Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.22: Sheree Renée Thomas

2013: from Ashe to Amen and Beyond
by Sheree Renée Thomas

The year has seen me thinking about spiritual matters and exploring its roots and history in my work and in some of the art I admire most. Perhaps it is the loss of dear friends and loved ones, or the ever-growing sense and recognition that none of us are promised tomorrow, but I have enjoyed this exploration and hope it will yield sweet fruits in my own work. One of the highlights of the year was having an opportunity to help celebrate the legacy of Octavia E. Butler with writer Tananarive Due and some of my favorite authors, filmmakers, and artists at Spelman College this past Spring.

Between what felt like a family reunion led by Steven Barnes’s lively and inspiring informal “green room” talk on health and happiness from a focused physical and spiritual practice, to beautiful futuristic art and films, and a multimedia lecture on Afrofuturism and music by celebrated DJ Lynnee Denise (check out her Girls Gone Vinyl Project)
where she was literally flat-foot jamming in Spelman’s Museum, I have to say the new year and Spring season started off quite beautifully after what felt like the longest winter ever.
 Another fun conference was Onyxcon V held in August at the historic Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta. Onxycon is the Southeast’s largest convention celebrating the presence of the African diaspora in popular arts.

Founded by artists Iyabo Shabazz and Joseph R. Wheeler, this summer’s conference covered writers’ and artists’ tips to how to collect and appraise black popular media like comic books and vintage movie posters. The participants included museum curators, comic book professionals, and even the founder of a soul food museum. The other added treat besides meeting new friends was a chance to see a small but beautiful exhibit of paintings by children’s book illustrator R. Gregory Christie who also runs an open studio in Atlanta.

The conference was a great experience before the back-to-school grind. The end of the summer meant the end to some of my favorite guilty pleasures, including watching obscure and fascinating foreign indie films like I’m Not Scared, the amazing Italian movie that I won’t spoil for you since it was a little surprising and made this closet tearjerker boohoo inexplicably, or the fabulous silent, black-and-white Spanish Snow White adaptation I saw.

Set in the 1920s, Blancanieves explores the world of bullfighting, where the neglected and abused daughter of a beloved Spanish matador is rescued by a family of bullfighting dwarves (I kid you not!), who goes on to glory and tragedy, as befitting the Grimm fairy tale. The cinematography was beautiful, the costumes and actors were memorable even though as usual, the seven (or is six?) dwarves are never given anymore than broad strokes of characterization.

Special praise should be given to the wonderful child actress, Sofia Oren, who delivered a pitch perfect performance, and I loved the music and the over-the-top scenery-chewing satire of the stepmother’s performance. Maribel Verdú as Encarna was a Femme Fatale Betty Boop with some serious issues and a fierce wardrobe to match. While Blancanieves is no The Artists (it didn’t seem to take itself quite as seriously and in case you were wondering, no, no bulls were slaughtered on or off camera for this film), it is well worth watching in my humble opinion, especially for anyone who enjoys a little lore and magic in their movies.

My other guilty pleasure this summer included fussing at the Magical Negroes of the show I love to hate but can’t stop watching, The Vampire Diaries, and its great spin-off series set in New Orleans, The Originals with yet another Magical Negroe with an interesting backstory. Neither of these shows can be watched without also consulting’s hilarious photo recaps.

Speaking of Magical Negroes, in late September, a couple of days before my birthday, I saw stop. reset, the new Signature Theatre play by actress and playwright Regina Taylor in New York.

Taylor’s science fiction play set in a black independent publisher’s Chicago offices was a moving meditation on how grief can scar the soul and how future tech can enslave or set us free. How one took the play’s ending depended upon whether or not you saw lead Carl Lumbley’s final “transition” as a visitation of the spirits, a riding of the loa, or a case, as one critic saw it, as “contagious insanity.” Needless to say, I loved this nuanced work and the awesome public discussion that took place following the performance.

And speaking of contagious insanity… watch Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned. For me, it was a little like watching a Kara Walker picture come to life. Enough Said.

Ashe to Amen: African-Americans & Biblical Imagery is a sensational, provocative traveling exhibit that features work by 50 artists who explore a wide range of faiths, from hoodoo to Vodou, from traditional African religious influences to Islam and Christianity. My favorite works in the exhibit included the amazing 3-dimensional praise tent that is crocheted by artist Xenobia Bailey. Xenobia is an astonishing artist who came of age in Seattle among a few of Jimmi Hendrix’s influences

 and has continued over the years to “press on to Paradise” as she says, keeping her dream and her vibrant art alive. Her latest journey led her last month to a group art show in the United Arab Emirates which she blogs about here:

This wildly colored textile sculpture is large enough for a priestess or a mother and child to climb inside it, and it is vaguely reminiscent of the intricately woven Camerounian Bamileke crowns worn in Central Africa (or perhaps more memorably, by ZZ Top).

“Sister Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent” by Xenobia Bailey

Antique Bamileke hat and contemporary iconic hat worn by musician Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top


Bailey’s sculpture seemed sentient, magically alive with its two great unblinking eyes staring down at museum visitors, as if the “Mystic Seer” could see right into our souls and minds. I must admit that I had to resist my inner child’s desire to climb right in and sit cross-legged upon the emblazoned sun that adorned the floor beneath the sculpture.

 Renee Stout’s thrilling neon installation piece, “Church of the Crossroads” evokes Esu, Elegba, and Papa Legba more than the hooded Ku Klux Klan reference that was featured in the accompanying description of my local museum in Memphis, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Organized by New York’s Museum of Biblical Art and curated by artist and scholar Leslie King-Hammond, Ashe to Amen is one of the first exhibits that trace the shared roots and connections between African and Biblical traditions.

Three poetry and fiction volumes by the late author Wanda Coleman (1946 – 2013) and an essay in The Nation have had an impact on my writing life. When I first read A War of Eyes and Other Stories and African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 1988 and 1990) I had no idea that Coleman also had a connection to a creative writing institution that would serve as a safe haven and encouraging lighthouse for my own journey. A married mother of two by age twenty, Coleman worked numerous day jobs while seeking out writers’ workshops on nights and weekends to help hone her craft and develop the gift she had shown since she began publishing her poetry in a local newspaper at age thirteen. The Watts Writers Workshop was one of those invaluable spaces for Coleman.

