Hi friends! It’s Tuesday, and I’m over at Lady Business recapping the second episode of the greatest TV show in the world, Black Sails. Stop on by and let me know if you agree with my assessment of Eleanor Guthrie’s true love situation.
Or if you haven’t watched Black Sails, my God, please watch Black Sails.
So one of my reading resolutions for 2018 was to read more SFF short stories, with the goal of finding a total of three stories that I really love and want to advocate for. As of this writing, I have read nine SFF short stories, which already is way more than I have ever read in a previous year. I will assume that you are duly impressed.
Six of these (shut up) have come from the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017, edited by Charles Yu. I have no apologies to make. I didn’t say I’d be reading all brand-new short SFF this year, I just said I’d be reading short SFF. I understand the argument that I’m short-cutting my way to some of the highest-quality work, but I decline it because everyone’s tastes are different and what Charles Yu considers to be the best isn’t necessarily the same as what I consider to be the best.
Now that I have finished dismantling an argument you didn’t make on account of I have a guilty conscience about the methods I have chosen to pursue a stakes-free goal of my own devising, let’s get onward to the first SFF short story I loved in 2017: Debbie Urbanski’s “When They Came to Us.” First published in The Sun, it tells fragments of the story of a town where a group of aliens called “blues” are resettled after their ship crashes on Earth.
I’m sorry to make a comparison to Shirley Jackson so early in the year, but I think this story merits it. The strange, small-town details like Dana Fisher and Jeff Campbell going ahead with their wedding “even though nobody thought they should get married at a time like this.” The weird, mundane details about the blues’ presence in town that contribute to a growing sense of unease and impending doom.
In a story that ends with SORRY FOR SPOILERS BUT I ALREADY SAID SHIRLEY JACKSON’S NAME SO IT’S NOT LIKE YOU DIDN’T SEE IT COMING the townspeople slaughtering the aliens, it would have been really easy for Urbanski to overplay her hand with the scene-setting details. Instead, the format of small vignettes with strange little through-lines from previous vignettes and weird, understated headlines for each section gives the whole thing a feeling of humorous detachment that plays beautifully against the creepiness that underpins the whole story.
Did y’all read this story? Did you like it? (Say yes!)
This has been the first installment of the SFF Short Story Project. I did not necessarily intend to write posts about this resolution, but I couldn’t think of another way to track my progress on this resolution, and goals assessment is what I’m all about. So. Read any good science fiction or fantasy short stories lately?
I have been seeing a lot of sadness and anxiety in the blogosphere lately; lots of people posting that they’re struggling to find motivation and time to read or post or go blog-hopping. And on one hand, I’ve been doing this for A DECADE and that just seems to be part of the natural cycle of blogging, to have times where you want to prioritize it more and times when you want to prioritize it less or maybe even step away.
On the other hand, I suspect that the same is true for other bloggers as is true for me, which is that this administration is sapping our strength. I live in a state of constant anxiety, whether it’s over the current terrible thing that’s happening or the next thing that I know will be coming down the pike but can’t even begin to predict. I am experiencing dread regularly now, in a way that I maybe never have before, and that’s exhausting, physically and emotionally. I feel guilty that I’m not doing more in every single area of my life: not reaching out to friends as much as I want to, not managing to be a flawless professional success in the way that I want to, not doing enough politically, not reading enough or blogging enough or keeping my house clean enough–
YES YES. The list goes on.
But what I think about the internet, about blogging in particular, is that it helps me to see that y’all are still there. Humans are contagious as hell with our emotions, and it helps me to see other people out there who haven’t given up. I don’t just mean people who haven’t given up hashtag-resisting. I mean people who haven’t given up frantically, vocally loving the things they love. Doing sportsy shit with their kids. Advocating for books and TV shows that are flying under the radar. Seeking out and publishing authors from marginalized groups because they deeply believe we need those voices (hi Book Smugglers!). It helps me to see people continuing to care about stuff, at a time when the world seems like it’s trying to bash us all into apathy.
(When I was contemplating this post on Monday, I said to Alice, “Is this just going to be some sunshiny Pollyanna bullshit?” It uh it is less sunshiney in execution than it maybe was in conception ha ha thanks Trump.)
