Sunday, January 22, 2017

In which I exploit a tragedy in order to make people read a chapter of my failed novel


Celebrity deaths became something of a national fetish last year.  I remember taking to social media to mock the phenomenon, accusing the mourners of concern trolling, only to be stopped short the next day by the death of Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, a book I greatly valued as an adolescent.

I do think that some celebrity deaths, however, are objectively more tragic than others.  Those who die young, even as a result of bad decisions, never have the opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest extent, or to outgrow the traits that bring them pain.  Yordano Ventura, who died today at the age of 25, was one such individual.  In his short life, he demonstrated loyalty, compassion, and tremendous talent.  Having been brought together by the Kansas City Royals’ two recent pennant drives--both of which are owed in no small part to Ventura's contributions—the community mourns him today.

Kansas City has lost our share of athletic celebrities over the years; maybe a bit more than our share.  Joe Delaney was the one that impacted me most profoundly—I was 11 at the time—but there have been others.  Derrick Thomas.  Mack Lee Hill.  Dick Howser.

We all mourn in different ways.  I mourn, in part, by writing.  My failed YA novel, Axis of Eternity—yes, I’m aware that sounds like an off-brand cologne—involves a world in which humans both famous and obscure are reborn on a new world shorn of their earthly memories.  One of the more enjoyable aspects of writing the book was the opportunity to load it up with some of my favorite minor historical figures.  Buck O’Neill, a Kansas City baseball legend, plays a prominent supporting role.  Harriet Tubman’s there, too.  Angus McCaskill.  Others.

In one of my favorite chapters, a supporting character introduces the protagonist to the game of soccer.  His memory of the game’s rules isn’t quite perfect, but this in no way diminishes his enthusiasm.  I took the opportunity to load up the match with several of my favorite deceased Kansas City sports figures, along with some other personages of minor import.  Read it here, if you wish.  Kansas City sports fans of a certain age might recognize a few old friends. 

Should I ever get around to redrafting the thing, I’m sure the scene’ll involve a cameo appearance by a firey young man known to the citizens of Haven as “Angry Yordano.”

.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Resistance

I am interested in resistance to Donald Trump’s agenda, particularly where it impacts upon individual liberties. I suspect that my view of resistance is different than that of other Trump opponents. My priorities are that resistance be:

1. EFFECTIVE. I want to prevent Donald Trump from using government force to quash individuals. I’m not going to settle for less than this or for alternatives to this. I am not interested in “taking a stand” for its own sake, in “making my voice heard”, or in being seen as virtuous. For me, achieving none of these things while blocking federal action is superior to doing all of these things without blocking federal action.

2. PERSUASIVE. I am interested in Donald Trump’s supporters—in their concerns and welfare and in their right to express their sentiments. I am interested in seeing them brought back into the fold of civic discourse and into the body politic. To the extent that they have been victimized by cultural and economic trends that benefit the elite, I am interested in ameliorating their pain. I don’t think the road to a better America involves these people being “defeated” in a political sense. I have never heard of a person changing their mind as a result of being scorned or screamed at. This may be therapeutic, but it doesn't advance the goal.

3. HONORABLE. If American civic discourse is unpleasant or joyless, people will decline to participate in it. If the majority of people decline to participate in civic discourse it will be dominated by those who are willing to endure a joyless environment for the sake of power. This has proven a bad model for the selection of leaders. Donald Trump has increased the toxicity of civil discourse. I don’t wish to further that toxicity or to be a participant in the outrage economy. It’s unhelpful in the short term and only produces new Trumps in the long term.

That's where I'm at. If what you're looking for is displays of performative wokeness such as anti-Trump poems or angry petitions opposing the publication of books by alt-right figures, you've come to the wrong place.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Crowd Pleaser



I was surprised by how quickly they broke me.  I had thought I was mentally tough, inured against arguments and criticism.  It turns out that my toughness was a veneer.  The Crowd Pleaser—you know him as that guy who writes short stories and shuffles them off into the aether in the vain hope of publication--had always been lurking close to the surface of my soul, longing for the approval of his audience.  And now, faced with a cavalcade of boos, he’s sulking backstage, unsure of whether to venture out again, and unclear on where to find a different crowd.

#

I was always a competitor as a kid, but never an athlete.  My venue has always been competitive speech and debate.  I was very, very successful in high school, a two-time All-American and one of the best in my generation in the state of Kansas.  I found in the community of debaters a set of kindred souls, people with whom I could work in a spirit of mutual appreciation.  After a mediocre college career and a brief and disastrous foray into journalism, I pursued a teaching degree and became a debate coach.

