Slack about his role as a moderator at a Worldcon panel, and one of the things people agreed was a moderator’s role was keeping the panelists on topic.

And I wanted to put a word in for the times when that doesn’t happen.

The times when you have all sorts of keen ideas–either as a moderator or a panelist–about what this panel will be, and you get up on the panel, and it’s interesting, and it’s active, and it’s going places, people are engaged, discussion flows freely…and the places it’s going are not where you thought. Sometimes really not where you thought. And you have to use good judgment, because when you have a panelist who has already been bloviating for five minutes about book five of their own fabulous off-topic series and takes a breath to start in on book six, it’s time to jump right on in and get that panel back on track.

But when you’re having a really good discussion among lots of people, and it just doesn’t happen to be the good discussion you thought you were going to be having? Square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and wave goodbye to the panel not taken.

It might have been a beautiful panel. A lovely panel, an insightful panel. It might have been such an important panel that you can propose it again under a different name. (Or y’know, the same name. Sometimes audience members notice that there is more–or something in the first place–to be said.) But it is not the panel you are having right now. And taking a panel that is full of inspiration and ideas and energy and turning it into a panel that has been stopped in its tracks and wrenched around is not a success condition. It’s just not.

I was on a panel at Readercon where Maria Dahvana Headley was the moderator, and she asked the panelists a question, a good question, an insightful question, a question that might have taken us interesting places. And Max Gladstone said, “I’ve been reading about hyperobjects.” I think I blurted out something encouraging like, “Good!” so this is also on me. (I have been known to encourage Max. Maria has been known to encourage Max. Random passersby…well. You get the idea.) And then Max kept talking about hyperobjects, and it was interesting, and everyone in the room was interested, and…I caught Maria’s eye…and we could both see her question disappearing over the horizon. We traded little smiles as we saw it go. Goodbye, little question, goodbye! Because then we went from Max’s hyperobjects to whatever else that made the other panelists think of and then whatever questions the audience had and then the audience still had questions but the panel was over…and it was fun and everybody was talking after with thinky thoughts…and saying, “Stop, Max, stop! do not talk about this interesting thing! Talk about the other interesting thing!” would have made everybody feel stifled and weird and the total number of interesting things talked about would almost certainly have been fewer.

Sometimes there is still time to say, “Wow, cool, that was really interesting, but I wanted to get back to this idea Maria had twenty minutes ago/the panel description/that question Beth asked that I don’t think we fully answered/whatever.” But often there really, really isn’t, and that’s okay.

And this is true in less formal conversation, too. Extremely often I come home from my monthly lunch with one friend, I think, we didn’t even get to this bit, I forgot to tell him that–or I’ll be driving him back to his office and trying to quick hit the highlights of major life areas the leisurely lunch conversation missed. The Minnesota Long Goodbye is legendary in these parts, possibly because of this, possibly because it just takes us a long time to put on winter gear and you might as well catch up on how auntie is doing in the meantime, but possibly because there are always going to be The Conversations Not Taken, and oh crud now that you’re leaving it occurs to me what they were.

I think we all know about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that’s relevant here, but there’s also not letting the good be the enemy of the other quite good. And you can tell yourself you’re not aiming at the perfect panel, you’re just aiming at the on-topic one, and that’s all very well, but writers and fans and sometimes editors and agents and artists being what they are…goodbye, panel that might have been, farewell, you were interesting, on to the panel that is and how it can be its best self.

a little red flag

I know a lot of writers. Really a lot. Really really. And we all have different process, and that’s great, that’s wonderful. In person I have been known to chirp “we are all a beautiful rainbow,” but it’s really hard to get my total lack of sarcasm on that point through on the internet. (We are, though! We are all a beautiful rainbow! Yay!) In this case, I have spotted what looks like a consistent red flag for burnout, and I’m having a hard time phrasing it so that it’s clear that I don’t mean to exclude some kinds of inspiration.

Here’s the red flag. Writers with a few novels or a ton of short stories under their belt who get into a place where they only want to talk about being sick of tropes and wanting to deconstruct them. I know that deconstruction is a major creative inspiration in some writers’ processes (all a beautiful rainbow!). But the larger percentage of conversation about other people’s work gets to be about deconstruction and frustration, the more I watch for other signs of burnout.

