a first draft in longhand

October 9, 2017

Claude Raguet Hirst - Wheel of Fortune

Every day, five days a week. Longhand (writing) now, it’s less tiring than a typewriter. When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript. I used to type first and revise in longhand, but I find that modern fiber-tip pens are less effort than a typewriter. Perhaps I ought to try a seventeenth-century quill. I rewrite a great deal, so the word processor sounds like my dream…

J G Ballard
Paris Review (winter 1984)

fortune teller

“WOMEN DON’T WRITE EPIC FANTASY.”

If I had a dollar for every time some dude on Reddit said something that started with “Women don’t…”, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t be reading Reddit.

Erasure of the past doesn’t always follow a grand purge or sweeping gesture. There’s no great legislative movement or concerted group of arsonists torching houses to bury evidence (that’s usually done to inspire terror). No, erasure of the past happens slowly and often quietly, by degrees.

In her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, science fiction writer Joanna Russ wrote the first internet misogyny bingo card—in 1983. She listed the most common ways that women’s writing—and, more broadly, their accomplishments and contributions to society—were dismissed and ultimately erased in conversation. They were:

1. She didn’t write it.

The easiest, and oftentimes the first appearing in conversation, is the simple “women don’t” or “women didn’t.” If delivered to an indifferent or ignorant audience, this is often where the conversation stops, especially if the person speaking is a man given some measure of authority. “Women never went to war” or “Women simply aren’t great artists” or “Women never invented anything” are common utterances so ridiculous that to refute them becomes tedious. As I grow older, I’ve ceased making long lists of women who, in fact, did. More often, I’ll reply with the more succinct, “You’re full of shit. Stop talking.” If, however, the person who says this is challenged with evidence that yes, in fact, women have and women do, and here are the examples and the lists, the conversational misogyny bingo moves on to…

2. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.

I hear this one about my own writing a lot, and I see it applied to romance writers and other outspoken feminists in particular. The writing is too sexual, too political, too feminist, or even— funny enough—too masculine to be real writing. This type of writing, because it is written by women, is considered somehow deviant or disorderly. It puts me in mind of those angered at the idea that science fiction is only good if it isn’t “political,” which is code for “does not reinforce or adhere to the worldview shaped by my personal political beliefs.” The reality is that all work is political. Work that reinforces the status quo is just as political as work that challenges it. But somehow this type of work is considered particularly abhorrent when it’s written by women.

3. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.

Men, famously, can write about anything and be taken seriously. Jonathan Franzen writes books about family squabbles. Nicholas Sparks writes romance novels. Yet these same subjects, when written by women, are assumed to be of lesser note; unimportant. Jennifer Weiner is especially vocal about this erasure of the weight of her own work. Yes, she wrote it, they will say, but of course she wrote about romance, about family, about the kitchen, about the bedroom, and because we see those as feminized spheres, women’s stories about them are dismissed. There is no rational reason for this, of course, just as there’s no rational reason for any of this erasure. One would think that books by women written about traditionally women’s spaces would win tons of awards, as women would be the assumed experts in this area, but as Nicola Griffith’s recent study of the gender breakdown of major awards shows, women writing about women still win fewer awards, reviews, and recognition than men writing about… anything[1].

Writers of colour also see this one in spades – yes, they wrote it, but it wasn’t about white people’s experiences. Toni Morrison laboured for a very long time to finally get the recognition her work deserved. It took a concerted effort, complete with very public protest, to finally get her a National Book Award. Arguments were made that Morrison’s work was dismissed because she wrote about the experiences of black people. This type of erasure and dismissal based on who is writing about whom is rampant. While white writers are praised for writing about non-white experiences, and men are praised for writing about women, anyone else writing about the experiences of the people and experiences they know intimately is rubbed out.

4. She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.

Few creators make just one of anything, including writers. It generally takes a few tries to get to that “one-hit” book, if one ever achieves it. We also tend to remember writers for a single, seminal text, as with Susanna Clarke’s massive undertaking, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Yet Clarke also has a short story collection available – though few hear about it. Others, like Frank Herbert, write a number of wonderful novels but become known for just one great text, like Dune. Few would argue that Herbert only wrote one novel worth remembering, but I have checked this off on the bingo card listening to someone dismiss Ursula Le Guin because “she really only wrote one great book and that was The Left Hand of Darkness.” A lack of reading breadth and depth is on the reader, not the author. But one sees this applied most often to women writers. “Yes, that was a great book, but she only wrote one book, so how great or important could she really be?” one says, forgetting her twelve other books.

5. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art.

Genre writers have contended with this one for years – men and women alike – but this excuse for dismissal is still more often used against women. Even within the genres, women’s work is skewered more often as being not “really” fantasy, or science fiction, or simply not “serious” for one reason or another. It’s a “women’s book” or a “romance book” or “some fantasy book with a talking horse for God’s sake” (I actually saw a female writer’s book dismissed this way after it showed up on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist one year, as if whale-shaped aliens and time travel were any less ridiculous).

Women’s backgrounds are also combed over more than men’s, especially in geek circles, and you see this with the “fake geek girl” backlash, too. Is she a real engineer? Okay, but did she actually work for NASA or just consult for them? “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book, but it doesn’t have real science in it” or “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book but it’s about people, not science” are popular ways of dismissing women’s work as being not “really” part of the genres they are written in, or simply not real, serious art the way that those stories by men about aliens who can totally breed with humans are.

6. She wrote it, but she had help.

I see this one most with women who have husbands or partners who are also writers. Women whose fathers are writers also struggle with this dismissal. Rhianna Pratchett, a successful writer in her own right, finds her work constantly compared to her father Terry’s, and, coincidently, folks always seem to find ways her work isn’t as “good,” though Rhianna’s style and her father’s are completely different. For centuries, women who did manage to put out work, like Mary Shelley, were assumed to have simply come up with ideas that their more famous male partners and spouses wrote for them. The question “So, who really writes your books?” is one that women writers still often get today.

7. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.

The “singular woman” problem is… a problem. We often call this the “Smurfette principle.” This means that there’s only allowed to be one woman in a story with male heroes. You see this in superhero movies (there is Black Widow and… yeah, that’s it). You see it in cartoons (April, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). And you see it in awards and “best of” lists, typically but not always written by men, who will list nine books by men and one book by a woman, and that woman is generally Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb, or Lois Bujold. The singular woman expectation means that when we do see more than one woman in a group, or on a list, we think we’ve reached parity. Studies have shown that when women make up just 30 percent of a group, men and women alike believe there are an equal number of men and women in the room. At 50 percent women—a figure we see so little in media representation that it appears anomalous—we believe that women outnumber men in the group. What this means is that every woman writer is given an impossible task—she must strive to be “the one” or be erased.

When we start to list more than one female scientist (“Yes, there was Marie Curie” tends to be the answer when one asks about women scientists), or astronaut, or race car driver, or politician, we’re often accused of weighting women’s contributions more heavily than men’s. Though my essay “We Have Always Fought,” about the roles of women in combat, was largely well received, most criticism of the piece rested on this accusation: that by focusing on remembering and acknowledging the roles of women in combat, I was somehow erasing or diminishing the roles of men. “Yes, women fought,” the (largely male) commenters would admit, “but they were anomalies.”

8. She wrote it BUT. . .

The experiences I write about in my fantasy and science fiction novels tend to be very grim. My work comes out of the tradition of both new weird—a combination of creeping horror and fantastical world-building—and grim-dark, a label most often applied to gritty, “realistic” fantasy that focuses on the grim realities of combat and a nihilistic “everything is awful” worldview. Yet when my work hit the shelves I was amused to see many people insist my work was neither new weird nor grim-dark. There was too much science fiction, or not enough sexual assault against women (!) or too much magic (?) or some other “but.” Watching my own work kicked out of categories I was specifically writing within was a real lesson in “She wrote it but…” And lest you think categories don’t matter, remember this: categories are how we shelve and remember work in our memory. If we’re unable to give those books a frame of reference, we are less likely to recall them when asked.

I am still more likely to find my work remembered when people ask, “Who are your favourite women writers?” than “Who are your favourite science fiction writers?”

