Archive for October, 2017

Proof at Last!

In introducing myself for the past year and a half, I’ve felt like bit of a fraudster, claiming to be “a real novelist” or some variant thereof, but without anything to show for it. “It’s just not out yet,” seems only so solid a thing to say as, “I’ll get my break soon! You’ll see!”

But at last, here’s proof that I’ve not been lying to you all! There’s an official listing up on Penguin-Random House’s website for my book, along with some jacket copy and a brief bio of some nobody named Christopher Rouchaccio. Rockeo? Rocko? Roccio? Something like that.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/550136/empire-of-silence-by-christopher-ruocchio/9780756413002/

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Rebuttal: On “New Classics”

I’m something of an amateur classicist. I come by it honestly, Catholic schooling will do that to you. So will choosing Latin as your second language credit in college because you’re afraid to look a fool stammering through your Japanese oral exams. So will having an excellent professor in Elizabethan literature for four semesters, or being way too obsessed with Dan Simmons’ writing, or just being close friends with Christopher-Marcus Gibson.

Coming as I do from a Catholic upbringing, I’ve always found the idea of canon deeply appealing. Not just in religious thinking; where it guards people against metaphysically dysfunctional ideas; nor in the fan community, where it helps us keep track of what stories “count”; but in all art. Canons exist in music, literature–in any aesthetic category–and exist more or less cross-culturally. It has always been my opinion that considering the literary canon a “Western” one was a nativist error of the past centuries. That is to say I have always considered the literary canon a universal human one. I have no qualms whatever listing the Ramayana, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Tale of Genji alongside the Oresteia, the Beowulf, and Hamlet. Anyone who objects to that is not only a racist, but is missing out on some of the best books ever written. Moreover, I believe the canon, the master-list of all classic works, can indeed be evaluated objectively, without regard to personal preference. (For example, I hate Nabokov’s Lolita and Petronius’ Satyricon, but they are classics).

Which brings me to this article: https://www.tor.com/2017/10/09/new-classics-of-sff-nk-jemisin-ann-leckie/

N.K. Jemisin and Ann Leckie are two quite famous and successful SFF writers (Jemisin of fantasy, Leckie of science fiction). They are certainly more famous and powerful than I, and as such need no introduction. They were on a panel at NYCC over the weekend, talking about “The New Classics of SFF.” Kindly read the article if you’ve not. I plan to quote from it.

Both of them agreed the explosion in the number and kinds of books published in recent years allows for different readers to have different conversations about which books matter and which ones don’t, with Leckie saying the idea of a single canon ought to be replaced with “…a bunch of intersecting and interpenetrating lists.” Respectfully, I disagree. I recall reading that the legendary cartoonist Bill Watterson (of Calvin & Hobbes) once remarked that the advent of the webcomic–while ensuring that there was a wide array of comics to enjoy–ensured that there would never again be comics that everyone WOULD enjoy. There is no new Calvin & Hobbes, no heir to Dilbert, to Farside. This is not to diminish the inherent qualities of new comics, or to denigrate the web’s ability to provide a platform for new and diverse (a word I use technically, not superficially) artists. Rather, it is to indicate that the more fish you put in a tank, the more you limit the food supply.

Jemisin goes on to add that there are still people barred from the “literary commons.” This is not the case. Even if the heights of success at the levels of a George R.R. Martin, a Stephen King, or a J.K. Rowling may not be open to everybody–as they are certainly not open to me at this time–there is nothing stopping anyone from querying agents or from slapping their work on Amazon. For all the flak it gets, Amazon has absolutely leveled the playing field. If one can self-promote, one can find an audience. (I can’t self-promote, for the record. That’s why I slogged through 51 rejections and 10 months to find an agent). If one does not achieve the heights of a King or Rowling or the acclaim of a Bujold or indeed of a Leckie or Jemisin, that is no surpise. Recall Price’s Law, and recall just how many fish are in that tank we call the literary world, and how fierce is the feeding frenzy. Perhaps when Martin and King and Rowling are done eating there will be food enough for the rest of us. (Note: I do not begrudge their success. I see it as a challenge, and as hope that I might be even a fraction so talented and so fortunate).