I’ve been both good and bad at my job; quite good at my peak (multiple state champions and national medalists as recently as 2010) and quite bad lately.  The cutting edge of competitive debate is forged at the college level.  It tends to be a young person’s game.  For a while, I was that young person.  Later, I employed a few.  But my grip on the intricacies of debate theory slipped appreciably when postmodern philosophy and critical race theory, as opposed to policy analysis, became pivotal to the game.  Nor, as the demographics of my school changed, were my students able to spend thousands of dollars on summer institutes where they could learn from the top minds in the activity.  So I dropped behind the curve.  As I did so, I began to see the game with a different set of eyes.

For as long as there has been competitive policy debate, there have been outsiders within the broader community—kids whose skills, resources, time obligations or commitment level didn’t make it possible to succeed in the elite realms of the activity, where speech at upwards of 350 words per minute and reams and reams of expert evidence are the norms.  Their voice within the game is pretty slight, largely because the game self-selects its participants after a certain point.  Very few people are willing to stay around for a long time in the role of cannon fodder.  Fewer still are willing to do this when the activity becomes—and this is not too strong a description—vicious in terms of individual behavior and interpersonal courtesy.  Rounds at the top level are judged by former competitors who care for substantive argumentation more than for the norms of public discourse.  The competitors who succeed in this environment become tomorrow’s judges.  The spiral builds upon itself, until the elite rounds are in many cases brutal exercises in toxic masculinity.  Much lip service is paid to stamping out the uglier side of the game.  Explicit sexism and racism are rejected—the community is overwhelmingly politically progressive.  But in the end, the norms are defined by the survivors, and competitive rounds become increasingly unkind environments.  Even elite talents leave—but once they’re gone, their concerns by definition cease to matter.

As I became an outsider for the first time, I started to want to work towards the creation of an environment in which more traditional, delivery-oriented styles of debate could be rewarded—to create an enclave in which courtesy could thrive alongside analytical rigor.

But I also wanted to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the hardcore members of the Kansas debate community as they strove to win the state’s first-ever national championship in policy debate—to honor the kid and the coach I once was.  And to that end, I implemented several projects, such as the bid tracker which honors recipients of bids to the DCI, Kansas’s elite debate event.  And, more notably, the Kansas HS Debate twitter feed, @KSDebate.

#

The concept of debate community within Kansas had always been important to me.  My most cherished memory as a high school competitor was of the “War Room” at the 1989 National Tournament in which Kansas teams which had formerly gone head-to-head joined forces to elevate one of their own to the brink of a national title.  In 2007 the experiment was repeated; I was part of the operation as a coach and saw one of my own teams elevated into the top ten and another school’s repeat the 1989 achievement by reaching finals.

The time seemed right to bind together the broader community in pursuit of the top prize.  Other coaches were better at the tactical side of the game—sharing information, plotting strategies—so I dedicated myself to creating a mechanism by which common achievements could be shared in real time.  Twitter was still new at that time.  @KSDebate was born.  The account served as a common clearinghouse for results which were sent in by national tournament competitors and coaches in real time.  For the first time, there was one place to go to know how all of “team Kansas” was doing.

As the site grew, it became a place to share results of important invitationals as well—DCI bid qualifiers, DCI itself, the various state tournaments, out of state “national circuit” events.  Fans of the activity had in most cases gained the ability to follow their own squads, or those of their friends, through individual team Twitter accounts.  Now, through the collective account, they could follow other Kansas teams as well.  It did not occur to me, at the time, that people might not particularly care to do so—I assumed that everyone was rooting for everyone else.

There is, of course, an old aphorism about what happens when you assume.

#

The issue that had ultimately proved fatal to my career as a journalist was an inability to confine myself to the facts.  In stories about people in panda suits serving as school crossing guards, about social service outreach for the hearing impaired, about mock elections for elementary school students, I was constantly spicing up the writing through the insertion of material that made the story feel more “complete” to me.  It was never anything so obviously unethical as a fabricated quote; indeed, I got in considerably more trouble for quoting people accurately than anything else.  Instead, it was the “connective tissue” of the stories—the supporting facts of news events that seemed necessary for people to understand the events in question, and which I therefore offered by way of explanation, only to discover that my assumptions had been inaccurate.  I had been lazy.  I hadn’t fact checked.  I had allowed my desire to entertain my audience, to be recognized as a “good writer,” to wreck me.

As a Twitter account manager, I was rarely factually inaccurate.  But I was also unable to restrain my urge to entertain.  And entertainment, to me, was pointing to what I saw as the flaws and foibles of the debate community.