I also told Alice, fairly insistently, that it’s better to do something than nothing. Even if the something doesn’t live up to our best hopes for ourselves, it’s still something, it’s still not nothing, it’s still us trying. I have the kind of brain that wants to insist I have to be perfect or be nothing — which is a total mug’s game because you can’t be perfect, and that only leaves nothing as an option. And nothing’s like, a really bad option. So I am always having to make a conscious effort to choose something.
I’m founding a thing I shall call Something on Sundays, which will commence THIS VERY SUNDAY and will have a link-up. The only guidelines are that you write about something that kept you on your feet that week, whether that’s a person that inspired you, an action you took that you’re proud of, a book or movie or TV show that nourished your heart, a self-care strategy that worked for you, a goofy event or moment that brought you joy. Whatever it is, every Sunday, I want you to tell me something that matters to you. If you don’t have enough energy for a post, tweet it at me (you can use the hashtag #SomethingonSunday).
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me screaming about the Book Smugglers Kickstarter. The Book Smugglers, Ana and Thea, are seeking some funds to help them publish the wonderful, diverse SFF they’re famous for. As of now, they’ve got nine days left, so we’re asking Ana nine questions!
1. What are you going to do with all this money?
A: Lots of things! The idea is to fund our next season of short stories at a higher pay rate to writers and with freelance professionals working on the ebooks to help us out. We will open a submission call for regular, paid contributors to The Book Smugglers – we will be looking for essays on SFF, Fandom, YA, Comics and popgeekery from all over the world. We also want to get a new look for the website! All with the view to prop up and give more room and visibility to diverse voices. Our mission as Book Smugglers is to discover, share, and amplify stories from diverse authors and perspectives–to make SFF fandom a more inclusive place, reflective of the world we live in (and the speculative other universes beyond).
2. What makes Book Smugglers special?
A: I truly think it’s our eclecticism, openness and true passion for good stories. From the very start we covered Romance, Urban Fantasy, Comics, SFF, YA and Children’s books on equal ground. We like to read vast and wide, and we are firm believers that a good book is a good book is a good book. We are trying to do the same in our publishing arm too – we have had YA stories and adult stories. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Noir and a lot of different things. We like to experiment!
3. What’s your favorite thing about being a Book Smuggler?
A: THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS. The reading and the getting excited when a great book comes my way, then being able to share the love with tons of people – both has a reviewer and as a publisher. In a more micro-way, one of the things I absolutely adore is to work with artists on commissioning cover art for our stories. That moment when an artist GETS IT, and you see a story you have been working on come to life in front of your eyes, is amazing.
There is another thing that I am incredibly proud of: that we are two women – a Hapa Filipina who grew up in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Japan (Thea), and a Latina and native Brazilian (Ana) who lives in the UK – who have been working incredibly hard in what is effectively a ten-year old business.
4. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since becoming a publisher of fiction?
A: Realizing that there is an actual limit to what the two of us can physically do. For the past ten years it’s been mostly the two of us doing absolutely everything. And the more we do, the more we want to do – it’s a spiral! This is part of the reason why we are doing the Kickstarter – so that we get help to do even more.
5. How do you choose the themes for your short story programs each year?
A: Thea and I are pretty much on the same wave length most of the time and it’s just super easy to come up with themes. We have two in-person meetings every year and that’s when we decide. One of us usually goes “how about… X”. The other screams: “THAT’S AN EXCELLENT IDEA”. And that’s it.
6. I have to assume you’re spending most of your time these days anxiously gazing at your Kickstarter; but when you’re not doing that, what have you been reading?
A: Right now, I am finishing Provenance, the new standalone novel by Ann Leckie, which is phenomenally fun. I just finished reading a new book by my TOP ONE WRITER EVER: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge and it was amazing too.
7. Jane Eyre or Lizzie Bennet?
A: WHAT. WHY…. OK, fine, Lizzie. Because of her sisters too.
8. Star Wars or Star Trek?
A: NOPE I AM NOT DOING THIS ONE.
