I’ve been going over and over the events that occurred at Readercon in my head since I returned from Budapest. (In short, author glvalentine was repeatedly sexually harassed by former Worldcon Chair Rene Walling, she reported it, and instead of enforcing their stated zero tolerance policy which had been in place without question for four years and necessitated a lifetime ban from the con, the Board, almost certainly bowing to Walling’s SMOF status, told him he could come back after two years. Even after it became clear that this was a pattern and Walling had harassed others.)
This disturbs me on the plain level of someone whom I consider a friend being harassed at a convention and the Board cavalierly ignoring their own policy (whatever the wisdom of zero tolerance policies, that was the policy in place) because Walling, who used his own “need” to apologize to Valentine as an excuse to follow, grab, and further stalk her, apologized while being a friend of the Board. This is, honestly, exactly why harassment continues–everyone thinks the rules don’t apply to them, that they are special, that their friendships and power in their communities will allow them to do whatever they want.
In this case, it looks like all of that is right on the money.
But it further disturbs me because this is an incident of an author, an invited guest to a convention, being harassed by, no matter the super-awesomeness of his fanhood, a fan. If that cannot be taken seriously, how can any author feel safe at a convention? Because let’s be honest, authors who harass women are already welcome at many conventions, not policed in any way, and those who once harassed and no longer do because they are dead often have their “exploits” extolled with affection and nostalgia at con parties. Big men act with impunity, are even praised for it. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus ’twill be.
So, from whom is an author safe? The answer seems to be no one.
I love fandom. Fan activity and fans are wonderful and valuable. But we all know that fans can go sour and get extremely dangerous in their attachment to authors and books. It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. We all try to guard ourselves and our personal lives against the possibility of a lone fan cornering us. And now we are being told that as long as the fan has done enough cool things for fandom, the rules will not apply to him. If you are a good enough fan, you can grab authors you like and violate their physical safety and it’s A-ok. Just say you’re sorry and it’s cool.
Did you get the banhammer when you did it? Well, I guess you should have been a better fan. A more important fan. Or maybe you were just mentally ill and no one liked you so the policy was drafted specifically to ban you forever because you were Harassing While Being a Nobody and it was never intended to be used on anyone else.
And hell, one of the other people Walling harassed was also a SMOF. And no one even investigated or followed up on that incident. So it’s just a naked hierarchy of power. It’d be nice to know what level of BNF one has to attain to earn the rights and privileges Walling enjoys. His Tor.com column will continue. EDIT: I have been corrected. He is no longer writing for Tor.com and his last column was taken down over the weekend. I am very glad of this. He is part of the Kansas 2016 Worldcon bid committee. He is involved in the New Zealand 2020 bid. He is, like most harassers, entirely undiminished by this. It’s not really just the Readercon Board. The community as a whole is not holding him responsible.
I’m not sure there is a high enough prestige level to have complaints taken as seriously as Walling’s apology has been.
Here’s the thing. I’ve had issues at conventions. Some people have noted that I tend to travel with a pack at events. I have good friends around me most of the time. Some of this is social and some of this is protective. I feel safe in a pack. I look young, I present as very feminine, and I started publishing at 25, when the likelihood of not being taken seriously or respected was very high.
And both of the most serious things that have happened to me at conventions have happened at Readercon.
Please do not ask me to discuss these events. I will not. I did not report them at the time and see no purpose in dragging them up now. It is not the fault of anyone at Readercon or involved with it that this happened or that I did not report it. Both men were in positions of power over me, (people in positions of power do tend to do this kind of thing–it’s almost like they know they won’t be punished like a mere plebe), both would almost certainly say it was a misunderstanding–because that’s pretty much what people do when confronted. I decided long ago not to have the conversation that attends reporting incidents. I am not as brave as Genevieve Valentine. And since both situations occurred before the famous zero tolerance policy was even in place, I think I can be fairly sure that I made the right decision in keeping them to myself.
I have also had, somewhat infamously, my share of problems with the Readercon Board, most particularly one member who felt a proper response to disagreeing with me on the Internet was sending private, threatening emails and behaving in an insulting and aggressive fashion toward commenters to this journal. (I also did not post publicly about the emails, which I now regret. I was not brave enough.) I have been nervous about attending the convention ever since my own Internet dust-up with that Board member, because his social and physical behavior I find intimidating and I am well aware that to say he dislikes me is an understatement. I was told by the Chairs of the convention that his involvement would be phased out due to his unacceptable behavior–but that has clearly not happened at all as he is still instrumental on the Board and Committee, and thus, in this decision. That is not why I’ve not been able to go for the last two years–I was GOH at another convention in 2011 and traveling to Budapest this year–but avoiding him has become a priority when I do attend. For the last three years I have been, quite simply, afraid.
And what do you know? It IS Your Father’s Readercon, after all.
Which brings me to the point of this post, which is that I cannot in conscience continue to attend Readercon.
If the Readercon Board (which is different than the Committee, and I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the terrible position the Committee is in at this point) cannot bring themselves to care about the safety of its author guests, then I, as an author guest, cannot entrust my safety to Readercon. Everyone’s safety should be of utmost importance, of course. Valentine is not more important than a fan who is harassed. But in the status Olympics in which the Board is trying to medal, it has become clear that the only thing that protects me even a little as a female author, the fact that I am well-known and active in the community and if fucked with can make a lot of noise, is irrelevant if a harasser is sufficiently popular in the Big Boys Club. And of course, it never did protect me very well. Genevieve is also well known and active online. She can, and has, made a big noise. What has occurred was highly predictable. If they do not care about her, they will not care about anyone. If neither authors nor SMOFs can be ensured of their safety and that their violations will be taken seriously, how can any lover of books who just wants to go listen to some panels and get a first edition signed feel safe? And this is borne out by the large number of people crossing Readercon off of their calendars for the forseeable future.
Which means that the Board was fully willing to sacrifice significant portions of attendance, revenue, reputation, and possibly the con itself as it has been known, to protect a single man with a long track record of harassment.
How can I support this convention while this decision stands? I love Readercon–I used to drive 12 hours to attend. Now it is my local con. Despite my fear and nervousness, it is a place I want to be. But cons are working spaces for authors, as squirrel_monkey has pointed out, and I cannot expose myself to a workplace environment where harassment is tolerated if everyone likes the harasser a whole lot and he says sorry when caught.
This is pure nepotism and it is ugly as hell. He’s one of our own, don’t inconvenience him. Nevermind that the whole welcoming geek community thing we’re all so proud of should mean that everyone at a con is one of our own.
But what this should tell us is that the geek community–or at least Readercon–is just like everywhere else. The rules do not apply to the higher-ups.
If the policy is reconsidered and Walling banned, I, too will reconsider. But only reconsider–this is an issue of the culture of Readercon, the memes at work within it, and though I thought that culture had come a long way, it clearly has not, at least with regards to the Board. I cannot speak for anyone else, I only speak as an author and a member of the community. I have, however, certainly never run a Worldcon, so feel free to disregard my concerns completely.
The Board stated the following:
In the three years between Readercons 23 and 26 we will actively look for evidence of real and permanent positive change in his [Walling's] behavior. It was made very clear to him that if we receive any substantiated reports of continued inappropriate behavior at any venue – during or after the suspension period – his suspension will become permanent.
And to that I say:
In the three years between Readercons 23 and 26 I will actively look for evidence of real and permanent positive change in the Board’s behavior, policies, and the environment created by both. I hope I have made it very clear to them that if I receive any substantiated reports of continued inappropriate behavior at this venue – during or after my hiatus – my hiatus will become permanent.
Scenes from a rainy Sunday:
I talked to my mother-in-law (Tatyana) on Skype today. My father-in-law (Vadim) is visiting and since they were robbed the last time they both came up, she elected to stay at home with the Jack Russell Terrierist.
I had not mentioned my weight loss to them, and so when I came on Skype, Tatyana was quite shocked to see what I look like now. (In a good way!) She asked what I had done to lose the weight (P.S. I have a ways to go yet, process is far from over, but I’ve come a long way and she hasn’t seen me in a year, so it’s pretty dramatic) and I told her the various bits and pieces of changes in my life, the app I use, etc. Finally came to the dairy thing.
Me: So it turns out I’m allergic to dairy, which I didn’t know until last year, but I guess I have been for a long time, which is why I felt sick a lot. So I don’t eat dairy anymore. That actually helps a lot.
She nodded. All cool. About fifteen minutes later, I hear the rest of the exchange from justbeast, which went on in Russian after I signed off.
Tatyana: What is Cat doing with her diet? She is only eating berries now? That is not healthy.
Vadim: (Awesomely deadpan) No, you heard it wrong. She is now eating only bear.
Most badass diet, and father-in-law, ever.
A continuing log of my time in Hungary, addressed to my husband in Maine.
11:30 am: Yesterday was a low-energy day. It was hot and sticky, and after sleeping in we strolled down to Market Hall for lunch. I had a goose leg! That I didn’t have to roast myself! I was quite pleased that it tasted exactly like the goose I make, which means I am Doing It Right. It came with fresh caraway bread that had this light salt crust on it. Dora got sour cherry strudel which she loves. We walked about for awhile, picking up supplies for the apartment (tea kettle, coffee cups, pots, a palacinta pan–that’s Hungarian blini–and a sharp kitchen knife). Do you know they have a version of korjiki here? They put all kinds of sweet things on them. We should try it.
Once home, I read some of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection–I like his essays better than his fiction. I wish he’d done an update of the television essay, because after 1990 (when it was written) all the things he said became a million times more true, ie, reality TV, online streaming, ironic advertising. It was so hot in that slow, thick summer way that I fell asleep. Hungary is apparently a magical country where I can nap! I have done it two days in a row, and you know I can never nap, it takes me so long to get to sleep and I’m so cranky when I wake up. But not here–I fall asleep in a moment with no medication and wake up totally happy and refreshed. Two hours of nap! And then I got to sleep at 11:30 that night, too, which is usually impossible for me! I feel like a Terrible Midnight Princess who can only sleep in one place in all the world.
For dinner, we walked behind our apartment building, down a little street crowded with cafes and trees and the most gorgeous architecture. I said it looked like Brooklyn, a little, and Dora said: yes, if the Turks had invaded New York. And it was strangely Turkish in style, Turkish Art Deco Alhambra neo-Cathedralesque. All these relief arches and faces carved into the sides of building, white on peach and sage and cornflower. Faces we couldn’t understand, though they must be there for a reason. Like being inside a portal fantasy without an As You Know, Bob guide. There were two faces on shields mounted on the wall on one side of a square: one hooded and mustached and obviously Turkish, the other we couldn’t tell if it was male or female, but his/her mouth was gagged. Above them was a marble sun with stark, straight beams. Down the cobblestone street was a church with such red turrets and greened copper trim. The bricks of another side of the square were deliberately, decoratively pockmarked, which had come, beautifully, to match the natural fading and pocking of the concrete and brick above it.
We ate cold raspberry soup, which was astonishingly complex and delicious. I had my first (not last) goulash, and is there any better soup in the world? I think not. I have not been using enough paprika when I make it at home! It was the evening of two soups. Dora had a duck and pear salad. We talked about missing Readercon and yet, and yet, cold raspberry soup! In Budapest!
Afterward we went to see that church with the striking turrets–there was a service going, and we watched it for awhile. In the midst of the old altar was a big plasma flat screen where the Hungarian and Latin lyrics to the hymns flashed through the verses.
Along the street was a little shop where we paused to admire the dresses–we’d talked earlier about how each of us have colors we are immediately drawn to, dark jewel tones for me and lighter, more subtle shades of the same colors for Dora. Well, we both instantly pulled dresses off of the rack that proved the thesis. A deep garnet and gold for me and a spring green for her. She looked so beautiful! Like the green fairy. We both ended up getting two floaty summer dresses (the garnet one and another, dark gold and slate, and two different shades of green) and both felt like May queens in them.
We walked through the gardens of the National Museum. We made tentative talk about doing this every year, going to Budapest, writing together in Dora’s grandmother’s apartment where the pantry is full of jam and pickles put up thirty years ago.
