Showing posts with label BOOKS.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BOOKS.. Show all posts

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The End of The End

 The End - 
My Struggle 
Volume 6 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Before starting this essay, I eat a crumpet.

The Marmite tastes salty. Salty Marmite. We used to have Marmite for breakfast when I was a child. Granddad called it rat's poison. He died. 

I am also going to have a mouthful of coffee. It is in a red cup. The coffee is warm and coffee coloured and tastes of coffee. There is a granual floating on the surface. It makes me think of a drowning refugee child or that old joke about the soup. I wonder if the Moors Murderers ever drank soup?

This is my essay. I am writing it now.


Strange that in the era of social media and limited attention spans, the novel everyone is talking about runs to six volumes and is stuffed full of philosophy and literature and art history, all translated from the original Norwegian.

But perhaps it is not that strange. My Struggle  (yes, I know) is essentially a seven million character Tweet: a macro blog in the age of micro-blogging. It is the tangible remains of hours spent at the keyboard recalling the details of day-to-day existence: what Karl Ove had for supper (prawns, probably); how many cups of coffee he drunk (dozens, on the balcony mostly, with a cigarette); what Karl Ove said when he settled his three little children down in front of Bolibompa (Norwegian Tellytubbies?) — yet prone to shoot off at any moment into thoughts about God and identity and the holocaust and the terrible burdens of being an artist.

For every passage which reads like this:

We hold the absolute at bay, firstly by levelling down the bigness of our existence, that which has to do with the very boundaries of life and materiality, to the commonplace, addressing the issues that concern us all, the great collective, mankind, only in the quotidian; secondly by ritualising the absolute in an unreal world of images: death is to us not the physical death of the body, but the figurative death, as it occurs in images, in the same way as violence is not physical violence, but figurative violence.

There is one which reads like this:

I snatched two packets of red sausages, the ones with the highest meat content, something I had suddenly and rather neurotically become obsessed by after someone at the nursery made me realise there were big differences from brand to brand, then dropped a bag of hot-dog buns into the basket along with a regular loaf, a bag of coffee, the dark-roast French blend I’d settled for after six months of experimentation and had since stuck to, a litre of milk, a litre of yoghurt, a six-pack of beer, toilet paper, and a packet of four bars of soap, seeing as how we had visitors and they probably washed their hands more than we did, and finally three ice creams.

The first volumes were written quite slowly, the culmination of a long period of writers' block during which Karl Ove went from being the most promising Norwegian novelist of his generation to the person journalists phoned up if they wanted to do a feature on one-book authors. But this final volume is written against the clock. His first manuscript ran to 1,200 pages, so his publisher suggested putting it out in twelve monthly installments of a hundred pages each. "If you are going to do that anyway" said Karl Ove "Can I expand it to 6,000 pages?" So this final volume is full of a sense of urgency and spontaneity and desperation and the need to keep on going; like a sort of high class NaNoWriMo.

Karl Ove has read more books than I have had Ikea Meatballs. While working flat out to finish this volume he is also working on a new Norwegian translation of the Bible. He doesn't believe in God but isn't sure quite how we are going to get along without Him. Although it can veer into the preposterously over-written — I am told the translation accurately reflects the original Norwegian, warts and all — he is so damn knowledgeable about nearly everything that he can hardly fail to be interesting. If he is going to talk about Abraham and Isaac — and since the whole epic is kind of about his father, he is more or less bound to talk about Abraham and Isaac sooner or later — then you can be sure he has studied his Kierkegaard and his Freud and his Girard before he begins to type.

But his real genius lies in descriptions of ordinary life; what he calls, over and over again until you want to throw the book across the room, the quotidian. (It is a very large book.)

It is easy to poke fun at this sort of thing. Here is Karl Ove making yet another cup of coffee: 

Impatiently I lifted the kettle before the water had started to bubble, and the crescendo of noise was interrupted and replaced by a soft murmur as the coffee rose inside the cup, at first a golden brown from the powder, visible as an earthy clump at the bottom, until over the next few seconds it completely dissolved and the surface became an impenetrable black with some lighter-coloured froth at the edges.

But this obsession with trivial detail is essential to the project. It is what makes you feel that you are inside Karl Ove's head; inside his life; inside his underpants. I am a slow reader and I found myself gobbling down these domestic disasters and private embarrassments in hundred page chunks.

One extended passage in this volume describes a disastrous holiday at a tourist resort in Gran Canaria. (Or perhaps it describes an idyllic, expensive holiday in a resort which Karl Ove cynically and snobbishly despises?) In one mercilessly specific episode Karl Ove and his wife agree to go on a free excursion without realizing that someone is going to try to sell them an expensive time-share. It literally felt like being there; it made me feel agonizingly embarrassed on behalf of  the characters; scared to turn the page in case Karl Ove really is persuaded to phone his mother to ask her to guarantee the loan. (Does this embarrassment and identification depend on my knowing that Karl Ove is real and this really happened: or would I have cared just as much if it had been two made-up people I was reading about?) The long description concludes:

‘Me too,’ Linda said. ‘Imagine you actually considering buying a timeshare!’
‘Yes, it’s unbelievable. But the worst is that I didn’t twig. I didn’t twig what was happening until afterwards! But you did, right?’
‘Yes. I wondered what you were up to.’
‘I was taken in hook, line and sinker....
Linda laughed.
‘Yes, go on, laugh,’ I said. ‘We won’t breathe a word of this to anyone, OK?’

"We won't breathe a word of this to anyone."

Karl Ove does a lot of mildly stupid things. He takes on an allotment he is never going to be able to manage, and then can't sell. He allows his wife to make her own way back to the psychiatric hospital after he has been specifically told not to. He does much stupider things too, when he is younger, like self-harming and glassing his brother and cheating on his wife. The sort of thing you wouldn't normally breathe a word to anyone about. 

It would be misleading to describe the book (as some people have) as an enormously erudite soap opera, a conjuring trick in which you are forced to care about Karl Ove's football practice and Heidi's ice cream cone by sheer weight of detail. It does that, certainly. The quotidian minutiae (you see, it's catching) make it the best and funniest account of what it's like to be a hands-on Dad as you are likely to read. But that's not really what the book is about. 

In volume two or three — I am certainly not going to look it up — Karl Ove is visiting Paris and lays a wreath on the grave of Marcel Proust. Which can only elicit the response from the reader "Son, you're no Marcel Proust." My Struggle and In Search of Lost Time are both very long books, and they are both full of the details of ordinary life; although Marcel spends more time attending exquisite dinner parties and admiring beautiful scenery and less time making coffee. But Proust is writing about consciousness and memory, about reconciling the subjective world with objective reality. Knausgaard is much more about the process of writing. Like Proust he makes connections and linkages and wild digressions. We go from the quarrel with his Uncle and the realization that he is going to have to disguise the names of some of the real people in the book to a discourse on the significance of Names in general, to a long critique of a poem by Paul Celan. (Pity the poor translator, offering an English version of a Norwegian. close reading of a German poet!) But these links are links which occur to him on the page, while he is writing. He doesn't know what he is going to say until he starts to say it.

So the enormously long canonical text of which The End most reminded me was not In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses but Don Quixote. You remember how volume two is very largely about the consequences of publishing volume one; about how the anonymous knight has become a public figure; about how his life is now being read, misunderstood and contested by strangers? That's what this feels like. An enormous book which turns out to be an account of its own coming into being.

