Friday, February 23, 2018

Editorial conversation

Back in 2002 I read a good chunk of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell, then for some unknown reason put it aside, on the shelf nearest my head in bed, where such books usually go, until I think to pick them up again. The serendipity of hearing each of these writers mentioned (separately) in passing in the last week reminded me of that volume, and so I picked it up again and resumed reading. Back in 2002 I was neither an editor nor a publisher, and so I read their correspondence from a writer’s point of view. Both correspondents wrote novels, short fiction, and essays; both read copiously. But one part of their correspondence arose from their editor/writer relationship, which back in 2002 did not strike me as particularly interesting, even though Maxwell was one of the most celebrated editors of the twentieth century. Maxwell achieved his reputation as an editor serving as The New Yorker’s fiction editor from 1936-75. In a 2008 article in The New Yorker, “Imperishable Maxwell,” heralding the publication of Maxwell’s fiction in two volumes in the Library of America, John Updike began, “To those who knew him, William Maxwell as a person—soft-spoken yet incisive, moist-eyed yet dry-voiced, witty yet infallibly tactful—threatened to overshadow Maxwell as a writer. We aspiring authors who enjoyed his unstinting editorial attention and gracious company tended to forget that, for four days of the week, he stayed at home and wrote, reporting to the typewriter straight from breakfast, often clad in bathrobe and slippers.”

Maxwell published many of Warner’s stories in The New Yorker. By 2002 I’d read a few of her novels, most notably the brilliant Lolly Willowes and strange, magnificent Summer Will Show, and some of her stories. I’d long been looking for the book that Joanna Russ adored and talked about often, The Corner That Held Them, and hadn’t yet found it. (I eventually spotted it in Powell’s and acquired it—but now realize that I never got around to reading it, which obviously I’ve got to do.) Reading the letters, I found her odd (to me) life and her sharp insights interesting, as I did her and Maxwell’s discussion of writing process. But I skimmed past editorial conversations.

Now in February 2018, picking up exactly where I left off (February 3, 1964), I’m delighted to run smash into an editorial conversation, perhaps because I’m spending so much time bouncing back and forth being a writer on one hand and a publisher and editor on the other. Here’s Maxwell writing to Warner:

 I hope that it is true that in the matter of your stories I am just a little unique, but in the matter of “Johnnie Brewer” I suspect were all a little unique.

 I will begin with myself. I took this sentence for the clue to the story: “England also contained castles, cathedrals, an unknown number of the oldest yew trees in England Devil’s Dykes, Devil’s Beef tubs, Stonehenge, and his grandmother.” Your lists are never haphazard, and I took this story to be a distant cousin to Lolly Willowes, or a grandnephew. As I read it, the hero, who comes from a new and fairly raw civilization and is therefore naturally attracted to everything that is old in the country of his mother’s birth, is, in spite of or perhaps because of an almost American ingenuousness, given a taste of what lies at the heart of a civilization or a person who has reached a very great age—not evil as it is commonly thought of in the contemporary world but a much older, livelier, and more hair-raising thing altogether—something (as the Puritans used to say) abominable. All this against the background of the most ravishing descriptions of the English countryside that have ever been, or ever will be, written—something else that is only possible in a place of great age.

Number 2: Mr. [Robert] Henderson took it to be a story about a young Australian who went to visit his English grandmother and while he was there, in the middle of the night, he had an experience so horrifying that Mr. Henderson doesn’t expect ever to forget it.

Number 3: Mr. Shawn read it as the story of two old ladies who are competing with each other for the boy’s affection, both wanting to mother him, and jealous of each other’s attentions to him, but thinks that the scene in the middle of the night needs to be toned down a bit.

Though I am conveying this suggestion to you (and you must of course feel perfectly free to act on it, if it appeals to you) my heart isn’t in it. I think he read the story too hurriedly and doesn’t understand what it is really about. It is successful as it stands—though horrifying (and meant to be)—and would not be successful if you toned down (that is to say did away with the conscious sexual intention) the scene in the middle of the night, because that is the story.

But it is not a story that can be printed in The New Yorker.

I will hold the manuscript until I hear from you.

PS I neglected to say that if we are all three wrong, or if I am wrong, it is most important that you set us straight.

