Good and Bad Books

I’ve been following (via Twitter) some of the testimony in the antitrust case the US Department of Justice brought against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

I confess I haven’t followed it in detail because (a) I’m opposed to mergers of big publishing houses (and other large corporations) in general, so I don’t need to read much about it to know what I think, and (b) I know enough about antitrust law to know it’s painful to read about even though it’s important.

I may go back and catch up, though, just to get a feeling for how well DOJ is doing. Over the years US antitrust enforcement has become very weak, so even though it’s pretty clear that these companies shouldn’t merge, it’s by no means certain that they’ll be stopped.

Even if I catch up, though, I’m not going to write about antitrust issues, because I only do that if someone is paying me big bucks. (I used to have to edit antitrust class action stories in my day job and let me tell you, I earned my money and then some those days.)

One thing that really got me from reading Twitter was the realization that lumping writers together as one category makes almost no sense.

I think there are three things that most writers have in common:

  1. They want to write.
  2. They want to be read.
  3. They want to get paid.

There are exceptions even to those three categories, but those three things are true of most of us.

But when it comes to what we want to write and even what we’re willing to write to make money, writers are arranged along a long spectrum.

There is a world of difference between a journalist who writes best-selling self help books and someone writing, say, experimental fiction. Continue reading “Good and Bad Books”

Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice

Dear Auntie Deborah…


I wrote a story using another person’s characters, even though they said not to. Can I publish it since their book isn’t copyrighted?

If the author has published their story in any form, it’s copyrighted. That, however, is beside the point. It’s just plain unethical to do what you suggest. It’s a great way to make enemies in your genre and create a horrible reputation that will haunt your career, assuming you still have one after such a bonehead move.

Create your own characters. Write your own stories. Treat your colleagues and their work the way you would like to be treated. Pursue your career with integrity and generosity.

 

Are self-published books inferior to professionally published books?

It all depends.

Not that long ago, self-published or vanity press books were assumed to be of inferior quality, that is to say, unpublishable by “real” (traditional) publishers. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom.

Today, however, many self-published books go through the same rigorous editing and quality standards as traditionally published books. Some genres, like romance, are especially friendly toward self-pubbed projects.

With modern publishing technology (ebooks, POD printing), there are many reasons why a pro-level author might want to self-publish, including:

  • Niche projects, like memoirs or family histories.
  • Series that were dropped by trad publishers but that have an enthusiastic fan following.
  • Well-written books that don’t fit into the NY “best-seller” model.
  • OP (out-of-print, rights reverted to author) backlist.
  • Great books that straddle genres or otherwise confuse traditional marketing/sales departments.

That said, many self-published books are dreadful. They aren’t good enough to attract the interest of an agent or publisher to begin with, they aren’t professionally edited or proofread, the covers are amateurish, and so on. The challenge for the reader is to sort out those books that are truly a wonderful reading experience.

Does reaching a certain number of reviews increase your indie sales?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Theories abound, usually to line the pockets of the “experts.” “Gaming” the Amazon system is a losing proposition. What might have been true 2 years or 6 months or last week no longer works — because thousands of self-published authors have tried it, thereby flooding the system with meaningless tweaks.

If you want to increase your sales, write a great book. Publicize it. Get stellar reviews on Publishers Weekly and the like. Write an even better book. Rinse and repeat. Even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, but you’ll have the satisfaction of writing really good books.

My first attempt at a novel is a New Adult Romance novel using the Three Act Structure and I’m floundering. Help!

I’ve been writing professionally for over 35 years and this is what works for me: I noodle around until the story catches fire. Then I have some idea of: the hook, one or two plot points/reversals, the big climax, and the emotional tone of the ending. Sometimes I fall in love with the characters and they run away with the story. If I’m selling on proposal, I use that much to generate a synopsis. If it’s on-spec, I dive in. As long as I feel as if I’m flying or surfing the story, I keep on. I use things like structural analysis only if I feel stuck.

The thing is, and always has been for me (12+ trad pub novels, 60+ short stories, plus collections and non-fic), I go where the creative joy is. Anything else is a boring slog.