We closed out the evening at the cafe below us. A rainstorm spun up and drenched the street outside. I fell asleep reading Engine Summer. I’m almost done–and it’s coloring my days here a little. It’s all about a beautiful, familiar-yet-unfamiliar world where everything has fallen apart, yet people have put it back together again several times and made something new and dreamlike and difficult and uncertain. Draw your own conclusions.
This morning dawned cool and grey and windy. I am all metallic to match it–black and silver and blue, with my hair pulled back severely. Outside the apartment is a tree Dora calls a Japanese Lantern. It is full of huge papery seed pods. The berries inside are green now, but long after we leave, they will turn red.
justbeast asked me to keep a little daily log of my activities here in Budapest, where I am ensconced with Theodora Goss in her grandmother’s apartment in the city center, writing and seeing and writing some more. I thought I’d post them here, since this is a diary of sorts. Mind the POV, these were directed toward my husband at home–but blogs are all about peeking into private correspondence are they not?
5:20 am: I’ve only seen glimpses of the city so far–it is quieter than I expected. Part new metal and glass, part gorgeous centuries-old buildings, part Communist era faded storefronts and flat 70s architecture. It is hot and we are in our 1940s-era apartment with minimal tech–so windows open (no screens), bathtub with a pilot light, laundry in the tub, stove lit with a match. The nights, at least, are cool. We are at a restaurant called The Architects’ Gallery which was a meeting place for the revolutionaries of ’56. Now it’s the national architects’ guildhouse with an open courtyard that is still a cafe, covered in hanging ivy and neo classical busts and statues. I had the most amazing paprikash, so red, like flowers. After Finland, everything seems so very inexpensive here–13 euros for two huge meals and dessert. (Actually everything is in forints, but I only know euros conversion so far). After that I fell asleep, exhausted. Woke at 4 am. The light is out now, the moon very high up and fading to white.
11:30 am: The morning yesterday was cloudy and cool, full of a sudden rainstorm outside the stone walls and double windows of our place on Baross Utca. Later on, the sky went bold blue and cloudless. I never did get back to sleep after 4 am, so I ate an entire salami (a little one!) because it was so amazing and delicious, and read about 2/3 of Engine Summer, which is beautiful, and you should read it. Amnesiac Moon (and Anathem basically all other dreamlike monasterial post-apocalypses) owes a lot to it. Went down to the cafe as soon as it opened and came back up to get Dora and head out into the city. It was hot as anything by 11 and we went to Market Hall, which is like a giant Hungarian version of the West Side Market in Cleveland, with everything you could ever want to eat and a lot of kitschy stuff with “Budapest!” or “Hungary!” printed on it–but also a lot of beautiful shawls and jackets and teacups.
Afterward, we strolled over to the Danube–which is so wide, the color of cream-in-coffee, but much slower and more stately than the Thames. We walked over on the beautiful 19th century Liberty Bridge (Dora said: “There’s a lot of things dedicated to liberty here, but you can never tell which liberty: liberty from the Hapsburgs, liberty from capitalist dogma, liberty from the Nazis, liberty from the Soviets…”). and back over Elizabeth Bridge, which is very modern, as it was rebuilt after WWII. On the other side (the Buda side, Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, that were united. We’re on the Pest side.) is a famous hot springs and this strange little building you would have loved. We guessed that it was a monastery at some point–it did not seem open in any fashion. It’s built into the side of the cliffs, little castle-like buildings that follow the path of the road getting smaller and smaller, like fairy houses, but with ape-like gargoyles and trefoils. Buttresses were actually carved into the cliffside, not connecting anything, just etched into the hill.
The architecture is from every era–but there is a lot of art nouveau, which you know I love. One apartment building had a stylized elephant in relief on it.
On our way back we walked down Váci utca, the main shopping street. I found an antique map shop and will be heading back there for you–they had an old map of Transylvania and Bulgaria! It was a strange combination of antique stores, MAC makeup counters, high end jewelry and folk art stalls (though Dora assures me that if it says handmade it’s most assuredly not). We also saw a 1918 etching of Budapest through autumn leaves. If Dora doesn’t get it when we return, I may have to, it was haunting and lovely and a little sad, in that melancholy way some etchings have. We found towels (the apartment needs to be supplied to some extent and we’re doing our best–yesterday brought us cutlery, towels, pillows, and salt and pepper shakers) with our names on them! They only had a few names but two of them were Dora and Kati (Catherine is Katalin in Hungarian) and we were delighted. Hers is pink, mine is white. We went to Gerbeaud for tea (smoked salmon and brown bread with raspberry elderflower lemonade for me, caramel chocolate cake and coffee with ice cream for Dora) which is a pastry and tea shop established in 1858. A man played the violin so fast and gorgeously in the courtyard outside.
By then I was feeling sick–lack of sleep, the heat, and my belly disliking the tap water in the apartment. We headed home and I immediately embarked on an epic nap. When I woke up, I had some pogácsa, a savory pastry, and salami (which was not as good as the one from the previous day, but then, I got it at Tesco’s, so serves me right) and Dora and I had one of those long, meandering, wonderful conversations about life and love and mistakes and fate and writing and mothers and displacement and romanticism that goes until two am. I finally got a real night’s sleep, woke up at 11 this morning to Dora already at the American cafe below the apartment (California Coffee Company, which is air conditioned and has wifi) and the air a little cooler than yesterday. Had some sour cherry juice and headed down with computer in hand.
I am wearing an orange dress today. Sour cherries are called meggyes in Hungarian. Igen is yes, nem is no, koszonom is thank you (pronounced kur-sur-nurm) jó napot is good morning. Jó napot. I love you.
I’ve been off the grid. There are a lot of reasons for that: work and deadlines, depression, travel, workshops, my increasingly complicated relationship with the Internet. I’m having some kind of weird tech/art identity crisis right now that all the travel and deadlines are deepening and widening. I see little holes of light and Figuring Things Out.
I thought that the best way to explain why I’ve been so behind the veil lately would be to quote a passage from 2312, which is Kim Stanley Robinson’s phenomenal (not perfect, but daring and strange, which is sometimes better) new book. It is a passage that seemed So Important to me, a message to my poor scattered brain and a thing to hold on to as I tightrope it out of a dark place. All bolding is mine, FOR EMPHASIS YO.
Habits begin to form at the very first repetition. After that there is a tropism toward repetition, for the patterns involved are defenses, bulwarks against time and despair.
Wahram was very aware of this, having lived the process many times; so he paid attention to what he did when he traveled, on the lookout for those first repetitions that would create the pattern of that particular moment in his life. So often the first time one did things they were contingent, accidental, and not necessarily good things on which to base a set of habits. There was some searching to be done, in other words, some testing of different possibilities. that was the interregnum, in fact, the naked moment before the next exfoliation of habits, the time when on wandered doing things randomly. The time without skin, the raw data, the being-in-the-world.
They came a bit too often for his taste. Most of the terraria offering passenger transport around the solar system were extremely fast, but even so, trips often took weeks. This was simply too much time to be banging around aimlessly; doing that one could easily slide into a funk or some other kind of mental hibernation. In the settlements around Saturn this sort of thing had sometimes been developed into entire sciences and art forms. But any such hebephrenia was dangerous for Wahram, as he had found out long before by painful experience. Too often in his past, meaninglessness had gnawed at the edges of things. He needed order, and a project; he needed habits. In the nakedness of the moments of exfoliation, the intensity of experience had in it a touch of terror–terror that no new meaning would blossom to replace the old ones now lost.
Of course there was no such things as a true repetition of anything; ever since the pre-Socratics that had been clear, Herclitus and his un-twice-steppable river and so on. So habits were not truly iterative but pseudoiterative. The pattern of the day might be the same, in other words, but the individual events fulfilling the pattern were always a little bit different. Thus there was both pattern and surprise, and this was Wahram’s desired state: to live in a pseudoiterative. But then also to live in a good pseudoiterative, an interesting one, the pattern constructed as a little work of art. No matter the brevity of the trip, the dullness of the terrarium or the people in it, it was important to invent a pattern and a project and pursue it with all his will and imagination. It came to this: shipboard life was still life. All days had to be seized.
Kim Stanley Robinson
I wish I could surround that last line with neon glowing arrows and underline it a thousand times. It is something I have never managed to believe for long as a working adult and something I desperately needed to hear.
I gave a talk to a hall full of librarians organized by the School Library Journal last night (what do you call a group of librarians? A kindness?). Many of them asked me to post it afterwards–here it is. I try not to disobey librarians. They have great power.
One of the things you don’t think much about when you’re a baby author
just hoping the hand if god will descend out of new York and lift you
up into the promised land of publication ate interviews. You’re going
to have to do a lot of interviews. Professional ones for blogs and
magazines, sure, but also from readers, at signings and conventions.
No one will grill you like a 12 year old who wants ti know how
currency wirks in fairyland. And often, you’ll get asked the same
questions over and over, which I actually find exciting–what will be
The Question for any given book? One always emerges, the thing
everyone wants to know. So I thought tonight I’d tell you about
something I get asked a lot.
The most popular character in the Fairyland series, stalwart
protagonist aside, isn’t a person. It isnt the charismatic villain or
the trickster with the twinkle in his eye. He’s a big red fellow named
A-Through-L whose mother was a Wyvern and whose father was a library.
This makes him, to my knowledge, fairly unique in the annals of
literature. He is a Wyverary. When I began talking about the sequel to
the Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
online, the question I was asked most often by children and adults
alike was: will Ell be in it?
And yes, he is loved because he is gigantic and bright red and funny
and loyal and bashes into things quite a lot, he is popular because he
is a Wyvern, which is a fancy way of saying Dragon, and few enough of
us have hearts so hard we cannot love a dragon whose great passions in
life are books and very fresh radishes, but the thing that makes Ell
who he is, that makes him a character so loved that young girls bring
hand-knit and crocheted Wyveraries to my signings, is that he is part
It’s universal and it’s instant–invoking a library makes people
happy, excited, curious. Because libraries are magical places. They
always have been, public or private. Books come from human minds and
when you gather that many of them in one space, the space becomes, if
you’ll forgive the word, holy. Books create their own space and
physics, their own psychic presence. For those of us who did not grow
up with wealth, libraries were the place you could go to stuff
yourself with stories and knowledge and pursue like a bloodhound every
Through most of my childhood, my mother was a student, getting her
master’s in 19th century drama and then her doctorate in political
science. That should probably tell you a lot about me as a person.
This meant a lot of time spent in university and city libraries,
wandering the stacks while my mother did “research,” a word which had
a glittering, talismanic quality to me when I was very young. It
sounded very grown up, and very interesting, something secret and
cabalistic, that smart and beautiful people like my mother and her
My school friends did not think “research” was as fascinating a game
to play at recess as I did.
But in those libraries where my mother worked, I read just about
everything–and that is part of why libraries are still magical, why
Borges wrote about an infinite one and McKinley gave Beauty an
impossibly complete one and why I’m still making them in my own books.
Because there is an alchemy to libraries. Because you go in looking
for a book about the Bermuda Triangle and end up losing a whole day to
medieval heraldry. You find Hamlet which you have to read for school,
but what in a cosmic sense you went to the library that day to find
was a little book called Seaward which would become an intimate part
of the architecture of your brain. You can never tell. A library is an
infinite tangle of possible paths to the person you’ll be in a year,
two, three, thanks to the books you stumble over by utter, delightful
chance. And though there is also magic and wonder in our digital
world, that is a spell that cannot be wholly cast online.
We are, with all of our very shiny tools, still primates. We still
crave physical experience–and more than that, a physical experience
of story, of narrative, that thing which has grown up from a thing
done around the fire in exchange for meat and wine to a thing done on
a vast stage, with paper and ink and pixels and files, a thing done
around a table at a conference in a city of high towers. We still want
to use our hands and our bodies to do things. We still want to wander
and pick up and hold and flip through and wedge a thumb in. Libraries
are a great bastion of physical experience–a literal city of books,
with laws and codes and maps and roads through high paginated towers.
This is also a magical thing. Any city is. Any forest in which you
might get lost and meet a fairy or a monster or a companion.
And so A-Through-L, my eternally helpful and hopeful Wyverary, is a
literal version of what so many of us feel–that we were born out of
libraries. For latchkey kids like me, they were parents and friends.
