What to Do and Who to Be

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.

Fighting Straw-Man Approximations of Your Critics Makes You Look Like an Asshole

The time: The Year of our Lord 2017.

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.

this line was the only redeeming feature of that episode so I have included it here for your enjoyment

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.

  1. 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 Holidays, Friends!

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.

this is not my godson. this is a stock baby photograph from Wikipedia. we’re not posting pictures of the baby on the internet. luckily, all babies look alike.

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.

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

Nonfiction November continues, hosted this week by Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves. This week we’re talking book pairings!

Nonfiction November

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Mm, yes, I love a good game of Read This Then That. Nonfiction November has pegged me accurately in this regard. Let’s start with a creepy debut novel I read earlier in the year, Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean.

It’s an excellent look at the lives of North Koreans after they escape from their hometown, and I’m pairing it up with Suki Kim’s Without You There Is No Us, as an act of rebellion against everyone in publishing and the media who framed Kim’s book like a memoir instead of the work of investigative journalism that it is. Down with gendered bullshit!

Next I will be pairing up two books where maybe you’ll read this recommendation and say “Jenny is this just a thinly veiled plot to get us to read these two books you’re already obviously very excited about?” To which the answer is, of course, yes. Yes, that is what is happening. Sorry to have been so transparent.

Read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, an alt-history Congolese steampunk fantasy that has dirigibles, deception, lesbians, and characters who use cats for spies.

Then when you’re finished and you have thousands of questions about which elements of the plot are from real history and which ones are from Nisi Shawl’s considerable imagination, get thee to David van Reybrouck’s Congo, a magisterial history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s massive but engaging. I can’t recommend it enough.

Thanks to the Nonfiction November hosts for staying fabulous! What nonfiction are y’all reading this week?

Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction

Well, the weather is still confusingly warm, but nevertheless my calendar informs me that we are now in the month of November, which can only mean one thing, book lovers: The triumphal return of Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November

This week is hosted by Rachel of Hibernator’s Library, and we’re talking about book selection techniques. To wit:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

If all the nonfiction topics in the entire world were billiard balls on an infinite pool table, and you set one of the balls in motion every time you read a nonfiction book, and then you next read books about every billiard ball topic that first billiard ball clunked into, that would be a generally accurate depiction of my ever-expanding nonfiction interests. At one point (though I cannot exactly conjure up a clear memory of this in my mind), I only read memoirs. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians plus gay history books. And so on and so forth, you get the idea. The more things I know, the more things I find there are to know.

actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library
actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

Wellllllll, I mean, I like a book with nicely done endnotes. On my Official List of Grown Adulthood Lifehood Policies, rule number 6 is “Always verify sources,” and this is obviously more difficult to do when the book is pop nonfiction of the type that doesn’t run to endnotes. When books don’t have notes, I never feel like I really know the information contained inside; I just feel like I at best have heard rumors about it. So although I do read nonfiction where the sources aren’t carefully documented, it’s not my preference.

Oh, hm, that wasn’t really writing style so much as citation style. Well, for writing style, I like it when authors can find a good balance between theory, data, and anecdotes. It’s a tricky balance to strike!

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you?

Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.
Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.

If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I no longer have any recollection what this book is, but there is a book on my TBR spreadsheet entitled The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse. In the “precis” column, Past Me wrote “EDWARDIAN INTRIGUE AND CRIIIIIIME,” with seven Is in the word “crime,” even though as you may know the correct spelling is with only one I. Is the missing corpse the duke’s? Why does he have a secret wife? Who is the murderer? Way to go, author Piu Marie Atwell, you have left me with many questions.

How do you choose your nonfiction reads, friends?

Audio Recs for Kim

Okay, blogosphere, it’s your time to be excellent! As many of y’all already know, our own wonderful Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness and co-hosts Nonfiction November, recently lost her partner of eight years. I know many of us have been sending thoughts and prayers to our dear friend in this difficult time, and she’s recently let me know that there’s something we can do to help out.

