The Poetics of Aggravated SF Assaults

So in the interests of being less vitriolic and not just hurling insults, I thought I'd approach some of the more irritating aesthetic (as opposed to political, ethical, or social) problems with the SF Ghetto and Con Culture in particular. Some of this stuff is just dumb, and it's probably not worth pointing out why. But I think it needs saying in order to point out the differences between what I think about this stuff, and the things I'm more vocally critical of.

1. Filk

Filk makes no sense to me. My enduring image of filk is that guy from Trekkies who was really bad at being in drag, singing a klingon hymn of some sort. It made me cringe. I still cringe when I think about it. It was that bad. Supposedly the idea behind filk is a group of people getting together and singing songs. That, on its own, is a good thing. Music is wonderful and we all need more of it in our lives, even people like me who have a lot of it. What doesn't make sense to me is the form that Filk takes, which, to an outsider, appears to be something like a cross between Weird Al Yankovic and Mark Russell, only with none of the musicianship or genius to be found in those musical satirists. The point here is not that the idea of filk is a bad one, it's that it seems to be executed in an internally contradictory way. What I mean by that is that on the one hand it's pushing this "everyone can sing" idea which is laudable. But at the same time, the actual activity itself is rife with in jokes and jargon that are only really accessible to a very small group of people. It's this internal irony, that seems to be completely missed by the participants, that I find displeasing about filk.

2. Costuming

Ok, I get it. Playing dress up is fun. And some of the folks who are into fantasy costuming really go all out and produce some amazing stuff. At the same time, it's clear that there are other folks who just spend a lot of money on costumes. And, steam punk aside, which I actually think is kind of interesting as a fashion movement, the other thing I don't like about costuming is that there is so much of it that gets invested in either generic F/SF culled from an unanalyzed background of known signifiers, or worse in looking like commercial properties owned by large corporations. But really, what it ultimately comes down to is that I think fashion shows are boring. They're boring in fashion Mecca's like New York and Paris when the models are some of the most beautiful people on earth and the designers are among the most talented people working in clothing alive. They're even more boring when its a DIY affair where beauty and talent are not guaranteed. And at the cons I've been to they've always gone on for hours and hours. Dull.

3. WaLS: F/SF edition

Eric's latest post talks about a con called Boskone that is more to his taste than Arisia. Looking over the agenda, I can see why he would say that. However, there is a dangerous tilt toward WaLS that appears to be emerging in the agenda. See for example the following events:
Foreshadowing and How to Do It
The Business of Writing (a Conversation)
What do you read for Pleasure? (asks what your guilty pleasures are and if what they are affect your writing)
Keeping Your Series Fresh
Why I Write Horror
Workshopping Dos and Don't
Move Your Butt (exercise for writers)
The Fragmented Genre (asks "will the fragmentation of genre offer new markets [blech] for writers?"]
The Inclue and Other Smart Writing Tricks
How Not to Edit Yourself
Writing the First-Person Point of View
Breaking Out of Stereotype
Marketing Your Book
When Editors Vent
Write a Story Now
Stealing Folklore

Now granted, not all of this smells like symptoms of WaLS but taken together there is that distinctive odor. Note the use of the words "markets" and a bunch of people sharing advice whose qualifications seem pretty dubious at best. What really clinches this "how to write" stuff more than the abysmal adoption of the hated workshop as a means of supposedly improving, is that a lot of these topics don't seem that well thought out. Which is to say, most of these questions are things that are probably better answered by established authorities that are widely known. Want to know how to edit? Read Strunk and White, Garner, Fowler, McKee or any of another dozens of real authorities. The older I get, the more convinced I become that the only way to learn how to write well is to read a lot of conflicting authorities and then think about the conflicts. Then write a bunch of stuff of your own. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. However, I have come to the further conclusion that informal discussion among inexpert amateurs is only ever detrimental. The result is the ever expanding dross of "how to write" product feeding the legions of WaLS sufferers. And WaLS is tacky even if only because it degrades literature and puts the focus where it squarely doesn't belong. The Author may not be dead, but the best authors fade into obscurity and unimportance behind the monument of The Work. WaLS is the antithesis of that and should be opposed from all quarters.