9. If you get fully funded ANA WILL YOU READ THE NEW MEGAN WHALEN TURNER BOOK ALREADY?
A: Jenny, I VOW TO YOU RIGHT NOW. If we get funded, I will read the new Megan Whalen Turner IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE CAMPAIGN ENDS.
Y’all, I have been trying to get Ana to read Thick as Thieves since it came out. She is afraid it won’t live up to her hopes but it will. So please donate to their Kickstarter because you want to support diverse SFF, but also because goddammit Ana’s going to love Thick as Thieves and we all want that for her.
I read a biography of Cicero and it has caused me to be a huge nerd. You can leave now if you don’t want to see me at my absolute nerdiest.
My first-ever teacher of Latin, in middle school, would stand at the front of the class and make incomprehensible remarks like “If you just remember amo amas amat amamus amatis amant, you will be all right” and “Here I have a postcard from my friend Cicero,” which it turned out was not an alive human but a very long-dead Roman of whom my Latin teacher was a great admirer. As a serious-minded eleven-year-old, I found this teacher maddeningly obstructive to my goal of learning Latin, and if memory serves, we didn’t even have textbooks.
That can’t be right, I must be remembering that wrong. Who would teach Latin without textbooks? Except if we had textbooks, I’d have taught my own damn self Latin, proof of which I now offer you in the form of my second middle-school Latin teacher. She had a weird and tragic backstory that she told in alarming detail to my older sister’s Latin class but never (as far as I can recall) revealed any shred of to my Latin class. I found out later (because she gossiped to students in her class at the other middle school) that she hated my class. I suspect this was my fault. I thought I was minimum 12x smarter than her, taught myself Latin out of the book while studiously ignoring her, and then let the four other people in the class copy my translations and cheat off my paper during tests any time they wanted.
And y’all, look, I know that was not great. I know I was a smart-ass twelve-year-old who made her teacher’s life hard and needed to be taken down a peg, but you have to understand that this is a story of love at first sight. From the first moment I understood how conjugations worked, I have been in love with Latin. Latin is the easiest and most joyful subject I have ever studied.1 No wonder everyone wanted it for their lingua franca, it is the motherfucking best language in the whole world. It’s so sensible and elegant and great. Shit.
In part this is because Latin makes heavy use of what we call inflection, which is a grammar thing that means the form of the word changes based on its grammatical function. It means that word order kind of doesn’t matter! Or rather, it means that you can use word order in fun, inventive ways. Especially if you are Cicero.
Anyway, then I went to high school and it turned out that my high school Latin teacher was put on this earth for the express purpose of teaching Latin, insofar as she was (is! to this day!) a Latin-teaching genius who if there were a medal for Worldwide Best Ever Latin Teacher would probs win that medal every year and all the other Latin teachers would get sulky and vote to stop awarding the Best Ever Latin Teacher award because it’s not promoting a collegial atmosphere (but actually it would just be sour grapes because they never got to win).
In Latin 3, when I was a sophomore, we got to read my guy Cicero, the subject of Anthony Everitt’s biography that I just finished reading. The biography was pretty good in terms of the events of Cicero’s life, but it’s weird to read a book about Cicero that doesn’t spend hardly any time at all talking about his prose. Like shouldn’t Cicero’s prose be getting more compliments? The man was a goddamn genius of word-writing. And you do really have to describe it, because his brilliance in large part depends on Latin’s flexibility and therefore doesn’t translate. Like here is a sentence (translated by me; I apologize to everyone for mistakes, I haven’t taken Latin in years) from his oration against the criminal Catiline, who was doing treason.
quam diu quisquam erit qui te defendere audeat, vives, et vives ita ut nunc vivis, multis meis et firmis praesidiis obsessus ne commovere te contra rem publicam possis. multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem, sicut adhuc fecerunt, speculabuntur atque custodient.
As long as there is anyone whatsoever who dares to defend you, you live, and you live just as you are living now, blockaded by my many and trusty guards, so that you will not be able to agitate against the republic. The eyes and ears of many people will watch and guard against your unknowing self, exactly as they have done up to now.