Because–squee is not just good publicity. Squee is important for your own work. If you’re not honestly feeling like squeeing about other work you’re encountering, that’s a bad sign. And it’s probably not a bad sign about what’s out there in the world, because there is a lot of stuff out there in the world. If none of it is pressing your buttons, really none? that’s a bad sign about your buttons and where you are in terms of energy levels, taking criticism, getting enough recharge, all those things.

This is not a red flag of you being (or a friend being!) a bad person, or a worthless artist, or someone who will never recover, or anything like that. I’ve seen many people come out of this kind of burnout. But just as it’s easier to talk about how to begin a story than how to deal with the middle and ending that grow out of it, it’s a lot easier to talk about early-career things than all the paths that can grow out of them. And yet it feels to me like there are a lot of mid-career/developing writer paths and pitfalls that it would be really useful to talk about more, so…I’m going to try to do some of that, and I appreciate the other people who are doing that too.

(One of my favorite roads out of this is to cast my net very, very wide and look at things that are way outside my usual so that badly handled tropes and obvious choices are less grating. But other solutions for jolting out of this kind of deconstruction/negativity trap welcome.)

How to Tell When Your Pacing Is Broken

A friend asked me for this blog post, and I really haven’t been feeling the blogging lately, so here we go, a way into it by talking to a specific person.

A lot of people do pacing instinctively, sometimes synaesthetically. This is why you’ll hear metaphors like an unbalanced washing machine, a car with a flat tire–things where the rhythm is off, things where the story is going THUMPa THUMPa THUMPa. If you have that feeling for it, if you have that instinct, hurrah! Lucky you. If not, here are some other ways to spot broken pacing.

Ask an external reader. If they are bored in some sections, the pacing is probably breaking down. (Also boredom, who wants it.) Also, if they can spot the scenes that are the most important to the writer, that’s no good–obviously there will be things like the climax of the piece that are important scenes, but you don’t want to have a lot of scenes that are obviously un-important. If the reader feels like a scene doesn’t matter to you and they’re right, take it out and find another way to do the thing it’s doing. If they’re wrong and it really is important to you? Probably a pacing problem.

Track things! Track all the things. Okay, not all. But any of the things. Figure out what elements are showing up in each scene, what each scene is doing. You can do this with characters. You can do it with things like description/action/dialog balance. You can do it with objects that are touchstones to your plot. You can do it with locations. Anything you are wanting to pull through the book and balance, you can track, sometimes with color. Put it on notecards, print it out in tiny font and highlight it, just do a chapter list in a different file: who is in Chapter 1 with the protag(s). Who is in Chapter 2. Or: where does the Axe of Awesomeness show up first, where does it show up again, how long is it between spottings of the Major Macguffin. Has the reader had time to forget about it or think it is no longer important or get distracted by the Minor Macguffin. Has the Shiny Red Herring come up often enough? Track it in red to see where it is swimming. Is there a love story? If there is supposed to be a love story but you are not seeing Captain Swoonypants between Chapter 2 and Chapter 13, the pants: they will not be swooning. That is what we call a major sag in the pacing. (And/or in the pants.) Negative relationship stuff, too: that distance between a fight and the next appearance of the person fought with will mean that that relationship is not carrying a lot of tension. The pacing on it will sag. The reader will forget that they are supposed to care.

A thing that I said in the previous paragraph: figure out what each scene is doing. Not just one thing. If it’s just one thing, the pacing will sag and fall over. Do more. But also: when you revise, sometimes one of the things a scene used to be doing will change. If you rip out a subplot, remember to look at the scenes around the stuff you removed. It’s not just that you have to check to get the information redistributed. It’s that the beats also have to be redistributed. If that subplot contained the moments to breathe, your new pacing will be too frenetic. If that subplot contained mostly action and excitement, a hint of that needs to creep back into the new pacing. Pacing, sadly, is not just something you can do once and be done.

Stylistic and length changes. Word length, sentence length, paragraph length, chapter length. You can change these deliberately if you want to, but if you find you have subconsciously changed them without meaning to, you may be rushing a section or meandering through a section that will not feel integrated with the rest of the book and will nag at the reader–sometimes without them being able to spot why.

Note that you do not have to do length analysis on every element of every book every time. This is more a diagnostic for when something seems to not be working or if you consistently have problems than something every writer should do at every moment. In fact, all of this is in that category. If you’re finding that people are saying things you don’t really get about pacing, that something is not working and you don’t understand why, you can poke at these things (or at ideas people will offer in the comments, maybe!). But no writing tool is universal, this is not universal, and you should feel utterly free to not do any of this if you don’t need to and don’t feel like it.