4. Quasi-Historical Reenactment

Now don't get me wrong, I think the SCA is an interesting idea. I'm a fan of history and I like the idea of full immersion in it. But there's a problem with the way it seems to get done in fandom that I see and I don't like. Mostly because there is a gross over emphasis on the military components of what goes on. Secondarily, there's very little that's admirable about the structure of the feudal societies in Europe and Asia that fandom is fascinated with. Knights in Europe and Samurai and Ninja in Japan, for all their vaunted codes of honor, were a collection of thugs and warlords who kept the peasantry in poverty, living a menial and undignified life through shows of force. Put succinctly, a few exceptional folk heroes aside, glorifying feudal society is both short-sighted and politically dubious. I find the escape to a romanticized version of this ugly past highly questionable.

So those are the four things in broad overview that make me cringe when I look into the SF Ghetto. To be clear about this, I have to do this pretty regularly because I like SF. At its best it's one of the greatest creative modes to have come out of American letters. But at its worst it just seems to be so much worse than the bad in other areas that for me it's worthy of comment. I wish this stuff would just stop because its an aesthetic effort that fails, and in an artistic field that ought to be a death sentence. For some reason, though, the SF Ghetto keeps it alive. And that is the Ghetto's failure of poetics.

Comments have questioned my dismissal of the panelists as "inexpert amateurs" which is really just a nicer way of saying "hacks." In particular the "Inclue" panel was pointed out. I'd like to note that it's possible to research this stuff and I have. Here are some fan notes I found for that exact panel:

To which I say "meh." Here's some of the advice given in that panel:

1. That which is conventionally known as "establishing setting" should really be called "incluing" which Teresa Nielson Hayden thinks is great and I think is dumb. I think it's dumb because setting has to work in service of the story, not the other way around, which is the position that the panelists seem to be taking. The basic lesson? You're writing fiction, not a technical manual. Ho hum.

2. You shouldn't need footnotes. Tell it to David Foster Wallace, Ms. Walton.

3. When dealing with an unfamiliar language, you should build it up once word at a time. One strangeness at a time. Tell it to Anthony Burgess, Ms. Neilson Hayden

4. Apparently Dr. Seuss never used made up words for rhymes. Tell it to the the Sneetches.

All told, bad advice given, bad advice received. I stand by the assertion that careful study of Garner's Usage, McKee's Story, and similar books by respected authorities, combined with careful study of greats like those listed will serve the aspiring writer far better than any of this kind of stuff ever will.


The trouble with the SCA not enough peasants and skilled crafts people of the sort that kept society going.

One of the problems I have with anything done as a lifestyle is that it tends to sentimentalize just doing something and doesn't reward doing something really well, can even be hostile to people who do things really well (because that makes people who don't do things really well look bad). Thus we have statements like "pros are more like mundanes than they are like fans."

I know of communities where large numbers of people play music, but the focus is on doing that really well, not on just doing it. People who genuinely care about what they're listening to want it done as good as can be.

Yeah, the SCA people are

Yeah, the SCA people are pretty straight up about this. It's not about how the past was, but how it "should have been". Which is why I find SCA uninteresting.

more or less. fan fiction, i

more or less.

fan fiction, i should have hit that too.

and done. I was hoping E would do it for me.

Dude, I couldn't even

Dude, I couldn't even remember what WaLS stood for.

I get your point about WaLS.

I get your point about WaLS. Ultimately, people need to write, not talk about writing. However, do you really mean to imply that Greer Gilman, James D. Macdonald, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Mary A. Turzillo, and Jo Walton (the panelists for "The Inclue and Other Smart Writing Tricks") are "inexpert amateurs"?

That particular panel, at least, was an opportunity to hear lots of conflicting authorities. Then I could go home and think about the conflicts. (I can't say anything about any of the other panels, because I don't remember attending those.)

well, yes

i was curious so I read through some of the excerpts available online for those folks because I'd never heard of them. With the exception of Mary Turzillo, I found their writing pretty lackluster. Certainly not good enough to establish authority on its own. Turziillo is an interesting case, because while she clearly has some chops as a prose writer, I still found her somewhat lacking stylistically, particularly in her poetry, to the point that I'd be hard pressed to take her advice on writing seriously.

