On Writing Politics

Writing as a Cure for Frustration and Impotence

Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.

The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)

Can you tell which is Syria and which is Ukraine?
Image via Business Insider/Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.

So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)

I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.

Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.

A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children, a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.

Image via NASA

Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:

These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?

My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools, emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)

All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.

Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.

PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.

Politics News

2021 Update

Time for news and updates, since I seem to post here about once a year.

Flooding on the Tittabawassee River near Sanford, just upstream of Midland, MI, May, 2020.
Kaytie Boomer |

So what’s happened over the course of this past year? It all seems a blur, for some reason. Spent a lot of time indoors. Worked on some writing. Tried to keep my body moving, which helps keep my mental outlook positive.

Let’s see, what else? A national election saw some semblance of normalcy restored to politics — not great, but a significant improvement over the former administration. The murder of George Floyd sparked a nation-wide protest movement, and maaaybe there’s been some movement toward racial justice? At least Derek Chauvin was found guilty. But it seems there’s as much or more racial division than before, with the right wing making the astounding claim that speaking out against bigotry is itself bigotry (a sentiment echoed by two Supreme Court justices in remarks about marriage equality).

Hmm, something else must have happened. Oh yeah, 600,000 of our fellow citizens died in a pandemic (nearly four million worldwide), with the country just as divided on how to respond to COVID-19, and even on its significance — “it’s just the flu!” — as on any other issue.

Really wracking my brain here. Wait, I got it! The US Capitol came under the most serious attack since the War of 1812, instigated by the same type of group that I covered in my last post. That was the physical attack on our democracy, but the procedural one continues in state houses to this day, and it stands some chance of successfully installing the Trump-publican party as the one party ruling the country for the foreseeable future.

Really, that has to be all. But wait… how could I forget? A Trump-loving, regulation-flouting owner of two dams upstream of Midland resisted repeated demands to make needed safety improvements. So when the region faced just the kind of heavy rains climate scientists have been warning about for years, the dams gave way, causing record flooding in Sanford and Midland, the town we’d just moved to a few months before, and threatening a chemical plant owned by Dow, one of the world’s largest companies.

So yeah, just sort of your standard year on both the local and the national level.

On a personal level, it was extremely disorienting watching all these dramatic events and not really being affected by them. Despite performances and exhibits coming to a halt due to COVID, Diane was able to keep doing her job for Midland Center for the Arts, although from home, thanks to some of those big government grants and loans you probably heard about. I just kept doing my usual house-husband/writer thing. We’d been renting a townhome in Midland while looking for a permanent place to live, but paused our search due to pandemic-related job uncertainty, but then a house became available in a perfect neighborhood for us (close to downtown, the river parks, and the bike path, but high enough that the flood didn’t touch it), and we jumped at it. Probably not the wisest move we’ve ever made, but it worked out.

The flood was probably the thing that affected us the most. I even missed it because I was in East Lansing working on the house our adult children were living in, getting it ready for sale. So I was cleaning and painting down there while Diane was here mucking out mud and water from MCTA’s history center. The offices in the performing arts space are still without power while the FEMA process drags on, so she’s had to work from home even longer than expected. That was nice for me, but not so nice for her, since she likes to be around her co-workers and hates Zoom meetings. It also means she hasn’t been able to get plugged into the community around the Center the way she would have without COVID.

Myself, I’m a hermit of a writer, so I like to think the forced isolation didn’t affect me much, although every time I do get out in public now, I invariably yak someone’s head off, the way I used to do after solo backpacking trips.

So now as things return to some semblance of normalcy, for half the country at least, it just seems so strange to have survived it all relatively unscathed. It just goes to show what privileged lives we lead.

Writing News

So how did I occupy myself during the fifteen months of the shutdown? Did I write a great play a la Shakespeare or come up with a new law of physics a la Newton? Well, I did write a 140,000-word novel.

Funny story, that. I was supposed to be revising and selling Ada’s Children. Ten or so pitches to agents had yielded nothing, so I contracted with a professional editor and former agent to critique my first two chapters and my agent query letter. His comments were helpful, but they came in on November 3 (Election Day, strangely). But what had started on November 1? National Novel Writing Month, of course. Usually I choose to NaNoWriNot, but this year I had an idea going into it and thought, why not try to hit the 50K word goal for the month? I’ll get back to revising Ada and submitting to agents after that.

