I get emails from readers from time to time, and 99% of these emails are positive and welcome. (Thank you!) But every so often I get one that’s… soooo very not. It isn’t exactly “hate mail”. Generally I only get those via the comments on my more “controversial” blog posts, like when I complain about messed-up video games or movies. (Yeah, I don’t think those are controversial either, but the fact remains; I get more crap over the stuff I watch/play than the stuff I write.) I’m quick on the banhammer, so most of you don’t have to see those gems.
What people do occasionally send me, however, are what I’m starting to call “ignorant mail”. These are usually superficially-polite screeds full of passive-aggressive hijinx, many flavors of ‘splaining (man-, white-), and so forth. I’ve been lectured at length on how I disrespect the venerable epic fantasy genre by rejecting Campbell’s “hero’s journey” paradigm* in favor of heroines who don’t go anywhere. I’ve been helpfully advised by non-readers that they might eventually get around to buying my work, if only I make a greater effort to be like [their favorite author]. And today I got told that I was “playing the race card” because I wrote this story. Because most of the characters are black, see, and because the story actually talks about the racism of the era. Doing this is just like inviting some friends over to play a game — pointless and unnecessary, that is. The kind of thing you do just for fun, or as a tactic to win some prize.
“The Effluent Engine” is meant to be a fun story, of course, because how could I not have fun writing a story full of bustle-wearing spies and derringers and secret societies and pecan penuche? But given the era it’s set in, I included some story elements that IMO it would’ve been disrespectful of history to ignore. It’s not real history in many ways; there’s an obvious divergence from the timeline of actual history at the point of the Haitian Revolution, which — in case you didn’t know — was not won by dirigibles. But I took pains to stick to history in every other way, as much as the narrative allowed. Norbert Rillieux was indeed a Creole inventor, though he probably wasn’t as much of an ass as he is in the story; his innovation to prevent Yellow Fever outbreaks in New Orleans was thwarted, and possibly stolen, by a rival named Forstall (Edmund, rather than Raymond). Norbert did have a sister named Eugenie, though I made up her personality from whole cloth. Rochambeau’s barbarous war crimes against the Haitian people are well-documented, and although I altered the name slightly, the Order of the White Camellia is based on the very real secret society called the Knights of the White Camellia, who thankfully were less effective than my creation. (Although they are theorized to have morphed into the very effective White Citizens’ Councils, later on.)
Of equal importance to me was trying to acknowledge the psychological and social impact of life in a slave society; for example the friction between Creoles and other free black people, between freedmen and slaves, and between women and men of color. The legacies of colorism, classism, sexism, and internalized racism still linger powerfully in American society today, so I tried to have all the characters reflect the earlier forms of this to some degree or another.
But working these things into my story, rather than ignoring them, was the wrong thing to do according to my detractor.
I’ll spare you this person’s rambling, condescending, self-contradictory WTFery; suffice it to say this one wasn’t even worth grading. But congratulations, Detractor! You at least merited a (brief) rant on my blog. Good job!
On a more positive note — I’ve been insanely busy lately, hence the slow updating. Sorry! But here’s some interesting stuff to tide you over in the meantime:
- At Scalzi’s blog, a medical doctor encourages fellow docs to practice civil disobedience, in response to the slew of Republican-backed laws appearing around the US which essentially mandate rape as part of an unnecessary medical procedure.
- And a followup post also at Scalzi, talking about why he’s glad he’s male. Hint: nobody legislates sticking a 10-inch wand into any part of his anatomy.
- Shit men say to men who say harassing shit to women on the street. Er, warning for profanity. Used for good.
- A Kickstarter campaign for an interesting anthology, to feature some big SFF names: Scheherazade’s Facade.
- I’ve been following the Trayvon Martin case, for the same reasons I wrote “The Effluent Engine”. I’m sure this poor boy was just playing the race card too by, you know, walking around with Skittles, unarmed.
- A hilarious “how-to” comic on Hollywood’s love of whitewashing and racebending.
- Free “Go Away, I’m Reading book covers! Alas, they don’t have an “In the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, give or take 99,999” one.
- DS9 was my favorite of the Star Treks for a lot of reasons, but Ben Sisko is one of the reasons why.
*I reject Campbell’s philosophies on the whole, because if not for him there might be more writers of color in the genre today. I don’t really care if he was right about some things. He’s wrong for me.
ETA: As folks have pointed out in the comments, I’ve been conflating John Campbell with Joseph Campbell, apparently for years. D’oh! Going to have to go back and re-read Monomyth!Campbell now; I might find my opinion of the theory improved if I no longer think of its author as a bigoted asshat. (Probably not, but we’ll see.)
18 thoughts on “Ignorant Mail, and Linkspam”
I 100% agree with you on DS9. It was absolutely my fave as well. I’m so incredibly stoked that it’s streaming on Netflix now.
Nora that is a beautiful story and I don’t understand what that ignoramus could complain about. If anything, the racial issues are understated and subtle.
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I was intrigued somewhat by your footnote about Campbell and the monomyth. I followed the link to Samuel Delany’s story with interest. And I found myself a little confused.
