Tag Archives: Pontificating

Pentecost

I was a bit thin on something to write about for this week, and then I was rescued by the calendar. This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost. Among the other reasons it is important in the Christian religious calendar, Pentecost was also the day on which (according to Thomas Malory’s version of the stories, anyway) King Arthur required all his knights to attend his court and renew their oaths.

(It’s interesting, or at least sidebar-worthy interesting, that it’s Malory who seems to have put this in. We’ll get back to it.)

Arthur’s knights all swore to do no outrages or cruelties, to give mercy to those that asked it of them, to serve the weak, and to support no causes that they knew to be wrong for any worldly gain. Even all these hundreds of years later, it’s still not such a bad standard to set for ourselves. There’s a reason this story has lasted for as long as it has.

Of course, if you know the stories, you also know that basically none of Arthur’s knights (excepting Galahad, who is No Fun), not even Arthur himself, live up to this standard. Many times when I teach about the concept of chivalry and codes thereof, one of the ideas the students enjoy kicking around is to what extent anyone ever did. And we’re probably right to be fairly sceptical.

Now, does this mean that Arthur and his knights are a bunch of hypocrites and the whole thing is hollow? I don’t think so, necessarily, and this is why I think it’s interesting that the Pentecost feast seems to have appeared in Thomas Malory’s version of the story. Malory wrote during the 15th century, a time when knights in England were behaving in anything but a chivalrous fashion, and Malory himself spent a great deal of time in prison. It’s not easy to unpick exactly what he was genuinely guilty of, but it’s clear that he got himself into a great deal of trouble.

This has led people to wonder why Malory was (evidently) such a big fan of the idealized King Arthur. One explanation, which I like (and I shamefully cannot recall who it is that I’m ripping off here) is that Malory was perfectly aware that he and his peers were not behaving as knights were meant to, or at least could, and worked out his version of the tales to suggest a higher standard and perhaps inspire the knights of his day to better themselves.

Ah, but the Arthurian knights don’t succeed themselves, so how does it work? It (potentially) works because Malory knew that probably no-one could live up to the high standards of the Pentecost Oath or other ideals of chivalry. But it was still a good thing to try. Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and the rest are praiseworthy characters, despite their failures and flaws, because no matter what else is true about them it is also true that they try so very hard to achieve something wonderful. They fall short. We’ll probably always fall short of our ideal standards. It doesn’t mean that the standards aren’t worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that trying is laughable or worthless.

Trying, as hard as we can, to be as good as we can be, which is what the Pentecost Oath really is when you boil it down, is tremendously praiseworthy, even though we’ll have our stumbles and missteps along the way. We can try to be kind, to help those who need it, and to use our abilities to do good things in the world. Sometimes we’ll fail. We keep trying, because we live in a better world when we do. I’m persuaded that’s what Thomas Malory was trying to encourage with his version of the Arthur stories, and I think encouraging the world to be a little bit better is one of the great things that our stories can do for us, and we don’t have to wait for Pentecost.

One last thing on the Arthurian Pentecost Feast. I also like that Arthur wouldn’t sit down to eat until he had ‘heard or seen of a great marvel’. So the Pentecost feast was also a time for stories, the telling of ones that had finished and the beginning of new ones, as knights dashed off on quests inspired by the ‘strange adventures’ that came before the King on that day.

A day when people declared that they would try to do better, and a day for the telling of stories.

Not so bad.

Thanks for reading.

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On the Other Writers

Over the past week there was quite a Fuss, on Twitter especially, about a particular writer who has tried to trademark the use of a very common word in book titles. (I’m not going to name them or refer to things more specifically than that because I feel they’ve had more than enough free publicity already.) When called on it, they defended themselves as looking out for their interests and as ‘raising the game’ for publishing.

These are the kind of things that one does if one regards other writers as competition.

I do not, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is expressed really well in something Ilana Myer has one of her characters say in Last Song Before Night. One poet is afraid that he will be overshadowed by the work and abilities of his friend, and the reply that his friend wishes he had been able to give is ‘There is no shadow, and we are all one in what we do’. That’s how I generally feel about other writers. I think it’s really cool to read what other people are able to do with their ideas and their words. I find it inspirational when I read something really well done, to try to find a way to reach a similar level. We all just do what we’re capable of doing, it is unlike anyone else’s art, and the world is better for it.

