Tuesday, June 10, 2008

WisCon 32 Panel 124: "Narrative and Politics"

Since originally posting them, I've added substantially to my account of "Thinking Ahead" and put a couple of "updates" on my account of "It's Not About Identity".

The next exciting panel that I attended was at 10:00 Sunday morning and featured five brilliant and experienced white women: L. Timmel Duchamp, Susan Palwick, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Pat Murphy, and Eileen Gunn. I will do my best to recount what my notes indicate: be aware that, as ever, there's lots of paraphrase and tentative recollection of details.

DUCHAMP began by reading from a set of notes that Chip Delany had sent a Creative Writing grad student a few days earlier and passed on to DUCHAMP: criticizing the student’s novel, he’d written,
I enjoyed reading your thesis very much . . . the writing is witty and beautiful. Nevertheless, there are structural realities that underlie narrative and give it its ideological weight, import, and—yes—message. You have to work with these as well. There is a path of least resistance, which, if you follow it, will make your narrative put forward the dominant hegemonic ideology:
  • Men are full human beings.
  • “Western” men are more completely human than “eastern” men, and more recognizably human than “eastern” men.
  • Women are half-human beings.
  • Women of the “East” are more completely partial (and far more satisfied with being partial) than their “Western” sisters, etc., etc.
I don’t for a moment think that is the message you want to put forward in any way, shape, or form in your writing. But this is the message we all—radical or conservative—pick up from the range of narratives around us. Now and again, one story or another will have an element that contravenes this ideology: Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Russ’s The Female Man, even Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Villette, or George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But though one or another of them succeeds on one front, often they fail on two or three others, and the result is the communal story that we end up taking in—the model that we all end up internalizing—is the conservative, traditional, dominant one.

That’s the one that, if we don’t fight it, intelligently and conscientiously, will take over our narratives. That is because it has always already taken over our desires and wants and aspirations. Even if we know it isn’t particularly “good for us” (whatever that means), on some level—no matter how infantile—we want Prince Charming [read: the Good Daddy] to sweep down on his flying horse and save us from the hell of unfocused confusion that is, finally, all our lives, and with a sweep of his sword put order and justice into the world that we can now live in comfortably, having put out no energy of our own. Or, we want to sweep down and, with a single grab, rescue some creature supremely helpless and unbearably beautiful who will find us dazzling and who will say, “Now, because of you, the world makes sense, and I know you are the sign of only that which is valuable in all things, for your existence itself is the sign of God’s Love and Strict Order.” Even if we have decided we definitely don’t want either role for ourselves—because, yes, we see that they cannot hold coherent before any sophisticated view of reality—the fact that we can know the story at all means we understand it and, because we understand it enough to rebel against it, means we have internalized it enough so that it is there to control our fictions at any point we are not conscientiously doing something else with them.
DUCHAMP went on to discuss three problems for the writer and to repeat the great Joanna Russ passage, “Without models, it's hard to work; without a context, difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly impossible to speak." DUCHAMP asked the panelists, then, in that context, to discuss pitfalls that each of them had had difficulty in avoiding.

PALWICK: I love Chip Delany, and we’re old friends; but I don’t agree with any of his generalizations there. A lot of us have grown up being taught to be very critical of the type of narrative he’s talking about, both in our writing and in our reading. A lot of people who don’t like my work think it doesn’t adequately reflect that “hell of unfocused confusion” and/or aren’t comfortable with my belief in the web of small-scale benevolences that holds reality together. Now, as a teacher, I think it’s important to avoid Delany’s habit of telling readers or students what to think about a work and instead to open up the discussion and let them come up with their own reads. Look at Nancy Drew: a lot of us would think that Nancy Drew has nothing empowering or feminist to say to us; but Susan Griffin recounts the story of a little girl who saved herself from suffocation in the trunk of a car by thinking “What would Nancy Drew do in this situation?” And where would she be if we’d thrown Nancy Drew out?