Granted that I am not a professional translator. But like, there’s so much stuff in the Latin that doesn’t come through in this description because it can’t, because English doesn’t do those things. The translation doesn’t get at the punch of that vives . . . vives . . . vivis repetition, you live, you live, you live, the way it emphasizes that the traitor Catiline lives lives lives, at the mercy of the Senate. Or take this phrase:
multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem
I translated “multorum . . . oculi et aures” as “the eyes and ears of many people,” which is exactly correct, but which loses this thing Cicero does where “multorum” and “oculi et aures” actually surround the word “te” (you). It is so good! The order of the words mimics the way Catiline is living his life — surrounded by watchful enemies!
Or take “non sentientem” (unknowing). That is an adjective phrase that goes with “te” (you) but it’s tricky to translate cleanly, because it also carries the implication of what Catiline doesn’t know (that the eyes and ears of many people are watching him). One choice is to make it into a separate clause along the lines of “although you do not know it,” which is less literal but gets in the slight sneeriness. I kept it as an adjective. Regardless of what you do, it never sounds as good as the original. Sob.
Okay, that’s it. I’m done talking about Latin. Cicero was a motherfucking genius. I will now submit to being stuffed in a locker. I acknowledge that I deserve it.
I am putting this in a footnote because people who didn’t study Latin won’t get it, and people who did study Latin will want to straight-up murder me: I enjoy doing case and reason exercises. I’d have done double the assigned amount. ↩
Good morning! Today we’re going to talk about PRIVILEGE. (I know, you’re excited.) To be more specific, we’re going to talk about why you, a person with X privilege, just got your feelings hurt online while trying to have a good-faith conversation with someone who lacks X privilege, and you want to understand why.
(Spoilers: It’s not because people who lack X privilege are “toxic.” It’s because the whole structure of privilege is.)
Online conversations about diversity can be like trying to hold a math class where some of the students are doing advanced calculus and some of the students haven’t mastered the multiplication tables yet. Even if everyone in the room badly wants to learn math (a big if, in this metaphor), a lack of acknowledgement and courtesy for the fact that people are at different learning stages can hamstring the discussion completely. Nobody studying arithmetic wants to say, “Where did you get that 64 number?” and have everyone laugh at them for not knowing that’s what eight times eight equals. Nobody who’s ready to use derivatives to calculate how rapidly the cone-shaped pool will fill up wants to sit there and review their eight-times tables. That doesn’t make either side bad. Different people are just at different stages of their math journeys.
What that analogy seems to suggest is that everyone should be more tolerant and compassionate of each other, from the newest Twitter egg to the, I don’t know, Diversity Pope (there is no Diversity Pope). Right? WRONG, because I cheated on the analogy. Everyone knows there are different levels of math knowledge; but privileged people oftentimes think they are at the same level of knowledge with issues facing marginalized groups as the people in those groups are at. This is where it gets messy.
Diversity conversations actually tend to work more like if the students who didn’t know their times tables kicked down the door to the classroom where the calculus students were doing their ghastly tank filling word problems and yelled “MATH IS NUMBERS! STOP DOING PICTURES AND LETTERS.” And when the calculus students said, “Google calculus and you will find that as you get farther into it, math is also sometimes pictures and letters,” the multiplication students said “We’re math students too! We know what math is and it’s not this!” And when the calculus students said, “Okay, well, we’re going to get on with our calculus class now,” the multiplication students yelled “HOW DARE YOU EXCLUDE US! MATH IS FOR EVERYONE!” and set fire to the overhead projector; and this happened every time the calculus students tried to learn and talk about calculus, whether by themselves in a private classroom or in a public forum.
And also the school administration seems unsure if there’s such a thing as calculus or not.
And also multiplication students run the whole country.
Okay. So how does this analogy apply to you, a privileged person doing their best to learn?
1. Recognize that your privilege tends to put you at a lower knowledge level than people who’ve been living this their whole lives.
If you’ve only ever been asked to learn multiplication, you aren’t evil for not knowing calculus. But it’s important to recognize that calculus learners exist and know more overall about math than you do; and it’s important not to walk into calculus classrooms expecting that you’ll be able to jump right in to the work.
