So there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Donald Trump is actually crazy – the specific form of mental disorder varies depending on who’s talking, whether it’s narcissism or senility or sociopathy or what-have-you. But basically, it all comes down to the fact that Donald keeps saying dumb things that torpedo his campaign, and is speaking in increasingly loopy and erratic sentences.
Maybe he’s not fit to be President.
And I have such, such mixed feelings on this.
To start, I hate armchair diagnoses. Trying to determine what Trump’s mental health is through the lens of the media is never going to be accurate – and, in fact, seems to be an accumulation of biases. (Just as the right-wing Hillary armchair diagnoses of bad health is largely an eruption of Hillary hate.) I despise Trump, and I find him to say monstrously stupid things, but trying to determine his actual state of mind from this obscured distance in the furor of a media campaign is a mug’s game.
Then there’s that ugly conflation going on – many people see Trump as dangerous, and their go-to is “Dangerous people are all mentally ill!” Which is something you see all the time with shooters – if some mass murderer has been to a psychologist, you betcher ass it’s going to show up as an explanation sometime, because to a frightening number of people, “Dangerous” means “mentally ill.”
Which is partially a lack of distinction. There are types of mental illness that make people a hazard to other people. But part of the issue is that we throw any deviation from the norm into one big bucket that says “crazy,” and then label that bucket as “dangerous people.” I know lots of people who suffer from depression and bipolar diseases who don’t harm anyone but themselves. In fact, it’s probably more likely that these mentally ill people will be harmed than they’ll harm, as people with severe issues often fall into abusive relationships with people who use their insecurities against them.
So what I feel is going on here is that people can’t possibly imagine Trump doing and saying all these horrible things unless he’s mentally defective on some level. Which, you know, maybe? The issue is what you consider to be “mentally ill.” A frightening number of serial killers are lucid, in-touch and control enough to know how to give answers that manipulate both press and psychologists; the only thing that really separates them from normal people is that they, you know, kill innocent humans. Maybe that’s insanity.
But that route’s kinda slippery, because I’m not sure “evil” is the same as “insane.” It feels uncomfortably to me like we’re going the old homosexuality route, where we look at someone who has different preferences than we do and labelling them insane. Homosexuals and trans folk were – and are, in many circles – considered to be mentally ill just because they don’t want what most people want. You could say that someone who doesn’t want a single-payer health plan has no empathy and therefore has a mental illness. Eventually, that definition swells to “anyone whose brain doesn’t come to the conclusions that I have arrived at is insane.”
Which I’m not a fan of. I’m the guy who’d look at some people and say, “Yeah, they’ve got it all together, except they’ve decided eating human beings is a legit call.” We can lock away criminals without smearing them all with a loose diagnosis of mental illness – some people have different moralities but aren’t handicapped by mental drawbacks, which means, yes, we need to jail some sane people for doing shitty things.
But not every burglar is insane. Some people are just dicks.
Yet in this whole “Let’s not tar the mentally ill with Trump” issue, one of the things that I dislike is the way people imply that we can’t ask whether Trump’s potential mental illnesses would interfere with his job. And some arguments I’ve seen seem based in the idea that mentally ill people are good, functioning people and you shouldn’t ask questions like “Can a mentally ill person be President?” because it hurts the mentally ill.
Which I also dislike, because it seems to erase the idea that a mental illness is actually a drawback.
Look. I would be a shitty President, because of my mental illness. I break down under the wrong kinds of stress. I sometimes retreat for days, not wanting to talk to anyone. I need drugs to handle my anxiety for events that are out of my control – which, you know, is pretty much what being a President is.
I don’t believe in stigmatizing mental illnesses, but I also dislike the counterpush to imply that all people with mental illnesses function well. No. It’s a drawback, and if you can not have a mental illness, I’d highly recommend it. If I had a way to get rid of this depression, I would.
Which is not to say that every person who has mental illness is unfit to be President. Abraham Lincoln infamously suffered from severe depression – and that’s an armchair diagnosis I feel can be made fairly in retrospect, as his moods were well-documented – and he was a great President. He kept it together despite his depression to be what I’d argue is America’s best President ever, a true hero for those of us whose brains betray us.
