“Oh dear, maths” — J K Rowling

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ready or Not it turns out is not going as quickly as I estimated.

As J K Rowling has said in more than one interview I’ve read:  “Oh dear, maths …”

It’s gong well, but I am not always a world class mathematician.  It would seem that there were some flaws in my calculations.  First, would you believe that 13 ≠ 20?!  It’s true!  I checked with a friend of mine who has a math degree, apparently they do use maths sometimes where 13 = 20 is true, but that wouldn’t be ordinary arithmetic, who knew?  Next I got the page count of a modified margins, font size, and page dimensions I’d done to conserve paper for an editorial print out stuck in my head and was doing my math against that.  Needless to say, even if I knew how to count to 13, my calculations would have been off by a day or two … forgetting the real page count, however, means that the whole thing is off by something more on the order of weeks.

SO!  New estimate:  I’ll let you know when it’s half way.  Seriously, that point usually — barring disaster — is a better estimate since I can go “well, we’ve taken sixty five years to get this far … but the last thirty five pages have only taken a month … Book’ll be out in Fall 2237”.

Sorry.  I really should never ever ever do division before coffee.  Division is not my friend at the best of times, without coffee it’s a mortal foe.

Great stories

It’s funny really.  A lot of literature can be useful.  It gives us a language for discussing what it is we like about a story, or a poem.  It gives us a language for discussing the differences between two works.  But that’s all it is, a language.

Literature geeks, lit majors, professional and armchair critics alike try to use that language as ammunition for trying to set up definitions for what is or isn’t good art.

Thing is, no art is truly bad or good.  It’s what is made of it.  Frankly, I think if an artist made no effort — put nothing of herself into a work — then perhaps there is some room to argue a work is bad, mostly because is it still art at that point?  A painter who really is only making goopy pain swirls, or a writer who really is only stitching clichés together into some insane travesty of a plot …

Neverminding that, though.  Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, J K Rowling and Professor Tolkein, Yoko Ono and Leonardo DaVinci, Mozard and John Prine … these are artist.  Maybe you think they’re fantastic, maybe you think them mad, maybe you think them crap — but they are artists.

People may laugh at Rice and Meyer — their stories, from a technical stand point, can be pretty hard to take.  Still, there are those to whom those characters spark.  The stories, the plots … they speak to these people and the technical failings become ignorable.  Certainly those women feel they have put something of themselves into those works — a spiritual, metaphoric, blood sacrifice was made in the construction of those texts and some people feel that and are moved.  This is why they are successful.

Rowling and Tolkien are beloved by many, though there are those who, again, using the language of Literature, call them poor and silly.  They had the audacity not to follow The Rules.  Their books, however, change people’s lives — clearly, they are artists (or were, in the late professor’s case).

Yoko and DaVinci inspire some, bore others.  Still, they are artists — they believe in their work.  A pile of rocks to one person, is a brilliant statement to the next.  Does this make it bad?

Mozart and Prine … ah, music.  The very language of the soul.  Apparently souls have dialects.  To some the beat is most essential, to others it must be everything that comes together to make it jazz, and yet others believe that music must sound angry and loud and screeching — thus is born metal.  Still, they aren’t canned nonsense — they are art.

Some things are all technique — maybe they’re good, and maybe that was the point.  In that case, perhaps this too is art, though pure technical expertise without any spirit, soul, passion … you border on the mechanical, and it’s been shown that machines cannot make art, “perfect” music played by a machine without so much as a nanosecond mistake in a beat or a note, not one subtle mistuning is actually unpleasant to the human ear.  So too can be said of too perfect a story or painting to the eye, or the imagination.  Machines have never spoken to anyone (Siri notwithstanding).

This, I think, is why I tend to dislike literary discussions and a lot of literary criticism in general.  What makes a story great or not isn’t if they do or don’t use too many adverbs or clichés; it’s not about the three act structure; it’s not about character arcs.  What makes a story great is when it speaks to someone’s soul, or sparks their imagination, tugs at their emotions, or makes them happy and bubble with laughter.  That is a great story.

In that way, Twilight and Interview With a Vampire are terrific stories.  Maybe they’re not as good as others — something about them doesn’t as often speak to people twice.  You will find people saying “God, why did I like this, again?”  That doesn’t mean they’re bad, just less great, because they did speak to them in the first place … just not anymore.

