Posts Tagged ‘Language’

As is attested to by my extensive history of yelling about it on the internet, bad literary reviews are one of my personal bugbears. As a fiction writer who also commits acts of criticism, I feel keenly aware of the labour, both creative and emotional, that goes into creating any book; but as someone who cares enough about stories to love analysing them – and whose monetary and temporal resources are frequently short enough that I appreciate knowing beforehand if I’m likely to enjoy a given book – I have a deep respect for good reviewing. Whether the reviewer’s ultimate judgement is negative, positive or something more complicated, a well-argued piece of criticism will tell me something, not only about the book in question, but about the reviewer’s personal taste, which will in turn help me to better engage with any future reviews they might write. As it’s impossible to be purely objective, a good reviewer will (in my opinion) acknowledge their own biases, limitations and preferences while nonetheless striving to asses the work before them. This admission of subjectivity is why a negative review might yet entice the audience to read a particular book, or why, conversely, a positive review might turn them away: having a sense of the reviewer’s taste enables us to view their assessment, not as something sterile and detached from all outside influences, but in relation to our own.

A bad review, however – or rather, a bad reviewer – takes no care to contextualise the works they read, whether within such narrative or cultural frameworks as apply or with regard to their own biases. A mediocre review might gesture towards these things, but if a bad review attempts them, they will do so in ways that are as frustrating as they are unhelpful, rote at best and hostilely misapplied at worst.

Witness, then, the opening lines of Katharine Coldiron’s Locus review of The Ikessar Falcon, the second book in K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, wherein she says:

“I did not read the first instalment in K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen before reading the second, The Ikessar Falcon. I honestly don’t know if reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro would’ve changed anything about my opinion of its sequel. The Ikessar Falcon is epic fantasy, leaning closer to a saga in the way it moves and unfolds, and although it’s addictively readable, I barely understood what was going on. I wondered often whether reading the first book would have given me more insight into the workings of this one, or whether I would’ve been just as lost, only with more words in my head.”

And I just. The fucking hubris. The absolute gall of any reviewer to start with the second book in a series and then complain that they don’t understand what’s going on, as though this is somehow the fault of the text! It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ve read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, a book whose plots and politics are both deep and intricate – as, indeed, one might expect from the first book of a projected series! Of course Coldiron had no idea what was going on. Which begs the question: why, if she had no intention of reading the first book in the series, did Coldiron feel the need to review the sequel – and why, even more pressingly, did Locus decide such an abysmal review was worth publishing in the first place?

With such a terrible starting point, it’s hardly a surprise that the full review – which is not yet available online – gets worse as it goes on. That Coldiron repeatedly gets a main character’s name wrong (Rayyan instead of Rayyal) is a minor sin in comparison to describing a book whose setting is explicitly based on the pre-colonial Philippines as a “richly imagined world [that] resembles England before the Norman Conquest.” That Coldiron somehow made this error this despite the customs, nomenclature and general everything about Villoso’s world is bizarre; to quote a different review, “This world isn’t your pseudo-medieval European world. It’s unequivocally Filipino with inspiration from other sources in Southeast Asia. Not once does Villoso allow you to believe this is anything but a fantasy set in a world inspired by the Philippines.”

Over and over, Coldiron talks about how difficult it is to keep track of various details of a narrative which – and I cannot stress this enough – is the sequel to a book she has not read, without ever stopping to consider that this is her problem rather than the author’s. Villoso, she says, “can’t quite differentiate supporting characters to the degree required for epic fantasy of this scale,” as though Coldiron isn’t missing an entire fucking book’s worth of secondary character development. “Its dizzying array of inadequately meaningful subplots and characters make The Ikessar Falcon a difficult book for the casual reader,” Coldiron concludes, as though she has any means of gauging whether subplots that seemed meaningless to her were in fact deeply relevant to the events of the first book. At every level, this review is a staggering act of oblivious contempt and – yes – white privilege. It matters that Villoso is a woman of colour while Coldiron is white, not only because such a bad faith review is insulting and unfair to Villoso, but because this represents yet another instance where an apparent bastion of SFF, Locus, is paying for white mediocrity at the expense of a writer of colour. Any editor worth their pay should’ve looked at that first sentence and said “no,” but Locus didn’t – and that matters.

Are there series out there whose individual volumes can be happily read out of order? Certainly! But epic fantasy sagas are a very different beast to, say, the adventures of Bertie Wooster, which is something you’d expect a seasoned, paid SFF reviewer to know about and account for. As a tweenager, I once tried to read the third volume in Robin Hobb’s seminal Assassin Trilogy prior to having read the other two – I’d bought it secondhand because of the dragon on the cover, and figured I’d give it a go. Lo and behold, it made absolutely no sense, but even at the age of eleven, I had the basic sense to realise that this was my fault for reading the fucking thing out of order, and not some failing of Hobb’s. If Coldiron wanted to write a whimsical review where the whole conceit was seeing what she could make of book two by leaping in unprepared, that would be one thing, but I cannot get past the decision to blame her lack of comprehension on the book itself. What – and I cannot stress this enough – the actual goddamn fuck?

If this was a question of just one incredibly ill-conceived review by a reviewer whose track record was otherwise solid, I’d be wrapping up about now. The fact that Coldiron is a white reviewer showing this level of disrespect to the work of a woman of colour would still be nauseating and wrong – and let me be crystal clear, before I continue: Coldiron’s disrespect here is not in failing to like Villoso’s work, but in starting at the second book in a fucking multi-book series and then blaming the text for her own lack of comprehension – but it would not, of itself, demonstrate a pattern of bad-faith reviewing. No: that pattern, rather, comes from Coldiron’s other Locus reviews, which collectively serve to demonstrate a jaw-dropping quantity of both bad faith engagement, microaggressions and, in that confluence, racism.

For starters, The Ikessar Falcon isn’t the first time Coldiron has reviewed a sequel while neglecting the first book in the series. In an otherwise largely favourable review of C.L. Polk’s Stormsong, she writes:

The biggest problem with Stormsong is its dependence on Witchmark. I read at least the first 50 pages without understanding much of what was going on. Presumably the worldbuilding in Witchmark was solid enough to launch Stormsong directly where the prior book left off, and I’ll wager that the third book in the series will do the same. Stormsong ends immediately before a gathering of witches and mages to ward off a big storm, which would have been a great set piece to end this installment, but is likely going to open the next.

