Insidious

From Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness:

[The politician] wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, although he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.

It is a durable, specious metaphor, that one about veneer. . .hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies all at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness. . . . Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.

(Originally posted October 7, 2016)

In Memory of James Alan McPherson

He was the first African American to earn a law degree from Harvard. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Elbow Room. He was a mentor and friend to countless authors who came through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And he was deservedly one of the most beloved people in Iowa City. Once he played my classmates a recording of John Coltrane, as Coltrane crashed through some horrible, disjointed music. “That’s him,” he said. “He’s learning.”

Jim McPherson died this week.

(Originally posted July 29, 2016)

The Tyranny of Genre

Well, not to sound too petulant about this whole thing, but I’m starting to learn that as soon as you mention how your novel “happens in another world,” lots of people place it in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. That is an issue, because people rarely take genre work seriously. Look. This is a problem with contemporary literature. In fact it’s a problem that bedevils all contemporary communication—including education. We balkanize our subjects and their sources. There’s frequently a penalty in crossing a border. I spent ten years writing stuff even I didn’t like, because I felt that I had to write the parlor (or apartment) drama that we all study when we seek classical training as writers. I don’t regret the education; it makes my work serious and character-driven. But it took an abject failure with a publishing house—a canceled contract, the works—for me to realize that this was not who I am. It took failure for me to say, “Well, sh!t. If I’m going nowhere, I might as well have fun on the way.” I started to write what I liked to read. I started to ask the questions I wanted to answer. And I came up with a novel that’s far more vivid than anything I ever wrote before. Have I written Barbarians & Blasters? Heck no. But in fact there is a bit of magic in my world. There’s a touch of it, hard-earned. And why not? Why isn’t it fashionable to do what the story asks? Dearies. If I ever teach writers, I will tell them never to fear their own imaginations.

(Originally posted June 23, 2016)