Short story: “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye”

“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye,” by Matthew Kressel

5721 words, according to Clarkesworld

Appeared here in issue 92 of Clarkesworld, May 2014

This is just neat.

Short story: “Keep Your Shape”

“Keep Your Shape,” by Robert Sheckley

5,800 words

Appeared in Galaxy in November 1953; read on Project Gutenberg; featured in Escape Pod episode 455, July 21st, 2014

This is such a cute story, but Pid’s shapeshifting abilities are portrayed inconsistently (he’s unable to customize his dog senses, but he can drastically modify his bird body in midair) and the change in his character isn’t set up well enough to be believable.

Short story: “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” by Rachel Swirsky

966 words

Appeared here in issue 46 and the podcast of Apex Magazine on March 5th, 2013; nominated for a 2014 Hugo Award; featured in episode 458 of Escape Pod, August 14th, 2014

I dig it.

On a reread, it becomes clear that the reveal was being set up the whole time, with the wedding scene being the narrator’s way of bargaining.

The mid-sentence transition (“just as they must avert their eyes”) is clever. I think it works better on the page than read aloud.

A note on joining WordPress

It turns out that signing up with WordPress automatically creates an account for you on intensedebate.com. That would be okay, except that logging out of WordPress doesn’t log you out of intensedebate.

I’ve also noticed that after I log out of the main WordPress site and my blog, I’m still logged into at least one other WordPress-based site.

Support isn’t very helpful on either of these points. Best bet is to just clear all cookies and never log in except in private/incognito mode.

“Just don’t take nude photos of yourself,” or how fear enforces social norms

I don’t want to live in a society where people are scared of being mocked, harassed, shamed for things that aren’t shameful, sexualized when they’re not being sexual, treated like objects, and exploited for money.

I want to live in a society where people are scared of committing harassment (because that’s a crime), scared of violating other people’s privacy (because that’s a crime), and scared of being shamed for doing those things (because they’re shameful things to do).

I want to live in a society where men are nervous about sending dick pics without an invitation.

I want to live in a society where people who illicitly hide cameras have to worry about the long-term consequences, while the people they photograph can feel reasonably safe.

I want to live in a society where “hackers” are scared of stealing nude photos, bitter exes are scared to share sex tapes, and porn aficionados are scared to look at creepshots.

Short stories I consider kind of great

So it looks like I’ve used this tag twenty-five times and counting. That’s a lot of stories that I admire and would like to imitate. I’m going to make a list so I can look at them all at once.

  • “The White Cat,” by Marjorie Sandor
  • “A Report to an Academy” (“Ein Bericht für eine Akademie”), by Franz Kafka
  • “Forever Overhead,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff
  • “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Man of the World,” by Frank O’Connor
  • “Brief Interview #20″ (among other titles), by David Foster Wallace
  • “Second Person, Present Tense,” by Daryl Gregory
  • “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” by J. D. Salinger
  • “Everything and Nothing,” by Jorge Luis Borges
  • “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “The Interior Castle,” by Jean Stafford
  • “Wife in Reverse,” by Stephen Dixon
  • “Deer at Rest,” by Thisbe Nissen
  • “Sredni Vashtar,” by Saki
  • “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “The Evolution of Knowledge,” by Niccolò Tucci
  • “The Laughing Man,” by J. D. Salinger
  • “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “The Weeds,” by Mary McCarthy
  • “The Ring,” by Isak Dinesen
  • “A Hunger Artist” or “The Hunger Artist” (“Ein Hungerkünstler”), by Franz Kafka
  • “The Circular Ruins”  (“Las Ruinas Circulares”) by Jorge Luis Borges
  • “Departures,” by John L’Heureux
  • “The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges

Of these, I see that six are by women and nineteen by men; of the eighteen authors represented, six are women and twelve men.

More to come, assuming I don’t lose all taste for short fiction.

On objective history

“Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

—the final lines of the Economist‘s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

It’s impossible to keep up with current events without halting in your tracks from time to time, wondering if you’ve fallen prey to Poe’s law.

