Politics

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

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Themed Anthos – A Good Foot in the Door

Today continues the set of two articles on my own writing experience that began on Wednesday. If people like these (and possibly even if they don’t, I’ll likely continue them in the future).

At the risk of seeming like a complete jerk (and yes, I’m aware that many of you feel that that ship sailed long ago) I will tell you a story about how I got started as a writer.

I sat down and wrote a story over a couple of days.  I fixed some typos and I sent it out on submission. I sent it out to three markets that rejected it.  The fourth bought it.  That story, entitled “Tenth Orbit” not only gave its title to my first collection, but has been reprinted in seven languages and still sells as a reprint now and then.  Also, the news sparked what was probably the ugliest celebration dance in history, but you really, really don’t want to know the details.

The point of this isn’t to make you hate me.  I’ve had the same amount of rejection and heartbreak as every other writer, but the fact that my road into print was comparatively easy meant that I never had to listen to that nagging voice in my mind that said “nothing you write will ever be good enough to sell.”

Nevertheless, I often get the feeling that nothing I write from now on will ever be as good as what came before, and that the prose I’ve produced over the past six months is simultaneously infantile, pompous, pretentious and shallow.  Being all four might seem impossible, but I often feel that way, especially when a dry spell comes along.

I’ve found that a good way to break through this is to go to your favorite marketplace report (I use The Grinder and Ralan for genre projects) and select a themed anthology looking for submissions – make sure you choose one with a deadline far enough off to give you a chance to write a story.

I’ve found this approach to have several benefits.  The first is that the guidelines and theme will tell you exactly what you need to write.  If you can’t follow instructions telling you to send over a 2500 word story about alcoholic koala bears in space, then, sadly, you’re never going to be a writer.  Reading comprehension is a good part of writing, after all.

The good part of the above is that for many projects you will only be competing against other stories written specifically for that antho.  While a place like Asimov’s might get thousands of subs in a month, an antho of this type might get only a few hundred.  Many of those will be by illiterates or people who don’t know what a koala bear actually is.  Yes, the odds are still long – that’s part of being a writer – but they are better than at other places.

The second benefit is that you probably don’t have an alcoholic koala story lying around, which means that you will have to stop and create something completely new, break out of a rut.  I’ve always found this to be a cool way to refresh the writing spirit.

A third benefit (assuming you write a good story and they buy it) is that at the end of it, apart from the money, you’ll have a shiny contributor’s copy filled with the work of a bunch of amazingly talented authors who love alcoholic koalas as much as you do.  It will feel amazing to be surrounded by these people, and you’ll also ask yourself what the editors were thinking when they bought yours as well…  but don’t worry, every author thinks that.

Strange Bedfellows Edited by Hayden Trenholm

This is often the best part.  I recently read a couple of anthos with my work in them, and I thought it would be fun to use them to exemplify the range of what’s possible here.  They’re both from 2014 (my TBR pile needs a new type of mathematics to describe it and it takes me a looong time to get to any book mired therein) and I place them here for your perusal.

The first is a pro-rate-paying antho (as defined by SFWA) entitled Strange Bedfellows, Edited by Hayden Trenholm. The guidelines for this one were pretty open: the story had to be about politics.

So I sent them a tale called “Gloop”, which, though not espousing any particular political leaning, clearly showed the effects of politics on the lives of the characters and their society.  The other stories were well-written, mostly left-leaning, but with a couple of more conservative stories to balance it out, and overtly political.  As one expects with this theme, philosophy and thought-out ideas (as well as a certain amount of pontification) were everywhere, but there was plenty of action and entertainment as well.

Undead and Unbound Cover

The second seems, at first glance, to be the polar opposite.  Undead and Unbound, edited by Brian M. Sammons and David Conyers, does exactly what it says on the tin.  Anything walking around after someone killed it was fair game.

Honesty compels me to admit that I was invited to this one, but it still made me sweat.  My problem was that I didn’t want to write a story that was just like everyone else’s.  I didn’t want to be a zombie in a sea of zombies, or just another vampire.

So I decided that a wight might do the trick, especially if that wight came alive during the Blitz and called it “Thunder in Old Kilpatrick”  To my relief, they accepted it…

The most interesting thing about this one, however, is that when I came to read it, it defied all my expectations about what an “undead” theme would include.  The writers went to great lengths to make their stories memorable, and the antho is extremely well written.  Definitely not just a piece of fluff for people with short attention spans.  So you can toss those prejudices out the window – your average call for zombie stories is going to require a lot of talent and imagination to get into.

And speaking of throwing out those prejudices, here’s another one that contains one of my stories.  I think you’ll agree that there’s an antho out there for everyone.  It’s just a question of finding the right call for submissions and writing the right story.

Sinisterotica Anthology Cover

 

Gustavo Bondoni was interviewed today by Jessica A. Scott.  His latest novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

National Geographic Sells Out

Our Editor-in-Chief is back… and, as usual, he sounds off on something that bugs him.

National Geographic Centro Cultural Kirchner

So, I was recently dismayed to learn that National Geographic has issued a Special Edition in Spanish about the Nestor Kirchner Cultural Center in Argentina.

On the surface, this would seem to be reasonably aligned with National Geographic’s mission.  After all, on their website, National Geographic says that they want to inspire, illuminate and teach.  But (there always seems to be a “but” in these things, doesn’t there…) it isn’t quite that simple.

You see, this latest supplement is not a simple article about a cultural center that many people in the Spanish-speaking world are likely to be interested in.  This, as so ably chronicled by La Nación, Argentina’s most respected newspaper, is a particularly crass pandering to media dollars by the society in a critical election year in that South American country.  The cultural center is not just named after the current Kirchnerist government’s founder, but is also a monument to their belief that an ideal world can only be reached through their particular continuation of Mussolini’s old ideas, reinforced with concepts of isolationism, populism and certain elements of postmodern socialism.

Of course, it can be argued that a democratic country’s culture is well-reflected by its government, so the supplement is a valid informative piece – except for the fact that just a month before it hit the streets, 60% of Argentina’s population voted against the Kirchnerist government in an obligatory presidential first round election.

Even if the population hadn’t expressed its desire to find a different, more modern road forward, the supplement itself reads like a political manifesto written by a virulent opposer of free market economics (which is weird, because the last time I checked, the Society was based in a somewhat non-socialist country), savagely criticizing what many feel to be the last true era of modernization in the country.

Worse still, one of the spokespeople for the government appears in no less than four photos…

We’ve sounded off against the sheer barefaced destruction of the truth by this government before, but I sincerely can’t believe that a publication as well-respected as National Geographic would publish something like this for any amount of money.  This is a government that has lied about inflation statistics – even firing members of the statistics bureau who wished to inform the true numbers – and attacked the free press openly and violently during its entire run.

It is a government that has actively attempted to promote ignorance and isolation – everything that National Geographic is supposed to combat.  But it seems that this government’s desperate election money was stronger than the principles established for so long.

National Geographic has betrayed out trust.

But worse, it has betrayed itself.