That comprehending a sequel depends in any way on having read a prior book in the series cannot sensibly or fairly be described as a problem; nonetheless, Coldiron once again frames her own failing as one that belongs to the book. It would’ve been an easy thing to acknowledge that her difficulties were down to her own ignorance of Witchmark, but no. Instead, it’s Polk’s fault for daring to write a sequel that, you know, functions as a sequel. (It’s worth noting that Polk, like Villoso, is also a woman of colour.)

More damningly, Coldiron frequently treats diversity as a check-list item in the works she reviews, praising its inclusion while insulting, minimising or actively misunderstanding its actual role in the story. In reviewing S.L. Huang’s Burning Roses, for instance, Coldiron writes:

Its diversity is very welcome, but its execution is lacking…

[Rosa’s] life is one fairy tale after another: she is Red Riding Hood whose grandmother is eaten; she rescues Goldilocks by slaying the three bears; she must withstand the sarcasm and watchful eye of Goldie’s companion, Puss in Boots; her lover is Beauty promised to the Beast. This would be cool and fun, except that the queer and diverse twists S.L. Huang implements don’t really add anything to the discourse around fairy tales. These recognizable stories have just been altered a little bit and strung together, not used to subvert or reimagine anything in particular…

I cannot speak to how well Huang has integrated or reworked the Chinese fairy tales in this book, whether imaginatively or less so, but I suspect that intertwining these two traditions might have been more successful if Huang had given her characters more to do than battle and talk to each other, or had given any of these tales more room to develop new, 21st-century truths…

Both Rosa and Hou Yi are queer, older women, and the only white character in the book seems to be Goldie. Of course I am pleased that Huang has written so passionately about queer women of color, and I applaud Tor.com for upping the quotient of diversity in fantasy literature, but the quality of a diverse book matters too.

So: Coldiron wants Huang’s work to “develop new, 21st-century truths,” but the “queer and diverse twists” she’s included somehow don’t count towards this or “add anything to the discourse around fairy tales” because… why? Queer retellings of fairytales are a massive part of the current SFF discourse around the genre, as is the fusion of Western fairytale traditions with those from the rest of the world. Coldiron’s line about “upping the quotient of diversity” is gross enough – the implication being that Huang’s work here constitutes the most strawman sort of diversity hire, the WOC given a deal because of her box-checking credentials but despite her lack of talent – but it’s maddening to see her lament a lack of textual depth while failing to explain why none of the diversity on offer apparently qualifies. It’s as though Coldiron views diversity as a selection of sundae toppings: something added on as an extra treat, but which fails to materially influence the substance of a story.

This issue crops up again in her review of Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, which begins:

A reliable way to revive epic fantasy, which seems to be going through many of the same motions it’s been tracing for 60 years, is to set it in a culture other than a West­ern one – other than a thinly disguised United Kingdom, to be uncomfortably specific – but if a white writer does this, she lays herself open to charges of exoticism and appropriation, which is why it’s such a good idea for fantasy and SF publishers to bring out more books by writers of color; in one stroke, it brings fresh ideas to stale genres, and it centers voices that have been marginalized for too long.

Perfect example: Empire of Sand by British Punjabi novelist Tasha Suri. It’s set in an alter­nate-universe Mughal India, in which a young woman with the blood of both a noble, ruling family and an oppressed, magical clan in her veins must claim her power in order to survive. Every single element of Empire of Sand is pleas­ingly exotic to a Western white reader like me, but Suri does not play all this up as a gimmick, nor does she contribute to the orientalism Edward Said cautioned against. She is writing a culture she knows, and it’s a culture white audiences don’t know. That makes her work fascinatingly new, but not exploitative.

How is the book itself, aside from this mul­ticultural freshness? It’s good.

Presumably, Coldiron intended this jaw-dropping slew of microaggressions to read as positive – she is, after all, attempting to praise the book – and yet her tone reminds me of nothing so much as negging. While acknowledging that, yes, it’s good to both center marginalised voices and “bring fresh ideas to stale genres,” Coldiron first hitches this statement to a classic diversity hire dogwhistle: “but if a white writer does this, she lays herself open to charges of exoticism and appropriation.” By suggesting that a primary reason for publishers to hire POC is to avoid backlash, rather than because their work is good, Coldiron is slighting Suri before the review has even begun – and once she does begin, things only go downhill. By noting that Suri “does not play all this up as a gimmick,” Coldiron implies that it’s reasonable to suspect diverse stories of gimmickry; that she praises a lack of “the orientalism Edward Said cautioned against” in the very same line is breathtakingly ironic, given her own description of the book as “pleasingly exotic” and possessed of “multicultural freshness.”

This is what I mean when I say that Coldiron’s failure to understand diversity as more than a buzzword gets in the way of her reviewing, even when she’s trying to say something complimentary: ignoring the fact that praising Suri for failing to exotify herself is paternalistic at best, you’d think that someone who claims to know what orientalism is would likewise know not to use the word “exotic” as a selling point – and yet Coldiron plainly doesn’t. This is highlighted when she goes on to compare the deeply religious, spiritual dancing that protagonist Mehr performs to the movie Dirty Dancing, completely failing to understand the significance of the thing she’s writing about, both within the text and in reference to the real-world cultures the story is based on.

It is striking, therefore, that Coldiron seems to have a very different approach to diversity as present in books by white authors: which is to say, she either fails to notice it or declines to comment on it. This hit me powerfully while reading her review of Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade, a book whose politics are foundationally concerned with castes, race purity, ableism, misogyny and hierarchy, and which has two queer POV characters, one of whom is also a complex mix of neurodiversity and sociopathy. And yet the word “diversity” doesn’t appear at all in Coldiron’s review, neither to praise its inclusion nor critique its portrayal, even where doing so would be deeply relevant to the text itself. In talking about Nekantor, the queer, neurodiverse antagonist, Coldiron writes:

 Our hero, Tagaret, is the son of a monster and the brother of another. His father, Garr, is a sneaky, grasping, sadistic man, while his brother, Nekantor, is twisted with both ambition and genuine mental illness… Nekantor is as power-obsessed as Garr, and much more unstable, but his obsessive compulsions make him pitiable: “He touched the buttons on his vest, top middle, bottom. He straightened his cuffs, looked back to the watch. Tick, tick
 better, better. He would not scream. He would stay in the game.”

