On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and the helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

VerilyThis.jpg

Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

Eowynsword

I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

Hobbiton

And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.

Lizziestillpoor

So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up:

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Binge Writing

This week, the New York Times published “Impatience Has its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster“, an article discussing the trend towards releasing book sequels faster and faster, three within a year or even all at the same time, to encourage “binge reading”. It’s a response to the way Netflix encourages binge watching.

A lot of people have been scrambling to frame this as a good thing, but I’m far from convinced. From a reader’s perspective, it is perhaps good, in that “instant gratification” sort of way — but, as a reader, I worry tremendously that it will mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity. People are holding up GRRM as an example of what happens when there’s not enough pressure on a writer to get a story completed. I don’t think he proves their point as well as they’d like, though. A Dance with Dragons may have taken him six years to write, but then they seem to have skimped on the editing. I understand the impulse — people had been waiting so long, they wanted to turn it from pen to profit as soon as possible. I got it the day it came out, and the first edition had at least five typos, not to mention that it just plain seems to have needed at least one more round of revisions, to scrape out some of the unnecessary repetitions and extraneous bits. Neither a fast nor a slow process guarantee you a good book — only good writing and good editing will do that.

I also know plenty of readers who “binge read” already. Just not in the same fashion. When I first started reading Julia Quinn’s romance novels, it was two books into her Bridgerton series. There were six more yet to come. I didn’t mind waiting for those — but in the meantime, I had her entire backlist to tear through. And then I started looking at the authors she liked, and the ones who liked her — Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Kat Martin — and then I got to tear through their backlogs. I’ve done the same thing with fantasy authors, with historical fiction, with thrillers. That’s part of the joy of exploration, and I worry about discouraging that.

And, I worry about what this sort of release schedule will do to a series’s ability to build a fandom. Part of the great joy of being in the Harry Potter fandom while the books were still being released was the waiting. It gave everything time to percolate — time to re-read and find new hints, time to speculate, time to introduce the series to new readers, time to adjust to new canon once it did come out. I feel like, if everything comes out so quick, new series won’t have that chance to grow. Many may just find themselves as flashes in the pan, hot for a brief time, then quickly fading and forgotten. And how sad that would be.

As a writer, it concerns me even more than as a reader. One commenter on the article’s breakdown on Jezebel characterized it as pretending to encourage binge reading, when really it’s encouraging binge writing. I think that’s precisely the right way to put it. Another expressed suspicions that this is more to cater to the movie industry than to readership, which is certainly not out of the realm of likelihood. Whoever’s benefit it’s for, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the writer’s.

Now, if an author really can turn out good work that quickly, and have it revised and edited and properly prepared for publication that quickly, then so much the better. But not everyone can. I would argue that most can’t. Many of those authors who do have multiple books appear in a year have a team of ghost writers assisting them, from my understanding. I’ve been reading romance novels long enough to have seen that, when authors who’ve been on a book every 12-18 months suddenly start pushing to every 6, the quality suffers. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching Gail Carriger’s career the past few years, because she’s outright admitted when projects need more work, when trying to put out multiple books in a year has been damaging the quality of her work. I like that she’s pushed back against the pressure.

More concerning still, this model would do a lot, I suspect, to push out those writers who cannot yet write full-time — ie, most writers. Under these expectations, your option is either to have a full trilogy finished before you start querying and then be able to devote the time to revising it as a whole as your agent and editor deem necessary — or else to sell the first book and know you’ll be able to finish the other two within a year. If you’re working a full-time job (or more) as well to pay the bills, that’s less likely.

I’ve learned that, under optimal circumstances, I can write 3000-4000 words a day. I don’t get optimal circumstances very often. Optimal means that I’m on vacation from my other two jobs, free of all other obligations. But even if I had the liberty and leisure to do that six days a week, even if I could turn out the minimum word count in a month or two, the book would still need further attention. Not all of those words would be good. Not all of them would be serve the story. The book would still need rounds of revision. Even if you’re quick at that — as I believe I am — it still just takes time, going back and forth, re-reading what’s there, making the changes. And I would still need to research at some point, and to read — because a writer has to read, to be a good writer. And all of that takes time.

Books take time. Books should take time. That’s my thought on the matter.

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.

Word Choice and Authorial Patterns

I was super-intrigued by the Slate article that’s getting passed around the internet, comparing the most-often used sentences and descriptive words in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. Textual analysis is a big part of my day job — as my blog entries for the company will show — so I thoroughly enjoyed the comparative exploration of three authors.

Most people that I’ve seen have been more interested in the “most common sentences” chart, and that one does reveal a lot — I think, more than anything, by way of illustrating the differences in first person present, first person past, and third person past styles. It doesn’t surprise me that all three demonstrate fairly simple sentences. You can tell an amazing story without needing to convolute every sentence, and the ones likely to repeat will undoubtedly be the simple ones. A more complex sentence would lose power in repetition. Rowling and Collins still exhibit far more variety in their simple sentences than Meyer does, however (read into that what you will), which makes the difference between Rowlings and Collins more interesting to me. Collins’s simple sentences are explanatory — the first person narrator has to introduce the reader to a lot of given details. Rowling, on the other hand, describes action, often emotionally inflected, to tell the reader what’s going on.

131121_CBOX_SC-chart1

On the whole, though, I thought that the most distinctive adjectives list was more interesting — at least more telling, for what it says about each author and each story. Setting aside “drunk” (a descriptor for Haymitch used both in the narrative and in a lot of dialogue, from what I remember), the other adjectives in The Hunger Games are very action-oriented in a way that demonstrates Katniss’s blinkered focus on the task at hand. It represents her character well — she is not a big picture person. She is task-oriented. Meyer’s adjectives, on the other hand, illustrate pretty clearly what I find to be the disturbing emotional tenor of those books. And then JK’s are, like her sentence structure, more varied. Some are emotional, some sensory, some descriptive of “what’s going on” in the same way as her common sentences.

As y’all have already seen, I love creating word clouds, so my head naturally gravitates to this sort of analysis. I would love to have a program that would analyze my common sentences, not just individual words — or an automatic rhetoric scanner! That would, I’m sure, point out that I’m overly fond of zeugma and that I really might consider backing up off the tricolon. I wonder what adjectives I’m most prone to, what words I use that aren’t as common to other writers, where my grammatical constructions give me away. (See what I meant about the zeugma and tricolon? It’s a compulsion, really). As the Slate article points out, all writers have “tells” — personal tendencies that might also identify something particular about the story they’re telling. I’d be curious what an external analysis of my own patterns might reveal.

On David Gilmour

Just a quick note regarding the ongoing David “I only teach real manly manly men, no homos, no lady bits, you understand?” Gilmour controversy — this post by Anne Thériault is one of the best things I’ve read on it so far. So go read it.

Because the thing is, if you’re not a cis white straight male, you are constantly expected not just to expose yourself to, but to immerse yourself in media that is not about you, not written by someone like you, not written for your experience. Gilmour’s flat-out refusal to examine any experience other than his own (and his promotion of that viewpoint to his students) is, well, a lot of what I feel is wrong with modern culture, really. Our world needs a greater degree of empathy and a greater capacity for divergent thinking. Gilmour — and the many, many others like him who deserve but aren’t receiving equal castigation — have a lesson to learn about that.