Can We Continue to Make Art in the Midst of a Pandemic? C.S. Lewis has the answer.

[We] must ask [ourselves] how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” a speech given in Oxford in autumn of 1939

Read the whole thing here.

The Big Five and the Odd Couple

A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.

I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.

The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”

The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.

In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.

How odd couple stories use Big Five traits

As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.

This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.

Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.

In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.

Odd Couples Everywhere!

Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.

In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.

So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories?
Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?

“Book, Don’t Fail Me Now”

The following is a poem by Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet was a poet and a mom. This poem compares publishing a book to sending your child out into the world: you dress the kid as best you can, attempt to wipe his or her face, and just pray that he or she doesn’t embarrass you out there.

I was introduced to this poem in an American Lit class in college, and even then I thought it was clever. At the time, of course, I had no children and had not published anything.

In the years since, I’ve thought of this poem once or twice whenever I do manage to publish something and find that it can look very different staring up at you from a newspaper than it looked on my laptop. Truly, works of literature, like children, when we turn them loose on the world do not always behave the way we hoped they would.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth didst by my side remain,

Till snatched from thence by friends less wise than true,

Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view,

Made thee in raggs, halting to th’press to trudge,

Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;

Yet being mine own, at length affection would

Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobling then is meet;

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.

In this array ‘mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.

In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;

And take thy way where yet thou art not known,

If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:

And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,

Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door.

The Author to Her Book, by Anne Bradstreet, via poetryfoundation.org

Love Ruins Everything

OK, not everything that Nicholas Cage’s character says in this little seduction speech do I endorse. For example,

“I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell.”

This recklessness is indeed what we sound like when we’re in the grip of headlong love (or lust), but I still don’t recommend saying it to your significant other.

But.

The way he winds up the speech is just … brilliant.

“Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks our hearts. We are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and break our hearts … and die!

Right on, Nick! The only thing that loving another guarantees us is heartbreak. No one knows this better than our Lord. He definitely “loved the wrong people” … and it got Him killed. Sure, love wins in the end, but let’s not skip over this part. The stories we tell will ring hollow if we skip the part where love ruins everything.

The Wanderlust Tag

February is the month of romance, and the settings in this tag are as romantic as can be! I think this is most fun tag I’ve seen yet. I stole … er, got it from my faithful friend The Orangutan Librarian. She didn’t exactly tag me, but … she did say anyone can do the tag. So here goes!

Rules

  • Mention the creator of the tag and link back to original post [Alexandra @ Reading by Starlight]
  • Thank the blogger who tagged you
  • Answer the 10 questions below using any genre
  • Tag 5+ friends

The Questions

Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town … Many of Anne Tyler’s books are like this. Also, every almost every single Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie. Sometimes Miss Marple travels, and solves a mystery on a train, or in the Caribbean. But my favorites are the ones where she uses her knowledge of the character types, the dark dynamics, and the domestic history in a small town … her own small town, or someone else’s. As she always points out, small towns are not boring!

Salt and Sand: A book with a beach-side communityHave His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers. I’m not sure why the cover of this book looks the way it does, as the most striking scenes in it take place on a beach. This book stars Lord Peter Whimsey and his love interest, the tomboyish academic Harriet Vane, who is hiking along a deserted beach when she discovers the body of a man with his throat gruesomely slit. Harriet photographs the corpse, and after she leaves, the tide disposes of the evidence. Harriet herself becomes a suspect, and she and Lord Peter must put their heads together to extricate her.

Here there be dragons: a book with a voyage on the high seas … I don’t read many sea stories. In fact, this is the only one I can think of besides Treasure Island and the third book of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. Master & Commander is a really good book. When I was reading it, I even had dreams about it. They made it into a movie, which is also very good, but the movie only covers about half the material in the book, and not even the most sensational incidents.

Tread lightly: a book set down a murky river or jungle … There are many good missionary stories that take place in the remote jungle. These are novelized versions of real events. There is Bruchko (South America); Lords of the Earth (Irian Jaya); In Search of the Source, set in Papua New Guinea, by Neil Anderson; and Do You Know What You Are Doing, Lord?, which gives a very different perspective on the same events, written by Neil’s wife Carol. I am tempted to mention Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, but I haven’t actually read it.

Frozen wastes: a book with a frostbitten atmosphere … Ursula Le Guin’s Left of Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet that has two huge ice caps which reach well down into what on Earth would be called the temperate zones. The main character, an ambassador for an interplanetary council, ends up in a gulag-like camp, is rescued by one of the locals, and the two make an amazing trek across one of the glaciers to escape.

