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thoughts

By ones and twos

As more and more men in the SFF community have been exposed as abusive harassers over the past few days, I have been thinking again about “The Women Men Don’t See.” This 1973 science fiction story, written by James Tiptree Jr., is about unseeing and reseeing, about the unsettling nature of assumptions, and the way an entire world and community can exist out of the sight of the privileged. It reads uncomfortably to me in its treatment of race. It feels outdated and also stunningly relevant. 

The story opens with the narrator, Don Fenton, unseeing two women. He walks by them, “registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.” They offer him nothing and therefore essentially are nothing. 

The two women, Ruth and Althea Parsons, go on to unsettle Fenton’s understanding of the world. He consistently thinks of them in terms of their attractiveness to him, going so far as to imagine sexually assaulting Ruth once he actually begins to notice her. But there are hints of something else going on. Something he cannot understand except by recasting it into terms he knows. But he is wrong. He still does not understand.

In the climactic moment of the story, Ruth says to Fenton, “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” He cannot understand this point of view either. He tries to vaguely say something about women’s lib and increased freedom. But he doesn’t mean it; he doesn’t see. Ruth rejects the platitudes as well. 

_________

What does it mean for people to go unseen? It means a lost world of creative talent which is suppressed, which is pushed out, which is devalued. It means a lost world of criticism, which looks at works with a different understanding. It means that no matter how many times people stake a claim to a genre, or a community, or a way of being, men don’t see it. They don’t want to see it. 

The act of unseeing means that people share times they were deeply hurt, or times when they weren’t deeply hurt because the awful thing that happened to them was so banal: the small expected thing that still accumulates into pain. The fact that it is expected. The fact that it is considered the price of admittance, but only for some people. The fact that certain men consider it their right and are allowed to go on as if nothing happened. 

The compulsion to unsee means this act of painful self-revelation is dismissed. Or the men involved reuse an apology they wrote the last time they had to talk about this. And yet they are praised for how sensitive they are and how willing to grow and learn. Their fans harass the people who speak out. Sometimes they keep their book deals and their agents and nothing touches them because they do not have to see. 

Perhaps we don’t live by ones and twos any longer. Perhaps we live by threes and fours. It is still not enough. Backchannels and whisper networks are not enough. We should not need them. There is an amazing world out there of beautiful, sarcastic, funny, angry, messed-up people that lives on in small and unseen spaces. And it is still not enough. Sometimes I think it’s like a galaxy, little clusters of stars connected by an imagined bond, separated by space. We live by ones and twos because that is the space allowed, because the world-machine disconnects and isolates, keeps us from each other, hurls us into space. 

I would like to be hopeful. I would like to live in Le Guin’s night country, “where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.” But I keep going back to Ruth Parsons, who in the end leaves. Who says, of the system she observes, “It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”

I am not content with the world-machine, neither do I want to live in it. I want the other world. I want new ways of being and new ways of imagining.

It’s time. Learn how to see or step aside. Change the whole world and start again. 

 

References:

Le Guin, Ursula K. “A Left-handed Commencement Address.” May 1983. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ursulakleguinlefthandedcommencementspeech.htm

Tiptree Jr., James. “The Women Men Don’t See.” December 1973.

Thanks to Jenny, Anna K., and Claire for their feedback on this piece!

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thoughts

Solving the genre wars with Jenny

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion online about litfic, fanfic, and SFF. My friend Jenny from Reading the End and I ended up writing up a conversation about the discussion and what we think it hits and misses. Do check it out! As Jenny says, the title is a joke; we didn’t actually solve anything. But hopefully you think it’s  a valuable contribution nonetheless.

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bookish posts

When twists work, and when they don’t

I’ve been thinking recently about twists in stories, which can either be the best or worst reading experiences. They can turn a book from good into great, or they can jar you right out of the story in a pretty drastic way. Most stories contain revelations of some sort, but twists go beyond that–they change what we thought we knew in a way that can be hard to pull off but great to read.

Now, I do believe that to a certain degree whether they work or not is highly subjective. When I talk about what works for me as a reader, I do mean what works for me. I’m not intending to be prescriptive and say that my way is the only right one. Also, what works for me right now, as a late-twenties experienced reader. It’s possible that I would once have loved stories that now fall flat for me.

