Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rachel Swirsky's Nebula Novelette Recommendations & Nominations, 2009

The novelette ballot was harder for me to come up with than the short story ballot because I came into my reading with three PodCastle-produced novelettes in mind as being among this year's best, and it was difficult for me to find ones that I felt were as good or better.

I am genuinely excited by the five I found to nominate, though, and I found a number of other very good novelettes along the way. I was most excited by Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler" as a single piece -- but the real trove was Eclipse 3, which provided a number of strong-to-excellent novelette length reads.

I used the same reading process as for short stories, except I also went through all the novelettes available on the SFWA boards to pick out stories by authors who I've enjoyed in the past. Very few people seem to be using this resource -- the download numbers, even for popular authors, are low.

For full disclosure, I have two novelettes that are doing well in the Nebula nominations so far -- "A Memory of Wind" and "Eros, Philia, Agape," both up at -- so this is the category in which my objectivity is most suspect.

My nominees
"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi, Fast Forward 2
"The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain" by Jason Sanford, Interzone
"Good Boy" by Nisi Shawl, Filter House
"It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith, Eclipse 3
"Useless Things" by Maureen McHugh, Eclipse 3

Highly Recommended
"Narrative of a Beast's Life" by Cat Rambo, Realms of Fantasy*
"The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the American 1001 Nights" by Daniel Abraham, Fantasy & Science Fiction*
"The Nalendar" by Ann Leckie, Andromeda Spaceways (Nebula elligible due to PodCastle publication)*

"The Pretender's Tourney" by Daniel Abraham, Eclipse 3
"Sleight of Hand" by Peter S. Beagle, Eclipse 3
"Truth and Bone" by Pat Cadigan, Poe
"Dragaman's Bride" by Andy Duncan, The Dragon Book
"Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster, Interzone
"A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest..." by Helen Keeble, Strange Horizons
"The Magician's House" by Megan McCarron, Strange Horizons
"Lion Walk" by Mary Rosenblum, Asimov's Science Fiction
"Errata" by Jeff VanderMeer,
"The Mathematics of Faith" by Jonathan Wood, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

*Stories that would have been on my ballot if not for PodCastle publication
**"First Flight" by Mary Robinette Kowal is still on my reading list -- she's declined eligibility for the Nebula this year, but I intend to consider it for the Hugo.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

If you can't find the Tor books you want on Amazon...

Anent Amazon's war against Macmillan (and all its subsidiaries, including Tor Books), about which Cory Doctorow writes here: just a little reminder, there are other places online to buy books, including the books by sf writers that Amazon no longer carries. Powells sells online, and lots of smaller independents do as well, such as University Bookstore, A Room of One's Own, Borderlands, Wrigley-Cross Books, Ziesing Books, and many, many others.

Franny and Zooey

While the obits and appreciations of J.D. Salinger have mentioned all his published books -- there weren't many -- they've devoted the majority of their space to talking about The Catcher in the Rye.

But for my money, Franny and Zooey is his finest work. It's the one that always makes me cry at the end -- always, no matter that I've read it so many times that I know the ending by heart. (And, yeah, I know the two stories were originally published as separate pieces, but they belong together; put together, they are a novel.)

I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was 13, and it knocked my socks off. I read it again at 16, and was bored. If I were a good literary critic, I'd read it again now, to see how it looks in the light of age, but frankly, I can't bring myself to do it. Male teenage angst doesn't interest me much these days.

I was 19 or 20 when I first read Franny and Zooey -- about the same age as Franny in the book. I spent plenty of time at that age in my own state of spiritual angst -- in fact, at one point I dropped all my classes except one and moved into a commune that proved far more dysfunctional than the worst modern American family -- so it's not surprising that the story of a young woman running up against the dishonest contradictions of life would appeal to me. I might not have been carrying around The Way of the Pilgrim -- Zen Buddhism was more my style -- but I recognized the urge.

It's quite possible that Franny spoke to me more than Catcher simply because it was about a young woman. I don't think there were a lot of books available to me at the time I first read it in which a young woman was struggling in her soul with something more than a choice between men to marry. (I stumbled on Doris Lessing's Martha Quest books a few years later.) My own deepest funks were always more driven by something I found it hard to grasp or explain, and hers seemed similar. And Salinger, despite being a man in his mid-to-late 30s at the time he wrote it, seemed to actually understand what it might be like to be a very bright woman of 19 whose deepest urges did not seem to fit in anywhere.

One of the things that always got me in the book was how well it showed the sexist constraints of the society in which Franny lived. There she is, off on a date with a nice well-off young man set for a career on Wall Street or the like -- someone who will never question that making a good living and having the perfect home and family are the most important things in life -- and she's chafing at everything while still trying to be a lady. The scene that sticks in my mind is when the young man is out trying to hail a taxi, and doing a bad job of it. Franny, standing under an awning, is irritated by his incompetence. She allows for him -- "God, it would be terrible to be a man and have to get taxis in the rain" -- but she knows both that she could do it better than he's doing it and that she's not supposed to do it, much less be better at doing it.

Franny's angst is partly driven by the limits on her role in society, but it's larger than that. It's not all that different from the struggles her brothers have gone through, which is why Zooey is able to help her through it. And you have to credit Zooey with recognizing that Franny has depths, that she isn't just pining over some boy or pregnant or otherwise suffering the traditional calamities that befall young women; she's dealing with the same core questions he's struggled with himself.

Franny's struggles are affected by her gender, but the core issues -- how does one live a pure and honorable, even spiritual, life in a messy world that seems to deliberately undercut all those things -- have no gender. Perhaps that's another reason the book moved me so much, and still does.

Given Salinger's rather problematic relationships with women, it's rather amazing that he could write a story that showed a woman searching for spiritual truth and even suggesting the added burdens she might face in a sexist world. But maybe that's why it's better not to know all that much about a writer. The truth writers put down on a page is not made less true by the failures in their personal lives.

I mean, hell, if I could do things perfectly in my ordinary life, I wouldn't need to write.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Eleanor's motley crew

I can't help myself-- Jeanne Gomoll just finished the cover for Eleanor's new book with Aqueduct, and I love it! It captures the tone of the story perfectly. I know I'm jumping the gun here, since we're just now having ARCs made. Hell, while I'm at it, I might as well give you Carolyn Ives Gilman's blurb, too:

Fair warning: don’t open this book unless you’re prepared to spend the next few hours in a world of Marxist aliens, sentient spacesuits, topsy-turvy gender relations, and eyes-glued-to-the-page adventure. Eleanor Arnason writes fast-paced space drama riddled with wry humor and social commentary. Heavens, it’s tasty.

Seems my sense of humor has changed...

This morning after I watched the Murray Hill Inc. video (see below), I found myself wondering why its humor had made me laugh out loud. The answer, "because it's satirical and funny," isn't as obvious as you might think. It's a different kind of satire than Tina Fay's or Jon Stewart's. It's more like Colbert's, I suppose, much of which I don't think I would once have found at all funny (because too cynical and therefore somehow lazy), perhaps because it's so close to gallows humor, which I've tended to appreciate only in certain personal and social situations. I suppose it now seems funny because it gives me a momentary distance from a profoundly unpalatable reality. (Isn't that the point of gallows humor?) I've long felt that the changes in the US over the last two decades have been so sweeping and swift that it's hard for me to get a clear sense of exactly how much (and what) has been changed in me as a result. Every now and then an indicator pops out at me, as happened this morning.

Anyway, here is the video and the accompanying press release:

Supreme Court Ruling Spurs Corporation Run for Congress
First Test of “Corporate Personhood” In Politics

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to allow unlimited corporate funding of federal campaigns, Murray Hill Inc. today announced it was filing to run for U.S. Congress and released its first campaign video on

“Until now,” Murray Hill Inc. said in a statement, “corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence peddling to achieve their goals in Washington. But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves.”

