Log in

Guns and cons (but no rock and roll).

Let's start with a link. I'll wait while you go and read it: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/10/18/shooter_opens_fire_at_fort_myers_florida_zombiecon.html?wpisrc=burger_bar

This is scary. Someone was killed at Zombiecon by someone who turned up and started shooting.
This time, for the first time ever, I looked up what the gun laws were for the place where worldcon was to be held, because some of the things that had been said in the run-up to it by some of the puppy-allies were seriously scary. I didn't enjoy that feeling, nor did I enjoy feeling I needed to know. Fan space isn't necessarily safe space -- indeed, often it isn't safe. But this is an added level of anxiety, which had begun for me two years earlier and is one of the reasons I didn't go to LoneStarCon. I come from a culture in which guns are rare and controlled. I'm outspoken, female and left wing -- very left wing by US standards. Texas feels scary to me (well, some parts of it do).
In the run-up to Sasquan, someone -- I forget who, and don't have the link to had -- called for worldcons in future only to be held in open carry states. Someone else threatened to hit anyone who dared to find his views frightening. That same person stated that he will only accept foreigners who agree with him that the US is the greatest country in the world and who place its interests above everything else.
I've had issues with sexual harassment and misogyny in fandom for years. I've witnessed incidents of homophobia, transphobia and racism at cons. I've witnessed one psychotic breakdown (the concom and site handled it well and with compassion for all involved) and many crises. I've twice been seriously assaulted in fan space and I've long lost track of the minor incidents. SFF has a long way to go. But until the puppies appeared, I've never worried about guns.
SFF is bigger than right wing gun lovers. It's bigger than US exceptionalists. It belongs to all of us, whatever our race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, whether we're cis or trans, old or young, rich or poor. My fanspace has room for everyone, even the puppies (though I'd prefer they left their guns at the door, for everyone's safety).
Yesterday, someone opened fire at a cosplay event.
I don't want this to happen on another day at an sff con. If you'd asked me about this a few years ago, I'd have said, 'That'll never happen.' Now... I know I'm not alone in feeling afraid. I know I wasn't alone in worrying in the run-up to Sasquan.
But here's the thing. This whole deal with guns is part of the US culture war. SFF does not belong to any one country, any one creed or race or gender or whatever. It's bigger than that.
And I want the culture war out of our space.

Skirt of the day: blue flags.

Socialist Fantasy

My piece on lewft wing politics and fantasy is up today on the Open Democracy website.

Our darling Ish cat passed away last Thursday, from suspected pancreatic cancer, while we were at Worldcon. groliffe was splendid in caring for him at the end, and the Cambridge Vet School was the best place he could have been in the circumstances. He knew and liked it there, and they loved him.
We are heartbroken. I never would have gone to Sasquan if I'd thought he was this ill. Horus, who adored him, is hunting and calling, and wanting lots of cuddles from us and from Miss Telzey. We are doing our best to reassure him. Ish was a lovely, sociable, determined boy who had many adventures in his 12 and 1/2 years, made many friends (including half a mile away at the local gas showroom) and had Views on everything. He was the cat who chose us, and we will miss him forever.
PicturesCollapse )


Comfortable misogyny

So there's this guy I know. I've known him most of my life: I'll call him Alfie, for now, though that's not his name. He's a nice bloke: good company, smart, funny, kind and reliable. For a while, we worked at the same place, and he was good at his job and, by and large, a nice colleague. I was at school with him, and we ended up at the same university -- you know how that goes. We didn't always end up in the same social circles, and we have some different interests, but he's one of those people, I guess: one of those people you just know and have always known.

I like Alfie: like I said, he's good company. I've never shared a house with him, but our mutual friend Bimla did, and she tells me he washed up after himself and sometimes remembered to do the vacuuming, just like her. He was a pretty good housemate (and he's a very good cook). He's married now, with two daughters who he adores and encourages to play soccer and study science. To use the old terms of the 80s, he's a new man: he helps around the house, has been known to change nappies and he treats his female work colleague Chantal well. Alfie's one of the good guys.

Except when he isn't. Because, you see, here's the thing about Alfie: he's a comfortable misogynist.

About this point, I can see the frowns starting. What's misogynist about what I've described, exactly? Alfie cooks and cleans and is nice to Chantal at work. He's a good dad (though his wife Daisy does sometimes wish this extended more to picking up toys and getting up when one of the girls is ill, and less to the fun stuff, like playing sport and going for ice cream). He's a good guy, I said so. He's a friend. He's not a sex pest or a male rights' activist. He thinks women should be allowed to work and he is outraged at female genital mutilation and all the news coverage of historic sex abuse cases. When it comes to big issues, Alfie's a feminist.