So, three editorial readings, three different stories (so to speak). Reminds one a bit of workshop readings, doesn’t it? But the key, of course, for the purposes of editing, is figuring out—and in this case, asking the author— what the story she wishes to tell is. That will determine (a) whether the story needs more work and (b) whether it’s suitable for the venue the editor is serving. I’ll admit that I’m tickled by the idea of this story being the “grandnephew” of that superb novel, Lolly Willowes. (I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me to characterize an author’s works in terms of familial relations.) What particularly appeals to me in Maxwell’s side of the conversation is the way in which his preferred reading isn’t one that is compatible with the magazine he’s reading for—but that he’s open to a different reading, albeit one that will require a rewrite, depending on the author’s own wishes for the story.

And Warner’s response?

“You were nearest right, because you saw the old women were part of the landscape; Mr. Shawn was on a right line, for their competition and jealousy is what unlocks their sexual excitement. But I have misled you all, because none of you have seen that both of them are withering with boredom in their ravishing surroundings, and that why they talked about the hard winter was that it was something positive to talk about, the only interesting thing that had happened for years. I thought (but wrongly) that the quotation from Virgil, far from haphazard, and needing a careful grafting in to the story, would be pointer enough to why they seized on the novelty, the gobbet, or fresh young Johnnie. And another thing I now wonder if I established enough is Johnnie’s blithe and heartless egotism. Did you feel, when he drove on into Wales, that any scar, any dint, would remain on him? I didn't. He drove all day, and spent the night at St. David’s with never a thought of the night at Bodkins because in the morning he would see the cathedral properly by daylight.

So I think a little later on I would like the story back, to see if I can readjust the values. At the moment, obviously the scene in the middle of the night is far too assertive; toning it down and toning up the boredom of ergo tua rura manebunt [“Thy lands are yet thine own,” Virgil] might fix it. I should like to fix it; because lately I have got into a bad way of always having a reflective or analytic character somewhere about, a sort of Stockmar who exists in order to save me the trouble of making statements that can stand without being annotated. True, I am cunning enough to make my Stockmars rush to wrong conclusions—but a wrong conclusion is only a signpost to the right one. No! Down with Uncles!

So: seeing that some of her subtlety (“pointer enough”) was too subtle for even as acute a reader as Maxwell (not to mention his assistants), Warner began to wonder if other things might need “toning up” as well. I’m reading her reply as assuming that it is a “New Yorker story.” Since she has by this point sold numerous stories to that magazine, likely she had a sound sense of what kind of stories they would take and what kind of stories they wouldn’t. The story doesn’t come up again in the volume of letters, but it was in fact published in The New Yorker in April 1965, a little more than a year later.

This exchange, I imagine, offers us a fine example of what editorial conversation between a first-rate editor and a first-rate writer looks like. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Guest Post: An Open Letter to Margaret Atwood by Kristin King

An Open Letter to Margaret Atwood

by Kristin King

Dear Margaret Atwood, 

In a recent op-ed, you asked the question: “Am I a bad feminist?” My short answer, from one feminist to another, is no. My longer answer is that the question itself turns what ought to be a dialogue into a bitter argument. This is poor feminist practice. Your response to #metoo activists similarly polarizes debate surrounding sexual harassment and abuse, when the conversation could instead have turned elicited insights. And strangely, your response inadvertently pulls from talking points that have been circulating recently as a result of a deliberate and misogynist public relations campaign. 

However, the best part of feminism is our ability to learn from our disagreements. In the interest of furthering feminist solidarity and dialogue, I have some comments to make. 

The good/bad feminist divide

Framing the issue as a Good Feminist / Bad Feminist one draws battle lines and sets you up for further attack. It puts on blinders and prohibits dialogue. 

Let me offer a glimpse of my own perspective on the feminist movement, from someone who found feminism in the early 1990s. The first professor who taught me feminist theory was Katherine Stockton. She grounded me in queer issues, disability in the feminist movement, and more. And the next was my creative writing professor Colleen McElroy, who helped me start learning about race with authors such as bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa. My continuing self-education has also included the Combahee River Statement, which considered issues of race, class, and gender both together and separately. 