Or let’s put it into real-world (but relatively un-fraught) terms. Let’s say that you, an architect, walk up to me, a publishing person, and start explaining why my organization should be using EBSCO rather than Project Muse as a library ebook aggregator. Let’s say you read some stuff about EBSCO in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week and you think you have a good case to make. Except the thing is, I do publishing full-time. Not only have I already thought about the factors you read about in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve thought about many other factors you didn’t consider, too, considerations that you didn’t even know existed. I had to! It’s my job!
You aren’t stupid for not knowing the reasons an academic publisher might prefer Project Muse to EBSCO, just like you aren’t stupid for not knowing that letters and graphs can be math as well as numbers. People learn different things at different times, and that’s okay! The problem comes when instead of recognizing that there’s a lot you don’t know, you act like the information you happen to possess is the only relevant (or even the only existing) information.
Gay people know more about being gay than straight people, just like people in publishing know more about publishing than architects. Black people know more about being black than white or Asian people, just like architects know more about architecture than chefs or magazine editors. People in a marginalized group have, in general, thought more about issues surrounding that marginalization than people who are privileged in that area — they’ve had to. So not only do they have more experience with the thing, they probably have more education in the thing. You are not the expert. They are the expert.
Here’s a good shortcut you can use when you’re speaking to someone with less privilege than you, to check if you are being a jerk and should stop. Are you arguing for or against the status quo? If it’s for, that’s a good sign to take a step back, listen to what the other person is saying, and do some googling to find out why the status quo isn’t working for people in this marginalized group.
Say I’m talking about how the American legal profession creates significant barriers against people with mental illness, and you say “Yeah but would you want a psycho handling your custody case?” The obvious subtext is “maybe the status quo is good and necessary.” But the thing about privilege is that the status quo serves it. If someone with less privilege is saying that the status quo does not serve them, you can safely assume that yes, they have already considered the possibility that the status quo is good and necessary. Of course they’ve considered it; it’s the Procrustean bed they’ve been trying to climb out of for years and years, and they’ve probably already lost some limbs to it.
Which leads me to my second point: STAKES.
2. Recognize that the stakes are different for marginalized people.
If you, a multiplication student genuinely trying to work their way up to calculus, walk up to a calculus student, peer at their textbook, and say, “What’s going on here? Math is supposed to be numbers!”, they cannot tell the difference between you, a multiplication student trying to learn, and the zillions of multiplication students who have said that same sentence to that calculus student in the past and immediately followed it up by trying to set fire to their school supplies. So if they are rude to you in response, and your feelings get hurt, it’s important to be aware that this isn’t about you. While you’re trying to do small talk, they’re trying not to get their school supplies set on fire.
Sometimes when I’m out in public by myself, I am very chilly to strange men trying to start conversations with me. A dude might think “ugh this bitch is snooty,” and in some cases, he’d be right: I am sometimes a little rude. But the thing is, lots of strange guys in the past have touched me without my permission or said nasty, threatening things to me. When I’m cold with strangers, I’m not doing it because I get a kick out of hurting people’s feelings in bars. I’m doing it to protect myself from outcomes that started with an encounter identical to this one — casual, friendly conversation — and then turned ugly.
See how the guy and I are, in a way, participating in two completely different interactions? He’s trying not to get rejected socially, and I’m trying not to get assaulted. Of course the interaction is more fraught for me than it is for the guy. Of course I’m at a higher emotional temperature: Not because the guy is inherently more rational and I’m inherently more emotional, but because the interaction has much higher stakes on my side.
“Not everything’s life or death, Jenny!”
Super true. But even when death isn’t on the line, privilege often gives you the gift of lower stakes. For instance, there was a Gizmodo article recently that made fun of pre-peeled, pre-pitted avocados. It’s a genre of article you’ve maybe seen before, where someone writes in a humorous way about a product whose existence they find ridiculous, like those Lady Bic pens. If Lady Bic pens or pre-peeled avocados disappeared from my life, it would make no difference to me at all.
But here’s something I didn’t know (until I read about it on the internet): Many products of the pre-peeled avocado type are developed for the benefit of disabled people, then marketed more broadly so the company doesn’t lose money on them. For me, an able-bodied person, and for the able-bodied author of that Gizmodo article, the stakes of saying “get rid of these ridiculous pre-peeled avocados!” are nil. For a disabled person who can’t peel an avocado on their own, the stakes could be no more avocados ever.
