Words for Seth Abramson

Elliot, you slay me.

And I love you.

–Seth Abramson, “Last Words for Elliot Rodger”

 

Well, crap.  Before today, I had my post all worked out.

I was going to say how I was nauseated by poet Seth Abramson’s Huffpost piece, which (in case you didn’t catch it) is a “metamodernist” remix of the hate-filled last words of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer.

How I’d known of Seth Abramson years ago: his success, his stint as editor of the New Hampshire Review among others, his many publications in The Huffington Post and Best of anthologies, his many books (rrg!), the fact that he graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (son of a bitch!) and is getting a PhD in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (RRRGH!), and on and on and on.  And since I’m now the Writer’s Envy queen, I was going to talk about how I had complete and utter Writer’s Envy from the first time I heard about Abramson, and that it was the ugly kind of Writer’s Envy, the childish kind, the “I can do better, why is this guy so great?” kind that I wish I could stomp out forever because it’s embarrassing and shameful and holds up a mirror to my own pettiness even as it’s sinking its teeth into my neck and making me shriek (inwardly) in helpless rage.

And how I STILL did my duty as a poet and poetry booster, and acknowledged that, yeah, he seems like a decent guy.  He used to be a public defender, which takes a lot of strength and character.  He believes that MFA programs are great levelers, antidotes to a bygone day when publication depended purely on nepotism (a point which I could debate, but still, it’s a nice, idealistic sentiment). True, I wasn’t a fan of his poems, but that’s neither here nor there.  Can’t be so spiteful to a guy who’s done so much for the writing community.  That’s unforgivably shameful.

And how I friended him on Facebook and everything was fine until all the accolades he posted (about himself), all the disquisitions about “metamodernism” and flarf and other hot new poetic subgenres (which I ain’t crazy about), all the academic-speak that seemed to mark his acceptance of an elitism that he used to condemn, all that finally got to me and I defriended him.  And then came his big downfall, which made me more than a little smug because I called it, I sensed it coming, now everyone could see what the academic bubble does to writers.  And on and on and on.

That was what I had mentally outlined for my big Abramson discussion.  And then, right before I cruised over to my list of blog posts and pressed the “Add New” button, I read Abramson’s Huffpost piece again.

And, God help me, I got it.

Crap.

Apparently, in my rush to get to the meat of what Abramson had written, I originally skipped over a single line at the end of his introduction: “Please note that this poem is an address to, not an address from, Elliot Rodger.”

Of course, since they were Rodger’s actual words (“every word Rodger spoke in that hateful oration–and no more,” explains Abramson more than once), I assumed that the speaking voice in the piece was Rodger’s, that Abramson had re-formed and polished Rodger’s vile statement into something peaceful and redemptive.  Something banal, it’s true, and lacking in self-awareness, as evil and unhinged screeds tend to be.  But still, something worthy of reading, instead of vomiting on, hacking into pieces, and setting on fire.  What I saw was a professional edit of a man who bought traditional misogyny without a thought to the humanity of real-live women, who would likely have become a rapist if he’d had the physical strength to commit the crime and access to his targets, who hacked his roommates to pieces and went on to shoot and run over complete strangers before he fired the bullet that ripped him out of existence.  The fact that Abramson thought of making Rodger’s words acceptable, even lyrical, in the face of the destruction and pain that Rodger caused, baffled me, as it did many people.  I joined the condemnation of Seth Abramson.  I vented my anger on Twitter.

On my second read, with the correct speaker (that is, Abramson) in mind, I realized what Abramson was trying to do.  The “Last Words” were, in fact, a condemnation.  They were thoughts that should have been conveyed to Rodger but that he (Rodger) never heard, whether because no one bothered to say them to him or (my guess) because he didn’t want to hear.  Even though some of the images in Abramson’s piece are simplistic in their politics (“alpha-male slut” is pretty cringeworthy, for example, in its Good Man/Bad Woman All in One! ambiguity), Abramson’s ambition to redeem overwhelmingly tainted language is, at the very least, clear.

