Abhoring a vacuum

Thoughts on why Trump is having a harder time shrugging off the Khan debacle, when so little else has stuck to him: I think most people are predisposed to believe everyone operates from a similar moral core. It’s part of how we interpret signals from people and navigate the world. So Trump supporters wave off a lot of his offensive statements by saying, “he can’t really mean that, because no one could say that seriously without shame, and he’s not ashamed,” and his actions with, “there must be reasons why that person deserved it, because no one would do that unthinkingly, and Trump isn’t angry or scared.” He’s just not sending signals they can interpret, so they’re seeing a lot of it as white noise and not holding him accountable.

But whether through sickness or violence, everyone knows someone who has lost a child. Certainly, everyone’s lost at least one person they cared about. And to hear Trump, when asked what he’s sacrificed, say he’s created a lot of jobs, clearly not understanding the emotional gulf between “sacrifice” and “contribution,” I think has really pushed people to confront the fact that whatever their assumptions, Trump just doesn’t operate from any kind of moral or emotional core.

Bechdel revisited

I often find myself in disagreements with male friends about the Bechdel Test, because there are so many good movies and books that fail it, from Lawrence of Arabia to Pride and Prejudice. The Bechdel Test is NOT a strict yardstick of either feminist content or quality. There’s a lot of awesome media that flunks the test. Here’s what it does do well:

1. It raises awareness of when there’s only one woman in a story. Which allows for other conversations about gender imbalance, stereotypes, and tokenism.
 
2. It highlights the problems of stories where the only female characters are there as encouraging cheerleaders, love objects, or obstacles for the male protagonists and have no lives of their own.
 
3. It problematizes the cultural assumption that the only acceptable stories with female protagonists are ones where women are looking for love. (Nothing wrong with a good love story, but there’s a problem when that accounts for the vast majority of stories women are allowed to tell about themselves.)
 
The Bechdel Test is not a checklist that ends conversation. It’s a tool to begin conversation.

In my eyes

Rereading How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, I notice all over again how the book has one ideal heroic male or female face, one face for female villains, and a good dozen possibilities for male villains with really interesting character design. And I stare at that rogue’s gallery, thinking how I could riff off it to make interesting and varied character designs for women’s faces. But all I can think of are three.

It’s probably important to note that the villain faces are clearly exaggerations of character actors from B movies, and again, actors are allowed a broader spectrum of age, build, and attractiveness than  actresses. Which makes me realize I have a HUGE cultural blind spot here: Television and movies train us that certain faces or body types are worth looking at as objects of beauty, curiosity, or scorn, and we overlook the infinite variety we see in the real world if we can’t put that variety into one of those cultural boxes. We’re just starting to talk about these issues with people’s roles, like with the danger of a single story, or the constant erasure of women’s stories that don’t fit our beliefs about women’s history. But we’re really not talking about these issues in terms of people’s physical bodies. I’m staring at this page and suddenly realizing that I have been so indoctrinated that women are invisible unless they fit a narrow definition of beauty that I literally can’t make myself imagine these varied noses or chins on a woman’s face.

Clearly I have some work to do.

The Mistressworks Meme

Came across the female equivalent of an SF masterworks list, the Mistressworks Meme, via the backlist of Galactic Suburbia podcasts.

As I went down the list, I was struck by two things: First, I haven’t even heard of a lot of these authors or their books. Out of 96 titles on the list, I’ve read 13 and have been trying to find copies of 8 for a while now. Second, I’m angry that there are a number of cases where Hugo/Nebula winners by female authors have been out of print for decades (Dreamsnake, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang), whereas award winners by their male counterparts are perennials on store shelves. It pisses me off that the history of women in literature often seems to be written on sand, disappearing in each era so people can make the tired old case that women are either newcomers or are just not as good.

One thing I really like about the Galactic Suburbia podcast, aside from offering lots of great recs and commentary, is that one of the podcast’s creators is doing a complete survey of women in Australian SF, and one of the things she’s looking at is the gap between the number of women being published in a given year and the number of mentions they get in everything from best-of-year roundups to acknowledgment sections in books: the ways that they have historically been erased from the conversation. And it becomes clear that one of the internet’s gifts to feminism is that both the original works and the conversations about them don’t have to go out of print anymore, which makes it easier for women to draw on continuity and remain part of the dialogue. So right now I’m both angry and hopeful.

And very grateful to work for the Jewish Women’s Archive, where this use of the internet is part of our core values.

Safety kit

Just remembered this, and wondering if I was the only kid who did it: I kept an emergency kit with me when I was young in case I got sucked through a dimensional portal, which seemed to happen all the freaking time in books and TV shows. I fit it into a box of kitchen matches, since that seemed pretty compact. The kit included a spool of twine, matches, a mirror, first aid supplies, a golf pencil, and (because I couldn’t figure out how to pack rations that were both compact and non-perishable) packets of duck sauce.

Anyone else, or just me?

Driving at night

In the past three years, I’ve edited some old writing and written down snippets to save for later, but being sick really shut down most of my inner life, so I didn’t write anything substantial. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been kicking around two or three ideas for novels, trying to find plots that would turn those characters and settings from static ideas into living stories.