He feels good about that. And that's where the problem starts, because while he's great at the big picture, he is rubbish at seeing what's right under his nose. To this day, he doesn't understand why Daisy was so upset when he went on that month-long training course two weeks after their 2nd child was born. It was a great opportunity -- and while he could have gone on the next repeat of it, six months later, well, he didn't really want to go then because of his cricket side, and anyway three years on he got that great promotion. And Daisy managed. He thinks Chantal bears unnecessary grudges, because she's still sore that Edward got a pay rise when she didn't, even though they do the same job and her appraisal was better. But Edward's older than she is and he has a son at private school: he needs the extra money. Chantal's single. She'll get her turn. And it's not like the company's sexist: look at Frances at head office! She's practically a partner. Okay, there was that fuss about how she didn't get promoted that time, and Chantal and the other girls -- Grace who does admin, and whatserface, that old bat from human resources -- were up in arms about it and kept trying to get him to say something to Harry, the senior partner. But they didn't seem to get that Frances is, well, kind of abrasive and she can be really pushy, and anyway Alfie has to think of how it would look, him recommending her to Harry. He doesn't want to damage his own career. And it worked out all right, didn't it? Harry headhunted Ian from the competition and Frances got that great sideways move and a new company car.

And then there was that time Jim made a pass at that girl -- what was her name, Bimla's friend? Karly? She totally over-reacted: went on like he'd raped her or something, when it was just a few kisses and a friendly squeeze or two out in the car park. And Karly was being pretty naive, going off alone with Jim when everyone knows what a joker he is. And he was drunk: Jim's a decent bloke, everyone knows that. Yes, he makes some off-colour remarks, and yes, he can be a bit, well, *handy* when he's drunk, but it's just a bit of fun. Jim wouldn't really rape anyone. Alfie's sure of that. He wouldn't be friends with a man like that. (And anyway sometimes women exaggerate. He knows it's a bit edgy to say that, but he read this article in the paper the other day, and they interviewed a lawyer, and he'd know, right?) But Bimla and Daisy flew off the handle about that, and Daisy won't let him invite Jim round any more.

The thing is, Alfie thinks, is that women are just a bit... well, they expect miracles, right? It can take years to get where Ian and Harry are: Frances should know that. Her turn will come, if she's patient and doesn't make trouble. (Yes, Ian's a few years younger that her, but she took those two years out when she had her baby, so it evens out.) It's a hard word for everyone and these girls, well, they're being naive. There's laws and everything now about equality: people aren't allowed to discriminate any more. There's a level playing field. But some of these women insist on seeing sexism everywhere where it's not. If it was there, he'd know, and he'd be right there fighting for justice for them, just like in the old days when he used to go on those Reclaim the Night marches with Daisy and Bimla. He supports women's rights. That's one of the reasons he didn't go to Harry about Frances or Chantal: it would have been sexist, like they couldn't speak for themselves. And he was really busy that week anyway, and, well, this stuff is really hard work and he just doesn't have the energy for all that, some days.

Alfie means well. He understands the big issues and, despite how he looks from the above, he's a solid ally on those things: he really is a good dad and he doesn't expect rewards for doing housework. But sometimes, he doesn't get the insidious things. He doesn't mean to be hurtful, but he simply does not see the pattern of, say, Jim's behaviour, that makes Daisy and Bimla and Karly so uncomfortable. He doesn't connect it with the wider social problems of sexual harassment and rape culture. He really does think that Frances' abrasiveness is the main thing holding her back. (And he hasn't noticed that Ian is far ruder and far pushier, because, well, Ian is assertive and confident, isn't he?) They look to him like little, isolated problems, not part of a toxic cultural institution. And because to him, they're small, they're not worth getting wound up about (as he sometimes says to Daisy).

Alfie is fictional, of course. I invented him as a place-marker. He's a composite of hundreds and hundreds of men I've known over the years, mostly good blokes, people I like, people who are good people. I don't know anyone who so consistently trips over his male privilege as Alfie. But the thing is, we are an institutionally misogynist society, even with the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act and so on and so forth. We are rooted in a culture soaked in thousands of years of discrimination and sexism and assumptions about gender roles. We see where that operates on the large scale, but not always on the small -- and the less affected we are by it, the less we see. I could say the same about racism and homophobia and gender-essentialism and transphobia. The Alfies of the SFF world buy stories from women writers, and sometimes read books by them. They listen to the women they know. They are genuinely delighted when a new woman writer does well. They host guest posts from women on their webpages and link to things they write. They see and act on the big stuff. And sometimes, when historic inequities are pointed out, they help signal boost this.