So I didn’t participate in second-wave feminism, even though I certainly reaped its benefits. But I did watch a rift widen between second-and third-wave feminists. I have seen some second-wave feminists who have succeeded in their goals, perhaps have become acting CEOs in their own companies as you have done, dismiss feminists working intersectionally, viewing that practice as a distraction from the primary issue of male and female equality. 

Skipping ahead to the present, I see that many millennial feminists are broke, can’t afford college, which isn’t going to get them good jobs anyhow. It’s not just that they don’t expect to reach the glass ceiling--they’re not even inside the building. They’re living in sleeping bags out in the cold. 

So there are real divisions between women, based on their lived experiences, and those divisions can be and are being exploited by, in your words, “those who do not wish women well.” 

Into this mix comes your op-ed and the language it uses. I see it using talking points that are also being pushed by corporately funded propaganda outlets posing as media. I assume this is unintentional, so a close examination of what I see might provide a beneficial learning opportunity.  

Using the language of the far-right corporate patriarchy

First let’s take a peek at some of the underlying power dynamics .-The wealthiest and most powerful, white men of course, the patriarchy, are using their wealth to pay PR firms to design and push their talking points, which then end up in popular culture, our everyday conversations. Some of it is misogynist, but the primary goal, I believe, is the aim of holding on to money and power. Noam Chomsky articulated the basic problem of news propaganda back in 1992, in his book Manufacturing Consent, and many people have also been watching the idea of manufactured backlash, as in a recent Huffington Post article, “The Fake Feminism Of The #MeToo Backlash.”  Unfortunately, in our current age, all manner of billionaires and corporations are using social media to spread propaganda that benefits them. And none of us is immune. 

Within that context, I’ll put on my hat of “literary critic” and compare three texts: an article published on a news media site of unknown ownership, an article published by a P.R. company, and finally your op-ed.
On December 13, 2017, the article “The #MeToo Movement Is Destroying Trust Between Men And Women” by D.C. McAllister appeared in The Federalist online journal. The Federalist isn’t a news journal but a series of opinion pieces that feature classic examples of propaganda, such as glittering generalities, straw men, name-calling, deliberate vagueness, and a false framing of the narrative. The journal has a readership in the millions--a guarantee that the ideas it spreads will propagate widely. Who is funding this journal? That’s not so transparent. Reader beware.  

On December 18th, 2017, another article appeared on another propaganda outlet, this one specifically targeted at feminists. The outlet was the site Spiked! Online, which has a long history of manipulating public dialogue, especially in the field of agricultural science. This history is readily available through SourceWatch or through research explained by George Monbiot. Its intention is also clearly laid out in their own words upon launch in 2000, available on the Wayback Machine, “nothing less than the creation of a new language for political, social and cultural writing in the twenty-first century.”

The article itself, “Meet the Women Worried about #MeToo,” includes short pieces written by thirteen different women and selected by an editor for the benefit of those funding the magazine. 

A close read of both articles reveals common messages, or talking points, that the outlets want to spread to the public for general use. Each of these messages stops or deflects dialogue in some way. And each message is reflected in your own op-ed. I’ll just take three to examine: the witch-hunt metaphor, framing as a legal issue, and “real feminists.” 

Witch-hunt metaphor

The metaphor of a witch-hunt and similar terms is a key weapon used against #metoo. Combing through through the two propaganda articles, it’s easy to find phrases like, “the sexual harassment witch-hunt,” “mob behavior,” “mass hysteria,” and “orgy of female victimhood,” as well as references to the beheadings that took place in the French Revolution. 

This metaphor has an invisible payload of meaning, which is quite intentional on the part of propagandists. Witches don’t exist, and this implies by analogy sexual predators don’t either. Then there is the gendered component, which is perhaps the reason “witch hunt” is used rather than McCarthyism.
In your op ed, when you note that your accusers mistakenly “think I was comparing them to the teenaged Salem witchfinders and calling them hysterical little girls,” it’s worth going deeper and asking  Why do they think that?” I suggest it’s because somebody with money is pushing the witch-hunt metaphor in order to deliver that exact message. 

Explaining what you did and did not mean by “witch hunt” doesn’t solve that problem, because the implication remains. A stronger move might involve hunting for a new metaphor, or simply diving into the specifics of the core issue with more concrete language.     