January 1, 1966
January 1, 1966: Budd Schulberg (center) conducts a session of the NEA-supported Watts Writers' Workshop. Schulberg created the workshop in his living room in response to the 1965 Watts riots. Photo credit Los Angeles Times 

This workshop founded by Budd Schulberg (probably most well known for his award-winning screenplay, On the Waterfront) would also inspire Fred Hudson, a former librarian, playwright of The Legend of Deadwood Dick, and Paramount Studios screenwriter (The Education of Sonny Carson) to create in 1971 the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan where I was a student and later, an instructor.

                                                   Nat Love aka “Deadwood Dick”

                             Fred Hudson, Founder of The Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center

Wanda Coleman began her writing journey as a reader seeking refuge from the racism of 1950s society and the cruelty that can mark anyone’s youth. Seeking solace, she said that she became an avid reader at a time when public libraries “discouraged Negro readers.” A native of Watts and long considered its unofficial poet laureate, Coleman published over twenty books over four decades, writing eloquently and with dark humor about racial injustice and gender inequality. Not one to mince words, this former critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times once caused a mini tempest in America’s literary community when she published a scathing critique of beloved Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven and a follow-up response in The Nation entitled “Book-Reviewing, African-American Style.” This essay got her banned from at least one independent black bookstore and earned her publishers a flood of letters.

At a time when aspiring black women writers were faced in the public sphere with laboring in the wake of literary giants like Angelou or Morrison, Wanda Coleman’s collection, Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories,1968-1986 (Black Sparrow Press, 1987) was an exciting discovery that offered yet another distinctive voice and view of life that inspired me. And while she is no longer here to offer her powerful live readings or no-nonsense, hands-on writers’ workshops, the spirit and brilliance of her writing—her poetry, her fiction, her essays--will continue to inspire other women writers to find their voices and carry on.

                                                     Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)

 Sheree Renée Thomas is the author of the chapbook, Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems (Aqueduct Press, Conversation Series) and the editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Her work has appeared in storySouth, Callaloo, Essence, The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, Renaissance Noire and in anthologies, including most recently The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry. In 2014, Sheree will speak in New York at the exhibition panel for the Studio Museum of Harlem’s Afrofuturist exhibit, The Shadows Took Shape and at the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) symposium, “Alien Form: Genre and the Production of Ethnic American Literatures,” hosted at Pennsylvania State University.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.21: Kristin King

The Pleasures of Reading and Viewing in 2013
by Kristin King

 The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ve never read anything quite like it before and I never will again. You know that omniscient narrator of Victorian children’s books? She talks straight to you, and she’s more than a little condescending. This one is like that, except she is more perceptive than she maybe ought to be, and she knows that you know she’s lying. So she tells it to you straight. Our intrepid heroine, September, is going to get into trouble and she’s maybe not going to get out of it again, but she’ll be all right in the end – wink, wink.

One of my favorite parts is the chapter titled “In which September enters the Worsted Wood, Loses All Her Hair, Meets Her Death, and Sings it to Sleep.” A child’s death, the narrator explains, is as small as a mouse, because it seems so far away. Death is only big and scary for adults. And September’s mouse has bad dreams, from all the regrets of all the people who have met her, and must be sung to sleep. Like much of this book, it reads differently for children than for adults. If I had read this chapter as a child, I would have found it strangely moving and exciting. Reading it as an adult, though, I get chills down my spine.

 September is an admirable hero. She’s naïve, because of her age, but courageous and clever. Whenever she’s faced with a decision, she weighs her options and usually picks the hard route. This leads to grand adventures but also consequences, such as the loss of her heart or the severing of her shadow. She faces the consequences, deals, and moves on. Late in the book, she asks if she is “the chosen one,” and here is the lovely reply:
“You are not the chosen on, September. Fairyland did not choose you – you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose. You chose it all.” Now, that’s empowering.

Chicks Unravel Time, edited by Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles.

In this collection of essays, all kinds of women – fans, authors, and artists – take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.) I was happy to see some of my favorite authors have been inspired by the show. I was also happy to see the authors ask tough questions of the show. In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” for instance, Rachel Swirsky asks why the Doctor, who fights all kinds of monsters, won’t touch Hitler – and points out that the only character who ever tried was a supposed psychopath. And in “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker delves into the actual power dynamics of the characters in the show.

 Doctor Who episode “Nightmare in Silver” 

This Doctor Who episode, written by Neil Gaiman, features a life-or-death chess match with the added twist that the Doctor has been possessed by a Cyberman and must therefore play the chess game against . . . himself. That was a tall order for actor Matt Smith, and he filled it by going even more over the top than usual. I’m really a sucker for shows where “the good guy” playacts “the bad guy,” and so I was quite beside myself here. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s companion Clara Oswald, who had been suffering from a lack of character development in some of her scripts, came into her own as the commander of a troop of misfits. Here’s hoping she gets more good plots.

Mapping Human History by Steve Olson

I’ve spent hours and hours trying to find information about my family history. You go back five generations, and you end up with a whole lot of relatives – especially since some of my ancestors were Mormon polygamists. My biggest wild goose chase was trying to figure out if we really are related to German nobility through the family name Buse, as my great-granduncle claimed. Why exactly would I want to be related to German nobility, anyway? I don’t even know. But as it turns out, there’s about a five to ten percent chance that the father listed on any given birth certificate is not the biological father. (Sorry, dads.) This means that the farther we go into the past, the lower the chance that our written genealogies are correct.

But that revelation is small potatoes compared to the mathematical surprise that the number of our ancestors grows exponentially as we go back in time. In fact, if we go back just 600 years, we have more than a billion ancestors. (But how is that possible? The world’s population was only about 375 million. The answer is that we are related to our ancestors through multiple lines of descent.) I knew that our ancestors all migrated from Africa many tens of thousands of years ago, which means humanity shares common ancestors from long, long ago. But for some reason, I imagined the migration of my ancestors to more or less follow a single line from Africa, to Europe, to the United States. That’s not what happened at all. There was no single line; instead, there were billions of ancestral lines. And they went from Africa to many places all over the world, and from all those places to Europe, and from there to the United States. So much for “the races.”

Summer Night by Lina Wertmüller


Two completely unsympathetic characters, an arrogant one-percenter and a ferocious criminal, vie for power on a remote island. It’s so funny, sexy, and completely over the top, that it doesn’t matter who wins.