And yet, and yet... If you talk to many women in sff, and particularly women who have been around a while, they'll often express a feeling of fatigue. We have been fighting so long to be seen and heard and yet our voices are barely any louder, and when new voices appear -- which is great -- older ones are dropped or forgotten to make space. I've said this before, over and over, but it is still predominantly older or established women who are expected to give way for the newcomers. A new book by William Gibson is An Event. A new book by multiple-award winning, genre-shaping C. J. Cherryh passes with barely a notice. And when this is mentioned out, men (and some women and non-binary people, yes, because #notallmen) point to the current clump of hot women writers and say 'But look at them!'

We have a culture that found it right and proper that after the death of Iain M Banks, no new GoH was announced for worldcon, but a debate started as to whether the female guest should be replaced with a different, younger woman, because the older woman 'wasn't relevant to younger readers' (which was itself wrong, as she is very popular with teenagers). We have a canon that repeats the same handful of women as members -- LeGuin, Russ, Butler, Moore, Tiptree -- without apparently seeing the problem that these women are used to stand for hundreds of others who are forgotten or dismissed (and *I* for one have not forgotten the male critic who told me that he didn't read 'the sort of mediaevalist stuff you write'. Fine, if that's a question of personal taste, but the fact is I don't write mediaevalist fantasy. But I'm a woman who writes fantasy, so he Knew, without troubling to check). I've not forgotten the fan who was incredibly vocal condemning an all-male awards' shortlist drawn up by a panel which was 50% female, but when he found himself in a similar position on a different panel, justified the absence of women by naming a couple of female writers and adding 'We don't want that kind of romantic slush on an awards' list, do we?' I've not forgotten the man who, after I was on a panel about sexual harassment in fandom, backed me into a corner to lecture me on what I was doing wrong in how I tried to protect myself (complete with 'how to dress' notes). The latter reminded me of the first iteration of Alfie I ever met, a boyfriend of a college friend, who used to censor her wardrobe on how 'feminist' it was. He forbade her to wear skirts, even if she wanted to, because it was unfeminist. And then there are all the men who say 'I need to step back; this is so tiring! I don't know how you women cope!'

We cope because we have no choice. We can't step out, not without harming ourselves. We can't endorse, say, panel parity for just a year, because these are our lives. The same is true, of course, for those engaged in anti-racist action, and that is often far harder, because the barriers are greater.

It doesn't help when the Alfies tell us not to get so wound up, or when they say 'Oh, but it's not my fight', or when they recycle the same list of women-who-matter, or Know what we write without looking it up. It doesn't help when they put up their 'Best of' lists, with only 2 women (both usually the current hot women writers). It doesn't help when they fence-sit, or fail to confront misinformation because they can't be bothered or don't want to 'dominate' (guys, you can speak up without taking over). It doesn't help when they say 'Oh, but that's so trivial'. It doesn't help when they say, 'SF by women doesn't sell' without thinking about the social and cultural reasons why that may be so (men get more reviews; their books are more likely to be promoted; men are more likely to recommend books by other men -- and to take recommendations from other men; bookshop buyers respond to numbers without looking at how they privilege male authors and order fewer books by women and so on and on). It doesn't help when men leave the women out when they talk about their influences. It doesn't help when women who self-promote are labelled pushy and aggressive while the men who do the same are seen as cool and clever.

I'm not saying most men do this on purpose. They don't. We are, as I said, an institutionally sexist culture. Women are embedded in this, too. I have had to have brisk conversations with myself more than once as to *why* I find self-promotional posts by women more worrying that those by men, for instance. We are all complicit in this comfortable misogyny, because we were all raised that way. And the same is true about other damaging, harmful social institutions, particularly racism.

Speak up. Take risks. Women have to, every single day. People of colour have to. This uneven division of labour we have, where women and people of colour and transpeople and queer people have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting is itself part of the problem. Yes, the voices and ideas and needs of those who are Othered must be front and centre. But those who sit silent, or act like Alfie are, in the end, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Skirt of the day: blue parachute.
I'm amongst the speakers at ExiliCon, a one-day convention focusing on games, geekery and sff in Cambridge on 11th July. I shall be talking musketeers and writing. You can find the full details here:

It looks fun: bugshaw, I think this might be your kind of thing!


Red Writer: I stand with Irene Gallo.