Framing as a legal issue
Another propaganda talking point is framing an assault complaint as a legal issue and invoking the principles of “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” There’s a core of truth here: an accusation of anything requires fair consideration. But there’s also a big manipulation of language. 

Going back to the propaganda articles, the Federalist article complains, “When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape” and “men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a ‘sexual abuser’,” it is arguing by implication that an innocent kiss can get a man taken to court. The Spiked article makes similar connections, right down to requiring an act to be illegal before it’s called assault. 

A legal framing puts blinders on us and asks us to ignore obvious facts. First, making a public complaint or talking to Human Resources is entirely different from filing criminal charges. Second, social media is not a court. Third, “innocent until proven guilty” is a high standard that our criminal justice system should, but does not often, provide. Fourth, although the government owes us “due process” in criminal cases, most people don’t actually expect it in the workplace. (Though we should.) 

It’s worth taking a moment to explore due process in the workplace. All workers deserve a fair process before disciplinary action is taken, but most don’t get it. Most people have “at-will” employment, and they get fired all the time for getting sick, failing to smile . . . and for reporting sexual harassment and assault to HR.  The remedy here is a grievance process that requires employers to establish “just cause” and for workers to have access to a grievance process. 

Your op ed unfortunately fell into the trap of using a legal framing, and the focus on “due process” paved the road for an incomplete analysis of the situation. Your note that “[h]is faculty association launched a grievance that is continuing,” actually refers to a union grievance, which will indeed be heard and settled by a higher authority than the university. Because of his union membership, the professor has more due process than most people get. Further, although the workings of the university process are not publicly available, that does not automatically mean they were incorrect. The university is likely legally compelled to remain silent, and also, confidentiality protects both accused and accuser.  

Is it possible to say what we mean without using legal metaphors? Definitely. For instance, perhaps “due process” is best when a case of assault is going to court, but “a grievance process” more accurately conveys what we need from other institutions and the community at large. 

Real feminists

Another talking point, which is revealed in the Spiked article, pits “real” feminists against the rest. “Real” feminism is defined as fighting to be treated as equals in the workplace, empowering women as opposed to infantilizing them, and working together as “women and men of good will” to “fashion more equitable workplaces.” The past history of women dealing with harassment gets a new, macho spin, for “those of us who have spent years metaphorically kicking sex pests in the balls.” And the worry expressed is that all this fuss over harassment risks “turning the clock back on hard-won sexual equality.” 

These statements divide women into two groups: the over-40 crowd who fought for and won equality and the strange younger demographic who thinks winking constitutes harassment, who are “fragile” and lack “robust common sense.” 

This division helps nobody, and so it’s disturbing to see it reflected in your op ed, which ironically divides women into “Bad Feminists” (who are right) and “Good Feminists” (who are wrong). The wrong feminists “believe that women are children,” align politically with misogynists, want to take away fundamental justice from men, are “feeding into the very old narrative that holds women to be incapable of fairness,” are “giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making,” have an ideology, expect everyone to “puppet their views,” and are now participating in unproductive squabbling. 

It might be more useful to think about good and bad feminist practice. Instead of calling names, a focus on practice  opens a dialogue about what we are doing and why we are doing it. What constitutes good feminist practice to me? To you? Where are we similar and different? 

How did this happen?

Your op-ed came at a key moment for the #metoo backlash and dovetailed with talking points that have been chosen by corporations whose business is public propaganda for the world’s most powerful men. Why? I speculate that somebody took advantage of the frustration you have been feeling over seeing a fellow novelist publicly attacked, and that after the talking points they were pushing had a time to saturate public dialogue, offered you the opportunity to put your words in print--but for their own cynical reasons.  

That an author of highly revered feminist dystopia can be manipulated by patriarchy’s PR machine makes this a chilling moment for all of us. Time to step back and look at how social media is not only providing fake news but also twisting public dialogue as it comes out of our own mouths, turning thoughtful commentary into friendly fire. 

What now? 

The simplest solution to the problem of dialogue we don’t like is to ask everybody to “stop squabbling.” From your point of view, the angry #metoo activists should calm down and quit their witch-hunt. From my point of view, I’d prefer that you stop using the term witch-hunt.  But both requests to silence speech are too easy, and they leave us open to yet more manipulation and pointless infighting. 

