Irrelevant Fantasy

In the Guardian recently, fantasy author “Robin Hobb” (real name Margaret Ogden) is quoted as saying, “Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”

I strongly disagree—I think readers and writers of fantasy alike should be highly embarrassed, and that includes writers as popular as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and as feckless as Lidia Yuknavitch, whose very poorly written The Book of Joan is briefly reviewed below.

The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com
The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com

Fantasy fans should be embarrassed because what they do has no bearing on reality, be it the reality described by astrophysics or the inner life of the mind. There is only the sketchiest, most tangential connection to real world concerns and problems. Fantasy enthusiasts are estranged from these concerns and problems, or hiding from them. They are children playing games of make-believe. They are fleeing adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to strive to make some sort of sense of the world.

I realize there are people who enjoy the genre, and these folks will obviously disagree quite strongly with what I’m asserting here. But consider: we as human beings have not yet gained the abilities to fully understand the universe we inhabit. Why waste time creating imaginary worlds that invariably pale in comparison to the mysteries of our own? It strikes me as an abdication of sorts, like a child turning his back on other children and retreating to a corner to play by himself.

I suspect deep psychic pain may make fantasy attractive for some people, as the genre offers a way to escape from the known world without the extreme of actually, physically quitting it. This is likely so in Yuknavitch’s case; the author apparently had a deeply traumatic childhood and the world limned in The Book of Joan features supernaturally strong women as a probable consequence. I can understand and respect this. But I can’t respect the way it’s done.

The following critique relates to The Book of Joan and extends to fantasy in general.

  • It’s intellectually lazy. Read this description of the scenario Yuknavitch sets up: “CIEL was built from redesigned remnants from old space stations and science extensions of former astro and military industrial complexes. We who live here number in the thousands, from what used to be hundreds of countries. Every single one of us was a member of a former ruling class. Earth’s the dying clod beneath us. We siphon and drain resources through invisible technological umbilical cords. Skylines. That almost sounds lyrical.” CIEL and skylines are key to the core plot of the book, yet we are supposed to take them on faith. Redesigned remnants and invisible technological umbilical cords. OK, got it.
  • It’s badly written. A sample: “‘Okay! You have my attention,’ I yell. The walls echo back at me. ‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice merely ricochets around. I walk closer to the wall. I put my hands against it; solid matter. ‘Nyx?’ Nothing. Just the vanishing points in the cave where light gives way to shadow.
    Then it’s Nyx’s voice: ‘Please take care to move slowly; you are not exactly among the living.’
    What the fuck does that mean? Not exactly among the living?”
  • It’s pointless. Various attempts have been made to link this … novel of a reimagined Joan of Arc to today’s controversies and dangers. All of these attempts are nonsense. The book has no bearing on today whatsoever. It’s pure escapism, for those who can buy into its lazy premises and tolerate its clumsy narrative and preposterous (yet clichéd) plot.

I really don’t mean to single out The Book of Joan for special abuse; for all I know, it may be one of the better recent fantasy novels. I think HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has all of the flaws found in Yuknavitch’s novel and then some. It’s every bit as irrelevant and yet it is wildly popular. In a similar vein, Donald Trump is completely unqualified for any sort of leadership role and yet he is President.

There are other, better ways to stretch your fictional boundaries, if that’s what you feel impelled to do. Science fiction? For sure. Speculative fiction? Absolutely. But fantasy? Sorry, no.

Poetry and Programming

When I worked as a web developer, Sublime Text came out of nowhere (Australia, actually) to become enormously popular. I understand it remains popular still, though I believe the newer program Atom has also gained a lot of adherents. One of the best things about Sublime Text, though, in addition to its name, is its flexibility—flexibility that extends to making the program a suitable environment for writers.

Sublime Text as a programming editor.
Sublime Text as a programming editor.

For years, I’ve heard stories about writers adopting Sublime Text in place of some other software. Indeed, the Sublime Text site now bills the program as “a sophisticated text editor for code, markup and prose.” Having used Sublime Text as a developer, I decided to give it a go as a writer. It works remarkably well. For shorter forms of writing, especially poetry, it is superb.

Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.
Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.

The “minimap” feature (which the recently reviewed Write! app also uses) is very helpful in longer narratives, as it lets you visualize where a current line fits into the larger story. For my money, though (speaking of which, Sublime Text retails for $70—this gives you a license to use the software on all your computers, regardless of whether they’re running Windows, macOS or Linux), the program’s real killer feature is its exceptionally configurable layout.

Sublime Text for writers—comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.
Sublime Text for writers: comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.

I like to compare multiple versions of my work as I move toward a final draft, and Sublime Text’s vertical columns feature (you can have as many as four columns) lets me view multiple versions side-by-side. This is especially useful for poetry, since it provides a direct line-by-line comparison.

Sublime Text’s programming heritage remains evident in some ways, but writers should not feel unduly intimidated by this. For example, you need to configure preferences via individual files, and you also need to add a few plugins to make Sublime Text a solid environment for writing.

You can install the necessary plugins via the program’s Package Control feature. Only four are really needed: Markdown Editing, Pandoc (which lets you export your Sublime Text work to Microsoft Word), Side Bar (a better replacement for the default sidebar) and Word Count.