Near the middle of The Grass King's Concubine there's a three page section where one of the protagonists (Aude) explains to one of the inhabitants of the Grass King's reign the basic principles of socialist. It's in chapter 17, pp.217-19, if you want to check. It states, pretty much in black and white, that the character -- and the author, as it happens -- is opposed to a system in which a small number of people have the bulk of the wealth and power, at the expense and to the detriment of the many. I believe this to be true and I included it in the book on purpose. Both Grass King and its sequel, A Fire of Bones which I am working on at present, are overtly, deliberately, avowedly political books. I'm a political writer: more, I am an openly socialist writer. And I'm proud of it. No insult calling me a communist or a pinko or any such thing can offend me, because this is who I am, at core; these are my principles and I hold to them. A system which favours the few over the many is broken. A system in which wealth trickles upwards from the poorest, the excluded, the disprivileged, is immoral. Oppression, deprivation and exclusion are the fruits of unregulated robber-baron capitalism, and the latter in the form in which it currently exists is industrialised feudalism.

A few weeks ago, Tor books art editor Irene Gallo, writing in her own space and under her own name, not in relation to her employer, called Theodore Beale aka Vox Day, the leader of the self-named 'Rabid Puppy' movement which is presently trying to spread the culture war between hard right and centre-right in the U.S.A. a racist, sexist, neo-Nazi. And she's right. I'm not going to provide links here to prove this: I have no interest in giving the man the clicks. But google him, look at his website and you will quickly find that Ms Gallo wrote no more than the truth. Today, Mr Beale is spear-heading an attack to get Tor to fire Irene Gallo, for daring to stand up to him, and getting his followers to write letters to this effect. He does not like what she said. And he wants her silenced and punished.

Mr Beale defends his own abusive language in terms of the U.S. free speech laws, and has used that to launch racist, sexist, homophobic and bullying attacks on many people within the sff community. He has a *right* to be abusive, he tells us, over and over. But he does not believe that this right to what he calls 'free speech' should extend to anyone who contradicts him, or talks back. He does not believe that Irene Gallo has this right. Oh, he has wrapped this up in a specious argument about her position in the industry, but she made her remarks about him in her private capacity. While he abused his membership of SFWA, the official body for professional SF writers, to use the sfwa twitter feed to make a vicious racist attack on writer N. K. Jemison. For this, he was thrown out of SFWA. If anyone has demonstrated an abuse of position, it's Beale and not Ms Gallo.

Mr Beale believes in freedom only for himself and those who agree with him. He believes he has the right to police the words and lives of everyone else and punish or destroy them if they offend. He is the perfect robber capitalist, dreaming of a world in which the rich -- and he is very very rich -- control everything, from resources and awards to bodies and thoughts of those who he considers his inferiors. He's trying that today with TOR books.

And this red writer is standing here in his way. The US culture war does not belong in our genre, which is global and not the property of any one interest group or political belief. Do I want right-wing books and writers in my genre? Yes, I do. Writing belongs to us all. Do I want *only* right wing books and *only* white, straight, American male writers? No, because that is counter not only to the roots of sff -- which lie in the work of writers of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and political views -- but to my personal principles, which believe in inclusion and support for the many rather than privilege for the (predictable straight white male) few.

I stand with Irene Gallo.

Or, and if you want to go and denounce me and my books as communist, feel free. I'm not ashamed of my politics.

Skirt of the day: denim.

Strange Horizons

I'm over at Strange Horizons today, as part of a roundtable on representing marginalised voices in historical fiction and sff, alongside two writers I admire a lot, David Anthony Durham and Joyce Chng (aka J Damask). I loved getting to do this: Joyce and David are very insightful people and I learnt a lot; and our moderator Vanessa Rose Phin asked excellent questions. You can find it here:

In other news, the cats are planting themselves in the flowerbeds where the sun is warmest, the wip is progressing slowly and the lilac bush just outside my window is coming into bloom. I like April.

Skirt of the day: denim
So, over on twitter, I have a personal hashtag of #redwriter. I use it for those moments when I'm explicitly talking about my socialism, and sometimes when I realise that something in whatever I'm working on is bouncing off that. I do it, because I am of the age and type that agrees with the slogan 'Politics is life.' And it keeps me thinking, which matters to me. I want to be mindful, in my work, in my words, in my actions, in my life. I fail all the time -- I did so earlier this morning. But I try.

And I'm following the debates about politics in books, and whether they 'belong' and the calls for 'just good stories' and so on, and, well.... Politics is life. We are soaked in them, we are created by them. As with gender and race and class and ability and sexuality, our political assumptions and the political assumptions that we grew up with help to shape and form who we are, our way of being, our expectations, our interpretations. Which means that there cannot be such a thing as a politics-free book. Every decision the writer makes in their work -- who the protagonist is, what the latter wants and approves, the nature of the threat or problem they face, the types of backgrounds depicted, who is left out -- all of those are marked by the author's own expectations and experiences. We all do it. Most of the time we don't even notice. But as a result, how a book plays for different readers depends on how close those readers' experiences and expectations are to those of a writer. 'Just a good story, no politics' is not a simply a call for books to be entertaining. It's a call for books to make specific readers comfortable. But all readers are different: we all have different levels of comfort and familiarity. The easier it is for you to find a book that mirrors your experience -- a 'politics-free' book -- the chances are, the closer you are to the hegemonic centre of society.

