Why Is Kink Fun? A Guest post by Greta Christina

Unzip your mind. Sit back, relax with your drink of choice, and read the following with a healthy spirit of inquiry. Many of you won’t even need to do that much – you’re kinky yourownselves, and you’re ready to go dive into the book without advance preparation. Some of you aren’t kinky at all, or haven’t ever discovered more than a mild, currently socially-acceptable kink within yourself (fuzzy handcuffs, eh? Nice!). Some of you have been conditioned to believe kink is sick and horrible and never ever good.

As with many things, you’ve been lied to. And Greta will attempt to explain why this thing you think is no fun at all is actually very fun and healthy and mucho bueno for many folks. Ready? Then go:

 

Why Is Kink Fun?

Guest post by Greta Christina

"Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More" - by our own Greta Christina - is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

“Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More” – by our own Greta Christina – is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

Why is kink fun?

Why is it that some people — in very specialized, negotiated, enthusiastically consensual circumstances — find it not just acceptable, but actively and deeply pleasurable, to be controlled, dominated, physically hurt, used, objectified, shamed, humiliated, and/or have their freedom curtailed?

Quick bit of background. I’ve recently published a collection of erotic fiction — mostly kinky — titled “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.” (Currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords — audiobook and paperback are coming soon.) The book has gotten an excellent reception so far, with lots of lovely gushing reviews. But it’s also been received with some bafflement, and in some cases even hostility, from a few readers and people who’ve seen excerpts or read what I’ve written about it… and who don’t understand how it can be healthy to get sexual pleasure from experiences that are so obviously unhealthy and negative and bad. Example: I got this message on Facebook recently, which I’m printing with the senders permission (anonymously at their request):

I am right in the middle of your book “Bending”. As someone who has a very “vanilla” sex drive with no kinks (literally, none.. I’m as bland as they come) I don’t quite see the appeal to feeling shame that comes with BDSM-style punishment and discipline. As someone who’s been shamed in real life by religion in years past, and by friends and family who don’t understand my hobbies and quirks, I find it hard to empathize with how shame can be a turn-on for some people.

I ask this in the most non-judgmental way possible… but, what is the appeal? I’m a little hung up on your book because I don’t understand how humiliation can be erotic. I think the book is very well written but I’m just having a hard time reading through it because there is a stark disconnect between my sexuality and the sexuality of the characters portrayed in your short stories.

Thank you very much for your time. I love the work that you do and look forward to possibly hearing back from you.

I’ve been doing kinky sex for so long, I sometimes forget how incomprehensible it sometimes seems to people who aren’t into it. But I do recognize why this might be hard to understand. In some ways, consensually sadomasochistic sex can almost be defined as sex that eroticizes, and makes pleasurable, experiences that would normally be actively unpleasant, and in some cases even horrific.

What about that feels good?

There’s a limit to how well I’m going to be able to get this across. Sex is such a personal, subjective experience. Explaining why you like any kind of sex that someone else doesn’t — kinky or otherwise — is tricky at best. Try explaining why you like sex with someone of the opposite sex — or the same sex — to someone who really, really doesn’t. It’s like trying to explain what it is that tastes good about broccoli, to someone who totally loathes it. But I’m going to take a stab.

Caveat #1: I’m just talking about myself here. I know that my experiences are shared by many, but I don’t presume to speak for all kinky people. Caveat #2: This is a complicated issue — what’s the phrase the social scientists use? Multi-factorial? — and anything I say to explain this is going to oversimplify pretty much by definition. All that being said, I’m going to take a stab.

For me, much of what it comes down to is intimacy.

The thing about pain is that it gets through. I can be a very well-defended, self-contained person: I don’t let myself get close to people very easily, and it’s hard to just let those walls down and let someone else in. But pain gets through. It’s impossible to ignore. The very intensity of it — the fact that my body is processing the sensation, on some level, as unpleasant — grabs my attention, wakes me the fuck up. If someone is hitting me, I can’t tune out the fact that they’re touching me.

And it isn’t just pain I’m talking about here. In my experience, most forms of sadomasochistic sex have to do with breaking down barriers. Shame and humiliation break down the barriers of dignity and composure. Bondage and domination break down the barriers of self-containment and self-possession. There is an intense intimacy in putting yourself in someone else’s hands, handing over the reins, letting them control what you’re going to be feeling for a while. And again, the very intensity of the experience, the fact that some small part of my brain is screaming, “This is not okay! Get away from this now!”, can — again, in the right circumstances and with the right person — be an intensifier, a magnifier of experience. Including the experience of intimacy, of connection, of being touched by another person.

There’s a lot more going on here, of course. I’ve found that I tend to fantasize about what I don’t have — and when my life is micro-scheduled and overloaded with responsibility, as it so often is, it can feel like a huge burden being lifted to just let go and let someone else be the decider for a couple/ few hours. (You know the cliché of the high-powered business executive seeking out a dominatrix, to relieve him of responsibility for a short while? It’s a cliché for a reason.)

Also, I should point out that kinky people aren’t the only ones who think power is sexy. Humans are hierarchical apes. Get three of us in a room together, and we’ll create a dominance structure. It’s not hugely surprising that many of us would eroticize power. And it’s not hugely surprising that some of us would eroticize power in an overt, explicit way: not simply by being attracted to politicians or moguls, but by being aroused by a person standing over us with a whip.

Then there’s endorphins: the brain’s natural opiates, which kick in as a response to pain, and which under the right circumstances can get us high. And which sexual masochists will tell you about in loving detail, and at great length. If you understand why many athletes experience pain — and pushing through pain to get to the endorphin high — as a pleasurable experience… then you can understand at least part of why sexual masochists experience pain as a pleasurable experience.