Reducing such a complex, difficult portrayal of mental illness down to instability, twistedness and “obsessive compulsions” not only does the book a grave disservice, but fails utterly to explain that Nekantor is a young teen, raised in a society that views any type of mental “weakness” through a eugenicist lens that would, if made public, see both him and his family shamed. It’s disturbing that Coldiron sees no problem with saying that mental illness makes a character “pitiable,” but in the specific context of Mazes of Power, where Wade is using Nekantor as a biting, difficult commentary on the blurry lines between nature and nurture, internal morality and societal pressure, it’s hard not to think that she’s missed the whole point of the narrative. “Pitiable” is what the worst masters of Nekantor’s world think of the mentally ill; that Nekantor is nonetheless striving to be one of them – that he has internalised the need for power and control at all costs; that he has taken his sadistic father’s lessons as gospel – is simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking. Coldiron, however, seems not to have noticed.

Notably, Wade’s complex worldbuilding is wholly original: though you might point to various real-world cultures as inspiration for the in-depth caste systems she’s created, Mazes of Power isn’t reminiscent of a single specific history in the way that, say, Empire of Sand is – and perhaps it’s this factor, along with Wade’s whiteness, that has caused Coldiron to completely unsee the concept of diversity as relates to the novel. If the author isn’t a person of colour and the setting doesn’t ape a familiar type of “exotic,” then surely she need not take out her Diversity Lens! Thus Coldiron feels perfectly comfortable saying that “the worldbuilding is good but somewhat ostentatious, with characters invoking their gods and goddesses and other ways of life much more often than was realistic,” as though, in the absence of a specific cultural touchstone, the universal yardstick for religious reference becomes the modern, semi-secular West.  

And then there’s the line about wanting to see “whether our hero would get the girl in the end,” Tagaret’s queerness completely elided by the throw-away line about his “affair with his best friend,” ignoring the fact that the friend in question is male. Indeed, Coldiron makes no mention of Tagaret’s queerness or Nekantor’s, despite the fact that, once again, the homophobia of their society is integral to their respective, secret relationships and thus to the plot, which hinges on the trade, suppression and protection of such secrets. That Coldiron takes the time to mention the queerness present in Huang’s novella – even and especially while claiming that it adds nothing to the plot – yet completely ignores the deeply salient queerness of Wade’s work speaks volumes. If Coldiron thought the queerness in Mazes of Power was, like the queerness in Burning Roses, mere window-dressing with no real influence on the plot – which seems to be the case, given that she hasn’t thought it relevant enough to mention in her review – then why is Huang rebuked for that inclusion, while Wade is not? Answer: because Wade is white, and therefore need not be held to the same check-box standards of Doing Diversity Right as Huang – or Suri, for that matter.

Compared to all this, Coldiron’s throwaway claim in her review of Empire of Sand that “Suri needed a much more attentive editor” ought to be a minor thing – and yet, when it comes to books written by POC, I can’t help but notice that Coldiron has a habit of taking specific issue with their various writing styles. If I could make out a clear preference for a particular style of writing, this wouldn’t be an issue; instead, it comes across as an unduly harsh, constantly-shifting criticism of POC in particular, nitpicking language as a way to conceal that her real dissatisfaction with the story lies elsewhere.

Returning to the review of Huang’s work, for instance, Coldiron says:

Since the language in all the Tor.com Publish­ing novellas I’ve read has been innovative and confident, Huang’s overuse of abstract emotions, rather than evoking those emotions through action and reaction, felt rudimentary and out of place. She uses “some” modifiers frequently (some, something, somehow), always a sign of an unready draft. “Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring – not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.” This is mundane, clichĂ©d language, and it adequately communicates the lack of imagination with which Huang has assembled the rest of the novella.

Personally, I wouldn’t consider the quote Coldiron has used to support her criticism of Huang’s writing as doing anything of the sort; at the very least, such a harsh denouncement feels wildly disproportionate to the given example. That being so, it feels significant that Coldiron negatively compares Huang’s work to that of two other Tor.com writers – Emily Tesh and Kerstin Hall – both of whom are white. This becomes even more puzzling when you consider that Coldiron’s review of Hall’s novella, The Border Keeper, which is overwhelmingly negative, contains no praise of Hall’s language or writing at all. That being so, I couldn’t help but compare her apparent issues with Huang’s prose to her adjacent review of Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons, in which she writes:

This book is truly one of a kind, a completely unique vision for how epic fantasy should look and feel, and it’s crafted as intricately and beautifully as a glass mosaic. However, such originality bears a significant cost. Master of Poisons is a slog. Every sentence is stripped of unnecessary articles and formed as lyrically as possible, which makes reading a page tiring; the book has five hundred of them. The reading experience moves like an ice skater, gliding continuously on fast-moving scenes, never allow­ing the reader to pause and take a breath. And the characters undergo such pain and heartbreak that the reader may lose her taste for the story long before it ends. Although I walked away from this book with overwhelming awe and admiration for it, I found it exhausting and difficult to recommend…

The most obvious way in which Master of Poisons departs from the usual run of epic fantasy is its lan­guage. Hairston writes almost in dialect, dispensing with articles both common and possessive: “Awa forgot throbbing feet and hugged this prospect to her heart.” “Blossoms burnt by desert wind bear no fruits, no seeds
 Rotten groundnuts and berries mean songbirds starve.” “Void-smoke drifted from vacant eyes as the fiends fed feverishly.” The speed of such language would be breakneck in another book, but this one takes its time unfolding, and grounds its action in the natural world. Hairston also uses terrific turns of phrase: “friend bees” is a repeated adjective-noun combination, and one character’s belly is described as “a dumpling burial ground.” On a sentence level, the book is a stunning accomplishment – I haven’t even mentioned the multiple languages, and the repeated phrases in those languages that build the mythology of the Arkhysian Empire and forecast its salvation – but one much more suited to the brevity of a poetry collection, not a long novel…

At a sufficient distance, these flaws don’t re­ally matter… Yet I can’t say it’s a book for everyone. It’s tiring and obtuse, and there’s no way I can minimize these issues in order to recommend the novel with a full heart.