None of this is new: people have been saying this for years, usually in response to other people complaining about politics 'spoiling' books. People who are highly privileged are most likely to complain if they meet something that's not comfortable, not because they are necessarily bad people, but because they're used to seeing themselves at the centre of everything, and they're startled. People who are less privileged, less central to social norms are used to reading about characters and ideas and foods and places that they don't recognise, because mainstream books tend to reflect mainstream expectations.

It takes work to notice this, especially if you're one of the privileged. We don't notice things that to us are 'normal' and we expect what we read to reflect that. When we write, we often write to our internalised norms without noticing it. I can see that everywhere in my own writing. I'm a feminist and a socialist, but most of the characters in my first book are rich and powerful. The plot is mainly driven by the male characters, and the three main characters are all men. I made a conscious decision that most of the characters were not white, but I did not, in my own opinion, do anything like enough work to back that up, and I failed. Thew female characters have a lot of political and social power, but at least three of them are self-sacrificing, placing duty and the welfare of others above their own needs and survival. My internalised misogyny was speaking: women cannot succeed without sacrifice, pain and loss. I worked harder of breaking out of misogyny and Euro-centrism in my second book. I made a conscious effort to depict foods and traditions, landscapes and buildings and ways of organisation that were not just versions of what I grew up with. And I still didn't succeed. I really struggled to write Aude as a person with agency: inner training steered me towards making her weaker, more dependent, more timid and diffident. I've never found a character so difficult to depict. (The twins were easy. Ferrets do what they like, regardless of gender. Writing them was hugely freeing and great fun.) But I'm sure there are many places in the book where I failed, because I am marked by my culture, I am trained and shaped by it and it infects everything I do.

We can always find excuses for defaulting to our norms. Let's take an explicitly political book that is also a good fun read -- and often marketed as a children's book -- Watership Down. I love WD; I read it when it first came out (I was 12 or 13) and it was a big part of my teens. It's an adventure with rabbit heroes. It's also an analysis of different political systems and their good and bad points. Richard Adams comes down on the side of a sort of democratic anarchy, with a charismatic leader setting the tone. He set out consciously to write a political novel.

And yet, his assumptions and training show through. The characters are nearly all male, and such female characters who are present are weaker, more anxious, less able to act with agency -- and presented as potential mates. The rabbits are monotheists. Male leadership is assumed as natural. Threats come from outside, not within. Creatures who are not like you are dangerous. Now, most of this is based on the fact that the characters are rabbits. It's natural for rabbits to fear predators, for instance, and wandering bands of young rabbits tend to be male. But at the same time, Adams -- and the scholars whose work he used -- were affected by their social training when they wrote and researched. Humans live in a society in which behaviour is heavily gendered. It feels natural. So when we look at other species, we assume they do the same. Yet more and more research is now questioning this -- researchers have broken the bonds of their social conditioning -- and finding that in fact, many species do not express gendered social behaviour in the ways humans do. I don't know explicitly what has been observed in rabbits since Adams wrote, but I suspect that the norms his sources detected were refracted by ingrained gender bias. And he was writing a fantasy, in which rabbits have a religion, tell stories, invent political systems. He could have made some of the active central characters female. He didn't. He was comfortable with his own status quo. And he had the excuse, if needed, of 'Oh, but the book I read said...' That books said stranger danger and few women; it did not say religion, but he included the latter anyway. He made an unconscious political choice, just as I did with how I depicted Yvelliane and Iareth and Firomelle in Living With Ghosts.

And here's another thing. Of all my characters, Iareth is the one closest to me. That drive she has to do her duty, come what may, and the problems it causes her, is mine. One of the hardest scenes for me to write in that book was the one where she agrees to stay with Valdarrien. All my instincts -- and thus hers -- were screaming at me that she must not, that it was not Good Behaviour. The first time I wrote it, she said 'No' to him despite the plot. I had to argue with myself for two days before I could rewrite it. And I still think that, had he lived, she would have left him again, in a few months or years, because of that iron sense of duty. That's my own internalised female guilt, right there. I am not supposed to put my own wishes at the centre of my life, because good girls live for others. Like Yvelliane. Like Firomelle. Not at all like Aude, who I struggle to write.

