Thursday, April 30, 2009

"R.A.Lafferty...collaborating with Harlan Ellison"

Don D'Ammassa has posted a review of Rebecca Ore's Centuries Ago and Very Fast at Critical Mass:

I was struggling to think of something to which I could compare this slim but well written collection of very odd, related stories, and the closest I could come was R.A. Lafferty, although only if he was collaborating with Harlan Ellison. The common character is an immortal who was born in prehistory and is still around in the modern world. He has a series of encounters with typical and atypical characters, including rebellious college students, a drag queen, and others. The tone of the stories is a balancing act between the serious and the comic. One of the most difficult books to describe I’ve read recently, this should appeal to fans of literary SF, satire, and nifty prose, and it is almost certainly not going to be what you’re expecting. 4/22/09

Three Observations and a Dialogue: Round and About Feminist SF by Sylvia Kelso

Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce the publication of Three Observations and a Dialogue: Round and About SF by Sylvia Kelso, the twenty-fourth volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series.

After WisCon 20, Sylvia Kelso engaged Lois McMaster Bujold in a rich, snappy correspondence about Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels. “You ... remark that ‘[my] post-modern despair is not [your] emergency’ over the failure of feminism to transform SF,” she wrote to Bujold. “My postmodern despair OUGHT to be your emergency, buen' amiga, because one of the reasons you are being ignored is that ... you don't fit the male canon either in the community or the critical industry; so unless you catch their eyes with a sand-blaster like The Left Hand of Darkness, the male academics are also gonna find you invisible...”

That correspondence became “Letterspace: In the Chinks Between Published Fiction and Published Criticism,” which is published here. Also included are “Third Person Peculiar: Reading between Academic and SF-Community Positions in (Feminist) SF,” a critical essay discussing the intricacies of an Australian feminist scholar writing about science fiction; “Tales of Earth: Terraforming in Recent Women’s SF,” which considers colonialism in science fiction by women; and “Loud Achievements: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Science Fiction through 1997,” which closely examines Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels.

The volume is available now through Aqueduct's website here. And just a reminder: Subscriptions of ten consecutive volumes (beginning with the volume of your choice) may also be purchased through the site for $80.


I had trouble understanding the essay which Cat Rambo recommends below, because I don't really understand what trope means. As SF writers and critics use it, it usually means a shtick, gimmick or cliche.

Per an online dictionary I just consulted, a trope is
any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.

This sounds like the definition that Rae Bryant gives in the essay, but does not seem as if she then discusses literary or rhetorical devices.

As Delany pointed out years ago, it's hard to use words "in other than their literal sense" in SF, since SF describes a new reality, which needs -- usually -- to be described literally.

Some rhetorical forms are so well assimilated into the language that everyone uses them, and no one sees them as figures of speech any more. You can see this in spelling: "tow the line," "reign in." The underlying image has been lost.

These can used in science fiction.


I did not mean to post this. It was still a draft. But I did post it, and it got one comment, so I guess I am stuck with it.


Josh points out that trope can mean convention, which is not a cliche. I know the word from SF con panels, and most of the people using the word are not trained in literary criticism. So what they mean -- or maybe what I heard -- is more like gimmick than convention.

But it does seem to me that Rae Bryant is using the word to mean convention, which solves part of the problem for me in understanding the essay.

It seems obvious that SF is full of conventions of plot and character and device (consider FTL), but is not full of metaphoric language.

Speaking from 35+ years of experience, I will strongly recommend that SF writers stay away from irony. I have used it consistently, and it has consistently confused editors and readers. In SF it's a good rule to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rae Bryant Writes About Taboos and Tropes For Fantasy Magazine

I wanted to point people at Rae Bryant's two part essay on Taboos and Tropes, the second part of which came out today in Fantasy Magazine, because I think they are interesting and I would like to see more discussion of this sort of topic. Part one is here and part two here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nisi Shawl and Patrick Ness win the Tiptree Award

The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council announced that the 2008 Tiptree Award will be going to Patrick Ness's young adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go and Nisi Shawl's Filter House, an Aqueduct Press book.

The Tiptree Award will be presented on Memorial Day weekend at WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin. Each winner will receive $1000 in prize money, an original artwork created specifically for the winning novel or story, and a confection, usually chocolate. (I've amended the wording of the press release because Nisi cannot eat chocolate, since it's a migraine trigger for her. And I distinctly recall that one winner was given something other than chocolate, because it was not a favorite with her.) The 2008 jurors were Gavin J. Grant (chair), K. Tempest Bradford, Leslie Howle, Roz Kaveney, and Catherynne M. Valente.

This year's Honor List is as follows:

• Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing (Bantam, 2008)
• Jenny Davidson, The Explosionist (HarperTeen, 2008)
• Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet: A Shadowbridge Novel (both published by Del Rey, 2008)
• Alison Goodman, Two Pearls of Wisdom (HarperCollins Australia 2008), published in the United States as Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (Viking 2008), also Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye in the United Kingdom
• John Kessel, “Pride or Prometheus” (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2008)
• Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (Knopf, 2008)
• Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia (Harcourt)
• John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In (Quercus (UK) 2007), original Swedish title Låt den rätte komma in (2004), first published in English as Let Me In, St. Martin's Press (2007), Translated by Ebba Segerberg)
• Paul Park, A Princess of Roumania (Tor, 2005), The Tourmaline (Tor, 2006), The White Tyger (Tor, 2007), The Hidden World(Tor, 2008)
• Ekaterina Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone (Prime Books)
• Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy (Canongate U.S., 2007)
• Ysabeau S. Wilce, Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) (Harcourt, 2008)

The press release also had this to say:

The Knife of Never Letting Go begins with a boy growing up in a village way off the grid. Jury chair Gavin J. Grant explains, “All the villagers can hear one another's thoughts (their 'noise') and all the villagers are men. The boy has never seen a woman or girl so when he meets one his world is infinitely expanded as he discovers the complications of gender relations. As he travels in this newly bi-gendered world, he also has to work out the definition of becoming and being a man.”

Juror Leslie Howle praises Ness’s skills as a writer: “Ness is a craftsman — the language, pacing, complications, plot - this story has all of the elements of great story-telling. It's a page-turner, and I continued to think about the story long after reading it. Todd's understanding of gender is constructed as the story progresses, making his perceptions feel fresh and new. It reminds me of the kind of SF I loved when I was growing up.”

In addition to the Tiptree Award, The Knife of Never Letting Go also won the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize (U.K.), which celebrates contemporary fiction for teenagers, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

Publishers Weekly, which selected Filter House as one of the best books of 2008, described it as an “exquisitely rendered debut collection” that “ranges into the past and future to explore identity and belief in a dazzling variety of settings.” Tiptree jurors spotlight Shawl’s willingness to challenge the reader with her exploration of gender roles. Juror K. Tempest Bradford writes, “The stories in Filter House refuse to allow the reader the comfort of assuming that the men and women will act according to the assumptions mainstream readers/society/culture puts on them.”