I feel like I can’t stress enough in process posts that everybody works differently, because I hear enough conversation about “I heard one piece of advice and I thought I had to,” and seriously, no, you do not have to, you never have to. Do what works for you. Discard things that sound horrifying until/unless nothing else is working and you feel like it’s worth a shot. Try things that are exciting or weird, try things that feel like they’re fixing the problems you actually have, and don’t listen to me when you don’t feel like it. Okay? Okay.

Why you deserve it

I have just finished watching season 1 of Skin Wars on a friend’s recommendation. It is very very far from my usual sort of thing: it’s a reality show that’s a competition in body painting. My friend promised that it was very low on the interpersonal cattiness/drama, with lots of very skilled work and a certain amount of people learning stuff about their art, learning from each other. New art and learning? Hey, I’m there for that. And I was immediately hooked, and I will definitely watch the other two seasons, especially since my friend is a person who would have warned me if there was a lot of body-shaming weirdness in store.

One of the things that fascinates me is that the artists involved in this were often financially struggling–it’s not a fast route to fame and fortune–and they had pretty well-entrenched justifications for why they deserved success that were not always easy to dislodge by circumstances that really should have dislodged them. Examples:

I have put in the time. I have worked long hours. This is a competition with firmly set time limits, around each piece and around the competition as a whole. Each artist gets literally exactly the same amount of time. There are no examples of artists putting their feet up and being done early, and beyond that here is absolutely no way for anyone to put in more time than anyone else. Eventually this got clarified to:

I have put in the time. I spent my whole life learning this. Finally someone turned to the person who kept repeating this and said, how old are you? and determined that they were very close to the same age. And that they had both spent their whole life learning it, so…yeah. Not a distinguishing feature. I’ve seen both of these at conventions, though: I have devoted more time to science fiction than the other people at my day job! And I’ve seen a certain amount of it in various factions in the field who are convinced that they are the ones who are truly, deeply devoted–and that that kind of devotion has to be what matters. (Spoiler: it does not have to be. Sorry.)

I need it the most. My living conditions are worse than other people’s without recognition. There are indeed need-based scholarships for various types of study, and I’m very glad. But they’re usually clearly labeled, and “I like your art a lot” and “I think you need money” are not actually the same thing–and “you should like my art a lot because I need money” doesn’t actually work very well.

I need it the most. I poured my heart into this piece. “You should like my art a lot because I need validation” does not turn out to work better than “you should like my art a lot because I need money.” It is often a great idea to pour your heart into art. I recommend it. Then make more art and pour your heart into that. Also technique at the same time.

I have the most technical skills. Ever heard a pianist play Hanon? They are finger exercises. They are finger exercises, they are to make you a technically better pianist, and nobody plays them in concert because they are no fun to listen to. (Or play. Freakin’ Hanon.) Okay, okay, they have a certain hypnotic power, they can be impressive, but…at the end of the day if you are showing up and playing Hanon, nobody is buying your book, your painting, or in the most literal sense, tickets to your piano concert. (Freakin’ Hanon.)

It is apparently really, really hard to say, “Mine is good. Here is what I did well. Look at this part. I deserve this because mine is really good art. I combined the technical and the creative, this has thought and feeling and everything it’s supposed to have, and who cares whether I picked up those skills in two minutes or ten million hours, who cares whether someone else thinks that they are overall better than me and paid their dues more than me, here is the thing I made, it doesn’t come with dues, it comes with awesome.”

It is even harder to say, “I don’t know what’s missing. I did everything right. It’s just not happening for me. Can you help me see what’s going wrong in my piece?” And sometimes there are ten million answers, and sometimes there’s one answer, and sometimes there…isn’t. And sometimes the artificial contest structure of a reality show has made something happen that reality doesn’t support, it has made a thing where there is a winner and a loser where actually in a group of ten there might be three pieces that really work and four that don’t and three that meh, or ten that meh, or any other combination of numbers.

But the attachment to previous explanations of why you deserve it, the strength of that: that really got fascinating for me, and I will be riveted to see whether that continues for future seasons.

Being able to even

I had most of a blog post written about convention programming at the intro level, the 101 level, how the internet has changed what 101 means, what “this is my first convention” implies about where you will be in conversation about genre. I like to think it was thoughtful. Maybe.