They were where we found out who we were, by peering into book after
book like a mirror. They were safe places we could run to when the
horrors of school got to be too much, when we didn’t have anywhere
else to go, and they were places where a love of books would never be
mocked, only encouraged. That was where I learned all those fancy ways
of saying things, and the librarians who taught me were my Gandalfs,
my Dumbledores, my Athenas with clear eyes and, I suspected, pet owls
hiding behind the circulation desk. Without them, I only know small
and usual ways if saying things. We who were raised by libraries were
trained up by librarians, the wizards who seemed to know so much, and
steered us toward books we didn’t even know would change our lives.
A library is a place where “research” really is talismanic,
cabalistic, wonderful, mysterious, beautiful. Where it is a game we
can all play together. I’ve traveled to libraries all over the country
in the last year, reading to kids about all the places where I see and
catch magic, and every time I read in Ell’s big, booming voice under
the roof of a library, it seems so very right. Let me tell you why.
It’s kind of a secret, between the two hundred of us, so lean in.
We are all half beast and half library. We are half big, awkward,
occasionally fire breathing thing who want to be loved so terribly
much, who want to be useful and good, and half all the books that ever
stuck with us, changed the construction of our brains and the
architecture of our hearts. We are half creatures afraid of bumping
into the world the wrong way and roasting something accidentally and
half a jumble of instincts toward wonder and kindness borne to our
innermost selves on rafts of so many books and stories. We are all
And that is why everyone asks me, with worry in their eyes, begging me
to say yes, if Ell will be in the next book. To make sure, to be
reassured, that this great and dear creature who stands in for
everyone who ever loved a library and wanted to make it proud, never
has to leave Fairyland. That he, and they, will always be in the
And I tell them every time, with a twinkle in my eye: of course he will.
Ten years ago, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh.
It wasn’t Platform 9 3/4, but it might as well have been. My life changed the moment that train pulled out of the brick archways and into the rolling green countryside beyond London–it was just beginning to be autumn then, and the trees were full of crows. I remember thinking about bird magic, auguries, every story I’d ever heard about England and Scotland. I was a tiny thing, a maiden in all but the technical sense. I knew, as the old novels say, nothing of the world. My EuroRail photo looked absurdly, hilariously, preposterously like an illustration of Snow White. I had a bacon sandwich. My mother was with me, a psychopomp in knock-off Prada sunglasses, bearing me across the wall and into the life I didn’t yet know I was in for. It was the first time I wanted something with that desperate, pure fire–and made it happen, by myself, with will and work. After all, if you grow up loving fairy tales and King Arthur and saints who battle monsters, you want the British Isles the way some kids want boyfriends. Edited to add: is that a silly reason to want to go to a country? Yep. Is it a direct outgrowth of the complicated relationship of American culture to British culture? Yep. Was I 21 years old, pretty silly, fully of inchoate dreamy nonsense and trying to learn how to be a real person? Absolutely. In fact, a big part of that growing up was going to a place I'd dreamed about and figuring out what reality there was like.
I lived there for something over a year. I came back to America for stupid reasons–but that’s what you do in your twenties. Make stupid decisions while meaning so earnestly well.
My interviewer in Finland asked me: you’ve written about everywhere you’ve lived but Edinburgh. Where is Scotland in your books?
I laughed a little, pressed my lips together as I always do when I’m thinking, looked out the window of our car at the swans nesting in the golden Nordic estuaries. This is what I told her:
A poetry professor once told me that you can never name the thing you’re writing about. If the poem is about death, you can’t say the word death. Poems about memory shouldn’t go on about the thing itself. If you’re writing about grief, you can’t actually say grief, or sadness, or even tears. If you want to talk about love, love is the one word you can’t use.
Edinburgh is the thing I am a poem about and do not name.
Today, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh. It was Platform 7. It’s just beginning to be summer now, and the fields are full of chartreuse flowers. The old churches spring up out of them like strange, huge blossoms. The train rushes over a stream so full of swans the current is pure white.
I think about bird magic again. Auguries.
I am no longer small. I know something of the world. Maybe not much of a something, but something. I have made things with my hands and heart. I look a bit pugnacious in my passport photo, like I still have something to prove. I had a bacon sandwich. My husband is with me and this time I am bearing him across the wall, to show him this object that sits at the bottom of my mind, a grey stone city with a castle and a mountain, a place that was once wholly full of fairy fruit and temptation and the rich mess of becoming bigger, becoming grown. That fairy fruit made everywhere else look dimmer for awhile. My goblin city, that swallowed me whole. I think it took falling in love with Maine to fix me–before then I always had the idea that of course I’d go back, that somehow, somehow, this was where I’d live when I could choose.
I’ve been near tears most of the morning, riding north through sheep and cattle and chapels and flowers. When you love a place, it’s hard to leave, and harder still to come back. You hope it will be proud of you, of all you became when you left to seek your fortune. You hope it will be as you remembered; you hope you are still as it knew you.
You hope it will forgive you long neglect, lines in your once-clear face, a hard blue edge of cynicism.
O goblin city, I hope you will forgive me for never writing a book about you.
So this is one of those things where I’ve been quiet because there’s a lot going on. I’ve put off announcing this part of it, but for obvious reasons I can’t do that much longer. So here goes.
Night Shade Books and I have parted ways. They will not be publishing the third book in the Dirge for Prester John series, and rights for The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World have reverted to me.
I continue to think that Night Shade puts out wonderful books and I hope for their success. I did not take this step lightly. But their recent troubles have made our business relationship difficult, and I could not in good conscience proceed with a third book given the circumstances. Obviously I’m being a bit vague–there’s no point in airing laundry in public. This was a very hard decision, believe me. It is not about ill will or some juicy internal drama I’m keeping on the DL. Nothing juicy about it. It was a business issue that we could not, finally, resolve. It was ultimately an act of self-preservation, and I’ll leave it at that.
What this means is that at the moment, The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World are for the most part unavailable. Some copies will float around for awhile yet, but most of the eversions are gone. I hope to fix this in the next week–I have relicensed the covers from the excellent Rebecca Guay and Night Shade has been very kind and accommodating with regards to physical copies and digital files. Very shortly you will be able to buy ebooks again from Amazon, BN, Apple, etc, and order physical copies directly from me.
As for the third and final book in the series, The Spindle of Necessity, I am committed to finding a way to make sure you get to see it. I owe you a finish. Oddly enough, Prester John is my longest series to date, and I want to bring it all to a close the way I planned to from the beginning. For those of you who have stuck with the story, don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. Given the market realities, the most likely avenue for this is a Kickstarter campaign to fund a self-published version. Because the real costs of producing an ebook/limited print edition of a quality that matches the rest of the series are actually quite high, I will be using this opportunity to illustrate those costs, hiring the content editor, copy editor, and cover artist who worked on the previous books and paying them their market rates. This is a hefty undertaking, but one I believe will be valuable as part of the ongoing discussion surrounding epublishing.
I’ve been gathering details on that and doing research–as I leave for Finland tomorrow, it will not begin until I get back. If anyone has any Kickstarter advice or help they’d like to offer, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I ran Fairyland off of my own site quite apart from what is now becoming the “traditional” approach to self-publishing. I’m a bit at sea with the standard tools. The novel was not set to come out until February 2013, and I think we can stick to that timetable.
So that’s the situation. I’ll let you know as soon as the novels are available again. I’ll be heading once more into unknown waters and hoping it all comes out well in the end. I’m very sorry to have had to take this step, but I believe it was the right thing to do.
Today, the paperback edition of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland comes out. It’s also very nearly exactly Fairyland’s birthday: the big red book is one year old.
So today I thought I would talk about the Thing. The Thing that gets criticized most often about Fairyland, the Thing I am called on to defend on panels and at conventions but have not written about online until now.
It’s the idea that Fairyland is somehow “too smart for kids”, the words are too big, the folkloric references only comprehensible to adults. That I did not, in fact, write a book for children at all.
Are there big words in Fairyland? Yes, there are. Are there references and jokes about fairy tales, folklore, classic children’s literature, politics, science, 20th century history? Yes, there are. Is Fairyland a simple, breezy story to be gobbled down without thinking, that will never challenge a child who reads it or stretch him or her beyond their comfort zones?
No, it is not.
Middle grade children actually rarely come across a book that doesn’t require learning new words and concepts. That’s kind of the whole point of being a kid. Everything’s new. Everything requires explanations. Certainly no child understands every math joke in Alice Through the Looking Glass, nor every dig at British Parliament in Peter Pan–and I rather think many kids have had to ask what the word “orgy” means when Barrie uses it. Many of us never even noticed the Christian allegory that lies at the heart of the Narnia books. If you watch the old Muppet Show, they make jokes about postmodern performance art, beat poetry, theater management, economics, and every kind of adult pop culture. The complex words they use sometimes surprise even me. There is always a balance in literature for the young–you write to teach and entertain the kids, to delight their older selves, and to amuse their parents while they read aloud or watch along. The best books, to my mind, accomplish all of these at the same time.
The thing is, young readers and viewers are pretty amazingly good at stitching together a story they love, skipping over the parts they don’t get or making up their own explanations. They like to learn new things, especially when they involve giant herds of living bicycles and stompy red dragon-type things. Nearly every “big” word I used in Fairyland can be found somewhere in the seven books of Harry Potter. Yes, kids will need to look some of them up, or ask their parents what they mean. This is part of the joy of reading as a child. Kids shouldn’t be surrounded by stories that only reflect back to them what they already know–and neither should adults.
And part of the pleasure of books like Alice, Peter Pan, Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Phantom Tollbooth–a novel that earned Norman Juster a heap of grief for being too smart for kids and way over the heads of any young readers, by the way–is rereading them as one grows up. Children’s novels can be like intricate puzzles, showing us more and more of themselves with every year we grow. I remember in college realizing that the famous Carroll line: the rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today was a fairly complex Latin pun–the word for “now” is “iam” (J and I were interchangeable in the Oxford classical system–as Indiana Jones teaches us, in the Latin alphabet Jehovah begins with an I), but “iam” is only used in the past tense and future tense–in the present tense, “now” is “nunc.” Therefore, jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.
No child could possibly understand this without explanation, unless they were a linguistic genius or a scion of the Oxbridge system. But the joke works on the level of nonsense humor, which children tend to dig all the way. They don’t have to get every level of it to giggle at the idea or never getting to have jam today, to identify with it because of the injustice of parents always promising treats tomorrow. And maybe they grow up and major in Classics and one day they laugh for fifteen minutes because holy cats, that’s so clever! And it’s hardly the only massively obscure line in Alice–a book beloved of children in ever generation since it was published. I could only hope to be half as good and smart as that book that requires an annotated edition for an adult to understand everything in it. It’s always a balancing act, trying to write a book that plays to kids but appeals to their older selves, too. Do I always pull it off? Probably not. But I strive.
I want kids to be able to grow up with Fairyland. To giggle at the nonsense now and see the layers later.
That said, A lot of the complaints I’ve had come from people who give Fairyland to a reader who is just too young. I’ve known five and six year olds who love Fairyland, who ask for A-Through-L birthday cakes or listen to the audiobook while they play with their toys. Those children are exceptional. The recommended age on the cover is 10-14–and I do believe by that age many kids can “get” all the macro-level awesomeness of September’s adventures. Certainly by 12 or 13. The micro-level will come with time. Sometimes a kid, even an advanced reader, isn’t quite ready for one book or another. Sometimes an eight year old isn’t quite up to a middle grade book. That’s ok. Fairyland will be there for them in a couple of years.
And in the meantime, I want to make a promise to parents. Fairyland has many adult fans, of course, but this is for parents and teachers who might be concerned about giving the book to a child. Fairyland is going to be around for awhile–we’ve sold three more books in the series after the sequel that will be out in October, The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. This is a long-haul promise, a promise for as long as I’m writing for a young audience.