However lighthearted my intent, people do not enjoy having their tournament errors and political beliefs held up to mockery in an arena allegedly dedicated to “building community”.  Over time, I received more than one “stick to the facts” response to these commentaries.  I ignored them.  Grudges developed.  I made enemies of whom I was unaware.

I was also making enemies on another front.

#

As my own squad descended into decrepitude, as the game left me further and further behind, I became more and more concerned for the plight of those kids whom cutting edge debate had also left behind.  Funny, isn’t it, how our circle of compassion manages to extend to people like ourselves, but not an inch further?

The Debate Coaches Invitational meeting discussed the possibility of restoring a “traditional” debate division for students interested in a moderate rate of delivery and evaluation by parents, teachers, and other “nonexperts”.  Preeminent in the rationale of the proponents was an alternative to the casual cruelty which they—which WE—saw as common in bleeding-edge policy debate.  A broad consensus initially supported the concept of a new tournament along these lines.  The devil was in the details. Concerns about what, exactly, the tournament would look like killed the plan.  The coaches’ vote on the eventual formal proposal was evenly split, and hence, the proposal failed.

A large number of coaches, myself included, were outraged by this.  It occurred to me that it was unfair to ask next year’s seniors to lose their opportunity at recognition so that the coaches could feel 100% comfortable with the specifics of change.  It struck me as a paradoxically conservative behavior for such a politically progressive bunch—using fear of radical change as an excuse to ensure that the fruits of success were concentrated in the hands of their current owners.

I acted.  I created a social media group dedicated to the creation of a tournament to recognize traditional debaters.  A number of coaches coalesced around the idea, and recognizing the increasing toxicity of my own personal brand within the community (and my inability to work well with others), I elected to step aside and leave the event in their hands.  They’ve done quite well; the first championship is a sizable event among excellent teams and will be contested this coming weekend.

I did not understand how powerful the backlash against my behavior would be.  I cannot say in retrospect that I shouldn’t have acted as I did, but I should have been smarter about the anger I was generating.  People who’d held the monopoly on the recognition of “elite” debate in Kansas were seeing their authority diffused, usurped by a new gang who couldn’t compete at their game and who were, therefore, largely unworthy of respect.  A couple of those who'd objected were elite coaches, but a larger number were members of the college debate community--recent graduates who serve as assistant coaches and frequent judges, and who are in all reality the arbitrers of the “good” within Kansas debate.

It is not without justification that they fill this role.  The increased involvement of college debaters in the direct training of high school debaters has been the one indispensable element in the rise of Kansas debate to national prominence.  Head coaches commonly defer to them in questions of argumentative strategy and in-round behavior.  The collegians do the job they are called upon to do, and achieve the results they are told to achieve.  They arbitrate the important rounds, and decide what’s worthy of praise and what’s worthy of scorn.  And as time goes by, our community becomes more like theirs; closer to the cutting edge.

And the students, taught from their earliest days to revere the collegians as role models and heroes, trained by them at summer institutes and prepped by them for elimination rounds at in-season tournaments—well, the students are THEIRS.  They absorb both the collegians' tactics and their politics, and above all their assumptions about the good.  They become the leaders of the community, and the definers of what is in and out of bounds.

It should be stressed:  the collegians do none of this with the intention of gaining or wielding power.  They do it for the same reason I did it at the same age, and for the same reason I created the Twitter account:  to serve their community.  Theirs are the noblest of reasons. 

But their definition of the community, I would eventually come to realize, were narrower than mine.  And their norms were never my norms.

A couple of the collegians reacted to the creation of the traditional debate championship with public explosions of rage, expressed in social media.  A couple of others seethed silently and took passive-aggressive swipes at the rationale of the event when the opportunity arose.  A few, I think, took note of me, and of my role in the creation of this event and in social media, and wondered why an old man whose time had passed was presuming to speak for Kansas Debate.

I wonder now if it was evident to others how much anger I had created, how many people—students, college assistants, head coaches--chafed at what they saw as my arrogance.  It was invisible to me.  I thought I was serving the community.

A more professional individual could have kept the plates spinning longer.  Not forever, I don’t think, but for a while longer.

But I am not, at my core, much of a professional.  I had to express myself.  I had to be The Crowd Pleaser.

#

My Christmas tweet at @KSDebate, since deleted:  “Merry Christmas!  Remember, it’s distasteful to respond to Santa’s “Ho Ho Ho” with a feminism K.”

