Mat Johnson’s Pym

PymEdgar Allan Poe is one of few authors by whom I’ve read everything, at least everything available, including his literary criticism. I was obsessed with him for a while, and in an alternative life where I get a Ph.D. in English Literature, I might well be writing academic papers on Poe (and Hawthorne, and Melville, and maybe Irving).

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is easy to pick as Poe’s biggest failure. It is his only attempt at a novel, and falls short even there, with a series of loosely connected episodes that lack continuity and a proper ending. The problems don’t end there. It is also Poe’s most damningly racist work. Though racist caricatures appear in his other tales, this is the one most informed by Poe’s pathological fear of non-whiteness. However, it also proves to be one of his most influential works, figuring explicitly into subsequent works by some of his biggest admirers, particularly Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft.

The hero of Mat Johnson’s Pym is an African American scholar obsessed with Poe, and especially with Pym. This singular obsession with white authors (and a refusal to serve on the diversity committee) disrupts his academic career, but a series of coincidences leads him on his own fantastic voyage that parallel Poe’s Pym, encountering much of the same…. experiences.

It is simultaneously a pastiche and a critique of Poe, but an effective satire of current American culture: academia, pop painting, junk food, you name it. In some ways it is an academic novel, wise and winking in literary references, casually name-dropping major pieces of the black canon including ones that white readers like me didn’t know about (Equiano, Webb) mixed in with the more obvious ones to the source material (one nod to Lovecraft made me laugh out loud). But it would work without one knowing literary history, purely as adventure/horror and humor. And of course it is book about race itself; a critical reflection about whiteness and blackness both literal and figurative.

I love everything about this book. It centers me in the black experience of America as effectively as Ralph Ellison, and gives me a fix of sharp satire that reminds me of being fourteen and discovering Kurt Vonnegut. It pushes my buttons as literary nerd, but is enjoyable purely as a great yarn.

The American literary canon is racist and sexist because our history is racist and sexist, but what do we do about it? Pointing out the problems is necessary, but doesn’t suggest where to go next. I’m not a big fan of expunging literary history; that itself becomes a kind of whitewashing. Besides, I think there is value in Poe, in Twain, even in Margaret Mitchell. I would rather read those books, then read these creative critiques–books like Johnson’s Pym, or Alice Randall’s The Wind Be Gone–that critique and re-create and re-center the narratives, that subsume and overtake the source material.

I think Johnson takes on a particularly problematic text to show just how brilliantly this can be done; it makes me grateful for Poe’s Pym because it makes Johnson’s possible.

Dung Beetles

For the last week I keep watching this video about a dung beetle trying to push a turd ball up a blazing hot sand dune. You think Sisyphus had a hard time of it? He has nothing on this uncomplaining scarab.

http://www.discovery.com/embed?page=68740

I’ve considered before the heroic efforts of the tiniest things, and more recently been particularly interested in these industrious recyclers. I am sure an idea is brewing but I don’t know what it is: nonfiction, perhaps, or a picture book, or a novel. “Watership Down with dung beetles!” I ventured yesterday on Facebook, to a rousing lack of enthusiasm.

I guess people think dung beetles are gross because dung, but… well, without them, things would be a lot grosser. They consume some feces and bury more, effectively aerating and fertilizing the land they use. I have come to appreciate nature more, in my middle-ages, and the wonderful integration of the world’s species to function as a whole. Imagine the prairie three hundred years ago: buffalo gobbling up the long hoary grass and leaving these tremendous buffets for the hordes of dung beetles that followed, who repurposed the poop and fed the small birds and prairie dogs, which in turn fed the ferrets and hawks and coyotes…. Without the beetles, none of it is possible. And dung beetles serve a similar role across the globe, in various ecosystems, and are rarely appreciated (though the ancient Egyptians wisely thought they were sacred).

Few people can claim what the dung beetle can, which is that their mere existence makes the world an unarguably better place.  Dung beetles are also the only animal besides humans known to observe the stars, and I think this single idea is what makes them especially fascinating to me. The humblest creature on earth will climb upon its dung ball, orient itself by the milky way, and — I like to believe — make a fervent wish before it continues on its journey.

