You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing on here very much. There are a few reasons for that and they are mostly good ones!
As I explored in my last post, my cancer treatment is over–I’m cancer-free as far as the doctors can tell, mostly recovered from my surgery, and (the really fun part) officially post-menopausal. I’ve been spending a lot of time on self-care and trying to slowly dip my toes back into life.
That said, it’s been less “dipping my toes in” and more straight up diving into the deep end. For starters, I’m about to switch jobs after being where I’m at for three years, which is…a very long time in Miri-Years. Yikes. Yikes.
Also, I started a podcast! It’s called 2 AM Talks. The idea is that each episode, I interview a friend about a topic–any topic–that they really care about. I think it’s going to be lots of fun. You can subscribe to it on Anchor, Pocket Casts, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and some other services I’ve honestly never heard of. Follow it on Twitter here. (I’ll probably write a longer post about this later because I have some Thoughts about creative endeavors and why they’re important.)
On a slightly different note, I’m also writing a book. It’s a book of essays about my experience with cancer treatment, although I feel like describing it that way kind of undersells what it’s going to be. I am (for now) unusually optimistic about this compared to how I usually feel about my big writing projects, and I’m actually putting in the time and not giving up on it. I joined a writers’ group and everything! Anyway, I don’t have a title for it yet or any plans for what to do when it’s done, but y’all will be the first to know.
As I also discussed in the last post, I’m gardening a lot and it’s quite labor-intensive at times but it’s AMAZING. Seriously, if you’ve ever thought that you might enjoy starting an edible garden, I suggest you go ahead and try it. It’s a very unique and indelible experience.
That’s all for now! I have some vacation coming up in about a month, which usually means more writing. I hope to have something for you soon.
Last month I saw this trailer in a movie theater and was captivated:
Yup, I didn’t realize it was for Ready Player One until close to the end. But I couldn’t look away from this trailer, and have watched it a bunch of times since then.
Anytime there’s a cultural phenomenon like this–something that’s so beloved by people I know and so hated by other people I know–I get curious. To wit, the most recent person to recommend Ready Player One (the book) to me was a super progressive lesbian who’s only slightly older than me and not exactly a gamer. So that got my attention.
(Last time this happened, with Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn’t even get through the first page because of how bad the writing was. So whatever it was that drew so many people to it remained a mystery to me.)
So recently I saw the book in a bookstore, picked it up to read the first few pages, and rapidly found myself totally engaged in it! This was stunning. Sure, there were some boring parts I skimmed, but that’s most novels for you. I was surprised that despite the general shallowness of the book’s overarching themes and philosophy, the writing itself was good, and I wanted to read more.
Having now finished it, I still agree with most of the political critiques of it that people have been making for years. (The ones I don’t agree with are either over minor details that I think the reviewers missed, or else matters of taste–I found the writing interesting, others didn’t.) Even if you read this book in its historical, pre-GamerGate context, it has some troubling things to say about people and about the world. Post-GamerGate, the book becomes extremely tonedeaf, which is a fact not lost on many of its critics. 
Ready Player One came out in 2011, the same year that Anita Sarkeesian started her Tropes vs. Women series, which she followed up with Tropes vs. Women in Video Games in 2013, intensifying the online abuse against her to a fever pitch. Then, in 2014, Zoe Quinn became a target after her abusive ex-boyfriend posted a screed against her to incite further online threats and harassment, and the festering cesspool we know as GamerGate truly kicked off. In that context, even a “shallow” and “harmless” book about nerdy boys obsessing over pop culture trivia doesn’t feel so harmless anymore. On the one hand, it can be important to evaluate literature in the context it was originally written. On the other hand, had Ernest Cline been a more socially aware person–or, perhaps, someone other than a white man–he would’ve seen that particular writing on the wall a long time ago. He may not have found the idea of a glorified nerdy trivia contest as appealing.
That said, the book is at least somewhat original in a few interesting ways. For instance:
1. The dystopia is created by an energy crisis.
Yes, that’s not exactly unique, but I can’t count the number of speculative fiction books I’ve read in which dystopian societies have been created by nuclear war, alien invasion, a sudden massive environmental cataclysm, Big Bad Government suddenly becoming super oppressive, man, and so on. Ready Player One goes with what honestly feels like the more likely scenario: our reliance on fossil fuels and disregard for the environment will gradually produce even more extreme income inequality and lower quality of life significantly for everyone except the super-rich. Authorities like government and the police won’t necessarily become any more oppressive than they already are; they’ll just lose their influence. (In the book, the police seem completely absent until the very end [a minor plot point that nevertheless kind of ruins the vibe], and the federal government is mostly a useless figurehead. Wade mentions that he doesn’t bother voting for them because they’re all “reality stars” and the like, which is uh…prescient.)
Corporations, on the other hand, will run the show. Ready Player One is a (possibly unintentional) satire of the “corporations are people” concept in that Innovative Online Industries, the villain of the story, has countless avatars in the OASIS, trying to win the easter egg hunt.
2. Technology has actually improved education.
But one cool thing about the society Wade lives in is that the OASIS has made free, decent public education available to all, because the creator of the OASIS set up a foundation that provides free VR equipment to all students. This is how Wade is able to have a good high school education despite living in the slums, and it’s how he’s able to access the OASIS and compete in the easter egg hunt to begin with. He gives a lot of details about how virtual school works, and while I won’t bore you with the details here, it’s seriously cool.
3. It’s actually one of the least gatekeeper-y sci-fi books I’ve ever read.
Despite what everyone says about the book being inaccessible/irrelevant to anyone without an interest in/obsession with 80s pop culture, I found the opposite to be the case. And to be clear: I have no interest in 80s pop culture, and no personal connection to it, since I arrived as an immigrant in the United States long after the 80s were over and that stuff holds no nostalgic appeal for me, or any other appeal. I kind of hate most of it, actually.
And yet for all the references Wade and his friends drop, he explains all the important ones. Reading the book feels less like being gatekeep-ed (gatekept?) out of a nerd club and more like having someone excitedly rant to me about the stuff they love, and why it’s cool. I actually enjoyed some of the things I ended up learning from the book, such as how to achieve a perfect score in Pacman and how some of the earliest video games were made. I didn’t come out of the book with any more of an interest in playing those games and watching those movies, but I felt like I’d stepped into someone else’s experience for a bit and that was really cool to me.
Furthermore, unlike many SF/F novels that just drop you into an unfamiliar world and force you to figure it out as you go along, Wade actually explains a lot about how his world works, including the energy crisis, how the OASIS works, and what living conditions are like for most people. While this may be boring to some people, I found all of it fascinating! It was like reading a first-person anthropology study. He does the same with a lot of the video games he plays, which was cool for similar reasons even though I don’t personally like those games.
4. Success requires both luck and hard work.
Some critics have focused on the fact that the book implies that having a perfect knowledge of 80s pop culture is the most important thing in the world and that Wade just happens to succeed because of this.
The actual plot is a bit more subtle than that, in some interesting ways that I’ll get to later. A brief recap: in a dystopian future, the OASIS, a free massive virtual world that almost everyone uses, has become many people’s only refuge from the difficulty and hopelessness of their everyday lives. When James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, dies, he leaves behind an easter egg hunt–a set of challenges for players to complete. The winner will have control of the OASIS for life. Unfortunately, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a massive and powerful corporation, seems poised to win this challenge and use that to monetize the OASIS and thus prevent most non-wealthy people from being able to use it. Wade Watts and his friends/rivals Aech and Art3mis are determined to beat IOI, whose powerful avatars–the “Sixers”–are constantly on their tails and will stop at nothing to win.
Because Halliday came of age in the 1980s and loved the nerdy pop culture of that time period, that’s what his easter egg hunt centers on. In fact, Wade mentions during the hunt that it’s Halliday’s way of sharing his interests with the world.
But at the time the easter egg hunt started, nobody really cared about that stuff anymore. In fact, Wade mentions that the first time he saw Halliday’s video explaining the challenge, most of the references in it were lost on him. As a result of the easter egg hunt, though, people around the world–including Wade and his friends–started consuming 80s media to try to solve the puzzle, and falling in love with it in the process.
From this perspective, it’s a little deeper than “Nerd Boy Wins the Internet Because He Knows All the References.” Wade and his friends (because–spoiler alert–they win together) win partially because of luck and a little bit of help from others, and partially because they did the fucking work. Wade is too poor to do much besides attend school in the OASIS and take advantage of its free media libraries and has no family who actually care about him or what he’s doing, so he spends years reading, watching, and playing everything he can that may have some connection to the easter egg hunt. And it pays off.
5. The OASIS isn’t ultimately portrayed as unhealthy escapism.
Most science fiction that deals with all-encompassing virtual reality worlds that the majority of the populace uses take a decidedly negative view of them. These systems are usually portrayed as addictive like drugs, causing people to abandon their work/school/family responsibilities in order to spend 24/7 in a fantasy. When these stories have a “happy” ending, it usually involves the VR system being destroyed or otherwise abandoned.
