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.

Not Writing About Writing

Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners:

I have very little to say about short-story writing. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing to talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.

A Connecticut County in Bill Penn’s Grant

Wyoming Valley by Jasper Francis Cropsey

I have a story at the Journal of the American Revolution about the absolutely true tale of Westmoreland County, a piece of northeastern Pennsylvania claimed by Connecticut as part of King Charles’s grant creating the colony:

The Susquehannah Company was founded in July 1753, when 152 subscribers adjourned in Windham, Connecticut to pay “Two Spanish Mill’d dollars” to join a new joint-stock venture. Declaring “Thatt Whereas we being desirous to Enlarge his Majesties English Settlements In North America and further To Spread Christianity as also to promote our own Temporal Interest,” their aim was to settle an area of the Susquehanna River beyond New York’s borders. … The Company proposed to settle at Wyoming, on the west bank of the river about 50 miles southeast of Tioga. Its clean soil and the scarcity of Native American settlements made it ideal to the Company members. More to the point, they believed the area was included in the Connecticut grant as per the 1662 charter.

I’ve mentioned before how, in the mid-aughts, I shopped a book idea called Lost States, detailing efforts at American state making that went pear-shaped. The book’s sample chapter, all 18,000 words of it, dealt with the first half of the Westmoreland story; this would have been followed by second and third chapters on the Republic of Vermont (using Ethan Allen’s involvement in the Susquehannah Company to segue into the conflict between New York and New Hampshire) and the resolution of the Westmoreland project. Lost States never went anywhere, and I very briefly sent around a proposal focusing solely on Westmoreland until I finally realized not everyone was as fascinated by the history as I was. Fortunately, the editors and readers at the JAR love this kind of stuff. My article is a distillation of that sample chapter.

Even today Westmoreland continues to mesmerize me, especially the religious angle. Was the Company’s obstinate refusal to take no for an answer a result of the New Light zealotry of its members?

Short News, Autumnal Pursuits Edition

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858

Tracking the Horseman. “Irving is pretty specific about the route Ichabod Crane takes while fleeing from the Headless Horseman.” So noted Scouting New York’s Nick Carr upon rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, inspiring him to visit the Hudson Valley town and retrace one of the most famous chase scenes ever put to paper. His photo safari captured the landmarks of Crane’s flight while explaining their historical significance. Unfortunately it seems the site of Crane’s fateful terminus has been lost to time.

Speaking of Hollows. I recently learned a new word: holloway. Also called sunken lanes, holloways are tunnel-like paths so worn by centuries of traffic that they lay below the grade of the surrounding landscape.

Raising Jakarta. Indonesia announced a 30-year, $40-billion plan to save their sinking capital by creating a sea wall and 17 artificial islands. This story notes that rising sea levels aren’t the main source of Jakarta’s flooding problems; instead, “the city has pumped its water out of deep underground wells for years — leaving empty chasms that are now sinking.” This is somewhat reminiscent of New Orlean’s problem, where the organic material in the wetland, preserved in anaerobic conditions, is exposed to air by drainage and construction, leading to decay. The soil, having lost mass, then packs down and the buildings sink.

Pumpkin Spice My Ears. AC/DC, Brian Ferry, and Foo Fighters all have new albums coming out.