The structure of My Struggle emerges only gradually: in the first volume, we see Karl Ove arranging his father's funeral and clearing the house where he was living at the time of his death; the second volume shows us Karl Ove as a Daddy himself. Only in the third book do we see his relationship with his father and start to understand why he is writing all this down. By the end of Volume Five he is a published author, struggling to begin his next book. Volume Six begins with the first volume of My Struggle already written and about to go to press. So he has to show it to his friends and family. And, astonishingly, they don't like it.

There is nothing you can say about Knausgaard which he hasn't already said about himself. I went to hear him give a talk in London last month to launch the English translation of the final volume, I was surprised at how pleasant and self-effacing and urbane he was: how patiently he answered the audience's doubtless very predictable questions. I had imagined that the craggy man on the cover would be distant and a little frightening.

But here his is in the last pages of The End:

It is therefore as though I can only be warm and sincere in front of a group of strangers and not with kith and kin. That is why what I do is a kind of trick. When I am sitting on the stage talking to an audience there is a great distance. I can manage that and appear close and warm.

When I queued up for him to sign my copy after the talk (and no, gentle reader, there is no other contemporary writer whose signature I would wait an hour for) I wanted to say something. So I said that it seemed strange to be standing in the same room as Karl Ove Knausgaard; that it felt as if I was meeting a character from a novel. Does that make sense? "Yes it does," he said politely and did one of those squiggles that pass for authors' signatures. But here he is in the last volume:

‘Actually we’re all characters in a novel sitting around this table,’ Yngve said.
‘That’s true,’ Asbjørn laughed.
‘We should set up a web page for characters in a novel so that we can discuss our experiences,’ Yngve said.
‘I can be the moderator,’ I said.

The first question anyone asks is whether the book is true of fictionalized; the second is how he can possibly justify writing about his late father, his kids, his wife and his ex- in such detail. And there we have pretty much the entire text of this final volume, which pretty much justifies the entire three thousand page construct. Not so much a book, more an experiment. Not the literary equivalent of a Tweet, after all: more the literary equivalent of Big Brother. The previous volumes are about being a Dad and a student and a teacher; this final volume is about being a writer who has committed himself to writing a 1200 page book in time for a deadline. The previous five volumes have told us everything in horrible, intimate, fascinating detail: This double sized final issue is about a man who has already told everybody everything and what that feels like.

People say things on Twitter and are surprised by the firestorms they set off. Sometimes firestorms which only effect Twitter and are meaningless outside that sub-culture; sometimes firestorms which have tangible effects on real people in the real world. Karl Ove seems astonished by the storm his macroblog unleashes; as if somehow he expected his family and friends to be happy with him publishing the intimate details of their lives because it was all true. His uncle reads the book and more or less accuses him of a hate crime. That's what the first half of this volume is about. Karl Ove eats prawns and takes the kids to the beach, but mostly all the time he's worried about whether his uncle is going to sue him. His wife reads the book, and finds out that he's cheated on her with other women. He never told her: she finds out when she reads the manuscript. She spends several weeks in a mental hospital, while he takes the children to kindergarten and drinks coffee and promotes the book. (She was probably bipolar so the book probably didn't literally cause the breakdown but it presumably didn't help.) He feels guilty; he feels sorry. He disguises some of the names. He cuts some passages. But he won't back down from the book. Telling the truth (the truth about where he buys his breakfast cereal and when he first learned to masturbate, and what rock bands he likes) is some kind of moral obligation.

And then there is the middle section. 

Desperately worried that his Uncle is going to sue him, stop the book being published, ruin his life, and desperately wanting to reach the end of this monstrous undertaking, Karl Ove writes a meticulously researched biography of Adolf Hitler.

We see the point, of course. Hitler's life is probably the most well-documented of any human being who ever lived; but at the same time his life is more than usually unrecoverable. It is impossible to find out what Hitler was like before he became Hitler just because we know he is going to become Hitler. For what it's worth, Karl Ove thinks that prior to the first world war Hitler was not very different from a lot of young men and aspiring artists. But it's the journey that's the point; the very idea of putting a 400 page historical essay in the middle of an autobiographical novel. Do we know what Karl Over Knausgaard was like before he became Karl Ove Knausgaard? Before his name became an adjective and his face became a logo? And if not, how does anyone ever know anyone?


It is ten in the morning. I have finished writing my review. I am no longer writing it. For two weeks now I have been getting up early and writing from as soon after 7pm as I can manage for as long as I can manage, until I have to go to the library or need breakfast. My flat is quiet and I feel as if I am being virtuous but also as if I am somehow playing truant. I remember at infant school when two little girls bunked off for an afternoon on a dare. They left the school and sat in the park for a few minutes; I think playing at being Enid Blyton characters more than anything else. The teachers knew perfectly well what had happened but pretended to be very worried and called the police to give the rest of us a scare. I suppose if they had been boys they would have been smacked. I was in Miss Griffiths' class. There were Gerbils in the corner by the book shelf. They died. 

I walk across my study to the toilet and notice that there are two plates and four cups on my desk: three containing undrunk half cups of coffee and one containing an undrunk half cup of Twinings jasmine tea, purchased from Tescos in a little green box. There were demonstrations when Tescos opened, riots even, and for years I wouldn't use it. There is also a plate on the floor, with a smear of Marmite on it, next to a pair of pink suspenders which I bought partly because they were eccentric and partly to keep my trousers up. Suspenders are more comfortable than belts, but you have to wear a jacket or a waistcoat or leave your shirt untucked. I suppose you could wear them outside your shirt, but then you would look like a violent American blue collar worker, or a children's entertainer, or a comedy policeman.

Anyone can type this kind of shit. Once you start with the trivial detail, there is no end to it, the tangled white headphones to my left, the big black letter edition of Spider-Man to my right, the dog-eared Douglas Adams in the left hand corner of my desk by the pot of pens which I took off the shelf to look up the quote for the Brexit essay and never put back. I don't write with pens any more.

It was C.S Lewis who said that writing was about structure and that stream of consciousness was merely a puddle, even if it was a puddle that contained very fine raw materials.

My Struggle gives the impression of rambling and going off at tangents but it is highly structured and full of artifice. It differs from Proust in one important respect. When I got to the end of, In Search of Lost Time, which I am very proud to say I did, I breathed a sigh of release and knew I would never read it again. When I got to the end of The End, I wanted to go back to A Death in the Family and experience the whole thing all over again.

If you would like me to write more book reviews, please pledge $1 a month at my Patreon. 

If you would like me never to write another book review ever again, please also pledge $1 a month at my Patreon.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

This is your monthly reminder that J.C Wright is a whey faced coxcomb

If something is to hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV.
Homer J Simpson

I don’t look at J.C Wright's page very often. It makes me cross, and not even interestingly cross, in the way Dave Sim used to. Sim writing was clever, perverse, witty and nasty in equal proportions. It made you want to engage with it. Wright just makes you say  “How can an intelligent person type that shit?” 

I suppose I justify glancing at his pages in the way that I justify glancing at Richard Dawkins’ tweets. (I mean, apart from morbid fascination, like looking at the execution tableaux on Brighton pier when when I was a kid.) I once said that that the Argument From Prof Richard Dawkins can stand alongside the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument as proofs of the existence of God. I think that an occasional glance at J C Wright and Melanie Phillips and Norman Tebbit are necessary if we are going to keep on marching down the good old socialist road. If that’s what being a conservative does to you then I definitely don’t want to be one.

In his journal this month, the Finest Writer Working Today dusts off a 70 year old letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a schoolboy. Apparently, the schoolboy’s English teacher had told him that Burroughs was “trash can literature”.