I like (I guess for obvious reasons) the idea that the writers’ craft gets rewarded, so I am always pleased to see when an artist gets some manner of reward for their work. It especially helps if it happens to be one I know, or have particular affection for their work, but seeing a writer have success in their career is downright encouraging. The good stuff is out there, and that’s always a good reminder to have.

That sort of brings me to my second reason for not seeing other writers as competition. I think there’s a genuinely practical reason (as contrasted to the rather wooly stuff above) not to do so. The success of other writers can, I think, only help me. If people read cool stories, presumably they’ll want to read more, and if they look around for their next thing, perhaps they’ll hit on mine. That’s even more likely if the story they read is something like the sort of stuff I write – so yes, other fantasy writers in particular are not my competition. If they write awesome stuff, that brings more readers to the genre and that does nothing but help me.

Moreover, if their books sell well, presumably out there will be editors and agents and publishers who will see that and think ‘hot damn, we’d better find some more fantasy books’, and that makes my chances of getting my next thing in print better. Far from wanting less other writers, and less other fantasy writers, I want more, and I want them to do well.

In any case, my position in the market is, uh, fairly marginal, but those are my thoughts on the issue, and what I have for you here this week. Thank you for reading.

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Infinite Wars

This entry is not about the Infinity War trailer, although it is kind of caused by it. I’m pretty sure.

The more direct cause is a friend of mine complaining/observing on the internet that there are a great many movies about war. I guess the immediate reaction to that might be that of course there are, because wars are exciting (whether it’s a good kind of excitement or not depends on the reader/viewer) and people like to make exciting stories. It is also, of course, a weathered old chestnut that there is no story without a conflict, and a war is in a lot ways conflict writ large.

So it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories. Humanity has also, it is undeniably true, fought a great many wars, and many of those make for dramatic and exciting stories, either told as-is or used as fodder for embellishments, reweavings, and reimaginings. So again, it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories.

Particular to movies like Infinity War, superhero stories seem particularly to depend on violent conflict, good guys vs bad guys, and superhero stories are notably popular right now (although I reckon the wave is close to cresting, if it hasn’t already), so again – lots of violent stories to be told. At first glance, there isn’t much of a tale to be told about Tony Stark in a board meeting – at least, not compared to the whiz-bang-kaboom of the heroes fighting. So it makes sense, the stories that get told.

And yet.

There are of course many kinds of stories that do not include any kind of war or violence, that people find engrossing and thrilling and enjoy a great deal. There are whole genres of entertainment devoted to stories that, although they have conflict, don’t have any kind of fight. I suppose they tend not to get promoted quite as loudly as the warlike ones, which probably suits the subject matter.

This all seems relatively straightforward, and yet I don’t really think my friend was wrong in his complaint, because when you look at the particular genre of fiction that write and tend to consume the most – fantastic fiction – it does tend to skew very heavily towards stories that centre around violent conflict, in some form.

Not every story, of course, and the conflict is there to greater and lesser degrees in different stories, but it is a rare SFF story that doesn’t have a bomb go off at some point, or at least an assassin lurking in the shadows. We tend to tell fairly bloody stories, much of the time. Again, this is at least in part because conflict, violent conflict, is exciting. This has all been true for a very long time.

What I got to thinking was a very interesting question from all this, though, was whether or not there are equally exciting SFF stories to be told that are about peace rather than war. About solving problems, one would suppose, but solutions that do not involve shooting anything, hitting anything with a sword, or blowing anything up. It seems as though the answer very much should be yes – doesn’t it?

I’m sure I’m far from the first to think about this, I don’t have any good answers as to what such a story would look like, yet, and I feel ever-so-slightly hypocritical to be mulling this over at the same time as I’m finishing (he said hopefully) my tale of a rather lethal Victorian spy. But I think it’s an interesting question, I think it’s potentially an important question, as we consider what kind of stories we want to add to this intensely violent world we live in, and I’m going to keep working on it in the weeks ahead.