Ready Player One does not take this view. First of all, many people attend school, work, and socialize in the OASIS, so their “real lives” do very much happen there in part. Second, Cline does, I think, explore some of the potential dangers of virtual reality in a more nuanced way than some other writers do. Wade has a period of time when he’s so obsessed with the easter egg hunt that he doesn’t leave his apartment for months on end, and two of the characters, Shoto and Daito (actually Akihide and Toshiro, two Japanese teens), actually met at a program for hikikomori, people who become social recluses and refuse to leave their homes .
However, the book doesn’t treat these examples as representative of all OASIS users, all of the time. There’s an interesting moment when Wade encounters an avatar of the late James Halliday after completing the easter egg hunt, and Halliday cautions him about spending too much time in the OASIS: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.” It might sound odd, coming from someone who once wrote, “Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that makes life bearable.” Yet Wade ends up taking a similar emotional journey–the book closes with Wade and Art3mis (Samantha) finally spending time in person, as Wade observes that “for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.”
While talking to Halliday’s avatar at the end, Wade also learns that he alone now has the power to destroy the entire OASIS if need be. “Don’t press it unless you’re absolutely positive it’s the right thing to do, OK?” he tells Wade. “I trust your judgment.”
It’s a more interesting depiction of virtual reality than I usually encounter. After the events of the book are over, I imagine Wade leading a more balanced life–enjoying time in nature and with his friends in the “real” world, but also logging in periodically to the OASIS and having fun shooting monsters or hanging out with people from all over the world.
Like I said, though, I consider most criticisms of the book to be quite valid. So, where do we start?
I think of Ernest Cline somewhat like I think of George Lucas–someone who had some super great ideas but lacked a nuanced enough understanding of human psychology and society to completely pull it off. Ready Player One could’ve made some fantastic commentary about gender, inequality, and a variety of other issues, but largely chose not to. That’s a shame.
There were quite a few aspects of this book that stuck out as shallow, unpolished, or straight-up bad:
Oh, god, let’s talk about gender in Ready Player One. Yikes.gif. There are, unless I’m mistaken, only four female characters in this book, only one of whom exists as a woman throughout the story. The first is Wade’s aunt Alice, a “malnourished harpy in a housecoat” who neglects him, tries to steal his computer to sell, and summarily dies in an explosion early in the novel. The second is Mrs. Gilmore, a “sweet old lady” who lives near Wade in the trailer park and also dies in that explosion. Her function in the book seems mostly to serve as a foil to Aunt Alice and to give Wade one person to briefly feel sorry for after his home is destroyed in an attempt on his life.
Next we have Aech, Wade’s best friend of years who is actually a Black lesbian. But this isn’t revealed until close to the end of the book, so for all Wade and the reader know until then, he’s a straight white man.
Aaaand then there’s Art3mis, a well-known blogger that Wade nurses an online crush on even though he realizes he knows next to nothing about her and she may look nothing like her avatar. But of course, they soon meet and Complications Arise.
It will surprise no one to know that I hate the way Art3mis is used in this book. Although she could potentially be a really cool character/person, Cline chooses to reveal little about her besides her appearance, competence at video games, and her reactions to Wade, which of course serve to further his character arc. In the middle of the novel, she breaks things off with him for Reasons–to focus on the easter egg hunt, ostensibly–which triggers a months-long depression in Wade. When the evil Sixers achieve the next milestone in the hunt, Wade finally realizes that he’s allowed his girl troubles to distract himself from his goal, so this serves as a wake-up call for him.
At the end of the novel Wade meets Art3mis in person and learns that the reason she didn’t want him to know what she looked like is because…she has a birthmark on her face. This plot point means that Cline gets to conveniently introduce ~~~DRAMA~~~ in the form of a girlfriend who’s insecure about her looks while also ensuring that his protagonist ends up with a conventionally beautiful woman as his prize.
And that he does, by the way. Even though they haven’t spoken for presumably months by this point, the novel ends with Art3mis waiting for Wade in the center of a maze. After winning the easter egg hunt, he finds her there and they kiss and suddenly it turns out that she loves him and he’s her favorite person in the world and so on and so forth.
Aside from all the other problematic aspects of her Art3mis is portrayed and utilized in the book, perhaps my least favorite is this trope where the “love interest” in a story ends up with the main character for no apparent reason other than that she’s the only potential “love interest” in the story and the main character needs to receive a woman as a prize at the end. (See also: Peter and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, almost every other movie with a romantic plot ever made.) It’s never clear what Art3mis sees in Wade, why she wants to be with him, why/how her feelings on that change throughout the book, nothing. She simply allows the relationship to happen, then abruptly ends it, and finally allows it again.
And that’s too bad, because even as written, Art3mis could be really cool, and her story arc could’ve also been really cool. Alas.
She even tells Wade numerous times in the book that he doesn’t really know her and only sees what she chooses to present within the OASIS. It would’ve been interesting if they met in person earlier in the novel, and Wade actually had to struggle to reconcile everything he projected onto her with who she actually is, and tried to make the relationship work in all of its beautiful messiness. Instead, everything seems to just work out for him romantically because he wills it so.
A lot of Wade’s cringey interactions with Art3mis can be chalked up (and many people do chalk them up) to adolescence, but a good writer would gently challenge that even in the writing of it. Besides, Wade’s not the only one in this book who gets obsessively fixated on a woman he’s not even with. Towards the end, we learn that the James Halliday and his best friend Ogden Morrow, with whom he worked for many years on the OASIS and other projects, had a huge falling-out before Halliday’s death because of–what else?–Halliday’s unrequited love for Morrow’s wife. He stopped speaking to Morrow out of “overwhelming jealousy.” These are adult men.
Lastly, I want to specifically address the really transphobic moment that happens when Art3mis and Wade are joking around about how he doesn’t know who she really is or what she looks like in real life. He asks her, “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex change operation?”
This transphobic statement doesn’t serve to advance the story in any way, so I can only assume it’s there because of Cline’s own beliefs, or his beliefs about how other people are. Given how gender-fluid young people today are, I don’t see why, in 2045, Wade would say this.
Cline could’ve had Art3mis challenge the statement in her usual wry and cocky way–“And what if I were a human female who has had a sex change operation?”–but instead she just says, “I am, and have always been, a human female.” And the conversation moves on.
There’s no excuse for Cline to write this.
More yiiiiiikes. There are, as far as we know, three people of color in this book, and one is only revealed as such at the end. The other two, Shoto and Daito, are relatively minor characters of Japanese origin who are literally just a list of Japanese stereotypes. Yes, it’s as bad as you think. They constantly refer to people as having “no honor” and bow to others in greeting, and their avatars of course commit suicide (referred to in one case as seppuku, oh god, why).
There’s no way that Cline actually thinks that actual Japanese people act this way, given his in-depth knowledge of modern Japanese culture. It’s possible that the characters act that way because they’ve chosen to make their avatars look like samurai, I don’t know. In any case, it’s a bowl of yikes.
The third person of color is of course Aech, who finally reveals herself to Wade at the end, fearing his reaction. Although momentarily feels betrayed that she had her identity from him, he quickly accepts it, later reflecting that he loves her no matter what: “None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”
But those things aren’t “inconsequential”! Come on, it’s not nearly far enough in the future for that. I wish that Wade had instead said that he loves his friend and respects her even more knowing how much more she had to overcome, or at least something that acknowledges who she is.
3. The uses and abuses of nostalgia
Nostalgia is, obviously, a key theme of the book. In many ways it’s its organizing principle. The book is about a dead man’s nostalgia-fueled challenge, and its most passionate fans are people who share that nostalgia.
But the full implications of that are mostly left unexplored. There’s a point at which Wade wonders why Halliday, who claims to have had such an awful childhood, would recreate his hometown so painstakingly and lovingly within the OASIS and make it a crucial part of the easter egg hunt. I wonder that too, even though I know that that’s exactly how nostalgia often works.
Then again, I also think that critics of Ready Player One often judge the characters as if they were living in our own world, right now, rather than decades in the future. Wade and his friends are not whiny manchildren who think that the 80s had the best movies ever, dude. They’re people who grew up in poverty, with only a fraction of the freedom and resources that Halliday had growing up as a teenager in his beloved 1980s. They can’t really be said to be nostalgic given that they never actually experienced any of that.
That said, the book never really addresses the potential consequences of all of that looking backwards. Near the beginning on the novel, Wade tells Art3mis that if he wins the game, he wants to use the money to build a spaceship for himself and his friends, and possibly leave Earth altogether in search of something better. Art3mis is surprised that he’d so quickly abandon the Earth to its problems, and says that she’d use the money to try to fix things. (Then, in one of my favorite moments, Wade asks her if she really thinks she could “fix all the world’s problems,” and she says, “I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’m gonna give it a shot.”