There are a number of possible answers to that, one of which would have been to ask the teacher to pick up Tarzan and the Ant Men and have a look it. It’s a proper story, written in proper sentences, with proper grammar (except foh de bleck folks, who speaks like dis), proper dialogue and proper description. I could imagine Tarzan or the early John Carters being set for a lower school English lesson. (We read Shane, I recall, which is about on the same level.) I think that’s why Burroughs star has diminished and his disciple Bob Howard’s reputation has increased. A Princess of Mars reads like a Victorian travelogue; a pastiche of Rudyard Kipling. The Conan stories are the distilled essence of pulp.

Burroughs responds that his books may be trash, but that millions of people read them and they have made him a lot of money. Presumably, even someone who has read no philosopher more recent that Plato can see the flaw in that? “This is popular” is not a response to “This is bad”: something can be bad and popular; something can be good but unpopular.

The main part of the Burroughs letter is worth quoting in full:

“My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, of its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.”

Now, it was kind of Burroughs to take the trouble to reply to a fan’s letter; and he didn’t imagine that something he’d dashed off in five minutes was going to be reread decades after he had died. And younger readers will find it hard to believe that the primitive word-processor he was using didn't allow you to correct or edit. You could only change a piece of text by deleting the whole document and starting again. But even taking that into account, I think we can agree that this is a very confused piece of writing. Burroughs seems to argue modestly that his writing is “good of its kind” while arrogantly assuming that his kind of writing is really the only kind. He thinks that fiction in general is just for entertainment; but then argues that encouraging children to read is a good-thing-in-itself.

You can’t have it both ways. You can say “Pantomimes are just silly knockabout, of course; but many a child has fallen in love with theater when they were taken to see Cinderella and as a result discovered the riches of Shaw and Ibsen and O’Neil when they were older — so the ‘panto’ does much good.” Or you can say “Silly entertainment is what theater is all about: Hamlet is merely panto with all the fun taken out; if it doesn’t have a custard pie routine in it, it’s not worth bothering with”. Or you can take the teacher’s point of view and say “How can you, a clever boy, possibly be wasting your time watching a man dressed as a lady throwing a custard pie and at a lady dressed as a man when Long Days Journey Into Night is playing in the same town?” But I don’t think you can say all three. 

I think that a Proper Actor would probably say “You may be surprised to know that the stage craft involved in putting on a pantomime and the stage craft involved in putting on a work by Shakespeare are very similar, and a person who truly loves theater loves both equally.” That was what Kenneth Williams said when he was asked why an actor of his caliber was wasting time on the Carry On movies.

The really astonishing thing, sitting there in ancient smudgy courier type is “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment.” Really? No fiction contains strong manly role models for us to aspire to? No fiction teaches a moral message? No-one ever reads stories to learn about how people live in distant lands or what life was like many years ago? No-one ever studies fiction from a scholarly point of view?  I also like the bit about the only kind of literature which can harm you being pornography. That’s a moral point, not a literary one, of course. But aren't there racist books; books that glorify crime; books steeped in commie or fascist propaganda; books that promote belief in the wrong kind of god; atheist books? Is there really no sin but the sin of masturbation? 

No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment? I wonder what Prof Lewis and Prof Tolkien, teachers of English Literature both, who J.C Wright reveres and who, incidentally, both quite enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs, would have to say about that?

But this, indeed, seems to be the point of the letter, and what has excited Wright about it. Burroughs children were both studying English Literature at college, apparently — not elementary school, college — and the great man is shocked that their set texts are dry and difficult.

Well, yes: of course they are. That is what you are at college for. And I think we know what their lecturer would have replied. “You don’t need the my help to understand Riders of the Purple Range or Brideshead Revisited or even David Copperfield. They are written in your language by people who share the same cultural assumptions as you. So read them on your own time. But you do need my help to get to the bottom of Beowulf or the Faery Queene.”

But Burroughs suspects a conspiracy. Still smarting from having been called garbage-can literature he lashes out against all teachers at all times ever, slipping into language so pompous that you can see why it appealed to J.C Wright:

“The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment rather than a pleasure. It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.”

I may possibly have made the last bit up. 

Imagine if you said that about any other subject. “The Karate teacher had some funny idea that I should learn some funny style of open handed fighting, when I can give a very good account of myself in the playground with clenched fists. I suppose his sole purpose is to put young men off the whole idea of fighting”.  “I am a big fan of rock n’ roll and the music teacher wanted me to listen to something called Mozart, which I didn’t like after two minutes. What is the point of a music teacher teaching me music I don’t like? She should teach me the music I already like. It’s a con-trick to put me off music.”

Now, it’s not that interesting to discover that a bloody good pulp writer had a bit of a blind spot when it came to other kinds of writing. There are many people who think that people only become classical violinists because they are second rate musicians who can’t master jazz. Or vice versa. 

What interests me rather more is Wright’s comment. Astonishingly, it turns out that Wright also has kids — at school rather than college. And, astonishingly, it turns out that their English teachers are part of the same conspiracy that Burroughs uncovered. They keep giving them difficult ("corrosive, dreary, hellish”) books because they want to put them off literature.

NUANCE WARNING! School English lessons are, of course, a different thing from University English courses; and there are honest differences of opinion about what school English is for.  Maybe you are introducing children to wide variety of books of different kinds with the intention of forming the habit of reading for pleasure. Maybe you are making them read well-formed books so that their grammar, vocabulary and punctuation will improve and they will eventually be able to write good letters of application and get skilled clerical and middle-management jobs. Or maybe you think that everyone in England should be familiar with the canon of English literature — that if we are in any sense a Nation then all our citizens need a smattering of Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and Hardy and other dead white guys. But at any rate, it is probably a greater sin to ask a twelve year old to read a book he finds positively boring than to ask a twenty year old to do so. 

So which books is Wright objecting to? 

“THE BEAN TREE by Barbara Kingsolver
FENCES by August Wilson
OF MICE AND MEN by Steinbeck (better written than the others, from a craftsmanship standpoint, but as the father of an autistic child, I found the sappy heavy-handed emotionalism to be terribly offensive. And the lefty portrayal of Okies was historically false, socialistic blither.)

(The lefty bits were socialist, were they? And were the socialist bits lefty? And maybe the conservative bits were on the right, and the right wing bits conservative?)  

To Burroughs rule “all books are good, except pornography” we have added three more:

All books are good, except the sentimental
All books are good, except those that offend the parents of autistic children
All books are good, except the historically inaccurate
All books are good, except those written from a socialist point of view

But couldn’t an entertaining pulp writer like Burroughs be sentimental, historically inaccurate and left wing? And couldn’t a book be historically accurate, devoid of emotion, full of sound right-wing economic theory but still dull as ditch-water?

You started with the claim “Teachers set children dull books, in order to put them off literature”. Someone asked "Give me an example of one of these dull books.” You replied “Here is an example of a sentimental, historically inaccurate, left-wing book."

J.C Wright never answers the question. J.C Wright never answer the question. 

And anyway...

How can you object to “Of Mice and Men” because you disagree with its politics? That's a moral judgement, from outside the book, that you are using to judge it. If Burroughs was right to say that all matters about a books is that it is entertaining and that it doesn't have any stark naked slave owners copping off with stark naked princesses, that's a non sequitur. But if he wasn't...  Wasn't "bringing political opinions to bear on literature" and "only liking books whose politics you agree with" the besetting sin of the Hugo awards that you so abominate?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Why Jonathan Jones is a Whey-Faced Coxcomb (Redux)

1: He thinks that choosing books is a zero-sum game.

