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July 2014

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jarts: internet lawn defense league

now i'm looking in the mirror all the time wondering what she don't see in me

Apparently it's time again for the annual "Kids these days don't read Heinlein" argument, which--to be honest--I don't even understand why it's an argument. Kids these days don't read Heinlein, and you know what? That's their privilege. Heinlein doesn't speak in any meaningful way to their concerns. (As a heavy teenaged Heinlein reader my own self, I, personally, am a little sadder that kids these days don't read Zelazny, Le Guin, Delany, and Bradbury, because I think they'd have more to offer that's relevant, including less tiresome pontificating--as well as a larger serving of actual writing chops--but I also suspect that the people now sadly bewailing the long slide of Heinlein out of the canon of indispensable authors got a ration in their own youths about being insufficiently invested in E.E. "Doc" Smith. Though I also suspect the generation gap was less, for reasons I will explore below.)

Back in the dim mists of history, about ten years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the internet and Livejournal was where the cool kids hung out, I used to get into arguments with certain people who opined that there were no young SFF writers. I would present them with a list of SF writers under 35 (myself included) only to be told that they meant writers under thirty, or maybe twenty-five, and that those writers didn't count because they weren't "Hard SF Writers" (whatever the hell that means), and because they weren't being published in Asimov's and Strange Horizons (still one of the bastions of young writerdom in the SF world) didn't count.

And when I pointed out in return that Asimov's was a hard market to crack (it seems more welcoming to new writers these days), and that literary and craft standards are higher now than they were in 1940 and correspondingly it takes longer to develop a professional skillset--and that maybe the problem was that my correspondents weren't reading the markets that were publishing the young writers, I would generally find myself greeted with the wail, "Where are the Bob Silverbergs?" (Or, from slightly younger handwringers over the Incipient Death of SFF, "Where are the Neil Gaimans?!")

Way to shift a goalpoast, honey.

Because we get more than two or three prodigy geniuses in a generation. And because we can identify them from the scrum of young writers when everybody is not-quite-thirtyish and shooting rockets of possibility everywhere.

Well, I'm older now, and I'm feeling pretty safe in saying that (among many others) Scott Lynch, Seanan McGuire, and Catherynne Valente (All still only in their mid-thirties, ten years later--hell, I think Seanan wasn't even a thing yet when I was still bothering to get in these fights) have some staying power. Also, today is Sam Sykes' 30th birthday, and Max Gladstone just turned thirty last month. Happy birthday, Sam and Max.

It finally dawned on me that the people I was arguing with could not be convinced, and their opinions didn't matter anyway. The best of them, I think, were arguing out of nostalgia. They wanted stories by young writers that would make them feel the way the young Silverberg's stories made them feel when they were twenty. And that's not going to happen, frankly, because they aren't twenty anymore, and because my then-peers (and the writers who are now the generation* after me, to whom I feel an obligation as older colleague now, and how the hell did that happen?) aren't writing out of the concerns that were current and pressing in 1956.

The worst of them weren't willing to accept this new generation of writers because the lists of names I kept handing them were full of female, queer, and person of color names. Because that is what my generation of SFF writers looks like, in large part.

This was around the same time that I got into a certain amount of trouble by pointing out that many of my age-group peers don't read newer work by our older colleagues, and the older colleagues often don't read us at all. Which wasn't meant as a value judgment, but it seemed like one to many people, and no less a light that Bob Silverberg took me to task for it. (There he is again.  And as a certain recent publication of mine may seem to indicate, I have been, am, and remain a fan.)

But my point then stands: there is no due diligence to be a fan. And trying to force fans to consume stuff that doesn't speak to them is, well, pointless and alienating and will only drive them away.

I do feel like the standard is a little more exacting for professionals in the field--writers and critics owe it to ourselves to have a foundation in the history of the genre. But I will be the first to say that that is our own responsibility, and our choice, and how we handle our own professional development is our own lookout. I'm going to tend to give more weight to the opinions of a critic who demonstrates herself to be knowledgeable and well-read--but that also means being well-read among current writers, and I'm afraid we probably have as many critics in the field who judge everything against the standard of Poul Anderson as we do critics who haven't read very much published before 1990.