The boonies: a book with rough or isolated terrain … I think many books depend on rough and isolated terrain for the danger and tension in their plot. Think of every murder mystery you’ve ever read where the group of suspects is cut off from the outside world by the tides or snows or whatever. This also goes for lifeboat stories, mountaineering stories, and post-apocalyptic books, all of which throw the characters on their own resources because “help is not going to come.” But I am going to mention Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin.

Hinterlands and cowboys: a book with a Western-esque setting … OK, you know what I am going to say here. I am going to, once again, recommend the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn police procedural/Navajo cultural mysteries by Tony Hillerman. What, you say you still haven’t started reading them? Get to it!

Look lively: a book set across sweeping desert sands … There are quite a few of these. I guess the desert really fires our imaginations. But I’m going to name one that I discovered recently: Sand. by Hugh Howey. (The period is apparently part of the title?) I know I’m late to the Hugh Howey party because the cover of Sand. tells me that he is the bestselling author of another book, Wool. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could make an entire novel centered on wool, but after reading Sand., I believe he certainly could and I’m going to pick up Wool as soon as I see it.

Wild and untamed: a book set in the heart of the woodsA Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney. Teenaged Michael lives on a prosperous farm in Ireland. When he ventures in to the woods near his home, he passes in to another, much larger, forest, which is also the source of all the myths and legends of the past.

Wildest dreams: a whimsical book shrouded in magicThe Dark is Rising series. These YA books are pagan as all get-out, and seem to be based on a very good research into British and Welsh pagan lore. They do a great job of creating an atmosphere of this whole world of magic breaking in to a kid’s everyday life, in ways that only initiates can perceive.

… And may I mention that settings like these are the reason that I love reading and writing? It’s my ambition to write a book in each of these settings (except perhaps the high seas). I would say my books, to date, have covered Frostbitten, Boonies, Small Town and possibly Western.

And as usual, I tag … you, dear Reader! In the comments! Which of these settings do you love? Which will you never tire of?

Writer: The World’s Third Oldest Profession

Today’s post comes from chapters 4 and 5 of this book.

Writing is a human practice.

Of course it is possible to have a human society without writing, but the impulse to devise a writing system, looked at historically, may have been the rule rather than the exception.

This is counter-intuitive, of course. “Symbolic logic” seems like it ought to be unnatural to humans, especially if we are thinking of humans as basically advanced animals, rather than as embodied spirits. But if we think of mind as primary, everything changes. It’s telling that reading and writing are one of the learning channels that can come naturally to people, in addition to the visual, the audio, and the kinesthetic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Welcome to the third post taken from Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. Call this the writing edition. This post hits the highlights of Rudgley’s chapters 4 and 5, pages 58 through 85.

Nah, Ancient People Didn’t Write, They were Barbarians!

The idea of writing as an exception in human history has become dogma:

The proposition that Ice Age reindeer hunters invented writing fifteen thousand years ago or more is utterly inadmissible and unthinkable. All the data that archaeologists have amassed during the last one hundred years reinforce the assumption that Sumerians and Egyptians invented true writing during the second half of the fourth millennium. The Palaeolithic-Mesolithic-Neolithic progression to civilisation is almost as fundamental an article of contemporary scientific faith as heliocentrism. Writing is the diagnostic trait … of civilisation. Writing, says I.J. Gelb, ‘distinguishes civilised man from barbarian.’ If the Ice-Age inhabitants of France and Spain invented writing thousands of years before civilisation arose in the Near East, then our most cherished beliefs about the nature of society and the course of human development would be demolished.

Allan Forbes and Thomas Crowder, quoted in Rudgley, p. 75

Of course, the demolishing of our most cherished beliefs about the course of human development is exactly what, Rudgley is arguing, is going to have to happen.

In the last few chapters I have selected only a small number of the complex sign systems that have been preserved from prehistoric times. My concentration on the Near East and more particularly on Europe should not be taken to imply that such systems did not exist elsewhere in the prehistoric world. Far from it; investigations of numerous collections of signs are being undertaken in places as far afield as the Arabian peninsula, China and Australia. Millions of prehistoric signs across the continents have already been recorded, and more and more are being discovered all the time. … It no longer seems sufficient to retain a simplistic evolutionary sequence of events leading up to the Sumerian [writing] breakthrough some 5,000 years ago.

Rudgley, p. 81

Let’s look at these complex sign systems that Rudgley has mentioned.

The Vinca Signs

I was an adult before I ever heard the phrase “Old Europe.” I was doing research for a planned book, and I was surprised to learn that in southeast Europe (between the Balkans and the Black Sea), as early as 4,000 or 5,000 BC, there were not only cities but a writing system (undeciphered) known as the Vinca signs. It turns out that these cities and this writing system were probably part of a culture that obtained over much of Europe before the coming of the Indo-Europeans, which is called Old Europe. This is the culture that Marija Gimbutas believes was “the civilization of the goddess.”