Yet on the other hand, we have Ronald Reagan. And people didn’t want to discuss Ronnie’s senility during the election, because you can’t accuse an old man of being senile, that’s rude – yet going back through the history books, you’ll see that Reagan became increasingly forgetful, masking his incompetence with humor, drifting away from the Presidency to leave America as a pitched battle between his three advisors.
Maybe he didn’t have senile dementia back then, but his bad memory was an issue that affected all of us.
So I think it’s relevant to ask whether a Presidential candidate is mentally fit to do the job. That’s appropriate. A President has to be smart and alert, and if they can’t perform to the duties of the office, they shouldn’t be elected.
But I wish we could do it without framing it so poorly. Donald Trump doesn’t have to be mentally ill to be unfit for office – there’s also plenty of people who are sane by all diagnoses whose temperament or work ethic make them a poor choice.
You don’t have to diagnose Donald to find him unfit. The reasons why he constantly contradicts himself are opaque to us in the churn of the moment- but what matters is that he does contradict himself, and if that worries you, then don’t vote for him. We don’t have to assign his increasingly meandering and incoherent sentences to a specific attribute – we can simply say, “I don’t want someone who does things like that in office.” If he constantly hurts people, we don’t have to claim he’s a sociopath, we can just point out that a President shouldn’t have a vast history of stiffing the people who work for him.
And yes, that applies to Hillary too. You can have valid reasons to believe someone unfit for what is a monumental task; you can also do that without branding them with names that are both inaccurate and unnecessarily target other people who share those illnesses.
And that’s all.
Because I’d wanted to hit at least one town on the East Coast for the Mighty Fix Book Tour, Angry Robot slotted me in a last-minute signing on Labor Day Weekend.
So if you’d like to see me in New England, well, here’s your chance:
Sunday, September 4th
Pandemonium Books and Games, , 2:00 pm.
4 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA
As usual, I have no idea who lives in Boston – so if you could do me a solid and invite whoever you know is local through the Facebook event, that’d be awesome. I also don’t know where the hell I’m crashing in Boston on Saturday/Sunday, so if anyone has any free space they can spare that has an actual bed-like thing, that would be Teh Coolness.
And don’t forget the other tour dates, which I am hoping to show up and see your actual faces in! As usual, I will have donuts, and a Dramatic Reading, and I will go out afterwards to hang out with people ’cause that is how I roll.
Tuesday, September 6th.
Loganberry Books, 7:00 pm.
13015 Larchmere Blvd, Shaker Heights, OH 44120-1147, United States
Saturday, September 17th.
Borderlands Books, 3 p.m.
866 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110-1739, United States
Tuesday, September 27th.
Powell’s Books, 7 p.m.
3415 sw cedar hills blvd / beaverton, or 97005
(With special co-reader K.C. Alexander, author of cyberpunk thriller Necrotech!)
Thursday, September 29th.
University Of Washington Bookstore, 7 p.m.
4326 University Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98105
1) So I had a helluva time at WorldCon, hanging out with tons of people I adore and waving at many many more of them as they passed by in the hallways. My social anxiety was on low flutter, so mostly I just chatted with people and collected the astoundingly good Pokemon-hunting that Kansas City has to offer.
2) While I otherwise loved Pat Cadigan as the host, I cringed every time she (or anyone else) mispronounced – or did not know how to pronounce – someone’s name on stage. As someone with a funny name, I may be hypersensitive to getting names right. But in many cases, particularly for people who couldn’t make the convention to attend the George RR Martin afterparty, hearing their name spoken on stage may be the high-water mark of the nomination – that final flash of hope before the winner is announced.
Having that moment be a botch is something that shouldn’t happen.
Yet it did.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the Hugos have phonetic pronunciations of the people’s names printed on the readouts – and if they were, I don’t think it should be too much to ask of the hosts to get them to practice it until they’ve gotten it right. The Hugo ceremony is usually a fairly informal affair, and I get that, but we should afford the nominees the dignity of getting their name spoken correctly in their moment upon a very large stage.