So, yeah, I admit it: I goofed.  Because of that, I’ve had to trash my original ideas and start from scratch.

Here are the words I now have for Seth Abramson:

First, you must have been one hell of a public defender.  The way you’re able to address Rodger’s monstrous behavior without dismissing him as a monster is impressive, and humbling.  Most people, apart from the perpetrators’ family members, insist on seeing violent criminals as aberrations, others, nonhumans. Your willingness to see and accept Roger’s actions as a (horrible) part of the human experience shows me that you’re a far, FAR better person than I am.  More than my even my solipsistic struggles with the green-eyed monster suggest.

That said, your choice (if it was, in fact, your choice) to publish “Last Words” so soon after the Isla Vista murders was, to put it mildly, ill advised.  In the first days after egregious crimes, particularly those in which the criminal is so vocal about why he did what he did, the public doesn’t want to think about compassion for the murderer, or the nature of the language that comes out of his mouth.   The public wants to wail and scream and bleed.  The public wants to remember the precious lives cut short and curse the one who wielded the knife (or rope, or semi-automatic rifle).  This is probably why poets don’t make good first responders.  A poet’s sensitivity to the nuances of word and deed aren’t going to sit well with angry, traumatized people.  The shock and pain have to subside for us to start thinking about objectivity.

Reaction to Rodger and his words also evolved differently than the usual (!) responses to a mass shooting.  The misogyny that Rodger expressed in his videos and “manifesto,” not to mention the defensiveness or outright sympathy he generated in male commentators and social media users, mobilized women to tell their stories about how violence and hatred toward women has shaped their lives.  In the span of a few days, Rodger ceased being a run-of-the-mill madman: now he’s a symbol of the physical and psychological terrorism that has scarred women from before humankind started taking notes.  “Last Words,” with its implicit invitation to connect with Rodger’s humanity, only reminded many women of how men in power have nearly always sided with male perpetrators and not female survivors.  You, Seth, couldn’t have foreseen this–or maybe you did, I couldn’t say.  Because of your background, your work with people who had no one to speak for them when the police cars arrived, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.  I fear that other readers won’t be so forgiving.

Your piece and the controversy surrounding it reminds me a lot of The Fuehrer BunkerW.D. Snodgrass’s poetry collection that described the final days of Hitler and his inner circle.  As far as I remember, Snodgrass also used some quotes from the parties involved.  Mostly, he fictionalized.  The overall effect, though, was not compelling.  You wouldn’t think an exploration of the people who have come to define modern evil would be dull, but truth be told, I don’t need to read about how in the end Hitler was “petty, pathetic, and desperate,” as the Amazon description says.  I can guess.  Purely evil characters just aren’t that interesting.  Purely good ones aren’t, either.  Once the strong emotion wears off, the rhetoric is too damned predictable.

That’s what I see going on in “Last Words,” sorry to say.  By the time he got around to recording that final venomous rant, Rodger had transformed himself into a stereotypical villain (complete with maniacal laugh), and his language followed suit.  I don’t see anything to gain from redeeming his words.  He’s not worthy of literary focus–morally or aesthetically. Without his bile behind them, Rodger’s words become the same old bland platitudes that find their way onto motivational posters and billboard ads. You punish you.  Hate is wretched.  Can you know pleasure?  True pleasure?

I don’t need his words to tell me that.  I don’t need his words to ask those questions.

[Thanks to Amorak Huey for the inspiration and validation.  If you’ve made it this far in my post, go read his.  It’s much more elegant than my ramblings.]

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On the Isla Vista Killings and Misogyny

From the amazing and fearless Kate Harding:

It stuns and disheartens me, as I observe the discussions cropping up around the Isla Vista killings, to see so many presumably non-violent men acting swiftly to minimize the role misogyny played in Rodger’s worldview. It begins to feel an awful lot like they’re mounting an impassioned defense of non-fatal misogyny, as though the right to hate and fear women—so long as you don’t kill them—is a universally treasured thing that must be protected. 

This is an excellent article.  If you want to understand why the YesAllWomen hashtag cropped up in response to NotAllMen, read this.