Juror Catherynne M. Valente notes that most of Shawl’s protagonists in this collection are are “young women coming to terms with womanhood and what that means in terms of their culture, magic (almost always tribal, nuts and bolts, African-based magical systems, which is fascinating in itself), [and] technology.” In her comments, Valente points out some elements of stories that made this collection particularly appropriate for the Tiptree Award: ' “At the Huts of Ajala" struck me deeply as a critique of beauty and coming of age rituals. The final story, "The Beads of Ku," deals with marriage and motherhood and death. "Shiomah's Land" deals with the sexuality of a godlike race, and a young woman's liberation from it. "Wallamellon" is a heartbreaking story about the Blue Lady, the folkloric figure invented by Florida orphans, and a young girl pursuing the Blue Lady straight into a kind of urban priestess-hood.'

Ceremonies in Old White Men I

I was struck a few months ago by a Liz Henry lj entry (unlinked 'cause I don't know if she wants her real name associated with the lj in question) expressing apathy on the occasion of John Updike's death, saying something like "Which one was Updike? I get him confused with Irving and Roth." I don't: Updike, to me, is by far the most worthless of the three. From the imbecilic wife in Rabbit Run to the black characters in Rabbit Redux and The Coup, from his defense of the Vietnam War on Lutheran grounds to his argument that Desmond Morris was a more persuasive essayist than Carl Sagan, Updike exemplified --and in some ways invented-- the novelist for which the most important issue in the world is the inner life of a solipsistic lower-middle-class or professional white guy who meanders through the world thinking that he is thinking. Even Dan Green, averse as he is to political judgments of literature, has noted here and there that readers sensitive to misogyny might have problems with Updike. The guy wrote some lovely and acute descriptive passages, particularly of small town life, but he really missed the cluetrain. More frustrating to me than the man's values, however, are those of his worshippers: Chip McGrath has some interesting praise for Updike's strengths, but doesn't seem to grasp what could possibly have prompted Wallace to call him a "phallocrat"; similarly, McEwan is very informative; but his piece includes a scummy little attack on Updike's feminist detractors and a celebration of the man's famously mawkish descriptions of sex (vide, for a refreshing counterpoint, Francine Prose's "Scent of a Woman's Ink."). Bellow was his only peer, says McEwan? Thank God!

My beef with Philip Roth rests almost entirely on his outsized symbolic capital: that is, I think he's a talented writer of limited scope who is vastly overrated; and again, I'm really suspicious of his most zealous fans. They tend either to be phallocrats themselves or misandric women who say, "But all men really are like that!" Roth himself knows that his talents lie in the presentation of a certain kind of gynophobic male pov character (his attempts to write a woman's inner world in The Counterlife are so flat that I expect a lack of self-confidence is a factor in their failure). It's easiest to deal with that theme, for me, when the character in question is an inexperienced youth: hence I have no reservations about holding The Ghost Writer in high regard, and I was able to bracket most of the shortcomings of Goodbye, Columbus. If he had only been able to translate his insights on Jewish-American identity to address the experiences of other once-stigmatized groups seeking mainstream legitimation, The Human Stain could have been more than an entertaining conservative melodrama that really should have been published in Mass Market Paperback by Otto Penzler.

This is Part I of a diptych that, I hope, will go on to address John Irving and Donald Westlake.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fascinating, informative and entertaining"

Rick Kleffel reviews Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl for the Agony Column. Here's a chunk of his review:

Ursula K. Leguin's 'Cheek by Jowl' (Aqueduct Press ; April 2009 ; $16) is an essential book of writing about writing and reading, particularly in the genres of fantasy and young adult fiction. If you either plan on reading or writing either, this book will be the magnifying glass and prescription eyeglasses that will make it all clear, bring it all into focus, heighten your vision. This is meta-reading.

'Cheek by Jowl'is an important book by any measure. Essays and non-fiction by one of today's most important literary figures are always welcome, but 'Cheek by Jowl' offers transcribed and expanded speeches from Ursula K. Le Guin, targeted at those who are interested in reading — and writing fantasy. And here's one the best aspects of this book; it's the product not of some castoff imprint of a mega-publisher, but the work of Aqueduct Press, a dedicated small press with an emphasis on genre fiction and women. At the moment, through May 1, they're offering a pre-release special of $12, making this book even more of a must-buy.

'Cheek by Jowl' includes 8 essays that you simply could not find collected anywhere else, and most of which you’d have been pretty hard-pressed to find in the first place. These include speeches and magazine articles, many of which have been altered and expanded for this publication. It's beautifully illustrated with a three-page list of the sources of the illustrations. It also includes an extensive bibliography for those who would read more.

Newspaper Reviews of F/SF

As you may have noticed, when newspapers aren't disappearing altogether, their book review sections more often than not are. To discuss this, Nisi Shawl, Michael Berry and other newspaper reviewers participated in A Book Reviewer Roundtable on "The Future of Newspapers and Book Coverage." Among the questions considered: What do readers lose when book coverage is cut? What does the newspaper lose? Is there anything gained? The participants are also asked to name "one of the most memorable science fiction/fantasy books reviewed during your career." Oh, and a couple of the comments on the roundtable are interesting, too.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The first review of Centuries Ago and Very Fast

Richard Labonte reviews Rebecca Ore's Centuries Ago and Very Fast here, characterizing the collection of linked stories as a "hugely imaginative fable." His review begins:

In his 15,000 years, gay immortal Vel has seen it all, from mastodons roaming the Earth in the Pleistocene era to the Stonewall riots in1969. He's had innumerable lovers, remaining young as they aged. He can trip through time, offering one boyfriend in the 20th century a handful of woolly mammoth fur snatched in a flash from thousands of years past....

"Ore," he concludes, "a mainstream science fiction novelist and short story writer with James Tiptree, Jr. and Philip K. Dick nominations to her credit, has crafted a time-travel tale incorporating ancient religious rites, a tender gay love story, snapshots of historical attitudes about homosexuality - and earthy queer erotica."

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Tale of Two Plagiarisms

Like most people, I have long imagined that tenured faculty at major universities, when well-respected by their colleagues and appreciated by their students, are safe from summary, arbitrary dismissal from their jobs by administrators. Yesterday, I was shocked to hear about the case of Theresa Cameron, who was dismissed without notice-- completely out of the blue, without even a hearing or input from the colleagues in her own department-- from Arizona State University on a charge that can only be considered ignorant or malicious: that of writing a course syllabus that borrows from other instructors' syllabi (which as most people who teach at the university level know, is a common practice), which the administrator inappropriately calls "plagiarism." I had always assumed that tenured faculty at reputable institutions were assured of due process: that their tenure guaranteed them, at least, an opportunity to defend their jobs and reputations. (Needless to say, untenured faculty usually have no such rights.) That, I now see, was naive of me.