Immediately, it’s striking that, where Coldiron criticises Huang’s writing for not being sufficiently “innovative,” she likewise faults Hairston for “originality [which] bears a significant cost.” In the space of a single paragraph, she first complains that Master of Poisons is a “slog,” only to lament that it is also “continually [sic] fast-moving… never allowing the reader to pause.” This is an utterly nonsensical assessment: by definition, a slog is not fast-paced. I’m sympathetic to finding a book emotionally exhausting, as Coldiron says next, but this is not the same as the writing being a slog. If I was being charitable, I’d think she’d simply conflated the two things, except that, at every turn, Coldiron’s assessment once more feels like negging, if only because that’s the easiest way to reconcile the seeming contradictions in her complaints. The writing is too fast, but also too slow; the book is “crafted as intricately and beautifully as a glass mosaic,” but is also “tiring and obtuse;” the sentence-level construction is stunning, except where it’s a slog; Hairston’s writing goes above the norm for epic fantasy, but that same style is also more appropriate for poetry than a novel. It’s almost as though Coldiron can identify qualities in Hairston’s writing that she thinks she should like, but doesn’t, and chooses to blame this dissonance on the text. That being so, rather than stating that the book is good if you like a particular style of writing, with the caveat that it didn’t work for her personally, she turns herself in knots to both praise and censure the exact same things for the exact same reasons, producing a review whose fundamental incoherence stems from the reviewer’s inability to be honest with herself.

This same issue crops up again in her review of Daniel JosĂ© Older’s The Book of Lost Saints, where Coldiron is once more either unwilling or unable to distinguish between emotionally taxing concepts and exhausting prose: “The Book of Lost Saints feels much longer than its page count; the material is often so intense, or the prose so compressed, that reading more than a few pages of it is exhausting. I was wrung out by the time I reached the end, and not in a good way.” Note this claim that the prose is “compressed,” as in the very next paragraph, Coldiron complaints of the opposite:

Plus, the book’s constant swerving between styles gives the reader whiplash. When deeper inside Marisol’s consciousness, Older writes quite lyrically: “The simple physics of emptiness and the thick lines around it offer up whole libraries of information I never could have imagined – histories, both banal and grand, and the flow and sweep of emotions that trail behind each of us in elegant, phosphorescent capes.” However, when Marisol moves to the background and RamĂłn and his friends are closer to the surface, the style is more like commercial fiction, broad and clean: “And it’s an unbelievably slow day. No one to restrain or tussle with. No righteous fuckup to direct his burgeoning anger at. Nothing. It’s probably for the best. RamĂłn is a gentle giant, self-aware enough to be cautious with his mighty limbs, even when provoked by the direst of insults
.”

Nothing in these examples demonstrates “compression,” while the “swerving between styles” that Coldiron evidently dislikes might be better described as a deliberate change in voice: even without having read the book, it seems obvious that the contrast between lyricism and plain language is meant to highlight the difference between the ghostly Marisol and her flesh-and-blood nephew RamĂłn. Coldiron, of course, is under no obligation to enjoy the contrast, but it’s striking to me that she fails to identify the reason for it, writing as though Older’s decision to give his characters different narrative voices is some strange, unprecedented act of authorial caprice, and not an established literary device.

It would take more time and energy than I’m willing to expend to go through all of Coldiron’s Locus reviews in detail, but even when skimming, the same problems keep cropping up. While reviewing Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, Coldiron describes a character as being sent “into a weird, benign kind of slavery,” as though benign slavery isn’t an atrocious contradiction in terms, let alone when used in reference to a Black woman’s work. While panning Storm of Locusts, the second volume in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, Coldiron offers a blithe complaint that the sequel is “written more like a YA novel, with an accompanying lack of density.” (One day, we as a society will progress past the need to reflexively sneer at YA as a means of insulting something else, but today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.) Regarding Echoes of Understorey, the second book in Thoraiya Dyer’s Titan’s Forest trilogy, Coldiron writes of the character Anahah that “his character journey is beyond bizarre, and creates gender challenges the novel does not answer.” As a genderqueer person myself, this complaint cuts close to home: Anahah is an AMAB male character who, thanks to his shapeshifting abilities, is able to grow a womb within himself to carry the child he longs for, but which his divine master forbids him to have. His maleness is never questioned by the narrative; that Coldiron thinks this a flaw says far more about her than it does about Dyer’s writing.

Though Coldiron has also produced glowing reviews of work by POC – she is effusive about Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby and Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune – it’s jarring to see them set alongside what she’s written about the works of Huang and Suri, Dyer and Wade, Villoso and Older and Hairston. Taken collectively, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what I’m looking at is someone who has rote-learned the importance of diversity sufficiently to, on occasion, present as a top-tier ally, but whose greater body of work is rife with microaggressions and hostility. If the more problematic reviews came earlier in Coldiron’s career, the better ones later, such that a trajectory of growth and improvement was evident, that would be one thing; instead, it’s all over the place, and clearly still ongoing – as attested to by her still-too-recent-for-the-internet review of Villoso’s work, which is what drew my eye (and ire) in the first place.

If Coldiron was posting her reviews on a private blog, or at any venue less esteemed than Locus, it’s doubtful that I’d have bothered to write this piece; or at the very least, to have written this much. The real problem, though, is not Coldiron herself: it’s that Locus has failed to notice the regularity with which her reviews rebuke POC for things she either praises or lets pass when written by white authors; has allowed the inclusion of racism and microaggressions within her work without apparent editorial oversight; and has now seen nothing wrong with publishing a wildly unprofessional review that blames a sequel volume for the reviewer’s failure to have read the first instalment. It’s maddening and upsetting in equal measure, and at a time when both SFF and the wider literary community are ostensibly trying to do better by marginalised writers, it’s a sign of how thoroughly white privilege still blinds so much of the industry to its failings, even among those who consider themselves well-intentioned.

Because that’s the other thing that stands out in Coldiron’s reviews: how frequently she reviews diverse authors, and how she is, on some level, really, genuinely trying to support them. It’s just that having a rote understanding of diversity isn’t the same thing as actively confronting and working through your own biases, and in the apparent absence of sensible editorial oversight, Coldiron has been left to stagnate – and in that stagnation, it’s authors of colour who’ve suffered.

“But the word feminist, it doesn’t sit with me, it doesn’t add up. I want to talk about my problem that I have with it. First of all, on a very base level, just to listen to it. We start with fem. That’s good… Ist. I hate it. I hate it. Fail on ist. It’s just this little dark, black, it must be hissed. Ist! It’s Germanic but not in the romantic way. It’s just this terrible ending with this wonderful beginning… 

Let’s rise up a little bit from my obsession with sound to the meaning. Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state…

And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal.”

– Joss Whedon, during this hot mess of a speech

When you posit that two of the main problems with the word feminist are the offputting phonetics and unnatural implications of its final syllable, then promptly suggest a replacement word that uses the exact same fucking syllable in the exact same fucking placement while changing the part you claimed was great – which backflip you manage to perform in the space of a single, pre-prepared speech – it’s probably time to sit all the way down and shut the fuck up about feminism.