I can tell you though that

I can tell you though that pretty much all those names are people I recognize as well-established writers. (Greer Gilman was even co-guest of honor at last year's ReaderCon.) Obviously you can argue about the quality of their work, but at least no one can accuse them of putting fans and not professionals behind the table.

my central point is that if

my central point is that if you agree with me that workshopping is stupid, and you do, how can such workshop lite panels stuffed with SF Ghetto luminaries possibly contribute to improving the quality of attendees writing? the answer, of course, is that it can't and the folsk interested in such panels would be better off reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as a source to improve their writing. Which is to say, better to read a master and meditate on it than take advice from third tier hacks.

I'm not sure where you found

I'm not sure where you found Teresa Nielsen Hayden's fiction because she's an editor. Anyways, it's good to clarify that you implied people were "inexpert amateurs" without knowing who they are or getting any familiarity with their work beforehand.

to clarify, i stand by the

to clarify, i stand by the description. I went looking for them before I posted the article and was unimpressed. And no, I couldn't find anything of Hayden's other than blog posts, which aren't great source material. Conversely, she was the one person whose name i recognized (and therefore dismissed outright as someone I'd want to listen to) because of her central involvement in the RaceFail circus.

Cool. You read through the

Cool. You read through the fiction of everyone involved in all of those panels before implying they were "inexpert amateurs. " I admire your dedication and sheer amount of free time. Also, "[you'd] never heard of them." I assume this means you were utterly unfamiliar with anyone on any of those panels, well, except for Teresa Nielsen Hayden whom, after I pointed out she was an editor, you realized you had heard of in a context where, as far as I'm concerned, everyone looked bad. However, you'd only read that unrepresentative sample of her non-fiction. Just want to make sure all of this is clear and on the record.

One thing I don't understand: If the mere act of workshopping is a waste of time regardless of the participants, why bother implying aspersions on anyone? Or to put it another way, you posit an interesting dichotomy. To you, it's either "read a master and meditate on it" or "take advice from third tier hacks." Is there something about being a "real master" that renders him or her incapable of giving advice in oral rather than written form? (Also, you make a weird conflation of workshopping and panel discussion. I view them as two different things. You, obviously, do not.)

believe what you want. I

believe what you want. I stand by what I said. If you want to just be a jackoff and make wild assumptions in order to cast aspersions, I can go there. You're clearly a fucking moron and it won't be hard.

As for the difference between panels and workshops, you're right, they are different. Panels are probably less useful. Whatever limited ability even a talented teacher of writing has for imparting information orally is even further dampened by the format and the idiotic questions from the people like you that show up to those things.

But the core idea behind them is the same, that someone sitting around talking about writing choices in specific cases is useful to people who want to improve their writing. The core nature of the activity is the same and if you deny that I question whether you've ever been in a real writing workshop or a real panel.

I don't think people should get involved in workshops no matter who is teaching it if their goal is to improve. Workshops are huge wastes of time that do very little other than to homogenize participants into least common denominator nonoffensive crap. You become a better writer by thoughtfully reading and writing, not by talking about reading and writing. There are occasional glimpses of insight that might be gleaned from a conversation about writing, but generally those are more forthcoming when you're talking about great writing. And to that extent, a one on one conversation with a great writer about a specific work of theirs that you've read in detail, you might get something out of that. But I bet you'd be better off talking to a critic about the work. And even better reading excellent, well written criticism of the work. And the reason for this is that writing is an applied art. You can only improve by sharpening your understanding of the tools (written words) and aesthetic effects of their use. And that only happens by using them. Listening to someone talk in an oblique way about how they use them is not going to help you write well anymore than listening to a mechanical engineer talk about theoretical physics is going to make you able to build a really great car.

Now, I'll qualify that and say that insights can potentially come from anywhere. But I'm of the opinion that insights are something you do for yourself by thinking about what you've read and what you've written and what other people have written. They don't come from hearing or reading an aphorism from somebody else unless you've already done the work.

More to the point, given that the people on that particular panel are actually bad writers, as are most of the people in the country who teach writing workshops professionally, l'd argue that far from being valuable or even just harmless fun, such things are actually bad for a developing writer. People pick up all sorts of obnoxious rules of thumb and dumb ideas about what makes for good writing taking people like Jo Walton seriously when she holds forth as an expert, when the evidence is that she can't write her way out of a paper bag.

well sure

The thing is that additional information that's on point can always be used as a jumping off point for further reflection. Insights can be gained by taking a look at a heuristic and trying to pull it apart. I would hope that the better panelists would do something similar to Garner's "levels of acceptability" on these points and point out countervailing opinions. Of course, when you're looking at someone as inexpert as the folks on these panels plainly are, it doesn't strike me as likely that they would even be aware of the standard opinion, let alone minority views. Hence, useless but not entirely so.