Murray Hill Inc. is believed to be the first “corporate person” to exercise its constitutional right to run for office. As Supreme Court observer Lyle Denniston wrote in his SCOTUSblog, “If anything, the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission conferred new dignity on corporate “persons,” treating them — under the First Amendment free-speech clause — as the equal of human beings.”

Murray Hill Inc. agrees. “The strength of America,” Murray Hill Inc. says, “is in the boardrooms, country clubs and Lear jets of America’s great corporations. We’re saying to Wal-Mart, AIG and Pfizer, if not you, who? If not now, when?”

Murray Hill Inc. plans on spending “top dollar” to protect its investment. “It’s our democracy,” Murray Hill Inc. says, “We bought it, we paid for it, and we’re going to keep it.”

Murray Hill Inc., a diversifying corporation in the Washington, D.C. area, has long held an interest in politics and sees corporate candidacy as an emerging new market.

The campaign’s designated human, Eric Hensal, will help the corporation conform to antiquated “human only” procedures and sign the necessary voter registration and candidacy paperwork. Hensal is excited by this new opportunity. “We want to get in on the ground floor of the democracy market before the whole store is bought by China.”

Murray Hill Inc. plans on filing to run in the Republican primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Campaign Manager William Klein promises an aggressive, historic campaign that “puts people second” or even third.

“The business of America is business, as we all know,” Klein says. “But now, it’s the business of democracy too.” Klein plans to use automated robo-calls, “Astroturf” lobbying and computer-generated avatars to get out the vote.

Murray Hill Inc. is launching the campaign with a website, Facebook page and YouTube video.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

Historian and activist Howard Zinn, 87, died of a heart attack yesterday while swimming laps. These days he is probably best known for his book A People's History of the United States, but he was also a prominent activist, both as an academic (who would not, for instance, cross striking secretaries' picket line at Boston University) and in the street, where he inspired others to civil disobedience and put his own body on the line. Amy Goodman's broadcast on Democracy Now!, which you can find here, offers a sense of both vectors of his activism, via interviews with Alice Walker (who, like Marian Wright Edelman, was a student of his at Spelman College in Atlanta) and Noam Chomsky (longtime friend and comrade). As Chomsky remarks, Howard Zinn "changed people's perspective. He changed people's consciences." He had the gift of being able to express simply and clearly what had previously been obscured in the murk of received opinion. According to Chomsky, Zinn's Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal changed the focus of antiwar activists, changed the very conversation about the war we were having in the US in the late 1960s.

Here's an excerpt from A People's History of the United States:
[Most] histories understate revolt, overemphasize statesmanship, and thus encourage impotency among citizens. When we look closely at resistance movements, or even at isolated forms of rebellion, we discover that class consciousness, or any other awareness of injustice, has multiple levels. It has many ways of expression, many ways of revealing itself--- open, subtle, direct, distorted. In a system of intimidation and control, people do not show how much they know, how deeply they feel, until their practical sense informs them they can do so without being destroyed.

History which keeps alive the memory of people's resistance suggests new definitions of power. By traditional definitions, whoever possess military strength, wealth, command of official ideology, cultural control, has power. Measured by these standards, popular rebellion never looks strong enough to survive.

However, the unexpected victories---even temporary ones---of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful. In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications works, garbagemen and firemen. These people---the employed, the somewhat privileged---are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails.
Here is an excerpt from Daniel Ellsberg's A Memory of Howard:
There was a happier story to tell, just over one month later. On Saturday night, June 12, 1971, we had a date with Howard and Roz to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Harvard Square. But that morning I learned from someone at the New York Times that-without having alerted me-the Times was about to start publishing the top secret documents I had given them that evening. That meant I might get a visit from the FBI any moment; and for once, I had copies of the Papers in my apartment, because I planned to send them to Senator Mike Gravel for his filibuster against the draft.

From Secrets (p. 386):

"I had to get the documents out of our apartment. I called the Zinns, who had been planning to come by our apartment later to join us for the movie, and asked if we could come by their place in Newton instead. I took the papers in a box in the trunk of our car. They weren't the ideal people to avoid attracting the attention of the FBI. Howard had been in charge of managing antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan's movements underground while he was eluding the FBI for months (so from that practical point of view he was an ideal person to hide something from them), and it could be assumed that his phone was tapped, even if he wasn't under regular surveillance. However, I didn't know whom else to turn to that Saturday afternoon. Anyway, I had given Howard a large section of the study already, to read as a historian; he'd kept it in his office at Boston University. As I expected, they said yes immediately. Howard helped me bring up the box from the car.

We drove back to Harvard Square for the movie. The Zinns had never seen Butch Cassidy before. It held up for all of us. Afterward we bought ice-cream cones at Brigham's and went back to our apartment. Finally Howard and Roz went home before it was time for the early edition of the Sunday New York Times to arrive at the subway kiosk below the square. Around midnight Patricia and I went over to the square and bought a couple of copies. We came up the stairs into Harvard Square reading the front page, with the three-column story about the secret archive, feeling very good.
And here's Dave Zirin:
Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully: "Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist - the rich, the poor - whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed."
Here are just a few of the obituaries that have already appeared:

Common Dreams The Best of What A Human Can Be, and Do in Life by Abby Zimet

The Progressive Remembering Howard Zinn by Elizabeth diNovella

Boston Globe Howard Zinn, Historian who Challenged Status Quo, Dies at 87 by Mark Feeney

Democracy Now! Howard Zinn (1922–2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove"> by Amy Goodman

The Nation Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History by Dave Zirin; and
Goodybe Howard Zinn by Peter Rothberg

Huffington Post Howard Zinn Has Died. Long Live "Zinn" by Fred Branfman

The New York Times 'People's History' Author Howard Zinn Dies at 87

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rachel Swirsky's Short Story Nebula Reccommendations, 2009

I recently blitzed through a number of short stories so that I could finalize the short story portion of my Nebula ballot. I wanted to post about the ones I decided to nominate, and also some of the other excellent ones I encountered in my reading. I hope people will check out these stories, possibly for award consideration, but mostly because they're cool.

I have a post up at Ecstatic Days explaining my methodology for creating a reading list, and a few other points about what went into creating my list of nominees and recommendations.

Here are the nominees and recommendations themselves.

My short story nominations
"Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh, Asimov's Science Fiction
"Remembrance is Something Like a House" by Will Ludwigsen, Interfictions 2
"The Mermaids Singing Each to Each" by Cat Rambo, Clarkesworld
"The Godfall's Chemsong" by Jeremiah Tolbert, Interzone
"Non-Zero Probabilities" by N. K. Jemisin, Clarkesworld

Looking for the heat source

Bryan Thao Worra interviews Claire Light about Slightly Behind and to the Left for the Asian American Press here.

I can offer you a brief excerpt from the interview, to whet your appetite:
The first [story], "Vacation," takes place in the few months following the mysterious disappearance of all men from the world. There are still boys, but once they cross over some undefined threshold of manhood, they vanish too. In this new world, women become sexually predatory. When I'm writing a story, I'm looking for the heat source, the place where the story hits a sore spot, something that will make me – and hopefully the reader – really feel something.

The hotspot here turned out to be examining this sexually predatory dynamic between women and young teenaged boys. It's very taboo, and it was difficult and a little scary for me to go there, to get into the headspace of a woman who could become something violent and intrusive. And it was even more scary to make this story public after I had written it. Because at that point, the only other story I'd published ("Pigs in Space," which is also in the collection) also included a woman being violent. But I did it anyway.

The story got extremely positive – even exhilarated – responses from women. And I got a lot of confusion and veiled hostility from men, even close friends. (The most common comment or suggestion from male readers was to ask me to explore the absence of men more, to justify it.) And only then did I notice that most of the editors I was sending the story to, most of the journal fiction editors, were men.

Nancy Jane Moore Reading in Austin

I'll be reading Friday night Jan. 29 as one of the winners of the Five Things New Year stories contest. The reading is in Austin at the United States Art Authority, 510 W. 29th St., and starts at 7:30. It costs a buck to get in, and -- this being Austin -- there will also be music.