The Campbell to whom Delany refers, i.e. John Campbell, the editor of Astounding/Analog is not the same Campbell as Joseph Campbell the mythologist. (I hadn’t ever considered that the two might be the same, myself, before reading Delany’s story and going “Waitaminit… Campbell? They’re not the same guy, are they?” and then I double-checked myself to make sure.)
I thought it worth pointing out… if your footnote is saying that you reject Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” ideas because John Campbell was racist… well… insofar as I’m aware (and if I’m wrong I definitely welcome the correction) between the two men there’s no relation, so it seems like a non-sequitor.
That said… I do think there may be very valid and useful story-mechanic, plot, and character-based reasons for not wanting to use Campbell’s monomyth. And I’ve read that there are legitimate academic critiques of his theory, as well. Certainly, there are many many different ways of structuring a story than just this one.
“And today I got told that I was “playing the race card” because I wrote this story. Because most of the characters are black, see, and because the story actually talks about the racism of the era.”
Oh, for crying out loud. Pardon me, I need to rant for a second (not at you! At the emailer)
Sometimes, there are black characters in stories because there are black people in real life (I know this is a shocking fact, but it’s true. Really.) And sometimes, black characters are protagonists because black people can be heroes (whether in the “heroic journey” mode or the “here is an interesting person I’d like to write a story about” mode). And sometimes, stories discuss about racism because racism is a real thing that impacts people’s lives.
I would go so far as to argue that EVERY story plays a race card… whether or not it “means” to. It’s just as “political” to have an all-white cast as it is to have people of color in a story. We’re just not be as aware of it, because we’ve been conditioned to see white as the universal default.
Rant done. For the record, I loved “The Effluent Engine” – and not just because of the dirigibles!
What? There aren’t enough Campbellian heroes’ journeys in print already, and all writers must create more of them?
Damn, I just persuaded a friend who doesn’t read much SFF to read Always Coming Home. And she loved it, and was puzzled when I told her that it hadn’t been all that well received, back in the day, and dug out some old reviews, and said that it was clear that a bunch of guys were complaining about Le Guin not having done that same thing. So at least you’re in good company.
Sorry to hear of this “ignorant mail.” Hopefully all the positive comments you will receive on this post should act as a partial antidote. Your story “The Effluent Engine” is a beautiful one.
I don’t care for Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey either. Isn’t the bigot and science fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr in the Samuel Delany piece a whole other guy, though?
Er, you’ve conflated two Campbells, I think.
Stephen & Lori,
…Huh. You’re right. I’ve thought they were the same person for the longest time. D’oh! Forced myself to read the hero’s journey stuff a few years back thinking it was the same guy that rejected Delany for blackness; that very much colored how I thought of it. I barely looked at the first name; just figured there was only one “Campbell” spoken of with such reverence in the genre.
Well, color me embarrassed. (And no, that’s not playing the race card again!)
Yeah, it never occurred to me to think that they might be the same person… I just assumed they were different. When you linked to something that I thought was going to portray Campbell (the mythologist) as a racist or his monomyth concept as inherently racist, I was like “say it ain’t so”, but as I do try not to be ignorant of these things, I read on. And then Delaney was talking about Campbell the editor, whom I was already aware was racist (and of whom I am young enough not to have to speak of with reverence, I think, for which I am glad as he was obviously a crackpot) I was like “waitaminit”. Which is why I had to check. I figured you’d want to know that, too.
Stuff like that happens to me all the time. Very bad for Trivial Pursuit. Like, yesterday I was reading _Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America_ by Christopher Bram (which is really good.) The book kept going on about this gay poet Frank O’Hara. I was so confused, thinking, isn’t Frank O’Hara an Irish short story writer who writes about priests and cats and stuff like that? It turns out that’s Frank O’Connor. Ohhh!
FYI, there’s an alternate history story out there where Joseph Campbell takes over Astounding Science Fiction as editor and turns it into a magazine devoted to Mythic Fiction and Mythic Fact.
I know people don’t want to talk about race/color, but as a white person, who reads a lot, and most main characters are white I relished the fact that I had to ‘change’ my minds eye to see your characters. Not that books I’ve read haven’t had none white characters in them- well suffice it to say I thoroughly enjoy the complexity/fullness of your worlds and characters (true and fiction). We have all kinds of people in our world and I want that in my fantisy worlds also.
Doris Lessing once said that whenever she wrote about class, she would get many letters from obviously middle-class Brits complaining that class was no longer a problem in England. So in England the denialists deny classism, in the U.S. they deny racism.
DS9 was the only Star Trek series I liked. The others all seemed hokey to me.
I was about to start grumbling against the monomyth and Campbell and say that this kind of generalisation is mostly outdated anthropology, and that there’s no reason why writers today should bother with it… but then that’s not even really the question, is it?
I realise how hard it is for people who are used to seeing their own group represented as default in stories to shake off the idea that when another group is represented, it’s not because the author is making a militant point or trying to further an agenda or to sell an otherwise trite story. I decided I would not submit to Flash Fiction Online when I read in their guidelines they weren’t keen on publishing “queer fiction, in particular stories which would be obvious or trite if the characters had been straight”. Er, what? Why not just say “we don’t publish obvious or trite stories”?