Towards the end he seems to be more civically minded, but there isn’t really any direction to it. The world still is what it is. Innovative Online Industries still exists, and will presumably continue to keep murdering people and indenturing them and such (the sudden appearance of the police to arrest Sorrento, their head of operations, notwithstanding).
Which brings me to my next point:
4. The ending doesn’t follow.
It honestly seems really unrealistic that Wade and his friends won, and that IOI is just a non-issue now, and Art3mis wants to be with Wade despite avoiding him for most of the book, and–right. This book is a male wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s very analogous to Jupiter Ascending in that way, which is why the divergent responses these two works have received in the media is very telling. 
In the world that Cline sets up, it seems impossible for anyone to actually beat the Sixers, considering that they cheat at the game and have seemingly infinite funds and avatars. On the one hand, that sounds like a typical underdog story, but on the other hand, in such stories the underdog typically succeeds by exploiting their enemy’s weakness. (See: the Rebels and the Death Star, Katniss and the rich kids she fights in the Hunger Games, the Avengers and…whatever they’re presumably going to do in the next movie.) The Sixers supposedly have a weakness (everyone keeps talking about how they don’t really love nerd culture the way they do), but that’s not why they lose. They lose because Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s old pal, finds Wade and his friends and offers them sanctuary, and because Wade has an “extra life” from a side quest he completed because he thought it was the main quest. All of that seems rather…incidental.
And, sure, it doesn’t have to be realistic. Jupiter Ascending wasn’t either, and people still loved it. I still liked Ready Player One, too.
Ultimately, what makes the book so fascinating and compelling for me is the central question that it poses: if your world changed irrevocably for the worse, what would you want to remember? And if you had a virtual reality in which you could build a memorial to that world, what would you build?
In Ready Player One, James Halliday’s answer–and Ernest Cline’s–is 1980s American pop culture, and a certain sort of Ohioan suburbia. While that’s easy to dismiss if those things don’t resonate for you whatsoever, we each get to answer those questions however we want, along with some nerdier ones: how would you use virtual reality to share your particular niche love with others? What sort of game or challenge would you design to get them to love it too?
And this is where I again wish this story had been written by someone else. Ernest Cline is, I’m sure, an interesting person, but he was born in 1972 in Ashland, Ohio, so this is exactly the story you’d expect. I couldn’t help but think about a Ready Player One written by Nnedi Okorafor , in which a bookish girl from the slums of Lagos finds herself on a quest inside the OASIS that has her battling monsters from West African myths and folklore, relying on her encyclopedic memory of the stories she’s been reading since childhood. Or one written by Ken Liu , in which a teenage history buff from rural Gansu province enters the OASIS and discovers a portal to a perfect recreation of pre-Revolution China, where he must travel backwards through the dynasties and use everything he’s managed to learn about their cultures in defiance of the law, while being pursued by the avatars of guobao agents.
But Ready Player One is what it is. Yet I’m still captivated by it, because it made me imagine the possibilities I just described, and many more.
I promise this isn’t turning into a Cancer Blog. Just give me a while to get it out of my system. Along with (hopefully) the actual cancer. 😛
Almost two months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s stage 2, but for the first week, I didn’t know that, which made it probably the most terrifying week of my life so far.
So I started panicking, which is about what you’d expect. For starters, I immediately decided that I was going to die. Like within a year. This subsided somewhat after I learned that the cancer hadn’t spread.
But a lot of my panic was coming from some weird places. I kept experiencing intrusive thoughts about how horrible chemo and cancer in general would be, and they were VERY specific and visual thoughts.
I’ve never been close to someone going through cancer treatment. Certainly not close enough to see what happens to them. My grandfather had it when I was very little (and died of it later), but all I remember of him is that he was happy, did calisthenics every morning, and always gave me fruit to eat, so I’m guessing I don’t have much memory of his treatment.
My only exposure to what cancer and chemo are like is the media. As a child in elementary school, I remember being assigned cute picture books about kids with leukemia. Later, I read a few YA novels where cancer was a prominent theme—what folks now call “sicklit.”
Sicklit is controversial because there’s the usual uproar about kids and teens reading about topics that they’re “too young” for, as if kids and teens don’t experience sexual assault, illness, or abuse. The opposing argument is that reading these books will help young people confront these things if they have to experience them, as well as helping them empathize with others who may be experiencing them.
Usually, that’s the side of any argument about children’s media that I’d fall on. However, right now I also have to acknowledge the fact that I’ve basically been traumatized by literature about cancer meant for young people.
That entire first week, my brain was constantly re-showing me vivid scenes from books I’ve read. Excruciating bone marrow transplants. A teenager going outside at night during a thunderstorm wearing just her nightgown, hoping to catch the flu so her next chemo treatment gets delayed. A girl shocked and crying when she finds a chunk of hair falling out while she brushes it.
That last one about kills me, especially. Don’t get me wrong, losing your hair (if that’s a thing that’s important to you) would be painful no matter what, but why her shock and terror? Did nobody fucking bother to tell her that hair loss is the most common side effect of chemo? Did nobody offer to take her to a salon to get her hair buzzed or shaved, and let her pick out cute wigs and hats and feel some shred of control over the situation?
I mean, sure, it’s fiction. Of course it’s unrealistic. But it’s unrealistic in the most sensational possible way.
Don’t even get me started on teenagers with cancer meeting, falling in love, and dying. That shit made me feel guilty for even having partners right now.
The more I talked to other people, the more I realized that it wasn’t just me, and I hadn’t just read a particularly horrible set of books. My partner asked me once how it feels to get chemo, and recalled a book he’d read about a teenage girl with cancer who described it something like this: “Every drop of that poison burned as it dripped into my veins.”
I about died. Unlike (apparently) the author of that book, I actually have cancer, and I can tell you that chemo feels like absolutely nothing. It’s just like any other IV infusion. You just sit there and chill out or sleep. Yes, sometimes having an IV in your arm can cause some mild discomfort. BUT IT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO FEEL LIKE BURNING. PLEASE IMMEDIATELY TELL THE NURSE IF IT FEELS LIKE BURNING. I’m sorry for yelling but really, you need to tell your nurses and doctors if stuff hurts that’s not supposed to hurt, and how are you supposed to know it’s not supposed to hurt if you read a whole stack of books telling you in the most graphic and gratuitous ways that it does hurt?
That said, over a long period of time, chemo infusions can damage your veins. That’s why they’re not generally done through IVs anymore, but through ports. I explained this to my partner, and he said that in the book, the girl refused to have a port because it sounded weird, and her doctor didn’t try to reassure her, explain how it works, or warn her about the drawbacks of IVs for chemo. You know, informed consent. Okay then, guess we’re going for damaged veins and a hell of a malpractice lawsuit.
I’m glad my partner and I had this conversation so that he didn’t have to go into this thinking that I have to spend two hours in excruciating pain every two weeks for four straight months. Vicarious trauma in caregivers is a thing, just like the vicarious trauma I’m experiencing from reading these things that never even actually happened.
Sometimes when I talk about sensationally unrealistic portrayals of cancer treatment in YA literature, I’m told that somebody’s friend somewhere had cancer and their doctor WAS totally terrible, and their pain was not managed in any way, and they were NOT warned about obvious things like nausea or hair loss, and they WERE told to just suck it up and deal. Yeah, it happens. Some doctors are totally terrible, and until recently many cancer treatment protocols really didn’t care about side effects, and sometimes people are told to suck it up even when relief is totally available.
And it would be one thing if these types of stories effectively prepared young people to deal with such things in real life. But they don’t.
Because the way you deal isn’t by internalizing the idea that your suffering is inevitable and this is just how things are going to be. The way you deal is by learning how to advocate for yourself when possible, and developing resilience and coping skills for the rest.
That starts with knowing that 1) you can and should tell your doctor about all of the side effects and discomfort you’re experiencing; 2) you’re allowed to ask your nurses, techs, and doctors ALL of the questions you want; and 3) lots of procedures and treatments can be altered to make them more tolerable for you, but they won’t be unless you ask.
For instance, my entire treatment team knows about my medical phobia and how it works. (I should note that this phobia is improving significantly now that I have to confront it constantly.) That’s why they often have on hand ice packs and smelling salts in case I start passing out, and they usually find a way to prop my feet up to reduce the chances that that happens. I’ve been prescribed an anxiety medication that I take before procedures, including chemo, and a topical lidocaine cream, which I use beforehand to reduce the sensation of needle sticks. (It’s not that I mind the pain itself; it’s that the pain triggers the panic reaction.) My nurses know not to tell me any unnecessary details about what they’re doing, and they expect to see me put my eye mask on so I don’t see what they’re doing, either.
As a result, I don’t have to deal with uncontrollable panic attacks, and my nurses and techs don’t have to waste their valuable time waking up my unconscious ass and waiting for me to stop sobbing. All I had to do was ask.
I’m sure someone’s going to ask me if I think that authors just shouldn’t write about teenagers dying of cancer or suffering through treatment thereof, but as always, I find that question boring. No, I don’t advocate censorship. Anyone should be able to write (almost) whatever they want. Free speech. Next.