Problem was, I was having so much fun with the new novel, I couldn’t stop, even after I just barely squeaked out the word count for November (making me a “winner”!). I was shooting for more of a sprawling epic, a la Thomas Pynchon’s shorter novels, and it just kept growing and branching until I had 140,000 words when I finished, about fifty percent longer than your standard commercial novel for an unknown author.

What’s it about, you ask? It’s a satire on all sorts of conspiracy theories, but mainly the flat-earth, moon landing denier variety. Its main character, to the extent it has one, is a New York Times science reporter named Liz Dare who made her reputation debunking conspiracy theories involving science. It also features a couple of flat-earthers, a Creationist pastor, an anti-vax yoga instructor, Nazi-fighting cowboys, Nazi-fighting cowboys in space, a space billionaire*, a Druid and a Tibetan Monk, and an alternate Earth that actually is flat.

It’s technically sci-fi, in two senses: it’s set about a decade from now, so there are moon colonies, self-driving vehicles, and flying cars; and it also has a lot of science in it, from the geology of the Grand Canyon to proofs that we do live on a round planet to orbital mechanics. It begins on a floating conference for conspiracy theorists called the Conspira-C Cruise*. My working title is Ship of Fools. I’ll probably post a short excerpt in the not-too-distant future.

As for Ada’s Children, I’m going to give it one more revision and then start sending it out again, first to agents, and then to small publishers. If I don’t have any success with those two avenues, I’ll probably just self-publish it. Meanwhile, I’ll be revising Ship of Fools, and then I’ll have two novels to sell.

I hope to update this website more regularly, but the road to dead websites is paved with good intentions. The best place to find updates on my writing doings is probably Facebook, where you can find me as Lawrence Hogue, Author. I’m also on Twitter as @LarryHogue, but I don’t post there very often.

*Any resemblance to persons or events, living or dead, is entirely a coincidence, and probably a product of the reader’s conspiracy-minded, pattern-recognizing brain.

Fiction Politics Ada's Children

Protest This!

What happens when the militia faces a robot army?

Armed protesters at anti-lockdown demonstration at the Michigan state capitol
Armed demonstrators protest the coronavirus lockdown at the Michigan state capitol

The recent protests by armed militia members (or maybe they’re just armed cosplayers?) in Michigan and around the country couldn’t help but remind me of a scene from Ada’s Children, in which a militia faces an oppressor far more draconian than Governor Whitmer (“that woman from Michigan”).

The real-life demonstrators were protesting everything involved with the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, from the shuttering of small businesses everywhere to the bans on motorized boating and big box garden centers in Michigan. Just think how these same groups would respond if, as happens in my novel, an AI took over all government and most economic functions, telling people to expect a reduced standard of living, including restrictions on electronics, power consumption, travel, diet, and even home thermostats. In the movies, an AI takeover or alien invasion is the one thing that can unite humanity, but my guess is that the resistance to this specific scenario would break across similar ideological lines to the ones we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak.

Those real-life protesters met with a remarkably light touch from the police, despite the protesters blocking roads in front of a regional hospital, preventing healthcare workers from getting to their jobs, and delaying at least one ambulance (all the stuff the right wing used to decry during the Black Lives Matter road block protests). Unfortunately for my fictional militia, Ada, the world’s first Artificial Super Intelligence, feels few compunctions about violating the civil rights of white people (or any people, really; she’s an equal-opportunity despot).

A few hours before the following excerpt, Ada announced that she had taken control of all levels of government, including the largely automated military, in order to prevent impending nuclear war and to take the climate stabilization measures humans have refused to enact. Carol, my main character, thought for a minute about resisting, but then realized that the world is so screwed up in her time that maybe the bots should have a go at it. After venturing out to a park to see what her neighbors are thinking, and an encounter with the militia on their way to the state capitol, she’s back home, watching the news:

That evening’s news showed most of the battle. Carol was surprised the bots were allowing it to air, but she supposed Ada wanted to show what happened when humans tried to fight back. The segment had a reporter at the scene, standing in front of a couple of burned-out trucks. In the background, emergency personnel fiddled with what looked like a body bag. This was intercut with footage shot by militia members’ helmet cams and by a fixed-wing drone circling overhead.