“It’s Not All Men.  But It’s Men.”

Godspeed, Maya Angelou

Thanks for your life and your words.

We shall not see your like again.

UPDATE:

Screw the Hamlet. This quote from “A Lover’s Complaint” is far, far better:

And now she would the caged cloister fly

Also this, cited by Dinty W. Moore on Facebook:

The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart. ~ Maya Angelou

 

 

Dear God: Please Let California Start the Cascade

My God is the God of Stories.  That may sound blasphemous, or snarky, or stupid, but I assure you it’s not.  Stories are vastly important to human lives.  Stories take raw experience and reveal patterns, form meaning, and communicate realities across wide cultural landscapes, even when the receivers aren’t equipped to understand everything that’s being conveyed.  (The plural, stories, is important, too.  In the same way that there’s never just one teller, there can never be just one Story.)  And I’m not talking only about fictional stories–fairy tales and myths and novels and the like.  We’re always making so-called “real life” into some sort of narrative, be it political or religious or cultural.  We not only want to know what happened at any given historical point in time, we want the background and the fallout, too.  We want our stories whole.

That said, I’d like to make a personal plea to the God of Stories to start sending those of us here in the States some better endings to our narratives about gun violence.  Seriously, God of Stories.  Stronger, more meaningful endings.  We need them desperately, and we need them now.

Here’s a story I only found out about last winter, when a Canadian friend posted a remembrance on his Facebook feed.  Yes, I know, the link is for a Wikipedia entry, and yes, I also know that Wikipedia is not exactly a fount of unfailing accuracy.  Still, at this point in its life cycle, Wikipedia has gotten reliable enough that if you want a quick snapshot of some thing or person or event, you can skim over the Wikipedia entry and then find links to more reputable sources where the anonymous Wikieditors researched (or, in many cases, lifted) their material.  Also, on the Internet, if you’re searching the real world for narrative structure, Wikipedia can’t be beat.  Have a look at the first three paragraphs on the Montreal Massacre (the story at the link) and notice how much information you get on the subject, particularly if you’ve not up on your Canadian history.  I’ll paraphrase here:

On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked onto the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, entered an engineering classroom, separated the men and women, and proceeded to shoot the group of women, nine in all.  He then left the classroom and shot four men and 15 more women until he shot and killed himself.  Throughout the rampage and in his suicide note, he presented himself as an anti-feminist crusader and claimed that feminists “ruined his life.” Fourteen died at Lepine’s hands, all of them women.  After the attack, many Canadians argued about the true meaning of the incident and why it had occurred.  In addition (according to Wikipedia), “the incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada.”

Nicely crafted, isn’t it?  The narrative, I mean.  Madman hates women and wants to kill them.  Madman goes to a university and kills and injures over two dozen people with a legally purchased gun.  The horror of the event leads the country’s lawmakers to enact stricter gun laws.  A beginning, middle, and–most importantly–a solid, sober, meaningful end.

Now, on to the content of the story.  For those of you who live in the U.S.: does anything about this narrative strike you as familiar?  Maybe it’s the fact that this past week, a woman-hating madman with a legally purchased gun (oops, no–he had three) went to an area near UC Santa Barbara and shot 16 people before he killed himself.  Maybe the separation of males and females in a classroom reminds you of what Wikipedia calls the Amish School Shooting, when a truck driver named Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse, dismissed the boys and adults, including a pregnant woman, and tied up and shot the remaining ten girls, aged 6 to 13, before shooting himself.  Maybe the description of Lepine’s legally acquired semi-automatic weapon reminds you of the shootings at Sandy Hook, where in December 2012 Adam Lanza took his mother’s legally acquired semi-automatic Bushmaster to a local elementary school and killed 20 children and 6 adults (all women, and not including his mother, whom he shot before he left home) before shooting himself in the head with a legally owned semi-automatic pistol.

Maybe, however, you’re like me and you get stuck on that first sentence in the third paragraph that someone on Wikipedia wrote about the Montreal Massacre: “The incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada.”