A question I find more interesting is: Do authors who write for young people have a responsibility to try to write in a way that makes their lives suck less rather than more? I think the answer is yes. And as a young cancer patient—so, exactly the person that these books are supposedly for—I can tell you that irresponsibly-written cancer narratives contributed to making my life an unbelievable living hell when I was first diagnosed. I was having flashbacks to stuff that never happened to me or to anyone else. I still do, sometimes.
So much of the pain and misery that comes with a cancer diagnosis is unavoidable. This was completely avoidable.
Of course, there’s a good chance that despite patronizing claims to the contrary, most YA novels about cancer aren’t really meant to prepare young people for anything other than fetishizing and gawking at other people’s pain. Yes, there are some that encourage empathy, too—I do think that The Fault in Our Stars is well-written in that way.
But the fact is that most young people—most people—aren’t going to get cancer. Most people are only going to know someone who does, and maybe the more painful and horrific they think the treatment is, the more they will sympathize, and the more they will help, and the more grateful they will be that it wasn’t them.
So, what I should’ve realized during that agonizing first week is that those traumatizing books were never even written for me. They stopped being for me the moment I got that phone call.
Which is too bad, because I could’ve used a book that could guide me through it. A book that’s honest about the experience of cancer, in all of its horror but also in its mundanity, its potential for nerdiness and curiosity, and even its moments of transcendent clarity. I’m never one to sugarcoat, but even I’ll admit that it’s not just some endless parade of painful side effects, hair loss, and needles. In with all of that bullshit you also get your teenage brother always hugging you super tight and not letting go until you do, and watching the people in your life come through for you in the most extraordinary ways, and having your cat insist on sitting on your surgery incision which hurts but also oh my god she really thinks she’s healing me, and dancing naked–truly naked, no cap or wig–to Christmas music while decorating the tree because it’s almost the end of the chemo cycle and I feel fine, and getting to do physical therapy in a sweet heated pool that the hospital has and floating in that pool and letting the back of your head rest in the water until you don’t hear anything anymore and it’s all OKAY for a goddamn second.
Nobody wrote that book for me. Maybe after I kick this thing, I’m going to write it myself.
A thought that occurs to me that I didn’t find a way to stick anywhere into this essay: YA novels about cancer focus disproportionately on death. I mean, yes, to state the obvious, cancer can be fatal. I don’t think we really need to belabor this point. But did you know that the 5-year survival rate for all childhood cancers combined is 81%? Did you know that the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer, which is the most common cancer, is 90%, and for prostate cancer, the second-most common, it’s 100%? These statistics are from 2006, which means that they’re probably even higher now. (Except prostate cancer. Sorry, probably not much improvement to be made on that one.)
DID YOU ALSO KNOW THAT THE HPV VACCINE PREVENTS UP TO 70% OF CERVICAL CANCERS AND THAT YOUNG ADULTS URGENTLY NEED TO KNOW THIS FACT
And how many of the cancer books I read contained even a little fucking blurb in the back about breast self-exams? Zero. A breast self-exam saved my life. I rest my case.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisitedhere.
When we last left Charles, he was a middle-aged army officer who had just arrived at Brideshead, a place of such deep personal significance that he’s literally left speechless when he realizes where he is. Now he takes us back in time 20-25(?) years to his student days at 1920s Oxford, where he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family lived at Brideshead and with whom he would quickly become entangled.
Young Charles comes from a middle-class(-ish?) family and is studying Intellectual Things(?) at Oxford and is interested in art. Honestly, much of the Oxford-related parts were really hard for me to fully understand because there are constant references to Oxford culture–perhaps specifically 1920s Oxford culture–that I don’t understand, and can sometimes resolve with a Google and sometimes not. For instance, I learned that Eights Week is some big rowing competition thing that still happens at Oxford every year. I also learned that back then Oxford students basically had servants whose job it was to clean their rooms for them. Also, even a not-filthy rich student like Charles had “rooms.” Rooms, plural! Not one shitty little dorm room that you share with a random roommate!
Charles fills his rooms with art, books, and wine, although he acknowledges that they’re not as nice as what he would like to say he could afford. In fact, Charles freely acknowledges that he ends up spending way too much on unnecessary things (so much so that he has to spend his summer vacation at home with his weird-ass dad–the horror!). I think Charles is struggling with something familiar to anyone from a modest or low-income background who suddenly finds themselves surrounded by really rich people, which is that being relatively poor tends to hurt worse than being absolutely poor.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles for having to have reproductions of art rather than originals hanging in his multiple rooms and “meager and commonplace” books rather than “seventeeth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered silk,” but when you’re a young person on your own for the first time and you’re trying to fit in with an entirely different social context than you grew up in (something that definitely described my own painful college experience), things like that can suddenly take on huge significance. When I was in college, I felt awkward and out of place because I couldn’t afford Urban Outfitters clothes and Longchamp bags, which everyone else seemed to have, but now I’m amazed that I ever gave a fuck and also regretful that I went to a school with such a lack of socioeconomic diversity that that ever became an issue.
Initially, Charles falls in with a bunch of similarly middle-class and intellectual friends, the kind he’d always had at school. But although he enjoys their company and loves college life, he remembers, “I felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.” Indeed, everything changes for him when he meets Sebastian: “At Sebastian’s approach, these gray figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.”
Charles’ and Sebastian’s first meeting is literally a scene out of a gay 1920s British romcom, if such a thing existed. Charles is chilling with his friends in his multiple fucking rooms–ground-floor rooms against which his older and wiser cousin warned him for the exact reason he’s about to discover–and drinking wine. They hear drunk people stumbling around outside, and suddenly one of them approaches the open window, looks at Charles, and proceeds to literally throw up right into the room.
One of his friend apologizes for him in what I can only imagine is a typical Oxford manner: “The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”
Anyway, Charles’ room-servant dude (they’re called scouts, and his name is Lunt) is pretty irate at him in the morning because, yes, scouts cleaned up your vomit for you at Oxford, but when Charles returns later that day, Lunt says that “the gentleman from last night” sent a note and literally enough flowers to fill up the whole room. Guys. Can we talk for a sec about how adorable that is.
Charles had already known Sebastian by reputation, and that reputation is that he’s hot as hell and that he carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, with him everywhere and talks to/about it as if it’s real. Seriously. Apparently he once went to a barber shop to buy a brush for Aloysius, not to groom him with but to spank him with. Like, he told this to the barber. Anyway, I love that in this social context a dude can be known all over the college both for being hot as hell and for talking to his teddy bear that he carries everywhere.
So of course I have to speculate about what’s up with the teddy bear. I think some readers would be tempted to consider the whole thing an affectation, a way to get attention by being ~~~so weird~~~ and ~~~so edgy~~~ and even kind of ~~~fucking with traditional masculinity~~~. But I don’t actually know exactly what traditional masculinity looked like for this particular segment of 1920s Oxford. Clearly Sebastian does get a lot of attention on account of the teddy bear, but Charles seems to think that he’d be getting it regardless. His family is kinda famous and weird, and he’s hot, and he’s rich, and he has a ton of friends and drinks a lot and throws up into people’s rooms.
There’s also the theory that Sebastian actually has a delusion that the teddy bear is alive and all that, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to show any other signs of delusional/hallucinatory thinking. He doesn’t seem any more out-of-touch with reality than any other rich college student would be. Besides, this would be the most boring answer, and Waugh is not a boring writer.
I do think it’s part affectation–I think Sebastian likes being seen as the weird guy who carries a teddy bear everywhere–but there’s more to it. Even now it’s already obvious that Sebastian uses Aloysius as a way to admit to feelings that are otherwise difficult to admit and perform actions that are otherwise difficult to perform. For instance, in his apology note to Charles, he writes, “I am very contrite. Aloysius won’t speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today.” (Oh yeah, that too–in the note, he invites him to lunch. CUTE.) Although Sebastian is apologizing, he displaces the agency from himself onto Aloysius. The teddy bear isn’t speaking to him, so he has to seek forgiveness from Charles. See, it’s not because he really wants forgiveness for himself; it’s all because of Aloysius.
So, long story short, Charles starts hanging out with Sebastian and his teddy bear and all his cool friends. It’s not without reservation, though, at least not at first. He goes “uncertainly,” with a “warning voice” telling him not to. “But,” he says, “I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at least, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”
What the heck is he talking about? Excitement? Romantic love? Belonging? This is one of the passages folks cite when arguing that Brideshead Revisited is at least in part about a queer relationship (though there’s a lot more evidence for it than that), but I don’t think Charles is talking about just that, and more importantly, I don’t think he realizes himself what exactly he’s talking about. He’s chasing a feeling, a feeling that he gets in connection to Sebastian. He’s drawn to him for a lot of complicated reasons–some to do with family, some to do with class and money, some to do with social status, and probably some to do with attraction.
