The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

31 January 2020
by skzb

Selections from an Historian’s Diary

Nov 22: Talked to Bob today, and, wouldn’t you know it, he brought up that goddamn 1619 thing again. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. No, I will NOT commit career suicide. Let the rest of them fight it out.

Nov 30: Christmas party at Christine’s. Guess what EVERYONE WANTS ME TO WRITE ABOUT????  Maybe I’ll move to Tibet and become a monk.

Dec 2: Talked to my mother today. Guess what SHE had on her mind? Et Tu, mater? You’d think she, at least, would understand. If I attack the 1619 Project, the internet falls on my head, we probably lose funding, and the University puts me on the Volleyball Recruitment Committee forever.  If I defend the project, I lose all credibility as an historian.

Dec 5: Okay, no, I can do this. I’m the editor of a renowned historical journal. I’ve got mad skills.  I just need a kind of flippant, “what’s all the fuss about?” attitude, shade a few things, make a few implications.  I mean, it isn’t ignoring history, right? It’s emphasizing other things in history. Like, I’m not denying the Abolition movement existed, I just don’t happen to be talking about it in this case. Yeah.  And, oh!  I’ll make it all about me.  I’ll talk about my feelings!  The neolibs love it when people talk about their feelings, and the Trotskyists are going to hate me anyway.

Dec 8: I need to hit just the right tone on the title.  It has to be dismissive, like, “Oh, here’s this big kerfuffle about nothing,” but I can’t actually, you know, say that.

Dec 10: Started on the editorial, and it’s going all right. I gotta kinda pat myself on the back for the New York memorial bit. The neolibs will take it as saying, “see, no one in the North cared about slavery!” and people who know history can’t argue, because, hey, all I’m doing is stating what’s on the memorial. Damn I’m good.

Dec 13: Back to the editorial again. Ugh. I wonder if I can get away with pretending that the Project is saying things everyone already knew? Can I count on no one examining that too closely? Because that would make everything easier. Gonna take a shot at it.  Worst case, well, hey, I got tenure.

Jan 3: Brainstorm! If I just ignore Reed, I can say the WSWS only interviewed white people!  Now if that isn’t scoring points, what is? I just need to find a respected black historian—a black woman would be best—who they haven’t interviewed, and I can imply they didn’t ask her.  Fields will work.

Jan 4: This business of sounding like you’re saying something without actually saying anything isn’t easy at first, but it’s coming along.  Phrases like, “central to the experience of” are really useful, because what does that actually mean, right?

Jan 5: Trying to the do the summary of the WSWS position, and it’s a pain the you-know-what. If I get it wrong, I discredit myself, but if I don’t hit the right condescending tone, I’ll piss off the neolibs. And all the world knows what happens to an academic who pisses off the neolibs.

Jan 6: I have to admit I feel kinda bad about taking that cheap shot at Woods. But omelet, eggs.

Jan 7: OH! I’m going to say I’m befuddled.  Wait,  baffled?  Something like that.  Anyway, gonna say I don’t understand why there’s all the hostility to the Project! Ha ha! That way I can say it’s reasonable history without actually lying! Well, only lying a little bit.

Jan 8: Almost done.  All I need is a quote from Fredrick Douglass that implies Lincoln was a racist, and I’m there. Should be easy enough to find.

Jan 9: Dammit.

Jan 10: Dammit.

Jan 11:Well God DAMMIT.

Jan 12: What the?

Jan 13: Jesus, Fred. Help a guy out, will you?

Jan 14: BINGO.  Snip away the context, and I’ve got it! Ready for press!

Jan 16: Dammit, they interviewed another black historian. Why are they doing this to me? Well, never mind.  What’s done is done.

Jan 23: Welp, here we go.

Jan 31: WSWS responded. Currently, tickets to Tibet are running around around $1200.  I can do that.

26 January 2020
by skzb

Criticizing the Critics

Back in the early 50s, when fear of Communism was becoming pathological among broad layers of the middle class intelligentsia, science fiction was flooded with stories about the evils of group minds, or hive minds.  Theodore Sturgeon had a response to this: it is called More Than Human and it is a brilliant work that is a delight as a story, fascinating in its examination of what it means to be human, and insightful in its response to the then-present paranoia.

Art exists for many purposes, and does many things. At the simplest level, it can give us a brain relaxation, the way a few minutes of rest can relax our bodies. At its most profound level, it can reveal to us important aspects of how life works, of what it means to be human.  It can do none of those things when social pressure or puritanical moral outrage is permitted to decide who can say what.

Anyone who reads any story is free to express an opinion about it, and its moral or political aspect is at least as important and worth discussing as its craft.  Where I have a problem is with the deep, profound sense of entitlement that accompanies certain forms and subjects of criticism, that carry the implication, “you must hear me.”

Let us be clear: If you are saying, “You shouldn’t create art that hurts me,” you are, for all practical purposes, saying, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt me” which is but to say, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone who is vulnerable,” which, given that nearly everyone is vulnerable in some way, becomes, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone,” which in turn, reduces itself to, “You shouldn’t create art that deals with more than trivialities.”