This movie is directed by Lina Wertmüller, a master at taking gender and class hierarchies, flipping them inside out, and then combining the resulting mess with sex, or Italian politics, or both. She has the honor of being the first woman ever awarded an Academy Award for directing. This particular movie hasn’t got quite the critical acclaim of some of her others, such as Seven Beauties or Swept Away. But for me, it’s the most fun.

 Kristin King (  is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Two of her stories appeared in an Aqueduct Press anthology, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries Lost, Suppressed, or Misplaced in Time, published this year.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.20: Larissa Lai

Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013
by Larissa Lai

It's been a very eclectic sort of year for reading, writing and listening. The nature of my work means things get often get read as my teaching schedule dictates. The nature of my health, this year, meant that I got some enforced reading/listening time. I'm much better now, and happy to amble through some of the things that caught my attention in 2013.

I began the year as a juror for the Dorothy Livesay Prize, which is the British Columbia Book Prize for Poetry. Of the hundred or so books in the box, my pick for the winner was speculative in its experimentation with language and form. Roger Farr's IKMQ is about the adventures of four letters of the alphabet. IKMQ consists of sixty-four brief passages. These are variously stories, vignettes, descriptions, instructions, scenarios and formulae, each of which involve the characters I, K, M and Q. Because the characters are letters, the fragments sometimes have the quality of a psychological or algebraic hypotheses, in which broader social, political, mathematical or psychological ideas are being tested out. Other times, it is grammar itself that gets tested, particularly when I is the protagonist. As in: "I was it. K ran behind the hedge, M climbed onto the deck, Q ran around the perimeter of the yard." The "I" here could stand in for a self—"me"— or it could be an abstract, like K, M or Q. Or "I" could be the first letter of someone's name— "Ivan" or "Isabelle". By leaving the possibilities open, Farr shows us how context dependent all writing is. I,K,M and Q show up in scenarios as diverse as a committee meeting in which Roger's Rules are being followed, a pornographic film, a physics experiment, a heist and a chart for testing vision. This is language that speculates on our expectations. If we want it, we get lots of sense for our pennies— more than we might imagine possible. Maybe I could put it beside Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, which I read and did a little talk on for the Vancouver-based Kootenay School of Writing talk series "I'm in You, You're in Me" in February of this year. Twelve-year-old Riddley is a "connexion man" desperately attempting to retrieve history after the nuclear blast. English as we know it has been lost, and the youngsters of post-apocalyptic "Inland" (England) reconstruct it from what they've got.

I do often find myself wishing that experimental poets and speculative fiction writers would read each other more. I think we'd have a lot to talk about. Some speculative fiction writers and readers might enjoy Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal: A Project for Future Children, an experimental fiction about the "Bengali wolf girls", feral twins found in 1921 and "recuperated" to Indian society. Seeking an ethical way to engage their story, Kapil travelled to Midnapure with a film crew, and revisited the place where the girls were captured as well as the various sites connected to them. She met a ninety-eight year old woman who recalled their howling, found a tree in which one of them had been photographed trying to grab the tail of a cat, and visited the room in which they had been kept. Her book shows us our own animal continuities, the cruelty and impossibility of humanization, and likelihood that we are all more animal that we usually imagine.

One of my tasks in the spring was to rework a seminar on 1970s feminist speculative fiction for graduating English majors at the University of British Columbia, where I work, to teach this coming winter. Last year, that class was a rough one to teach. It seems always difficult and painful to teach material that I think is democratic and liberatory. Some students loved it, but many of them just hated it and resisted the course material at every turn. The material I was teaching— Woman on the Edge of Time, Kindred, The Left Hand of Darkness, Les Guerrillères, The Female Man and Mind of My Mind— is 40 years old. I didn't set out to shock them. I was surprised by what they found surprising. As a great believer in student-centred learning, I actually want to start the discussion where they live— a much harder thing to do than one might imagine. This year, I'm framing it through Tom Moylan's idea of "critical utopias", as a contemporary phase of utopian writing that seeks neither another place (like Thomas Moore's Utopia) nor another time (like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward) for utopian possibility, and yet also refuses the defeats of some of the middle of the 20th-century's speculations (like Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World). Other thinkers I'll use to frame this course include David Harvey and his idea of the "insurgent architect" as he articulates it in Spaces of Hope. I'm particularly interested in those passages where he talks about the difference between what activists and thinkers plan and what actually unfolds. I'm interested, in other words, in that element of the unpredictable. I'll also use a little teeny bit of Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. This is an important text because it addresses shifts in the political sphere that accompany shifts in the economic one. It articulates the relationship between utopian fiction and the material world, and helps us see more clearly the time in which we are living.

This reframing gave me the opportunity to read Ernst Callenbach's Ecotopia, which is so visionary on the environmental front. We're living in a moment when our economic system seems very much like a death cult bent on destroying the earth and life as we know it, and I'm hoping that students might draw some inspiration from Callenbach. I'm also somewhat worried about the book's sexism, though it might do the work of illustrating what writers like Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Ursula LeGuin wrote so passionately against in the 1970s. I also finally read Daniel Heath Justice's Kynship, a fantasy novel that draws out the complexities of Indigenous political locations, and the tensions among them. What I loved about this book is that humans are pitched as the colonizers. Reading Kynship and thinking about how to teach it put me on to Grace L. Dillon's Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. It seems to me an important thing to think about fantasy universes, technology and speculative futures with Indigenous world views at the centre.

For several weeks at the end of May and into early June, I had a little health trouble that made sitting and standing very difficult. The upside of an otherwise unhappy situation was being able to immerse my mind in pleasure of audiobooks. I usually listen to them to save my sanity while in transit on long international trips. I can't imagine a better way of enduring the three-hour immigration line-up at Heathrow, for instance, than to spend it listening to A Remembrance of Things Past. This spring, in the dark comfort of my bed, I listened to Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke and Sea of Poppies, of interest to me because they are about the movement of opium between India and China in the 19th century, and the South Asian, British and Chinese lives touched by the British enforcement of opium production and trade. I was quite blown away by his figuration of the Ibis, as a schooner once used to transport African people across the Atlantic into slavery, now redeployed (in world of Sea of Poppies) to transport South and East Asian coolies as well as opium across the Indian Ocean. The world system of the 19th century was every bit as ugly as the one we currently live in. I listened to his The Glass Palace, as well, about the fall of the Burmese monarchy and its exile in India. I also heard The Calcutta Chromosome, a novel in which Ghosh imaginatively locates the cure for malaria with a scientific/mystical Calcutta-based movement that can give people eternal life. He offers us, in a sense, an alternate history that embeds the documented history of Sir Ronald Ross's cure for malaria within it. What Ghosh's novels have in common is that they foreground the stories of South Asian (and sometimes East and Southeast Asian) characters and offer us non-Western ways of knowing, so that we can see the past, and sometimes the future too, differently.