There are a lot of moments so far in the book that can be interpreted as hints that Charles and Sebastian are falling in love with each other–the fact that Sebastian becomes possessive of Charles and doesn’t want his family to “take” him away, the fact that Charles refers to Sebastian as “entrancing,” the fact that Charles has spring break plans with one of his soon-to-be-former friends but recalls without any guilt that he would’ve ditched him at a moment’s notice if Sebastian had invited him somewhere.
I doubt this view will surprise anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about art and literature, but I don’t think that “Do Charles and Sebastian like each other That Way?” is a particularly valid or interesting question when we’re talking about fictional people. The more valid and interesting question is, “Which different readings of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship can we justify using the text, and how can we justify them?”
Obviously, you can read the whole thing is Totally Not Gay At All and simply an allegory about wishing you had been born someone and somewhere else. It’s not that Charles is in love with Sebastian, it’s that he’s in love with the idea of him, with the idea of being so at ease in the world (this is an example of Charles’ naiveté and tendency to project things onto people–I don’t think Sebastian is at ease anywhere or with anything much at all), with his own idealization of Sebastian’s family, with Catholicism (I’m told this is going to play a massive role in the book, and is actually what Waugh intended for the book to be about, not that that means we have to agree with him).
You can also read their relationship as a romantic friendship, which means it falls into that interesting historical space where you cannot assign labels like “gay” or “straight” to people who did not use those labels. (I’m not entirely sure that 1920s Oxford lacked them, however; another character who becomes prominent in the next chapter was apparently thought of as “a homosexual,” but nevertheless, romantic friendships are probably impossible to categorize using modern sexual orientation terms.)
To me, the fact that you can’t really “know” if a romantic friendship was Actually Just Dudes Being Pals or Actually Totally Gay is part of what’s so fascinating about the concept. Sure, it rankles that part of me that hates and fears queer invisibility. But on the other hand, I love the idea of people engaging freely (or somewhat freely) in same-sex play and love under cover of what was actually a genuine and meaningful friendship. I also love how valuable those relationships must’ve been even when they involved no sex whatsoever, and I love how they subtly pushed back against the idea that the Serious Romantic Couple should be at the center of our interpersonal lives, and I love how they showed that the distinctions we now draw between Liking Someone As A Friend and Liking Someone That Way and Being Attracted To Someone are a lot less clear and obvious than most of us are comfortable admitting.
Anyway, I love romantic friendships and I love the reading that Charles and Sebastian have one.
On the other hand, you can definitely also make the case for a more explicit relationship, especially considering the jealousy stuff and Charles’ focus on Sebastian’s looks and other stuff that comes up later in the book that I won’t get into now. The 2008 Brideshead Revisited film actually took this route and had them kiss, although obviously movies can and do reinterpret the books they’re based on in lots of ways.
But honestly, every time I try to draw a line between what it would look like if Charles and Sebastian Liked Each Other That Way versus if they were Just Really Good Friends, I can’t. Yes, at that time it was probably pretty normal for friends–including men–to express their friendship in grandiose romantic terms. And at that time–meaning 1945–Waugh could not have published a book with explicit gay sex in it anyway. So did they or didn’t they? I have no idea, but it sure is fun to think about.
People interpret their own feelings based on their social context and the narratives they subscribe to about what different feelings mean and how people are supposed to interact. In a liberal American city in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that they’re into each other, and they might go on dates and have sex and eventually become boyfriends and move in together and get married and host really fun parties and have kids. (Or not.) In a conservative Christian small town in Texas in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that there’s something wrong with them, that they need spiritual help, that they’re sinful, or that, fuck it, we’re gonna meet up in the park late at night and hook up, or leave this fucking town entirely.
Of course, people can and do switch up these narratives all the damn time–otherwise there wouldn’t have been any queer people fucking in most of the world until recently–but it’s hard. Based on my read of this book so far, a man at Oxford in the 1920s could openly pursue sex or love with men and become known as The Campus Homosexual and be subject to lots of ridicule (but still find a social group, it seems like), but otherwise he was probably going to interpret any sexual/romantic feelings for other men in a different way–especially if he is also, like Charles, attracted to women.
So, long story short, Charles and Sebastian meet and become fascinated with each other and do whatever it is they’re doing. At the end of the chapter, Sebastian borrows a car from a friend and takes Charles home to Brideshead–not to meet his family, apparently, but to meet his former nanny.
From the start, Sebastian is acting kind of sketchy about his family. “Don’t worry,” he says about them to Charles, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.” As if he’s concerned about Charles here rather than himself.
When Sebastian visits his nanny, he finds out that his sister Julia is actually staying at the house and is about to come home, at which point he mysteriously rushes Charles away. “What are you ashamed of, her or me?” asks Charles. Sebastian responds:
“I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.”
This is fascinating given that Charles and Julia eventually fall in love. (Sorry, spoiler. You can’t really avoid them when talking about classics. If it makes you feel any better, I had half the book spoiled for me just by reading the introduction, and anyway you don’t read these books for the plot.) What has Sebastian’s family already taken away? How much resemblance does his perception have to reality, or to their perceptions? Hopefully this is something that’s going to get clearer later.
Before leaving, Sebastian shows Charles the Brideshead chapel. When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and does some other churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do, but when Charles copies him he gets “cross” and demands to know why Charles did that. He responds that it’s good manners, and Sebastian says, “Well, you needn’t on my account.”
What’s up with that? Charles and Sebastian haven’t discussed religion yet (at least, not in view of the reader), and as far as I know nothing’s been said about Charles’ religion. Yet Sebastian seems to assume that he’s faking, and finds that offensive, annoying, or both. I’m guessing that back then you sort of knew who was Catholic and who wasn’t because shit like that would’ve come up in conversation, but I still find it interesting that Sebastian doesn’t appreciate Charles doing the churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do. Maybe he sees him as encroaching on his territory or trying to get involved in parts of his life that he doesn’t want him to be “mixed up” with, just like his family. Maybe he’s lost his faith himself, so seeing someone else pretend at it is irritating.
In any case, Sebastian’s definitely annoyed at Charles for showing what Sebastian perceives as excessive interest in his family. Charles explains that he’s curious about people’s families because his mom died in the war (World War I, presumably) and he has no siblings, so it’s just him and his dad and the aunt that his dad “drove abroad” so she’s not really around either. So now it kind of makes sense that Charles idealizes Sebastian’s family and is totally fascinated by it even though he literally knows nothing about them besides whatever random gossip he may have heard at Oxford.
But then again, why Sebastian’s family specifically? Charles tells him that he’s “rather curious about people’s families,” but we haven’t seen him show any interest in anyone else’s families, certainly not those of his friends that he’s abandoned now that he’s got Sebastian. Soooo. Since I favor the queer reading myself, it feels to me like he’s doing that thing people do when they have a crush on someone and they’re desperately curious to know everything about them. That, mixed with Charles’ probably-genuine bitterness that he never really got to have a “normal” family (whatever the hell that is) and his wish to sort of become part of someone else’s.
Chapter One establishes the sort of person Charles was going into his young adulthood, the life he created for himself at Oxford, and the way he first became fascinated with Sebastian and his family. I find myself wishing that the class difference were a bit more fully explored, but maybe that’s coming later. (Maybe it’s not the only thing that’s coming later? Eh? EHHHH? Fine, I’ll show myself out.)
Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.
For more about queer readings of not-specified-queer characters, here’s my take on that in a much more modern context.
Ever since I learned to read at the relatively late age of 6, books and I have been inseparable. I’ve read 944 books since I started tracking about ten years ago, and I read more often and more extensively than almost anyone I know who is not required to read as part of their job.
I read fiction and nonfiction; I read novels, short stories, and comics; I read books for children and for adults (and for everyone); I’ve tried most genres (but strongly prefer speculative fiction); I can also read in Russian (but rarely do, because I’m too slow at it to satisfy my own impatient curiosity); I’ve read works in translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Yiddish (and have many others I still want to try); i do, however, have one glaring fault as a reader: I have a very hard time with most of what could be considered Good Literature, and a resulting insecurity about my ability to grapple with difficult (fictional) texts.
It would be tempting for someone with my set of political beliefs to write off the entire idea of Good Literature, of classics. I do think that the way we determine what’s Good and what Isn’t is deeply flawed and subject to our own biases, just like everything else we do. The reason it looks like a bunch of white Western men certainly isn’t because nobody else ever wrote anything of value (although they probably didn’t do as much of it as they do now, because access).
But I don’t believe that there’s no distinction between literature that has something complex and important to say about our world and ourselves, and literature that doesn’t, not because it’s Bad but because that’s just not its purpose. Even as a teenager I recognized that there was a difference between the pleasure I got from reading The Catcher in the Rye and the pleasure I got from reading the Gossip Girl books. Yet I read both, and loved both.
I also think there’s a difference between literature that fades from memory once it goes out of style, and literature that stands the test of time and is called “classic” for that reason. Those Gossip Girl books are already almost forgotten, but Harry Potter hasn’t been and probably won’t be for a very long time. Those of us who lived through the anticipation and the midnight release parties and the fanfiction got to witness the birth of a classic. That’s one of the most incredible literary experiences I’ve ever had.