Kim recently started a new! awesome! job where I know she’s absolutely crushing it, but which necessitates a looooooooong commute. Like all of us with long commutes, Kim wants to spend these transit hours putting amazing books in her brain, but she’s running short on recommendations for new audiobooks and podcasts.

Here’s where you come in, my wonderful fellow book bloggers. Just fill out the form below with your podcast/audiobook recommendation and a few words on why you’re bringing it to Kim’s attention. Multiple submissions hugely encouraged! I shall collate them all and send them on to Kim with your rec notes and lots of blogger love. If you need a sense of Kim’s reading tastes, I will direct you to her review policy for some tips.

Rec Type*
Recommender: (your name)*
Rec notes (tell Kim briefly why your rec is so awesome!)*

If I can be a bit mushy for a second: I’ve seen so much kindness and love out of the book blogosphere over my years here, and I know Kim can depend on you for enough recommendations to keep her ears busy for many, many commuting days. If you can also share this post with other bloggers, do it! I know how many overlapping circles of bloggers there are in this glorious world, and I want recs from as many of them as you can summon to Kim’s aid.

A Master Post of Celebrities Who Can’t Wink

Somehow my life has reached a point where I started collecting gifs of celebrities who can’t wink. I don’t know why, except I know exactly why, and it’s that Alice was reading some Person of Interest fic and said that a lot of it mentioned the fact that Root (played by Amy Acker) can’t wink. And because I cherish Amy Acker, I went on a hunt and found the following very endearing gifs as proof:

ahahaha I love Amy Acker
ahahaha I love Amy Acker


Next I discovered that Kit Harrington can’t do it.

do people who can't wink know they can't wink?
do people who can’t wink know they can’t wink?

Good try, kiddo!

When BuzzFeed employee Ben Henry broke the story that Rihanna also can’t wink, I decided it was high time for me to make that compilation post a reality. You’re all welcome.

her ensemble is very fetching though
her ensemble is very fetching though
her wink failure only makes her more adorable
her wink failure only makes her more adorable

Also, when I started googling, I discovered that Idris Elba is a known wink failure, and I found that very soothing in terms of, like, how intimidated I will feel if I ever meet him.

that is squinting. you just squinted.

Sure, he’s inhumanly beautiful and looks better in a suit than I will ever look in anything. But I can wink. Really well, actually. And I’d like to think that ultimately makes us equals.1

Alice said she had a gif of Barbara Stanwyck failing to wink, but I’m going to say this counts as a wink. Judge for yourself:

I don't know, this one's hard to judge
I don’t know, this one’s hard to judge

She doesn’t hold her non-winking eye perfectly still, but the lid on that eye doesn’t actually close. I’m calling it a successful wink. I think? Right? Ish? Sure, it’s not to Kate McKinnon standards, but who among us could be?

Do you have more to add? Drop a line in the comments! I will be updating this post until all wink-impaired celebrities are represented in gif format.

  1. N.B. It does not.

Me, elsewhere

Happy Monday, team! Today I’m over at the Oxford Dictionaries blog yammering about genre. Basically it is my considered opinion that literature has genuinely failed us by having so few available filters, and I think the publishing world should do something about it.

In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, the US, UK, and Canada published over half a million books altogether. Yet of this infinitely categorizable bounty, we’ve apparently only managed to sort books into as many genres as your neighborhood Waterstones has clusters of shelves. I call shenanigans! Why should it be so hard for me to get my fix of YA novels set in boarding schools? Of epistolary fiction of any stripe? Of historical novels set exclusively during the London Blitz?

All the Summer YA

Happy Friday, everyone! Today I’m linking you to the adventures of me, elsewhere! The lovely Shiny New Books has out a brand new issue, and my lovely pal Memory and I are in it, recommending you all the best YA of the summer and being heartfelt. Viz:

I think of the sort of fiction I had access to when I was a teenager, and I look at what’s available to today’s young people, and I’m beyond happy for them. The trans kids get to see themselves on the page and the cis kids get to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, all wrapped up in a great story. It’s a damned nice thing.

(I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, don’t you usually recommend fewer books in these columns? And the answer is, hush your face. We got excited about a lot of books this season.)