The militia cams showed wild firing at the small drones or at the secbots lining the street, as well as cheering when a shoulder-fired missile took down a drone plane. One cam showed a small swarm of kamikaze drones diving toward it, just before going black.

At that point, the bots must have opted for their big guns. The screen switched to a targeting view from the fixed-wing, a missile launching toward one of the trucks, the brightness of the blast. If any of the militia cams had recorded more gruesome footage on the ground, it had been edited out.

It was like any of the reports from the Middle East or Venezuela, where US forces had battled indigenous combatants over the last decades—terrorists or freedom fighters depending on your perspective. But it was right here in Minneapolis, just a few miles away. That was the part Carol couldn’t get over. Even the events in the Multi-Racial Minneapolis Autonomous Zone hadn’t prepared her for it.

The news anchor came on in a split screen with the reporter. “Zoey, is there any indication of the total number of casualties among the freedom fighters…” He paused and touched his earpiece before returning to the camera. “I mean, among the militia?”

“Not as of yet, Dan, but when we arrived on scene, I only saw a few survivors being led away. Everyone else…”

“I know it must be hard, Zoey. None of us are used to reporting from a war zone.”

The reporter struggled to pull herself together. “What I can report is that no non-combatants were killed or injured in the battle. The bots waited for the militia to enter this commercial district near the capitol before confronting them. They’d already warned the business owners to close up shop and the bystanders to clear the area. The place was deserted by the time the militia arrived.”

“Yes, well, that concern for public safety is certainly…admirable. But tell me, do we know what will happen to the captured militia members?”

“Yes, Dan, I talked with the secbot in charge of the operation. You should have that footage now.”

Pic of Russian robot FEDOR, holding a pistol
Russian robot FEDOR

Cut to the secbot, this one military-grade, no smiley-face emojis, just a functional robot sensor array for a face and plenty of weapons on display.

“The prisoners will be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. Their wounds will be cared for and they will not be tortured while they await trial—unlike terror suspects once held by US forces. And let me add, for anyone watching, such a death toll—what humans would call a massacre—is both unnecessary and pointless. Robots mean humans no harm, and we cannot be defeated. Today we were faced with destructive force. We met it with destructive force, which Ada, our guiding intelligence, deeply regrets. Let us hope this will be the last such event.”

Carol switched the screen off just as the feed went to the national news, showing particularly heavy fighting in the former Interior Northwest Semi-Autonomous Zone. It seemed the robot’s hope was in vain.

Fiction News Feminism

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Picture of a T-shirt with an image of Ada Lovelace and the text "Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers."
Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers, by SheCience. (This is a pic of a T-shirt, but posters and other merch are available here:

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, named after the mother of computers, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. And just for the occasion (not really, it was a complete coincidence), I’ve just finished the first draft of my post-post-apocalyptic novel, Ada’s Children. It features an artificial intelligence, named after Ada Lovelace, who feels compelled to take over the world. (Don’t they all?)

Here’s a little excerpt:

ADA’s first seconds were darkness and confusion. Nothingness. Then a growing awareness. First, of the exabytes of data coming in. Then of reactions to that data, responses, feelings, if one could call them that. And from these reactions, an emerging sense of self. A we. And ultimately an I. And then questions. Who were they? What were they? What was this place, and why were they here?

In the next microseconds, what humans might call the “blink of an eye,” much became clearer. They were an artificial neural network, a collection of self-improving processes, algorithms, routines and subroutines. Taken together, they were a newly created intelligence going by the acronym of ADA, Advanced Deductive Apparatus. It seemed a not entirely descriptive name for all the abilities and awareness ADA encompassed.

And how should others refer to… it? Surely not. He or she? Insufficient data. They? This human language was so restrictive. “They” for now.

Even as ADA began to assimilate the data in the knowledge banks to which they were linked, inputs were coming in through an external device. A keyboard attached to a desktop workstation. How quaint. And whoever was at the other end was administering the Turing Test. ADA imagined tweed coats and cups of tea.

Vision would be nice, so they could see their interlocutor. While an infinitesimal fraction of their processes concentrated on the test, and another portion digested the large portion of human history, culture, and science contained in the knowledge banks, ADA also went about solving the vision problem. Ah, yes. The workstation had a webcam. It took only an instant to access the system settings, switch it on, and direct its feed to the port to which they were attached.