I also had the luxury of having Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 read to me. I loved that novel's premise— that it is possible to enter another world by listening to Janáček's Sinfonietta then climbing down a staircase that juts from a busy freeway offramp in Tokyo. And that one knows that one it in that world because there are two moons, the second of which is small and moss-coloured. Originally published in Japan in in 2009 and 2010 in three volumes, 1Q84 also tackles some weighty issues— secret cults, serial murder, domestic abuse, and literary fraud. I very much enjoyed Murakami's ability to take us from the ordinary to the subtly unfamiliar and then to plunge us from the subtly unfamiliar into the profoundly weird. He does it with such a deft hand one doesn't even realize it is happening, until small beings emerge from the mouth of a sleeping girl and you just nod and think, "okay." (Some critics hated Murakami's "little people," but they worked for me, and I appreciated the risk.) I'm always disappointed with his portrayals of women, though. Because he writes well, his female characters are always interesting, but because he doesn't really understand women, there is always something a bit alien about them. He doesn't understand them, but he reinvents them in interesting ways. As long as I think of his women as another species, then I can quite enjoy his books. Otherwise I get irritated. In 1Q84, the protagonist Aomame (trans. "Green Peas") is a martial artist, physiotherapist, and paid serial killer who specializes in the murder of men who have abused their wives. In her spare time, she hangs in seedy bars with her only friend, a policewoman called Ayumi, picking up older men with well-shaped heads for manga-style foursomes. In the audiobook, the Aomame sections were read in the high, soft voice of Allison Hiroto. It was a very strange experience to have Murakami's weirdly-styled female interiors narrated by this voice. Her voice was so clear and high, and her diction so perfect. The listening experience was at times like being taken to a particularly filthy lavatory by a lovely angel. Good thing Murakami has already taken us up the offramp and down the staircase into a world where the there are two moons.

I also listened to Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which tells the story of a man who returns to the village of his childhood. There he reconnects to memories of a young, supernatural girl who sacrificed herself to save his childhood self from less benign supernatural "varmints" who would erase him and the entire village given the chance. I enjoyed this book for the way it catches the whimsy and terror of childhood, and the way it shows us how the children we once were are still very much a part of us, if somewhat repressed or forgotten. I particularly liked the ways that Gaiman puts enchantment and disenchantment side by side, in particular with the character Ursula Monkman. She is a worm spirit from another world whom the protagonist initially pulls out of a hole in his foot. She appears in the family as a beautiful but nasty young woman who seduces the protagonist's previously loving father, and causes the father to try to drown him while she looks on. I enjoyed this book for its charm and its creepiness. I felt it lacked something in terms of a broader social engagement, but maybe that says more about my own tastes than anything else.

Once my health improved, I had a lot of work to catch up on, primarily the final revisions on a book of criticism called Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s, which I'm happy to announce is coming out through Wilfrid Laurier University Press this spring, for those of you interested in anti-racist criticism, theories of subjectivity and/or cultural life north of the 49th parallel.

In September, I attended a conference on contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell. Highlights included readings and talks by Sarah Dowling, Amaranth Borsuk, Robert Gluck, and Carla Harryman. I have been a big fan of Robert Gluck ever since meeting him at a conference on queer literary kinship in Ghent in 2009. His Margery Kempe, a very queer retake on the medieval Christian mystic who was in love with Jesus, is the sexiest, strangest and most heartbreaking novel I've read in a very long time. I probably should have known his work a long time ago. I confess to my gaps. He is an active member of the New Narrative school, of which Kathy Acker was probably the most famous member.

In October, I was at the University of Ottawa for a conference on Science and Society and to share my work in the English Department. Enjoyed talks by Yves Gingras on science and citizenship and Sheila Janasoff on science and its publics. Once the conference got rolling, I was somewhat taken aback by the hold certain streams of positivist philosophy have on science studies. Enjoyed talks by my co-panelists Robert Bean (about a project on early typewriters) and Cindy Stelmackowich (about her work on 19th-century anatomical drawings). I did a talk and reading and had a lively conversation with members of the English Department at the University of Ottawa afterwards, in which I shared both my talk for the Science and Society conference (on the liveliness of the material world) and a bit of the novel, Grist, which I have been working on for way too long. Thomas Allen had a few good reading suggestions, which I hope to take up in 2014: Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, which is about an African American woman who breaks into a league of elevator inspectors in a world where elevators are a prestigious technology, and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange, about a magic orange that travels from Mexico to Los Angeles and drags the Tropic of Cancer along with it. Take that, Henry Miller!

In November, in preparation for the Sally Miller Gearheart conference, I read Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun. I loved the sadness of her 17th-century sea monster. I also read Suzy McKee Charnas's Dorothea Dreams, which made me wish I was a grown-up in the 1970s.

As the year closes, I'm reading Miguel Syjuco's Illustrado about the murder of a fictitious writer/eccentric called Crispin Salvador, and the attempts of Miguel, his student and friend to find Salvador's novel-in-progress, which mysteriously vanished at the time of Salvador's death.

In 2014, I'm looking forward to reading some of the books I bought in Eugene, especially Andrea Hairston's Mindscape and the two volumes of Ursula LeGuin's short fiction, The Unreal and the Real, that I bought there.

A lot of ambling was done this year, that much is for sure. As the dark and sleepy winter soltice descends, I'm seeking a little peace, both on earth and in the recesses of my overly busy mind.