What about 'non-political' books; books in which our personal cultural comfort zone is the default? Let's take Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, another book I read and reread, and loved as a teen. There is no over political agenda in the book: it's the story of a young woman having adventures, finding love and saving the world. At 14, it was the best book ever for me, because it was a fantasy (my favourite type of book) with a female lead who was always right. Usually female heroes are corrected by men several times in a book, but Lessa talks back all the time, does what she wants -- and the men climb down. It was wonderfully liberating. And yet.... Though the role of Weyrwoman is important, Lessa is a Unique Heroine. She is explicitly different to all the other women around her, she is special. And there can be only one of her (6 by the end of the book). Her life is very, very unusual. Everyone else important in the book is male: the other female characters are minor, unimportant and occupy gendered space: wives, servants and sluts. The political structure assumes male leadership -- and aristocratic, born-to-rule leadership at that -- and the solution to the poverty, suffering or distress of the 'common people' is not more agency in their lives, but having a better Lord (or Weyrleader). Bad lords are overthrown by good lords. Everyone is white, and the trappings of their culture reflect that. The book normalises and even romanticises sexual violence, to the point that it's almost unnoticeable. (When in the sequel F'Nor rapes Brekke, I noticed, and I was never entirely happy with their love story, but I accepted that to Brekke the rape was minor, even good, because the writer said so.) As far as I know, the only agenda McCaffrey had when she wrote Dragonflight was to put a women at the centre (just the one). But the other things are there, because they were part of her cultural norm.

All books are political. All books have agenda, conscious or not. Because we are all products of our cultures, and those cultures show.

Skirt of the day: blue cotton parachute (in non-parachute mode).
So I just learnt that both Mr Correia and Mr Torgersen debuted in 2009. I debuted (as a novelist) that year, too. From the sense of ownership and entitlement they express over sff, I had assumed they were old hands, who'd been working and writing for at least a decade, probably more.
I am, frankly, gobsmacked. I cannot imagine the temerity. This is shared space and in the scheme of things, 2009 is very recent. It would never have crossed my mind to expect to control anything more than my own work, and to feel entitled to it -- to feel ownership in that way.
I got nothing. Maybe this is a gendered thing. Maybe this is a cultural difference. I perceive myself as pretty junior, in the scheme of things. They clearly don't see themselves that way.
I'm a decent enough writer, I think. I am, indeed, an award winning writer, though I feel silly saying so. But you know, getting published is a huge privilege. I am profoundly grateful to have been given that chance. I don't feel I need or merit more than that. Awards are nice things to have. I was honoured and astonished and delighted to win mine -- thank you, British Fantasy Society. But at the same time, I'm conflicted about them. The thing is, writing is not a competition, it's not a sport. It's a creative endeavour, a sharing of vision between writer and reader -- it is, as Lewis Hyde says in his perceptive and thoughtful book The Gift an offering. There is an inherent tension between creativity and capitalism anyway -- how do you define value in art, seriously? Popularity? Quality? No-one agrees what those are. Writing -- and painting and poetry and all the other creative arts -- produce objects whose value can be expressed in far more ways that simply financial. There is no pricing-system for the way a book can comfort or enlighten or support or heal a reader; the way a piece of music can induce sorrow or joy or a sense of immanence in those who hear it. Art has multiple values and msot of them are unquantifiable.

Most of Hyde's book -- which I recommend highly -- explores the dilemma of the artist, negotiating these different sets of values. Writers and musicians and photographers have to eat and pay bills like anyone else. They need for their work to have a level of financial value. But at the same time, many of us also value (hah) the other qualities of their work too. When a friend who has been facing serious problems recently told me that my The Grass King's Concubine helped her to feel safer, I was delighted and touched. I want my words to be useful and meaningful to others.

That is part of the function of awards, of course. They are a way for readers to express appreciation to artists. It's nice to be appreciated. And yet, they also set writers in competition with each other. They infect people with the idea that book X is 'better' than book y, because X won and Y came second. They create hierarchies -- and hierarchies create privilege and exclusion. And people start feeling, sometimes, that they are being unfairly overlooked because... Well, why will depend on the particular individuals. (When I feel overlooked, which I do, sometimes, because, well, human, I usually blame it on my own reticence about self-promotion. I am sh*t at self-promotion, and that harms me.) And that creates resentment and anger and culture wars. So I don't know. Because as writers we are all in this together. We are all committed to the same thing, creating our visions and sharing them. We are colleagues, not combatants, or we should be.