I think this will fuel a book but I don’t know what it is yet. I hope you will give it, and its heroes, a chance, despite their diet.

The Saga of Big Bear

Every night we play Go Fish before Byron goes to bed. It is our favorite family ritual. Our deck has 26 matches, each match featuring a letter of the alphabet and an animal. The cleverest part is, one half of each match has the adult animal and capital letter; the other has the baby animal and the lowercase letter.*

The deck has been around since before B. was born and is no longer available. Anyway, sometimes Byron gets a little kooky bananas at the end of the game and scatters the cards. One evening we realized Big Bear was missing. We played for weeks with one of the instructions cards subbing for mama bear. We looked everywhere for that card, and sometimes when I had half an hour I would go looking for it again: through the drawers and cupboards and bookshelves and baskets in the living room, in different rooms in case somebody had absentmindedly carried it off. After a month we gave up. It became almost a joke to suggest we look for it some more.

The other night my wife was out, so B. and I played alone. He started asking me knowingly every time if I had a bear card. It turns out he and A. had found the missing card earlier that day and restored it to the deck, and he had it in his hand, and he couldn’t wait to make the match so I could see that they’d found it. And as crazy as it sounds it kinda feels like with the big bear back where she belongs, everything is going to be all right.

*In case you’re curious: Alligator, Bear, Cow, Duck, Elephant, Frog, Goat, Horse, Iguana, Koala, Iguana, Jaguar, Koala, Lion, Mouse, Narwhal, Orangutan, Pig, Quail, Rhinoceros, Squirrel, Turtle, Umbrella Bird, Vulture, Walrus, foX, Yak, Zebra

P.S. I was thinking of writing an entire post about the movie Inside Out, but I don’t think I have a blog entry’s worth to write about it, especially avoiding spoilers. I’ll just say that I’m heartened that an ordinary kid can drive a major summer movie: no superpowers, no wizard scars. The gimmick behind it is genius, and I think it’s a good conceit for the turbulence of childhood. This might be the most “middle grade” movie ever made. And I see it as radical that a major summer movie can be a movie about a girl’s feelings.

Byron is with me now and I read him this entire entry. He wants me to add that the movie has a scary clown it. You have been warned!

The Noble Reading Project, and Other Failures

Remind me never to take on another project that isn’t writing a novel or raising a child or teaching a class — e.g., nothing that commits me well into the future when there is no compensation and no obligation. I ventured into my goal of reading exclusively women of color in 2015 with the best of intentions, and launched into it early but still did not make it a year, let alone all of 2015.

I have to admit some of the piss was taken out of me by a spate of articles about men who’d done what I was doing. I read a few books I didn’t care for, and felt ashamed for not liking them. My motivation started to flag. My mind started to wander. I’ve always been a mercurial reader.

So this spring I read some of the much buzzed YA books of the year — Bone Gap, The Walls Around Us, and Read Between the Lines are all terrific, by women at the top of their game. I meant to blog about them all but failed there, too (and have nothing to add to the chorus of acclaim for them all). In a way, that was a refreshing vacation from my own taste. I don’t actually like YA, or claim not to, but these books refute the facile claims that YA is especially “dark” or “morally certain.” I think the only thing YA really claims to be is about the teen experience.

More recently, I became hooked on the novels of Mat Johnson, who is, well, a dude. While everybody talks about race and talks about how we need to talk about race, I find Johnson does so more deftly and with more wit and verve than anyone else, at least that I’ve read.

I made excuses to myself because at least all of the books I were reading were either by women or a person of color, but I also recently read some essays by Edward O. Wilson, who is a white dude scientist who studies ants. As I noted back when I began my journey, the worst representation of women of color is in nonfiction, particularly when you move into the sciences (memoir, social justice, and history have better selections). If you want to read about science, and are limited to women authors from non-European backgrounds, the pickings are very slim. I did come to this book through an interest in Wilson specifically, anyway, but holy cow, are all the science books by white people, and most of them men.

