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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:


I'm looking at my hands on the keyboard, the hands that are, so much, the way I speak. Words written down, with pens and pencils; school work and university work, childhood stories and poems, the Star Trek fanfics I wrote as a teen, and the files and pages of the research that built my PhD -- and the drafts of the final work. The chapters and scenes from the novel I was writing at 14 (epic fantasy); at 18 (shapeshifters and clans and cold mediaeval politics); at 20 (the obligatory university novel). The short stories I finished and those I did not. The painfully-typed pages of my first complete original short story and my undergraduate dissertation. The sonnets in English and French that no-one sees. Articles and papers. Letters and spoofs for newsletters. The four notebooks that hold Valdarrien and the ten that are the two first drafts of Living With Ghosts. The word-processed drafts of these, typed up on an Amstrad PCW. Lecture notes and, later on, lectures. Drafts of my academic books. MY editions and translations of The Annals of St Davids and the The Annals of Boyle with all their accompanying notes and analyses, the great unpublished underside of my academic career. The typed versions of the two novels and the non-fiction. The manuscript of The Welsh Kings, the first thing I composed fully on a word-processor. Emails and blog posts. Later drafts of the novels (and the bones of Warriors of the Wind and Sweet Nightingale, left abandoned. The Grass King's Concubine. Musketeers and Nest, and the half-written The Drowning Kings. Two drafts of A Fire of Bones plus the one in progress. Words from fingers, words translated through the movement of my hands.
I talk with my hands: my PhD supervisor commented on this regularly. When I think out loud, when I talk, my hands draw pictures in support.
A few years back, I found myself behind a person who had hearing loss in a queue at the supermarket. She was talking to her friend, several lanes away, their words signed clearly across the intervening space, untroubled by noise. It was like watching magic at work. I cannot speak so clearly with mine, except perhaps via pens and keyboards.
Hands that clean and cook, hold, caress the cats, embroider, empty washing machines, carry bags and cups and trays. Hands that work.
I am looking at my hands.
My hands translate my words, but my words --written down, held between covers, on screens -- are silent unless looked at. My words can be ignored or not, as each individual chooses. My words can be judged, read or unread. "I don't read books by women." "I only have time for important books." "I don't like that kind of thing." Everyone has a right to choose what they read. But choices come with baggage. Choices are framed by societal definitions of importance and significance and value, by prejudice and bigotry, privilege and position. "I don't read books by women." My words are qualified in their value by my race and class and gender and age and sexuality. My words are only welcome sometimes. And as I age, the requirements pile up. Work in silence, do not be seen, do not ask to be seen. The weight of them loads my wrists and fingers, makes it ever harder to write my words, my words that do not deserve to be seen.
I am looking at my hands, that carry trays and sign chits, put up signs and make hot drinks, my hands that serve others, have served others, year after year, at work, at home, at cons.
My body, these days, is for hiding, as is considered proper in our culture for older women. No-one wants to look at *that*. My written words are judged, by some, by my age and appearance. They don't need to read me to know what I think, for older women are a uniform class. Our bodies, like our words, are not worthy.
My hands, though. My hands are always welcome, as long as they serve. As long as they work for others. My hands and the hands of so many other older women. My hands carrying trays in Green Room. Older women's hands looking after grandchildren and paying for teen children's treats; cleaning up after spills and administering comfort in conflicts. Caring for the sick, the young, the old, doing the background work, silently, silently, silently.
Our hands over our mouths, knowing our place.

Skirt of the day: blue batik print.

A sense of class

Several years ago, a Chinese colleague asked me how he could tell what social class someone British belonged to. I opened my mouth, hesitated, and said, 'Ummm' a lot. Because in that moment, I realised that I simply did not have a straightforward answer to that question. I could, reliably, assess the social class of pretty much every Briton I met. I'd learnt to do that from my earliest days. But I didn't know a shortcut. I think in the end I suggested he look at food choices, knowing at the time that that was probably of little help, as being able to make that assessment itself depended on knowing nuances that he might not recognise. I can define class, assign class, recognise class within my culture, but except in the broadest way, I cannot easily explain how I do it. It's made up of numerous little things, expressed in dress and speech and posture, food and expectations, politics and cars and television programmes. I am first generation lower middle class. The marquis is solid upper middle class, and rooted in it for at least 4 generations. My friend A is middle middle class, as is friend B, but there are substantive differences between them based on region. My friend C, on the other hand, is a classic class traitor (ahem), born into the working class but deliberately assimilated into the upper middle class. My current next door neighbours are way posher than me and I'm a bit scared of them, but beyond them is an upper working class family who I really like and find easy to chat to. To the best of my knowledge I don't know any members of the British Upper class, let alone the aristocracy, though I do know several people who are definitely much, much higher up the social ladder than me (and who as a result are sometimes almost incomprehensible to me in certain ways). From time to time, friend D (who comes from a very similar background to mine) and I get together and shake our heads over the class-based weirdness of some of those we know. I like all these people, but how I react to them, my comfort level in talking to them, and the degree to which I and they experience moments of dissonance varies considerably according to class.