Just after I finished my 50th short-short for my year-long Flash Fiction Project on Book View Cafe -- links to all the stories here -- I saw the notice for this contest. And even though I'd sworn that I was taking a break from writing short, I couldn't resist. After all, when you've spent a year coming up with a weekly flash fiction, you start to think of that task as something you do, and do well.

So I entered, and I won, along with four other Austin-area writers: CJ Hallman, Jack Boettcher, Tyler Stoddard Smith, and Jimmy Dawson. We're all reading, and there will be music by The Baker Family Band, Morris Orchids, Cartographers, and Bethany Bauman.

If you are in or near Austin this Friday, come by and check us out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

About the Hugos...

If you're interested in seeing more work by women on the Hugo ballot, or just in the issue of getting more recognition of work by women in the field, you'll want to see Cheryl Morgan's guest post at the Feminist SF blog.

Just a reminder, these are the books that Aqueduct published in 2009:

Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl [nonfiction category]
Rebecca Ore, Centuries Ago and Very Fast [single-author collection category]
Sylvia Kelso, Three Observations and a Dialogue: Round and About Science Fiction [nonfiction]
Gwyneth Jones, The Buonarotti Quartet [single-author collection]
Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman, What Remains [Ellen Klages's short story "Echoes of Aurora" is original]
The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 3, ed. Liz Henry [nonfiction]
Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/Space [nonfiction]
Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal [nonfiction]
Claire Light, Slightly Behind and to the Left [single-author collection, includes two previously unpublished stories-- "Vacation" and "Abducted by Aliens!"]

Monday, January 25, 2010

Genres of Fiction, and Why They Aren't Discrete Entities

There's an interesting conversation about genre that's happening at one of the other blogs I write for, Big Other.

A. D. Jameson writes:

I love genre, because genres are basically conventions. They’re expectations that both authors and readers (and editors, and sales people) bring to a text—suggestions as to what should be inside, and how it should be arranged. And I dearly love conventions, because they’re the very stuff of communication, and of artistic structure—whether we’re obeying them, or departing from them.

I’ve never really understood what some people mean when they talk about “exploding genres” and “writing between genres,” and so forth, because I myself can think of very little writing that is pure genre. Most literature that I read—even the more conventional things—already exist between multiple genres.

Consider The Lord of the Rings.

On the one hand, it’s a “pure” example of contemporary fantasy fiction. Right? Hell, it’s the cornerstone of contemporary fantasy fiction. And it definitely is fantasy fiction... [b]ut when we look even more closely, we find that Tolkien’s writing contains traces of other genres. It’s contemporary fantasy, to be sure, but it’s also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, Old English and Middle English literature, German Romanticism, and Victorian children’s literature. Tolkien synthesized these various interests to craft a new kind of fantasy literature that differs from, say, fairy tales.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I

At some point in 2004, Patrick Nielsen Hayden observed that in a rational society, John Kerry would be the far-right candidate. Mutatis mutandis, an analogous point could be made about Terry Gilliam; but in a cinematic firmament where Almodovar and Zemeckis are stars, he's kind of stuck being a radical. Commentators who noted the irony of Brazil's having made it onto the National Review's Great Conservative Movie List rarely went so far as to note that even when it was first released, some viewers said, "Ah, he is ridiculing Great Britain for its Socialist System!" Of course, the oppressive state in Brazil is not a Leftist regime: it uses class divisions and consumerism to pacify the masses, in a fashion anyone can recognize in the U.S. and the West in general. And Gilliam's recent remark that Bush and Cheney totally plagiarized his movie makes perfect sense. But the anti-totalitarian position Brazil stakes out is not exactly congruent with what, in 1985 or the present, one might call a Left-liberal stance. A Reagan-era movie, written by an anti-Communist playwright, in which the forces of evil include unions and bureaucracy and Mom is doing something very different from, say, Thomas McGrath's or L. Timmel Duchamp's or Alan DeNiro's novels of oppression.

So if Gilliam is not a Leftist by the standards that have obtained in my lifetime, what is he politically? Consider that his literary touchstones include Dick and Spinrad; consider that "bureaucracy and Mom" are bêtes noires of Ken Kesey; and you'll see --what Gilliam is politically, is a hippie. He partakes of the New Left values outlined by Szalay and McCann, which I elaborated upon and sought to revise in my Afterword to Invisible Suburbs. Let me quote myself:
[Tom] Hayden characterizes what the 1962 student rebels saw themselves as opposing: "We were rebelling against the experience of apathy, not a single specific oppression . . . " . . . the student left saw their opponent [not as] advanced capitalism or imperial ambition, but regimentation, bureaucratic management, and postindustrial depersonalization, akin to Ken Kesey's "Combine." . . . It assumed moral autonomy and normalized middle-class experience in order to argue for a kind of self-realization, a mode of activism that is good for the individual psyche . . . the student left came to believe in a Romantic ethos of the lone man against "the System," of millenarian acts of conscience (culminating in the Days of Rage and the Weather Underground), in short, in voluntarism--what the great Marxist scholar/activist H. Bruce Franklin has styled "the bourgeois myth of free will."
The hippie attitude is very alluring to compassionate souls shocked by governmental outrages; hence Gilliam's remark on his expatriation to Salman Rushdie, "And I got more and more angry and I just felt, I've got to get out of here - I'm a better cartoonist than I am a bomb maker. That's why so much of the U.S. is still standing." But its emphasis on conscience and aesthetic at the expense, sometimes, of analytical commitments -- Hayden writes, "We studied the lyrics of Bob Dylan more than we did the texts of Marx and Lenin" -- leaves the hippie artist in great peril. And indeed, look at how many creators of major hippie books found that political position untenable and moved on. The authors of Mother Night and The Lathe of Heaven became the authors of Jailbird and Tehanu, respectively; i.e. Vonnegut embraced a more traditional Leftism and Le Guin a feminist perspective. Tom Wolfe and Steve Ditko became Rightists very early; Heinlein and Kesey were right-leaning Libertarians already; Harlan got into the habit of saying that no one is responsible for what happens to you but yourself; Dick became quite open about being able only to love those whom he regarded as broken or powerless, which may be okay for one's personal life but, as a political ideal, made him a pro-lifer and would have put him by Ralph Nader's side in the Save Terri Schiavo movement.

These authors' fates suggest that hippie politics are precariously balanced between Left and Right ideas of freedom and of responsibility. We shall see anon how Gilliam addresses that problem.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

That was then...

Last weekend I had the pleasure of walking in the Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham. A fast-moving creek with rapids and waterfalls is the park's main attraction. The bridge that crosses the creek near the falls certainly enhances the effect. I couldn't help but note the plaque set into the bridge.

Most of the WPA designations I've seen (on structures, on the title pages of books) are dated a few years earlier than this one. I've always been curious about them when I've run across them, wishing I could learn more about the individuals involved in designing and building them. But now, all too aware of the soaring unemployment rate and the abysmal state of the economy (which favors only bankers and other Wall Street investors), when I saw the plaque designation WPA creation this weekend, the designation struck me as having acquired an aura that is nearly otherworldly. A plaque designating WPA creation is far from unusual in the Western US. Is it an accident that the structures they accompany are usually pleasing to the eye? Myself, I doubt it.

Just So You Know

For the first five years of Aqueduct's existence, though my response time to submissions was often slow, the flow was such that I felt I could handle it. But the rate at which I've been receiving pitches and queries and mss has been increasing sharply over the last year-- and steeply over the last month. The increase hasn't been in submissions that are are too awful to read, or even the ones that get sent to every publisher the writer has an email address for, but in submissions from writers I take seriously. It's beginning to worry me, because I have a limited amount of time I can give to submissions but at the same time want to give them my full attention when I do read and consider them. The only solution seems to be a longer response time or more cursory attention to mss that don't look extraordinarily promising.

Now, after reading a post on SFWA's site, I'm wondering if perhaps I haven't made Aqueduct Press's drawbacks clear enough. Could it be that the writers sending their mss to me don't understand how little we have to offer? Could this be the reason we're getting so many submissions? I certainly don't want other writers be drawn in under false pretenses. That would certainly be as bad as exploiting them (something I know pretty well how to avoid doing).