In the piece below, mathematician Neal Koblitz of the University of Washington lays out the facts of the case.


by Neal Koblitz, Professor of Mathematics,
University of Washington, Seattle

Consider three scenarios:

(1) You're filling in for a colleague by teaching his course while he's on leave. Knowing that the topic is far from your expertise and the colleague has an excellent reputation as a teacher, you decide simply to use his syllabus from last year. You copy it, change the due dates and the instructor's name, contact information, and office hours, and distribute it to students.

(2) Following a general trend, you decide that you have to enlarge your syllabus by including details on expected academic and personal conduct by students. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, you decide to simply copy the student conduct section from a colleague's syllabus.

(3) Returning from disability leave, you have a dispute with the dean of your school about your teaching assignment. Because your disability causes you to have much less energy in the afternoon, you ask for morning classes. The dean refuses, your appeals fail, and you end up with an afternoon class. By this time the start of classes is just a few days away. You hurriedly cobble together a syllabus by copying sections of syllabi that are available online and seem to cover roughly what will be in your course. You distribute this syllabus to students and explain to them that it's very rough and you'll probably announce major changes as the semester progresses.

Syllabi are not normally footnoted, and in none of the above scenarios do the syllabi include attributions to the sources of the copied material. Is this plagiarism? In most settings the answer would probably be No.

However, if your name is Theresa Cameron and you're a professor in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at Arizona State University (ASU), then the answer is a resounding Yes. On September 7, 2007, ASU President Michael M. Crow, following the recommendation of CAP Dean Wellington Reiter, wrote Dr. Cameron a letter summarily revoking her tenure and dismissing her. The reasons given were "plagiarism of syllabi" and two other charges.

On April 22 and May 5, 2008, ASU's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure heard Dr. Cameron's appeal of her firing. My wife Ann, who is a professor of Women and Gender Studies at ASU, and I attended as much of the hearing as we could. Dr. Cameron produced witnesses who refuted the two other charges, but she agreed that she had made up syllabi in ways similar to those described in the three scenarios above. After the administration's two other charges against her fell apart, the only remaining basis for dismissal was Dr. Cameron's "plagiarized" syllabi.

On May 5, Dean Reiter testified before the Committee. I heard him repeatedly and emphatically declare that copying material onto syllabi without attribution constituted "egregious plagiarism" and by itself was sufficient grounds for immediate dismissal of a tenured professor.

But wait a minute! Isn't ASU the same university that was at the center of the plagiarism scandal reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 17, 2004? In that case ASU professor of plant biology Charles J. Arntzen took a published paper by a graduate student, copied large portions of it without permission or attribution, and published it under Arntzen's name as part of a longer book chapter. What did ASU President Crow do about Dr. Arntzen's blatant plagiarism? Nothing. Dr. Arntzen is currently Regents' Professor at Arizona State University.

So why was the ASU administration so lenient with Dr. Arntzen and so draconian with Dr. Cameron? The answer to this question is not hard to discern. Dr. Arntzen is a "good old boy" who gets along well with the powers-that-be. In contrast, Theresa Cameron is an African American woman who is intensely disliked by the dean of her school.

Dr. Cameron came to ASU in 1997 and enjoyed six happy and productive years at the university. She was granted tenure in 2000, and as recognition of her excellent teaching she was appointed a Faculty Fellow for 2000-2001. (That's how my wife Ann, who was also a Faculty Fellow that year, made her acquaintance.) Her first book was published in 2002.

But in 2003 Michael Crow became president of ASU and soon after brought in Wellington Reiter to head the CAP. Almost immediately Dr. Cameron's conditions got worse. Dean Reiter resented Cameron's complaints about an increasingly hostile environment for her, which included blatantly racist jokes and pranks. (One of the student witnesses supporting Cameron reported that one of the students who had complained about her was heard referring to Dr. Cameron with the "n" word.) And Dean Reiter appears to have been irritated by Cameron's attempts to get special accommodations for her disabilities. What has developed over the last five years has been a truly tragic situation -- not only for Dr. Cameron, whose medical condition has worsened during the years of constant stress and persecution -- but also for the broad university community.

If ASU were led by people of high intellectual and social principles, the university would be immensely proud to have Dr. Cameron on the faculty. Theresa Cameron overcame tremendous odds to become a scholar and teacher. Born in poverty and raised until adulthood in foster homes, at one point she doubted that she would even graduate from high school. This story is told in her acclaimed book Foster Care Odyssey.

Aside from her writings on the foster care system, Dr. Cameron's main research interests have concerned the human side of urban planning. For example, her research project with students when she was a Faculty Fellow was to investigate the history of the once-vibrant minority neighborhoods of Tempe that were displaced by ASU's expansion. Her work at the university has combined excellence in research, teaching, and community service -- exactly what any decent university wants to see in a faculty member.

We must support Dr. Cameron in her battle to correct the injustice inflicted on her by the ASU administration. If we don't, then all our pronouncements about our belief in the importance of diversity -- in gender, race, and socio-economic class -- become just empty words.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Help out a small press: good reading for sale at Electric Velocipede

It's been a long time since I posted here, but I thought this might be of interest to Aqueduct readers:

John Klima, the editor of Electric Velocipede, is having a little financial trouble.

Consequently, he's redoubling energies toward selling some of the back issues of Electric Velocipede, as well as some of the chapbooks that he's printed through his small press.

People who enjoy my work can find the original printing of my story "How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth" (later printed at Escape Pod and in Best American Fantasy 2) in Electric Velocipede #13 for $5.

Though I haven't read it yet, I just ordered and am looking forward to "An Alternate History of the 21st Century", a chapbook of stories by William Shunn, whose story "Colin and Ishmael in the Dark" we featured on PodCastle this Halloween.

Other available magazines feature work by authors like Cory Doctorow, Karen Joy Fowler, Jeffrey Ford, and Hal Duncan.

Electric Velocipede has a reputation for publishing the quirkiest available in science fiction, fantasy, and other fiction of the weird. John Klima likes to publish the weird and wonderful, stuff that you won't find anywhere else.

John Klima has a strong, unique editing voice. Check out his catalog and see if anything strikes your fancy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Amazonfail: It's Not Over Yet

Amazon has fixed some though by no means all of the problems encompassed by "amazonfail."