3) You might think I’d complain about the Dave Truesdale Dumpster Fire Panel. (Read the link for details, but the short version is that on a very prestigious panel filled with the best fiction editors SF has to offer, a whacky moderator started with a ten-minute rant on how PC sensitivity was destroying the field – and, ten minutes later, not only had he not introduced his fellow panelists, but he had brought out a box of fake pearl necklaces for people to clutch if they needed to.)
I wouldn’t complain. That panel was a magnificent icebreaker. 200 people were in attendance, and throughout the night I heard at least twenty of them giving their accounts of the horror. If you didn’t know what to say to someone, utter the mystic words “Hey, what happened with that panel?” and bam! Conversation a-go-go.
Dave Truesdale wanted to get people talking. He did! Admittedly, it was mostly about what an idiot Dave Truesdale was – but we sure talked!
(Disclaimer: I don’t mind Dave Truesdale going off on his particular brand of wrongness. I myself have started out moderating panels by starting with an unpopular opinion to get discussions flowing. But I expressed that opinion in under sixty seconds, and I started by introducing my fellow panelists. There’s a distinct difference between showing up to start a dialogue and showing up to inflict a monologue – and props like that are part of a monologue designed to alienate.)
4) Let’s be honest: If I ever got an invite to the Hugo Losers’ Party, I’d go.
But I didn’t, and that party kinda felt like The Room Where It Happens.
I get that the Hugo nominees should have an awesome time afterwards, and I support that! But though I had a great time barconning and SFWA suite-ing it, I kept seeing people checking their texts – someone had snuck into the Losers’ Party! Someone said that it had been opened to the general public! No, wait, that wasn’t it. Did you know who got in as a plus-one with who? Someone said…
And I kept seeing people low-grade thinking, “Well, how do I get in there?” Which felt a bit alienating. And I wanted to see some of the Hugo nominees and winners to congratulate them, and if they did leave the party they were nowhere to be found.
…which could also be this WorldCon’s weird “room party” issue, which mandated that room parties be held at the convention. I didn’t hit any. It was a mile away from the bar. So maybe that’s this WorldCon’s con-space, because the weird thing about conventions is how much the structure of the hotel and the convention space affects who you see at that convention. (If there’s a bar in the middle of the hotel, then everyone washes up there; if not, a convention tends to be fragmented, with eddies of people catching up with each other in various places. Do enough cons and you wind up critiquing hotels.)
But the last WorldCon I went to, I saw winners swanning around other parties, and I missed that. And my (potentially erroneous) impression is that the Sad Puppies have had the unfortunate side effect of elevating the Alfies and the post-Hugo party to a much more exclusive event, and I was sad to not be able to congratulate all my friends and the people I admired in person.
Or maybe that’ll be different at the next WorldCon in Helsinki and I’ll see everyone and be proven wrong. But for me, the awesomeness of any con is that I can be chatting with some random people, and oh, jeez, hello author of this book I loved, nice to meet you. And anything that potentially waters down that stewpot experience saddens me.
We’ll see what happens at Helsinki.
It’s here, guys.
I did it.
I meant to watch The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. I’d always liked him on the Daily Show – not loved him, but he always had some good insights and I respected him. Then his show switched over, and…
Which happens. I’m slow to put shows on my DVR. Jon Oliver was on HBO for a solid year before I finally remembered, “Oh, yeah, I can add him.” I adored Samantha Bee, having linked to her videos three times in my blog, and I still haven’t put her show on record.
He wasn’t viral.
Which is a weird thing to say, but that’s how it worked. I’d have forgotten about Jon Oliver except that every other week he did some fifteen-minute segment that blew up my Twitter feed and had me saying to Gini, “Oh, you gotta watch this.” I keep meaning to put Samantha Bee on my DVR because she keeps popping up from time to time when she goes viral, albeit with less frequency than Jon “One Shot, One Kill” Oliver.
I can’t remember a viral Larry Wilmore clip.
Oh, I can remember a number of Tumblr GIFsets going around wherein Larry said something appropriately snarky, but a GIFset is basically a one-liner – which is a good thing, but there’s a difference between a good one-liner and a full set.
Whenever Jon Oliver went viral, he had a solid eight minutes of show that told me, “Okay, when he’s on, he’s worth watching for eight straight minutes.” When I saw Larry Wilmore going around, his GIFsets told me “When he’s on, he’s good for fifteen seconds of wry exasperation.”