I will never talk down to your kids. I will never with my text treat them as anything less than the imaginative, capable, eager, excited creatures that they are. I will never give them less than my best work, because I understand that when you give your child one of my books, you are trusting me with a little piece of their development as humans, having faith in me to caretake their hearts and inner worlds. That is a breathtaking responsibility, and I will never take it for granted. I will tell them stories that will stretch their minds and challenge them, that will make them ask you a lot of questions. I will try to communicate to them what I believe is real and true about life in this world, I will not make it a parade of sunshine and daffodils–and I will not make it a grimdark cautionary tale about the essential terribleness of everything. I understand that even if I’m wrong, I owe you and your kids my total sincerity and honesty, my most hard-won wisdom–even about the nature of fairies and wyverns and families and time. I will try to make them laugh. Sometimes I may make them cry. But I will never hold something I think is beautiful and important back from them because it might require a trip to the dictionary. I don’t think dictionaries are scary. I think they’re magical. And I think kids are magical, too. I owe them all the magic I’ve got, because I know how books become part of you no less than DNA, how they change your brain and affect who you will become, and that’s magic, too. I promise to take that seriously, and try with each novel to live up to the wonder and power of that. I promise to use all the tools I have to create the kind of books I longed to read when I was young.
I promise, now and forever, to write stories that are smart enough for your kids.
I am so excited that I can finally announce this!
We’ve sold two new novels to Tor!I will tell you about them!
One is a companion piece to Deathless, tentatively titled Matryoshka. This is not a sequel, but a side-by-side novel to complete what I’m calling the Leningrad Diptych. It is a retelling of Ivan and the Firebird set during the children’s evacuation of Leningrad. Some familiar faces will pop up, as in all Russian fairy tales, but it will be a story all its own. The gender-shifting trickster Grey Wolf, the Water of Life and Death, firebirds, valkyries, talking dolls and the return of Baba Yaga–Matryoshka is a dark mirror of the London evacuation and a journey into the heart of the war.
The other is my SF decopunk alt-history Hollywood pulp solar system space opera horror mystery! That’s right, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew is all grown up. (It will probably not be called anything like Radiant Car when it comes out.) A sprawling epic about love, fame, film-making, and the search for identity and authenticity in a densely populated solar system full of planets as seen through the lens of classic pulp SF: waterworlds, ice planets, and jungle moons. Imagine The Artist with giant Venusian tentacle whales.
Decopunk goodness will be out in 2014, Matryoshka in 2015.
Eeeee! New babies! I can’t wait!
As some of you know, I’m the Guest of Honor for Acon 5 in Mariehamn, Finland. I am SUPER EXCITED ABOUT THIS.
Also, my husband Dmitri is coming with me! This is awesome, as he rarely gets to accompany me on Fairyland adventures.
After the con, we’re staying in Europe for about ten days to take advantage of, you know, being in Europe. We can stay in Finland, but we can also go elsewhere. We have not yet decided what “elsewhere” entails yet.
Would any of our Euro/UK friends like to see us? We are very nice, and do not take up much space. Let us know, it may shape our geographical plans.
September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows–and their magic–to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.
Fans of Valente’s bestselling first Fairyland book will revel in the lush setting, characters, and language of September’s journey, and welcome back good friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. But in Fairyland Below, even the best of friends aren’t always what they seem…
Eeeeeeeee. It’s so, so beautiful. What do you think?
It comes out October 2nd. You can pre-order it here.
It’s ok. You guys can tell me.
We all secretly went back in time, right?
That’s the only way I can get my head around Wisconsin’s repeal of their Equal Pay Act on the argument that “Money is more important to men”, piled on top of the birth control “debate” and Georgia passing legislation based on the idea that women are anatomically and ethically identical to pigs and cows. We fell through a time vortex and it’s 1959 and half of the twentieth century didn’t happen.
That is, of course, what Scott Walker and the rest of the charming gentlemen who are signing these grotesque reversions into law without mandate or recourse want. Hey, if we take away their birth control and don’t pay them for work, everything will go back to the way it was when pwecious Scotty was a kid and women will just stay at home and back cookies for everyone. Yay! No one will be gay anymore and America will drink its milk and be big and strong and we won’t have to worry about recycling and breast cancer (ew breasts!) and unwhite people and that rock n’ roll music the kids listen to. We can law it all away.
Yeah. And fuck you, too. And fuck you to everyone who told me to stop swearing about this on Twitter last night. WE SHOULD ALL BE SWEARING. We should all be laying down so much shit that fucking roses grow on Twitter. WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT THIS AT LEAST AS MUCH AS WE CARED ABOUT SOPA. Funny how I don’t see anyone shutting down portions of the Internet in protest, though. I mean, it’s only women. The headline on Reddit about this is: “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has signed a bill that prohibits workers from collecting damages in employment discrimination cases.” No outrage, no commentary, just a link. No mention of Walker’s contention that women don’t work as hard, aren’t “go go go” like men, and shouldn’t be paid as much. Women not even mentioned, despite being the clear and stated target of the legislation. Why get upset? Should be fine!
After all, there’s no war on women. The Republicans promise there isn’t. Just because the massive portion of their efforts are bent toward reducing the rights and freedoms of a single group within the American population doesn’t mean it’s a war. Not like the War on Drugs is a war. After all, drugs are bad and need to be controlled or else society will fall apart.
Just like the ladies. This is just Good, Small Government. Why, next week, they’ll be repealing the Equal Pay for Caterpillars Act.
The conservatives are at least partly right: birth control and equal pay (somewhat equal, anyway) were the great victories of first and second wave feminism. They are trying everything in their power to take those things away, in the hopes that it’ll activate a Time Turner that will erase the source of those changes as well as the changes themselves. They say we are pigs, they say we don’t need any silly pin money, they say these things and they should be embarrassed, they should be ashamed at what just came out of their mouths, but no one is shaming them. The news treats it like a simple partisan debate. Point for blue, point for red. But no matter what young folks might say, these men know we’re not in a post-sexist or post-racist culture, that they can rely on old, ugly misogyny and the reluctance to stand up for women’s rights that has tinted gender relations in this country for pretty much ever to lube their legislation up nice and slick. When women are outraged, you don’t have to listen, after all. Bitches be crazy.
I know Walker will almost certainly be recalled in November. Doesn’t really matter–he’s fiat’d this into law and there’s an inertia there. I’ve heard rumors that Walker is a top candidate for the GOP VP slot, so don’t get smug in the knowledge that he’s going away. I shouldn’t be surprised, you shouldn’t be surprised–but we should all be terrified. And angry.
I’ve seen a lot of people saying things like “only in the US” and “America is crazy” and “thank god I don’t live there” flitting around, both here and on my gendered online discourse post. (And I want to thank the BSFA for proving my point, that the sexist jackasses, they live everywhere.) And I want to say: knock it off. First of all, no matter how much we like to take credit for things, Americans did not invent sexism. I promise, it could not “only happen in the US.” Many countries, if not all of them, have huge gender problems and many of those are boiling over with regressive assholes in power. And since the UK, Canada, and Australia are all having trouble with conservatives in their government pissing in the punchbowl, I wouldn’t get too excited about your immunity to this kind of crap.
But more importantly–stop thinking you’re special and it can never happen in your country. That is how America got like this in the first place. By thinking we were special, specially liberated and enlightened and awesome and only those other lamer countries had problems. That arrogance allows us to continue to let everything circle the drain, because we’re the best and OBVIOUSLY we’re not really sexist and stuff, it’ll get fixed, don’t worry. Our system can’t have been redesigned to let a few people destroy our economy–we have the best economy! USA! Everything’s fine! GROWTH 4EVAH.
I hate that shit. I know you hate that shit. So stop telling me Americans are so weird and where you live this could never happen. It could. If you’re not vigilant, like we haven’t been, it will.
Doesn’t mean I know what vigilance looks like. I’ve been told not to call myself a feminist my whole life, well before the current skirmishes. I’ve seen vast swathes of young women grow up couching every sentence defending their right to exist in “I’m not a feminist, but…” Because feminists are bad and they hate men and they’re ugly. But I’ve also been told: well, obviously you’re not serious about marriage if you don’t take your husband’s name, if you must be pro-choice make sure you insist that you could never make that choice for yourself, don’t make the first move or boys will think you’re a slut (also you will be a slut), you can have a full time job but don’t think that means you get to slack off on cooking, cleaning, and childrearing, you lazy baby-hungry girl. Men work so hard. They shouldn’t have to worry about the home. After all, you’re just naturally better at cleaning–men just don’t see clutter like you do!
But everything’s fine in America now and all feminism should worry about are the poor ladies living in the Middle East so why are you complaining that you only get 80 cents to the male dollar? YOU GOT 80 CENTS, BITCH, AREN’T YOU HAPPY?
So yeah. I feel fucking miserable and helpless. The fact is that our system is only loosely democratic at this point. We vote nationally on a President and that’s it. We as citizens have no recourse when executive branches decide to get all War on Caterpillars on our asses, and it’s been made abundantly clear that not one fuck is given about organized protest at that level of government.
This is why Wikipedia shut down to protest SOPA. Because that’s all we have, really. Disrupt commerce and consumer culture. But I just can’t see that kind of concentrated action happening in defense of women, no matter how much what happens to us happens to the whole culture. Go ahead: take our birth control and our jobs and call us pigs, tell us to obey the Catholic Church’s most panicked and regressive ideas whether or not we are Catholic. Take our humanity and wipe Congress’s asses with it.
But don’t you dare take away smoothly torrenting Mad Men episodes. How else will we get new ideas for how the country should look?
It has been quite a pair of days on these here Internets.
The post on gendered discourse is very probably going to clock in as the most popular post I’ve ever written in ten years of LJ. For sure it’s the most comments I’ve netted in a 12 hour period. I’m stunned by the response and glad that, a few bad eggs aside, it’s been civil and interesting. For those of you who are new here, having clicked through to that post: Hello! I write novels. I don’t always write about feminism, but when I do, it’s a doozy.
And this afternoon, the Hugo Awards were announced.
I am up for three of them. THREE.
OH MY GOD WOOOOOOOOOO!
Specifically, for the SFSqueecast, Apex Magazine, and for Best Novella for Silently and Very Fast. You guys, I am so excited. I am so honored. I am so grateful to everyone who nominated me. I cannot believe it. I am so very proud of my friends who popped up all over the ballot. Congratulations to everyone, I am thrilled to be counted among your number.
Please, please, if you have the means, get a Supporting Membership so you can vote. It doesn’t matter who you vote for. But choose to have your voice heard.
Of course, the real question, since I never expect to win (and haven’t!) is what shall I wear? Because this is our Oscars. It is our Big Night. I see no reason not to treat it as a Giant Occasion and wear a goddamned ballgown. No matter what goes down in Chicago I intend to dress like a SPACE ROCKET PRINCESS.
Unfortunately my dressmaker friend has quit the business. But if any of you want the gig, please ping me! I might start a Pinterest board. I hear the cool kids do that these days.
Because authorial life does not stop for shiny, I must adjourn to work on Moar Books. But I am blown away. I am dead of amazing. I love everyone.
See you in Chicago.
I keep thinking about the Priest situation. You know, the one where a well known male writer took to the internets to blast the Clarke Award list, make some pointed critiques, call authors, including some of the most famous and popular names in the field, and jurors very rude names, and suggest they all be scrapped, sacked, and sit in a corner and think about what they’d done.
I can’t stop thinking about it, actually.
Everyone has had their say, including me. I am pro people voicing their opinions on literature, even unpopular ones, and I fully support Christopher Priest’s right to weep over the state of science fiction as he sees it. And while I don’t care for name-calling, this is the internet, and aside from porn, that’s pretty much what it’s for. People wouldn’t have amused themselves for the better part of a week over this if it weren’t so savage, wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of the SFF news cycle if it wasn’t a delicious piece of part gossip, part hit job, part serious business, and part playground taunt. That’s how you get pageviews, folks. Everyone loves an entertaining dick.
But it’s not the piece itself that has stuck in my mind like so many bar-room darts.
It’s that if a woman wrote it, she’d have been torn to pieces. No quarter, no mercy.
I touched on this in my previous post. But it’s more than lolz, he’s got balls of brass, I could never get away with those blognanigans. I couldn’t, of course, even if I wanted to. But neither could almost any other woman writer or blogger I can think of. Go after popular SF writers and a respected award? She’d have gotten death threats, rape threats, comments telling her everything from shut up and make [unnamed internet male] a sandwich to wishing she’d be raped to death because that would shut her right up.