All of that being said, I have come up with a few elements that, when combined, usually create an effective twist for me:

  1. We gain access to a character’s secrets: There’s something that the character has been hiding, whether it’s from the reader, from another character(s), from themselves, or some combination. In fact, I do think that stories where there’s an element of self-deception can be especially spectacular when they come off. (I’m thinking of Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm and Strange, especially.)
  2. The new information confirms our hopes/suspicions: This is one of the trickier parts to write well, but I think it’s essential. Rather than simply surprising us with new information–something that really only works in the denouement of an Agatha Christie book–the revelation makes sense of what has been puzzling us throughout the book. Or alternatively, it gives us the thing we’ve been hoping for but didn’t dare believe (and yes, I am thinking of Code Name Verity here: “She never told them ANYTHING.”)
  3. The new information also causes us to see the character in a new way: I think it’s crucial that the twist not only have an effect on the plot, but on how the reader views the character. Which means that the characters have to be well drawn in the first place–complex and contradictory, perhaps, with the kind of evasions and misdirections humans are in fact prone to. There need to be enough holes to make us wonder to begin with, and enough substance to make sense of it all later.

In my opinion, twists might be jarring or upsetting. We don’t necessarily have to like the characters better after we find out their secrets (Too Like the Lightning is a good recent example of this). But what we learn shouldn’t be antithetical to what we already know. If a story has carefully set up a character loving the color blue, for instance, suddenly saying, “AHA! They actually hate the color blue and have loved purple all along!” doesn’t work too well for me. In that case, a twist can become a “gotcha!” on the part of the author.

It’s true that sometimes authors are doing, or trying to do, interesting things with the trust the reader places in the narrator. Going back to Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a great example of this. But this kind of trade on trust is especially tricky to pull off, because when it fails, it leaves the reader with no investment in continuing the story.

So, for instance, the recent issue with Hydra!Cap is first that it is TERRIBLE, but also that it rewrites the Captain America that people love and are invested in. “SURPRISE, Steve Rogers was in Hydra all along!” is a “gotcha!” twist that alienates readers, rather than revealing a deeper layer of complexity in Steve/Cap’s character. Contrast this with Captain America: Winter Soldier, where the twist that Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD from the beginning highlights and amplifies Steve’s existing inner conflict over his own role and future.

The other place where twists can fail for me is in telegraphing what’s coming too early. I know there are a lot of different opinions on this one, but for me the twist of We Were Liars is one that I saw so early in the story that the whole rest of the book was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is one of those very subjective ones, where it worked really well for some readers and not at all for others. But the danger of setting up the revelation is showing it too clearly.

As I said at the beginning, twists can be either incredibly rewarding or incredibly frustrating as readers. I’m curious to know if they’re something other people are drawn towards, and what your favorites are!

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bookish posts

“One the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope”: why I love Galadriel

I have talked in the past about integrity and some of my favorite female characters. One of the characters I mentioned in passing there is Galadriel, and I thought I would come back and talk a little more about why I find her so important and valuable.

To begin with, I wanted to point to who Galadriel is. Within Tolkien’s mythology–which includes but is by no means limited to The Lord of the Rings–she is one of the most powerful Elves in Middle-Earth. She was born in Valinor and after the rebellion of the Noldor was exiled to Middle-earth, where she became the ruler of Lothlorien (earlier Laurelindórenan) and the grandmother of Arwen Undomiel. In addition to all of this, she is the bearer of one of the Three Rings, Nenya.

Both Galadriel herself and the realms over which she has power (Lothlorien and Nenya) are shown to be seats of quiet, centered power. Their strength is often hidden, but it is not diminished by that. I haven’t gone looking for readings of Galadriel, but I suppose it’s possible to see her as passive or isolationist; what I myself see is someone who is secure enough in her own strength to not shout it abroad.

So, before I talk about the moment where Galadriel shows her integrity most openly, let me say what I mean by integrity to begin with. What I mean is acting and living in a way that keeps your self–the core of who you are, as opposed to anyone else–whole. As I said in my earlier post, this often means choices that aren’t easy, that require some sort of sacrifice which isn’t loss of self.

In terms of Galadriel, we see this most clearly in the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo offers her the One Ring. It’s a scene that I’ve always found really powerful, because of the opposing images she presents: “I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea an the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning!…All shall love me and despair!”

It’s interesting to note that rather than simply being another Sauron, all of the images Galadriel presents here are visions of her own power, twisted. If she sets no limits on herself, if she takes the One Ring and the power it holds, she will be bright and terrible. But she will have also lost what makes her essentially herself. Rather than being a great light of strength and refuge, she becomes “a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark.”

And so, when she refuses the Ring, she returns to herself and says, “I pass the test…I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

When I first read Lord of the Rings in middle school, I didn’t think of myself as having much power at all. And even now, it’s not necessarily how I think of myself. But rereading these passages it strikes me how clearly Galadriel, out of all the characters in LotR, shows the way that our own talents and strengths can be twisted. By refusing that path, she acts with integrity and remains herself. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s a true thing.