And for me at least, there’s a certain hard-wired quality to these experiences that’s fundamentally inexplicable. I have been aware of being kinky for as long as I’ve been aware of being sexual. And I don’t mean since I was eighteen, or since I was thirteen. I mean since I was eight. I have been aware of being kinky for about as long as I’ve been aware of being queer. That isn’t true for every kinky person — but it’s true for a lot of us. I don’t entirely understand this stuff myself: yes, I have intimacy issues, but I think pretty much everyone has intimacy issues, and most people don’t handle those issues by intentionally eroticizing getting beaten and pushed around. Most people probably couldn’t eroticize pain and submission and humiliation, even if they wanted to. (There are people who come to kink later in life, and who nurture a kinky sexuality intentionally — in response to a partner who enjoys it, for instance — but in my experience, most of them had at least a seed of kink to start with.) The way my body processes pain, the way my mind processes power… I can’t entirely explain it, any more than I can explain why I like girls. The clit has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

But what it mostly comes down to, for me, is intimacy. Kink gets through. It breaks down my walls. I have formidable walls at times… and the intensity of kink sets dynamite underneath them.

I’ve so far been writing about this from the bottom’s perspective: explaining why it feels good to receive pain, to be humiliated, to be controlled. But I’m a switch, and I can tell you that it feels good on the other side as well… and for much the same reasons. Just as it feels good to both penetrate sexually and be penetrated, it feels good to be on both sides of the connection of sadomasochism. It feels good to break down walls, just as it does to have your walls broken. It feels good to touch, with the intensity of pain or power, just as it does to be touched.

If this still doesn’t make sense: There’s an analogy that some of my readers have made in some other conversations about this. Kink is like a rollercoaster, or a horror movie. It can be fun and exciting to subject yourself to otherwise unpleasant emotions — like fear — in a safe, controlled setting. There is a thrill to fear, a rush… and when you can experience that rush with people you trust, in a place where you know you’re safe, it can filter out the unpleasantness, and leave only the thrill.

Ultimately, it may not be possible to really convey what this experience is like. I will probably never understand on a visceral level what it feels like to enjoy broccoli, or what it is that people find pleasurable about that experience. And someone with no interest whatsoever in kink may never understand on a visceral level what it feels like to enjoy getting beaten or shamed or controlled.

And it may not matter that much. As long as you have an intellectual understanding of this stuff; as long as you have an understanding of the basic fact that people do like different sexual things from you, and that this doesn’t make them sick or bad; as long as you understand that there is literally no medical evidence suggesting that kinky people are sick or bad, and in fact plenty of evidence pointing to the conclusion that we’re every bit as healthy and good as everyone else; as long as you understand that no matter what your sexuality is, there is someone in the world who finds it incomprehensible and weird — and as long as you can use that understanding to accept kinky people and treat us with decency — I don’t know that it matters that much whether you can deeply, viscerally grasp what it is about this experience that people get off on.

But getting a glimmer of the visceral experience can help with the intellectual understanding. It may even help people who do have kinky feelings, and who have been shamed into thinking that they’re sick or dangerous or wrong, come to an acceptance of them, and feel more comfortable exploring them.

And anyway, it’s just fun to think about.

“Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More” is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. Audiobook and paperback are coming soon!

The Woman Who Crossed the Cascades and Inspired Batman

I’m rather a bit in love with a dead woman. I met her in a moment of desperation, when I was running low on Dame Agatha Christie and had finished all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, and still had a yearning for turn-of-the-last-century detective literature. There she was, one of the helpful recommendations on my Kindle Fire: Mary Roberts Rinehart, mystery writer.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, image courtesy Wikipedia

And I was like, meh. She was an American author. I wanted British. But I looked her up, and there were these little hints of someone I should get to know – American Agatha Christie, inspired the whole “the butler did it” meme. Also, Batman.

Batman?!

Well, a Batman fan such as myself can’t resist that siren song. I downloaded The Circular Staircase and got to reading. I didn’t know I was embarking on a journey that would lead from a murder scene in the billiard room of the moneyed leisure class to the crest of the Cascades, or that I would find myself enthralled not just by her writing, but her life.

We get such a one-dimensional view of authors. Out of a considerable body of work, we too often read maybe one or two of their most famous works, and label them accordingly: mystery writer, in this case. As if that’s all Mary Roberts Rinehart was or did. She was a wife and mother; a nurse, feminist, adventuress, playwright, comedy writer, war correspondent, advocate for Native American rights who was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She marched for women’s suffrage. She wrote about the injustice of wife-beating long before it was popular to take up such a cause. She was a breast cancer survivor who advocated for breast exams in an age when such things weren’t often talked about. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian Front in World War I; King Albert chose her to take his first statement on the war. She crossed the Cascades on horseback over a little-explored pass that nearly killed her, and floated uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a wooden boat.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, courtesy of the Arlington National Cemetery website

All that, and she was one of the inspirations for Batman. Not bad for an East Coast woman born during the dying days of the Victorian era, in a time when women were still expected to be delicate little flowers completely under the thumb of husband and family.

Vestiges of that age find their way into her writing. She couldn’t escape all of the prejudices of her day: reading her works, you’ll encounter some very not-PC stuff. But she had a feeling for people. Just when you think she’s verging on caricature, she veers off, and even when her white privilege shows, you can see genuine caring and respect. Her female characters, not entirely free of Victorian sentiments, are still remarkably strong, active and intelligent. Much like Mary herself.

Pi-ta-mak-an, or Running Eagle (Mrs. Rinehart), with two other members of the Blackfoot Tribe, from Tenting To-night

I knew little of this stuff. I had no idea what a remarkable woman she was. I just knew I’d read The Circular Staircase, and rather liked it, and thought I’d investigate some of her other works, such as the one that inspired Batman. I popped into the Kindle store to see what was available, and that’s when I saw the title Tenting To-night: A Chronicle of Sport
and Adventure in Glacier Park and the Cascade Mountains
. Seriously? A city woman loose in the Cascades back when things were still wild and woolly? This East Coast mystery author had trekked all over my stomping grounds? And the resulting book is now free? Oh, hell, why not. Batman could wait.