I expect somebody will comment that it doesn’t matter because an ant is an ant, regardless of writing about it, but I think about young people — whipping smart ones, with an interest in the natural world — walking into that section and feeling that they’re in the “wrong” section. It makes me wonder, with the call for children’s books by diverse authors, where is the call for quality nonfiction across the curriculum that tells all children, this entire world is yours to study?

Anyway, back to my reading… it is time to concede that I have wandered off the path and will continue to do so. I have to read The Empathy Exams for a class I’m teaching, and have a towering to-be-read pile with all kinds of books by all kinds of people. Many of them are people of color, many are women, and many are both, but I am hereby removing all rules and strictures from myself.

However, I think it was a good practice while it lasted. I’ve come to be less likely to go straight to the white/male books, but actively seek out other points of view. I’m sure my reading habits have been permanently changed from it.

I have become more aware of ways that representation is still a problem — it is one thing to scan a bookshelf for proof that books by women or people of color exist, quite another to have only those options. And there other things I now know. Books by African American authors have long wait lists at the library, apparently in high demand by readers who can’t afford to go buy the book, but also suggesting the library isn’t meeting demand because they underpurchase those books in the first place. The audiobook section is particularly thin and picked over when you’re looking for books by women of color; I think aside from Toni Morrison and a few other luminaries, few get the honor of an audiobook production. Even acclaimed books with glowing reviews in all the major publications might be picked up by only a few bookstores; books that I’m sure would be in end-cap displays if they had the same buzz and white authors on the back. And, as previously mentioned, nonfiction is an utter desert.

I would not be aware of any of this if I hadn’t forced myself to look only for books that meet those two criteria. I would have probably gestured at a few bestsellers and award winners by women of color as counter-proof that everything is hunky dory. “Look, Roxane Gay is here, and Claudia Rankine is there, so there must not be a problem!”

I have also come to regard books by privileged people with more healthy skepticism. I can still enjoy a literary tour de force, but have less patience with the art-for-arts-sake self-indulgence that used to be my primary pleasure. It’s not that there are two genres of literature, exclusively staffed by white men on the one count and women of color on the other, but I kinda think that maybe white male writers suffer from a pathological self-regard that leads to stylistic navel-gazing and expertise-on-all-things. And that in Danticat and Adichie, especially, I found a vital currency and immediacy, books about experience of living instead of the experience of reading a book, that made me feel their books were important, not just as books, but as historical artifacts. I don’t feel that way reading David Mitchell, however dazzling his artistry.

Anyway, I’m letting myself off the hook, but feel generally less stupid for having tried.

“The Things He Said Were Kind of Not Joking”

I’ve been thinking about this interview with a “friend” of Dylann Roof’s. (Not sure how close they were.)

“I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” he said. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”

But now, “the things he said were kind of not joking,” [his friend] added.

Children and teens, even college-aged people, have more power than adults to make their peers. Every decision and interaction has the power to nudge a person in a particular way, to set them on a path.

One benefit of age is seeing how those moments in the past helped shape you; seemingly tiny things that changed your trajectory. Certainly those moments include racist and sexist jokes, off-hand remarks that you can either react to or ignore.

In all honesty my own history is a mixed one: I’ve laughed at those jokes, I’ve let them slide, I’ve even made them. Other times I do react: hey, bruh, that ain’t cool. And I can recall times when the gentle admonishment of friends has changed me, or where the acceptance (even encouragement) of hateful remarks has nudged me the other way. Peer pressure is powerful.

Maybe Dylann could not have been nudged off his deadly path, but I feel like we are made of these moments of action or inaction, and I wonder if the friend is brooding now about what might be different if he had only responded differently. “Man, you sound really hateful.” “Are you sure you’re all right?” “Come one, don’t be a jerk.”

Later in the same story, another friend gives even more unsettling backstory.

Roommate Dalton Tyler told ABC News that Roof was “planning something like that for six months.”

“He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler said. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”

What did the roommate do? Recoil in horror? Warn people? Call the police, even? How did he end up in a place where someone could unfold their homicidal fantasies and he shrugged it off? Is that where you nudge yourself by letting racist jokes slide, then crazy rants and fringe conspiracy theories, to where you gently accommodate terroristic plots?