And I also hadn’t quite put two and two together to realize that perhaps for her going into the West is a true reward. Valinor was her home and she has been exiled from it for two Ages. Now she is finally leaving Middle-earth with many who she loves and returning home. I have complicated feelings about Valinor and the multiple ways Tolkien uses it, and yet it remains a powerful symbol, and here it shines a light on another aspect of Galadriel’s journey.

Speaking of complicated feelings, I won’t get into all of my thoughts about Tolkien’s female characters at this point. Suffice it to say that I know there aren’t many, and at the same time they have been very important to me at times, as different ways to be a woman. Galadriel’s quiet strength and clear sightedness, her integrity and her care for others have all made her a character who has informed a lot of who I want to learn to be.

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Uncategorized

Pop culture & me

parks4ham(source)

If you were to go back in time and tell teenage Maureen that adult Maureen was interested in pop culture, I’m sure the response would be a perfectly teenage mixture of sneer and bafflement. I was one of those kids who leaned hard into being different (which is fine) and disliking anything the kids around me liked (which is not so fine). If it was big, I turned away.

In fact, part of the reason I still haven’t read the whole Harry Potter series–I know. I KNOW.–is that it was popular and therefore bad. (Also my parents asked me directly not to read it. So I read Poul Anderson instead. It’s possible this was a mistake.) In short, when it came to pop culture, I have a history of being a bit of snot.

At any rate, it’s taken me until well into adulthood to respect and embrace both pop culture and the idea of pop culture. Nowadays, I find the whole thing fascinating. Although I certainly pick and choose which aspects I’m interested in engaging with, I do consider myself a part of the whole web that makes up pop culture. There are a couple of reasons for my shift in thinking.

For one thing, nerdy stuff–the stuff I’ve always been interested in–has become more mainstream. I find the kinds of things I want to read and watch are more likely to be considered part of pop culture, and since I’m no longer a snotty 13-year-old, this is pretty thrilling.

But more importantly, I’ve come to see pop culture as less about the thing that’s being consumed and more about the people you’re consuming it with. The process of sharing your love of [insert tv show/movie/album/book] builds a shared language: jokes, references, crossovers to other favorites. They’re about being able to say, “RIGHT IN THE FEELS” or “I feel like your inner April and inner Leslie are fighting” (as I memorably said to my boss) and knowing that the other person is going to get it. It is fundamentally about that common sharing & understanding.

I don’t want to pretend that pop culture is a utopia, by any means. We can and should critique real and important issues, including what is considered pop culture, the consumerism that inherently drives a lot of it, the effects of various (mis)representations. But I also don’t want to pretend that people aren’t already doing that. The same people who create the memes and jokes also point out that Rey is missing from Star Wars toy sets, or that Doctor Strange is a racist mess. It’s not an either/or.

And it’s also helpful for me to realize that I’ve been part of it all along. From my Lisa Frank folders to the LotR fan videos on, even when I thought I was so apart and above it all. At some points in my life this realization would have been distressing; now I just think it’s a little funny and a little encouraging. I was never quite as alone as I thought.

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thoughts

Finding new people, finding my value

I have some thoughts about community and finding people, which were sparked by last week’s anniversary post and some of the comments on it. I mentioned this on Twitter, and wanted to make sure I came back and actually talked a bit more about them.

So, I have a number of close friends from the blogging/online world who I’ve known for a long time now. Most–if not all?–of them came via the Sounis Livejournal community, so we’re all Megan Whalen Turner fans and we’ve hung out in the same small corner of the internet for a long time.

I love this, and them, so much.

At the same time, in the last maybe two years, I’ve started to actually take myself seriously. This is definitely a process and a journey rather than a done deal. But what I’ve noticed is that when I started to learn to take the work I produce here (and elsewhere) seriously, I started to find new people. People who in several cases had been there all along.

(How I managed to Live On the Internet, loving the same things, knowing the same people for this long without already meeting them, I don’t entirely know.)

Maybe it’s simply learning how to look outward rather than inward, maybe it’s learning how to have confidence that reaching out won’t be rebuffed. Whatever it is, I’ve found recently that although my long-term friendships are as important to me as they ever were, I’m also hopeful about the future. I feel almost as if there’s a never-ending well of new people to meet and share excitements and criticisms with.

Whatever it is, it seems like it’s taken some sort of internal shift which isn’t and perhaps never will be complete. Which is the sort of thing that would really annoy me if someone said it to me. If you’re struggling with community, it’s not your fault. And yet at the same time, it’s true. I’m always surprised and grateful that anyone’s interested in my words, but these days I’m also more sure of the value in them. (The surprise comes when others recognize it too.)

So, I suppose what I want to say is thank you. And also, I hope we all keep looking for new people to connect with; I hope you keep finding the friends that enrich your lives.