And that, there, demonstrates how categorization and erasure happen in our back brains without our conscious understanding of what it is we’re doing. Yes, I’m a writer, but…

When you start looking at reactions to the work of some of your favourite women writers, you will see these excuses for why her work is not canon, or not spoken about, or not given awards, or not reviewed. I could read a comment section in a review of a woman’s work, or a post about how sexism suppresses the cultural memory of women’s work, and check off all of them.

The question becomes, once we are aware of these common ways to dismiss women’s work, how do we go about combating them? These ways of disregarding our work have gone on for centuries, and have become so commonplace that men are used to deploying them without challenge as a means to end all debate.

I’d argue that the easiest way to change a behaviour is first to become aware of it. Watch for it. Understand it for what it is. And then you must call it out. I’ve taken to typing “Bingo!” in comments sections when these arguments roll out, and linking to Russ’s list. When we see sexist and racist behavior, the only way to change that is to point it out and make it clear that it’s not okay. The reason people continue to engage in certain types of behaviors is because they receive positive feedback from peers, and no one challenges them on their assertions. If we stop swallowing these excuses, and nodding along when people use them, we take away the positive reinforcement and lack of pushback that’s made it possible for them to use these methods of dismissal.

Because I write such dark stories, many people think that I’m a pessimistic person. But that’s not true. I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history that has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

[1] Nicola Griffith, “Books about Women Tend Not to Win Awards”.

Kameron Hurley
The Geek Feminist Revolution

Jean-luc Godard - Alpherville

When most people are writing over a period of years, what they think they are writing about and what they believe in is a continuum; it’s not “specktic.” I’ve been publishing fiction since 1966, and I’ve changed a lot in the way I approach the world and in the way that I organize the world.

Heroes and Villains was quite an important book for me. One of the quotations in the front is from the script of a film called Alphaville, made by Jean-Luc Godard. It was a favorite film of mine of the late sixties; there’s a computer in Alphaville that says the thing that’s quoted in the front. [“There are times when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication. But Legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world.”] In these times myth gives history shape. When I wrote that novel in 1968, this was a very resonant theme that I am not so sure of now.

I think that Godard was using the word myth in the same way that Barthes is as well. The film Alphaville uses one of the greatest gangster heroes of French cinema, but it projects a sort of trench-coat, Philip Marlowe character into some sort of antiseptic city of the future, and I really think that he was meaning myth in the terms of somebody like Bogart or Philip Marlowe. You know, you try things out and you try things out, and you figure out after a while when they’re not working or they stop working or maybe you no longer think it’s true. I just became uninterested in these sort of semi-sacrilized ways of looking at the world. They didn’t seem to me to be any help.

Angela Carter
Interview with Anna Katsavos published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1994)

Forces we don’t understand

September 2, 2017

Forces that we cannot understand permeate our universe. We see the shadows of those forces when they are projected upon a screen available to our senses, but understand them we do not… Understanding requires words. Some things cannot be reduced to words. There are things that can only be experienced wordlessly.

Frank Herbert
Heretics of Dune

19th July

“Roses are red
Violets are blue
Vodka is cheaper
Than dinner for two…”

Sitting here, a solitude surrounded by humanity. All I can do is recite…nonsense!

But thank God, the new Doctor Who is a woman. Perhaps she’ll visit Inter Minor, that planet rich in technological innovation visited once before by the doc? It’s a deeply insular plant with a paranoid population; it severed all links with other worlds after the Great Space Plague, didn’t it? Yes, a planet ruled by grey-skinned humanoids, referred to as ‘the official species’. Each one a potential Philip Hammond look-a-like, they are bureaucratic, officious, without humour or true humanity. And they rule over the ‘underclass’, the workers called ‘functionaries’ who are little more than slaves.

‘Oh, if only,’ sighs Mrs Maybe. ‘But where do they get these stupid ideas from?’

And the inhabitants of Inter Minor positively hate ‘outsiders’: see them as a threat to their lifestyle and culture where art, especially drama and comedy, are outlawed –

#

She has always had her head in a book, ever since we first met.

#

Hospital again today to discuss percentages and dates –

12th to 15th June

Past couple of days, glorious sunshine. The waterlogged moor thankful for it. Mornings misty, muggy and mysterious. Me, a little sun-tanned; a little stupid.

