Tag: rant

On rules

“In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.”

—Helen DeWitt (x)



“[The officer who shot Tamir Rice] had no information to suggest the weapon was anything but a real handgun, and the speed with which the confrontation progressed would not give the officer time to focus on the weapon.”

—retired FBI agent Kimberly A. Crawford

No fucking shit, Sherlock! We all saw the speed at which the confrontation progressed. It progressed really fucking fast because the police officers, in their wisdom, chose to drive up to the boy really fucking fast and shoot him really fucking fast. As a matter of fact, there was no confrontation until the police drove up. The kid doesn’t even seem to notice them until they’re on top of him.

In the comments on the NPR article, I saw someone make a joke about how, if you want to take out a hit on someone, you can just call 911 and say, “I saw this old lady pointing a gun at people!” And then they have no information to suggest that her umbrella is anything but a disguised rifle, etc. But the fact is that Tamir Rice got shot because he was black. If he had been a white guy, the police would have tried to get more information and the confrontation would not have progressed quite so fast. That’s true regardless of whether some piece of shit ex-FBI agent thinks she can defend her cronies’ behavior, and regardless of how depraved the legal use of force has become in this country.

On bad criticism

The two January 2014 comments on this post are amazing to me. I want to find their obtuseness gratifying, and I guess some part of me does, but at the same time I’m almost literally clutching my head.

(Dear gods, grant me that I may never be so clueless as a critic—or at least grant me the power to delete embarrassing old blog posts.)

If you read “Bullet in the Brain” while holding the same premise as these two commenters—that the main character is supposed to be admirable, even likable, from the start—then yes, it is a terrible story. In this reading, the author/narrator opens by boasting about how superior Anders is, then shows him being snarky and fearless to the end, and then gives a lengthy eulogy about his dull personal life and his passion (genius?) for language. That’s not even a complete story. There’s no tension, no surprise.

How did these two commenters misread the piece so badly? I suspect they have both read too much bad amateur writing, in workshop groups or on fanfiction sites. Making the main character the hero of the piece is a natural, obvious choice for beginning writers, and making the hero an idealized self-insert is an easy mistake to make. If you spend a lot of time critiquing that kind of stuff, without being aware of more sophisticated and risk-taking writing, then you probably develop a habit of skimming for common mistakes.

One thing I genuinely admire about these commenters is that they make their faulty premise explicit. That’s something that a lot of workshop critiquers forget to do, because they assume they don’t need to. Criticism is only meaningful when it includes an interpretation of the work being criticized: What is this piece about? What is this character portrayal supposed to convey?

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.

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.

A grammar lesson for “men who aren’t like that”


Hey, women, listen up! Not all men are like that! You need to remember this before you say things that make decent men look bad.


Hey, men who are like that, listen up! You’re scaring the shit out of women, annoying them, belittling them, and making them angry. That’s terrible. It also makes decent men look bad. But mostly it’s terrible. You need to stop doing that now.

You can always tell how much people care about global issues

by the way they say “Africa” instead of coming up with the name of, like, an actual country. This is a sign that they are genuinely super concerned about Africa, and not using it as a shorthand for “scary foreign place.” (See also: “the Middle East.”)

You can also tell they are definitely not trying to trivialize other, less pressing matters. They just spend so much time thinking about Africa! It’s not an easy life path, but somebody has to do it.

Yogi tea is my new arch-nemesis

“Wisdom becomes knowledge when it is personal experience.”

—tag on a Yogi tea bag

I take this to mean the following:

wisdom + personal experience = knowledge

But by the same token,

knowledge – personal experience = wisdom

That is to say, wisdom is an inferior or incomplete form of knowledge. This seems to run exactly counter to the usual definitions of those words. I suppose you could interpret “wisdom” as the object of the sentence and “knowledge” as the subject, but that’s too convoluted to consider seriously.

I’m not the first to notice how stupid this one is.

On planning stories before telling them; also, on writing advice

“Know the story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind—making it up as you go along, like a common liar.”

—John Irving, as quoted in a post on the blog AdviceToWriters

I was so struck by the abrupt, bullying tone of the above advice that I did some googling and found what I think is the source of the quote, an essay on novel writing called “Getting Started” (included in Writers on Writing, which is on Google Books). Below is a more complete version.

“Here is a useful rule for beginning: Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph. Know the story—the whole story, if possible—before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind—making it up as you go along, like a common liar. Or else, to begin a novel without an ending fixed in your mind’s eye, you must be very clever, and so full of confidence in the voice that tells the story that the story itself hardly matters.”

Some notes on the first, abbreviated version. In the absence of context, it sounds like we’re talking about short story writing, where planning ahead is a very different matter. In the absence of qualifications, it sounds like Irving is scoffing at all improvisation, strangely ignorant of the power of voice and ingenuity. I think AdviceToWriters has made a common mistake here. They’ve stripped this piece of advice down to its essentials, making it as simple and forceful as it can be. But like most writing advice, it is essentially kind of stupid. Stripped of nuance, it becomes stupider.

I say stupid, but that’s not what I really mean. What I really mean is that Irving, like any other advice giver, is primarily talking to himself. When he hedges and qualifies and explains, it’s because he remembers that he’s speaking to a larger audience.

I find it funny and sad that Irving scoffs at “making it up as you go along,” because that’s the very phrase I would use to capture what I like most about writing, and about many other things. Making it up as you go along, and making it work somehow—what could be more exhilarating than that? (I wonder if Irving’s hero, Charles Dickens, felt the same way about his serials.)