Sunday, April 24, 2016

Show and Tell

This is from a facebook discussion. The original comment was:
Genre fiction is always seeking to spell it out, more or less clumsily. From bad fantasy to World Fantasy Award winners, the tendency is to tell the readers what they have just been shown.
I replied:
I always tell young writers to both show and tell. Showing isn't enough, at least in my experience. I got so tired of editors not understanding what I was saying in my fiction that I spent 50 pages at the end of my second novel having my characters explain what they thought the meaning of their experiences was. Nobody ever objected to that discussion. And since it was the characters talking, I felt no responsibility for the explanations...

Terry Carr never got any of my stories. I used to think I ought to underline key sentences or put arrows in the margin. "Here. This is what this story is about."

Anyway, always show and tell...

One difference between literary and genre fiction is -- literary fiction is often set in the real world. There is a lot the reader already knows about the setting and the social rules. If it's a classic work of fiction, written in a previous era, there is a foreword and footnotes to help. SF readers are trained to figure out a setting from hints, but they are not trained to tease out meaning. This is the advantage of a genre plot, a space opera or murder mystery: the meaning the reader wants is built into that kind of plot. The author doesn't have to worry about explaining and can working on the interesting parts of the story.

Maybe the meaning isn't built into a genre plot, but there is a satisfying ending: the murder is discovered, the bad guys are defeated. There is a solution.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I have a story in a feminist anthology titled Sisters of the Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. It came out in June of 2015. The idea for the anthology came from Jef Smith, an anarchist and very sweet guy who handled the PM Press table at Wiscon every year. He did a kickstarter to raise money for the book, hired the VanderMeers to edit and got PM Press -- an anarchist publisher in the Bay Area -- to bring the book out. Jef had chronic health problems and died recently, way too young. I think of the book as a memorial to him.

This brings us to a review of my story, "The Grammarian's Five Daughters," which came out in Jonathan McCalmont's blog Ruthless Culture. I don't know how he liked the anthology in general, since I did not read past his review of my story. He really didn't like it.

I'm not going to defend my story, except to say it's a fable or fairy tale about parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

Instead, I am going to list the things McCalmont said he didn't like in the review. All of these are apparently connected to my story in some way, though I am not always sure how.

1. He doesn't like the VanderMeers as editors.

2. He doesn't like deconstructed fairy tales. (I don't entirely understand this, since I don't really know what deconstructed means, though I checked several online dictionaries.)

3. He doesn't like stories about the magical power of stories.

4. He doesn't like creative writing programs.

5. He doesn't like the term 'mundane' and the slogan 'fans are slans,' both of which (according to him) are derived from the A. E. van Vogt novel Slan, serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940. (The slogan clearly comes from the novel. I am less sure about 'mundanes' and 'mundanians.')

6. He doesn't seem to like science fiction fandom much.

7. He doesn't like books that flatter the readers or fiction that tells ordinary people they are special. (I would argue here. I think ordinary people are as special as anyone, and fiction should always say that all people are important. The culture all too often tells folk they are third rate and deserve the crap they get. Flattering the reader is another question. I would probably be against that.)

8. He doesn't like stories that say authors are special because they tell stories.

9. He doesn't like adverbs.

10. He seems to have problems with language, literacy and literature, which he sees as tools of capitalism and imperialism. (Yes, they can be. They can also be tools used in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. I'm not willing to give them up.)

11. He doesn't like capitalism.

12. He doesn't like imperialism.

13. He seems to have problems with SFF feminism.

14. He doesn't like fantasy.

I feel like the person who handed Mr. Creosote the fatal after-dinner mint.


Patrick reminds me often that I can't let go of things that upset me. He is right. However -- and this is an example -- two things about the review really angered me. The reviewer accused me of defending capitalism and imperialism. No. Really no. And the reviewer kept saying my story was about stories and story-making. NO. It's about parts of speech. In particular, it's about prepositions. Grammar is not literature.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cleaning More Bookshelves

I finished cleaning the Icelandic bookshelves. That ended me close to tears due -- in part -- to all the books inscribed to me by my father. So many of the books are old and fragile, books Father must have bought in Iceland during WWII. My passion for Iceland is kind of a joke, but also real -- and a fantasy. I am a Midwestern American, who grew up surrounded by Scandinavian Americans. That doesn't make me in any way an Icelander. My Iceland is a dream, as the Old Country is for many Americans. There's a lot wound up there, including a sense of loss and distance.