So I embarked on a trip through the wildest part of Glacier National Park and over Cascade Pass with Mary Roberts Rinehart. This, I think, is when I fell hopelessly in love. Her mysteries are good; her travel writing is sublime. She has a fine, wry sense of humor that hooks you like one of the trout flies she cast. She sketches her family and fellow travelers wonderfully, capturing their essence in just a few words. She has an excellent sense of place, and she enlists the senses, allowing you to experience the adventure with her. And through it all is the remarkable fact that this woman saw some of the wildest places in American, willingly went through untamed wilderness, took extreme risks for the newness of it, and for the story.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, Stream Fishing, From Tenting To-night

She wasn’t a geologist, but there are moments when you know she’s aware of geology. At Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park, she describes how “our long procession mounted the rise which some great glacier deposited ages ago at the foot of what is now Bowman Lake.” And the beauty of those stark, forbidding glacial landscapes, still actively being carved by the ice, arrested her:

Now and then there are scenes in the mountains that defy the written word. The view from Cloudy Pass is one; the outlook from Cascade Pass is another. But for sheer loveliness there are few things that surpass Lyman Lake at sunset, its great glacier turned to pink, the towering granite cliffs which surround it dark purple below, bright rose at the summits. And lying there, still with the stillness of the ages, the quiet lake.

Looking out of ice-cave, Lyman Glacier, from Tenting To-Night

Geology appears in the scenery, and in gentle humor at her middle son’s expense:

Our trail led us through one of the few remaining unknown portions of the United States. It cannot long remain unknown. It is too superb, too wonderful. And it has mineral in it, silver and copper and probably coal. The Middle Boy, who is by way of being a chemist and has systematically blown himself up with home-made explosives for years—the Middle Boy found at least a dozen silver mines of fabulous value, although the men in the party insisted that his specimens were iron pyrites and other unromantic minerals.

And she went where the USGS had not gone before:

In the north-central part of the State of Washington, Nature has done a curious thing. She has built a great lake in the eastern shoulders of the Cascade Mountains. Lake Chelan, more than fifty miles long and averaging a mile and a half in width, is ten hundred and seventy-five feet above sea-level, while its bottom is four hundred feet below the level of the ocean. It is almost completely surrounded by granite walls and peaks which reach more than a mile and a half into the air.

The region back from the lake is practically unknown. A small part of it has never been touched by the Geological Survey, and, in one or two instances, we were able to check up errors on our maps. Thus, a lake shown on our map as belonging at the head of McAllister Creek really belongs at the head of Rainbow Creek, while McAllister Lake is not shown at all. Mr. Coulter, a forester who was with us for a time, last year discovered three lakes at the head of Rainbow Creek which have never been mapped, and, so far as could be learned, had never been seen by a white man before. Yet Lake Chelan itself is well known in the Northwest. It is easily reached, its gateway being the famous Wenatchee Valley, celebrated for its apples.

While supplies were being collected for the great pack-train adventure over the Cascades, she made further geological observations on the Wenatchee area, noting, “It is volcanic ash, disintegrated basalt, this great fruit-country to the right of the range.” If she hadn’t made her living writing novels (among them the first American mystery bestseller), stories, and articles, she might have had a long and prosperous career as the first woman to survey and map for the USGS.

Certainly, nothing daunted her. There are times in this book when the entire party is in mortal danger, when the survival of the humans and animals crossing that wild territory was in serious doubt. There were times they almost died. But even when she’s scared, Mary Roberts Rinehart never gives up. She doesn’t lose her shit. She handles the situations as they arise, and once the tense moment has passed, is always looking forward to the next phase of adventure. And she doesn’t lose her wry sense of humor, even when describing the mountains that threatened to kill her family:

It is a curious thing about mountains, but they have a hideous tendency to fall down. Whole cliff-faces, a mile or so high, are suddenly seized with a wandering disposition. Leaving the old folks at home and sliding down into the valleys, they come awful croppers and sustain about eleven million compound comminuted fractures.

These family breaks are known as rock-slides.

Horses rolled down ice fields; weary travelers wrenched muscles and held on for dear life and wondered, at times, if they’d ever get across. And then, they were through it: over the Pass, with the quiet forests and lush vegetation of the western slope of the Cascades ahead, not so far from civilization (following a trail quite close to where Highway 20 passes now). After the rush of danger, beauty.

Watching the pack-train coming down at Cascade Pass, from Tenting To-night

And one of her fellow travelers, who had been mostly silent until then, said:

“Why can’t all this sort of thing be put into music?” he asked. “It is music. Think of it, the drama of it all!”

Then he went on, and this is what “Silent Lawrie” wants to have written. I pass it on to the world, and surely it can be done. It starts at dawn, with the dew, and the whistling of the packers as they go after the horses. Then come the bells of the horses as they come in, the smoke of the camp-fire, the first sunlight on the mountains, the saddling and packing. And all the time the packers are whistling.

Then the pack starts out on the trail, the bells of the leaders jingling, the rattle and crunch of buckles and saddle-leather, the click of the horses’ feet against the rocks, the swish as they ford a singing stream. The wind is in the trees and birds are chirping. Then comes the long, hard day, the forest, the first sight of snow-covered peaks, the final effort, and camp.

After that, there is the thrush’s evening song, the afterglow, the camp-fire, and the stars. And over all is the quiet of the night, and the faint bells of grazing horses, like the silver ringing of the bell at a mass.

I wish I could do it.