All this said, I write fantasy and science fiction, where fluid structures are appreciated. Romance is much more formulaic. Consider that your muse might be leading you to write a love story, not a by-the-numbers romance. Always, always listen to your heart. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice”

Information Overload

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
― Carl Sagan

A lot of writers I know do research, by which they mean (I think they mean) they have an idea for their book or story and go look for materials relevant to that.

I do some of that when I need to make sure my story isn’t full of howlers.

But my own actual research forays when I’m writing fiction are pretty specific: Do I have that date right? Is there any science that supports this flight of fancy? I generally do this after I’ve started writing and found something I need to know more about.

I get the impression that a lot of novelists I know go down much deeper rabbit holes doing this kind of research than I do.

I do get obsessed with subjects or with author, but this obsession is rarely related to research for a particular story or book. It has to do more with coming across an idea or an approach that strikes me as fascinating, regardless of whether I have any practical use for it.

Most of the time, I read widely (or as I put it in a recent senryu, wildly) because I’m interested in an immense variety of things, including things I don’t know interest me until I stumble across them.

My biggest FOMO is of not discovering something I want to know about. Carl Sagan put it more elegantly in the quote at the beginning of this post.

But I also read widely/wildly because this is the backbone of my writing. I don’t know in advance what I need to know.

Continue reading “Information Overload”

Critical I

Once I got reading under my belt, I couldn’t do enough of it–books, stories, cereal boxes, comic books. I gobbled up story like I was starving for it, initially uncritically, but fairly soon starting to think about why stories worked/didn’t work for me. In this I had a partner: my brother Clem. He and I amassed a comic book collection of perhaps 2000 well-worn, repeatedly read comics–most, but not all of them DC (the home of Superman and Batman). Clem and I haunted the smoke shop at the corner, where the new comics came in every… I think it was Tuesday… and conspired over which one of us would buy which. We took them home and read the them and then we talked over them. Clem, a far better artist than I will ever be, led the way in discussing the art. One of our favorite riding-on-the-subway games was to identify people who looked like they were drawn by specific artists. Continue reading “Critical I”

Thinking about lost culture again

Lost culture is exciting. How can something be exciting when we have lost it? Most times when we talk about loss, it’s in terms of the events that caused the loss. The political pressure, the murders – dire events that add up to big cultural losses. Yet, when a culture is lost because of irrepressible cruelty, it leaves traces. For years, I’ve been watching for such traces, to see how much we can know when remnants of a population have been forced away from their homes and when their lives have to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t want to hear about horror. I want to find out what we can know about what was destroyed. I don’t look for the names of people: I want to know how they lived.

The first and most obvious relic is, in many cases, linguistic. I was just reading a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century Yiddish in Europe. It traced loan words from cultural areas such as food. Those loan words matched with a bunch of trade records and showed that there was a dynamic and strong Jewish butchers’ industry in the Polish-Lithuanain Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. These days most of the surviving descendants are in the US and may not even eat kosher, but some of the Yiddish has snuck into US English and so, in parts of the US, there is a memory of a life that people once led.

Other records come from the persecutors themselves. The records of the Inquisition have vast repositories of cultural information about Spanish Jews. They used it to technically prove that people were reverting to Judaism or had not dropped Judaism. While conversion to Christianity is by a claim of faith, the Inquisition demanded complete cultural change. Those who held religious power in the empire Spain led was key to maintaining that Jews were impure and that impurity carried down the line to children and to children’s children so people with Jewish ancestry had to be watched forever in case they shifted back to their ancestral religion.

The “convert, leave or die” ultimatum in Spain in 1492 left a lot of people, then, having to forsake family traditions and local customs. It was not safe to wash and wear nice clothes on a Friday, or to send for sweets made by your favourite Jewish confectioner, or even to eat salad on Saturday afternoons. It was possible to be burned alive if any of these small things informed the Inquisition that you were secretly Jewish. Because the Inquisition documented their research into what they regarded as lapsed converts, we know more about everyday life before 1492 as well as after it.