Now, of course, not everyone sees it like this. I've just been reading Hillary Rettig on writing (recommended to me by Stephanie Burgess and I am very grateful to her for that, for it is excellent). One of the things she writes about is how invested writers become in our work and its reception. It can sometimes become all tangled up in our sense of identity, and if it is rejected or ill-received, it feels like an attack on our inner, most sensitive selves. I've been in that place and it hurts. But, as Rettig points out, this belief, however natural, is also not the whole truth. We give others too much power over us, and she offers ways of retaining our love of our work without allowing others to destroy us through negative criticism or commentary. Like The Gift, it's an excellent book, and I recommend it -- it's called The Seven Secrets of Prolific Writers, which is the sort of title I usually avoid, for such books are often prescriptive, but this one is not. It's wise and kind and supportive. However -- to return to my muttons -- many many writers are tightly bound to their work and feel personally injured if it does not achieve as they imagined. (I will own up to having daydreamed of a World Fantasy Award nomination for Grass King for lo, I am human and rather romantic and silly [And, in my heart of hearts, I think it's a pretty good and pretty unusual book]. I didn't get one, and I didn't really expect to. But it was a nice daydream, and I was a little sad.) It seems to me that at least some of the so-called sad puppies feel precisely this -- excluded and ignored and unwanted. Which is not a nice space to be in. But, because of the world we live in, because of our narrow capitalist model of value, reducing everything to 'how much money does that make?', because everything is reduced to competition, they also seem to feel that this is someone else's fault. Someone else has cheated, or got an unfair advantage, or special treatment of something. And their solution is to blame those people and try to disenfranchise them. That the people they blame are people with far less privilege is also an artefact of capitalism, at least in part. White men have dominated the world for millennia through the subjection of those they deem non-white, of women, and, often, those who are not straight, not binary gendered, not cis-gendered, and who may face physical or mental challenges. It is also an artefact of cruel and narrow interpretations of religion, of fear and of bigotry created by fear and greed, and of generations of un-recognised social structures which have meant that rewards and recognition come much more easily to some than to others. If you come from an unmarked class -- from that group which is considered the social default -- of course you will tend to feel more entitled to success than others. You were taught that that was the way of the world. Which, I guess, explains the puppies, at least the sad ones, in part. They have been raised with expectations in a society which is changing (very slowly indeed) in ways which mean those expectations are fractionally more likely to be thwarted. But only fractionally. Not getting on a ballot is nothing in a world where young black men are murdered for walking in public. I don't understand the so-called rabid puppies and the only explanation I have is that they are very very good at groundless hate.

But the thing is, if a writer who is not like you wins an award, it doesn't take anything away from you, because we are colleagues, we are all in this together. You work is still valuable, your readers still value and enjoy it. It's still out there. Our genre is not a lesser place because it has got bigger. I loved Ancillary Justice: in addition to its use of pronouns, which seems to have upset some people, it's a wonderful space opera, and I love space opera. I love the works of Poul Anderson, and Edward Willett, to name but two small-c conservative writers. I am honoured to write and be published in a field which contained Clarke and Bradbury, Leiber and Heinlein. It also holds LeGuin and Delany and Russ, Hal Duncan and Roz Kaveney, Nnedi Okorafor and Aliette de Bodard and Ken Liu. We contain multitudes, and I love that. I love our variety, our scale. I want more writers, more visions of new futures and new worlds, not fewer. Because it isn't a competition. It's a universe and a universe has space for everyone, of every race and gender, sexuality and embodiment, ethnicity and culture and yes, political inclination if only we realised that. If only our cultures (some of them, anyway) weren't teaching us fear and competitiveness and greed.

So, you see, I don't know about awards. I don't want to compete with my colleagues, I want to share and learn, support and grow. I want to open doors, not shut them. And, if we have awards, I want them to be open to good writing from every possible culture and background.

I don't know if we can do that in a world that tells us to compete and be afraid. And that, that makes me sad.

Skirt of the day: blue flags, though given the above, possibly I should go and put on the red one!

Skirt of the day:

The confidence trick: skiing and writing

So, I'm most of the way up a French mountain, watching the cloud come down and the wind make waves in the snow, and I'm thinking about confidence and courage and technique. We're here, the marquis and me, to ski, but I am not skiing: I'm here in the hotel room with my tablet while the marquis skis out there in the wind and cloud.

Because for me, skiing is all about confidence and courage and, yes, technique. I'm an okay skier. I'll never be good: I started too late and I don't ski regularly enough and I don't have the confidence and only sometimes the courage. The marquis, who *is* a good skier, says I have the technique to cope with most of the conditions I might meet. Several ski instructors have said the same. But the thing is, I don't believe them. I've skied steep runs and icy ones, moguls and unpisted runs; in mist and thick cloud, in strong winds and in snowstorms, in flat light and, once, in almost no light at all. I've skied narrow tracks which are full of people. I've found myself alone on steeps and bumps and coped because I had to.

