Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Soulless, book one of the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2009)

When I first laid hands on Gail Carriger’s Soulless (Orbit, 2009), I began to wonder if the book had been written specifically to irritate me.

1. To start out, the novel is urban fantasy. Already we’re on bad terms.

2. Also, there are vampires.

3. Too, werewolves.

4. And romance!

5. In case that’s not enough, Carriger mixes in a Victorian setting and a hint of steampunk. Neither of these inherently annoy me, but combined with items 1-4:

6. The novel is heavily weighted down by trendy genre elements.* In my experience, this usually leads to books that are poorly constructed, badly integrated, and the literary equivalent of a chess club stereotype wearing star-shaped sunglasses – trying much too hard to be cool.**

Soulless should be like combining salmon and chocolate while I, in this metaphor, am an ichthyophobe with no sweet tooth. However, it appears that skilled chefs can pair salmon and chocolate. And sometimes a novel that’s full of everything wrong can go terribly, tragically right.

Soulless is the first book of the Parasol Protectorate, with the next book, Changeless, due from Orbit on March 30, 2010. The novel begins when a young Victorian woman, Alexia Tarabotti, finds herself alone in a library with a vampire. For any other unmarried miss, this situation would be frightening. However, Alexia has no soul which means that vampires can’t eat her and, in fact, her touch temporarily turns supernatural creatures into humans.

There are three types of supernatural creatures in Carriger’s universe: werewolves, vampires and ghosts. Werewolves come in packs, and vampires come in hives, but somehow this vampire doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. Alexia gets caught up with the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, or BUR, in helping to investigate this strange appearance as well as a number of strangely coincidental disappearances.

In the interview at the back of the book, Carriger reports having asked herself, “if immortals were mucking about, wouldn’t they have been mucking about for a very long time?” She considers the cultural implications of supernatural interference: “Those absurd Victorian manners and ridiculous fashions were obviously dictated by vampires. And, without a doubt, the British army regimental system functioned on werewolf pack dynamics… [and then I] realized that if Victorians were studying vampires and werewolves (which they would do, if they knew about them)… technology would have evolved differently. Enter a sprinkling of steampunk…” (p. 364)

In my opinion, most traditional urban fantasy fails because it doesn’t consider the long-term, global ramifications of its conceits. This isn’t helped by the fact that a great deal of urban fantasy poses a secret underworld filled with werewolves and vampires (or fairies and elves) who covertly affect the real world. Small-scale stories revolving around this conceit can be fine, but secrets are difficult to keep, and many stories pose so many supernatural events of such import that it strains credibility to believe that magic could remain a secret. Buffy – to take an at-hand example – made a joke of it. But non-humorous texts are out of luck if they want us to believe that people die every night from vampire bites and yet no one ever notices.

Carriger’s world is one in which vampires and werewolves are fully integrated. They interact with and affect politics and society, and in turn are affected by them. For instance, there’s a post specifically designated for a werewolf to advise the Queen, but simultaneously the alpha werewolf is constrained by high society mores.

Soulless also benefits from the fact that Carriger doesn’t seem to have approached the elements of her book as disparate. As she says, Victorians investigating magic lends itself to steampunk; one genre element follows from another, creating the sense of a fully integrated world.

The novel’s action-oriented main plot takes place against a Jane-Austen-like background. Alexia, the product of her mother’s first marriage to a – gasp – Italian, is a spinster with a number of unflattering traits, such as her blunt speech and tan complexion, all of which make it clear she’ll never find a proper English husband. Nevertheless, she falls in love with one of the country’s most eligible bachelors, the werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

No, wait. She doesn’t fall in love with him. She can’t stand him. No, I’m sorry. I mean, he can’t stand her. Wait. He’s in love with her – that’s it. It’s just that he’s strong and manly, but also messy and uncivilized. While she’s proud and intractable, but also busty and tenacious. Wait, are we reading Pride and Prejudice with Werewolves?

Soulless’s treatment of romance in its early chapters is the novel’s only major misstep. The text improves once Lord Maccon and Alexia acknowledge their romantic feelings – although there is one awkward, late-chapter sex scene that occurs in the middle of an action sequence, which could have been dramatically shortened while still serving its purpose as a release valve for romance and humor. But the early romantic sallies are winceably cliché. As soon as a male character gazes upon the heroine with a passage like--

Miss Tarabotti might examine her face in the mirror each morning with a large degree of censure, but there was nothing at all wrong with her figure. He would have to have had far less soul and a good fewer urges not to notice that appetizing fact. Of course, she always went and spoiled the appeal by opening her mouth. In his humble experience, the world had yet to produce a more vexingly verbose female. (p. 8-9)

--we readers know where we’re headed. We don’t need tingling near her abdomen or stirring he can’t explain, interspersed with fury! at his lack of manners and yet--! to guide us along the way. Carriger so facilely avoids other clichés that it’s a shame this one mars the text.

Overall, though, the Austen elements are charming. Carriger’s Victorian voice is sharp and funny. Witty observations provide a plethora of humorous clashes between action sequences and rigid etiquette. The descriptions of Victorian fashion are very nice for those readers with a weakness for bustles and lace, and I suspect I’m not the only one since the book is marketed with a Victorian dress-up doll flash game.

If there’s one weakness the Victorian voice lends itself to, it’s the underdevelopment of Alexia’s mother, step-father and sisters, who play the compliant foils for unconventional Alexia. Their insipidness is fine at the beginning of the book, but grows less convincing as their roles increase near the end. Still, this is a small complaint and easily remedied. Hopefully Carriger will toss them a few lines of character development in one of the sequels.

Other characters are created quite well. Alexia, for instance, is a fun and well-portrayed heroine, full of vigor and flaws. She, her friend Ivy, and their friendship are memorably captured in a few sentences: “Ivy Hisselpenny was the unfortunate victim of circumstances that dictated she be only-just-pretty, only-just-wealthy, and possessed of a terrible propensity for wearing extremely silly hats. This last being the facet of Ivy’s character that Alexia found most difficult to bear.” (p. 33) Lord Maccon and his assistant, Professor Lydell, are good characters as well, although Lord Maccon is at times brushed in with slightly-too-broad romantic strokes and could use a little more development within his archetype. The best character is the vampire Lord Akeldama, an outrageous gossip-monger with a penchant for gaudy attire whose underlying intelligence and immortal weariness are deftly revealed as the novel progresses.

In the end, Soulless is not a profound novel. It imparts no revelations about the human experience. I don’t expect it will change anyone’s life or that I’ll remember the plot intricacies in ten years. But it was a fun, adventurous romp that diverted me for a few hours. I might even read it a second time. I will certainly pick up book two of the Parasol Protectorate and I look forward to meeting Alexia Tarabotti again in 2010.


*It seems possible that Carriger began writing with the intent of forecasting what tropes would be popular a few years down the line. If this is the case, kudos to her for guessing correctly.

**It should go without saying that any of these things can be done well. It’s just that while 90% of everything is crap, I find these tropes to suffer from even worse odds. Nevertheless, here are some successful examples: Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (vampire), N. K. Jemisin’s “Red Riding Hood’s Child” (werewolf), Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale” (urban fantasy), and Paula Guran’s anthologies of romantic fantasy which contain Coates’s “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light,” Parks’s “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge,” and Copley-Woods’s “Desires of Houses” (romance). Michael Swanwick is famous for combining disparate genre elements with strength and grace, and I was recently impressed with new writer Tina Connolly’s “Moon at the Starry Diner” for successfully condensing an epic plotline and several incompatible tropes into a short story.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A brief report in, with photos

I haven't been online (and probably won't be, for awhile) because my laptop computer has been fatally infected with a virus. (Even the antivirus program got infected.) Tom's visiting me today, so I'm using his computer to check my email and make this quick post. I'm just happy he convinced me to also bring my desktop computer-- which is what I'm using to work on my novel.

By evil coincidence, Aqueduct Press's computer bit the dust a couple of days ago, too. But the good news is that Tom had a full, current backup ready to go and we've been able to replace it with a cheap used computer that's faster than the old one. The old one was probably a lemon to start with. Tom says the guy at the repair place said that a lot more than the drive was fried. We had trouble with it from the beginning. (I think Tom has once or twice in the past five years had to reformat the hard drive.)