Jemisin then attempts to redefine a classic as “[those] books that change your thinking, that blow your mind, that reorder your world.” This is not what a classic is. For a book to be a classic, it must endure (which puts the lie to the very idea of there being “new” classics, but I digress). I’ve worked in publishing nearly three years now, and the number of dead books there are would astonish you. Books by authors you’ve never heard of, put out by publishers that no longer exist, available now only in used book stores, and hard to find. This is the fate of most writers, even good ones. It will probably be my fate, and that’s fine. I don’t need to write a classic. I need to make a living writing so I can provide for myself and my family. I’m not looking to wring blood from the neck of time. Only to hang on. But Tolkien? They’ll be reading Tolkien in a hundred years or five, and nothing anyone says will change that. It’s insufficient that a book simply blow my mind to become a classic. A personal favorite, sure, but not a classic. The novelization of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith blew my mind, but no one talks about Matthew Stover or his incredible use of second person refrains to calibrate Anakin’s mental state. Alistair Reynold’s Chasm City blew my mind and it doesn’t even top the list of Alistair Reynolds titles folks mention from time to time. My subjective opinion is irrelevant compared to the weight of the objective one (which in truth is only the averaged subjective opinions of the aggregate readership, especially that readership contemporaneous with a book’s publication. It is they, after all, who catapult a book to immortality in the long-term).

One cannot solipsistically assert one’s own preferences as the metric for ascribing “classic” status, and to fractionate the idea of what makes a classic into separate “intersecting and interpenetrating” lists, as Leckie suggests, is to debase the currency of the word “classic” and to ensure there are no universally valuable works of literature, which is as good as saying there are no universal values. This assertion would indicate that there is little or nothing held in common between different groups of people. It mutually estranges and dehumanizes them in what is and can only be a reversion to the petty, nativist tribalism that led people to narrow-mindedly describe literary canon as “Western” in the first place. This is a step backwards, away from those egalitarian and liberal aesthetic values I prize. It is a sectarian and isolationist–almost a xenophobic move–and it is one carried out in the name of precisely that diversity it claims to champion. I thought it was understood that separate was not equal?

The article then pivots to discuss the classic status of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Full disclosure, I adore that book. I have met Mr. Card and found him perfectly pleasant. I am not deeply familiar with his personal opinions beyond a vague understanding that he disapproves of gay marriage and might have backed politicians who opposed it. I’m not terribly interested in his politics. They are not relevant to the cultural value of Ender’s Game, no matter that he profit by the book and certainly no matter Jemisin or Leckie’s personal, solipsistic attitudes.

The great Ray Bradbury has written several novels which might attain classic status. One certainly has. Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury quite famously insisted Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship, but about the damage television and new media would do to society (in this, I think he’s proved entirely too prescient, not least of all because new media provides us an excuse regarding which books we should value or marginalize based on the irrelevant personal opinions of the author). Bradbury very famously left a talk because the moderator kept insisting–against his objections–that the book was about censorship. I recall a piece some months back where John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow insisted that Bradbury’s opinions were irrelevant vis-a-vis the meaning of his work, that Fahrenheit 451 was about censorship if that’s what you believe it to be about. If such RELEVANT opinions as Bradbury’s own words about the meaning of his book cannot color an author’s work, then surely irrelevant ones cannot. Note: I do not share Mr. Scalzi’s & Mr. Doctorow’s assertion. I believe the author’s opinion about his work or hers must necessarily inform the correct reading of a text. I think intent matters as much in art as in law, and I also think that author’s less relevant opinions might, might be distally relevant to the work (though I am not convinced there is anything to do with LGBT marriage in Ender’s Game, because there isn’t). In any case, I am too liberal in my outlook to exile anyone for an odious opinion, unless it is self-evidently murderous. If the devil himself fathered an angel, then his existence is a net positive. And whatever Mr. Card may be, he is no devil, and Ender’s Game is a masterpiece whatever his political persuasion may be.

But all this is beside the point, which is this: Ender’s Game sells. Every week I get a record of the Nielsen Bookscan top 50 SFF books, and every week Ender’s Game is there. Jemisin’s own work is consistently present, and Leckie’s as well (if less frequently). The difference? Ender’s Game has been out since the 80s, whereas Jemisin and Leckie are artifacts of the 10s. Card has a 30 year headstart on them in a field where the passing of years usually means ignominy, not fame. That’s no small feat in a genre dominated by dead books from authors you’ve never heard of. Will Card’s work survive a century? Maybe not. I don’t know. But he’s a lot further along the road than are Jemisin and Leckie, and to assert one’s solipsistic opinion as regards whether or not Ender’s Game is a classic does not change its sales figures, does not take it off school curricula, does not stop Tor itself publishing sequels. Ender’s Game is moving beyond opinion, and Jemisin and Leckie may assert otherwise all they want, but they do so in contravention of all the available facts. Ender’s game has sold 49644 copies this year to date (as of last week). It clocked in at #5 for the week of 5 Oct 2017 (in SF). That’s really good for a book that’s “not a classic” any more. And that figure doesn’t even touch audio or ebook sales, if my understanding of the Nielsen system is correct.