A trickier but more powerful answer is for us to deepen the dialogue, to continue as feminists have always done and reach across divisions to find common ground. An example of such cross-generational discussion is “Feminists From Three Different Generations Talk Me Too,” which recently appeared on From a position of mutual solidarity, it is indeed possible for feminists to consider the issues on our own terms.  

That brings me back to the issue at the heart of your op-ed--what #Metoo participants should and should not do.

How to stop sexual violence

The real question is not whether or not you are a good or bad feminist, or whether #Metoo posters represent a lynch mob, but what to do with the very real question of sexual violence in our communities.
One group that has been working on the problem for decades is women of color. In particular, a group called Incite! Women of Color Against Violence met in a founding conference in 2000 to discuss how to stop violence in their communities, and it branched off in many directions. A framework for community accountability emerged in 2003 with no clear answers but with groundbreaking ideas and questions. A lot of the strategies and terms that are now surprising many white people, such as “believe the survivor,” came out of that work. But it is a nuanced practice, including other concepts such as “impact versus intent” and sitting down with both parties. That’s very different from someone reflexively sending a “believe the survivor” tweet. 

We have thorny problems to address, such as a conflict between transparency and confidentiality, and also between the need to believe the survivor and to follow a fair process. But I know from first-person experience that they are being addressed. I recently participated in a democratic discussion about how an organization might modify its complaints process to account for sexual harassment and abuse. Even though most of the people in the organization are men, the new survivor-focused process passed overwhelmingly. It looks like the world is ready for a change. 

This is, as you say, an important moment in history. 

Yours for the movement,
Kristin King

Works cited, and further reading 

Atwood, Margaret. “Am I a Bad Feminist?” The Globe and Mail, 15 Jan. 2018,

Moraga Cherríe, and Anzaldúa Gloria. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. SUNY Press, 2015. Available at

bell hooks

Anzaldúa Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Duke University Press, 2009. Available at

Combahee River Collective. “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” Released 1977, available on

 “Manufacturing Consent.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Feb. 2018,

Fallon, Claire. “The Fake Feminism Of The #MeToo Backlash.” The Huffington Post,, 20 Jan. 2018,

McAllister, D.C. “The #MeToo Movement Is Destroying Trust Between Men And Women.” The Federalist, FDRLST Media, 15 Dec. 2017,

“Meet the Women Worried about #MeToo.” Feminism | Spiked, Spiked Ltd, 18 Dec. 2018,

“Spiked Online.” SourceWatch,

Monbiot, George. “George Monbiot: Invasion of the Entryists.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Dec. 2003,

Elizabeth Velez, April Sizemore-Barber, and Hanna Chan. “Feminists from 3 Different Generations Talk #MeToo.” Vox, Vox, 31 Jan. 2018,

 “Community Accountability.” INCITE!, Incite National,

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On the Death of Ursula K. Le Guin by Cynthia Ward

On the death of Ursula K. Le Guin

Like the death of a mountain, a friend tells Nisi.
The shifting of tectonic plates, I think.
The submergence of a continent.
Continents remain,
And isles unnumbered.
The world is changed always.

- Cynthia Ward

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Photo by Eileen Gunn

Merely typing in the title of this post hurt. In the words of Nisi Shawl, "The great and grand and extraordinary Ursula K. Le Guin walks the Earth no more." Despite Ursula's recent frailness and shortness of stature, Nisi's words resonate with my own image of her as a robust giant bestriding the globe as though she were one of Eleanor Arnason's "Big Mamas."

Obituaries are appearing today in newspapers around the world. How, I wonder, do those writing them decide which accomplishments, books, and honors to mention? Ursula K. Le Guin's legacy is tremendous and impossible, perhaps, to summarize.

Many, many of us feel this loss in a deeply personal way because of the ways in which her work touched us, affecting how we saw the world and envisioned what we are and could ourselves become. Karen Joy Fowler, writing for the Washington Post, sums up the core of what Ursula's work has brought us: "Possibility and permission, these are the gifts Le Guin gave us. She inspired a generation of writers to unshackle from realism — a mode she once accused of centering the human undeservedly — in favor of her wide and generous vision."