If setting up Sublime Text seems a bit too hands-on, then there are plenty of other solid writing apps out there, including the aforementioned Write! But if you like the idea of customizing your writing environment, and the capability of directly comparing multiple versions of your work appeals to you, you’ll find Sublime Text very satisfying. You may even find it sublime.

High on Antiphon

I recently published a poem in Antiphon, the estimable UK online poetry magazine. Although the poem’s title is “High,” the heading of this post refers to the magazine as a whole—it is simply excellent, and serves as a wonderful antidote to today’s bleak morning headlines.

Antiphon issue 21—a labor of love.
Antiphon issue 21—a labor of love.

Antiphon is edited by Rosemary Badcoe (who is also the magazine’s designer) and Noel Williams, and it is an obvious labor of love. Each issue (which the magazine’s website notes is archived by the British Library) features a wide range of poetry, with careful attention paid to sound, rhythm and image. The magazine is friendly towards metrical and non-metrical work, and its editors have very good ears. Some of the standout poems in this new issue (no. 21) include “The Weather We Call Raw” and “Sylvia’s Games” by David Troupes, “A catch-all” by Patrick Theron Erickson, “A Bag of Frozen Kidney Beans” by Burgi Zenhaeusern, “C282Y” by Susan L Leary and “Afterwards” by Anthony Watts. There are a number of other very good poems as well. The tone nods toward the traditional but standards are quite high (no pun intended). You won’t find any Michael Robbins poems here. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Robbins; he simply operates with a different set of criteria in mind.

Ms. Badcoe says, in her prologue to this issue, that she disagrees with the idea that all poetry is political. I concur—politics tends to coarsen language and ideas, and never more so than today. I’ve spent far too much time recently thinking and writing about political issues. It is enormously liberating to take another path and come at the world and its meanings from a different angle.

Poetry is an endangered species these days. I read recently that fewer than seven percent of American adults read it at all. This is highly unfortunate, because poetry has a special role to play in fostering greater understanding.

Again, Rosemary Badcoe: “Poetry is subtle, and takes the long view, the intensely focused close view, the light-bent-around-a-corner view. It uses precise, carefully observed language and appreciates nuance and differences and similarities. There are better ways to protest than to write a poem, I’d contend, but writing a poem is one way of expressing the complexity of a world that others would try to reduce to sound-bites.”

I’m delighted to be published in Antiphon. I’ll reproduce “High” here eventually but I’d like to give the magazine exclusivity until their next issue appears. In the meantime, the Antiphon blog features audio recordings of many of the poems in this issue, including mine.

Is America Possible?

It’s an urgent question today, and I fear the answer is likely “no,” although I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. This compelling message from Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party offers some interesting food for thought. I reproduce it here in observance of the Fourth.

July 4th is upon us. We’re all excited to spend time with friends and family grilling at BBQs and watching fireworks.

Is America possible? Image: flickr.com.

But as we celebrate our nation’s foundational myth, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with some of the darker parts of our story. The 4th of July in 1776 was a moment of revolution and democracy, but also a moment of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.

This founding tension is still with us today. We do ourselves no favors by closing our eyes to its presence in our lives. If we’re going to live in a country where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need to have important, difficult conversations about how we build an America that will truly live up to its promise for everyone.

As we gather this July 4th, let’s try to answer the difficult question author Michelle Alexander asked in November: “Is America Possible?”

“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What many of us have been attempting to do—build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide—has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done. Is America Possible?”1

We know these conversations can be difficult to have. Try to approach this conversation from a place of personal connection and shared values, and understand that without this important work, we cannot have real change. We know it’s tough, but it’s worth it.

We’ve made a list of conversation starters to get you going:

  • What is your experience of freedom? How is your experience of freedom different from other folks? What are things you can do that others can’t?
  • What kind of America do you want to live in? What’s keeping that America from being possible for everybody?
  • What can we do to make our neighborhoods and communities safe for people of color? What are you doing to stand up for racial justice? If you’re part of a resistance group, how are you working with groups led by people of color?
  • How do we build communities where both safety and justice are the norm? How do police interact with different communities? What are alternatives to calling the police?

Having this conversation is a national tradition. On Independence Day in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”2

The U.S. was built by slaves, immigrants, and working people of all races for a small class of wealthy, white male land owners on land stolen from native peoples. This legacy of slavery, colonization, and exploitation still lingers today—in the shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles and lack of justice, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in the poverty of Appalachian coal towns and abandoned neighborhoods of post-industrial cities, in the construction of a dangerous pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

It lingers in our national myths that anyone can secure a prosperous future with enough grit and hard work —never mind the generations of public policies and corporate practices from Jim Crow to redlining to predatory lending to subprime mortgages to “too big to fail” that have put that prospect of security out of reach.

If we’re going to build an America that looks like the one we have in our hearts, we need to get to work today—and that work starts by acknowledging our past and creating a shared vision with one another.

I hope you and your family have a happy July 4th.

Amanda Johnson

Sources:

1. Michelle Alexander, Facebook. Nov. 13, 2016.

2. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”

Amanda and the Working Families Party ask that you pledge to have a conversation about America with your friends and family.

Of course, the real conversation needs to take place with people who are not your friends and family. Good luck with that.