But as to amazonfail's being caused by a "glitch"? Unless "amazonfail" is only narrowly defined in terms of its having affected works of mainstream literature or scholarship that management probably didn't intend to censor, I profoundly doubt it. After reading Francine Saint Marie's Amazon's "Glitch" Myth Debunked, I really don't think it's possible to go on giving Amazon the benefit of the doubt. Her post begins

I am the author of the LAMBDA Notable Book, The Secret Keeping, as well as The Secret Trilogy, Girl Trouble, and several other popular LGBT paperbacks sold on

All of my novels have been aggressively censored by Amazon since (at least) January of 2008, when they were first released as Kindle editions and promptly rigged in the Kindle store so as not to register any sales ranks and bestselling categories, or to show up properly in Amazon search results. I have also experienced mysterious "sourcing fees" applied by Amazon to the list prices of my LGBT paperbacks, as well as the deletion of five-star customer reviews of them, the removal of their "in stock" status, and a host of other handicapping techniques which are still in effect today.

She relates a Kafkaesque tale anyone who's tried to penetrate the shrouds of corporate bureaucracy will appreciate.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Manufacturing Boredom

Aqueductista Vandana Singh has an insightful post-- On Why People Don't Like Science, Especially Physics-- on her blog. Go read it now!

Just for You

In case you missed it, check out Sarah Warn's stylish satire announces Lesbian Kindle. According to Warn, Amazon wants "to show our gay and lesbian customers we truly have our ham-handed fist on the pulse of gay America." The Lesbian Kindle comes with a choice of white tank top cover, flannel cover, and leather-bound L word Cover. How can you resist? Available only through

(Link thanks to Ide Cyan on the Feminist SF Blog.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl-- hot off the press!

Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce the release of Cheek by Jowl, a collection of talks and essays on how and why fantasy matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin. In these essays, Le Guin argues passionately that the homogenization of our world makes the work of fantasy essential for helping us break through what she calls "the reality trap." Le Guin writes not only of the pleasures of her own childhood reading, but also about what fantasy means for all of us living in the global twenty-first century.

The monstrous homogenization of our world has now almost destroyed the map, any map, by making every place on it exactly like every other place, and leaving no blanks….As in the Mandelbrot fractal set, the enormously large and the infinitesimally small are exactly the same, and the same leads always to the same again; there is no other; there is no escape, because there is nowhere else.

In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense - to regain the knowledge - that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.

The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.
— from Cheek by Jowl

"I had many a-ha moments as I was reading the various essays-places where Le Guin articulated something I understood, or believed, but hadn't put into words… [Le Guin] is smart and erudite and never talks down to the reader, but never makes her arguments too hard to follow, either. She's good with facts, but she allows emotional content, something you don't always get in the same package. I highly recommend this book." — Charles de Lint, Magazine of Fantasy and Sciente Fiction June/July 2009

"Ursula K. Le Guin may be on the short list of great writers to emerge from our little corner of the map, but she's also something of a skirmisher… and she continues to ask the questions here, mostly in the context of children's and YA literature, with the unflagging passion and clarity we've come to expect from her critical writing."
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus April 2009

Since Aqueduct has taken delivery of several boxes of Cheek by Jowl and the official release date is April 30, we'll be selling the book at a $4 discount until May 1 through our site. You can order your copy here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lessons from Amazonfail

I've seen some excellent posts on amazonfail over the last couple of days. I'd like to draw your attention to two in particular that address the ethical issues that can't be dismissed by attributing amazonfail entirely to a misfortunate typo (which an undisclosed source inside apparently claims was made by a French employee). At TechCrunch, technologist Mary Hodder's Why Amazon Didn't Just Have A Glitch discusses algorithms and institutional bias as illuminated by amazonfail.

The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

As Hodder observes,

The ethical issue with algorithms and information systems generally is that they make choices about what information to use, or display or hide, and this makes them very powerful. These choices are never made in a vacuum and reflect both the conscious and subconscious assumptions and ideas of their creators.

The ethics bar in creating algorithms and classification systems should be very high. In fact I would suggest that companies with power in the marketplace, both commercial and ideas, should consider outside review of these systems’ assumptions and points of view so the results are fair.

Algorithms are often invisible, and difficult to detect by design, because technologies that use them are designed not to share the methods for providing information. This is mainly because users are focused on the tasks at hand in information systems, and given good information, they don’t need to know everything under the system’s hood, and because technology makers like to keep the ’secret sauce” hidden from competitors, not to mention people who would game systems for their own devices such as spammers or other bad actors.

A post on the Equal Justice Society blog extends Hodder's discussion: How the Amazon "Glitch" Relates to Structural Discrimination and Racism. The author of the post, Keith, writes

In both the Amazon glitch and structural social groups, the impact of system-driven automatic choices is often irrefutable: a category of books and a category of people suffer from discrimination that has a clear negative impact on their opportunity to succeed.

In both cases, the causes of the problem are constructs - one technological, one sociological - a creation by human beings that have no inherent malice, but result in discrimination because bias seeds the way the systems make choices.

Some of the reactions to Hodder’s analysis also sing the same tunes to those we hear when we present the notion that unconscious bias, even in the absence of conscious discrimination, impedes opportunity.

(Links thanks to Michelle Murrain.)

And by the way, just so you know: the Aqueduct book struck by amazonfail, Centuries Ago and Very Fast, is now available at

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

David Treuer's "Native American Fiction: A User's Manual"

Carrie Devall has sent AatA a review of David Treuer's controversial Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, a book she mentioned in a comment a few weeks back. She also sends a link to Shannon Gibney's fascinating interview with David Treuer for Gibbon's "Thinking Souls" Literary Series, that I think many readers of this blog might find interesting.

Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, by David Treuer, Graywolf Press, 2006.
Review by Carrie Devall, April 2009

I stumbled on David Treuer’s book of essays, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual on a library shelf while rooting around the Minnesota poetry and fiction collections to learn more about local writers. Treuer’s novels are The Translation of Dr. Appelles, Little, and The Hiawatha. He lives on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, and also in Minneapolis where he teaches at the University of MN.

I mentioned NAFiction in a comment here before I got to the part where Treuer makes comparisons between Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony and Luke Skywalker’s 1977 movie adventures, as “products of their time and the story that surrounds them.” That should give you some idea of the wide-ranging and anti-beatifying approach he takes to analyzing his genre. While its focus is very different, I think the book could be a useful resource for speculative writers trying to develop their own style and voice who have to contend with all the issues surrounding being a writer from a particular community, like endlessly being pigeonholed as “the ____ writer,” or as “not ___ enough,” etc., as well as for speculative writers working on projects of ‘writing the Other,’ beyond the beginner’s issues.