DUCHAMP: But you can’t really imagine Chip Delany criticizing Nancy Drew, can you? He loves nurse novels!

PALWICK: When I was an impoverished grad student making a tenth of what he earned, Chip said to me “I’m more marginalized than you are,” thanks to my being white and his being black and gay. Now, you have to stay in touch with the place where you’ve been oppressed, but why not use it for compassion rather than for a competition of oppressions?

MURPHY: Carolyn Heilbrun in Writing a Woman’s Life said, “You can only live the stories you’ve heard, and the stories that became a part of you.” What has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control; women are also forbidden to admit that their success came neither from luck nor from the kindness of others.

But in addition to the pitfalls in our writing, we see pitfalls in the world: for my latest novel, Wild Girls, one of the pitfalls in the world has been expectations –it’s a quiet story, and many reviewers respond with, “This isn’t what I expected!”

GILMAN: I write both fiction and history, and find that narrative is almost more dangerous when you’re writing the latter. Taking the path of narrative utility –that has not always been the case. We encounter cultures in which narrative is not the organizing principle: other cultures have different ways of organizing time. In a cyclical time, events never get any farther away; and people are judged not by how they change things but by how they reinforce the cycle. People who break the pattern are seen as people who’ve wasted their lives. But we are motivated and empowered by thinking of ourselves as participants in a story, which leads people into accepting fallacies, manipulation, and indoctrination.

GUNN: But there is in American life a very conservative and cyclical daily pressure to stay in your place, be like your parents—in writing fiction, that becomes the pressure to write stories like other stories. The more you break out, the more commerce and criticism will get back at you. My tactic for avoiding the repetitive narrative is to not know what I’m doing. And I don’t know if narrative is indeed more dangerous in history than in fiction –in fiction, it’s below the surface, so it may be harder to pick out the lies. Looking at drafts of my own work, I always find those normative clichés of the sort Chip warns against.

DUCHAMP: The seductions of narrative itself are dangerous.

GUNN: What entertains us is the combination of repetition and something new.

DUCHAMP: Standard narrative arcs, according to Peter Brooks, serve to exalt the sovereign subject. Do you agree, Susan?

PALWICK: I volunteer as an ER chaplain and am working on a Med School faculty to put Narrative Medicine into the curriculum, and it’s been shown that narrative helps people to heal; it helps people to get control over their lives.

DUCHAMP: But Brooks’s point is about narrative in fiction from the 18th century on?

PALWICK: We do have to be conscious of these patterns. [asks DUCHAMP to explain “exaltation of the sovereign subject”; DUCHAMP does] And this is a bad thing, why? [DUCHAMP explains the perils of voluntarism, individualism, and the denial of interconnection and structure] But it can exalt the power of community –and it can promote compassion or reflection by showing someone, not attaining sovereign power, but ground down like Bigger Thomas. [exchange about definitions]

PALWICK: Look at the example of Stephen R. Donaldson. Thomas Covenant’s job as sovereign subject, once he gains power he’s never had before, is learning to be responsible to the job in which he’s found himself. The trick politically is to see it as power with, as opposed to power over. Look at stories of heroism as the renunciation of power –the struggles of Frodo, for example: Tolkien has a more subversive side than people give him credit for. And one can learn to be a subversive reader whether the writer is subversive or not: as a reader, one can find what’s oppositional in the text.

GUNN: Well, there’s an autobiographical side to Donaldson’s novel –he’s dealing with being a rape survivor himself.

PALWICK: It helps to use narrative to reclaim your agency, to write at the top of the paper I Am The One In Control Of This Story.

GUNN: Donaldson only explained that about his own experience in response to feminist detractors.

MURPHY: Writing stories is a way of figuring out the meaning . . .

DUCHAMP: Can you think of a particular strategy that you’ve used to subvert the standard narrative arc?

MURPHY: I’m thinking about Wild Girls . . . does “Before and After” [explaining the story in question] have a narrative arc?

GUNN: Yes.