I'm going to post a few photos here that Tom took today. And then I hope to be back in a few days (or not...).

The photo at the top of the post shows part of the Fort Worden campus. The one at the bottom was taken on my favorite beach walk, which I shared with Tom this afternoon. The one to the left is of a sea plant that seems to be rooted in a rock. (I'm going to see if I can find out more about it.)

Other than my laptop fiasco, though, all is well with me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend Book Review: House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson

When Hallmark lured David Ellis Dickerson to a Kansas City interview, they offered him a potential starting salary of $27,000. After interviewing him in person, they upped their offer to $32,000. “To this day,” writes Dickerson, “I am convinced that in person, I am $5,000 more charming than I am on paper.” (p 49)

I suspect this motivates the choice to promote Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards: Love, Faith, and Other Social Expressions (Riverhead Books, 2009), with a series of videos called Greeting Card Emergency. Dickerson’s audience provides him with a decidedly un-Hallmark-like greeting card scenario, such as breaking a friend’s toilet or letting your snake eat someone else’s hamster. Dickerson then documents the process of creating a suitable card.

This promotion seems to be working. I’ve seen Greeting Card Emergencies reposted on a number of well-trafficked blogs and the videos inspired me to purchase Dickerson’s book.

House of Cards is a memoir of Dickerson’s experience with the Hallmark card company, documenting the period of time between when Dickerson first hears about nearby Hallmark interviews through the time when he decides to leave Hallmark for the presumably greener, warmer, and more licentious pastures of a Ph.D. program in Florida. Along the way, the book also documents Dickerson’s journey from fundamentalism to atheism.

There are three major reasons to recommend this book:

1) David Ellis Dickerson may be more charming in person, but he’s charming on paper, too. The memoir’s light, easy writing style makes for a fast and fun read.

2) The memoir provides an intriguing (if not wholly satisfying) case study about how a fundamentalist upbringing affects a twenty-something who has lost his faith. At the beginning of the memoir, twenty-seven-year-old Dickerson has already converted to Catholicism, become liberal, and started supporting feminism and gay rights. However, he still feels that he and his fiancée must avoid sex until marriage, a conviction that shifts during the course of the book until, after the pair break up, twenty-eight-year-old Dickerson is left trying to lose his virginity approximately a decade after most of his peers.

3)It’s a great deal of fun to read about Dickerson’s work process and word play. The memoir is peppered with his silly poetry, including a love poem about free popcorn:

The popcorn that thou givest unto me
Bringeth emotions I can scarcely utter.
For thou art like this popcorn that I see:
Lively and fresh, though thou contain’st less butter.
And in the carbonated beverage, too,
Which, like the popcorn, thou bestow’st for free,
Though it consist of Brown Dye Number Two,
In it, I see thy hair, and think on thee.
My Pepsi tab would founder many banks.
I can’t repay you; please accept my thanks.

(p 18)

In chapter nine (How to Write a Card), Dickerson details the process of taking a Hallmark card category, brainstorming ideas for it, and proposing a suitable card (which editors subsequently reject or accept). He explains common card types, including cards that come with attachments like paper clips and golf tees, and cards that include pop-ups. This witty, informational sequence gives what the reader has been craving throughout the book.

The memoir suffers some flaws. The first three chapters read like an unnecessarily long build-up: It’s unclear why the book begins before Dickerson even interviews with Hallmark instead of with his Kansas City interview or his first day as a new-hire. The book is called House of Cards; we’re here to read about Hallmark.

Even at Hallmark, the text lacks focus. It gives too little information about work process and too much about petty work woes. It’s not that the latter can’t be interesting grist for a memoir, but here they’re often rendered in long narrative sequences that could be summed up faster. Work events begin to feel repetitive. Worse, they take up space that might have been devoted to Dickerson’s evolving spirituality. After all, there’s more to the journey away from fundamentalism than sex.

From a feminist perspective, the text is mixed. There’s a lovely rant on page 135 defending female humorists, but in the same chapter Dickerson theorizes that women leave Hallmark’s humor department because they can’t handle the boss’s relative masculinity. It’s possible that Dickerson has evidence for this theory which didn’t make it into the text; however, given the available information, Dickerson comes across as condescending. Perhaps women leave because being the only female in that work environment is intolerable. Perhaps they leave because the boss acts sexist in ways that aren’t apparent when there are only male coworkers. Perhaps Dickerson should just ask the women involved?

Other scenes are similarly fraught. For instance, Dickerson’s fiancée is depicted as sex-averse, but this is never satisfactorily explored. From the details in the text, the fiancée appears to be suffering from some sort of sexual trauma*, but the narrative ignores that in order to focus on how angry Dickerson feels when she refuses to fulfill his romantic fantasies, such as a shared bath by candlelight. Perhaps Dickerson decided not to explore his fiancée’s perspective in more depth because he didn’t want to violate her privacy. This is a respectable reason, but the text still feels incomplete.

Of the many scenes discussing Dickerson’s sexuality, the most compelling is a flashback to his early twenties when he was still convinced masturbation was sinful. He discovered that voyeurism gave him an excuse to see women’s bodies “by accident” and thus without guilt. For this feminist reader, at least, the scene was extremely powerful because one identifies with Dickerson’s need to navigate his sexuality within his repressive culture. At the same time, one recognizes that this is an example of how otherwise reasonable, pro-feminist men contribute to the rape culture.

Despite its flaws, House of Cards is an entertaining, engaging read full of whimsical word play. Dickerson’s memoir may not meet every possible literary expectation – what does? – but it’s fun to listen to the man talk, even on paper.


*I might have read her as asexual except for a scene in which she reacted defensively to Dickerson’s attempts to touch her shoulders while she washed dishes. This read to me as a post-traumatic reaction; others’ interpretations may differ. In any case, the absence of any attempt on the part of the text to understand her sex-averse behavior – whatever its cause – was a noticeable lack.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Surprises, Connections

Today has been a bit different. For one thing, it began with an actual sunrise, in the form of a layer of brightness stretched across the horizon, backlighting Mt. Rainier (which is South-southeast of here) and revealing the line of the Cascades that from here looks as though it curves along the mainland coast (which it doesn't!), a view I hadn't seen since my arrival. But today was different, also, because it wasn't quiet. A cleaning crew spent the day on the apartment below me, and that ended up being amazingly distracting. (Perhaps because I'd come to expect absolute quiet?) And then there was the weather. The clouds overhead began as a thin layer of low stratus, but as the morning wore on, grew thicker and thicker. Rainier all but vanished by noon. And so I decided to take my walk before rather than after lunch. For most of the day I could see the sun's location (though not the sun itself)-- never very high in the sky. In Washington state in late November and December, the sun lurks in the low southern sky, never rising much above 2 o'clock. It rises in the south-southeast and then sets in the south-southwest.

Because I walked early, the tide had only just started to go out; instead of jellyfish, I encountered bright blue bench cushions tossed onto the rocks at different places on the beach. The air felt a lot warmer, even though the wind was as wild as it had been on Monday. I had two moments of surprise. As I approached Point Wilson, a flock of small white birds, that I think must be sanderlings, fluttered up from the rocks (surprising because I at first took the birds for wind-tossed specks of foam), wheeled into formation, and flew out over the water. The second moment came when I got as close to the point as I could with the tide so high-- abut a hundred feet short of the tip; sitting on a boulder, looking at the water, I got weirdly and sickeningly dizzy and disoriented. After about half a minute, I realized why: facing the water, to my right, the waves were rolling straight up the beach, while to my left they were coming in aslant, and directly before me they were coming in... sideways. Waves moving sideways? I can see why my brain didn't at first know what it was looking at. Once I'd figured it out, I regained my equilibrium. I tramped over the rocks, past the lighthouse then, to the west side of the point. The wind was hardly blowing on that side, which made the water placid, and yet the heaviness of the clouds to the north and the west made the water and sky darker. Seagulls and ducks (which were entirely absent from the water on the other side) bobbed on the surface. It was like another world. The walk back, though into the wind, was easier because the waterline had receded a decent amount.

By 3:30, when I looked up from the ms, it was raining and the mountains gone. So I'm feeling pleased with myself for going out early.

Yesterday I wrote

On the one hand, I need to experience that intimacy and near-identity with my characters (while enjoying the luxury of knowing deep down that I'm not actually them).