In SFWA's Writer Beware section, Richard White has posted An Open Letter to New Publishers. This is ostensibly directed to any tiny publisher who happens to wander into SFWA's site, but is actually intended to be read by other writers. Reading his checklist of questions, I see that Aqueduct Press must surely be among the "new publishers" he sees as harming writers. He begins with this stern warning to us:
Publishing is a unique critter. Even so, one thing it has in common with other businesses is you need experience. Period. This cannot be overstated. If you have no experience in the industry (and being an unpublished or even a published author does not equate to publishing experience), what are you offering your authors?

Sorry, good intentions are not enough.
My only experience, when I started Aqueduct, was as a published author. Period.

More questions:

# Have you ever run a company before in any capacity?


# What’s your business plan?

To publish books, sell them, keep them in print, and use any profits to publish more books; to infuse money from our savings into the business when necessary, to the extent possible. (I'm sure that's too general to be the correct answer.)

# Have you secured sufficient funding to get this business off the ground?

We see borrowing money from a bank (presuming a bank would lend money to anyone just to publish books) as too personally risky, and so we never even tried.

# Who’s handling publicity for your company?

Um, me? And our managing editor?

# Who’re your sales reps? How many do you have?


# Who’re the artists you have lined up to do covers?

Good question. The answer varies. Sometimes they're dead. Sometimes (as with Ursula Le Guin's cover) they're nameless/unknown. Sometimes they're artists who don't usually do cover art. Sometimes we don't use cover art.

Of course, my answers to a few of the questions White poses would probably be answers he'd approve of. Our contracts are very close to SFWA's model; we pay advances; we pay royalties on retail, not net; our editors have previous editing experience. But there's one that he didn't pose, that perhaps he should have:

Do you have a paid staff, or are your production, business, and editorial tasks performed by volunteers?

We're volunteers. Not a single one of us is a paid employee of Aqueduct. Obviously this is a MAJOR drawback.

In short, my writing friends, if you're thinking of submitting to Aqueduct Press, please realize that if we do decide to publish your ms, we can't give you what the major publishers routinely offer. Your book will likely not be stocked in chain bookstores, you won't score advances big enough to live on, a big-name sf/f artist won't be doing the cover art of your book, we won't be able to finance a book tour for you, and distribution (and therefore print runs) will be modest.

And above all? We're not business people. Just people who love fine, challenging writing and books that we personally find aesthetically appealing. Just so you know.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

2009 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees

Philip K. Dick Award Nominees Announced
(courtesy Karen Hellekson)

The judges of the 2009 Philip K. Dick Award and the Philadelphia SF Society, along with the Philip K. Dick Trust, are pleased to announce seven nominated works that comprise the final ballot for the award:

BITTER ANGELS by C. L. Anderson (Ballantine Books/Spectra)
THE PRISONER by Carlos J. Cortes (Ballantine Books/Spectra)
THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO by Eric Garcia (Harper)
THE DEVIL’S ALPHABET by Daryl Gregory (Del Rey)
CYBERABAD DAYS by Ian McDonald (Pyr)
CENTURIES AGO AND VERY FAST by Rebecca Ore (Aqueduct Press)
PROPHETS by S. Andrew Swann (DAW Books)

First prize and any special citations will be announced on Friday, April 2, 2010 at Norwescon 33 at the Doubletree Seattle Airport Hotel, SeaTac, Washington.

The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Philip K. Dick Trust and the award ceremony is sponsored by the NorthWest Science Fiction Society. Last year’s winners were EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD by Adam-Troy Castro (Eos Books) and TERMINAL MIND by David Walton (Meadowhawk Press). The 2009 judges are Daniel Abraham (chair), Eileen Gunn, Karen Hellekson, Elaine Isaak, and Marc Laidlaw.

* * *
Congratuations, Rebecca!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don Belton and the Power of Narrative

Not the blog of that name, smart as it is. Just the inevitability of one narrative trope or another to creep into our discussion of events, no matter how nobly we try to suspend judgment. I made a tentative attempt to categorize Good Responses and Bad Responses in an earlier post on the subject; and both kinds continue to appear. Here's a Good Response called "Don Belton Lives" by one Big Mike in Bloomington; and here's an account of a professor at IU who was outraged to discover that Don only had an M.A. and, upon looking further into his university's English department, learned to his dismay that many Creative Writing profs not only lacked PhD's but were black, which I guess proves to him that the academy is in dire peril.

But the types of response have proliferated, and now we have "Perhaps well-intentioned but utlimately lousy responses," such as the fellow in a gay blog's comments thread who said something like, "Belton admitted to me in Philadelphia that he was a sucker for rough-trade, young white thugs who liked Woody Allen movies and that he pursued them whenever he could." That is, there were markers of Don's characteristic sarcasm in the quoted statement, but the commentor didn't grasp that and presented it as evidence of Don's complicity in the events that led to his death. Remember, we're living in a country where a professor (at Lehigh University) can argue, "Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier is not a good book, because it does not tell a story in chronological order and because Ashburnham is not a good man, and Ford wants us to admire him: it calls him 'good' right there in the title." The irony that a man like Don Belton would have learned to use as a survival strategy is incomprehensible to many.

Nonetheless, I was taken by surprise and appalled by a well-meaning post at one of the academic blogs on Timmi's blogroll (that's down and to your right), coming from "a pseudonymous IU humanities professor" who wanted to set himself up as a benignant critic of online discussions commemorating Don. The guy (I think it's a man) complains that the blogosphere is setting Don up as a model of "peace, love, and understanding" and as such erasing his "complex and compartmentalized" personality. Then he offers a couple of warm reminiscences of Don that aren't terribly different from other people's, except that he misses some important irony in Don's conversation, in a way that (like the "rough trade" commenter's recollection) makes Don look more like the man Griffin's defense will want to depict, by presenting him as "wanting to get everybody a little more drunk." Pseudonymous is particularly invested in making himself look more sophisticated than the discussants at Justice for Don Belton, saying that they narrowly define "justice" as "seeing Griffin convicted and punished," and that they don't notice that, by the standards that dominate outside the IU campus, Don Belton has already been served with justice.

Of course, there is in reality a nuanced discussion on the Justice for Don Belton site (and in other sites' comments threads) about what would constitute justice, whether calls for extreme punishment are consistent with the Beltonic values we admire, and what kinds of commemorations and actions are best for preserving the memory of Don and his work. And as for the standards that dominate outside the IU campus, does Pseudonymous really think that the Hoosiers or Americans in general all want to see gay people killed? I don't think that's consistent with the reception that gay artists and performers get nowadays, nor with the outcomes of most trials that we've seen for the killers of gay people. The homophobic prejudices that we have to fight in the majority of Americans are not the same attitudes that one might see in Jamaica or maybe Iran.

So what can one do in response to the ressentiment or obtuseness that one sees in discussions of Don and his death? I had been willing to discuss how grating I'd found certain aspects of Don's personality that were intensified by his unhappiness at Temple U; but they're kind of driving me in the direction that such books as Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom drove David Halperin: seeing how, in the years following Foucault's death, scholars began saying, "Well, he was okay until he began to narrow his focus by doing all that special-interest stuff about homosexuality" and others ended up exoticizing him into the representative of a Decadent Gay Figure of Destruction, Halperin threw down the gauntlet:
One of the most brilliant and original thinkers of our era, Foucault now appears to represent such a powerful, volatile, and sinister influence that his ideas--if they are not to contaminate and disqualify whoever ventures to make use of them--must first be sanitized by being passed through an acid bath of derogation and disavowal. As I have watched the cautionary spectacle of Foucault's demonization unfold, and noted the specific terms in which it has been carried out, my own attitude to Foucault has gradually changed, correspondingly, from one of distant admiration to one of passionate personal and political identification . . . So let me make it official. I may not have worshiped Foucault at the time I wrote One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, but I do worship him now. As far as I'm concerned, the guy was a fucking saint.
In Foucault's case, the battle is still being fought, as myths persist saying that Foucault deliberately spread AIDS among Americans, that he was a nihilist obsessed with suicide, that he was responsible for texts that were in fact written by the Marquis de Sade, that he abjured political activism, and that he is central to the Left's support for Islamofascism.