As I said, I absolutely agree

As I said, I absolutely agree with you that the way to become a better writer is by reading and writing mindfully. I just don't see how casting aspersions on people you barely know, if at all, advances your point. Remember, you're the one that has called people "third rate hacks" and "inexpert amateurs." I'm merely taking your word on how you have come to those conclusions.

BTW, if you had been at the Boskone panel, you would have heard Jo Walton defend the use of footnotes where they are appropriate. She was talking about the use of footnotes as a cop out. Also, to the best of my recollection, no one on that panel claimed that the story works in the service of the setting. Finally, I think you're taking what a 2nd hand account of they'd proffered as general rules of thumb as if they were unalterable laws of physics.

I'd thank you for not putting

I'd thank you for not putting words into my mouth. The hypothesis you're rejection isn't one I made. He claimed to read fiction that didn't exist. I pointed that out to him. He said that despite being unfamiliar with everyone on any of those panels, he'd studied all of their work before making his post. Now, you can exaggerate for rhetorical effect by making the "fully versed in an author's work" strawman. I can fight back by saying, "Well, surely any arbitrary sentence isn't enough to make any sort of judgement." All of that is kind of a waste of time though.

The central point is that we all agree that the best way to improve as a writer is to continue to read and write mindfully. (I'd add that reading actual works of fiction is much more valuable than reading about writing. If listening to panels about writing is bad, I fail to see how reading about writing is any better.) The point I'm trying to make is that casting aspersions on people by calling them "inexpert amateurs" or "third rate hacks" doesn't actually encourage anyone to read and write mindfully.

I didn't say he can't be

I didn't say he can't be taken seriously. As I have said over and over, I agree with him that the best way to write better is to read and write mindfully, not engage in writing related activities. Also, I don't understand how "You read through the fiction of everyone involved in all of those panels" can be construed as "studied all of their work." Having read a representative short story from each panel participant before he made his blog post would seem to satisfy my statement quite nicely, for example. More importantly, I made my statement as a confirmation of what he'd done. Excepting that I pointed out Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an editor, I have not contradicted a single claim he's made. He could have simply agreed with me that he had, in fact, sought and read a representative work from the participants of all those panels before posting. It seems to me that you're continuing to engage in rhetorical overreaches. (If I'm trying to establish anything it's that he has gained familiarity with all of their works before implying they are "inexpert amateurs" or "third-rate hacks." Opinions are opinions. I'm merely trying to ascertain that he's reached them from a position of knowledge.)

My main point is that he can make his point about workshop and panels just as well, if not better, without implying they are"inexpert amateurs" or "third-rate hacks." If he truly believes that "workshopping is stupid" why is the composition of the workshop even relevant? (Of course, we're talking about con panels here, but since he doesn't appear to think much of those either, the same argument applies.) In that case, it doesn't matter whether he has read any of anyone's work.

As for reading works about writing, the question becomes why is reading works about writing ok, when hearing those same people talk about writing is apparently a waste of time? If "workshopping is stupid" then the logical consequence is that the valuable insights written down and bound into a book become valueless when spoken aloud in a workshop context. It's much more consistent to say that reading books about writing is a writing related activity and one is better off reading great works of literature and writing fiction mindfully instead. Whether reading books about writing is useful or not, I think mindful reading and writing is even more useful. (Certainly, I've learned more reading good writing than reading about good writing.)

Yes, I recognized that they

Yes, I recognized that they are style manuals. I had to study Strunk and White in high school, for example. Why is a style manual not a book about writing? When Strunk and White say to "omit needless words," aren't they tell you how to write? Or are you making a distinction simply because they're dealing with the mechanics?

In any case, I apologize for my use of hyperbole. It was unintentional. I hadn't realized I'd done it. Thank you for pointing that out.

I agree that a representative paragraph or two many be enough to disqualify someone from being an expert. I note that he didn't say he did even that little. What he did say the hazy "I went looking for them before I posted the article and was unimpressed."