Even within that, there are often secret stakes hiding behind the obvious ones. In this example, no avocados would suck but it wouldn’t be a disaster. Most of the human race throughout most of human history got by just fine without avocados, right? But here’s a thread about rhetoric surrounding accessibility products. Dependence on other people for things like peeling avocados and opening jars enables and exacerbates abuse. Criticizing pre-peeled avocados for their wastefulness plays into a much broader narrative about the costs associated with disability care, which in turn has been used to justify things like forced sterilization of disabled people and gutting programs that disabled people need to survive.
So if I said “ha ha pre-peeled avocados” on Twitter and a disabled person called me an asshole and now my feelings are hurt, the above is crucial context. The interaction that I saw — a stranger called me an asshole for making a harmless joke — actually had a lot more going on within it than I realized.
“But hurt feelings are real!”
Aw, I know. It feels crappy when someone calls you an unkind name. You can talk that out with your friends when you get home this afternoon. But what you have to have to have to keep in mind is that the enemy isn’t the disabled person who snapped at you on Twitter for saying something thoughtlessly hurtful. The enemy of you both is the social system that values the able-bodied people more than disabled people while doing its best to conceal from able-bodied people that any such thing is happening. They’re doing their part to dismantle the system; if you’re not doing yours, don’t get mad at them for being pissed at you for contributing to it.
What to do with this knowledge
Now that you know these things, how should you move forward?
Don’t respond right away. When someone criticizes me, my instinct is to defend myself hotly without waiting to think about whether the criticism was merited. This is a bad response in the situation we’re discussing (also: in many many many situations), because it means I’m doubling down on something I might later wish I had not doubled down on. Step away from the computer, chat with your friends about what happened, do some googling to check if there’s a context you weren’t aware of. (Often, there is! As we discovered above, there’s a lot that privileged people don’t know we don’t know.)
Apologize if you decide you were wrong. A good apology goes like this: “I said something hurtful yesterday, which you rightly called me out on, and I’m sorry I said it.” If applicable: “I’m doing more reading and educating myself on these issues so that I can do better in the future.” Recognize that you are owed nothing in response to this apology. If they ignore you, do nothing. If they say “I don’t care what you’re reading, you ableist asshole,” DO NOTHING. Apologies are, again, not about you.
Don’t respond if you decide you were right, or slightly wrong but mostly right, or you would have been wrong if you’d meant it the way the person took it but you didn’t so you were, actually, right. Sometimes marginalized people — just like sometimes all people — are wrong assholes. If you decide that’s the case, no further action is really required. It’s easy to curate your online life so you don’t have to interact with a person you don’t want to interact with. Unfollow them and move on. Maybe they were indeed a wrong asshole; maybe you’ll realize later they were a right asshole. Either way, you don’t need to let them know about it.
The second week of January, I read Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about America’s past and present and future. Both were published before the 2016 presidential election, and both speak with sorrow and hope about our country’s history and its potential. Smith ends his book like this:
I hope my answers create a world where the Trayvons in waiting can see their own humanity. I hope I’ve fought hard enough to live long enough to see what questions they ask. I hope their answers are better than mine.
Post-election, it’s hard to read words of hope that were written before the election happened. It’s hard not to feel that the election of Trump is the death of all hope that we can work together to make a country that cares about all its citizens, or even cares just about all its children. It’s hard to look at my godson and feel like we’re leaving him anything worth having.
I woke up at four in the morning on 9 November 2016 and checked the news; and then I lay back down on the bed and whispered, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do? God, what are we going to do?” I checked in with my people all day, online and on my phone and in person, and it seemed like everyone I loved was asking the same question, not rhetorically, but genuinely: What are we going to do? Someone please stand up and tell us what to do.
People have stood up. Journalists, writers, private citizens have stood up and created resources and supported each other and given their time and expertise and wisdom and kindness. It isn’t the same as what we really wanted, which was for Dumbledore or Barack Obama to swoop in with a cape and save the day. Every day I wake up and think, This won’t be enough. We won’t be saved this way, with phone calls and petitions. The forces that are steering our country now are big and we are small and I can’t control it and we’re going to lose.