The good is not the enemy of the great. Suppose that Jane Austen has a quality called “greatness” which Terry Pratchett lacks. (I think this must mean something like "the ability to stand up to multiple re-readings" and "the capacity to mean different things to different readers.") It does not follow that any time you are reading Pratchett you are somehow depriving yourself of a reading of Austen. I suppose some people might live on that elevated a plain. A holy man who wants to read the Bible ten thousand times in his life may have sworn to read nothing else. A concert pianist might conceivably listen to nothing but great piano concerts. F.R Leavis famously reduced the canon of English literature to four authors: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and D.H Lawrence. (Modern English literature courses have reduced it further, to To Kill a Mocking Bird.) Leavis' idea Middlemarch has such depth that you will see things on the tenth or twentieth reading that you can’t see on the first. That being the case, there is no excuse to waste time re-reading Oliver Twist or reading the Mayor of Casterbridge at all. 

Leavis is not much respected in English literature departments today. 

Most of us use different books — and music and art and food — in different ways. We read Mort for one reason and Malone Dies for another. Parsifal certainly has a quality called “greatness” which the Birdy Song lacks. But it doesn’t follow that you want the dance band to play the overture at your wedding. 

2: He thinks that there is a thing called “literature”.

That is, he thinks there is some essential quality that makes some things “literature” and some things "not literature".

But surely, the only workable definition of “literature” is “what they study in English Literature departments.” 

It comes down, as everything always seems to, to  canon. Hamlet is definitely literature because it has been around for a long time; because lots of people have read it and seen it and appeared in it and even denounced it. It’s important. You’ll probably enjoy it, actually, but you need to read it even if you don’t, because it matters. Same goes for Pride and Prejudice. But Pride and Prejudice wasn’t "literature" when it was published. It was just a very witty book that ladies liked. 

At one end of the list is the Bible (so important you have to read it even if you don't enjoy it even a little bit). At the other end of the list is The Soldier's Rebel Lover (so unimportant that there is no point reading it unless you enjoy it.) Everything else comes somewhere in between.

Pratchett may become literature. Or he may not. The reasons that some things become literature and some things don’t is one of the things they study in English literature departments. 

3: He thinks that there is a thing called “style” which is distinct from plot, characters, setting or ideas — that determines whether or not a book is “literature”.

People who don't understand Art sometimes ask “why on earth should I be interested in that particular bowl of fruit?” They think that a painting is about telling you information — that it’s a rather old-fashioned form of photography. But the true art lover hardly perceives the work of art as a bowl of fruit at all. It's all about colours and form and composition and negative space. 

Un-artistic people sometimes think that some painter is a genius because he can paint kittens so accurately that you'd think that they were photographs. The art-lover hardly regards those kinds of paintings as Art at all. They don’t tell you anything about the artist. The art-lover would prefer six sketchy lines that capture the pussy cat in an unexpected way. 

Jones is an art critic, so he may think that books are like that as well. But it's obvious bullshit. A book might talk about something quite ordinary in elegant prose. But it might use the most ordinary, cut down prose in the world to talk about something amazing. It might be a great book because of the clever story. Or the convincing characters. The list of great writers who were not particularly great stylists is legion. Daniel Defoe wouldn't past the Jones test ("I flicked through a few pages in the bookshop to see what all the fuss was about, but the prose seemed very ordinary") for one moment. We read him because of his imagination and narrative ability: because we want to hear about prostitutes being shipwrecked by pirates during the plague year. 

4: He thinks that this thing called "style" can be spotted by glancing at a few pages of a book

Maybe an art critic can tell if a painting is “art” or “just drawing pictures” at a single glance. I guess an opera critic does not need to hear more than three lines to be able to say “this fellow can’t sing” --in the sense of "can’t produce the right notes in the right key". In pop music or folk music that might not be the last word on an artist, but in opera or classical music, there’s nothing more to be said. But books contain effects that build up over pages, over hundreds of pages, in Pratchett’s case, over multiple volumes. Isn’t the point of Granny Weatherwax that she starts out as a one-note joke and grows into a rounded out character? 

It might be that a single glance can tell you that a writer is so bad he’s not worth bothering with. Some people say that you can tell the Da Vinci code is going to be a bad book on the basis of the first word. But a humane person would draw the conclusion “Gosh! If the prose is that bad and it still got published, the story must be an absolute humdinger.” 

5: He is responding to an argument that no-one ever made.

A.S Byatt wrote a long, intelligent essay on The Shepherd’s Crown explaining what she thought Pratchett’s strengths were, and why this book wasn’t his best. I have long suspected Byatt of over-praising Pratchett — of imagining the book that she would have written based on his ideas, and giving a glowing review to that. But she doesn’t particularly claim that it is Great Literature. 

I don’t even particularly like Pratchett. I’ve read half a dozen of his books. I don’t think he is a master of the comic sentence, like Wodehouse; and I don’t think he is anywhere near as good as coming up with comic ideas as Douglas Adams. I do think he can produce a fine one-liner and no-one can not respect the way he dealt with his illness. (No-one except J.C Wright, who compared him with Hitler.) I don’t specially like Jane Austen, either. Give me a manly tale of oakies trekking to California or mad puritans hunting white whales any day of the week. But what I really don't like is inane, illogical journalism. One wonders how Mr Jones would feel if someone said that, while they themselves had never been to a modern art exhibition, they knew perfectly well that modern art was not really “art”.

Oh, but actually people say that sort of thing all the time, don’t they? 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

J.C. Wright Always Lies

Footnote 1

My introduction last time around didn’t, I now see, capture the full absurdity of the situation. I said that we needed to imagine an organization so secret that its own members don’t know it exists; so powerful that it controls the Vatican and the scientific community; whose only aim is to lie about everything at all times.

What we actually need to imagine is a second organization whose only unifying principal is a belief in the existence of the first organisation.

J.C Wright is not, so far as I can tell, actually for anything. He is against a thing he calls P.C or S.J.W. But P.C. and S.J.W. don’t, so far as I can tell, have any characteristics apart from the fact that they control everything and everyone and always lie.

Puppy: A person who believes in a thing called an Essjaydoubleyoo.

Essjaydoublyoo: A thing which a Puppy believe in.  .

Footnote 2

We can tell that the feminists have taken over the Hugo Awards because in the olden days before they did Ursula Le Guin kept on winning prizes.

Footnote 3

One of the things which genuinely upsets me is other people being illogical. Other people being stupid and being wrong I can cope with.

I think it goes back to school. There was a thing which went on which I think the teaching profession would now recognize as “inverse bullying”, where a group of little kids would select a big kid to torment, sometimes physically, mostly psychologically. It might, for example, involve following him around repeating the same word, pretty much any word, say “haircut” [irrespective of whether or not the mark had recently had his hair cut] over and over again, every lunch break and play-time, sometimes for months at a time. The intention was to induce what we would now call "a meltdown" - to make the mark lose his temper or throw a tantrum. When this happened, a member of the mob would shout "look, Miss, he's bullying me" at the first available authority figure. Although this happened regularly, the authority figures were always taken in. (I suppose that most of the school teachers were former bullies themselves: in those days it was a natural career progression.)
If, before we got to this point, the target went to an adult and explained the situation, the adult would without exception say “you don't need to ask me for help, you are, what, twice his size" but if the target retaliated and took matters into his own hands in any way, the adult would say “how dare you retaliate or take matters into your own hands, you are, what, twice his size."