We can discuss books, we can use Literature — as a language — to meaningfully say how a story makes us feel and what elements really inspire us.  Why should we use it to try to quantify art, though?  One man’s pornography is another man’s beautiful play of light on the human form and, even if it is hardcore fetish erotica, perhaps a statement of something — true, it certainly helps if there was any intention that the shot be any such thing, but still.  If we mean to make art, then we do, full stop.  If we mean to make a buck, then we do — but it’s a formula and nothing a clever enough machine couldn’t do one day in the future; there’s no art.

We can use the language to say, too, what we don’t like about a story.  Thus, through the fun quirks of English — we can discuss how “bad” Harry Potter or Motzart’s Fifth are, because we can now say what it is that we don’t like.  This is okay too, but we shouldn’t exactly say they’re bad stories — bad stories and bad music do not have the notoriety that those two have.

Some people like coffee, some like tea.  Just because two people don’t agree doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong, just that they’re human and no two humans are exactly the same (well, arguments regarding identical twins aside).

Sexism in the world of writing

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it fascinating to think about how the world of writing is often rampant with very profound sexism, and one enforced from all sides — including the consumer end.

Writing, I know, includes rhetorical writing, which has always been dripping with extremities of thought in every direction. Same goes for informative texts — everyone has a point to make.  I often find the term non-fiction a touch funny — sometimes I think the only honest writing is fiction; it admits to being made up, then so often proceeds to give you a glimpse of some life truth through this made up account.

Still, by the same token the sexism isn’t in depiction, it’s in the industry itself.  So, yes, even in the rhetorical and non-fiction worlds.  Thing is, I’m not talking about on the paper.  I’m talking about in the material, themes, genres.

Take SF, a favourite of mine.  Speculative fiction is a vivid place full of idealised histories and shining futures.  It’s a place where women could captain a starship with dignity and respect at a time when, perhaps, they couldn’t get taken seriously as the captain of a bass boat.  It’s a place where a sorceress could cross spells with an archmagus and none could know who would prevail, and both were looked at with awe and respect — even fear.  Yet it’s a place where authors, at times, find themselves thankful for a name with a masculine tone, or find themselves writing under pseudonym.  Because, of course, women don’t know the first thing about writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the like!  God, no, who ever heard of such a thing?!  Oh, not to say they can’t, but it’d certainly be all fairies, unicorns, and True Love — not a decent fight scene in sight, and no mighty castings.  It’d be court intrigue and … notice how I’m sticking with Fantasy here?  Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

Sexism works both ways.  Romance.  Oh, fellas, you poor dears.  Don’t you know, not a one of you has a romantic bone in your whole body?!  You couldn’t write a touching love scene if your lives depended upon it.  Oh, sure, a bodice ripper, all sex and “love muscle” this, and “throbbing” that might be seen as okay, though you’ll probably find you’ll have better luck if you called it erotica than romance, and throw in a few colourful vulgarities or just get rather more graphic about it.

Agents and publishers aren’t as bad about it, if they were then many of the authors writing under pseudonym couldn’t.  Clearly one cannot cash a royalty cheque made out to their pen name, so obviously the agent and publisher knows who really wrote it.  It’s the readership, though, they’re the worst.  Jo Rowling‘s middle initial isn’t K.  J. K. Rowling, just doesn’t sound as feminine — it does now that we all know that she is the lovely and talented author of the Harry Potter series, but when the stories were new … oh, my … let’s not put Jo, a distinctly feminine label, on this Boy’s Adventure Fiction, it won’t sell very well.

It’s true, too.  Oh, if you ask people directly they’ll say it’s more important what’s in the book.  But that’s while they’re thinking with their forebrain.  What happens when they’re scanning the bookshelves?  What happens when they see a cover with Fabio’s arms draped with a pert young blonde in a French Renaissance dress?  They might glance at the title and see something like Jasmine’s Desire (I am not going to find out how many books have that title and nor how many have a cover remotely as I’ve made up … I won’t), in many cases if it’s by Elaine Wrotabuk the expectations for what will be between those pages will be different than if it says Edward Wrotabuk.  Ever notice just how many names on the shelves of Science Fiction are ‘male’ and how many on Romance are ‘female’?  Ever notice how many are only initials?  Ever wonder who just got clever and picked a perfectly innocuous name?

It’s not just those two genres, they’re just the easiest to pick on.  I write one and read the other, so I’m more familiar — and there’s the fact that it often appears to be the worst for it.  They’re the ‘[sex] can’t write this stuff’ genres.  In other genres it’s just assumed the content will be different.  Also, if we’re talking Young Adult, Children’s, and other stuff that might, at times, be divided into girls’ fiction or boys’ fiction, then we run into the situation where you want a male name on The Hardy Boys, a girl’s name on Nancy Drew.  