I believe she did. It’s not in musical notation: no orchestra plays it. But the words she wrote are a symphony, an ode to the joy of wilderness, adagios and allegros and leitmotifs that sing out from the page.

Perhaps I love her because she shares my love for storytelling, for the mountains and their fantastic geology, for love and laughter and good times. But she did far more than I ever could. For one, she was willing to camp.

And she inspired Batman.  No self-respecting geek can fail to love and admire her for that. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, found three things coming together to create the character in his mind: Zorro, Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, and the film version of The Bat.

The Bat facsimile dust jacket by Lady Bluestocking

In 1920, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood turned The Circular Staircase into a Broadway play. They changed some details around and added an arch-criminal called The Bat, a mysterious and sinister character who confounded the police and terrorized the populace. He was a shadow, a ghost, haunting the darkness and leaving only his bat symbol behind. In one scene, there’s even the prelude to the Bat Signal, when a spotlight throws the image of a bat onto a wall. It’s a bit strange to think that a criminal mastermind was one of the major inspirations for Batman, but that’s the wonderful alchemy of the creative process.

The Bat was a huge success. It ended up being filmed several times: there was a silent film, and a movie called The Bat Whispers, and Bob Kane saw it, and things went click in his mind. Without Mary Roberts Rinehart’s influence, Batman may have been quite a different superhero than the Dark Knight we’ve come to adore. Knowing that the woman who crossed my beloved Cascades on horseback also had something to do with my beloved Batman delights me.

That’s the woman I’m in love with. Is it any wonder?

 

References:

Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Circular Staircase, Tenting To-night, The Bat*, and Kings, Queens and Pawns.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection: Mary Roberts Rinehart, by Michael E. Grost.

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Arlington National Cemetary Website, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

*The person who converted this from a play to a novel was over-fond of over-wrought dramatic narration. Fair warning. If anyone knows where to find the original play, I’d be grateful.

Mother’s Little Helper and Other Stories

I’ve got nothing, really. I was supposed to be watching a movie with a friend who’s in from out of town, but his family kidnapped him. I’ve spent the time finishing The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rhinehart, who has somewhat restored my faith in mystery novels written by late 19th – early 20th century women. I still prefer British authors, but how can I fail to love the woman who inspired Batman?

As a fake excuse for why I haven’t yet written about Darwin and geology, I present photographic evidence that my help was hindering:

Mother's Little Helper

You see that nice, fresh, shiny white notebook she’s lying on? I’d put that down not two seconds before, preparatory to picking up the Kindle and furiously taking notes. I know you can take notes on the Kindle, but it’s slow. Not quite as slow, though, as trying to take notes upon a notebook the cat has claimed.

Knowledge Makes Kitteh Sleepy

Of course, there was another notebook available, so I defeated her nefarious schemes in the end.

Sleeping With Darwin

She’s as helpful with researching Darwin’s geological research as some kittehs are with theses.

Reading Charles Darwin’s Geological Observations on South America would be a lot more fun if I knew more than bugger-all about South American geology. But it’s been instructive going in to this knowing next to nothing. Granted, I have more knowledge than he did: plate tectonics wasn’t a gleam in anybody’s eye (Wegener wouldn’t be born for nearly another 50 years, and his cogitations on continental drift for nearly 80). Geology was in its infancy; Lyell’s brilliant Principles of Geology was hot off the shelf, and Hutton’s Theory of the Earth had laid the kindling that sparked the whole revolution in thinking in 1785.

I find it fascinating to watch how the early geologists and naturalists wrestled sense out of the silent rocks. Continents rose and fell; they knew this much, that mountains became sea became mountains again. But it was all vertical. Horizontal movement, continents sailing along slowly, embedded in their rigid plates, hadn’t occurred to them. You get the sense of land bobbing in place, popping up and down like a giant whack-a-mole game, or possibly Riverdancers. It’s a funhouse mirror of geology. The images are there, they’re recognizable, but distorted. It’s amazing how clear the picture becomes when you add plate tectonics. The things that confounded the intrepid geologists exploring brave new worlds and systematizing the old one make exquisite sense once you know that not only the Earth moves, but its skin crawls.

Darwin stood on a subduction zone, and never knew it; visited passive margins and hotspots, and didn’t know what made them what they were. In light of how little was known, it’s amazing how much he came to know. Early geologists like him had to piece it together, rock by rock, fossil by fossil, patiently sampling and mapping and spinning possibilities that were often wrong but were sometimes, gloriously, right. Sometimes so right that other, older scientists didn’t believe them. Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t the only correct insight that was thoroughly disbelieved. Some of his geological revelations were scoffed at, too – until the evidence became overwhelming that he was, in fact, absolutely correct.

That’s one of the things I love about Darwin. In reading his geological books, I see the same methodical, patient collecting and collating and arranging of different bits of evidence. Darwin wasn’t one of those people who has a flash of brilliant insight and leaves it to others to find the proof he’s right. He didn’t seem to like to say anything until he had investigated thoroughly. He seemed obsessed by the tiny details others may have glossed over. You’ll see how obsessed when I write about his final geological work, which exemplifies the man’s attention to detail. But that obsession served him in good stead. It meant that when people called what they thought was his bluff, he could lay out a royal flush he’d spent a long time building, bit by bit.

He wasn’t always right. The science was too young, and the tools too crude, for him to get it all. But nearly two hundred years later, some of his discoveries still stand. Not bad for a man who once proclaimed he’d never so much as touch a book on geology, much less engage in its study.

But I’m going to turn away from Darwin for the moment – I’ve just received my long-desired copy of Geology of Oregon by Elizabeth and William Orr. It’s been incredibly hard to find a copy for under $50, but I did it, and it’s in excellent condition, too. And it is sitting beside me now, saying, “Put down the musty old mysteries. Turn from gentlemen on boats landing to scramble around South America’s geological wonders in a long-vanished age. READ ME DAMN IT.” I’m afraid I have no other choice but to obey.