“I think the people who believe that works can and always should be divorced from the context are people who have the privilege to do so,” Jemisin said, speaking, I can only guess, of Mr. Scalzi and Mr. Doctorow, who believe the author dead and context irrelevant. Let us glide over how fundamentally dismissive is this attitude of N.K. Jemisin’s, because in addition to being dismissive and emphasizing the superficial differences between people, it is completely missing the point. It is not that those divorcing Card’s political opinions from his work’s quality are privileged. It is that they are better critics. Ender’s Game is not engaged with discussions of human sexuality. It is not concerned with the moral implications of gay marriage or with civil rights. It is not a polemic advocating anti-LGBT positions or a book which touches on such positions at all. It’s a story about a brilliant, vicious child who is made to commit genocide without his knowledge, and about the question of whether or not he is guilty. I am not aware of any statement made by Mr. Card that might make his political opinions about the rights of our LGBT citizens to marry relevant to Ender’s Game. To pretend otherwise is a hatchet job intended to discredit the book with the author, which is the height of intellectual laziness.

To Leckie’s credit, she says she considers herself a storyteller first and a social commentator second. That’s very wise. The surest thing a writer can do to ensure he or she writes the opposite of a classic is to write a polemic. Polemics are grounded in the specific issues of their time, which are never eternal and always become irrelevant. I refer you again to all the books you’ve never heard of. It is possible to be Harper Lee, to write something temporal and specific that is also universal and eternal. But Reader, you are not Harper Lee. Not even Harper Lee was Harper Lee, whose second book was a fragmented failure.

And Jemisin, too, is right about one thing. Art shapes reality. We artists colonize the future before the philosophers and politicians, SFF writers maybe most of all. We plant flags in the sands of time and hope the less intrepid might follow after. It is for this reason that I hold us to the highest standards. It is for this reason I expect people to know that there is a difference between Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card’s blog posts and online correspondence and that one has very, very little to do with the other. If we behave with anything less than the utmost intellectual honesty and rigor, we will plant our flags wrongly and go astray.

Literary classics–true literary classics–mark out the clear line of human culture and progress across time. They are not only exemplars of craft, but indicators of the human moral universe in the period in which they were written. Not despite their eternal qualities and universality, but because of them. Because they speak not their truth, but THE truth. They are clear beacons blazing out of history, valuable both for their clarity and rarity. We don’t choose them by fiat, as Jemisin and Leckie seem to believe, but by slow and arduous testing. By nature of that simple fact, there are no “new” classics. There are only books that are currently popular, and we’ve no way of knowing what books will outsit eternity.

Your Rights and Mine

Each day I feel a creeping certainty that I will spend my entire life speaking without ever being heard. That I will spend my words as a fool spends coin, and that the world will be no better for it. I have watched these past few days as people howl in anguish and in outrage at the atrocities visited upon us by that maniac in Las Vegas. I understand their pain. I share it.

But I have seen madness met with madness, and my poor power to subtract from it seems less and less useful and effective. But since I cannot bring back the dead, and since the perpetrator has gone beyond the power of earthly justice to punish–since I cannot stop the madness of criminals and monsters–I shall speak only to that other, more pernicious madness. Ours.

I have seen men and women trumpet that now is the time to pursue new legislation regulating guns. Indeed, the vaunted New York Times proposes that we should repeal the Second Amendment entirely. Surely now, they say, it is time to march into the homes of every gun owner in this country and seize their property–to steal from them–by force if need be, without recompense if necessary. I have seen people stumping atop the graves of these poor victims, the blood soaking the soles of their shoes, to say that now is the time for action. It is not. The dead deserve justice, but their killer is dead, and anyone on whom the law must fall next is innocent of this crime. We have no way to know who the next such monster will be. We are not God, and cannot read the hearts of men and know which ones are rotten.

I do not suggest that we do nothing. I suggest only that it is wrong to punish the innocent because the guilty is dead. I do not own a gun. I do not wish to. But several of my friends are gun collectors, even enthusiasts. Several served in the military. In law enforcement. They have committed no crimes, would commit no crimes. They are good men, good women. Good citizens and neighbors. To stand–tears in your eyes–upon the shoulders of those dead men and women and discuss the seizure of your neighbors’ goods is not morality. It is not justice. It is cowardice. We have a duty, incumbent on each of us as citizens of our republic, to protect the rights of our fellow citizens. The right to vote, to speak, to due process, to the practice of religion. These rights are not up for debate (whatever totalitarians left and right may say). Neither is the right to bear arms up for debate. It is precisely the seizure of such arms that those Second Amendment activists speak of when they say the Second Amendment is there to protect them from tyranny. Those who would repeal the amendment are tyrants, as surely as those who would deny a Muslim his right to prayer, or hers to wear hijab. They are tyrants as surely as those who insist on their traditional definition of marriage with the force of law–or as those who would force a baker to make a cake in violation of her faith. They are tyrants as certainly as those who cheer the inquisitions visited against students in university, sans due process and abjuring the rule of law.