Fairly innocuous on its surface, I think.  And actually pretty clever, in a subtle way.  It points to the inability of some self-described feminists to distinguish actual oppression—including directly sexist discourse—from harmless behaviors that share similar appearances.  It's a behavior that produces a less effective feminism, one that comes across as spiteful and mirthless.  And the best bit of the joke is:  if you treat the joke as sexist, if you fail to understand how a guttural expression of amusement is not the same thing as a slur aimed at women, you give evidence of the exact inability to make distinctions that the joke references.  You make yourself the butt of the joke.

I thought so, anyway, I STILL think so, in fact.

But then, I saw the joke through a different lens than others did.

Specifically:  I didn’t see myself as a patriarchal figure wielding arbitrary authority through the power of a Twitter account, actively seeking to control and undermine other people’s discourse.  Those who DID see me that way read the tweet…well…differently.  With a great deal of rage and anger.  “Merry Christmas to everyone but you!  Choke on it!”  And plenty more, in the same vein.

I still did not understand how other people’s perception of the power dynamics involved differed from my own.  I saw myself as a minority figure challenging a majority view through humor.  I thought I was the rebel alliance.  They saw me as the Death Star, out to kill feminism.

The intention of the account was to unify the debate community.  I was, instead, creating friction and pain.  On Christmas day, no less.  That hadn’t been what I wanted.  I deleted the Tweet to prevent others from having their enjoyment ruined by it.  To those who were bothered, this wasn’t an effort at amelioration.  It was an effort to cover up evidence of my crime.

I took a break from Twitter to re-evaluate.  I would seek consensus the next time out.  I would try to make reference to the common activity, to the bond which, whatever our political and philosophical differences, produced us all.  To the history of the game that made us what we were.  For once, no comedy.  I would seek to restore community.

#

New Year’s Day.  A fresh start.  And a post at another popular account asking who should be inducted into a hypothetical Kansas Debate Hall of Fame.

Perfect.  The history of Kansas debate is kind of my specialty.  I think it is probably fair to say that I have studied it as thoroughly, and know it as intimately, as any man living.  I can tell you who won the inaugural Kansas state debate championship in 1911.  I can name every member of the five Kansas teams that have contested the NFL national title.  I had something to contribute here.

Moreover, I had been reading the online discussions related to the baseball Hall of Fame, and the questions associated with induction and character.  Do you let in the steroid cheats?  What about the overt criminals and perjurers?  What case do you make to exclude them in a world where Ty Cobb, an inveterate racist who once beat up a double amputee, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

There were all sorts of interesting issues to be debated.  Here we go!  Here’s my contribution.  The first of five posts:  the coaches’ wing of the Kansas Debate Hall of Fame as I’d envision authorities creating it.

All extraordinarily successful coaches.  Some of the I cut at the last minute were those of legends.

The final name on the list is that of Richard Young.  A good case can be made for him as the most successful coach in Kansas history.  More than any coach in the state’s history, he won regardless of conditions.  In western Kansas at schools with less than 200 students, at the state’s largest inner city high schools, and everywhere in between—the state’s most consistent and inevitable winner.

And a convicted serial rapist of children whose conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Which was, in all probability, why he coached in so many places.  Why he couldn’t keep a job in spite of all the winning. Unbeknownst to us all, he was being passed like a bad penny from district to district by cowardly administrators who wanted him gone but wouldn’t put themselves at risk of a lawsuit by telling the next set of administrators why.

I suppose I could argue that I hadn’t been thinking of this fact when I composed and narrowed my list.  But that would be a lie.  I had.  I included him because I believed that we were debaters setting the terms for a debate.  I had provided a list of those coaches who would have been inducted under the terms used by professional sports halls of fame.  But that had not been the prompt I was answering.  I had answered a prompt that asked who I PERSONALLY WOULD INDUCT by saying I would induct Richard Young.

The first person to reply to this tweet was, very possibly, the best assistant coach in Kansas.  One of those college kids, in fact.  Assistant coach of his own brother, who had won last year’s national championship—yes, after a hundred years, Kansas debate had finally climbed that mountain!

The last name of this coach, and of his champion brother, was that of their father.  Their father had changed his own name from “Young” because of the absolute havoc that Richard Young’s behavior—including, according to trial testimony, incestuous homosexual rape—had wrought upon their family.

The post I’d lightheartedly proffered for debate and discussion was predicated on the greatest personal tragedy of this coach's father’s life.

“Utterly disgusting and indefensible,” he called it.  And as I read, and realized, and felt my body go numb in response, I could not disagree.





It could not possibly be the case, could it, that people who I’d been working to serve for so long—the community I’d sought to build—thought I was celebrating child rape?  SURELY the context was clear?

Well…I don’t have permission to post the responses.  But you can go through them on your own, if you wish, and count the likes.