Darwin Day Delayed Due to Delightful Detectives

I truly did mean to get a wonderful post up on Darwin and his geological researches. Had a goodly amount of research done and everything. Then I made a serious mistake – I started Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as a bit of light reading over lunch on Saturday.

I’ve meant to read it for a long time, ever since I saw it mentioned by John Douglas in Mindhunter. It’s one of the first – arguably the first – English-language detective novel. Its Sergent Cuff, brilliant member of the Detective Police, is based on Inspector Jonathan Whicher, a Scotland Yard detective whose obsession over a nightgown seems to have made something in Wilkie’s imagination go ping.

I figured it would be worth reading for strictly historical interest. If I’d known I’d become as obsessed by the story as Wilkie was over nightgowns, I’d have waited until after Darwin Day.

It’s a sign of genius when, although the narrators either annoy or infuriate you, you still can’t stop reading. Between the Robinson Crusoe addict who couldn’t stay on topic and the religious fanatic who made me wish fervently for a handy murderer, there should have been plenty of reason to put the book down and do up Darwin. This was, alas, impossible. I wanted to strangle certain characters too much, for one, and got too involved with the puzzle, for another. Then came folks I genuinely liked, some I even came to love. And, every time it seemed Wilkie was gonna weasel and do something weak, lame or both, he’d do something brilliant instead. The constant threat of the paranormal, amnesia and sleepwalking hang over your head. But he’s not a crude writer. He doesn’t choose the easy way out. He’s clever. I like that in a writer, especially a Victorian-era one.

In the end, I finished satisfied, if a bit stunned by the lack of bodies – I’ve read so much Agatha Christie that I automatically assume that the morgue should be filled to bursting by the end of the book, and winced every time someone delayed in telling somebody something, sure this meant their imminent demise. Wilkie however, manages a ripping good tale with few fatalities. It’s a refreshing change.

Anyway. I swear to you, I’ll have ye olde belated Darwin Day post up soonish. In the meantime, if you’re desperate for something to read, go hunt up a copy of The Moonstone. It’s free at the Kindle store, or available through Project Gutenberg. There’s even some geology in it – very nice use of some suspect sand on the Yorkshire coast. Not to mention an enormous chunk of carbon at the heart of everything. It’s amazing the shenanigans people get up to when enormous chunks of crystalized carbon are involved. Atheists in the audience will appreciate the treatment of the above-mentioned religious fanatic and other sundry fanatics. Writers will thrill to the fancy literary footwork in which, even in the first person, the author manages to get across things about the narrator that the narrator doesn’t realize about him-or-herself, allowing the audience to snigger behind their hands without feeling ill-used. And fans of Robinson Crusoe will find their adoration shared by a venerable old gentleman who swears that book holds all the answers one could ever need in life.

I’m not willing to go quite that far with The Moonstone. But I will avow it’s a book that any person interested in detective fiction or the art of writing should certainly read at least once. Even if it does mean that some prior obligations must be punked off due to the unfortunate fact that the bloody thing’s impossible to put down once fairly underway.

The Joye of Ancient Literature

Literati observing me as a youngster might have despaired. I had no real interest in musty old tomes. For a long time, my tastes ran to mysteries and Westerns. Then I became addicted to fantasy and science fiction. I still adore all that stuff, and I believe some of the best fiction ever written is genre. Michael Hann and his ilk would faint at the idea. These, mind you, are the very same people who wouldn’t be ashamed to see clutching Homer in public – a patina of age, apparently, puts a suitable shine on monsters, demigods and other tropes of fantasy.

The poor buggers will need a fainting couch when I tell them it’s a Western writer who helped get me hooked on ancient literature. But it’s true. Louis L’Amour wrote The Walking Drum, which brought some very old texts to vivid life. I’ve sung that book’s praises more than once, and I’ll sing them again: it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

While the Michael Hanns of the world clutch their Trollope and Proust, I’ll turn to my fantasists, thanks ever so much. Guy Gavriel Kay. Susanna Clarke. That’s all I’m saying. Oh, and these folks, too, among about a billion others. I’ll put the best SF authors in a ring with your literary greats any day, and I know who I’m putting my cold hard cash on.

So yes, I loves me my modern SF, and quite a lot of genre (excepting most romance, although there was that one book by Catherine Coulter that I picked up and read because the blurb contained this aside: “What is a marten, you ask? A marten is a sable; a sable is a weasel. What is a weasel, you ask. See marten.” And I figured anything that snarky couldn’t be half bad, and it actually wasn’t). But there are times when I love to immerse myself in ancient literature.

I love snark, and while schools try to carefully conceal the fact, ancient authors could be quite snarky. Lucian made a career on snark. I’m reading a collection of his works just now and adoring every minute, even the footnotes necessary to understand the in jokes. And for a little while, now, I’m walking alongside him, sniggering at the philosophers and socially pretentious, marveling at his command of language. Well, his and the translator’s – I can’t speak much ancient Greek.

Sappho? Oh, my darlings, I am such a sucker for Sappho. Go read A.S. Kline’s translation of this poem. Then sample the rest of his site – the words there will intoxicate you. I’ve talked about Sappho and her friend Alcaeus before. Rhapsodized, really. I love them both dearly. And dear Father Locks, Abu Nuwais, who probably couldn’t be taught in school without some stern censorship, because heaven forfend we should tell the kiddies it’s okay to get all lyrical about drinking and sexuality – even homosexuality.