So I never watched.
And now he’s cancelled.
Yet virally speaking, Larry’s got it way better than Noah Trevor, who is theoretically broadcasting but I’ve never seen a friend link to anything he’s ever done. (I’m sure one of you has, calm your jets, but compared to Larry Wilmore? Maybe one in a hundred, if that.) Noah is like the least viral host I can remember.
I’ve never seen a new Daily Show, either.
Those two things are connected: Virality and me watching.
Now that Larry’s cancelled, I realize the bias of preferencing TV hosts who are good at getting snippets out to Twitter and Facebook. Not every comedian can sum up things in a pithy five-minute video. It’s entirely possible that Larry Wilmore was really great, and I didn’t watch simply because he didn’t have mastery of a viral medium; that doesn’t necessarily reflect quality.
(It’s also possible that my Twitter and Facebook are too white-skewed – but I get a lot of RTs from Black Twitter, and I didn’t see Larry popping up all that much. Still, could be me. Still, if it is me, that means there’s a good chance Larry wasn’t showing through to my segment of White Twitter.)
And, I think, Larry’s handicapped by being black. Not in the sense you might think; Larry’s angriest moments that I’ve seen on the Daily Show and in the Twitter GIFsets tended to be more eye-rollingly peevish than actually furious. And I think of the viral videos from Jon Oliver and Samantha Bee, and they were sputtering – but that anger’s often a white privilege, because white people can get angry and cutting and crude and not be tarred as the angry incoherent black man. Just like Trump can scream and yell, whereas Obama has to be this cool, calculating man because if he loses his crap he’ll get dragged into a lot of stereotypes that will absolutely destroy his message with white America.
(Cue Key and Peele’s “Obama anger translator” routine. And I watched Key and Peele because they went viral with clips like that, though Key and Peele could be angry through characters they played, not the news-host personality that theoretically reflected them.)
Yet, I think, anger is a major component of virality when it comes to comedy news. That fury is something viewers react to. And maybe it’s that Larry and Noah express their rage in a much chiller fashion and that’s their personality, not their tone-shifting – but I try to imagine a black Lewis Black, raging and spluttering and calling people idiots, and I don’t see that guy climbing the ranks at Comedy Central.
But viral videos have become one of the things that determines ratings. It’s the assurance that says, “Hey, this person’s consistently funny, you keep seeing them all around Twitter, don’t forget they’re still here.” And I eventually remembered Jon Oliver, and I’m gonna throw Samantha Bee on the DVR after I finish this, but Larry Wilmore?
I won’t get the chance, now. ‘Cause I didn’t see you on Facebook enough.
(Though honestly, I’m hoping Jessica Williams gets her own show soon. I wonder what her virality would be.)
So you wake up in the morning with a hangover, and a tattoo of Spongebob Squarepants farting on… you’re not sure who he’s farting on, actually. The tattoo is poorly enough done that you’re only certain it’s Spongebob because it says “SPANGBOB” in wavering letters above it.
Scratching the clots off your blood-sticky arm, you stagger off the couch. Your friend Micah’s there, his tattoo kit by the wayside. “What happened?” you ask.
“Wild night,” he grins. “You got hammered.”
“Obviously. Why do I have a tattoo?”
“Ah,” Micah says, shrugging it off like you’re making a joke. “You’ve been talking about getting a tattoo for months.”
“I’ve said I’ve been saving for a tattoo.”
“No need to pay! You know I need the practice. Been telling you that for months. I’ve been wanting to do it for free on that lovely forearm of yours, and last night you said ‘Eh, go ahead.'”
You’re doubtful of that. You don’t recall last night. It could be that maybe you thought that Farting Spangbob was a hoot, or maaaaybe that Micah decided to break out his newfound tattoo skills upon you when you couldn’t say no. You can’t say.
But now you’ve got a tattoo. And Micah hoping to do another later this afternoon.
Now. This is obviously a “should you have sex with drunken people” metaphor, and particularly dim men will say “A tattoo isn’t the same as having sex with someone! Tattoos are permanent!” And before you say that, kindly ponder the fact that there’s people who’ve gotten HSV during drunken escapades, and there’s no laser removal for that.