Fortunately I am moving on to science and dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs, but they don't bring me to tears.


I am posting a lot. It must be the end of winter's darkness.

This is off facebook, in response to a new study of income from writing:
Like most surveys of writing income, this one seems inadequate. But my own experiences, and those of my friends, suggest that there is little money in art. Most writers I know either have a day job or a spouse with a day job. Most are not making a living from writing. I have made very little from writing. It's a catch 22. I have always had to work close to full time, because my writing brought in little money. (I once told an editor that the money I got from writing was enough to keep me in SF conventions and Laura Ashley skirts.) (It certainly did not pay the rent.) The day job sucked my time and energy, making it difficult to publish enough to make a living at writing. And so it went in a circle...

I think I could have done better, if I'd had more determination and discipline and paid more attention to the business aspects of writing. But I'm not sure. I know writers who have been far more determined and practical than I am and who still saw their writing careers hit a wall. (I need to remember this when I get angry at myself for not working harder at being a writer, not paying enough attention to business, not learning to be popular...)

It's not too late. Maybe I could write a wish fulfillment epic fantasy in one month in November... But I think I'd need to turn my sense of humor off. Could I do that?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Cleaning Bookcases

I have finished breakfast. (Bread toasted with butter and marmalade. Coffee, of course.) Now it's time to get back to work on cleaning the book shelves. I figure it will take five days to finish all the bookcases, working at an easy pace. Then I plan to devote five days to cleaning up the stacks of paper I have, also my files. If I put in three or four hours a day, I will have time for writing.
I'm onto my second shelf, which is literary criticism and then politics. I'm not finding books to get rid of. Either the books are something I may want to read again or they have emotional content -- books by friends, books my mother gave me, books that were important to me at one time.
I am finding a fair number of bookmarks. Most of them I understand. They are from the World Wildlife Fund or ones I bought as souvenirs. One shows four turkeys crossing a road in southern Minnesota. Clearly a souvenir from a day trip. But I don't know why I was using a leaflet for Lifestyle Condoms as a bookmark.
I found a book of Mona van Duyn poetry mis-shelved. There is one poem in it I really like, so I was happy to find it. Another book my mother gave me.
I have now found a notice of attempt to deliver mail to me, which I have used as a bookmark. It's for an address in Detroit. I can't make out the year on the date stamp, but it has to be 1968 or 69.
My whole life is in these books, and I haven't even gotten to science fiction.
I found a photo of Captain Kirk, obviously off a TV screen, tucked into Vol. 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene.

Things to Be Encouraged About

There are things to be encouraged about right now: Black Lives Matter, the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, Moral Mondays in North Carolina. Rev. Barber correctly describes the new NC laws as a "race-based, class-based, homophobic and transphobic attack on wage earners, civil rights, and the LGBTQ community...” And he says the NAACP will not put up with it.

There is movement on global warming, though not enough. The Sanders and Trump campaigns show that many Americans are really tired of politics as usual. Whether the populace will move left or right is still in question. But the center is not holding.

I still often feel discouraged. Living in end stage capitalism is wearing.

Hwarhath Collection Review

Timmi Duchamp sent me this review from Publishers Weekly:

Eleanor Arnason (A Woman of the Iron People) rewards her loyal readers with this long-awaited collection of her celebrated stories about the alien hwarhath, written from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist. Each story explores a slightly different aspect of the fictional race and its distant world. Arnason perfectly captures the dry, patient scholarly tone used in folklore translations as she tells the hwarhath’s creation stories and their version of the Adam and Eve myth. She explores in far more detail the hwarhath’s peculiar (yet recognizable) attitudes toward sex, love, and procreation across several stories featuring related characters, which craft a fascinating historical story arc. Arnason’s aliens are almost uniformly bisexual, and forbidden from engaging in heterosexual love beyond what’s needed for procreation. This behavior allows Arnason to adapt timeless folkloric tropes to her own modern, progressive, and wholly original reality, which comes alive in her precise, classically beautiful prose. Most of the stories were published separately in the 1990s, and they stand up impressively well today. Those seeking a scholarly approach to speculative fiction will devour this idiosyncratic collection. (May)