Listen, Joss Whedon: you’ve made some cool, transformative, feminist shit, plus a bunch of other stuff – or sometimes the same stuff! – which is awesome despite being problematic on multiple fronts, though as always, YMMV. That much is undeniable. But you’ve also done some truly fucked-up things, like firing Charisma Carpenter for being pregnant, planning to have Inara gang raped in order to make Mal Reynolds a hero, and repeatedly racefailing your representations of POC, especially the women; and now you’ve got the gall to stand there and proclaim the ineffectiveness of feminism at a conceptual level – to agree, in effect, with Elle UK’s recent attempt to rebrand the movement – because you don’t like the word?

Before we proceed any further, let’s get one thing straight: there are times and places for changing our language on the basis of what a particular term originally implied, or of what it continues to imply. Language is important and sneaky; it changes our thinking without our even realising it, and when we make a conscious effort to reclaim that process – to be clear and unambiguous, to avoid causing hurt, and to set aside long-standing biases better left as historical footnotes – that is an important, a powerful thing. But this is not the case with the many successive attempts to rebrand feminism; to replace it with words like equalist or genderist , which invariably involve the removal of that disquietingly feminine prefix. Rather than redressing a lexicographical wrong, it’s a way of downplaying the role and relevance of women within their own movement in order to make others feel more comfortable with the concept of equality, a form of taxological silencing derived from the same logic which recently saw a female speaker ejected from the Michigan House of Representatives for saying ‘vagina’ while talking about abortion. For as long as the word feminism is deemed both radical and confrontational for its use of the feminine prefix, it will remain a necessary word precisely because of how perfectly our cultural uneasiness with women’s rights is reflected in our uneasiness with a term that dares to make them its focus.

Because linguistically, feminism is a word rooted firmly in the female quest for equality, an origin story which speaks of combat against oppression, not its perpetuation. Which isn’t to say that the movement has never been oppressive, either then or now. Early white feminists routinely threw women of colour under the same bus Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin before her were forced to the back of, openly spouting racist views and stealing the foundations of modern feminism from the women of Iroquois Confederacy, a practice all too often continued today by the erasure of the feminist contributions of WOC, the endorsement of men like Hugo Schwyzer, the aggressive Islamaphobia of Femen (an organisation, coincidentally, which is run by men), and Caitlin Moran’s assertion that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” the representation of WOC in media, to say nothing of the repeated transphobic abuse and cissexist attitudes of radical feminists towards trans women and their inclusion in feminist spaces. Which is why womanism has arisen as a separate institution to feminism – as a way for black women especially, but WOC generally, to discuss their rights and needs without being spoken over, condescended to, misappropriated, elided or otherwise ignored by white feminists too oblivious to their own privilege to realise that, as per the words of Flavia Dzodan, feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

All of which is a way of saying: there are many good reasons to discuss the future of feminism, its relationship with oppression and the way this intersects with our use of language. The failures of the movement – and there are many – are not derived from its nomenclature, but are rather a disappointment to all that it should encompass, but doesn’t. With so much toxic history bound up in exclusionary feminist thinking, it may well be that the best answer, long term, is to find ourselves a new title and start afresh. But when Joss Whedon comes out, completely ignores the existence of such conversations, suggests that race is a comparable side-issue to gender rather than a major intersection with it and says that, no, the way to move feminism forward is to rebrand it using a word  he invented all by himself, because apparently the true spirit of feminism is best encapsulated by our uncritical capitulation to a powerful white guy who cracks jokes about the Taliban and publicly shames Katy Perry while telling the rest of us what we’re doing wrong? FUCKING NO.

In Whedon’s recent adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing –  a film I otherwise loved – there’s a single ugly moment that perfectly encapsulates the nature of his fail. Brought to the altar to wed a woman he thinks is an unknown substitute for his beloved Hero, whom he presumes dead, the guilt-wracked Claudio declares his intent to marry her “even were she an Ethiope” – which is to say, even if she were ugly or otherwise socially unacceptable. Being as how this is 2013, rather than 1599, when the play was first written, Whedon could easily have changed this line, removing or altering it without any loss of drama. Instead, he chose to emphasise it, cutting quickly to the disapproving face of a nearby black woman – someone he might well have hired just for that single purpose, given the otherwise lilywhite casting – for a comic beat as Claudio speaks the line. It was jarring and awful and needless, and more than anything else of Whedon’s I’ve seen recently, it reminded me that here is someone who needs to have his shit called out, and loudly. Because if you can put that much conscious thought and planning into making a joke about the ugliness of black women and still get up and call yourself a feminist, then something in your view of the world is seriously wrong.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

So, OK. As those of you who’ve known me for any length of time can attest – and as I have once or twice admitted in the writing of this blog – I am a zeusdamn stubborn, conservative person. It is actually very irksome! Because stubbornness and conservatism are not behaviours I consciously cultivate; are in fact the very antithesis of the behaviours I like, let alone try to cultivate; and yet they are apparently innate enough that I am constantly forced to suspect myself of them, to press the ever-present bruise of my own laziness in order to determine whether I am being honest and discerning as opposed to reactionary and biased at any given time. As I am simultaneously the kind of person who goes around recommending books and films (for instance) to all and sundry with the expectation that they start to adopt my tastes, this makes me very close to belonging to two categories of person with whom I am otherwise deeply uncomfortable: hypocrites and preachers.

My only saving grace is the fact that I recognise this at least some of the time, and am actively struggling to change. But for most of my life, that hasn’t been true, with the end result that now, slightly less than a month out from my 25th birthday, I’m starting to wonder exactly how many awesome things I’ve been missing out on for no greater reason than my own intransigence. Which is, itself, a conceit, because I mean, come on: twenty-freaking-five. It’s not like I’m Citizen Kane crying out for Rosebud on my deathbed, here. Despite the fact that I’ve been married for three and a bit years, and in serious relationships for five-odd years before that, and in the midst of becoming a published author for about two years, and have finished a Bachelors degree, and have moved first states and now countries, and held down a frankly surprising variety of the sort of jobs I never really knew existed until I started applying for them, and all the sort of gunk that seems to fill up your late teens and early twenties if you’re lucky enough to live in a first world nation where you speak the national language and have been relatively well-off your whole life and have never had to contend with poverty or civil war or persecution or any major trauma; despite all that, I am, by the standards of both my own culture and the scientific community, barely out of adolescence. I am young.