Just because you can only think of one reason doesn't mean there is only one reason. I'm not going tell anyone they can't hold whatever opinion they want. Asking how they arrived at their opinion, however, is not unreasonable. In this case, I want to know so that I can gauge how I will take future blog posts. I don't care if he agrees with me or not, just whether or not he has built his arguments on sand.

I don't actually disagree

I don't actually disagree with any of this. The irony of this conversation is that I agree with him about Writing as a Lifestyle. Like I said, my question, at first, was whether he intended to imply the people who manned those panels at Boskone were "inexpert amateurs." (The implied slur struck me as unnecessary.) Once he confirmed that he did, I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.

It's interesting that to restate what he has told me is to "be a jackoff and make wild assumptions in order to cast aspersions." All I've done is make logical inferences assuming the truth of his assertions, then attempt to verify those inferences. It wouldn't have been hard for him to respond "I googled the names of everybody I could find on those panels and read the first paragraph or two I found for all of them" as you have kindly assumed for him. Instead, he chose to respond with "You're clearly a fucking moron." Like I said, interesting. Still, he does know when to stop responding. That's a good thing.

Thank you for the pleasant conversation. And again, I apologize for the hyperbole. Obviously, I don't think anyone needs to read all of someone's work to render an opinion on his or her skill.

Ernie is more or less right.

Ernie is more or less right. I googled people. I read a bit of what I found. i was unimpressed. But I haven't stopped responding. Just busy.

And yet you stand by the

And yet you stand by the characterization of "inexpert amateur" and "third-rate hack" of those whose work you haven't read even a paragraph of. Good to know. Thank you.

are you being intentionally

are you being intentionally dense? I just said I read some of all of them.

Actually, you said, "I

Actually, you said, "I googled people. I read a bit of what I found." What ELBorgnine assumed was "he googled the names of everybody he could find on those panels and read the first paragraph or two he found for all of them." You don't need to have read representative work for everyone of those panelists before you made your initial blog post in order to make either statement truthfully. (In the second sentence, the most reasonable interpretation of "all" is "everybody he could find." That's not the same as "everyone of those panelists.")

Anyways, I'm glad to know that you found representative work for everyone of those Boskone panelists and gave that work honest and fair consideration before implying they were "inexpert amateurs." Given your fuzzy language, it was really hard to tell. Then when it read as if you'd claimed to read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's fiction and failed to mention a few pertinent things about those authors that would have been obvious from even the laziest web search, I got suspicious. But, never mind. I have absolutely no doubts now about your diligence.

now that you've made such a

now that you've made such a ridiculously big deal out of a fucking non-issue, please re-read the original paragraph that you drew this from.

1.) It should be clear from context that I was talking not just about the panelists but the audience members

2.) the taste of anyone familiar with those authors who would object to their characterizations as hacks or even inexpert amateurs is suspect

finally, I'm truly thrilled you have no doubts about my diligence. Please diligently fuck off.

Hugo et. al

You know I think every poet ought to read "the triggering town." But I don't think it will make people better writers all on its own, and I think its value is probably limited for non-poets. Same with all of that stuff. And I'm not even sure that Gurga is worthwhile for Haiku writers. These American Haiku guys are far too conservative and have very strange ideas about things. See, for example, my exchange with Welch and Nemet-Nejat on Buffalo Poetics here:

Of course Murat and I are generally on the same page about things, and it's hard to challenge someone of Michael Dylan Welch's expertise on the subject of Haiku, I do think he's overly restrictive. And clearly the usage manuals can go the same way, but at least they're up front about it. And of course the usage stuff is less useful in creative writing, particularly for the mandarin stylists who are any good. Nobody would seriously challenge that non-standard usage in The Sound and The Fury, Cane, or Moby Dick as "wrong." But it is different from standard english and consciously so. And you need to understand what you're departing from in order to be able to intelligently depart from it. Which is the problem with descriptivism in creative writing, although I think they have a point in smacking down the prescriptivists from time to time.

And of course you know I don't agree with Corn on prosody, good starting points, but one ought not to stop there and go on to reading at least Attridge on rhythm, although he's a bit of an unwieldy bore on the topic, and someone in linguistics who's more standardized than Ladefoged.

But in essence you read me right, and I do see these things as sort of isomorphic exercise machines to push against in ones development. As to how to do that, well, I think a talented person will figure that out for him or herself. Those without talent are probably doomed anyway.