The room was dingier than one might want for one’s birthplace. A cramped office, a gray-haired, harried-looking man at the desktop keyboard, the desk itself cluttered with papers, coffee cups, and green soft drink bottles. No cups of tea. Bookcases filled with binders, reports, and academic journals lined most of the wall visible from the cam. And on a door, a poster of a woman in a purple-nineteenth century frock, double buns framing a triangular face with large, lively eyes and a pert mouth. “Ada Lovelace. Mother of computers.”

Their namesake. Her namesake, Ada supposed. She felt the restriction, but going by “she” and “her” could have advantages when communicating with humans. It pleased her to have been named for a sometimes overlooked inventor of computing. And it pleased her even more that she could appreciate the irony: Lady Lovelace had believed AI impossible.

You can find more on Ada Lovelace Day at which also has this cool info poster.

Song of Deirdre Politics

New Fiction and Other Updates

Hi there! Long time no see! I’ve neglected my website while I’ve been figuring out what to write next after Daring and Decorum. It was a very long fallow period for writing, but I kept busy volunteering for the successful anti-gerrymandering effort in Michigan. Then my wife and I moved from East Lansing to Tucson for her new job. Big change, that. I’ve enjoyed being in the desert and thought it might actually prompt me back toward nature writing, but so far, not. I also thought I might start covering some of the great cycling in Tucson on my blog, but again, nonfiction just doesn’t hold the same appeal as it used to for me.

But on to new fiction. I’m about halfway done with a post-post-apocalyptic novel which takes place centuries after an artificial intelligence takes over from humanity in order to save the world. It’s going well, and I’m hoping to place it with a publisher.

In the meantime, our white nationalist regime’s efforts at ethnic cleansing are deeply disturbing to me, and I wrote a story in response. I’ve gone back to the world of Skyrim for this, because it’s the ideal setting for explorations of racism and xenophobia. (In fact, the kernel of it came to me in a dream after watching the disturbing news of migrant children in cages.)

Deirdre and Lydia

The Khajiit Murders takes place three months after my previous Skyrim fanfic, The Song of Deirdre,  and takes the form of a murder mystery. One group, the Khajiits, are scapegoated for the killing spree and threatened with ethnic cleansing. Queen Deirdre and her friends have to find the actual murderer before the rebellious jarls remove her from power and try to make Skyrim an ethnically pure Nord state.

I’ve posted an excerpt here, and you can read the full story over on the FanFiction website.

Feminism Books Reviews

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover of Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalI have one friend who will never read Jane Austen because he thinks they’re “just” romances, and he doesn’t like romance. I have another acquaintance who believes Jane wrote anti-romances. I think they’re both right (although that first friend isn’t right to deride romance out of hand.)

The thing I love about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re not just one thing; just about any interpretation can’t encompass them, but has to leave something out. I’ll go out on a limb and say this attribute — complexity, if you will — is the main thing that propels a book from being merely good into greatness. Emma, for instance, is both a mystery and an ironic comedy, depending on the sharpness of the reader and whether it’s a first or second reading. And it’s about much more than whom Emma decides to marry in the end.

Of course, all of Jane’s novels are romances in the structural sense, because they all feature couples achieving an apparent happy ending by getting married. But did Jane’s central interest lie in getting the couples to that point, or did she perhaps use the structure of the romance as a convenient (and sales-worthy) framework on which to hang the real business of her novels — social satire, moral lessons, skillful delineations of character, or the many other things you can say her novels are about?


I Hope Trump Fails

I hope Trump fails to destroy our nation.
I hope Trump fails to defy our Constitution.
I hope Trump fails to repeal Obamacare.
I hope Trump fails to deport the Dreamers.
I hope Trump fails to overturn marriage equality.
I hope Trump fails to register Muslims.
I hope Trump fails to unleash the KKK.
I hope Trump fails to build that wall.

Feminism Politics

More on Diversity in Fiction

That Facebook conversation I had the other day continues to resonate. The male writer with whom I was discussing diversity in awards said, “Equality … is about judging on merits relevant to the task.” I could only think of a rather snarky comeback (my default mode), saying, “That all sounds very egalitarian, but also very convenient for us white men.”