Or, at least, it does for me. It's a peculiarity of people like me -- first generation left-wing lower middle class -- that we tend to be class-conscious. Some of that is about training. The UK, like it or not, is a hierarchical culture and people react to you according to where you sit in that. The lower middle are a bit too posh for the working class, but rather suspect to the middle and upper middle (don't ask me about the upper class. They're outside my experience). It's a curse of the lower middle that we are hyper-aware of this, and always rather anxious about it, partly from embarrassment, partly from fear, and as a result we are also rather annoying. Tell me I have a class-based chip on my shoulder, and I have to hold up my hands in acknowledgement. I have known, as long as I can remember, that there are places where I don't belong and wherein I have to be extra good. I've been taught from birth to notice where I don't fit and to feel obliged to try not to make others uncomfortable about that. (Well, except about politics. My socialist beliefs go as deep as my class consciousness, and are central to who I am and to my definition of correct, ethical behaviour.)

A number of my upper middle class friends find this awareness of mine very irritating (and I don't blame them). They don't have this sense and they don't see the need for it. I find this interesting, too. They're higher up the tree than me: they don't need to notice as much as I do. As in any hierarchy, the better your position, the more relaxed you can be. None of them are bad people, not in the least. They're just different to me. But class shapes everything in this country, and we cannot, however we try, get away from it. There's a healthy dollop of class snobbery in the broadsheet dismissal of reality television, for instance and the perpetual gas-lighting of certain food choices as simply 'bad' without allowing for factors about price and access and cooking facilities. Sometimes this is easy to see: tabloid sneering at those receiving state benefits, the very different treatment meted out by gossip columnists to pop stars from working class and middle class backgrounds; stereotypes of public schoolboys and chinless wonders. Sometimes it's all but invisible: the ins and outs of how public funding ends up being used and assigned, the places that are written off without any apparent notice, the people who are deemed to be, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "the undeserving poor". The current Tory project to clear the deficit entirely through cuts is rooted in one understanding of class rights and privileges. The call, in the late 1970s, by Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey to 'tax the rich until they squeak' is rooted in another. (Anyone who's known me for more than about 20 minutes can guess, I suspect, which of those positions I'm more comfortable with.)

And it stacks. Like everything else in our uneven, unfair, hierarchical culture, class intersects with gender and race and sexuality and ableism in ways that can be deeply, deeply damaging and toxic and cruel (and that's one reason why denials of the effect of class are themselves so suspect, as they discount things which can really harm).

When my 12 year-old self went into the lobby of a 5 star hotel just to look, along with my mother, she said to me beforehand that she hoped they wouldn't mind, and both of us looked around with the same reverence we would have accorded a church or museum. I didn't know why, I just knew she felt that we didn't belong there, and therefore had to be extra polite. When my 18 year-old self was made to feel she didn't really belong in her university, it took me a while to realise that that wasn't because these new people could read my mind and knew I wasn't good enough, it was that they heard my short vowels and regional phrases, assessed where I got my clothes, considered what I chose to ate and pegged me, precisely, as a lower middle class girl from the midlands, who wasn't *quite* one of them. I loved the place anyway, because it let me sit in the library all day and read and my favourite lecturer, though he teased me unmercifully about my vowels, encouraged me as a student, made me feel bright, and supported me every step of the way. But my social circle as an undergraduate, by and large, was made up of people who, like me, came from what might now be called non-traditional backgrounds and I knew better than to try and be part of the famous shiny things which were marked out as the territory of the established upper middle and upper classes. I knew they weren't for me, like that 5 star hotel. I've always known, and I reproduce that everyday. It trips my tongue about, for instance, self-promotion (not done by women of my class); it inhibits me about trying for things ('that's not for people like me'). It gets everywhere and effects everything in British daily life.

But I couldn't explain it to my Chinese friend, not without talking for hours and trying to explain what is, in some ways, inexplicable (seriously, some of my upper middle class friends swear that this is not so and are utterly baffled by me, and that's fair enough). I could, of course, have pointed him to the classic The Frost Report class sketch:

but it is itself embedded in knowledge of how the system works and what the signals are -- and it's dated, rather, and it's all about men. I could only in the end umm and ahh and talk about table manners, because that's how it works, that's how it replicates, by being everywhere and in everything and being so very, very hard to explain.