This is not actually about how the mean evil computer at my post, because it didn’t. I’m just having a hard time finding the right tone for that kind of interaction. “I have ideas about how this can be done better” is something that I want to do collaboratively. It is something that I want to do cheerfully–joyfully, if I can–with other people who want to do it well. This is what I like about well-chosen critique groups, for example. “Here is what is awesome about your book! Here is how I think it can be even better!” It is sometimes a feature of supper at my house: “This soup! It is good! With more basil, even better!” “How would you regard roasting the garlic?” “Roasting! Give it a go, why not!”

I don’t really enjoy the tone of conversation that is “you are doing something tediously badly, let me accost you about that.” It’s better than “you are doing something malicious,” certainly. But even a certain amount of “this thing: it is mediocre and can be actively good” can get to be a tedious conversation to have. Even though it can also be a necessary conversation to have for moving from mediocre to actively good.

I can’t even say no one has asked me. People have asked me. On this topic, recently. What I’m saying is: there are lots of things I’m having a hard time finding my way to right now, and last week was full of a giant pile of things, very few of which were particularly great, and right now? Right now it is very hard to wrestle my brain into the right configuration to get “I have observed very tedious examples of thing” into “how let’s do better than that together yay go team of positive people.”

I guess the positive thing I want to say is: I think giving people more credit tends to work out well–and when it doesn’t, it’s worth doing anyway. (In life! and in convention programming.) I think that saying very quickly “is everyone familiar with [idea, theory, essay, author]? no? okay, here’s the quick version” at the beginning of a panel often works far, far better than trying to pitch a lot of panels on the theory that no one is familiar with anything and you should rehash “how to write really technical hard SF” and “SF vs. fantasy: where exactly is the line” and the other ten ideas that have not only gone around conventions but also now the blogosphere and professional SF writing outlets forever.

So this got a little meta: reaching for the doing things better collaboratively conversation you want to be having. Even when you’re not at all sure it’s there. Yyyyeah.

The little bits that get you

I was reading a middle-grade book last week, contemporary setting with adventure fantasy elements, written this decade, la la la fine yay. And suddenly in the middle of it, the little brother was telling the protagonist that changing diapers was girls’ work. And she basically stamped her foot, and the book went on.

…except that he was the little brother, so it made sense for her to keep doing more of the care for their baby sister, because he was younger than I’d expect for that task. So…the idea kind of stood. It was embedded there in the text, and the next two most helpful adults with the child care were also women, and suddenly there’s a subtext.

It’s not a book about misogyny. So far as I can tell, it’s not a book that meant to portray a society that told girls that their role was having and caring for babies–either in a positive or a negative light. But there it is, a random line that just sat there being frankly kind of gross. That just sat there reinforcing to girl readers that this is how boys will view them and their lives, reinforcing to boys that this is a normal thing to say and a normal way to behave, not worthy of comment.

I’ve talked before about how I’m trying to not write misogyny in fiction any more. And this is simultaneously why I have that determination and the hard part of keeping it. It’s easy to not write misogyny that seems important at the time–at least comparatively easy. The large plot points like “society tells our heroine she cannot be a phoenix wrangler because of her gender” tend to jump out at you. “Big fight with family member over proper gender roles”: that takes up enough space on the page that it’s hard to miss. And it’s also easier to actually deal with head-on in the text, if it’s not something you actually believe in, if it’s something you want to fight or refute. It’s a lot easier to let your heroine show that girls can too be phoenix wranglers, or to have family members bend on “proper” gender roles.

When it’s a single line, a throwaway bit of dialog, it may not even register. It may just be the way of the world in the author’s experience. But depending on how you write it, you can help to make it more the way of the world in the reader’s experience, too, because hey, it was in all the books they were reading growing up. I’ve been revisiting a lot of ’70s and ’80s SF I read in high school and college, and it’s really striking to me how much blatant, hostile sexism I was completely used to. It’s really astonishing how much was just “how things are” and not a reason to find a book gross or upsetting.

Writers who are writing today: that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re setting norms. We’re building readers’ data sets about the world. Every. Day. It is very much worth paying attention to what assumptions we’re reinforcing with “unimportant” lines of dialog and bits of description. The larger points, the things we hoped to be writing about, the things we were conscious we were writing about, are by no means the only things that matter.