(1990 was twenty-four years ago, by the way, for people my age and older. Just a little bullet of perspective there. When I was a freshman in high school, the equivalent year would have been 1961.)

So I fully encourage people who want to develop a sense of the history of the genre to go back and read, say, Fritz Leiber. Hell, I regularly read Fritz Leiber, and I'm hugely fond of his work. Not in the least, because Fafhrd is a great big fluffy feminist. (Mouser is friendzoned forever though; man, what a douchecanoe.) But even with Leiber, who wrote strong female characters with agendas and agency, I have to keep myself firmly in rein sometimes and remember that he was writing for a predominately white heterosexual male audience that was un-accepting of seeing anybody else placed in the role of protagonist. The white dude always has to save the day, no matter how cool everybody else is. And he usually has to get laid along the way.

And you know, if you don't want to read that, who the hell am I to tell you otherwise?

Which leads me to a point about privilege, before I end this rambling dissertation and go for a nice long run before it gets too hot outside. I too-often see (almost always white, almost always male) commentors and bloggers saying that they don't have a problem reading books in which the protagonists are aliens, or elves, or women, or black people--so why is these so much fuss about the need for diversity and representation in literature? Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?

Other people have tackled this far more in depth than I have time or patience for, but I'm going to take a swing.

It's easy to say that when one has never found one's self in a position of being disenfranchised and erased. When one has that safety of an entire world that considers you the default to return to. When what one is is assumed to be normal and comfortable.

All I can think is that somebody who says he's not worried about representation has never found himself placed constantly in an object position, which is, quite frankly, unpersoning. He's never been told over and over again that he exists only as an accessory to somebody else's story.

Stories are important. Stories are the mechanism that our pattern-making brains use as an engine to understand the world. And our stories need to show all people that they have an important place in that world, and that they are the heroes of their own narratives, not the color in somebody else's.

And I think writers with privilege in any given situation--be it gender, gender presentation, sexuality, race, class, ableness, what-have-you--have the responsibility to make space in our work for readers who do not have those privileges. And I also think that we have the even more important responsibility to make space for the actual voices of other writers who come from different backgrounds, and that the onus upon us to read widely is even more important when talking about writers of our own generation who come from less-widely-represented backgrounds than it is when talking about writers from the depths of the 1930s.

Everybody deserves stories.

And to anyone who is tempted to argue with me on that point: Hey. Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?



*writer generations are a funny thing. They go by publication date rather than chronological age. Which makes me the same writer-age, roughly, as Scott Lynch and as Peter Watts, even though there's about a sixteen-year spread on our physical ages.

(Comments are screened, because I'm going for a run and I have better things to do.)

Comments

Yep.
Nostalgia is all well and good, but it can't be the basis for how anything -- a life, a group, a genre -- is defined. We all see writers (and musicians and artists and sports-people) we loved and admired go out of print and out of fashion. We can mourn that. We don't have a right to try and reverse it and to force our memories and tastes onto everyone else. Nor do we get to declare everything that isn't as we recall it Bad and Wrong. This is how history goes: things change, tastes change, we move on.
It's a point I wish the current UK government would take on board, too.
All lists of 'canon' encode privilege. They are drawn up out of existing privilege. They are in many ways an attempt to reinforce privilege (this is one reason why I am on some level always slightly suspicious of canon!). Like you, I wish more people were still reading Zelazny and LeGuin and Bradbury and Delany, who were the golden writers of my teens and twenties. But I know people now in their mid to late 30s who bewail that the young are not reading Banks and Gentle and Gibson. We all have our own doorways into these other lands. And the more diverse those doorways are, the better. The two books I most want to take back in time for my teenage self are Nnedi Okorafor's Zahrah the Windseeker and Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses because they say things about who people are, what people are, how people are that are critical and necessary and beautiful.
'Young writers' itself... So much coded there, about what is valorised in our culture. The demand for 'youth' itself privileges certain groups over others -- it's much easier to grab the time needed to write and acquire the confidence needed to put the work out there if you're a middle class white man. Women, people of colour, working class people, people with disabilities of all kinds tend to find it harder to get that time and confidence. So they debut older (and find themselves told they're irrelevant, too late or have somehow missed their turn, sometimes, too, which is... Well, it's a thing).
Heinlein mattered, certainly. But he is not the whole of genre, nor its blueprint, and we have grown beyond his visions and words and ideas. He doesn't need to go on mattering. This is history, alive and breathing amongst us, moving and changing shape. And that's how it needs to be.
Most people who are older fen haven't read Delany or Zelazny either. I didn't read Delany until last year and I was amazed at how relevant it was, how still-disturbing, how the only thing that felt dated was the use of subway tokens. But he is merely famous rather than actually being widely-read. Trouble on Triton has two orders of magnitude fewer ratings on Goodreads than Starship Troopers does.