MURPHY: The narrative arc is there apart from the structure.

GUNN: But the structure is complex, with the presentation very deliberately different from the chronological sequence of events.

MURPHY: Does that structure subvert the narrative arc?

GUNN: It reinforces it.

GILMAN: You guys have just demonstrated the reader-generated side of a narrative!

GUNN: You put two events, as Forster said, or better yet, three, together, and the reader will make a story out of it.

Audience: For those of you interested in Medical Humanities, I have a few copies here of Marion McCurdy’s The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma. [They are quickly snatched up]

DUCHAMP: Readers must read subversively, but it helps when authors help.

GUNN: Pat is a kneejerk subversive. I try to do things with structure and expectations –I originally wrote “Fellow Americans” as all linear, a series of three different narratives, and it wasn’t working, and I called Bill Gibson, who said, “Well, I think it’s time for you to interrogate the text.” And Bill knew enough about what I’m like and how I operate that he gave me the perfect advice. He said, “Print out the story, and lock it in your file cabinet. It’s safe now, it’s unmolested, nobody will do any harm to your story. Now go to your keyboard and try something different with the bits you have.”

DUCHAMP: How does that induce the reader to read subversively?

GILMAN: It induces the reader to read interactively.

PALWICK: When my students are resistant to revision, I give them the same advice that Gibson gave Eileen.

MURPHY: I unconsciously subverted convention twice, first –as readers have pointed out to me—unwittingly reading Bilbo as female in There and Back Again . . .

DUCHAMP: Is it generating a new story out of the old one?

Audience: Is fanfic a subversion or an appropriation and misuse, or is the distinction just about the quality of the writing?

Audience: Susan, you introduced an 800-pound gorilla into the room early on that no one’s commented on, and it needs to be noted, and I’m going to be confrontational about it. In response to Timmi, you criticized Chip Delany –and that’s okay, I think more people should criticize Chip Delany –but instead of an argument, you offered a narrative that presented Delany in a negative light. It was very emotional in its response to Timmi’s analysis, and it was about his character. And you were appropriating his account of himself, and I think we’ve seen enough of this conflict of black man/white woman who’s-more-oppressed in this election!

PALWICK [Clearly shaken by the intensity of her accuser’s rage]: Well, first of all, I haven’t been following the election at all: it would make me crazy. This exchange with Chip occurred in 1994. And secondly, although I responded with narrative, it did have an analytical point, which I obviously didn’t make clear enough: it’s that in the 1990s, we were playing the more-oppressed-than-thou game, and we shouldn’t have been. Now, in terms of my telling a story about him constituting an appropriation, there is some level on which our narratives don’t belong to us.

GUNN: Susan told a story that she’s emotionally involved in rather than directly answering Timmi’s question.

PALWICK: It’s what I do. And I’m sorry if I did it clumsily, or if I was unclear, or if I raised sensitive issues; but as to having told the story, or using narrative that way –I’m not going to apologize for it.

DUCHAMP: How do we make new models for which the narratives don’t exist?

MURPHY: Carol’s got to answer that question –she does it all the time.

EMSHWILLER, in Audience: Do I? If I do, thank you.

GILMAN: This brings up the use of narrative in politics –journalists insist on imposing narratives on us, but narrative is not explanation: it stimulates explanation –once the narrative has been established, then explanations follow. But narrative promotes other fallacies –it stresses competition and conflict, as we see in the election; and it encourages the post hoc fallacy; and it tends to stress the personal and private and project it onto the public and collective . . .

PALWICK [Still smarting from having been accused of being “emotional” by an intelocutor who was herself virtually steaming with anger]: Academic jargon can suppress and marginalize emotion, which is a classic misogynist strategy . . .

DUCHAMP: I’ve been enjoying myself so much up here that I neglected to allow time for questions. Are there any? Yes, Josh?

ME: Okay, I was going to start out by saying something mean about Chip myself, but now I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Still, there’s been so much going on in this panel that I have about eight questions or ideas or connections or theses that I wish I could raise . . .