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

(I hope it goes without saying that if you have favourite non-violent SFF tales, shoot ’em my way. I would love to add to my mountainous ‘to read’ pile.)

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Group Perspective

Last week I was (and I apologize) running at the gym (it being still too winter-y for me to run outside here, yet) and I was thinking about all the people I talk to there, many of whom are runners, many of whom casually do times that are far better than what I’m capable of.

It leads me to think, sometimes, that I’m not a very strong runner. In the same way, as I’ve done more writing, I’ve built up a little community of writer friends, and we often share news about how writing is going. I’ll often see posts on social media about how someone has written 4,000 words today, and someone else has written 3,000, and think about the 1,000 words I got written and think: ‘man, I’m not good at this.’

But – and this is the part I need to remember – if I speak to someone outside those communities, the entire picture changes. I talked to someone last week and they asked about my writing and I said that I had written about 1,000 words that day. They looked at me as though I was a lunatic. Probably most people I know will never run a 10k at all, let alone worry about their time.

I don’t (I swear) point any of this out to make myself look rad (which never works) but because it was a useful reminder to how we can easily lose perspective on our own capabilities. I think it’s quite common for people to find themselves socializing and forming communities with people of similar interests, and once you are (say) hanging around with a bunch of athletic people, the ‘normal’ standard of performance tends to shift and it’s easy to lose sight of how things look outside of that group.

Our communities of peers and friends are incredibly valuable and we should cherish them, I think that’s clear. However, it’s probably also important to remember that we are in our specialized little communities, and that changes how we see ourselves and our capabilities. All of us have something that we’re better than usual at, often much much much better than usual.

There’s nothing wrong at all with taking a moment to remember that and appreciate it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Something non-running for you next week. Thanks for reading.

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Characters

I really didn’t know what I was going to write for this week either (I blame end of term occupying most of my mind these days) but then it occurred to me that I was reading a book where there was not a lot going on in terms of plot, but I was still really enjoying it, and wondered why. Surely this should be disappointing, or at least boring. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) – the book is an absolute pleasure to read. The reason: the characters are wonderful, and even though not that much is happening event-wise, it is just such a joy watching them interact that I don’t mind even a little.

(I’m not sure if I should say what book this is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t. Suffice it to say that despite what I said above, at about 3/4 of the way through it is a wonderful story from one of my very favourite writers, who is about a thousand times better than me both in terms of success and ability. I’m not looking down on the work in any way, just thinking about where its strengths are.)

As I think about it some more, that maybe isn’t the biggest surprise. At a writers’ event a few weeks ago, I got asked about the most important part of the stories I write, and my answer was that when you strip everything else away from my stuff, they are all stories about people. I like to write about people and the things they do, and basically I like to read stories that are, fundamentally, about people and their interactions as well.

In the same way, the kind of fiction that doesn’t work as well for me tends to be not as character-based. Some ‘hard’ science fiction, for example, is basically about technology, or a scientific idea, and the characters are almost peripheral to exploring those things. Sometimes the characters seem to be there just to dialog out pieces of exposition and describe things at each other, rather than speaking and reacting like real human beings. When I think about stories (which again I think I won’t name) that I liked when I was younger but haven’t liked as much on a reread more recently, a lot of times it’s because the characters are shallow and artificial-seeming.

(Now I know a lot of hard SF fans will vigorously dispute the above, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean all hard SF is like this. Just some of it, that I have read. A lot of this is also personal taste, because I know people who couldn’t really care less about the characterizations as long as the concept and the plot is cool.)

I’m not sure if this means I’m exactly very good at writing characters. I think they’re important, and I would sure like to be good at creating them. For the kind of stories I like to read, you need it to be about people before it’s about anything else. So they need to be fully thought out characters who react and speak like real people do, and they need to have concerns and motivations that are the sorts of things that real people are really motivated by.

Which is what the author of this book I’m reading has gotten very, very, right.

Something I’m going to keep in mind, anyway.


Fresh off last week’s post, and clearly lacking any ideas of his own, my friend Brandon Crilly has written up his own Top 5 TV shows list.  It is obviously misconceived, but you should find your way to his blog anyway.  It is here.