And it is not inconceivable that analogous myths will arise suggesting that Don Belton conducted orgies every Monday at four a.m. in the men's room of 30th Street Station or that he was some kind of alcoholic rapper. So it's heartening to see that, not only at Justice for Don Belton but at many other venues, people are fighting the good fight to take control of the narrative. Scott McLemee found out just a few days ago about Belton's death and very quickly put together a fine column on the subject, one which, although the speed at which he had to work left him using the barely-qualified Josh Lukin as a major source, turned out very informative and moving, showing a real passion for social justice and a characteristic intellectual acuity. How many other journalists would cite Eve Sedgwick in a weekly column (okay, if Bérubé had a column, he'd do it, but there's other things Scott does that he'd not be capable of)? One wishes for many writers to follow the McLemmean example in all things writerly. Many thanks to Scott for such a piece and for helping in the project of keeping Don's own writing visible.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I have a terrible feeling that no one has a handle yet on the magnitude of the devastation in Haiti. A report from Doctors without Borders (confirmed by others' reports), Haiti: MSF Teams Set up Clinics to Treat Injured After Facilities Are Damaged, tells us that many of the seriously injured (with trauma injuries, burns, and fractures) are receiving only first aid, because the hospitals and clinics that have not been destroyed by the quake, which were inadequate to serving Port-au-Prince before the quake, are beyond overwhelmed.
One of MSF's senior staff, Stefano Zannini, was out for most of the night, trying to assess the needs in the city and looking at the state of the medical facilities. "The situation is chaotic," he said. "I visited five medical centers, including a major hospital, and most of them were not functioning. Many are damaged and I saw a distressing number of dead bodies. Some parts of the city are without electricity and people have gathered outside, lighting fires in the street and trying to help and comfort each other. When they saw that I was from MSF they were asking for help, particularly to treat their wounded. There was strong solidarity among people in the streets."

Another MSF coordinator there, Hans van Dillen, confirmed that Port-au-Prince was quite unable to cope with the scale of the disaster. "There are hunderds of thousands of people who are sleeping in the streets because they are homeless," said van Dillen. "We see open fractures, head injuries. The problem is that we can not forward people to proper surgery at this stage."

So many of the city's medical facilities have been damaged, healthcare is severely disrupted at precisely the moment when medical needs are high.

If you feel able to make a contribution, here are a few places you can do that to good effect:

Doctors without Borders
Partners in Health

In the meantime, the Christian Broadcast Network has not neglected to seize the opportunity for blaming the earthquake on the apparently demonic success of the Haitian Revolution two centuries ago. This is on the BBC's site:
2034 The US televangelist, Pat Robertson, claims the reason for Haiti's misfortunes is that the nation "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago. "They were under the heal of the French... And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French... And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other," he tells the Christian Broadcast Network.
Yes, that is apparently the Christian Broadcast Network's spelling of "heel." So how many people listen to this guy? Can we expect to start hearing this on Fox News?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Purposes and Functions of Marriage

A women's history professor from Harvard has been giving testimony in the Proposition 8 lawsuit, currently in progress. This is from the AP report by Lisa Leff and Paul Elias:
Nancy Cott, a U.S. history professor and the author of a book on marriage as a public institution, disputed a statement by a defense lawyer that states have a compelling interest to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples for the sake of procreation.

Cott said marriage also has served an economic purpose, with each spouse doing different jobs in the partnership. As the purposes of marriage have changed, the reasons to bar same-sex couples from marrying have gone away, she said.

"It seems to me that by excluding same-sex couples from the ability to marry and to engage in this institution, that society is actually denying itself another resource for stability and social growth," she said.

Cott conceded under cross-examination that she couldn't predict the consequences for society of same-sex marriage.
Interesting, too, is that the plaintiff's lawyer is a heavy-weight conservative.
Regardless of the outcome, the case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could lead to laws that restrict marriage to a man and a woman being upheld or abolished nationwide.

The expert testimony marked a change in tone from the trial's first day, when the plaintiffs gave intimate accounts of their private and public lives, at times tearfully testifying about moments of awkwardness, disappointment and shame that they said resulted from their inability to legally wed.

"I've been in love with a woman for 10 years, and I don't have access to a word for it," said 45-year-old Kristin Perry of Berkeley, the lead plaintiff. "In a store, people want to know if we are sisters or cousins or friends, and I have to decide every day if I want to come out wherever we go, if we are going to risk that negative reaction."

Perry and her partner, Sandra Stier, 47, and a gay couple from Los Angeles, Paul Katami, 37, and Jeffrey Zarrillo, 36, were the first witnesses.

On Monday, their noted conservative litigator Theodore Olson quoted the U.S. Supreme Court's own lofty description of matrimony to demonstrate what his clients were being denied.

"In the words of the highest court in the land, marriage is the most important relationship in life and of fundamental importance to all individuals," said Olson, who represented George W. Bush during the Florida recount in 2000 and later served as his solicitor general.

Charles Cooper, who is representing Proposition 8 sponsors, said in his opening statement that Proposition 8 was motivated not by "ill-will nor animosity toward gays and lesbians, but special regard for the institution of marriage."

"It is the purpose of marriage - the central purpose of marriage - to ensure, or at least encourage and to promote that when life is brought into being, it is by parents who are married and who take the responsibility of raising that child together," he said.
Once you admit that the purposes and functions of marriage include other things in addition to childraising, the arguments against same-sex marriage disintegrate. But if the Supreme Court decides childraising is the only raison d'etre for marriage, then all sorts of new issues could conceivably arise for marriages that are childless or where one partner has decided they don't want children. (Try it out as the premise of an sf story, and see where it leads you...)

Anent what the AP story says Cott said, I'd argue that probably the purposes of marriage haven't changed all that much. Key financial benefits and social arrangements have always been a part of the purposes and functions of marriage. (Read Jane Austen!) It's just that a veil is generally drawn over them, in order to focus on the heterosexual romance narrative that has stamped most discussions of why people get married.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009

Or in this case, the Pleasures of Reading only, somewhat belatedly, at that.

Two ongoing reads stand out in 2009 for me. Last year I started working for the Australian Literature Database (making the few extra bucks per month the University no longer offered.) I was indexing “literary” items, which included short or serialised fiction, verse and tangentially literary columns from old Australian newspapers, one of them the weekly Northern Territory Times and Gazette, beginning in 1900.

Thomas Hardy is supposed to have found the basis for novel plots in his current newspapers. The indexer's is a different approach to the everyday reader’s, or Hardy’s, either. Rather than skim, or pick out sections, the indexer has to read *everything.* With the NT Times this is hardly a burden, since they usually run to 4 pages or so, but it intensifies the time-capsule effect of an old newspaper. Suddenly, you are immersed in a fossilized past/present, the minutiae of everyday life in a literal other world.

As in good SF, estrangement comes with cognition, if only from the well-known quaintness of old ads. Sarsaparilla cordial for stomach ailments, names of linen drapers and hair oil, advertisements for hotels and hoteliers gone a hundred years. At once strange and piercingly nostalgic, the minutiae of that other world, tied to us by time’s umbilical cord.

Other aspects of the time-capsule are less charming: in particular the ongoing, unselfconscious racism, then at the high tide of the White Australia policy. Editorials, letters to the editor, articles, every cliché of the inscrutable Oriental, the simultaneously feared, mocked and scorned Celestial, comes fresh and new upon the wincing modern reader’s ear. And with them, the 1900s portraiture of Aboriginals, exploited, scorned, condescended to - and feared. Aboriginal men, as in the US South, are always “boys.” Aboriginal women’s lot is too well known to need repeating. Aboriginals are confidently expected to die out soon, but when Aboriginals attack and kill white men, as happens more than once a year, the NT Times’ indignation is sure. By 1907, a headline containing the too-familiar “Outrage,” but that covered white men killing aboriginals and not vice versa, actually made me sit up and cheer.