C.S. Lewis remarks that the theory that bullies are always cowards comes from a radical misunderstanding of the idea that brave men are always chivalrous. [*]

A rather more insidious version of the game, best played in the lower school years, was the reverse insult game, which went, if I remember correctly, like this.

“You are Jewish / gay / a P*ki”

“No, I’m not, I have light coloured skin and unlike you actually go to Sunday School. Not that it would matter if I was, of course.”

“Anyone who says they aren’t Jewish / gay / a P*ki is Jewish / gay / a P*ki”

“Very well then, I am Jewish / gay / a P*ki”

“He admits he’s Jewish / gay / a P*ki! He admits he’s Jewish / gay / a P*ki”

“Only because he had previously established that anyone who admits being Jewish / Gay / a P*ki is not one, and anyone who denies it, is. And in any case, you can see that I am not, say, by skin colour and the fact that I don’t have to leave early on a Friday”

“Anyone who denies being Jewish / gay / a Paki is Jewish/ gay / a Paki. You said you weren't, so you are"

"Very well, I am..."

And so on, again, sometimes for months. 

It might have been a joke or a game. Or it might have been intended to induce “meltdowns” in people with a tendency to be too logical. Or it might just be that absolutely everything that happens when you are ten seems awfully important in retrospect.

At any rate: I experienced literally those same feelings of anger and frustration and the wish to lash out reading Mr Wright and fellow sufferers from the essjaydoubleyoo delusion explaining that they were pleased that no-one had voted for them in the end of term prize giving; that they hadn't wanted anyone to vote for them in the end of term prize giving; and the fact that they had lost proved that they had won and this was exactly what they had wanted all along. 

"Would you have said it was a crushing defeat if you'd won all the prizes?"
"Ha-ha that’s what essjaydoubleyoos always say. That proves we are right." 

In the days when I still read Dave Sim’s encyclicals I never once felt like that. Bemused, yes; disgusted, sometimes; pitying, possibly; but more often a sort of intellectual joy at discovering a particularly wonderful specimen. And Sim, obviously, had already earned the right to my attention by producing the best single issue of any comic book ever. [Terms and conditions apply] And his crazy was at least interesting crazy.

If not for their gate crashing of an award ceremony that I don't even specially care about, there is now reason at all for me to be interested in the Doggies. They don't even do bigotry particularly well.

Truthfully: if tomorrow, Wright announced to the world that he was a left wing atheist, had always been a left wing atheist; that he had been deliberately writing terrible books with terrible arguments in them to make Catholics look silly; and the fact that I had taken the trouble to show why his arguments and writing were terrible proves that he, J.C Wright, had fooled me and was much cleverer than me and had won the game, would anyone be ever a little bit surprised?

In fact, now I’ve said, I almost expect it to happen. I might even place money on it.

The other thing that the teachers — the same teachers who would threaten to hang, draw and quarter children for what they called “cheek” — used to say if you complained about psychological or reverse bullying is “Just ignore them and they will go away.” I don’t expect the Doggies to go away, but I do think we should probably go back to ignoring them.

[*] Brave men are not always chivalrous; brave men are in fact likely to be bullies. The Western tradition, in an attempt to make war less awful; invented the idea that brave men ought to be chivalrous; and for a long time many of the brave men believed in it.  See also: sportsmanship.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Rilstone Reads a Puppy

I was gratified to learn that a Christian writer, J.C Wright, who explicitly acknowledges his debt to C.S Lewis, has been nominated for a total of six Hugo awards. As a Christian and an admirer of C.S. Lewis, I decided that I ought to have a look at him. I approached his collection of essays Transhuman and Subhuman with an completely open mind...

Please may I have a Hugo award?

On Coffee and Clangers

1: What does Sean Connery eat when he goes on holiday in Cornwall?
Wright's rhetoric.

2: Back to Back, Belly to Belly
Wright's politics and theology.

3: G.R.O.S.S
Wright's sexual politics

Appendix: It's John C. Wright Gone Mad, I Tell You
Liars and conspiracy theories.

John C. Wright always lies.

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It's John C Wright Gone Mad, I Tell You

NOTE: Conversation with some of my fan base has made me wonder if I over-edited the last couple of pieces. So if this is even more long, more incoherent, and more boring than usual, you know who to blame.

1: The Plot

Imagine an organization so secret that even its own members don’t know it exists. 

Imagine an organization so secret that none of its members (who don’t know they are members) know what its aims and objectives are. 

Imagine an organization so powerful that it counts presidents and prime ministers among its members. None of the presidents and prime ministers know that they are members, but they still do its will, although they don't know what its will is, obviously. 

Imagine an organization so powerful that it controls all the world’s scientists; to the extent that they cannot see, or pretend that they cannot see, errors in their work so simple and so obvious that they can be easily spotted by amateurs with no scientific training at all. 

Imagine that this is all going on in a world where all authority has been abdicated to something called the magisterium which alone can infallibly distinguish right from wrong in any specific case. And the imagine that the secret organization has infiltrated the magisterium itself — although obviously the magisterium doesn’t know this.

This is not a fictitious world. 

This is a literal description of the world we live in. 

Do you think it sounds like the plot of a novel by Philip K Dick?

Indeed it does. Only a Dick could possibly believe in it.

2: What is Political Correctness 

(1972) Orthodoxy 

Rather delightfully, the earliest reference to Political Correctness that I can discover on Google occurs in a 1972 Rolling Stone essay about Pete Seeger:

For on the lower levels of any committed political movement there are always doctrinaire sorts, eager for lengthy and nit-picking debate over the political "correctness" of every line of every song, of every public act, of every casual statement.

The quotation marks are lovely: it’s like reading an old SF novel in which the word computor is placed in italics, or a war story which still spells radar as R.A.D.A.R.

One might say that the latter definitions of the term are latently present in this article. When Seeger changed the line "it’s the song about the love between all of my brothers" to "it’s the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters" he was not only making the song politically "correct": he was also making it Politically Correct. (Another folksinger thought the change was "silly" and suggested that "the song about the love between all of my siblings" would be better;  but we are not told that he thought that anything had gone mad.) In 1972 the term is not yet particularly pejorative; nor confined specifically to the Left. Nit-picking arguments about doctrine are seen as something which affects "any committed political movement."

(1992) Inclusive Language

The most widely used definition of Political Correctness is "the use of inclusive language" or (since the term is only ever used pejoratively) "the unnecessary use of inclusive language". It's a definition that people default to, in my experience: most of you are going to read to the end of this very long essay and say "Well, that's all very well Andrew, but they totally did take the gollys off the marmalade."

A book called The Politically Correct Handbook, first published in 1992, seems to have been instrumental in yoking together the two ideas that "P.C means the use of inclusive language" and "the use of inclusive language is ridiculous". According to Google NGram (above) it was around 1992 that the phrase first came into common usage. Nigel Rees published his Politically Correct Phrasebook ("what they say you can and cannot say in the 1990s") a year later.

The Handbook was only ever intended to be satirical, and expressions like follicly challenged, botanical companion and person of stupor were pure inventions. So too were the stories in the right-wing press about councils spending millions on pink bin-bags (because black bin-bags were racist) and the perennial fib (first attested six years earlier) about a nursery school teacher prohibiting the singing of Baa Baa Black Sheep in her classroom in case it offends people of colour.