So far, nothing like this statement has been added to any of the Wikipedia entries describing any recent mass shooting in the U.S.  Yes, there have been changes in the law, the most notable being those enacted after Seung-Hui Cho shot a total of 49 people on Virginia Tech’s campus. (Note, however, this Washington post article, which states that since the shootings “it is gun rights, not gun restrictions, that have grown stronger” in Virginia.)  Other tweaks took place in Connecticut and a few other states after Sandy Hook (again, see the WP article).  In Pennsylvania, the Amish were apparently so forgiving of the shooter and his family that their amazing act of kindness rendered any new gun regulations unnecessary (or, at least, that’s how the Wikipedia entry makes it seem).  But nothing on the scale of the 1995 Firearms Act in Canada has occurred in response to any of the recent gun massacres in the U.S.

Notice that I’ve only mentioned four U.S. gun massacres, three of which aren’t even called “massacres” on Wikipedia (they’re “shootings” or “killings” instead).  Notice that I haven’t yet brought up Aurora, Colorado.  Or Columbine. Or the two separate shootings at Fort Hood.  Wikipedia even observes that the “Amish school shooting” in Nickel Mines “was the third school shooting in the United States in less than a week, the others being the Platte Canyon High School shooting on September 27, 2006 and Weston High School shooting on September 29.” Who even remembers Platte Canyon or Weston High, apart from the victims and their families?  (Actually, I remember Platte Canyon, although not by name.  It was a case of another woman-hating madman going into a classroom and separating out the female students from the male.  Only one of the female students was shot and killed; the rest were raped by the gunman.)  Do I have to count up the number of dead and injured in these mass shootings and ask why 28 Canadian women and men are worth more reasonable limits on the sale and use of guns than all the U.S. victims put together?  Do I have to start counting up all the “small” gun massacres, where one or two or three are killed, and wonder why no action has been taken to prevent other deaths like theirs, which were just as painful and just as senseless?

You may be thinking that I’m one of these “wacko gun control nuts” who has no respect for responsible, law-abiding gun owners.  Bullshit.  Growing up, I spent every Sunday in my mother’s hometown in the mountains, a town full of hunters and other responsible gun owners.  My cousin is a state policeman.  My grandfather was a hunter and a World War II veteran.  If you think I don’t know and respect responsible gun owners, you’re effectively spitting on the memory of my grandfather, one of the kindest, bravest, and most generous men who was ever, even briefly, a part of my life.  So no, I don’t disrespect responsible gun owners or, for that matter, responsible gun ownership.  But I also believe that the vast majority of responsible gun owners in this country favor responsible gun legislation.  The only people who oppose it, really, are the NRA and their cohort of gun manufacturers (some of which are foreign, or so I’ve heard) who prey on the paranoia of a small group of people so that they can continue to collect money from unfettered gun buying.

The NRA wants you to think the story of their “gun rights” crusade is all about patriotism.  Nope.  It’s about money–your money being funneled into their pockets.

So my prayer to the God of Stories is that California and the tragedy in Isla Vista will finally begin the country’s move toward responsible gun laws.  Since the U.S. Congress is basically useless, I figure changes in gun legislation will have to happen the way the fight for gay marriage has unfolded, state by state.  I’m thinking that an ugly, misogyny-fueled mass murder will carry some weight, especially in a state like California, which almost certainly has the appropriate density of the wealthy and the progressive.  The words of Chris Martinez’s father, Richard, who said of the NRA, “They talk about their rights.  What about Chris’s right to live?” will surely resonate and will prove difficult for the NRA to spin.

Surely.  Certainly.  Finally.  To put it bluntly, God of Stories, I’ve got the ending for this tragedy worked out for you.  The details are all there.  Please, please, please, this time just run with it.

An update and a brief digression

Just wanted to add on a note to yesterday’s post and a few new discoveries:

The epigram from the post came from Joyce Chng’s blog A Wolf’s Tale.  She adds some excellent commentary about the problem of dialects in Asian countries, particularly her home country of Singapore.  I have to admit, I had no idea this issue even existed.  (Indeed, I’m humbled at how much I don’t know about the world, even at my ripe old age.)  Please take the time to check out her blog, too–she contributes an important perspective to the discussion.