Another hidden aspect of culture is what happens when a whole cultural/religious group is suddenly missing: local culture changes to fill the biggest and most gaping holes. For example, in some places where Jews were sent into exile or mass murdered, the remaining Christian population would suddenly eat more pork. Why? I assume because it proved they were not Jewish and were therefore safe. Big cultural shifts have reasons. This is only one of them, but it’s a deeply-distressing one.

Let me finish on a less distressing note. Superstitions. Some superstitions are folk beliefs that have walked alongside popular culture and religious culture for a while. Others are what’s left when the framework and history for that belief or action is lost. I can imagine that, when we all have flying cars, people will still look both ways before crossing the road, because a hundred years of watching for regular cars instilled a habit so strong we mostly don’t notice we’re doing it.

What look like irregularities in a contemporary culture can tell us a lot about where that culture has been, historically. It’s not the core of my research right now. It’s something I keep an eye on. A lot of the lost elements of culture are the aspects that will bring a novel to life for readers. Understanding how they fit together and create living spaces for real people in our past also helps us write history into fiction more accurately.

 

 

Someone sent me to a story the other day because they knew I was interested in alternate Jewish history (because my most recent novel, The Green Children Help Out, has superheroes and alternate Jewish history) and that story rested all of its research on Christian views of history. The concept was a terrific one: what would happen if the relationship between Christianity and Judaism were inverted, with Christianity the minor religion. Making Judaism more Christian both culturally and religiously meant the story didn’t even come close to exploring the concept. The major players were changed, but the everyday culture was not.

It’ll be a while before I can write a novel using these historical explorations, unless I want to follow the path of the story I so dislike. Before I can bring my imagination to play and tell stories based upon hidden and lost history, I need to find as much as I can about the hidden and lost histories. It’s a marvellously fun trail, but the research is happening now. Old and trusty studies aren’t nearly as useful as conferences and conversations with those doing the research.

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

An Angry Librarian

Certain shows (I’ll spare you the list) lodge deep under my skin–The Music Man, which I saw last week on Broadway, being one. I grew up with the cast album (Robert Preston and Barbara Cook) and the film (Robert Preston and Shirley Jones). I had never seen it staged, however, so when the opportunity arose to see a revival with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, I leapt at it, credit card in hand. I want first to say that I liked it a lot. That being said…

It would be very easy for me to go one of two ways with this new production–uncritically adore it because it’s The Music Man, fer chrissakes, or worry away at it because it’s not the Music Man I grew up with. Short of exhuming Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, or flying Shirley Jones in (at 88, dancing the Shapoopi might not be on her to do list), you’re not going to give me the Music Man I grew up with. And anyway, times have changed and certain things are creaky–even when they might have been “accurate” for the time in which the story is set. I have, however, seen essays basically tearing this production down because Jackman isn’t Preston and–even worse, in one writer’s mind–Foster isn’t Cook.*

I have a couple of bones to pick, sure. The show’s tempo was fast–here and there they could have slowed the tempo down a titch, to useful effect. I loved the woman who played Mrs. Paroo, but wish they’d cast someone younger. Hugh Jackman, who was clearly enjoying himself, wasn’t quite the Harold Hill I wanted him to be (not Preston, but maybe a magnified version of himself?). But none of those quibbles got in the way of the things I liked–nay, loved.

You know the story, right? Continue reading “An Angry Librarian”

Mothering, Creativity, Chaos

Inspired by Nancy Jane Moore’s piece last Friday, I downloaded The Baby on the Fire Escape.* I’m working my way through it–it is wonderfully written, dense and thoughtful, with much to digest. As Nancy says, it’s about mothers as creators, about the ways that women have found to do creative work, sometimes in the interstices of motherhood, sometimes by turning their backs on motherhood, sometimes working with support, sometimes going it alone.

When my older daughter was about two, my husband held the fort and I went to see the Kenneth Brannagh Frankenstein. Which was meticulously true to the source material, and which infuriated me, because I find the source material infuriating.  For all its pondering on the nature of creation, Frankenstein is about a parent who creates life, then freaks out, drops the “baby” and heads for the hills. Which he can do because, well, he’s a man. Continue reading “Mothering, Creativity, Chaos”

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.