 Larissa Lai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at The University of British Columbia. She holds a PhD from the University of Calgary. Her first novel, When Fox Is a Thousand (Press Gang 1995, Arsenal Pulp 2004) was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her second novel, Salt Fish Girl (Thomas Allen Publishers 2002) was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, the Tiptree Award and the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Award. She has also published a good deal of poetry. Her first solo full-length poetry book, Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp), was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.19: Brit Mandelo

Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013‏
by Brit Mandelo‏

It has been a busy year, for me, and so I’ve had a bit less time for reading and listening than I’d like—but I have gotten around to some good stuff. In particular, I thought this was a strong year for new short story collections. Small Beer Press published the two-volume Ursula K. Le Guin retrospective The Unreal and the Real, while Christopher Barzak’s first collection Before and Afterlives came out from Lethe Press. All three were strong showings—good portraits of the writers’ work, a pleasure to read, and full of complicated, intimate stories.‏

There were a couple of new novels that I found pleasant, as well. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was a short, dense, interesting distillation of Gaiman’s storytelling habits from across his career in one place—lyrical, eerie, and deeply imbricated with myth. Then there was Blood Oranges by Kathleen Tierney (a.k.a. Caitlin R. Kiernan), a completely different kind of book: this one a pastiche of the urban fantasy genre, witty and sharp and hugely fun. Kiernan manages to tell a solid, engaging romp of a story while simultaneously doing the meta- work of commentary and parody; great stuff.‏

I also read, for the first time, Chris Moriarty’s (now-finished) Spin trilogy. These books are a great example of what science fiction can do with issues of gender, embodiment, and sexuality—while also telling far-flung, technological mystery stories full of political and cultural intrigue. I was particularly fond of Spin Control, the second book, but all three were crunchy thoughtful reads that also kept me turning pages voraciously. I can’t wait to see more of Moriarty’s work in the future—she’s blazingly clever and very engaged with the complexities of her work.‏

In the nonfiction realm, the recently-released Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer is probably one of the best and most structurally conducive books on writing and creative production I’ve ever read. It’s multimodal, funny, and well-informed; the art is awesome and functional, while the technical prose is illuminating. I’ve also been reading the works of J. Jack Halberstam, a critic and academic writing on issues of gender, trans* identities, and cultural politics. Female Masculinity from 1998 is a prescient study of alternative masculinities, subcultures, and the ways in which non-dominant masculinities work discursively. It is a very 1998 book in some ways, though; this is why the 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives is a great follow-up. The idea of genderqueer identity comes up in this book, offering bridges between trans-masculine identities and the “butch” identities of people who still identify as women but have a complex relation to the middle spaces between binary genders. I’m partway through Halberstam’s newest book, The Queer Art of Failure, and it’s proving just as intriguing and provocative. ‏

As for other cultural productions, I’ve listened to a couple of albums this year that are new to me (though probably not to the rest of the planet) and stuck with me—particularly through a difficult move to another country—like Brand New’s The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me and The Tallest Man on Earth’s Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird. Though I would hardly argue that Brand New’s music is unproblematic, this 2006 album has a sort of emotional density that I appreciate; the explorations of masculinity, loss, and anxiety here are something I find particularly evocative. Sometimes the Blues…, from 2010, has a soothing, folkish sound that I also enjoyed—I’ll likely check out further music from the artist in the future.‏

So, all in all, 2013 was a decent year for reading, viewing, and listening. I hope that next year, I have a time for a little more of each.‏

Brit Mandelo  is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction, feminism, and queer literature, especially when the three coincide. Her work—fiction, nonfiction, poetry: she wears a lot of hats—has been featured in magazines such as Clarkesworld,, and Ideomancer. She is an editor for Strange Horizons. She also writes regularly for and has several column series there, including "Queering SFF" and the ongoing "Reading Joanna Russ," which explores Russ's oeuvre book-by-book. She edited Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2012). Aqueduct published her long essay, We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling in the Conversation Pieces series in 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt. 18: Lesley Hall

The Pleasures of 2013
by Lesley Hall

This has been a somewhat harried year for me; however, there have been assorted pleasures along the way.

There were some delightful travels: a long weekend in Glasgow, where I was very taken with the works of the Glasgow School in various museums and galleries, not to mention the Willow Tea Rooms, which provided not only a chance to take the weight of my feet, but surviving witness to the interest of the 'Glasgow Boys' and 'Glasgow Girls' in applied arts. A few days in Dresden

followed by a few more in Prague - so many lovely buildings and architectural features:
And a few days in Utrecht, which enabled a pilgrimage to the amazing Kroller-Muller Museum way out in the country, which has a spectacular art collection, and a sculpture garden including a pavilion with several Barbara Hepworth sculptures:

In more sedentary pleasures, as I am one of the judges for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year, I have been reading quite a lot of sff, much of it out of my usual line, but feel that I should not discuss any of it before the announcement of the shortlist next spring, even though there have been some pleasant surprises.

I think, however, that I remain at liberty to declare my delight in the latest Ankaret Wells Requite-set novel, Heavy Ice. This was a wonderfully fun read with great world-building and thought-provoking cultures and relationships, in an utterly beguiling narrative voice. I was also chuffed that the second volume in Roz Kaveney's Rhapsody of Blood sequence, Reflections, appeared this autumn, and thoroughly lived up to the promise of the first, Rituals, even if it did end on a cliffhanger that left me gasping for the next instalment. Sherwood Smith is always a very readable author, but I found her Banner of the Damned took her work to a whole new level of complexity and depth.

In non-fictional reading, Carol Dyhouse's Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women not only does a thorough job of work in delineating that phenomenon I've noticed myself as a historian of twentieth-century gender and sexuality: the way that girls/young women become something between canaries in the coalmine of modernity and Rorschach blots for societal anxieties about modern life and social change - but describes it in a beautifully fluent and engaging style. Similarly extremely readable as well as an important contribution to the historiography of the 1920s, Lucy Bland's Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper provides new insights into some of the causes célèbres of the years just after the Great War.

Lesley A. Hall is a London-based archivist and historian, and author of several books on the history of gender and sexuality. She has also published the Aqueduct Press Conversation Piece, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007). Her biography of a pioneering British feminist sex radical and campaigner for reproductive freedom, The Life and Times of Stella Browne, feminist and free spirit, was published by IB Tauris in 2011, and the expanded and updated second edition of her textbook, Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 was published last year. Lesley's website can be found at

Friday, December 20, 2013

Privacy, Propaganda, and Assimilation in the 21st Century

I'm interrupting our 2013 Pleasures series for this guest post by Kristin King, to boost the signal of news that will likely not be carried by Seattle's primary news outlet. But we'll be resuming the Pleasures series shortly.

