Out of this furnace

I’ve been reading a novel called “Out of this Furnace” for one of my summer courses.  It’s by Thomas Bell, an author from Braddock, Pennsylvania who grew up in a steel mill family.  The novel is semi-autobiographical, following three generations of a Slovak immigrant family from the turn of the century through the thirties.  The novel was published in 1941, not long after the last decade Bell writes about in the book, the 30s.  The book works more like a very well-done historical narrative more than it does as a novel, at least in terms of what expectations for novelistic writing looks like these days.  It provides many more insights than a typical historical narrative, too, because of the personal relationship the reader builds with its characters, rather than the distanced tone of an actual historical narrative.  In any case, I learned a lot reading it, about a time and a place and a particular kind of people, and also a lot about how things looked during the first thirty years of the Twentieth century around places like the one I grew up in, which isn’t very far from the novel’s setting.  Just outside of Pittsburgh.

In any case, a couple of quotes leaped out at me while I was reading today.  The leaped out because even though they were written seventy years ago or thereabouts, they felt like they could have been written today:

“The depression deepened to the sound of voices chanting that prosperity was just around the corner, the country was fundamentally sound.  In the face of unparalleled catastrophe the rich and powerful lacked even the decency to keep silent.  Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility–they had been obeyed longer than was good for an human being–they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste.  Silence would have become them more and proved wiser, for there must have been many like Dobie whom their stupidities shook out of bewilderment, goaded to anger.”

And another:

“What did they ever do for the working people?  All through the depression they haven’t done anything to help anybody except the big banks and corporations.  What good did voting Republican do John when he was getting dollar-fifty pays and taking money down to the mill on paydays to keep his insurance in force because they weren’t even giving him enough work to pay for his insurance?  He had to take from our few dollars in the bank and pay it to the mill on paydays instead of them paying him.   I owe four months’ rent and I’ve got a store bill that scares me when I think of it.  Do they think we’re all greenhorns and they can rub our faces in the dirt forever?”

And there’s more where that came from.

Fail, fail again.

UPDATED at bottom

Apparently since February, Amazon.com has been de-ranking books that are gay-themed in some way, thus basically making them unsearchable as titles on the site, and taking them out of the view of potential readers.  I don’t have the “facts” on this, but it does seem to be true.  There are many titles on their site that have no ranking and they are all oriented to homosexuality in some way.  Some of these books that have been de-ranked are classics and modern classics.  It’s one of the most absurd and “no way” inducing occurrences I’ve witnessed, and it’s causing quite an outrage, at least in the blogosphere, which I hope forces this company to make a statement about this not so easily swept under the rug “glitch,” which I’m sure they will attempt to call it once enough backlash reaches their doors.

Yes, this is America, home of the free.

Not.

This is 1950s censorship rising up in an internet age guise.  Recognize this stuff when you see it, and don’t just shake your head and say, wow, that’s terrible.  It’s a silencing that is occurring right before our eyes, and without enough voices to rail against it, the offenders get away with it.  

Last month it was Race Fail. This is being called Amazon fail, on the Twitter boards.  Why not Gay Fail, like Race Fail?  I don’t know.  But there you have it.  Failure, failure, failure, any way you look at it.  Unless enough people push back to turn a failure into a success.

You can sign an online petition against this by clicking here.

Or simply go to Amazon’s contact page and write them a letter denouncing this sort of behavior.

You can read a better article about it here, which includes a sample list of books that have been deranked, as well as a list of books that haven’t been deranked.  Apparently this deranking is being done under the premise that these books are “adult”.  Well, then.  Why hasn’t Playboy been deranked?  And a lot more hot and bothered hetero-oriented materials?

Let’s hope it’s rectified.  But I don’t think anything they’ll say will really explain this in a satisfying, completely believable manner.

CNET news has a good lowdown on the event here.

All that said, my logical faculties still can’t believe that this would be purposeful.  It just seems so stupid.

On failing to keep up with Racefail

As I’ve not been reading blogs regularly over the past year of my new full time employment plus second-graduate-degree-taking schedule (I sometimes have very little time left in the day for eating and sleeping, it seems), I have remained ignorant of a great blogosphere debate that had been going on for what seems like it may be a month or two?  Only in the past day or two, as friends have e-mailed and people whose blogs I do try to keep up with from time to time have been talking about this thing that has been named Racefail, have I slowly (and admittedly, reluctantly–but only due, again, to my aforementioned time constraints) turned in the direction of the blogs where all of this apparently went down.  I haven’t read through all of it, to be honest.  There are weeks of posts and comments within posts.  It would be nice if there were a Cliff’s Notes edition to get the gist of the thing. (This is the closest I’ve come to finding that. Not notes so much as links to the occurrence in semi-chronological order?) But what it does seem to boil down to is that the problem of a very homogenous SF world of fandom and writers and editors and the like became a battleground issue.  It’s always been an issue.  If you look at the SF shelves in bookstores, there are few people of color represented on those shelves.  It’s a very white world.  It’s also very male.  It’s also increasingly very middle class and up (but that’s literature in general).  It’s also very heteronormative.  In other words, SF, despite calling itself the literature of ideas, is kind of clueless in terms of diversity, but more importantly in terms of its non-response as a community to the requests of those who feel outside the circle of normal to be let in.  