(Not to mention that little risk called “pregnancy” if you’re of the female persuasion, which guys often forget about as when pondering the permanent consequences of sex. Which is a shame, as an unwanted pregnancy in a sex partner can affect a guy a hell of a lot as well.)
And this essay’s a bit of a mirror. Many people will look at it and conclude the lesson of this narrative is, “Well, the protagonist shouldn’t have gotten that drunk.”
But you know what the other lesson is?
Micah’s kind of a dick.
Micah did things of potentially permanent consequence to his buddy, fully aware that he might regret them come the next morning. Because we all know stories of people who’ve done things when they were hammered that they wouldn’t normally have done sober, and while one lesson that can be extracted is “You shouldn’t drink a lot,” the other lesson that should be extracted is, “If you’re interacting with someone who’s drunk, you shouldn’t take them at their word.”
This is well-known. Legal contracts have been voided because someone was drunk when they signed them. In many states, bartenders are legally obliged to cut customers off after a certain level of drunkenness because drunk people can’t make good decisions. In fact, reputable tattoo parlors won’t take drunk people at all because they don’t want the risk.
By sleeping with someone who’s drunk, you’re a disreputable tattoo parlor, which is to say you’re Micah.
Do you want to be Micah?
Again, this is a reflective lesson, because some folks will double down on the “The Protagonist was drunk, he deserves anything that’s coming to him,” all the while avoiding the independent issue of whether Micah should be doing things to drunk people that he’s well aware they might not want come the morning.
If we’re talking about “personal responsibility” and “the known risks of being drunk,” then at the very least Micah is being unwise by exposing himself to the hazard of taking a drunk person’s word as bond. And at the worst, Micah’s a scumbag predator waiting for someone to get drunk so he can do things he is fully aware they would dislike when sober.
Literally the best thing you can say about Micah is that he’s not quite as dumb as his friend, and that’s being kind.
So I personally feel the lesson should be, “You should avoid doing things to drunk people whenever possible.” Don’t be a Micah.
Ah, but that’s if Micah’s sober. “What if Micah himself is drunk?”, and that’s a trickier question if Micah is himself impaired.
But it’s kinda funny. When The Narrator is drunk, lots of people would say that any dangerous activity he consents to is foolish, and he deserves any consequences he gets.
But when Micah is drunk and doing things to the narrator, those same people would say that the dangerous activity that Micah has consented to – which is to say, exposing yourself to potential accusations of unwanted tattoos – is foolish, Micah shouldn’t be expected to know what’s going on then, and this all becomes the narrator’s fault.
Strange, how the script flips when you’re invested in Micah’s well-being.
Whereas I’m consistent in my beliefs: I believe that whenever possible, you shouldn’t aid drunk people in making potentially unwise decisions, even if the drunk person is really hot.
Because trying to sleep with drunk (or otherwise judgement-impaired) people is a risky goddamned business with potentially permanent side effects. If it’s a decision I know with 100% certainty that they’d be okay with in the morning, I might do it – if my wife, who has slept with me regularly for seventeen years, decides she wants to bang me shitfaced, well, I’ll take that risk.
But it is a risk. And I wouldn’t do anything new or crazy in bed with her, because the next morning she might wake up and be very mad about Spangbob.
Why take that risk, when I can ask her sober the next morning and, assuming she’s as into as she was the night before, potentially Spangbob the shit out of her the next evening with assured consent?
Yesterday, Ancillary Justice author Ann Leckie wrote a really great essay on chasing trends in fiction and why writing novels on the “next hot thing” for the sake of fame and fortune alone is a generally unwise idea. She packs a lot of wisdom into a handful of paragraphs. You should go read it.
But I wanted to expand on something she said, specifically this:
And if folks in your writers group or message board or whatever are telling you things like “you have to have a POV character that’s like the reader so they can sympathize with them” or “don’t write in first person” or “editors won’t buy stories with queer main characters” well, frankly, no.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give to fledgling writers is to remember you can ignore your fellow writers. And often should.