But it occurred to me this morning that that probably sounds simpler than I intended it to. And so I want to elaborate a bit. "Near-identity" is shorthand. See, I've long thought it necessary for me, while writing novels, to perform a sort of Stanislavski method for inhabiting viewpoint characters, so that I have a deep sense, somehow, in my very body, what it's like to be that person at any given moment they inhabit, what I would see through their eyes, what I would hear, feel, and of course most obviously think were I them. But at the same time, subjective identity is always a fragmented process-- no one is always "I" at every instant. (And certainly not the same "I" from moment to moment.) Memory provides the bridges needed to link all the different moments and iterations of "I"-- especially body memory. And although paying too much attention to the splits and divisions breaking up identity always bears the threat of ruining the kind of characterization needed to make most fiction-reading experiences work, still, I take those splits and divisions as a necessary aspect of that "near-identity"-- and the reason, perhaps, that it's possible even to iamgine one's achieved near-identity with the character. The memories (physical and mental) I endow the character with are in a sense precisely my way into near-identity with them. And of course I assume that at some subliminal level that is probably the reader's way into them, too (even if they have to furnish some of those memories themselves). (As I recall, Samuel R. Delany talks a little about the writer's need to draw on readers' own memories in one of his essays on writing.)

Still haven't seen a seal pup (or even an adult seal). But deer roam the park, and marmots rustle through the patches of thorny canes, now stripped of berries and leaves, and every morning I hear a variety of birdsong, including some that I never hear in the city.

Is the natural world a gateway to an imaginative space just as fantastic as a wardrobe door in certain fantasies? It sounds a bit too romantic for me to believe, don't you think? But for now at least, I'm thinking that it is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Walks That Are Magical

At the moment I'm away from Seattle, away from Aqueduct-- and will be for the next three weeks-- working on a novel in progress, thanks to an artist's residency at Centrum, in Port Townsend, WA. My digs are comfortable and quiet, except for the wind, when it's up. Perhaps best of all, I have access to some fabulous walks and a view of the sea from my windows. Though there's internet access, it's delightfully inconvenient, meaning that I won't be cluttering up my thoughts with email or web browsing except when I've scheduled myself to do it.

Previously, I worked on this novel the summer before last, for the Clarion Writeathon, and during my retreat at the Whiteley Center exactly two years ago. Both times I bent all my efforts to getting the story on the page, with the aim of finishing a draft I could work with while doing Aqueduct's work, too. That strategy seemed to make sense, given the ordinary constraints on my time. And yet, when I stopped last time, certain I was only about 30,000 words from finishing, I couldn't see how to bring it off, despite being so close. In short, though I didn't admit it to myself until earlier this year, I was stuck. More recently, I figured out a few basic things about where I needed to go with the last 30,000 words. But I still felt uneasy. And so dedicating a three-week writing retreat to this novel constituted an act of faith. That's the thing about all writing, of course: you have to just say the hell with it, I can do this (even if you're not sure you can), and pretend very hard that you believe it.

I arrived here on Sunday afternoon and spent the rest of the day settling in: unpacking, setting up my computer and arranging my workspace, making an enormous pot of bean and cabbage soup (hearty fare that will spare me from having to cook for several days), figuring out how to regulate the temperature in my apartment. Since I was pretty whacked from an insomniac night, it was probably a good thing that I'd decided not to even look at my ms until Monday morning. I had, though, been sinking into the characters and story for most of last week (which was partly what kept me awake Saturday night). So when I woke yesterday (Monday), I was primed to go.

It has always been important for me, when doing a writing retreat, to take time out in the afternoon for a good long walk. Yesterday the wind was so high that from my windows the whitecaps looked like lines of mini-surf dotting the water; moreover, rain intermittently spattered my windows. But no matter: nothing was going to keep me from walking on the beach. I chose as the destination for my first walk Point Wilson, on which squats a small lighthouse. (A modern radar tower lurks nearby.) The walk was exhilarating-- the wind so wild, the gusts so powerful that on the return walk I often had to turn and walk backwards just to breathe. (We're very near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, here.)

When I descended onto the beach, I was charmed by the sign telling people not to disturb any seal pups lying on the beach: "It's the law," the sign warned. (Alas, I encountered no seal pups. But maybe another day...) Up close, the sea looked green, though it was gray from my windows and the waves were coming in fast and hard, maybe 2-3 feet high. As I walked, a sense of freedom swept over me, and it occurred to me that for the next three weeks I'd have no one to answer to but myself. At any given moment, no one will care or even necessarily know where I am. (On that beach? Sitting at my computer? Lying back in a comfortable chair with my feet up on an enormous ottoman, line-editing pages of ms?) And in fact, I could even decide not to chekck my email at all (whether I post to the blog or not). Wow.

After that first realization came, quickly, the second: that the only thing I need to answer to is the work itself. The last time I experienced that feeling was back in 1996, on Galeano Island, during my first-ever writing retreat.
Marching along the beach, the wind whipping my hair, needle-pricks of rain flicking my face, the thought made me giddy. And led to another thought: that until now, the way in which I'd worked on the novel had somehow cramped my imaginative access to it. I think it was the wildness of the wind and sea plus my sense of freedom that suddenly opened a certain space that had (for this particular novel) been closed to me. Why had that been? Maybe not just because of the sense of rushing to get the story into words, but also something to do with seeing too the story and my story's world much through the filter of my viewpoint character, as though I couldn't quite avoid getting caught up in her so-cramped, so-evasive, so-timid consciousness, in a way that usually doesn't happen to me as I inhabit my characters' consciousness. I've long known that on the one hand, I need to experience that intimacy and near-identity with my characters (while enjoying the luxury of knowing deep down that I'm not actually them) while on the other hand, close identification always carries the risk of obscuring the bigger picture of the novel. Somehow I'd lost track of the other hand...

When I left the beach yesterday, I had the sense that the bigger picture will come, if I patiently court it and listen to my thoughts about it at play in the far reaches of my consciousness. It never does any good to sit down and consciously try to think about such things. Such thinking has to take place below conscious thought, the way so much thinking-- usually the very best thinking I'm capable of-- must do.

Last night the wind dropped. I opened my bedroom window before going to bed (because I need it to be cool to sleep), and through the night as I woke briefly between sleep cycles thought I could actually hear the sea. Today the beach felt like a different place. The water was fairly calm (though not exactly placid). I walked in the opposite direction from yesterday's and encountered big blobs of transparent jelly, bits of crab legs, and a lot of eel grass. I noticed there were more boats out on the water today. At one point I wondered whether wind is a necessary component of exhilaration, for today I felt calm rather than elated. Bearing in mind yesterday's insight, I deliberately didn't concentrate my thoughts on the novel.

And then, on my way home, after leaving the beach and starting up the hill, I stopped to sit on a bench overlooking the beach and make notes of some of the thoughts (about the novel) that were now flickering through my mind. Do you see? The process works like magic.

So now, back to the ms. And I'll hope-- assume-- that the magic will happen again tomorrow.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can the Housekeeping Staff Speak?

Discussions of Walter Benn Michaels too often tend toward well-intentioned rants* or serious misconstructions of his arguments -- as the diminutive Loren Glass said in an early and astute critique of Michaels, "his name tends to provoke irritation and even outrage . . . as if his work constituted a personal insult." Nonetheless, he has enough admirers that it seems important that he have better opponents. Among the best have hitherto been other Michaels: Michael Bérubé** and Michael Rothberg.*** So it's a great relief to see Michaels challenged by someone with a different first name.

Ray Davis leaves Michaels on the ropes in a recent web journal entry, pointing out that Michaels's contrarianism is not a problem only because it annoys "academics." Ray reveals that Michaels outdoes Thomas Friedman (the neoliberal columnist who gets most of his information about the Third World by conversing with cab drivers) by inventing a perspective for "the African-American woman who cleans [his] office": "This isn't anecdotal evidence; it's fictional evidence."

Now, the issue of "speaking for" is not a simple one. About twenty years ago, I attended some socialist meetings at Hopkins, the school where Michaels became famous; and there was a sad little self-dramatizing geek there who was seriously ashamed of his role in the class war, who once began a sentence with "Speaking for the mass of humanity . . . " and was quickly called on it by his roommate: "You're speaking only for yourself." All he'd have to do to eliminate the problem would be to say instead "I think the mass of humanity would be happier with . . . " And a twenty-year-old creative writing major could be made to see that.