The more I look at this review, the more it amuses me. It is 538 words long. The first 215 words tell how slaves were “marketed like livestock” in the United States. A bit book-reportish, but serviceable. After that, the reviewer abruptly introduces what I assume to be Baptist’s thesis: that early U.S. economic growth was built on slavery (39 words).

Now we’re getting to the interesting part. The next 250 words are spent arguing that Baptist overstates his case. Sure, slavery was a contributing factor, but let’s not forget America’s “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.” The review does not, however, go on to address any of those factors, perhaps for lack of space. Instead, the reviewer points to another book (The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas) and says essentially, “What he said!”

There’s some patter about how “[s]laves were valuable property,” and therefore slave owners must have been motivated to treat them well. The reviewer rolls out this old chestnut with an air of originality and without flinching. Some writers would feel the need to at least pay lip service to the concept that no conditions of slavery can be humane; our reviewer remains bravely cheerful.

No attempt is made to isolate the causes of economic growth and productivity, or to argue coherently for one over another. The reviewer’s main point, I suspect, is that it is impossible to know for sure. And if we don’t know, we really can’t blame anybody, can we?

Then those last 34 words veer into frothing nonsense, and that’s a wrap.

At first, the demand for an “objective history” amused me more than anything else in this piece, but now it’s making me angry. Objective history. As though objectivity is just what happens if you do the research and write and try not to advocate for anything in particular.

Non-fiction writers shouldn’t be objective. They should be haunted by the idea of objectivity. They should be students of their own biases. They should be advocates for every good cause, however hopeless, however hopelessly complicated. They should never forget they live in the real world.

On readers missing the point

“Look, didn’t you find the book at all funny?”

—Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, during a rather stodgy interview

This is just shameless

“Spellbinding complexity. Deep, dark, and intense.”

—the tagline of a machine-brewed coffee

(For the curious: it’s okay. Tastes pretty much like coffee.)

On hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is funny. It makes for the most delicious, most biting satire. The reaction it provokes is automatic, even primal: we see someone being wrong, blatantly and viciously wrong, and the combination of reprehensibility and vulnerability is almost irresistible. We want to point and laugh. We feel justified in pointing and laughing. It’s a wonderful feeling.

But hypocrisy is hardly the worst of human failings. We all aim for goodness, and we all fall short of the mark. It’s tempting to say that hypocrisy per se isn’t a failing at all, merely a predictable consequence of having standards higher than we can live up to with absolute consistency—and for some vices, such as addictions, that is probably true.

So does it even matter whether we point out hypocrisy or not? I would argue that it does matter, not because hypocrisy is a particularly bad failing, but because it’s a particularly revealing one. Hypocrites don’t just expose their own weaknesses, they expose the weaknesses common to our society.

This Verge article is an excellent example. It’s easy to laugh at Larry Wachs and #hashtagslacktivist, and it’s easy to despise them. But why do they take government privacy concerns seriously while taunting women whose nude photos got leaked? It’s not just because they’re assholes. It’s not just because they don’t care about problems that don’t affect them personally. It’s not because they don’t know how damaging photos can be to women (if that were the case, they wouldn’t bother replying to the women in question). And it’s probably not because their concerns about privacy are insincere. All those explanations are relevant, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter.

The truth is, these two assholes (and others like them) are just parroting the sexist assumptions of our culture. Men’s sexuality is to be tolerated, winked at, shrugged off, even when it harms other people. Women’s sexuality is to be suppressed, chided, and sneered at, even when it harms no one but themselves. A man’s sexuality belongs to himself (or, if his self-restraint is especially poor, to nature). A woman’s sexuality belongs to society. If she fails to guard it and distribute it fairly—that is, to deserving men—then she’s a failure as a woman. In light of these assumptions, there’s no real hypocrisy going on here. What looks like hypocrisy is no more than predictable conformity to social norms.

For every loudmouthed asshole, there are others who follow the same social norms more quietly. And that’s why it’s worthwhile to point out these so-called hypocrites. They’re a symptom of a much bigger problem.


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