The proliferation of pornography around us, may, as Jim Ballard once joyfully suggested, be mankind’s way of stimulating a flagging birth rate across the western world: the internet acting as a conduit channeling all imaginable forms of erotica into our homes – this to encourage procreation.

Ummmm.

I feel poor Jim was wrong (after all he was wrong in so much else, wasn’t he?), and that the glut of pornography we experience currently simply encourages more solitary pursuits, especially amongst the male of the species. It tends to divide and isolate, not combine.

Jimbo was a strange one (but then aren’t we all?), with his head full of surrealism, ‘the People’s Guro’ and patron saint of grunge simultaneously, his writing this sallow wash of light exposing multiple futures that would have been equally at home on Green Party election posters or within the manifesto for the ‘Born Again Nihilist Party’.

In my mind’s eye I see him smoking a hookah or three in Zanzibar surrounded by fleshy sensualists.

Jim loved women – correction – he enjoyed casual sex with numerous women, and drank often to excess, he created a fetish of automobile accidents and mutilation – no mean feat in itself! And his writing was (and still is) an unexpected diet of loco weed, peyote cactus and magic mushrooms – yes, truly, Jimbo was ‘the Benign Catastrophist’; he saw the in-built self-destructiveness of what was to become New Labour and Cameron’s Conservatism and a new moneyed-society where the creation of wealth is far more important than the individual.

‘Civilised life,’ he told Susie Mackenzie in an interview, ‘you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.’

#

It strikes me that over recent years our politicians have looked on social dependency as an evil. A social evil. It should be eliminated because it is ‘evil’; and ‘austerity’ was (is) seen as the ideal way to eradicate it – in the same way as insecticide eliminates vermin from the world. Oh, if only there were a simple pharmacological answer. A chemical that would act on the brain to either a) drop all these unfortunate people with their various mental and physical disabilities into the wastebin (unnoticed); or b) cause them all to ‘man up’ and become real ‘go-getters’. Any poor bastard who happens to be out of work is a scrounger – the only thing worse than a scrounger, is a foreign scrounger! An immigrant! Social evils to be removed. Hence Brexit and a national election without winners. Balzac, you may recall, depicted the world of his own time in ‘The Human Comedy’. We, boys and girls, are now living in that world. But I don’t hear any laughter.

a fascinating paradox

May 15, 2017

Ballardian: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

“J.G Ballard is a great writer who has never written a great novel.” So observed Germaine Greer, making a criticism that even some of Ballard’s die-hard admirers have on occasion conceded. Her charge draws focus upon a fascinating paradox that flows through the main artery of Ballard’s career, namely that his greatness hinges less on his talent as a stylist, more upon the potency of his ideas. Too often the prose feels clunky, the novels weighed down by 2D characterisations, their plotting reminiscent of the Boy’s Own comics he devoured as a child. Yet across eighteen novels, 95+ short stories and numerous essays, the visions continued to manifest themselves, eventually earning him the moniker ‘the seer of Shepperton’. Martin Amis nailed the contradictions in Ballard’s work in his review of The Day Of Creation(1987), observing that the text was ‘occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous’ and yet it would ‘still come and haunt you’. Amis concluded ‘Ballard’s novels go to work on you after you’ve finished.’ And go to work they did. Ballard’s influence remains inescapable, energising the post-war imagination in a way few of his contemporaries can claim. Beginning with the explosion of creativity he experienced in the late-1960s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island) Ballard established a sphere of influence that has impacted upon culture enormously, be it music (Punk, New Wave, Dubstep) literature (Will Self, Martin Amis, John Gray), filmmaking (David Cronenberg, Brad Anderson), as well as reframing how the 21st Century media landscape is latterly understood. In 2005 he was finally admitted into that exclusive group of artists whose surnames enter the language as adjectives, ‘Ballardian’ now taking its place in the Collin’s Dictionary alongside ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘Lynchian’.

Richard Kovitch
Millennium Man

Book of the Day

May 13, 2017

Sanity…?

April 26, 2017

I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world

H.G. Wells
The Island of Dr. Moreau