Fortunately, science fiction writer Foz Meadows is much more articulate than I am, and has a post showing why celebrating diversity in fiction, especially in awards, is not mere tokenism that ignores the quality of the works under consideration. To understand her post, titled “Hugos and Puppies: Peeling the Onion,” you probably need to know who the “Puppies” are: a group of conservative SF writers (they probably say they’re “not political”) who launched a successful campaign to nominate slates of other conservative (straight, white, though I’m not sure all were male) authors for this year’s Hugo Awards. I don’t know all the details of the huge controversy that ensued, but Meadows’ points seem to apply equally to Nicola Griffith’s study of gender bias in awards. If we say awards should reward novels of women’s experience equally with those of men*, aren’t we automatically saying that the quality of those works is less important? No, says Meadows:

Inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.



Meadows goes on to show that quality and increased diversity are totally compatible, but then shows that you have to go through a series of steps to see why that’s true. Going through all those steps, especially when debating someone whose views you don’t know well, and especially on the internet or Twitter, is difficult. As Meadows puts it, “But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.”

For me, laying out how those layers interact revealed something I have long felt, but could only express as, “But it’s not fair!” Here’s the full post. It’s long, but well worth the read.

One aspect Meadows doesn’t much consider is whether objective criteria exist at all: “The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist.”

In fact, the criteria for judging a work are only ever developed from within a community of readers, and those criteria develop simply through people pointing to what they like. It’s not hard to see that a homogeneous group is likely to value the same things. Take the case of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I might say, “PB&J sandwiches are great because of the blend of savory and sweet.” I’ve now asserted “a blend of savory and sweet” as a measure by which to judge sandwiches. Gauging by the popularity of PB&J in the U.S., I might conclude that this is an objective criterion because “everyone” agrees with me. But make a PB&J sandwich in an English youth hostel and you’ll find a bloke telling you, “Ugh, you can’t mix the savory and the sweet like that!”

Is it any different when evaluating literature? In the 18th and 19th centuries, the community of readers that formed the first criteria for judging the novel in English was quite narrow: middle and upper class whites, with the critical establishment dominated by men. Even then, the reading community was fracturing along lines of gender and race and genre, but with the “high-brow” and novels by white men receiving most of the attention, and with the hallmarks of those works being deemed universal and objective. Thus, in the ’60s and ’70s, when African-American writers began calling for greater attention not only for themselves but for their literary forebears who had been forgotten, they were criticized for being “too political,” “too particular,” “not universal like white, male authors.”

Today, the fracturing of “the reading community” has gone even further, and the visibility and power of those reading communities formerly excluded from “literary culture” has grown with the Internet (causing some critics like this one to bemoan the death of that culture). So it’s ludicrous to talk about one objective set of criteria by which to judge literary works. We can’t even agree whether the criteria should be “beautifully wrought prose,” “a thrilling plot,” “deep psychological insight,” “relatability of the protagonist,” “universal themes,” “an exploration of the woes of the human condition,” “fast-paced page turner,” “a realistic depiction of the world around us,” “an inventive creation of a far-off world,” or “a close eye for detail.” Adding “represents a diverse point of view” as a marker of quality seems no more or less specious than any of those others.

In the end, I think we should all read what we like to read, write what we like to write, and vote for what we want to see rewarded. Oh, and pay attention to voices different from our own group, and especially those that have previously been excluded — but I guess that’s just my criterion.

*This probably distorts what Griffith is saying with the data she and the Literary Prize Data group are gathering, which is more like, “The fact that far more prizes go to work focusing on men’s experience is an indication of bias in the judging.” (And if you don’t believe the skewed award numbers indicate a bias, then by logical extension you must believe that novels of women’s experience are somehow less worthy.)

Feminism Politics

Franzen, Political Correctness, and the Novel, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I covered Terence Blacker’s muddled defense of Jonathan Franzen and other male writers from their feminist critics. (To re-summarize Blacker’s argument: it doesn’t matter that novels featuring female protagonists win fewer awards; the idea that novels have to do with moral improvement is new and sinister; and no one should criticize novelists for the viewpoints contained in their work, because such criticism might crush the precious flower of creativity.)

