Category Archives: dystopian

Something messed up is happening somewhere, large our small, roughly pointing us toward one or more dystopian futures. Read this if you are in the mood to fix something you cannot accept.

Cons, books, and guests of honor?

So there’s a convention called Readercon. It’s all about books. How awesome is that? This year the Guest of Honor was Andrea Hairston, a woman of color with a long list of credentials and awards. Unfortunately, the dealer’s room at the con neglected to carry her book.

Here’s a blog post about it, “Erasure Comes in Many Forms” by K. Tempest Bradford. She writes:

The fact that none of Andrea Hairston’s books were in the dealer’s room is bullshit of the highest order. Andrea was a Guest of Honor. You don’t fucking NOT stock the book of a guest of honor at a con where you are a book vendor. How is this not con vending 101?

In the comments, people who were involved or attended the conference talked about how that could possibly have happened, and who might have been responsible or not responsible for this failure. From what I gather, here were some of the reasons: 

  • cons don’t exercise authority in telling booksellers what to stock
  • booksellers at cons don’t necessarily make the effort to carry Guest of Honor books
  • the publisher, Aqueduct Press (a small press), applied for space in the dealer’s room and was turned down
  • the terms and availability from the book distributor made it difficult for booksellers to get the books

Does it all boil down to economics?

A little background on publishing and book distributing might be helpful here. Beginning with the era of big-chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and continuing on with Amazon, it has been getting harder and harder for small bookstores and small presses to make any money on books. The industry does all kinds of mysterious things, invisible to readers, that impact the availability of the books we love.

See AmyCat’s comments on that. Sounds like book distributors don’t always offer the same terms to booksellers for small presses. She writes:

Only about 1/3 of the titles in the database, though, are in stock AND at full discount AND returnable… 😦   When small-press titles aren’t available at full discount, my choice is to make an even smaller profit on them, or mark them higher than cover price, and lose sales to Amazon

Some books can be returned to the distributor if they don’t sell, and others can’t. This is a big deal for bookstores, because they stand to lose money on books they can’t return. Another option is for authors to offer their books on consignment.

If the guest of honor had been a white person, I could just call it a Free-Market Fail. That is, basic economics got in the way of respect (and income!) for the Guest of Honor. 

Or does race play a part as well? And if so, how?

But here’s something interesting . . . one commenter wrote:

It wouldn’t have occurred to me except for reading this post, but now I recall that even a Big Name like Delany was not much in evidence amongst the booksellers, despite his prominent attendance at the con

Delany is another writer of color with a long list of accomplishments and honors, including being named the 30th “Grand Master” of the Science Fiction Writers of America. And he’s particularly well known on the convention circuit. So why wouldn’t his books be sold? 

And come to think about it . . .

As I’ve been pondering all these questions, I’ve also been considering my recent visit to my local library. There were about ten sci-fi / fantasy books singled out as being interesting to readers. All or almost all of the writers chosen were white. (One used a pseudonym, so who knows.) I later followed that up with a quick search on the library catalog and found that many respected SF/F writers of color are not represented except in ebooks. And there aren’t that many copies for the really big and well-established names, like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. 

And yet here is one of the library’s guiding principles:

Respect and embrace the entire community

We celebrate Seattle’s diversity and strive to ensure that all people feel welcome in the Library. We strive to meet the needs and expectations of every Library patron. The Seattle Public Library actively supports efforts that combat prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

I see this guiding principle being followed in the children’s section, where I spend most of my time these days. The kids on the covers are more diverse than my neighborhood is, to tell the truth. But the sci fi / fantasy section is less so.

What is to be done?

Cons and libraries alike are fighting racism. But Fails like this one keep happening. How come? Everybody’s doing business as usual, aren’t they, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that everybody’s doing business as usual, in a society plagued by systemic racism of all kinds. It probably seems fair to some — like everyone is being treated equally. But they’re not, because the playing field isn’t level. Special effort has to be made to stop business as usual, to act intentionally, notice what goes wrong, and fix it. And that is happening, for sure. A lot of the people commenting on K. Tempest Bradford’s post gave suggestions for how to make sure this particular Guest of Honor fail doesn’t happen again. One suggestion was to have an “Authors Alley” where authors could sell their own stuff.