But Michaels's fictional evidence is, I think, a symptom of something bigger. Remember that this is the guy who wrote
To put the point in an implausible (but nonetheless, I will try to show, accurate) form, it means that if you hold, say, Judith Butler's views on resignification, you will also be required to hold, say, George W. Bush's views on terrorism – and, scarier still, if you hold Bush's views on terrorism, you must hold Butler's view of resignification. The position, then, that you take about whether those eight-six blank pages should count as part of the text will generate other positions – not only on terrorism but also on more obviously literary questions like whether texts have more than one meaning, as well as on more generally social questions like whether it is important that we should (or whether it is true that we can) remember historical events like slavery and the Holocaust.
and who also suggested that Octavia Butler's novels dramatize Alan Dershowitz's views of identity. In short, he's going to explain to you the implications of your thinking, whether you agree with him or not; and he's going to use his "it means that" or "you must" to argue the necessary consequences of your views and practices. Delany addresses that habit:
But some things bother me about Michaels' argument. His earlier praise of Ellis's American Psycho hinges on statements like, "the group that constitutes Bateman's [the American psycho's] preferred target, pretty 'girls,' doesn't constitute a people: women are not a culture." Yet, one of my major revelations when, as a young gay man, I got married in 1961, was that they damned well did and were. In his discussion of my tale, Michaels draws the conclusion, "So Delany's masochists are ... not a people (on the model of Jews or African-Americans)." But the whole later half of the Nevèrÿon series grows largely in direct dialogue with the work that the gay community, particularly those interested in S & M, were doing at that time. Ironically, I was in correspondence with a couple of the SAMOIS writers, whom Michaels sites in the accompanying discussion, when those stories were being written. Before 1969, the gay community of the U.S. tended not to think of itself as a community. Afterward, it did. The eleven stories and novels making up Return to Nevèrÿon are, historically, so very much post-Stonewall stories, that I wonder how comfortably I can wear Michaels' "antihistoricist" mantel. If Michaels' point is merely that a people/community/political group need not be hereditary, to me this seems self-evident. (But what's the force of his denying "peoplehood" to pretty girls or to women and to masochists? Suppose they want peoplehood? Would he deny it to them then? That's precisely the point of conflict that demands tolerance, so that people can learn from their histories what in their lives they want stabilized and what they want to let go of. The overvaluation Michaels decries is the—yes—historical fallout from decades of intolerance—not from too much wishy-washy liberal tolerance.) But why look for a politics in the section of a tale that deals with what inspires an individual, who feels himself outside a group (the young slave was not born into slavery; his masochism dates from before his enslavement at age fifteen), to move forward to join one? So much of the story is about subsequent group and communal action, why not look for it there?
That "Suppose they want peoplehood? Would he deny it to them then?" is a pretty central question, to which one might guess the answer is that a) How would he find out what they want, if he doesn't talk to them? and b) To the extent that he can "deny" it to them with his "you must" or "it follows that you cannot," he would. In other words, he'd have no compunction about writing, "They think they are a people, but they're wrong." People's wants and indeed their psyches' needs seem to be beside the point in his arguments.

Upon reading Ray's takedown of Michaels's article, I wrote to Ray, "I'm too timid to talk to the housekeeping staff myself. Although I did venture a tentative 'Uh, fuck the fuckin' Yankees?' to this one cleaning guy a couple of weeks ago, which charmed him." To which he replied, "I can't say if Prof. Michaels is timid, but I expect anyone with the good taste to cuss the Yankees would have the good taste not to speak for people he doesn't talk to." That may not be completely true, given that my schoolmate who sought to speak for the mass of humanity did converse with the housekeeping staff. But it got me thinking that, although I haven't initiated conversation with them beyond a "Hi Bob," I have listened to the members of that cohort when they spoke to me. I've heard one janitor express his enthusiasm for the death penalty, another make a memorably funny malapropism (near the end of a semester, she asked if I was "giving students their testes"), and a third say (upon seeing its logo on my tote bag), "The Nation -- great magazine." I honestly wonder whether Michaels, in looking for fictional evidence, could have invented any of those, even the funny one.****
* "Michaels is working full-time to turn the English departments over to their enemies, the Right-wing politicians who have gotten so much mileage out of the notion that pointy-headed liberals insult and disrespect their values. All the while he professes that his politics is nobody’s business but his own, yet his writing is pure politics and not literary criticism. This he does admit with the petulance of a bad boy."

** "For those of you who don’t know Michaels’s work (and can you really be reading this far down if you don’t?), his most recent book, The Trouble with Diversity, takes us back to the mid-90s with a vengeance, back to those post-Disuniting of America days when a whole bunch of guys on the left wrote books about how all this multicultural stuff was leading us to forget about economic inequality. What makes Michaels’s version of the argument especially pungent, though, is his insistence that people like me, teaching courses like mine, are actually exacerbating things insofar as our ever-more-complicated-and-nuanced analyses of 'culture' work all the more effectively to obscure relations of class."

*** "I would argue that the analytic distinction between class and other social identities that Michaels makes should not become the occasion for the repetition of an ossifying opposition among culture, politics, and economics. Why do we need to turn an analytic distinction between class and, say, race and gender into a normative valuation of one over the other? Michaels's definition of class difference—'more or less money,' as he writes in The Shape of the Signifier (180)—is insufficient for understanding the embeddedness of economics within culture and politics. It also misses the essence of a Marxist critique of capitalism, which does not concern amounts of money but relations of production and exploitation . . . In addition, he seems to mistake neoliberalism's ideological self-understanding for its actual practice . . . neoliberal practice depends on and operates within cultural and political spheres; it both mobilizes racialized and gendered logics and impacts racialized and gendered subjects in highly differentiated ways. In opposition to neoliberalism, then, we need to mobilize a critique that doesn't only distinguish race, gender, and class analytically but also conjoins them."

**** I worry that these accounts may come off as self-congratulatory. Be assured that I don't see anything special in my having listened to other people in my workplace.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pre-release Special for Imagination/Space

Aqueduct Press has taken delivery of Gwyneth Jones's new collection of essays, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics. For the brief time before the title becomes available elsewhere, we'll be selling it at a reduced price through our website.

If you haven't read Gwyneth's nonfiction, let me just give you a taste of it here. This is an excerpt from the opening essay, "What Is Science Fiction":

Prometheus Unbound [is] a revolutionary narrative all about Man (and Woman too, as I’m sure the poet would have agreed) breaking free from the tyranny of outworn patriarchal creeds and restraints. But the illustrations Shelley chooses for this mighty theme are taken from the thrilling and disturbing scientific discoveries of his time, specifically, here, the fossil discoveries, made by people like the extraordinary Mary Anning on the south coast of England: the dinosaur bones that were opening up, as never before in Anglo-Saxon culture, the vistas of geological time. These days, when we hear a news item that adds or subtracts a few billion years from the age of the universe (the cosmologists and astrophysicists do that, occasionally, don’t they), it does not raise a shudder. It’s hard to get hold of what geological time meant to people who were convinced the world had been made specially for Adam and that the whole thing was around seven and a half thousand years old (give or take a week). It’s hard to grasp the shock of that inhuman leap in scale…but Shelley tries. With a special-effects budget that restricts him to words and meter, he does his best to create some huge, gosh-wow George Lucas special effects. This is the feeling that we call “sense of wonder” in modern sf. I’ve never found that expression adequate; it sounds like a child meeting a Christmas tree; it sounds far too harmless. But sublime, yes. Now that’s what it’s about.

Unfortunately for Percy Shelley, epic poetry was about to go out of style, whereas the novel was to remain popular, so it was Mary’s Frankenstein and his reanimated patchwork corpse who survived to reach Hollywood, and the real mass market. If it had been the other way round, who knows, maybe he’d be getting called the Founding Father of hard science fiction… But encounters with the sublime, although there will always be room for more waltzing spaceships and exploding Death Stars, can sometimes be insidiously intimate. The most disturbing, thrilling discoveries of our day are not happening on the scale of geological time or galactic space (those vastnesses now seem empty of threat). They are happening in neuroscience, where the staggering technology of the digital age is enabling us to investigate our own consciousness: the place where the picture we have of the universe really lives, the self that thinks and feels. And for those still trying to believe that human beings are the Crown of Creation, it’s not good news…

. . . . .