But it’s the frontier, after all. The NT Times’ other major plaint is the Territory’s neglect or misrepresentation by the rest of Australia, and here again the time capsule takes effect. It’s like watching the end of Casablanca nowadays. WE know the war was won, but Bogart and Co. really didn’t. In the NT Times, with a novel reader’s hindsight, I can see the Territory struggling to a statehood I take for granted. And then, “yesterday’s cables” pass on the latest events at Mafeking. (“Colonel Baden-Powell is an accomplished swordsman with either hand.”) In 1906, there’s the first news of a disastrous San Francisco quake. And along with these come the warp and woof of local life. Seven years’ complaints about the non-existent mail service to Victoria River. Tenders to provide “fresh meat” in “Port Darwin,” to shoe government horses, to cut “ironbark fencing posts.” Notices about tick fever – and more gruesomely, news articles about the presence of bubonic plague, at Thursday Island, just over in Torres Strait, down south in Adelaide.

More rivetingly, the everyday chronicle can flow out into national consciousness. There are letters in the NT Times from men who carried a swag with Breaker Morant. There’s a particular frisson for Australians in reading rain reports from Elsey Station, sent by Aeneas Gunn – the Boss in We of the Never Never, beloved classic of my own youth. They stop without fanfare after 1903. The NT Times never even reports his death, though to us it’s one of the best known in the Territory.

And then there are the cattle-movements, the huge mobs travelling south to market from Wave Hill and VRD, trekking across the back of Queensland to meet “Mr. Buchanan” – Nat Buchanan, legendary bushman, founder of Bowen Downs, where Harry Readford stole the cattle that made his name as Starlight in Robbery Under Arms. The NTTimes mentions Buchanan's boss drovers, including “Mr. J. R. Skuthorpe,” Jack-Dick Skuthorpe, whose name I first fell over in Ernestine Hill’s 1903s populariser, The Territory. Among the cattle movements, including a mob so well tended that they reached New South Wales fit to win a pen prize at the Sydney Exhibition, The Times reports “Mr. Skuthorpe’s” return to a town for medical care: a three days’ ride after a horse came down with him, galloping round breakaways at night.

The Times preserves other serials that never made history. After dutifully reading years of sailing notices for the steamer The Australian, it was almost like real life to hear she had sunk in 1906. In 1907, almost every month carried another installment as the local nautical expert, Captain Strachan, first located, then insisted the wreck’s back was unbroken, then tried to pump out and raise her – 2009 ended with The Australian’s fate still as unsure to me as it was back then.

And there’s F. A. Stibe, mailman, who went missing in December 1901 on the way from Katherine to Anthony’s Lagoons – the dry stretch that threatened the Fizzer, mailman extraordinaire in We of the Never Never. Over some 6 months I followed real-time articles reporting that the mail was late, concerns about the mailman’s fate, reassurance that he was a good bushman, searches that found nothing. Then in March 1902, discovery of a body, the white man accompanying Stibe, at the end of a string of dead horses, and the mailbags, intact. In June, more horse tracks, 80 miles south of the usual route; then a horse with its throat cut. And at last Stibe himself, with the Aboriginal woman who stayed with him to the end, and the unsparing details of death by thirst in the bush: the bodies under a tree, a quart-pot with traces of blood, two large holes, and the fingers of the dead worn down from digging – worst of all, that the tracks had gone in circles, in the classic mode, so they died only 6 miles from the water they tried to reach. Two months later, the final episode for so many: a Public Trustee’s notice in the NT Times, calling for claims on the estates of four men who must have died intestate, including Stibe.
(You can poke around for yourself in the NTTimes at
It’s ironic to be reading 1900 newspapers in digitized form, but a lot easier than microfilm.)

The other pleasure of 2009, diametrically opposed in some ways, was Alexander McCall Smith’s later Isabel Dalhousie books. Fiction rather than faction, set in Scotland rather than Australia, and interesting first for just how far McCall Smith has pushed the original detective/mystery envelope that made his name. The Mma Ramotswe books are openly detective fiction, but Isabel Dalhousie began as a philosopher, and her books have moved steadily away from solving crimes toward moral dilemmas.

Nor is it just the content that's changed. Nowadays we’re all supposed to write like John Grisham. Short sentences. No details. Small vocabulary. Plenty of blood, and action from the go-git. But here’s McCall Smith, sans most action and nearly all blood, with a vocabulary going over the edge of academic, references to Kant and Schopenhauer and modern philosophers only Isabel has ever heard of, sentences longer than the Clyde, and a style that drifts like the original absent-minded professor. There’s a dry interest in imagining what shrift anyone without the name would get, trying one of these on an NYC editor.

What does align the Dalhousie books with the NT Times is the cultural framework: the Botswana books always leave me slightly uncomfortable because, however whimsical and yet gritty they appear, however much McCall Smith genuinely admires Botswana and loves Africa, they remain the voice of the colonizer speaking for the (once) colonized. And then, there’s a certain angle developing, particularly on Mma Makutsi, that raises my feminist hackles. Mma Makutsi triumphs over numerous handicaps in her life, and by book three she’s an independent entrepreneur improving her place on the income from her Men’s Typing School. But then McCall Smith suddenly shifts the goalposts. The Typing School evaporates. Mma Makutsi is left facing a crude choice between disavowing the name ‘feminist’ and losing the man without whose support she supposedly won’t survive. I dislike discontinuity in a big-selling series as much as I detest apparently engineered reductions of single independent women. If there was an explanation of the Typing School’s demise I might be appeased. As it is, the Botswana books continue to move into gray ideological areas for me.

But in the Dalhousie books, McCall Smith is on his own turf, and it’s a local turf so far removed from mine that it’s like another secondary world. His Edinburgh abounds with local “colour” past and present, from the statue of Hume whose clothes Isabel criticises to the pipe band playing “Dark Island,” outside Jamie’s window, to a sight of Professor Higgs, the boson-seeker, walking down Heriot Row, from the spectrum of wholly unfamiliar (to me) Scottish artists to the painting of a family in the Diaspora that reminds Isabel of “Lochaber No More.” The language itself is Scottified: Jamie reads a story to their son in Scots, characters quote Hamish Henderson: “Nae mair will our bonnie callants/ Merch tae war when our braggarts crousely craw,” or poets using dialect so thick McCall Smith does have to supply translation: “Strang, present dool/ Ruggs at my heart. Lichtlie this gin ye daur:/ Here Robert Burns knelt and kissed the mool.” Unlike many writers about Scotland, McCall Smith disdains the cliches of what's actually Border dialect, but elsewhere, words like “sheep fank,” or “bidie-in,” for a de facto, slide through the otherwise standard English.

This is a copybook tactic of the resisting post-colonial writer, presenting his own culture without compromise, as does Amitav Ghosh in The Calcutta Chromosome. And in the Dalhousie books, McCall Smith is in his own culture, not appropriating, however kindly, someone else’s. Scotland is a sub-culture, has been and still is a resisting area of Not-English – or, nowadays, Not-American – digging its heels in against cultural imperialism, and McCall Smith’s occasional comments, as on the disappearance of triangular oatcakes, emphasise his side of the fence. There have been a lot of comments on his work's warmth, humanity and whimsical sense of humour. For me the highest pleasure of the Dalhousie books is that, as with the NT Times, they are like reading a variant of good fantasy or SF: the one estranged in time, the other in culture and place.