But I am also much less young than I was even a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that; and even though as a teenager it would never have occurred to me that I could sit here and be almost 25 and so very different now to how I was then, I can still – just – stretch to remembering my teenage self, her views and preoccupations and ignorances, without universally cringing at how utterly infantile and stupid they were, so that any sense I used to have that I was already grown up must only ever have been wrong. I feel torn: can I deny that I’ve grown since then, and that those changes have been increasingly positive? No, I can’t: but does that automatically mean that whatever I used to be is therefore rendered incorrect, reprehensible? Psychologists say that one of the key stages of childhood development is the tendency to first disdain and then throw away those trappings of whatever age we have just outgrown, like a fledgeling tweenager tossing out her toys. I must still be a child, then, because more and more, I feel like every step I take to change myself is simultaneously a battle to refrain from mocking, not plastic horses and skipping games, but previous ideologies.

Once, as a first year university student, I wrote an angry letter to a Sydney newspaper about its inflammatory coverage of a series of car crashes involving adolescent drivers. It was terrible, yes, and those people had been stupid, but their reactionary condemnation of all youthful drivers – the suggestion that driving curfews be implemented, limitations imposed on the ability of teens to carry passengers – was out of line. No matter how much they raised the age limit for acquiring a driving license, I argued, and even taking into account whatever risk-taking predispositions we could all agree were more likely in the young, a significant part of the problem would still be inexperience behind the wheel. Some things you simply cannot learn through shortcuts, or any way but the hard way: sooner or later, we all make mistakes, because suffering their consequences is how humans learn, and even if nobody was ever allowed in a car before the age of 27, new drivers would still account for their fair share of accidents. Not because of their age: because they were new. And in the mean time, given that adult drivers would continue to account for the other eighty-something percent of accidents, what would happen if we broke the statistics down into age brackets? Would we find that the most elderly drivers were the least accident-prone, or that the probability of accidents would regularly decrease with age? Does getting older always make you better?

Turning five did not make me morally superior to my two-year-old self; just older and physically different. Turning fifteen did not make me morally superior to my twelve-year-old self; just older and physically different. The same will be true again when I turn twenty-five, and thirty-five, and every age after that. In so many of these blogs, I’ve written about the frustrations I felt as a teenager, how it was hard to get adults to take me seriously and how they all appeared to have gone through a brainwashing machine at some point or emerged fully formed from alien pod-plants. Even though I could understand things at fourteen that were incomprehensible to my four-year-old self, that greater proximity to the adult world made it seem as though adulthood was a static realm towards which I was both inexorably travelling and closer to reaching than ever, so that any suggestion of considering how much I’d already changed as a way of anticipating how much farther I had yet to go would have seemed futile, insulting; as though, on the cusp of adulthood, I still deserved to be reminded of – judged by – those things I’d outgrown; as though I hadn’t really grown up at all.

Which, of course, I hadn’t, because the whole idea was a lie. Nobody ever grows up. We just grow. But our language, which betrays so much of culture, suggests otherwise: hierarchies are linear, top to bottom: growing up means growing better. Nobody grows down. And yet up connotes even more than that. It makes us think of a fixed destination when there is none; it makes us want to not only cast off who we were, but disparage it as unnecessary, as though the very notion of ever being someone else is embarrassing, taboo; as though that prior person were utterly unrelated to every single subsequent incarnation.

Tonight, I have been reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler, a single novel made from the collection of a trilogy of novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Having only just reached the start of the second of these, I came across a particularly beautiful quote. It is the reason I stopped to write this post; to consider why I had never read Butler before now, despite having heard of her, and to wonder if perhaps the reason I find her so moving, so compelling, is because I am reading her now. Would any of my earlier selves have understood?

Butler asks:

“Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”

And I answer:

Not any more.

For some time now, I’ve been a serial language learner. In primary school, my Year 3 teacher spoke Japanese and taught some of it to my class, which we dutifully learned. Hearing of this, my grandmother, who taught Japanese immigrants to speak English after World War II, gave me the books she’d used to study the language herself. In this context, I started taking extra-curricular Japanese lessons. I was not, however, a dedicated student: detesting repetitive practice in the manner of children who otherwise learn so quickly as to find it tiresome, I made no effort to learn my katakana or kanji, and despite the fact that I enjoyed counting and making origami figures, the lessons eventually stopped. My occasional childhood encounters with Japanese culture, however, continued: first in the form of Miyoko Kyushu, an exchange student who stayed with my family for several weeks, and then in the guise of new neighbours, who, though Norweigian by descent, had lived in Japan for many years. All three sons learned the language, while both parents spoke it fluently. Like Miyoko, they kept the Japanese tradition of bringing gifts to one’s hosts, so that when we first met the Johansens at a welcoming-the-neighbours barbeque, the wooden geisha doll, Japanese picture book and hand-sewn juggling balls Miyoko had given me found company with a puzzlingly-shaped Japanese bag and several boxes of sticky (but delicious) Hello Kitty candies. With the exception of these last edible items, I still have everything else. Like my knowledge of Japanese numbers, it seems, they’ve never quite slipped away.

In high school, I learned French and German as part of the school curriculum. Some words from each have stuck with me, such as counting sequences, greetings and a handful of random nouns, although somewhat inexplicably, I’ve also retained a teaching song in French detailing the birthday gifts received by a fictitious singer from his various relatives. Around the same time, I decided that archaeology was my destined career, and was advised that the best languages to learn for this were Latin (for the antiquity) and German (for reasons which now seem both dubious and odd). Given that I went to a public school, such a decision was problematic: with seventeen interested students deemed not enough to sustain a full class, I ended up taking German after school, while for Latin, I was forced to resort to a correspondence course.

When I changed schools the following year, the German didn’t last; but Latin did. I kept it up through all of highschool, even taking advanced Latin units for the HSC despite my appalling grasp of grammar. Once again, my lack of enthusiasm for rote learning saw any chance at fluency well and truly shot, although my pronunciation skills and stock vocabulary were generally on par. By the time university rolled around, my interests had swung from archaeology to the history of the Middle East, such that, rather than continuing Latin, I started learning Arabic instead. I stuck it out for one year, but was still, ultimately, a lazy student: I simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) motivate myself to do the required homework and memorisation necessary for learning a spoken language, despite the fact that learning a new script had proved a sinch – after all, I used to invent alphabets in class when I was bored, memorise them in that hour, then write to myself in that cypher for a day, or a week, or however long it took me to lose interest or start again. But vocal fluency is different. Historically, I’ve been unjustly apathetic in this regard, perhaps because I find it frustrating to have to actually work at acquiring a new language, when in almost every other discipline – the exception being maths, which I’ve never liked – I’m able to osmose comprehension with a comparative lack of effort, especially when interested in the subject. That’s the irony of native intelligence: without a competitive drive, learning becomes purely a matter of convenience. And I’m not a competitive person.