Times change, and also, although I enjoy Star Wars’ special effects on the big screen, I’m not a huge fan as a writer... But I think I’m still trying to do the same as Shelley (which is something different from the moral fable of Mary’s Frankenstein). This is the twenty-first century, where the street finds its own uses for the technology, and William Gibson’s children are never going to be impressed by the infinite spaces between the stars. It’s important for my contemporary style that I use the workshop, lab-science jargon rather than poetic language; and it’s important that the shock and awe encounter with the sublime is given a disrespectful reception (as the Zen Self techie reels off the details that destroy the possibility of human free will and self-conscious action, “Oh” says Fiorinda). But I’m still reacting, aesthetically, to the cutting edge of knowledge and responding to the naked, elemental beauty of a universe that keeps on making human beings feel smaller, and smaller, and smaller… but, paradoxically, can’t diminish us. Maybe we don’t have the control we thought we had, but we’re still the ones doing the talking!

You can purchase Imagination/Space here.

PS Gwyneth's blog, Bold as Love, has a new URL. I've just updated it the sidebar.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Links for a Monday

---For those interested in the WFC steampunk panel, Frederic S. Durbin has just reported on it at length. This bit rather leaped out at me:
The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.
---Over at, Laura Miller reviews Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History. According to Miller, Yagoda not only looks at the history of the memoir, but also claims that the memoir is replacing fiction. (Yes, once again, the novel is dead!) Here is Miller's own view of the matter:
It's precisely when we are conscious of fictional characters as the invention of a literary author that they seem inert and fixed -- solipsistic -- to many readers, who usually don't feel entitled to quibble with the exalted creator about his choices. By contrast, the characters and events in memoirs are often, like real people and events, the subjects of energetic controversy, which makes them seem more alive. Who was to blame for the author's divorce? Was he justified in his rejection of 12-step programs? Was her mother bipolar, and how might her life have been different if she had been medicated? People who have read the same memoir can talk about this stuff for hours. The real world, after all, is available for an infinite range of interpretations, while we tend to see the products of the literary novelist's imagination as admitting only a few, and most of those are likely to be detached and aesthetic rather than moral and immediate.

Both of these notions are illusions, of course. It's not the made-up aspect of literary fiction that makes it seem marmoreal and remote -- otherwise, millions of people wouldn't be discussing the entirely fictional characters on "Lost" or "Mad Men" around the water cooler or in online forums. Children and adults would not have massed in bookstores at midnight to buy the latest Harry Potter installment. Those fictions -- TV shows and children's books -- have, like the memoir, not yet acquired the official status of Art. As long as they remain at least a little disreputable, they are our size, and lovable. But make the memoir respectable, clear it of all the charges against it -- of vulgarity and commercialism and calling too much attention to itself, as well as of fraud -- and chances are that sooner or later we'll get bored of it, too.
---At the SF Site, Paul Kincaid reviews On Joanna Russ. Although his review agrees with mine on some points (particularly my wish that the book had spent some time looking at Russ's influence on the field), overall, our reviews have sharply different takes on the book. Big surprise, hunh? (My review for Strange Horizons ran on August 3, 2009; it's here.)

After reading the first part of the book, Kincaid comes away thinking that Russ "was prickly, difficult, not an easy person to like, which perhaps explains the intensity of the reaction against her from some sections of the sf community [i.e., rather than her feminist advocacy]"-- and actually somewhat diffident in her feminism:
The three succeeding essays, by Lisa Yaszek, Helen Merrick, and Newell and Tallentire, examine Russ in relation to the burgeoning feminist movement in science fiction. These three all stress her importance in the movement, her implacable advocacy, but all three also tell tales of her attacking other women writers who might be her rivals, including a devastating demolition of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and a rather cruel rivalry with Judith Merrill, whose place she would occasionally take as a reviewer at F&SF. From the three, therefore, we get a sense of her turning against "the girls." Alongside this, we should note also that Delany, in his essay, points out how much of the violence in her stories is by women directed at women.

This makes for an interesting parallax view: the radical trailblazer in the experimental fiction that marked the upsurge of feminist sf who was also a devotee and advocate of the most conservative forms of the genre; the leading feminist advocate who went out of her way to dismiss the writing of other women in the genre. It suggests that Russ was prickly, difficult, not an easy person to like, which perhaps explains the intensity of the reaction against her from some sections of the sf community. It also suggests someone caught at a particular moment in history, dragged in one direction by her instincts and in another by her beliefs. This divided nature goes some way towards contextualising the intense power of key works like The Female Man (1975).
Rather than seeing the pre-feminist Russ as in conflict with the Fully Feminist Russ, I, naturally, read an historically-anchored story of personal change, and as I noted in my review, that story of personal change struck me as visible in some of the essays that appeared in the second part of the book. But perhaps I read such a story because the story of such a change is common for women of Russ's (as well as my own) generation. I think we might even say that the story of a full personal conversion that changes one's relations with the world in every way imaginable functions as a trope for many feminists: which would explain why, once the trope was invoked, I had no trouble reading a story of change and personal development rather than a core personality at odds with the times. If Kincaid is actually not familiar with the story of the Click! complete with consciousness-raising (a political praxis Russ sets great store by), it probably went right over his head. I also think that Kincaid might not have picked up on some of the feminist theory Newell and Tallentire draw on their absolutely crucial discussion of the social psychology of rivalry among women battling for the single place in the male clubhouse. Horizontal violence (as activist Flo Kennedy once named it) usually has more to do with social and political dynamics than inherent nastiness in one's personality.

Also striking, for me, was Kincaid's reading one of the key themes of the book in what I can only call a really peculiar way, which I suspect, again may simply be because he has little familiarity with the feminist trope of anger:
Some [of the authors of the essays in the book], perhaps taking their cue from Russ herself, seem to sanitise this by talking about anger, but in fact anger almost always manifests itself in violence.
I think there are a legion of feminists (especially those hailing from consciousness-raising days) who would be astonished to hear that "anger" is a euphemism for violence. (Well no, to be honest, they wouldn't be astonished: this would simply be yet another example of someone Who Just Doesn't Get It.) It might also be worth noting that Pat Wheeler's essay in the volume talks explicitly about the relation of Russ's feminist anger to the violence in Russ's work.

On another point, I'm scratching my head: Kincaid complains that the book did not give due attention to the humor in Russ's work. As I recall, many of the book's contributors take appreciative note of it.

I do agree, though, with Kincaid's complaint that "Delany notes that her feminism was informed by Marxism, and there is an awful lot of class conflict running alongside the gender conflict in her work. But this isn't picked up by any of the critics here, not even by Delany." There's nothing new in critics' ignoring class.The sad fact is, few critics are able to discuss the intersectionality of class, race, and gender in the same text, which is what would have been required to treat Russ's feminist-socialist politics. Faced with discussing either her feminist politics or her class politics (which I daresay Russ herself, as a socialist- or materialist-feminist, would say, are not separable), the authors not surprisingly chose to concentrate on the former.

---One last link (this one thanks to the Mumspimus): Crooks and Liars' Teabaggers punk'd by anti-racists who get them to cheer rant against European American immigrants gave me a laugh this morning (which I needed after reading about the implications of the Stupak amendment). They've got a YouTube video of an activist who masqueraded as an anti-immigration nut job and was allowed to give a speech to some cheering anti-immigration fanatics who only gradually realized was a satire-- of them. Here's an excerpt from his speech:
It's no secret that with an invasion of immigrants comes waves of crime. We see them involved in massive theft, in murder, and bringing diseases like smallpox, which is responsible for the death of millions of Americans. These aren't new problems, though -- they have been going on for hundreds of years, and continue to this day.

I say it's time for us to say enough is enough! Are you with me? Are you with me? Let's send these European immigrants back where they came from! I don't care if they are Polish, Irish, English, Italian, or Norwegian! European immigrants are responsible for the most violent and heinous crimes in the history of the world, including genocide and slavery! It's time to restore the sovereignty of people native to this land!

I want more workplace raids, starting with the big banks downtown. There are thousands of illegals working in those buildings, hiding in their offices, and taking Dakota jobs. Let's round them up and ship them out. Then we need to hit them at home where they sleep. I don’t care if we separate families, they should have known better when they came here illegally!