One reason for “lone wolf” and “extremist” labeling of killers like these is that they distance them from ourselves, rather than accept responsibility for our silent consent.

Kurtis Scaletta, Chromebook Novelist

This is one of those blog posts written in service to my profession.

I recently got a $200 Chromebook because my MacBook Air, though much beloved, has become commandeered by my child. Other writers might be looking at this relatively low-cost option and wonder if it’ll work. My answer: sure. Sort of. Depends.

First, for the uninitiated: the Chromebook itself is a very cheap device that’s not quite a laptop; it’s more like a portable web browser. It comes with some hard drive storage, but pretty much all the apps run within the Chrome web browser. A Chromebook is practical if you just want something for surfing the Web, doing the occasional video chat (in google, not Skype), and a little light writing, etc. You can’t do page layout, graphic design, movie editing, or anything like that. Anything you might do, ask yourself if you can do it now in a web browser. If no, then you can’t do it on Chromebook.

I will henceforth refer to it as a “device” for lack of a better word. It is technically a computer, but doesn’t do what most computers do. In some ways it’s a big phone. But it doesn’t make calls, so…. device.

So how do you write and edit? Well, about ten years ago when Google acquired a program called Writely, and since then it has had an Office-like suite of web-based tools that keep getting quietly better: a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and a drawing application. Those apps are integrated seamlessly with Google drive, a cloud-based file storage that synchs with all of your devices. Decoded this means: you can write in your web browser using a Microsoft-word like program, and although your files are saved to your device, they’re also saved on Google servers so even if you drop your device down the sewer you can retrieve the documents.

But could using the web app replace Microsoft Word? Word has never been perfect but has been way more than adequate for the last fifteen-to-twenty years. Word handles large files well (ask me about my first novel, when it didn’t), it automatically backs up files, it has a very efficient spellchecker, a reliable word counter, and can even deliver lexile scores in a few minutes. Also, Word is industry standard. Many editors have now switched to Word annotations to deliver edits to writers. I think Winter of the Robots was seen from conception to first pass pages without a single hard copy.

You can open a document in a Web browser on a Chromebook and start hammering away, but can you do all of that? This is what I’m finding out.

This is what I’ve learned so far.

First, stick with the native functionality of Chrome/Google.

Having been a contented Dropbox user for ages, I immediately installed that app and opened it to see my current documents. I clicked one and it opened in Microsoft Word. OK, it opened in a limited version of Word that runs online, but I had no idea that Dropbox had been acquired by Microsoft and was now fully integrated with a free version of Microsoft Office 365. Hooray!

This was really cool for about five minutes, but then I found out stuff like, navigating the document is really hard, the app doesn’t keep up with my typing, and every few minutes I get an error message that the document needs to reconnect to sync. This is likely to improve with time but at present the Word Online tool is pretty clunky. I spent more time swearing at it than actually writing/revising.

I mean, you get what you pay for and it’s pretty cool to get Word-like functionality for free, even with those issues and the mysterious proliferation of page breaks and the inability to work offline and the lack of a “Save as” option and the…. never mind. The more I think about it, the more I realize I lost a week of my writing life there.

Second, convert to Google Docs. 

Wouldn’t you know it, but Google Apps can also open Word documents (in “Word Compatibility Mode”) without converting them, and even lets you edit them — but unless you want to do really light editing, it’s a pretty painful way to work. Like Word Online, it’s not terribly responsive to keyboard interactions, and it doesn’t automatically save, and you don’t have a “Save as…” option. In fact, there’s not even a “Find/Replace” option, or much in the way of paragraph formatting.

If you had a perfectly formatted document you’re about to send out on submission and had one or two minor edits, this would work, because it never changes the .docx format of the original. But you have more tools and an easier time using them if you convert to .gdoc format (Open the file in compatibility mode, then go to File: convert to Google Docs).
Google Docs

 

Third, install Table of Contents and Document Explorer

I am revising, which requires me to move nimbly between chapters. And for this, I am very reliant on the Document Map feature in Word. This doesn’t exist in Word Online, or in the “Compatibility Mode” of Google Apps that lets you edit a native Word doc. But it does exist upon conversion. Go to Add-Ons, Get Add Ons and look for each tool.