Audience: Choose one.

ME: Right. Susan, am I right that you think Chip’s advice to his student excludes too much?


ME: And the prescriptions and exclusions in a piece of advice like that can leave us with too rigid a view of what's . . .

DUCHAMP: I’m sorry: we’re out of time.

ME: Okay, I’ll write up my reflections in an essay and send ‘em to Liz Henry.

DUCHAMP: Great! I keep forgetting to tell people to do that.


Susan Palwick said...

Great job summarizing this, Josh! You must have taken excellent notes!

Josh said...

Thank you, Susan. As I expect you noticed, though, I didn't do any Reflections on this one yet and am really wondering whether I can --my attempts to compose 'em end up coming out critical of Timmi, and who wants that?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Josh, for clarifying the basis on which Susan refused to engage with Chip's remarks. In the moment, her sweeping dismissal was so patronizing & indirect that I couldn't get a handle on anything specific (& I haven't had a chance since then to listen to the audiofile of the panel.) Since I'm used to people high-handedly refusing to engage with anything that Chip says simply because they don't like his style, I guessed (while reserving judgment) that this was once again the case with Susan & that her dismissal of his comments tout court didn't necessarily mean that we are on ideologically opposing sides. Thanks to your post, though-- especially since she has endorsed your interpretation of her contributions to the panel-- I see that I do indeed have a substantive disagreement with Susan's attitude and the assumptions underlying it.

Just to join the general jamboree of argument via anecdote, I'll start with one myself. When I see a friend or acquaintance emerge from a public restroom unknowingly trailing a long streamer of toilet paper from their backside, I consider it a kindness to let them know of it, even if doing so creates a bit of embarrassment between us. Similarly, I consider it a kindness for someone (& in actual fact it was once a stranger, on an airplane, when I emerged from the lavatory in such a state) to point out such a mishap to me. I couldn't see it for myself, and the friend or acquaintance one points it out to can't see it for themselves. I wonder, would Susan prefer that friends let their friends walk around trailing a piece of toilet paper, knowing that they're unaware of doing so?

Of course, maybe she thinks that teachers ought not to point out what she thinks friends and acquaintances should. Am I to assume that it ought to be left to reviewers to enlighten a writer all the embarrassing things s/he has unknowingly done in their fiction?

Chip's student told him that she intended for the protagonist of her novel to break out of the narrow stereotype of Arab women that she, the student, so detested. His comments on narrative to her addressed that very issue, and his citation of Rikki Ducornet on the need for writers to be uncomfortable if they want to do more than reproduce stereotypes offered sound, sympathetic advice about how difficult it is to forge complex characterizations of people who are neither male nor white. The student sought to be counterhegemonic in her writing; Chip pointed out how her writing instead supported the usual hegemonic view of women of color. Ought he to have lied to her? As I read your explication of Susan's remarks, the answer appears to be yes.

My own view is that the best teaching is necessarily counterhegemonic. But then my own view is that teachers ought to provoke students to think, not to lazily bolster the ideological status quo; ought to encourage them to tell new stories, not to reproduce the same tired old stereotypes over and over and over. I realize that this is not a popular view of what teachers are for, given how insistently the neocons are viciously attacking teachers who try to encourage their students' distrust of doxa.

I'm thinking that if I'd realized this was Susan's position at the time, I would as moderator have brought out the basic lines of our disagreement: viz., that I want new stories (for the reasons I advanced in my GoH speech), even (or especially) if they make us uncomfortable: that I'd like narrative to take us to new places, not just deliver pleasurable reinforcement to the racist and sexist ideology that constantly bombards us. The panel, after all, was supposed to be about how to escape the conservative ideology that is inherent in conventional narrative, not whether it was desirable to try to do so.

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Palwick said...