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Hwarhath Stories

Jonathan Strahan:
Aqueduct Press is publishing Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens in May and you can pre-order it now and I hope you will. Why? These stories are some of the best and most interesting anthropological SF I've some across (Russell Letson has some really smart things to say about her work in the next Locus), and you're really missing out if you don't pick it up. It's one of the collections of the year, and some of the best reading around.

Gary Wolfe:
Agreed. And it was revealing to see these stories together, where the connections between them become more clear.

Gardner Dozois:
Best collection of the year so far

Rich Horton:Definitely the collection of the year so far!

These are four wonderful editors/critics. So often publishing stories is like dropping stones down a well. You wait and wait for the splash, but it never comes. But now I have four splashes -- five, when I count Russell Letson's review, which I have not yet seen.

Cleaning Shelves

Today is cleaning bookcases. Take out books, dust them, dust the shelves, put the books back. Over and over and over. I don't expect to finish today. When I get tired, I will go to the coffee shop and work on the last unrevised story. Then -- thank goodness -- I can get serious about the new work. House cleaning and cleaning up stories. So much fun.
The books I've kept through many moves are important in one way or another. I pull out a book by my father on the art of Conrad Marca-Relli and remember things Marca-Relli said in the 1960s. He was a clever man.
Two shelves took an hour. At this rate, the living room will take ten hours, and one bedroom three hours. I will not get done today, especially since so much of my life is in these books. I have to stop and look and remember.
Confucius. I haven’t read him for a long time. Tu Fu. Li Po. Han Shan. I've never read The Water Margin. (That was the East Asian shelf.)

Friday, April 01, 2016

Lead In

This is a lead in to three posts on aging.

First, from facebook:

Aging is not a fun topic, and it's not very science fictional. In SF aging has been cured, and in fantasy we have ageless elves and ancient, wise, powerful wizards who do not seem to suffer from arthritis or hearing problems...
Second, I hate the term 'intersectional.' It sounds like awful jargon to me. BUT aging is intersectional. Many old people are women. Many are people of color. Many are disabled. Many are GLBT. Every human group except children and the young can find members among the old.

When I say aging is an issue that needs to be talked about, I am not defining the old as white, straight, male and cis. Old is old. Past a certain age (the age varies in according to culture) everyone is an elder or dead.

Some of what follows is obvious. Sorry about that. Like the mills of God, my brain grinds slowly...

Old Age 1

I am 73 going on 74. I think that makes me officially old, and I don't entirely enjoy the experience. Right now, my health is good. I feel strong, though I get tired more easily than I used to. But I can see mortality in front of me. The poet Andrew Marvel saw it as a vast desert. I see it as a wall, closing off the future.

The life expectancy for US women is 81. The life expectancy for Minnesota women is 83. That is beginning to look close. I read somewhere years ago that Americans who retire at 65 can expect ten years of good health. Then the illnesses of old age begin to appear. 75 looks really close.

Of course, these are all averages. What about my family? How long-lived were they?

I have already lived longer than my mother did. My father lived to 77. Two of my mother's sisters lived until their late 80s, clear of mind, but with physical problems. Her third sister lived to 93, but had a stroke in her early 80s. Her last ten years were not especially happy.

The three great problems of Buddhism -- the ones that sent the Buddha on his lifelong quest -- are old age, sickness and death. How do we come to terms with these? The Buddha found a solution. The problem, he said, is attachment. If you can learn to let go, you can deal with the inevitable evils of human life. Unfortunately, I am not a Buddhist.

However, I do find that part of aging is coming to terms with attachment. You adjust your plans to reality. I do, anyway. What do I want to do in the near future? How can I enjoy the present?

I still resent that wall. I'm a science fiction writer, after all. I have lived my entire life toward the future.