Skirt of the day: blue flags (not the flower, but the cut -- it has vertical layers and a jagged hem, as if banners have been sewn to it).


On 'Helpy': a rant

So a while back, I posted about the term 'passive-aggressive' and my reservations about the ways in which it's used (and, in particular, how it can slide into victim-blaming). We seem sometimes to live in a culture (or set of cultures, since there are differences between the English-speaking cultures, however much the internet seems to elide that) which is busy redefining many things as negatives for reasons which I find debatable.
One of those is 'helpiness'. You know, those annoying, patronising, downright hateful people who respond to signs of distress with attempts to alleviate it in some way or another.
I'm exaggerating, of course, but the self-righteousness with which offers of support are sometimes rejected can be downright distasteful.
Now, let's get something straight. I understand the underlying mechanism. I understand that for those with chronic problems, having complete strangers jump in and say 'have you tried X? My next-door neighbour's cousin's plumber swears by it.' The original poster has probably already tried X or rejected it for good reasons. And, a lot of times, they will say something to that effect in their post. 'I'm really tired of thing Y. I've tried all the usual solutions and they haven't helped.' I absolutely understand how annoying it is when someone still jumps in and says 'Oh, but my auntie says Q is the sovereign cure.' I absolutely understand that the comment may well, in the head of the original poster, sound patronising.
But -- and here's my point (finally) -- the person offering the solution almost certainly didn't mean it that way. They may have read the post carelessly. If they have, then that's their error, and they should be more careful in future. But the chances are, they are moved by a genuine sense of concern. They aren't setting out to be rude. They're setting out to be kind and supportive.
And then, they get yelled at, and labelled 'helpy'. Because, in our new post Thatcherite age, kindness is bad, kindness is patronising. Kindness should be stamped on hard. (Sometimes after first being taken advantage of thoroughly, but that's another post for another day.)
I find that rather sad.
I should stress here is that I am not talking about people who respond rather wearily that yes, they tried X but it didn't work/isn't appropriate for their condition or whatever. Nor am I talking about people who state upfront that they don't want advice/help and who then are firm with those who offer it anyway. That's different. Both of those are reasonable positions. What I'm distressed by is the casual labelling of attempted kindness in all circumstances as somehow bad, wrong, reprehensible, deserving of punishment. This latter labelling is selfish -- it's fuelled by entitlement and resentment and a fear of indebtness, all turned inward. It also strikes me as potentially sexist, too, as 'helpy' behaviour is more prevalent amongst women -- we are taught from birth that we have a duty to put ourselves out for others, and yet we collude in a movement to label yet another female behavioural pattern as negative. (It can cut both ways, of course. A former acquaintance used to explode if any man held open a door for her, even if her hands were full, as it was, to her, evil and sexist. But the same men held doors for each other, too -- they were just being observant and, well, decent. But she didn't like the idea of gratitude.)
I see this sort of thing -- this sort of negative labelling -- happening more and more, and it saddens me.
Because, you know, kindness matters. We all benefit from it, day by day. It makes lives less harsh, less sad, less difficult, even if it's only in small ways.
It makes me feel better if someone holds the door for me, for instance, when my hands are full. It doesn't threaten me. I don't see it as part of a global conspiracy to patronise me. I see it as a random act that makes my world a nicer place. And an easier one to negotiate.
I would hate for that to vanish, because the wider culture is down on 'helpiness'.
PS No, no-one has called me 'helpy'. It's just a thing I think about.


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October 2016



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  • la_marquise_de_
    9 Oct 2016, 17:41
    UKIP appear to be adopting the BNP playbook: I await with bated breath the news that Farage has in fact been an undercover cop all along.
  • la_marquise_de_
    9 Oct 2016, 08:20
    This. As they say.

    We also saw the start of Our Beloved Leader's plan to opt us out of the Human Rights Act, albeit from the mouth of A Soldier, rather than herself. Because, in a country that works…
  • la_marquise_de_
    7 Oct 2016, 17:19
    It feels very frightening.
  • la_marquise_de_
    7 Oct 2016, 14:55
    I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is what it must have felt like living in 1930s Germany.
  • la_marquise_de_
    6 Oct 2016, 17:18
    They as Brits can't but Karen and I, even from Estonia can. My ballot was sent back to New York more than a week ago. The real challenge is to get everyone who can - out to vote. There are enough of…
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