Next:

Have I ever told you how great Brevity is? This journal, the brainchild of Dinty Moore, is a pioneer in the genre of flash nonfiction.  Not only do they have a great blog that discusses all things nonfiction, they publish some true gems.  Three of my favorites from the most recent issue are Tim Hillegonds’s “A Story Like This,” about a father’s final meal with his daughter before he goes home; Sandra Gail Lambert’s “Poster Children,” which looks at the lives of disability activists; and Sonja Livingston’s “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” which encapsulates the experience of all the Mary Doyles who immigrated to the U.S. in the nineteenth century.  Go read these and discover others.  I can’t do justice to all of them here.

And finally:

Coriolanus, Act 1 Scene 2

Shakespeare in stick figure form!  Talking about fickleness!  Huzzah!

This comes from Mya Gosling’s blog goodticklebrain.com, and it is truly hysterical.  Lots of Shakespeare comics, Shakespeare riffs, Shakespeare commentary, and even whole plays summarized in comic form.  Such a breath of fresh air in a world that takes Shakespeare waaaaaaaay too seriously.

Anyway, I’m off to procrastinate and read the comic version of King Lear.  More serious topics coming soon!

Where are the songs of Trinidad? Being drowned out by ballads in Klingon…

For people who readily consume and speak Klingon, Rihannsu and Dothraki, we are strangely quite fussy when it comes to our own dialects and regional languages.

–Joyce Chng, A Wolf’s Tale

 

Okay, on to more serious topics than Dr. Doofenshmirtz and wacky Shakespeare stuff…

For those of you who don’t follow the Speculative Fiction (or SFF) industry: there’s been an important discussion going on over the use of dialect–that is, English dialect rather than made-up alien dialect (God knows how readers would react to non-standard Quenya)–in spec lit and literature in general.  I first learned about this conversation from Amal El-Mohtar, who I really, REALLY Envy in the Best Way Possible.  (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of El-Mohtar, you should look her up: she’s a Nebula-nominated, Rhysling-winning author of poetry and prose, a critic for NPR Books, and co-editor of Goblin Fruit, a gorgeous online journal of spec poetry.  Can anyone hear my teeth grinding with Best Envy?)  The debate got started, as with many things on the Interwebs, in a convoluted way, but I’ll try to summarize the whole thing as briefly as possible.  (If things get too confusing, you can read El-Mohtar’s more efficient take on the matter here.)

On May 12, Strange Horizons published a review of a new story collection called Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.  Even though the purpose of the anthology was to focus on marginalized authors, characters, and communities, the reviewer, Katharine Farmar, seemed a bit ambivalent about the overall product.  “There are no bad ideas here, but not all of the stories are equally well-executed,” her review states, and then goes on to mention several pieces that didn’t quite live up to expectations.  It was the final comment in the paragraph that touched a nerve: “Troy L. Wiggins’s ‘A Score of Roses’ features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the ‘chil’ren’s and ‘yo’self’s is charming.”  To give her the benefit of the doubt, Farmar probably didn’t realize how condescending she was being.  (“Charming,” for example, is a very innocuous descriptor, and yet in the context of the Long Hidden project, saying Wiggins’s piece is “charming” evokes a dismissive snobbery reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialists sipping tea in the Belgian Congo.)  Many readers saw this statement, particularly the part about written dialect being a “literary trick,” as an example of exactly the types of problems that Long Hidden was trying to correct: a privileged, primarily white and/or male establishment having the power to diminish or suppress writing by racial, cultural, and sexual minorities. 

Reactions ranged from anger to bafflement.  Daniel José Older, one of the editors of Long Hidden, posted a long response on Storify that shows just how strongly authors feel when their efforts to record the voices of their communities get chalked up to gimmickry or (even worse) a lack of craft.  Troy L. Wiggins, the author of the “charming” story, claims to be more stunned than angry.  In another Storify post, Rose Lemberg breaks down how the term “phonetic dialect” gets mixed up with nasty phenomena like language hegemony, that vicious and insidious process of silencing that happens when one version of a language becomes the standard and other versions are ghettoized as “other.”