And yet, actually reading classics–not of the Harry Potter variety–is something I have a very hard time convincing myself to do. All the classics I’ve read were either required for a class (to be fair, some of those were college classes I chose to take) or strongly suggested by my parents in a way that made me want to just get it over with.
With a few exceptions, such as the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger, I couldn’t stand most of these books. I especially hated Grapes of Wrath, An American Tragedy, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, and every single Dickens book I ever picked up. I couldn’t get more than a chapter into Three Musketeers and hated all the excerpts of Moby Dick I had to read in English class (thankfully they didn’t make us read the whole book).
Some of these I’m convinced are just really bad writing (Dickens comes to mind). But I also think that a big part of the problem was my own failure to grasp the writer’s intent or find any other reason for that book to exist. What’s this trying to tell me? Why was this written? I’m a writer, so I know how much blood, sweat, and tears must’ve gone into these books. What made that effort worth it? These were questions I couldn’t answer.
And yes, there’s no Correct Answer there. That’s not the point. The point is I couldn’t think of any answer at all.
I started thinking back to my high school English classes, which were formative in many ways. My teachers were great when it came to encouraging enthusiasm for literature, but they were ultimately stuck in the framework that most high school English classes use: assigning books and then testing us on our understanding of the plot, the overall themes, the new vocabulary words, and, of course, what all the symbols meant. (You can imagine the authors rolling in their graves.) We never really learned how to think about the bigger questions: what do you think the author was trying to do with this book? How well did they do it? What could they have done better? If you didn’t know who wrote this book, what clues might help you guess? How is the author’s perspective informed or limited by their social position? What did you get out of reading this book? How did it change you?
I got to college hoping for some better instruction in critical reading, but “instruction” was mostly lacking at Northwestern, which is a research institution where undergrads are an afterthought. Professors expected us to already be able to do the kind of analysis they made their careers on, and I had no idea what that was. I got A’s in those classes mainly because nobody else could really do much better than me, and none of us knew what we were doing.
Most of what I know about literature comes from discussions with my parents and from reading other people’s essays about literature in magazines or online. My parents had a very different experience with books; they say that they were never taught to think about literature in school either, but only because in the Soviet Union, the skill of analyzing and critiquing books was something you just absorbed from your surrounding culture. They learned it the way children learn to speak. They can impart some of that to me by doing it with me, but they can’t teach it because they were never formally “taught.”
So, in short, I’m on my own. I don’t like feeling like I missed out on learning an entire mode of thinking that could help me appreciate even more books than I already do, so I’m going to teach it to myself, using this blog and the books themselves.
My idea is to choose classics that I consider challenging and read them chapter-by-chapter, posting my thoughts on each chapter as a blog post. I won’t limit myself to “analyzing” them in a particular way; I expect that I’ll blend thoughts about writing style, authorial intent, philosophy, and social criticism with my own ramblings about the characters and their annoying flaws and my frustration with the bad decisions everyone is making. (So many bad decisions. No, don’t go fight in the war, wars are bad. She’s not interested in you, dude. You probably should not talk to your kid that way. Stop arguing over this petty bullshit.)
To make things a little more interesting, I’ll open up the comments on those posts (and on this one) so folks can read along and join the discussion. Keep in mind though that all the reasons I closed comments still absolutely apply, so please do me a huge favor and focus your comments on your experience with the book and your thoughts about it rather than on criticizing and nitpicking my experiences.
I don’t have any sort of real process for choosing books right now other than “things my parents think I would benefit from reading,” so my first book will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Others I may read include Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’d like to suggest books, feel free to do so in the comments of this post. I’m looking for stuff that’s classic and challenging, but not impenetrable. (If you’re wondering what I’d categorize as impenetrable, I’d say probably something like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I got approximately nothing out of.)
I’m calling this a book club because that’s the closest term I can think of for what I’m going to do, but it very well might end up being a book club of just one and that’s totally fine. I wish it were easier to discuss books with friends, but the reality is that most people in my social circle who enjoy reading do not prioritize it and do it rarely. That’s something I hope will change as I get older or meet new people.
I do hope that this encourages at least a few people to read some new books. If you have a hard time motivating yourself to read, I put together this list of suggestions last year.
Hopefully I’ll start yelling about Brideshead Revisited by next week at the latest, but knowing myself, I can’t make any promises.
A lot of my friends have recently been asking for advice about reading. Specifically, they say that they really value reading (books, generally) and have always seen themselves as people who read, but lately they can’t seem to motivate themselves to do it. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.
Usually people have one or both of these problems: 1) motivating themselves to actually pick up a book and read it, and 2) maintaining their focus on that book rather than getting distracted by other things, such as social media or articles online. Although these are slightly different issues, I’m addressing both of them here because some of the same suggestions might help for both.
Some people cite various factors that they think have contributed to the problem with reading, such as: 1) the prevalence of distracting technology, 2) being out of school and no longer being required to read all the time, and 3) being more used to reading short articles online rather than books. While I think that working out what causes difficulty with reading can be useful for you, I also think that the problem can be resolved without that. (See also: solution-focused brief therapy.)
Since I’ve had some of these issues myself and have developed a few practices that help, I decided to put together a blog post for reference for folks who have these issues. I also asked friends what’s worked for them, since this is such a common problem in my social circles, and incorporated their recommendations.
This isn’t “advice” per se; some of these might work for you and some of these might not. If you already know that the problem isn’t [thing] and a given suggestion addresses [thing], there’s no reason for you to try it (except curiosity, maybe). Some of these cost nothing to try, and others cost money. Some address the activation energy problem, and some address the focus problem. Some may feel bad to you, like you’re “giving up” on something important. If it feels awful, you don’t have to do it, but also consider that it might be worth readjusting (at least temporarily) your expectations for yourself.
1. Try reading something easier/simpler/more fun, at least at first.
A lot of people say they have trouble motivating themselves to read books, but what they really mean is Big Serious Books. If you really wish you could just pick up a book already, forget about Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace for now, and pick up a YA novel, a comic book, or something else that’s easy for you to get into. Online fanfiction works too. Saga is an amazing comic book series with big political themes, lots of diversity, beautiful art, and an engaging, suspenseful story. Peeps is a YA vampire novel, but it’s nothing like Twilight. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is, well, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
This seems to work for a lot of people. My friend Nicole says: “When I can’t motivate myself to read, I approach it like I approach exercise–start off with some easier reads to get the momentum going. Definitely doesn’t work for everyone, but when I pick up some Harry Potter or even a Sweet Valley High book (only Judy can judge me), I’m at an easier entryway for reading than if I went 0 to Dostoyevsky.”
This is in some ways one of the hardest suggestions to implement because, I’ve noticed, a lot of people have a lot of shame and stuff around what they read. It’s difficult to feel like you’re Really Reading if you’re reading a comic book or a teen vampire story. But are you comprehending words on a page? Are you making predictions and feeling empathy for a character and wondering what made an author write it the way they wrote it? Then you’re reading.
If you really can’t get past the potential embarrassment of being seen with one of these books, you could buy a protective cover for it, or use an e-reader (more on that later).
You might find that as you (re)develop a reading habit, it becomes easier and easier to read harder and harder things. Tolstoy will always be there for you when you want him.
For me, this suggestion translates as reading fiction rather than nonfiction. Like quite a few like-minded people, I often feel that reading fiction is “silly” and “useless” compared to reading nonfiction, but I often find nonfiction difficult to get into and focus on. When I can’t get myself into nonfiction, I try to overcome that feeling and read some fiction instead. First of all, reading something is better than reading nothing. Second, it’s not even true that fiction is silly or useless; I absolutely learn about the world from it and get writing ideas from it and such.
Although most of my friends say that they have no trouble reading things online and feel that they have replaced books with blog posts and articles, if that’s not the case for you, then blog posts and articles might be a stepping stone to more “serious” reading.
2. Get comfortable.
When I’m having trouble focusing on a book I want to be reading and I can’t figure out why, I do some body scanning. Often I realize that the problem is that I’m physically uncomfortable and it didn’t even make it into my conscious awareness.
Note that this might be true even if you think the problem is that you’re getting distracted by your phone or whatever. I often automatically check my phone when I’m physically (or mentally) uncomfortable as a way to cope with those feelings in the moment. While this can be extremely useful when I have to be there and need to distract myself from my discomfort, it’s not as useful when you need to focus on reading, and when it’s actually possible to resolve the discomfort.
Figure out which reading positions are most comfortable for you. I like to have back support and a surface that is neither too hard nor tries to swallow me. My favorite places to read are hammocks, couches, armchairs, and those lounge chair things they have at the pool, as long as it’s not the hard plastic ones. Unfortunately, reading in bed is not usually something I can make comfortable for long periods of time, and neither is reading at a computer while sitting in some sort of chair. Regardless of what your favorite reading positions are, if you’re doing it for a while, make sure to get up regularly and stretch. Otherwise you’ll find yourself getting stiff and cramped and therefore distracted.