I love words that seem like they couldn’t have been written by a mortal, deep words, powerful words, such language! But I also love words that use all of those elegant and graceful stylistic tools to speak of the human condition. Not the noble, not the elevated, but the ordinary things, the things we’ve been taught to avert our eyes from. Clay feet are nicely set off when framed in gold, aren’t they just? And the ancients, they knew how to do that. So do the moderns, truth be told, but there’s just something about reading the words of writers thousands of years dead and seeing ordinary people. You could lift some of them out of their context and set them down right here. Once they got over the culture shock and learned how to navigate our technology, you’d have a full population of pompous asses and internet trolls and worrisome children and interfering parents. You’d have your truly good, situationally good, and not really good at all. You’d have your quacks and charlatans. You’d have your rednecks and your metrosexuals. You’d have people who understood “You’re So Vain,” and people who’d probably think that song was about them.

That was the thing I didn’t get through much of high school. Literature is taught as this great and solemn thing. It’s approached with the white gloves and reverence. It seems to have no relation to a modern life. Now, I’m a book nerd. I didn’t have to be told to like Shakespeare, but it sure as shit helped the addiction along when Mr. Vail, our British and Senior English teacher, took me aside to show me some educational contraband. If you read that post, you’ll also discover Mrs. Putman, who got a whole bunch of hormonal teenagers hooked on French literature that year. It wasn’t required reading, but the local bookstore ran out of copies of Les Miserables. The unabridged edition, mind you.

You know why we loved that stuff? Because the humanity hadn’t been stripped from it. It hadn’t been sanitized. And it wasn’t presented as something we should read because it was Great Literature, but because it was all about well-written stories.

That’s what’s been so wonderful about getting out of school. I’m not reading things considered inoffensive to Good Taste, but stuff that survived because people enjoyed reading it. Uncensored. Complete, whole and gorgeous, warts, double entendre, fart jokes and all.

What really amuses me about people with literary pretensions is that they so often laud Shakespeare, who wrote for the unwashed masses. I wonder just how much of the literature we venerate today was yesterday’s popular entertainment?

It’s certainly entertaining to me now. And there’s nothing quite like going back to the old works. Let me tell you, if you haven’t touched an ancient writer since being forced to pick one up in high school, or found yourself limited to only the venerable old farts sanctioned by the people in charge of providing as inoffensive an education as possible, you’ve missed out.

Wash the stodgy old dust of neutered texts out of your mouth. Get your Xenophon on. Go hang out in the clouds with Aristophanes. And tell us about the ancient delights you’ve discovered.

 

Dear Nature: There is a Crucial Difference Between Being Contentious and Being a Misogynistic Asshole

Update: Bonus fun! “Womanspace” author Ed Rybicki has appeared in the comments, trying to sockpuppet himself some support under the handle “Disappointed.” Be sure to take this opportunity to speak your mind directly to the responsible party. Enjoy, everyone!

You may wonder what I’m doing here with a can of kerosene in one hand and a match in the other. Why, I’m about to burn a bridge.

Writers are typically advised against doing so, as the person you’re pissed at today may have been the person who’d publish you tomorrow. And yes, it would have been nice to be published alongside our own Stephanie Zvan someday, as I’d figured any publication wise enough to choose one of her stories might prove an attractive market for my own fiction, should I be fortunate enough to make the cut. However, there’s the matter of the other company I’d be keeping. I refer, of course, to the wretchedly sexist story “Womanspace” that appeared in your formerly-august pages in September. No, I won’t link to it. Interested readers will have no trouble finding it, by way of Dr. Anne Jefferson’s masterful takedown of it.

I gave the story a glance. It’s one of those stories in which a writer masturbates to the tune of exhausted stereotypes, and believes the resulting mass is original simply because it emerged from them, and they haven’t got out much. It contains the kind of overdone sexist humor that tickles the underdeveloped funnybones of men who are too inept to figure out teh wimminz. I understand the author’s wife giggled. I’m certain she did. If she hadn’t learned to laugh at her husband by now, she’d be a divorcee. A laughing spouse, however, is no guarantee of quality, a fact which writers who attempt to publish in professional fiction magazines soon learn to their sorrow.

Nature, of course, is not a professional fiction magazine, but only does a bit of fiction on the side, and so it is, perhaps, understandable that selling points such as, “My wife laughed, so it must be funny and not sexist!” could sway the minds of the editorial staff. Fiction is not your specialty, and I’m certain this explains why you ended up publishing a story based on ideas that weren’t even original in the 1950s and which an editor at a top fiction magazine would have considered worthy of pissing on only if the paper was absorbent, the restrooms out of order, and the only plant in the room a cactus. Usually, such stories earn a rapid rejection slip of the mass-produced variety. The editor (or, more likely, the editor’s slush pile reader, who exists to ensure such D-grade doggerel never sullies the editor’s eyes) would not even have bothered with a personal note scribbled on said rejection slip advising the writer to try harder in the future. They’d much prefer the writer never try again.

You may not have a slush pile reader, or pre-printed rejection slips with little checkboxes that include such categories as “Not original,” “Not science fiction,” “Not funny,” and “If you ever send anything to us ever again, we will send staff to egg your house and steal your dog.” I suggest you acquire both if you plan to stay in the fiction business.

Now, you may have heard Neil Gaiman say, “Being contentious is what you should be doing. You should be shaking people up” when he was speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2001. These wise words may have stayed with you, leading to this unfortunate incident in which you read a story, found it contentious, discovered yourself shaken, and mistakenly believed this meant it was Art. I know you were aware you were igniting a shitstorm, because one of your editors, Henry Gee, commented on the lack thereof. (Note to Henry: shitstorms take time to build when no one reads the fiction section you edit. Sorry.) So perhaps you all thought this was very clever and necessary, because this is what Art is all about: shaking people up.