I had, of course, failed to bargain with a number of factors.  One of which is—and I will be blunt here, because I will defend the truth of this argument to the death—is the very nature of Twitter.  When I initially joined it with the idea of creating an instantaneous outlet for debate results, Twitter was broadly seen as a means by which live news could be shared.  Today, it is an integral part of the outrage economy, and a means to generate support via virtue signaling.  And oh, my, hadn’t I opened the door to that.  The counter-tweets went viral, and the enemies of rape culture swarmed, eager to outdo one-another.  There were a lot of good arguments about how my initial post was Flawed and Wrong, some of which I myself quickly came to endorse.  But there was also a BLIZZARD of virtue-signaling and like-trolling. 

I had acted callously.  But I had relied upon the assumption that readers would assume my good faith at the outset; that it would be understood that I was one of the “good guys”.  A guy who’d worked for seven years to glorify the accomplishments of Kansas debaters, including and especially women in the activity.  I had thought that was how I was broadly seen.

But I was wildly wrong.  I had given too many people too many different reasons to question my motives.  I was broadly seen as a vainglorious popinjay with no meaningful recent achievements who wielded his Twitter feed as a stick to hit kids with.  And in particular, I was seen by many among the college cohort as a broken-down old-schooler who was engaged in an active attempt to undermine the achievements of the state’s elite contemporary debaters.

And there would be no presumptions of good faith on my part.

None whatsoever.

“Rape apologist.”

“Racist.”

“Everything that’s wrong with Kansas Debate.”

And the poll, responded to by a healthy chunk of the community, advocating my “removal” as sponsor of the Kansas Debate feed—the one I’d created from scratch and built over seven years.  I have no idea what that "removal" was supposed to entail, whether they had in mind some kind of impeachment procedure or whether they thought a twitter account was an actual physical location that I could be hoisted out of with a crane, or what.  In any event, the proposition passed by a margin exceeding that of the Johnson-Goldwater election.

I was surprised by how quickly they broke me.  By how fragile I turned out to be.  By the descent of insomnia, and by how much I came to dread each new chime from my cell phone as a tweet came in.  By how much I took all of it to heart—not just the rational objections, of which there were several but also the stuff that was just plain dumb: the ludicrous overreactions, the assertions of hidden motives by people I’d never even met.  I was surprised by what I saw, at the time, as the undoing of everything I'd sought to build, based on the inclusion of a single name in a single tweet.

I was wrong, of course.  The tweet struck the match.  But the kindling had been piling up for years.

The Crowd Pleaser had been present always, eager for everyone’s applause.  He had been sure that his attempts at cleverness had been appreciated—not by all, maybe, but surely by most?  In his version, others saw his antics as he saw them—as an effort to pay back and glorify the community that had nurtured him, rather than as an artifact of ego.

Like a shitty journalist, The Crowd Pleaser invented facts to suit the story he wanted people to buy. 

#

At the end of the day, there was no possible way to recover even a semblance of good faith.  It all had to go.

You can read the post here, on the site which I originally created to track the DCI bids of the state’s most elite, modern, cutting-edge teams.  It went up a few hours after the initial disastrous tweet—long before the majority of the tweet hurricane unfolded, but far too late to make any difference.

I don’t have much to add to it.  The reasoning of the tweet was dumb and careless for the reasons listed.  The apology will be proffered.  The relationship to the broader community is changed in ways I cannot yet guess at, and the Twitter site is ended.  The college kid who’s building a new site for the same purpose is actually going to do a very good job, I think.  He’s always been invested the glory of the Kansas debate community and worked to support it at every level, including those elements that don’t share his stylistic preferences or ideology.  And he's a smart kid.  He’ll make better decisions than I did.

DCI is next week.  I have to be there because my novices are competing at an event at the same site.  I have never in my life so dreaded the prospect of walking into a building and looking people in the face.  I don’t say this out of shame, because few of my actions have actually been shameful.  They have, however, been delusional.  My eyes are open, and I dread what they’ll see—particularly when I see my reflection in the eyes of others.

I don’t know what I do next.  Debate in some form, probably.  Certainly I want to teach young people how to persuade and how to argue while at the same time rejecting spite, cruelty, and moral certainty.  In spite of the letters and emails they’ve received, my administrators seem inclined to keep me on as coach.  Maybe I will have to build something completely new.  A new way of thinking about debate.  A new activity.  A new community.

I’ll think on it.  And, in my spare time: more writing.  Perhaps a tragedy, this time.  The story of a guy who sets out to do good, but who’s undone by blindness to the flaws in his own nature.