None of that killed me. None of that left me with anything worse than bruising (so far, touch wood). In that sense, I suppose the marquis is right: I have the technique I need. But the thing is, you see, I don't do any of these things perfectly -- and if I'm not perfect, then my head knmows for certain sure that I am not good enough, insufficient, wrong and not allowed.

And then there's other people. Ski runs are full of other people. The rule of the piste is that you look out for and ski to avoid worrying, inconveniencing or harming those who are downslope of you. Those who are upslope are not your responsibility. But I can't make myself believe that. I have to be the perfect skier to avoid inconveniencing anybody, up- or downslope. I have to be neat. I have to ski well enough so as not to cause the marquis to be ashamed of me and not to look too stupid in front of others. I have to be perfect in order to avoid causing harm, or doing wrong. And in my head, any failure of perfection is a potential wrong.

Writing is the same. In my head, always, there is a perfect book, the book of my dreams, the book I am writing towards, reaching towards, hoping to write. It's shaped just right: it says and does all the things I want to say in precisely the right way. It feels right -- and feel is a big thing for me in writing. If the words on the screen, the paper, give me that same tingle I get from my favourite parts of my favourite, most-admired books (the 'Place Royale chapter in Vingt Ans Apres; the death of Porthos; the end of Dying of the Light or of Ancient Light), then I know I've got it right. But it almost never happens. Like skiing, most of the time, the words -- the turns -- are not-quite-there, not shapely enough, not neat enough, not perfect. And the book -- or the properly skied challenging run -- remains something that, in my head, I essentially failed at.

And then, when it comes down to it, people do judge. And -- in the case of published work, at least -- that's fair enough. It's irritating and sometimes hurtful when strangers call out comments about my skiing (or my face or clothes or age or body). Reviews are fair game. But the art is avoiding inintended harm. One reviewer labelled Gracielis a Mary Sue, which irritated me, because a) how to suppress women's writing 101 and b) hello, reviewer, *Thierry* is my darling. Another however noted that in , the womenn suffer more than the men. I hadn't noticed that nor intended it, but the culture that made me taught me that women with power are at greater risk and I reproduced that. Right until the point where I started writing in the hope I might produce something publishable, I had always written female characters as the main protagonist. But first Valdarrien (in a drawer) and then Ghosts placed men at the centre. Aude was harder to write than either Valdin or Gracielis, because with every page I was fighting the script that told me she didn't belong in the limelight. (Aude herself disagrees profoundly with this statement.) Women's writing is policed and judged at every turn, and the definitions of perfection change all the time, vary between cultures -- but women, in particular, seem sometimes to be expected to satisfy everyone while simultaneously removing themselves from sight and hearing because public writing space remains gendered mostly male and women's work is inferior, imitative, irrelevant and, of course, much more likely to be failed and broken and evil. It would take a perfect writer to avoid that -- and I am not, never will be, a perfect writer. And then, this kind of perfection -- the perfection that satisfies others, avoids harm, does not take up space etc etc -- is closer in type to that perfect skier I cannot be than the author of the perfect book I sometimes glimpse. The perfect book is in my head, after all, but these other perfections are all about the needs and wants and demands and angers of others.

All this is, frankly, a pain in the rear. The marquis doesn't expect perfection and I've only met one ski instructor who did (and he was more interested in lunch than teaching anyway). Those upslope skiers have other things on their mind. I know perfectionism is a bad habit. But I can't break it. I can't break it because I have never yet in all my too many years managed to work out how I can possibly ever allow myself to be good enough, imperfect, without that being deadly wrong. (And it does sometimes feel like it's about life and death.)

I don't have these standards for others. Other people are allowed, most definitely, to be good enough. They can be rubbish, if they want (they usually don't). It's only me. And mostly, it's so that I won't be in the way, inconvenient, in someone else's light.

I'm told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident. That solves everything, it seems. A confident skier says, 'I have the technique, I can handle these conditions.' A confident writer says... Well, they say something. It just that, well....

What do people mean? What is confidence, anyway and where is the border with entitlement? And if I'm supposed to be confident for my own good, how come the request that I be so is so often phrased in ways that suggest it's really all about others. "You need to be more confident. It makes the department look bad." "Your underconfidence is really annoying." "Why can't you be more confident, then, if you don't like it when you get overlooked?"

And if I do speak up, things are inclined to fall (metaphorically) on my head. If I was perfect, presumably, they wouldn't fall; I'd have done confidence right and all would be well. I might never reach the perfect book (I don't think that's possible) but I might get to be that good enough skier who wasn't inconveniencing *everyone* just by being there and feel permitted to write without too mkuch fear.

But confidence, like perfection, is just out of reach.

SKirt of the day -- blue wedgwood (of course a skirt has come with me.)

Latest Month

October 2015



RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com