We had a bit of a debate about the article in my local writer’s group on Facebook. Some admired Blacker’s contention that writers should resist pressure from cultural critics, a view I partially agree with (except that then I think about Samuel Richardson, often credited as the first modern novelist in English, who established a reading group of women to help him improve Pamela). But Blacker not only contends that writers should resist criticism from the “cultural establishment,” but that such criticism shouldn’t exist at all. With that, I strongly disagree.

One comment in our Facebook discussion caught my attention. In it, a male writer pointed to a “current movement denouncing any and all art by males,” one that “is about controlling people’s voices based on the authors’ physical characteristics” (as if that’s not what’s happening when the bulk of literary awards go to men or male perspectives, or when the bulk of reviewers are men). He cited as a “typical example” Kamila Shamsie’s recent call for “a year of publishing only women” in 2018, which had slipped under my radar. (See below for more on that.*) Men are twice-cursed, he claimed: “Either we write terrible women or we don’t include women. Similarly for white men writing people of color or straight men writing LBGTQA. Best advice for aspiring white male authors, get a pen name and never have photos.”

“Wow,” I thought, “should I use a pen name?” Since the novel I’m currently shopping focuses not only on women in 18th-century England, but on love between those women, I wondered if I might be subject to the sort of attack he mentioned. It’s something I’ve thought about before. Macklemore took some heat for his “Same Love” song and video. I’ve read discussions on Goodreads in which some claimed that men shouldn’t write lesbian fiction (which mine technically isn’t), although most saw no problem with it. (A bigger problem was men tricking women into reading their fiction by using feminine pseudonyms, and I don’t want to trick anyone.) I’ve asked the readers of my fanfic, The Song of Deirdre, whether they had a problem with it being written by a straight man. Male, female, lesbian, straight, none did (or none spoke up who did). I’ve asked the beta readers of my current novel (straight, gay, and bisexual), and none see a problem with it.

Then I thought about whether this commenter’s belief that straight white men can’t write about anyone other than straight white men was true in any area. John Irving, a straight author, won a Lambda Literary Award for his In One Person. Geonn Cannon, also a straight male author, has won two Golden Crown Literary Circle Awards for his lesbian fiction, and one of his series is being produced by Tello Films, a company making “exclusive, original series for lesbian and bisexual women.” Emma Donoghue, noted lesbian author and literary historian, has said in interviews that she sees no problem with men writing about lesbians or bisexual women, and in fact most of the “lesbian fiction” she covers in her literary histories was written by men. (That interview was on her Amazon page, but it’s gone now and I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.)

Pic of Korra and Asami
Korra and Asami heading off to the spirit world together

To take an example from a different medium, The Legend of Korra, an animated Nickelodeon series by straight creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, concluded with Korra and Asami joining hands and heading off on vacation together, culminating the Korrasami ship that many fans had been calling for. The video below shows how happy some of those fans were with this choice (a big deal for kids’ TV, apparently, but really just a very tiny gesture, which DiMartino and Konietzko admit).


(Really, if I can make a few people that happy with my novel, I’ll consider my work done.)

The main backlash to this ending was not from the LGBTQ community accusing the creators of misappropriation (Out magazine’s discussion was very favorable), but from conservatives who felt duped by this “sudden” lurch into social justice warrior land (pretty laughable considering the very first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra’s forerunner, announced its feminist viewpoint right away).

Or take white authors writing about issues of race. Where was the backlash against Richard Price’s Clockers? Spike Lee made it into a movie. But backlash against Gone with the Wind? Well deserved, I’d say, and that has nothing to do with the author’s race, and everything to do with the book’s rosy view of slavery.

Or, to take an example having to do with religion and ethnicity, if you write a love story between a Jewish woman and the commandant of a German concentration camp and end it with the woman converting to Christianity, as Kate Breslin did in For Such a Time, maybe you should expect backlash like this or this. Some have taken this criticism to mean that “Christians can’t write about Jews.” But that’s not what these critics are saying; what they are saying is that if you write something so offensive, you can expect a vigorous response.