More on Imagination/Space by Gwyneth Jones

"The new characterized by...careful readings, sharp but unexpected insights, and passionate but wholly individualistic feminism...It's the sort of book that's rewarding to have around for browsing and idea-mongering....The longest piece, 'The Games,' is an absolutely brilliant discussion of video games, the nature of game-making in general, and the ways in which such games have infiltrated both fiction and film. It's the sort of thing that makes you want to invite Jones to a bar and sit down and talk with her about this stuff, while knowing that what you really want to do is listen."---Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, January 2010

I'm not sure what "wholly individualistic feminism" is (in the pages of Imagination/Space, Gwyneth refers to her feminism as an "awkward" kind of feminism, and also as her "plan for reducing global levels of machismo") and so don't know what I think about characterizing her feminism in that way, but as far as wanting to sit down with her and listen to her talk about the stuff in her book: I've done that a few times, and can only say Amen to that.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The "Future of Collectivities" Panel

The 125th meeting of the Modern Language Association, held here in Philadelphia, was a sad affair. Only 7,000 people were in attendance, down from a few years ago when one could expect about 10,000; there were fewer job searches than ever; publishers such as Wesleyan, which used to have their own booths at the Book Exhibit, often ended up sharing space with four or five others. Although I did not have to deal with such stressful duties as job interviews or panel presentations, my own experience at the convention was pretty bleak: exhausted from a demanding semester, I only attended five panels and a Cash Bar; plus, learning about Chris Bell's death on the second day of the convention and Don Belton's on the third slowed me down a lot.

The program, however, was pretty good -- many fine panels that I didn't attend, and a couple that I did, notably one called "The Future of Collectivities," which only attracted my attention thanks to the presence of Temple grad Mecca Sullivan, who Chip Delany assured me was brilliant. Here is what I remember, or rather what my yellow notebook remembers, of the panel -- apologies for bits that are unclear.

The billed moderator, affect scholar Jonathan Flatley, was unable to make it to Philadelphia from Detroit; IIRC he was ill (no, Ann, I don't know whether he was suffering "Flatley of Affect"). A diminutive colleague of his named Lara Cohen ran the panel in his stead.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan opened with a paper on black feminist theory. She is working an exploration of how voice effects the crucial link between theory and praxis, especially via the claiming and reclaiming of silenced voices. That link requires the mobilization of voice and a hermeneutic apparatus: both are present in the poetry of Harryette Mullen. Mullen's expressions of black female subjectivity require labor on the part of the audience; her subversions of formal generic norms facilitate a multiplicity of social voices, such as have been discussed by Mae G. Henderson --voices that privilege instead of repressing the Other inside black female selves. Whereas Bakhtin identifies heteroglossia as novelistic, Mullen appropriates his term to poeticize the multiplicity of black female identities, as in her morphing of the Classical icon Sappho into the reclaimed black female stereotype Sapphire. Her work's gender stylizations of the body contribute to a big heteroglossic collectivity, populated by hybrid identities.

"Sapphire's Lyre Styles" from Muse & Drudge offers raced, classed, and gendered musical metaphors: in the second stanza alone, there are allusions to funk ("juicy fruit"), jazz ("peaches," recalling Nina Simone's "Four Women") and protest (the tree image recalling "Strange Fruit"), which put Mullen in the company of Hortense Spillers and others who write critiques of an African-American history that would blame the failure of black patriarchy on women. Mullen also uses the mutivalent meaning of the verb "to read" in African American culture. Other authors who imply a heteroglossic black female collective include Shange, with all the differently clad speakers in for colored girls . . . ; Beloved is also amenable to a heteroglossic reading. PUSH is the fragmented notes of an interior collective, leading to the cinematics of differences in Precious. Single models of voice and genre, like the "single-issue frameworks" of politics, will not hold.

Robert Philip Marzec, associate editor of Modern Fiction Studies, spoke of the 21st-century enclosure movement. The talk was part of his project on late 20th century alternative collective land movements, which he is writing partly in reaction to conventional histories of the enclosure movement and to criticism that denounces ties to the land as "blood and soil politics."

Officially, the last Act of Enclosure occurred in the UK in 1914. Enclosures had begun during the 13th century, with the conversion of the Saxon system to the manorial system; the rise of capitalism reduced the system to one of two classes, the enclosers and the dispossessed inhabitants, and effected a new view of the relation between humans and the land, between the State and inhabitants. Today, in the name of "energy security," we see global acts of enclosure being promoted and enforced by [four major technocrats and big transnational institutions such as the IMF and WB --I didn't get all the names], who target developing countries for alcohol-based fuel systems and privatize resources in the name of U.S. energy security, destroying what they label "protectionism" in the name of "fundamental agricultural reform." These changes parallel the enclosure movement's sixteenth century (and onward) transformation of the rural population into wage-laborers while mobilizing panoptic land as a new form of discipline and oppression. Robert Zubrin advocates "improvement" that will create total enclosure of the Third World, with slogans such as All Plants Without Exception can be used to produce methanol. He celebrates Brazil's military dictatorship as a model, despite the explosion in poverty associated with methanol production and the plight of enslaved biofuel workers. Brazil has the largest gap between rich and poor of any country on the earth and among the highest concentrations of land ownership, but this distinction did not arise recently: its economic structure owes much to the colonial history of sugar production.

The Brazilian landless workers' movement founds itself on conceptions of inhabitancy --cohabitation with the land. In opposition to international laws, it's based on food sovereignty and habitation sovereignty. MST, since its founding in 1984, has organized thousands of occupations and had half a million members. It's generated not only farm co-ops but an ontological understanding of existence based on complex relation to the land. Local autonomy wards of the formation of a "panoptic figure"; its critique of the professional speaker/actor prevented MST from creating a new intellectual class separate from workers that would generate authoritarian-paternalistic figures; it wards off the practice of monocropping, which is the chief source of starvation; and in turn it wards off the destruction of the environment that the exclusive production of cane and corn renders inevitable. National and international law is based on enclosure and cannot give sustenance to the global poor; the logic of profit and expediency and annexation will create a new shadow/dispossessed class if not stopped.

Katherine Biers gave a talk on Susan Glaspell and The Masses on Stage: How Do Groups Form? A rash of texts such as Rheingold's Smart Mobs are rethinking the top-down model of group formation that was, um, formed in the mass media age; but the early sociologists also saw communication as an action, not an identity. To Dewey, Cooley, and Mead, group formation was an aesthetic process. Literature can teach us additional stuff about group formation. Glaspell's 1917 play The People, for instance, asks what would happen if the actual masses showed up at the publishing office of Max Eastman's paper The Masses to claim representation. In Glaspell, the act of communication produces The People.

The science of Public Relations in the interwar period did assume top-down systems; but Cooley, Mead, and Dewey had argued that communication preceded the intention to communicate. In 1917, resources shifted away from philosophy and toward manipulation, creating PR as we know it, the world of Bernays, Lasswell, and Lippmann. But in 1914, Lippmann's "Preface to Politics" allowed for much more agency and aestheticism than his later work -- using William James and Charles Peirce, he advocated an experimental process of personalized media use not unlike what Nicholas Negroponte would come up with in the 1990s ("The Daily Me") but also cautionary-- Young Walter's ideas suggested that self-naming and self-understanding of groups occurs belatedly.

With the war in 1917, the wording and enforcement of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act presumed a mirroring of intentions between active pacifists and the passive receivers of their ideas. The moment in Glaspell's play when three of The People appear at the offices of The People and are told they should have communicated with the paper by mail is an allusion to the fact that, in the wake of government repression, The Masses had had to seek an alternative to newsstand distribution and solicit subscriptions: it'd had to resort to marketing itself. The fact that the fictional magazine The People has circulated randomly is key to the constitution of the three exemplars of The People in the play, which illustrates the belated relationship between communication and self-recognition. Each of the characters recounts how the paper has moved them: one, The Woman from Idaho, acts because she's discovered citeability as a feature of language and life (see Samuel Weber on the Brechtian "gesture"). A passage in the editorial that has moved the paper's readers, "if you move, others will come," yields a lyric moment showing the capacity of anyone to occupy the "you" -- the play's final scene of quotation is an expansive and inviting moment wherein The Woman from Idaho quotes the Lincoln speech that the paper recalled to her. All this suggests that The Masses' appeal to the masses is a theatrical appeal, based on the possibility of misrecognition -- one that can't be reined in by subscription. But remain aware that The People is a satire on collectivism in the name of collectivity.