But then, I've been writing that book for a long time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

What I Can Control

"Worry about what you can control," I tell my students, over and over.
Today I wait for the people of my state--people who have always been kind to me and forgiving of my foibles, people who give generously to charity and serve their communities and nation abundantly--to make a horrendous mistake. To endorse for the Presidency a man whose values are utterly alien to their own. To drop a dookie on America's civic lawn.
I cannot control their behavior. I can control my own. I can recognize that my own frequently-expressed contempt for these people and their cultural and religious norms has been a contributing factor in their decision--that I have made it difficult for people to want to share a nation with people like me.
I can recognize that I have been dismissive of the pain caused by the disintegration of the American working class under the pressures of globalization. That I am largely insulated from the very real costs incurred by economic and social progress, and that others are paying the price for my moral and physical comfort.
I can recognize that, as someone who broadly shares the values of the American cultural elite, I could stand to be a bit less superior about it, and that tolerance is often a virtue which I apply selectively.
I can recognize that, for a guy who talks a lot about persuasion, I'm often not very good at it. And that I talk better than I listen. 

I'm not a fan of"safe spaces" as a concept, but I think it's probably time for me to recognize that there need to be arenas in American life where people can come together without feeling like they're under psychological assault. We need those spaces, at this moment, more than we need my personal political and moral preferences.
I will work towards reconciliation, and I'm OK with being held to that. Feel free to blow the whistle.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Silent Screams



The book is an unusual one thematically, as its hook is “socially conscious dark fiction”—which is to say, horror and near-horror stories with an emphasis on disadvantaged protagonists.  On the surface, this would put it outside of my comfort zone both as a writer and reader.  I have no particular fondness for horror in any medium (I find it generally gratuitous and artless and it very rarely scares me) and, while I care about social justice conceptually, I am accustomed to seeing issues of “social consciousness” approached in a preachy and adversarial manner that turns me off.

I was therefore surprised when the editors of the work elected to accept my contribution to the anthology, “A Boy and a Soldier.”  My story is a further fleshing-out of Fabrice’s journey to freedom in the company of his child-soldier companions and disembodied advisor, as first chronicled in "The Commander".  This tale is more adult in tone, focuses more extensively on Fabrice’s human allies and adversaries, and goes to darker places.  I wouldn’t categorize it as full-on horror so much as straightforward fiction with dark elements.

I don’t know why the Fabrice stuff sells so much more readily than the rest of my work; if I did know, I’d be a better writer.  Perhaps it’s because it’s more action-forward that most of what I write.  Perhaps it’s because Fabrice is a more immediately sympathetic and admirable protagonist than most of the conflicted, messed up people through whom I speak.  Perhaps the voice is more distinctive, or perhaps we Americans just love us some cultural appropriation.  In any case, it’s a solid story of which I’m proud.

And then I read the whole collection, and I’ll just be damned if my story isn’t maybe the weakest thing in it.

These are STRONG stories, my people.  Rich, visceral, imaginative, well-crafted and emotionally resonant, right across the board.  My initial concerns about the genre approach and possible political angling of the book were blown right out of the water.  These aren’t just horror stories, but stories of every type and style—everything from lit fic to heroic fantasy, seasoned with dark elements but not overwhelmed by the desire to “get dark”.  They’re enjoyable reads in which the nasty side makes you think, as opposed to grossing you out.

Nor are these predictable defenses of progressive orthodoxy against the usual cultural straw-men—there’s a variety of perspectives included, everything from standard feminist to stridently anti-abortion.  The stories have points to make, but they’re never artless in doing so.  The touch of the authors is deft, the allegories clear but subtle, the victims worthy of sympathy regardless of one’s position on the political compass.  If you come away from this screaming about “SJWs”, I daresay the problem is with you, not with the book.

Parenthetically, I will add for the benefit of the high school speech instructors among my readers that there is some very intriguing prose/DI material herein.

I can’t guarantee you’ll love everything in the book, but I’ll bet you respect damn near all of it.  And there’s enough really good writing here that predicting your individual favorite is probably next to impossible.  For me personally, three pieces stand out.



-“THE MAIDEN WITH THE CLOCKWORK HANDS” by Rachel Strnad.  This tale, apparently set in an alternative 19th century, places a monster hunter from the Pacific Northwest and his motley companions aboard a most unconventional vessel, and turns them loose in search of two quarries—a man with a fondness for silence, and a beast that makes Moby Dick seem tame.  In doing so, it creates a subgenre all its own, a sort of paranormal-infused steampunk.  I’m not overly fond of paranormal OR steampunk, yet Strnad’s world is much better than the sum of its parts; it’s utterly captivating, revealing its wonders and the mechanics of its technological, natural, and pseudo-magical systems in stages.