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Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Canada 150

Well, that’s over.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about (moreso than usual), this past weekend was not only Canada Day, but the much-hyped ‘Canada 150’, the 150th anniversary of Confederation and Canada becoming a (reasonably) independent nation. Since I live in Ottawa, this has been Red Alert Status stuff for what seems like the past ten years and finally, all the planning and preparations went into action.

Predictably, there was chaos and people got pissed off and probably a lot of people had fun and I avoided all of it.

I’ve written about Canada Day and what I think about where I live at least a couple times before, and usually ended up saying something about how grateful I am to live where I do (which I am) and how I think, overall, that this country is pretty great (which in a lot of ways it is). When I was younger, I would have said it was unambiguously great and said it was the best nation in the world.

As time has gone by, I guess I’ve learned more about Canada’s history, how it’s treated various different groups of people, how we haven’t always done so well, and continue to not do so well in very important ways. So, as much as I still admire a lot of what has been built here, in this place, I think there are a lot of things that absolutely need to be criticized and a lot of things that we need to insist are done differently and better. This country now both makes me very proud, and very ashamed.

I love the story about the Syrian refugees who came here and opened a chocolate business, not only supporting themselves but becoming employers in their new home. This is Canada. I really love the story about another group of refugees who, when the city of Fort McMurray was devastated by fire last year, launched a relief effort, because they knew what it was like to lose everything. This is Canada.

My friend Jay Odjick went to the opening of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History that he did the art for, and on what should have been a proud and special evening for him, he got hassled by security, and this is also Canada. There are over 150 communities that do not have drinkable water. Most of them are First Nations communities, and this is also Canada.

Canada is a country that does a lot of things right, in terms of rights for LGBTQ people, rights for women, a healthcare system that I am ever more grateful for as I watch the spectacular mess to our south, and in providing a place of safe refuge to people who desperately need it. All of these are things that, even as we can continue to do better at them, we can take a lot of pride in.

We do a lot of things wrong. Maybe foremost among those is our relationship with and treatment of First Nations people, for me our great national shame and something we must absolutely fix. We sell weapons to repressive regimes. We don’t do enough to safeguard our environment. These are things that we have to take our lumps for and commit to doing far better with.

As I get older, the more I see both the good and the bad in this place where I live, and so I feel less excited about Canada Day and less able to get excited about a celebration of a nation that still has so much work to do. The legacy of this place is absolutely one of peacekeeping and inclusion and achievement; it is also one of genocide and colonialism. So I end up more thoughtful and regretful on Canada Day than anything else, and especially on this Canada 150 that was supposed to be Canada Day plus plus plus.

I guess what I want to believe is that the intentions of this society are right and the trend is towards what is good and fair and just, that the forces here that are still about exploitation and division and repression are on the wrong side of history and that we will, day by day, improve this place and make it into a society we can take unqualified pride in.

The past is never going away, and we shouldn’t deny it or try to forget it. We can do better, and say that that’s not who we are any more. I would like very much to be, in whatever teeny tiny way, a part of making this place better, and there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d want to live. This land is a great blessing, the society that lives in it (I think) fundamentally has good intentions, and we need to live up to the latter so that we might be able to say we deserve the former.

Which is a lot more complicated than just saying that I live in a great place and that my country is amazing, but I think it’s closer to the truth. I feel like the truth is maybe the most important thing for us to hang on to these days, so there you have it.

I’m glad the ridiculously over-the-top Canada 150 celebrations are over, because maybe now we can focus on building a Canada that deserves a celebration.

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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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Gotham

Last night I was watching the most recent episode of Gotham. If you don’t know the show, the basic pitch is ‘Gotham City before Batman’ which is a bit of a curious idea (although we do seem to love a prequel, these days) but since I am (you will no doubt be aware) a sucker for superhero stuff, I started watching. I will be honest and say I don’t love the show, but there are some interesting things about it.

One of the things that intrigued me during its first season was the very visible and thorough change of tack the show went through. For the first few episodes, we were given something trying to be a gritty cop drama with a few hints of the weirdness that would later plague the city. We had Detective James Gordon trying to deal with IA cops, we had organized crime, we had Donal Logue doing a fantastic Harvey Bullock. It was thoroughly unremarkable.