Indeed, if Delany and Le Guin and Atwood were being promoted as The Canon, I think we'd see more people engaging with canon, because they do speak to current, pressing concerns.

(People might also read more of Heinlein if we had a functional public domain and things written 70 years ago were available for free on the internet, but oh well.)

I've read a lot of older stuff because my dad had a personal library. James Schmitz was the first things that spoke to me, because of course this 11 year old girl wanted to be a psychic with an invisible telepathic cat. But he's not part of canon either, because he wasn't Important Serious Works, and I wouldn't push him on others because his writings were frankly awkward and plopped cool, liberated women into sexist societies. Which may have reflected my experience at age 11, but doesn't mean anyone else needs to read it.

But I also don't expect everyone coming into fandom to be like me, maybe because not everyone in fandom has ever been like me. That's an experience I will never have that I think some white dudes in the 60's got to have and are still missing. Their experiences just aren't that important.
Would you mind if I added you to my friend board?
Not at all!
Speaking as a fan, I really do not get these arguments. I am a child of the late 50s, so I naturally had to read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Brackett, Moore, Norton... if I wanted my sf fix. And there are some great works there that shouldn't be left behind in the mists of publishing history, just as there are some stunningly sexist, racist.... etc. works. The thing is that I have never stopped reading sf, and I appreciate new ideasand new writers just as much as I love some of those older works. Why create a dichotomy between good sf? I love what I love. Now, it is true that I will try to introduce some of my favorites to readers who don't yet know them, but I have never thought that they were not truly fans if they hadn't read x, y, or z. That attitude baffles me.
^This^, in spades!
Amen to all this :)

I'm curious about one point, though... regarding Fritz Leiber.

But even with Leiber, who wrote strong female characters with agendas and agency...

I suspect you have read way more of his stuff than me. But as an anecdata point, I could barely make it through Swords and Deviltry, where the female characters are entirely objects to be fridged to provide motivation for Fafhrd and Mouser.

Does it get better than that?
Try Conjure Wife.

It's still very much a product of its time, and the dude has to Fix Everything. But the title character is kind of fabulous. And her husband's major character flaw is Not Listening To His Wife.

It may, indeed, not be for you. Which is fine.

Among older stuff, I also like Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which was published in the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, drawing on the same source material, and yet manages to have no less than five different major female characters, all different, only one a villain, all of whom drive the plot in some significant manner.

Yes!

If U ain't doing it my way, U R doing it wrong! Oh, and git offa my lawn!

Re: Yes!

INTERNET LAWN DEFENSE LEAGUE
I've got a rant brewing about identification and representation, but most of the time I never wind up writing out that sort of thing and this covers a good chunk of that territory and probably better than I would write it.

I'm also kind of against those "essential" lists - the ones that are billed as "you must read these things to be a True Fan". Lists as recommendations to explore the history of the genre are great. But claiming people must read X and Y before they qualify as a fan is, in my opinion, wrong.

The people who are now bewailing that young people don't read the things they read when they were young and don't write the way writers wrote when they were young are the same people who, when they were young, complained about the previous generation saying the same things about themselves.
Yeah. I Mean, I have read huge heaping piles of the old stuff, and will continue to. But man, for every The Broken Sword there are a thousand The Unbeheaded Kings, and as much as I liked L. Sprague de Camp's "A Gun for Dinosaur" I am never going to forgive him for the insane misogyny of that novel.
Blogging this; thanx
It's not surprising that older writers and readers don't read younger writers as much, if at all. There is so much available now that just keeping up with work by writers one is already aware of can be a strain on time and finances for your average reader. Deliberately seeking out new writers requires a conscious effort.

