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 FindingAda.com which also has this cool info poster.
I 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?
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.)
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.)
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.
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).
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?)
My impression of Cracked.com was that it provides accurate information in a humorous way, but I was not amused by the over-simplifications in a recent post on sexual mores during England’s Georgian period. Yes, there was a lot more sex going on than in your typical Jane Austen novel, but the article implies that this was an equal-opportunity sexual liberation, which it emphatically was not. Here’s a sample (and you’re right if you guessed that the part that got me was where the author described Jane Austen as “a sexually repressed spinster who almost never left her hometown, so what did she know?”):
Just finished The Last of Us, the most character-driven video game I’ve ever played. Both the main game and, even more so, the DLC left me feeling not only emotionally involved but also shattered. It’s not just a game, it’s an interactive story.
The Last of Us is also one of the most feminist and LGBTQ-friendly games out there (at least according to reports — what do I know, since I play so few of these things?).
Warning: Spoilers below. Also, a little update at the end.