Just as a reminder, these dates for the Vinca culture are before the very first human cities and writing are supposed to have arisen, in Sumeria in Mesopotamia, about 3,000 BC.

Perhaps I didn’t hear about the Vinca signs in school because they were only discovered in Transylvania 1961. (I was born in 1976, but we all know how long it takes new archaeological findings to get interpreted, integrated into the overall system, and eventually make it into school textbooks.) After being discovered, the signs were assumed to be derived from Mesopotamian cultures such as Sumer and Crete, because it was accepted dogma that writing was first invented in Mesopotamia. Later, the tablets on which the Vinca signs were discovered were carbon-dated and found to be older than the Mesopotamian writing systems. This led to a big disagreement between those who wanted to believe the carbon dates, and those who wanted to believe the more recent dates for Old European archaeological sites, which were then conventional.

Then, in 1969, more, similar signs were discovered on a plaque in Bulgaria and dated to be 6,000 – 7,000 years old. By this time, archaeologists were beginning to accept the carbon dating of these Old European sites. But since they still did not want to admit that writing might have been invented before Sumer, most of them decided “[the signs] could not be real writing and their apparent resemblance was simply coincidental.” (Rudgley p. 63)

An archaeologist named Winn analyzed the Vinca signs and while he is not willing to go further than calling them “pre-writing,” he concludes that they are “conventionalised and standardised, and that they represent a corpus of signs known and used over a wide area for several centuries.” (Rudgley 66)

Meanwhile, Marija Gimbutas and also Harald Haarmann of the University of Helsinki both feel the Vinca signs are true writing and that they developed out of religious or magical signs, not out of economic tallies like the Sumerian alphabet.

Haarmann notes that there a number of striking parallels between the various strands of the pre-Indo-European cultural fabric – especially those related to religious symbolism and mythology. Among these common features is the use of the bull and the snake as important religious symbols. In the case of the snake it is a form of the goddess intimately intertwined with the bird goddess motif in both Old European and later Cretan iconography. The bee and the butterfly are also recurrent divine attributes, and the butterfly is represented by … the double ax. Haarmann sees the goddess mythology of Old Europe echoed in these motifs that also feature prominently in the ancient civilisation of Crete. He then traces the links between the Old European script – as found in the Vinca culture – and later systems of writing, particularly those of Crete.

Rudgley, pp. 68 – 69
Rudgley’s Figure 15 (p.70). On the left are the Vinca signs, on the right is Linear A from Crete.

Ice Age Signs

There are quite a number of symbols that appear on artifacts or are associated with paintings from the Neolithic and even the Palaeolithic period. These include crosses, spirals, dots, “lozenges” (ovals), and the zigzag, which is very common and seems to have been used to represent water. (By the way, note the zigzags among the Kachina Bridge petroglyphs.) “The discovery in the early 1970s of a bone fragment from the Mousterian site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria suggests that the use of the signs may date back to the time of the Neanderthals. This fragment of bone was engraved with the zigzag motif …” and apparently on purpose, not accidentally in the course of doing some other repetitive task. (Rudgley 73)

“The single V and the chevron (an inverted V) are among the most common of the recurrent motifs in the Stone Age.” (Rudgley p. 74) Gimbutas, of course, interprets the V as a symbol for the female genitals and/or Bird Goddess, but it could be just … you know … a symbol.

Archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan has interpreted the many signs found at various Palaeolithic cave art sites not as a form of hunting magic (contra previous interpretations), but as a symbolic system. “Leroi-Gourhan admitted to us shortly before his death, ‘At Lascaux I really believed they had come very close to an alphabet.’” (Rudgley p. 77)

Rudgley’s Figures 16 – 18 (p. 78). Top paragraph: some of the Franco-Cantabrian (Stone Age) signs. Middle paragraph: a – hieroglyphic determinatives; b – Sumerian pictoral writing; c – Indus Valley; d – Linear A; e- Linear B; f – Cypriote; g – Proto-Sinaitic; h- Phoenician; i – Iberian; j – Etruscan; k – Greek (Western Branch); l – Roman; m – Runic. Bottom paragraph: some of the signs found on oracle bones in very ancient China.

But Can You Prove It’s Writing?

Every time some symbols are discovered that are so ancient they strain belief, anyone who doesn’t want to accept them as writing can easily go in to a number of calisthenic moves to cast doubt on this. If the item the signs are found on is in poor condition, they can question whether the marks were even intentional. Perhaps they were accidental scratches, the product of some other activity. If the marks are undeniably made by people, they can be dismissed as doodles. The Vinca signs, when first found, were speculated to have been copied randomly from Mediterranean signs by people who believed these things had mysterious power, but did not understand their meaning. Rudgley also notes that the Old European signs have been interpreted as purely magic symbols, as if a magical intent were to make them non-writing.