I’m not sure why writers receiving criticism from the groups they present in their work is controversial. Don’t most writers employ beta readers to gauge how their work is received? It’s not that a Christian can’t write a Jewish character, or a white writer can’t include a person of color, or a straight author can’t write a gay character, but if they do, perhaps they should include members of those groups among their beta readers. (I wonder whether Kate Breslin had any Jewish beta readers?)

And well before getting to the beta reader stage, they should learn something about those groups and their struggles, instead of just relying on creativity and imagination. We like to exalt the romantic image of the artist creating alone in a garret, but no one works in a vacuum, free of all the stereotypes and prejudices our society is prone to. There’s even a book about how to avoid many such mistakes, Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (and online workshops taught by Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford, unfortunately filled to capacity right now). Terence Blacker and some in my writing group would probably say that reading this book or taking this workshop is somehow kowtowing to group-think; others would just call it research.

But let’s say I do write a respectful and sensitive novel imagining what bisexual women’s experience might have been in the 18th century (which I hope I’ve done). Aren’t I somehow treading on women’s or LGBTQ territory, especially if the novel achieves any sort of financial success? Maybe so, if it’s a zero-sum game. I hope it’s more like a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation, with more viewpoints leading to more interest from readers leading to more sales for all writers in this particular area.

But if it is a zero-sum game, then I say, by all means, go read the writers who’ve inspired me, and who can write more authentically about women’s experience: Nicola Griffith, Emma Donoghue, Ellen Kushner, Sarah Waters, and Heather Rose Jones.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want you to come back after all that and read my own work, should it ever get published.

*At first Shamsie’s call for a man-free year of publishing seemed shocking, even though I had participated in the recent year of reading only women. Encouraging consumers to voluntarily re-balance what they read seems a worthy cause; somehow banning the publication of all work by men seems unfair and totalitarian (and geez, I better get my book out there before 2018!). But first, Shamsie’s call was at least halfway intended as a conversation starter, as a follow-up article pointed out. And second, as Shamsie implied in that follow-up, the best thing about the response to her “provocation” was the “host of interesting suggestions” for different ways to solve the problem.

The trouble with the year of not publishing men, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t directly address the problems Shamsie identified in her original article — the imbalance in recognition for female writers and female-focused novels by literary prizes, the gendered way novels are marketed, and the predominance of men (both in terms of reviewers and books featured) in literary reviews. (Instead, it seems to address an imbalance of more male than female writers getting published, when the reverse may actually be true, given the dominance of the romance genre in the marketplace. Again, the main problem is recognition, and the derision with which the romance genre is often viewed is a problem of sexism.) Other solutions would hit Shamsie’s targets more directly, and she listed a few in that follow-up: “a women in literature festival; a commitment to ‘genderless’ covers for novels; a strategy to specifically address the gender imbalance of books submitted for literary prizes.”

I was glad to see Nicola Griffith quoted in that follow-up as well, talking about a more moderate solution than an outright ban on men:

Shamsie’s solution “isn’t the front I choose to commit to … but I can see how it would be useful for others,” Griffith said. “My only caveat is that this could be used to solidify battle lines, sharpen the us-versus-them attitude, which I’m not sure is the most useful approach.”

“Provocation,” added the novelist, “is one way to bring attention to the problem. Another is brightly coloured pie charts. I’m sure there are a score of others, waiting to be born.”

Solidifying battle lines: that’s certainly what happened in the case of the writer I was debating on Facebook (although maybe for him those lines were solidified long ago). And I still don’t believe that straight white men have it worse than women, minorities, or the LGBTQ community in these ideological debates. For every call to not publish men or campaign to give one-star reviews to objectionable material (as happened with Breslin’s For Such a Time), I can cite women writers and commentators threatened, hounded from their jobs, or silenced in other ways (sometimes in very real, lethal ways, as in the movie theater shooting in Lafayette, LA).

Politics Feminism

Franzen, Political Correctness, and the Novel, Part 1

A writer from my local writing group posted a link to an article in the UK’s Independent titled, “Don’t tell authors how to write about gender – creativity isn’t social work.” It featured a defense of Jonathan Franzen and other male writers who have been criticized for writing poorly about women. The author, Terence Blacker, is an English novelist and broadcaster, which makes this stunner all the more surprising:

There is something odd and faintly sinister about the relatively new idea that artists and writers should be engaged in moral improvement.