Then  the Strange Horizons review debate got even more complicated when two editors from Abyss & Apex, Wendy S. Delmater and Tonya Liburd, told their own story about a struggle to edit and publish a piece written in a Caribbean patois.  The more senior editor, Delmater,  wanted to dial back the dialect without eliminating it completely.  Liburd was less confident about the decision but was ultimately won over by Delmater’s argument that the story would be more accessible if  the prose looked, for lack of a better word, less alien.  It’s hard to know exactly how public response to Delmater and Liburd went, because the comment board for the editorial is closed.  However, the piece in question, “Name Calling” by Celeste Rita Baker, appeared in Abyss & Apex in both its edited and original forms.  The short story by Baker and the editorial by Delmater and Liburd led to another round of discussions by El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Tobias Buckell, and LaShawn M. Wanak, among many others.

So where do I insert myself in this already well-commented-upon discussion?  I guess I’ll start with my own point of entry: Baker’s “Name Calling.”

My beginning starts with a mistake, ironically enough, as to where the beginning of the piece was.  From El-Mohtar’s description of its publication history, I was motivated to experience for myself the two versions of Baker’s story, and, as El-Mohtar suggested, I was determined to start with the original.  However, in Abyss & Apex, the pride of place was given to the less-patois-heavy revision, causing me to have to scroll down to find where the second story (which, also ironically, came first) started.  Because I was reading the tiny, tiny words on my Kindle’s web browser, and because I am a bonehead, I managed to mistake a break in the narrative for the beginning of the original version and so read the end as if it were the opening.  Hmm, I thought.  Flash fiction.  Yeah, I can see where the dialect could be an obstacle for some, but I can handle it.  Okay.  Challenging new experience with patois in science fiction managed.  Yay for me!

Imagine my surprise when I found the actual original waiting for me after the passage I’d just read.  No, I can’t assume everyone will be able to imagine, so I’ll try to describe it.  At first, I saw the title again and thought to myself, you bonehead.  Technology trumps Miss Fickle’s brain once again.  Then, the beginning of the text, in “full patois,” as an editorial note announces under the title.  I think I must have gasped.  The feeling of those unfamiliar spellings, the profusion of i’s and d’s and e’s, the h’s out of place, all of it a pin jab to the mind.  A thought popped into my head: “What a mess!”  This was partly my editor side talking (I used to work in medical editing) and partly me as a born-and-bred white mid-western American wincing at the changes to my comfy English, infused into my psyche through years and years of spelling tests, term papers, and reading lists full of English “classics.”

But then I kept reading, and I realized, no, this is not a mess at all, this is in fact a skilled and elegant rendering of voices I rarely hear, the work of a powerful writer.  And I loved the story.

Of course, afterward, I had to go back and look at the edited version, which I admit I didn’t manage to read the whole way through.  It was…all right.  Very clean, very carefully wrought.  I could see the editors’ care in reworking the prose, so that it would be just a tiny bit closer to standard written English, and I could also see that they were committed to not making the text too “easy” for the uninitiated reader.  The voice was still there.  But it also wasn’t the same.

In part, I agree with El-Mohtar’s analysis.  There was a certain spirit, an energy, lost in the edited translation of the story.  But after having thought about the experience for a while, I wonder, too, if part of my brain had simply bonded with the dialect system devised by Baker and didn’t want to consider another one.  My reading mind puzzled out the Baker method and came up with a standard.  The newer non-Baker method was now unworthy.

I’ve heard that one of the basic problems with converting spoken language into written words is that writing itself is an inflexible medium, never quite able to record the infinite continuum of sounds that humans can make in their speech.  If you’re a linguist, for instance, and you try to come up with new symbols to account for pronunciations of the letter e, you’ll find that, like a line you can always cut into another fraction, there will always be another sound on the spectrum to the left or right of your newly composed letters.