You have overlooked the fact that there is a major difference between igniting a necessary shitstorm and an unnecessary one. There is a difference between being contentious for good reason and being contentious because you want attention, any attention, even negative attention, like a spoiled child feeling ignored by Mummy.

Allow me to lead by example: there are some posts I write which I know will rile people. I post them because I believe that calling out religion or other silly beliefs is the right and necessary thing to do. You will not, anywhere in these pages, find me posting something noxious for the sake of driving traffic. I could, for instance, post a bit of misogynist doggerel while calling it humorous, and I’m certain that the resultant outrage would enhance my page views considerably. In the short run, that is.

If you did, in fact, know that you were posting a bit of sexist idiocy and did it merely because you wanted to drive some traffic, congratulations. It has worked – in the short run. In the long run, you risk people believing that this one piece reflects your true views on women. I would like to believe that’s not the case, but considering Henry Gee’s history in this regard, I think it’s safe to say at least one editor among you is likely harboring some seriously pathological thoughts toward women. It is time for you to reconsider this editor’s relationship with your company. I’m afraid if you don’t, well over 50% of your readers shall be reconsidering their relationship with you.

Additionally, it behooves you to find someone less inept at handling public relations fiascoes. I refer, of course, to the fact that some buffoon(s) shut down comments on the piece of D-list doggerel in question, and managed to delete the Facebook posts criticizing it. I’m sure both actions were accidental. Just as I am sure you will be thrilled to purchase my oceanfront condo in Yuma, Arizona. (Perhaps you would also be interested in a bridge to replace the one I’ve just burnt. If so, I have a true Brooklyn original at a screaming-hot price.)

I hope this discussion has proved helpful to you in your future endeavors with Futures. I myself shall not be reading it again until Henry Gee’s departure at the earliest, but perhaps one or two other readers remain who enjoy fiction with that retro 1950s-sexism feel. If you have no intention of removing “Womanspace” from your list of publications, plan to retain Henry Gee, and wish to ignite further shitstorms with added misogyny, I’d suggest you advertise on ERV. That seems to be where all the kool he-man woman haters hang out these days. You’ll find plenty of women there who, for reasons mystifying to the well-adjusted, love to hate teh wimminz too. Deplorable company all round; I’m sure you’ll fit right in. That is certainly one possible future for Futures.

If, however, you wish to remove this blot on Nature’s good name, then this is my advice: get rid of that shit-stain of a story, boot Henry Gee out, and apologize immediately. Then learn more about the art of discerning between fiction and items that should be instantly binned. I am certain you will find the links curated by The Contemplative Mammoth and Science Sushi, along with the #womanspace hashtag on Twitter, helpful in this regard. Additionally, Strange Horizons maintains a list of stories too often seen to usually be worthy of consideration. As you found “Womanspace” to be new and interesting, I suspect you should refer to the above resources in order to avoid publishing pieces in the future that lack originality or, indeed, any artistic merit whatsoever.

Sincerely,

Dana Hunter

Prepare For… All Hallows Read [insert scary ghost noises here]

Neil Gaiman’s trying to own Halloween. I intend to help him. This is a tradition I’d very much like to see become as much a part of Halloween as the costumes and candy and strangely-carved pumpkins. The premise is simplicity itself:

That’s it: just give someone a scary book. Last year, I gave my intrepid companion the book Why Buildings Fall Down. Buildings falling down are fairly scary, and it’s a book appropriate to his interests. See how that works?

You can give a book to kids, adults, undecideds… anyone you like.

And, if you’re in the Seattle area, you could give them their scary book whilst taking them to Frankenstein, which would be double the awesome.

Whatever you do, just have fun. Halloween’s all about the fun. And the scary stories we tell each other with the lights off and possibly some peeled grapes at hand for props.

Don’t mind those Zombie Rights Campaign folks moaning about All Hallow’s Read. Moaning is just what zombies do. Give them a nice scary book. That’ll make them feel better.

Why SF Is Important

Last Sunday, I posted my own thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction. Okay, yes, it was a rant. I do that sometimes, when things get up my nose.

We’re going to follow up here today with a fantastic post that inspired me to post that one. It’s called In Defense of Geekery: Why Society Needs SF/F. It’s written by Becky Chambers. I want to buy her a drink. I want to buy her several. Because she managed to say what I needed to say in far fewer words:

The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.
But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

“This is how it could be.” That’s exactly what we writers of SF are telling folks, only we’re not bawling it in their faces, but whispering it in their ears. We’re giving them a delicious tingle down the spine. We’re giving them ideas. We are, in fact, inspiring them.

Here, for me, is the money quote, one I may have to have printed on pamphlets to distribute in venues where Very Helpful People may approach me to advise I am wasting my life and my talents writing fantasy when I could be writing something useful instead:

But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?
Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”
…yeah, that’s not even a question.

It’s really not.

And the brilliant thing about what we SF writers do is this: we change lives and minds, inspire people to do great things (read the whole of Becky’s article, and you will see how Star Trek gave a little girl the stars), perhaps even save the world, and we do it whilst entertaining the hell out of them.

There are some great jobs in this world. I personally think being a geologist is near the top, and there’s stuff like firefighter and astronaut and cake decorator that are a damned lot of fun and make people’s lives better. There are many careers a person can have that are fun, rewarding, and necessary.

But I personally can’t think of one I love more than SF Author.

This Student Gives Me Hope

I don’t know who she is, only what she has done. And what she has done is this: become a banned book library. When her school decided upon a list of things the kids absolutely must not read, due to parental outrage and a belief kids can be kept from great literature and harsh truths, she tested their limits by bringing in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When it caught the eye of a fellow student, she lent it out. And then things snowballed, and she now runs a clandestine locker-library full of banned books, which kids who had no interest in good books until they were forbidden to read them are now thoroughly enjoying.

Firstly, we have a young woman who’s passionate about books. I already love her.