Nigel Rees, who is sufficiently geeky to quote sources, does come up with actual examples of companies giving very grandiose names to very menial jobs ambulant stock replenishment operative for shelf stacker seems to be a real example. This doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with inclusive language and he acknowledges that bookies have been claiming to be turf accountants and rat catchers to be sanitation officers or pest controllers for decades. But he is part of a general ambiance which says that Political Correctness has something to do with vagueness, indirectness, or circumlocution. 

The line from 1972 to 1992 is fairly easy to draw. One of the things that the seekers after orthodoxy, particularly on the left, were concerned about was inclusivity, so inclusivity came to be the thing which political "correctness" mostly meant.

It is true that certain words and phrases that were in common use in, say, 1965, had dropped out of use by, say, 1985. When I was growing up spastic was in common use both as a medical term and as a term of low abuse. It's now almost totally taboo: the Spastics Society is known as Scope and sufferers from the condition are referred to as people with cerebral palsy. Of, course, this stuff doesn't happen logically or consistently: language change never does. I remember when hearing impaired children were referred to as deaf and dumb, where we would now say deaf and mute or a person who can’t hear or speak or most likely a sign language user. We mostly don’t have a problem with saying that something is a dumb idea, although we would think it pretty lame if someone used spastic as an insult.

If you want to call this sort of thing Political Correctness, I can't stop you. But Political Correctness includes both the idea that there are some things which we used to say that we don't say any more and the idea that the whole concept of inclusiveness is silly. If calling someone follicly challenged instead of bald and calling someone a person of colour rather than a n****r are both examples of Political Correctness, and if saying follicly challenged is ridiculous then it follows (in some peoples eyes) that Political Correctness is ridiculous and if you want to avoid sounding ridiculous you'd better carry on saying n****r.

It is astonishing how many articles still assure us that the BBC was guilty of Political Correctness (in a perjorative sense) when they decided, as late as 1980 to, er, stop showing black face minstrel shows.

(2000) Cultural Marxism

In or about 2000, an American academic named Bill Lind wrote an essay entitled On the Origins of Political Correctness. Lind’s essays comes after the use of Political Correctness in the 1992 sense is well established. Indeed his opening salvo specifically defines P.C as meaning inclusive language (and takes it for granted that inclusiveness is a Bad Thing):

For the first time in our history, Americans have to be fearful of what they say, of what they write, and of what they think. They have to be afraid of using the wrong word, a word denounced as offensive or insensitive, or racist, sexist, or homophobic.

The essay amounts to an informal (very informal) history of Marxism in the second half of the 20th century, some of which may, for all I know, be accurate and some of which is pretty obviously silly. It may very well be true that Marxist ideas had a lot of influence on universities in the 60s and 70s, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was down to the influence of Marcuse and his buddies in the Frankfurt School. It was certainly never true that "critical theory" or "deconstruction" involved changing the meanings of literary texts so that they meant whatever the reader wanted them to mean, as a glance at any text book would confirm.

Lind asserts that Political Correctness "is" Cultural Marxism, or else that the Cultural Marxists created Political Correctness, without indicating any process by which either thing could have come about. There really is a huge leap in the essay: Marxism and Political Correctness are both  Bad Things; there was an awful lot of Marxism about in the 60s and 70s; and suddenly, Political Correctness and Cultural Marxism are one and the same.

Political Correctness in the 1992 sense functions as a magic talisman ("the herb moly" as Mr Lewis would have said) for petty racists. If you don’t really see why you shouldn’t carry on insulting your Indian neighbors, you only have to mutter Political Correctness under your breath and corner shop becomes comically absurd and paki shop the normal, straight-forward thing to say.

Political Correctness in Lind's sense has similar properties. It doesn’t matter that Lind never explains how he gets from “there are lots of Marxist thinkers in American universities” to “The use of inclusive language and cultural Marxist are the same thing”; or what kind of mechanism would enable a group of Jewish intellectuals in Frankfurt to stop everyone from saying mong and make them start saying person with Down’s syndrome instead.

Most of the people who have been influenced by the essay have presumably never read it. If you already believe that inclusive language is silly, this essay gives you permission to think that it has been forced on us by commies as part of a plot to destroy America. Once you believe that, you aren't merely permitted to say paki shop: you are morally obliged to do so.

(2005) All pervasive conspiracy against common sense

Somewhere around 2004, someone called Laura Midgely started an organisation called The Campaign Against Political Correctness, ostensibly to prevent anyone bestowing equal rights on homosexual goldfish. This was about the time that the World Wide Web started to be widely used. There are numerous websites dating from about the same time with names like Political Correctness: The Awful Truth and Political Correctness Watch.

Where Lind may only have intended to say that inclusive language has been imposed on us by Cultural Marxists, people like the Midgelys see a conspiracy behind anything vaguely left-wing, progressive or even modern. Health and safety law; any form of affirmative action or positive discrimination; the idea that adults shouldn't hit children and latterly the theory of man-made climate changed are all designated Politically Correct and blamed on Cultural Marxism. So is more outre stuff like putting modesty screens in swimming pools; removing unintentional innuendos from children's books; lowering the pass-marks for A levels and prohibiting the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. The Awful Truth website lists 25 areas where Political Correctness has replaced British Politics and Common Sense, including Phone Masts, Immigration and Speed Cameras. None of them have any obvious connection to inclusiveness or indeed nit-picking left-wing orthodoxy. The writer goes so far as to "define" Political Correctness as "Doing the reverse of what common sense would suggest" "Doing exactly the opposite of what you preach" and "Doing ridiculous things just for a political reason".  If it is annoying me this morning, it's Politically Correct.

A gardener calls any plant that he doesn’t want in his garden a weed. There is no point in analyzing the plant in question to try to establish what the essence of weediness is. A plant might be a weed if you found it in your vegetable patch; the same plant might be exactly what you were trying to cultivate in your wild-flower display. We use different words — execution, slaughter, murder — for different kinds of killing, depending on whether or not we approve of them. Saying that a murdering murderer who murders a murderer is just as much a murderer as the murderer he is murdering doesn’t actually tell us very much, except that the speaker doesn’t approve of capital punishment.

It is tempting to say that Political Correctness is simply a term that the Right use for things they don't approve of, signifying nothing more than "left-wing nonsense." God knows, the Left have plenty of pejorative terms of their own. But post-2000, calling something Politically Correct doesn't just mean "I don't like it": it means "I don't like it, and it is part of a plot." 

Not everyone who thinks that wind farms, phone masts and speed cameras are Political Correctness Gone Mad has heard of Bill Lind or the Frankfurt Group; but they probably do have some sense that there is something out there called The Political Correctness Brigade.

Most of us feel from time to time that some bureaucrat or jobsworth is deliberately trying to spoil our day; but if you can persuade yourself that the residents-only parking scheme or the rule that says you can only take out a library book if you have a library card is part of a communist conspiracy, then it's literally true. 

If the 1992 version of Political Correctness was a talisman that allowed you to think of yourself as "charmingly un-PC" rather than "racist"; the 2005 version is a magic ring that turns everyday irritation into a skirmish in the culture war. 

3: The Cult

The Hugo Nominated John C Wright doesn't believe in Man Made Climate Change. He uses words like lie, hoax and fraud to describe the idea.

But why, ask some of us naive souls, if it is a lie, a hoax and a fraud — and if anyone can easily see, without any special scientific training, that it's not happening — why does every scientist on the planet think that it is?

Easy, says the Hugo-nominated Wright. Because Political Correctness.

