Who Do You Write For, and The Effect of Good Criticism

One of the fun things to consider about writing is: who are you writing for?  My stock answer is that I’m writing to entertain an imaginary reader out there who just happens to like everything I do.  In fact, it is a bit more complex than that.  Sometimes people who are important to me get passages.  “I’m going to put this in there for Jen,” or, “Pamela will like this,” or, “This will make Will chuckle,” or, “Okay, Adam, here’s one for you,” or, “I wish I could see Emma’s face when she gets to this bit.”  Obviously, this is even more fun when collaborating: writing to delight your collaborator is a big part of what drives you.

That’s one of the things that makes writing fun and enjoyable.  And I make no apologies, because if Adam, for example, is going to be pleased when I make fun of elaborate, stupid dream sequences, well, I’m pretty sure some other readers will also be tickled.  And tickling the reader is good in at least two ways:  One, I like to make readers happy.  Two, a good tickle tends to disarm the reader, thus setting him up for a good, hard, kick in the ‘nads.

I now abruptly change subjects.

I adore good criticism.  By good criticism, I mean a piece of writing that makes me go, “Oh, man.  I hadn’t noticed that.  Cool!”  The platonic ideal of a critic for me has always been the late and very much lamented John Ciardi.  Of those working currently, one of my favorites is David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site (he’s just written this, which I highly recommend).  Now, unfortunately, Walsh doesn’t often review Hollywood movies, which means he rarely discusses anything I’ve seen.   But, in the first place, his insights can be delightful even if I’m not familiar with the work, and, in the second, that makes it all the more fun when he covers something I have seen.  A good critic makes you think about how the creator achieved the effect, about subtleties that are obvious now that they’ve been pointed out, and about how this work fits into a broader context both within the genre and within the society that produced it.  This is stuff that I happen to enjoy, and is obviously useful, at a minimum in the sense of making you go, “Oh, hey, I know what I could do!”

And now we tie the two sections of this post together.

I’ve been reading Jo Walton’s essay collection, What Makes This Book So Great.  It is delightful on several levels, not the least of which is that I come in for a lot of ego stroking.  To semi-quote Twain, we like compliments. All of us do: writers, burglars, congressmen, all of us in the trade.  But with Jo’s book, I’ve noticed something else.  She keeps nailing me on things I did right, then backed away from.  I still remember writing my first book, Jarhead or whatever it was called, and thinking, “Why the hell can’t people write books with ongoing, happy romantic relationships where that is just part of the backdrop?  Fuck it, I’m going to do that.”  Then I didn’t hang with it, and Jo called me on that.  Or when I wanted to add a bit of revealing background by talking about how there weren’t carriages any more, now that teleportation was so common.  Then I slipped away from that, because I wanted a carriage in a particular story, and she noticed that (I’m working on a retcon for that one).  Critics who notice what you’re doing, like what you’re doing, and can point out things about your work that you didn’t notice, are incredibly valuable.

It just hit me today, as I was looking over the final draft of Hawk and considering the early chapters of Vallista, that at the moment I’m kind of writing for Jo Walton.  I can live with that.

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

In brief, this is one of the most amazing Civil War books I’ve ever read. I picked it up almost at random–it has a blurb by James McPherson–and read it slowly over the course of a couple of weeks.

Here’s what happens: There are, in most Civil War histories, certain events dealt with in a single sentence, or maybe a short paragraph.  For example, Colonel Anderson moved his command from Fort Moltrie to Fort Sumter.  Or, Elmer Ellsworth was killed while taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia, and there was mourning throughout the North.  General Butler created the concept of “contraband” so he wouldn’t have to return slaves to their Confederate masters.  But:  Why was Anderson’s move such a big deal for the country? Who was this Ellsworth, and why did people care about him so much?  And exactly who were those slaves, how is it they came into Union lines,  how did Butler make that decision, and what were the effects of it?

In 1861, we learn of why and how these events–and several others–were significant. We learn how they contributed to the mood and feel of the time; to the attitude of the Northern civilian and soldier. We learn how they flow from history, and how they effect that history.

“By the end of May, Northerners were starting to accept the idea of Southerners not just as opponents–let alone the wayward brethren they’d been just a few months earlier–but as enemies.”  How that change took place is what this book is about, and it isn’t what you’d thought.

That old, tired cliche about a book being good as an introduction and for those who’ve done a lot of reading, well, it’s actually true this time.  If you’re familiar with the American Civil War, this will more than fill in gaps, it will cause you to reevaluate a number of things you knew. And if you’re not, it would be a place to start that gives you a solid platform from which to understand everything that follows.

I can’t recommend it strongly enough.


Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

My friend Emma Bull recommended this book to me.  I love it.  There is nothing quite as affirming as finding a scientist who does careful research that supports your prejudices.

We’ve all seen (and maybe even read) the popular books that explain how men and women are “fundamentally” different; have different brains; we’ve come across–or seen reference to–neurological proof of this.  Fine looks at this “proof” in detail, carefully; she analyzes the data, she looks at the testing methods, she studies the conclusions–and she destroys the whole myth.  Beautifully.  Entertainingly.

It must be said that the idea of (for lack of a better term) “white male privilege” is also shown to be real, with hard evidence as well as theoretical backing.  I can, to be very brief, state that, to me, such arguments as John Scalzi’s recent one get support (much of what she demonstrates clearly applies to non-white, non-hetrosexual men as well as to all women); but, to me, so do my objections to it (to put it another way: this reaffirmed my conviction that prejudice exists and is a major factor in our lives; it did nothing to make me question my hatred of identity politics).

None of which is the beauty of the book.

I have long believed that certain classes of scientists (evolutionary psychologists being the most recent) either understate or overlook entirely that man is above all a social animal; we adapt, we work, we compete, we cooperate as societies, and the social forms we’ve developed for doing so determine, more than anything else, who we are.  It is a joy to see this view supported.

She is strongest when she is looking at the methodology of the tests that found men and women have different brains.  One of my favorite moments is on page 122.  There was a study to determine how much girls chose girlish toys, and boys chose boyish toys.  “Interestingly, one of the staples of the boyish toys, the Lincoln Logs construction set, recently had to be replaced because girls liked it so much.” I don’t know what you’d call that, but “science”certainly isn’t the right word.

She goes into brain tests such as PET and fMRI, and discusses what we can and cannot learn from them; and it’s scary how many of the popularizers of “hardwired brain differences” are drawing conclusions from either insufficient data, or data that directly contradict their conclusions.  She goes into detail, she makes it clear, and she makes it fun.  And there plenty of references for those who want to check her work.

Page 177: “Genes don’t determine our brains (or our bodies), but they do constrain them.”  Clear, elegant, and dead on.  And then a page later, “As cognitive neuroscientist Giordana Grossi points out, terms like hardwired–on loan from computer science where it refers to fixedness–translate poorly to the domain of neural circuits that change and learn throughout life, indeed, in response to life.”

No, it isn’t “hardwired.”  No, it isn’t “innate.”  Which means we can change it.


A Walking Tour of the Shambles by Neil Gaiman & Gene Wolfe

I hope you’ve read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.  If not, go read it.  If you have, imagine stopping at one of those cities and finding the weirdest, darkest little area in it.  Then imagine a description of that area by Gaiman and Wolfe.  That the city in this case happens to be Chicago is besides the point.  It is a perfect little gem of delightful madness and charming evil.  Go read it.