On a pragmatic level, one would think many writers would attempt not-them protagonists, if by inclusion it might gain them new readers. If they're not comfortable writing the other, few can fault them for trying. Pushing boundaries and experimentation has brought some of the best work in genre.
It's a huge effort, even for me, and I've only been doing this for ten years.

Enjoyed this, though have to add that some of us, well, me, read Heinlein et al back in the day because there wasn't anything else. After SF and F mushroomed enough for women to get into the game, I rarely have gone back. (Do like Sturgeon and Jack Vance still, but find Heinlein totally unreadable now.)
Gosh, Sturgeon really holds up, doesn't he? The Dreaming Jewels is still one of my favorite books.

Bellairs holds up, too, by the way.
Some time in my twenties I realized there were a lot of people my age who hadn't added to their record collection* since they were eighteen. Then I realized there were a lot of people of many ages who hadn't.

I felt kinda sorry for them.

Those people didn't usually describe themselves as music fans, though.

*Yes, 100% vinyl. No wonder some people stopped buying new music. Do you know how hellish it is to move to a new apartment when all your music is on vinyl? *g*
Or who only buy new albums by bands they loved when they were twenty.

Yeah.

I mean, I still love Fleetwood Mac. But I wouldn't give up Andrew Bird for anything.
This was awesome! I feel kind of fortunate that I had the kind of eclectic, independent introduction to SFF that I had before I was introduced to fandom. I was exposed to the "classics" through my local library's holdings (which I now recognize to be rather incomplete and eclectic) and the new writers through the digests, when I could get them (for several years the Little General near my house carried both Asimov's and Analog, but the sole issue of F&SF that I bought during the 1980s was purchased from a newsstand in New Orleans during a class trip). This isolation, coupled with my mother's influence on matters of life in general, meant that I ended up with a mental SF pantheon where Le Guin and McCaffrey were just as important to me as Asimov and Heinlein, and the only reason William Gibson was more important to me than Pat Cadigan was that I was able to find more of his books. I just don't understand people who want to freeze the genre at one particular point in time - actually, no, I understand them, I just don't agree with them. We had Heinlein (Asimov, etc.), and we still have their books. The people for whom those will be important books will still find them somehow. And the people for whom those won't been important books will do just fine without them, but they'll still be influence by them because so many of their ideas have become part of the genre. (Case in point: I've never read any of Asimov's "Robot" novels, but I've known about his Three Laws of Robotics for as long as I can remember. And I think that anyone who tries to do any serious writing about that sort of robots will find themselves reacting to Asimov's laws, even if they're not conscious at the time that they're doing so, because they've become so much a part of the genre conversation.)
Yes.

And I get thoroughly furious with the people who make the argument about "Heinlein/Asimov couldn't win a Hugo/get published today," (whether they think it is a good or a bad thing.)

Do they honestly think that if Isaac Asimov were my age right now, if he's been born in 1970 instead of 1920, he's be writing what he wrote in 1964 right now?

I just... wow. What a vote of no-confidence in your heroes, guys.
Heinlein was a treasure for me back in the sixties (I was born in 1953)-- better than Asimov or Bradbury, and much better than Norton. It seems like a shame that modern people can't enjoy him as much as I did (it takes close reading-- something I didn't do when I was a kid) to notice some of the offensive bits, and that apparently now enjoying Heinlein tends to reflect badly (at least in some circles) on those who do.

However, there is absolutely nothing to be done about this, though I still recommend the better Heinlein juveniles.

And it's certainly true that there's so much more sf available now that older works are drifting into the past a lot faster. I think the tipping point was in the 80s-- before that, it was vaguely possible to keep up with new work while reading some of the older stories.
Stories are important. Stories are the mechanism that our pattern-making brains use as an engine to understand the world. And our stories need to show all people that they have an important place in that world, and that they are the heroes of their own narratives, not the color in somebody else's.

WORD.

<3
The irony of this for me is that I *did* grow up on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, and I *still* don't read them much anymore, or write like them.