Two days ago, I wrote an awful, boring paragraph of internal monologue for the story I thought was least likely to work. Yesterday, I took that awful, boring paragraph and reworked it as dialogue. Then I turned it into four pages single-spaced of a beginning that needs to be edited, but is good enough to be getting on with. Today I know what the following three scenes are.

I never write like this. I always write out a plot summary and break it down by scene, I fiddle with each scene in my head until I have it letter perfect, and then I write it down. I feel deeply uncomfortable writing a story that doesn’t have a plot yet and may not have a viable ending, or writing down scenes I know aren’t quite right yet so I have scaffolding to write what’s next. But I’m put in mind of the EL Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Who I’m reading, 2016 edition

Having finished my first quarter reading for 2016, I did a quick cross-check of how I’m doing on diversity. Thus far I’ve read 15 authors, not counting the monster Campbell nominee anthology (which I am not tallying are you insane). Author only counts once, doesn’t matter if it’s a single short story (John Chu) or twelve novels (CJ Cherryh), because what I’m counting is how often I try new things. It’s easy to read more of a favorite series. Harder to seek out something new. Likewise, I’m only counting the author’s identity, not the protagonist’s. Why? Because it’s well documented that women and minorities have a harder time breaking into the market and I want to make sure I’m hearing their voices, not just seeing how others speak for them (no matter how good those authors are).

So, how am I doing? In a shocking reversal of previous trends, I’ve read 73% women and 27% men. And while 60% of the authors are white and straight, I’m pleased to say that 13% of my reading is by writers of color, 20% is by LGBT writers, and 7% is by writers with disabilities. And I have plenty of awesome writers of color in my queue, so that number is going to continue to shoot up throughout the year.

Standouts so far:
John Chu, “The Water that Falls on You From Nowhere”
Laurie R. King, The Murder of Mary Russell
Mary Robinette Kowal, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”
Joy Ladin, Through the Door of Life
Ann Leckie, The Imperial Radch Series

Indispensible

So I’ve been having fun the last couple of weeks appalling myself by watching Ross Putnam’s Twitter feed. He posts the opening description of female leads from scripts he reads, just changing their names to JANE to protect the guilty. Every single one is initially described in terms of her looks, and generally not even her looks, but the effect they have on men: “attractive,” “forty but still sexy,” and the cringeworthy “ripe with young womanhood” for a black heroine. These are the lead characters, mind you, not supporting cast. No one is allowed to be just bookish or athletic or, God forbid, shlubby, the way a male protagonist often is. These writers assume both that a woman needs to be attractive for us to care about her and that her being attractive tells the actress and director everything they need to know about how she relates to the world and how it relates to her.

I don’t think so much about whether my female leads are attractive because I see the world through their eyes and they don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors; they have more important things to do. But to be fair, I am guilty of describing their love interests in terms I find attractive. So, okay, if a male writer is writing from the perspective of a male character, they’ll probably do the same.

But all my characters (even the supporting cast) have two things that are way more important to me than looks, both of which I generally make clear the moment the character first comes onstage: a job (which tells us a lot about their skills and personalities) and a family (which tells us about the forces that shaped them from an early age, and probably still impact them). Those are the elements that are going to drive an interesting story and throw up the most compelling roadblocks.

Grandmaster Cherryh

Delighted by the news that CJ Cherryh has been chosen as SFWA’s latest grandmaster.

I read Foreigner for the first time at age sixteen, when I was still making the transition from fluffier SFF like Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony to more challenging reads. I was immediately struck by how real and complex her worlds were, and explorations of her earlier Chanur and Morgaine Sagas only confirmed and deepened my appreciation. All of her aliens are truly alien, completely different from each other, yet are still capable of eliciting empathy from the reader, not just wonder. All of her worlds are “lived in”: we see how events five years ago, two centuries ago, a millenium in the past, have influenced the current culture of that world.

But beyond that amazing worldbuilding and character creation, Cherryh is a hero of mine for another reason. She adapts to the market to remain successful without sacrificing her integrity. In the seventies, women SF writers were given a hard time, so she went by her initials and added an H to the end of her name to sound less girly, while still writing the books she wanted to write. In the nineties, preferred book lengths increased and she adapted seamlessly. When editors left publishing houses, orphaning one series after another, she switched gears to give the new editor something new, then went back to finish the old stories when she could. When the fans went online, she began offering regular blog posts about her home improvement projects, her dieting woes, and the difficulties of driving to cons with cats in tow. She formed a digital writing collective with other writers to offer their out-of-print backlists as e-books and promoted it by writing new online-only stories in her most popular universes. And she hits her deadlines year after year like they personally offended her. THAT’S a professional. Despite cries from the ever-dying publishing industry that writing is a dead medium, Cherryh knows that people will always crave stories, it’s just a question of presenting those stories in forms readers find convenient and affordable. She doesn’t wring her hands, she just tries new things until she sees what sticks, adapts, and gets back to work.

AND she’s a great writer.