In this book (and in more depth in online interviews about the book), Treuer discusses the responsibility of writers from his P.O.V. as a fiction writer (and avid reader). He starts with the idea that all writers appropriate, but balances that with discussions of the writer’s awareness of how and what they appropriate, and how a reader will interpret the text. He also discusses his own conception of his responsibility as a writer to the community made up of individuals whose culture and language are being used to create a fiction, or a novel (a particular form of fiction that works in certain ways and does a certain kind of work). He develops ideas about what constitutes “good faith” on the part of a writer in “appropriating culture,” as opposed to what kinds of representations effect violations of self and the other.

Treuer lays out an analysis of ‘culture’ as something real people enact in their real lives, in contrast to a novel, which uses literary techniques to put together words on paper in a specific language (here, English) to depict people and their lives, culture, and forms of community. Fiction writing relies on the use of symbols, metaphor, all the abstractions that lead to ‘representation’ of people as certain kinds of objects, symbols, or ‘ghosts’—the analogy he uses to talk about how images and ideas about Native Americans are constructed by other people. Alongside the ‘ghost’ analogy, he also places the questions about non-Indians writing about American Indians in the context of a history of Indians being “written about as if [they] were silent for decades and decades and decades,” always the subject of ‘expert’ study but never the ‘experts.’ (partly quoting from an online interview)

His analysis is centered around the importance of style, of being aware of the assumptions that readers will likely bring to a text, for the writer to be able to avoid unintended ‘readings’ of the text, but more to be able to use awareness of those assumptions in crafting the text to best achieve the writer’s intended effect. He also takes on the political issues surrounding his favoring analysis of ‘style’ over analysis of the ‘origin’ or ‘authenticity’ of the author, style, and/or content of the text. I read his approach as steeped in an awareness of exactly how he is seeking to intervene in a debate over those issues that has gone on for decades. He is open about his particular agenda as a writer of novels that do not follow all of the conventions that many people have identified as “the way to write Native American fiction,” and as a man who grew up and lives on the Leech Lake reservation, speaks Ojibwe, but is not always perceived as someone who “looks Indian” or lives a stereotypical “Indian life.”

Treuer holds his cards close to the chest in interviews as well as the book, but to me this book read like a performance—the performance of a shrewd and skilled fiction writer and reader with a subtle sense of humor, masquerading for provocative effect as a more bristly and brash critic than his thoughtful and detailed analyses of books and literary theories reflects.

The book could be read for titillation, because he does a lot of nitpicking about the writing of big names in the genre and how specific writers talk about their novels and their body of work, and how they market their persona. However, he nitpicks to make larger points, and mentions that many of these people he knows well or considers friends. He also displays much respect for their craft, with the exception of Sherman Alexie, with whom he seems to have a personal beef aside from the fact that Alexie is one of the icons to whom every other (male) Indian writer has to put up with being compared to. I found that Treuer’s analysis of the performance aspect of Alexie’s public persona is constructed to support Treuer’s own project of performing a different, (ideally more expansive and freeing) idea of who a Native American writer and critic and what “Native American fiction” as a genre could be (as well as simply doing it by writing his own novels).

The book has a fractured focus, which seems to stem from Treuer switching positions, back and forth. The first is his position as a writer, serious about his craft and contribution to literature, caught between personal annoyance at the limits placed on him by the conventions that have grown up around the books labeled as a genre of ‘Native American fiction,’ resistant to being forced into the roles of token, spokesperson, and by nature of writing a fictional text becoming an ‘expert’ on anything and everything Indian that the text touches upon. The second is his position as a critic, reader, and writer who seeks to contribute in a concrete, constructive way toward pushing writers, readers, and critics to rethink those conventions and the limits they place on writers, to ask new and different questions. Negotiating the tensions between these two positions and covering all that theoretical ground is a big project; the essays tend to throw out a bunch of provocative questions and brief samples of how one could go about trying to come up with answers to those questions to address the specific problems he raises, rather than provide detailed, thorough analysis. (This made the book very readable, not overly long or dense.)

The essays I found particularly interesting examined specific novels closely in terms of the literary techniques the author used to create the effects that lead readers and critics to say they “represented” Native life or culture in an “authentic” manner. The essay “Smartberries,” Treuer’s analysis of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, focuses on her use of languages, Ojibwe, English, and German, and her varying use for literary effect of translation by context, by explaining the meaning of words or phrases, or by lack of explanation. The position he takes as a critic in this essay is as a native speaker of Ojibwe, unlike Erdrich, so the analysis is partly one Native writer’s analysis of how he feels another Native writer succeeds and fails at writing his particular language and culture (and related ones) as ‘the Other.’

In the process, Treuer asks a lot of interesting questions about why Erdrich might have used the particular literary techniques she used, suggesting particular interpretations that may or may not be fair, but the cumulative effect is to point out many places where future critics could do fruitful study and analysis of Erdrich’s work and the work of other writers. He points out, for example, that Love Medicine primarily used Ojibwe nouns, as solitary words, where the language relies heavily on verbs. He questions what effect that has on the novel’s representation of Ojibwe language and culture. He also asks about the responsibility of a writer in crafting representations of a ‘dying’ language that people are working hard to keep alive in their very real lives.

Because I had this sense of the book as a performance of ‘the provocative critic,’ I found some of the negative reviews of the book amusing. The way Treuer structured that essay around an Ojibwe story involving the eating of ‘smartberries’ (rabbit turds) allowed him to succeed in luring critics into the trap of taking him to task for telling them they’re full of rabbit turds for taking issue with his analysis. In a way, this is a silly distraction, but his careful use of style in his critical writing brings home his point that focusing on questions of authenticity of the writer or the novel are a distraction from these other issues that he raises. Form, style, and content are closely linked in the essays, which gave me particular pleasure as a reader. And the traps Treuer lays seemed to me to make the statement “you’re purposely missing my point, stop evading the issues and look again,” not “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

One of the throughlines of the book is an insistence on specificity and thoroughness in literary criticism, on analyzing particular novels by Native American authors in terms of their literary craft and methods instead of the personalities and public personas and/or ‘political’ projects of the authors. He takes issue with the idea that any writer’s novels simply appear out of the ether or out of tribal history and culture as ‘products of culture,’ emphasizing the importance of the writer’s own time, effort, thought, and work to master craft and figure out how to ‘enact culture’ in a written form that has its own culture—literary tradition. He questions the ways writers (particularly Silko) claim they use ‘traditional’ myths and storytelling techniques, and analyzes how these are actually used in their novels. He also analyzes specific literary techniques that James Welch and other writers used to create a heightened sense of historicity about their fictional characters and the characters’ dialogue. These parts of the book might be particularly useful for speculative writers.