For whatever it's worth, part of my point was that readers routinely find counterhegemonic, revisionary narratives in tales other critics find to be hegemonic and conservative. (I've often had different readers take the same piece of my own work in completely opposite directions.) Writers may in fact have intended more revision than some readers saw.

Thus, a helpful approach to a narrative one feels is trailing toilet paper might be to say, "To ME, this appears to be racist/sexist/classist/pick-your-poison; how did you intend this to come across?" That's a way to have a conversation. But I'm very wary of any statement that speaks with a sweeping "we," especially when it's a statement explicitly addressing a variety of different subjectivities!

Timmi, we're on the same side. I want new stories too, and I constantly encourage my students to write them. And I encourage them to be counterhegemonic however I can. But I do my very best not to talk to them about "we" or "us," because part of being a good teacher is acknowledging my very substantial differences from them -- in matters of institutional power, not least!

Also, the fact that people have ideological differences doesn't necessarily mean that one is superior to or smarter than the other. It simply means they disagree.

Ide Cyan said...

The student sought to be counterhegemonic in her writing; Chip pointed out how her writing instead supported the usual hegemonic view of women of color. Ought he to have lied to her?

I'd like to point out that there is no indication of the student's gender (or ethnicity) in the panel report, until you bring it up now in the comments. (I don't know whether it was clear at the panel itself.) Which can inflect the perceived quality of Delany's advice to his student. It does to me. I read it very differently at first as advice given to a male student.

I wonder: has anyone asked *her* what she thought of it? If this is a current class -- does she know her teacher is sharing his advice to her and that someone else used it in a panel at a convention, which then led to this discussion of its usefulness and so forth?

Hey, teachers -- can you bring your students in on your conversation?

Timmi Duchamp said...

The comments I read out were extremely general and apply to the problems every writer faces when struggling against reproducing conservative ideology. Neither the student's name nor the particulars of the student's work were used. The comments I read could have been read out at any Clarion workshop to help students think about how to escape some of the constraints of narrative conventions. The student's work was irrelevant to the discussion. Most writing teachers incorporate rules of thumb into the critiques they write for their students-- rules of thumb they repeat in many contexts. There 's nothing private or personal about them, since they can be copied out whenever the teacher deems useful.

Moreover, despite the impression you're getting from this discussion, Chip's comments occupied only a small fraction of the discussion, which mostly concerned strategies writers have used to help readers create more subversive stories when they read and the ethnocentricity of narrative itself. & these in fact were the subjects that the audience found interesting & wished to continue discussing after our time had run out.

Eileen Gunn said...

I realize that, in Internet Time, I am posting this long after Josh posted his version of the panel, but I have been traveling, and this is the first I have seen it. I am posting here because I would like my comments and thoughts to be part of the fossil record, since I feel that what I said on the panel (and afterwards) was misunderstood or over-interpreted, both here and elsewhere.

My point about Susan telling a story in response to Timmi's introductory quote from Chip was not simply that she was offering an emotional reaction, but that she (whether intentionally or inadvertently) was providing an actual example of how people use narrative to explore and comment on politics, which was in fact the topic of the panel. I was not intending to make any judgment on the content of her story. I was simply pointing out (and I believe the audience member mentioned in Josh’s account also pointed out) that Susan was using narrative rather than making a direct analysis of Chip's quoted statement. I found it an unexpected and relevant example of what we were talking about in the panel –- the ways of using narrative to argue politics -- and, in retrospect, it may be that the various interpretations of what Susan intended to say are the result of her using the more ambiguous narrative form, rather than baldly stating her point. (I an not arguing that one is superior to the other.)

Josh, thanks for taking such remarkable and detailed notes. I would like to emphasize, however, that the comments attributed to me (and others) are your interpretations of what I/they said, rather than what I/they actually said. (I believe you acknowledge that at the beginning.)

This "transcript" is more a mnemonic for the discussion than a transcription. I mean this as a clarification, not a criticism, but I don't want readers of this topic to think I necessarily said any of the things I am quoted as saying. These are subjective paraphrases of what I said.