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bookish posts

“At least we’re not okay together”

Ms_Marvel_Last_DaysThis post was sparked by my reading of Ms. Marvel: Last Days which resulted in me choking up multiple times while I was reading it. But this isn’t a review as such, although it will probably include spoilers so tread carefully if that’s something you’re avoiding!

What Last Days is doing is wonderful and noteworthy for a couple of reasons. From a purely personal point of view, Kamala’s story has been my entry into superhero comics. I love what G. Willow Wilson and the other creators involved have done with the story, the art, and especially the characters. Last Days is everything I love about this Ms. Marvel series, ramped up to 11. It’s also full of tension which (uh, spoiler) is not resolved at the end of this volume.

First, it’s a story which foregrounds Kamala and all the influential girls & women in her life, and MY HEART. We’ve seen Kamala have important relationships with other women throughout the series, but here a sizeable portion of the volume pulls together these threads all at once. This centering of female relationships is still all too rare, and it’s still making me choke up thinking about it. (The scene with her mom is just perfect, and Nakia, and CAROL. Everything hurts, but in a good way.)

Moreover, it’s a story where once again Kamala uses her faith as a touchstone for her own responses and beliefs. I’m not Muslim, but I am religious and this rang really true to me. It’s how I hope I would respond in similar circumstances, and at the same time it’s entirely born out of Kamala’s personal cultural and religious background.

Most of all, I loved the fact that this is a story about the end of the world which doesn’t simply posit that humanity is going down in flames. Yes: people freak out and do silly things and tear things apart. But not all of them. Not all the time. This is a book about the end of the world in which not only Kamala, but multiple other characters, react by reaching out, by doing their best to meet whatever’s coming with warmth and dignity.

This is the kind of apocalypse story I want more of. The kind that reminds us that humanity has grace in it as well as evil. Maybe some people can afford stories where everything and everyone is terrible. I can’t; I need stories that face the world and yet still have hope. This one does exactly that, and I want to read more that have this same realistic-yet-hopeful take.

In the end, this is a story which is generous to its characters, to us. Like the rest of Kamala’s stories, it’s full of determination and heart and humor. That the situation she’s facing now is one that she may not be able to solve, but that only makes the courage and kindness with which she faces it more powerful.

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bookish posts

The particular pleasures of rereading

queenAt the moment, I’m rereading three books. Two of these–The Queen of Attolia and The Goblin Emperor–I’ve already reread multiple times (QoA so much that I’m beginning to worry about the binding). The third–Tamar Adler’s lovely An Everlasting Meal–I’ve only previously read once. I’m reading all three slowly, as the mood strikes me, and something about this made me consider the joys of rereading.

Some people aren’t rereaders and others are. I always have been. I can remember spending long summers immersed in the familiar world of LM Montgomery, reading all over our backyard and getting popsicle juice on the books. In middle school, I read and reread and rerereread Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. Later, I was basically always rereading something by Tolkien. These days, I have to be more deliberate about my rereading habits, and yet I do frequently pick up a book I’ve read before.

But I haven’t particularly articulated why I keep returning to certain books, why part of my personal definition of a good book is, “a book that holds up to rereading.”

In the first place, once you’re past the initial read through a book, you don’t have to deal with that pesky issue of plot anymore. For me, plot is usually distracting, either because it’s bad and I keep arguing with it, or because it’s good and therefore too gripping and tense. Once I know roughly what is going to happen in a story, I can focus more on what I really  love: characters and writing.

And in addition, my favorite authors usually build in layers of complexity. It takes time and revisiting to unravel them all. One of the things I love about rereading Megan Whalen Turner, for example, is the way I make new connections and find things I had previously overlooked. Even though I have parts of her books almost memorized, she still surprises me. For the kind of subtle, deep writers that I tend to love, rereading can practically be a necessity.

It’s also true that–especially in certain moods and at certain times of the year–I find great value in knowing what I’m getting myself into. It’s not that I only want light books, but that I want books that are a known quantity. And there are books that feel like old friends, which I slip into easily and fully no matter what else is going on. The Perilous Gard is a prime example, as is almost anything by Georgette Heyer.

But rereading isn’t only a particular form of nostalgia. It often asks me to revisit my past readings of a book. Does my old assessment of this character or that plot point hold up? Do I see things differently in my current time of life or frame of mind? It reminds me that reading and reacting to books is an active and ongoing process, that what I think about any given author is never fixed.

Ultimately, I find that rereading gives me a sense of depth and understanding which enriches my experience of the book. Whether I notice something I had always overlooked, or realize that I don’t hold to a previous reading, or simply deepen my understanding and love for the story, rereading gives me something special.