It seems that some people have such a hard time imagining that people outside privileged groups are human beings in their own right that they believe the author is making some sort of point every time they see a character of colour, queer or with a disability, when in fact the author had just done their job, writing about an original character…
That’s quite a coincidence. I just submitted to Flash Fiction Online a couple days ago, but that “queer fiction is a hard sell, especially if it would be trite if the characters were straight” line was haunting me. I just withdrew my submission (luckily they use submishmash and that’s quite easy) with an explanation of why. It’s really quite a statement they’re making to say that queer fiction is a hard sell. Yeah, I already knew that. Most markets leave that unstated.
It also reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi’s (of the awesome novel Shipbreakers) recent short article at Kirkus Reviews online about LGBT characters in dystopian YA and lack thereof. His big idea is that readers can only identify with straight characters, so there should be a dystopia about straight characters being discriminated against. I respect his novel a lot, but this article was just another example of “non-straight characters could only be present to make a political statement.”
Realised I hadn’t trawled your blog for a while and ended up reading ‘Effluent Engine’ to see what the fuss was about.
Good lord, that was AWESOME.
Regarding the comic of whitewashing and race-bending, or rather, more about the notion, that audience can relate only to characters with a certain background, somehow the truly abominable League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film adaptation came to my mind.
I mean, I remember, that the producers wanted the creators to include Tom Sawyer, an American wonderkid. They argued, that the American audience need an American character, to whom they can relate.
Which I found not a little bit absurd. Lets just skip that part, that they watered down the characters, because the original League were full with members with serious issues (not your average heroes you were meant to relate). But that film could have been fun, even if they made just a little bit family-friendly. (SPOILER the ultimate fate of Griffin by the hand – and other parts – of Edward Hyde is pretty much justified and well-deserved, considering what kind of lousy monster is Griffin in the comics, but I can see, why they did not wish to include it in a film.)
But, as an East Central European Guy, I found the notion preposterous, that the American audience could not relate to a bunch of British people. I mean, come on, I got used to it, that the powers-that-be in Hollywood make remakes from foreign movies, rather than allow those films to be shown in American theaters. They wish to eliminate their rivals as much as they can, which I find deplorable, but okay, we talk about business, rather than art, so I got used to it. I found the explanation – ‘Americans cannot relate to foreign people, like those funny Scandinavian people, who are reserved and taciturn, or those funny Mediterranian people, who are quick-tempered and extrovert’ – laughable, but I got used to it.
But the notion, that the American target audience cannot relate to British people – with whom the so-called American target audience shares the most similiarities, e.g. English as a native language, being white and anglosaxon – is so sad… because if they found such small amount of differences from the proclaimed target audience a great barrier for that audience… then how can we expect them, that they found people relatable, who are not American WASP characters?
Hell, they even wished to make Harry Potter an American kid (fortunately, J. K. Rowlings vetoed it)!
And unfortunately I shall complete the ‘American WASP’ with male, because they made Tom Sawyer a deuteragonist, the apprentice of great white hunter Allan Quatermain, the leader of the team in the film, while made Mina Murray… sorry, Harker in the film… an auxiliary character.
I found this aspect of the film – the character of Mina – thoroughly unforgiveable. In the comic book, she is the leader of the team, despite being a feminine female character, who does not kill twenty guys for breakfast (Hyde does). But she manages to be in charge, despite her companions are anything, than simple cases. She is resourceful, strong-willed, independent, has a sharp tongue. She divorced from her husband, and goes by her maiden name. She managed to control Hyde, she started the relationship with Allan, and not the other way around… etc. etc.
However, in the movie they made her your typical femme fatale – she is a vampire, who fullfill every cliches of Dracula’s brides. She speaks in a sepulchral voice, she is ‘strong’ because of her supernatural abilities, she kills a bunch of guys… but she is not a leader, but a grunt. She does not divorce from her – in this continuity, late – husband, she goes by Harker, she even let herself sort of being reprimanded by Sean Connery (‘women cause more problem, then they solve, bla bla’, or something like that was said, when they are in the limuzin of Nemo, and Connery gets the upper hand). She is quite submissive even with supernatural abilities – and it is demonstrated by the fact, that she is vulnerable to the questionable charms of Dorian ‘I’m not in the book, you know’ Gray.
And I found this bewildering… they cannot make a woman a team leader for the film, they shall make her a third-rate character. In the end, it will be Tom Sawyer, WASP American male character, who follows Quatermain in his foot-steps as a leader. Mina is nowhere (and I think that ‘no other can lead the group, if you have Sean Connery’ is bullshit… if the reason of this is the star factor, they could have hired Winona Ryder, or, if she was unavailable, then an other famous actress).
So, In my opinion, Tom Sawyer is one of the best examples, what is wrong with the ‘audience only can relate with a character from a certain background’ notion. (And despite I am not a fan of James Bond at all, he is one of the most successful movie hero for decades, despite being a Brittish… so why were/are the producers so narrow-minded?)
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