But perhaps there should also be a hard look at whether the dealer’s tables are stocking books by people of color — and if not, what are the barriers, economic and otherwise . . .

. . . and how do we tear them down?

breaking down the wall

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Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

This week, author Eric Bennett dropped a rather enormous bombshell on the literary world. The CIA, as it turns out, helped spread propaganda through creative writing programs all across the United States.

What? How?

Through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most prestigious and influential creative writing program in a U.S. university. To make a long story short, in 1960 Paul Engle, the head of the program, wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation explaining exactly how his program could help fight communism (by bringing foreign writers to Iowa to indoctrinate them). He got the money, and later money from the CIA and the State Department, and used it to implement his plan. In essence, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under Engel became the CIA Fan Club. The money, and the director who sought it out, left an enduring mark on creative writing programs all over the country.

You can read more about this from Bennet and a rebuttal from a University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass.

All this money brought prestige and influence to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which in turn influenced the creative writing programs that came after. Bennett writes, “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since.”

With this influence, the Iowa Writers Workshop exported its long-held values – “middlebrow realism,” as explained by Glass in his rebuttal. And it exported Cold War propaganda.

Having gone through an MFA program and a creative writing undergraduate program, I have to say that this explains a whole lot. I’ve been busy re-evaluating my experiences in view of the larger picture. I wasn’t just learning writing, I was learning what the rich and powerful wanted me to learn.

The most obvious example took place in graduate school. Many writing professors will tell you that political writing is bad writing. (Of course, that’s a complete misunderstanding of politics. Everything is political. If you don’t see it, that’s just because it reflects the politics of the dominant culture.) At the time Paul Engle headed the program, that would have meant commie writing is bad writing, but today it means more than that. So on time my professor asked us to hand in some story ideas. I had an idea about something that happened to the anarchist Emma Goldman. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off – it would involve doing historical research and somehow transforming that moment into fiction. He returned it with a note explaining that stories starting from politics turn out badly. So I chose a different idea, having to do with a husband and a wife and some turtles. The Emma Goldman incident never made it into story form, although I did write an essay about it for the Aqueduct Press blog.

I would have been more skeptical of the concept if I had thought it came from the CIA. But no, it came from a trusted professor. And who taught him? Not any particular person, I imagine. It was just in the air.

That’s the obvious example. But the influence of the CIA Fan Club also spread to the seemingly apolitical – to general questions of content, style, and narrative structure. Good writing met the expectations of the “middlebrow” white male with his wife and children and white picket fence. Bad writing didn’t.

Those seemingly apolitical questions played a huge part in my writing development in my very first university courses. Creative writing programs at the university are deeply influential in a writer’s aesthetic. Writers, and especially beginning writers, have the disadvantage that they really don’t know which stories are good and which aren’t. We write what’s in our heads, and it may or may not please the reader. We don’t know until someone has read it and given us feedback.

I first studied creative writing in the early 1990s at the University of Utah under writers such as Jan Nystrom and François Camoin. They taught both the “traditional” writing that the Iowa Writers Workshop favored and “experimental” writing, a kind of writing that plays with narrative structure and style and today would be called postmodern. I felt the pull of both.

One of the wonderful things that Jan Nystrom and François Camoin did for me as a writer was to expose me to all kinds of interesting “experimental” writers. This was important, because the writing I was already doing coming into the creative writing program differed from the expected norms. I felt very much at home with Leonard Michaels’ lyrical prose, especially a story about a hotel maid who kept cleaning the same room over and over and finding more and more disturbing things. That was a story that went straight to the imagination and the spirit. I also felt at home with Grace Paley’s stories, which didn’t use quotation marks for the dialogue. This gave the dialogue an internal feel.

These stories became part of what I saw as possible in literature. Another couple of things that stood out –

  • Jan Nystrom wrote a story about women who fly around and leave shoes on roofs. There wasn’t any (rather Freudian) climax, but I loved it, and along with the work of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley it became part of the inspiration for my Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Wings.”
  • Sophia Kartsonis’ first story was very lyrical and poetic. Somebody questioned whether it was too poetic to be a good story. To me, the poetry enhanced the appeal. I raised my hand and said so. As for me, my first story to be workshopped had comma splices for most of the sentences. This was entirely intentional and was part of the rhythm of the story. One of the classmates saw that as a big flaw and said so, but Camoin stuck up for me. In a different workshop, I might have been squashed by both the classmate and the teacher.