I’m not sure where people can go to with all of this after it’s come to such a frenzied and very personal place, and a lot of people have been hurt by it in various ways.  It seems now that the major players have gone back to their corners, more talk is going to come out of it.  But what are some things that people can actually do other than talk?  Talk is good.  It’s really good.  But as a local community activist here in my own hometown community, which has a plethora of these same issues at stake in its social structure, I know that the purpose of talk should lead to action of some sort.  A variety of actions.  Whether you’re a fan or a writer or an editor or a publisher, I think one of the things that can be done is to figure out what you, in your particular position, have the ability to do to help enact change.

For example, while editing the new volume of Interfictions, Delia and I were very purposeful in our desires for a balanced table of contents.  When you start trying to balance all of the various identity categories that exist, it does become a bit of a challenge, but luckily we were presented with great writing from people coming from a variety of backgrounds.  Men, women, people of color, LGBT writers, people of varying classes, ages, etc, and people of varying nationalities.  If we didn’t consciously seek to bring all of these variations together, the title of the anthology, which does refer to a kind of writing that is, at heart, seeking to refuse homogeneity in a variety of forms, wouldn’t reflect the anthology’s purpose.  This was one thing I felt I was able to do as an editor, and was grateful for the chance to do it when Delia asked me to be her partner in that endeavor.

There are other ways.  Some people can respond to it as an editor, or a writer in their writing, some people can continue an ongoing discussion in a blog or a blog community, some will be able to actually, hopefully, bring more work by people of color (in this case) into the public sphere.  Everyone has something they can do, if they want to, and that’s the thing needed if change is what any sort of community wishes to make happen.  And the community should also support the idea that not everyone can all do the same thing, and that it’s best for people to do what they can.  That’s a strength, to have people working at the desired change from a variety of angles.  Assess what you can do from your position in a community, and then do it.  And then perhaps these very obvious deficiencies in the SF community (or any kind of community) can begin to really change.

Otherwise, this same argument will only be set up to recycle for years to come.

Oh, wow, just found this, which seems exactly like the sort of thing that is a great response to all of this.

I’m looking forward (though also a little frightened) to searching through this tangled web of blog posts, and finding out more.

Long live art

A really interesting article about the changes in the art world over the past decade or two, mirroring the movement away from global awareness that multiculturalism had been brewing in the late 80s to 90s as the country moved politically towards greater conservatism, and how that has, in the end, handicapped American art as it became too localized and exclusive, not to mention product oriented over vision/quality/knowledge for the sake of knowledge oriented.  I wonder if there is any correlation in the publishing world as well.

The Oasis Video

Okay, so this video is now officially making the rounds in the blogosphere.  It’s a song by Amanda Palmer, of the Dresden Dolls, whom I love, and before I say anything else, I’ll say I love this song and the video.  But I have a sort of critique of it, too.  So far I’ve read a lot of posts online that are defending this video because over in Britain, where Amanda is launching her tour for her new album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, the BBC was possibly going to censor this song/video, spoiling Amanda’s marketing team’s ambitions to have it be a radio/music channel release, which would totally have been depressing, I agree.  But in fact, if you ask me, Amanda has nothing to complain about.  If someone was going to censor one of my books, I would be totally down for it.  Everyone knows that censored material actually gains more audience than art that does not spark a nerve with the culture.

Which brings me to my other aspect of this semi-critique.  As much as I love this video, I don’t think it’s being contextualized correctly.  Even Amanda has sort of talked about it as a sarcastic, ironic and sad critique of the sort of girl she’s portraying in this video, but really I think it’s less a critique of that sort of girl so much as it is the culture that’s produced her.  And in my mind, she’s sort of a hero, adamantly denying not just the Fundamentalist Christians who tell her Jesus hates her, but all of the other ridiculous elements of American society that inspire a sort of blithe disregard for anything but self and now and fun in her.  She seems more angry to me than stupid, acting like a caricatured version of the most normative roles we outline for kids to grow into at this juncture.  Whatever.  It doesn’t really matter in the end how it’s interpreted.  In the end, it’s sad and funny, the sort of thing I like in any kind of art, whether it be story, song, painting, film or persona, which is an art form in and of itself.  You can take Amanda Palmer as an example of that last form, really.  She’s sort of interstitial that way, the music and the persona itself both being integral to what she’s doing, and what she’s doing is an angry, funny, sad, beautiful thing.

Q&A

I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions.  One came in today, to which I just responded.  And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.

Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did? 

A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place. 

The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians. 

Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did. 

It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.

Loneliness in a crowd

An interesting BBC News article on the loneliness that pervades despite a crowded Japan, and how some people deal with it:

Loneliness is a problem faced by many people on these crowded islands. But the Japanese are prone to believe that, in the right circumstances, money can turn a stranger into a friend… at least for a couple of hours.

Read the whole article by clicking here.

Thanks for the link, Katie.