Other factors play into comfort, too. One friend says she reads on her computer using Kindle for Mac, because reading on her computer means that she doesn’t have to turn the lights on–and lights trigger her migraines. In college, I had a Snuggie so that I could stay warm while still being able to flip the pages.
3. Remove distractions.
Assuming that you do have a problem with getting distracted by things, see if you can remove them. If it’s noise, find a quiet place or use earplugs (they’re pretty cheap at any drugstore). If it’s technology, put it in another room or turn it off. I like to go outside with my books and leave other stuff inside.
Sometimes people don’t do this because they assume that if they “really” wanted to read, they’d be able to do it even with the iPhone right there. But that’s not really how motivation/focus works. Most humans like to move in the direction of least effort, at least when we let our automatic impulses take over. You love reading, but you also love Facebook, and Facebook is just easier. That doesn’t make you wrong (or Facebook evil). It’s just a thing that you might need to acknowledge and plan around.
4. Try an e-reader.
Money permitting, e-readers (or e-reading apps on phones) can really help. That’s the thing that worked best for me, and the suggestion I got most often from my friends who say it worked for them. For some people, e-readers are physically more convenient and easy. For some, it’s that there aren’t other distractions on it (like there are on a phone). For other people, on the other hand, reading on a phone is great because it allows you to read in situations where you otherwise might not have been able to. I used to read e-books on my phone while waiting for clients to show up at work.
Those of you who commute on public transit may also find that e-readers/phones resolve a lot of logistical challenges. When I first moved to New York, I had a hell of a time trying to hold onto a pole on a crowded train and a bag or two and a book with pages I needed to flip. Within a few months, I got my Nook, which can be held in one hand and has conveniently-located buttons that flip the pages without a need for another hand. I happily read for hours each week while standing on trains and holding onto poles.
The cheapest current Kindle is $80, and you can even pay for it in installments. It’s probably even cheaper if you get it used. If that’s still not affordable for you but you do have a smartphone, Kindle and Nook both make free apps (and there are probably others). Your local public library might have e-books available for borrowing. Even the one here in my little Ohio suburb has that now. A friend also recommends BookBub as a way to find cheap and free ebooks.
5. If you have to drive a lot, try audiobooks.
Personally, I dislike receiving information in audio format, but some people say this works for them, especially when they have to commute by car a lot. This is also great if you feel like you can’t justify the additional time spent on reading because you have so many other things to do. This way, you’re not expending any extra time on it, just making better use of the time you already have.
6. Make it social.
Reading is generally a very solitary activity, and it’s difficult to spend hours isolated from other people doing something that’s not easily shared with them. So see if you can make it shareable.
Traditionally, people made reading social through book clubs. If that’s an option for you, try it. Note that book clubs need not be in-person/geographically proximate–online book clubs can work a lot better if it’s difficult to find people nearby who share your interests, or if going to in-person events is stressful.
However, there are plenty of ways to make reading social besides book clubs. For instance, you can post book reviews on sites like Goodreads or on Facebook. You can share what you’re reading on social media, and often friends will get excited along with you or discuss the book with you if they’ve read it too. I love to post quotes on Facebook and Tumblr, especially from nonfiction books (but often from fiction too). It helps me feel like I’m doing something good for people by spreading the knowledge I’m getting, and it also gets me some positive reinforcement from people for reading. Everybody wins.
I’ve written before (to a small amount of pushback) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using this sort of reinforcement to motivate yourself to do things you know are good for you to do. You are not weak or silly or shallow if the encouragement and positive feedback of people you care about helps you do things. Yes, there are downsides to this, but it’s also the way humans work. Be self-aware and use it to your advantage.
7. Take books everywhere.
Take books everywhere you go, even if it’s a situation where people might make fun of you for having a book. (When I used to hang out with friends who were slightly less cool than my current friends, they’d make fun of me for having a book. They’d be like, “What, did you think I’d be that boring?” I’d be like, no, but I thought, what if you were late and I had to wait for you? What if you went to the restroom for a while? What if you needed to leave earlier and I wanted to stay at the coffee shop by myself? That’s to say nothing of public transit.)
If you always have a book, you might find yourself turning to it in those everyday boring situations. In line at the post office. In the doctor’s waiting room. In the train. On your lunch break. At the bar, waiting for your friends to show up. Boredom can be a great motivator.
E-readers help with this, but I’ve been doing it with paper books for as long as I’ve been able to read.
8. Make a habit of browsing bookstores and libraries.
When you’re in a bookstore or a library, there’s really only two things to do: find books, and read books. As a kid I used to walk out of the library with huge towers of books because I couldn’t bear to leave such interesting things in place. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but the excitement of finding something cool in the stacks is its own motivator.
When you find an interesting book, try reading the first chapter (or part of it), not just the jacket copy. If you don’t like it, you haven’t spent that much time. If you do like it, check it out or buy it, and then you’re already hooked and motivated to keep going.
This is also very fun to combine with #6. Make it social. When I was in high school and there wasn’t much else to do, my friends and I made bookstore trips constantly. Nowadays, I like to take people I’m dating (or thinking about dating) to bookstores. You learn a lot about someone that way, and plus it’s fun, and plus it encourages you to read.
Although there’s definitely something special to me about bookstores and libraries, browsing books on Amazon can have some similar effects, especially since it’ll show you similar books to what you’re looking at. I’ve definitely gotten lost in that particular rabbit hole for a while.
9. Graph it, chart it, log it.
This goes along with #6 (making it social) given how social media is these days, but for me, graphing and charting and logging things is also its own reward. I’d imagine the same is true for other nerdy types.
I like recording what I read with Goodreads, and I also use an iOS app called Hours to track how much time I spend reading each book (along with other productive things I do).
But my favorite book-tracking thing by far is this chart created by my friend Malcolm. Malcolm’s aim in creating and using this chart was to encourage himself to read more, but unlike other book-tracking mechanisms, this one tracks the time you spend reading, not the number of books you finish. Sometimes people start books they don’t end up liking but then they don’t want to put them down because sunk cost fallacy + it feels like you get no “points” for a book you don’t finish. This chart acknowledges all the time you spend on books (including audiobooks), whether or not you finish them.
You can see my own version of Malcolm’s chart here.
Some people also find success with HabitRPG, a cute webapp that treats to-do’s and habits as a game and also has an optional social component.
10. Do a little at a time.
For many people, motivation is all about that first push, and then the rest comes easily. Don’t think of it as “I need to read War and Peace.” Think of it as, “I need to read a chapter of War and Peace.” Or even a page. You might find that once you start reading you keep going naturally, or you might not. In that case, you can gradually raise your page goal rather than diving head-first into reading 100 pages a day or whatever.
DailyLit is a website that can help with this by emailing you installments of books each day. HabitRPG, which I mentioned above, can also help, because you can set a daily goal like “read five pages” and see what happens.
Mark Reads, which a few of my friends recommended, is another way to read in installments. In this series, Mark reads books out loud a chapter at a time and reviews them. My friend Suzanne says, “It’s like an online book club led by the kindest, most hilarious person who is never ever prepared for the next twist in the book he’s reading.”
11. Shift your assumptions.
Reading is an act that’s all tangled up in things like class, race, gender, and neurotypicality. Sometimes we expect impossible things of ourselves, like reading dozens of dense books each year and being able to regurgitate all their plots or facts on demand, and that leads to a lot of shame that makes reading even more difficult. Sometimes we devalue certain ways of reading (audiobooks, ebooks, social reinforcement, with frequent breaks to check a phone) or certain types of texts (YA, “women’s” literature, fanfiction). Many of us remember our parents or teachers telling us to put that crap down and have held onto those ideas into adulthood.
Yes, I do think that there are ways to evaluate and judge literature, but I also think that what you think is “good” depends entirely on what you need. Recently I read a short self-published novel called Robins in the Night. It was not particularly well-written; it needed a lot of editing and a lot of the stylistic choices seemed stilted or incomprehensible to me. But it was a retelling of the Robin Hood story in which Robin Hood is actually a queer trans woman who stands up against the unjust treatment of a Black man, and at the moment, that’s exactly what I needed to read, “quality” notwithstanding. I recommend it.
As you pursue your reading goals, I recommend keeping some (re)frames in mind:
The perfect is the enemy of the good./Reading something is better than reading nothing.
Only you get to decide which books are “good” or “impressive” or “valuable” for you.
Work with your brain, not against it. If positive reinforcement from your friends helps, use it. If you can’t read for ten minutes without checking your phone, consider figuring out what’s going on with that, but in the meantime, read for ten minutes at a time and take breaks to check your phone.
Try to get rid of “should”‘s. Should you read long serious novels? Should you read without an e-reader? Should you be able to read for long stretches of time without taking a break? Should you read quickly? Should you remember everything you read? Should you find nonfiction interesting enough to hold your attention? Maybe, but who cares? Do what you can and what feels right.