Also on the plus side, Camoin told us which literary magazines would accept experimental writing. It was only a small fraction, but it saved me a lot of trouble and got me published.

On the minus side, even though there was a lot of freedom and flexibility in the curriculum, there was also a lot of emphasis on “minimalist” writing, which is basically “show, don’t tell” taken to an extreme. The author’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions are theoretically omitted, as are explicit politics. This is one of the three favored forms of writing by the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to Bennett. (Bennett called it “cold” writing, but the kind of minimalist writing we looked at had dazzling language. Dazzling, but not gorgeous in the way something like Virginia Woolf’s work is gorgeous. More like a stained glass window than a river.) Just from a craft side, I learned a lot of bad habits there, which I had to unlearn in graduate school and beyond. Thing is, you can only skip telling if your reader is coming at you from a common cultural context, which is rarely the case.

Also on the minus side, this freedom of narrative structure came at the expense of the ability to publish some of my stories. I have written a couple of stories that just weren’t suited to go anywhere. They’re not bad stories; they just didn’t meet a particular literary aesthetic.

And so the years went by and a lot of things happened with my writing that I’ll also write about if I have time. I’ve abandoned a fair number of stories that didn’t meet expectations for narrative structure and I’ve edited out various experimental aspects of stories. And I’ve always wondered: Is something wrong with my story, or is there something wrong with the writing aesthetic? I still don’t know. Writers can judge their own work, but only to a point.

But you know what? Every time I did something unusual, whether it succeeded or whether it failed, I was fighting Cold War propaganda.

I’m pleased.

Desegregation, Segregation, Integration

Corrected 4/30/218 – see comments

NPR just did a story on desegregation in Little Rock. (I can’t remember which day, so I’m not sure which one.) I only caught snippets of it, but from what I heard there was some good stuff and some parts that completely missed the boat, in the same way that adults have been missing the boat for a while.

Good stuff first: they made the distinction between desegregation and integration. A school is desegregated if it includes white kids and black kids. But it’s not integrated unless those kids actually hang out together. I went to a desegregated middle school in the 1980s. Kids in the advanced learning program, mostly white, were bused to a school that was mostly black. Today’s name for that would be “magnet school.” Good intentions . . . but most of the classrooms were still segregated, because so many of the kids in the advanced learning program were white. It was kinda half a solution.

Thirty years later, we’re still doing the same thing. The NPR program talked about the way the kids had separate classrooms and sat apart from each other in the lunchroom, and it included some student voices talking about how they could take responsibility for the problem. That’s good.

But what it did wrong, its blind spot, is that it placed the blame for the segregation on the high school kids and not on the adults who set up the classroom situation in the first place. If the classrooms are segregated, is it any wonder the lunchroom would be too? I know it’s a tricky and difficult situation, and the adults are taking steps to change this. But we can’t just let the kids shoulder all the responsibility and blame.

Now, I just heard a snippet. It could well be that NPR covered that ground later in the program. Regardless, this is a huge blind spot that we have. The adults need to be doing our part to make sure that we break down as many barriers as we can to integration.

Instead, sometimes we’re putting more barriers in the way, like when Seattle Public Schools shut down a successfully integrated K-8 program called Summit. Or when it closed down a schools race and justice curriculum last year.

We’ve got to get this right.

And we also need to be explaining to our kids that the work of desegregation is not yet done. Our school is celebrating Martin Luther King right now, and talking about the civil rights movement and the ending of segregation. This is misleading. Our school is 61 percent Caucasian and 7 percent African-American. If my kids grow up thinking segregation is over, they’ll also grow up thinking that our country is populated by 61 percent white people and 7 percent black people. Not true! In our school district, whites are a minority, at 43%. (Full detail: American Indian 1%, Black 19%, Hispanic 12%, Asian/Pacific-Islander 19%, White 43%, Multiracial 6%)

At the same time, while I need to explain that we still have plenty of troubles, I can’t be filling my kids’ heads with doom and gloom. Kids need to know the hard truths, but they also need to have hope.

Enter Ruby Bridges! She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school. Last year, my daughter got a book about her from the school library, The Story of Ruby Bridges. So this year, when she was assigned a Great American Leader biography project, she chose Ruby Bridges. Martin Luther King is an inspirational role model, and so is Rosa Parks. Big, important people. But Ruby Bridges is a child. My daughter can identify.