Look, if you’re serious about writing, you’re eventually going to get feedback from top-class writers. Those writers are very good at writing their stories. They may not necessarily be good at writing your stories, and incorporating their advice can leave you with this hamstrung half-hybrid pastiche that lacks both your strengths and theirs.
In workshops, I often write down someone’s feedback along with the notation: NMK. That stands for “Not My Kink.” Which is to say that yes, this story could be good if I followed this person’s advice and turned the savage were-pterodactyls into genetically engineered cyber-pterodactyls, but then that story wouldn’t be a story I’d be excited to read.
(Who am I kidding? I’d read both of those stories. But anyway.)
NMK advice is not bad advice. It’s just advice geared towards writing a story that doesn’t hit my personal hotbuttons. And for a lot of writers, “refining the hotbuttons” are what sell your craft. Because a truly unique voice comes from taking all that goofy shiz that you adore and finding ways to make it work.
For example, Quentin Tarantino loves 1970s B-movies. His work would suck without a heavy dosage of exploitation flicks and hyperaware movie references. And a lot of writers’ workshops would have looked at early drafts of Pulp Fiction and said, “Okay, Quentin, you need to pull this back, you’re too excessive,” when the actual truth was that Quentin needed to figure out ways to take his love of crappy films, extract the goodness, and refine it until he amplified everything he adored about those films in ways that resonated with people.
And what you’ll often get at the early stages when your talent does not match execution is to pull back. No. Try pushing forward.
…but don’t forget that writing is about communication. You’re trying to build a bridge out to your reader, saying, “I love this, and here’s why you should love it too.” That takes skill, compromise, an understanding of what people expect so you can subvert and distill it. You can’t just shout the same old thing through a foghorn and demand that your audience Get It – you have to question people closely to ask, “Okay, they didn’t love the were-pterodactyls, but why?”
Plus, you wanna lay aside that foghorn because you’re not here to regurgitate your source material, but to transform it. Quentin Tarantino didn’t slavishly imitate the B-movies of his youth – he added his own strengths in terms of razor-sharp dialogue, shaking up the timelines to make thoroughly nonlinear stories. Shout that love of queer characters, or second-person point of view, or despicable main characters – but do it in ways that are exciting and new!
Figure out what really thumbs that hotbutton, and amplify it.
Also: One of you is sitting there sniffing, “I hate Quentin Tarantino, why is Ferrett talking like Quentin Tarantino is such a great director?” And that’s the final point: with great love comes great hate. I adored Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice because it does fascinating things with viewpoint and gender, but it has inspired a tidal wave of hatred from people who are like, “THIS IS TURGID CRAP.” Yet both Ann Leckie and Quentin Tarantino are fantastically successful at what they do, despite critics who loathe them!
When you receive a critique from a Very Important Author who is telling you that your story Does Not Work, question whether that person would enjoy your story if you’d perfected it. That guy may be the person who hates Quentin Tarantino movies. And he’s not wrong to hate them! Repeat after me: Tastes are subjective. But if you’re Quentin Tarantino, taking his feedback to heart is going to leave you working in the video rental store, not putting you on the path to World-Famous Director.
The rule of thumb is this: If three people tell you your story has a problem, it’s a problem. You need to listen when beta readers get bored, or confused, or revolted. But the way to fix that problem has to come uniquely from you. Sometimes, the solution is not to cut, but to double down.
And sometimes, the problem is that these writers providing feedback are not an all-knowing Godhead, dispensing objective wisdom from above, but a bunch of nerds stumbling around in a bookstore – loving books you hate, hating books you love. Sometimes, the bad feedback comes from someone saying, “Hey, George Martin, I love your characters but I’m not down with all this violence and nihilism, you need to get rid of that.” Except getting rid of that will defang your books from the thing that makes you unique.
You can still get good feedback from those folks. They can clue you into pacing issues, or enlighten you as to why your love of 1980s horror movies isn’t stirring people who don’t give a dry turd about 80s horror movies, or point out character decisions that make no sense.
But as a professional writer, you have to mark the difference between critiques that point out problems and critiques that are trying to rewrite your book into something you don’t want it to be.
One critique is worth incorporating.
The other needs to be chucked away, fast, and hard and fearlessly. Because that’s what professional writers do. And don’t forget the need to protect your own special brand of weirdness.