If we aren't able to stand up to these European immigrants, who can we stand up to? We need to send every one of them back home, right now.

Thank you very much, and we'll see you in the streets!

Columbus Go Home! Columbus Go Home! Columbus Go Home!
Not so nice was that some of the middle-aged men in his audience physically attacked him once they caught on to what they were cheering for.

Dire Consequences

On the health reform front, according to an article by Jonathan Allen on, it looks as though Stupak, the anti-abortion amendment to the US House of Representatives health care bill, goes much, much further than originally supposed:
Stupak and his allies, including every House Republican, a quarter of the chamber’s Democrats and the Vatican, say that it simply extends an existing prohibition on federal funding for abortion — an annually renewed policy called the Hyde amendment — to the health care exchange that would be established for the uninsured under the health care bill making its way through Congress.

But lawmakers who support abortion rights contend that, if the Stupak amendment’s logic is extended to the $250 billion in tax breaks Americans get to buy coverage through employer-based plans, it could strip abortion coverage from tens of millions of women who already have it.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said that the next step beyond Stupak for the anti-abortion movement will be to make sure that “if that federal wand has been waved over your insurance, then you don’t get to get abortion coverage.

Many Americans may not know that the money used for their employer-based health plans is untaxed, because it doesn’t show up on their paycheck and they don’t have to worry about it at tax time. But Congress’s bean-counting Joint Tax Committee calls the break “the largest tax subsidy” on the books and reports that it “represents by far the largest portion of total tax expenditures for health.”

This is how it works: The health benefits most Americans get at work are a form of income. But federal law excludes that income from taxation — and lets businesses write its cost off as an expense — providing an incentive to workers to buy health insurance and for employers to offer it as compensation.

For better or for worse, that tax-free foundation of the employer-based system props up the insurance industry. Without it, the government would be about a quarter of a trillion dollars richer each year — enough to pay for the House health care bill twice over the next decade.

More important for the abortion debate, Congress considers the income tax exclusion to be a massive “tax expenditure” — a subsidy — for individuals to buy insurance.
The effects the article discusses might be even farther reaching than that, involving nonprofits (including Planned Parenthood). Women in the US have steadily been losing access to safe, legal abortion. Cunning stealth attack or simply inadvertently sweeping in its consequences, it's obvious the Stupak Amendment would go even further in returning us to the actual, if not the legal, conditions of the pre-Roe vs. Wade days. Think that sounds alarmist? Here's another excerpt from Allen's article:
The combined data of a pair of studies conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the Kaiser Family Foundation strongly suggest that most women who currently are covered by employer-based insurance plans have abortion coverage.

They would be in danger of losing abortion coverage if the Stupak principle is ever applied to the existing health care system, according to abortion-rights advocates.

“The next step after that will be to say that anybody who gets a plan purchased by an employer that gets tax relief can’t have abortion coverage,” DeGette said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) sees the argument bleeding into federal subsidies in other policy arenas, according to the Iowa Independent.

“You can take this on down. You could just say that anybody that got a federal loan for housing could not get an abortion,” Harkin said. “You can take this and just keep going on and on and on with no end in sight.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Because novels have more entropy

The latest issue of Science Fiction Studies, a special issue titled "Science Fiction and Sexuality," arrived in mailbox this week. I expect I'll be posting on the issue itself soon, but in the meantime, I thought the many contributors of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2: Provocative Essays on Feminism, Race, Revolution, and the Future would like to know that the issue includes a lengthy, strongly favorable review of WCC2 by Jane Donawerth, one that mentions nearly every contributor in the book. Here are a few excerpts from her review:
Contributions range from some outstanding academic essays, to interesting reflections by writers, to a workshop on responding to misogyny or racism in writing workshops, to a blog....

I shall begin with the threads that the hold the volume together, then review the high points. The guests of honor, Laurie J. Marks, and her editor and also a writer, Kelly Link, interview each other about fantasy writing to open the volume and conduct a dialogue on sf to close it.... Writers might be interested in their description of the process of revising and editing, here in Marks's words: "When you're editing, it only affects the particular piece you're working on, but when you're revising, if you change something it changes everything." Scholars will be interested in Link's description of "communal writing," sf writers sitting in a cafe and writing in parallel; she cites herself, Shelley Jackson, Holly Black, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Karen Joy Fowler. At the end of the volume, in an epistolary exchange conducted by email, Link and Marks leave analysis behind and give us pure pleasure, ruminating on the nature of writing, but also on their friendship and the nature of friendship in general. Here are two good quotations from that exchange. In a sentence only a lover of science fiction could have written, Marks tells us, "I think novels need a higher coherence quotient because they have more entropy." On the nature of writing, Links adds, "I want the story to have enough momentum so that at the moment of ending, it's as if the reader has been hurtling along, picking up enough speed as she goes that she keeps on going past the point where the story ends."
The review then goes on to describe and discuss the material between the opening and closing pieces. And then Donawerth closes the review with this:
I would recommend this volume for anyone who has attended WisCon, for scholars and readers interested in the nature of conventions as a forum, for general readers interested in the liberatory end of sf, and for libraries that emphasize popular culture. While I have never been to WisCon, this volume makes me want to come see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Emma Goldman's Autobiography

by Kristin

In Timmi's post of October 21st, Emma Goldman, Feminism, and Anarchism, she writes:
Anyway, I think that if more current-day feminists were actually to sit down and read some of Goldman's writings they'd find them both congenial and inspiring.
I agree. As a starting point, I recommend her autobiography, Living My Life. It connects her feminist and revolutionary politics to the climate of the time and to her real, bodied experience as a woman. Emma Goldman was filled with fiery enthusiasm and possessed by her ideals, and she acted on them, in a "leap before you look" kind of way that often led her into trouble. She threw her whole self into her politics and did what she thought right, even when it meant going to jail and being deported. And we owe her a great debt for her struggles for the eight-hour day and for birth control.

But, as much as I like Emma Goldman, I don't agree with everything she said and did. I think we have much to learn from her mistakes as well.

One incident that speaks to me is the time she tried to prostitute herself for the cause. (Living My Life, Volume I, Chapter 8.) In 1892, during a time of labor unrest, a man named Henry Clay Frick took over management of the Carnegie Steel Company. He performed atrocities, tossing a pregnant woman out on the streets and hiring armed thugs who massacred strikers, including a little boy.

There was great public outcry, and Emma Goldman and her boyfriend Alexander Berkman felt the time had come to act. Moved by the political writings circulating at the time, they decided that Berkman would assassinate Frick.

"A blow aimed at Frick," she writes, "would echo in the poorest hovel, would call the attention of the whole world to the real cause of the Homestead struggle."

Emma's role would be to raise money for a weapon. But how does a poor woman raise money in a hurry? She chose prostitution. She writes:
My main concern now was whether I could make myself attractive enough to men who seek out girls on the street. I stepped over to the mirror to inspect my body. I looked tired, but my complexion was good. I should need no make-up. My curly blond hair showed off well with my blue eyes. Too large in the hips for my age, I thought; I was just twenty-three. Well, I came from Jewish stock. Besides I would wear a corset and I should look taller in high heels. (I had never worn either before).

After donning the proper attire, she joined a long line of sex workers walking the streets to attract clients. So there went the famous revolutionary, stumbling along in a stiff corset and high heels. A well-to-do gentleman spotted her fear and lack of expertise, and he offered to buy her a drink. So she led him to a dark, crowded saloon. Sitting at a table with a big glass of beer, dressed in fetish wear, she argued politics, telling him about the thousands of women who are driven to prostitution by economic necessity. But he wasn't interested in politics. He gave her ten dollars and told her to get out of the business.

She wired the money to Berkman, who went ahead with his assassination attempt. It failed, and Berkman was arrested. Public opinion, which had been against Frick, now turned against Berkman and the other anarchists. Goldman writes:
Meanwhile, the daily press carried on a ferocious campaign against the anarchists. They called for the police to act, to round up 'the instigators, Johann Most, Emma Goldman, and their ilk.' My name had rarely before been mentioned in the papers, but now it appeared every day in the most sensational stories. The police got busy; a hunt for Emma Goldman began.
So, while she had thought an attempt would rally the working class, it did the opposite. It gave her enemies fuel against the anarchists. It drew attention away from Frick's atrocities. All in all, it was a public relations disaster.