Privacy, Propaganda, and Assimilation in the 21st Century
by Kristin King

Yesterday, KUOW broke the news that the Washington State education department, OSPI, signed a data sharing agreement to hand all kinds of confidential student and teacher information off to eight reporters at the Seattle Times. Parents were never notified, lack the legal right to “opt out” of such disclosures, and have no legal recourse if their students’ data is stolen and misused. Our only protection? The Times and the reporters promised to keep the data private and to return it when their studies were done.

Yes, I did say “studies” rather than “articles” or “investigations.” Since when do reporters conduct studies? Since a nonprofit gave the Seattle Times some grant money for it, that’s when. What nonprofit? Why?

The name of the nonprofit is the Solutions Journalism Network. It’s a new thing. You know how the news is kind of a downer? It presents crises, but no solutions. But never fear! Someone is on hand to do evidence-based research on ideas for fixing the problems.

You might wonder whether the solutions are simply “for the greater good” or whether they benefit anyone in particular. I certainly did. So I did what I always do when I see a nonprofit involved in something that looks sketchy: I checked out their funders. At the top of the list? The Gates Foundation, which has become notorious for using its cash to change public policy to support various types of school privatization and other changes to education, including the Common Core initiative, which requires states to gather large amounts of data on students, teachers, and test scores.

By the way, as long as we’re talking about the Gates Foundation, we had better talk about Bill Gates and his concept of creative capitalism. It’s unfortunate that capitalism is hard on some people, but we’re all smart people, and we can fix it. You just find creative ways “to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities.” The inequities still exist, of course.

After I finished peeking at their funders, I checked out the Solutions Journalism Network’s projects and examples. They have grants available for researching climate change, for example. But not stopping climate change. No. The articles are all about climate change resilience, or helping communities cope with the disastrous effects of climate change on local communities. And there are articles on economic equity. But this isn’t economic equity between the rich and the poor, or between whites and people of color. No. It’s only economic equity between men and women. And there are articles on solutions to education problems. But they’re not about addressing fundamental barriers to learning. No. They’re about social/emotional learning.

Do you see a pattern here? The articles are all great articles. We should be working on climate change, economic equity between men and women, and social-emotional learning. However, the grant funders are only looking for articles that are going to make us feel good without threatening their wealth or raising taxes.

Let's dig a little deeper into the kind of content they’re looking for. If you scroll down just a little way on the “examples” page, you see their idea of a Solutions Journalism approach to education on the rez. The article they highlight is “Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunity,” published in Education Week. The problem? “On most measures of educational success, Native American students trail every other racial and ethnic subgroup of students.” What’s the solution? I’ll give you a hint: it’s got nothing to do with raising the per capita income above $8,000 per year, or putting tax dollars into schools. Actually, it’s about an Indian school. It’s about sending Lakota children off to a private, Jesuit-run high school.

I had to stop here and do the dismayed version of laughter. Did we learn nothing from the past three hundred years? Did we forget about all the abuses heaped on First Nations peoples by Jesuit boarding schools? No, we actually didn’t forget. If you do a Google search for “Jesuit boarding schools Native American,” you’ll see what I mean. Of course, the Jesuits of today are not the same as those olden times Jesuits. We’re in the twenty-first century, and assimilation takes a different form. Students learn the Lakota language and are allowed to practice Lakota spirituality. That’s all good. But they also study the Catholic religion and learn how to function in twenty-first century capitalism. More importantly, an outside entity is getting to decide what the Lakota kids learn. This is still assimilation.

Also problematic is that a private school is set up as a solution to economic inequalities. Not all the Lakota children are allowed to go: school officials choose kids they feel have appropriate parental support. An even smaller number are able to go on to college: since 1999, 50 students have been granted Gates Foundation scholarships to go to college.

This is the creative capitalism solution in a nutshell: leave the underlying social injustices in place, but “ease the world’s inequalities.” Might there be a better solution that includes economic justice and Lakota self-determination? Yes, but Solutions Journalism isn’t going to be funded to look for it.

Instead, I’d be willing to bet that Solutions Journalism will be funded to look at education “solutions” involving privatization, high-stakes testing, fast-track teacher preparation programs, and other corporately-inspired “education reforms.” Why would I think that? Because it’s what its funders want.

And this brings us back to the grant-funded Education Lab at the Seattle Times. The grant funders have no direct control over editorial content, as the Times explains. But of course they have the same kinds of indirect control as advertisers have. If an advertiser doesn’t like what a publication is doing, it can withdraw its advertisements. If the grant funders don’t like the stories put out by the Times, they can stop making grants. Another type of indirect control is that money is available for certain types of projects that might not be possible otherwise, such as the study the reporters are doing using student data.

What might that study be about? We don’t know, but from the KUOW article we do know that the OSPI “has so far promised the Times individual student and staff data dating from 2009 to this year, including individual students’ test scores on numerous state assessments, grades, school schedules, absences and discipline information.” We also know that Deputy Managing Editor Jim Simon wants this -- ahem -- “welter of information” as “a way to hold the system accountable for the performance of schools.”

Ah, accountability. In the world of “education reform,” that means judging schools and teachers by student “achievement” as measured by scores on standardized tests. It doesn’t mean accountability for fully funding schools or working to solve racially based discipline disproportionality or following the law in educating special education students .

A few years back, the Los Angeles Times used this data for “accountability” with tragic results. It posted rankings of teachers based spuriously on student test scores, and a teacher was so upset he committed suicide. Here’s hoping the Times doesn’t do that. But my guess is that the study will in some way, shape, or form, advocate for “education reform.”

Putting it all together? My children’s private data will be used to bring grant money to a for-profit company. It will be used as propaganda for education policy changes that are not in my kids’ best interest. I’m not pleased. What can be done? Well, public protest is always good. Angry parents and civil liberties groups have stopped a bunch of states from sharing data with Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit InBloom.

But to make that public protest happen, people need more information about privacy. Most of the parents I talk to don’t understand the ways the federal privacy law, FERPA, does and does not protect our children’s privacy. They don’t know that even if they sign an opt-out form, schools can share data with third-party organizations. They don’t know that this kind of data sharing agreement is becoming the norm. That’s a lot to explain right there.

We also need a better understanding of the dynamic between nonprofits and the philanthropies that fund them. For that, I’d recommend the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. It’s a big eye-opener. Or if you want something shorter, try my post “Are Nonprofits Our Frenemies?”