What has worked for you? What engaging books do you recommend to someone who’s having trouble picking up a book and staying with it?
My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.
Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.
The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”
Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:
.@PPact you have your own sexual assault hotline and services. The face of your org should not be a sexual predator. #dropdunham
@FatBodyPolitics that’s where we disagree. I think her memoir is intentionally uncomfortable. “Normal” or not, I don’t think it’s abuse — Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) November 4, 2014
if yr denunciation of Lena Dunham for being an “abuser” includes transparent envy of her career and privilege, you MAYBE invalidate yr point — Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) November 4, 2014
[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.
[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]
After reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.
Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.
Some background for those who haven’t read it:
Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.
Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.
This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.
But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:
“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”
“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”
“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”
Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.
Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”
Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.
I would call it rape.
Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.
As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:
“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.
“He stole choice,” she said flatly.
“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.
Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.
“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.
“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.
“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.
“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”
So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.
Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.
Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)
After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.
He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:
He tried to extricate himself.
He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.
He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.
But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.
And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.
After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.
While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.
I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.
In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”
Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.
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The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.
slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.
Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’
ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.
One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.
gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.
A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.
hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.
Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.
I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.
Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!
In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.
What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?
Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.
Greta Christina has a new book of kinky erotic stories out. It’s called Bending and I read it and it’s great. So I interviewed her about the book and the process and ethics of writing porn.
If you’re curious why I refer to them as “dirty stories” and not “erotica,” Greta herself explains in the introduction:
These are not ‘erotica’ — except in the sense that ‘erotica’ has become the term of art in publishing for ‘dirty stories with some vaguely serious literary intent.’ These are not tender stories about couples in love making love. (Except for that one that is.” These are not sweet, gentle, happy stories about unicorns fucking rainbows. (Except for the one about the unicorn fucking the rainbow.)
Here’s the interview!
1. What’s your favorite thing about writing dirty stories? What’s the most challenging thing about it?
I have two favorite things. The first is the challenge as a writer. Can I shape my sexual fantasies into writing, in a way that other people find compelling? Sexuality can be so personal: our own fantasies are so exciting to us, but just describing them doesn’t automatically make them exciting to other people. Even if our fantasies overlap with other people’s fantasies, even if what pushes our buttons pushes other people’s buttons — just a description of what happens in the fantasy isn’t enough to make it exciting. Not to me, anyway. I have to find the real core, what exactly it is about this fantasy that makes it hot for me. That’s really interesting. It’s like therapy.
The other favorite thing is that it gets me off. Sinking deep into a sex fantasy, spending hours with it, closely examining it to find out what makes it hot… it makes my clit hard just thinking about it.
The most challenging things are very closely related to my favorite things. It’s very difficult to write porn that really captures the essence of what makes a fantasy exciting. Often, when I first flesh out a dirty story, I find writing it totally exciting and compelling… and then when I come back to it later for revisions, it just seems flat. I could feel the emotional and psychological resonance myself when I was first writing it, but I didn’t get it onto the page. So I have to look at how the characters are feeling about the sex they’re having, what it means to them, whether their lives will be any different because of this sex. I have to find a way to convey what it feels to be this person, or these people, having this sex.
Plus I have this thing about wanting my porn to be interesting and exciting… even for readers who don’t share my kinks. That’s one of my favorite things as a reader/ viewer of porn: if porn can get me off even when it doesn’t push my particular buttons, if it get show me what’s exciting and intriguing about sexual acts that don’t normally interest me, that is pure win. I want to give that to other readers. But it’s hard.
Also, getting back to how writing porn gets me off: If I whack off too early in the process of writing a story, I lose my momentum, and have to come back to it later. It’s a challenge to hold off on masturbating long enough to get a good chunk of the story out.
2. That story about the unicorn and the rainbow. What inspired it?
“The Unicorn and the Rainbow” was totally written on a dare. I perform in this regular erotic reading series in San Francisco, “Perverts Put Out,” and a couple of years ago I read a fiction piece, which I prefaced by warning the audience: “This is something of a disturbing story, it has elements of borderline consent and other content that some people may find unsettling.” And then I added, “But when do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and *not* say that? When do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and say, ‘This is a really sweet story, this is a gentle, happy, loving story about unicorns fucking rainbows?'”
And at the break, about a dozen people came up to me and said, “I really want you to write the story about unicorns fucking rainbows.”
3. Do you believe that writers of erotica have any ethical obligation to encourage consensual sex and to discourage sexual assault? If so, what is the extent of this obligation? How can writers balance it with their desire to write stories that express fantasies that many people have, including fantasies about non-consent and manipulation?
That’s a very large question, and a tricky one. I don’t think I can give a complete answer to it in a brief interview. But I’ll do my best.
I’m not sure if I think other writers have that ethical obligation. But I certainly feel it myself. Especially since so much of my porn fiction is about non-consent, borderline consent, manipulation, abuse of power. I actually wrote an entire blog post about this, while I was first putting the book together: On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture. do think artists — and not just creators of erotica, all artists — have a responsibility to try to avoid contributing to culture in a toxic way. But I don’t think that all art has to represent a Utopian ideal. Bor-ing!
Here’s how I dealt with this in Bending. I talked in the introduction about the difference between fantasies of non-consent and the reality of non-consent. I put a consensual SM resource guide at the end of the book, reiterating that these stories are meant to be fantasies and not a how-to guide, and directing people towards actual how-to guides. And I made the non-consensual content very clear, in the description of the book and in the introduction and in all the promotional materials… so people who don’t want to read about that stuff know to avoid it.
As for other writers… I don’t know. Did the creators of Ocean’s Eleven have an obligation to open the movie with, “This is just a fantasy, we do not recommend that you knock over casinos in real life”? That seems silly. But then again, rape and sexual abuse of power is very widespread in our world. Knocking over casinos isn’t.
4. Has writing dirty stories changed how you think about sexuality, kink, consent, etc? What have you learned from the process?
Again — large question! I could talk about that for pages. I promise I won’t, though. I’m just going to pick out one thing.
Before I started writing dirty stories, I was very interested in acting out non-consent fantasies in real life. (With consenting partners, obviously!) I was pretty blithe about it, actually — “la la la, I have fantasies about this all the time, why wouldn’t I want to act it out?” — and it was one of the great frustrations of my sex life that I hadn’t found a partner who was willing to do that with me. But writing kinky fiction has given me a lot more respect for the potential landmines in acting this stuff out. It’s important to me that my porn be believable, that it feel like it could be really happening with real people… but it’s extremely hard to write non-consent porn that’s realistic and believable, and that isn’t a horror show. Struggling with that made me realize how hard it is to translate some fantasies into reality — even just in the form of fiction. And that made me more cautious about venturing into those waters in my sex play, and gave me more respect for my partners who didn’t want to go there. I’m not saying I never would do that — but I would go in very slowly, and tread very cautiously, if I did.
5. Do you think stories like yours have the power to destigmatize kink and BDSM? How so?
I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. And I would hope that these stories might also help destigmatize porn/ erotica as well. I would hope that people reading these stories would recognize that smart, thoughtful, insightful, non-fucked-up people can be into this stuff. But I suspect that people who stigmatize kink — or porn, for that matter — aren’t going to read these stories.
6. One of the sections of Bending has stories in which religion is used to manipulate and coerce someone sexually. How did your own views on religion shape these stories, if at all?
Again — a very large question! I’m actually doing an entire guest post on this topic on JT Eberhard’s WWJTD? blog later on in the blog tour, on June 10. The tl;dr: I didn’t write religious porn at all until I became an atheist. Being an atheist writer and activist put religion much more on my radar — including the darker, more fucked-up elements of religion, and its huge potential for abuse of power. Which, of course, I passionately oppose in real life… and which, of course, my fantasies and my sexual imagination immediately began lapping up.
7. Which story is your favorite? Yes, you have to pick one!
“Bending.” No question. “Bending” is the novella that makes the foundation of this collection — and I worked harder on it than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life. (With the exception ofWhy Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Funny thing, how hard work pays off. Not always, of course — there are writers who have struggled for years over work that never came out right — but often.
And I think the length made a difference as well. Having the space, in the novella length of “Bending,” to really get into the depths and the details and the richness of my characters’ sex lives and sexual feelings, I think made it more powerful. Plus, in a novella, there’s space for the characters to really change and evolve. In many of my short stories, the stories end when the main character is about to make a change in her life. They end when the main character is about to open a new door, or close one behind her. In “Bending,” I was able to take the main character, Dallas, through that change. I think that gives it a richness, an extra dimension, that’s hard to get across in a shorter piece.
8. Which one was the most difficult to write?
And again — “Bending.” For all the same reasons that it’s my favorite. I worked harder on that piece than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life.
If your interest has been sufficiently piqued, Bending is available for purchase on Amazon, Smashwords, and Nook, and will soon be available as an audiobook and a paperback!