The brain, however, craves patterns, and whether because of science or language hegemony or a little or a lot of both, readers balk at unfamiliar ways of seeing their language.  If it’s a new language–Elfish or Klingon or Dothraki–we learn the rules, we figure it out, we “master” it.  Yes, the manner we go about this is governed by language hegemony, the “one rule over all” mentality, but I’m convinced there’s a profound insecurity underlying this urge to learn and enforce the “proper” way to write.  We all want ease of communication.  We all want to know what we’re saying and not be misunderstood.

Speaking from my few years of editing experience, I can imagine that dialect in fiction is an editor’s nightmare.  Not worse than having your primary way of speaking be the target of disgust, laughter, and prejudice, mind you.  Editors are always in a position of power, and writers are always in danger of being brushed aside into silence.  Even so, the open-minded, new-literature-loving, boundary-pushing editor is bound to encounter some snares when trying to “correct” or “clean up” or “improve” a dialect-heavy text when written dialect technically has no rules.  How can an editor not familiar with a way of speaking tell whether an example of written dialect is effective or not?  (Ferrett Steinmetz tackles the problem of the non-dialect speaker here.)  How do you judge its authenticity?  You can’t go by the author’s skin color–that’s akin to saying white people talk one way, black people talk another.  You can’t necessarily go by personal history, either, because an author’s exposure to and facility with a certain kind of dialect will always vary, as LaShawn M. Wanak talks about in her post.  How, too, do you go about polishing the prose to make sure that the text appears as its absolute best if you have no basis to judge what’s best?  Do you go by consistency?  Frequency of use?  The way the words on the page translate to the sounds in your head?  What if a character, purposefully or unconsciously, speaks dialect inconsistently–what then?  That’s an artistic choice, but how does an editor judge if that choice “works” or not?  What if you’re a conscientious editor and you’ve questioned your own resistance toward a piece of dialect writing, but you’re still honestly convinced that the dialect could be better conveyed?  Do you just shut up about it or do you ask for changes, knowing that you’re using your position of power to influence an artist’s original vision?

Obviously, I don’t have the answers to all of these questions.  Indeed, I’m probably being a bit of an anxiety-ridden catastrophizer, trying to dig up more and more issues to worry about until my brain bursts in a fireworks display of self-generated angst.  That tends to be the way I roll–at least when I’m being Editor Me.  Editor Me is a mess.  I do think, though, that the spec lit community, writers and editors and publishers, have a unique opportunity to explore issues of dialect in writing.  Discovering an alien branch of one’s own language can and should be an experience that readers have in a genre built on examining the relationship of self and other, whoever that self or other might be.    I would encourage editors to take more risks.  I would encourage editors and writers not to fear the potential messiness of the publication process or blowback from resistant readers.  There are always readers out there who just want to pick up a book and get lost in the fantasy.  Most of the time, that fantasy is a mirror image, or an idealized image, of themselves.  But to truly face the alien, the unfamiliar, the difference that rattles your foundations and jabs a pin in your mind: that is something all readers should have the opportunity to experience.

I have more to say on the issue of dialect and otherness (which I’ve just now come up with as a way of describing my perspective–yay years of churning out English essays on the fly!), but I don’t want this post to go on forever.  So I’ll end here and pick up my endless rambling in another post.  Stay tuned…

(For the record, Strange Horizons posted an apology for the review of Long Hidden, as well as its own list of commentary on the issues that arose from it.)

On Fickleness

Note the date of publication on the Johnson quote…

…as the faculty of writing has been chiefly a masculine endowment, the reproach of making the world miserable has been always thrown upon the women, and the grave and the merry have equally thought themselves at liberty to conclude either with declamatory complaints, or satirical censures, of female folly or fickleness, ambition or cruelty, extravagance or lust.

–Samuel Johnson, Rambler 18, Saturday, May 19, 1750


My eyes went away from me
Following a dark girl
who went by.

She was made of black mother-of-pearl,
Made of dark-purple grapes,
and she lashed my blood
with her tail of fire.

After them all
I go.

–Pablo Neruda, “The Fickle One”