In short, any time we are presented with a complex system, there are always a million ways to get out of attributing it to a mind. This is doubly true if we aren’t able to interpret its meaning, but you will even see people do this with messages that they ought to be able to understand. Of course, it can also work the other way, where people see meaning in complex patterns where it wasn’t intended. Often what it comes down to is whether we want there to be a meaning there. Do we, or do we not, want to be in contact with another mind? If for whatever reason we don’t, we can always find a logical way to avoid that contact.

So in the case of apparent writing systems that we haven’t cracked and probably never will, our attitude towards them is going to depend heavily on what we believe about ancient people’s minds. Were they basically like ours, or were they different, animal? We will see more writing systems if we are expecting that they came from people. If we are not expecting to encounter people, then nothing is going to convince us that these are writing systems.

Was Adam a Writer?

My mind was blown, while taking an Old Testament Backgrounds course years ago, when I read an essay that asserted that Adam was able to write and in fact had left a written record for his descendants.

This idea seems completely loony on the face of it … until you realize that the only reason it seems loony is that we are assuming that writing is a recent, unnatural development, the product of tens of millennia of human cultural evolution, and not a characteristic human activity that is, so to speak, wired in.

The essay interpreted the early chapters of Genesis in this way. There will be a short historical record, followed by the phrase “the book of [name],” indicating that the passage immediately preceding was by that author.

PassageRecountsCloses with
Genesis 1:1 – 4:26Creation (in poetry), fall, Cain and Abel, some of Cain’s descendants, SethGen. 5:1 “the book of Adam”
Gen. 5:1b – 6:8Recap of creation of Adam, Seth’s descendants up to Noah and his sons, Nephilim, God’s resolve to wipe out mankind, God’s favor on NoahGen. 6:9a “the book of Noah”
Gen. 6:9b – 11:9Building of the ark, the Flood, emerging from the ark, the Table of Nations, the Tower of BabelGen. 11:10 “the book of Shem”
Gen. 11: 10b – 11:26Genealogy from Shem to Terah and his son AbramGen. 11:27 “the book of Terah”
Gen. 11:27b – 25:18 Terah moves his family to Haran, Terah dies, a whole bunch of stuff happens to Abram, death of Sarah, Isaac finds a wife, Abraham dies, genealogy of the IshmaelitesGen. 25:19 “the book of Abraham’s son Isaac”
Gen. 25:19b – 37:1Jacob’s entire life, death of Isaac, genealogy of EsauGen. 37:2 “the book of Jacob”
In Genesis, the author’s name comes after the notes he left.

I realize this might be a lot to accept. It’s just food for thought. It does explain why it says “the book of _________” (or, in my NIV, “this is the account of __________”), after the bulk of that person’s story.

Get it? Get it?

(By the way … for those wondering about the title of this post … prostitution is referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” Erma Bombeck, mother and humorist, has published a book hilariously titled Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession. The title of this post references those two, because the post is about the fact that writing is very, very old. I don’t mean to imply that a writer’s life has any necessary connection to the other two professions, although of course this does invite all kinds of clever remarks.)

So. This book.

A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.

From the jacket:

Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.

When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …

When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.

How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.

It didn’t.

I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.

The Good

First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.

She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:

Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.

Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.

pp 14 – 15

The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.

This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.

It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.

The Bad

A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:

In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.

page 352

Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.

Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.

Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).

But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:

Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.

page 310

So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.

Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,

The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.

page 294

Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.

At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:

The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.

Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.

I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.

That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.

As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:

“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”

Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.

It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)

So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”

About Forgiveness

Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.

Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.

So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.

page 406

What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.

First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.

But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.

I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.

Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.

And In Conclusion

So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).

I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,

“I see what you’re doing there.”

Not Conventionally Handsome?

The first time we meet the romantic lead in my second novel, he is described thus (he’s the older brother):

Both boys were built along round, compact lines. Sha was still rather skinny, but Ikash was beginning to fill out with a little muscle, taking on a sleek, powerful shape reminiscent of a dolphin … They had brown skin; sweet, round faces like their mother; and straight black hair, Sha’s floppy, Ikash’s hugging his head like a seal’s pelt.

The Strange Land, chapter 1

Later, we are told that Ikash has “a tendency to appear squat.”

This is a look that might be called not conventionally handsome (i.e., not looking like the prince in Snow White or something). By the end of the book, believe me, Ikash is what Michael Knowles would call “a hulking Adonis.”

I didn’t write this intentionally to boost this particular style of male beauty. That’s just the way it worked out. Coincidentally, around the same time I was writing, Disney’s Maui gave us another spectacular example of this style of male beauty:

Though Maui is even more of a tank than Ikash.