Some critics take his arguments, as Treuer says he anticipated critics would, as a call for a return to earlier methods of criticism that insisted that only the text matters and there should be no consideration of the larger context in which texts are produced and read. He specifically acknowledges fears that his project is an attempt to ‘turn back the clock’ and roll back the gains of thirty years of identity politics. (That by saying “style is what matters,” instead of the writer’s identity, means ‘white people can write Indian.’) But Treuer spends a good portion of the book criticizing white readers and critics and the effects of publishing industry marketing practices for the reductionism, colonization of the styles and content of the novels written by Native American writers, all the issues of white people trying to ‘be Indian,’ ‘have Indian spirit,’ and all that stuff that ‘identity politics’ is particularly useful in analyzing and countering. He also uses the example of (a former Klan leader using the pseudonym) Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree to examine how imitating certain literary styles allows ‘imposters’ to write hoax texts that are received as ‘Native American novels’ or biographies until the identity of the writers is unmasked.

I thought he managed to make a solid case for reading Erdrich, Silko, and Welch as amazing literary stylists, period (in fiction/literature as the unmarked state), whose skill as fiction writers should be appreciated and examined thoroughly, and he does this without recoding the writers as ‘not Indian.’ Some critics of this book disagree, because he tries at the same time to take issue with ‘what is Indian’ in a novel, and his lines of analyses get convoluted at times, but I think it’s pretty clear Treuer is not arguing that any of these writers are ‘not Indian.’

He goes to some pains to make it clear he is calling for something different than a return to old (white, Western) styles of criticism. And that his focus is on opening up opportunity and space for Native writers, and on the way in which standard ways of configuring identity politics limit or constrain the development of individual writers and Native American literature as a whole, having a cumulative negative effect on how people feel they are required to write their novels, as well as whether people can get published and how their work is received and marketed.

I ended up wanting to re-read the novels he analyzes in order to study them more closely, both out of curiosity about whether I agree with him and in the hopes of learning more about literary craft and techniques to improve my own writing in a very different genre. In particular, I became curious about his criticism of Leslie Marmon Silko’s use of the feminine figure who heals the male hero through being sexually receptive to him in Ceremony, as being sexist and also questionable in terms of the psychological healing process enacted in the story. My head is already filled with conflict over this issue, with the writings of Jungian analysts of myth and fairytales who decry the historical Western suppression of the feminine and ‘the goddess’ clashing with feminist criticisms of tired old tropes. Treuer’s analysis made me want to reread Ceremony to examine the use of that trope in that novel.

Also, halfway through Treuer’s essay about Sherman Alexie, I began to want to reread Alexie’s novels to see whether Treuer might be missing something about the way Alexie’s use of the “angry young man” as protagonist works in his novels, and whether that affects some of the flaws Treuer identifies in those novels. When a book of literary criticism sparks my mind in this way, generating new theory kernels to examine and giving me the urge to reread books, I have no problem calling it “thought-provoking.”

* * * * * * * * *

To illuminate Carrie's review, here's a taste from Shannon Gibney's interview of Treuer:

DT: But I guess I do feel like there’s a depressing lack of ambition among many writers, not just Native writers. Writers in general, who just want to write a book. They sit down and say, “I just want to write a good story.” You know, it’s a bit disingenuous. They want more than that – I’d like to think they did. You know, “Oh, a good story, that’s so sweet!” Especially writers of color – don’t they have more to do? Shouldn’t we think? But there’s this anti-intellectual strain in America, where intellectualism is somehow bad.

One of the writers who I cover in Native American Fiction, who shall remain nameless, was mad about one of the essays. I showed it to him/her, and they said, “Oh, so you wanted to be an academic.” And I said, “No, I wanted to be a thinker.” But I believe, I feel that we need to put a lot more thought into what we do. Especially when we know that people read our stuff as culture. Even we don’t intend it that way, we know it’s being received that way, so don’t we have a responsibility to keep that in mind when we’re creating?
. . . . .

[...] What passes as a “smart” book, the inheritors of Eliot’s and Nabokov’s and Thomas Mann’s efforts. To write books with really simple characters, who have very simple emotions, with language that replaces complexity with quirkiness. So we don’t have any complex language or complex characters, or complicated cross-purposed agendas. Instead of this, we have books that are quirky and extravagant. “Oh my God! His dog’s name is Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.!” (the dog’s name in Everything Is Illuminated). “Isn’t that hilarious!” So this quirk has replaced intelligence.

I’ll tell why people like these books. Because most readers, they don’t trust their own taste. They don’t trust they’re going to understand a” smart” book. But they will, if they get into the mode of reading them.

Reading takes practice, like anything else. Any reader can sit down with The Magic Mountain [Thomas Mann], and enjoy it. But, since readers don’t trust their own tastes, since the market doesn’t trust readers, since editors don’t trust writers, what we have now in these so-called “smart” novels are young adult novels dressed up as literary fiction. Simple plot, simple character, extreme emotions, extreme situations. Like The Life of Pi [Yann Martel], another great example. It looks deep, but it’s really very wide and shallow. “You put a tiger in a boat – isn’t that crazy!” And it’s selling readers short, I think.

That is authors then abdicating any responsibility, with a few exceptions – Richard Powers being one of them. I think he’s just incredible. The Time of Our Singing is just outstanding. It’s about race in America in the last 50 years, and it’s the most amazing book. It’s far more complex than [Toni Morrison’s] Beloved.

There are very few books that are about much anymore. But I’m trying to bring that back, in ways that are enjoyable. Because I think you’re right: people associate that kind of thought with whiteness, or that anything that makes you think is somehow suspect. Especially books about culture – they’re not supposed to make you think. They’re supposed to make you feel. Which is why Ishmael Reed is not a best seller. He should be, but he’s not. Because he makes you think.

SG: So what do you think the critic’s role is in all of this?

DT: Well, I think it’s like T. S. Elliot said, that you really can’t have healthy, vibrant literature without healthy, vibrant criticism. And there’s an awful lot of criticism out there about a great many things, but not a lot of it is about Native American literature.

I was putting it to a friend this way last night: “You are now allowed to be a non-Native critic of Native literature, so long as you take the writer’s word for it.” And this is an honest and heartfelt response to a pretty sticky situation. You know how it is, how often we’re spoken for. Everyone else is the experts about us, we’re never experts about ourselves. We were written about as if we were silent for decades and decades and decades.

Native American criticism, growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, alongside multiculturalism, began to address that, and suggest that these books have value. But the main argument is somehow faulty: That these have value not despite the fact that they’re different, but because they are. So they were read for difference where, in some ways, difference didn’t exist.

Most Native critics are in the same situation as many Native writers, where criticism is a kind of wish-fulfillment. Books are a portal into cultural connection for the writer and the critic. People feel, “I really want to believe that these books perform culture.” Because for Native critics and writers, it’s a way to have a connection with their culture.