That wide and generous vision came to us thanks to the scope and depth of Ursula's moral imagination. Although I don't often talk about "great writers," I, as I suspect do most readers of this blog, hold always in my mind a personal pantheon of great writers, each of which differs so much from the others that I would be hard put to name a common quality their writings share--with the exception, that is, of exhibiting great moral imagination. I continually go to them to nourish whatever moral imagination I myself have. Moral imagination is one of the most valuable, rare, and necessary qualities in the world. We're feeling this with special acuteness now in 2018, at a time when the dominant figures in the public sphere in 2018 US have stripped themselves of moral imagination and are doing their damnedest to strip our public institutions of it, too. Ursula's public voice, which grew franker and more potent with every year she added to her age, was an inspiration to moral courage in the face of its absence among the most powerful. Though she no longer walks among us, we can--and must, I think-- still take inspiration from her work.

We will miss Ursula's public voice, and we will miss the human being she was in all her wonderful particularity, which managed to include both playfulness and moral sternness, both self-respect and humility. But she leaves us with the consolation of an enormous body of great writing. The website devoted to her, is a treasure trove spilling over with Ursula's biography, bibliography, photos, a list of her awards and honors, and much, much more about her. If you've never visited it, do so now. And of course continue reading and re-reading her work. It is more than likely that she has written about what you are feeling at this moment.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Beth Plutchak's Liminal Spaces

I'm pleased to announce the release of Liminal Spaces, a collection of short fiction by Beth Plutchak, as Volume 59 in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series, in both print and e-book editions. Eleanor Arnason and Richard Chwedyk have both praised it.

"Yes, these stories are science fiction and fantasy, but they are deeply rooted in reality, especially in the lives of women. We learn about being in college in the 1960s, going back to nature in Alaska, working in a bank and trying to make a good life for a child with a disability. If there is a single theme, it's the struggle of women to control their lives—to be free. In addition to this often ordinary, gritty struggle of girls, wives, working women and mothers, the stories have time travel, space travel, game theory, clones, and magic. Grit and sense of wonder and (often) hope. What more could you ask for? I strongly recommend the collection."
 —Eleanor Arnason, author of Ring of Swords and Hwarhath Stories

"What I like most about Beth's writing is her utter fearlessness. She will take on topics from hard sciences, to magic, to all the spaces in between, and make them new with confidence and proficiency, not to mention a spring-loaded wit. Even in the most fanciful stories here, one will find passion tempered with familiarity—worlds with recognizable edges and shapes, occupied by people we know. If you read short fiction to be captured by an intoxicating fusion of the mysterious and the immediate, you've come to the right place."
 —Richard J. Chwedyk, Nebula Award-winning author of "Bronte's Egg"

You can purchase a print or e-book edition of the book at It will soon be available elsewhere.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 8, 1

Aqueduct Press kicks off the new year with a new issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. This issue includes a speech by Nisi Shawl given last fall, poetry by Neile Graham and Maya Chhabra, a Grandmother Magma column by Jennifer Stevenson, and reviews of books by Seanan McGuire, Jane Yolen, Ursula Pflug, and others. The issue's art work and art essay is by Chris Roberts, who illustrated Claire North's novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. You can purchase a single issue (electronic) for $3 or $5 (print) or a year's subscription for (electronic) $10 or (both print and electronic) $16 at

 Vol. 8, 1 (2018)
Genius Communitas
  by  Nisi Shawl

Suite of Poems
  by Neile Graham

Singers of the Deep
a response to Alexander
Pushkin’s “Arion”
   by Maya Chhabra

Grandmother Magma
Why Science Is Practiced So Awkwardly
Reflections on Gender and
, by Evelyn Fox Keller
   by Jennifer Stevenson
Book Reviews
The Wayward Children series,
by Seanan McGuire
   reviewed by Arley Sorg

Mountain, by Ursula Pflug
  reviewed by Joanne Rixon

The Obama Inheritance, edited by Gary Phillips
  reviewed by Cynthia Ward

Luminescent Threads, edited by Alex Pierce
and Mimi Mondal
   reviewed by Ayana Jamieson

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen
   reviewed by Kristin King

Featured Artist
Chris Roberts

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 24: Christopher Brown

The Year in Reading, 2017
Christopher Brown

“Lawyers become somewhat cynical,” explains Perry Mason to a new client in The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955). When I read that sentence this fall, boning up on lawyer stories to tell my own, I smiled. My evil lawyer twin knew just what Mason (and his creator) meant.

