This is another fable sparked by class conversation. I’ll assume most of you will be familiar with the frog in the well story. Here’s my treacly version of it.
So there were three frogs that grew up living at the bottom of a well. They lived there all alone happy to know nothing about the outside world. One day after a rainstorm the water in the well rose to the point where the frogs could see the outside world. They saw the sky. They heard the birds. They could smell all the smells in the fields around the well. So they decided to jump out and see this new world. It was a lot to take in. Some of it good. Some of it bad. They were stunned. The flies were bigger than the little flies they got down where they lived at the bottom of the well. The world was louder and less muffled than what they’d heard in the dark below. And the sun was so much brighter than they expected.
Suddenly a bird landed directly in front of them. It was a tall long necked long legged crane with eyes like glass pellets and a beak as sharp as a knife. The frogs had never seen a creature like this before, and could do nothing but stare up at it in awe. It bent down and in one great big gulp swallowed the center frog whole. Just like that their friend was gone. The frogs fled. One jumped back down the well. The other jumped into a nearby pond. Which frog do you think was better off: the one that went back into the dark below, where he was safe, but closed off all alone, or the one that jumped into the pond that found a way despite the dangers to live in the wide open world?
One of my students brought up the legend of Pandora’s Box in a recent class in the sense of learning about something you’ll only regret knowing. For example would you want to know if your spouse was cheating on you? Since this happened at the end of class, we didn’t really get to dig into the idea too much. One thing I might do when/if we get back to the subject is talk about myths and how you can read different things into them. So in my version of the Pandora story, I’ll remove the hope angle and the box will keep getting bigger the longer it stays shut. So by opening the box Pandora did us all a favor, because if it had stayed closed the evils within it would only have gotten worse.
Hey, if reclaiming mythology to construct an idiosyncratic personal moral philosophy was good enough for Robert Graves, why shouldn’t we all feel free to do the same?
Some thoughts on Wankery, genre and otherwise,
The thing that always surprises me is how many folks either make their disappointments the core of their identity, or, worse from my POV, go out of their way to annoy and upset people to compensate for feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and resentment for the lulz.
In my professional life (don’t laugh!) when I encounter people like this I file them under the heading of Button Pusher. They’re the folks who look to annoy and bother people, and I find they’re looking for people to push their buttons back. That’s discourse for them and feeds their need for attention. They’re also most comfortable operating at that level of zingers, and if you keep trying to have an actual conversation with them they move on in disgust, probably calling you boring as they go, because you’re not playing their game and they need to get one last button push in.
Related to button-pushing is something I’ll call kid-brother-itis. I don’t know how kid sisters behave, but I have pretty good grasp on being a kid brother, and one obvious tendency for us KB’s is to be as annoying as shit, not to everyone, but to a person we think is a bit full of themselves or needs to be taken down a peg or two. It can feel like doing god’s work, going around humbling conceited souls.
Of course, it’s not.
Fortunately someone acting under kid-brother-itis can often times be shown the error of their ways and corrected. It might take time, but it’s possible. On the other hand someone who’s a Button Pusher just sees engagement as more chances to push a person’s buttons.
I have no patience for this.
Where this comes back to genre is that it’s not just that Button Pushers are there, but that the internet coupled with fandom’s resentful puddletrout has made Online Asshole a profitable brand, and that’s like the golden ring for Button Pushers. And if they’re a real shitboil, they’ll up the ante from simple annoying button pushing to full on abusive behavior. What’s happening though is that people seem to be moving on, because so many other issues are happening, and the Button Pushers can’t stand it. They are trying desperately to keep the attention on themselves, while no one has time for them anymore.
None of this should be construed as casting aspersions on actual wankery. That’s not my place to judge. You do you.
A theory of assholes:
You aren’t an asshole. You are being an asshole.
That’s an important distinction. Being an asshole isn’t a state inherent to your identity, it’s not who you are, but simply the state of being you are passing through at that moment. At some later moment, you may not be an asshole.
Now it’s possible you have a low resistance to being an asshole and the asshole path is so clearly blazed and marked it takes an act of extreme willpower not to go full asshole at the slightest provocation and your average state of being manifests asshole so often that it takes on the appearance of permanence. Or maybe you’re a performance artist and have decided that it’s much easier to perform being an asshole at all times as a mask to hide your social anxiety and feelings of inferiority and resentment than actually engage with people as people.
These are the easy paths, the lowest hanging fruit. You don’t have to take the easy way. Learn to read the road signs and get past that first off-ramp that takes you to asshole.
And if your identity and money stream requires you to maximize instances of being an asshole, well, I got nothing for you. Go eat shit.
But I’ll highlight that being an asshole isn’t such a horrible thing that being one must be viewed as a complete evil to be avoided entirely. In certain circumstances it’s advantageous to be an asshole. Or at least know a good one. I’d certainly want any lawyer I’d hire to be able to go full asshole on my behalf in court. And when setting and maintaining boundaries being an asshole helps – at least being thought an asshole, because those susceptible to assholery in your life will think you’re an asshole when you cut them and their nonsense out of your life. Good on you. Be that asshole. Make the filter work. Because you’re only being an asshole, it’s not who you are.