Table of Contents simply gives you a clickable sidebar based on your headings — which, sigh, you will have to manually redo even if you already have headers in a document you’ve converted. But only once.

Document Explorer has additional navigation options, the most useful for me being the search pane — I can do things like search for the word “just” so I can then click from usage to usage and delete it as needed. It is also handy to create an ad-hoc table of contents (using the search term “chapter”) so you can make them official headers in the Google Doc.

Doc Explorer

Fourth, download backups

You may think you have emergency back up files on your device because you see the .gdoc sitting in your offline folder, but in fact these are basically links to the real document which lives… somewhere… else. Only Google knows.

One thing I have a hard time adjusting to is, I used to make a copy of my document in progress every day, change the file name to include the current date, and begin editing. All those back ups made me happy. Google Docs (and these other options) have a revision history, so in theory you can recover any past version, but it’s just very all-eggs-in-one-baskety for one file to have the entire labors of the last two years, or even the last two weeks, so I now (try to remember to) save a download as Word every day, but work in one document named “Working Document.”

Fifth, Move everything to Google Drive

I save those backups to my offline folder, but I found this transition easier once I dropped Dropbox. I moved all my working files to Google Drive and cleaned up the mess that had gathered there since I created the Google account in 2007 (If anyone needs the agenda from a U of M ETF from that year, sorry, I deleted it).

I forget what Google’s drive limit is but it’s ample for simple word processing documents. I don’t even think Isaac Asimov could have used up all the space with his writing projects. If you use your drive space for something else, consider swapping that to Dropbox or one of the many other free-tier cloud services, because Chromebook thrives when you stay in the Googleverse.

Sixth, stay in Google Docs

I drove myself crazy trying to keep Word in the picture. Word is better, so I think, while I am on my Mac, why not use Word? But whatever option I use, I end up cleaning up formatting stuff that got screwy in transition, and I know I could ignore but everything. has. to. be. just. so. I’ve been more productive on actual revisions since weaning myself completely from Word and staying in the active gdoc.

Seventh, I am not ready to drop Word completely. 

Spellchecking is available in Google Docs but not reliable. See where it suggested I change “Not” to “Nort”? Um.

Norp

Professional formatting touches like page breaks before headings, widow/orphan control, marking language for passages, are also not available in Google Docs. So I will have to download as Word and spellcheck/touch up before it’s ready to submit.

Finally, I know I can theoretically download as Word, send to Ms. Agent or Ms. Futureditor, but receive back with their comments/annotations, and open again in Google Docs. How well this will work in practice, I dunno.  Maybe I’ll even find, in time, that the industry has shifted so that it’s normal for writers to “share” rather than “deliver” documents, which is more how this is supposed to work. But it may turn out that once I am in editing I will have to use Word solely.

Verdict:

Using an optimized writing app like Writer might prove an interesting way to fast draft, and I think ultimately writing  and editing a full-length novel in Google Docs will be no worse (maybe slightly better) than my earliest word processing adventures in the early 1990s. But for now I will still need occasional access to Word and I expect that the Google Doc approach will only see me through submission and I will have to resume Word in editing (which, knock on wood, will be something I find out soon).

 

A great first line

crocodile-copyIf you spend any time reading about writing or going to writing conferences you know that, from time to time, people like to throw out “great first lines,” which often have yet unnamed heroes discovering severed heads in their glove compartment. The problem with such lessons is that they do you no good if your book isn’t about severed heads. Anyway, I find such first sentences wheeze of desperation, they are like the bespectacled kid in seventh grade who tries too hard to be your friend (I was that kid). And I can rarely think of “great first lines,” because I don’t think that way. I give a book a chance and don’t really need to be won over in the first sentence; I am won over gradually by character and plot and so forth. But next time the conversation does trend toward first lines, I want to remember this one, from Arnold Lobel’s Fables.

A crocodile became increasingly fond of the wallpaper in his bedroom.

This sentence does more than hook me. It promises to take me somewhere I have never been.

Of course to have a first line like this you must have a story that deserves it.