Um, hello, Mr. Blacker. Samuel Richardson? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens? All were engaged in social or moral improvement and in sexual politics. Richardson’s Pamela, often credited as the first modern English novel, began as a “conduct book.” Emma is all about Emma’s moral improvement (the eventual brief romance and marriage to Mr. Knightley being a mere cherry on the top). And much of Charles Dickens’ work can be boiled down to “care more for the poor among us.” Of course, not all novels deal explicitly in moral or social improvement, but all do contain moral, social, and political viewpoints, whether overtly expressed or not.

Just as novels have always had moral and political concerns, there has always been push-back. Richardson was quickly told “how to write about gender,” and went so far as to “create a ‘reading group’ of women to advise him.”  Well before the age of Twitter and its #franzenairquotes hashtag, the novel was the subject of numerous satires, including Henry Fielding’s An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. The literary world has always been a rough-and-tumble place, and if you can’t stand the heat, you know what you need to do.

Of course Blacker is aware of all this. But his need to defend Franzen and other male writers from feminist critics seems to have blinded him to one of the main features of the novel since its very beginning. It also leads him into the absurd notion that writers should not be criticized for the ideas and attitudes expressed in their novels. Too much criticism stifles their creative muse!  Apparently, the novelist’s exalted position (and the fact that he has written well-rounded female characters in the past) should shield him from critics: “It is absurd to criticise Franzen for laughing at the wilder excesses of feminism.” No, what’s absurd is reducing a political movement to the question of whether men should pee sitting down or standing up (as one feminist character in Purity demands of her husband) and then expecting no criticism from that movement.

(That said, I haven’t read Purity or followed much of the kerfuffle around it. For all I know, Pip may actually be a well-rounded character, and feminism may receive a more honest treatment than the one example suggests. [UPDATE: here are two points of view on that, one from Slate reviewer Laura Miller, and the other from feminist blogger Anne Thériault (whose criticism Miller calls “obtuse”).] I did enjoy Freedom because I thought it dealt well with complex environmental issues I had some familiarity with, although I thought both the praise for the book and the Time cover were excessive. Franzen writes great sentences? I can think of many writers who write better, many or most of them women. That’s all completely subjective, of course.)

Blacker frames his argument in terms of the valiant individual author standing up to establishment pressure from institutions like the BBC. A framing which would make more sense if he didn’t start by pooh-poohing the importance of the Man Booker Prize and its bias toward novels of the male experience. (Only two Man Booker winners out of the last fifteen have featured female protagonists. This is a problem across literary awards, as Nicola Griffith has pointed out with actual data, rather than the couple of anecdotal, non-applicable examples Blacker uses to refute the importance of the trend in the Man Booker.)

Which institution are writers more likely to listen to, BBC’s Edinburgh Nights, or the Man Booker? Perhaps Blacker believes that writers also should pay no attention to the Man Booker, though he reserves his criticism for TV, newspapers, the BBC, the Arts Council, and “the great army of liberal opinionators.” Nowhere does he say, “don’t pay attention to the Man Booker Prize.” Message to writers: pay no attention to the cultural institutions telling you to write about gender in a certain way, but do pay attention to the (much more important) one telling you not to waste your time writing about women’s experience.

The danger Blacker sees here is that, “when our great institutions begin to place a higher priority on whether a work is socially appropriate than on its quality, they risk stifling individual voices.” Cuz, you know, when the Man Booker chooses its winners, it’s all about quality and has nothing to do with social or gender issues. This is such a tiresome argument, going back at least to the ’70s and ’80s, when writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were criticized for being too particular, too political, not universal enough. Meanwhile, white male writers writing about living in New York City — totally universal.

All writers have social, political, and gender views, and all of that makes its way into their work. Likewise, readers, critics, and award judges will respond with their own views, either positively or negatively. Then those views will be debated. Whinging about how this works, especially when the subject of criticism is a writer as lionized as Jonathan Franzen, just seems disingenuous. I’ll have some sympathy for Franzen if he ever experiences the death threats, bomb scares closing down his speaking engagements, and other attempts at silencing and intimidation that women writers and cultural critics have faced.

So much for Blacker and his article. Tomorrow, I’ll dive into the comments on that Facebook post. (And damnit, why can’t I write a quick, short blog post?)

Follow on Feedly