I don’t actually have to imagine this scenario and speculate as to its outcome–it’s happened. It happens all the time. Sady Doyle got absolutely eviscerated, along with such whimsical threats of violence and forcible silencing, for merely stating that A Song of Ice and Fire had some serious race and gender issues. She didn’t say it was a bad book, she didn’t call George Martin a pissing puppy, she simply stridently, without compromise, and with humor laid out her opinion concerning a book. Requires Only That You Hate is regularly showered with hatred for her thoughts on science fiction and fantasy–she was called a rabid animal by Peter Watts, a luminary in our field, who received very little public condemnation for his statements. (A rabid animal! Because she thought a book was sexist! I thought humorless feminists were the ones who took things too seriously!) Hell, yesterday Laurie Penny, a well-known activist, blogger, and author, was improbably saved from ongoing traffic by Ryan Gosling and upon writing an essay on obsession with celebrity, lack of coverage of regular people doing good things, and objecting to being portrayed as a damsel in distress because she forgot which way traffic runs in the States, was treated to about a thousand different flavors of “shut up, you dumb fucking bitch” in the comments of one of the most prominent “liberal” blogs on the Internet.
You don’t even have to kick an entire award slate to the curb. I know female authors who have gotten such threats for daring to own a bred cat instead of a shelter animal, for not having their books available on the Kindle as quickly as some fans would like, for minor infractions. I’ve gotten them for, as far as I can tell, simply existing online. Most women who blog or are active in the cultural commentary game know that they have to watch what they say. Always. It’s a horrible balancing act, and one I rarely see men having to do.
Yes, I know it’s the net and comments are a festering pile of venom, but you do have to notice that the venom cranks up to eleven when a woman posts. You can tell me well, Requires is so mean! Sady doesn’t say things super nicely! And I will point to all the men who say not nice things, some of whom even call out properties for sexism, and are applauded for their badassery and edginess, for their disinclination to suffer fools, and the total lack of screeching hate speech in their comments.
Because, yeah. If you threaten a woman with rape because she didn’t like a comic book you like? That’s hate speech. That’s invoking an act of violence specifically related to her status as a female in order to shut her up. Men can be raped, too, of course and obviously, but the kind of person who leaves comments like that doesn’t see it that way. Rape is what you do to a woman who pisses you off. To hurt her especially. To remind her of her place.
And if you want to see the ugliest fandom has to offer, all you have to do is be a woman and say something negative about a popular SFF property. Bonus if it’s male-authored and male-directed. Shit on urban fantasy all you want. But Game of Thrones is holy.
The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death. On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.
Chris Priest can say what he says not only because he is a giant in his field (Sady Doyle is barely less prominent in hers, and while I do think that harsh criticism goes down better when it’s not the authors in the field at hand who do it, both Sady and Requires are not SF authors of any stripe) but because he is a man. And we respond to it with some anger, but mostly reasoned philosophical or humorous posts, macros, examining what it means, the value of juried awards, defending the authors and jurors but mostly accepting what he said as either a sad gesture by an old man, a hilarious and miserable rant, or valuing that at least someone cares that much–even wishing someone would go equally ballistic about a different award. There is a marked lack of viciousness–and what he said was every bit as bad as some of the stuff that gets Requires Only That You Hate a fever pitch of loathing and seething fury just about every time she posts.
I’m not saying everyone should just put their Asshole Hats on and have at it–but some people have their Asshole Hats on already, and they take them off for men who have a beef. I keep trying to think of what a male blogger would have to say about science fiction to have someone say they hope he gets raped to death. I’m not coming up with anything.
Misogyny in the West is coming up and it’s a gross, miserable, chthonic thing swirling at our feet. It’s getting worse, not better. Sites that consider themselves evolved, liberal-leaning, and intellectual (hello Reddit! Hello Gawker!) have comments and whole sections full of such boiling hate for women that it knocks you back. I hear people say with a straight face that the younger generation isn’t sexist or racist anymore, and unpacking how woefully wrong that is would take another post entirely. And geek culture isn’t immune, not even close. Sometimes it’s worse, because it’s so convinced it doesn’t have the same work to do as the mainstream. And, I suspect, because a lot of guys were rejected by girls when they were young and see gender as the only thing all those girls had in common, and so as adults take it out on a whole gender by either outright hostility or by excluding what they see as the source of their troubles from their presence, their media, their art.
Well, I was rejected by a LOT of guys when I was young. Often cruelly, often publically. Every awful thing “girls” do, a guy has done to me. And now, as when I was in school, I find myself navigating a world where everyone listens when the menfolk talk. When women say something even slightly off the path of accepted indietechsfgamer wisdom, for offenses as monstrous as suggesting that it’s hard to be a woman programmer in the open source world and as unforgivable as crossing the street the wrong way, a large and vocal cross-section simply screams obscenities until she shuts up. When I was a kid, I was told to soften my voice, make it higher, make it sweeter, smile more, keep my hand down in class, and over and over not to be so opinionated–a word that is not even used to describe men, because when a man has an opinion, it’s taking a stand or telling it like it is or whatever brand of keeping it real you’d like to slot in there.
I’m frustrated. I’m tired of the disparity of voices, of who gets written off and who gets their blog posts discussed in The Guardian being dismally predictable. I’m tired of still having the “when men say it it’s awesome and when women say it it’s bitchy” conversation that was supposed to be sorted in 1985. Not because I have a whole bunch of horrible shit about awards that I’d like to say. I don’t. But I have to tell you that I don’t, so that you’ll think I’m a nice girl, so that I don’t come off as threatening, so that you’ll listen to what I say and not just write me off as an angry feminist…what? Bitch. Because feminist bitches are not to be listened to, don’t you know. They are not to be considered, not the way Priest was considered, even by people who disagreed, even by people who thought he went too far and too personal and too much.
And ultimately, it won’t matter. This post will still probably net me some ugly email and assumptions that I am in some fashion The Worst. Because there is no possible way to make myself as dulcet and charming and innocent and inoffensive as some people want women to be, most particularly women writers of children’s books, without killing some part of me, burning it out to replace it with a nice tea service and a demure smile.
That’s the line I walk, and most female authors and commentators walk. On one side of it is a silence which we can’t afford and on the other are the blowback and threats, which come quietly and secretly through email or boldly and baldly in comments.
I have no doubt professional life will be a bit dodgy for Priest in the near future. But no one will wish him death. No one will email him to tell him he should be raped. No one will call him a rabid animal (with the implication that such monsters are to be put down). That he will not suffer this is undeniably a good thing.
But it’s not an equal thing.
Last night, over a pot of coq au vin and a bottle of vodka, I sat at my table and sang songs with my husband, Laurie Penny, Peter Beagle, Peter’s agent Connor, and Connor’s partner Terri. Peter and I sang Mariah together, from Paint Your Wagon.
That is a thing that happened in real life and not in a dream.
My life is often strange and impossible. I am so grateful for it.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist came out. Christopher Priest, who you may remember from The Prestige, does not approve of it no way no how.
Now, I actually like his post. I’m not going to call it a rant because I don’t enjoy that word–it seems to downplay the possibility of Getting Mad on Your Blog having any style, craft, or critical merit and it’s not really a rant when it’s reasoned, clever, and passionate. Whether you agree with Priest or not, it is all of those things. In fact, “Have we lived and fought in vain?” his comment on Greg Bear’s latest, is one of the great oh-this-fallen-world zingers I’ve heard in lo these many years.
Way back in grad school, one of my professors said he felt quite fondly toward Harold Bloom, though he found many of the man’s ideas toxic and wrong-headed. “We need,” he said “somebody to go on TV in a leather jacket and cry about the death of literature. Somebody has to do that for us, as a culture.”
Well, it looks like Priest has taken up the leather for us this year. And I’m fine with that because someone has to do it. Someone has to move the Overton Window ever so slightly toward high art. High art gets crapped on all the time, and even the phrase is basically a self-reflexive accusation/admission of elitism. But things get shitty, Sturgeon’s Law applies, the center cannot hold, and very occasionally, as high-maintenance lunch-to-literature conversion machines, we need Mommy and Daddy to not be proud of us to spur us on to write better books, to synthesize the high and the popular a little better every time. You will find a thousand authors arguing that what is popular is ipso facto good and anyone who says otherwise is a pseudo-intellectual heel. One guy should be able to say the opposite.
Now. Do I agree with Priest? Not especially, on this score–I have only read two of the books on the list, and I like Internet puppies. (I do agree about the thing we’ve lived and fought in vain about, though. GOD I need an icon of that line.) Were those two my most specialist favorite Trapper Keeper books of all time? Nope. But honestly, the Clarke shortlist has never stood in for my to-read pile. I am not, as they say, the target demographic. The Clarke list has always, to my mind, been for the type of person who goes on the Internet to weep about the death of hard science fiction, and those people rarely hang out with me. Would I be less fine with it if I were one of the authors Priest shakes his finger at? Yep. I would be crushed. I am grateful he either doesn’t care about, has no problem with, or hasn’t seen the Nebula ballot. I’ve never met Priest, but I suffer under the common longing for the greats in my field to find me worthy, to look on my work and call it not a waste of paper, for Mommy and Daddy to be proud of me.
While Damien Walter is probably wrong about Priest’s motivations here (I think “he’s just jealous” as a way of discounting everything a person says does not become a critic) he’s right about the powerful desire of writers to be “…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays.”
Yeah, he’s got us on that one. It’s a big part of the reason award ballots cause us ulcers. Not because we want to be showered in rockets while bathing in perfumed Lovecraft heads while signing our new contracts on the crystalline surface of a nebula, but because we want to be in the room, we want to get called up to the big game, we want to be inside and not outside, acknowledged as someone who can be allowed to sit at the big kids table. And it can’t be a whole lot of fun to have someone whose seat is assured tell you at length why you don’t deserve to be there.
But on that point I don’t think you can argue that the Clarke list isn’t, in fact, representative of the field as it stands, of the giants in it, veterans, rock stars, and up and comers, of those who in fact are in the scene and in the know. The fact that so few books were submitted says more about peripheral issues than about the sins of the jury or the authors at hand: the tough-to-crack UK publishing scene and how much trouble science fiction as a genre is having right now, dominated by a few huge names (and therefore the style and ideas of those names), underselling as compared to fantasy, losing new blood to the enormous YA market which is all hopped up on SF dystopia right now (I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing), and torn between the desire to return to pulp roots and break new ground which might alienate the very vocal fans of those roots. It is hard out there for a space pimp, I tell you what.
Is it possible that a fourth Mieville win, no matter how awesome China is as a person or the relative quality of the book, might harm the award and the field by implying that it’s not so much the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the Annual China Mieville Award? Yep. That is a salient argument. The same guy always winning isn’t exciting or interesting nor does it encourage a lively field. This is why several major editors, writers, and venues pledged to take themselves out of the running for the Hugos this year–they always win. It’s not fair. And China looks to have a book coming out every year for the duration, so possibly it’s time to call someone else up to bat–if they wrote a better book than Embassytown. It’s up to China to decline if he feels it’s right to do that. The shortlist is a done deal and it’s not going to disappear in a puff of logic as Priest suggests/hopes. And while E-town was not to my taste, I’m hard pressed to think of another SF book that came out last year to more perfectly encapsulate what people say they want: cerebral novels of ideas that have interstellar scope, gravitas, and scientific weight. That bad boy is all gravitas.
But all of this is beside my main interest in Priest’s philippic against the Clarke ballot. Which is this: I am endlessly impressed when someone is august enough to be able to post something like that and have people not react with screaming and personalized rage, but with good-natured defenses, t-shirts, macros, and amused opposition.
Because let’s be honest, I couldn’t get away with it. If I posted that shit? I’d never hear the end of what a bitch I am. And Priest is friends with some of those writers, or at least friendly! I still get grief over saying that I didn’t like a popular subgenre of SF, (and at the time I got it from every conceivable corner) and suffer guilt over having torn into Yellow Blue Tibia as harshly as I did. I decided not to do any more negative reviews of anything because the satisfaction of stating my opinion was not worth the personal abuse I got every damn time–even for a stupid movie like Splice. I have a reputation and it starts with B. And I’ve never told a whole slate of award nominees to take a flying leap. Being part of a community as small and close-knit as the SFF world is a delicate thing. Hell, I didn’t even post about how hair-pulling insane the non-ending of The Prestige made me because Priest is a golden god and you don’t go poking them. More fool me, I guess.