So to recap: if you’re accused of being an asshole, take heart because it’s not who you are, it’s just where you are at that moment, and if you have to be an asshole from time to time it’s okay because it’s what you’re being and not who you are. Unless you’re a lazy performance artist going for the low hanging fruit in which case, eat shit.
I read a thing. I didn’t like it. Now I need to tell you how much I didn’t like it, because these other people, they liked it. And I can’t stand that, because I REALLY DIDN’T LIKE IT. And because I didn’t like it that means it’s bad. It’s a bad thing. It’s awful. So there’s something wrong with those people that like that thing. How could they like that thing? Wasn’t it clear that it was bad? Wasn’t that obvious? If the thing was good, I’d know. I’d be able to tell. It would be clearly a good thing. No doubt at all. But that thing? That thing wasn’t a good thing, because I didn’t like it and I know good things. Never mind that it might not have been made for me, never mind that I might not have the life experience it speaks to, or the simple matter of it coming down to taste. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, I know. And that thing was bad, because I didn’t like it, and I only like good things. Those people who liked that thing, they’re wrong. They’re dumb. They have problems. Isn’t that obvious? It’s a bad thing because I didn’t like it.
You can probably spare yourself a lot of trouble when you join a community by determining as soon as possible what kind of community you’ve joined. I can think of three types of communities and each has their value, but each also breaks in a way peculiar to itself.*
Community of Interests: “You like dinosaurs. I like dinosaurs. Let’s form a dinosaur club!”
This is probably the most common type of community, and you’d probably think it wouldn’t suffer from any problems, but there’s always going to be that asshole judging your love of dinosaurs and whether it’s “correct” or not, so when the gatekeepers exceed the members and every week brings a new test of devotion, you can be certain this community is sliding into dysfunction.
Community of Purposes: “You like dinosaurs! I like dinosaurs… and have access to cloning technology and an intact velociraptor genome! Let’s make dinosaurs!”
Beyond the shared interest, this community has an agenda it hopes to implement. It wants to do a thing, and everyone’s on-board to do it. Solidarity and intention become more important than interest. Often this type of community and the one above will exist within one community with members pushing it one way or the other. Of course when this one breaks, the assholes come out to test your devotion to the cause and see if you’re really about cloning woolly mammoths or are just so much talk.
Community of Circumstances: This is the community for people circumstance has thrown together. English teachers in South Korea, Pakistani Law Students at the University of Wisconsin, etc. Normally these people would have nothing to do with each other, but circumstance has thrown them together and so they’re now part of community. On the plus side, they meet people outside their comfort zone and become friends with them. On the downside once the circumstances change, people move on without looking back.
* Barring active trolls who delight in destroying/undermining communities.
One thing I hate in readers is a lack of curiosity. Often times folks devoted to a genre whine loudest about not having anything to read, when actually, if they just moved their heads a little in any direction, they’d find something great. Kindles have done away with that, although I’m not sure they’ve done much to improve reader curiosity. If anything Kindles have managed to speed everyone’s descent into a bottomless pit of their own choosing, only now that descent’s fueled by Amazon’s algorithm.
An illustrative anecdote: a month or so back I gave away some books to a friend. One of them I thought was awful and told my friend as much. A week or so later he told me he’d read the book, agreed it was awful, and “the next seven books in the series were just as bad”.
Now this lack of curiosity might not be the biggest problem in genre. But I’d hazard a guess that it could be the keystone problem all the other problems trickle out from. Again the solution is simple: move your head a little in any direction. You will find something better.
A while back I read this post by E. Catherine Tobler called “The Women We Don’t See”. It starts with an anecdote from a friend of hers who realized he hadn’t read a book by a woman in two years. And he was okay with that. A more recent while back, the writer K. T. Bradford challenged readers to quit reading white men for a year. I didn’t opt on the challenge, but I wasn’t incensed by the suggestion. If anything, both posts can simply be read as reminders to maybe think two minutes longer before picking up your next book to read. Even looking at the suggested books outlined in Bradford’s post, she’s only listing twelve books. One a month. You can’t read one book a month by a non-Anglo and/or non-dude writer. Seriously?
There are two big reasons authors get forgotten (beyond the fact that they might suck). The first is the author wrote only the one genre book, and that one was usually early in their career. Fred Chappell’s Dagon and Frederick Turner’s Double Shadow both fit this description (although Chappell has returned to genre at times).
The other reason books get forgotten is because they either exist outside a genre or within a genre that in part hopes to reject them. Despite the history and tradition of women and non-Anglo authors writing SFF, it’s certainly not part of the institutional memory yet. Not when an author can be asked to recommend books to readers and come up with nothing better than the equivalent of Led Zeppelin. This is also why I’m probably only hearing about Doris Piserchia this year. It’s probably also why Joanna Russ gets read like she’s an inoculation against feminism. And why a comment Margaret Atwood made years ago still gets trotted out against her.
All of which is to say show a little curiosity. Take the extra minute and change up your reading diet a bit.
Yeah, I hate that analogy too. It suggests I’m writing all this to extol the salubrious effects of reading certain books, like Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a bit of broccoli on your plate, and you should read it because vitamins, instead of the real reason, which is it’s a great science-fiction book with a moral dilemma at its heart that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who knows what the prime directive is.
And in case you need a place to start, here’s a link to SF Mistressworks. Go crazy.