I had my own identity issues so long ago, and that’s my private business. I know who I am, and where I belong, and who my people are. I don’t need anyone else to approve it. I don’t need anyone else to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I don’t need my books to make me feel better about myself, or my place. I skipped all that. I speak Ojibwe, and that’s a great thing. And I don’t need books to do that for me.

Books are for thought and pleasure, and the thrill and magic that literature can bring. And for their inventiveness, not for their truth – except for maybe their emotional truth. That’s what books do for me. I mean, I love that. I can’t live without that. But it’s not about who I am. A lot of people like stories of cultural re-connection. And I’m not interested in that at all.

* * * * * *
A lot to think about, yes?

Monday, April 13, 2009


I've been keeping an eye on the page for Aqueduct's "amazonfail" book, Centuries Ago and Very Fast, since Thursday, when it lost its sales ranking. (Until the amazonfail story broke, I just assumed it was another screw-up, which occasionally just happens to our pages. For instance, changing the spelling of "Alanya to Alanya" to "Alany to Alanya," or inserting a review for Filter House into the middle of a review for Stretto.) Although Centuries still doesn't have a sales rank, a few changes have occurred in the last 24 hours. For one thing, Centuries now comes up when I search for works by Rebecca Ore. For another, about half a dozen proposed tags have been removed from the page, leaving only two tags: "amazonfail" and "time travel." (I don't have exact recall of all the tags removed, but I think they may all have had "gay" in them.)

Does that mean Amazon is going to "solve" its "glitch" by removing tags that have the word "gay" in them? And I wonder: did they leave the "amazonfail" tag to help them identify pages that have been affected by their "glitch"? I have no knowledge of programming, so I can't even begin to guess what's going on. But I do wonder where those suggested tags--- "Tags Customers Associate with This Product"--- came from in the first place. In the case of Centuries' page, neither the author nor the publisher put them there, and since the page states "No one has tagged this product for Amazon search yet," I assume that no customers put them there, either. Anybody know what that's about?

More on amazon fail

Speculation is now rife about the source of amazon fail. But regardless of what that might ultimately prove to be (presuming we ever do find out), I highly recommend Lawrence Schimel's Ruminations on Amazonfail, which reflects on important issues Amazon Fail raises, from several interesting angles.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)

The great theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died last night; she had been battling breast cancer since 1991. Looking back over the course of recent feminist history, you might say she took Gayle Rubin's 1970s call from distinguishing between sex and gender and ran with it-- brilliantly.

I read her first book, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, in 1985, when it was first published. I have a distinct memory of picking it up in the UCSD bookstore, where I found it, while browsing the Women's Studies shelves, and thinking this was a book I had to read. The next year, in 1986, I bought her dissertation book, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. For me, her most important book, though, was Epistemology of the Closet, while Tendencies was the most enjoyable. Her work is often very challenging reading. But it is usually worth it, for the way it consistently nudges (or even shoves) one into new ways of thinking: which is surely the supreme achievement for works of theory.

In a post on his blog, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie quotes Judith Butler, discussing Sedgwick's work:

The Epistemology of the Closet was the breakthrough text of queer theory and has instituted lasting effects on literary reading and queer practices within and outside the academy. Sedgwick allowed us to think about the tensions that exist between "identities" and "acts" and also encouraged us to consider the powerful effects of silence even as we affirm public acts of coming out. She gave us a way of understanding desire as it crosses identifications and bodies, and allowed us to see a way of reading some of the most important modernist literary texts that brings to the fore the intense preoccupation with queerness that runs through its languages. She also offered a way to think about the vibrant connections between academic and activist work.

Sedgwick made important contributions to gender theory and must certainly be counted as one of the founding intellects of queer theory. I'm deeply saddened by her loss.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Update on Amazonfail

The Los Angeles Times has picked up what is now being called "amazonfail." Check out their blog post here. One of the books they've disappeared is a winner of the National Book Award.

Ana Clavel's Shipwrecked Body

Carrie Devall has sent AAtA a review of a speculative gender-bender by Mexican writer Ana Clavel. Sounds like something many Aqueductistas will want to read.

Shipwrecked Body (Cuerpo náufrago), by Ana Clavel, translated by Jay Miskowiec, translation edited by Juan Arciniega, Aliform Publishing, Minneapolis and Oaxaca, 2008.

Review by Carrie Devall, April 2009

When I went to the library the other day, the New Books shelf happened to be filled with Mexican and Brazilian novels about ghosts and shape shifters, novels one or two steps over from speculative fiction - basically magical realism in contemporary urban settings. Having read reviews in Rain Taxi, I took out two novels by Ana Clavel, a writer born in Mexico City in 1961 and one of "Mexico's new literary pack" according to the book-cover blurbs. Her earlier novel Desire and Its Shadow (Los deseos y su sombra) and Shipwrecked Body were both translated and published by the same people. The earlier one is more dense, and I’m not finding it as interesting, so I haven’t finished it; but Shipwrecked Body is a wickedly funny, insightful, fast-moving riff on gender, identity, and sexuality that might appeal to readers of feminist speculative fiction.

Antonia, a young heterosexual woman in Mexico City, wakes up one morning to find that she has turned into a man. She quickly realizes that women react to her differently, and with the help of a gay friend, Francisco, and some other men that he recruits, she explores the world of men and homosociality that was previously inaccessible to her. She gets involved with several women and a man and makes discoveries about sex, love, and identity.

The prose, as translated into English, is lush but not dense, and full of witty turns of phrase, wordplay, questioning of various psychological theories, and literary and mythological allusions. I found the analysis of gender and sexuality to be fresh, with a good balance of light, playful observations and deeper, more troubling insights about how they play out in everyday life on the personal level. Nothing is hugely problematized and dissected, but I didn't think the analysis was simplistic either; maybe I didn't care because I found the protagonist really likeable and her adventures entertaining.

The one aspect of the book that readers are either going to love or hate is the photos of urinals on the cover and throughout the book. Antonia and a male photographer become obsessed with the design of urinals, with how they are shaped like a voluptuous woman’s hips or like wombs. I thought this ongoing discussion was intriguing and amusing, but it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you’re looking for something that reads like speculative fiction (it reminded me a lot of Geoff Ryman’s Lust in terms of style and content) from a contemporary non-U.S. writer, I’d recommend giving this book a try.'s new campaign against gblt books

Reports are flooding the blogosphere: has defined gblt books as "adult" and is disappearing their sales rankings in order to exclude them from searches as well as their best-seller lists.