Then the show pivoted quite swiftly, embracing the over-the-top nature of the Batman setting, so that by now we have the Joker and the Penguin, we’ve had Mr. Freeze and Hugo Strange, we have the Riddler in all but name, and we’ve basically had Clayface. Det. Gordon’s fiance Barbara has turned from an entirely cliche, auxiliary and disposable character into a lunatic crimelord. I am honestly not sure how well any of these characters, and this super-villain plagued Gotham really work without Batman. I’ll get back to that.

It’s possible all this was planned from the outset, but with the way characters that were introduced just abruptly stopped appearing, and plotlines vanished into the aether, it doesn’t feel that way. It seemed to me very much like the creators of a show realizing that Idea #1 wasn’t working and hastily changing course to Idea #2 that, whatever else you can say about it, is definitely not boring. (It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s not boring) If that’s the case, it worked out for them because it got the show renewed and they’re on Season 3 now.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to watch the rewriting and reworking happen. It seems to me that this may be one of the advantages of a serialized piece of work; you can gauge the reaction of your audience and rejig things to give them more of what they want, or less of what they don’t like. When I write a whole book (“when”, he says optimistically) I don’t know whether people like what I’m doing or not until they see the whole thing, or at least not most of the people. This is one more reason to be grateful to the Eager Volunteers, who haven’t seen a rewrite on the scale of Gotham yet but may one day, I guess.

So that’s the first thing.

The second gets back to the idea of Gotham, full of its villains, without Batman, and whether that works. (And by this, I mean ‘works for me’, but it’s my blog after all) I don’t think that it does, terribly well, because you end up with this tornado of increasingly violent awfulness without the figure who can, on some level, deal with it all, and without the symbol of hope that suggests that all of this mess can be overcome. That’s a big part of why I don’t love Gotham; what we’ve seen so far has been really bleak, if a sort of darkly entertaining bleak.

But then this last episode, for the first time we saw young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz, who is absolutely believable in the role) stand up to the proto-Joker, and in a couple scenes, start to be the Batman. (Gotham writers having never in their lives heard of subtlety, of course they threw a music sting suggesting the Hans Zimmer Batman theme all over these moments.) They were just moments, but they were there, and for those brief spaces of time Gotham, and Gotham, had its hero.

Despite not loving the show, those moments still got me. Naturally (well, for me), I immediately Got To Thinking about why. Part of it is fairly straightforward: Batman is one of my favourite comic characters* and so whenever the story (and it’s really almost any story) starts to meander in the direction where Batman is about to appear, I’m going to like it. However, it’s not just that. It’s also that the hero, at least briefly, arrived. It was probably more effective because the hero is a character I like, but just the idea that out of mayhem and death a figure was going to appear to Fix Things is one that I know I like, and I think (if you look at stories that have been popular over the years) it’s one that we like in general.

I do slightly wonder why, although on some level wondering why a story has a good guy may seem a little stupid. But, we really seem to like these characters who can show up in the nick of time and rescue us when we’re in danger, to round up all the bad guys, and to fix what has been broken. Part of it is, undeniably, good storytelling. But why does it appeal to us, especially when most people’s experience with the real world tells them this is not a thing that actually happens? Problems do get solved, but it’s almost always by ordinary people taking ordinary actions.

And yet we like the thoroughly unrealistic alternative. We like made-up stories in general, so no doubt part of this is just enjoying imaginary things as we always do. I wonder, though, if part of it is some sense that we have (or, at a minimum, that I have) that there should be such figures, who can arrive when they’re needed and save us, save us from ourselves if need be. Who know what needs to be done and can just appear and do it.

(This was, as I try desperately to avoid a long tangent, one of my favourite bits of the pilot for Person of Interest, a show you may recall I liked a lot. The main action-y character, Reese, gets hooked into this crazy plan to use a super-intelligent AI to stop crimes before they happen more or less entirely through the promise of being able to show up in time. The chance to be that hero that we all think really should exist, even as we know they don’t. Reese (who starts the series a seriously broken person) has felt the frustration of the absence of that hero and it’s more or less what sells him on signing up for a project run by a crazy rich guy living in an abandoned library. (Seriously. Go watch Person of Interest))

Stories like Batman stories, most superhero stories, many of the movies we like, and (maybe, now) Gotham, satisfy that feeling, at least briefly. They give us the hero that we feel, on some instinctive level, should be out there.