What should we do? Surely it is unthinkable that the actions of men such as Stephen Paddock be allowed to continue. But how can we stop crimes before they occur? I do not know. I am only one citizen. But I am a citizen, and being a citizen know it is unthinkable that the rights of our fellow citizens should be curtailed by the state in the name of our security or particular beliefs. We must hold to principles. To Justice, chiefly, and Truth. Truth because there are facts, and those facts matter, and Justice because we can punish no man until his is proven guilty, and should punish no innocent number in the hopes of catching the guilty before they can act. Let me be clear: it is an injustice to rob the innocent (of their possessions and their civil rights) by repealing this (or any) amendment. It is fascist to try. You would corrode the rights of yourself and your fellow citizens out of cowardice, out of contempt. Disgust. You are no different than those who would place restrictions on marriage, on religion, on speech. Were this any other right, your position would be different. By your actions here you betray that you are no true liberal. You expose your hypocrisy and the hidden tyranny in your hearts. You shame the memory of Locke, of Jefferson, of Washington and Hamilton. You invite tyranny by your cowardice, and you name it virtue. I will have none of it.

Worse, I have seen men and women cry out that the press has been too easy on the man who did this. “But he is a terrorist!” they cry. “Were he not a white man, you would have cried ‘terrorism’ from day one!” White privilege, you say. White privilege… There are words for people who ascribe moral character and quality to an individual for the color of their skin. They are not kind words, and I pray they do not apply to you.

The reality is this: we do not yet know if the man is a terrorist or only a madman. If in the past I have been quick to label someone a terrorist, it is because when a man throws acid in the faces of young women and falls upon them with a knife crying that “This is for Allah!” he leaves no doubt that he is a terrorist. We know–in that moment–what he is. If the actions of such a monster cause our republic to turn against our Muslim brothers and sisters, I will be the first to stand between them and the mob. In the past, the actions of Islamic extremists have prompted the illiberal to say that our Muslim citizens should be regulated. Monitored. Controlled. Many of you spoke up–I spoke up–and defended our Muslim brothers and sisters. The actions of an individual extremist, you said, do not defame or define the character of those innocent Muslims. You were right. So too in this moment are gun owners innocent of the deaths in Las Vegas. White people are innocent of the deaths in Las Vegas. Only Paddock is guilty. But he is dead, gone beyond the power of the law to punish and destroy. I say again: he is guilty alone. Not gun-owners, not white Americans. Not men. Him. I say again: there are words for people who ascribe moral quality and character to individuals for the color of their skin, for their religion, or sex. None of those words may be applied to me without slander. Do not let them apply to you.

Some time ago, when the Charleston shooter performed his act of inhumanity, he did so with the clear declaration that his actions were racially motivated and politically aimed. He aimed to start a war. A new civil war. He failed. White as he was, we denounced him for a terrorist, for terrorist he was. He failed because it is not in the heart of this republic or her citizenry to go to war for race. We did once, and when we did so it was in the name of freedom. Of equality. It was to end prejudice. Whatever our failings, whatever our pains, we are not the monsters the Charleston shooter hoped we would be. We are not what he was.

But in this case, we do not know the killer’s motivations. Unlike the jihadi, unlike the Charleston terrorist, Paddock has not shouted from the rooftops why it is he has done these things. If his crime was politically or ethnically or religiously motivated, then by law he is a terrorist–and were he living would suffer the fate of a terrorist. If, on the other hand, his actions are the actions of sick man, made monstrous by illness or resentment, then he is a murderer. A mass murderer, to be sure, but a murderer all the same. Were he living, were it mine to decide, he would hang publicly, and hang until the message were plain: we do not tolerate monsters.

But even monsters deserve justice, and his victims surely do. To which end we must know why it is he did these things–these unspeakable things–we must know, so that we may know how to direct our response once heads have cooled and eyes have dried. The truth matters. It must matter. And we must not–in the wake of this or any tragedy–compromise our commitment to truth. Or to justice. To do that, we must not compromise who we are. We must not sacrifice our principles, or sell our souls.

I do not privilege the killer in doing this. I am holding him to the highest scrutiny of which I am capable, and at present can conclude only that we do not know. I will not upgrade him from mass murderer to terrorist out of fear. We should do so only if the truth corroborates these accusations of terrorism. That his crime is terrifying I do not contest. But it is not enough that one should be terrifying to become a terrorist, lest all killers be terrorists. There is no justice without clarity. Without clarity, there is only revenge.

We must not countenance revenge. We will not countenance tyranny.

We are better than that.

We have to be.

But I am only one man. And if I cannot persuade you or even give you pause then perhaps my fears are correct. Perhaps–as in Babel–we are past that point where words have meaning. Perhaps we have usurped truth for feeling. I hope not. Without words, without truth, we have only violence. Violence is not justice. It is only revenge.

I hope that you have listened, if only a little.