Is it because he’s a dude and I’m a lady? For sure, blogs written by men can get away with a confrontational tone and stridency of opinions women can’t. Because he’s old and I’m young? I get that–I haven’t shown that I’m any better than anyone else. Priest is a genius (though again I’m with Walter in that: “His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, ‘extremely clever’ is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love.”) and you gotta listen when he talks. I envy the free license of the great and glorious elders to simply not give a shit and say whatever because fuck you, that’s why. It’s an amazing superpower. I hope someday to inherit it.
So, Christopher Priest: thank you for going on TV and crying about the death of literature. Literature needs that, to keep it going. The genre needs someone to exhort it to try harder, to keep it reaching for the heights. You had me (specifics of the novels aside–Daddy, you ain’t never gonna convince SF writers to quit it with the neologisms, that is what we call a lost damn cause) right up until you suggested throwing out an already-released ballot, which seems unnecessarily cruel to the real living and breathing authors who would be affected by it–I mean, seriously, that is some cold shit right there, to say oh hey, really, now that we’ve thought about it, you all suck to much to even let this go to a vote. Do over! Wow. Hardcore. That is not even tough love, it’s just tough. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, might as well suggest a drastic and unworkable solution. I appreciate any blogger who does over a solution rather than just snerking at the world, even the high-quality snerk going on over there.
No one is going to go: hey, you know, he’s right, I am terrible and Imma fix it! The whole nature of books is that they speak to some humans and not others. The point of shedding tears about literature is not to stage some kind of intervention that moves everyone over to your way of thinking. That trick never works. It’s to piss people off so that somewhere somebody–probably not the people he lit into–thinks to herself: I’m gonna write something so good even that Priest jerk will bow low before my might. And the world is made better by that unspoken challenge.
Whatever the ballot looks like next year, whatever trends and sales and celebrity and chance do to the state of the field, whatever cringing and wincing I have done this morning on behalf of the authors you have deemed unworthy, Mr. Priest, I can tell you one thing:
You have neither lived nor fought in vain. I promise.
You never know what a school visit will be like. If the kids will have read your book or not, if they will be engaged and interested or bored and distant. If they will open up to you or shy away, since you are a stranger and an adult and that oh-so-mysterious thing, a writer.
And then sometimes they spin you right around and show you the slice of the universe they carry around in their backpacks.
After my talk in South Portland a couple of weeks ago, the kids were milling around the library and two kids started playing an odd game with a long row of identical powder blue books. Each book was about an individual animal, with that animal’s name and a photograph emblazoned on the front in bright colors and large print. The boys stood on chairs behind the shelf so they could pull out books without looking at them.
One, who wore glasses, looked up and yelled “Miss Cat! come over here! We’re playing a game!”
I did, and the boy in glasses told me to stand still and they would pick for me. With a little theatrical flourish, he closed his eyes and pulled one of the books at random.
“This is what he is,” he said, gesturing at the other boy, who had blond spiky hair. He turned the book around and held it straight out with both arms. On the cover was a crocodile.
The blond boy yanked out another one. “Oh yeah?” he said to the boy in glasses. “Well, this is what you are.” He flipped the book to reveal a toucan.
“And this is what you are!” the boy in glasses turned back to me triumphantly, and selected another book.
On the cover was a moose. I laughed. “I can be a moose,” I said. “They’re big and strong and stubborn and they make funny noises, just like me.”
This went on for awhile, grabbing books with closed eyes and trumpeting: this is what he is, this is what you are, oh yeah, well you’re both of these put together, I’m gonna pick three and all of them are Miss Cat. Well, if I were a MAD SCIENTIST I would make one animal out of THESE ONES and it would be a MONSTER and that would be YOU.
I was, variously, a moose, a wolf, a muskox, a flamingo, a grizzly bear, and a walrus. The blond boy was a butterfly, a shark, a mountain lion, a mosquito, a swan, and a kangaroo. The boy in glasses was a dolphin, a hummingbird, a lion, a zebra, a whale, and a rabbit. I was also a whaleantelopebee, and they were an elephantfrogmanatee and a peacocktigerkoala.
And I couldn’t help but marvel at them, the very primal and human moment when theyse children learned how to make metaphors. Not I am like a swan, you are like a wolf, but I am a swan. You are a wolf. He is a shark. I am a rabbit.
And it’s more than metaphors–it’s divination. It’s folklore. If I close my eyes and reach out into this collection of randomly-ordered images, whatever my fingers find will say something essential about me, or my friend who wears glasses, or the lady with black hair and the red book who came to talk to our class today. It will not say what they’re like, it will say what they are, deep down inside. So If I choose a worm for myself, I will be sad, because it means I am a worm and I have this whole set of ideas about what worms are. If I choose a tiger, I will be happy, because I also have ideas about what tigers are and in the world I live in it’s better to be a tiger than a worm. What animal I am tells a story about what kind of person I am, and what my life will be like when I grow up.
It’s this incredibly basic thing, somewhere between magic and storytelling, and you can see exactly where fairy tales come from in these boys grabbing blue books like Tarot cards, like runes. Where totems come from, and fetishes, and half the shamanic toolbox–oh, no Miss Cat, we’ll draw for you. If you draw your own it doesn’t count. Those are the rules.
No one taught them to do it. No one taught them those rules–though certainly there are cultural narratives at play in their reactions to drawing The Rhinoceros versus The Kitten. Though I found it wonderful that with the exception of the flamingo, all of my animals were the sort usually masculinized–big and strong and somewhat dangerous–and they didn’t question it at all. The draw has spoken. Nor did they express particular dismay at being butterflies or swans. It wasn’t about what kind of animals they liked. It was a deeper magic, as a certain lion would say.
What they were doing was very real. Paleolithic human wizardry. We still do it as adults, of course, as a million usernames and pagan names and Halloween costumes and D&D characters and cosplayers attest. The marriage of image and soul fuels story and our conceptions of self, all the more so in the world of the internet where we can use images that are not our actual selves to represent that self–macros and userpics and icons. We are always making ourselves into metaphors. We are deciding with endless online quizzes what animals or fairies or vampires we “are”–in hopes, I have always thought, of borrowing some of the power of those characters and images for ourselves and our actual non-fairy lives. We want those images to mean something more, to say something fundamental, and once we decide they do, they do–that’s how some kinds of magic work.
In play, we show our best selves, the people we dream to be, long to be. And we pantomime acts and narratives that once upon a time were seen as holy, as the very keystones of faith–because they are instinct, they are beautiful, and they are true often enough.
I spent an afternoon with two small shamans and they told me I was a moose. I was a wolf. A muskox, a flamingo, a bear and a walrus. We did a good trade. I brought my magic to them in the form of a red book, and they brought theirs to me in blue books. We wizards know a bargain when we see it.
We shook hands when it was over. That’s how colleagues say good-bye.
There comes a time when you look up from your constant work and open the windows to let the spring breezes of current events in and take a deep fucking lungful only to say:
What the fresh hell is going on in this country?
Trayvon Martin gets shot to death by a neighborhood watch who stalked him, decided his bag of Skittles was threatening, shot him through the kid’s tears and screams for help, claims self-defense, and the police don’t so much as arrest him? They don’t intend an investigation even though the shooter has fled the city, most likely the state, and disappeared?
NYPD just straight up beat OWS folks into the ground while hissing obscenities at them because they dared show up at Zucotti Park after a rally? Obviously no charges filed, because fuck those hippies.
Rick Santorum–RICK SANTORUM–the senator with the most notorious surname in politics, the one so crazy and mean the whole internet got together to make him no longer viable as a political entity, is winning primaries and might actually be the Republican candidate.
And apparently, APPARENTLY, all of that lovely talk about how American feminists should shut up because the battle is won and everything’s SUPER COOL and happyfunequalitytiemz now is just so much wishful thinking, because we are returning to fucking VAUDEVILLE levels of woman-hating right now. Want an abortion? Well, we’re going to need to violate you with this penis-shaped, condom-covered instrument then, just to remind you of the devil’s work you did to get into this situation in the first place. Nobody knows how birth control or a goddamn uterus works, we seem to be having an actual discussion about whether it’s appropriate to be on birth control as an adult woman, and though conservatives want to frame it as a health insurance issue, it’s really about taking contraception away entirely, as evidenced by the Arizona bill that wants to make it legal for an employer to terminate a woman because she’s on birth control. (No word on Viagra, of course. That’s for a serious medical condition! It must be covered!) Since women already get fired for being pregnant, the logical solution is don’t hire women anymore, and PRESTO CHANGO WE’RE BACK IN 1957 WHEN EVERYTHING WAS PERFECT AM I RITE.
And now, NOW, this asshole in Georgia wants to make it illegal to remove an ALREADY DEAD fetus from a woman’s body until she “naturally passes it” because “that’s what cows and pigs do.”
It’s not even an abortion, it’s hazmat removal. To say a woman should risk death and incur obvious psychological trauma from carrying around a corpse as long as possible because cows and pigs do it? Ok, you’ve done it, you’ve actually blown my mind. It seems pointless to say a woman is not a cow or a pig, that anatomy is not identical across the animal kingdom, that it is cruel and beyond the pale to deny necessary medical treatment to a woman because it kind of sort of reminds you of abortion, that the default state of the universe is not Men = Human, Women = animals. That oh my god now not only are women’s lives not as important as fetuses, they are much less important than dead fetuses. And some people will vote for this! They will look at this thing and say: sounds good to me. A pig can make bacon, maybe we should start rounding women up for meat, too.
Is it seriously just that we have a black man in office, so conservatives cannot cast their reality-blocking bubble spell as completely as they did during Bush’s years? Because at least when Bush was around they weren’t telling me not to take birth control on the very flimsy excuse of supporting the Catholic Church, which most American far-right Christians think is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and also witches and idolatry. Is it that the very notion of reality including a black man in power so totally destroys the decency centers of conservative America that all their oldest, ugliest, most ridiculously old-timey sexism and racism comes flying out like psychic vomit? Men who can’t even bring themselves to say the word vagina are deciding what I can and can’t do with mine, and it’s not because the government should stay out of health care, it’s probably not even because babies are so sacred, it’s all about putting those whores in their place, which is not in the office, it’s not in college (else why keep calling women in college co-eds like it’s 1920 and they just let a woman into Oxford for the first time, whatever will the menfolk do? They’re students, you unbelievable jerks), it’s in stirrups, it’s in the kitchen, it’s out of sight and out of mind, with their icky, icky parts hidden away.
I get in trouble when I talk about politics on this blog. Back when McCain was running I posted a paragraph about how grotesque I thought he was and got a rash of comments and pingbacks about how authors should shut up about politics and stick to writing about elves. So most of the time I just don’t say anything, because I don’t want the grief. But things are getting unreal. The level of cognitive dissonance it takes to insist the Republicans are the party of small government while supporting their desire to legislate every aspect of the sexual lives of everybody (think straight men’s sex lives won’t be affected by women not being able to get birth control? Think again) actually hurts my brain to contemplate. Yet half this country blithely spouts it–and quite a lot of geeks, who would never call themselves conservative and certainly would like to get laid a whole lot, gleefully support Ron Paul, who’s so libertarian that he supports practically no government regulation EXCEPT ON THE LADIES AND THE GAYS YOU GOTTA REIGN THAT SHIT IN.
And all the while the only people who even want to talk about the mass financial crimes of Wall Street or the crises facing young people as the economy circles the drain are being beaten like dogs for opening their mouths in the same place that some tents were pitched last fall.
Oh, and it’s 75 degrees in March in Maine and we’re running out of oil and just about everything else. But the Bible doesn’t say that can happen so we should be fine. Don’t even think about researching alternative fuel! That’s not how we powered our Cadillacs in 1957! Therefore it’s suspect!
I don’t get it. I fundamentally don’t understand how in 2012 this is the country I live in. I want to believe it’s the last death throes of the old world, of the terrible, toxic ideas of the 20th century finally spasming out, but these people control a significant part of our governement, and Santorum isn’t even old. We can’t just sit back and say they’ll die off eventually. The earth will never run out of assholes. And this obsession with the essential goodness of the past, the need to not just live life by conservative principles but force everyone else to do the same so you don’t even have to think about anyone ever being any different than you…I can hardly think of an uglier instinct in humans. Rather, I can, but they all come from this same one. And we’re hip-deep in it–but anytime someone gets angry enough to speak out, they get a can of pepper spray to the face. (Seriously, who is training the police these days?)