It is both a sad reality, but also a liberating one, that this isn’t true. We solve our own problems.

Thanks for reading.

*-there are legitimate criticisms about the character and the ideas underpinning it that I acknowledge, especially the ‘Batman is a rich guy beating up poor people’ one. It is not a great look. I guess I deflect it by focusing on the fact that Batman doesn’t really spend that much time fighting ordinary criminals, he’s pretty much 24/7 on the supervillain beat now. I also think there’s a lot genuinely good and inspirational about the character that I’m not ready to throw in the trash. It’s problematic, though, and I’m not done thinking about it. Maybe you get a blog on that down the road. (Attach your ‘please, no’ comments below)

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Can*Con 2016

This past weekend was Can*Con in Ottawa, which is our annual convention for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror and erotica. It is steadily growing both in terms of the stature of the guests who attend and the number of people who sign up for a weekend’s worth of discussion on the literature they love. It will also always be special to me because it was a Can*Con pitch session that got me connected with my publisher for The King in Darkness, and being able to see my first novel in print.

As always it was fantastic to get to spend a couple of days really feeling like a writer: participating in thoughtful discussions about both how to write and things we enjoy reading, meeting loads of awesome people who are deeply into the same stuff that I’m deeply into, and talking about my own writing to people who didn’t immediately look shifty and scurry away sideways. Especially when writing often has to be crammed into whatever time can be stolen here and there from jobs that pay the bills and the practicalities of life, it can be easy to feel like your writing isn’t very significant. It’s amazing to have a few days where writing gets to be The Thing and to have your passion validated. I always come away from Can*Con very excited to get to work on new projects. Project. One project at a time, like a sane person.

So that feeling was great to have again, but this Can*Con also felt very different because this was the first year that I was part of the organization team, which is also getting larger as the con (and therefore the work involved in setting it up) expands. This added a whole new level to the experience. In addition to everything else, I was also getting chairs where we needed chairs and hastily creating signs and helping lost souls find the con suite – and also getting to meet all of our guests in a slightly different way than previous years. Getting to (even briefly) say hi to Ed Greenwood was pretty cool. More than anything, this all made me appreciative of the work that goes into putting on an event like Can*Con in a way that I hadn’t really understood before; we started actively planning this soon after the New Year and had basically been working steadily at it ever since. It was great to see all that work turn into the event itself and to watch people enjoying themselves with what we’d put together.

Now I also need to lie down.

All of the discussions I went to were interesting – I was part of talks on epic fantasy, the nature of monsters (which will lead to a radical change to my current WIP), the portrayal of medieval culture in fantasy, the financial side of writing, and Shakespeare in science fiction, and all of them gave me a lot to think about. The one that I’ve been going back over in my mind over and over, though, was the panel on adapting SFF for TV or movies, which (to be honest) I mostly went to because Jay Odjick panels are always awesome.

Now, in all honesty I’m extremely unlikely to have to worry about the things that go into having something I wrote adapted for film (although, as we saw last week, I do think that would be pretty rad), but one of the things that all of the panelists said (including Tanya Huff and our agent guest of honour Sam Morgan) got the Mind Gears going. Basically they said that if your work is being adapted into another format, those writers are going to change basically everything (Tanya Huff was invited to write an episode of the series that was adapted from her book Blood Ties, and they kept six lines of the dialogue she had written) and that, as a writer, you should be fine with this because they’re giving you a cheque, and your original work is of course unchanged.

I gotta say, that makes a solid amount of sense. Stephen King got asked about whether he was upset about what Hollywood had done to some of his books, and famously replied that ‘no, the books are fine, they’re right there on the shelf’. I admire that. I also know that deep inside my bizarre little writer’s heart, I would be screaming at the top of my lungs about something I wrote being changed. It’s my story. These are my characters. I wrote them this way for a reason, you don’t get to just change them around. Or, if you do, it’s not my story any more, and let’s not pretend that it is. (As an example, one ‘change’ suggested by a reader of King in Darkness was that the main character Adam should ‘get together’ with Sophia. Sophia is gay. Adam is at least twice her age. If that change got made to the story, I would be really upset. And yet, ‘add a romance!’ seems like a pretty probable move.)