I wonder what they would have thought of 2017.

On the day of January’s dark inaugural and its visions of “American carnage,” I pulled a little old book in a green cloth binding from my office library shelf. Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from W. H. Taft to G. W. Bush was published in the year of the last dystopian presidential inauguration I witnessed (that one in person), not coincidentally the first inauguration after September 11, 2001. I received Inaugural Addresses as a gift for the same I reason I got to attend the 2005 inauguration in person: because I was a partner in a big law firm. The book was that year’s installment in the Lakeside Classics, a series privately published by the financial printer R. R. Donnelly & Sons for their customers, most notably the lawyers who will recommend to their clients which printer they should use for their next big transaction, to publish the SEC-regulated paperbacks authored by capital to solicit new investment.

Unsurprisingly, old inaugural addresses are not compelling reading. They are ritual recitations of platitudes, usually infused with an elevated variation on Rotary Club civility. What’s most striking is how the problems new presidents say they plan to solve are almost always the same, and how they all frame even the darkest challenges with American optimism. Until the last address in the volume, a coded 21st century manifesto for offshore war and torture in the name of “homeland” security.

The revelation of that difference was cogently articulated by Masha Gessen in her brilliant essay “The Reichstag Fire Next Time,” published in the July 2017 issue of Harper’s. Gessen argues that the events of September 11 were the American Reichstag fire, the event that birthed the state of exception from which we have not yet emerged. “A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not.” The collective siege mentality charges the state with the retributive urges of the masses, and gives license to conduct in the name of the nation contrary to its laws. It creates the opportunity for cynical demagogues, power mongers and plunderers to exploit the moment.  This January, it felt like the first time that the war that cannot end had really come home: the power of the state charged by domestic factional enmity and punitively turned on large chunks of the population. That foreboding quickly proved true here in this “sanctuary city,” when our neighbors started to report sightings of ICE trucks rounding people up from suburban apartment complexes, to be shipped to private detention facilities further south—facilities that recently added special provisions for all the children that have been locked up. Reading the news stories of that, and DHS inspector general reports on the deportation camps, set the tone for the year—and proved Andrea Pitzer’s One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps exceptionally timely.

So when I watched the excellent Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the few television programs I screened in full this year, I couldn’t help but see it in part as a post-9/11 story—the way that, if you removed the speculative element of the reproductive crisis, you would have a remarkably plausible vision of the Penceist patri-theocracy that seems like it is trying to be born.

Perhaps that darkly skewed personal framing is why I found my most compelling nonfiction reading this year (more research) to be The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law, an oral history of the efforts by a small number of American attorneys to provide an effective pro bono defense to the Gitmo detainees.  Published in 2009, the book tells a story of true dystopia through the dry, cynical, and determined voices of working lawyers sharing vignettes about their efforts to secure some measure of due process for people locked up in a secret military prison as enemy combatants largely unprotected by either the United States Constitution or the Geneva Convention. The book tells of Orwellian procedural obstacles like the way the Pentagon required that, in order to be able to establish an attorney-client relationship, the lawyers first had to figure out how to get an inmate locked in an isolated concrete box on a military base on the far side of Cuba to fill out a Pentagon form appointing a lawyer they had never met. The lawyers recount what it is like to interview a client who has been subjected to months or years of “enhanced interrogation.” They explain the challenges of retroactively proving the innocence of clients who had no involvement in armed conflict or jihad, but were in the wrong place at the wrong time in the first couple of years after 9/11, captured by opportunistic bounty hunters and sold to American soldiers as Taliban or Al Qaeda for cash rewards. They share absurd banalities, like the fact that there is a McDonald’s across from the horror show of Camp X-Ray, and touching ones, like the way the lawyers were allowed to bring their clients food from home (but no books), and the client interviews would be day-long pig-outs on take-out hauled from stateside in paper bags. The book ends with a dark jurisprudential reflection on the precedent Guantánamo and the global network of black sites of which it was the flagship established for the idea of prisons outside the law, a precedent that could be brought back to the fifty states more easily than most Americans appreciate.