Heinlein in particular was a pretty subversive writer to discover in my school library in the Christian fundamentalist town where I went to high school, and I'm forever grateful to the librarians who slipped him in there.

Then I went to college on the East Coast, and discovered not just the intervening 30 years of writing but also the older writing which hadn't gotten stocked or had just never drawn my attention, and I haven't really gone back to him.

On some level -- of course somebody twice my age will have read more Heinlein than I have. They've had twice as many years in which to do so.
There are more dimensions to this, too.
The cannon is orders of magnitude larger.
The channels are so much more confused, it's hard to keep up with the stuff you might want.
Backlists are gone, and used bookstores are ever scarcer. If someone worships "transgressive" and I blow them off with "Sturgeon!", where are they going to find any? How can a new or recent reader discover a gargantuan talent like Lafferty? It's amazing news when I say George R.R. Martin wrote a vampire novel.

"It's a proud and lonely thing to be a fan"? It's only lonely if you remember twiltone.
There's still a lot of the good old stuff available as books to be bought online, assuming people find out about something old they might want to read.

I'm not as sure about the fate of e-books. Will DRM cause a lot to be lost, or will the DRM get broken for a high proportion of what people care about?
I laughed out loud at your incisive description of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
One of the reasons I subscribe to PodCastle and EscapePod is to discover new authors in a fairly painless manner. It's a skewed sample, since they only feature short fiction, but I've become aware of a number of writers that I might not have run across otherwise.

(I used to go to Uncle Hugo's Bookstore annually before I went on vacation and ask Scott Imes to recommend a bunch of books by new or new-to-me authors, and read them during that week. Unfortunately, there was only one Scott Imes, and he is no longer with us. And I haven't found a decent substitute.)
This is SF's current version of the age old "The world is changing and it makes me uncomfortable." I got the same thing from my mother complaining about how Upton Sinclair's "Lanny Budd" series had vanished and nobody knew about it any more. In its time it sold far more copies than Heinlein, and it was also fiction with a political message. Sinclair's message was less varied than Heinlein, but both wrote good fiction with a message.

These things come in waves, and while the specifics will change, the "world is changing and it makes me uncomfortable" has a long long pedigree.
"I too-often see (almost always white, almost always male) commentors and bloggers saying that they don't have a problem reading books in which the protagonists are aliens, or elves, or women, or black people--so why is these so much fuss about the need for diversity and representation in literature?"

This is an argument which interests me, because five years(ish) back when *I* was a fledgling LJer I made that very argument; and I think no less a light than you challenged me to actually *count* what I read, and I did, and was appalled that actually I mostly read straight white men writing about straight white men. Less privileged groups are more *noticeable* in our reading *because* rarer; anyone who says they don't have a problem without actually sitting down and thinking about whether it's true is almost certainly wrong.

I know I was. Hopefully, if I said it again today, I wouldn't be.
Good work. This is how we learn. *g*
I find it peculiar which classics actually made it into my reading stack. Because when i was a child and teen, I seemed to have an almost hipster-like allergy to reading anything someone got for me, or recommended to me, just because it was a classic, or popular. (Still do, but not to the same degree, and I have long since recognized it as an unfortunate knee-jerk reflex to be worked around more than indulged). My husband has a WALL of golden age and classic sf paperbacks that are mostly alien territory to me.

And yet, thankfully, one of the hipster inclinations I seem to have avoided is that I don't think less of other people for reading what I do not and have not. How can you do that? It's tiring.

(I also missed some because classic fantasy had a much better chance of being picked up by me than anything with SF on the cover.)

finding SF/fantasy books

One place where SF/Fantasy classics in actual book format should be available are library book sales. However in my home town, which just reaped over $22K in used book sale receipts, the ladies sifting through the piles of donated books don't recognize these genres and tend to toss them into the dumpster. They really dislike the cover art!! Beautiful, pristine hard and softcovers of Norton, Zelazny, etc. They have no idea what their value is so they aren't part of the sale. Ironically, because I have an insider track at the library this is how I have acquired - for free when I have had the time to look - a number of books by that cadre of authors, nosing through the discard pile. I can't wait to see what is in that pile in 20 years!