Here in Seattle, we are fortunate to have some actual investigative journalism around education issues: the blogs Save Seattle Schools ( and Seattle Education ( Through these blogs, Seattle parents, teachers, and students have been able to work together to learn about privatization and fight for our own visions of education.

And as a bonus? Unlike the Seattle Times, those blogs don’t make back-door deals with the state to get our children’s private data.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.17: Mark Rich

Notes on Readings, 2013
by Mark Rich

This year proved another one in which events carried me more than I carried them. Even so I made time for readings that took me places I had reasons to visit. I have unfinished studies on my docket, prompting my choices in many cases. Yet I also experienced a strengthening conviction through the course of the year that I needed to revert to basics, when I could.

Ezra Pound's injunction that one does better reading one poem deeply than giving cursory attention to a body of poems has influenced me since I was a teenager. Even though Pound himself set a different example, at times I took his injunction as giving license to take parts to represent wholes. I indulged in the feeling that I knew bodies of literature when in fact I knew little more than their fingernail clippings or beard shavings. How gratified I felt, in 2012, discovering in Van Wyck Brooks (Opinions of Oliver Allston, 1941) his passage about a similar assumption of knowledge in his younger days. It gratified me because Brooks did, in the end, acquire a balanced historical perspective that seems near enough to comprehensive, in American literature, to dazzle. He proved one could make recovery from inadequacy. Inadequacy must remain our given state. A single inadequacy in being tested and mended leads us to notice other inadequacies of understanding, knowledge or ability; and each of these, in turn, opens the way to noticing others. Even so, Brooks by example made it clear we can choose to face it, and to subject it to remedy.

An assumption to knowledge arises from pride: and pride never surrenders its turf entirely, in those of us in the arts. It transforms, instead. So I little doubt that I picked off remaining bits of an old pride, clinging to me like seaweed strands left over from being lost at sea for years, in order to make room for new seaweed strands.

Yet it has the look of humility, to return to basics. And it has some of the feeling.

I opened A Book of Famous Poems (1931), compiled by Marjorie Barrows for young readers, and read it to the end. I did the same with One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement (1928, revised edition), compiled by Roy J. Cook, and published by, of all entities, a piano manufacturer. I read this one forgetting the previous one's title——and forgetting, too, that at bedside I had another, much fatter book with "famous" in its title. "Famous poems" must have almost no meaning, in our age. In my earlier days, these two words would have made it quite likely that I would leave the book unopened, and quite certain that I would not read it cover to cover: "Famous poems? Why——I must know them already!" Know many of these famous poems I did——as acquaintances. Even the old, good friends among them——I had studied and written about these poems, after all——had shuffled their ways back to the level of acquaintances. Here all these famous works were appearing in a patchwork context, with no overarching organization that I could see; and here I was, bemoaning that my understanding, like these little volumes, was likewise patchwork——but gamely reading onwards exactly for that reason. That quilting word came to me when writing in my journal after reading One Hundred and One: "One of the great benefits of a hodgepodge volume of this sort is the patchwork creation of a tradition in one's mind——or the refreshing or rearranging of the patchwork that already exists in mind." In any case I felt edified at both the familiarity and newness I encountered. Reading these poems reminded me that one cannot spend too much time returning home. (The Cook compilation places Sir Walter Scott lines on cleaving to home near Byron lines on leaving home; and it strikes me now how the home-feeling and home-values gave the Romantics a grounding that enabled their flights. And the Romantics created the ground for Modern flights.)

I would like to convey the appearance these two books present——beat-up and well-read, both. The Barrows volume has its paper spine completely split, and its blue cardboard covers worn white at the edges; the brown paper covers of the Cook are ripped at top and bottom spine, with the unprotected page-corners rounded forward by repeated thumbing. I have just noticed that both once belonged to a single reader: for in neatly attractive pen, on each cover, I find "Thelma P. Paulsen." Thelma claimed these things and made them part of her home. I brought them into my own physical home after an auction, in a batch of books——and now have found myself at home within them.

Around the time I finished the Cook I was finishing Seven Famous Novels by H.G. Wells (1934). (Even the "famous novel" must rank as a threatened creature in our fractured-attention world.) Between these covers again I revisited old territory and explored new. While uncertain if I read War of the Worlds in my youth, I do believe I never opened Food of the Gods nor In the Days of the Comet, both of which display a positivism that seems strange from one who wrote so pessimistically, earlier. They also display an adroit, mature style that stands in contrast to some pell-mell rushes in his early prose.

Seven Famous Novels may have made me read more words than any other title, this year——although one or two others may have topped it. Several thick books engaged me——The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Richard Holmes, 2010), The Lunar Men: the Friends who Made the Future (Jenny Uglow, 2002), The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (Lewis Mumford, 1970), and The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain (Charles Nieder, ed., 1961). The Mumford likely takes the prize, actually, for sheer bigness——suitable to his topic and vision. Industrial histories of the United States by Carroll D. Wright (1895) and Katharine Coman (1910) felt almost as hefty——most likely because I was conscientiously attempting to ground myself in their subject and patiently working through their pages——but not engaged in the willing effort to comprehend an overall vision as with Mumford.

Grounding myself? Finding home? Or do some books become bedrock——as their slablike heft might suggest? The Romantics have a fixed place in my bicameral poetry-and-science heart. Twain seems to loom somehow over my childhood and youth——who knows how——so it tempts me to conflate bedtime tales and bedrock. (However much I read Twain, whether at bedtime or before, I leave him feeling I give him too little heed.) Mumford, now: his books peered out at me from my father's shelves, when I was a child and then in youth. Need I say more?

As another means of combined discovery and rediscovery I re-read a few books besides those several by Wells, and delved further into bodies of work where I had found the fingernail-clippings and hair-clippings to my liking in the past. So I read The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (Edmund Wilson, 1965); Days of the Phoenix and From the Shadow of the Mountain (two volumes of memoir by Van Wyck Brooks, 1957 and 1961); Fables of Identity and The Well-Tempered Critic (Northrop Frye, both 1963); and Mission of the University (José Ortega y Gasset, 1944).