Whatever you may think of the use of violence for political ends, the assassination attempt was a mistake. First, Goldman and Berkman mistook Frick for the real enemy, power itself. Second, she did not take into account the power of the press. And third, she misunderstood the general public, imagining people would be inspired by the act, when instead many were scared. My takeaway from this incident is that whatever our political views, we are always human beings, with human bodies, human failings, desires, fears. When we ignore them, our actions fail.

Fortunately, Emma Goldman didn't give up. She stuck to her ideals and passions, and grounded her politics in our common humanity. She loved, wrote, spoke, and acted with her whole heart, soul, and body. In so doing, she won victories we still benefit from today.

At the end of her autobiography, she writes:
My life - I had lived in its heights and its depths, in bitter sorrow and ecstatic joy, in black despair and fervent hope. I had drunk the cup to the last drop. I had lived my life.

Male writers and the critics' agenda

Over at the Valve, Andrew Seal considers recent novels by men that have won critical acclaim in light of Nina Baym's "Melodramas of Beset Manhood." He emphasizes Baym's focus on the critics' obsession with this theme. He concludes:
it seems to me that the literary critical project of reading American fiction according to this American myth still sets the table for what we will be served as the “best American fiction.
The novels he considers are The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, The Human Stain by Philip Roth, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel, and All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen. About the last two, he remarks,
while not exactly considered by anyone as the greatest novels of the past decade, they were produced by two men who have basically revived the project of Trilling-like (or Partisan Review-like) criticism in America and who have received significant amounts of attention for doing so. At any rate, there may be no two books of the past ten years more intentionally constructed to fit into the American myth than these two; reading them, I often had the feeling that the point of writing them seemed to be to create a literature which would support a rebirth of Trillingian criticism.
After reading Seal's post, I can't help but conclude that many male writers, consciously or unconsciously, seem to be driven by the implied demands of the critics, along the lines of "If this is quality, then obviously that's what I need to be writing."

Nisi Shawl Reads Tonight at the Elliott Bay Book Company

Nisi Shawl will be reading tonight at 7 p.m. at the Elliot Bay Book Company. Here's the info given on the store's website:

Co-presented with the CENTRAL DISTRICT FORUM FOR ARTS & IDEAS. Seattle fiction writer, critic, writing teacher (and former bookseller) Nisi Shawl has recently added one more 'distinction' to her long list of accomplishments: 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award winner for her short story collection, Filter House (Aqueduct Press). The James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender, has been awarded each year since 1991 at WisCon, the world's only feminist-oriented science fiction convention. Please join us in celebrating the award with a reading of some of the stories, many of which deal with technology, African-based magical systems, and, of course, the problems and possibilities of gender. Filter House was also named one of the best books of 2008 by Publishers Weekly.

The Elliott Bay Book Company
101 S. Main St.
Seattle, Washington 98104

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science (and Science Fiction) at the Vatican

Here in the US the most visible and vociferous members of the religious establishment (i.e., the fundamentalists) are doing their damnedest to suppress science and would like to return our understanding of the physical world back to that of Europe in 1600. That's not the case with the Vatican (and here I'll bracket certain feminist differences I have with the Roman Catholic establishment). The AP's Vatican looks to heavens for signs of alien life, an article by Ariel David, reports on a conference at the Vatican devoted to astrobiology:

The questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration," said the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory.

Funes, a Jesuit priest, presented the results Tuesday of a five-day conference that gathered astronomers, physicists, biologists and other experts to discuss the budding field of astrobiology — the study of the origin of life and its existence elsewhere in the cosmos.

Funes said the possibility of alien life raises "many philosophical and theological implications" but added that the gathering was mainly focused on the scientific perspective and how different disciplines can be used to explore the issue.

Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, said it was appropriate that the Vatican would host such a meeting.

"Both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe," he told a news conference Tuesday. "There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe."

Thirty scientists, including non-Catholics, from the U.S., France, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Chile attended the conference, called to explore among other issues "whether sentient life forms exist on other worlds."
David notes:
The Church of Rome's views have shifted radically through the centuries since Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other ideas, that other worlds could be inhabited.

Scientists have discovered hundreds of planets outside our solar system — including 32 new ones announced recently by the European Space Agency. Impey said the discovery of alien life may be only a few years away.

"If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound," he said.

This is not the first time the Vatican has explored the issue of extraterrestrials: In 2005, its observatory brought together top researchers in the field for similar discussions.

Darwin's theory of evolution is clearly at the heart of all astrobiology. As I was reading this, I thought, given that not everyone in the Catholic Church is on the same page vis-a-vis Creationism, the Vatican's interest in astrobiology must make it somewhat controversial. And just so, for here's David:
Today top clergy, including Funes, openly endorse scientific ideas like the Big Bang theory as a reasonable explanation for the creation of the universe. The theory says the universe began billions of years ago in the explosion of a single, super-dense point that contained all matter.

Earlier this year, the Vatican also sponsored a conference on evolution to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

The event snubbed proponents of alternative theories, like creationism and intelligent design, which see a higher being rather than the undirected process of natural selection behind the evolution of species.

Still, there are divisions on the issues within the Catholic Church and within other religions, with some favoring creationism or intelligent design that could make it difficult to accept the concept of alien life.

Working with scientists to explore fundamental questions that are of interest to religion is in line with the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, who has made strengthening the relationship between faith and reason a key aspect of his papacy.

Recent popes have been working to overcome the accusation that the church was hostile to science — a reputation grounded in the Galileo affair.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared the ruling against the astronomer was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension."

The Vatican Museums opened an exhibit last month marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first celestial observations.

Tommaso Maccacaro, president of Italy's national institute of astrophysics, said at the exhibit's Oct. 13 opening that astronomy has had a major impact on the way we perceive ourselves.

"It was astronomical observations that let us understand that Earth (and man) don't have a privileged position or role in the universe," he said. "I ask myself what tools will we use in the next 400 years, and I ask what revolutions of understanding they'll bring about, like resolving the mystery of our apparent cosmic solitude."

The Vatican Observatory has also been at the forefront of efforts to bridge the gap between religion and science. Its scientist-clerics have generated top-notch research and its meteorite collection is considered one of the world's best.
Hmm. My inner historian is agog. Strengthening the relationship between faith and reason-- that sounds really familiar. Go Peter Abelard!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Judging the Judges, Again

I've come across another interesting post on the PW woman-free Best List, courtesy of the Mumspimus, by zunguzungu, Repressive Anti-Sentimentalism: Best [Male] Writers of 2009:

The problem is that there are a lot of people in the world who would prefer to believe in a standard of value that produces only male writers as “best” than to imagine that maybe, just maybe, that standard is a function of a desire to privilege a standard of literary value that is derived from a sense of what masculinity is.

Now, this might not be a desire on the part of the judges themselves; it might simply be something they’ve inherited from a two century long American tradition of regarding real literary value as something threatened by a “damned mob of scribbling women,” using words like “domestic” and “sentimental” as a short-hand for what Nina Baym calls “the encroaching, constricting, destroying society” against which an American writer has to struggle manfully in order to be considered literary. Her argument — which, to my mind, is unanswerable — is that the entire American canon of great books, on which the standard for American literary greatness gets derived, isn’t just male in a descriptive sense, but is subjectively male: to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result, since the “great” books seem to be overwhelmingly about men on boats running away from women, the woman writer, as Baym puts it, enters American literary history as the enemy.

It may not be sexism. It may just be this. But what’s the difference, in practice? When the need to believe that it is possible to “ignore gender” trumps, in practice, the need to consider whether it is possible to do so, what are we to conclude? If you assume that it is possible — and that this panel of judges has “ignored gender” — then how is any conclusion possible other than that women are just not good writers?
Do read the whole post.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Love at the City of Books

by Kristin

It has been seven years since I visited Portland. Having young children has mostly kept me close to home, but now that they are six and four I feel more confident that our family can cope with the separation, so I went with a friend and stayed two nights.

"What are you going to do?" people asked me.

"Powells," I said.

"What else?"


I had a plan, based on past visits and an understanding of my limited time. I came prepared with a series of interlocking quests, or inquiries, which could be answered only by going from one section to another. I would spend all day Saturday there, tasting books and going for walks when I needed a break. And I would spend $100 or less on books.

