Short News, Literary Pretensions Edition

The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.

It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:

She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.

Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.

“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”

Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.

A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

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JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!

The Mob Is Fickle

The Passive Voice is one of the few corners of the Internet where it’s worth reading the comments. In discussing a Salon interview with Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about survivors of social-media lynchings like Justine Sacco, a commenter referenced an attack on Andrew Smith. Smith, an author of YA books aimed at boys, was tarred and feministed after saying this:

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

I write about men and boys because I grew up with three brothers and I don’t know much about women and girls. I could freely say the same thing: my only sibling is a brother and my only friends growing up were boys, which is perhaps one reason why I mostly failed at dating as a teen; and as a married man what I know today about women wouldn’t fill the back of an envelope. But admitting that means I could just as easily be tied to the same stake as Smith, assuming anyone knew who I was.

This comes only days after another writer quit Goodreads in response to the Kathleen Hale brouhaha because — she was afraid of being stalked? A social-media assassination? I’m not sure; all I know is that even though both parties in the Kathleen Hale mess were female, somehow women are being targeted, and she was afraid it would happen to her.

(I admit the Hale story is bizarre in its mutual obsession; reading it is like watching Dracula and the Wolfman fight, although it’s enlightening that the profile of her troll — a physically sick or weak person working a monotonous, low-income job — fits that of many serial killers.)

A common complaint I read from agents and publishers is that many authors don’t have a platform before they show up on their doorstep with a manuscript. Of course, everyone can only offer advice on how to develop that platform in hindsight: just look at Trevor Noah, whose comedic work scored him The Daily Show gig while simultaneously inciting excoriation for jokes that fell flat years before anyone had heard of him. Twitter is chock full of Dalai Lamas who can tell us after the fact which gags Noah should have written and which ones he shouldn’t have, but in the long months and years of building a career, those same sages are always like Tenzin Gyatso in Tibet: absent.

Contrast Noah with Kristine Katherine Rusch:

Personally, I believe that a writer’s politics and religious beliefs (including beliefs about a favorite genre) should remain off-social media if at all possible, and that arguments in favor of one thing or another should be made in person, if at all.

I think it’s more important to incorporate your worldview into what you write and let the readers decide whether or not they want to read your work than it is to win an argument that will seem quaint fifteen years from now.

There’s certainly wisdom in restraint and choosing your battles, but advice like Rusch’s is a call to quietism and in any event impossible for those of us who straddle the worlds of nonfiction and fiction.

Thus we authors and writers, forced to develop our platforms, must also choose between self-imposed silence and abandonment of social media on one hand, of all-consuming insecurity like Hale’s on another, or of following the examples of Smith and Noah on a third, of trying to build the platform one day at a time, knowing that griefers lurk on the periphery, eager to burn the whole thing down the moment you drive one dissatisfactory nail into the wood. Or, in Smith’s case, of simply stating a truth about yourself.

Top photo by Caelio CC BY-SA.

Condemning the Past

Gordon S. Wood on the criticisms levied by academics against his fellow early American historian and mentor Bernard Bailyn:

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood is certainly not happy with this state of affairs. Yet it’s gratifying to see him correctly diagnose the disease — that academics wallow in “condemning the past for not being more like the present” — even if we disagree about the prescription.

The Fishers of Men

Black Static January/February 2015I have a story in the January/February 2015 issue of Black Static:

There is no stopping progress. You may buy a plot of land, build a home, raise a family, join a church, and volunteer for the local PTA — but if the authorities determine someone somewhere else is thirstier than you, then they will drown your American Dream with no more effort than turning the spigot counterclockwise. In 1936, when the Norris Dam was completed along Tennessee’s Clinch River, landowners in the century-old trade center of Loyston were relocated and the town submerged beneath the resulting lake. Neversink, New York, population two-thousand, was sacrificed to the waves of the Neversink Reservoir after the residents of New York City grew a little too dry in the mouth. When it was decided the right of a Boston Brahmin to flip his tap handle and fill his glass trumped those of plebeians living in Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, Massachusetts, the four towns disappeared beneath the Quabbin Reservoir. And upon completion of the Saville Dam along a branch of the Farmington River in 1940, the crossroads village of Barkhamsted Hollow, Connecticut — farmhouses, church, and cemetery — vanished underwater so that the citizens of Hartford might wet their lips.

I was a little shocked when Andy Cox accepted “Fishers;” it is a very American story and when I sent it I wasn’t sure the historical background would translate. But I suppose I don’t have to know the intricacies of lines of royal succession or the industrialization of Greater Manchester to enjoy M.R. James, Robert Aickman, or Susanna Clarke (to name the three most recent authors I’ve read), so perhaps the width of the Atlantic isn’t as great as I sometimes imagine.

On these western shores you can find Black Static at Barnes & Noble — though often a month or two after the magazine’s cover date.