Robert and Mecca came up with some fine insights in the Q & A period -- I don't have the questions or a decent recollection of them, but I have notes on their answers, viz:

Robert said he had deliberately repurposed the word "sovereignty," a word that's used by the First World State to demonize the people. As the unsuccessful attempts of South Africans to emulate the Brazilians without taking their own country's distinctive political conflicts into account showed, a true transnational network is not there. Although we here are English profs, we should never look at a text of literature as if it is speaking for a movement -- that insight is what's great about Foucault's early dialogue with Deleuze; and it also informs Deleuze and Guattari's late What Is Philosophy? in which they suggest that instead of "speaking for," the philosopher may have an opportunity to "speak before" a movement, an issue that is addressed for example in Coetzee's novels.

Mecca acknowledged that what Bakhtin styles "unmarked heteroglossia" appears in Hurston's work, including her nonfiction texts; and that there's polyglossia in a lot of diasporic literature in ways that points to intersectional identity: consider such works of Suzan-Lori Parks as Fucking A. Heteroglossia appears in all different genres, at moments in which a multiplicity of voices expresses identity issues. Mullen after Three Tall Women encounters Stein and is inspired to go heteroglossic with her work in the "marginal genre" of the prose poem. Like Robert's talk, she seeks to represent a whole that's not a single voice.

Rachel Swirsky Connects Some Dots

Over on Big Other, Aqueductista Rachel Swirsky has posted “We know he’s busy, but why didn’t she clean the house?”, thoughts on challenges faced by female writers , which links and responds to Jeff VanderMeer's Gender Roles and Writing, another interesting post. Here's a bit of what Rachel writes:
Another time gap that feminists sometimes talk about is the beauty gap. Setting aside the pressure on women to be beautiful, let’s just look at the pressure on both sexes to maintain an appearance that’s considered acceptable. The amount of effort involved for men to maintain an appearance that will be seen as acceptable is lower than the amount of effort involved for women to maintain an acceptable appearance. Some of this is because women are judged more harshly than men; some of it is because femininity has been defined in ways that require more labor. Either way, most people can’t just opt out of grooming standards — one may be able to eschew vanity, but looking less than acceptable can impair social and professional opportunities. For a full-time, at-home writer like me, this isn’t a big deal; I just skip it on days when I’m staying in the home office. But most writers have a day job, and men and women who work outside the home need to put in time to look presentable — a task which takes more time for women than for men.

There are any number of ways that systemic sexism interferes with women’s careers, but one of the most direct is time. Time spent on housework is time not spent on writing. Time spent on hair and clothes and makeup is time not spent on writing. If women put in more of this time (and overall in America, they do), then that’s fewer woman-hours that are available for writing stories. When we start to address unequal representation in magazines, it’s important to ask questions on the editorial level, the content level, the submissions level, and so on — but it’s also important to interrogate the gendered ways in which sexism blocks opportunities for writing to occur in the first place.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On Being the Token Whatever

Rereading Don Belton's Speak My Name, I found the following passage from the incomparable Robin Davis Gibran Kelley, an African-American historian whose work you should read:
I don't know how many times we've attended dinner parties where we were the only African Americans in the room . . . Our hosts always felt comfortable asking us "sensitive" questions about race that they would not dare ask other black colleagues and friends: What do African Americans think about Farrakhan? Ben Chavis? Nelson Mandela? Most of my black students are very conservative and career-oriented: why is that? How can we mend the relations between blacks and Jews? Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? Do you put anything in your hair to make it that way? What are the starting salaries for young black faculty nowadays?
. . . That they feel perfectly at ease asking dumb or unanswerable questions is not simply a case of (mis)perceived racelessness. Being a "nice Negro" has a lot to do with gender, and my particular form of "left-feminist-funny-guy" masculinity--a little Kevin Hooks, some Bobby McFerrin, a dash of Woody Allen--is regarded as less threatening than that of most other black men.
Thing is, for many ethnicities (broadly defined), anyone who's the sole representative of his/her group in a certain milieu gets to play "nice Negro" for it under some circumstances. I've been treated as the local Jew Informant since my childhood, when a school guidance counselor, Mr. Savage, asked me, "Hey Josh, is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas or the Jewish New Year?" Margaret Cho gets asked about Kim Jong-Il; in summer 2000, several people were asking me, "Hey Josh, whadday think about Lieberman? Are you proud he's on the ticket, huh?" "Why, 'cause he's a member of the short community?"

Now, I've never asked black people about their hair. Although, after having read Nisi's blog post on the subject, I was seized by terror that I'd combine the words "crinkly" and "nappy" and say to someone, "I'm glad you're so at ease with your hair being crappy." What happens to me, though, is that I get used to someone being an Ethnic Informant because they've volunteered information about their group or native land in conversation or in writing, and toss questions in their direction whether they want to answer that kind of thing or not. My friend Srimati from Calcutta once had to tell me, "I don't know how to pronounce 'Malayalam' any better than you do!" My friend Vince from Rochester, I have a more equitable relationship with: he answers the Gay Male Culture questions, I answer the Jewish American Culture questions, we're fine. My friend Sriram from Kerala is also pretty at ease with reciprocal exoticization, although he'll exoticize my whole country rather than my ethnicity: "I'm feeling perfectly at ease, and then I hear someone trying to pronounce 'Meera Nanda,' and I'll say, 'My God, I'm among foreigners!'" Or "How can people have such strong opinions on the relative virtues of The Band and The Grateful Dead, or The Beatles and Gershwin? It's all Western Music!"

There are, of course, different kinds of "dumb or unanswerable questions": the dumbest and unanswerablest are the ones that openly regard groups as monolithic entities, asking a person for "The black perspective" ("What do African Americans think?") or "The woman's perspective." Such phrasings are rarer than they used to be, but sometimes it becomes clear what the assumptions are once the question is answered: that is to say, I've seen surprise when I replied to "What does your Israeli mother think?" questions with "She said of the Occupation back in 1967, 'No good will come of it!'"

Closely related to the monolithic entity question is the "Surely you met in the Negro Club" kind of question. "I knew a Greek in Houston -- Argyris Crisopoulos! Ever meet him?" Or even "What's Zeno's third paradox again?" Turns out not all Greeks in the U.S. can answer either of those! I have once or twice met guys who seemed to think I knew all about media celebrities' chronic illnesses, as if that information comes with one's Crohn's Disease diagnosis.

In WisCon Chronicles 3: Carnival of Feminist SF (ed. the incomparable Liz Henry), issues of exoticization arise repeatedly, focusing on such problems as the privilege associated with being in a social role where one gets to demand explanations rather than having to give them: Shweta Narayan remarks, "Privilege doesn't mean you can't be fluent in another group's cultural frames, of course. It just means you don't have to be"; Shveta Thakrar explains, "Diversity means accepting and being curious in a respectful way about those different from you. It means not seeing I wear a bindi and asking me what it means, as though I were the spokesperson for all South Asians and their myriad traditions." In the course of outlining that "respectful way," she mentions having a friend who "just couldn't fathom" the fact that Thakrar didn't celebrate Christmas; as you might imagine, that's a cultural rift I've encountered too, most memorably from a Catholic woman I was dating twelve years ago who confronted me with "How can you deprive a child of Christmas?" And "I was thinking we could tell [my infant niece] that you were one of Santa's elves." Which in turn led to a hilarious attempt on the part of my mother to explain to her sister-in-law, in Hebrew, what "one of Santa's elves" meant.

So a lot of tactics for staying "curious in a respectful way" amount to regarding people as individuals and being conscious that the majority culture isn't universal. And that no one has the duty to be your informant. And not using the prejudices you've absorbed from the news or entertainment media as foundations of your questions.

And refer all of your curiosity about the U.S. South to Rebecca Ore's brother Bob, pictured above -- the white Southern analog to Kelley's "nice Negro," he's very inviting.