It’s so much more fundamental than a single election. Hell, it contaminates other countries–the UK is considering, for some kind of insane reason, to scrap their NHS and adopt our system, a system that doesn’t work for us at all and harms our populace. A system so bad it’s the punchline of jokes. But it’s more than that, even. A huge part of the country I live in wants to silence and crush people like me–and that “like me” has multiple vectors. Female, queer, young, liberal, artist, techie. It goes on. I once thought you simply couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle when it came to a lot of these issues. You can’t force a nation to re-shackle itself. But maybe, if your hate is strong enough, you can do it piecemeal, bit by soul-killing bit.
We need an It Gets Better campaign for America–except I’m not sure it actually will.
Last night I went to speak at a local elementary school about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. It was a good event with a nice turnout, with a bunch of really eager and interested kids who don’t often get to meet authors. Since the book came out I’ve spoken at a lot of schools, of every socio-economic level from incredibly posh private school to low-income public schools.
Now, I was educated at public schools–all the way from K to graduate school. I moved around a lot and some of my schools were better than others. I went to community college. But it’s always been public school for me and if it’s not too bold I think I got a pretty awesome education there, due in large part to phenomenal teachers. Mr. Danielson, Mr. Crossman, Mrs. Lamp, Mrs. Bonneau, Mrs. Bruch, Mr. Kanna, Mr. Wrightson, Dr. Schwartz, Drs. Edwards, Dr. Clark, Dr. Ringrose, Dr. Dubois–these people made me who I am.
I believe in public school. And I also know how difficult funding, teaching, and running a school has become.
Most of the schools that I go to are pretty well off, in good districts, private schools–because those schools ask. Those schools have had authors in the past. They can afford honorariums. One principal even gave me a silver bracelet as a gift for visiting the school. And those kids get a lot out of an author visit. They learn about publishing and about how a story gets written, they get a chance to see books as living things that grown ups are passionate about, they get exposure to the wider world and to art as a wage-making life choice. Peter Beagle came to my high school when I was in 10th grade. It had a profound and lasting effect on me.
And so I came to a decision last night while talking to the 5th graders in South Portland, and to their teacher, who shook her head and talked about how expensive it was to bring authors in, even to get them to do a Skype visit. That it’s just not possible for them very often. Because Maine, a state I love and have made my home, has a severely underfunded educational system. We have a lot of struggling schools, a lot of districts who could never afford to bring in speakers and writers for their kids. We have great teachers and librarians, but the state has been hit hard by every economic downturn and rarely buoyed by upturns that bring tech money to Boston and maybe even Portland, but certainly not to the vast interior of Maine or the outlying islands.
I live here. It is a place I want to see thrive. So from here until forever, I will waive speaking fees for any K-12 school in Maine that asks me to come and talk to their students.
I will pay for my own transportation, yes, even to Eastport or Presque Isle or Matinicus Island. I will provide any incidentals or technical equipment so that the cost to the school remains zero. Scheduling concerns notwithstanding, I am simply making myself available to Maine schools for free. This does include private schools, for all I’m a public school advocate. Even schools that can afford to pay me should get a break sometimes. Use the fee to buy new books for the library or to bring in a second author.
Why just Maine? Why not extend this offer to anywhere in the US, or the world? Kids everywhere need help, don’t they? Well, the simple answer is: I live here. I plan to for a long time. I feel it is vitally necessary to invest in my community, and for kids to see someone who lives in the same world that they do making something beautiful and putting it into the world. To see someone living and working in Maine becoming a New York Times bestseller with a book she wrote in Maine. More practically, I can’t afford to fly anywhere, anytime. This is what I can do, what I can give back to the place that has accepted me and given me so much joy and inspiration.
Maybe no one will take me up on this. Maybe they will. But I feel it is the right thing to do. Any teacher or principal can contact me through my website or my publicist at Feiwel and Friends.
I get asked a lot when I knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up. And the answer is not until I was already writing professionally. When I was a kid, up through college, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to get people excited about the things I was excited about , and do what all those amazing teachers and professors I mentioned (and many more unnamed) had done for me.
I went another way, and I’m not a teacher. But I hope I can give a little help to those wonderful, dedicated women and men who do the good work every day.
The Etsy blog just posted this story about a woman’s quest to completely locally source a coat.
It’s presented as a great success, a doable thing (even though the coat cost $900) and a harbinger of, or at least an indicator for a possible mechanism for a new economy.
And here’s where your humble narrator goes: hrmmmmm.
Because if you read that article, you may or may not notice the several things that I did. Now, I’m not saying this lady is wrong and should feel bad–she’s fine, she went on a journey and this is what she found. But the triumphalism is a little odd. Look:
Just fifteen minutes from my front door, mills used to transform locally-grown fiber into beautiful fabric. All that capability is gone now, off-shored in the 1990s.
Yep, me too. Except…she’s in Sonoma Country, which was wine country by the 1990s, and not mill country in the way, say, the entire state of Maine was. But ok, sure, there was a mill there. But the vanishing of the textile industry (which went down in this country LONG before the 1990s, hell, Kerouac wrote about it) is presented as a tragedy here. A lost time of beauty and care, the creation of exquisite, handcrafted items loved by all.
That is not what a textile mill does. The idea that we’ve been expelled from the Eden of…mass-produced textiles that probably didn’t spend one second in Sonoma County before being shipped who knows where is fascinating, and indicative of where the local movement is going a bit awry. Yes, things were made there. No, they did not stay there, and if you’re longing for the Xanadu of early 90s manufacturing in California, well, I don’t even know. Sonoma County has become vastly rich doing exactly what locavores delight in: making wines. Locally. Charging a lot for them. I don’t think anyone there would trade the money of yuppie wine lovers for the return of the textile mills, with their cancerous fumes and river-polluting and punishing working conditions. BUT IT WAS LOCAL.
You know what part of the country would love to have the textile industry back, though? New England! Because in its wake, it left a hugely economically depressed region that has not been able to recover due to damn near perfect growing conditions for expensive wine! So I feel like I have a little bit of a handle on how to make a local coat, given that I live in Post-Apocalyptic CoatWorld USA. But back to that in a moment.
Because she doesn’t make her coat locally. If you pay attention, she admits that they “could not” locally source the following items: the silk liner for the coat, cotton thread, and magnets to use as a coat closure because the designer didn’t want to make buttonholes for some reason. I presume the olive oil soap used to clean the fiber was also not local, nor the muslin used to make the pattern.
Alright, so this is only a locally made coat in the loosest sense, isn’t it? In that: the alpaca was local. The felter and carder were local. The designer was local. That’s it. Every other aspect of the coat was made somewhere else, and in the case of the magnets, probably somewhere very else. And it cost $900.
Normally, I wouldn’t say anything, but this is specifically touted as “dress locally” and a new economy success story. All the comments are supportive of that read on it, and it’s the thesis of the article. Apparently this “new economy” still needs all the trappings of the old economy, but as long as you don’t think about it, it’s still morally pure.
So I started thinking about this, because I am a fiber artist who makes some of my own clothing. Because if asked the question: can you make a single locally sourced garment if price is no object? The answer is: of fucking course. (At least where I live. I find vocal locavore evangelists sometimes forget that not everyone lives in California, the Pacific Northwest, and other areas of highly fertile land and an affluent population that can support all of these high-priced, handmade, local $900 coat movements. If you want to eat locally year-round in Maine, I hope you really like dried beans, because the winter CSA will airlift a freaking crate of them to your door.)
So: I am a knitter. I have the most rudimentary of sewing skills. I still think I can make this happen for under $900 and be, you know, actually local.
So, first, the yarn. Nothing to it. I can drive 15 minutes out of town and get all the alpaca fluff I want, in pretty much any direction. I can card it myself, and though my spinning skills are probably not up to making the fine yarn needed, there is an amazing spinner on this very island I could give it to to turn it into yarn for me. While she’s at it, she can spin some thread that I can send to the nice lady in California. I am baffled at the notion that thread must be cotton, or that cotton is somehow not a crop that grows and is for sale in central California, the most fertile place on earth. If the spinner is not available, I suppose I could just practice a little more and do it myself.
I am fully capable of designing my own pattern and knitting it–I highly suspect the lion’s share of that $900 went to the clothing designer and the three fittings, not to the alpaca farmers, though of course I could be wrong. I am capable of this because I’ve spent four years knitting and learning, and the article is absolutely right that that knowledge is always factored into any price. But I promise, you can do it, too.You can also felt your knitting in your washing machine for approximately $0.
At this point, we come to the lining. Now, I question the need for it to be chiffon silk to begin with–when attempting high-grade localness, sometimes you have to make do with linen like a plebe. But ok, sure. Let’s pretend it has to be silk, because it’s not just a local movement, it’s an affluent local movement, and what would the other Whole Foods moms say? Well, a quick Google search did not turn up any silkworm farms in Maine. Sad face! Turns out the state subsidized silkworm farms in the mid 1800s but since they only eat mulberry leaves and mulberry trees don’t dig the frigid cold, it didn’t take. Hilariously, though, searching for silkworm farms in Maine turned up as the fourth hit a silkworm farm in Fallbrook, CA, which is a bit rough for the local tag at 500 miles from Sonoma, but you can also contact the UC Davis cooperative, as they farm them, too, and that’s not even 100 miles from Sonoma. (Also I went to high school there. Go Aggies!)
So, they could have gotten locally sourced silk, but I cannot. However, there at least five or six serious weavers on my island and I’m pretty damned sure I can get a nice piece of fine linen to line my jacket with and I would somehow be able to face my silkless image in the mirror every morning.
For buttons–and I cannot comprehend a designer that, knowing the goal is to make as locally sourced a garment as possible, decides she doesn’t want to cut the fabric and make buttonholes because fuck buttonholes I guess, and goes for magnets. Which they didn’t even try to locally source–even though Southern California boasts several magnet manufacturers (remember, mills are awesome, so it doesn’t matter whether those magnets are made in terrible conditions, they are made in-state) and the Mountain Pass Mine, the largest rare metals mine in the United States–specifically metals used in the creation of magnets. Now, that mine just opened last year. Maybe it won’t be as rich as we think. But you can make magnets in middle-school science class, for reals, guys.
Yeah, I’ll think make some buttonholes.
Then I’d go to my local yarn store (owned by an islander!), who carries beautiful pewter carved buttons from a Portland metalworker. Or I’d make glass buttons myself with my lampworking setup at home. I can even manage the olive oil soap, as there is actually an olive oil press outside of Portland, and they make soap.
I would estimate my total materials and someone-else’s-labor cost for the coat at about $150, much less if I spun the fleece myself, maybe $220 if I had to buy the yarn already spun up (which I could still do locally). Does the experience and knowledge of 2-3 humans plus my time knitting the coat add up to a $700 markup? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not, if we’re really trying to show what local economies can do.
Her coat wasn’t knitted at all but felted straight from the fleece. Knitting takes longer, but knitting for felting can go pretty quickly. Call the whole thing $300 to sell, not to make–which is being very generous, because I’m positive that with my New Economy shoes on, I could barter for the weaving and the spinning. 66% off, and not far from what you’d pay for a good alpaca coat from the mall. Still not cheap, and I didn’t support any local clothing designers except, I guess, me. (Designers do good work, too! But the experiment here was simply to have a locally-sourced coat, not a runway-ready one.) I’m lowballing the profit margin…because I recognize that people do not have that much to spend. I don’t make coats for a living, obviously. I believe strongly that the benefit of localness has to be weighed against the cost to that very community, and we can’t all sell each other $1000 clothes. Again, the issue was never to make a fashion-forward coat of awesome that would make the drag queen angels weep. It was: can you dress locally. And the ease with which the affluent can insist a pricetag like that is reasonable and scalable enough to change the way our economy works bothers me on a deep level.