No, I am not exaggerating.   Based on five years of teaching at Viable Paradise writers workshop, and considerably more years helping to run craft-oriented conventions, I can testify that we live in an era in which a great deal of what defines writers—especially new writers—is fear.  “What if someone says I shouldn’t have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I should have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I wrote about that sort of character in an objectionable way?”  We have learned—we have had it amply demonstrated—that anyone who is determined enough to take offense can claim the moral high ground and generate enough internet outrage to crush the spirit of new writers, and in the process keep many in a state of terror lest they be the next victim.  It should be obvious that the newer and more insecure the writer is, the greater effect this fear will have.

Even state-sponsored censorship by overt tyrannies rarely creates the sort of terror that the threat of the Internet Outrage Machine does.  It is utterly toxic and destructive to art.

So, then, what is the answer?  One cannot say, “You have no right to express your opinion of someone’s work if it might hurt the writers’ feelings.”  In the long run, that is also destructive; criticism is a part of how we struggle to find our way from craft to art.

I don’t have an answer, I can only make a few points: first, when the Internet Outrage Machine is gearing up, stay out; if you’re part of the mob, you’re helping to make things worse.  Second, insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to. Third, remember that criticizing a work of fiction based on its failures of technique, or on what you consider its moral or political failings, are identical in the sense that under no circumstances, whoever you are, do you have a special right to insist your voice be heard, especially by the author.  Last, if the substance if your criticism is, “A story shouldn’t say such things,” then we will all be better served by you working to write something that enters into a dialog with it; “a story shouldn’t say such things” should sound a warning tocsin in your head.

22 January 2020
by skzb

On Due Process

Re-posted here from Facebook, by request.

I would love to see Dick Cheney arrested. I would love to see him put on trial for war crimes. And Bush, and Obama, and Trump. And Kissinger, for a thousand reasons. And, yeah, Hillary Clinton for what she did to the Libyans (not to mention the Haitian women, though I don’t think that was illegal by international law). And let’s not forget the Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 crash, and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of innocent people. I’d love to see them all arrested.

But if there is one individual who, to me, represents all that is most foul and revolting and who deserves to face judgement for his actions, it’s Dick Cheney. Like Trump, but with intelligence and self-control. Yeah, I would love to see him put on trial.

But here’s the thing: if I had the power, I would want him to have a fair trial, with due process, the right to confront witnesses, the right to counsel, the rules of evidence, and, as much as humanly possible, without a poisoned jury pool.

Because if you take the most loathsome human being in the world (and Cheney is at least a good candidate), and demand, and insist, that he get a fair trial and due process, you are doing the best you can to insure that, should it ever come up, YOU will get a fair trial. Remember that trial by jury, presumption of innocence, and all the rest were not gifts of a magnanimous ruling class, they were fought for, and won, by the most oppressed layers of society, and with good reason.

If we let the courts get away with–if, god help us, we encourage–anything less in the case of someone we despise, it is not ultimately the powerful who will suffer.

19 December 2019
by skzb

A Christmas Memory

I posted this on Facebook, but, on reflection, I kinda like the story, so I’m going to post it here as well.

One year when I was, I don’t know, about 12 I guess, someone outside the family gave Mom and Dad a game—one of those, “Read the question from the card and guess how the other person will answer” games. We played it, I think, Christmas afternoon. The question came up between Mom and Dad (I don’t even remember of whom it was originally asked) “How important is your job in making you happy?” and whoever did the guessing got it wrong, and was very surprised, and, it being a batch of Brusts, discussion ensued.

In the end, it came out that Dad’s position was that a person shouldn’t have to devote hours every day to something hateful and oppressive, but rather everyone should be able to do work that was rewarding and personally satisfying, and that was one reason he was a socialist.

Mom, on the other hand, thought that the job you held was unimportant, what mattered was the fight for socialism; being a revolutionary socialist was her profession, and her day job didn’t matter at all while that work was still to be carried out.

Just a matter of perspective.

That was Christmas in the Brust household. Merry Christmas, and long live the Fourth International.

4 October 2019
by skzb

Progress report

Staring at the screen went pretty well today. I squinted a couple of times, and cocked my head once at the last sentence. I thought about changing it, but then decided against it.

My eyes seem to be working well–I can see the last thing I typed, and exactly where the next word should go. As it will be a new paragraph, I have the indentation for it, and I checked that several times.

Also feel pretty good about rolling my shoulders as I looked at the spot where the next word will go, and about standing up and walking around, opening the fridge, closing the fridge, and sitting again. Sometimes getting up and moving can be a very important part of staring at the screen. I know it feels like, when you move around, you aren’t properly staring, but after a bit of motion, you can come back and stare in a more relaxed state.

I know for beginning writers, it can be difficult to know just how to stare at a screen. I wish I could help you on that, but everyone is so different. For me, sitting back and scowling works really well, but others need to crack their knuckles, and some have to pound on the desk for the stare to be really effective. You just need to find what works for you.

Okay, this was a little break for me; now that screen is waiting, and it won’t stare at itself!