That idea of Guantanamo coming home was in my mind as my research got me reading stories of domestic states of exception other countries have endured in recent history. The Execution of Charles Horman by Thomas Hauser, published in 1978 (and adapted in 1982 as the Costa-Gavras film Missing), tells the story of a young American journalist who was executed during the Chilean coup of 1973 after he learned of the extent of American involvement. Nunca Más is the 1984 report of the Argentine commission that investigated the atrocities of the military regime that seized power from the 1970s through the early 1980s, a lawyerly compilation of first person experiences of the survivors—the work product of an effort at accountability and atonement still in process as recently as a few weeks ago, when 29 former officials were sentenced to life for dropping drugged extrajudicial detainees to their deaths from government aircraft. Talking about these texts with my in-laws, who lived through and lost friends to the latter regime, brought the reality and possibility of their horrific events home.

Reading that material made me wonder whether there will ever be any similar accounting in the U.S. This year saw the opening in Dallas of W.’s portraits of disabled veterans of the wars he launched, the subject of a glossy art book, but we have yet to see any paintings of waterboarding, or the juvenile victims of “shock and awe.” Looking at those paintings, which are better than you think, one sees evidence the retired president is coming to terms with some of the things he did.  This year also saw some measure of legal sanction for the darkest aspects of the GWOT, in the civil suit by former black site detainees against the two psychologists who designed the government’s “learned helplessness” torture methods. The former Justice Department lawyers who wrote the secret memoranda approving such techniques have thus far avoided any such challenge.

In another nonfiction book from this year’s reading, Undoing the Demos, the Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown decodes the ways in which these sorts of failures of civil society to adhere to law result from the active efforts of neoliberal capital to replace the popular foundations of democracy with a regime of corporate sovereignty—a project we are now seeing enter a new phase, one married with dark populism.

Political scientists, like politicians, seem to have accepted our long dystopian drift as an inevitability, and largely abandoned the project of extrapolating utopian alternatives. I keep thinking that science fiction may be able to fill that gap. I sampled widely in the field this year, and at its margins. Among the notables:


Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, a compelling effort to construct a plausible utopia in a society that has eliminated scarcity but not inequality, drawing on the lessons of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, a near-future exploration of the unanticipated consequences of 21st century biopolitics.

The Moon and the Other by John Kessel, an intellectually rigorous and beautifully told speculation about human socio-political experiments on the Moon.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, an engaging postcyberpunk tale of pharma-piracy.

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, a genre-riffing take on the American road trip, in search of spectral ghosts of the Twin Towers that appear in the Dakotas.

The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden, a fresh afro-futurist melding of fantasy and science fiction infused with the energy and diversity of the global street.

Hollow by Owen Egerton, a downbeat literary tale of an American man who endeavors to escape his self-flagellating ennui by joining an expedition in search of the Hollow Earth.

Collections and Anthologies

You Should Come with Me Now, a wonderful collection of psychogeographical riffs and other condensed marvels from “cartographer of the liminal” M. John Harrison.

Counternarratives by John Keene, an ingenious work of imaginary narratives that discover the secret histories of the African diaspora in the Americas.

A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford, masterful tales of diverse horror drawn from the authentic material of middle America.

Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe, a long-awaited collection of warm and affirming works of regional American fabulism.

What I Didn’t See by Karen Joy Fowler, her brilliant and beautiful recent collection.

Global Dystopias, a politically charged selection of new stories and interviews curated by Junot Díaz for Boston Review.

Collected Essays by Rudy Rucker, a compilation of pieces by the cyberpunk master beginning in the 1980s that remain fresh and cogent.

I finished the year reading two compelling collections in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series edited by Terry Bisson. Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason and Totalitopia by John Crowley both, in their title pieces, show how the path to smarter futures often travels through the science fictional past—a lesson I also learned from two 80s novels I read this year, Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain and Jack Womack’s Terraplane. Arnason’s Mammoths uses an alternate natural history of the European conquest of the Americas to construct a fable with more truth than most nonfictions—achieving just the sort of effect cited by Crowley is his insightful essay “Totalitopia,” which considers the modes of predictive futurism and finds them consistently inferior to the beauty and strangeness of transcendent divinations artistically conjured from the material of the observed world.

“The future, as always, is now.”

Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas, a novel published in 2017 by Harper Voyager. He lives in Austin, Texas.