I really do get the ‘yes, but cheque!’ argument, as well as the one that everyone knows that film writers change everything and so nobody really connects a film version to the writer in any significant way. It’s probably ok if the screaming is on the inside. So I do get that, and understand Sam Morgan’s comment that if a client of his was upset about changes being made to an adaptation of their work, he’d smack them (because: cheque!), but I also know that at least some part of me would be deeply unhappy with the whole deal. It’s probably just as well that this is a moot point and that probably no-one will ever want to make a movie out of King in Darkness, is one takeaway.

The other is that it’s remarkable how much ownership creators (because I don’t think I’m the only one) feel over their imaginary people and their stories, and how emotionally invested we are with the pretend worlds we’ve brought into being. I do write my stories the way I do for reasons that I think are good, and because (as I mentioned in an earlier entry) I feel like I know these characters so well, it seems wrong to just arbitrarily change them. It’s part of why creating art is so risky, because you really do put a piece of yourself out there for the world to look at. (That’s also part of why it’s great, when people look at it and say that they liked it.)

However, I should know from my history studies that stories don’t belong to anyone, or rather they belong to everyone. Stories that survive almost any length of time at all get constantly rewritten and changed and done over again to suit the needs of different audiences and to express the values and priorities of different cultural moments in time. King Arthur and Robin Hood and (more recently) characters like Batman and Sherlock Holmes change and change again as writers and readers who love them want to do something new with them or make the story work for their time and place. It is, really, a wonderful compliment to a creator to say that you want to take something they came up with and adapt it and give it a new kind of life.

So maybe I really would be ok with someone rewriting my stuff to film it.

Once the screaming died down.

And on that cheerful note, I want to use this space to thank everyone who was part of Can*Con and helped make it such a great weekend. We had amazing panelists, really enthusiastic and thoughtful audiences, and our volunteers were outstanding. All of the other members of the organizational team – Marie Bilodeau, Nicole Lavigne, and Brandon Crilly (who was programming’s Batman to my Robin) did fantastic work. I also want to especially thank co-chair Derek Künsken for inviting me onto the team and letting me be a part of it all.

Already looking forward to next year.

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Some of you may have noticed a sudden lapse in running-related entries on here. Many of you probably said ‘oh thank God’. In case you were curious, though, the reason is that I have had only the second significant injury I’ve suffered as a runner this summer and have shut things down for the season. The plan is to spend the winter getting strong and have a great season next year.

This has been surprisingly difficult, though, both because running is a stress-buster for me and has very much been part of my routine for years, and also because (as I’ve talked about previously) I do a lot of writing in my head while running, and all of that is currently lost. I also had to admit a little while ago that there was no way I could do the race I had planned for the end of the month, and just let that go.

In a way though that’s another useful lesson to come out of running that I think applies to writing as well. It’s good to set goals for yourself and to push yourself to achieve them, and to try to set standards that you need to live up to in terms of amounts of work getting done or having something finished by a certain time. That helps with organization and time management and making sure that you’re making your writing a priority.

There are also times, though, when things are just out of your hands and you have to let one of those goals go, and that’s ok. I couldn’t do anything about this injury, and it’s ok, and I will be back running when I can and I’ll hit the next goal. Sometimes the equivalent will happen with writing, and something won’t get done on time, and that’s ok.

Setting goals is only useful if it makes you better, not if it just turns into another stick to beat yourself up with.

Letting go is ok.

That’s what I’ve got for this week, except that if you’re going to be in Ottawa on Saturday, October 29th, you should definitely come to the Renaissance Press launch event for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and seven (seven!) other authors and creators, at the 3 Brewers pub at 240 Sparks St. It will go from about 5 to around 7, and there will be reading from all the authors, prizes, and probable tomfoolery. It would be great to see you there.

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