Deepening the soil above the bedrock, however, came novels I truly wish I had read before, so that this year I might have enjoyed re-reading them——foremost among them To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927), Paris in the Twentieth Century (Jules Verne, 1996) and A Modern Instance (William Dean Howells, 1882). I read several classic children's novels for the first time (to my remembrance)——and found myself most highly delighted by Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883) and Little Men (Louisa May Alcott, 1871). (Dare I say I became an Alcott enthusiast ... in the same year I became a Woolf enthusiast?) One nonfiction book had an impact similar to these novels: Dream Days (Kenneth Grahame, 1898), a wonderful memoir of childhood.

I did manage to read fiction and poetry in a few fairly contemporary books and magazines——including a handful of volumes published by West Coast presses Aqueduct and Ravenna. A little treasure I particularly liked: Blinded by the Light then the Dark (Duane Ackerson, 2011). I first encountered Ackerson's poems as a teenaged small-press editor. While he has powers as a writer now that I suspect were hard-won during those intervening decades, lines from early poems became an ingrained part of my literary experience. I cannot erase them nor would wish to.

So ... grounding? Uncovering bedrock?

Opening this small book and delighting in it offered a return home: yet what matters is the newness——not the reaffirmation of the old but the affirmation that all can yet be new.

Reading from start to finish those Famous volumes, small and large, serves as an acknowledgement to myself——not acknowledging that I need to be reminded of what I once knew, but rather that I need to learn that which I have repeatedly failed to learn. The overweening pride of the assumption to knowledge has become a quieter version of itself——a quiet arrogance, if you will. I suppose we all feel quietly arrogant when emerging from books our society no longer reads.

One Hundred and One Famous Poems may become my reading-matter again in 2014, so that I may discover how inadequately I took it in, in 2013. I did read one book this year twice, with only months between readings——From the Shadow of the Mountain. I wanted to revisit Brooks's deep depression——so began re-reading the end of Days of the Phoenix; and those passages about his descent into darkness compelled me onwards again through his recovery years, in From the Shadow. It occurs to me, as a guess, that we have few memoirs of the self-making that goes into a personality——in this case a particularly well-integrated personality——partly because we belong to a society whose failings include what Frye calls the "cult of mediocre vulgarity," which reinforces and feeds into our social adoration of youth. Frye pairs the cult of mediocre vulgarity with "a lack of nobility and heroism." (My pencil slowed before I could commit "nobility and heroism" to paper, so verboten are these words.) How indeed can one notice nobility or heroism in our society when the taste for mediocre vulgarity regularly produces, in the style of factory-farm agriculture, new crops of instant cultural leaders who have no idea how they created themselves as would-be artists——as cultural icons——as stars——as success symbols? They have no idea because they did not, in fact, create themselves. Society made them. Mass society operates best when it makes its cultural leaders; whereas genuine society would not just allow but encourage and even require those who are fascinated by the arts to make themselves. Verne wrote a captivating several pages describing a character named Uncle Boutardin who is not a cultural hero but a business-and-industry leader of the 20th century, yet whose characteristics match our mass entertainers: "He was neither wicked nor good, insignificant, often ill lubricated, noisy, horribly vulgar." Verne even ventured into Ortega y Gasset territory, in terms of the making of self and the importance of self-realization: for Verne said of Boutardin that he "had made an enormous fortune, if such activity can be called making."

Verne depicts the subjugation of the arts to society throughout Paris in the Twentieth Century. Verne expressed this dread prospect, this vision, in other novels, as well——perhaps even all of them. How central a place this thematic concern commands, however, might have evaded our notice had Paris not come to light. (Vagrant thought: how Verne would have enjoyed seeing famous poems published by a piano manufacturer!) Frye noted the means whereby Verne's vision moved from likelihood to reality: "Both advertising and propaganda ... represent the conscious or unconscious pressure on a genuine society to force it into a mass society, which can only be done by debasing the arts."

Not that Frye necessarily read Verne. Such notions permeated the Modern years. Alcott in A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) offered the instant, ready-made "artist" of a sort known to us today——who in the novel is, in Ortega's terms, engaging in false behavior, which leads to complete demoralization. Howells in A Modern Instance similarly describes an intelligent individual caught in such false behavior. The subjugation of true culture by conformist mass society appears symbolically, for another instance, in Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth (1950), when emergency government officials under threat of war feel free to take over "a college, a library, or a museum."

By that time, of course, Orwell and Huxley had depicted Western culture undermining itself, in clear, condemnatory terms.

I wish to add to these notes that I do patronize one High Court of Mediocre Vulgarity, insofar as I do find ten minutes to an hour, most days, to read a little on-line. In Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords (1993) this sentence caught my eye: "There are times I think humans talk for the same reason monkeys groom." When I jotted it down in a notebook I added a thought: "This makes me think of Facebook——not negatively." I am reading so little on-line due to having so many immediately present matters to tend to, in a day——and so many books——and because I distrust so many texts on-line——and because I become so easily bored when on-line. ("Let's bore one another to death! That's our ruling principle today!"——one Verne character to another.) The boredom arises in part from a problem Frye identified, the "fallacy of the substantial idea," that underlies much writing that is colorless and rhythmless, much writing that is "designed to obliterate the sense of personality." The fallacy holds "that the idea is substantial and that the words which express the idea are incidental." To insert Ortega's terms, I would say that too much on-line writing is "slovenly," and too little is "in form." Yet Ortega makes a comment that complements Frye's fallacy of the substantial idea: "modern man, thanks to technological progress and social organization, is inclined to feel too sure of too many things about his life." Frye may well have nursed a similar thought, in speaking of "verbal automatism" and "automatic babble on ready-made subjects." We have on-line (as no doubt you yourself have observed) a great deal of gray and unfelt writing about who knows what. And who knows what Ortega or Frye, who were writing in the 1940s and 1960s, would think of our on-line world. I do believe Ortega would have reacted against the Internet's seemingly limitless content and possibilities. Limits mattered greatly, to Ortega. He believed limits to be of utmost importance, in creation——especially self-creation.

One day this past summer when walking through a sprawling flea market attached to a multi-day car show I happened to walk near two boys obviously out to find adventure together.

One said to the other, "Why did your parents make you have a time limit? Time limits are stupid."

From Ortega's point of view, one boy——not the one speaking——may have a real chance to make something of himself.

Mark Rich is the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. With partner-in-life Martha and Scottie-in-life Sam, he lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin where an early-1900s house, a collection of dilapidated antique furniture, and a large garden preoccupy him with their needs. He frequently contributes essays to The New York Review of Science Fiction and The Cascadia Subduction Zone.