Secondly, we have a young woman who’s not prepared to be told what she can and cannot read. Love kicks up a notch.

Thirdly, we have a young woman who’s getting other young men and women reading intensely. Love shoots through the roof and becomes adoration.

I have news for parents and school authorities who believe they can shelter children from things they think are too awful for young minds: you’ll fail. You have failed. You’ve always failed. Unless this was a very clever reverse-psychology ploy to get kids interested in books, in which case you’ve succeeded brilliantly. Bravo. A cunning plan – quite evocative of the way the potato was introduced to Greece.

Too bad I doubt the administration was that smart.

We jaded adults may believe kids these days are incapable of deep thought and literacy and scholarship, and we are so very, very wrong if we believe that. Look at this student. Look at what she and her fellow students are doing. Look at how much books matter to them. Enough to take not-inconsequential risks for. And they are smart enough and confident enough to decide what they can and cannot read, all for themselves, to hell with the naysayers.

I love this to pieces. It tells me that, despite rumors to the contrary, we’re not raising a nation of apathetic know-nothings, although we’ve been trying very hard to do so. No, we’ve got a crop of brilliant, bold, and brave kids coming up, and the world will be better for them.

I just hope that once my books get published, they’re summarily banned. I’d like to have this kind of readership. I want kids like this at my signings. Unleashing that wise, unruly literary mob upon the unsuspecting citizens of this increasingly stifled country would make me twelve kinds of happy, and prouder than I’ll ever have words to express.

Rant on Readers

George at Decrepit Old Fool, who is one of the most wonderful human beings I know, was kind enough to review a book for an old friend of his. Even though that friend is a devout Christian. Even though the title of the book is The Pilate Plot. Even though the blurb said this:

David Urbane has a grudge against Jesus Christ but never thought he would have to opportunity to do more about it than teach his own slanted version of history at the college level. President Robert Cooper harbors the good, old-fashioned aspiration to rule the world but needs the legacy of Christ out of his way. Nathaniel Stone unintentionally provides the means that involves them all in a plot spanning space and time that may change the world forever. Ruthless ambition, total dedication, and the advantages of modern knowledge and technology are all stacked up against the very foundation of Christianity. Who will prevail?

George’s review is an education in honest self-restraint. Well, mostly self-restraint.

And I’m not going to rip the book. Haven’t read it, for one thing. Don’t intend to, for another. My adventures in Christian reading began and ended with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (which is one of the better examples of Christian supernatural thriller. Compare to the rest of the genre and form your own conclusions). Well, that’s not quite fair – I got to sample a page or two from many titles at the bookstore I worked at, and put it like this: I have no intention of ever reading self-proclaimed Christian fiction ever again. If a book is segregated in the Christian Literature section, it’s a near-certainty it ended up there because it would’ve been mauled by the better books in General Fiction.

But I digress.

This isn’t about Christian time-travel books, or the general horrors of religious fiction in general (where the message bludgeons the story to death with incense burners, pastoral staffs, and hardwood crosses ripped directly from the pulpit). No, this is about writers asking non-writer friends to read and critique for them.

I have just one piece of advice for such writers: you’d better be damned certain your friend likes the kind of books you wrote.

Seriously.

While George is an intelligent, intellectually-gifted, even-handed man who can set aside personal preference to try to give a book a fair go, most people aren’t. So what you’re getting is the opinion of someone who wouldn’t have read your book even if it was the only thing in the bathroom after an incident with a betting pool and a 20 lb bag of bran mixed with wasabi (hint: they lost the bet). I have just one question:

What the fuck makes you think such a reader can give you a useful opinion?

You need opinions from people who read the genre. They’re the only ones qualified to judge the quality.

People who haven’t read in your genre don’t know the conventions. They’re bored out of their minds by the things that fascinate fans. They frequently don’t know what the hell’s going on, and will be confused by writing that’s crystal-clear to veterans. They won’t like the story because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t like the characters because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t be moved by your plot or theme. You might have just written the most brilliant novel ever to hit your genre, and the best opinion you’re likely to get from a non-fan is, “It was okay. I liked your pun on page 147. Um…”

That kind of thing can take the wind out of your sails in a hurry, and cause you to rip a perfectly good book apart looking for flaws that aren’t there.

Conversely, they won’t catch the flaws that are there. I’ve seen plenty of stories that tested well to a non-genre audience, but got shot down by editors because the subject matter has been delved down to the last quark by other writers. There you are, pumped because your genre-naive friend actually loved your story, which caused you to believe it was fresh, original, and the greatest thing ever written in the whole history of that genre, and it turns out the only reason your friend liked it was because he hadn’t seen the exact same plot 4,862,987 times before. And you’ve just missed an opportunity to give an old plot a new twist, one which could’ve been suggested by a veteran.

If you’re going to foist your magnum opus upon unsuspecting friends, and you’re new to this, make damned sure you’re placing it in hands that might well have picked it up on their own at their local book store. Even if you’re an old hand, it’s best to draw the majority of your test readers from the fan base. Outside opinions are nice, but not when you don’t know how to sort the valid criticism from the biased, and definitely not when the biased is all you’ve got.

And remember to keep the salt handy when foisting your baby upon experienced writers who don’t read in your genre. Even they are peering at your beauty through spectacles of the wrong hue, although they’re trying hard to only look over the rims. They’ll do you right in critiquing the nuts-and-bolts. The more genre-specific stuff, not so much.

Finally, keep one thing in mind when reeling from an overly-harsh critique from a non-fan: There are people in this world who do not worship Neil Gaiman. Shocking, I know. Now imagine Neil taking all of his advice on the quality of his books from people who can’t even appreciate a master of the genre.

Yeah.

Give your stories a fighting chance. Get them in the hands of people who can assess them accurately.