Here’s what I’m trying to remember. I can’t decide, and you can’t, what the country is going to be. It’s beyond our scope of control. I can only decide what I’m going to be. What’s in our heart matters to the exact extent that we use it to create action in the real world. If we love a group of people while enacting policies that lead to their deaths, then our love is worthless. If I inwardly oppose Donald Trump’s efforts to turn America into a banana republic, but I fail to translate that opposition into words and deeds, then my ideology doesn’t mean anything.
The world feels daunting, now. I can’t see what the future will look like from here, so I am trying to hang on to what I can see. I can see the kind of person I want to be (in my parents, in my sisters, in the writers and thinkers who have stood up since the election). I can make the choices that kind of person would make.
This is the end of Daniel Jose Older’s essay “This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution,” in The Fire This Time:
You chose hope, and the night is quiet and I write while you sleep — and this moment with all its weight and responsibility, this turning point in the world and our lives, is ours, and these words are for you.
The place: Nick Spencer’s Captain America comic. No, not that one. The Sam Wilson one.
The thing: I can’t even bear to summarize it because it’s so embarrassing. You will have to read this Daily Dot overview. But basically, Nick Spencer made some jokes about the rhetorical tactics of women and minorities after a bunch of women and minorities criticized his Hydra!Cap plot twist on ideological grounds.
I died of embarrassment for him, and then I came back to life to write this post about why it’s a bad look to parody the people who most recently criticized you. Now everyone can save themselves. And me. You can save me. Most importantly you can save me from having to feel THIS EMBARRASSED.
Jokes Need Specificity
We like specificity in our humor, don’t we, team? So let’s assume for the sake of argument that when people make jokes about fictionalized versions of people who’ve wronged them, they’re genuinely doing it from a place of good humor. HOWEVER, unless they’re fairly familiar with the world they’re drawing on, these jokes are going to tend to come off like late-stage Andy Rooney: Broad, insular, and not nearly as coherent a critique as the writer imagines.1
In other words, funny people tend to be particularly funny when they’re talking about worlds with which they are familiar. Tina Fey worked on NBC shows for years and then wrote a lot of running gags for 30 Rock about NBC corporate ownership and product placement. Michael Patrick King met a couple of nonwhite people one time in Brooklyn maybe and then made lots and lots of jokes that depend on broad racial stereotypes and that’s how we got 2 Broke Girls (lucky us).
Nick Spencer is here assuming that the language of social justice is inherently funny and only needs to be roughly approximated to put the audience into stitches. Instead it comes off like “a person was on Tumblr for a sec and these are the words he remembered.” Comics have a history of making hamfisted political statements that cause later generations to cringe, and this is certainly in line with that rich tradition — but that may not have been exactly what Nick Spencer was going for?
You’re Not Doing It From a Place of Good Humor and We Can All Tell and It’s So So Awkward, Please Have Mercy and Spare Us These Pretend Jokes Cause They Are Making Us Really Uncomfortable on Your Behalf
One time I went to a working lunch where my lunch companion responded to everything I said with a laugh, a few words of agreement, and then a joking reference to something horrifically personal in her own life. Like I would say (this is not a real quote, it is an example similar to things she really said. I was too embarrassed and sorry for her to ever repeat the actual words she said), “So are you a Saints fan too?” and she’d say “Ha ha ha well they’re a good team but it’s hard to be a Saints fan when your cheating scumbag of a husband wore Saints gear all the time, you know what I mean?”
Everything she said had the cadence of a joke, yet none of it was really a joke. I have never felt so embarrassed for another human being. She was clearly not fine with any of the choices she had made in her life or the relationships she’d been in, but I’d venture to say that a working lunch was not the ideal venue in which to work through all of that. Because professionalism.
The Captain America panels are similar. A compassionate friend would read them and say “Hey man, is there something you need to talk about? Regarding youths?” A compassionate editor would read them and say “Hey man, maybe set this aside for a time when you have more perspective, huh?” They would do this because writing jokes that are a thinly veiled cover for your hurt feelings is VERY EMBARRASSING FOR YOU.