So this is one problem. I am running out of time. I suspect that a cure for aging will be found, and the rich will enjoy it. But it won't be found in time for me, and I am not rich.

Old Age 2

The second problem with aging is this society. Some cultures -- I'm mostly thinking of Native Americans -- respect elders and feel they are valuable. This is not true of mainstream white America. This society values production and consumption. The old are seen as unproductive and parasitic. They use resources and give nothing back.

In point of fact, the resources they use -- Social Security, pensions, Medicare, savings -- are ones they earned by working. You may not realize it, but Social Security is entirely financed by payroll taxes and interest on those accumulated taxes. No general revenue money goes to support the elderly. Medicare Part B is paid for by the people who use it. Medicare Part A is largely paid for by payroll taxes. If payroll taxes were slightly raised, Medicare could be entirely self-funding.

The old are not parasites. And why should it matter? Society owes every member a decent life. If society doesn't come through, we need to blame the government, not those in need.

A lot of retired people are caring for spouses and family members: grandkids, disabled children, siblings, even parents. If they didn't do this, society would have to.

There is also community work and volunteer work. A lot of this is done by retired people, and it needs to be done, if society is going to keep running. (Ever noticed the ages of election judges? That's an important job.)

Of course, a society based on money does not value unpaid work. That does not make this work valueless or unnecessary. I would argue that the old are often productive.

The old consume. I know that sounds icky, but 70% of the economy is based on consumer spending. Without people buying goods and services, our society grinds to a halt. (We can imagine a society without getting and spending and laying waste our powers, but we don't have it.) (And imaging a society without making and exchanging is actually pretty hard.)

For the most part, elders are not saving for the future. They -- along with the poor -- are laying out cash for food and shelter and other necessities.The money they get goes right back into society.

It's a commonplace of economic theory that money going to the poorest sections of society does the most to power the economy, because it all gets spent. If a society gives its money to the rich, it will slowly wind down, due to lack of demand. This is what's happening in the US and Europe right now.

Maybe I don't have to make this justification of the old as productive members of society. But I feel I have to, and that says something. I don't think it's saying something about me.

Old Age 3

Ursula LeGuin has said that as she aged, she has felt herself disappearing. People no longer see her, because old ladies are invisible. This is an amazing statement. For heaven's sake, if LeGuin isn't visible, then who is?

I don't feel I have vanished. But I have always talked a lot, and people find it hard to ignore me. At most, I feel I am treated with a slightly patronizing kindness. "Isn't she a sweet old lady?" People are more likely to pat me. This could bother me, but it doesn't. I take kindness where I can find it.

Still, I don't feel that elders are taken seriously in this society. When we look at the media, we see young people. Women especially are young. (I know this is sexism, but it is also prejudice against the aging.)

14% of the US population is over 65. That's one in seven people. When we watch a movie or a TV show, do we see this?

The old we do see are frequently old-of-date and comic. "Get off my lawn!"

I had a conversation with a friend at Minicon this year. She has been trying to talk about aging on social media. The people she was conversing with were perfectly happy to talk about race issues, GLBT issues, disability issues -- but they dismissed the problems of the aging. Most of the people in the conversation were straight, white, and cis. They did not have the problems they were so willing to address.

But we all get old. Facing the problems of the old means facing problems that everyone will have, unless they die young. My friend argued that it is a lot easier to feel good about supporting minorities in their struggles. Facing one's own mortality is hard.

This is an interesting argument. I'm not sure it's right, but I am going to think about it.

I had an experience on facebook which sort of confirms my friend. I was trying to talk about getting old. I wrote that the elderly are often, in this society, told that they are unproductive and should die and get out of the way. I said that this happened to the old more often than to other groups.

"No," another person said. "It also happens to the disabled."

"Well," I said. "The old are often dealing with disabilities, so the difference between the old and the disabled is not great."

The person I was conversing with then said, "And GLBT people are also told to die and get out of the way."

I thought to myself, this is not a contest, and ended the conversation.

I don't know what the person I talking with thought she was saying. I heard her as saying my problems were not important. I should be worrying about all those other people. And I should shut up.

This is what LeGuin means (I think) when she says the old are vanished.