I am proud to say that I limited myself to $75. I bought Ishi: Last of His Tribe, a children's archaeology book, two children's pirate books, the picture book Shibumi and the Kitemaker, Locus magazine, a history of children's strikes in the U.S., a book by bell hooks, and a book by Gloria Anzaldua.

But I tasted many more books, and I ended up with a surprise theme: love and radical politics.

We'll be reading Gwyneth Jones' Life for our book group, and I do better with a little appetizer that helps me gain trust in an author. So I opened her book of short stories Seven Tales and a Fable and was immediately drawn to the title "The Princess, the Thief, and the Cartesian Circle." It combines a classic and enjoyable princess story with the modern epidemic of young women cutting themselves and with various threads of philosophy from Descartes to Jung. Although the narrative was complex and difficult, Jones quite considerately brought everything to one understandable question. (Thank you, Gwyneth, for being thoughtful of your reader.) Here it is:

"Does love exist? I do not know. But I know that if it were to exist it could have no limits. It could not have a beginning, or an end. There could not be a place where love was not, or a time when love had not been."

When later I visited the bell hooks book All About Love, I found the same question:

"My grief was a heavy, despairing sadness caused by parting from a companion of many years but, more important, it was a despair rooted in the fear that love did not exist."

From there, hooks redefines love:

". . . to truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients - care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication."

Using her redefinition, she asserts that love cannot be present in an abusive relationship. I disagree, but at the same time, I recognize that words are tricky beasts and sometimes cannot be given a workable meaning. And her redefinition allows her to present a coherent framework that examines partner abuse, child abuse, domination in general, militarism, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, class struggle, the nuclear family, equality, spirituality, and the need for community.

I am always interested in ways to share radical politics with a general audience, and I was impressed to see that the book was on the bestseller list in 2000. So as I read, I noted some of her techniques. She started off by addressing the reader's need for love, the lack and longing for love, using self-help books written by a bunch of white guys. Then, gradually, she worked in social justice concepts from women and people of color. Nicely done.

I made sure to stay at Powells one hour after I got tired, to be sure I had my fill. But I'll be back, and this time I won't wait seven years. My family can manage. Really.

"Bracing, well-informed, and sort of shocking"

Over at the Agony Column, Rick Kleffel has taken note of Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal:

[A]s the work of Mary Shelley indicated, genre fiction was not to be the sole domain of men. And the women who wrote, edited and published had to be tougher, smarter and better than their male counterparts. Where there's a history, there's a story, and the story of women in science fiction spills out in Helen Merrick's 'The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms' (Aqueduct Press ; December 2009 ; $19). Merrick boldly goes where no ... academician has gone before and brings back an entertaining tale of women writers, editors, publishers and fans. It's SF convention girl-gossip channeled by a university scholar. The results are bracing, well-informed, and sort of shocking. Literature and feminism entwined in an unusual manner in that primordial soup. What emerged was, not surprisingly, sort of magical.

And he concludes:
What's interesting to more general readers is the existence of an intensely active, intensely intelligent literary, cultural and sexual discussion taking place in the back waters of a genre that many think begins and ends with, as U2 calls them, "Stories for Boys." You'll meet a lot of wonderfully outspoken women in this book, writers, critics and, critically, fans.

If you'd like to be notified the instant this book is available from Aqueduct (which will probably be a couple of weeks in advance of Amazon and Powells), just drop a note to Tom at

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sometimes I wonder if I'm living in Bizarro World

Gah. Health Care Reform in the US? What a hard, mordant laugh. By the time the crassest and sleaziest politicians in the House had had their way yesterday, women's reproductive rights had taken a major hit and, as Dennis Kucinich put it,

The "robust public option" which would have offered a modicum of competition to a monopolistic industry was whittled down from an initial potential enrollment of 129 million Americans to 6 million. An amendment which would have protected the rights of states to pursue single-payer health care was stripped from the bill at the request of the Administration. Looking ahead, we cringe at the prospect of even greater favors for insurance companies.

Here's what Lee Stranahan says in the Huffington Post:

Progressives should be every bit as upset that President Obama lied to us to get his historic health bill. The citizens of this country did not have a seat at the table. Proponents of the Single Payer didn't have a seat at the table. Under the guise of health care reform, we watched as the insurance industry got a bill passed that entrenches and enriches them.

Don't let anyone fool you that this bill is a good start. It's got a poison pill "Public Option" that is designed to fail. As the brilliant RJ Eskow wrote recently about the House bill's public option,

The plan will have low enrollment and little power to negotiate, causing the CBO to state as fact what I've long considered possible: That the public option could become a dumping ground where private plans jettison sicker people, while lacking the efficiencies of scale or negotiating power to get better rates or administer itself more economically.

As a result, says the CBO, a public plan's premiums might be higher than private insurance. While the CBO's word isn't gospel, it's entirely possible that they're underestimating the cost of any "public option" we're likely to see this year. The likeliest political outcome, once the House and Senate bills are combined, is a non-robust "public option" with a state-by-state opt out. The CBO didn't consider the opt-out when it came up with its shocking (to some) estimate.

Even if it passes in its weak form, this Public Option will be the target of the GOP for years and they won't rest until it is dead. As the Public Option kicks into gear, they will find stories of 'rationing' and denial of care they can highlight, true or not. They will use the higher costs as proof of the Public Option's folly. They will grind away at the Public Option relentlessly but they will leave the Individual Mandate alone. If anything, once the Mandate is in place, the Republicans will make sure the insurance industry is 'free to compete' and unrestricted.
I can hardly wait to see what the Senate does with it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Quote of the Day

One of the basic notions of theater is that it's special, and it's only happening for you, every night of the week. But if you look at it globally, and you talk to actors who are doing a show for more than three months, it's a job. Somebody who goes to work every day, and does the same thing every day, they're doing it at a pretty high frequency-- you repair thirty radios a day, or approve thirty transactions. Theater, in comparison, is on a very low-frequency loop-- once a night. And that supposed singularity is what effaces the traces of the work. But if you turn up the frequency to where the actor is performing all day long, and there may or may not be an audience, then you can actually start thinking about labor and how it goes up against hope, or the expectation of transcendence. -- "David Levine in Conversation with Christian Hawkey" (The Believer, February 2009), talking about his film Bauerntheater, in which an actor "acts" the role of a farmer, 24/7, for a month.

Judging the Judges

As you've probably already heard, this year's Publishers Weekly Top 10 Best Books of 2009 is exclusively male-authored. WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts) has issued a press release titled "Why Weren't Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast."
Quoted in The Huffington Post, PW confidently admitted that they're “not the most politically correct" choices. This statement comes in a year in which new books appeared by writers such as Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh and Alicia Ostriker.

“The absence made me nearly speechless.” said writer Cate Marvin, cofounder of the newly launched national literary organization WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts), which, since August, has attracted close to 5400 members on their Facebook web page, including many major and emerging women writers. “It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.”

WILLA’s other cofounder, Erin Belieu, Director Of The Creative Writing Program at Florida State University, asked, “So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that. I, on the other hand, have heard from a whole lot of people—writers and readers--who don’t feel good about it at all.”

PW also did a Top 100 list and, of the authors included, only 29 were women. The WILLA Advisory Board is in the process of putting together a list titled “Great Books Published By Women In 2009.” This will be posted to the organization’s Facebook page and website. Press release to follow.

In Sexism Watch: Publishers Weekly Top Ten Books of 2009, Melissa Silverstein, at Women & Hollywood from a feminist perspective, concludes:
I personally believe that it is bullshit that the top 10 books of the year are all by men (and by the way 9 out of the 10 are by white men.) People who make these lists need to look at their own inherent and internalized biases. Wonder how those women who didn’t give a crap about political correctness yesterday are feeling this morning.
Interestingly, though, Nicola Griffith suggests that Publishers Weekly's cutting women out of its ten-best list is a screw-up that "is just another indication that PW is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the real reading world."

I've often thought that annual "best" lists more often than not reflect the workings of hype. Is it ever really possible to pick out the ten "best" (even when the selection is restricted by genre, and even supposing that the persons compiling the list have excellent reading skills and anything by the most narrow of tastes), given just how many fine books fly under the radar, particularly during the year in which they are first published? I rather like Nicola's assumption that such lists can be used to judge the credibility of their makers.