It’s Contributing to Bad Discourse
All of this would be more embarrassing than damaging if it weren’t for the fact that Nick Spencer is a notable writer in a field that’s already hostile to writers, and fans, who don’t adhere to a perceived demographic standard. One of the main purposes of humor is to enforce social norms, so the depiction of social justice rhetoric as both ridiculous and dangerous urges readers not to take seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups for equality and respect.
(I probably don’t need to say that there has never been much of a danger of the comics community taking seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups.)
Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep, I guess. And it’s working: I’ve seen oodles of women and minorities say that hostility in the comics world is pushing them away from reading, writing about, and being interested in comics. It makes me sad because I want a vibrant and diverse comics world that explores new territory instead of perpetually staying in the safest possible ideological waters.
I’m making this section a short section because I have become cynical in my old age and I don’t believe people can be swayed by appeals to morality. But in case anyone is swayed by that, here’s why else privileged people shouldn’t use their writing platforms to belittle less privileged people asking for less shitty representation:
Once You Start Down the Aaron Sorkin Path, Forever Will It Dominate Your Destiny
You know who enjoys to settle scores in his art? Aaron Sorkin, y’all. Aaron Sorkin has been smug for his whole career (see for evidence, litrally any Sorkin stand-in character in litrally any show ever), but his smugness has reached chronic levels now. He used to be Prestige Guy, and now he’s Old Man Yells at Internet Guy. It’s not that there’s no audience for that but um, let’s just say that audience has an expiration date.
In the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey spent an entire episode making fun of people who criticized the first season for a stereotypical depiction of Kimmy’s boyfriend Dong. The episode was nigh unwatchable due to the naked anger it displayed towards Tina Fey’s critics under the faintest pretense of joke-making. When I saw it, I thought, OH NO SHE IS AARON SORKIN NOW.
You don’t, you do not want to go down this path. Aaron Sorkin used to get in slap fights with Television without Pity, and then when interacting with live human recappers didn’t pay off for him, he wrote an episode of The West Wing fictional-him (Josh Lyman) got into fights with fictional straw-man versions of the recappers, whom he characterized as fat basement dwellers one and all. Since many of the recappers at Television without Pity continued in their professional careers as pop culture critics, including Linda Holmes at NPR and Tara Ariano at Previously.tv, this humiliating moment in Aaron Sorkin’s history will never ever be forgotten. It’s going to follow him forever.
Here’s another thing Aaron Sorkin did: He had a relationship with Kristen Chenoweth that ended, as relationships do sometimes, and then he wrote an entire show in which fictional-him (Matt Albie) won argument after argument with fictional-Kristen Chenoweth (Harriet Hayes) until she was so won over by his superior intellect and moral character that they got back together. See why you don’t want to start down this path? See the monstrously mortifying ends to which it leads?
There you go. This is why not to do what Nick Spencer did. Now I feel I have done my bit for America and I can return to the former comfort of being dead from secondhand embarrassment.
Unnecessary shade on Andy Rooney, I hear you say! Look, I know, but his columns those last few years were “Old Man Yells at Cloud” to the max. ↩
Happy New Year, friends! I’m back in the saddle again and hanging out over at the Oxford Words blog to propose some word-related New Year’s Resolutions. I swear to God this will be the year I figure out “plangent.”
Well, team, 2016 has been hot garbage. A few good things have happened though. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a woman who I love desperately and whose happiness gets me totally teary, got married this year. My sister and brother-in-law had a baby, so I have a new godson to buy books for. Those were excellent things.
In many other, terrifying ways, 2016 was a shitpile. I am trying not to think too much about it during this holiday season, and I hope that you have found some good distractions for yourself too. Stay safe and have wonderful holidays! I will be back in the New Year to talk about apocalypses and the books I (hopefully) got for Christmas and the book you (hopefully) received or purchased.
Oh, also! An exciting thing! I am going to try cooking a BRAND NEW THING: Brie cheese covered in apricot preserves wrapped up in puff pastry sheets. I will cook the fuck out of it and eat it on crackers and I will let you know how it turns out. Sounds good, right?
Okay! Go have your holidays! I love you all! I am sorry that 2016 was such a shitpile for all of us, and we will have to keep each other safe and brave and accountable in 2017.