For a while, then, I stopped learning languages – until a few weeks ago, when a friend offered to teach a beginner’s course in Mandarin Chinese. I went to four or five of his classes, and had a good time: if nothing else, I can now count to ten in Mandarin, and at least in the short term, I can recognise certain words and written characters. As with Arabic, however, there’s a strong chance I’ll forget most, if  not all of it, although my track record suggests that if anything stays, it will be the numbers. This might seem paradoxical, given my dislike of maths, but remembering things in sequence is always easier than remembering them individually, at least for me.

Subsequently, since stopping the Mandarin classes, I’ve been thinking about my history with trying and failing to acquire new languages. I like the idea of being bilingual,  but short of actually moving to a non-English-speaking country, could I ever convince myself to put in the required effort? Certainly, I’m more dedicated now than I was then, and more patient; this time around, it was time constraints which caused the change of heart, not lack of interest. Which brings me back to Japanese, the first language I ever tried to learn, and the one which, oddly, I still have the most to do with. Although my foray into learning karate ended several years ago, I still remain extremely interested in anime. Since discovering anime and manga through a friend at the start of high school, I’ve never wavered in my affection for the genre, and although at times it’s been a secondary interest, I’m currently undergoing a surge of renewed fandom. Which makes me realise that, far from having forgotten the little Japanese I learned as a child, I’ve actually built upon it, albeit in a highly specalised area. Thanks to the catchy themes of shows like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion, I’ve taken the time to write down and memorise the written-English phoenetics to several Japanese songs, learning them by heart. Through comics, interested Googling and contextual exposure, I’ve picked up the various Japanese terms of address, the rules governing their usage, and a smattering of vocab. Cumulatively, this represents the greatest interest I’ve ever directed towards learning a language, despite having nothing to do with academics. And it’s been fun.

All of which leads me to conclude that, if I were to sit down as an adult and properly attempt a language, in my own time and of my own volition, I’d be well advised to try Japanese, coming full circle. And all for the geekiest, laziest possible reason. Which makes me grin.

Ah, irony!

I was in a fey mood last night, but ‘fey’ didn’t quite seem to cover it. Burdened with the need to update my Facebook status accurately and appropriately, I scanned my knowledge of the English language for a suitable adjective – fruitlessly. Finally, after many minutes of struggle, I put on my thinking boots and invented a new word: mnemencholy, derived from mneme (memory) and melancholy (sadness). Content at last, I slept.

On waking, I discovered that the illustrious Nick Harkaway, that well-known Englishman and little-known lexicographer, had already found my word and proceeded to blog a better definition for mnemencholia than I could possibly articulate. I am therefore stealing it; or rather, approving it for future usage. So, for those who are interested, mnemencholia (from mnemencholy) now officially means:

“Nostalgic sorrow brought on by recollection; melancholia triggered by an object, phrase, or scent and its associated memories; the wide sense of understanding and regret rising from the apprehension of one’s own history.”

Awesome.

I love the idea of neologisms. Above any other quirk, I cherish the malleability of the English language. It rewards linguistic creativity, and, indeed, encourages it. There’s something profoundly satisfying in creating or stumbling on a new term, particularly if we find it clever, or funny, or apt, or (especially) all three. I love that crazy, screwball, onomatopoeic slang like woot and clusterfuck can breed successfully in darkness, like forest mushrooms. I love that Shakespeare has left us with Shylock and seachange; that A. A. Milne gave us heffalump, tigger and wol; that crazy British aristocrats gave us sandwich, sundowner and pukka while equally crazy Londoners gave us yob and Cockney rhyming slang. I love that tactile imagery like whale tail, muffin top and bridezilla made their way to the dictionary, while gribblies, grock and meme are increasingly of the now.

What I don’t like, however, is corporate jargon. I shudder at every mention of swings and roundabouts, blue sky thinking, synergistics, action items or actioning tasks. Some people might (and, indeed, have) called that hypocritical, but the difference is one of joy and functionality. Corporate jargon doesn’t delight in itself. It isn’t clever, nor do buzzwords become popular because people enjoy their use. Rather, they become awkward, mechanical mainstays, often more cumbersome and less helpful than the plain language they replace. Technical jargon, in its proper sense, means words that are part of a specialised vocabularly, as in the medical, legal and IT professions, but this is not true of corporate jargon. It obfuscates, generalises, hinders. Many terms grow, not from playful creativity, but uncorrected malapropisms. Whereas slang is viral in the digital sense, passing rapidly by word of mouth through a series of enthusiastic adapters, corporate jargon is a virus in the medical sense, infiltrating healthy cells and using them to manufacture new infections, which then spread through a mixture of force, proximity and submission. Cliches, at least, began as sturdy concepts: their very effectiveness lead to overfamiliarity, like playing a favourite song so frequently that it becomes unbearable. The best mutate into aphorisms. Not so corporate jargon, which is propagated purely on the basis of necessity, and not effectiveness.   

In short, good language is just another way of thinking clearly, or creatively, or at all. Like all new things, neologisms need to be tested, experimented with, tried on – our choice of slang is just as relevant to our personalities as our taste in clothes, films or music, and yet, quite often, we fail to even make a conscious decision about the words we use, or the circumstances under which we use them. Language, it’s been said, is the most singular achievement of our species, and even without an alphabet, it’s still something unbelievably special.

So don’t take your speech for granted. Read up on collective nouns (they’re pretty awesome); put old words into new contexts; watch Joss Whedon shows; read Scott Westerfeld or Shakespeare or Kaz Cooke or Geoffrey McSkimming or anyone at all; think. But more than that, have fun.

It’s what words are for.

I’m thoroughly fed up with the deluge of patriotic, nationalistic advertising during the Olympics coverage. Top offenders include Telstra, with their motifs of manufacturedly-diverse Australians clustered around mobile phones to watch the Games; Qantas, with their children’s choir singing in the shape of a kangaroo about which island continent they call home; and Panasonic, who have shamelessly co-opted almost the entire swim team in order to sell more cameras. The Commonwealth Bank also rates a mention, not so much due to patriotism, but because their bizarre series of forcedly-post-modern, let’s-mock-American-marketeers-while-simultaneously-selling-home-loans commercials are currently broadcast on Channel 7 at the rate of approximately ten to the half hour.