It’s in other aspects of the readership.  Men just can’t possibly write a female protagonist.  Certainly not as a point of view character.  Just as Jo Rowling, clearly, could not have penned the work with this male star-of-the-show — obviously that was done by the ambiguous, but assumed to be Mr J. K. Rowling.  

So we’ve got expectation of content — male penned romance is smut, female romance is moving and passionate (even when it’s really smut).  Female written fantasies are just romances with pixies in it, but male penned ones are hobgoblins and epic, bloody battles.  Men can’t write convincing women, and women cannot write men to save their lives.  And women don’t know the first thing about science fiction.  Feel free to extrapolate into the expectations of horror and mystery, westerns and contemporary, and other such fictions.  

Those matters, though, I can largely be amused by.  I mean, an author can change her name for purposes of making the book on the shelf conform to societal expectations and, once the content between the pages is know — instead of only guessed at — her true name and face can be known and, now that everyone’s thinking with their higher brain functions, no one gives a damn.  J. K. can now, once more, be Jo — though for convenience’s sake the cover retains the J. K.  It’s the criticisms, analyses — the literary breakdowns that actually bother me.

It’s the feminist critique of works, for example, wherein a book by a woman (or perceived to be) can have lesbians, strong females, women who enjoy sexuality and women who loathe it, men who’re sensitive, and men who are brutish — and she is brilliant.  There’s so much spoke in this work!  Tell them though, that Sam Spade is Samuel, not Samantha, though and suddenly the lesbians are just perverse fantasy, the strong females are somehow sexist (I’ve never understood how that works), the sexual women are more perverse fantasy, and … need I go on?

It does work a little to the flip side.  A woman author who writes sensitive men, or weak men, or strong women and so forth is clearly a dyke femi-nazi or something.  Strangely I’ve noticed men tend to be less worried about this sort of thing.  Maybe it’s just taken for granted by the male of the species that women think them idiots and so are unfazed when a woman writes them as such, who knows?  Still, in all fairness, I’ve seen men get quite riled by the depiction of men in various writings.  

Why is it that something is positive for little boys, or little girls if it’s written by one gender, but horrible and perverse the other way ’round — even if the text is unchanged (I’ve actually encountered, sadly I cannot recall where or with regards to what, people reversing their attitudes when such data is brought to light)?  Why is it insulting when it’s discovered an inspiring story of homosexual romance was written by someone who’s straight?  Okay, so that’s not sexism, but prejudice is prejudice.

I know, I spoke at length of fiction, but I said rhetoric and information had the same issue.  It does.  Women aren’t supposed to know about some topics, and men aren’t.  Imagine a book on etiquette and protocol, or on flower arranging by a man — a straight one!  Or a book by a woman about DIY diesel engine repair that isn’t just Suzy Homemaker “if the sprocket-hose, this little thing right here, gets a hole in it and you’re on the interstate, don’t call triple-A, just grab your ballpoint pen and …”, no I mean “So once you have the engine mounts loose, we’ll hoist the son of a bitch out of there and get to work rebuilding it …”  

The point is we’re writers.  Writers are readers, then there’re the people who’re just readers.  We’re the weird people.  We’re not normal!  Why, then, are among the worst at maintaining stereotypes and prejudices?  Oh, sure, we love a good stereotype while writing, it’s useful for making things succinct, “For a redhead she was remarkably even tempered” and “what do you expect, he went to Oxford,” but we shouldn’t enforce the things in life.  I believe wholeheartedly that any woman who wants to know a camshaft from a steering column ought to be fully capable of showing any man at the local service shop a thing or two with a torque wrench (minds out of the gutter, folks), that a straight man can be a fantastically cultured individual with an eye for floral arrangements and interior decorating, that women are more likely to write an action filled blood and gore fightfest, and that any man who lets himself feel can write profoundly touching emotional explorations.  Some of the most scientifically and technically minded people I’ve met were female, and there’re certainly a good deal of double-Xs reading SF … and there’re straight men who don’t mind a good tearjerker and have all the technical and mechanical aptitude of an earthworm.  Maybe as the people who live in the world of facts (non-fiction), imagination (fiction), and trying to move people into new ways of seeing things (rhetoric) we ought to remember to think more forwardly in the real world just as well or more than we let ourselves in the worlds between the pages.  

Who knows, it might change the world.