I wasn’t so sure that Ruby Bridges would fit the bill of a Great American Leader, though. It’s not like she had a choice to attend that all-white school. Her parents made that decision, and she had to live with it. It was a long, hard road for a lot of those first kids who attended all-white schools, and nobody came out of it unscathed. (It’s STILL a long, hard road.) So I had to find out what happened to her later in life. Here it is:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ruby-bridges-rockwell-muse-goes-back-to-school/

To summarize the video . . .

When Ruby Bridges first walked into the school, she was surrounded by an angry mob. Fortunately for her, she didn’t understand at first. “I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. . . . They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” White parents pulled their kids out, and all the teachers but one left the school. Ruby was all by herself at that school, except for another white student, five-year-old Pam Foreman Testroet, whose parents refused to go along with the boycott.

Fast-forward past the consequences Ruby’s family faced for their heroic efforts, and whatever hard and scary things Ruby had to endure, because my daughter is not ready for this yet. Now, as an adult, Ruby is continuing the important work that she began.

She visited her old school, the one she helped desegregate, and was reunited with her schoolmate Pam. It was a time of celebration, but Ruby also pointed out that the school is now all black. The work of desegregation is not done.

It’s a grand, epic tale about a Great American Leader. But what really touched my daughter? The reunion with her classmate Pam.

That’s where integration happens: in our hearts and in our children’s hearts. If we let it. Image

 

Stranger, you missed something important

Some of the biggest privacy news in Seattle broke last week . . . just in time for everyone to be completely distracted by the Christmas holidays. To recap, our local radio station KUOW reported that our state’s education department had offered to give our local newspaper an enormous slew of confidential student data. Like this:

Any personally identifiable student or staff-related information, including, but not limited to (a) student names, (b) the name of a staff/student’s parent or other family members, (c) staff/student addresses, (d) the address of a staff/student’s family, (e) personal identifiers such as a social security number or student number or staff/certification number, (f) personal characteristics that would make a staff/student’s identity easily traceable, (g) any combination of information that would make a staff/student’s identity easily traceable, (h) test results for schools and districts which test fewer than ten students in a grade level, and (i) any other personally identifiable information, or portrayal of staff/student related information in a personally identifiable manner.

There was a later clarification from KUOW that the data would in fact be de-identified. That is, the state would remove names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers before giving the data to the Times. Anyhow, that’s what the state told us after the news broke.

Curiously, our local newspaper didn’t cover the story. Hmm, I wonder why? Fortunately, the Stranger, our independent weekly, did cover it. Unfortunately, it missed a few crucial points.

First, it reported that de-identified data would be shared, without mentioning that the agreement had originally been for the whole kit and caboodle. The agreement that’s linked to the KUOW article, and it says:

The purpose of this Agreement is to authorize the release of student and teacher information . . .

The Seattle Times may request access to and limited use of information contained in student assessment as well as other confidential data for the purposes stated in this Agreement.

Second, it didn’t mention the flaw with de-identified data: it is very, very easy for that data to be re-identified.

How come? My guess is that the Stranger’s reporters were just as confused as the rest of us. As I mentioned in my post on the Aqueduct Press blog, the kinds of privacy violations that are happening today are confusing. There is a big, big need for lots of people to become informed, and fast. Once data is released, that’s it. The cow’s out of the barn. (That’s kind of true. It depends on who is getting the data, how likely they are to share it with others both legally and illegally, and who they might be sharing it with.)

Where to start, where to start? Well, read the federal privacy law. Not a summary, but the actual law. Set aside some time for this, OK? In my opinion, it’s deliberately misleading. On top of that, sadly, trusted groups like the PTA are distributing privacy information that omits key facts. If you just have a minute for now, look at the parts that say “non-consensual.”

Also, stay up to date by reading the blogs Save Seattle Schools and Seattle Education. They have excellent analysis on all this stuff.

Stay tuned, folks! This isn’t the first privacy violations our students are facing, and it won’t be the last.

Strange times to raise children

This week we found out that the state had agreed to hand over all kinds of confidential data to our local newspaper, so they could get grant money from a nonprofit funded by our local billionaire to help further his political goals. I wrote about some of the ramifications on the Aqueduct Press blog.