When it comes to bafflement, however, Red Rooster takes the cake. Their most recent campaign slogan, ‘it’s gotta be red’, has been frotting around the airwaves for most of 2008, but has been quixotically altered in honour of the Olympics.  ‘Notice how well red goes with China?’ their ads ask – and for the life of me, I cannot tell whether irony is intended, or if the fact that red is traditionally synonymous with communism has managed to completely escape the marketing gurus of a giant American – that is to say, capitalist – corporation. Surely, a part of me thinks, this can’t be the case. Someone, somewhere must have pointed out that China’s flag is red for a reason. But if that be so, then the irony is unintended, and therefore equally perturbing in its implications: that a capitalist company has, on the one hand, publicly commented on how well communism suits China; and on the other, is now using this fact to sell chicken.

Truly, the mind boggles.

As another working week rolls to a close, I’m left with a few pressing, unanswered questions.

1. What is the difference between ‘terminate’ and ‘exterminate’?

I mean, if you terminate something, you end it. And if you exterminate something, you…also end it. Should extermination only apply to a group of things, possibly? But if so, then why do Daleks threaten to ex-terminate individuals? And why, when the meaning is almost identical, is the prefix ‘ex’ used? Ex means from, terminus means end, so exterminate feels like it should mean ‘from the end’. The end of what, Webster? The end of what?

Stupid language.

2. Why would anyone make a spoken email alert that sounds like an angry Cylon?

There are three people in surrounding cubicles whose email software, on receiving a new message, goes ‘bleep!’ and then intones, in a low, electronic, so-robotic-you-can-feel-the-corners synth-voice, ‘you’vegotamessgage’, providing the constant background fear of being laser-blasted into space dust. The question isn’t why the voice software exists, but why it’s apparently the default spoken setting on our office computers. It’s downright unsettling, and – even worse – not one of the people whose alert this is has ever heard of a Cylon, meaning that my brilliant Battlestar quips are utterly wasted.

3. 300 pigs have stampeded through a Victorian town.

They were headed for the slaughterhouse when the truck they were in tipped over. It’s like the Great Escape, only without Nazis. Wouldn’t it be fair if we let them go rather than rounding them back up – sort of a, ‘You win this time, pig, but I’ll be watching you!’ dealie? Poor little dudes. If only they weren’t so tasty.

Language, it seems, is fickle – or at least, her masters are. Here in the corporate world, an entire new subspecies of wordage has crept, deformed and malignant, into the common parlance: action has become a verb; blue sky thinking has replaced optimism; gamebreaking has replaced ground-breaking, despite the fact that their usage is identical; and the instruction to get across something no longer implies a physical manoeuvre. In highschool, I witnessed a similar phenomenon: knowledge outcomes, learning objectives and – shudder – juxtapositioning came to glisten with a slick, unholy patina from their over-use, misuse and general degradation at the hands of the NSW Board of Studies, so that by the time I entered University, I’d developed a healthy mistrust of official documents.

But jargon, as a concept, is hardly new: bright lads that they are, the world-wide amalgam of medical practitioners cottoned on centuries ago, when some wry descendent of Hippocrates worked out that you could have a different Latin name for each of twenty-six bones in the human foot, and if that name was made up of two words, well! – so much the better. Tradesmen have their own inventive dialouge, as do lawyers, gardeners, soldiers, engineers, computer scientists, regular scientists, mathemeticians, philosophers, psychologists and a wealth of other professionals. For all we might resent being told we have an Oedipus Complex or a ruptured laetissimus dorsi, we don’t object to this type of jargon so much as grumble at the need to have it explained. It would be hard to write a book lamenting that doctors and lawyers are largely unintelligible; but Don Watson has made a pretty penny lambasting the corporate, educational and political spheres for being just that.

And then there is slang. Words like hot and cool, despite being diametric opposites, have come to mean exactly the same thing; but no-one objects. Fluctuating with creative glee, cultural terms like bunnyboiler, whale-tail and muffin-top are happy cornerstones of multi-generational slang, while most families have at least one or two clan-specific terms that are either entirely made up or less widely used elsewhere. My own eccentric kin are particularly good at this: to use a few examples, dub means toilet; tataise indicates a pleasant drive with no planned destination; sneety describes any sleek, pointy, long-nosed dog, such as a Jack Russell, but can also refer to cars, pens and, occasionally, mobile phones; erfs are eggs; a Horace Horse-Collar is any loutish, genially ignorant male youth; turkeys are fools; nadger describes any visible skin complaint; old gougers are old men; and rendezvous is pronounced phoenetically – ren-dez-vus – ever since I tried it out that way at age seven, with hilarious results.

So what’s the difference?

Ultimately, it boils down to our base affection for language. We have no innate objection creating new terms for old concepts, provided we can take pleasure in the task, bending words in clever, funny, outrageous, inventive, ironic or downright incendiary ways. Popular usage filters out terms that don’t quite work, or provides other options where people disagree. Corporate jargon, on the other hand, is largely redundant, taking the place of other terms while being less fun to use. Language is bullied into new forms through a process devoid of creativity; quite often, it results from sheer ignorance as to how the words in question were originally meant to work. Corporate heirachy and protocol then force them into common usage with none of the usual social safeties, such as mocking terms we think are silly, correcting those which are foolish, or altering those with potential. True, this process doesn’t apply to medical or legal jargon, but that’s because those terms aren’t taking the place of anything more natural: they are specific and ultimate, surgical tools for delicate work.

For most people, being forced to use corporate jargon is a kind of cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine going to work one morning to discover that, overnight, your office has adopted a new policy on slang. Funderful has replaced good; jivin’ has replaced cool; and there are lots of fifty year-old white men attempting to call one another bro. The pain of this scenario is utter. My God, you would think, backing slowly towards the door. It’s all so…so…lame.

And you’d be right. For those of my readers who are no longer between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, remember the hideous embarassment you felt whenever a resident adult tried – oh, how they tried – to be hip, latching onto a word or phrase that had either gone out a decade ago or which, because they didn’t appreciate it was only cool when spoken by someone not trying to be cool, made you cringe with horror and check that they hadn’t been overheard, even in your own house. This is the reality of corporate jargon: a bitter combination of middle managers trying with zero success to be funky, idiots on all levels mangling tense, and enough yes-men to perpetuate the crime throughout all departments – yea, throughout the whole company and, verily, even the competition – until we are all ready to implode at the mere thought of human synergistics.

Bunch of turkeys and Horace Horse-Collars, all. Given my druthers, I’d send them home – Jason the Dog – with their hair aflunters.