Normally, I wouldn’t make such a stink. I would maybe Tweet about it. Locally made garment. Cool. But this article made such a big deal about the very special localness of this experiment in the new economy, when really, only one item used in the making of the coat was locally sourced. What the word “local” means has always been a sticking point for me as this movement has grown–often the big showy items are local, but the invisible stuff, cookware to prepare that meal, spices, salt, thread, magnets, plates, require the entire apparatus of the industrial economy to be in full swing. Yes, it’s a good thing to invest in your community and get things locally, in no small part because it often tastes a hell of a lot better if it’s food, but to pretend like this is the New World while benefiting greatly from the presence and continuation of the Old World puts my nose out of joint. It also ignores that people in other communities also matter, and need jobs, like to be able to make money off of their farms, their art, the work of their hands. I assure you, much of the state of Maine would be happy to make your coat with the love of the common man in their hearts, weeping righteous tears right into the fabric. But that wouldn’t be local if you live in California. And the word, the dare we say label, has become more important than anything else.
What I think we want when we say we want localness is story. We want to know about the things we use because we’ve become very disconnected from those things. We want to feel some affinity with what we use, what we eat, what we wear. We like knowing the names of the people who made it, because that makes us feel more human, more invested in the world. It makes us happy, because we are creatures who seek company, tribes, and depth. And if you can get those things, maybe it matters a little less how few miles they came to get to you. I got a necklace from Etsy today. It came from Sacramento. Not local–but still made by a human girl whose name and face I’ve seen, if only in a photograph.
But the pricetag of the coat gets in my grill too. Nothing that involves a $1000 coat is a harbinger of a new economy. It’s the old economy, where the rich can afford to have beautiful handmade things and the rest of us are priced into manufactured t shirts. There’s a crack in bloody Gosford Park about that little socio-economic turn of the tide. It happened around the year 1900. It is OH SO Industrial Revolution. The article admits this, but, because it’s the Etsy blog, asks whether you wouldn’t want to be paid $900 to make a coat? Well, we all want things. But if your new economy of local, communal friendship and cooperative manufacturing relies on someone else being wealthy enough in the old economy sense to want to pay you in cash during a Depression what a goodly portion of us pay in rent? Then you’re not out to change the world. You’re just out for your share from the bad old system as it is.
And that’s fine. It really, really is. We all need to make our way. But it’s not an Etsy-messiah triumph of local economies nor does it prove anything about a new way of living.
That article asks: Can you make a locally sourced garment? It believes that it has answered yes. It is super excited about the answer being yes! My point is that the story as presented actually says no. But the real answer is still yes, it just takes a little more research and time. But not more money, necessarily.
Some of this may have seemed harsh, and I really have no beef with the author of the article. She seems really nice and enthusiastic.
But she’s not wearing a locally-sourced coat.
For reasons almost entirely irrelevant to this post, I have been mucking about with Westerns of late. I’ve seen a rather obscene number of That Sort of Film due to having grown up in California (they’re history! Srsly!) and having a Western-obsessed ex-father-in-law. I’m less hep on the literary front, but no slouchy stranger to it, I promise.
So I come from a place of some authority when I tell you that True Grit is really, really good. Both the book and the recent film adaptation–let us not speak of the original movie. Look, I know it’s JOHN WAYNE ZOMG and a classic and whatever, but it’s a ridiculous over the top movie that robs the novel of all it’s uniqueness and power. It cannot trust the words of the book, the simple power of the story. And they CANNOT STOP with that horrible theme song. Dmitri turned to me and whispered: “Did they…back then…did people just not know how to act yet?”
I think that says it all. Yeah, I don’t care for the Duke. What a shock. Clutch your pearls.
Whereas the Coen Brothers flick is pretty freaking great. It is miles more loyal to the book, which is GREAT, because DAMN, that book. It’s got this dialect thing going that is just easy and fluid and fabulous, it’s a tight, emotional, gorgeously written thing. A perfect marriage of style and content.
And what do you know, there’s a Strong Female Protagonist in it.
Watching TG for the third time–and it’s few enough movies I can do that with and not be bored–it struck me that this is a novel written in 1968, about the mid 19th century, in a genre notoriously hostile and uncaring toward women, by a dude who was born in 1933, and it’s got a complex, interesting, active female protagonist who is never punished for being a girl, who tells everyone who talks down to her to fuck right off, who moves the plot herself and in fact gets to shoot the man who wronged her. She is the point of view character and though she ends up a spinster, she dismisses any notion the audience might have to feel sorry for her or see that as a meet end for a girl who steps out of place, saying she never had time to fool with marriage. Her sheer amazingness does not preclude the presence of Rooster Cogburn, a compelling and iconic male character, nor the badassery and redemption arcs of the men in her company. It simply exists. (Though oddly I’ve seen people refer to Mattie in both film adaptations as a sociopath, which seems to miss the point entirely and say something quite ugly about the kind of people who think a girl doing what everyone in revenge plays have been doing since they were invented means she’s a sociopath.)
Yes, she’s 14, and many writers have fallen into the trap of believing a young/sexually immature woman can be allowed a freedom and level of interest older/mature women cannot, but I used to be 14 (crazy!), and I’ll tell you what, that’s well past the innocence of pre-adolescence. Mattie Ross, without a chain mail bikini or a giant sword or any need to reassure you that she’s just a girly girl at heart, tee hee, kicks ass. She does not give two fucks, and the text supports her in not giving them. It gives her space to work out her own story. She is neither impossibly strong, superpowered, crazy hot, nor wishing for a boyfriend.
You know, in 2012, the number of films and books that allow women to do this are vanishingly small.
Aliette de Bodard wrote an excellent post about the invisibility of women in Sherlock–but even more about how this is kind of a new thing, male writers just erasing women from their fictional cosmoses entirely. If you look back at Doyle, his contemporaries, his predecessors, though women might be harpies or evil or simply rewards for men, they were never just absent the way they are in portions of current television and film. People had mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and so did everyone they knew. You couldn’t just blot them out because you weren’t “interested” in them–every Greek play has one, some several, Shakespeare even at his bro-iest (surely Love’s Labour’s Lost?) still has multiple chicks on stage. Yes, older works are often misogynist and ugly. But the disturbing trend of showing only dead, silent, or supremely unimportant women briefly and then rushing back into a universe peopled only by hot men is (perhaps) our own special invention. At least it’s the addiction of a significant number of creative minds.
And I can’t help thinking that even in Serenity, the Future!Western authored by the Sainted Whedon who can do no wrong, does not allow River to fight the Operative herself. She can mop up Reavers offscreen–Reavers who are brutal but not official representatives of the government that harmed this girl nor out to get her particularly–but the great man-to-man battle that decides the narrative of the film, that’s for the big boys, kid.
A 1968 novel does better. The sheer centrality of Mattie, given that she has the classic bromance Big Men swordfighting with their egos around her, astonishes me, even though it shouldn’t. If Steven Moffat got ahold of this, she’d be a petulant, shouty superhot annoyance while the real story became Cogburn and LeBoeuf, who would naturally get all her best lines. Eventually we’d find out that Mattie’s brother sent her to do all this in the first place and planned it all. (I still cannot forgive that assassination of Irene Adler.)
All this is depressing as hell. Encouraging, I suppose, that the Coen Brothers made this film in 2010, that movies like Hanna still get made.Television is a worse state, and frankly most popular SF/F is incredibly dire on the sheer visibility of women, let alone any kind of 201 treatment of their stories. What. the. hell. It should be better by now. It was supposed to get better.
But I never thought I’d say that I wish more creators displayed the feminism of a 1960s Western.
Tonight I am reading at the NYRSF event at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art!
It’s an Under the Moons of Mars event, so I’ll be reading from my Barsoom story. I hope to see some of you there–I have been trying not to overbook myself while in NY, with the effect of not seeing as many friends as usual. Also: must acquire soup dumplings to complete my travel tradition!
Also, my story Urchins, While Swimming is now up at PodCastle! It’s beautiful, and has singing!
I’ll be back home tomorrow. It’s been a good trip, with much fun. But my own bed awaits. I had a dream that we had to evacuate earth and populate another planet due to s comet or whatever and they made us leave our pets behind. So I’ll be needing to cuddle my dogs and my cat!
Lastly, seanan_mcguire’s new novel Discount Armageddon is out today–go find yourself a copy if you know from awesome!
Cross-posted from my tumblr, with gifs, because that’s how I roll over there, because I think it’s important enough to say twice.
I gotta be honest, my relationship with technology has gotten a little toxic lately. I stare at the Internet and I can’t make myself not do that, but the advance of microblogging and slow decline of the kind of thoughtful long-form blogging that brought me to the Internet Wurld in the first place. The robots in my house, they grab me and hold me to their cold metal breasts and I can’t get away.
Part of it is that it makes a really good procrastination tool. And that I am a tool. But most of the time I feel like my attention span and my ability to feel connected to the world physically and emotionally has taken a load of buckshot to the face.
This is a common existential problem, I believe. The all-net giveth and the all-net taketh. And knowing it’s dimpling your soul with spiritually radioactive debris doesn’t actually stop any of us from drinking from the cyber firehose.
Believe it or not, I have a fix for this.
I have had a lot of ideas in my life. Some stupid, some great, some workable, some very impractical indeed. What follows has to go down as one of my best.
Once a week, and we might even bump it up to twice, we have what we call an Abbey Night in our house. We turn off all but the most necessary power. We build a fire and light candles and hurricane lamps. And for the evening, we engage only in 19th century activities.
No music unless you make it yourself. No screens. All phones turned completely off. No writing unless it’s longhand. Tea means a kettle on the stove.
We still cook because we have a gas stove, but if it were electric I’d have dinner ready before the sun went down. We knit, we read to each other, we talk. We play with the dogs. We play cards and cuddle.
And a funny thing happens: when you turn all this stuff off, time dilates. There is SO MUCH TIME in an evening without the stuff that sucks it down: TV, Internet, phone calls and texting. There is attention to spare, and a sudden ebullience of discovering what we can do with all these hours.
Now, I now the 19th century was actually a shitty time to be an intellectual chick. Downton Abbey is a TV show about rich people, not a model for life. It’s the choice to turn it off that makes this powerful. We use the 19th century as an easy yardstick for what to turn on and off. We’re not super strict about it. It’s the idea of stepping back and indulging in what Kim Stanley Robinson once called paleolithic pleasures: other people, voices, fire, things you can do with your hands.
I’m not saying humans weren’t meant to have our shiny toys—we made them, they are ours, and very human, too. But there is something profound about going to ground this way, just once in awhile. It resets you, it brings deep calm. It’s like techno-meditation or the deep conditioning treatments you don’t use on your hair every day, but as a luxury every few weeks to keep things bright and strong.
When we’ve shared this with other people, they, like we, have been nervous at first, when the lights go off. They don’t know what to do. But in a few minutes it switches over to excitement and laughing and intense connection, delight, joy. Whispers in the dark.
Sunday was an Abbey Night. We roasted a chicken and read Lorca by candlelight and one of our guests played her cello while the other played guitar, we told stories aloud and sang, and we invited strangers we met on the island roads to our table where we fed them and gave them whiskey and read Stanislaw Lem to them until the ferry came to take them back to the real world.
And we all knew without the Rules, we’d have spent that night fixing websites or answering email and not talking much. It’s not that we’re bad people. It happens. It’s a technological world. But instead we had this precious evening by soft light that we’ll remember for a long time.
And that’s a point too: I remember each Abbey Night with strong clarity—most evenings melt into one long strain of work and vegging out and whatever. But these nights—I remember every moment.
So I’m posting this as a gift: I encourage you to try it, for it is magic. Of course, I’m sure YOU don’t have any TV at all and spend every day in a rapture of intentionality and mindfulness and you’re only even reading this on a computer you made out of coconut shells and superiority.
But for those of you who have issues with how you interact with time and tech like I do, this is an amazing thing. It is like a spell cast.
Interpret our rules however you like. I mean, the fridge stays on in our house and everything. But this is the single biggest tool I have for unfucking my tech-addled heart and reminding myself that I have a body, I have an interior life that needs more than the frayed ropes of energy and attention and connection and spoons that I’ve been working with. When I feel like a floating brain connected to nothing, which is more than I’d like, this brings me back.
It is good to be reminded that I have the ability to be grounded and full, that the world is not slipping away quite as fast as I think.