-“A PRESENTATION TO THE IMPERIAL SOCIETY OF MANCERS” by Stephen S. Power.  Clinical detachment is a prerequisite to successful science and to human progress generally, yet to sever ourselves from our emotions makes us in some respects less than human.  It’s from this dichotomy that the traditional take on the “mad scientist” springs.  Here, the author yanks us in an unexpected direction, creating a world of heroic fantasy into which technology is being slowly introduced, ala Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett, however, never dreamed up a narrator as soul-sick as the twisted bastard Power offers as the author of this scientific journal submission.  Utterly revolting, and disturbingly insightful.


-“RAW” by Shane Simmons.

Oh, sweet Jesus.  Where to begin with this thing?

I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a fan of traditional horror; that I don’t find it scary and that I often find it manipulative.  Well…this IS traditional horror.  And I suppose that, in technical terms, you’d have to call it manipulative.  But HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, did it ever succeed at manipulating me.

It’s about a mobster who visits a restaurant.  More than that I will not reveal, because it would spoil the “fun”, and because I’d rather not think about it any more than I have to.  Suffice to say that, over the course of eighteen pages, I twice had to get up from my computer and go do something else for a while.  This is not a story for the sensitive or the squeamish.  I am neither, and this story WRECKED me.

I hesitate to say that a story in a small-market collection is the best piece of horror fiction I’ve ever read.  That doesn’t seem like it ought to be true.  But I can’t recall another ever having as visceral an effect on me. 

Shane Simmons, you sick f*ck.  You’ll win awards for this.





There’s more, folks.  There’s much, much more.  Twenty-six stories in all, each with a unique style and a particular way of providing a voice to society’s victims.  Every cent you spend on this anthology goes straight to the Salvation Army, to help some of those victims pick themselves back up again.  But believe me, it’s primarily for your own sake that you’ll want to buy this one.  It’s great.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Dear Publisher,

I have received you recent rejection notice.  It is extremely well-written and imaginative, but I'm afraid it's just not what I'm looking for right now.  Consequently, I'm going to have to publish my short story in your magazine/anthology/website/newsletter/loose sheaf of crumpled notebook paper anyway.

Please bear in mind that even an excellent rejection letter will not meet the tastes of every writer.  As I'm sure you're aware, I receive MANY rejection letters, and can only accept a small percentage. I am confident that you will find a home for your work very soon with another reputable author.

Best wishes going forward, and I hope you will bear me in mind for future rejections.

-Steve DuBois

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Sharp Ends" by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie has a reputation as one of the grimmest, darkest, most brutal figures in modern heroic fantasy.  His debut effort, the First Law trilogy, opened up readers to characters with deep-seated psychological flaws, empires which were not so much led as jerked in varying ineffectual directions by competing political factions, and utter ambiguity as to who might be the hero or the villain.  After a brief and mostly successful sojourn in Young Adult literature, he has returned to the world of his original fantasy novels, and seems to be seeking to make up for lost time.  Sharp Ends offers up all of the sex and violence his YA Shattered Sea trilogy couldn’t, with a few dollops extra to spare.  With Abercrombie, that’s very much a good thing.


THE GOOD AND THE GREAT:

*VIOLENCE!!!  If there’s anybody writing who’s better at portraying graphic violence on the printed page, I don’t know who it might be.  Abercrombie’s battle scenes are brusque, direct, and precise; the action is smooth and visceral, playing out in continually imaginative and surprising ways.  His style is more hyper-realistic than strictly realistic, which is a bit of a surprise from an author who confines himself so rigidly to realistic motives in his descriptions of human behavior; his point of view characters have always had a capacity to absorb damage or evade blows that verges on the superhuman, and here he goes even bigger, with characters occasionally plucking arrows from midair and the like.  The important thing is that it works.  It works like all hell.  Abercrombie is a very rare author in that he can alter his use of violence to suit the tone of the story, from horror to disgust to ennui even to outright comedy.  If there’s an objection to be offered here, it’s that violence seems to be a lot more “fun” than used to be the case in Abercrombie’s work.  Previous entries consistently kept careful track of the emotionally stunting effect of violence upon its practitioners; this time out, both old characters and particularly new ones seem to be pretty comfortable shrugging off the disembowelments they impose upon others, with the notable exception of old favorite Bremer dan Gorst, who appears to be headed in the opposite direction.  In any case, readers who don’t care for violence should steer well clear.

*PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT.  Abercrombie’s point-of-view characters are consistently complex and intriguing.  Every action that takes place in an Abercrombie story proceeds realistically from the motives of the participants; there is rarely anything forced or any need of a plot McGuffin.  People don’t always know what they want, let alone what’s best for them, and even those who get what they want often find that maybe they didn’t want it after all.  Abercrombie understands both at an intellectual and an intuitive level the many ways in which we disappoint both ourselves and others.  And yet…for all that Abercrombie is celebrated for his grim, dark style, he understands joy and satisfaction equally well.  His characters change and grow; they experience wonderful friendships, achieve impressive things, are celebrated for what’s best in them (though not perhaps as often as for what’s worst in them).  Some may call Abercrombie grim; I call him insightful.

*DIALOGUE.  I maintain that readers don’t want characters that talk like real people; they want characters who talk the way they WISH real people talked.  Well, here are those characters, in great numbers, spouting quote-worthy quips left and right.  Everyone will have a particular favorite, I suppose; of the members of the author’s rogue’s gallery represented herein, I’ll opt for the autistic henchman Friendly and the newly introduced Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp.

*FRITZ LEIBER LIVES!  Abercrombie’s newest revelation, and the best reason to publish this book, is the partnership between the aforementioned Javre, a human wrecking machine and creature of insatiable appetite, and Shevedieh, a master thief who’s never happy unless she’s miserable.  The two of them have a distinct Fafhrd/Grey Mouser vibe going, and a series of short stories is EXACTLY the right manner in which to keep them moving forward together; we’re presented in Sharp Ends with a series of adventures spanning fourteen years of common history, and there’s plenty of room for Abercrombie to fill in blanks with more stories later on.  Two of the Jav/Shev stories, “Skipping Town” and “Two’s Company,” run neck-and-neck for the best thing in the book.  This is fun, fun stuff.


THE MEH:

*POUNDING CONCEPTS INTO THE GROUND.  Yes, Shev, we get it, you’re a lesbian.  It’s not necessary to remind us every third page (and hey, Joe, whatever happened to "show, don't tell", wink wink, nudge nudge).  By the same token:  the “sidekick” gag is very, very funny when it’s first introduced, then gets worn out through repetition--Abercrombie uses it to suggest that Javre is subtler than she appears, but in this case I'd prefer more subtlety from the author as opposed to the character. 

*INACCESSIBILITY.  There is some stuff in here that fans of Abercrombie’s early work will absolutely ADORE but which will completely confuse anyone who hasn’t read the antecedent work.  Notable on this score is the opener, “A Beautiful Bastard,” which provides some very, very revelatory context for the relationship between Salem Rews and Sand dan Glokta (the single greatest character Abercrombie has ever created, and one who I’d love to see get more attention).  It’s impossible to imagine, though, that people who haven’t read the First Law trilogy will get anything out of the story.  The same is true of the last story, “Made a Monster,” which explores the history of Abercrombie’s most popular character from the perspective of an antagonist.  For those familiar with how their relationship ends, the story makes sense.  For an outsider, though, I have to think that there’s not much satisfaction to be gained here.  If you’re having a banquet of Abercrombie, treat “Sharp Ends” as the dessert rather than the appetizer.

*HARD TIMES ALL OVER.  This worked, mostly, as a stand-alone story in George R. R. Martin’s “Dangerous Women” anthology.  It doesn’t work here.  It PARTICULARLY doesn’t work in that it rewrites the dynamic between Shev and supporting character Carcolf which Abercrombie has spent the past hundred and fifty pages establishing.  And no, an “unreliable narrator” isn’t sufficient to explain the differences as they’re presented here.  I’m guessing that Abercrombie wrote this story first, had second thoughts about who Shev was, and wrote her team-ups with Javre later on, then felt compelled to include this story in the volume anyway.  It was the wrong decision.

*COLLECTIONS OF TICS MASQUERADING AS CHARACTERS.  This isn’t really a weakness in Abercrombie’s writing so much as an offshoot of his strengths.  We see so much depth in his point-of-view characters that some of his less developed secondary characters come across as more two-dimensional than they otherwise would.  Carcolf falls into this category.  If we’re being completely honest, Javre does as well, at times, but Abercrombie is clearly having so much fun writing her that the reader won’t care.


OVERALL:  

It’s Abercrombie.  It’s the First Law.  Nobody else does the stuff he does as well as he does it.  Of COURSE you’re gonna want to read it.  My advice, though, is to read it last.  If you haven’t already, go buy “The Blade Itself” and work your way in the direction of this book.  You don’t, after all, begin at the Ends.