The Hugo-nominated Wright's version of Political Correctness goes way beyond that of Lind, or even of the Midgelys. I suspect that he is cleverer than Bill Lind and much cleverer than the it's Political Correctness gone mad I tell you websites. I think that he can see that Lind provides no convincing link between "there were Marxist intellectuals in some colleges in the 60s" and "you can't even call a queer a sodomite nowadays." I think he can also see that the connection between "you're not allowed to hit your children, at any rate not with sticks" and "we'd like to erect a wind-farm near your pretty village" is far from obvious.

So he offers us a magnificent new version of Political Correctness which explains everything. If Laura Midgely's version is like a magic ring, Hugo-nominee Wright's is the One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Let him loose with it for five minutes and the Rhine will flood, Valhalla will burn, and the fat lady will sing.

Political Correctness is now a cult although — it is also, at the same time, merely a shared world-view. It is no-longer defined by the use of inclusive language — or even the wish to destroy western civilization. It's now about lying. The Hugo-nominated writer is a little obscure here: it isn't quite clear whether he thinks that members of the cult lie in order to further some larger aim; or whether the cult is based on a series of claims which are themselves lies; or if lying is an end in itself. When he says:

everyone outside the cult (who cares to look) knows political correctness is a lie. It is a lie about… everything

then this sounds as if he thinks that Political Correctness has some underlying belief system or philosophical claim, but that that claim isn't true. When he says:

When a member of the cult enters the legal profession, he lies. When he enters the sciences, he lies. When he enters the journalistic professions, he lies. If he becomes a teacher, he lies. He lies and lies and lies. This is because his worldview, his philosophy of life on a primary, fundamental, and emotional level rejects the truth as unfair…

it sounds much more as if he believes that Political Correctness treats lying as an end in itself. My overall impression is that he thinks that Political Correctness lies because lying is what it does and what it is for.

Showing the truth is the one and central thing Political Correctness abhors. The reason why the philosophy of Political Correctness was invented was to smother the truth. That is how these people live. It is what they are.

It's all a very long way from wondering whether post-person isn't a bit of a silly term; and thinking that maybe the world won't end if I carry on saying that my path has crazy-paving or even thinking that the bit where the Major says the n-word to Basil Fawlty is probably quite harmless in context.

I can see how you might possibly think that all the scientists in the world are wrong. There was a time when all the most intelligent people honestly thought the sun went round the earth. I can see how you might possibly think that all the scientists in the world were interpreting facts wrongly because of their beliefs. Beliefs can act as a filter on what we see and how we understand it. But the Hugo-nominated Wright thinks that scientists (and everyone else) are saying something which is wrong, and something which they know is wrong, because they belong to a cult that believes that you should say wrong things, because...I give it up.

It doesn't even work on its own terms. Even if you think that "Because every scientist in the world belongs to a cult that believes in lying" is a good answer to the question "If climate change is not happening, why does every scientist in the world thinks that it is?" you still have to answer the question "Why does every scientist in the world belong to this particular cult?"

And how is it that the lying cult only compels scientists to lie with respect to climate change? They find ways of extending the lives of people with cancer and AIDS; they design computers that would have seemed like science fiction twenty five years ago; they send rockets to Pluto and land probes on comets; they perform heart surgery on desperately ill Hugo-nominees. Why does their need to lie about everything only kick in when they start looking at temperature graphs?

And this doesn't only apply to scientists. It applies to me. (And you, I imagine.) I am not actively plotting to overthrow western civilization, but I'm very much a believer in inclusiveness. There are certain words I won't say or write, regardless of context. (The other day I said to a customer  "We have that copy of  Benjamin Zephaniah’s Chants of a Homesick N-Word that you were waiting for.") If Hugo-nominee John C Wright is right, this was a lie. I don't really think that inclusive language is a good thing. I don't really think that the N-word is too offensive for a white person ever to say. I decided to lie because I belong to a cult that tells me to lie because lying is what it tells people to do. And presumably, I'm lying about that as well.

....Oh, the candidate's a dodger, yes a well-known dodger, oh the candidate’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger too...

The Pope believes in man made climate change. I wonder how the more-Catholic-than-thou Wright deals with that?

If you can twist your head into this mindset — the mindset in which nearly everyone in the whole wide world is a lying liar who belongs to the lying liars club — then you can probably achieve a sort of zen clarity: a state of mind where you are right about everything and everyone else is wrong about everything and you never need to think about anything ever again. The kind of mental gymnastics that would achieve that kind of serenity might be very well be worth the effort.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


People have argued for many years about whether women can Morris dance. Since they do, you’d think that would have finished the argument.
            Sid Kipper

Lastly and reluctantly we turn to the Hugo nominated J.C Wright’s sexual politics. 

We need to maintain a certain sense of proportion here. The Hugo-nominated Wright is nowhere near as loopy as the multiple Eisner and Kirby award winning Dave Sim, and nowhere near as toxic as fellow Hugo-nominee Vox Day. It is necessary to separate content from presentation. The substantive content is merely reactionary or old fashioned. The presentation, as ever,  is deranged.

EDIT: What follows is an attempt to "steelman" Wright's arguments -- to produce the best version of his case that I can, and criticize that. I have talked about the style and presentation of his arguments in the last two essays. 

Hugo-nominee Wright thinks that boys are different from girls. He thinks that men are outward looking and task-orientated, and women are concerned with feelings, motives, and internal states. A man may think that the sergeant is an asshole, but he still salutes him; he may think that the sergeant’s orders are stupid, but he still obeys them. What matters is that the new trench is dug before sundown, not how everyone feels about it. A woman, on the other hand, doesn’t want you to do the dishes; she wants you to want to do the dishes. She doesn’t want you to tidy your room, she wants you to be happy about tidying your room. A man barks out an instruction to a subordinate; a woman creates an atmosphere in which someone will volunteer. Dad makes the children do the right thing by punishing them when they do the wrong thing; Mum encourages the children to do the right thing by helping them see that doing the wrong thing makes other people sad. Neither outlook is wrong: soldiers really do need to be task-orientated if we are going to win wars; mothers really do need to worry about people’s feelings if there are going be happy families and harmonious neighborhoods. 

Does anyone seriously, honestly think that a goals-oriented approach is always superior to the personality-oriented approach? Does anyone seriously think that we can treat squadmates like children or children like squadmates? 

The Hugo nominated Wright has the pulp novelists eye for the broad delineation of character. (No-one is interested in the subtle delineation of character apart from girls and literati, and they don’t count.) And as broad generalizations go, this one is quite funny and pretty well observed and not blatantly untrue. If you accept that man is synonymous with soldier and that woman is synonymous with mother, it works passably well. The minute it occurs to you that a man might very well be house-painter, a librarian, or a jazz violinist and a woman might very well be… well, come to think of it, a house-painter, a librarian or a jazz violinist it all falls apart. You could, I suppose, say that there is a distinctly male way of making music (“we’re playing this number like this and if you don’t like it go and join a different band”) and a distinctly female way of making music (”Let’s all jam together until we get a sound that everyone likes”) but it is not true that (I’m sorry) musicians with willies will necessarily prefer the first method, and (I’m sorry) musicians with tits will necessarily prefer the second. Call the direct approach masculine and the indirect approach feminine if you must; but there is no necessary connection between having a male body shape and a masculine approach to digging ditches. It may be that people with willies are more likely be have masculine personalities, but “more likely” is not the same as natural law. I had a lady teacher who used to threaten to hit boys backsides with a gym-shoe if they were bad; and I had a man teacher whose preferred approach to discipline was to raise one eyebrow and say "Are you quite sure that’s what you want to do, laddie?"