I note that at least one of Aqueduct's books is getting this treatment. (I haven't had time to check out the 30-plus pages for all our books yet.) & I also see that some of Nicola Griffith's books are, too. Apparently a wide swathe of romances are getting the treatment, as well as YA books.

So nice to hear that the Obamas invited gay families to the annual Easter event at the White House. It makes an iteresting contrast to Amazon's behavior.

ETA: Want to complain? Here's the contact info you need:

Jeffrey Bezos,
1200 12th Avenue South
Seattle, Washington 98144-2734
United States
Phone: 206-266-1000
Fax: 206-622-2405

Saturday, April 11, 2009


The former chief economist of the IMF, Simon Johnson, has an article titled The Quiet Coup in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The headnote to the piece reads:

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming... is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government - a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF's staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation; recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression we're running out of time.

Johnson writes:

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

As Johnson examines what he calls "The Wall Street-Washington Corridor," he observes

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

The "channels of influence" he describes are in effect a network of personal connections, all amplifying the power they tap into. And that power, of course, creates a certain glamor:

Wall Street is a very seductive place, imbued with an air of power. Its executives truly believe that they control the levers that make the world go round. A civil servant from Washington invited into their conference rooms, even if just for a meeting, could be forgiven for falling under their sway.

--a glamor that concealed ignorance:

Of course, this was mostly an illusion. Regulators, legislators, and academics almost all assumed that the managers of these banks knew what they were doing. In retrospect, they didn’t.

Despite everything, the governments' bailout of the banks is dead set on trying to preserve the illusion:

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand.

Johnson concludes by saying that the US faces "two plausible scenarios" or possible paths it can take. You can probably guess what these are before reading his explications.

Last week, Elizabeth Warren released a report to the Congressional Oversight Panel on the bailout that was rammed through the Congress last November. You can watch a video summary of it here. But will it make any difference to Congress-- or the Obama Administration? As long as Geithner's running things, certainly not.

Today A New Way Forward is holding demonstrations in cities across the US. William Greider talked about A New Way Forward and its day of protest a couple of weeks ago on Bill Moyers' show.

Honorary Co-Chairs of A New Way Forward:

-Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake
-Mike Lux, Open Left

Sponsors and Elder Counselors of A New Way Forward

-Simon Johnson, Former IMF Chief Economist, Baseline Scenario
-Chris Hayes, Washington Editor, The Nation
-David Sirota, Syndicated Columnist, Author
-Joe Trippi, Change Congress, co-founder
-Zephyr Teachout, Visiting Assistant Professor of Duke University, Dean Campaign
-Joe Costello, Energy, Communications, and Political Economy
-William Greider, "Come Home, America", National Correspondent, The Nation
-Yves Smith, Economist, Naked Capitalism

Not exactly flaming radicals, are they. But have you noticed, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner have started to claim that the crisis is past and the "recovery " begun? This is surely crony capitalism in its most supreme, apparently perfected form.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Millennial Generation

Yesterday a federal grand jury charged Tim DeChristopher, a University of Utah econ student, with one felony count of interfering with a federal auction and another felony count of making false representations at an auction. The penalty could range from no punishment to a combined sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. Last December, when the Bush Administration was planning to auction off land to oil and gas developers at fire-sale prices, DeChristopher "grabbed a bidder's paddle, drove up prices and won 22,000 acres of land for $1.79 million, an amount he later said he didn't have the means or intention to pay." The Associated Press reports

He isn't affiliated with any major environmental group but has said that he infiltrated the auction as a protest. He made no apologies Wednesday for obstructing the lease of land in Utah's red-rock country.

"This auction was a fraud against the American people and a threat to our future," DeChristopher said. "My motivation to act came against the exploitation of public lands, the lack of a transparent and participatory government and the imminent danger of climate change."

One of his lawyers, Patrick Shea, said prosecutors hinted weeks ago that the case could be settled with a misdemeanor plea bargain instead of a felony punishable by prison time.

"Nobody was hurt. No property was destroyed," Shea said.

The auction was already being challenged by environmental groups, who won a court stay on the sale of some parcels. Weeks later, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rescinded 77 of the leases, saying they were too close to national parks and never should have gone up for sale under the Bush administration.

The companies he bid against are out for blood, of course.

DeChristoper's action is a bold form of civil disobedience I can't recall seeing before. It worked much more effectively than the tactic of trying to physically block drilling on site would have. He scared off most of the companies bidding and forced those that did to pay fair rather than the usual fire-sale prices the government offers oil and mineral exploiters who pollute and trash the land they buy.

This story resonates with a piece I read yesterday on, A New Generation Shapes a New Era, discussing a potentially huge political-demographic shift underway. The authors refer to the "Millennial Generation," born between 1982 and 2003 (what used to be known as the Echo Baby-Boom)--which it claims was responsible for the election of Obama and claims will be completely dominating politics by 2020:

But the 2008 election was barely the tip of the millennial iceberg. Important as they were a year ago, not even half (41 percent) of millennials were eligible to vote, and they accounted for less than one-fifth (17 percent) of the voting-age population in 2008. A bare majority of millennials will be eligible in 2010. Close to two-thirds of them (61 percent), representing a quarter of the electorate, will be able to vote when Obama runs for reelection in 2012. By 2016, eight in 10 millennials will be eligible to vote, and they will account for 30 percent of the electorate. In 2020, when virtually all millennials will be old enough to vote, they will account for more than one-third of the electorate (36 percent). With numbers like these, the millennial generation will be in position to dominate U.S. elections and politics for decades to come.

However, the sheer size of the millennial generation is only part of the equation. If it were as sharply divided politically as is America’s last large generation, the baby boomers, the potential impact of the millennial generation would be greatly minimized. But millennials are anything but divided.

Among millennials, Democrats now hold a nearly 2-1 edge in party identification over Republicans (55 percent vs. 30 percent). Moreover, there is no evidence that the Democratic proclivities of millennials have in any way lessened since the Inauguration of Obama. The latest Daily Kos tracking survey indicates that clear majorities of millennials have favorable opinions of Obama (80 percent) and the Democratic Party (62 percent). By contrast, only 10 percent of them have a positive opinion of the GOP. Decades of voting behavior and public opinion research tell us that once identifications and attitudes like these are formed in early adulthood, they almost invariably remain constant throughout the lives of individuals and generations.

The authors suggest that the Beltway is oblivious to the shift in progress. A pity their piece doesn't offer much particular information about the millennials' political behavior and attitudes. But I can't help but note that Tim DeChristopher, at age 27, is at the very leading edge of that generation...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

New Kelley Eskridge interview

The Nebula Awards site has posted a new interview with Kelley Eskridge, in conjunction with the nomination of "Dangerous Space." A more extensive interview (though considerably older) can be found in our archives, here.