"Ah, but that’s because the female teacher was trying to be a man, and the male teacher had been feminized by post-structuralists. If she’d been a true woman, she’d have used persuasion. If he’d been a real man, he’d have punished you. No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." 


The Hugo-nominated Wright accuses The Left of being “nominalists” who believe that words have the power to mold thought. The whole of Marxism turns out to be about thinking up nasty names like capitalism for obviously nice things like free markets. But Wright himself subscribes to an extreme etymological determinacy in which words have a “real” or “original” meanings. Most of us use the word sex to refer to body shape and reserve the word gender to refer to masculine and feminine social roles. (We understand what is meant when someone talks about a male or female sockets although some of us are still childish enough to giggle about it.) Wright objects to the use of gender in this sense because he thinks that it “really” means the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns in languages like French. He also thinks that homophobia is “a noise word whose meaning evaporates on closer inspection”. (He doesn’t say whether he’s in the “ha-ha it really means being scared of things that are the same” or “ha-ha we aren’t scared of homos we just think they are going to hell” camp.) And he pretends not to understand what is meant by “sexism”:

Few stupider words exist in the modern lexicon. One would think “sexism” would be rule by copulation, an inventive form of government yet to be tried?

This seems to be willful stupidity. Thatcherism doesn’t mean rule by Thatchers any more than cannibalism means rule by cannibals. I agree that, over the last 50 years, there has been a linguistic drift so that racialism, which meant a system of beliefs based on racial superiority was shorted to racism and racism came to mean simply the belief in racial superiority. I was taught that South Africa was racialist but Mr Smith down the pub who thought that black people smelled funny was a racist. But few people ever bothered with that distinction. (In 1968 the white lady invented by Enoch Powell said that her black neighbors kept accusing her of being a racialist.) It’s true that sexist is a relatively recent coinage (since about 1970) and that it was specifically made up to “rhyme” with racism. But I should have thought that sex still primarily meant the anatomical difference between boys and girls. ("What sex is that puppy” “Oh, she’s a female”). Again, I was taught that sex was rather a vulgar neologism for what boys and girls do in bed with the lights out. In The Rotters Club (a novel set in the 1970s) schoolboys still say things like “Do you think he has had sexual intercourse with her?” So if racism means prejudice on the grounds of race; paying attention to someones race when it doesn’t make any difference, sexism means prejudice on the grounds of sex; paying attention to someone’s sex when it doesn’t make any difference. 

Rule by copulation would be something like erotocracy, wouldn’t it?


Twenty two pages into a sixty page rant, the crazy kicks in. Up to this point he has been describing, interestingly and even wittily, how “men” (i.e the military) do stuff differently from “women” (i.e the domestic).

By the way, gentlemen, this is why women talk more than men and talk about more trivial things. The act of talking is attempting to form a bond and open a channel of communication, which the woman can use to deduce information vital to her approach about your personality and moods and your character. She is trying to see behind the mask all too many of us wear as a matter of convenience. She is trying to cure us of our hidden pain. 

I see your point. I think you could get an amusing romantic comedy out of illustrating it. 

By the way, ladies, this is why we guys don’t talk about important things and never open up and share our feelings. We don’t have any, not what you call feelings. We have tactics and goals. Anything outside the goal is a distraction. We do not care about how we ‘feel.’ Feelings pass. Pain is endured, not cured.

Did you get that bit?

Men — people with willies — don’t have feelings. 

Or at any rate people with willies don’t care about their feelings. 

Or, at best people with willies and people with tits mean something entirely different by “feelings”.

Once you’ve said that, a lot of the other shit falls into place. 

By Science Fiction the Hugo-nominated Wright appears to mean stories in which competent men solve problems; although he also likes swashbuckling tales of action. John Carter and Hari Seldon both equally solve a problem head on, the one with a sword, the other by inventing Wikipedia twenty thousand years too late. 

It’s not a barking mad definition. Asimov thought that science fiction was about stuff and that putting characterization into it was a distraction from all the stuff. C.S. Lewis thought that you have no business setting your story in the future if stuff is going to happen which could just as well have happened in the present. He got very cross with a writer named Kris Neville for allowing a human interest story to intrude into a narrative about settlers on Mars. (The human interest story was about a tart with a heart. Just saying.) 

There are definitely stories which fit that definition; and there are definitely people who like stories which fit that definition; and it may even by true that more of the people who like stories which fit that definition are guys than gals. You can call stories which fit Wright’s definition masculine stories and stories which don't feminine stories if you absolutely insist. 

If anything involving feelings is feminine then science fiction, thus defined, is a masculine genre. Putting strong female characters into science fiction stories is therefore a contradiction in terms. Either the strong female characters are just girls doing boy's jobs — lady soldiers, lady pirates, lady assassins — which is just plain unrealistic. Or else they go around having emotions and talking about their feelings, which isn’t what science fiction is. You are just pasting one kind of thing into the middle of an entirely different thing — like in old time radio where a jazz band suddenly pops up in the middle of a comedy show. If it’s all about feelings, then it’s not science fiction at all. If it’s only partly about feelings then it’s science fiction with a dollop of something irrelevant in the middle of it. 

So why are there increasingly strong female characters in science fiction? Because feminists. 

Well, why are science fiction writers increasingly doing what the feminists want? Because political correctness. 

And why are these books often popular and sometimes awarded Hugos? Because political correctness, again.

And also because of a mysterious group called the Culterati which seems to have absolute control over what people read. The Culterati have decided that mainstream fiction must be primarily about feelings; or else descriptions of ordinary people doing ordinary things in a clever "style". No-one actually likes mainstream fiction, but the Culterati have ensured that everyone reads it. (In the same way that in the 1960s, no-one actually liked the Beatles, but everyone pretended to.) Wright treats mainstream fiction and literary fiction as synonymous.  

But why does Political Correctness even care what happens in science fiction books? Because The Left is a cult, which has only one belief: that it, The Left, should control everything. They don’t put feminist propaganda into science fiction because they want to make science fiction readers feminists; they pretend that they support feminism because it gives them a pretext to take control of the content of science fiction. 

It is all very logical.

In fact, it is so logical that one is very tempted to think that the Hugo-nominated Wright retrofitted his premises (people with willies are goal-orientated; science fiction is about achieving goals) in order to arrive at the conclusion he wanted. 

But none of it has any point of connection with the real world.

Men do have feelings. I am a man, and I do. If Mr Wright does not then I feel sorry for him. But he is a logical person. At least one man does not have feelings doesn’t prove the proposition No man has feelings. But At least one man does have feelings is sufficient to disprove the proposition. It may, for all I know, be true that some men do not have feelings; if Wright is telling the truth then it is certainly true that at least one man does not having feelings. But some men do not have feelings is not a sufficiently strong claim to support the proposition that women should get the hell out of our tree house.

In the end, it's the most circular of circular arguments. "SF’s for boys", they bellow til we’re deaf / "But girls read this" / "Well then, it’s not SF."

Ten hundred books could I write you about her
Because I felt if I could know her
I would know all women
And they've not been any too well known
For brains and planning and organized thinking
But I'm sure the women are equal
And they may be ahead of the men

Yet I wouldn't spread such a rumor around
Because one organizes the other
And some times the most lost and wasted
Attract the most balanced and sane
And the wild and the reckless take up
With the clocked and the timed
And the mixture is all of us
And we're still mixing...

And all creeds and kinds and colors
Of us are blending
Till I suppose ten million years from now
We'll all be just alike
Same color, same size, working together
And maybe we'll have all the fascists
Out of the way by then
Maybe so.
        Woody Guthrie

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